The Gobsmacking Wisdom of the Book of Judges

When you think of the biblical book of Judges what comes to mind? Perhaps some distant memory of a dreadlocked hulk, eyes gouged out, pulling down pillars because his girlfriend never really loved him? Might there be something about human sacrifice? Or, is it the people doing what is right in their own eyes? Maybe the title conjures images of a Sunday School teacher or giddy college professor noting that, in fact, there was a female leader of early Israel—Deborah. If you really paid attention, you might recall that she even gets a song!

There is, however, much more to Judges. It narrates the whole history of God’s chosen people from the death of Joshua (Moses’s successor) to the emergence of Samuel on the Promised Land scene. In detailing this story, Judges shows itself to be a complete literary work worth seeing as a reflection of Israel’s self-understanding (and therefore, for Christians, the Church’s self-understanding). At the most basic level, then, my hope here is to demonstrate just how coherent this text is, and just how much more we ought to revisit it (and related biblical historical books).

But that’s not all! I contend that Judges is characterized by its profound lack of mendaciousness. If you wanted to write a glorious chronicle of an illustrious, saintly people, this text would be the first on the chopping block. The memories of Samson and the Levite’s concubine are not doing anyone any favors. In this sense, a proper understanding of Judges cuts against any sort of Marcionism, whether in its historical form, tweeted out vulgarizations, or even sympathetic whisperings among some academics. Its focus on death and killing have made it a favorite target of the “the Old Testament god is an evil genocidaire” crowd. To get our bearings, we should keep in mind, following Robert Louis Wilken, that Marcion (here a synecdoche):

Taught that Christianity has no relation to the Judaism from which it sprang, he rejected the Hebrew scriptures in their entirety, and he abbreviated the New Testament to conform to his teaching. He believed that the God of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with, and is superior to, the God of the Hebrew scriptures who created the world, and he believed that Jesus came to reveal an utterly new and strange God, who is of pure goodness and mercy and without wrath or judgment. Marcion claimed to have learned this message from the apostle Paul, who, he believed, was alone among the early Christian leaders in understanding the revelation in Christ.

Our modern Marcions range from the scholarly liberals to the out-and-out anti-Semites. The sheer honesty of Judges about violence stands against them. But before we get to the content of that breathtaking truthfulness, we need to explore the text’s stories.

Barak and Deborah

“Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” (Judges 1:1). So begins the book and with it the relentless slaughter for which it is so well known. The Israelites defeat the Perizzites and the king of Jerusalem Adoni-bezek; they rampage through the land tribe by tribe, taking up their inheritance. The narrator of Judges ominously reports that Manasseh, Ephraim, Zebulun, Asher, Naphtali, and Dan failed to exterminate the native inhabitants, only, in some cases, “put[ting] them to forced labor” (Judges 1:28). No more Mr. Nice Guy.

But, as tends to happen when peoples live in close proximity, the Israelites failed to keep to their old ways of life. God did not like that and so calamity ensued. For this reason, “the Lord raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them” (Judges 2:16). This simple fact must be remembered as we traverse these stories: the judges are supposed to be the best Israel has to offer; they are, in this era before the Temple, its leaders, both political and religious. They are to guarantee the maintenance of the covenant and the continued success of the tribes on the battlefield. It is too bad that almost every single one of their tenures makes the Trump presidency look like Camelot. Each is worse than the last.

Bracketing Ehud (an early judge who assassinates the king of the Moabites), Deborah is our first leader of note. She tells Barak of Naphtali to raise up a force against Sisera, the general of a Canaanite army. Unfortunately, she adds in passing, “the road you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9). Slack-jawed I am sure, Barak was wondering what the heck the point was then. Dutifully, however, he leads the army out and crushes Sisera, who then flees to the clan of Heber the Kenite, an ally of the Canaanite king. Jael, Heber’s wife, gets the ailing general a cool skin of milk and hides him in a tent under a rug. Phew. But then, just as it seems Sisera is going to escape death, Jael waits for the man to fall asleep and drives a tent peg through his temple. This is the mighty deed Deborah famously sings about!

Mighty sneaky is more like it. Though undoubtedly a victory for the Israelites and a demonstration of God’s favor, they win the war on account of a foreigner who betrays her supposed allies. A woman and a traitor? That is not the best look, biblically speaking, nor does it reflect well on Israel’s actual capacity for winning wars, a point reinforced by Deborah’s ironic complaints about the failure of several Israelite tribes to join the battle. “We almost lost because of you guys! Thank the Lord Jael ‘[m]ost blessed of women’ (Judges 5:24) showed up!” I reiterate: this is the best the twelve tribes do in the entire book of Judges—saved by a lady with a tent peg. The end of Deborah’s song of victory reveals the ubiquity of violence in those days (a point we will return to below). Gloating, she imagines the following scene:

Out of the window she peered,
the more of Sisera gazed through the
Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?
Her wisest ladies make answer,
indeed, she answers the question herself:
“Are they not finding and dividing the
A girl or two for every man;
spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera,
spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered,
two pieces of dyed work embroidered
for my neck as spoil?” (Judges 5:28-31)

Deborah relishes the thought of Sisera’s mother, head out the door, believing her son has not come home because he is weighed down by booty. And what kind of booty? “A girl or two for every man.” She means rape, rapacious and unthinkable sexual violence linked to brazen robbery and death. And Deborah enjoys this disappointment, because those are Israelite girls left un-raped and her tribes’ assets left un-pilfered. That is the reality of this landscape. That is the setting for everything that follows: conquer or be conquered.

Gideon and Jephthah

Surprise! Peace does not last. And so, it is up to Gideon of “the weakest [clan]” (Judges 6:15) in Manasseh to overcome the Midianites, who now dominate the Hebrews. The angel of the Lord tells Gideon to tear down his father’s altar to Baal (solid start!) and to sacrifice a bull on a new altar, kindled by the shredded remains of a sacred pagan pole. God has, it seems, so thoroughly abandoned Israel that Gideon tests God not once, but twice, before he is willing to march out against the combined forces of the Midianites, the Amalekites, and the Abiezrites.

Chapter 7 opens with a bang: “Then Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) and all the troops that were with him rose early and encamped besides the spring of Harod” (Judges 7:1). Whoa! Jerub-Baal? That “Baal”? The one with the evil altar Gideon had to tear down before he could go on campaign? Indeed. That Baal. The redactors of Judges try to explain this away at 6:32, reporting that he went by this name because he had destroyed that shrine; they add that the pseudonym means “Let Baal contend against him” (Judges 6:32). Problem: that is not what it actually means. As the NRSV notes at 6:32 tells us, “Jerubbaal” means precisely the opposite: “May Baal contend for (protect) him.”

Despite this attempted, erm, correction, Judges does preserve for us the most likely origin of Gideon’s new name. God grants the Israelites several great victories under their new leader, including the sacking of a city that refuses to help his troops (them’s the consequences—remember Deborah’s song). Gideon becomes so famous that the people ask that he and his heirs rule over them in perpetuity. He declines but asks each of the men for one gold earring taken as booty. With these, “Gideon made an ephod . . . and put it in his town, in Ophrah; and all Israel prostituted themselves to it there and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family” (Judges 8:27). An ephod is a garment that God commands Israelite priests to wear. Gideon is no Levite and seems to have made an idol out of it, perhaps in some bizarre blend of Hebrew tradition, local custom, and self-aggrandizing hero worship. Judges reports that it is after his death that “the Israelites relapsed and prostituted themselves with the Baals, making Baal-berith their god” (Judges 8:33).

Is it so hard to imagine that this shift was, in fact, a result of Gideon’s success, his conversion to the cult of Baal by way of victory? We cannot know. What we do know is that Jerubbaal ended up being bad news, a fact driven home when Judges tells us that his Baal-crazed son, Abimelech, slaughtered 70 of his brothers on one stone in a bid for the judgeship. The lords of Shechem swear allegiance to their new leader on a sacred pole (so much for Gideon’s tearing one of those down . . .). Soon unable to get along, a bloody civil war breaks out between the lords of Shechem and Abimelech; destruction follows until a woman drops a millstone on Gideon’s son’s head. With his last breath, he begs his armorbearer to stab him, “so [that] people will not say about me, ‘A woman killed him’” (Judges 9:54). Once again, Judges paints a picture of a world in which even Israel’s leaders are worthless. Or, if they do all right, idolatry, dissension, and endless violence follow.

Israel’s next leader is more famous: Jephthah, “the son of a prostitute” (Judges 11:1). He was from Gilead, itself east of the Jordan River and therefore somewhat peripheral to what would become the heartland of Israelite control. Nevertheless, he was “a mighty warrior” (Judges 11:1) and even carries on a fascinating exchange with the King of the Ammonites (about whether the Israelites’ viciously conquered land belongs to him, or whether the refusal of certain peoples to let the tribes pass constitutes a valid casus belli). Jephthah promises to sacrifice whoever is first to greet him when he returns from the war should he be granted victory. Alas, his daughter dances out of the gates of Mizpah to greet him, and he is forced by his vow to burn her alive.

This story suggests the continuing influence of the surrounding peoples on the Hebrews. We hear of child sacrifice before Moloch in later books, but there is no evidence that the Lord ever demanded human offerings (the Binding of Isaac being the prickly exception). So was Jephthah semi-paganized, a Jerubbaal by a new name? We do not know. What is clear, however, is that another Israelite judge turns out to be little more than bloodthirsty warlord, if, in this case, a tragic one. “Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died” (Judges 12:7). Whether from paternal sorrow or the violence of the times, this mighty warrior does not last long.


Samson needs no introduction. He is perhaps the one character from Judges that most people have heard of. For this reason, I will not deal with him at length. Most famous for his relationship with Delilah, the biblical Samson is a monster. Because he wants “a pretext to act against the Philistines” (Judges 14:4), this judge begs his parents to “get” a Philistine woman for him to marry. His duplicity aside, Samson does prepare for the nuptials. One then-contemporary wedding custom was the exchange of riddles. Samson, brute that he is, asks his wife’s foreign countrymen an impossible one. See if you can get it:

Out of the eater came something to eat.
Out of the strong came something sweet (Judges 14:14).

Give up? The problem with this riddle is that one can only know the answer if one knows that Samson killed a lion with his bare hands and then ate the honey of a group of bees who took up in the erstwhile predator’s carcass. It is an awful riddle. Samson’s wife begs him for the answer and, when she tells her countrymen, “the spirit of the Lord” (Judges 14:19) rushes on Samson, who then “went down to Ashkelon. He killed thirty men of the town, [and] took their spoils (Judges 14:19). Man, when Judges says he was “in hot anger” (Judges 14:19), it is not kidding. Hijinks ensue and Samson, in further revenge kills a thousand men with “a fresh jawbone of a donkey” (Judges 15:15).

Right before he meets his infamous girlfriend, we find Samson in “Gaza, where he saw a prostitute and went into her” (Judges 16:1). He brutishly tears off the city gates and then meets Delilah at the Wadi Sorek, soon falling for several of her tricks. This romance results in his capture and the most well-known episode from Judges—the ancient equivalent of a suicide bombing with all its attendant mass death. Though Samson is favored by God, it is hard to see his reign as much more than twenty years of wanton destruction. As we have observed, ancient life (and truly, contemporary life—more on that below) is rife with violence in any sort of warzone; this cannot be helped. But Samson wins no battles; he overthrows no kings. Samson merely kills and kills, accelerating the logic that has driven Judges thus far—things only get worse and worse. The best do not lack conviction, nor are the worst full of passionate intensity. Rather, Israel’s best bow before Baal and become the worst, good for only senseless slaughter, as William Butler Yeats would have it:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

Judges follows the massacre with an interlude, which, despite its dearth of murder, nonetheless further unfurls the narrative logic of the book. It ends with crimes worse than any before them.

Micah’s Levite and the Levite’s Concubine

Samson is the last judge we hear about. The remaining two stories, then, do not attempt to chronicle any sort of reformation or recovery under a new leader; instead, they trace Israel’s decline into savagery through tales of the people themselves, and are thus even more useful than the preceding for our purposes. By bypassing the political leadership of early Israel and giving us access to the on-ground confusion and violence during a period of war and settlement, these two pericopes encapsulate the whole book in miniature—a fitting epilogue, a fly on Norman Bates’s hand.

Chapter 17 opens with Micah the Ephraimite, who, we learn, has stolen eleven hundred pieces of silver from his mother. But don’t worry—he returns it! In joy, his mother “consecrate[s] the silver to the Lord . . . to make an idol of cast metal” (Judges 17:3). So close! Clearly the Israelites remain deeply confused about the proper way to worship God, so confused, in fact, that Micah drafts a travelling Judahite to become his Levite (which seems, at this pre-Temple stage, to be the same as a priest). Astute students of the Hebrew Bible will know that Levites are supposed to come from the tribe of Levi, hence the name. But no matter—Micah and his priest are doing their best.

Until, that is, five Danites stop by Micah’s home. Seeking a place for their tribe to settle, they consult the Levite, who blesses their mission. Nearby they find the town of Laish, where they observe that “the people who were there were living securely, after the manner of the Sidonians, quiet and unsuspecting, lacking nothing on earth and possessing wealth. Furthermore, they were far from the Sidonians and had no dealings with Aram [Syria]” (Judges 18:7). This distance from their kindred makes them easy pickings, and so the Danite scouts report to their brethren and prepare for an attack. Meanwhile, the original party steals the silver idol from Micah’s house and coerces his priest to join them, asking “Is it better for you to be priest to the house of one person, or to be priest to a tribe and clan in Israel?” (Judges 18:19). Fair enough!

And so, the whole lot marches on Laish. The slaughter that follows is not described as a noble victory (even though the Danites think God blesses it!). Rather, they “came to Laish, to a people quiet and unsuspecting, put them to the sword, and burned down the city. There was no deliverer” (Judges 18:27-28). The town then becomes known as Dan, the home of a notorious idol “as long as the house of God was at Shiloh” (Judges 18:31). The Old Testament did not look kindly on the temple at Shiloh—it clearly does not look kindly on this massacre either.

The final story in Judges is, somehow, even bloodier and more awful. A Levite—the sort of person who is supposed to be holier than the rest—and his concubine have a row and he runs after to her to her father’s house in Bethlehem. On the way home, he passes Jerusalem, but refuses to stop, as at the time, the Jebusites, foreigners, lived there. Instead, the two overnight in Gibeah of Benjamin, a bit further along the road. An old man takes them in. Later that night, Judges informs us that “the men of that city, a perverse lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door” (Judges 19:22).

Channeling the story of Lot in Sodom, these Benjaminites want to rape the Levite. Brilliant negotiator that he is, the Levite refuses, but thrusts his concubine outside as an ersatz victim: “they wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning” (Judges 19:25). At sunrise, she drags herself into the house, at which point (and note that the text does not tell us if she is dead or alive) her husband cuts her body up into twelve pieces and sends one to each tribe of Israel. The message: “avenge my concubine (who I may or may not have cravenly endangered in the first place).”

The people gather to make war, refusing, in the future, to ever marry their daughters to one from Benjamin. Battle after battle, united Israel slaughters thousands upon thousands of their kinsmen, weeping all along at having to kill their fellow Hebrews. In the end: “the Israelites turned back against the Benjaminites and put them to the sword—the city, the people, the animals, and all that remained. Also the remaining towns they set to fire” (Judges 20:48). The only time we ever see all the tribes come together in Judges is for this civil war, itself sparked by xenophobia, cowardice, and a ghastly crime. Unity springs only from burning rage.

It gets worse. The tribes realize that they cannot properly uphold the covenant if they exterminate Benjamin—but they cannot marry their daughters off to the few who remain. Rather than repent, they hold council and realize that one town, Jabesh-gilead, did not send any troops and thus did not take the oath. “So the congregation sent twelve thousand soldiers there and commanded them, ‘Go put the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead to the sword, including the women and the little ones” (Judges 21:10). Only virgin girls are left alive. They are married to the remnant of Benjamin.

Even this, alas, is not enough. There are still unmarried survivors of the civil war! The geniuses of Israel realize that there is soon to be a festival at Shiloh where the young women of the town will dance in honor of God. They send the Benjaminites there to hide in the wilderness, springing out to abduct new brides once the festivities begin. Judges ends with a hellish civil war, genocide, abduction, and the desecration of a religious ceremony (to their own god!). Good going.

We must be careful here. An easy explanation might come to mind: “well, the book ends with ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes’” (Judges 21:25). So, isn’t this just about the need for monarchy?” Not quite. The Deuteronomists, who most scholars believe redacted the older stories in Judges, are also supposed to have edited Samuel and Kings. For those who have read those books, the monarchy does not come off well; indeed, it enjoys only an exceptionally brief period of success under David and Solomon. The rest is civil war, idolatry, and the occasional invasion. The people always did what was right in their own eyes. Judges cannot be taken as some merely moralistic warning. If it is a warning at all, it seems to warn that death and destruction are ubiquitous, inescapable, and enduring, that even the best leaders fall.

In this sense, I take Judges to be narrative wisdom literature, a text, which, at heart, displays the same concern for undying evil, failure, and pain, as an Ecclesiastes, Sirach, or Proverbs, but deftly shaped into a story, a story about a people and the travails they endured as they settled a new land. For every victory attributed to God there is an altar to Baal erected by one of God’s chosen. For every fulfilled covenantal promise, there is the spirit of the Lord descending on Samson and triggering senseless violence that even the text itself refuses to praise or justify. Its tone is understated and direct; it does not pass judgment in the way Chronicles or the Gospels do. Judges tells it like it is. Violence and human life are hopelessly intertwined; death stalks around every corner; the best are laid waste and made fools. Gideon is now Jerubbaal. The virgins who dance before the Lord are naught but the glorified sex slaves of despicable, murderous men.

Ethiopia: A Postscript

The last few weeks have seen a deluge of articles about Ethiopia’s civil war. I have been following the conflict since it began, which was, at this point, about a year ago. It is not to my purposes here to explore why the Western media is suddenly interest in this conflict (though the answer to that question is fascinating). What matters now is that for many months the people of Tigray endured horrific war crimes: rapes, famine, bombings, ethnic cleansing. These things are unthinkable for us in the West, at least until we read about them in the newspaper. Then, at least, we can offer condolences and shake our heads: “how awful! How awful!” We are insulated; we relate to this manifest violence only dimly.

But the fact is that this reality has long been a fact of human experience. Just because we do not live it now does not mean that it is not normal, horribly normal. And that is what makes Judges special. It reports a history that shines none too positive a light on the people of Israel. It details mass murder not as divine theophany or righteous conquest, but as a fact—the singular period at the end of a long sentence. Invasion and settlement are dirty businesses, businesses that near every group on earth has participated in at some point in history. The Deuteronomists did not have to be so honest; they could have recast their sources as a tale of divine overcoming and victorious might. But no. They refused.

The Deuteronomists show not an unjust God or an evil people, but a God whose love is rarely, if ever, well understood or acted upon by human beings, who themselves swim in a sea of blood and injustice. They handed down something far more valuable than a fluff piece: wisdom as narrative, a reflection on the division and destruction endemic to settlement. Would that we could be so honest. Of course, we in North America have our reasons to forget such realities. Now more than ever.

Featured Image: Artemisia Gentileschi, Jael and Sisera, 1620; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Chase Padusniak

Chase Padusniak is a PhD candidate in Princeton University's Department of English, where he specializes in medieval literature. In addition to his academic pursuits, Chase spends time working on creative projects such as films, poetry, and cultivating negativity.

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