Sefer Shoftim (Book of Judges)

The Hebrew word that is often translated “Judge” as in the Biblical book Judges, is Shofet. Judge is, however, a poor translation. Shofet proceeds from a root word that means ruler or, perhaps more accurately in English, chieftain. The Shofet was the leader of the Israelites until a King was chosen.

Shemot (Exodus) and Bamidbar (Numbers) include specific descriptions of the office of Shofet. Devarim (Deuteronomy) is the only book of the Torah that refers to a king. In the books that follow the Torah, Yehoshua (Joshua) and Shoftim (Judges) this is the officer who leads the IsraelitesAlthough Moshe, a Levite, somewhat fulfills the role of the Shofet he was also a Prophet. He passed the leadership to Yehoshua the Ephramite, who might be considered the first Shofet. After Yehoshua the office passed to Kalev (Caleb) the Kenizite, then to Otanel of Yehudah after the region was conquered by a foreign power possibly Egypt or a Mesopotamian kingdom. 

The shofet is an office where the office holder holds office either for life or at the sufferance of the community. The Israelites can decide to replace a Shofet if they find him or her unequal to the task and seek out a more competent leader. The shofet is chosen, or chooses himself, based upon his or her merits. If a general is required by the circumstances, a military leader will be chosen. If a wise jurist and diplomat is required, such as Devorah (Deborah), then that is the person who will be chosen. In general there is usually someone holding the office, but there may have been significant periods, particularly early in the Book of Shoftim (Judges) where there was no leader for the Israelites.
Initially, there seemed to be a continuity between these shoftim, but as time progresses the continuity fades. Historical evidence also suggests, as does the order in which information is presented in the book’s narrative, that the book may be out of order. Events included at the end of the period described by the book are given at the beginning. The great Karaite Hackam (wise man) Jakub Al-Qirqisani said that science and philosophy can be applied to scripture provided that we take its divine inspiration as a given. In this case we can apply science to Sefer Shoftim and analyse it with objective information, such as archaeology and history. When one does they find that the book seems to be very much out of chronological order. Likely because a compiler of the work did not know the order of events or because chronological order did not hold the same importance in that cultural environment. Throughout the centuries well-meaning historians in many cultures have made minor errors that confuse later generations.
The book of Shoftim begins by stating that the Canaanites had not been completely defeated by Yehoshua (Joshua), picking up about where the book of Yehoshua leaves off. Calev is the next Shofet after Yehoshua possibly for the entire thirty years mentioned before Otanel comes to office, but this is not made clear. A foreign King (possibly from Egypt or Mesopotamia) then comes to oppress the Israelites for eight years. Otanel organizes resistance, drives out the foreigners and there is peace for 40 years. We go on through the stories of Devorah and Barak, later Gidon (Gideon), and eventually we arrive at Samson.
This is where there are problems with the order of the book. It appears that a later editor (perhaps in the time of King Hizkiyahu when the histories were probably compiled) restructured the book or perhaps compiled it with additional historical information. Some of the events seem to happen out of order. The Israelite civil war, for example, appears to have happened shortly after the Israelites enter Kena’an (Canaan), while Ehud struggles agains the Moabites and Shamgar are fighting Philistines who most likely were not present in the region at the time as they arrived around 1200 BCE according to the factual archaeological record. The Moabites, and other inland nations, do not seem to have been powerful during this time either having achieved more power during the time around that of the Shofet Yephtah who fought the Ammonites.
I believe the book could be better ordered in accordance with evidence from historical, archaeological, and Biblical information. The re-ording is a relatively small matter which can be easily rectified by simply changing the order in which we read the book. We should begin, obviously, at chapter 1. As of verse 3:7, where the judgment of Israel section ends, we should read chapters 17-21 before continuing. These are the stories of Micah and the alternative altar that existed until the time that the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines, the conquest of land by the Danites, and the Israelite Civil War with Binyamen (Benjamin). From 3:7 the book continues in order for a time.
Another chronological problem appears when we reach Ehud and Shamgar, and this would not be a problem but that the events they describe probably took place after Samson, these are thus the last stories of the book, and thus chapter 3:12-31 should be read last. When it comes to the story of Ehud we can also find evidence for a later timeframe. The Moabites, whose King Ehud assassinated were not likely to have had the power to oppress the Israelites during the years that followed Devorah (circa 1450 BCE). What is more, these sections seem to have been inserted without context. Devorah and Barak up through the story of Samson seem to be in the correct order based upon evidence from the Amarna Letters and other Egyptian histories. We see possible references to Gidon’s son Abimelech in the Amarna letters, for example.

Here is how the book should be read in what I believe to be the correct order:

Chapter Summary Current Corrected

o Incomplete Conquest of the Canaanites (1:1-36)
o Judgment of Israel (2:1-3:6)
o Micah’s Idolatry and the Danites (17:1-18:31)
o Crime at Gibeah and War Against Benjamin (19:1-21:25)
o Otanel (3:7-11)
o Deborah and Barak (4:1-5:31)
o Gideon and Abimelech (6:1-8:32)
o Tola and Yair (10:1-5)
o Yephtah (10:6-12:7)
o Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon (12:8-15)
o Samson (13:1-16:31)
o Ehud (3:12-30)
o Shamgar (3:31)

If/when you read the book try reading it in this order. It makes for a more continuous story when read this way and is in the proper historical chronology.


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