God has delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, sustained them through the wilderness, and has now settled them in the land of Canaan, just as He had promised their fathers. Would Israel now follow after God, or not? The book of Judges begins to tell the story of the Israelites in Israel.
Judges is the seventh book in the Bible, named for twelve of the judges, the series of individuals whom God would appoint as deliverer and ruler over His people when they were oppressed: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah/Barak, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson (Eli and Samuel, also reckoned as judges, will be discussed in 1 Samuel). The events described in Judges take place between 1380 and 1050 BCE. The author of Judges is not known: he writes at some point soon after the events, probably during the days of the United Monarchy (1050-930 BCE). The book describes the history of the Israelites during the turbulent period of tribal rule among the Israelites before the development of a centralized monarchy.
Judges begins with the Judahites conquering more of their allotted land, including the territory of Caleb, along with some of the house of Joseph conquering Bethel (Judges 1:1-26). Then the story of disobedience begins: Israel does not conquer the rest of the land possessed by the Canaanites, and God decrees that the Caananites will therefore remain in the land (Judges 1:27-2:10). The Judges author then sets forth the “Judges cycle” to describe the history of the time: the Israelites would prosper, turning and serving other gods; God would send an oppressor against them; the Israelites would repent and cry out to God; God would raise up a judge and deliver them; Israel would prosper and the cycle would begin again, and the people would act more corruptly than before (Judges 2:11-3:6).
Judges 3:7-16:31 shows how this “Judges cycle” develops through the stories of the twelve judges, of whom detail is provided about six. Othniel is the first judge, sent to deliver the Israelites from the oppression of Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia (Judges 3:7-11). We are then told of how Eglon king of Moab oppresses the Israelites of the south and east, and how Ehud, a left-handed man of Benjamin, rescues Israel by killing Eglon and then defeating the Moabite forces (Judges 3:12-30).
Afterward Deborah, a prophetess, judged Israel, since Barak, God’s chosen leader of war, was weak. God gave victory to Israel through Deborah and Barak, but it was given to a woman, Jael the Kenite, to kill Sisera the commander of the Canaanite army (Judges 4:1-24). The “Song of Deborah,” recounting the victory, follows (Judges 5:1-31). After these days, the Midianites oppress the Israelites, and we are told of how God delivers Israel from the Midianites by the hand of Gideon, who tested God frequently (Judges 6:1-8:35). Gideon’s son Abimelech has his brothers killed and seeks to establish himself as king, but ultimately is destroyed along with the city of Shechem which harbored him (Judges 9:1-57). The story of Jephthah is given: an illegitimate son of Gilead, he defeats the oppressing Ammonites, sacrificed his daughter to God to pay for a foolish vow, and fought the Ephraimites as well (Judges 11:1-12:7). The final judge in Judges is Samson, a man of great strength who is undone by his weakness for Philistine women, perpetuating a revenge cycle that leads to his own death as well as the death of thousands of Philistines (Judges 13:1-16:31).
Judges ends with an appendix of two stories describing the depravity of Israel before the days of the kings: Micah’s statue of “YHWH” and how the Danites take it and establish the city of Dan (Judges 17:1-18:31), and the sexual deviancy of the men of Gibeah, the death of thousands of Israelites in a civil war, and the almost extermination of Benjamin from the land (Judges 19:1-21:25).
In the days of the Judges, the Israelites did what was right in their own eyes, and it led to idolatry, sexual deviancy, and almost destruction. Let us not fall by the same pattern of disobedience!