Skip to main content

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, our beloved book ruiner Pete brings the gavel down on Judges, examining the historical and literary context of the book and revealing the driving force of the narrative: Israel needs a king. Join Pete as he explores the following questions:

  • When was Judges written and by whom?
  • Is Judges a historical account of real events?
  • Who gets named a “judge” in this narrative? What function does a judge perform?
  • How many years are encompassed in the story of Judges?
  • What are the main themes within the book?
  • What purpose does each part of the book serve narratively? 
  • What are the stories of the judges who are named?
  • How does the author want readers to interpret the stories of the twelve judges?
  • Is there a purpose to the violence and chaos that keeps erupting in the book?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from the episode you can share.

  • Judges is not written as a book that just chronicles historical events. Judges paints a picture of how disloyalty to Yahweh leads to conflict, either from within the tribes themselves or from outside forces. — Pete
  • The main theme we see in Judges is that obedience results in blessing, and disobedience results in punishment. And the main way that Israel disobeys God is by worshipping foreign gods, and/or by adopting elements of foreign worship for the worship of Yahweh. — Pete
  • The Deuteronomic element in Judges is understood by scholars to reflect the exilic or post-exilic reworking of Israel’s story. It’s an indication that this book is not written at a time when things were happening, but much later with some serious reflection. — Pete
  • When it comes to studying the Bible, you can’t talk about anything without talking about everything. There are so many interconnected parts to this complex, heavily edited collection of writings that we call the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament.  — Pete
  • A main point of this book is kingship may not be ideal, but it is necessary to check the chaos of this tribal confederacy. But the king, well the king has to be the right type. To put this another way, Judges is ultimately pro-kingship, but as a necessary evil. — Pete
  • Readers are supposed to be horrified by this rash oath during a chaotic period of leaderless Israel. We’re not supposed to just take the story in stride. The writer of Judges, I think, is leading us along a path where things are getting worse and worse. And the only solution is a king—the right kind of king—which will be David and his descendants. — Pete

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript


You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.


And I’m Jared Byas.

[Intro music]


Welcome, folks, to this episode of the Bible for Normal People. Before we begin, just a reminder that my latest book Curveball: When Your Faith Takes Turns You Never Saw Coming is out there in the world waiting patiently for you to read. My soul really went into this book, it’s about my reflections on my own personal experiences that, over the years, have changed how I think about God, Jesus, the Bible, and faith. So if that interests you—and why wouldn’t it? Please check it out.

Now, today, I am going to ruin for you the book of Judges, by which I mean, talk about it with one eye open to the literature itself, and the other to scholarly conversations about the book. Let’s get right into this, shall we?

[Teaser clip of Pete speaking plays over music] Judges is not written as a book that just Chronicles historical events. Judges paints a picture of how disloyalty to Yahweh leads to conflict, either from within the tribes themselves or from outside forces. It is shaped as a recounting of past stories, but arranged in such a way as to build up to the grand conclusion: “We need a king.”

[Ad break]


Now, this book, Judges, follows right after the book of Joshua. And it takes us from Joshua’s death, which we saw at the end of Joshua, to the story of the monarchy, which begins in First Samuel—the next book. This is the period of time in between the death of Joshua and the beginning of the monarchy, when Israel existed as a loose confederation of tribes that were marked by things like kinship loyalties and geography. They’re not a nation yet, it’s that in between period. 

Now, the book of Judges is so called because it tells a story of… Well, a number of individuals collectively referred to as judges. But, what is a judge? Well, the one notion we should strike from our minds right away is that these judges oversaw legal disputes or some such thing. The only judge who acts this way is Deborah. So it seems that the term “judges” is more of a general term used to describe people who perform different functions such as a military commander, or warrior, even priests and prophets. And not to complicate things unnecessarily, but these people are only called judges collectively in chapter 2:16-19. Elsewhere, they are described more by their role. And these judges arose to deal with some conflict either among the tribes of Israel or with outsiders, like the Moabites, for example. So, bottom line, a judge is basically a tribal leader who arose to deal with some threat or conflict. 

Now, if you do the math, according to the book of Judges this period lasted about 400 years. Which is comparable to the 480 years between the Exodus and the building of the temple that’s mentioned in 1 Kings 6:1, the extra 80 years, the 80 year difference in 1 Kings is needed to account for the reigns of Saul and David, so 40 years each. But both numbers, 400 and 480, seem to be idealized numbers. They’re nice, round numbers that are meant to convey God’s divine oversight and biblical numbers do function that way. So that’s the story there. But from an archaeological point of view, the period between the Exodus and the time of Saul’s reign as Israel’s first king is probably closer to 200 years. Why? Well, because there is clear evidence of a dramatic increase. 

So hang with me here, folks, this is a bit of archaeology, but it’s super interesting. There’s evidence of the dramatic increase in Canaanite Hill Country settlements around 1200 BCE, which we already looked at in our Joshua episode, which was episode 224. Now, this increase of population is consistent with a new population entering Canaan, which in this case would be basically the Israelites. Now, it’s, in truth, way more complicated than I just laid out. But this will do for our purposes. The point is simply this, that any Israelite presence in Canaan allows really only for about a 200 year span, not a 400 year span. Okay, so what? Well, one legitimate way of solving this little problem is to suggest that the periods of the individual judges as we read them, you know, one after another in the book of Judges, that these reigns of these judges overlap rather than follow a strict chronology of one after the other. And I think this is very plausible, especially since we’re dealing with tribal authorities rather than a true national entity, right? So we can imagine the various tribes dealing with some issues simultaneously, not chronologically. Also—and we’ll get to this more in a minute—at the end of the book, namely chapters 17-21, they seem to deal with matters that happen toward the beginning of the story of Judges—not the end. In other words, adhering to a strict chronology in Judges doesn’t seem to be the writer’s intention. And this brings us to the main point of the book. 

Okay, so here it is. Judges paints a picture of how disloyalty to Yahweh leads to conflict, either from within the tribes themselves or from outside forces. These various judges for the most part, they deliver the Israelites from harm. And this cycle of disobedience followed by conflict, followed by deliverance at the hands of a judge, and then back to disobedience—this is seen in almost all of these stories. And the episodes themselves generally paint a bleaker and bleaker picture as we keep reading, resulting in the horrible events of the closing chapters—which we’ll get to, believe me, I’m not gonna leave that not talked about. Okay?—So, the overall point of the book is to paint a not-terribly-flattering picture of this period of the tribal confederation. Well, why? Well, in order to prop up the need for a monarchy. In fact, the very last verse of Judges drives the point home, here it is. “In those days, there was no king in Israel, all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” That’s 21:25. See there’s utter chaos, we need a king. Specifically, we need a king from the line of David. And back to that in a few minutes, there’s a lot happening here, the book of Judges. 

Okay, so let’s get into it a bit more by looking at an outline of the book. And as many of you will know, I love outlines. And the simpler the better for gaining a big picture, sort of a working knowledge of a biblical book, especially a long one. So basically, the book of Judges has a three part structure: the introduction, which begins at the very beginning, chapter one, verse one, and it goes to chapter three verse six. The second part is the stories of the 12 judges themselves. And that runs from 3:7 through the end of chapter 16, and then some really bad stuff at the end that makes you want to puke. That’s chapter 17-21. So let’s take each of these three parts and blow them up a bit. 

Okay, so first, the introduction. Scholars generally agree that there are actually two introductions to the book of Judges. The first runs from 1:1 to 2:5. And what does it do? Well, it recounts Israel’s failures in getting rid of the Canaanites completely. As we saw in the Joshua episode, already there we see a tension between the idealized portrayal of the conquest in the first half of Joshua, where the Canaanites are just exterminated, and the more sober account beginning in chapter 13 where we read that much of the land still remains unconquered, there’re Canaanites still there. Well, this first introduction recounts the successes and failures of the individual tribes to subjugate, and not for the most part annihilate, but to subjugate Canaanites living in the hill country. The failure of complete success over the Canaanites is chalked up to disobedience to God. So as punishment, Canaanites will be a constant source of trouble for the Israelites. Okay, that’s the first introduction. 

The second introduction begins at 2:6 and it runs through 3:6. It begins with recounting the death of Joshua, and the aftermath of disobedience on the part of the next generation. Now, you may remember that Joshua’s death was already recounted in the book of Joshua. And the opening words of Judges assumes that he’s dead. The book begins after the death of Joshua, he’s dead. He died already. He’s still dead. But here in the second introduction, [hums] his death is recounted again, as if for the first time. Sometimes in the Hebrew Bible repetitions like this suggest the editorial merging of two traditions—which is something we have seen throughout the Hebrew Bible beginning already with Genesis. So this is not a big deal. 

Now the second introduction is typically labeled “Deuteronomistic.” Now we ran across this idea in the Joshua episode, but let me lay it out very quickly here. Joshua through 2 Kings, not the book of Ruth, that’s not included. But Joshua through 2 Kings are called the Deuteronomistic History, because some of the main themes of the book of Deuteronomy are found fleshed out here in the stories. In fact, it seems like the book of Deuteronomy is really the theological basis for these books, Joshua through 2 Kings. So the main theme that we see here in Judges is that obedience results in blessing, and disobedience results in punishment. And the main way that Israel disobeys God is by worshipping foreign gods, and/or by adopting elements of foreign worship for the worship of Yahweh. And both are major no-no’s in the book of Deuteronomy. So the point here is that this second “Deuteronomic Introduction,” as it’s called, it lays out the pattern that we’re going to see throughout much of the book of Judges: obedient people prosper, then they’re punished after falling into some sort of apostasy. Which is followed by God’s using Israel’s enemies to oppress them as punishment, which leads to repentance on the part of the people and then deliverance at the hands of one of the judges. Now, this reward and punishment dualistic thing is typical of the Deuteronomistic history. Although, you know, not to get into this whole thing, but it is questioned in parts of the Hebrew Bible as well, namely Job, Ecclesiastes, and some of the Psalms, like the lament Psalms. 

Anyway, that’s not the topic we’re going to discuss here. Here, I just want to say this, that this Deuteronomic element in Judges is understood by scholars to reflect the exilic or post-exilic reworking of Israel’s story. It’s an indication that this book is not written at a time when things were happening but much later, with some serious reflection. And I hope that part will become clearer as we move on. Okay. Now another thing about this second introduction is how it explains the continued presence of the Canaanites. Now, in 2:20-21, it’s the result of Israel’s disobedience by worshiping foreign gods which matches well with what the first introduction says in chapter 2:1-5. But the second introduction adds two more elements to this, two more reasons. The first is that the Canaanites are there to be a constant test for the Israelites, so God can see whether they actually mean it. So you know, keeping the temptation in front of them to see how serious they are. And secondly, the reason that the Canaanites are there is so that those who have had no experience of battle can get in some practice reps. They’re sort of like, you know, tackling dummies or something on a football team. Anyway, this second intro ends with the Israelites intermarrying with the indigenous peoples of Canaan, which is another major no-no, you just don’t do that. And this rebellion against God is what launches the stories of the judges themselves, which begins the second part of the outline, starting at 3:7 and running through chapter 16. That’s the bulk of the book of Judges.

[Ad break]


So here are the judges we meet in part two: Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar. Great names. And then Deborah, who gets two chapters, and she’s followed by Gideon and his route of the Midianites, and that’s in chapters 6-8. And next is an interruption in the story. Gideon’s horrid son Abimelek (this is chapter nine) tries to establish [gasp!] a monarchy with him at the helm. Isn’t it always that way? So he died when a woman dropped a millstone on his head and crushed his skull. That sad story is followed by tales of the remaining judges, Tola, then Jair—who get five versus total—then Jephthah—who gets quite a bit—then Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon—which all of them get four…Or eight verses rather, in total. And then finally Samson, who gets four chapters. Which is the longest in the book. So with Gideon, Jephthah, and Deborah, we have Samson and they get a good chunk of airtime in this portrayal of these judges. 

Now let me say a few words about these judges one at a time, and some we can say a lot about and some we can’t say very much about at all. So, the first Othniel, he delivers the idolatrous Israelites from the hands of King Chushan Rishathaim of Aram. And that second word “Rishathaim” means “doubly wicked,” which likely means that’s not his real name. Like, he’s not going to be named that. That’s the name given to him by the Israelites because you know, they’re telling the story. Anyway, that’s a short little story. 

The next is Ehud—which is one of my favorite short stories in the whole Bible—Ehud, who, what does he do? He delivers the Israelites from the hands of King Eglon of Moab. Now, Moab is next door to Israel on the other side of the Jordan River. And just like with Chushan Rishathaim of Aram, Eglon was being used by God to punish Israel for disobedience. So anyway, we’re told that Eglon is fat, and Ehud, we are told, is left handed, and he strapped a sword onto his right leg. Now, who cares? Well, most warriors are right handed, which would mean strapping the sword onto the left leg, you could sort of reach over and grab it. So this gives Ehud an element of surprise, which he’s going to act upon very shortly. So while Eglon was sitting in his cool roof chamber, Ehud thrust the sword into Eglon’s body so deep, that the hilt of the sword also got buried in Eglon’s very fat body and we are further told that, “The dirt came out,” at least that’s according to the New Revised Standard Version, the Hebrew isn’t completely certain. But a plausible interpretation is that Ehud killed Eglon, while he was sitting on the john (the cool roof chamber) and then he pooped himself. Okay, so I think this is supposed to be funny. And yeah, the Moabites were defeated and Israel had rest for 80 years. 

Next is this guy Shamgar, who gets one verse at the end of chapter three. What did he do? Well, he killed 600 Philistines with an oxgoad, which is a cattle prod, it’s a long stick with a poker at the end to just prod the cattle to keep moving, right? Now it’s hard to know what to do with this guy Shamgar. Shamgar is not a Semitic name, and the next verse, 4:1, picks up with what happens after Ehud’s death… So Shamgar seems to be stuck here, for some reason, and it interrupts the flow of the story. Some scholars think that this guy was added to round out the number of judges to 12, an important Hebrew number, but frankly, who knows. I will say though, that Shamgar is mentioned in the very ancient poem in chapter 5‚ more in a second. So this might be some way of getting him some airtime too. 

Now, chapters four and five are about Deborah. And this time the Lord hands the rebellious Israelites over to King Jabin of Canaan, whose military commander was Sisera. Remember that name! Anyway, Deborah is referred to here as a “prophetess” who also settles disputes among the people. So she commands Barak—this guy, Barak—to lead an offensive to draw Sisera out and adds that, “The Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Well, who is this woman? Well, it’s not Deborah. No, no, no. You see, Sisera’s army is routed and he flees into the tent of Jael and she is a woman. She’s the wife of Heber, the Kenite. And the Kenites were allies of Jabin. So safe place to go right? So Jael went out to meet him, invited him into her tent, and made him nice and cozy with a blanket and some milk and as soon as Sisera fell asleep, what happened? Ladies, you know the story, I hope you do—Jael drove, with a mallet, a tent peg into Sisera’s temple, clear through his head and into the ground. See, the enemy whom God summoned by the way to punish Israel, this enemy gets clobbered for doing just that, and a good time was had by all. 

Now, the dominant role played by two women here is definitely worth mentioning. The killing of Commander Sisera by a woman is meant to both mock the Canaanites I think, and also to speak to how the Lord is orchestrating this whole thing. And as for Deborah, her role as a prophet and leader, who apparently could command Barak to go to war, is one of only four women in the Hebrew Bible identified as a prophetess. Miriam, Moses’s sister, being perhaps the best known. And this whole story has Exodus overtones. For example, the panic the Lord throws Sisera’s army into—this is in chapter 4:15. It reminds us of the Lord doing the very same thing to the Egyptians in Exodus 14 at the Red Sea, they are struck with panic. Women also play a prominent role in Exodus, the Israelite midwives, Moses’s sister, Moses’s mother, and Pharaoh’s daughter, all in Exodus too—they thwart Pharaoh’s intention of killing the children, the male children, which would include Moses. So, Deborah’s role here continues that theme of women playing major roles in Israel’s development, in Israel’s move into the promised land. 

And if anything, just knowing that should temper our assumptions about, you know, the patriarchal mindset of the Bible. Now it’s there, it’s definitely there, but not all the women were barefoot and pregnant homemakers as some like to picture them. Something else we have to mention here is that this is a twice told story. Chapter four being the narrative version, and chapter five being the older, poetic version. We see the same sort of thing in the Exodus story in chapters 14 and 15. You have a narrative depiction of the event, followed by the poetic version of the Red Sea crossing. Scholars consider the poem here in chapter five to be one of the oldest pieces of Israelite literature, dating perhaps to about 1200 BCE, that’s 200 years before the monarchy and roughly near the time period when the stories are placed historically. 

Now, this poem is, I think, super interesting for a number of reasons—Most of which we can’t get into or this would become a podcast on Judges 5. It basically recounts Deborah mustering the tribes, calling the tribes together to help them in their battle, but only six respond. One of those tribes is referred to as Machir—which is the only reference to Machir in any the tribal list in the Hebrew Bible—It is, however, a part of Manasseh, which is a huge northern tribe, but referring to it as Machir is interesting and might suggest an older name for the tribe. Now four, or it might be five tribes, don’t respond. I say four or five, because one tribe there mentioned is Meroz which is not a known tribe. So we’re not really sure what’s going on there. But anyway, some respond, some don’t. But here’s the really interesting part. Judah, Simeon, and Levi are not mentioned at all. Now, Levi is understandable, because he has no actual territory, he wouldn’t be called on to fight. But Judah and Simeon do, their territory is in the south. So, the tribes in this poem are all Northern. But why leave off the southern tribes? Why not call them? Good question, folks. Very good question. 

Now, let’s just say that scholars here see a window onto an early stage of Israel’s tribal confederacy, because this is such an old poem, right? One conclusion is that the North seems to have had a long held identity as its own thing, which may help explain how the division of the monarchy into north and south, after the death of Solomon—this is around 930 BCE, a good bit after this period we’re talking about. But that explains how that North-South division could have happened so neatly. See, not unlike the American Civil War, the North-South division didn’t just happen haphazardly. Right? There was a history of distinction in America between North and South that predated the later conflict of the Civil War. So, when America did go to war, it did so with pre-existing northern-southern identities. Now another possible interpretation, going a little further than the one I just gave, is that early on in Israel’s history, there actually were no southern tribes, at least not before the monarchy. The whole history of the north and south that we read about in later books of the Hebrew Bible would therefore be a creation of the southern tribe of Judah, which alone survived exile and then alone returned to the land to write their story. It’s well known, and we’ve covered this in other episodes, that Judah, the lone surviving tribe of the twelve, got to leave its imprint on the ancient story of their people. Judah’s prominence in the Hebrew Bible, especially in Genesis, is a product of how the winners told the story, but we don’t see that here. We don’t see that in Judges chapter five. Judah is not even in the picture. It seems to be an older reflection. 

See, just a quick side note here… I’m forever telling my students that when it comes to studying the Bible, you can’t talk about anything without talking about everything. There are so many interconnected parts to this complex, heavily edited collection of writings that we call the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. It just keeps you busy. And it’s hard to talk about anything without bringing all these other layers into it. Okay. 

Two more quick things about this poem—I’m really spending time here because it’s the topic of a lot of scholarly conversations. First, Yahweh here is depicted as a warrior, as he is in Exodus 15, that poetic version of the Exodus story. Like the nations around them, the earliest picture of Yahweh we get from these ancient poems is of a warring deity, and this deity’s home, Sinai, is said to be in the South, in Seir, that’s the second point I want to make. So Seir is in the south, it’s in the region of Edom. And this early memory is very close to the tradition that we saw already elsewhere, namely, in the book of Exodus, that places Sinai in Midian—which is just a little bit further south of Edom. So I think that’s really interesting. We have, you know, a location of Yahweh’s mountain to the south, around Edom, south of Edom, maybe implying Midian—and that’s just an interesting piece of early reflection on the part of these Israelites where Yahweh’s home was sort of always known to be way down there. And then finally, if you’re up for it, if you’re up for some pathos actually, read verses 24-31—this is the end of chapter five, and how Jael’s act is described, but also how Sisera’s mother is back home, looking out the window, pining for her boy to come home and he never does. It’s actually quite evocative. 

All right, the next story is a long one with a few moving parts. And this is a story of Gideon chapter 6-8 and Gideon’s deliverance of the Israelites from the Midianites, into whose hands the Lord had delivered the Israelites for doing “evil in the sight of the Lord,” that’s 6:1. Namely, for worshiping the gods of the Amorites—and the Amorites are a subgroup of people living in Canaan, we have to worry about that. So, to deliver them from the Midianites, God calls Gideon, who is soon renamed Jerubbaal. Why? Because he tore down the altar of Baal—”Bale” as it’s sometimes pronounced—this altar that his father had erected. Now, he proves to be quite the resourceful commander. They are outnumbered by the Midianites, but Gideon routed them by playing a little trick on them. He divided his 300 men into three groups, each holding a trumpet in one hand, and an empty jar with a torch inside in the other. They all blew the trumpets and smashed the jars at once to reveal the torches. And this surprise sent the Midianites into confusion and with the help of the tribe of Ephram, four Midianite kings wound up meeting a violent end. Now for his efforts, the Israelites asked Gideon to rule over them, to be their king. But he refused, citing that neither he nor his son would rule over them. Remember that, neither he nor his son will rule over them, but only the Lord will. 

By the way, folks—can’t talk about anything without talking about everything—In 1 Samuel 8 we see the same sentiment that kingship is of questionable value when Yahweh is already your king. So good for Gideon! But he does slip up here anyway. He asks each of the Israelites to give him one gold earring that were taken from the booty from the battle earlier on. And Gideon, he made an ephod from it—which is a breastpiece that the high priest is supposed to wear. And you know, Gideon is not a high priest. So what’s going on here? Well, the people got caught up in this breastpiece and it became like an idol that ensnared the Israelites. So the story doesn’t end well, but nevertheless, they did have peace under Gideon for 40 years, but we’re already seeing signs of trouble in how this episode ends. 

And speaking of trouble, let’s keep going. This story of Gideon is followed up with a story of Abimelech, Gideon’s son, who—directly contrary to what his dad just said—ge said, “Hey, you know, I’ll be king can’t pass this up.” Now apparently Gideon had 70 sons, a lot of sons, by the way, and Abimelech used that fact to manipulate support. You know, “Hey, do you want 70 rulers or just one?” Well, the clan bought it, but Abimelech had other plans. He hired “worthless and reckless fellows” (that’s in chapter 9:4) to kill his 70 Brothers- well… 69. Jotham, the youngest escaped, and he took it upon himself to denounce Abimelech, and curse him by telling a parable involving trees, the point of which is that this parable is an anti-monarchic allegory.

Well, Abimelech ruled anyway for three years until the Lord brought “an evil spirit,” as it says, between Abimelech and the Lords of Shechem—and that’s important, because that’s Abimelech’s support base. Now, the anti-monarchic vibe of these stories, which includes the sending of an evil spirit on Abimelech—which by the way, the evil spirit is not a demon or something, it’s like negative-divine influence, it’s something that God generates. But these factors, they anticipate the anti-monarchic vibe and the sending of the evil spirit. They anticipate the reign of Saul in verse seven. The people insist on the king, and Saul seems to be the right man for the job, even though the whole idea of kingship is condemned by Samuel and the Lord in 1 Samuel 8. And then at 1 Samuel 16, God sends an evil spirit on Saul, which is the sign that Saul has been rejected by God as king. So Abimelech here is, I think, without question a Saul figure, a king who doesn’t have the right stuff and is rejected. He rules for a bit, but not for long. And this reminds us of a main point of this book: kingship may not be the ideal, but it is necessary to check the chaos of this tribal confederacy. But the king, well the king has to be the right type. To put this another way, Judges is ultimately pro-kingship, but like a necessary evil. But the kingship is definitely anti-Saul, which we’ll come back to in a minute.

Anyway, long story short, Abimelech dies by crushed skull syndrome, when who? An anonymous woman throws an upper millstone from the top of the tower onto Abimelech’s head. Now an upper millstone is the heavier of the two stones used to grind wheat. By the way, in case you missed it, this is the second time in Judges that a bad guy is thwarted by a woman inflicting a head injury, right? Remember Jael driving a tent peg through Sisera’s skull? So here we have it again.

[Ad break]


Okay, next—we’re in chapter 10 now—we read of two minor judges, Tola and Jair, who judged Israel 23 and 22 years, respectively. But for some reason, these two only get six versus total, hence “minor judges.” And we move on quickly from there to another oppression, this by the Ammonites, and they were the latest enemy that the Lord used to punish his people for idolatry. So they cried out to God, but he basically told them, “Hey, you know, pray to the gods that you’re worshiping and let them deliver you.” Right? But they begged the Lord more and more, and he gave in this time delivering them through the Judge Jephthah, who we are told was a mighty warrior and the son of a prostitute. Now apparently the issue here is that the Ammonites, they want back the land that the Israelites took from them as they made their way to capture the land of Canaan, way back under Joshua. And Ammon is situated right across from the Jordan River, right above Moab. Jephthah says, “No thanks. We’re not going to do that. We’ve had this land for 300 years, and now you’re waging war to get it back? Hah.” So faced with this threat, Jephthah does one of the dumbest things you can imagine. He makes a vow to the Lord, and vows are serious things and here’s the vow: “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” 

Okay, Jephthah…Just asking here, did you think this one through? What did you think was going to come out of your house? A cow? No! It’s your daughter, you moron, your only child. So, now, he is bound to go through with the oath you can’t get out of the vow to the Lord, that’s how it works. So his daughter, unnamed, well, she basically takes one for the team. She complies willingly, but asks for two months for her and her friends to go into the mountains and, “Bewail my virginity.” And two months later, she’s sacrificed. Now this is a horrible story—but it gets worse at the end of the book—my point, however, and I’m convinced of this, is that readers are supposed to be horrified by this rash oath during a chaotic period of leaderless Israel. We’re not supposed to just take the story in stride. “Oh, that’s okay. This is the biblical period where things happen, it’s all fine.” The writer of Judges, I think, is leading us along a path where things are getting worse and worse. And the only solution is a king, the right kind of king, who will be David and his descendants. That’s what this guy’s after. So in other words, you know, the Bible contains a horrific story like this, but it doesn’t condone it. As if it’s okay for a father to make a rash vow, slit a virgin daughter’s throat and burn her up. In no biblical universe is this sort of thing okay. The point is that things have escalated to this point. And you know, we’re only halfway through the book. Where’s this chaos headed? Well, stay tuned. 

The next story, which is 12:1-7, is a little side comment on inter tribal conflicts involving Jephthah and the tribe of Ephraim, which is—that’s the main northern tribe, it’s such a main northern tribe, sometimes the whole land of Israel is simply referred to as Ephraim. But anyway, one point of interest and this story, this little brief story here is a linguistic one and just listen up, this is going to change your life. Two of the letters of the Hebrew language, or “sin” (שׂ) and “shin” (שׁ). The thing is that those letters are written basically the same way, but they’re pronounced differently. Now, to test whether someone was an Ephraimite, or one of Jephthah’s men, he would have to pass a test. Just say “Shibboleth.” Well, it turns out for whatever reason that the Ephraimites have a dialectical quirk, where they cannot say Shibboleth, but instead pronounce it “Sibboleth”. And we’re told 42,000 met their fate this way, by not being able to pronounce it—you think they would have caught on at some point. But anyway, first, 42,000, it might not be 42,000. It might mean… The word for thousand could mean military units, so it might be 42 military units of however many people, a lot fewer than 42,000. But the point of my little sidestepping here is that for students of ancient Hebrew, this story provides a window unto Hebrew, the language of Hebrew, as a living, breathing language way back in the day. 

Anyway, Jephthah, he judged for six years, and his reign was followed by three more minor judges, Ibzan seven years, Elon ten years, and Abdom eight years. And all we know is where they are buried, not what they did. As if the editor is eager to get to the main attraction, which is the next judge—the one everybody knows: Samson. And he takes up four chapters, 13-16. And this is another story involving out of control heroes featuring vital roles for women. And this story opens up with the account of Samson’s birth to Manoah from the tribe of Dan—remember that tribe named Dan—and his barren wife who is not named. The angel of the Lord appeared to her and told her that she will bear a son, only she should be careful not to drink wine or strong drink or eat anything unclean, and when this child is born, he will never get his hair cut. And all of this establishes that Samson will be a Nazirite, which is a thing that the ceremony is laid out in Numbers chapter six. And it has to do with separating out someone for special service, which is what “Nazirite” means, like separate or consecrated. And we’ll see this again, folks in 1 Samuel 8—I keep talking about for 1 Samuel 8 is an important chapter—with the last judge Samuel, and he has a miraculous birth where he is likewise raised as a Nazirite. So there’s a thing happening here. 

Well, Samson is born and he is set apart for God and things are looking pretty promising because the Philistines are a pain, they’ve been oppressing the Israelites for 40 years, so perhaps now is deliverance time. But the thing is, this story doesn’t read like the other stories of the judges where the people are actually delivered from something. Rather this story is about a deeply flawed character Samson, who sidles up to Philistines—their oppressors, remember—and seems to really like Philistine women. Now, marrying outside of your people group is a big problem in much of the Hebrew Bible, not all of it, but in much of it. And you may remember the story of Jacob and Esau, right? One reason why Esau fell out of favor with his mother and father, Rebecca and Isaac, is that he married outside of Israel. 

So the first of Samson’s acts concerns his marriage to a Philistine woman in the town of Timnah, which is a Philistine town. Now the thing is, we’re told—and this is in chapter 14:4—we’re told that Samson’s desire for a Philistine wife was actually because he was looking for a pretext to do the Philistines some harm. So, okay, maybe he’s got good intentions. So it looks like this is a God thing, but Samson gets too enmeshed and things quickly go south. See, on the way to Timnah to arrange the marriage, he’s attacked by a lion, who mighty Samson tears apart with his bare hands. On a subsequent trip, he came back, and he saw the carcass and lo and behold, there were bees and honey inside it. So naturally, he scooped out some honey and ate it. Okay, whatever. Well, this little incident sparked Samson to, for some unknown reason, to pose a riddle to 30 men of his wedding party. And if they guessed the riddle, they will be rewarded with linen and festal garments for each of them. And the riddle is this. “Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet.” Of course, that’s a setup. How is anyone supposed to know the answer to that other than Samson? So, after four days, they get really frustrated, and they get Samson’s wife, also unnamed, to use her tears to get him to tell her, which he did, because he’s an idiot, right? And so she told the others who then solved the riddle. Bad move, Samson is now fuming. So he went down to another Philistine town, Ashkelon, and he killed 30 men, took their stuff, and gave it to the 30 men in Timnah. Right, now apparently he never thought he’d lose the bet. So this is how he fulfilled his vow. 

Anyway, Samson just seems rather like he’s a strong guy, you’re sort of glad he’s on your side, but he seems a bit impulsive and unwise. So, Samson, seems really to have, I think, a hair trigger temper. So it’s understandable to ask when this out of control Superman guy is going to take things too far. And he soon has his opportunity. His Philistine wife—he did marry her—but she was given to someone else since he had left and been away for such a long time. The father says, “Listen, I’m sorry. You know, she’s married to somebody else.” But he offers his younger daughter, but Samson is just pissed. He is just fit to be tied. So what does he do? Well, he ties 300 foxes together in pairs tail to tail and sticks a torch between the tails, and lets them loose in the Philistine crops, burning everything. So the Philistines—why do we ever tell these stories to kids? I don’t know—Anyway, the Philistines, who remember, are in charge, they’re oppressing the Israelites. They don’t take this well. So they march to Judah to bring Samson to justice. So the people of Judah find him, bring him bound to the Philistines. But now, once again, the Spirit of the Lord comes upon him and he takes the jawbone of a donkey, which just happens to be lying around, and kills 1,000 men. So yeah, the Philistines, they’re suffering at the hands of Samson. So that’s good, right, in the logic of the story, the oppressors are getting theirs. But on the other hand, these events are all Samson’s doing. They’re responses to his impulsive behavior. 

Now, the next story has Samson back in Philistine country, which I imagine given his history in Philistine, it probably took some guts to go down there again. But this time he is in the town of Gaza, and this is again along the coast—and you may know the term the Gaza strip from modern Israeli politics—but he’s down in Gaza, where, what does he do? Of course, he visits a prostitute, why not? Which should raise some questions, I think, about Samson’s character. I think that might be the point of making this story like this. So the townsmen were waiting on him to come out to be done with his business so they could kill him. But he got out, you know, without them being aware of it. And instead what he did, he marched over to the city gate and pulled it up like roots and all, pillars and all and carried it 40 miles to Hebron. Why exactly he did this is a good question, but it certainly sets up Samson’s strength, and the famous scene that is just a few short verses away. 

So Samson’s issue with women, they continue when he falls in love with Delilah, who may or may not be a Philistine but is definitely not Israelite. And he’s just infatuated with her. So the Philistine leaders paid her 1100 pieces of silver to get from Samson the secret of his strength. Which, by the way, side issue here, like why would you even think there’s a secret to his strength? Maybe he’s just a big dude. Right? But there’s an assumption that there’s some secret to his strength, because of course, there is. Now, Samson, no fool he, he doesn’t fall for this. He lies to Delilah three times until she pesters him to death and he tells her, “Fine, okay, I’ll tell you. I’m a Nazirite and no razor may touch my head.” So yeah, maybe he’s a fool—because Delilah cuts his hair when he’s sleeping, and then they bind him, they blind him, and they lead him to prison. Just a little bit poetic that love blinded him as did the Philistines. 

But anyway, while in prison, guess what? His hair begins to grow back. But apparently the Philistines didn’t figure out that they would need to keep his hair short—I mean, how did they miss that?—Anyway, they bring him to their feast to entertain them, and Samson obliges by blinding all, pushing apart the pillars that hold up the whole house, and so he along with the Philistines died, crushed under the weight of the rubble. Now the story ends with a note about Samson having judged for 20 years, but it’s hard to get that from the story itself. This again, doesn’t follow the pattern we’ve been looking at and reads more like the exploits of a famous troubled hero or something. Scholars are quick to label the Samson story as folklore rather than history. Now Samson is the last judge mentioned in the book and it seems to be a fitting ending to what the writer is trying to get across, right? Samson doesn’t really deliver anyone other than himself because of messes he created. And at the end, he doesn’t even save himself, but dies in captivity. So here’s a guy who could have been Israel’s primo, awesome protector. He’s huge, he’s strong, he looks the part—as did Saul, by the way, he was tall and good looking, bigger than everybody else. The people picked him as king in 1 Samuel because he was basically a prototypical warrior type. There’s more to it than this, but Samson’s failings again call to mind Saul’s aborted career as a king. 

Now, the final two stories in Judges deal with tribal conflicts and just generally chaos. And these stories are marked by a four times repeated refrain: “In those days, there was no king in Israel, all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” And you see that in 17:6, 18:1, 19:1, and then 20:25, which is the last verse of the book. So this refrain is important. Independent tribes aren’t working, it’s a mess out there, we need a king, not any old person will do. It’s got to be the right king, not like Abimelech, or Samson, or Saul. And so these two concluding stories, there are two of them. The first is 17 and 18, and the second one is 19 through 21. But these two stories in different ways make the final case for why a righteous king is a must for Israel. The first of these stories, 17-18, is about the tribe of Dan. Namely, its loosey-goosey approach to the worship of Yahweh, and then their migration to the north to new territory. 

You see, Dan was originally located next to Judah in the south. But in this story, they wind up migrating way north. This northward migration was likely necessary due to Dan’s inability to rid their territory of Canaanites, and we see that way back in chapter one. Now, just to remind you, you may remember that earlier I said that these end stories really reflect more action that happens toward the beginning of the story, right? So this whole migration of Dan thing and the inability to get rid of the Canaanites, we saw that in chapter one. This story really belongs in chapter one, but it’s at the end because it illustrates something important for this writer. Okay? 

So, you have the loosey-goosey worship—that’s the tribe of Dan—and our story begins with this guy Micah, who is of the tribe of Benjamin and whose mother had a silversmith make an idol out of 200 pieces of silver. And this was put in Micah’s home shrine, which is odd to have a home shrine if you’re an Israelite, right? And this shrine was complete with an ephod—which is a priestly breastpiece associated with casting lots, which is for discerning the divine will—and teraphim—which are these small figurines again likewise used for divination, for discerning the divine will. The only thing missing…He’s got this idol, he’s got the ephod, he’s got the teraphim, and the only thing missing is a priest to run the show. So enter into our scene a Levite from Bethlehem, whom Micah hires to be his personal shrine priest. This whole incident is tagged by the writer as being example number one of everyone doing what is right in their own eyes because there is no king. See, you’re not supposed to have a private shrine with a personal priest. Remember that the Deuteronomistic History holds as non-negotiable and sacred the notion that worship must be centralized in the Jerusalem temple. You can’t just do it in your territory in your house. 

So, in the next scene, chapter 18, this tribe of Dan is migrating north, and they send spies to scout out the land and while there they hear a voice they recognize as that of a young Levite. And this Levite assures them of their military victory. So the Danites, they attack Laish—an unsuspecting people living in peace and prosperity—and the spies, then they go back to Micah’s house, and they steal the idol, the ephod, and the breastpiece, and they say to the priests, “Hey, you know what? We’re taking this stuff, you can’t do anything about it.” But why be a priest of one house when you can be a priest for a whole tribe? And that sounded good to the priest so he went along. Micah, however, obviously—can’t blame him—gave chase and caught up with him in the Danites threatened his life, so Micah just went back home. So after the capture of Laish—which is now renamed Dan—the priest, Jonathan—we learned his name, Jonathan—along with his sons were priests, and Dan, “until the time the land went into captivity,” that’s in 18:30. And that is a clear reference to the exile of the north at the hands of the Assyrians and 721 BCE, which tells us something about when this was written, right, this is after these events, much longer after the period of the Judges. So, all in all, this is a very good example of Deuteronomic condemnation of noncentralized worship. That’s what’s happening here. Okay, don’t do that. 

So, this is the bad story. The idolatry and migration of the tribe of Dan, is a violation of God’s command of centralized worship, which is a key value in the book of Deuteronomy—look at chapter 12. But it gets worse. Chapters 19 through 21 include one of the more horrific stories of the Hebrew Bible, that of cutting a concubine into 12 pieces and sending her body parts to the 12 tribes. So what’s going on here? Let’s get into that.

This story involves a Levite living in Ephraim, who took a concubine for himself, but she fled and went back to her father, which prompted the Levite to go fetch her back. On the way home, rather than spend the night in Jebus—which is what Jerusalem was called before David captured it—but rather than spend the night in Jebus, they went on to Gibeah. Now, Gibeah—it may interest you to know—is in the territory of Benjamin and is the site of Saul’s royal residence. Hold that thought, okay? Now, the Levite and his concubine had intended to stay just in the open square not to bother anybody, but an old man persuaded them to stay with him in his house where it’s safe. And if you’re thinking, “Gee, this sounds like the Sodom and Gomorrah story.” Well, you’re right. The men of Gibeah press against the house, wanting to have sex with the priest, the visitor, right? The old man offers his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine instead, but the townsfolk will have none of this. So in desperation and cowardice, I think the Levite—who, by the way, had just gone to all this trouble of retrieving his concubine. What does he do? He throws her out the door to be raped all night. So Gibeah, the home of Saul, is no better than the people of Sodom, who had been punished by God with fire from on high. 

The next morning, the Levite finds her lying with her hands on the threshold, motionless—whether dead or unconscious is not clear, by the way—and he straps her to his donkey, heads home, and proceeds to carve her body into 12 pieces to send them out to the 12 tribes as a call to arms. I mean, he could have written a letter but whatever. So all Israel, we read, rallies around the cause and they attack Gibeah, all except the tribe of Benjamin. Why? Because Gibeah is in Benjamite territory. So long story short—you can read about this in chapter 12—a battle ensues involving an ambush and the Benjamites are defeated. This spelled double trouble, for not only are the Benjamites defeated, but the other Israelites swore they would never let their daughters marry Benjamite men, which would mean their eventual extinction. But they had second thoughts. Though they could not break the oath, they had another idea to solve this little problem. They decided to go to the town of Jabesh-Gilead, and take their virgin women, after killing the men and the non-virgin women, but to take their virgin women and hand them over to the Benjamites so they can have some kids. So why Jabesh-Gilead? Well, because this town, which is located on the other side of the Jordan, did not answer the original call to arms and therefore they did not make the same oath. Aha! So, Benjamin survives, but there’s another problem here. There are not enough virgin women in Jabesh-Gilead for every Benjamite male. So they went to another town, a very important town, Shiloh, to kidnap virgins who were—hang with me folks—who were dancing in the vineyards during the annual festival at Shiloh. So they would just nab them as they’re dancing, grab them and you know, whatever take off. Here, end of today’s Children’s Bible storytime, this is just weird stuff. 

So see, it’s at the end of this episode that the refrain is repeated for the fourth time, that refrain “In those days, there was no king in Israel, all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” And it’s worth pointing out again that Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin, had his royal residence in Gibeah, and delivered Jabesh-Gilead. It’s hard to miss how the end of Judges, especially, has an anti-northern slant (Dan) and an anti-Saul perspective. The response to cultic and political chaos—I should explain that word “cultic.” Cultic is a sort of a technical scholarly term that’s very handy and I like using it. Cultic is simply a shorthand way of talking about anything that has to do with worship, sacrifice, any rituals, anything like that. It doesn’t mean like, you know, Jim Jones cults or anything like that, it has to do with worship. So, what we have here in these closing chapters is cultic and political chaos. And the response to that, the answer to that, is to have the right kind of king on the throne who won’t let that happen. Which is in the mind of the Deuteronomistic Historian, that’s David and his line. Even though there’s some ambiguity about kingship in 1 and 2 Samuel, which we’ll get to next time, this is the solution: “we need a king to rule over us because the judges aren’t doing it.” 

So just in conclusion, folks, bottom line. Judges is not written as a book that just chronicles historical events, even if there might be historical elements there. It is shaped rather as a recounting of past stories, but arranged in such a way as to build up to the grand conclusion “we need a king.” And for various reasons scholars see Judges, like most books of the Hebrew Bible, as a product of post-exilic reflection on the part of the Judahites. This wasn’t written in real time, before the monarchy, but after its demise at the hands of the Babylonians. And they were answering for themselves that question, “Yes, we do need a king who will rebuild our nation.” 

Alright, folks, I hope this has been helpful, this little jaunt through the book of Judges and blessings to all of you and we’ll see you next time where we’re going to look at 1 Samuel. See you!

[Outro music begins]


Well, thanks to everyone who supports the show. If you want to support what we do, there are three ways you can do it. One, if you just want to give a little money, go to 


And if you want to support us and want a community, classes, and other great resources, go to


And lastly, it always goes a long way if you just wanted to rate the podcast, leave a review, and tell others about our show!


You’ve just made it through another episode of the Bible for Normal People! Don’t forget you can also catch the latest episode of our other show, Faith for Normal People, wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was brought to you by the Bible for Normal People podcast team: Brittany Prescott, Savannah Locke, Stephanie Speight, Natalie Weyand, Stephen Henning, Tessa Stultz, Haley Warren, Nick Striegel, and Jessica Shao.

[Outro music ends]
Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.