Discovering Judges


Have you ever had one of those days that went from bad to worse? The book of Judges feels like one of those days, only it describes far more than one day! This period probably lasted from 300 to 400 years and was a very disturbing, turbulent time.

Judges describes what happened to Israel in the Promised Land, beginning after the generation led by Joshua passed away and lasting until the leadership of the prophet Samuel. It is the sequel to Joshua and presents an entirely opposite experience.

Joshua records lots of victories and blessings, with a few failures mixed in. Judges, however, records lots of failures and misery, with a few victories mixed in. In short, Joshua shows how God blesses the obedience of his people, but Judges shows how God’s people suffer when they refuse to obey him. From this book we learn that the condition of God’s people deteriorates when they disregard his instruction.


This book serves as the second of the Old Testament historical books.

  • Together with Joshua and Ruth, Judges shows Israel’s need for a king. These books also show God’s unrelenting faithfulness to Israel, whether they obeyed him or not.
  • The books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles give the history of a long series of kings that ruled over Israel. This stage of the historical books shows the failure of these kings while also showing that God continued to rule over his people.
  • Ezra, Esther, and Nehemiah show Israel’s removal from the Land after the kings failed to lead them into a close relationship with God. These books also show God’s faithfulness to his people during captivity and their return to the Land yet again.

The book of Judges divides neatly into three sections.

Introduction (Chs. 1-2)

This section reveals how the people of Israel failed to obey God completely. They failed to capture all the remaining land and drive out all the remaining Canaanites. As a result, the Canaanites would have a long-lasting effect on them, influencing them to turn away from God. Though the Israelites should have “evangelized” the people around them, point them towards God, they became “Canaanized” instead and followed other gods.

Records of the Judges (Chs. 3-16)

This lengthy section records the role that people called “judges” played throughout this period. Altogether, it mentions twelve judges, six of whom receive major attention while the other six receive minor attention. What especially stands out is that Israel’s leaders got progressively worse. Though they accomplished some difficult things, their personal character and approach became increasingly flawed.

The name for this book may be misleading. The word judge does not mean what it means to us today – a legal decision-maker who settles disputes and hands out punishments for crimes. Instead, it describes something more like a tribal chieftain or a military officer who leads people into battle and then governs and protects them afterwards.

Appendix (Chs. 17-21)

These final chapters serve as an appendix. They contain two extended episodes that show how Israel’s spiritual condition Israel had reached appalling levels. They do not necessarily occur “at the end” of this period, but they occurred sometime during this period. The same is true for the following book of Ruth, which also occurred sometime during the Judges period.

The Miserable Cycle

Nestled in the introductory section is a pattern that helps us to understand the middle section of the book. Judges 2:11-23 gives us a cycle that appears repeatedly in the absence of a godly prophet like Moses, leader like Joshua, or king.

  1. They would disobey God by serving other gods and marrying ungodly spouses.
  2. Various neighboring nations would conquer and torment them.
  3. A judge (a military leader, like a tribal chieftain) would deliver them.
  4. They would serve God (at least sort of) during the life of that judge, but then they would return to disobeying God as soon as the judge died.

This cycle reoccurs throughout the book with each judge. Furthermore, each time it repeats, it seems to get worse, making this not just a cycle, but a downward spiral into awful and deplorable conditions.

The Okay Judges

For the most part, these three primary judges who rose up one after the other to deliver and govern Israel for a time (after repeated rounds of disobedience to God) generally good people. Nothing about them is especially godly, and in some cases their situation is not ideal, but God uses them to deliver Israel from oppression.

Othniel (3a)

This man was a nephew to Caleb. He led Israel into battle and won, giving them peace for forty years. Not much else is said about him.

Ehud (3b)

Through trickery and deception, this man assassinated a foreign king. He used a concealed, homemade dagger to stab the king in the stomach as he sat on his toilet. After this gory accomplishment, he led the nation of Israel into battle with victory.

Deborah (4-5)

This lady stepped up when a man named Barak refused to do so, even though he was supposed to take the lead. The result was a glorious but bloody victory for Israel. This story also features another woman, Jael, who pounded a tent spike through the skull of a foreign general while he was sleeping in her tent.

The Other Judges

These six judges appear at various points throughout the book.

  • Shamgar bludgeoned 600 Philistines to death with an ox goad (a pole used to poke a slow-moving ox in the field) (3:31).
  • Tola governed Israel 23 years and died (10:1).
  • Jair had 30 sons who each rode on a donkey and governed their own city (10:3-5).
  • Ibzan had 30 married sons and 30 daughters (12:8-10).
  • Elon (not Musk!) governed Israel 10 years and died (12:11-12).
  • Abdon had 40 sons and 30 grandsons, each of whom rode on their own donkey (12:13-15).

Apart from these details, we know very little about these men except that they delivered and governed Israel at various times.

Judges with Character Flaws

Gideon (6-9)

At first this man responds in a cowardly, insecure way to God’s initial instructions to lead Israel into battle. He eventually obeys and leads a small army of 300 men into victory against a large company of Midianite soldiers.

After this epic battle, however, he angrily murdered some fellow Israelites for staying away from the battle. Then he made an idol from the gold he had taken in battle, which the Israelites worshipped after he died.

This story ends with a power struggle between two of Gideon’s sons. This struggle involves public speeches, political games, and senseless killing.

Jephthah (10-12)

This man resembles a mafia boss living in the rural hill country of Israel who terrorized people. In a sudden turn of events, the people recruited him to lead them in battle, which he does.

Sadly, however, he treated God like a Canaanite deity by vowing to offer his daughter as a sacrifice in return for victory. According to Judges 11:39 (and quite shockingly), he did what he had promised.

His tenure as governor later featured an internal skirmish with the tribe of Ephraim, fellow Israelites, which involved unfortunate arguments and killing.

Samson (13-16)

Of all the judges, Samson may be the most disappointing. Throughout his tenure as a leader in Israel, he showed no interest in the things of God. Instead, he used the abilities and role that God had given to him to arrogantly showcase his strength, feed his fleshly appetites (especially for women), and commit acts of random and excessive violence, destruction, and chaos. He even seemed to make things worse for Israel not better!

In the end, the enemies of Israel gouged his eyes out and made him push a grinding wheel like a donkey. In his final moments, however, he prayed to God – who in turn enabled him to break the columns of a large building. This one act killed more people (about 3,000 plus himself) than he had done in his whole life (Judg 16:30).

Disturbing Events
The book of Judges ends with an appendix that features two extended stories. These stories do not speak about the judges nor did they necessarily occur at the end of this era. Instead, they illustrate the social conditions and approach to life that was common during that time.

When you read these tragic stories, you wonder how bad things can get. If these stories were produced as a movie, it would be rated so badly (especially the second episode) that none of us would be able to watch it. They are highly disturbing, to say the least.

Idolatry in Ephraim and Violence from Dan (17-18)

This episode features a man named Micah who stole money from his mother, only to be blessed by her instead. Then he used the money to make a place of worship for his family, complete with their own personal gods. He also hired a Levitical priest to conduct his worship activities.

After all this transpired, people from the tribe of Dan came into that region and massacred the residents of the nearby city of Laish to take for themselves. (So they took land from their own people rather than from the pagan nations around them – how odd is that?)

Then they also confiscated the silver gods and the priest from Micah’s family shrine, threatening to massacre him and his family as well if they attempted to retrieve their gods.

Abuse, Violence, and Civil War (19-21)

This story features another descendant of Levi, this one having a hired wife who abandoned him. The rest of this story is too graphic to describe in passing. It involves trickery and deception, prostitution and homosexuality, unspeakable abuse and senseless civil war between Israelites.

Glimmers of Hope

Despite the deplorable conditions and events of this book, it does offer vestiges of hope.

First, as conditions deteriorated to an unspeakable extent, signs of genuine repentance and spiritual awareness began to appear. These signs include expressions of sorrow, Levitical-type sacrifices to God, and seeking guidance from God (20:18, 23, 28, 21:2-4, 15).

Second, there is the unusual but encouraging story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. Though this occurs in the book of Ruth and not in Judges, it technically serves as the third episode (along with the final two in Judges) that describes the condition of the times during that period.

Ultimately, this book teaches us a very important lesson from a difficult, dark, and twisted time in Israel’s history. It shows that the condition of God’s people deteriorates when they disregard his instruction – and this condition can deteriorate to an extreme degree.

Precursors to Chaos and Corruption

The early section of this book provides some warning signs that difficult days were ahead for the nation of Israel. The first three indicators are as follows:

Incomplete Obedience

According to Judges 1:27-2:2, the people of Israel failed to take possession of all the land God had assigned to them. As a result, the Canaanites who lived in those places would become a perpetual problem to their future generations – both by afflicting them and by influencing them to turn away from God.

Disinterest in God (or Ignorance of God)

According to Judges 2:10, the generation that followed the generation who had entered the Promised land did not “know” the LORD. This means that they did not have a close, knowledgeable relationship with God. They did not understand his character and his nature.

Ignorance of God’s Past Works

According to Judges 2:10, this third generation since Egypt had not experienced the incredible works that God had done to deliver and care for Israel in the wilderness and in their entry and conquest of the land. Sadly, God’s past works were “out of sight and out of mind” to them.

These three indicators indicate that the generation who had entered the Promised Land, though they had obeyed God for themselves, they had failed to instill their knowledge of God and his ways into the hearts of their children (cf. Deut 6:4-9ff). As a result, two more indicators followed.

Serving Other Gods

According to Judges 2:11-12, the people of Israel drifted away from serving and worshipping the LORD. They began worshipping the gods of the Canaanite nations instead. They succumbed to this negative peer pressure.

Ungodly Marriages

According to Judges 3:6, they also entered into ungodly marriages. They married unbelieving spouses who worshipped false gods and who rejected the God of Israel.

Altogether, these precursors and the many problems that followed revealed one important need for them all – they needed a king to lead them. The closing appendix to this book makes this very clear.

  • “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:6)
  • “It came to pass in those days, when there was no king in Israel.” (Judges 18:1)
  • “It came to pass in those days, when there was no king in Israel.” (Judges 19:1)
  • “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)

As we study future OT books (like Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles), we’ll discover that even the kings will disappoint us. But that’s a study for another time. It is enough to say for now that what they needed and what we all need is the one and only good and reliable king – King Jesus. Apart from wholehearted trust and allegiance to him, we are all most miserable – and when we choose to disobey him, then our spiritual condition will grow far worse than we could have imagined.


Are you obeying Jesus today? Have you believed on him as your God and Savior? Have you announced your faith through baptism? Are you going on to obey everything else that he commands as recorded in the Bible? (Matt 28:18-20)

  • Are you nurturing a close relationship with God and teaching your children and others around you to do the same?
  • Do you remember the works of God – from the OT, NT, your family history, and your own past?
  • Are you serving other gods, engaging in sexual immorality, and/or pursuing wealth, provision, security, and success through worldly means without genuinely trusting God?
  • Are you actively pursuing an ungodly marriage or marriage to a non-believer?

In whatever ways you may be manifesting the precursors to chaos and corruption, repent and turn away from those sins, and trust God by obeying what he says. He is waiting to lead you forward into victory and blessing.

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