Senior Professor of Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary, Elliott Johnson, believes that accurate study of Bible verses and passages can only be done after the overall message of a biblical book has been determined. Similar to my last two blog posts, I am presenting a “synoptic study” of the book of Judges in order to help people better understand individual parts of the book.
This is my study of the overall message and meaning of the book of Judges.
I. Chart of the Content and Structure of the book of Judges
II. Summary Statement of the Meaning of Judges as a Whole
A. Theological Themes
1. What does the book say about God?
It is important to note that the book of Judges says that the people of Israel were evil and disobedient. This is reflected by the last verse in the book which summarizes the book’s message, “In these days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their eyes” (21:25, New Living Translation).
This reflects not just the message of the book of Judges, but the entire Old Testament as a whole, (This is especially true if one sees the book of Joshua as a sixth book of the Hexateuch, instead of merely a Pentateuch) from the original sin in Genesis 3 to the gold calf in Exodus 32 and now to the many times the nation of Israel walked away from the LORD in the book of Judges.
In light of the evil and disobedience of the people of Israel, the book of Judges says that God answered the cries of His people. He responded to them when they cried out to Him for help. From the beginning of the book, “The Israelites did evil in the LORD’s sight. They forgot about the LORD their God, and they served the images of Baal and the Asherah poles” (3:7).
Over and over again the people did evil in the sight of the LORD, yet He always rescued them. Every time they cried out God used a leader to rescue them. Sometimes He sent His Spirit to help the leader, sometimes He did not. The book of Judges show how God always rescued His people and that the judges were His instrument to do that.
2. What does the book say about God’s purpose for acting and speaking in history?
The book of Judges says that God’s purpose for acting and speaking in history is based on His people. In the context of Judges, God first acts and speaks in history because of the disobedience of His people.
The Israelites did evil in the LORD’s sight and served the images of Baal. They abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They went after other gods, worshiping the gods of the people around them. And they angered the LORD. They abandoned the LORD to serve Baal and the images of Ashtoreth. This made the LORD burn with anger against Israel, so he handed them over to raiders who stole their possessions. He turned them over to their enemies all around, and they were no longer able to resist them (2:11-14).
God responded to the people’s disobedience by allowing them to be conquered, but He responded to their cries for help by allowing them to conquer their oppressors through the leadership of a judge.
God’s purpose for acting and speaking in history was based on His people, Israel. If they were obedient to the LORD and cried for help, He responded. If they forgot the LORD and worshiped false gods, He responded. Thankfully, for His people, God always responds.
3. What does it say about God’s administration of His purpose?
The book of Judges says that God does not administer His purpose directly to the people. Similar to Moses and Joshua, the judges in the book of Judges served as intermediaries who administered God’s will on earth.
In the book of Judges, God used eleven different judges. These judges were Othniel (3:9), Ehud (3:15), Anath (3:31), Deborah (4:4), Gideon (6:11-13), Tola (10:1), Jephthah (11:29), Ibzan (12:8), Elon (12:11), Abdon (12:13), Samson (12:24, 25).
Each of these judges were different men (and a woman) from different tribes, who delivered their people from different oppressive groups.
Among all those differences there was one thing each judge had in common: God’s desire to deliver His people because they were crying out to Him for help. Evidence of this is perhaps illustrated by Moses in the fact that God addressed Moses directly. Additionally, God speaking to Moses was a privilege for him. The people themselves experienced this when they came near God: “When the people heard the thunder and the loud blast of the ram’s horn, and when they saw the flashes of lightning and the smoke billowing from the mountain, they stood at a distance, trembling with fear” (Ex. 20:18).
In a similar way God worked with the judges as His intermediary. Deborah is an example who gave directions to Barak based on God’s revelation to her. Another is Gideon who not only tested God but listened to God as God dwindled his army smaller and smaller (Judges 7). Both of these are examples where the judges served as intermediaries who administered God’s will.
B. Textual Design
1. In what terms does the author address the audience?
The main term in which the author addresses the audience in the book of Judges is to tell about the epic failure of the nation of Israel through historical narrative. This is also done to share Israel’s history.
In light of the new life in the Promised Land, the author is telling the story of how Israel is living in the Promised Land. One might have wondered at the end of the book of Joshua,“Now that Israel has the land, will they be obedient to God and keep the land?”
The book of Judges tells that story which is a sad story. The end of that story is that Israel is not faithful to God. The nation of Israel fails to drive out all of the people in the land and the severity of their disobedience causes God to literally fight against them “causing them to be defeated” (2:15) by the people living in the Promised Land.
Another term in which the author addresses the audience in the book of Judges might be based on when the author is sharing introductory remarks in chapter two. The author records God burning with anger against Israel and says, “I will no longer drive out the nations that Joshua left unconquered when he died. I did this to test Israel—to see whether or not they would follow the ways of the LORD as their ancestors did. That is why the LORD left those nations in place. He did not quickly drive them out or allow Joshua to conquer them all” (2:21-23, emphasis mine).
The author is addressing the audience through historical narrative to show that the people of Israel failed the test God had laid out for them.
2. What is the literary genre of the book of Joshua as a whole?
The literary genre of the book of Joshua is a historical narrative as both a satire and a tragedy.
The book is a satire because it is “an exposure of human vice of folly through ridicule or rebuke.” 1 To rebuke is meant to scold or to reprimand by God, which, is what God did to the Israelites when He “fought against them, causing them to be defeated” (2:15).
The literary genre of the book of Joshua is also a tragedy. Leland Ryken states that the “plot of tragedy focuses on human choice.” 2 The human choice in the book of Judges is the choice of obeying or disobeying the LORD. Sadly, most of the book of Judges is about disobeying God. In this way, it is a tragic historical narrative of how God allowed the Israelites to enter into the Promised Land, but because of their disobedience, they were allowed to be overtaken and ruled by the nations living in the land.
C. Subject (What is the book talking about?) and
Compliment (What does the book say about the subject?) Statement
The disobedient people of Israel regularly walked away from God, called out to Him, and were delivered in different ways by different people.
The disobedient people of Israel. . . (subject)
Sadly, the book of Judges is about the disobedient people of Israel. The book progresses from the death of Joshua and the tribe of Judah triumphantly conquering the city of Jerusalem to the tragic act of a woman being raped to death, cut into twelve pieces, and having those pieces sent to each tribe of Israel.
This final story in Judges of the woman raped to death is the “climax” of the story. A climax in biblical narrative is defined by Robert Traina in his book, Methodical Bible Study, as “the arrangement of material in such a way as to progress from the lesser to greater and ultimately to the greatest” (p. 51). The final story is one that “everyone who saw it [piece of the woman’s body] said, ‘Such a horrible crime has not been committed in all the time since Israel left Egypt’” (19:30).
This was a horrible deed, and it was the worst of many disobedient acts the Israelites committed in direct defiance to God, of which the book of Judges tells.
. . . regularly walked away from God (compliment)
It was always by the choice of the people that they walked away from God and forgot about Him. God’s message of how to live obediently to Him was crystal clear. It was communicated by different leaders on numerous occasions; however the people of Israel walked away from God by their own choice.
. . . called out to him. (compliment)
God never acted on His own initiative in Judges. He did not act on behalf of the Israelites until they called out to Him. Only when the Israelites cried out to Him for help did He respond to them by sending a judge to deliver them.
. . . and were delivered (compliment)
When the people called out to God He responded to them. Each time they called out to Him, He responded by sending a judge to lead and deliver them. There never was a time that He did not deliver them when they expressed their repentance and allegiance to Him.
in different ways (compliment)
God used judges in different ways to deliver His people such as large military battles, killing the leader of an enemy in a tent (Siser in 4:17-24), Samson killing the Philistines along with himself (16:28-31), and in battles when the Israelites were extremely outnumbered as was the case with Gideon (7:7-25).
by different people (compliment)
Eleven different judges were used by God to judge and deliver Israel. These were men and a woman from different tribes, with different strengths, and with different weaknesses. Each one was unique and in that way was uniquely used by God.
D. 7 Themes Chosen and Traced in Their Development in the book of Judges
- Disobedience: The key text is 2:10, “After that generation died, another generation grew up who did not acknowledge the LORD or remember the mighty things he had done for Israel.” When Joshua and the people who conquered the Promised Land died, the new generation did not have the same devotion and commitment to the Lord that Joshua and his generation had. As a result, the people were disobedient to God throughout the book.
- God’s Spirit Came Upon the Judges: Throughout the history of Israel the Bible reveals that God’s Spirit was upon Joseph (Gen 41:38), that Moses also had the Spirit of God which he passed along to seven elders (Num. 11:25), that the Spirit was given to the craftsmen of the tabernacle (Ex 31: 3) , and that the Spirit was given to Joshua (Deu. 34:9). But in the book of Judges, the Spirit of the Lord is freely given to most leaders that God rose up. The Spirit came upon Othniel (3:10), Gideon (6:34), Jephthah (11:29), and Samson (13:25). All of these judges had the Spirit of the Lord which came upon them.
- Still Trying to Take the Promised Land: Several times the book of Judges explicitly states that the people were trying to take the land which had been promised to them (1:3, 19-36; 18:1, 2). In addition, the book is filled with Israelites being conquered and ruled by other nations taking away the land. The book is a story of Israel’s struggle to take and maintain the land promised to them.
- No (Continuous) Leaders in Israel: Even though their were a few intermediate judges who led the nation of Israel, Israel did not have a continuous leader or kingship line leaders were risen by God to deliver the people from their people as needed based on their cry out to God (18:1; 19:1; 21:25).
- Oppression from other Nations: (3:8, 14; 4:2; 6:1; 10:7-10; 13:1) While Israel attempted to take the land, they were being oppressed and ruled by other nations. Oppression from other nations often occurred after Israel “had done evil in the sight of the lord.”
- Intermediate Leaders: Othniel (3:9), Ehud (3:15), Anath (3:31), Deborah (4:4), Gideon (6:11-13), Tola (10:1), Jephthah (11:29), Ibzan (12:8), Elon (12:11), Abdon (12:13), Samson (12:24, 25). These were all temporary and intermediary leaders. Some had one, maybe two, descendants who judged Israel, but very few had a descendent who succeeded him or her in judging/ruling Israel. These judges appear to be “situational” leaders.
- God Responding to the People: Even though the nation of Israel “did evil in the LORD’s sight” (3:7, 12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1), God always responded to the people when they “cried out to him” for help (3:9, 15; 4:3; 6:7; 10:10).
Question: What do you believe are the main themes and messages of the book of Judges?
- Roy Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 1991), 129-130. ↩
- Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature: And Get More Out of It (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 84. ↩