The book of Judges is a story about the cycle of humanity. While there are 12 judges, there are seven distinct cycles that occur in the book. There is a repeated theme of sin and redemption throughout the book. Judges 2:11-19 sums up the events of the entire book rather well.
11 Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. 12 They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger 13 because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. 14 In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. 15 Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress.
16 Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. 17 Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned from the ways of their ancestors, who had been obedient to the Lord’s commands.18 Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them. 19 But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.
In a sad way, you don’t need to know the specifics of the book of Judges as this story just keeps repeating. It is like the predictable plotline of a movie where you know that the guy is always going to get the girl in the end. Judges is predictable like that without the happy ending. As you’re reading you know that even though things are good for a time, they will eventually go poorly once again.
Judges stretches over a period of time of about 300 years, from the time of Joshua’s death until the Israelites demand a king. The exact dates covered in the book of Judges are likely 1367 BC through 1050 BC.
If you add up the number of years associated with each judge, there is a bit of a number problem. The judges rule for a period of 410 years. This is not a big problem for the book however as these judges are not national leaders. Instead they rule over a relatively small area as compared to the entire nation. Because of this there are several judges who overlap in their reigns.
The book of Ruth also occurs during the time span of the judges. She lives toward the end of this time period as she will be the great grandmother of King David. This would place her about two generations away from the end of the era of Judges.
There are a number of judges whom we know next to nothing about. There are 6 “minor” judges about whom little is written. These include Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon. Much like the difference between the major and minor prophets, these judges are not necessarily less important than the “major” ones but less is written about them; in some cases they are only mentioned in one verse. Nevertheless, these judges each usher in an era of peace following their reign.
The “major” judges include Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. Some also include Eli and Samuel as judges as they are rulers in Israel who obviously are not kings but generally they are left out in the discussion concerning Judges in part because they are not included in the book that bears the name.
The book of Judges contains some of the stranger stories in the Bible. Ehud gained success because he was left handed. When he was escorted into the presence of an enemy king, the guards only checked his side where a right handed person would carry a sword. When left alone with the king, he stabbed him. The king was so fat that his stomach enveloped the sword and covered it up. Ehud then drug the body into the bathroom, locked the door, and then left. The servants waited for the king to exit the bathroom – to the point of embarrassment, which would mean longer than anyone could take to go to the bathroom. By the time the deed was discovered, Ehud was long gone.
Deborah is the only female judge. She is recorded as actually pronouncing judgments for people much as Moses did for the Israelites before. When called to battle, Barak shows cowardice and says that he will only go if Deborah goes, presumably as assurance that what God has told her will happen actually does take place. Deborah’s response is that she will go but because of the lack of faith, the honor of the battle will go to a woman. And indeed this is what takes place as the enemy Sisera wanders into the tent of a woman name Jael. When he asks for water, she gives him milk and he becomes sleepy. While he slept, Jael drove a tent peg through his temple and killed him.
Gideon is known as much for his fleece as his triumph in battle. In order to be sure that God was calling him to go to battle, he asks for two signs. The first is for the ground to be wet while the fleece on the ground is dry. The next day he asks for the opposite, wet fleece with a dry ground. Once assured that God was with him, Gideon is ready for battle but God isn’t through testing Gideon’s faith. The army of ten thousand men is considered too big by God – even though the enemy numbered over one hundred thousand. The people may believe that they won the battle on their own strength, so God narrows the army down, ultimately to 300 people. At night they surround the enemy camp. When given the signal, they break upon pots containing fire and blow their trumpets. The 300 men look like a massive army surrounding the enemy and in their confusion the enemy kills one another.
Samson is known as much for his failures as he is his triumphs. At birth he is set aside as a nazirite and is told not to cut his hair. His hair will be the source of his strength. Unfortunately Samson’s weakness is beautiful women and he ultimately succumbs to Delilah. He reveals the secret of his strength and she shaves his head while he sleeps. He is imprisoned and has his eyes put out. A while later his hair has grown out and his strength has returned but the Philistines don’t notice. When brought out as entertainment as a prisoner of war he literally brings down the house, collapsing the temple of Dagon. In his death Samson killed more Philistines than he did in the rest of his life. Despite what might appear to be a wasted life and a wasted gift, Samson is listed in the Hebrews 11 “hall of faith” as an example of someone with great faith.
Throughout the book of Judges we see a cycle repeated numerous times. Things start out with sin as the people do evil in the eyes of the Lord. After this sin, the people are given over to their enemy who oppresses them. The people wise up and cry out to God for help. God raises up a judge. The judge defeats the enemy. And peace is restored, usually for the life of the leader and the following generation.
Even though this happens in a cycle, things get worse as time goes on. They are going in circles but it as if they are a ship caught in a whirlpool, slowly being sucked down. The final verse of the book summarizes all that has taken place perfectly. Judges 21:25 says, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.”
The problem in the book of Judges was not that there was no king, it was that God was not king of the people. They did not look to Him for help but instead did as they saw fit. They only called upon the Lord when things got difficult. Once that generation passed on to the next, the lesson wasn’t passed on and the people returned to their evil ways. This is a modern reminder that Christianity is always only one generation from dying out if the love of God isn’t passed on to the following generation. The people in the period of Judges failed the test miserably and things got continually worse as a result.