Judges-Life Without Law

Life Without Law

About this book

A Bible text and commentary on the book of Judges. Written by Philip Smith. January 2005.


The book called Judges was in the *Hebrew *Scriptures. It was in the section called Former (earlier) *Prophets. In Deuteronomy chapters 27 and 28, we can read what would happen in *Israel’s future. If *Israel’s people were loyal to God, God would bless them. If they were not loyal to him, he would *curse them. (Look at Deuteronomy 28:15-26.) And nobody can make God believe anything that is not true. In Judges, we can see examples of how those things happened. Sometimes people obeyed God and sometimes they did not obey him. In this book, we see what happened as a result. We learn more about the *blessings and *curses. We learn how God trains his people.

The *Lord is the chief Judge. He allowed cruel things to happen to *Israel’s people. He punished them. Sometimes you may not like the punishment that God allows! He also sent people to make *Israel’s people free. There were periods when they had peace. However, the writer does not say very much about these periods.

God had promised to give them that country where they were. They had already fought to get it. But the real battle to get the country did not begin until after Joshua’s death. Joshua had often said that they had not *captured it completely. Sometimes they succeeded. However, the people did not always live in the area that they had *conquered. The *tribes (family groups) did not control the whole country. They controlled only a small part. In between the *tribes, there were two powerful groups of towns. All these towns had the same ruler. The *tribes could not always defeat the people in *Canaan. Some *tribes made an agreement with the local people. Then they could live together.

The judges were very wise. They were able to prepare for the future. Many judges had strong beliefs. They very much wanted the *blessings that God promised. They wanted their nation to obey God’s *commandments. So they had authority. But also, many people knew them. People did not choose them for their jobs. God chose them. The jobs did not usually pass from father to son.

The kings of *Canaan had many *weapons that were not just simple ones. With those weapons, they could destroy things more easily and they could kill people more easily. So the *Israelites succeeded only when they all fought together. Usually, *Israel’s *tribes only had an interest in their own affairs. The one thing that brought them together was their belief in God. They also believed that they were a nation. So they could act together to meet a common enemy. But when they stopped trusting God, selfish interests became the most important things. So they could not defeat their enemies.

Maybe a group of *tribes lived round a *religious place. Maybe they came together because they all wanted to praise God. Some Bible students think that those things were true. Here are some things that were perhaps true about these groups:

1          6 or 12 *tribes worked together as a group. Perhaps one *tribe took care of the central place where people praised God.

2          They had a central place where they praised God every year. This was not always in the same place. First, it was in Shechem and then it was in Bethel and Shiloh. Perhaps they learned from this that they could not keep God in one place. They carried the *ark from place to place. When the people saw the *ark, they remembered the agreement between them and God. Perhaps that central place was a place where they organised things. They also had a Book of the *Covenant (Agreement). This contained God’s law, which they should obey.

3          Perhaps they had an annual ceremony. There is not very much evidence for this in *Israel. However, once a year, Samuel’s parents went to Shiloh, where they praised God. (See 1 Samuel 1:3.)

4          They all had the same purpose. They wanted to defend the central place where they praised God. They obeyed common laws. Deborah led 6 *tribes when they fought together against the people in *Canaan. Benjamin’s relatives did not obey a law and 11 *tribes attacked them because of that.

These are only ideas about why *tribes came together as a group. However, all the *tribes believed in God. And this was the main thing that made their friendly relations strong.

Local heroes

Judges emphasises the local activity of groups of people. Other groups did not control them. Sometimes these groups were smaller and sometimes they were larger than a *tribe. *Israel’s people did not usually come together all at the same time. Instead, the judges acted for all the people of *Israel. We learn from this book that the work of local leaders was very important. Its stories include some stories about how people and places got their names. There are people’s names like Jerubbaal and place names like *Jawbone Hill. There are also customs, and here is one example. Women were sad about people that had died. And so every year they did something special to show this. This custom began when Jephthah was the judge.

The writer tells us about how the people gave up their beliefs. They easily agreed with the way that the people in *Canaan lived. And they easily changed to it. He shows us that God’s grace and patience helped *Israel’s people to improve. (Grace is a free gift from God. We cannot do anything to earn it.)

Importance of the book

Judges is about a time when change happened. *Israel’s people had a central place where they praised God. The *tribes lived in some different places that were separate from each other. So the *tribes could not all work together. *Israel’s people had not *conquered the country completely. So they divided the *tribes into 3 groups. When some *tribes fought for their lives, they did not get any help from other *tribes. There was one time when 6 *tribes came together. That was to help Deborah and Barak against the army from *Canaan. Four (4) *tribes did not come and the writer does not tell us anything about the other two *tribes. Finally, the country had a king. The *tribes could not work together without a leader.

Their *religion had two kinds of laws. Some laws were about particular events. (This is an example. ‘You may find your enemy’s animal which he has lost…’) Other laws were useful in all situations. (They were like this, for example. ‘You shall…’ or ‘You shall not…’) God controlled what happened to people. And he controlled what happened at different times. He did not just control the powers of nature. But not all *Israelites believed this. *Israel’s people had big problems. God had told them to kill all the other people who lived in that country. He did not want the *Israelites to imitate these people’s *religions and their evil ways. But the *Israelites did not obey him. The result was that they practised syncretism. (Syncretism is when people mix different *religions together.) They praised the other people’s gods as well as *Yahweh. The leaders were not very good. There was nobody like Moses or Joshua. The structure of the *tribes remained. However, the gap between the northern and the southern *tribes began while the judges were ruling.

Problems about what was right and what was wrong

We can see these problems when we read the story about Samson. Samson did not have much interest in *religion. When God’s Spirit came on him, he was very strong. So he did powerful acts. However, not everything that he did was right or good. Even when God’s Spirit was with a person, his or her character was not always good. But we must remember these things:

1          At the time when Samson lived, moral standards were not generally good. And he often lived by those standards.

2          The book’s editor writes about a lack of goodness. And the stories about Samson clearly show that lack.

3          God was in complete control. He changed the results of Samson’s actions so that they would suit God’s own plans.

4          God chose certain people to do what he wanted. These were often people that we would least expect him to choose. One example was Cyrus in the book of Isaiah. In the *Old Testament, God gave people powerful skills. But those people did not always live good lives.

5          The behaviour of *Israel’s people became worse during this time. But, by the things that happened, God showed his own character and power. In these stories, we can see how he did it. We must remember this when we look at the stories.

*Religious value of the book

1          God is good. God punished people because of the wrong things that they did.

2          God has complete control. He freed the people from all their enemies. He used storm and rain to help them. God, who has power over all, is the most important person. The judge is not the most important.

3          God is kind and he is very patient. Sometimes the people cried for help. And he was always willing to listen to them then.

4          Belief is very important. There is a list of the judges in Hebrews 11. This shows that they trusted God. And it shows that they worked with him. This made it possible for him to show his power.

Structure of the book

There were 12 judges (leaders). Six (6) judges had power that God gave to them. They had a part in important political events. They helped *Israel’s people to make their home in that country. After each judge had ruled, “the country had rest”. Some other judges were less important. They helped to make sure that people obeyed the law.

The book of Judges is like a bridge. The bridge is between the Exodus and the government by a king. The basic structure has 11 sections. We can see these in the story about Othniel (Judges 3:7-11).

1          *Israel’s people do what is wrong.

2          *Israel’s people make the *Lord angry.

3          *Israel’s people suffer great cruelty.

4          *Israel’s people cry to the *Lord.

5          A judge comes to free them.

6          There is a description of the judge.

7          The judge gets power.

8          He or she makes judgements about the disagreements of *Israel’s people.

9          The judge rescues *Israel’s people.

10        The judge gives peace to *Israel’s people.

11        The judge dies.

The writer often repeats this structure in this book. God never makes *Israel’s people completely free from other nations. God gives judgement to his people. He rescues them from their enemies and he rescues them from themselves. Although that is the structure, God does not always work in that same way. We do not think that some things will happen. But God does those things. God is the judge. He is the one who frees his people. He decides what judgement to give to them. And he decides how to free them. During the age that the writers describe in the *Old Testament, God’s people failed a lot. But during that same period, God’s Spirit was working. When the judges were ruling, the people often failed. But God helped people to fight successfully against things that were wrong. With his help, they defeated the powerful people that intended to do bad things to his *kingdom.

Writer of the book

We do not know who wrote the book. And we do not know the date when he wrote it. Many people think that he wrote it while the kings were ruling. He repeats words like these. ‘At that time, *Israel’s people had no king. If a person himself thought that something was right, he did it. Each person did things for that reason’ (Judges 17:6). Judges 1:21 seems to show that the author wrote the book before 1003 B.C. (B.C. means the number of years Before Christ was born.) 1003 B.C. was the date when David *captured Jerusalem city from the *Jebusites.

Plan of the book

Introduction: *Israel’s people did not finish the *conquest and they turned away from God, 1:1–3:6

1:1-21 Enemies *conquered southern *Canaan

1:22-26 Enemies *captured Bethel

1:27-36 *Israel’s people failed to remove their enemies

2:1-5 What happened when *Israel’s people did not obey the agreement

2:6-3:6 What God did when *Israel’s people refused to serve him

Cruel pain and trouble, then freedom, 3:7 – 16:31

3:7-11 Othniel

3:12-30 Ehud

3:31 Shamgar

4:1-5:31 Deborah and Barak

6:1-8:35 Gideon

9:1-57 Abimelech, the bad judge

10:1-2 Tola

10:3-5 Jair

10:6-12:7 Jephthah

12:8-10 Ibzan

12:11-12 Elon

12:13-15 Abdon

13:1-16:31 Samson

Extra information

17:1-18:31 Micah and Dan’s *tribe; Dan’s *tribe went to live in another place

19:1-21:25 The wrong things that the people in Gibeah did and how God punished Benjamin’s *tribe

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5
Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10
Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15
Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20
Chapter 21