The Book of Judges is at the same time both attractive and repellent, but one is never indifferent after having read it: “The Book of Judges is so earthy, so puzzling, so primitive, so violent– in a word, so strange, that the church can scarcely stomach it… Only people who take tranquilizers before sitting down can doze off while they read it” (D. R. Davis, p. 7). The characters are human, colourful, dramatic, surprising, often misunderstood. Should Samson be admired or despised? Does he bear the qualities of a hero or the vices of human failure? Each judge poses problems and the reader’s discernment is constantly demanded, because the author often contents himself with narrating the mere facts. The difficulties and the spiritual lessons, which are often considered to be too negative, discourage preachers. Despite the absence from the pulpit, the book is still favoured by Sunday schools, where the characters of certain judges and the fascinating stories kindle the imagination. Thus, although the book of Judges is rarely used as a sermon topic, Gideon and Samson are among the most familiar persons of the Bible.
The accounts of Judges capture the heart and the spirit, but are unsettling for the intellect. Yet the text is not impenetrable. The author wants to be understood. He has a message to transmit, and it is such an important message that it not only needs to be understood, but retained. The book of Judges is not fast food which can be consumed in one bite like a finger sandwich. It is rather a carefully prepared banquet, where each element is a reason for reflection and is introduced at the proper time in order to contribute to the general balance. One must take one’s time to savour it. The meal is rich without being indigestible.
The effort demanded of the reader has didactic reasons. In the same way that a child will not make any progress in mathematics unless it ponders over a problem for a certain time, a lesson must be meditated in order to take root and bear fruit. Revealing the answer too quickly short circuits the learning process. Furthermore, anything that is obtained easily is appreciated less. The author is a masterful teacher. He not only knows how to grab and keep the reader’s attention with captivating and wide-ranging accounts, he also forces the reader to reflect by using accounts which have no direct theological evaluation. The effort required is carefully dosed. The reader is not left to fend for himself, as the author provides many hermeneutical aids. The two introductions to the book (1:1-2:5; 2:6-3:6), the portrait of the first judge (3:7-11), and the references to the Spirit are keys to the comprehension of the book. A reading which ignores these important elements provided mainly at the beginning risks veering far off track, like a person who wants to make a new machine work without consulting the instructions first.
A global reading of the work is indispensable. In the book of Judges, all of the elements are joined together like a well-built structure whose stones are held by the force and tension they give to each other. Each account makes a special contribution to a harmonious and balanced whole. Within this commentary, we constantly seek to interpret the text in the light of the whole. This fresh view of the book of Judges goes so far as to overturn certain ideas which are generally held about the ministry of the Judges. A global approach allows us to draw the Judges out of the shadow of mediocrity and compromise in which the previous fragmented readings have left them. We are convinced that the author of the book presents the Judges’ behaviour in a positive manner. These men are heroes of the faith and examples for the faithful. By the same token, we hope to stimulate believers with this commentary and encourage preachers to hear the true voices of these men and of this book.
The introduction deals with the literary dimension and the historical context of the book. These two aspects are important and must be examined with care. The literary dimension deals with the manner in which things are said, and the historical dimension is interested in the framework within which the book took form. We shall thus successively examine the themes of the book, the mysteries and the explanations, the structure of the book, the editorial framework (date and author) and chronological questions. Regarding the author, we shall see how several elements in the book uphold Jewish tradition, which attributes this work to Samuel. More precisely, it seems to have been written after the investiture of the first king, at a moment when Saul’s behaviour was at its worst. An indirect criticism of the monarch is evoked by means of a contrast with the judges (see Annex p. 464-469).