The Book of Judges is a series of odd stories about the twelve judges in Israel. Some judges seem important and others do not. There was no set pattern of how the judges came to be judges. However, all of them receive ‘the Spirit of Yahweh.’ These judges seem more like military leaders who are then somehow put in charge to keep peace.
However, there is a practical mini-play within each judge story. The Israelites do evil or bad things that displease Yahweh. They usually turn away from Yahweh to Baals or other gods. Then the enemies of Israel get an upper hand. So then the people cry to Yahweh for a leader. Yahweh then sends his ‘Spirit’ on this new leader. The new leader or judge defeats the enemy. Peace is then restored temporarily or for a period of time, until the next incident occurs.
The basic structure is simple. There are two introductions summarizing what had happened to Canaan and what was going on there. Then the stories of the twelve judges unfolded. Finally there is an appendix about the Danites and Benjaminites and what happened to them.
Judges seems to have two sources. One seems to be a collection of oral stories about local tribal heroes. The second source might be a lost book about the wars of Israel. It is not clear whether this was a compilation of stories or the work of one individual putting them together. Clearly there was a monarchist tendency with a pro-Judah stance that would date it to the time of the kings or later. Judges talks about this period being a time without kings so that everyone did what they thought was right. It definitely is in the Deuteronomytradition, following up on Joshua. Once again, this would put the final redaction and writing of this book in the sixth or seventh century BCE around the time of the Exile. In fact, in the appendix there is a mention of ‘up to the time of the captivity.’
The six major judges are Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, a female judge, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson, a real super hero. The six lesser judges are Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon. The last six are barely mentioned with just a sentence or two about them. On the other hand, the major judges have wonderful stories or incidents around their lives. The four major ones, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah and Samson have longer more elaborate stories, while Othniel and Ehud have only one simple story about them.
Each judge had an enemy. Othniel fought the King of Aram. Ehud killed the fat King Eglon the Moabite in his chamber. Deborah with Barak the field general fought Sisera, the captain of King Jabin at Hazor. Judges then has a beautiful canticle where Deborah empathizes with Sisera’s mother. Gideon fought against the gods of Baal. He was involved in a lot of battles with the people on the east side of the Jordan, particularly the Midianites and the Amalekites. Abimelech, the bastard son of Gideon, killed his seventy brothers. He was like the first king, at least of a certain area around Shechem. Jephthah fought against the Ammonites. Then, of course, super hero strong Samson fought against the Philistines. There are some fantastic stories about Samson, his riddles, his super strength, Delilah and the cutting his hair, with his final suicide destruction of the Philistine temple.
The Appendix at the end of this book has two stories without judges, about the Danites and Benjaminites. Both stories are quirky. Somehow this guy Micah had his own little shrine. However, the Danites took his Levite priest and his idol. They then attacked the northern town of Laish and established themselves in northern Israel.
The other story took place at Gibeah, where there was this terrible incident that almost led to the extinction of the Benjaminites. Some townspeople raped and killed the concubine of a Levite, who got everyone relied up against the people of Gibeah. The Benjaminites took issue and were nearly wiped out in a battle with the rest of Israel. Then they find a strange way to help the Benjamin tribe survive.
So the period of time when everyone did what they wanted was slowing coming to an end. Judges is a fairly good example of the various tribal skirmishes that took place in the Promised Land. Sometimes, it was tribe against tribe, while other times, there was a common enemy. Each one of the judges had a call from Yahweh. They were not kings, but more like fighting prophets filled with the ‘Spirit of Yahweh.’