In the previous book, Joshua finally led the tribes of Israel into the promised land, calling on them to be faithful to their covenant with God by obeying the commands of the Torah and being an example to other nations. The book of Judges begins with the death of Joshua and, unfortunately, tells the story of Israel’s total failure.
The book’s name comes from the types of leaders Israel had in this period. Before they had any kings, the tribes of Israel were ruled by judges. Don’t think of a courtroom here, because these were regional, political, and military leaders, more like tribal chieftains. Now, be warned, the book of Judges is disturbing and violent. It tells the tragic tale of Israel’s moral corruption, bad leadership, and how they became no different than the Canaanites themselves.
However, this sad story is also meant to generate hope for the future, which you can see illustrated in the book’s design. There’s a large introduction in chapters 1-2 that sets the stage for Israel’s failure as they don’t drive out the remaining Canaanites like they were told to. The large, main section of the book (Judg. 3-16) has stories of the growing corruption of Israel’s judges. The progression here shows how Israel’s leaders went from pretty good to okay to bad to worse. The concluding section (Judg. 17-21) is really disturbing and shows the corruption of the people of Israel as a whole. Let’s dive in and explore each part a bit more.
Many Jewish and Christian traditions hold that Samuel is the author of Judges. However, authorship is not explicitly stated within the book.
The events described in Judges take place in Israel after the death of Joshua and before the anointing of King Saul.
Judges contains mostly narrative, with some poetry and discourse woven throughout.
God’s grace to preserve people through their rejection of his instruction
Israel’s desperation for God’s rescue
Israel’s descent into self-destruction
Chapters 1-2 detail Canaanite groups in the land and Israel's trust in Canaanite gods. 3-16 tell the rise and fall of six judges. 17-21 detail Israel’s failure to follow God’s instructions and Joshua’s guidance.
Judges 1-2: Israel’s Moral Compromise in the Promised Land
The opening section begins with the tribes of Israel in their territories within the promised land. While Joshua defeated some key Canaanite towns, there was still a lot of land to be taken and a lot of Canaanites still living in those areas. Chapter 1 gives a long list of Canaanite groups that Israel failed to drive out from the land.
Now remember, the whole point of driving out the Canaanites was to avoid the influence of their moral corruption and the worship of their gods through child sacrifice. God had called Israel to be a holy people, but that did not happen. Chapter 2 describes how Israel simply moved in alongside the Canaanites and began to adopt all their cultural and religious practices.
Then, right there in chapter 2, the story stops, and for nearly a whole chapter the narrator gives us an overview of everything that’s about to happen in the rest of the book. This part of Israel’s history was a series of cycles moving in a downward spiral. Israel would become like the Canaanites and would sin against God. God would then allow them to be conquered and oppressed by the Canaanites. Eventually, the Israelites would see the error of their ways and repent, and God would raise up a deliverer, a judge, from among Israel who would defeat the enemy and bring an era of peace. Sooner or later, Israel would sin again, and it would start all over. This cycle provides the literary design and flow of the next section of the book and is repeated for each of the six main judges whose stories are told here.
Judges 3-16: Israel’s Six Judges, Including Gideon and Samson
The stories of the first three judges, Othniel, Ehud, and Deborah, are epic adventures that are extremely bloody. Either the judges themselves or the people helping them defeat their enemies and deliver the people of Israel. The stories about the next three judges are longer and focus on their character flaws, which only get progressively worse.
Gideon (Judg. 6-9) starts out well enough. He’s a coward of a man, but he comes to trust that God can save Israel through him. He defeats a huge army of Midianites with only 300 men carrying nothing but torches and clay pots. Gideon has a nasty temper, however, and murders several of his fellow Israelites for not helping him in battle. To make matters worse, he also makes an idol from the gold he won in a battle, and after he dies, all of Israel worships it as a god, and the cycle begins once again.
The next main judge is Jephthah (Judg. 10-12), who’s something of a mafia thug living in the hills. When things got really bad for Israel, the elders came to him begging for his leadership. Jephthah actually proved to be a very effective leader, as he won lots of battles against the Ammonites. But in the end, he was so unfamiliar with the God of Israel that he treated him like a Canaanite deity and vowed to sacrifice his daughter if he won the battle. This tragic story shows just how far Israel has fallen. They no longer know the character of their own God, which leads to murder and false worship.
The last judge, Samson (Judg. 13-16), is by far the worst. His life began full of promise, but he had no regard for the God of Israel, and he was promiscuous, violent, and arrogant. He brutally won strategic victories over the Philistines, but only at the expense of his integrity. His life comes to an end in a violent rush of mass murder.
Now, a quick note. You’ll notice a repeated theme here where, at key moments, God’s Spirit empowers each of these judges to accomplish great acts of deliverance. The fact that God uses these people does not mean he endorses all or any of their choices. God is committed to saving his people, but all he has to work with are these corrupt leaders. And work with them he does.
This whole section of the book of Judges shows just how bad things have become. You can no longer tell the Israelites and the Canaanites apart—and that’s just the leaders! The final section, on the other hand, shows Israel as a whole hitting rock bottom.
Judges 17-21: Israel Descends Into Self-Destruction
There are two tragic stories here, in chapters 17-18 and 19-21, that are not for the faint of heart. They are structured by a key phrase that gets repeated four times: “In those days, Israel had no king and everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Judg. 17:6, 18:1, 19:1, and 21:25).
The first story is about an Israelite named Micah who builds a private temple to an idol. This temple is then plundered by a private army sent from the tribe of Dan. The soldiers from Dan steal everything, but much worse, they burn the peaceful city of Laish to the ground, murdering all its inhabitants. This is horrifying; when Israel forgets its God, might makes right.
The next story is even worse—a shocking tale of sexual abuse and violence, leading to Israel’s first civil war. It’s very disturbing, and that’s the point. These stories serve as a warning. Israel’s descent into self-destruction is a result of turning away from the God who saved them from slavery in Egypt. Now they need to be delivered again, but this time from themselves.
The only glimmer of hope is found in this repeated line from the last section, which also forms the last sentence of the book: “Israel has no king” (Judg. 21:25). The stage is set for the following books to tell the origins of the family of King David (the book of Ruth) as well as the origins of kingship itself in Israel (Samuel).
The book of Judges has value as a sobering exploration of the human condition, but it ultimately points forward to God’s grace in sending a king who will rescue his people.
The book of Judges explores humanity’s tendency to trust themselves over God and do what is right in their own eyes. This habit highlights humanity’s need for God’s grace and a future king who will rescue people from their self-centeredness.