Purpose. The book of Judges was written to show the consequences of religious apostasy and to point the way to a king who, if righteous, would lead the people to God. In contrast to the serene way in which the book of Joshua ends—with all Israel obeying God’s commands, for the most part—the book of Judges shows that, in fact, Israel began to disobey God even during the time of Joshua. This disobedience continued and grew more serious—and more debased—throughout the period of the judges. Time and again Israel turned its back on God and embraced the gods and the ways of the Canaanites, as the introductory summary in Judges 2:16–23 indicates. Israel’s history unfolded in this period in a cyclical or repetitive way: each cycle took Israel further downward in its debasement and apostasy. By the end of the book, Israel had violated its covenant with God in almost every way imaginable.
Occasion. The book of Judges arose out of the apostate conditions of the time. It was written as a justification for the monarchy, since the final verdict of the book—“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25)—implies that things would have been different had there been a (godly) king leading the nation: they would have done right in God’s eyes. The next book in the English Bible is Ruth, which ends with a genealogy that points to David, the godly king par excellence (Ruth 4:18–22). Following the book of Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel relate the establishment of the legitimate Davidic monarchy in Israel, which God was pleased to bless (2 Samuel 7). God had planned for kings to rule in Israel from the beginning (Gen. 17:6, 16; 35:11; 49:10), and had even given instructions for their conduct (Deut. 17:14–20). These instructions were very countercultural: rather than a king “like the nations,” where the prevailing model was the king as warrior, Israel’s king was to focus on keeping the Mosaic law (Deut. 17:18–20). If such a king had arisen in the period of the judges, things would have been far different. As it was, Israel’s apostasy pointed to the need for establishing the legitimate kingship under David.
Historical background. The period of the judges spanned a major transition in the ancient Near East, when the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550–1200 B.C.) gave way to the Early Iron Age shortly after 1200 B.C. The Late Bronze Age was a period of prosperity. In Palestine, the system of relatively small, independent city-states in the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2100–1550 B.C.) was replaced by large empires (Egyptian, Hittite, etc.) in the Late Bronze Age. However, Israelites and Canaanites were able to live there relatively undisturbed, the former in the hill country and the latter in the lowlands and coastal areas.
At the end of the Late Bronze Age, major upheavals took place throughout the Mediterranean basin. Widespread destruction is evident. Archaeological evidence shows a radical drop in population in major centers and an increase in more briefly inhabited sites in outlying areas, in the hill country, and in desert fringe areas. Imported pottery abruptly ceased. The large, visible signs of society collapsed. However, there was a continuity of culture at the grassroots level. Rough as it was, pottery did continue to be made.
The causes of the widespread destruction are not clear, but they coincide with the migrations of the “land and sea peoples” known from Egyptian texts. These peoples clashed with Egypt at the end of the thirteenth century B.C., and they were also involved in other disturbances in the eastern Mediterranean. Due to such conflicts, the Early Iron Age (c. 1200–1000 B.C.) was a “dark age” of sorts. It was not until c. 1000 B.C. that a true internationalism reasserted itself throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and houses and cities again began to rival those of the Late Bronze Age.
Canaanite religion and culture. The major problem for Israel during the period of the judges was its penchant for turning away from the Lord and toward the gods of the Canaanites. What was it about Canaanite religion and culture that proved to be such an irresistible attraction? The land of Canaan was awe-inspiring to the Israelites, as can be seen in the story of the spies who reported on its wealth and strength (Numbers 13). To a recently freed slave people, accustomed to the hardships of life in the wilderness, the cosmopolitanism and material wealth of Late-Bronze-Age Canaan, with its large urban centers, could not have failed to impress. The Canaanites were clearly superior to the Israelites on many levels: art, literature, architecture, trade, political organization, and more. It is not difficult to see how the Israelites would have been tempted by the elaborate Canaanite religious system, which ostensibly supported—and even provided—all of this.
One prominent feature of Canaanite religion was its highly sexualized orientation. The system of sacred prostitutes—“priestesses” of Baal—allowed people to combine sensual pleasures with worship of Baal. This undoubtedly was attractive to many Israelites (cf. the Israelites seduced by the Moabite women in Numbers 25).