Biblical Studies Book of Judges
Gregory Mobley, Joanna Kline
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0115


This frontier epic located among the former prophets in the Jewish Bible and the historical books in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible narrates the adventures and misadventures of the Israelites between their entrance into Canaan (narrated in the preceding book of Joshua) and the emergence of kingship and a political state under David (narrated in the subsequent books of 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel). The subjects of its title, the “judges,” are the tribal leaders and protagonists of the stories in the book, who lead Israel in this transitional period between the era of the covenant-making heroes Moses and Joshua in the books of Moses (that is, the Pentateuch) and Joshua and the nation-making (and -breaking) heroes Samuel, Saul, David, and various monarchs in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. Since the 19th century, biblical studies have been dominated by attempts to isolate literary documents that were composed prior to the existing books and then braided together to form the extant biblical literature. This inspired a century of research into the literary prehistory of Judges and scores of competing analyses that offered schemes isolating stages in the development of Judges and assigning dates and likely authors to these hypothetical documents. The results of this literary detective work were ingenious, inventive, and inconsistent. Since the second half of the 20th century, the focus in research has shifted away from both literary reconstruction and attempts to coordinate the sources of Judges with those of the Pentateuch and the former prophets. A number of studies focus on the organization and themes of Judges itself as an integrated literary whole. Another set of studies has utilized Judges as a window into the history of early Israel, arguing for the accuracy or inaccuracy of the Israelite “conquest” of Canaan near the end of the second millennium BCE. Virtually every narrative in Judges includes vivid female characters, and there are many studies of Judges from the perspectives of feminism and gender studies. The advent of folklore studies and the array of reading strategies that are grouped under the rubric of “deconstruction” have changed the terrain by posing new questions and eroding the foundation of historical and literary schemes that attempt to impose single or grand maps on the entire landscape of the book. Accordingly, scholarship has recently come full circle, modestly focusing on the individual narratives themselves with their memorable characters and engaging plots, rediscovering why Gideon’s trumpet and Samson’s long hair have become enduring cultural motifs, why the wise among us still avoid shibboleths, and why so many girls continue to be named “Deborah” but not “Delilah.”


In a pioneering historical-critical commentary on Judges, Moore 1895 observes the archaic nature of the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), isolates the heroic anthology that forms the book’s core (Judges 2–16), exhaustively catalogues details of history and philology, and exercises great literary sensitivity in the analysis of each respective narrative unit. Boling 1975 pursues the quest of the mid-20th-century biblical archaeology movement: the reconstruction of the early Iron Age chapter of ancient Israelite history and culture. A number of new approaches to the art of commentary focus on specific areas: Olson 1998 on theological and moral issues, Fewell 1998 on the portrayals of female characters, Gunn 2005 on reception history, and Niditch 2008 on the oral-traditional quality of the material. Several recent commentaries can be characterized by their interpretive methods: Frolov 2013 uses a form-critical approach, Alter 2014 has a literary perspective, and Nelson 2017 employs rhetorical criticism. Butler 2009, Gross 2009, Biddle 2012, Webb 2012, Sasson 2014, and Knauf 2016 offer critical commentaries in the comprehensive style.

  • Alter, Robert. Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets; Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings; A Translation with Commentary. New York: W. W. Norton, 2014.

    Alter employs a literary approach in his commentary on Judges, which also includes his own translation and a brief introduction to the book.

  • Biddle, Mark E. Reading Judges: A Literary and Theological Commentary. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2012.

    This commentary discusses historical-critical and text-critical issues in an accessible way, without losing focus on the literary artistry and theological messages of the final form of the book.

  • Boling, Robert G. Judges. Anchor Bible 6A. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975.

    The emphasis here is on reconstruction of history more than analysis of narrative. Useful text-critical and philological notes.

  • Butler, Trent. Judges. Word Biblical Commentary 8. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009.

    A critical and theologically conservative reading of Judges with text-critical notes and a full bibliography.

  • Fewell, Danna Nolan. “Judges.” In Women’s Bible Commentary. Rev. ed. Edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, 73–83. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998.

    Focuses on how the deteriorating portrayal of the female characters parallels the narrative trajectory of the book as a whole.

  • Frolov, Serge. Judges. Forms of the Old Testament Literature 6B. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2013.

    A form-critical commentary that combines diachronic and synchronic approaches.

  • Gross, Walter. Richter. Herders Theologischer Kommentar zum Alten Testament. Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: Herder, 2009.

    Continues the approach of Gross’s professor Wolfgang Richter in its attention to compositional history. The most comprehensive commentary on Judges in German.

  • Gunn, David M. Judges through the Centuries. Blackwell Bible Commentaries. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

    A promising new approach that focuses on the interpretation of Judges in Western culture over two millennia, richly illustrated, critical yet accessible to students in the humanities.

  • Knauf, Ernst Axel. Richter. Zürcher Bibelkommentare AT 7. Zurich: TVZ, 2016.

    Knauf interprets the book of Judges within the context of the first two parts of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah and the Prophets. The commentary includes an original translation and notes on exegetical issues, historical and geographical information, and reception history.

  • Moore, George Foot. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Judges. International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures 7. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1895.

    This commentary, which contains extensive philological and historical discussions, remains a valuable resource.

  • Nelson, Richard D. Judges: A Critical and Rhetorical Commentary. London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2017.

    A commentary that focuses on the ways in which rhetorical features of the book of Judges are used to influence a competent reader, as well as on the formation and transmission of the text.

  • Niditch, Susan. Judges. Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.

    The only commentary to comprehensively analyze the poetry and prose of Judges from the perspective of traditional literature. Also offers a fresh translation sensitive to ancient poetics and incorporates the literary and feminist insights of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Contains a full bibliography.

  • Olson, Dennis T. “The Book of Judges.” In The New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. 2. Edited by Leander E. Keck, 721–888. Nashville: Abingdon, 1998.

    Analyzes a moral and theological “downward spiral” as part of the final editorial design of the book. Useful for interpreting Judges in the context of faith communities.

  • Sasson, Jack M. Judges 1–12: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 6D. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.

    A detailed and wide-ranging commentary on the first twelve chapters of Judges with extensive discussions of text-critical issues, relevant ancient Near Eastern literature, and reception history.

  • Webb, Barry G. The Book of Judges. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2012.

    Webb focuses on issues arising from the text itself and limits his discussion of background information. A lengthy introduction contains a review of the history of scholarship on the book of Judges.

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