When is a Judge not a judge? Answer: in Israel 3,000 years ago.

‘Judges’ is a questionable translation and a misnomer. There is no indication that these ‘judges’ ever ‘judged’ anyone (except for Deborah, Judg 4:5). The Hebrew verb shaphat, from which comes shophet, translated ‘judge’, affords a broad understanding, including discrimination, vindication, even deliverance, with evidence that in Canaanite and Israelite usage it may refer to the one who upheld the customs of the people. That might well cover deliverance from anyone who took advantage of others, especially those unable to fight for themselves, and would naturally include defending the people from surrounding neighbours and marauding tribes. ‘Ruler’ or ‘Governor’ may be more appropriate. Most of ‘the judges’ fulfil that role.

Whereas Joshua is the story of the occupation, Judges is the story of settlement and defence. Judges covers events in Israel from the death of Joshua to just before the arrival of Samuel and the beginning of kingship. The focus here is on conquest, Yahweh raises up leaders who renew Israel’s faith in him, thus ensuring success in battle. Lack of faith results in lost battles.

Heroes are both men and women and stories are often highly ironic. For example, there is an intriguing story about the murder of the Moabite King Eglon by a Benjaminite named Ehud in Judges 3 which functions as a biting satire of a foreign king. Similarly, the stories of Jael and Deborah portray strong women who use femininity and trickery as a weapon of war ironically subverting notions of female vulnerability during periods of war. In contrast, the poignant story of Jepthah who vows that if the battle is won, whatever comes out of his house first to meet him will be given as a burnt offering ends ironically with his daughter being the first to come out.

The stories about Samson (chapters 13-16) are rather different, since though he fights the Philistines he does not effectively defend Israel against them, and seems largely to act on his own account. Here again, Delilah, the women of the story is featured prominently, luring Samson into a false sense of trust in order to defeat him and hand him over to the Philistines.

The last section of the book, chapters 17-21, is different again. These two stories have a dark and terrible tone, and their theme seems to be expressed in the refrain, ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what they saw as right.’ This prepares the way for the establishment of monarchy in 1 Samuel. Women are suddenly no longer heroic in this part of the narrative, but are portrayed as vulnerable, voiceless, and nameless. Nevertheless, men are also virtually nameless and anonymity features prominently in these distressing narratives.

Date and authorship

Precise dating of the form in which we have these stories is not possible but the period of Judges may be said, according to the internal narrative of the text to reflect events somewhere between 1200 and 1000 BCE. Collections of material and editors in the kingdom of Israel in North Palestine may date from as early as the 9th century but sections of the material can also be dated much later. For example, for Judg 21 scholars are divided between dates as early as the 12th century to as late as the Hellenistic period (with the consensus being between the exilic and post-exilic period). Sources may include poems, stories and ballads, possibly sung by musicians at a sanctuary, and over many years no doubt subjected to variations in detail, embellishment and interpretation according to time and circumstance.

One possibility is that a compiler pulled the stories together, added a few links and ascribed dates, possibly when the six minor characters were added to the original four, perhaps to ensure that each of the northern tribes had a presence. A widespread and credible view is that the text has many layers and the form in which we now have it dates mostly from around the 6th century. At this point Othniel (3:7-11) was added to give the tribe of Judah also a ‘judge’, and the book, or at least chapters 3-16, was given a theological interpretation (2:6–3:6 and verses surrounding the stories—see ‘Interpretation’), following the ideas of Deuteronomy. Probably the last major addition to the book, though it is likely to use some earlier traditions, was 1:1–2:5, which is intended to show how the tribes were unfaithful to Moses’ instructions to drive out the Canaanites.


With so little knowledge of its origins and development any interpretation based on historical fact is difficult if not impossible. Disparate traditions appear to have come together to form a narrative about how Israel emerged and to provide the group with a sense of historical authenticity, continuity, and identity.

The theology of the book, however, or at least chapters 3-16, is clear. Beginning with the death of Joshua chapter 2 sets the scene, marking a watershed between the old and the new. Under Joshua things were going well. With the death of Joshua and increasing Canaanite influences Israel strayed from the path, and when things went wrong and life was tough the threats and disasters are attributed to unfaithfulness to Yahweh who from time to time raised up a distinctive leader to inspire them to return to him. Success in battle produced temporary rewards, but then Israel would go astray again, and the cycle of sin, retribution, and deliverance would begin anew. There is a nationalistic sense of Israel’s military success being attributed to Yahweh yet at the same time, towards the final chapters, there is also a yearning for a king. This is expressed through the recurrent refrain ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes’.

Theologically, underlying Judges is a tension between divine mercy ‘moved to intervention by Israel’s plight’ and divine justice required as a consequence of disobedience.

Reception history

Mayes notes that in the Jewish tradition only Deborah and Hannah among women ‘received significant notice’, both ‘commemorated for having composed praises to God far surpassing those written by men’.

In the early church, the ‘judges’ are interpreted as ‘deliverers’, ‘types of Christ, our true deliverer from the bondage of sin’.

Twentieth century biblical scholarship saw Judges as a reflection of later prophetic teaching (apostasy brings the wrath of God to his people and disaster to their enemies). Attempts to claim it as history and to relate the details closely to the conquest of the land, initiated by an age of archaeological discoveries, soon ran out of steam due to the uncertainty or insufficiency of archaeological evidence.

By the end of the century there was an ever-increasing variety of readings. Susan Niditch, for example, suggests a liberation perspective, demonstrating how a change of language can open the door to a different interpretation. Phyllis Trible (Texts of Terror), with a feminist perspective, throws fresh light on Judg 11:29-40 with Jephthah’s daughter (‘An Inhuman Sacrifice‘) set in a society ‘free from the power of a centralised government and yet subject to threats of anarchy and extinction’, raising issues of ‘public and private events interlocked to yield a saga of faithlessness, death and mourning’, and Jan Fokkelman (Reading Biblical Narrative), on Judg 19, suggests paying more attention to how the Levite’s concubine (Judg 19) has been characterised on ‘this perhaps blackest page in the Bible’.

Further reading

Mayes, A. D. H. Pages 371-73 in A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation. Edited by R. J. Coggins and J. L. Houlden. London: SCM Press, 1990.
Mayes, A. D. H. Judges. Old Testament Guides. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1985.
Miller, J. Maxwell, and John H. Hayes. A History of Ancient Israel and Judah. London: SCM Press, 2012.
Niditch, Susan. Judges: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2008.
Webb, Barry G. The Book of Judges: an Integrated Reading. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1987.

Other works referred to

Fokkelman, Jan. Reading Biblical Narrative: An Introductory Guide. Leiden: Deo; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1999.
Schmeling, G. R. “The Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament.” www.bible-researcher.com (July 2016).
Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.