The Book of Judges continues the historical narrative where Joshua ended. The author of Judges is unknown, although Jewish tradition ascribes authorship to the prophet Samuel. Samuel may have written portions of the book, but there were likely later editors that compiled it into its final form. Scholars date the final composition of Judges from some time between 700 and 1000 BC.
Judges describes the period between the initial conquests of Canaan (around 1400 BC) to the time of the first king of Israel, Saul (around 1050 BC). Thus the entire span of the book is about 350 years. During this time period, Israel consists of 12 separate tribes, all of whom experience cycles of 1) sinning against God, 2) being oppressed by various Canaanite groups, and 3) then being rescued by judges. The book mentions 12 judges, but there were likely many more.
The judges were men and women, usually military leaders, whom God used to rescue the different tribes in Israel from their Canaanite oppressors. Why is it that the Israelites were not taking all the Promised Land as they had been commanded? Why is it they were losing military battles against their enemies? Sin. The theme of the Book of Judges is the “Canaanization of Israel.” Instead of obeying God, the Israelites adopted the practices of the very people who God sent them to drive out of the land.
As we begin looking at chapter 1 in Judges, it is helpful to understand the historical context that Israel is within. The Chronological Study Bible: New King James Version summarizes the situation:
Having established at least a foothold in the land of Canaan, Israel now organized itself into a loose confederation of independent tribes. The link connecting these clans was their God. The tribes celebrated common religious festivals at the shrine where the ark of the covenant was kept. The shrine was movable, but it was most often located at Gilgal and Shiloh. The tribal confederation had military purposes as well. When an outside people invaded, the clans were to join in a holy war. Some leader would take the initiative and summon the tribes to battle. These leaders, for the most part, we call the judges. The judges led makeshift armies, but they did not have to face the forces of the major empires. Through most of the period of the judges, Egypt and the countries of Mesopotamia were weak and preoccupied with internal problems. The wars of the Book of Judges are waged against unconquered Canaanites and such small neighboring nations as Edom, Midian, and Ammon.
Verses 1-10 in chapter 1 of Judges describes the first actions of Israel after Joshua’s death. God commands the tribe of Judah to set out from Gilgal (Israel’s home base at this time) and take the land promised to them (see this map to remember where Judah was given land).
The tribe of Simeon would go along with Judah since Simeon’s allotted land was inside of Judah’s. The actual men, Judah and Simeon, had been full brothers, both having Leah as their mother and Jacob as their father.
Verses 4-10 describe successful military campaigns against Canaanites and Perizzites living in Bezek, against the city of Jerusalem, and against the “Canaanites living in the hill country, the Negev and the western foothills.” They also successfully conquered the city of Hebron.
In verses 17-21, we learn that the Judahites continued to attack additional cities: Zephath, Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ekron. In verse 19, however, we start to see the first signs of failure. The writer records that Judah was unable to drive “the people from the plains, because they had iron chariots.” We also see that the “Benjamites, however, failed to dislodge the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem; to this day the Jebusites live there with the Benjamites.”
Verses 27-36 report even more disturbing news. The other tribes had utterly failed to drive out the Canaanites living in their allotted territories. What was going on? Didn’t God promise to give the Israelites the Promised Land? Wasn’t He going ahead of them to win their military victories for them? How is it that most of the tribes of Israel were not, in fact, driving out the Canaanites? Chapter 2 gives us the answer.
In verses 1-3, the angel of the Lord (possibly God Himself) accuses the Israelites of disobedience. They had made covenants with the Canaanites and had adopted their religious, cultural, and ethical practices. Thus God would “not drive them out before you; they will be thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.”
Verses 6-23 now give the more detailed account of exactly what went wrong after Joshua died. Things started out well during the lifetimes of the elders who witnessed the miracles of the conquest under Joshua. After that generation died off, the next generation, who had not witnessed the miraculous events of the conquest, began to worship the gods of the Canaanites.
Recall that the worship of the Canaanite deities went hand in hand with all of the other immoral practices of the Canaanites: incest, bestiality, child sacrifice, etc. The Israelites were turning their backs on God and becoming “Canaanized.” God tells them that they will be trapped, ensnared by the false gods of Canaan. Daniel Block, in Judges, Ruth: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary) writes,
When the Israelites observed the prosperity of the Canaanites, the latter’s’ gods seemed to offer so much: fertility, prosperity, security. But Yahweh hereby turns their twisted theological thinking against them. Rather than finding new freedom in the religious structures of the Canaanites, the Israelites would be caught in the trap of their gods, like a fly in a spider’s web.
God was angry over their sin and handed them over to their enemies. In fact, God was actively enabling their enemies to defeat them every time they went out to battle! This is exactly what God promised He would do if Israel disobeyed.
From time to time, the people of Israel would remember God, cry out in distress, and beg Him for help against their enemies. During these periods, verses 16-19 explain that God would raise up a judge. The judge was a military leader who would rescue the Israelites from their oppressors. But as soon as the judge died, the people would revert back to worshiping the gods of Canaan. The rest of the Book of Judges records the actions of several judges that ruled over the various tribes of Israel for next few centuries.
Daniel Block concludes:
By way of reflection, from this text the reader has learned the Israelite [Yahwist] definition of apostasy. Apostasy means abandoning Yahweh in favor of other gods; it means claiming to be the people of Yahweh while acting as if one belongs to Baal. This perfidy is expressed in transgressing Yahweh’s covenant, not walking in his way, not listening to his voice, not heeding his commandments, especially his call for exclusive allegiance. Unlike the gods of the surrounding nations, Yahweh would tolerate no rivals. There is no room in Yahwistic faith for accommodation to pagan notions or customs. At the same time the reader is reminded of the patience and grace of Yahweh.
The cycle of disobedience, repentance, forgiveness, and deliverance would repeat over and over again. In fact, the tribes of Israel during this time are representative of humanity. We constantly disobey, repent, gain forgiveness and deliverance from our sins, and then disobey again. The only person who ever broke this cycle is Jesus Christ. He is the first and only human to never disobey God the Father. His sinless life broke the endless cycle recorded in the Book of Judges.