Sefer Shoftim - The Book of Judges: An IntroductionBy Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Tanach now enters what appears to be a tumultuous period. In fact, I believe the period of the Judges is completely misunderstood by most people.
Here’s what happens in the Book of Judges: Foreign occupation, assassination, idolatry, uprisings, apparent human sacrifice, civil war, intermarriage, treachery, prostitution, torture, more idolatry, murder, dismemberment, a bigger civil war, a Tribe almost wiped out, and girls seized as brides.
Casually reading Judges may make one think that ancient Israel was the most bloodthirsty, dysfunctional nation in the history of the world. G-d forbid! It’s important to contextualize these events.
The book does not take place over the course of six months or a year. The Book of Judges occurs over the span of 355 years. That’s considerably longer than the United States has been around (231 years as of this writing). Imagine a history of the United States in 21 short chapters. Chapter 1: Revolution. Chapter 4: The Army Gives Native Americans Blankets Infected with Small Pox. Chapter 8: Civil War; Lincoln Assassinated. Chapter 11: Sweatshops. Chapter 14: Internment Camps for Japanese-Americans. Chapter 16: McCarthyism. Chapter 18: JFK, RFK and MLK Shot. Chapter 19: Watergate. Chapter 20: Monicagate. Chapter 21: Abu Ghraib. To a reader 3,000 years in the future, the US would appear to be in one constant state of oppression or upheaval. But I think most of us walk down the streets feeling pretty secure. Sure, there are always things that need improvement, but for the most part things are actually pretty good.
Well, the time of the Judges was no different. Yes, there were regrettable, misguided incidents. There were occasionally huge lapses in judgment. But people overlook the lines in between. After the Judge Osniel, the Navi tells us that things were quiet for forty years (3:11). After Ehud, we are told that things were peaceful for eighty years (3:30). Add up such statements in the book and you’ll see that the times when nothing was going on far outweigh the occasionally shocking incidents. It’s just that the Navi tells us the shocking incidents in greater detail and in close proximity.
Several times, the Navi tells us that the land had no King in those days and that every person did what was right in his own eyes. (It even ends on that note.) That makes it sound as if the land was lawless, like the Wild West. But ancient Israel was no anarchy. While there was no centralized ruler in the form of a king, there were rulers and leaders. Each Tribe had leaders in the form of Elders. There were neviim (prophets). There was the Kohein Gadol (High Priest). And there were the Shoftim – the Judges – about whom this book was written. They were either great military leaders, Torah scholars, or both.
All of this is important to keep in mind so as not to get a skewed picture of the very long historical period that this book covers in just a few short bullet points.