Judges: Mysteries and Explanations

The book of Judges is a narrative. By its very nature this literary genre implies a certain suspense. Each of the stories is unique and no one knows in advance how it will end. Even if one story resembles another, events can take a surprising turn at any given moment. That is life, because in the human domain, general laws have many exceptions.

Another question concerns the meaning of the account or the moral of the story. How can we go from the particular to the general? The facts and the actions must be interpreted. Those who adhere to a well-defined system of causality can easily draw some lessons from them, but some events are not so easy to understand. The books of Job and Ecclesiastes are based on difficult situations, like the misfortunes of the just or the prosperity of the bad. The Christian is often confronted with these types of difficulties in his or her own life.

In a story, however, the individual does not need to face events alone, as he or she is accompanied by the narrator who emphasises, insists or explains. The presence of the author can be either discreet or obvious, but it is always effective, even if only by his choice of content. Some narrators are satisfied with suggesting the meaning of the story, whereas others do not cease to comment on the events. The authors of Biblical narrative texts do not all have the same approach. The author of 1 and 2 Kings is generous with his explanations. Each monarch receives a theological evaluation and introduction to his reign. Many events are sometimes only briefly commented (1 Kings 2:27; 12:15; 15:4-5; 15:29; 16:7; 17:16; 22:38; 2 Kings 13:23; 14:27; 16:12) and others are recounted in great detail. Thus, the reasons for the deportation of the northern kingdom are explained in 17 verses (“All this took place because…” 2 Kings 17:7-23).

The author of Judges proceeds differently. The central and principal part of the book (3:7-16:31) almost completely lacks explanations and the reader with a fragmented approach to the work is quickly disorientated. In the book of Judges, explanations are concentrated at the beginning and at the end. The two introductions and the slogan of the appendices provide a frame which guide the reader’s comprehension of the stories. The end of the first introduction explains the raison d’être of the period of Judges (2:1-5) and the second introduction (2:6-3:6) mentions the main characteristics of this period in a rapid chronological overview. The slogan of the appendices (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25) summarises the entire book by recalling the main theme of the account: rejection of divine authority.

Regarding the central part of the book, (3:7-16:31), an indirect key is given in the person of the first judge, who serves as a model for the other judges. What is said of Othniel equally applies to all of the judges. The reference to the spiritual anointment is particularly important (“The Spirit of the Lord came upon him,” 3:10). Because the model judge receives this anointment, the reader can expect that all of the judges receive it. The author does not wish to repeat the Spirit’s leading for each action, nor even for each judge. Thus, it is not mentioned in words that the second and third judges (Ehud and Debora) are filled with the Spirit, as everything indicates that they are. On the other hand, the three last judges (Gideon, Jephthah and Samson) pose some problems; some of their actions could be seen as unfaithfulness. To avoid interpreting the most problematic behaviour of these judges in a negative way, the author indicates that the Holy Spirit rests on the deliverer at that particular moment (6:34; 11:29; 13:24; 14:6, 19; 15:14). These six references to the Spirit do not signify that the judge receives something particular or unique, but that despite circumstances which at first appear to be obscure, the divine anointment still rests on the chosen man. These references to the Spirit are thus precious hermeneutical indicators. The portrait of Samson in particular is greatly modified if one reads the text in the light of these indications of good conduct (13:24; 14:6, 19; 15:14).

Growing difficulty of interpretation

Interpretation of the book of Judges becomes increasingly difficult. The double introduction at the start (1:1-3:6) is full of evaluations and the reader understands the message without difficulty.

The second part (3:7-16:31) is more difficult to understand, as the ministry of the judges not only lacks direct evaluations; the judges’ behaviour becomes increasingly strange. The author feels obliged to multiply his references to the Spirit to correct the negative impressions (one reference for Gideon, one for Jephthah and four for Samson). Why does Gideon propose the sign of the fleece? Why does Jephthah make his wish? What happens to his daughter? The controversial interpretation of this text is a good illustration of the difficulties involved in the comprehension of its message.

Samson is steeped in mystery. We are at a peak blackout. Samson’s strength can only astonish, because never before and never after him did God give a man such strength. His spiritual state provides a further surprise. How can God be so close to this man (by sending his Spirit and the strength which Samson can keep almost until the end), whereas his actions seem to be so carnal? Why is his strength linked to his hair? In what manner is his commitment to Delilah worse? Almost every one of Samson’s acts is surprising. How can a man who is so Spirit-filled marry a pagan woman, or start quarrels, or seek vengeance? Why tie 300 foxes together by their tails? Why transport the gates of Gaza to a mountaintop?

On the literary level, the atmosphere of mystery is introduced even before Samson’s conception (chapter 13). The apparition of an angel is always a surprise. In addition, the being whom Samson’s parents encounter is particularly strange. His name means mysterious (13:18), his privileged relationship to Samson’s mother instead of his father is unexpected, and his disappearance in a flame confuses as much as it illuminates. The being is obviously an angel, but why does he disappear in such a manner? The atmosphere of mystery is maintained in the following chapter (chapter 14) at the marriage, because the entire story is centred upon a riddle which Samson poses to the Philistines. Finally, at Samson’s fall (chapter 16), his enemies stop at nothing to find the secret of the judge’s strength. Thus, from the start to the finish of the Samson cycle, the reader is swathed in mystery, despite the fact that Samson’s name    derives from the word for sun.

In the last section of the book (chapters 17-21), the mystery is transformed into chaos. Nothing seems to hold true anymore, and the slogan at the end expresses a feeling of disarray. Everything appears to be depraved and corrupt, because each individual acts according to his own form of justice. On the heavenly level, God seems to be absent. Although he was omnipresent in the preceding chapters, intervening at each infidelity to punish the people and lead it to repentance, the Lord now does not seem to be interested in the lives of men. The bad appear to triumph. In the first appendix, Dan, who is accompanied and supported by a stolen idol and a materialistic Levite, succeeds in conquering a region which God had not granted, and in the second appendix, Benjamin the unfaithful begins by twice defeating Israel, who had taken pains to ask God if it was appropriate to besiege Gibeah.

Society falls apart at the sight of the concubine’s body which is cut into pieces and distributed to the four corners of the country. Civil war decimates an entire tribe. On the literary level, the author reinforces the disintegration of the social fabric and the cruelty of this society by keeping everyone anonymous, particularly in the second appendix. The Levite is not even mentioned, although the author surely knows his name. It is a striking contrast to the overabundance of names in the first introduction.

The only light seems to come from the slogan which unequivocally punctuates the disastrous state of the country: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25). The light is ominous, but also troubling, because the reference to royalty can be understood in two radically different ways, as we have previously outlined (see Royalty p. 21-23). Thus, the book which increasingly accumulates mysteries and difficulties ends on a word with a double meaning!

This ambiguity is nevertheless not the last one in the book, because the book contains yet another. They are not the products of an inexperienced plume nor of confusion, but the work of an artist who handles words as few others can. The reading of the book of Judges is captivating, but it also requires a great deal of attention.

It is also necessary to ask about the reasons which moved the author to choose such ambiguous expressions. Nevertheless, we note that the ambiguity is only transitory for those who make the effort to comprehend the whole. The author orientates and guides the reader sufficiently to the proper port, but in order to reach it, he must latch on and listen carefully to what the text is saying.

Teaching and Censure

Two reasons can be given for the author’s choice. First of all, as has already been mentioned, a pedagogical reason would explain some of the book’s difficult areas. A text which is too easy risks being read superficially. Thus, in order to stimulate an attentive reading, an author can encourage reflection in his readers with certain questions, or by certain judiciously placed obstacles.

A second reason which could explain a certain ambiguity is the wish to escape censure. The book of Judges seems to have been written during the second part of Saul’s reign, when David was being unjustly persecuted by the king (see date of writing p. 51-54). An excessively critical attitude towards Saul or towards royalty would have incited swift opposition by a king who was already consumed by jealousy (1 Sam 18:8-9). Samuel, who had reproved the king several times before withdrawing from his presence (1 Sam 15:4-35), seems to have been closely watched by him (1 Sam 16:1-3). Criticism can hide behind ambiguous language to deflect censorship. Thus, the book of Judges is cunningly polemic. First of all, the stories are critical of the first king, because the comparisons between Saul and the Judges can easily be made and do not flatter Saul (see annexes “Allusions to the present” p. 464-469). On the other hand, the concentration of power in the hands of one man is not highly regarded by the author of Judges. The elements which criticise the regime of that time would not, however, have ever been able to circulate freely under the dictatorial leadership of Saul if the author had not buffered the authorities’ fury by offering certain ambiguities in the texts: (1) If the ministry of the judges were to be understood negatively, the contrast between Saul and the judges would no longer be shocking. (2) The final slogan could in all appearances be understood as a eulogy of the already instituted royal power. The ambiguity allows the author to circumvent censorship and distort the message so he can pass on the critical traits more easily. The risks involved in this kind of procedure could certainly be misunderstood by some of the readers for whom the book was intended. This is the disadvantage of all ambiguous language. It must sometimes be accepted in the hope that a sufficient number of readers will comprehend and can instruct the others accordingly.


One last element of the mysterious aspect of the book is the use of irony. This literary form is “a pretence of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other’s false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning”. Irony is not a lie, as its purpose is not to deceive but rather to mock. It does not seek to hide but to expose. It wants to be exposed, even desperately, to the point of using words in a particular way to mobilise the listener’s undivided attention.

Irony is sharp. It attacks and criticises. Its judgement is absolute, definitive, without nuances; it cannot be repealed. It contains an element of mockery, because it often takes place without the victim’s knowledge. It is a way of denigrating the intended target, who is often the only one who does not comprehend it. The twisted remarks also offer a certain protection for the critic, because should the words be understood by the person concerned, a certain hesitation usually postpones or mitigates any possible retribution. Irony is often the weapon of the oppressed who cannot express themselves openly. It strikes at arrogant authority which is too powerful to be attacked other than by mockery.

On the literary level, irony is the sum of symbolic language. Images, reflections and all other elements which give power to symbolism are present in irony. On the psychological level, the punch which is created at the moment when the message is understood causes intense satisfaction. It also engenders a bond of complicity between the author and the reader, who are thus united by the same knowledge.

The author of Judges is fond of irony. Beyond the qualities mentioned above, this form is suited to describe a period of large upheavals. Everything changes, everything is moving and turned upside down. Each generation goes away and then returns to the Lord, thus alternating the times of judgement and redemption. Irony, with its doubletalk, aptly expresses the political and spiritual turbulence of the period of Judges.

The parable of Jotham which is located at the centre of the cycle of Abimelech, the “anti-judge”, is the perfect example of irony (9:7-21). It sarcastically announces the disaster which awaits the Jews of Shechem. The other examples of irony show how Israel’s oppressors end in death. The twists of fate which strike Adoni-Bezek, Eglon, Sisera and Abimelech have already been mentioned in connection with the law of retaliation (see the theme of retribution p. 17-19). Furthermore, we note that Gideon receives the necessary courage and strategy to attack his enemies from the Midianites themselves (7:13-15).

The slogan of the appendices concludes the book with the sharpest irony. It is a veritable camouflage of king Saul. It is not the concentration of power in the hands of a single human which will improve conditions, but a return to the Lord. The final slogan alludes to Saul, but in a depreciatory manner. It is not the first part of the slogan which applies to him (“In those days there was no king in Israel; 21:25a), but the second (“everyone did what was right in his own eyes” 21:25b). Saul resembles the people who sin. He is even the same type of anti-judge as Abimelech the oppressor. Saul has taken divine justice into his own hands and led the people to disaster. Instead of fighting the Philistines, he mobilises his troops to track down David the just. He ends up suffering a great defeat by the Philistines (1 Sam 31).