You will find and introduction and outline of the book of Judges, here.
A prayer to use before you begin reading from Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) a prominent theologian of the medieval period.
I. Judges 1:1-3:6 Introduction: Judges as an Era of Decline : These introductory chapters set the pattern for the book. There are two introductions, each told from different points of view. The first is concerned with Israel’s military conquests and the second with Israel’s covenant with God. Scholars think these two introductions represent two stages in the composition of the book of Judges. In 2:6-3:6 we find the earliest part of the introduction. While in general, the judges and their activities are portrayed as a downward spiral, the story is not told in a mechanistic way. Watch for unexpected ways that God acts.
A. 1:1-2:5 From Success to Failure: The Conquest of Canaan: Notice that the book begins with “After the death of Joshua” which is similar to the opening of the book of Joshua “After the death of Moses”. In verses 1-21 the southern tribes, led by Judah, have some success. The material in these verses is a reinterpretation and rearrangement taken from Joshua 14-19. Notice how Judah figures prominently. Judah is the tribe the Davidic kings will come from. The cutting off of the thumbs and big toes is a sign of humiliation and revenge. In 1:11-16, Caleb’s daughter Achsah shrewdly negotiates with her father for springs since Othniel and Achsah have been given land in the Negeb a desert. Achsah is the first women whose story is told in Judges. Notice that she is both passive, when she is offered as a prize by her father and active when she negotiates with her father for water. Verse 19, even though God is with the tribe of Judah, they are not able to drive out all the inhabitants of the land. Why do you think this is?
In 1:22-36 a northern tribe, the house of Joseph, has a series of failures. This ends with a speech by an angel in 2:1-5. The story in 1:22-26 echos the story of Rahab. The northern tribes are unable to fully drive out the Canaanite inhabitants and by verses 32,33 the Israelites “lived among the Canaanites”. The tribe of Dan could not hold onto it’s land and was driven “back into the hill country; they did not allow them to come down to the plain” (v34).
2:1-5 Judgment on all the Israelites: An angel appears and announces the reason for Israel’s failure and the consequences of their failure. Recall the last appearance of an angel in Joshua 5:13-15. Life in the promised land will not be trouble free. The holy war, begun in Joshua, is over and has not been successful. Israel does not have a clear boundary to separate itself from others. What do you think this means?
B. 2:6-3:6 From Faithfulness to Sin: The Covenant with God: This is the second part of the introduction which explores the theological issues of Israel’s failure to remove the Canaanites from the land. Notice this second introduction does not mention specific tribes or people (in distinction to the first introduction). This section is more focused on all of Israel. The first introduction began with the death of Joshua and this introduction begins with Joshua’s dismissal of the people. This may be to allow a contrast between Joshua’s generation and later generations – see verse 10. Verses 2:11-23 set out the pattern for the book- apostasy, punishment,oppression, deliverance. Notice the competing ideas of God’s anger and God’s mercy. In 3:1-6 we find a list of the nations God allowed to remain in the land. These verses seem to give two reasons why these nations remained (v 1-2 and V4).What do you think about the idea that God tests Israel? Intermarriage is presented as a bad thing but we can also recall times when leaders did intermarry and that did not seem to be a problem. (Moses marries a Midianite and a Cushite. Boaz marries a Moabite, etc). The warning against intermarriage seems to be more important in particular transitional times and seems mostly focused on particular nations (i.e. Canaanites). Also the main problem with intermarriage seems to be the temptation it presented to abandon God and worship other gods.
II. Judges 3:7-16:31 The Individual Judges: A Downward Spiral Watch for the pattern we discovered in the last section. The first three judges are mostly victorious and faithful. By chapter 6 the downward spiral has begun. Scholars think that initially the stories of the judges were independent stories which eventually were collected and edited into what we have today. As time and judges progress there are decreasing times of peace and increasing years of oppression. Also notice that the stories of the early judges focus more on God than on the judge. We do not learn much about the lives of the early judges. As time passes and the judges become worse, we learn more about the judge’s life and less attention is paid to God.
A. 3:7-11 Othniel, the Model Judge Othniel is the “model” judge. He give the standard we compare the other judges to. Apostacy (v7) oppression (v9-10), cry for help (v 9), deliverance (v 9-10) rest (v11). Othniel was first introduced in the first chapter as the husband of Caleb’s daughter Achsah.
B.3:21-31 Ehud and Shamgar: Notice the pattern is followed. Benjamin ( Ehud’s tribe) means “son of the right hand” and Ehud is a “left handed man” so a “left handed son of the right hand” (Olson, 771). Eglon’s name in Hebrew is related to the noun “young bull” or “fatted calf” (Olson 771). In this story the king is sacrificed as a young bull might be. Sculpted stones are mentioned in verse 19 and verse 26. This can also mean idols. Why are the stones mentioned twice? What purpose do they serve in the story? This story is both grim and humorous. Verse 31 Shamgar of Anath has no tribal designation. Shamgar is not an Israelite name and Anath was the name of a Canaanite Goddess and consort to Baal. Notice how Shamgar’s exploits resemble Samson in 16:31. Some think Shamgar may have been a mercenary and “son of Anath” was a military title.
C. 4:1-5:31 Deborah, Barak, and Jael: Chapter four offers a narrative and chapter five a poetic account of the same story, although there are differences between the two stories. Some account for the differences by saying that chapter 4 focuses on God and chapter 5 on humans. Some think the focus is reversed. Some think chapter 5 reflects a female perspective and chapter 4 a male.
4:1-24 The Story of Sisera’s Death: Three people, judge- like, work together in this story, Deborah the prophet, Barak the general, and Jael, not an Israelite. When Deborah tells Barak that God will give victory to a woman, we expect that the woman will be Deborah, but there is a surprise for the reader. The Kenites had ethnic ties to Israel through Moses’ father in law, a Midianite. Iron chariots signify that the Canaanites has more power and wealth, thus better technology than Israel. Does Barak ask Deborah to accompany him because he is afraid or because he wants a prophet to bless his campaign? The NRSV translation is ambiguous, some scholars believe that ambiguity is a more accurate translation of the Hebrew. Verse 18-19 milk is a sleep inducing drink and evokes a motherly image for Jael and a child like image for the warrior Sisera. Why does Jael kill Sisera when there is peace between their tribes? What was her motive? Who is the “hero” of the story? This is a dramatic and yet ambiguous story. Jael, like Ehud uses an unexpected weapon and like Ehud, Jael kills the enemy while alone with them.
How, so far, does the book of Judges portray women? How does it portray God at work?
Read More About It.
The following are several good general reference works to aid your reading of Joshua.
Amit, Yairah, “Judges” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Aporcryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, Fully Revised 4 th Edition, Michael Cougan, ed. (New York:Oxford University Press) 2010.
Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, Understanding the Old Testament Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.
Dentan, Robert C., Leslie J. Hoppe “Joshua” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books Metzger, Bruce M., Roland E. Murphy, eds.(New York: Oxford University Press) 1994.
Exum, J. Cheryl, “Judges” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary Mays, James L. ed.(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.
Olson, Dennis T. “Judges”, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 2 Keck, Leander E., ed. (Nashville”Abingdon Press) 1994.