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Old Testament Theology

A Narrative Critique of Judges 21

The book of Judges is positioned within the Old Testament narrative as a testimony of the period of Israelite history that is “concerned with the era between the death of Joshua and the rise of Saul”[1]. This era in biblical history as depicted in the book of Judges is marked by moments of great uncertainty and danger in the life of the people of Israel.[2] As described by M. O’Conner in his commentary on the book of Judges in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, one of the primary questions that the book of Judges asks is, “How did Israel live without a great leader?”[3] This question is responded to within the context of the overarching narrative structure of the book of Judges. This overall narrative structure of the book of Judges can be viewed as a key element within the book that allows for the “discerning of the narrator’s internal interpretive emphasis”[4], which also allows for a multifaceted depiction of how Israel lived without a central leader of the likes of Moses and Joshua.

            Richard Bowman in his narrative critique of Judges in the essay “Human Purpose in Conflict with Divine Presence” frames the narrative within the book of Judges in three parts[5]:

  1. The Prologue (Judges 1:1-3:6): The narrative content in this section emphasizes the Israelites various attempts to possess the land of Canaan and their failure’s to accomplish this task. To emphasis this point Bowman points out “the ten fold repetition of the verbal phrase ‘did not/will not drive out’” (1:19,21,27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33; 2:3).
  2. The Era of the Judges (Judges 3:7-16:31): Bowman indicates that the era of the Judges begins as a consequence of the Israelites “failure to drive out the inhabitants of the land”. This narrative segment is also divided into six episodes, which give an account of six major Judges over the Israelites. Bowman in his description of this narrative segment again highlights the presence of a repetitive verbal phrase. Bowman states that each episode “is introduced by the thematically as well as structurally significant phrase “the Israelites [again] did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (3:7, 12; 4:1; 6:1;10:6;13:1).

                                                   I.     Judges 3:7-11     → Othniel

                                                 II.     Judges 3:12-31    → Ehud

                                                III.     Judges 4:1-5:31    → Deborah

                                                IV.     Judges 6:1-10:5    → Gideon (and Abimelech)

                                                 V.    Judges 10:6-12:15  → Ephthah

                                                VI.    Judges 13:1-16:31 → Samson

3. The Epilogue (Judges 17:1-21:25): After what appears to have been an unsuccessful era of the Judges, the epilogue as denoted by Bowman recounts a period within Israelite history whereby there was reckless and wanton behavior exhibited by the Israelites as there ceased be a prescribed leader over the Israelites. Bowman notes that the “unifying feature describing this period is the fourfold repetition of the phrase “in those days there was no king in Israel” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).

As illustrated above the structure of the book of Judges yields a cohesive literary unit that is accentuated by the narrator’s use of repetitive phrases, which can be viewed as enabling one to answer and or reflect upon the question brought forth by O’Conner. This notion is particularly evident within the final chapter of the book of Judges. The final chapter of the book of Judges will be the focus of this essay, through which I expound upon the various themes brought forth in the chapter by an analysis of the plot, setting, and characters. This analysis will be done in combination with an analysis of the narrator’s “compositional techniques through which the narrative is conveyed and the thought of the story is expressed”[6].

Now the Men of Israel…

            As the final chapter of the book of Judges opens and the narrator of the story introduces the conflict of the narrative as well as the central characters (the men of Israel and the Benjaminites), we are told that the “men of Israel had sworn at Mizpah that none of them would give his daughters in marriage to anyone of Benjamin” (Judges 21:1)[7]. It is this initial conflict or tension that sets the course of the subsequent plot of the chapter. This verse is an illustration of the narrator utilizing the technique of narrative discourse, a technique that allows for the reader to grab hold of the narrator’s “omniscient perspective”, which reveals the “internal thoughts and emotions of  [the] characters”[8]. The use of narrative discourse within this story also provides a means by which the narrator is able to “comment on the story for explanatory or evaluative purposes”[9]. This is a technique that is used throughout the chapter as the narrator seeks to give substance to the commentary that “in those days there was no king in Israel”.

            It is interesting to note that the oath that was supposedly sworn at Mizpah by the men of Israel is one that is not previously mentioned within the biblical narrative. Susan Niditch and Robert Boling also note this point in their respective commentary’s on the book of Judges.[10] While this oath was not previously noted, it is one that is given prominence as the driving force behind the actions of the Israelites throughout the chapter. As a continued example of narrated discourse the action of the story advances in verse 3 of chapter 21 with the narrator indicating the response of the Israelites to the conflict outlined in verse 1. As the narrator transitions to the compositional technique of direct discourse, the Israelites are said have raised their “voices in bitter lament” before the God. This transition between narrated discourse and direct discourse is one that allows for the narrator to elucidate key elements of the story by stating as a direct quote the commentary of specific characters. In this example, the narrator’s inclusion of the direct comments of the men of Israel as they are before God at Bethel can be viewed as an indication of the disposition of the men of Israel. In verse 3, the men of Israel make the supplication “LORD, God of Israel, why has this happened in Israel that today one tribe of Israel should be lacking”. At first glance this supplication before God from the men of Israel does not seem out of place, but when viewed in light of the overarching story within the Epilogue of the book of Judges, one is able to see that this supplication is misguided. This supplication by the men of Israel presupposes that the men of Israel are experiencing this perceived “lacking” within the tribes of Israel by no fault of their own. This presupposition is in conflict with the narrative of Judges chapter 20, where the Israelites are shown to have taken action against the Benjaminites in response to the murder of a Levites wife in Gibeah (cf. Judges 19). This action resulted in a war between the men of Israel and the Benjaminites where the “Israelites killed twenty-five thousand and hundred men of Benjamin…” (Judges 20:35).

            As the narrative continues through to verse 5 of chapter 21, the first attempt by the men of Israel to resolve the conflict of verse 1 is illustrated. The men of Israel, pose the question “Are there any among all the tribes of Israel who did not come up to the LORD for the assembly?” the narrator explains this question by declaring “For there was a solemn oath that anyone who did not go up to the LORD at Mizpah should be put to death”. Here again, there is reference to an oath taken by the Israelites that bound them to a particular mode of action. Once it was confirmed in verses 7-9, that “none of the men of Jabesh-gilead had come to the encampment for the assembly” (Judges 21:8) the men of Israel sent warriors to Jabesh-gilead “and put those that lived there to the sword, including the women and children” (Judges 21:10). As a remedy to the conflict of verse 1, the warriors in verse 11 are told to include “all males and every woman who was not still a virgin”. The exclusion of virgins from the slaughter is thus in the eyes of the men of Israel the solution to providing wives for the Benjaminites. This action on the part of the men of Israel functions within the narrative structure of chapter 21 as the first of a two-part climax. This action is can be viewed as a part of a two-part climax within the narrative based on the evolution of the story through verse 14. In verse 14, as part of a key segment of narrated prose, the narrator expounds on the results of the slaughter of the men and women of Jabesh-gilead, which consequently, did not provide enough wives for the Benjaminites.

            In verse 15 of chapter 21 the men of Israel are shown to still be “disconsolate over Benjamin because the Lord had made a breach among the tribes of Israel.” This commentary on the disposition of the men of Israel brings to remembrance verse 3, where the men of Israel made a similar commentary on the relationship between God and the conflict within the tribes of Israel due to the absence of wives for the Benjaminites. In both instances the men of Israel attribute the ensuing lack of progeny for the Benjaminites to God. That is again in conflict with the narrative of Judges 17-21, where the Israelites are represented as a people that sought very little guidance or direction from God. This point is furthered by the fact that in verses 16-20 the Israelites do not consult the Lord concerning the conflict, they instead recount the oath from verse 1, and reinforce the notion of the desperate need for progeny of the Benjaminites. It is out this great sense of urgency and or desperation that the men of Israel give orders to the Benjaminites to

Go and set an ambush in the vineyards. When you see the women of Shiloh come out to join in the dances, come out of the vineyards and catch a wife for each of you from the women of Shiloh; then go on to the land of Benjamin. (Judges 20-21)

This directive from the men of Israel to the Benjaminites represents the second part of the climax of the narrative in Judges 21. The men of Israel supplement the above instructions with a mention of what will be their response if the fathers or brothers of the women of Shiloh complain to the men of Israel about the actions of the Benjaminites. The verses that follow the direct discourse of verses 20-22 delineate the falling action of the narrative in Judges 21. Here, the narrator transitions back to the compositional technique of narrative discourse while explicating the response of the Benjaminites to the instructions from the men of Israel. The narrator discloses that the Benjaminites did as instructed by “…[carrying] off a wife for each of them from their raid on the dancers…” (Judges 21: 23). This is followed by in verse 24 the resolution of the narrative as the narrator notes, “At that time the Israelites dispersed from there for their own tribes and clans; they set out from there each to his own heritage.” As a resounding reverberation on the actions of the Israelites, the narrator concludes the narrative with “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in their own sight”. This conclusive statement not only serves as the narrator’s last assessment of the acts of the Israelites in chapter 21, but also as a concluding critique of the Israelites as a whole throughout the narrative content of the book of Judges.


            Chapter 21 of the book of Judges serves as a final expression within the Epilogue of the book of Judges, where through the usage of the repetitive phrase “In those days there was no king in Israel” the narrator answers the question posed by M. O’Conner, “How did Israel live without a great leader”. In answering this question for the reader the narrator answers in particular the question “how [did] groups of Israelites interact, tribe with tribe, clan with clan, village with village, [and] region with region.”[11] This question along with the other key questions according to O’Conner “are the great questions that shape the [Judges] narrative.”[12]

[1] M. O’Conner, “Judges”, in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Jospeh A. Fitzmyer, Roland E. Murphy. (Upper Saddle Rive, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1990), 132. [2] M. O’Conner, 132. [3] M. O’Conner, 132. [4] Richard Bowman, “Narrative Criticism: Human Conflict in Divine Presence”, in Judges and Methods: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, ed. Gale A. Yee. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 26.[5] Bowman, 26-27. [6] Bowman, 23. [7] All scripture in less otherwise noted is taken from the New American Bible. [8] Bowman, 23. [9] Bowman, 23. [10] For further details on this point, cross reference  Old Testament Library: Judges, A Commentary by Susan Niditch and The Anchor Bible: Judges commentary and translation by Robert Boling.[11] M. O’Conner, 132. [12] M. O’Conner, 132.


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