The Theme Of Judges - "There Was No King In Israel"

Identifying the theme(s) of any book can be a Herculean endeavor. Concretely identifying the theme(s) of a book that is over 2,000 years old is near impossible. This affirmation is especially relevant for Judges. Representative of the difficulty of this task is the time-proven example of past scholars attempts to establish a biblical theme, later finding ostracism from the academic community for “limiting” Scripture in some way. The main reason that has lead to this is that the majority of past thematic analyses have, for the most part, relied on theological presuppositions.            

            For the conservative Bible student, however, the task of identifying theme(s) is, in a tentative way at least, attainable. The difference is that conservative students perform exegesis rather than eisegesis. Properly executed textual exegesis reveals authorial intent and thereby enables the suggestion of a tentative theme and/or themes. The key idea is that the theme, or themes, will be both suggestive and tentative. Further exegesis may prove these conclusions inadequate and require reworking. This is not, in any way, a means of discouraging thematic study, but rather to establish that precautions must be adhered to in order to soundly label a text with a particular theme. With these precautions in mind, it is the duty of the current author to provide a working theme for the Old Testament book of Judges via analysis of the historical context of Israel and the actual text of Judges.

Context of Judges

            A necessary question to ask concerning any non-fiction book is identifying the sitz-im-leben, or situation in life, for protagonists, antagonists, and/or the historical or implicit author of a book. While there is not an individual character that represents everything contained in Judges, we may look at the gestalt Israelite nation since the nation is discussed collectively in Judges, as well as the entire Old Testament. In order to do this, a brief survey of the history of Israel must be made.

            Israel had been enslaved in the land of Egypt since the time of the patriarchal progenitors of Israel (i.e. Joseph and the rest of the sons of Jacob). Under this bondage, the people cried out to God for freedom and the LORD heard their voice (Ex. 2:23-25; 3:7-9; Deut 26:6-9). God appointed Moses as leader of the people and anointed him to serve as the earthly means of deliverance (Ex. 3).[1] Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea and towards the land of freedom; that is, Canaan, the land “flowing with milk and honey.”[2] During the trek across the wilderness that lies between Egypt and Canaan, the people consistently grumbled, complained, and blamed Moses for dismal circumstances.[3] These circumstances were ultimately meant as God’s testing of their faith in Him as their leader and King, the one who would walk before them and fight their battles (cf. Heb 3:7-11). Due to this grumbling, the LORD, in His anger, did not allow that original generation to enter the land (Deut 34:4). He would, however, allow the next. All He asked was for them to remember their King, the LORD God Almighty, for His gift of freedom. Jehovah is the only King that can deliver.

            The Israelites, under the headship of Moses’ successor Joshua, cross the Jordan River and enter the land of Canaan. A key setting for these people would be here on the other side of the Jordan at a place known as Gilgal. At this place, they establish stones for each of the twelve tribes as a memento; this memento would be didactic, teaching future Israelite descendants how the LORD had delivered them. Once in Canaan, they are commissioned to clear the land of the sinful Canaanites so that the nation of Israel would not be led astray.[4] If the reader depends merely on the book of Joshua, it would seem as though the Israelites accomplish this goal; however, the book of Judges tells a different story. In the first several chapters of Judges, the lack of Canaanite annihilation is clearly outlined. Klein identifies two distinct perspectives in this section: Israel’s (1:1-36) and God’s (2:1-3:6).[5] All in all, the people did not clear the land and God’s command is not obeyed. At this point, the reader acknowledges the primary failure of the people to result in the further perversion of the Israelite people. As Chisholm notes, “The covenant community disintegrated morally and socially as it assimilated Canaanite culture and beliefs.”[6] Daniel Block even goes as far as to cite “the Canaanization of Israel” as the “unifying theme” of Judges.[7] The denouement of this perversion is their rejection of God’s vessels of deliverance (the Judges), their rejection of God as their King, and their desire to have an earthly king to fight their battles for them, modeling this after the sinful Canaanites. As Howard keenly observes, “The book was written to show the consequences of disobedience to God and to point the way to a king, who, if he were righteous, would lead the people to God.”[8]


Text of Judges & Relationship to the Rest of the OT

            A general consensus among scholars shows three major sections in Judges: a prologue (1:1-2:5), a body (2:6-16:31), and an epilogue (17:1-21:25).

            The prologue consists of a discussion of the conquest after Joshua’s death. However, before proceeding into this discussion, the reader must note a key emphasis on the positive role of leadership. As Chisholm states, "The prologue indirectly contributes to [the] thematic development by providing paradigms of competent leadership in Joshua and Caleb, who become foils for the failed [Judges] presented in the stories. But the prologue does not speak of the judges in negative terms. This theme of failed leadership, rather than emerging from the prologue, arises in the stories and paves the way for the epilogue, which specifically laments the moral condition that overtook the land because of the leadership void."[9] Cundall provides an adequate outline for the prologue focusing on Israel’s failure to complete the conquest of Canaan and suggests four subsections:

  1. The conquest of southern Canaan (1:1-21)
  2. The Capture of Bethel (1:22-26)
  3. A Catalogue of Unoccupied Territory (1:27-36)
  4. The effect of the broken covenant (2:1-5).[10]

The body discusses the influence of both Major and Minor judges in the following cycle:

  1. The Israelites do evil in the sight of the LORD (2:11; 3:7, 12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1)
  2. Foreign nations bring oppression to the Israelites (as a form of God’s judgment) because of their sins (2:14; 3:8; 4:2; 10:9)
  3. The Israelites cry out to the LORD (3:9, 15; 6:6-7; 10:10)
  4. The LORD hears and raises a deliverer (2:16; 3:9, 15; 10:1, 12)[11]

            Chisholm provides an exceptional connection between the body and prologue by stating that, “The [body], in harmony with the prologue, tell how God accomplished great deeds through human leaders. However, the stories also introduce another perspective. They illustrate how lack of faith and wisdom marred Israel’s leaders and kept them from realizing their potential.”[12] Contained within the body are several stories which identify the sinful reasoning of the people for a king. The most prominent of these stories is located in chapter 8 in which the people attempt to force kingship upon Gideon after he brings deliverance from the Amalekite and Midianite forces. Gideon’s response is that the LORD alone is Israel’s King. This response can be taken in two different ways: either Gideon is making a deeply spiritual statement (which would be nice to hear from a Judge) or he is denying kingship based on his own personal qualms. The more probable explanation is that Gideon rejected kingship due to his desire to be treated as a king, without the political responsibility for his actions.

            The epilogue discusses the sinful impacts of the Canaanite presence in the land, surveys the Israelite rejection of the Ultimate King (compare Deborah’s ascription of the LORD’s sovereignty in 5:4-5), and records Israel’s desire to be like pagans who have kings. In the epilogue there are two stories. The first is of Micah the prophet’s household shrine which the Danites steal and use for idolatrous worship (17:1-19:1a). The second records rape and murder plus the resulting conflict between Benjamin and the rest of the tribes of Israel. As Chisholm suggests, “The epilogue’s two accounts illustrate what happened in Israelite society when there was an absence of competent leadership and show why Israel needed and ideal king.”[13] Viktor Hamilton provides an intriguing list of parallels between the failed reign of Saul and the last two chapters of Judges appealing to: the tearing apart of flesh and sending out to the tribes (1Sam 11:7), the focus on Jabesh-gilead, Gibeah, and Ramah (1Sam 7:17; 10:26; 11:1-13; 15:34), the role of Benjamin in national sin (Saul’s national origin), a key host-guest relationship (1Sam 9:22-26), and the mention of 600 survivors/followers (1Sam 11:2).[14]

            The title “Judges” is somewhat deceiving due to the present understanding of the office. The “Judges” of the Old Testament were better seen as military leaders in most cases (excluding Deborah perhaps). The idea is that when Israel came under oppression, the LORD raised up Judges to defend and protect the people. In a simple sense, the Judges were God’s chosen means of deliverance. In this way, the Judges were comparable to a military king, without the monarchial overtones and overall structure. The Judges would serve as test-dummies to precede the monarchy. There has been a generally-accepted division amongst the Judges into two categories: the Minor Judges and the Major Judges. While this distinction helps students to understand certain aspects of the Judges, it also assumes a distinction between the two categories. However, the minute differences between the “Minor Judges” and the “Major Judges” are the space devoted to each and the mode of deliverance. The influence of each Judge is summarized below.


Passages In Judges:Name Of JudgeMost Notable Actions
3:7-11Othniel1st Judge; Defeats Cushan-rishathaim, king of Mesopotamia
3:15-30EhudLeft-handed; kills Eglon, king of Moab
3:31ShamgarKills 600 Philistines with ox goad
4-5Deborah And BarakDeliver Israel from Jabin, king of Canaan
6-8GideonWith his 300 men, defeats the Amalekites and Midianites, at odds of 450-1
10:1-5Tola and Jair (1st list of Minor Judges)Total deliverance of 45 years
10:6-12:7JephthahRash vow to sacrifice daughter
12:8-15Ibzan, Elon, Abdon (2nd list of Minor Judges)Total deliverance of 25 years
13-16SamsonPhilanderer and Nazirite


            The task of identifying the key theme of Judges is made easier by manifestly repeated phrasing, typing, and shadowing throughout the three aforementioned divisions of the text. Several key phrases allude to the lack of submission to God’s leadership in the land of Israel.

            Of primary importance is the phrase, “there was no king in Israel.” This definitive thematic statement is repeated several times towards the end of Judges (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25) and suggests a monarchy to come. In half of these usages, the additional phrase “and everyone did what was right in his own eyes” is added (17:6 and 21:25). This usage initiates an inverse parallelism for these chapters with the same focus prevalent in each of the components – the lack of a king in the land of Israel. The statement has two hermeneutic points: there was not yet an earthly king in the land and there was no reverence for the true King (8:23) who was currently, and would eternally remain, on the throne. Younger suggests a double introduction and conclusion resulting from thematic connections and these statements, therefore arguing (as the current author does) that the statement represents more than just the lack of a physical king; it also focuses on the lack of a spiritual king.[15]

            The lack of an earthly king shows the lack of fundamental structure for the people. Repeatedly, the author of Judges highlights the disunity among the tribes in light of victories and defeats under their Judges and military heroes (5:15b-17; 7:24-8:17; 12:1-6; 15:10-11; 20-21). Since Israel resisted God as their ultimate authority, they desired some earthly-structured sense of government. For the Israelites, the Judges merely served as a means-to-an-end and lacked the basic organized system of rule inherent in a monarchy (2:16-17). As Longman and Dillard succinctly state, “The book of judges shows clearly that decentralized rule, even blessed with periodic divine intervention in the nation’s leadership and wars, would not produce a holy nation.”[16] The LORD had used flawed men (and even a woman) to show Israel that human leadership cannot be in place of divine leadership. Nevertheless, the people desired a king and would not rest until one was in office. Moses, years earlier, knew that Israel would desire a king and in his revelation of the law of God, made provisions for the kingship (Dt. 17:14-20). Every nation the Israelites had ever known had some central form of government and the belief that God was their King would not stand in place of a tangible system of government, one that they could see and devote themselves toward in a tangible sense. Samuel later reveals what this desire for a king will means and will lead to in 1Sam 8:11-18:


"These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day." (ESV)


            The reasoning of the Israelites for their desire of kingship also reveals their disobedience to God. As is explicitly stated in 1Sam 8, the people’s desire for a king was based on a rejection of God (v. 7) and the desire to be as the pagans (v. 5). As the author of Judges passionately seeks to prove, particularly in the case of Abimelech (Ch. 9), human kings cannot deliver the people as God has in the past, continues to in the present, and will in the future. And yet, the book of Judges anticipates and prepares for the nation to form a monarchy to rule over them as laid out in Samuel-Chronicles. The people had indeed been influenced by the sinful cohabitant Canaanites and had allowed themselves to be influenced to sin against God (see esp. 2:17; 8:27, 33).

            The most powerful argument against a human monarchy in place of God’s rule is when God’s intentions are revealed. The desire of the LORD is for all to be in communion with Him, fully trusting Him as their King and Deliverer. However, because of their lack of faithfulness, they will see corruption through the failures of the human kings. Due to their lack of reverence for God, He will hand them over to the fruit of their desires. God will in a sense execute lex talionis on the people. As they desire withdrawal from Him, so they shall receive. Without the omnipotent King on their side, Israel will have a fallible, earthly ruler. This frailty of human rulers is first seen in Saul, then in David (despite his overwhelmingly good qualities), Solomon, and the rest of the kings of both the United and the Divided Kingdoms.

Concluding Remarks

            Christians can learn from the failures of the Israelite nation. While the temptation is always present to consider the Israelites as ignorant, sinful-minded people, we must be mindful that such were we (1Cor 6:11). We must also realize that God has established an example through the leaders of Israel, both in her judges and in her kings. David, for instance, is described as one who sought after the very heart of God (1Sam 13:14; Acts 13:22). The judges likewise serve as an example of unconquerable faith (Heb 11:32-33).

            As Longman and Dillard note, “We too need a champion to fight our battles for us, one raised up by God and invested with his Spirit in full measure; we too need a leader to secure for us the inheritance that God has promised, one who will perfect our faith.”[17] We must realize that Jesus Christ has fought our battles and has conquered our foes – sin, Satan, and death (1Cor 15:54-58). We have a King who exhibited the fullness of deity and also of man (Eph 1:23; Col 1:19; 2:9; Heb 4:15). We are redeemed by the ultimate King, one who is full of compassion, mercy, justice, and righteousness perfectly balanced. Christ remains forever as the propitiation for our sins (Rom 3:25; Heb 2:17; 1Jn 2:2; 4:10) and as the commander and King of the armies of light (Rev 19:14, 19). He holds the keys of Hades and Death (Rev 1:18) and if He is for us, who can be against us? (Rom 8:31)


[1] Conservative scholars date the Exodus at 1446 B.C. whereas more liberal scholars push the date as late as possible.


[2] This exact surname for Canaan is used 17x in the OT: Ex. 3:18,17; 13:5; 33:3; Lev. 20:24; Num. 16:13, 14; Deut. 6:3; 11:9; 26:9, 15; 27:3; Jos. 5:6; Jer. 11:5; 32:22; Ezek. 20:6, 15. This is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic land promise recorded in Gen. 12:1; 15; 17.


[3] Several examples of this grumbling include: Ex. 15:24; 16:2; 17:3

[4] A note may be made here concerning the omnibenevolence of God. Some have sought to allow this event to deny the goodness and love of God; however, this is not the case. God is Just and Holy. He had given the Canaanites room to repent (cf. Gen 15:6); yet, the Canaanites forsook that forgiveness. They would only pervert the nation of Israel and therefore must be eliminated. Due to the failure of the Israelites to fulfill this task, God is shown to be omniscient in that the Israelites were perverted by these people.


[5] R. Klein. The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges. Sheffield: Almond, 1988. 11-21.


[6] Robert B. Chisholm Jr. “Interpreting the Historical Books: An Exegetical Handbook.” Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis. Ed. by David M. Howard Jr. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006. p. 93.


[7] Daniel Block. Judges and Ruth. NAC. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999. pp. 57-59.


[8] David M. Howard. An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books. Chicago: Moody, 1993. 116. For further discussion on how the case for kingship is made via outline/structure of the book, Israel’s desire for Gideon to rule over them (8:22-23), and Abimelech’s failure as king, see Howard, 138-140.

[9] Chisholm 95.


[10] Arthur E. Cundall and Leon Morris. Judges and Ruth. TOTC. Downers Grove: IVP, 2008. 50.


[11] For more expanded forms of this cycle, see Younger 35 and Hamilton 114.


[12] Chisholm 99.


[13] Chisholm 96.


[14] Viktor P. Hamilton. Handbook on the Historical Books. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001. pp. 168-169.

[15] K. Lawson Younger Jr. Judges and Ruth. NIVAC. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 30-33.


[16] Longman III, Tremper and Raymond Dillard. An Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.

[17] Longman and Dillard, 143.





Block, Daniel J. Judges and Ruth. NAC. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1999.


Boling, Robert. Judges. AB. New York: Doubleday, 1974.


Brown, Cheryl A. “Judges” in Joshua, Judges, Ruth. NIBC. Ada: Baker Academic, 1995.


Butler, Trent. Judges. WBC. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006.


Chisholm Jr., Robert B. “Interpreting the Historical Books: An Exegetical Handbook.” Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis. Ed. by David M. Howard Jr. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006.


Cundall, Arthur E. and Leon Morris. Judges and Ruth. TOTC. Downers Grove: IVP, 2008.


Hamilton, Victor P. Handbook on the Historical Books. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001. pp. 97-185.


Howard, David M. An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books. Chicago: Moody, 1993. pp. 113-141.


R. Klein. The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges. Sheffield: Almond, 1988


Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel. IB. vol. 2. Ed. by George Arthur Buttrick. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1953.


Longman III, Tremper and Raymond Dillard. An Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.


Niditch, Susan. Judges: A Commentary. Louisville: John Knox, 2008.


Wolff, Herbert M. “Judges” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. vol. 3. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.


Younger Jr., K. Lawson. Judges and Ruth. NIVAC. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.