Posted by Josh Kirby on April 7, 2012

The book of Judges is one of sharp contrast to the book of Joshua. Joshua is arguably the most positive book of the Old Testament, while Judges is extremely negative.

Joshua chronicles the successful conquest campaigns led by Joshua, the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to give his descendants a land of inheritance, and the allotment of the inherited Promised Land. Joshua begins with notes of hope and ends with notes of peace. The book of Joshua portrays God fighting for his people and his people living in covenant relationship with him.

Judges starts out positive, but quickly turns negative, and then goes from bad to worse. Judges follows God’s covenant people as they drift into idolatry and immorality. The hints in Joshua that the conquest had been incomplete, and that Israel’s obedience had been less than total, become full-blown realities in the book of Judges. We find that the warnings repeatedly sounded against foreign religious entanglements were well spoken, since, in the era of the Judges, Israel repeatedly turns away from the Lord to follow after the Canaanite gods, adopts the Canaanites’ twisted morality, and suffers the consequences of their covenant failure.

Judges may be outlined as follows:

  • 1:1-2:5 – Prologue
  • 2:6-3:6 – Introduction
  • 3:7-16:31 – The Downward Spiral of Idolatry and Immorality
  • 17:1-21:25 – Appendixes

1:1-2:5 serves as a prologue to the book of Judges. The first half of the prologue (1:1-26) is entirely positive, describing highly successful campaigns led by Judah against the Canaanites and Perizzites in the south. However, a repeated refrain in 1:21-33 tells the reader that success was not shared throughout all Israel. Nine times the text states that various tribes of Israel “did not drive out” or “let go” various peoples of Canaan, directly disobeying God’s command to devote to destruction all the Canaanites (cf. Deuteronomy 7:1-5). The prologue ends with the angel of Lord delivering a message of judgment (curses) to the Israelites, causing them to weep for their failures (2:1-5).

Following the prologue we have what might be called an introduction (2:6-3:6). This section is vital to the structure and purpose of the book of Judges. The rest of the narrative reflects what is stated here. Let’s focus on a few key verses and words:

  • “And [Joshua’s] generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel.” (Judges 2:10, ESV)
  • “And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals.” (Judges 2:11, ESV) Vs.11-15 describe the cause of the Israelites’ failures during this era – their own sins. The refrain “and the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” is seen throughout the book of Judges (2:11; 3:7, 12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1).
  • God’s response to the Israelites’ evil is anger (v.12, 14, 20). In his anger, he does not drive out the enemies of his people (2:21-3:6) and even fights against his people (v.15), just as he promised he would if they betrayed him (Deuteronomy 7 & 20; Judges 2:1-3).
  • Vs.16-19 describe the downward spiral of idolatry and immorality during of the era of the judges: “Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the LORD, and they did not do so. Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.” (Judges 2:16–19, ESV)

The main section of the book of Judges (3:7-16:31) illustrates the downward spiral described in chapter two:

  • Israelite rebellion against God (2:11; 3:7, 12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1).
  • Israelite oppression by foreign powers (2:14; 3:8; 4:2; 10:9)
  • Israelite cries for help (3:9, 15; 6:6-7; 10:10)
  • Pity and deliverance by God through judges (2:16; 3:9, 15; 10:1, 12).
  • Peace, followed by a return to rebellion

The main section of Judges is shaped by the stories of thirteen individual judges, who served sequentially and concurrently, during this period. In some respects the title of the book is a bit misleading to English readers. The “judges” were not primarily judicial officials; rather, they were military leaders and clan chieftains who appeared periodically in different areas among the tribes to bring deliverance from enemies threatening parts of Israel. Generally, the judges become morally weaker as Israel drifts deeper into idolatry and immorality.

The final section of the book of judges contains two appendixes (17:1-21:25), which portray the horrible idolatry and immorality of the Israelites during this era. The first appendix (17:1-18:31) records a failure in the north of Israel; the second appendix (19:1-21:25) records a failure in the south of Israel. In both cases, it is a Levite who is at the heart of great sin. The first appendix tells the story of an Israelite named Micah who designs his own idolatrous religion and hires a Levite priest to oversee it. The second appendix tells the story of a Levite priest whose mistress is raped in Gibeah, prompting Israel to go to war against Benjamin. The civil war leads to the deaths of tens of thousands of Israelites and almost completely wipes out the tribe of Benjamin. The final statement of the book of Judges well sums up the era: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25, ESV)

Judges should be understood as a covenant failure of God’s people. The Israelites rebelled against God and God, true to his word, punished them for their rebellion. Readers are meant to evaluate the events of the book of Judges as horrendous illustrations of where idolatry and immorality can lead.

God emerges as the true hero of Judges, a savior who delivers his people. While Judges shows the consequences of disobedience to God by the Israelites, it also shows the grace and providence of God toward the Israelites. The book shows God’s faithfulness to his people. As a holy God who demands the allegiance and submission of his people, he cannot tolerate sin and rebellion and allows the Israelites to suffer curses as a result of their sin. But as a God of mercy, love, and covenant, who cannot keep his anger forever, God consistently delivers his people from their struggles when they cry out to him. He even uses flawed human judges to accomplish his purposes.

May Judges serve both as a warning and an encouragement to us.
Note to listeners: Judges and Ruth were originally presented as one message, but have been separated for the purposes of this blog. The summary podcast below covers only the book of Judges; the full audio covers both Judges and Ruth.

PODCAST SUMMARY: Route 66: A Journey Through The Bible – Judges

FULL AUDIO: Route 66: A Journey Through The Bible – Judges & Ruth