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Not Just Any King: Abimelech, the Northern Monarchy, and the Final Form of Judges
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I. Theme and Structure in the Book of Judges

Over the past two and a half decades a number of significant studies have altered the way in which the book of Judges is studied and understood. In 1987, Samuel Dragga drew attention to elements in the book that highlight the failure of Saul.1 A short while later in this journal, Mark Zvi Brettler advanced the view that a major theme in Judges is the promotion of Judah, often at the expense of Benjamin and the northern tribes. From this, Brettler suggested that much in the book should be read as allegory in which the Davidic dynasty is elevated at the expense of the house of Saul and the northern monarchy.2 Recently, others have built on the work of these scholars to argue persuasively and at greater length for the presence of anti-Saulide polemic throughout the book.3

Alongside the thematic studies already mentioned have been others that have focused on structure.4 The result of this is that today the consensus among scholars sees Judges as having a tripartite structure consisting of Prologue/Introduction (1:1–3:6),5 Body (3:7–16:31), and Epilogue/Appendix/Conclusion (chs. 17–21).6 The central section of Judges consists of narratives and notices covering the careers of twelve charismatic leaders of Israel. In both structure and content the final form of the book depicts the system of judges as providing failed leadership. In the final form of the book, the judges are divided into two groups—five preceding Abimelech and seven following him. Within this schema, the first group (3:7–8:28) is portrayed as having been effective. Of these judges, all but Shamgar receive the commendation that, as a result of their work, “the land was at peace” (3:11, 30; 5:31; 8:28). Of Shamgar, it is positively noted that “he saved Israel” (3:31). Following Abimelech, seven judges are listed (10:1–16:31). This larger block of judges differs from the first in that nowhere in this section does the statement that the “land was at peace” appear. Individually and as a whole, the judges in the second group rule for shorter periods than those of the first group.7 The greater number of judges in this second group (seven versus five in the first group), along with their lack of success and shorter tenures, contributes to the sense that the system of judges is breaking down.

While even the “successful” judges are portrayed as falling short,8 the failure of the system of judges is most spectacularly demonstrated in the careers of the final two major judges—Jephthah and Samson. In 12:1–6, the rash behavior of Jephthah results in the sacrifice of his daughter. Further, in the time of Jephthah (12:1–6), tribal solidarity breaks down and civil war erupts with Ephraim. In 14:1, the nazirite Samson treats his vows with disdain by seeking to marry a Philistine woman. Later, he defiles himself (and also his parents) by eating honey from the carcass of an unclean beast (14:8–9), and in 16:1 he visits a prostitute. Far from liberating the people of Israel, Samson’s activity leads to his rejection and the collective admission by the people of Judah that “the Philistines are rulers over us” (Judg 15:11).

In light of the above, the following outline may be proposed based on the content and key formulae9 found in the book. Within this outline, the Abimelech narrative occupies a central place in the structure of the final form of the book.

  1. I.    Introduction (1:1–3:6)

  2. II.    The Judges of Peace (3:7–8:28)

  3. III.    The Abimelech Incident (8:29–9:57)

  4. IV.    The Judges of Decline (10:1–16:31)

  5. V.    Conclusion: The Collapse of the System and the Need for a King (17:1–21:25)

    From the foregoing assessment of structure, and particularly from the work of Brettler and others cited above,10 it is clear that the book of Judges exists to address the issue of leadership in Israel. The juxtaposition of an initial, successful group of judges...



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