Read the Passage: Judges 1:1-3:6
Authorship and Date – The book of Judges is technically anonymous, although Jewish tradition holds that the prophet Samuel wrote this book. If this is so, it is reasonable to assume it was recorded in the early days of Saul’s monarchy, which began in ~1043 BC. The term “judges” refers to the group of leaders God gave Israel between the death of Joshua and the establishment of the monarchy. Interestingly, these judges were not primarily legal representatives, but rather were military leaders. Note that the word “judges” could also be translated “governors.” The book of Judges covers roughly 350 years of history, from ~1385–1050 BC, and mentions 12 different judges, plus the usurping ruler Abimelech, whom some consider to be a judge (cf. Judg. 8:33–9:57). Note that Eli and Samuel were also judges of Israel (cf. 1 Sam. 4:18; 7:15), although they lived toward the very end of the time period covered by this book.
Purpose and Theme – In many ways the preceding book of Joshua is an encouraging story of triumph, as God fulfills certain aspects of the Abrahamic Covenant and Israel inhabits the Promised Land. In contrast, the present book of Judges is a depressing narrative of Israel’s disobedience, deteriorating faith, and military defeats. Indeed, this book records seven major cycles of Israel’s apostasy. Each cycle contains similar elements: (1) apostasy and idolatry of the people, (2) chastisement, military defeat, and subjugation, (3) pleas for deliverance, and (4) God raising up a judge to deliver His people. Positively, the book of Judges does demonstrate God’s patience and point to the people’s need for a Messiah. While sin is the ultimate cause of Israel’s problems in this narrative, specific transgressions identified in this book as being causes of apostasy include: failure to drive the Canaanites from the land, general idolatry, intermarriage with pagans, and general anarchy after the death of a given judge. A summary verse for this entire narrative is the last verse in the book of Judges, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25).
Structure and Outline: The book of Judges is generally chronological in structure, although the author focuses mostly upon the sins of the people and the escapades of the judges. In this sense, then, this book is akin to an historical biography. There are spans of time in the narrative where few details are given, and it is also possible that some of the judges overlapped in their respective reigns, as they served in different geographical locations within the nation of Israel. The book of Judges can be outlined as follows:
- Introduction and Summary (1:1–3:6)
- Sin and Deliverance (3:7–16:31)
- Idolatry and Anarchy (17:1–21:25)
Conquering Canaan (1:1–36)
Judg. 1:1–3:6 largely recaps, and occasionally expands, earlier information that had been given in the book of Joshua. For example, the narrative of the family of Caleb possessing the land in Judg. 1:12–15 had earlier been given at Josh. 15:15–19. It seems there are several reasons for the reiteration of material in the book of Judges. First, the restating of earlier information allows for the book of Judges to be read alone, which likely occurred in its original setting. Second, all of the material that is reiterated in this book highlights a common theme that occurs throughout the book of Judges—that is, the people’s failure to drive out the Canaanites from the land, as well as their settling for less than what God was able to provide. Note that at Judg. 1:1 God specifies that Judah would be the first tribe to take full possession of their land. This is because Judah was the tribe chosen by God to lead Israel (cf. Gen. 49:8–12) and would later be the tribe of both David and Jesus.
Disobeying God (2:1–23)
Judg. 2:1–6 is an account of an event that occurred before the death of Joshua. In this passage God confronted Israel for their failure to obey Him by making a covenant with the Canaanites and not expelling these pagans from the land that God had promised to His people. As a penalty for this sin, God declared that He would punish the Israelites by not helping them to drive these Canaanites from the Promised Land. In other words, God judged the people by simply allowing them to reap the bad fruit from their own sinful seeds which they had chosen to sow. Judg. 2:7–10 reiterates the death of Joshua that had been narrated at Josh. 24:29–31. Judg. 2:11–23 is a prologue, of sorts, to the entire book, as in these verses God summarized the recurring pattern of disobedience (cf. Judg. 2:11–15), installation of a judge (cf. Judg. 2:16–18), and apostasy after the death of a judge (cf. Judg. 2:19–23) that is repeated in a cyclical fashion throughout the book.
The Remaining Nations (3:1–6)
At Judg. 2:22, God declared that one reason why He would not help the Israelites cast out the Canaanites is “that through them I may test Israel, whether they will keep the ways of the Lord, to walk in them as their fathers kept them, or not.” Here in Judg. 3:1–6 God twice mentions this same purpose of testing the Israelites via His judgment of leaving the Canaanites in the land (cf. Judg. 3:1, 4). Additionally, God revealed a second reason why He did not immediately expel all of the Canaanites—that is, it was “so the generations of the children of Israel might be taught to know war” (Judg. 3:2). Note David’s later declaration, “Praise the LORD, who is my rock. He trains my hands for war and gives my fingers skill for battle” (Ps. 144:1). Unfortunately, however, the Israelites did not pass this test, as rather than going to war against the Canaanites in order to cleanse the land, they began to intermarry with the pagans.
- Has anything in this book has been particularly helpful to you in times past? Do you find this book encouraging or discouraging?
- What is apostasy? How does apostasy differ from backsliding? What are some of the main causes of apostasy and/or backsliding in the modern context?
- Have you ever compromised your faith by being content with partial obedience to God’s Word? Is partial obedience any different than disobedience?
- In what ways are we like the Israelites in the book of Judges? How do we balance being in the world, but not of the world (cf. 1 John 2:15–17; 4:4–6)?
- In what ways is suffering a test of the faithfulness of God’s people? When God has allowed you to suffer in the past, have you remained faithful to Him?