So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel; and he said, “Because this people have transgressed my covenant that I commanded their ancestors, and have not obeyed my voice, I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died.”
Judges 2:20-21

If the book of Joshua makes the Israelites’ conquest of the Promised Land seem swift and easy, Judges depicts it as a slow, painful process. The foreign nations that had been easily defeated in Joshua wield a lot more power here— and that’s just as God wants it. He uses these nations to “put Israel to the test” to see if they will keep the covenant God made with their ancestors. They often fail, which leads to wars not only with foreign nations, but even among the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

Judges recounts the 200-year (1250 to 1050 B.C.) development and expansion of the nation of Israel under the rule of twelve Judges. They continually deliver Israel from its folly— and its enemies— and generally keep the peace.

Perhaps the most famous of these judges is Samson, whose long, beautiful hair endows him with superhuman strength. He defeats the Philistines— under whose rule the Israelites have fallen— with a donkey’s jawbone, and he eludes their plot to kill him by performing various and sundry Herculean tasks. But things take a bad turn when Delilah, Samson’s devious wife, shaves his head while he sleeps. When he wakes up, he’s lost not only his luscious locks but all his strength. Talk about a bad hair day!

Strong-arm muscle men like Samson are not the only heroes in Judges. Women also play a significant role in delivering Israel from its enemies. Deborah, a prophetess, co-leads an important battle against the Canaanites. But women are also the victims. Judges contains two very disturbing stories. In the first, the judge Jephthah sacrifices his daughter after winning a battle against the Ammonites. In the second, a Levite priest throws his concubine to a pack of “scoundrels,” who repeatedly rape her, then leave her dead on her father’s doorstep. Judges clearly aims to communicate the brutality of the times, and how Israel could never have survived without God.

Judges is the second of the Historical Books, probably a compilation of legends and stories from different time periods. It was edited in the 7th century B.C. as part of the Deuteronomistic History.