The Carefully Crafted Message of the Book of Judges

September 7, 2016 | Robin Baker
About the author:

Academic scholarship on the book of Judges has largely either focused on evaluating it as a historical account or seen it as a hodgepodge of ancient folklore and heroic tales more similar to Greek epic than to anything else in the Bible. To Robin Baker, however, it is the work of an author (or authors) with considerable literary skill, aiming to convey a message akin to that of the Bible’s prophetic books:

[F]or all its earthy idiosyncrasy and a structure which, on superficial acquaintance, seems haphazard, not to mention its presentation of two of the most shocking episodes in the entire biblical corpus—the [apparent human sacrifice] of Jephthah’s daughter and the gang-rape and dismemberment of the Levite’s concubine—the work was recognized by the Jewish divines who compiled the biblical canon as a venerable prophetic text. . . .

If [this] book represents a form of historiography, it is as a spiritual history of the tribes of Israel during a defining epoch of their existence. But it is more. Embedded in its account is a prophetic element that concerns the southern kingdom of Judah, which still endured, albeit as an Assyrian vassal state, when Judges was [thought to have been] composed. Just as Ezekiel excoriated Judah for out-sinning [the northern kingdom of] Israel (Ezekiel 23:4-12), so Judges indicates that a punishment similar to the reckoning visited on Samaria awaited Jerusalem because it, too, rebelled against and was unfaithful to God.

Judges is remarkable in its literary virtuosity. It occupies a unique place in the Hebrew Bible for the diversity of its literary devices: song, riddle, parable, aphorism, even a password and a tongue-twister. The writer distorts the semantic boundaries of words, makes extensive use of layering, multi-perspectives, and mirror-imaging,and introduces an array of other literary techniques to amplify his theological message. . . .

This is a composition that, for all its brilliance in the portrayal of the heroic characters who give the book its modern title, takes as its essential focus just two actors: God and “the sons of Israel.” It is the epic account of their relationship that forms the subject of the book; it is the progressive, inexorable breakdown in that relationship that it maps through its 21 chapters.

Read more on Bible and Interpretation: