Judges

Israelite history between the Exodus and the crowning of the first king Saul is the period of the Judges. Strictly speaking, the leaders of Israel during this time are better described in modern language as "champions" or "heroes", and they are not altogether different from the heroes and heroines praised in the poems and myths of ancient Greece.

These "judges" are the charismatic generals and prophets who fought battles and won territory for specific tribes of Israel around the 12th and 13th centuries b.c.e. Each of their tenures was limited in territory and short in duration.

The book of Judges in the Jewish scriptures is a collection of tales about 12 specific judges. The fact that there are 12 suggests an editorial design perhaps in keeping with the book’s emphasis on the 12 tribes of Israel.

The date for the compilation of these tales was certainly generations after the events, for the words, "for there were no kings in the land", recur often in the book. However, some of the poetry of the book probably is ancient, possibly going back to the time of the event.


Most of the tales conform to a rough pattern of storytelling; that is, they suggest that whenever the tribes fall away from their covenant with the deity, they are punished with division and invasion. The editorial position is that when Moses and Joshua first brought the tribes into Canaan, they were relatively secure, unified, and successful.

However, the tribes soon got bogged down in their bid to conquer the land, and the Israelites slid into accommodation with the native Canaanites. The results were that homes and farms were raided, and certain tribes were evicted from their land. When retribution was complete, a general or prophet brought the tribes back into security, unity, and success.

The judge Deborah’s example shows that authority was not limited to men, though the rest of the 11 judges were men. Although she is not the field commander of the campaign against the native Canaanites, she is the muse behind her tribe’s general Barak.

Interestingly, another woman strikes the fatal blow against the enemy general. Deborah then leads her kinfolk in a victory song whose roots might go back to the days of the battle.

Historically, her tales speak of the difficulty that the newly planted highlanders had in claiming the native land of the fertile valleys. Correspondingly, archaeology shows a layer of destruction in 12th-century b.c.e. Megiddo, the time and place that possibly correspond to Deborah.

The judge Gideon (Jerubbaal) shows how hard it is for the Israelites to live in the valleys. During the days of Gideon, nomadic Aramaeans keep raiding the tribes’ settlements. It is the clash between the farmers and the herdsman. Gideon is coaxed into leading an elite army and wins miraculous victory over the Midianites.

The judge Samson hardly fits the image of a stereotypical hero: He is more like a wild man who saves the tribes by acting on his passions. In this sense he is lives and dies like the Greek hero Heracles.

He possesses superhuman strength and singlehandedly delivers the tribes from the Philistines. However, his womanizing results in his downfall—like Heracles—and in the end he dies like a tragic hero, killing himself and pulling everyone down with him.