Judges, Book of
JUDGES, BOOK OF
Like the Book of Joshua, Judges takes its title from the protagonists in the story. see judges (in the bible). The theme of the Book of Judges is the recurrent punishment and salvation of Israel under the special providence of God, who raises up saviors, the judges, in time of oppression and oppressors in time of Israel's defection.
Contents and Structure. Judges opens with a bipartite introduction (1.1–3.6), describing political and religious
conditions in the period after Joshua (1.1–36), and setting forth the book's theology (2.1–3.6). The body of the book largely concerns the exploits of the heroic figures whose deeds are extensively recorded—the major judges: Othniel (3.7–11), Ehud (3.12–30), Deborah-Barak (4.1–5.31), Gideon (6.1–9.57), Jephthah (10.6–12.7), and samson (13.1–16.31). Alongside these "Spirit-designated" liberators are more shadowy figures, of whom some brief notice is given—the minor judges: Tola (10.1–2), Jair (10.3–5), Ibzan (12.8–10), Elon (12.11–12), Abdon (12.13–15), and perhaps Shamgar (3.31).
Judges 2.6 resumes Joshua 24.28. The long introduction (2.7–3.6) then outlines in a cyclic fashion the themes of the book: sin, anger of God, oppression, salvation, and sin. These motifs are found throughout the book as a schematic formula: At the beginning of the narrative the people sin, they abandon Yahweh and follow false gods, Yahweh sells them or abandons them to their enemies, they cry to Yahweh.
The body of the narrative that follows is grouped around three main points: God raises up a liberator, a great battle takes place, Israel prevails. The narrative concludes with a twofold element: the enemy is humiliated, the land is at peace. The formulas opening and closing these narratives are rigidly observed, without, however, disturbing the body of the narrative. In the story of Othniel (3.7–11) the pattern is clearly observable. Properly speaking, the story is not a narrative at all. The author has taken a minimum of details from his source and inserted them into the outline. The result is the framework with only two proper names added.
The following structure or arrangement is suggested by the use of recurring formulas. There is a long introductory "overture" (2.7–3.6). The themes of the book are enunciated in cyclic fashion. The first part begins with the schematic narrative of Othniel (3.7–11). A simple narrative, Ehud (3.12–30), follows; then the more complex one of Deborah-Barak (4.1–24). The section closes with one of the most ancient Hebrew poems, Canticle of Deborah (ch. 5). The second part begins with a prelude by a prophet (6.7–10). The long gideon cycle follows (6.11–8.35), and the section closes tragically with the story of Abimelech (ch. 9), Gideon's son, and the first attempt to establish a monarchy in Israel. The third part begins with a rather long prelude in the form of a dialogue between Yahweh and the people (10.10–16). This is followed by the narrative of Jephthah (11.1–12.7). The saga of Samson (13.1–16.31), which has an ending that is tragical and yet is triumphant, closes this section and the body of the book.
Within this structure, after the story of Abimelech, the list of minor judges was inserted (10.1–5 and 12.8–15). Probably, the insertion was occasioned by the story of Jephthah who combined the office of minor judge with the role of great liberator. The recurring formulas of the book are strikingly absent in this list but there are constant elements in it: the succession, the judge of all Israel, and the duration of the judge's office in apparently artificial numbers, i.e., 23, 22, 6, 7, and 8. The death and place of burial also are noted and sometimes a report of the judge's wealth is recorded. The conclusion of the Jephte narrative (12.7) follows the pattern of this list and not the formula found in all other cases of major judges. Apparently, these minor judges represented a permanent institution of the tribal federation.
The last four chapters of Judges form a double appendix that was added to the structure outlined above: the founding of the sanctuary at Dan (ch. 17–18); the Benjaminite war (ch. 19–21). These sections represent very early traditions. They were not, however, part of the first work of the Deuteronomist editor; the great themes of the body of the book are totally absent here. These traditions were perhaps incorporated to form a link with the following history presented in the Book of Samuel. The double appendix describes the moral and cultural anarchy when, "in those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what he thought best" (21.25).
Origin. We can distinguish four general stages in the origin and formation of the book.
1. Preliterary stage. Ancient oral traditions circulated embracing hero stories and tribal sagas, some with etiological elements. Very likely these were preserved in cultic centers and in schools of minstrels.
2. Second Stage. Many of these oral stories were probably drawn into cycle form and later still, compiled in writing—probably at the time of David or Solomon.
3. Third Stage. This is the work of the deuteronomists writing a religious history of Israel. They used these documents and from them constructed a unity by means of the formulas outlined above in "Structure." These recurring formulas are very similar to the doctrine of Deuteronomy. They reflect the same interpretation of history and the same emphasis on the covenant obligations. Such similarities are the more striking reasons for calling the redactors of the work the Deuteronomists. They found in their sources, linked with the story of Jephte, the list of minor judges, and this, too, was incorporated. The work took place sometime in the 7th century b.c.
4. Fourth stage. At a later date, another hand added the appendix and chapter one.
Chronology. The epoch of Judges extends roughly from 1200 to 1050 b.c. However, the chronological ordering of the book is artificial, as appears from the recurrence of the number 40—the length of a generation—or of its half, 20, or its double, 80. The various wars and oppressions recounted appear to have followed one another. But this ordering is the work of the author, who has fitted originally separate narratives into the framework of a religious history. In point of fact, many of these episodes occurred simultaneously in the various parts of the country. The author had no intention of presenting an organic history, chronologically ordered, of the period between Joshua and Samuel.
Historical Credibility. The Book of Judges is a work of religious history. As such, it has certain characteristics that are, at the same time, limitations, e.g., its scope is practical, not theoretical; it is concerned with the religious meaning of events, with history as a history of salvation. As religious history, it relates both historical facts and their religious aspect. The relation of this religious aspect or meaning demands on the part of the author a certain amount of artistic labor, e.g., selection of events and dialogues. Granted all this, the immediate object of historical examination is the narratives. Are these relations of actual events, or rather simple fictions constructed for religious teaching? The narratives fit well into the whole historical context of this era. Furthermore, the geographical and topographical information in these stories agrees with archeological facts. In general, we can say with a certain amount of confidence that these narratives are not fiction, or, at least, not pure fiction. From the evidence we possess, the basic historical character of these narratives is far more probable than the fictional.
Frequently, the historical credibility of Judges is contested because of the presence of etiological elements in the stories. Etiological tales arise to explain existing customs or landmarks. Objections to the historicity of Judges suppose that wherever an etiological element is present, the story must be suspect. There certainly were etiological elements in some of the oral traditions. But etiological stories as such were not enumerated among the sources of Judges. To speak of an etiological story or tale assumes that it can be shown that the story came into being through the etiological factor, i.e., that this factor was the creative and determinative element in the story. Such a priority in the formation of these traditions in Judges has not been proved. In addition, the etiological element does not necessarily serve one purpose, namely to explain the origin of customs or curious landmarks. Often such landmarks and customs as well as place names are incorporated into a story in order to ensure the memory of an event. Ultimately the verdict on historical credibility requires objective, external evidence. Literary form of itself furnishes no final test of historicity.
Bibliography: h. cazelles, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928–) 4:1394–1414. a. vincent, Le Livre des Juges (BJ Paris 1952). l. alonzo-schÖkel, "Erzählkunst im Buche der Richter," Biblica 42.1 (1961) 143–72. Catholic Biblical Encyclopedia, ed. j. e. steinmueller and k. sullivan, 2v. in 1 (New York 1956) 602–03. j. bright, A History of Israel (Philadelphia 1960).