Judges is About Needing God as King, not Man

Jephthah and daughter 165

Judges isn’t a story about Israelites refusing a king. It is a story about attempts to exalt a man as king and the catastrophic results of those attempts.

From the blog of Mark Horne: Solomon Says.


The book of Judges is not a lesson in how Israel needed a king. It is the opposite.

I’m not saying that Judges rules out the possibility that a righteous king could have helped with some of Israel’s problems. Moses had allowed that the tribes of Israel might choose a king in the future, and gave them God’s rules for a king (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

But Judges isn’t a story about Israelites refusing a king. It is a story about attempts to exalt a man as king and the catastrophic results of those attempts. From the story of Gideon onward, Judges is a history of rulers who began toying with dynastic ambitions. Then the book ends with two horrific stories. In those stories we meet the statement, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 19:25 ESV; see also 18:1; 19:1). But those stories are about degenerate Levites and come at the end of a history of God stopping his chosen judges from becoming kings.

By the way, after David and Solomon, I don’t see any evidence that Israel (divided into two kingdoms) was more righteous or civilized than the time of the judges. My sense of it is that there were more bad kings before (and leading to) the exile than there were bad judges before Saul. If I’m right, then the common reading of Judges requires more explanation to even make sense.

My understanding of a king is someone who holds a hereditary office. A king’s heir will be king if he outlives his father. At the time of Judges, Israel was ruled, above the level of local clans, by judges 1. who gained a reputation as faithful teachers and arbitrators, and 2. who assumed executive powers in times of national emergency.

The Framework of the Story of Judges

Looking at Judges as a unified book, it begins with two overviews: the first of the initial conquest and compromises with the Canaanites and the second explaining the cycle of judgment for idolatry (1:1-2:5 / 2:6-3:6). It ends, as I mentioned above, with two stories, one about an idolatrous Levite and then another about a Levite and the extermination of one of Israel’s own tribes (chapters 17 & 18 / 19-21). Interestingly, the first overview contains the tale of a marriage and the last story begins and ends with marriages as well.

Between those brackets, there is a history of Israel’s judges. For my purposes I will skip over Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, and Deborah & Barak and deal with Gideon.

Gideon the Turning Point

The role of Gideon in permanently altering the history and culture of Israel may be signified by him being the first judge raised up by a personal visitation by the Angel of the Lord (6:11). Gideon is a faithful judge who delivers Israel from the Midianites. In the glow of victory, however, he doesn’t stay completely on the right track.

Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also, for you have saved us from the hand of Midian.” Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you.” And Gideon said to them, “Let me make a request of you: every one of you give me the earrings from his spoil.” (For they had golden earrings, because they were Ishmaelites.) And they answered, “We will willingly give them.” And they spread a cloak, and every man threw in it the earrings of his spoil. And the weight of the golden earrings that he requested was 1,700 shekels of gold, besides the crescent ornaments and the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian, and besides the collars that were around the necks of their camels. And Gideon made an ephod of it and put it in his city, in Ophrah. And all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family. So Midian was subdued before the people of Israel, and they raised their heads no more. And the land had rest forty years in the days of Gideon.

Judges 8:22–28 ESV

Gideon, though he fought against false gods, established a shrine for idolatry in Israel. (I am sure it was treated as a way to worship the God of Israel, not the god of the Canaanites, but it was still a violation of God’s law. The only place for authorized worship was the Tabernacle.)

But the story shows another problem. Gideon had correctly refused to start a ruling dynasty: “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you.” But he was inconsistent. He had 70 sons. How? The text doesn’t make us speculate about marrying a female superhero: “Now Gideon had seventy sons, his own offspring, for he had many wives” (Judges 8:30 ESV). Additionally, he married a concubine who stayed in her hometown, which Gideon ruled from afar. He named his son by her Abimelech, “My father is king.”

Gideon obviously was still holding on to dreams of regal status. And, in doing so, he was violating a rule given by Moses to all future kings: “And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away” (Deuteronomy 17:17 ESV). Gideon wasn’t just acting like a king, but like a pagan king. He set a precedent that led to the fall of Solomon.

Abimelech used his royal status to convince his people he would be preferable to rule by Gideon’s other sons. He then massacred all his brothers, with only one escaping. Gideon’s dynastic ambition led to murder and civil war.

Who Wants to Be King?

One surviving half-brother of Abimelech spoke publicly about him in a parable:

The trees once went out to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, “Reign over us.” But the olive tree said to them, “Shall I leave my abundance, by which gods and men are honored, and go hold sway over the trees?’ And the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us.” But the fig tree said to them, “Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit and go hold sway over the trees?” And the trees said to the vine, “You come and reign over us.” But the vine said to them, “Shall I leave my wine that cheers God and men and go hold sway over the trees?” Then all the trees said to the bramble, “You come and reign over us.” And the bramble said to the trees, “If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade, but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.”

Judges 9:8–15 ESV

In the context, this parable was aimed at Abimelech and those who thought they were wise to support him in his coup. It basically says that productive people are too busy producing to rule over other men. Unproductive people want the power and end up destroying the productive. His prediction came true and Abimelech destroyed many.

Is this the kind of story that you put in a book about how Israel needed a king?

The Dynastic Ambition

Despite the ruinous results of Gideon’s inconsistency, other judges followed his example by attempting dynasties. Nothing bad is said about the next judge, Tola, but then:

After him arose Jair the Gileadite, who judged Israel twenty-two years. And he had thirty sons who rode on thirty donkeys, and they had thirty cities, called Havvoth-jair to this day, which are in the land of Gilead. And Jair died and was buried in Kamon.

Judges 10:3–5 ESV

Later, a couple of other judges followed the same practice. Ibzan “had thirty sons, and thirty daughters he gave in marriage outside his clan, and thirty daughters he brought in from outside for his sons. And he judged Israel seven years” (Judges 12:9 ESV). And, after the judge Elon, Abdon “had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys, and he judged Israel eight years” (Judges 12:14 ESV).

In fact, the pattern of the story from Gideon to Abdon is organized around dynastic ambitions. It forms what is called a “chiasm.”

A. Gideon has 70 sons.
B. Tola, does not seek dynasty, no sons mentioned.
C. Jair has 30 sons.
Jephthah does not initially strive for a dynasty, but then tests God and is denied.
C’. Ibzan has 30 sons.
B’. Elon, does not seek dynasty, no sons mentioned.
A’. Abdon has 70 sons.

The Story of Jephthah

Jephthah is the tale of a marginalized outsider who ended up delivering his hometown and ruling over it. It is a wonderful story, rendered incomprehensible to us by the idea that he slaughtered his daughter as a human sacrifice (Judges 11.29-40). I am not going to argue it here, but I don’t think the word translated “burnt offering” (that doesn’t say burnt or offering in the Hebrew) refers to human sacrifice. Yes, if you have a certain kind of sacrifice on the altar, it is referred to by that word. But this is a different context.

Rather than think Jephthah was someone who would casually offer the murder of one of his household, we ought to be amazed that, unlike Gideon and others, he was not trying to be a king. He had one and only one daughter. He had refused to violate the rule made for kings.

But he still wanted to be king and he wanted God’s permission. So He promised God the first person who came out to meet him–which would mean he (or she) would become a servant to the Tabernacle. Obviously, he was hoping the person would be one of his servants. But that wasn’t what God wanted.

His daughter mourned her future without a husband and children, not her alleged impending death. She would become a Tabernacle servant and never be married. Jephthah’s line was at an end.

The Structure of Judges Hinges on Gideon’s Sin

Here is a chiasm I got from James B. Jordan:

A. Israel’s failure to hold land against the Canaanites. Progressive compromise, leading to judgment. 1:1–2:5.
B. Israel’s idolatry, the cycle of judges, and war as God’s chastisement. 2:6–3:6.
C. Northern Gentiles (Mesopotamia), and Othniel. 3:7-11.
D. Descendants of Lot: Moab, and Ehud. 3:12-13.
E. Minor judge: Shamgar. 3:31.
F. Canaanites opposed. Women crush the serpent’s head. Deborah & Barak. 4-5.
G. Gideon’s faithfulness. 6:1–8:26.
G’. Gideon’s fall. 8:27-32.
F’. Canaanites embraced. Woman crushes the serpent’s head. “King Abimelech.” 8:33–9:57.
E’. Minor judges. 10:1-5.
D’. Descendants of Lot: Ammon, and Jephthah. 10:6–12:15.
C’. Southern Gentiles (Philistia: Egypt), and Samson. 13-16.
B’. Israel’s idolatry. 17-18.
A’. Israel’s faithfulness in destroying “Canaanites.” Faithfulness, leading to blessing and resurrection. 19-21.

For those who want more data, Jim Jordan’s commentary is unbeatable. Also, his chiastic analysis is found here. I relied on it and copied most of it, though I interpret Jephthah’s dynastic aspirations a bit more positively.

“No King in Israel”

As Judges says, God is supposed to be the king. The failure is pinned, to the extent that a single failure is responsible for national sin, on the perverse Levites. Levites were the tribe of pastors and teachers in Israel. When they failed, there ceased to be a king in Israel. The last two stories are meant to explain why Israel was without a king. The Levites were supposed to teach the people that God was their king.

It defies the entire message of the book to interpret Judges as claiming that Gideon of Jephthah or someone else was supposed to become a king.

So What about Your Kingdom?

In my book (AmazonKindle), I propose that Proverbs presupposes that we are all kings. Whatever Judges may teach us about society and law, it also has a message for each one of us. The autonomous quest for kingship led to civil war in Israel, and Solomon tells us that one finds real power in acknowledging God as king:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.
It will be healing to your flesh
and refreshment to your bones.

Proverbs 3:5–8 ESV

By doing what Solomon says, you can become a unified ruler of yourself rather than one who is at war with himself because at war with God.

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