Old Testament

A Moral Chronology of the Book of Judges

The book of Judges is a book that some common Sunday school material is taken from. Samson and his feats of strength are popular. Or, Gideon and his defeat of the Midianites, after God graciously gave him confidence through the incident with the fleece. And, perhaps every 8-year-old boy’s favorite “Now Eglon was a very fat man.”(3:17) But there are many parts of the book that get sanitized or left out.
But the book, strange as it is in many ways, has as much moral value as it does historical. Indeed, when you read it, you see just how bad things had gotten in Israel. There is a cycle of apostasy from the Lord, oppression by enemies, repentance and rescue. God comes to the aid of the people again and again, but we find several times expressions such as this: “But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done?” (2:2) God calls the nation to account for their disobedience, and they incur judgment. “They abandoned the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them.” 2:13-14)

The epitaph of the book, what captures the ethos of the time, and of the people’s hearts, is the final verse: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (21:25) But this verse also raises a question about the chronology of the book, too. If one reads this as the nation was void of leadership, then we have the first several chapters of the book where judge after judge arises to indeed provide leaderhsip to the people. But I suggest that what we have in the book is not a strictly chronological order, but something different.

My reasoning is as follows:

  • Chapters 17-21 contain material historically earlier than the start of the book.
  • No judges are mentioned in 17-21.
  • There is a point in the history where judges are explicitly brought in. (2:16)

I expand on each of these. Beginning in chapter 17, we have a narrative that does not flow naturally from the end of 16, that is, chapter 16 ends with the death of Samson, but there is no transition, such as “Now after the death of Samson.” The narrative switches to something different, the story Micah, and the opportunistic Levite he hires as a priest. And we find the first pronouncement as well of, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (17:6)
Secondly, throughout these chapters, there are no judges mentioned at all. It is odd that if they flow chronologically from what came before that the reign of judges would suddenly break off with no explanation. However, if this predates the rise of judges, it does explain it. Moreover, Jonathan the son of Gershom, the son of Moses is contemporaneous with the events reported in these chapters, an almost certain indication they are from an earlier era.
Finally, we find that a logical juncture exists where chapters 17-21 could be slotted in. Judges 2:15-16 reads, “Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them for harm, as the Lord had warned, and as the Lord had sworn to them. And they were in terrible distress. Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them.” The people suffer from their rebellion, but at verse 16, “then the Lord raised up judges.” Does this mark a turning point in the history?

I would not hold to this as an absolute, but it could be that the material of the book is arranged in a crescendo-like fashion to highlight the people’s rebellion, the sad state of the nation, and the consequences of turning away from God and his covenant. There is little else in the Old Testament to equal the story in Judges 19 of the Levites concubine, and her dismemberment! This emphasizes exactly how far away the people had become from the Lord. This highlighting of iniquity—paired with the axiom of “everyone did what was right in his own eyes”—is a warning and an indictment of Israel’s spiritual condition.
I ran this suggestion by Professor Robert Chisholm of Dallas Seminary, who has written a commentary on Judges. Dr. Chisholm doesn’t agree with the entirety of what I’ve said, but he did note, “I agree—they [17-21] come from relatively early in the period. These accounts are placed at the end of the book for thematic/rhetorical reasons, not because the events occurred after Samson. They epitomize what was morally wrong during this period and why Israel needed a king—the ideal king depicted in Deut. 17:14-20 is in view, not a king like the nations (see 1 Samuel 8, 12).” (personal correspondence.)
In other words, what we find in Judges is a kind of “moral redaction” of the material.

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