The Book of Judges takes its name from the Hebrew word used to describe the temporary regional leaders that God would call to rescue the people when things became desperate during the anarchic era that followed the death of Joshua. Without Joshua's leadership and with the tribal groups spreading to different areas, cooperation declined among the dispersed tribes. There was a tendency to “go it alone” among the tribes, and to stray from the instructions of God, which would leave the people defenseless against invading marauders. From time to time in vulnerable regions God would raise up a leader called a shofet, “judge,” meaning one who applies justice. Two of the more illustrious of the judges were Deborah and Gideon. The Song of Deborah, preserved in chapter 5, is a brilliant example of early Hebrew poetry, composed in the ancient Canaanite style around 1200 b.c., making it one of the oldest poetic texts in the Bible. The story of Gideon from the tribe of Manasseh (chapters 6–8) reveals a lot about the tribal rivalries that dominated the period of judges and about the ambivalence the Israelites felt toward those who had kingly aspirations. At the same time, Gideon's story depicts an able military leader who put his complete trust in God rather than in the size of the army he could muster. Judges also includes the compelling account of the military hero and judge, Jephthah (chapters 10–12), whose tragic story exemplifies the sadness of this era of disunity.
Samson (chapters 13–16) is probably the best known of the judges, but he was a great failure who wasted the special gifts God had given him. In a way that is emblematic of the tribal self-interest in the era of judges, Samson constantly follows his own interests rather than those of God, or the best interests of the people. The period of the judges is one of repeated cycles of disunity: defeats and then rescue by one of the judges, followed by forgetfulness about what had earlier led to troubles, causing the same cycle to begin again. The book ends with the haunting phrase that sadly sums up this era: “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (21.25).
Problems in the New Land: Forgetfulness of God and Tribal Disunity (1.1—3.6)
Stories of the Judges, Charismatic Leaders Chosen by God (3.7—16.31)
Further Troubles with Israelite Disunity and Disorganization (17.1—21.25)