Literature / Book of Judges

Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and He saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the LORD was moved by their groaning because of those who afflicted them and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.
Judges 2:18-19

The Book of Judges is the seventh book of The Bible.

The Jewish structure holds Judges (in Hebrew, Shoftim) to be the second book of the Nevi'im (Prophets), the second part of the Tanakh. With Joshua, Samuel and Kings, they form the Nevi'im Reshonim (First Prophets), in opposition to the Nevi'im Acharonim (Later Prophets, called the "Minor Prophets" in some circles because there are a lot of them, none really stands out, and it's easy to get confused).

Years after the Israelites settled into Canaan, they are still suffering from foreign attacks and inter-tribal conflicts. Whenever Israel is in trouble, God calls a "Judge" to save them. That judge defeats the invaders and then rules the land, establishing a time of peace. But soon they die, Israel turns wicked again, the invaders return...

Judges is followed by the Book of Ruth in the Christian Old Testament and by Books of Samuel in the Jewish Tanakh.

This book is also best known for the story of Samson and Delilah.


This book contains the following tropes:

  • Anarchy Is Chaos: Shown in the events of the book, as summed up by the Arc Words below. When "everyone did as he pleased," the result was rampant amoral behavior.
  • Anti-Hero: Most of the Judges have their flaws, in particular Ehud, Jephthah and Samson. They all are used by God deliver Israel, but their grasp on morality is rather tenuous.
  • Arc Words: "Israel had no king in those days. Everyone did as he pleased."
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: The position of "Judge" was not just a judicial title, but also signified a badass military leader—think ancient versions of Judge Dredd.
    • Indeed, it's not entirely clear that "judge" is the best translation. Although deciding cases was an important duty of the judges, and Hebrews of later eras used the word for judicial officers exclusively, the judges of the Book of Judges seem to have had all kinds of other powers, including—as mentioned—commanding Israel's armies. Somewhat significantly, the title of shofet (that used in Hebrew for the Biblical Judges) was also used in the closely-related Phoenician language, where it signified a kind of non-royal magistrate. The title continued in use in various Phoenician colonies for centuries. The term reappears in a big way with Carthage, where the two elected suffetes—which is to say, shofets—were the ruling officials of the city and thus the empire, effectively equivalent to the Roman consuls. In fact, one might say that a better translation might be "Book of Consuls", since Roman consuls' powers were broadly similar (they had judicial, executive, and legislative responsibilities, and were responsible for commanding Rome's armies in wartime).
  • Badass Israeli: The whole book is about Jewish leaders who kicked the collective butts of their enemies.
  • Badass Preacher: The judges themselves were spiritual leaders of their communities, and a few of them (namely Gideon) actually spoke with God Himself.
  • Bastard Bastard: Abimelech, son of Gideon in Judges 8:29-9:56, was the illegitimate son of Gideon who murdered his 70 legitimate brothers (he had a lot of step-mothers), then conquered his father's kingdom.
  • Bloody Hilarious: The Undignified Death of Eglon, who is so fat that when he gets stabbed in the gut, the sword gets swallowed up by the blubber and Ehud has to leave it there.
  • Bond One-Liner: Samson: "With a donkey's jawbone, I have made donkeys of them."note 
  • The Berserker: When "the Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson", massive body counts ensued.
  • Call-Back: To Genesis, as with the case with the men of Sodom, the men of Gibeah in the land of Benjamin also harass a neighbor to bring out his guest so that they may "know" him. And their abuse also (in this case, almost) dooms the whole tribe of Benjamin to destruction.
  • Cargo Cult: Micah in Judges chapter 17 uses the silver that he took from his mother and then returned to make idols for himself and his family to worship, even getting a Levite to be a priest for him. A band of raiders from the tribe of Dan came in the following chapter to take the idols away along with the priest and began worshiping the idols once they set up their own town over a village they had conquered.
  • Cherry Tapping: Samson kills 1,000 Philistines with a donkey's jaw, and then follows it up with a pun.
  • Chosen One: The Judges all receive the Call to Adventure directly from God Himself.
  • Chronic Villainy: The Israelites lapse in their faith every time after God has saved them. The phrase "The children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD" occurs no less than seven times. Some Bible students blame Israel's first fall from the Lord on Joshua not setting up a proper successor for himself, as Moses through the Lord had set up Joshua to be for himself, so that Israel could be continually led on the path of righteousness.
  • Civil War: Between the tribe of Benjamin and the other tribes of Israel, when the men of Gibeah (a town in Benjamin) gang-raped and murdered a Levite man's concubine and the whole tribe refused to turn over the men responsible. This led to a breach in the tribes of Israel when the tribe of Benjamin is left with so few people in it, and the other tribes had to resort to a Loophole Abuse in their binding themselves with a oath to not give the men of Benjamin any of their daughters to be wives for them.
  • Cold Iron: 1:19 reads in its entirety "And the LORD was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron." This is never elaborated upon or explained, and has become something of a Memetic Mutation / Running Gag in parts of the internet. It doesn't work for Sisera in chapter 4, though.
  • Come to Gawk: After the Philistines capture Samson and put out his eyes, they decide to have a celebration by putting Samson on display in their dining hall. It would be the last party that most of the Philistines would attend, as Samson literally brings the house down.
  • Cowardly Lion:
    • Barak. When he insists on Deborah accompanying him to the battle even though he has already been promised a victory, Deborah tells him that she'll come, but for demanding this he won't be the one to kill Sisera; a civilian woman named Jael will be.
    • Gideon is introduced hiding from his enemies, and has to be reassured by no less than three miraculous signs before he's convinced that the Lord is actually choosing him.
  • Crapsack World: Turns out, when everyone follows the idea that Anarchy Is Chaos, they'll become completely immoral and be very vulnerable to oppression by their enemies.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Samson versus... well, anybody who was stupid enough to try fighting Samson.
  • Curse:
    • When Abimelech conspired with the leaders of Shechem to have Gideon's seventy sons all killed so Abimelech could be made king, the youngest son Jotham escapes and tells the people a parable before calling down a curse on both Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem that they would destroy each other. And eventually that's what ended up happening after three years.
    • In Judges chapter 17, Micah's mother had called a curse on whoever took the 1,100 pieces of silver from her. When Micah confessed to her that he was the one who took it, Micah's mother blessed him in the name of the Lord to remove the curse on him.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Quite possibly the men of Gibeah who ganged around the old man's house to desire "knowing" the Levite man who came to sojourn in that house. Instead, the old man gave them the Levite man's concubine, and they abused and raped her all night, leading to her death.
  • Down the Drain: In some translations of Judges 3, this is how Ehud escaped after killing King Eglon, who had defeated the Israelites, in a rather unusual manner.
  • Dumb Muscle: Gee, Samson, after the first few times Delilah springs the Philistines on you, maybe you'd figure out that she's setting you up and not tell her the actual secret of your strength?
  • The Empire: The Philistines make their first appearance here. They are known for their vast influence and mighty war machine.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Israel is in a period of moral decline, but the gang rape, murder, and dismemberment of a Levite woman outrages just about everyone. Everyone, that is, except for the tribe of Benjamin, who refused to turn over the men responsible for the gang rape and murder, which leads to a Civil War between them and the rest of Israel.
  • Explaining Your Power to the Enemy: After lying to Delilah several times about the source of his power—and getting ambushed by Philistines each time while trussed up exactly as he had described—Samson finally reveals that his power really comes from his long hair. Sure enough, next morning he wakes up with a shaved head and is captured by the Philistines, officially qualifying him as Too Dumb to Live.
  • Eye Scream: Samson had his eyes taken out when he was captured by the Philistines shortly after his Traumatic Haircut. He would pay them back the favor by bringing the temple right down upon them in his self-sacrifice.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Ehud's first mentioned as being left-handed - which meant, of course, that he would commonly carry a sword sheath on his right hip (which the passage confirms). When Ehud went to Eglon's keep as an envoy to 'pay tribute' (the monetary kind), it's heavily implied that the guards didn't think to check his right hip. (Most people were right-handed and would therefore carry a weapon on their left.) This allowed Ehud to waltz right into Eglon's throne room and shank him right in the gut, complete with Pre Ass Kicking One Liner.
  • Fat Bastard: Eglon, a corrupt king, is described as so fat that when he is stabbed to death, the cubit-long sword gets swallowed up by all the blubber. For those keeping track at home, that would make him at least four feet wide.
  • Fatal Flaw:
    • Samson's drunkenness and tendency to fall for "bad" women.
    • Jephthah's rashness led to the death of his daughter and a breakout of civil war that had previously been defused by Gideon.
  • Family-Unfriendly Violence: If you only know the stories from Sunday School lessons, you might be in for some surprises. A faithful movie adaptation of the book would easily earn a hard R rating.
  • Here We Go Again!: Israel falls into sin and worships false gods. Israel gets oppressed by their enemies. Israel repents and cries out to God for deliverance. God sends a Judge who mops up the enemies and establishes peace in the land. Eventually the Judge dies. Israel falls back into sin... and the cycle repeats no less than seven times throughout the book.
  • Heroic Bastard: Jephthah was the son of Gilead and a prostitute, and was exiled by his half-brothers for being a bastard. Later in life, they have to beg him to lead them to victory over the Ammonites. Some would say he's the other kind of bastard due to the very... confusing situation with his daughter, which is still a HUGE subject of contention among scholars.
  • Heroic Seductress: Some interpretations of the Hebrew word for "cover" portray Yael as one; the more innocent interpretation assumes she "covered" Siserah with a blanket and tucked him in before assassinating him, but many scholars interpret the word to mean she covered him with her body. Read: she had sex with him (no less than seven times!) until he was exhausted, then finished him off in his sleep.
  • Honor Before Reason: Jephthah makes a vow to sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his door upon his victorious return from battle— and feels obligated to keep the vow when unfortunately that thing is his only daughter.
  • Hope Spot: The battle of Gibeah showed the Israelite tribes can still band together to oppose evil.
  • Hot-Blooded: Samson was a Hot-Blooded World's Strongest Man who killed a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. After a deadly Humiliation Conga that involved a certain seductress, a Traumatic Haircut and Eye Scream, he took down thousands more with him by breaking the pillars of a temple.
  • Human Sacrifice: The tale of Jephthah ends with a human sacrifice due to his Honor Before Reason rash vow. The text is somewhat ambiguous, though, whether his daughter was literally killed as a burnt offering or simply "sacrificed" herself by becoming a celibate temple servant note .
  • Idiot Ball:
    • Samson finds some bees have made their hive in the corpse of a lion, so he eats some of the honey and gives the rest to his parents. The honey that came from a dead lion. Especially bad since, as a Nazarite, he's not allowed to touch, let alone eat, anything that came from corpses.
    • Samson could be quite clever, coming up with a Batman Gambit to make sure his escalating war with the Philistines wouldn't end up antagonizing other tribes of Israel, coming up with a good riddle, executing a clever plan for revenge, and testing his Philistine girlfriend before fully trusting her. But the fact that she was his girlfriend was enough to make him trust her anyway, ignoring the fact that she'd failed said test. Three times.
  • Improbable Weapon User:
    • Shamgar used an ox goad and Samson had his... donkey's jaw bone.
    • Also, Yael, who killed the enemy general Siserah using a mallet and a tent peg.
  • I Was Beaten by a Girl:
    • In Chapter 9, we have the story of Abimelech, who was mortally wounded when a woman dropped a millstone on his head. He had one of his men kill him so that people wouldn't say that a woman killed him. This is referenced later on and unfortunately for him, they still say a woman killed him.
    • When Sisera is killed by Yael, a woman, this is regarded both as a humiliation for his side and an embarrassment for Barak, since a woman won the victory.
  • Jewish Mother: Deborah, Judge over Israel, is prevailed upon to lead her people to victory in war when she realises they are figuratively her children, and they are being sore oppressed by the enemies encroaching on all sides. She rides to war in her mighty chariot specifically as a mother defending her children. She also uses their sense of shame and guilt to manipulate them into fighting behind her.
  • Just a Kid: When Gideon finally captures Zebah and Zalmunnah in Chapter 8, he tells his firstborn son Jether to put the two men to death with his sword, but the narrative says Jether wouldn't do it because he was still just a youth. Zebah and Zalmunnah goad Gideon into showing his manliness by him putting them to death himself, and Gideon obliges.
  • Karma Houdini: The unnamed Levite who sparks the civil war between the tribe of Benjamin and the rest of the Israelites. He goes to his father-in-law to take back his wife who is implied to have run away from him in the first place because he mistreats her. Later, while lodging in Gibea, when the male inhabitants of the town come to kill him for unknown reasons, he locks himself in and his wife out who consequently gets gang-raped and killed by the Gibeans. Then, after he comes home, he cuts her corpse into pieces to send them to the other tribes who unanimously agree that he is the one being wronged. Values Dissonance, obviously, but even so. Subverted as he still had to face God's judgment. No amount of Karma Houdini will protect you from Elohim.
  • Let Me Get This Straight...: From the New Living Translation of Judges 11:9:
    Jephthah said to the elders, “Let me get this straight. If I come with you and if the Lord gives me victory over the Ammonites, will you really make me ruler over all the people?”
  • Load-Bearing Hero: Samson, though it's an inversion since he brings down the temple! He's still the hero, though. He also pulls up a set of city gates and walks away with them.
  • Loophole Abuse: The other tribes had vowed not to give their daughters to the Benjaminates as wives, then regretted that decision because it would have led to the extinction of the tribe. Fortunately (?), they realized the vow didn't say anything about not letting the Benjaminites abduct their daughters for marriage....
  • Made a Slave: The Israelites enslaved the remainder of the Canaanites who had not been destroyed. They became "thorns in Israel's side".
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Samson sees a Philistine woman and tells his parents that he wants to marry her. The parents question Samson's choice of marrying a pagan woman, but the narrative says that God used that for Samson to strike against the Philistines. The marriage initially isn't fully consummated, as Samson ended up having his wife be given to another man, but later on when he tries to have a private moment with her and his father-in-law refuses to let Samson do so, offering his other daughter to him instead, Samson decides to do a little vandalism by having some foxes run through the fields of the Philistines and burn down their standing grain with torches tied to the foxes' tails. This results in the Philistines killing Samson's wife and her father, which in turn results in Samson giving the Philistines a serious beat-down before he hid himself away in the rock of Etam.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: Gideon had seventy sons, thanks to polyamory.
  • Million-to-One Chance: Invoked in the story of Gideon. God instructs him to reduce his army to only 300 men and arm them only with torches and pitchers, just so it would be even more obvious that the battle was won thanks to divine intervention.
  • Musical Episode: The story of Deborah the judge includes a song sung by Deborah and Barak giving praise to the Lord for their victory.
  • No Ending: The book's last lines are the yet another case of "Israel had no king in those days. Everyone did as he pleased."
  • No Dead Body Poops: Averted when King Eglon is stabbed in the gut by the left-handed Ehud, causing "the dirt" to come out. The fact that "dirt" is excrement is made even clearer when Eglon's personal guard delay going in to check on him because they believe him to be relieving himself—they can smell it.
  • Offered the Crown: The men of Israel offer Gideon kingship for saving them. Gideon refuses, but instead asks for enough gold so that he could make idols for himself.
  • One Drink Will Kill the Baby: Samson's mother is advised by an angel at the start of her pregnancy not to drink any alcohol, or even to eat (unfermented) grapes or raisins. This, however, didn't have anything to do with concern for the fetus' physical safety or well-being, but for his spiritual well-being. (Remember, too, that almost everyone drank alcohol back then, even during pregnancy, because drinking wine or beer tended to be safer than drinking untreated water.) He was destined to become a Nazirite. The Nazirites were a group of Jewish ascetics who, among other things, were forbidden from consuming alcohol or even unfermented grapes.
  • One-Man Army: Samson kills one thousand Philistines with a donkey's jawbone. Give a medal to those 400 soldiers that thought they'd succeed where 600 of them had failed.
  • Pre Ass Kicking One Liner: Ehud to Eglon: "I have a message from God for you."
  • Punished for Sympathy: In Judges 2:1-4, an angel of the LORD scolds the Israelites for incomplete genocide of the inhabitants of Canaan as well as being friendly with them. To punish them, God allows the Canaanites to be the Israelites' oppressors.
  • Rape and Revenge: A Levite man gives his concubine to a bunch of horny townsmen to protect his own ass. They rape her to death, and he hacks up her body and distributes the pieces to his buddies to call them to war with the town of Gibeah.
  • Riddle Me This: Samson challenges his wedding guests with a bet on the riddle, "Out of the eater came something to eat / Out of the strong came something sweet." The guests aren't able to guess it, so they resort to cheating by pressuring his wife to extract the answer from him. Samson doesn't take this well at all. (The answer is that Samson killed a lion and discovered that bees had made honey in its carcass.)
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Samson doesn't take the death of his wife by the Philistines very well, and ends up killing a bunch of them to get even with them for doing that.
  • Salt the Earth: In Judges 9:45, Abimelech conquered the city of Shechem and sowed it with salt.
    All that day Abimelech pressed his attack against the city until he had captured it and killed its people. Then he destroyed the city and scattered salt over it. (New International Version)
  • Sequel Hook: "Israel had no king in those days." Guess what the next book is about.
  • Shaming the Mob: When Gideon pulls down the altar of Baal, an angry mob of Baal-worshipers shows up to execute him. Gideon's father defuses the situation by pointing out that, if Baal is really a god, he would be quite capable of dealing with Gideon on his own.
  • Shibboleth: The Trope Namer, from a password that gave away whether the speaker had an Ephraimite regional accent. The Ephraimites would pronounce it "Sibboleth," revealing that they were enemy agents, and get killed for their troubles.
  • Son of a Whore: Jephthah, who was called that by his half-brothers in the Living Bible translation when he was driven from his family.
  • The Southpaw: The first and really only extraordinary attribute mentioned about Ehud. This, of course, becomes important later.
  • Split Hair: Judges 20:16, the tribe of Benjamin had "seven hundred chosen men lefthanded", each one being able to "sling stones at an hair breadth, and not miss".
  • Summon Everyman Hero: Several of the judges (most notably Gideon) are just ordinary guys who happen to be The Chosen One. Gideon is incredulous and takes a good deal of convincing that the angel is delivering the message to the right person. It turns out that that's exactly the point: God is setting up a Batman Gambit to prove that the victory came from divine intervention rather than superior fighting ability.
  • Taking You with Me: How Samson decides to go out, pulling down an entire temple on top of several thousand Philistines and himself.
  • The Theocracy: Israel is ostensibly governed as one of these, with the Judges and prophets ruling as God's representatives. Practically, this has rather mixed results.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Samson tells Delilah his weakness, after she has already tried to betray him multiple times.
  • Traumatic Haircut: Samson, after he tells Delilah about his weakness, which resulted in his easy capture. Fortunately it grows back in order for Samson to deliver the coup-de-grace upon the Philistines for taking out his eyes.
  • Undignified Death:
    • When King Eglon is stabbed by Ehud through his bowels, fecal matter spills out from the wound.
    • King Sisera is lured to sleep by the wife of one of his allies then stabbed in the head with a tent peg.
    • Abimelech was mortally wounded when a woman dropped a millstone on his head. He immediately told his armor bearer to finish the job, so that no one would know he had been killed by a woman. It didn't work, as Joab years later would imagine King David would say that to the messenger who brought him back news about the men who sacrificed their lives in their attempt to capture a city.
  • Unfortunate Names:
    • In Judges 9:21, there's a mention of a city called Beer. Of course, it didn't mean that in Hebrew, but still...
    • Puah, son of Dodo.
  • Withholding Their Name: When Samson's parents ask the Angel of the LORD what His real name is, the Angel refuses to answer, saying instead, “Why do you ask My name, seeing it is wonderful?” Other translations have Him say the name is "beyond understanding".
  • World's Strongest Man: Samson was given supernatural strength by God. He could do stuff like beating an entire army with a donkey's jawbone.

Alternative Title(s): Judges

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