The book of Judges provides a fascinating account of the tribes of Israel in the Promised Land and their cycles of sin, captivity and repentance.
In the Hebrew Bible, Joshua and Judges were regarded as one scroll and formed the first book in the Former Prophets section. The Former Prophets also included 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings.
Introduction to Judges
The book of Judges covers the period in the history of Israel from the death of Joshua to the time of the prophet Samuel. Unfortunately, after the Israelites occupied the Promised Land, they repeatedly showed unfaithfulness to God and fell away into sin and idolatry. Not having a strong central government, they were hounded by enemies who desired to exterminate them.
At times the tribes were further weakened by civil war among themselves. It was only through God’s mercy and constant intervention that the people survived. This era is often referred to as the period of the judges.
The Lion Handbook to the Bible, edited and produced by David and Pat Alexander, summarizes the history of the tribes as they settled in Canaan:
“The human scene in Judges is a depressing one. The nation’s fortunes follow a monotonous, repetitive cycle. Israel deserts God for the heathen gods. In consequence God allows them to suffer at the hands of the Canaanites. Israel cries to God for help. God sends a deliverer. All is well until his death: then the old pattern of infidelity reasserts itself. Nowhere in Scripture is man’s essential bias to sin more graphically portrayed—a bias which shows itself even in those who know God. The wonder is God’s constant love and concern in the face of all this” (p. 219).
If only the people had demonstrated zeal to serve and obey God, they would have been richly blessed: “Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!” (Deuteronomy 5:29, emphasis added throughout). Regrettably, this utterance fell on deaf ears.
What happened after the death of their leader Joshua? “Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served the Baals; and they forsook the LORD God of their fathers. … and they followed other gods from among the gods of the people who were all around them, and they bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. They forsook the LORD and served Baal and the Ashtoreths” (Judges 2:11-13).
This rebellion resulted in occupation and plundering by their enemies. Only when they cried out to God for deliverance did He send judges to deliver them. But their change of heart was half-hearted and short-lived, as they soon reverted back to idolatry and wickedness (2:18-19).
Outline of Judges
Bible commentaries are not unanimous in the way they outline the book, but below is one possibility:
Chapter 1: Battles immediately after the death of Joshua.
Chapter 2: Summary and overview of the entire book of Judges.
Chapters 3-8:32: Chronology of successive judges, ending with the death of Gideon.
Chapters 8:33-10:5: Abimelech and his exploits, followed by Tola and Jair.
Chapters 10:6-12:15: Ammonites and the judgment of Jepthah.
Chapters 13:1-16:31: Philistine oppression and the role of Samson in judging Israel.
Chapters 17-21: General anarchy and civil war.
The Lion Handbook of the Bible lists the names of 12 judges and certain of their victories (p. 220):
- Othniel of Judah (3:9); victory over Cushan-Rishathaim.
- Ehud of Benjamin (3:15); victory over Eglon of Moab.
- Shamgar (3:31); victory over the Philistines.
- Deborah from Ephraim and Barak from Naphtali (4:4-6); victory over Jabin and Sisera.
- Gideon of Manasseh (6:11); victory over the Midianites and Amalekites.
- Tola of Issachar (10:1).
- Jair of Gilead (10:3).
- Jephthah of Gilead (11:11); victory over the Ammonites.
- Ibzan of Bethlehem (12:8).
- Elon of Zebulun (12:11).
- Abdon of Ephraim (12:13).
- Samson of Dan (15:20); victory over the Philistines.
References to Judges in the New Testament
Judges 2:16 is referred to in Acts 13:20.
Hebrews 11:32 refers to Barak, Gideon, Jephthah and Samson as men of faith. There are aspects of their lives that we may question, but they demonstrated faith in God’s power and authority.
The following helpful comment appears in The Bible Handbook by Joseph Angus: “The whole period [of the Judges] must not be regarded as an uninterrupted course of apostasy. Some of the disorders mentioned affected only parts of the country, while the rest was in a better state. The sins which incurred punishment, and the deliverances which followed repentance, are related at length; while long periods, during which the judges governed, and the people obeyed God, are described in a single verse” (p. 444).
God’s miraculous interventions are evident throughout the book of Judges. From early childhood most people in the Christian world become familiar with the personages of Gideon and Samson.
Gideon was one of the human instruments God chose to deliver the Israelites. He regarded himself as “least in my father’s house” (6:15), but God often works through people who may be regarded as insignificant. This same principle applies to New Testament Christians as well (1 Corinthians 1:26)!
In the beginning Gideon appears to have a lack of faith, but God performed a number of miracles to encourage him and bolster his faith:
- The items Gideon placed on a rock were consumed by fire that came out of the rock (6:20-21).
- God performed the well-known fleece signs (6:36-40).
- Out of an initial army of 32,000 men, God selected 300 to defeat the Midianites (7:1-7).
Samson and his Philistine lover Delilah are probably among the best-known people of the Old Testament. Popular songs and Hollywood movies have been based on their exploits, including the deceptive manner by which Delilah tricked Samson to reveal the secret of his strength.
The final dramatic episode is well-known. Samson toppled and destroyed the temple of Dagon by collapsing the two main supporting pillars, thereby killing himself and all the lords of the Philistines. He was a man of incredible strength—carrying the massive gates of Gaza many miles up mostly hilly, uphill terrain (16:3), and pushing apart the two huge stone pillars of the pagan temple.
But unfortunately he had serious personal weaknesses, including a lack of self-control and an inability to discipline his passions. Samson took lightly his God-given abilities; and as a result, he paid a terrible price.
Despite their human weaknesses, God was able to use these individuals to deliver His people. If we have the insight and humility to recognize and strive to overcome our weaknesses, God is able and willing to work through us as well. The apostle Paul recognized his own weaknesses, calling himself “a wretched man,” but realizing that upon repentance God would forgive him and use him in His service (Romans 7:24-25; 8:1-4).
Lessons for us
By studying Old Testament examples, we can learn not to repeat the same mistakes. If we are Christians, we cannot allow ourselves to let down and fall into the same errors (1 Corinthians 10:1-11).
What are some lessons we can learn from the book of Judges?
The history of the people of Israel in Judges is a sad and lamentable chronology of failure to learn from past mistakes. The book of Judges shows a continuing cycle of God’s people sinning and being unfaithful to God, being punished and crying out for deliverance. Each time God mercifully raised up a deliverer and the oppressors were defeated, giving His people rest. But within years the same old pattern was repeated, with the people inevitably being occupied and harshly ruled by their enemies.
Nations today should take careful note of what happens when people reject the teachings of the inspired Word of God, the Bible, and turn away from obedience to God’s 10 Commandments, which describe how to love God and how to love our neighbor.
God promises to bless a people who “diligently obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the LORD your God will set you high above all nations of the earth” (Deuteronomy 28:1).
Those willing to accept the teachings of the Bible and put them into practice will be blessed. As the apostle James was inspired to write: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).
The importance of right leadership
When Israel was subjected to foreign domination and servitude and cried out to God for deliverance, He selected individuals who, with God’s help, developed strong leadership skills. These individuals led them into battle and delivered them from their oppressors. While these leaders remained alive, the people flourished, but when that leader died, the people returned to their evil ways and apostasy.
The importance of right leadership in a nation cannot be ignored, especially when that leader is committed to set an example as a God-fearing person. Proverbs 29:2 states: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked man rules, the people groan.”
How often over the past years have we witnessed this principle: “When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices; and when the wicked perish, there is jubilation” (Proverbs 11:10)?
Following the way that seems right
The last verse of the book of Judges makes this statement: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Similar references can also be found in 17:6; 18:1; and 19:1.
The inevitable result of human beings “doing their own thing” apart from God’s teachings and instructions is disorder, confusion—and death. The Bible has been given as a guide to human conduct, and it should be the foundation upon which a society is built.
Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25 both make the same powerful point: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” Self-deception can lead to self-destruction. The repetition of these verses is not accidental. They are repeated to ensure that these truths are not ignored or overlooked.
From Genesis to Revelation those nations and individuals who willingly submitted to God and His commandments were eventually blessed, and those who rejected God’s revealed knowledge eventually suffered national and personal deprivation. It is a matter of cause and effect.
- “Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who delights greatly in His commandments” (Psalm 112:1).
- “Blessed is every one who fears the LORD, who walks in His ways” (Psalm 128:1).
God created us as free moral agents—He has given us the ability to choose—and He will not force us to obey Him. It is up to each individual to reject the way that is contrary to the truth revealed in the Bible, and to purposefully decide to follow what is in His Word, the Holy Bible.
A good starting place is learning more about God’s good and beneficial laws by exploring our section on the “10 Commandments.” Also see our section on “Christian Conversion” to learn more about the change that pleases God.
For a quick link to all the other books of the Bible, see “Books of the Bible” on the Learning Center.