This week, for the next 21 weeks, I will write an essay on the biblical book Judges, just as I did for Joshua. I think that readers will find many interesting matters in Judges, including fascinating stories, and by examining Judges closely, they will learn much about the unusual style of biblical writing. I will start with an introduction to the book.


The 21 chapters of the biblical book Judges introduces readers to the life of the Israelite tribes after the death of Joshua. While the tribes were united under Moses and Joshua, they were now disunited and waged war to conquer land in Canaan as single tribes, although they sometimes joined with other tribes.[1] The book gives no reason for the breakup from a unified nation to self-interested tribes.[2]

According to a talmudic view,[3] Samuel wrote the book named after him as well as Judges and Ruth. Others[4] insist that Judges was composed during the reign of King David, or King Solomon, or even as late as King Josiah,[5] or after the Judeans were exiled from Judea in 586 BCE, perhaps no earlier than 550 BCE.[6]

While the book of Joshua portrays the Israelites loyally accepting the divine covenant offered to them by Joshua, even as Moses presented them the covenant in the Pentateuch, Judges states the Israelites repeatedly did “what was evil in the sight of God.”[7] They committed two wrongs: they abandoned the covenant with God when they worshipped idols and they allowed the Canaanites to remain in their territory.[8] The author then describes the same events repeated often. Israel is punished by an adversary.[9] The people pray to God for help and a “judge,” which I will explain below, appears and in a military manner saves the people. The land then remains “calm” for a designated period. These series of stories usually end with a mention of the death of the hero.[10]


What is a “judge”?

Fifteen judges, including one woman Deborah, are mentioned. Two of them, Eli and Samuel, are not in the book Judges but in I Samuel. Some of the judges have extended descriptions of their exploits, but little information is given about five judges. For want of a better title, some scholars call them “minor judges.”[11] There is no indication that the minor judges led Israelites in war, as did the major ones. While the book contains twenty-one chapters, the tale of the last judge, Samson, in it is in chapters 13-16. The remaining part of the book, like the beginning, portrays in a chiasmic manner, the improper acts of individual tribes.

While the English translation of the Hebrew shophtim is judges[12] scholars understand the term to denote a governmental and leadership function, not just judicial.[13]


How long did the Judges judge?

No one truly knows the length of the period of the judges and there are many speculations about it. The author of I Kings 6:1 states that King Solomon began to construct the temple in Jerusalem in the fourth year of his reign, which was “the 480th year” after the exodus from Egyptian slavery.[14] If this figure is taken literally, and the reigns of Kings Saul and David and the four years of Solomon’s kingship are deducted, the judges would have functioned for about 400 years.[15]

Scholars[16] suggest that 480 is another of the many stereotypical instances where Scripture states that a leader led the Israelites for forty years.[17] They suggest that the biblical author felt that forty meant a generation and that twelve generations passed from the exodus to the time of King Solomon. If, the scholars say, one would substitute 20-25 as the figure for a generation, the time would be about 240 years, which is the number that some scholars assign to the period of the judges. John Bright’s view, which is accepted by many scholars, is that the exodus occurred around 1200 BCE and King Saul became king around 1020 BCE;[18] thus the period of the judges was only about 200 years.[19]

Kaufman suggests that the book of Judges was edited some 500-600 years after the events it narrates, but some of the material in it is quite old.


[1] The unified nation of Israel appears in this book in only three instances: the “angel’s” critique in 2:4, Gideon’s ephod in 8:27, and the outrage at the city Gibeah in 20:1.

[2] This has led many scholars, such as Arnold Ehrlich, to believe that Joshua was a mythological figure, the Israelites began as tribes and only later unified as a nation, the author of Judges knew nothing about Joshua, and the initial parts of Judges that mention a leader called Joshua were added by an editor who wanted to connect the two books.

Ehrlich supports his view that the author of Judges knew nothing about Joshua, the man and the book, by detailing the many differences between the two books, such as the book Joshua stating that Joshua conquered certain cities while Judges describes them being vanquished only after Joshua’s death, not by all of Israel, but only isolated tribes. Similarly, verse 10 states that Keniites traveled from “the city of palm trees” to Judah’s territory, but the “city of palm trees” is generally understood as Jericho, and is so identified in the Aramaic translation Targum Jonathan. But according to Joshua 6, Joshua utterly destroyed Jericho, thus Judges is in conflict with Joshua.

However, according to Sifrei Beha’alotecha 11, the Israelites gave the Kenites, the descendants of Moses’s father-in-law Jethro, the city of Jericho after it was destroyed as a reward for their ancestor aiding Moses in showing the path through the desert. Additionally, scholars such as Kaufman explain that the apparent contradictions are explainable. For example, the book of Joshua wants to describe an ideal situation, that Joshua was able to begin the conquest that was ultimately somewhat successful; it therefore attributes later victories and occupations to the man who started the take-over of Canaan. Similarly, Kimchi states that the battles mentioned in Judges chapter I did not occur after the death of Joshua, but during his lifetime. Additionally, in regard to the question why did the unified nation disassemble into tribes, we know of many historical instances where strong leaders left no heir and his nation or group divided after his death.

[3] Babylonian Talmud 14b.

[4] Such as Olam Hatanakh.

[5] 641-609 BCE. King Josiah instituted a reformation of Judaism. This story is found in II Kings 22 and 23 and II Chronicles 34 and 35.

[6] The argument is made that the book of Judges shows that the Israelites are punished for their misdeeds and the book was composed after the exile from Judea to explain that this was why many Judeans were exiled from their country.

[7] 3:7, 12: 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; and 13:1.

[8] This is the view of Kaufman.

[9] 3:8, 12; 4:2; 6:16; 10:7; 13:1.

[10] 3:11, 30; 5:31; 8:28-32; 12:7; 15:20; 16:31.

[11] They appear in 10:1-5 and 12:8-15. The length of service of the major judges is given in round stereotypical number (20, 40, 80 – the sole exception is Jephthah in 12:7, whose service was for 6 years) but those of the minor judges in precise numbers (23, 22, 10, 7, 8). It is possible that since the Jephthah narrative is told in the midst of the brief tales of the minor judges, this influenced mentioning a precise number.

[12] This is also how the ancient Aramaic translation Targum Jonathan translates it.

[13] The word is used as a noun only in 2:16-18 to describe the heroes and in 11:27 where Jephthah portrays God as a shophet. It is also used in II Samuel 7:11, II Kings 23:22, Ruth 1:1, and I Chronicles 17: 6, 10.

[14] In Judges 11:26, Jephthah states that the Israelites dwelt in Heshbon for 300 years. At first blush this would seem to support the figure of 480, for the long period for 480 would include the years after Jephthah until King Solomon. However, scholars understand Jephthah to be speaking about the time since Moses conquered the city.

[15] The exodus from Egyptian bondage according to this account would be around 1440 BCE.

[16] Such as John Bright (1908-1995), in A History of Israel. see below.

[17] Such as Moses, David, and several judges in this book.

[18] Solomon ascended the throne according to Bright around 961 BCE.

[19] If one used the “anno mundi” calendar, the generally faulty calculation of time since the creation of the world, one would come out with approximately the same figure. This year that I am writing is 5774 (2014), the exodus was in 2448, or 3326 years ago, which is 1312 BCE. Add forty years of desert wondering until the entry into Canaan and fourteen years of Joshua’s leadership, puts the onset of the period of the judges after 1258 BCE.