The Book of Judges is an interesting book of the Bible in many respects. It is a “historical” book in that it gives an insight into the period of time between Joshua and Samuel. It is noted for the refrain “In those days there was no king in Israel”, mentioned four times (Jdg 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25), but there is more to the book than just that.
Originally, the Book of Ruth was part of this book (“Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled…”, Ru 1:1). Ruth bridges the Book of Judges and the Book of 1 Samuel. Many believe that all three were originally compiled by Samuel, and there are similarities throughout. The Talmud credits Samuel with being the author, but he likely didn’t write the book but probably gathered the writings from various sources written at the time and put them together. Some believe all three books were touched up by Jeremiah and/or Baruch just prior to the fall of Judah. Some credit Isaiah with some obviously later edits. In any event, the refrain “in those days there was no king” shows the final compilation had to be Samuel or thereafter.
The name comes from the Hebrew shoftim (root shaphat), and it basically means “leader” or “ruler”. These weren’t judges like we think of judges, although one of their roles was to interpret the law whenever disputes occurred between parties. According to Strong’s, “law-giver”, “judge” or “governor” are adequate translations. Judges were major and minor, and often their authority only extended over a specific region.
That’s why many of the judges were obviously overlapping or even contemporary with each other. However, there are probably gaps in history as well. It is important to remember that the ancients often didn’t view history the way we do, and dates were only of marginal importance. When a moral application is to be gleaned, the actual dates are often of even lesser importance. Various chronologies have been proposed, but they vary from 299 years to 410 years. The total time from the Exodus to the building of the Temple, however, is 480 years (1Ki 6:1), so it is impossible that some of the judges weren’t contemporaries.
Usually, we think of the period of the judges as occurring after the death of Joshua. However, this form of government was actually setup under Moses.
19 Hearken now unto my voice, I will give thee counsel, and God shall be with thee: Be thou for the people to God-ward, that thou mayest bring the causes unto God:
20 And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do.
21 Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens:
22 And let them judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge: so shall it be easier for thyself, and they shall bear the burden with thee.
23 If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee so, then thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people shall also go to their place in peace.
~ Ex 18:19-23
Judges were so integral that witnesses had to testify before them before the death penalty could be handed down (Dt 17:6; cf Ex 22:8-9; Dt 16:18-19; Jdg 20:2-4). If the local judges have difficulty deciding a matter, it was to be brought before the priests and the overall judge, representing both arms of the government. Later, of course, the judge would be replaced by the king. The priests were always Levites, while judges could come from any tribe, further showing a separation of power instituted at the very beginning.
Throughout the Bible from the time of Saul on, we see a definite separation of the roles of king and priest. 2 Chronicles 26:16-21 shows the downfall of a prideful king who tried to offer sacrifices to God. However, in Christ, we see the reuniting of king and priest.
7 For this Melchisedec, king of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings, and blessed him;
2 To whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all; first being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of peace;
3 Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually.
~ Heb 7:1-3
The first part of the Book of Judges is primarily historical. It shows how time after time Israel fell into oppression after blatant idolatry. God would then raise up a judge to lead them back into freedom, only for the judge to die and the cycle continue.
Obviously, the recording of history was a prime reason for the Book of Judges, but there are clearly two sections of the book. Some state the second reason as to “provide a terrible demonstration of the moral depravity of man” (for example, see “Bible Survey”). However, there have been those who state the second reason is to show the result of not having a king. I intend to show that both of these are missing the mark.
Halley’s Bible Handbook says:
The Hebrew Nation, after the death of Joshua, had no strong central government. They were a confederacy, of twelve independent tribes, with no unifying force, except their God. The form of government in the days of the Judges is spoken of as the “Theocracy”; that is, God himself was supposed to be the direct ruler of the nation. But the people did not take their God very seriously, and were continually falling away into Idolatry. Being in a state of anarchy, more or less, and harassed at times by civil war among themselves, and surrounded by enemies who made attempt after attempt to exterminate them, the Hebrew Nation was very slow in its National Development and did not become a great nation till it was organized into a Kingdom in the days of Samuel and David.
~ 24th edition, p 176
So, while there is history, there are other lessons as well. Looking at the anarchy within the book, the refrain “there was no king in Israel” is an understandable reaction. However, if Samuel indeed compiled the Book, then there is an obvious conflict.
5 And said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.
6 But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the Lord.
~ 1Sa 8:5-6
Why would Samuel compile “there was no king in Israel” if the entire thing “displeased” him? Why did God allow such anarchy to begin with?
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