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The Judges as Legends of the Two Kingdoms

The Judges as Legends of the Two Kingdoms


The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have grown into twelve tribes consisting of millions of people. They escaped slavery in Egypt, wandered in the wilderness for a generation, and eventually conquered the land of Canaan to live in. The Book of Judges, as situated in the Hebrew Bible, continues the narrative of the Torah and the Book of Joshua. Having settled in the land, the Israelites now face foreign threats to their livelihood.

However, without a centralized leader like Moses or Joshua, the twelve tribes begin to sin like the Canaanites they replaced. Their external enemies are sent by their god Yhwh to punish them for their internal failures. Israel becomes trapped in a cycle: Yhwh sends enemies to punish their sins, Israel turns away from their sin to ask Yhwh for help, Yhwh sends a hero to fight off the enemies, and Israel returns to their sins after getting too comfortable with their peace. After one too many times through this routine, Yhwh holds back from sending help, and the twelve tribes slip into civil war. The story ends with one of the tribes, Benjamin, being nearly wiped out entirely.

The book is commonly divided into three primary sections: the prologue (1.1–3.6), the main history (3.7–16.31), and the epilogue (17.1–21.25). The prologue sets the stage for Israel being unprepared for Joshua’s death, and the epilogue shows the ultimate culmination of the cycle being abused by Israel and broken by Yhwh. The bulk of the narrative, the main history, follows the exploits of twelve heroes called ‘judges’. Casual students of the Bible are probably familiar with only three or four of them, usually Deborah, Gideon, and Samson.

While the Book of Judges purports to lay out the history between the post-exodus leader Joshua and the pre-monarchy leader Samuel, this has severe problems. The most basic of these is that the timeline given in Judges is one of at least three mutually exclusive chronologies given for this time period in the Hebrew Bible. Most of the stories in Judges contain notations on how long each foreign oppressor or judge had power. A little over halfway through (11.26), we are directly told that 300 years have passed since Israel settled in Canaan, which closely fits the sum of the time notations up to that point. By the end of the book, the grand total ends up being a minimum of 410 years. Yet, after all this time, Phinehas and Jonathan, the grandsons of Moses and his brother Aaron, are active participants in the book’s epilogue. These two men were at least 30 years old when the escape from Egypt happened; how are they still alive after four centuries?

Alongside those 410 years for the events of Judges, we have another several decades between the escape from the Egypt and the beginning of the Judges, and roughly another century from the end of Judges until King Solomon builds the temple in Jerusalem. In this chronology, the total passage of time from the exodus until the temple looks to be roughly six centuries, but 1 Kings 6.1 says it has only been 480 years. The two timelines cannot be reconciled. It may be noted, however, that eight of the time frames provided in Judges are perfectly round multiples of ten (Othniel judges for 40 years, Ehud judges for 80, etc.), an indication that these numbers are probably inventions of a later editor. Similarly, the 480 years from the Book of Kings was determined not by any obscure method for how much time passed since the time of Moses. The author simply multiplied 12, Israel’s special number, by 40, the common duration of a single generation: the temple was built at the appropriate ‘fullness of time’, so to speak.

Even aside from the chronology problem, there is also very little actual history in the first six books of the Bible. Genesis opens with a series of unrelated myths that were collected and placed in sequence sometime in the seventh or sixth century BCE. The stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their families contain duplicate accounts, contradictory origin stories, and several anachronisms. And, there is absolutely no external evidence in favor of Israel’s escape from Egypt (told in Exodus through Deuteronomy) or the subsequent invasion of Canaan (in the Book of Joshua). The result is that the Book of Judges has no historical foundation for its overarching narrative.

If the Book of Judges is not part of a larger history that ancient Israel actually experienced, where did the stories of these heroes come from? Similar to the preceding books, Judges appears to be a collection of originally independent stories, which came together in a non-linear way. We’ll look at the evidence for each one below, approximately in the order they joined the collection of stories.

The Assassin: Ehud

Ehud, from the tribe of Benjamin, has been chosen to bring tribute to Israel’s oppressive ruler, Eglon the king of Moab. Ehud instead hatches a plan. He is a rare left-handed man, so he hides a sword on the right side of his body. Eglon’s guards are lazy, only searching Ehud’s left side for weapons. Ehud plays his role of tribute-bearer, but at the last second claims that he has a secret message from Yhwh that Eglon must hear in private. Eglon unnecessarily dismisses all his courtiers and guards, and takes Ehud to a private room, possibly his bedroom. Ehud quickly stabs Eglon, but Eglon is so fat that the sword disappears in his gut. Eglon immediately defecates, and (it is implied) the stench keeps his courtiers away, thinking their king is in the bathroom. Their embarrassment for disrupting their master allows Ehud to slip away unseen. With Eglon dead, Ehud is able to lead Israel to kill their Moabite overlords.

Set first in the collection of heroes, the story of Ehud is a dark comedy. Our hero is a trickster figure, conveyed through a common ancient trope of him being left-handed. Eglon is given a somewhat silly name meaning ‘calf’, and he is portrayed in almost grotesque terms, hyperbolically unwise and obese. Several scholars have pointed out sexual innuendo in Ehud’s assassination of Eglon, along with his posthumous humiliation of being discovered in his own bodily waste. The narrator’s goal is to emasculate Eglon, and so also the Moabite people in general.

There are several similarities between Ehud and King David’s military commander Joab, who assassinates two men (2 Sam 3.27; 20.8–10). One of them, Joab tricks by claiming to have a private message. The other, Joab kills with a sword in his left hand, which had been hidden under his clothing. The latter victim is noted for having his intestines spill out. There are additional verbal similarities in their stories. Despite Joab more plausibly being a historical figure than Ehud, it is far more likely that Joab’s assassinations of his enemies have been written with knowledge of Ehud’s story. For Ehud, him being left-handed is integral to the plot, a necessary component of his trickster-like nature. For Joab, it is incidental, and easily missed by the reader because so little attention is drawn to it. The likely reason for this literary influence is that the author of Joab’s story perceived Ehud’s assassination in a severely negative light, despite any lack of condemnation from the Book of Judges own narrator. Joab’s actions are shown in context to be unjustified, and come back to bite him when David instructs Solomon to kill Joab for being so volatile (1 Kings 2.5–6).

The story is commonly understood now as a satire of Moabite power. While Moab is often identified as an enemy of Israel and Judah in the Bible, the relationship between these neighbors is not always so antagonistic. This has led some scholars to suspect the shape of the story as being written after the mid eighth century BCE, possibly with Moab being a redaction of an earlier, Canaanite enemy.

The Prophet and the Commander: Deborah and Barak

This story in Judges 4 is simple in itself. Yhwh raises up the prophetess Deborah to be his judge, one of few women to be political leaders in the Bible, and one of an even smaller set viewed positively. Deborah guides Israel’s military commander Barak to victory over Canaanite enemies. The opposing commander, Sisera, goes on the run. He eventually stumbles across a Kenite woman, Yael, who invites him into her tent. Yael lets Sisera fall asleep, and promptly impales his skull with a tent peg. Barak catches up, and Yael turns Sisera’s corpse over to him.

Deborah is the only so-called ‘judge’ in the literal sense of the term, in that she makes decision over civil disputes for Israel’s citizens (4.5). Barak and Sisera are described in similar ways to draw a contrast between the strength of their forces (4.10, 13). While Barak acts under Deborah’s guidance, she invokes a Tolkienien trope that the final victory will come at a woman’s hand. The reader thus expects Deborah to defeat Sisera, but Yael fulfills the prophecy, functioning as an extension of Deborah’s will. Yael’s offer to Sisera is verbally similar to Lot’s offer to his guests in Gen 19.2, but rather than inviting Sisera into her home, she invites him to come ‘in me’, implying to the reader that she is deliberately seducing him.

Perhaps the oldest text in the entire Hebrew Bible is the poem found in Judges 5, which reiterates the entire story from the previous chapter. Here, as in some of the other most ancient parts of the Bible, Yhwh emerges from Edom (5.4). The song alludes to an alliance of tribes of ‘Israel’: Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir, Zebulun, Issachar, Reuben, Gilead, Dan, Asher, and Naphtali (5.14–18). There are only ten tribes named, not twelve, and two of them are not part of the common listings elsewhere in the Bible. Details like these suggest the song was written long before some of the Bible’s most traditional ideas about Israelite identity came to be. There are also a handful of notable differences between this poem and the prose version in chapter 4. Deborah and Barak are from Issachar (5.15) rather than Ephraim or Naphtali (4.5–6). Sisera is a king (5.19–20) rather than the military commander under the king (4.2). Yael kills Sisera while he stands awake (5.26–27) rather than when he lays asleep (4.21).

While the prose version in chapter 4 may have been based on the poetic version in chapter 5, some of the differences—both larger and smaller ones—may instead be explained by them being divergences from a common folktale, though with the poem being much older than the prose. As with many such passages in the Hebrew Bible, this individual story grew in layers of editing. The earliest form concerned a local warrior named Barak, whose victory in battle was embellished with legendary elements, such as the prophetess who declared his victory in advance, and the woman who lands the fatal blow against Barak’s enemy. At some point between the poetic and prose versions, the royal figure Sisera was demoted to be the servant of King Jabin of Hazor (who was also used in Joshua 11.1, despite being set decades earlier).

The Iconoclast and the King: Gideon and Abimelech

Gideon is a timid man who, when chosen by Yhwh, bravely rescues Israel from Midianite oppressors. He also puts a halt to worship of Baal (the Bible’s usual name for Hadad, a rival deity of Yhwh). Gideon even takes on the name ‘Jerubbaal’, explained to mean ‘Let Baal contend against him’, an insult that a god has been hindered by a human. By the time Gideon dies, he has fathered seventy sons with his wives, as well as (at least) one son from a concubine. This latter son, Abimelech, ambitiously desires to become Israel’s ruler. He hires ‘worthless and reckless fellows’ to help slaughter the seventy brothers. Only the youngest, Jotham, survives, and he rebukes the Israelites when they make Abimelech king. After a short time, Yhwh sends an ‘evil spirit’, which causes the people to fight against Abimelech. Just when Abimelech seems about to triumph over his rebellious subjects, he is fatally wounded by a woman. Refusing to die at a woman’s hand, Abimelech commits suicide.

It is generally agreed that the stories of Gideon and Abimelech originated separately, and that Gideon and Jerubbaal were different ancestral folk heroes. Gideon’s story has built up several layers, and the probable oldest section is the most fantastical, in which Gideon insists God prove his divine favor by miraculously causing a fleece to be wet overnight, then dry surrounded by wet ground the next night. The passage refers to Gideon’s god only as ‘Elohim’, where the rest of the narrative calls the god ‘Yhwh’. The rest of Gideon’s story contains vocabulary typical of the Deuteronomists, the editors who organized the larger biblical narrative in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. The divine call of Gideon in Judges closely borrows from Moses’ commission by Yhwh in Exodus—some unique phrases in the Hebrew Bible, the unique situation that their call is delivered by the Messenger of Yhwh, and both are told by Yhwh ‘I will be with you’ after resisting the call—setting Gideon up to be a successor to Moses.

Gideon is awkwardly, but forcefully, identified with Jerubbaal, whose name actually means something like ‘May Baal greatly provide’ or ‘May Baal show himself to be great’. Revisionist interpretations of names honoring Baal are easy to find when comparing Samuel-Kings against Chronicles. The latter text, despite borrowing extensively from the former two, reveals that both King Saul and King David had sons with names honoring Baal: Ishbaal, Meribbaal, Mippibaal, and Baaliada. These names were changed (inconsistently) by redactors of Samuel-Kings, in reflection of emergent anti-Baal sentiment in postexilic Judah. Being a villain in Israel’s history, Saul’s sons were changed to Ishbosheth and Mephibosheth, where ‘Baal’ was replaced by a word meaning ‘shame’. In contrast, the name of the son of David was changed to Eliada, with ‘Baal’ replaced by ‘El’, one of the names for Yhwh. The thought process behind the editors allowing Gideon to keep the name ‘Jerubbaal’ was probably due to Gideon’s fight against Baal worship being so integral to his story. Instead of changing the pro-Baal name directly, they invented an etymology that made it anti-Baal. (There is also a less popular theory that Jerubbaal was the character’s original name, and Gideon, meaning ‘hacker’ or ‘hewer’, was invented to suppress his connection to Baal worship.)

Regardless of later attempts to maintain Gideon within ‘orthodox’ Judean religion, elements of his story feed into warnings against kingship that continue through Abimelech’s tale. Although Gideon is compared to royalty (8.18), he properly refuses to be appointed as king over Israel. However, he then crafts an idol out of gold for the people to worship, reflecting not just the golden calf episode in Exodus, but also the actions of King Jeroboam I. Several elements in Abimelech’s story allude to King Saul, the Omride kings, and King Jehu. Like Jehu, Abimelech kills seventy rivals to the throne (2 Kings 10.7). Like Jeroboam I, he hires ‘worthless men’ to help him seize power (2 Chr 13.7). Like Saul, Abimelech is antagonized by an ‘evil spirit’ from Yhwh (1 Sam 16.14), and he later kills himself on his armor-bearer’s sword after being fatally wounded (1 Sam 31.3–4). He makes his capital in Shechem, which was the first capital of northern Israel. Abimelech’s name even means ‘my father is king’, suggestive that the man required a fabricated lineage to justify his rule.

It would be easy to misread the stories of Gideon and Abimelech as anti-monarchist in general. The narrator repeatedly informs the reader in the following chapters that because there was no king in Israel yet, Israel fell more and more into sin (17.6; 18.1; 19.1; 21.25). But, all of the allusions to kings in Gideon’s and Abimelech’s stories are to kings who ruled Israel in the north, rather than Judah in the south. The exception is Saul, who ruled all twelve tribes prior to the division of Israel and Judah as separate kingdoms. Even still, Saul is immensely villified in the Book of Samuel, justifying his replacement by David, whose descendants ruled the southern kingdom. In this sense, Saul is portrayed as the ruler of a sort of ‘proto-north’ kingdom. The anti-north message that permeates the stories of Gideon and Abimelech is also found in the Book of Judges’ epilogue. Of the epilogue’s two main stories, the primary antagonist in one of them is the tribe of Benjamin, specifically the Benjaminites from the town of Gibeah. Saul was a Benjaminite from Gibeah. (In the other story, the primary antagonist is the tribe of Dan, likely as a polemic against a Danite shrine rivaling Jerusalem’s.) Trimming out the anti-north elements may suggest an older version of Abimelech’s story is detectable underneath Judges 9.26–41, 46–49, 50–52.

All of this means that although Gideon, Jerubbaal, and Abimelech were probably existing folk heroes, they have been thoroughly editorialized. They now exist as polemic against the usurper kings of northern Israel. Because of the allusions to a series of northern kings, the present shape of the stories must have been written after the northern kingdom was conquered by Assyria in 722 BCE. However, because the text has been edited with knowledge of the now-familiar biblical version of the exodus foundation myth (e.g. 6.7–10), and because a rivalry between northern and southern authority continued well into the fifth century BCE (e.g. the condemnation of Sanballat in the Book of Nehemiah), it is difficult to say when in particular Judges 6–9 actually took its present shape.

The Outlaw: Jephthah

When Gilead fathered a son with a prostitute, the son, Jephthah, is made into an outcast by Gilead’s other sons. Jephthah flees to the ‘land of Tob’ (literally ‘the Good Land’), where he becomes an outlaw, raiding for a living. His reputation spreads. When the Ammonites attack Israel, the Gileadites recruit Jephthah to fight on their behalf. Jephthah points out his prior mistreatment, and the Gileadites acquiesce to make him their leader. Jephthah shows himself to be a skilled diplomat, first trying to talk Ammon’s king out of going to war, who tries to justify his incursion by pointing to Israel’s past invasion of Canaan. When Jephthah realizes Ammon will not back down, he makes a vow to Yhwh that, if Yhwh grants him victory in the war, Jephthah will burn as a sacrificial offering the first living thing to walk out his front door when he returns home. Jephthah succeeds, and is greeted by his daughter. He grants her a short time to mourn her death, then follows through with his promise. Afterward, Jephthah repels an attack from men of Ephraim. When the Ephraimites are scattered and try to seek refuge, they are caught because of their regional dialect.

There is ambiguity in the story, whether Gilead was the name of a man, a city, or a region. Parts of the narration present Gilead no different than Ephraim or Manasseh, suggesting it was one of the ‘tribes of Israel’, similar to what we saw in Judges 5. The central point of contention in Jephthah’s story is the sacrifice of his daughter. Because the narrator offers no criticism of the act, some interpreters claim he ‘sacrificed’ his daughter by giving her over to a temple. When she mourns her virginity (11.37), it is because her temple service required her ritual purity, forbidding sex and thus no children to continue her lineage. But there is no mention of temple or priesthood, nor indentured religious servitude of any kind. What the text does say is that Jephthah’s daughter insisted, ‘if you have opened your mouth to Yhwh, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth’ (11.36). Jephthah ‘made a vow’ to give Yhwh ‘a burnt-offering’ of whatever he saw exit his home (11.31). It is explicitly stated that he then did ‘according to the vow he had made’ (11.39).

Jephthah’s vow resembles a formula similar to other narratives (Gen 28.20; Num 21.1–3), and both his and his daughter’s insistence that he must do exactly what he promised Yhwh is in line with the Torah’s law on vows (Deut 23.21–23). While human sacrifice is undoubtedly condemned in parts of the Hebrew Bible, scholars detect older layers of biblical texts which suggest human sacrifice was once a normal (if rare) part of ritual life in Israel and Judah (e.g. Micah 6.1–8; Ezek 20.25–26; Exo 13.1–2, 11–15; 1 Kings 16.34). In my opinion, objections to the concept that Jephthah burned his daughter as a sacrifice to Yhwh are rooted in the reader’s moral discomfort with such an act, rather than anything the text says on the issue. The original storyteller may not have shared this discomfort. Perhaps he saw it as evil, or perhaps as an unfortunate but understandable part of his world. He never tells us.

The king of Ammon outlines the events of Israel wandering in the wilderness after their escape from Egypt, showing the scribe here was intimately familiar with the written narrative in the Torah. The suddenly overt dependence on another text tradition here has led to suggestions of, once again, multiple layers of editing. The earlier written form of Jephthah’s story probably lacked verses 11.14–27, with only a brief reference to northern traditions of an escape from Egyptian power (11.13). These textual changes point to the early edition coming from Israel before the mid eighth century BCE, with an expanded version taking shape in the sixth or fifth century BCE.

The Nazirite: Samson

The story of Samson is by far the most legendary in form. It is the longest of the episodes in the Book of Judges, and relies on traditional ancient hero fantasy tropes the most. Samson has a miraculous birth, born to an infertile woman after a visit from the Messenger of Yhwh. Even before he is born, the Messenger commands his mother to force him into a Nazirite lifestyle: he is forbidden from drinking alcohol, physical contact with the dead, and cutting his hair. His hair functions as his ‘life token’, a hero’s magic object which grants him protection and power, but brings ruin when destroyed. (Compare to Achilles and his heel.) So long as Samson does not cut his hair, he is imbued with terrifying strength. Despite his long hair being attributed to his involuntary Nazirite vow, he violates the other parts of his vow regularly, such as when he scoops honey from a dead lion’s body to eat. Samson’s temper and strength throw him into murderous rages, but he is also shown to be clever, such as when he carefully ties torches to foxes’ tails, leading to them burning down the crops of his enemies. His womanizing brings him trouble multiple times, causing him to finally be blinded and captured. After months or years of humiliating imprisonment, he dies in the moment of his vengeance, pulling the building down on himself and his captors.

While the above judges are derived from local folk hero traditions to varying degrees, Samson shows hints that his earliest version evolved directly from mythology. His name Shimshon, ‘little sun’ or ‘sunny’, is derived from the Semitic sun god Shamash, and his story takes places in the vicinity of Beth-Shemesh, ‘House of Shamash’. Like Samson, the sun/Shamash is portrayed as a ‘strong man’ (Psa 19.4c–5), and fire is a recurring plot device in his story. The city gateposts that Samson tears from the ground and carries up a hill have no bearing on the story, but may come from the gateposts of heaven’s doorway, which Shamash emerges from. Samson owes his downfall to Delilah, a woman whose name probably comes from the word layla, meaning ‘night’. The sun’s beams are even portrayed as hair in ancient iconography, and Samson loses his superhuman strength when Delilah shaves his head. Other than Samson’s name, his parallels with Shamash stand at a distance, but are too numerous to be coincidental. Some scholars debate whether an earlier version of the story had a god impregnate Samson’s mother, granting him divine parentage similar to his demigod peers. Might his father have been Shamash in the original tale?

Against the derivation from ancient mythology, the enemies in the story are the historical Philistines. Evidence points to this tribe being one of the Sea Peoples, Aegean communities that traveled over the Mediterranean Sea into the Near East. Archaeological finds reveal the Philistines closely resembled Mycenaean culture of the twelfth and eleventh centuries BCE. The Philistines were depicted in artwork as clean-shaven, which adds a dimension of forced cultural assimilation to Samson being shaved, compelled to resemble the enemies who capture him. While the Philistines are portrayed in the Hebrew Bible as Israel’s enemies primarily in the days of the judges and the early kings, it was not always a hostile relationship. Philistines are not included in any of the conquest orders from Yhwh (e.g. Exo 3.8; Deut 7.1; Josh 3.10), and are said to have allied with the Israelites from time to time (1 Sam 13.19–21; 27; 2 Sam 15.18). Their presence in the region continued past the sixth century BCE. The portrayal of Samson as a riddle-teller may have come from Philistine cultural influence on the tale; Samson literally beats the Philistines at their own game.

Samson is the last hero tale before the epilogue, and is far more detailed than any of the others. The apparent Philistine influence has led to suspicion that Samson may be derived from Greek myths about Herakles, imported by the Sea Peoples. However, the similarities between the two heroes are quite broad. They share an equal amount of characteristics with other mythical figures, like the Sumerian hero Gilgamesh (whose chief ally among the gods was, in fact, Shamash). This makes Samson’s time of origin difficult to pin down, leading to scholars grasping at small details. Might his eyes being gouged out allude to the sort of punishment used by Assyria and Babylon in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE (e.g. 2 Kings 25.7)? The explanation may be simpler. The Philistines were historically located to the southwest, between Judah and the Mediterranean Sea, which colors Samson as more of a southern folk hero than a northern one. This points to him having been added a long time after the folktale collection had been in circulation for quite some time.

Othniel, Shamgar, and the Minor Judges

While the earlier folk heroes’ stories were passed around orally for a century or more, they were gathered together in written form perhaps in the early eighth century BCE, by a scribe belonging to the northern kingdom of Israel. King Jeroboam II has been identified by some scholars as pushing for a unified identity for Israel through written texts (comparable to how King Josiah is often thought to have done the same for Judah). This ‘book of saviors’ may have been part of that effort. The collection, comprising parts of Judges 3–8 (and maybe also chapter 9), made its way to the southern kingdom of Judah sometime after Israel was conquered in 722 BCE. The southern hero Samson was appended, and in the hands of Judean scribes the book was edited, interpolated, and expanded. Despite the original cast of characters hailing from the north, their stories were given an anti-north slant to varying degrees.

The previous champions were fairly localized in specific parts of Israel, leaving some areas unprotected. New characters appear—which we call the ‘minor judges’ due to the brevity of their stories—Tola and Jair (10.1–5), and Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon (12.8–15). Just enough information is narrated to place them in the unrepresented regions of Israel. The language in these interpolated sections is reminiscent of the Deuteronomistic school, so their introduction happened in the sixth or fifth century BCE, but it is possible they were based on existing northern traditions.

The poem in chapter 5 contains an orphaned reference to a man named ‘Shamgar son of Anath’. Anath is the name of a Semitic goddess of war and hunting. This indicates that Shamgar was not a later invention of Judean scribes, who pressured for Yhwh-only worship. Shamgar was noted for being a contemporary of Yael, so a scribe crafted a short account for Shamgar, inserting it between Ehud and Deborah (3.31). Like Samson, Shamgar slays hundreds of enemies with an animal’s jawbone. Perhaps the scribe noticed the shared etymology between the two men’s names, since Shamgar derives from Shimige, the Hurrian cognate to Shamash. His mention in Judges 5 associates him with the region of Israel, but the short account in Judges 3 implies a Judean residence, since, like Samson, he battles the Philistines to the southwest. And though Shamgar’s insertion between Ehud and Deborah is a reasonable placement, the scribe forgot to correct the very next sentence, which says that Israel fell into sin again after Ehud died. Shouldn’t Shamgar still be alive to prevent that, since the scribe’s entire goal here was to show how Shamgar was active when Yael was alive in the following chapter?

Editions were made throughout the book to make the episodes more formulaic, part of an ongoing cycle of punishment and rescue. With the eventual introduction of the prologue and epilogue chapters to place the now-emerging Book of Judges into a larger history, and the number of champions now at eleven (skipping Barak or counting him with Deborah, and skipping Abimelech), one more hero is needed to reach the special number ‘twelve’. A scribe notices a man named Othniel, briefly mentioned in 1.13 for a minor heroic deed. (The narration is nearly identical to Josh 15.15–19, where Othniel performs his deed before Joshua dies, rather than after, as in Judges.) From this, the scribe invents a new story for Othniel as the first judge, placing him before Ehud. His story in Judges 3 is a single paragraph: Israel worships other gods, Yhwh sends an enemy against Israel in anger, Israel asks for help, Yhwh sends Othniel to be ‘judge’ over Israel and to stop the enemy, and he succeeds. The antagonist in Judges 3 is presented as an almost cartoonish villain. He comes from ‘Aram’ of the far-off ‘Naharaim’ (land ‘of the two rivers’, some mysterious place in Mesopotamia). His name, Cushan-rishathaim, is assonant with the name of his homeland, but it literally means ‘Extra-evil Cushan’. Othniel’s story may not be as truncated as the five minor judges, but his episode has none of the storytelling ambition of the major judges. It is pithy and flat, telling only what is necessary to establish a narrative cycle for all the other judges’ episodes to follow.


While a few of the general outlines of their stories may be older by a century or three, told and retold long before being written down, the literary process for what became the biblical Book of Judges began in the first half of the eighth century BCE at the earliest. These local heroes, through juxtaposition alongside each other, were transformed into Israel’s national heroes. The conflicts they dealt with may reflect embellished or fabricated memories of border disputes in the distant past.

While Judges was placed chronologically after Joshua, the two books represent very different ideas for how Israel came to dwell in the land of Canaan. The Book of Joshua, broadly, shows the Israelite invasion as a resounding success. But the Book of Judges, with later parts in Joshua, instead has Israel plagued by perpetual external threats from the native population, so that the Israelite settlement happens much more slowly and unevenly. For example, Joshua 19.40–49 describes the territory distributed to the tribe of Dan by Joshua. Yet nearly four centuries later, Judges 18.1 explicitly says that even after all this time, Dan never received any land. This is in addition to the previously mentioned chronological problems Judges imposes onto the larger biblical narrative.

The book only began to resemble its canonical shape in the late sixth or early fifth century BCE, though some additional changes may have taken place in the fourth century or later. The oldest stories originated independently of one another, rising up in the northern kingdom as local folk tales and legends about pre-monarchic champions. An early collection of these saviors traveled south to Judah after Israel fell in 722 BCE. Alongside other northern traditions—such as Israel throwing off Egyptian rule, and a namesake ancestor known for his deceit and trickery—the collection was eventually assimilated into an ongoing effort to create a foundation myth for the Judean people amid their own social decline and eventual conquest by Babylon. This was the lasting work of the Deuteronomistic school of theology.


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E. Theodore Mullen, Jr., ‘The “Minor Judges”: Some Literary and Historical Considerations’, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 44.2 (1982).

Elie Assis, ‘“The Hand of a Woman”: Deborah and Yael (Judges 4)’, The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 5.19 (2005).

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Mark S. Smith & Elizabeth Bloch-Smith, Judges 1: A Commentary on Judges 1:1–10:5 (2021).

Michael P. O’Connor, ‘The Women in the Book of Judges’, Hebrew Annual Review 10 (1986).

Philippe Guillaume, Waiting for Josiah: The Judges (2004).

Robert D. Miller, ‘History, Folklore, and Myth in the Book of Judges’, Melita Theologica 96.2 (2019).

Robert G. Boling, Judges: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (1975).

Samuel R. Driver, ‘The Origin and Structure of the Book of Judges’, The Jewish Quarterly Review 1.3 (1889).

Stuart J. Foster, ‘Judges 14:4—Yahweh Uses Samson to Provoke the Philistines’, Old Testament Essays 25.2 (2012).

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  1. Anonymous23.11.22

    What would you say about the archaeology of ancient Israel and Judah? Specifically I’m referring to events like the conquest and United Monarchy because those are some of the most hotly debated topics in biblical scholarship and archaeology today. Do you think, for example, that there ever was a United Monarchy or was it always just two separate kingdoms that evolved over the centuries?

    1. In textual terms, I think there is very little authentic history for us to find in the biblical narrative prior to the monarchic period. Gen 1–11 are entirely mythological. The rest of Genesis contains folktales about ancestors that may never have existed. The exodus and conquest narrative are a foundation myth justifying the concept of a union of twelve tribes as 'Israel' (comparable to the Aeneid); there is no archaeological evidence for either the exodus or the conquest. The exodus story may have been based on a distant social memory of multiple unrelated historical events, while the conquest narrative was a necessary addition to explain how known communities in Israel and Judah came from the slaves who escaped Egypt. Judges (per this article) is largely invented, with small pieces of stories maybe reflecting territorial conflicts between Israelites and Judeans with their neighbors. Samuel and Kings, I think, marks the slow literary transition from folklore and legend into what we might call 'history', though it is still heavily embellished for reasons of political propaganda.

      What I think may be a plausible reconstruction of events is this: The collapse of the late Bronze Age, and the invasion of the Sea Peoples (including the Philistines), led to largescale social unrest in the Levant. For the sake of survival, especially against external threats, a federation of Canaanite tribes formed. Ancestral relationships between these tribes were fabricated to strengthen community ties. Military leadership probably transformed into claims of royalty. From here... (1) Maybe this became an internal conflict over which commander should be king (i.e. Saul versus David), and maybe the winner's favoritism toward his own tribe (David's dynasty favoring Judah) soon led to another internal conflict, which resulted in a third faction establishing another throne (i.e. the northern kingdom). Or... (2) Maybe there was simply more than one federation of tribes that formed during the late Bronze Age collapse, and two of them coalesced into separate kingdoms around the same time. The invention of their ancestral connection happened much later, then, after the northern kingdom fell and refugees brought their traditions to the southern kingdom. I could honestly see something like either (1) or (2) being what happened, but I'm not sure we have enough information to know for sure.

  2. Anonymous23.11.22

    Yeah I agree. But, in my opinion, I probably wouldn’t say there’s NO evidence for the conquest since archaeologists over the last 100 years or so have found evidence of archaeological sites like Hazor that correlate very well with the biblical account and even an altar at Mount Ebal. Also, sites like Ai, Lachish, and Jericho have also been brought into consideration, although Jericho is disputed because of the work of Kathleen Kenyon in the 1950s.

    1. Many, if not all (i'm not sure), of the sites mentioned in the Bible really existed. The problem is that most of them were not destroyed, were destroyed at a different moment in history or were not occupied when the Bible describes they were. It's not my field, but, judging by the survey of the data provided in "Has archaeology buried the bible?" by William Dever recently, there is no longer a debate whether there was a conquest.