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
II. Judges 3:7-16:31 The Individual Judges: A Downward Spiral
A. 3:7-11 Othniel, the Model Judge
B.3:21-31 Ehud and Shamgar
C. 4:1-5:31 Deborah, Barak, and Jael: Recall that chapter 5 is the poetic version of the story of Deborah from chapter 4. Most scholars think that chapter 5 is an earlier account, perhaps one of the oldest parts of the Old Testament. (perhaps 12th century BCE) There are some significant differences in how the NRSV and the NIV translate verses 2a, 7a,14,a and 16a. Notice also the differences between the story as told in chapter 4 and how it is told in chapter 5. For example, chapter 5 seems to assume that the reader is already knows the story.
5:1-31 The Song of Deborah and Barak: Verses 1-11 this section contrasts the power of God verses the weakness of Israel. It begins with thanksgiving for those willing to fight.Verse 3 is addressed to foreign kings. Verses 4-5 contrast God’s power with the weakness of Israel in v 6-7. Probably the NIV translation of v 7 “Village life in Israel ceased, ceased until I, Deborah aroes, arose a mother in Israel.” is more correct that the NRSV “The peasantry prospered in Israel, they grew fat on plunder, because you arose, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel.” The phrase “mother in Israel” may have been a way to name the place and office of a woman prophet.
Verses 12-18 contrast the Israelite tribes who fight verses those who do not. Israel is not a “full strength” when it fights the Canaanites. Verses 19-22 tell of the battle. Verses 23-30 contains a curse and a blessing and then tells the story of Jael and Sisera. Verse 27 means literally that Sisera fell “between her feet” or “between her legs”, a sexual euphemism. Here a woman changes from nurturer to warrior. Recall the war time practices of rape and death, here the situation is reversed. Finally Sisera’s mother is portrayed as waiting for her son to return. Notice in verse 30 again the role of sexual conquest in war. Verse 31 ends the section with a prayer. Notice all the contrasts which are present in the poem.
D. 6:1-10:5 The Downhill Slide Begins: Gideon and Abimeleich, Tola and Jair: This is the narrative’s second set of judges. The story moves from victory and faithfulness to idolatry and violence. Watch for the imagery of rock and stone in Gideon and Abimeleich’s story. In Gideon’s story notice where the typical pattern of Israel doing evil, punishment, crying in distress and deliverance is altered. The pattern is present but is intensified and expanded. Also look for echos of other Old Testament stories and biblical figures.
6:1-32 A Timid Gideon Pulls Down Baal’s Altar: Verses 1-10 tell the cycle of evil and defeat we expect. In verse 7-8 a prophet is raised up but where is the judge? Verses 11-24 Gideon’s call. Notice that Gideon does not exude confidence and unshakable resolve. This initial story of Gideon echoes parts of the stories of Moses, Elijah and Jacob. In verses 25-32 Gideon while still afraid does what he is asked to do.
6:33-8:3 Gideon’s Victory: Notice when the Lord’s spirit “takes possession” of Gideon, he – unlike others- is not significantly changed. At least not right away. Then we read the well known story of the laying of the fleece.
7:1-23: Gideon is a weak leader and God decides to use a small weak army as well. God give orders which decrease the number of fighters. Gideon still needs reassurance and so Gideon overhears what the Midianite soldiers say about Gideon. Why do you think the previously humble to the point of weakness Gideon has his army should “For the Lord and for Gideon”?
7:24-8:3 The Ephraim warriors are upset with Gideon. This is our first inkling of internal strife in Israel. Gideon avoids intra tribal conflict- for now.
8:4-35 A Complex Gideon: Kingship and Idolatry: Now Gideon’s story departs from the pattern. After its victory over Midianites, Israel does not have a set number of years as we might expect. Instead Gideon continues to pursue two Midianite kings. Notice God is not mentioned as being part of this pursuit. Is Gideon’s revenge on fellow Israelites disproportionate to their lack of hospitality? Notice that Gideon’s son resembles a younger Gideon with his unwillingness to kill. Then in 22-28 Israel asks Gideon (and his successors) to be king and Gideon declines. But Gideon continues to act as a “bad” king, despite his refusal. He has taken the law into his own hands (not waiting for instructions from God) and he accumulates wealth (see Deut 17:17) and he makes a cult object the ephod. An ephod was part of the ceremonial grab of priests and might have been used to receive oracles and guidance. But is Gideon using the ephod to place his personal power behind religious symbols as a way to exert power? Or does he use the ephod to avoid taking responsibility for decisions? Commentators are not sure but they do think that Gideon abandons his role as leader who is a servant and partner with God. Notice the echoes of Aaron and the golden calf in this story of Gideon. Also notice that earlier Gideon destroys an idol to Baal and now Gideon builds and idol.
8:29-35 Jerubbaal is another name for Gideon. Having many wives and sons is prohibited in Deuteronomy 17:17. Many wives and sons are what kings have. Gideon appears to act as a king, even if he does not claim the title. The name Abimelech means “My Father is King”. Gideon was successful as a military leader but not a good religious leader.
How does Gideon change over time?
9:1-58 Abimelech: Abimelech is the first person in scripture who claims the title “king”. But he is a bad king. As son of a slave or concubine, Abimelech had less status than the 70 other sons. He gets the support of his mothers hometown, Shechem and then kills his brothers. Abimelech is made king but the reference to the oak and pillar probably refer to a Canaanite worship site. Jotham the only other surviving son of Gideon speaks out against Abimelech by way of the story of the trees and the bramble bush. Does crowning Abimelech honor Gideon’s household? Abimelech’s reign is short, just three years, but there is plenty of conflict. Once again, Abimelech takes extreme revenge. Remember the fable about the bramble bush? Fire comes out of the bush and burns the cedars, and Abimelech burns the tower of Shechem and the people in it. Abimelech, like Sisera dies by the actions of a woman. Of coures Sisera was Israel’s enemy and Abimelech is an Israelite- the danger to Israel is within it’s own people.
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.