The Book of Judges begins with the death of Joshua, and is arranged in very distinct and obvious cycles: Israel prospers, forgets God and embraces idolatry, is allowed to be enslaved/captured by its neighbors until it repents, and then God raises up a charismatic military leader or “judge” who delivers Israel from captivity. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the LORD would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they would relapse and behave worse than their ancestors, following other gods, worshiping them and bowing down to them. (Judges 2:18–19, NRSV).
Sometimes all of Israel is involved, sometimes just some of the tribes. While these cycles are presented as back-to-back episodes, this is likely a literary arrangement for emphasis.
As part of the Deuteronomistic History, judges has been literarily arranged to demonstrate the veracity of the covenant force in Deuteronomy. Keep the covenant, and prosper; forget the covenant, and suffer. As in the Book of Mormon (notable for its similar cycle), this literary lesson doesn’t entirely correspond to reality. As explained by Grant Hardy,
The problem… is that life is more complicated than this. We all know of instances in which good people suffer while the evil go unpunished. And most people are neither entirely righteous nor wholly wicked. Yet because the principle of God’s justice is ultimately true, Mormon helped us out in the Book of Mormon by simplifying stories so that we can clearly see the results of good and bad behavior. Thanks to Mormon’s careful editing, there is no question as to who is righteous and who is wicked, and that the bad things that happen are truly terrible, while the good things are wondrous indeed.
Job and Psalms (among others) provide the perspective struggling with this. Psalm 73 for example, begins by expressing faith in God’s ultimate justice but somewhat bitterly compares himself to the healthy and wealthy wicked, and consequently wonders if “it was for nothing that I kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence.”
1 God is truly good to Israel, to those whose heart is pure.
2 As for me, my feet had almost strayed, my steps were nearly led off course,
3 for I envied the proud; I saw the wicked prosper.
4 Death has no pangs for them; their body is healthy.
5 They have no part in the travail of men; they are not afflicted like the rest of mankind….
8 They scoff and plan evil; from their eminence they plan wrongdoing.
9 They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth….
12 Such are the wicked; ever tranquil, they amass wealth.
13 It was for nothing that I kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence,
14 seeing that I have been constantly afflicted, that each morning brings new punishments.
15 Had I decided to say these things, I should have been false to the circle of Your disciples.
16 So I applied myself to understand this, but it seemed a hopeless task
17 till I entered God’s sanctuary and reflected on their fate. (NRSV, modified slightly in v. 3)
The Psalmist concludes that it’s hopeless trying to understand this without taking the long-term perspective, which he found by “entering the sanctuary and reflecting on their fate.”
The Bible itself, then, struggles with the lived dichotomy of believing in God’s justice and promises while recognizing that the wicked may prosper and bad things happen to good people.
What’s a judge?
“Judge” is better translated “chieftain.” While the verb it comes from does mean “to render (legal) judgment” (and some do that, like Deborah), these judges are charismatic military leaders of some or all of the tribes of Israel, not calmly robed lawyers. Not all the main characters are “judges”; some are termed “deliverers.” They are not always successful.
The Content of Judges
Judges has some really awful things in it, but has been arranged to emphasize and probably exaggerate these; it is presented as a cautionary tale about what happens when “Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” (Jdg 17:6 NIV) This is the capstone theme of the book, the final verse ending with the take-home summary, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he pleased.” (Jdg 21:25 TNK)
The obvious corollary to “aren’t things really terrible and barbaric when we don’t have a king?” is “boy we need a king, cause aren’t kings so great?” It strongly suggests that Judges (and the rest of the DH) was written in a time after kings had been established, with a strong pro-king bias. This kind of thing is not necessarily good or bad; scripture isn’t purely about religion or doctrine, but often makes sociopolitical arguments of one kind or another.
This exact kind of thing, it turns out, is the driving motivation behind the selection and shaping of events 1-2 Nephi. Written 30+ years after leaving Jerusalem, after the separation into two hostile and warring groups, Nephi writes the small plates as historical socio-politco-religious argument. They are later used successfully to counter the founding traditions of the Lamanites.
These are often swash-buckling, exciting stories, the kind of thing that might get the deacons to actually pay attention.
3:12-30 Ehud the Left-handed, who, armed with his sword strapped to the wrong side of his body, is able to infiltrate the courtroom of corpulent King Eglon (Heb. like a cow). He tricks Eglon into sending everyone else out, then “reaching with his left hand, Ehud drew the dagger from his right side and drove it into Eglon’s belly. The fat closed over the blade and the hilt went in after the blade — for he did not pull the dagger out of his belly — and the filth (a euphemism) came out.” On euphemisms and explicit language in the Bible, see this Anchor Bible Dictionary article and the Appropriate Language section of my Religious Educator article on Bible translation. For more on this story and its literary character, see the treatment by Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, here.) Thus he delivers Israel from the fat, smelly king of Moab.
4-5: Deborah and Jael (or ya’el) two women who provide decisive victory. Jael gets a song in the Bible, but we never sing about her in Church, or the tent-stake she drives through the sleeping general’s ear after being lured into her tent.
6-8: Gideon, whose story is very interesting in terms of sign-seeking and faith (particularly 6:36-40).
And of course, Samson, who seems to fight for himself more than others.
- If you like the bit about Mormon as Editor, Grant Hardy has expanded it out into a fantastic book-length examination of the literary complexity of the Book of Mormon,Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide, Oxford Press. Hardy is a professor of History and Religion at UNCA, a counselor in the Stake Presidency, and has written some other really great stuff as well, like this.
- Ruth, next week’s lesson, is set towards the end of the period of the Judges.
- Regarding “other gods” and the pride cycle, President Kimball gave a strong message in June of 1976, ” The False Gods We Worship” in which he intimated that LDS were currently at the top of the pride cycle. It’s a challenging message, even 40 years later. (It has been rerun in the Ensign, but edited.)
- Gideon is nicknamed Jerubbaal in Jdg 6:32. After he disposes of the shrine to Ba’al (pronounced bah pause all or just ball, not bale), his response to the people unhappy about this is basically “oh yeah? Then sue me.” Jerubbaal means “let ba’al sue (me).” The RB element in Jerub has to do with formal legal complaints. It is also used in what’s called the “Prophetic Lawsuit” in which prophets act as divine prosecuting attorneys, accusing Israel of violating the legal terms of their covenant with God.
- Also, since it’s sure to come up with Deborah, note that prophecy is a gift of the spirit, not an office. Nor, in the Old Testament, was prophecy associated with priesthood; priests simply ran the temple. Modern LDS tend to conflate all of these things together. Deborah’s general is named Barak, which means “lightning.” Barack (as in Obama) comes from a different root, shared between Hebrew, like in name of Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch, and Arabic, like Mubarak. This root has to do with blessing and being blessed.
- Alas, no podcast for Judges.