Old Testament 101: Judging Judges (Webb)

Barry Webb, in his seminal work analysing the structure of Judges, departed from Noth’s view that it fit into a deuteronomistic history. Noth believed the Judges period began in Judges 2:6 and ended in 1 Samuel 12, this overlap between books meant that few saw Judges as a piece of literature in its own right.

Arguing for the literary cohesion of Judges as a stand alone text does not dismiss its place in a framework of Biblical Theology.

Webb believes Judges is internally coherent. That it deals with two primary characters God, and Israel. God is angry at Israel for disobedience but continues to show faith to his promises. Webb suggests the dynamic is more complex than a simple “repentance/deliverance” cycle. That it is more the case of consistent mercy in the face of apostasy.

Webb says the emergence of the monarchy is the next major narrative movement at the end of Judges. Judges ends “to be continued.” He sees “now after the death of…” as a common biblical means for introducing a new chapter in Israel’s history. From Moses (Joshua), to Joshua (Judges), to Samuel, to Saul (2 Samuel 1), and to David…

Webb suggests any approval of the monarchy in Judges is an approval of the Davidic/Judaic monarchy. Webb argues that the monarchy isn’t fully realised until Yahweh’s chosen king (based on Deut 17), David, takes the throne. Saul is “a king like the other nations” while David is a king after the Lord’s heart. But he sees the monarchy as a secondary issue to the relationship between Israel and Yahweh.

He sees a parallel in the downward spiral of kingship with the downward spiral of the judges, comparing Othniel to David.

Webb’s structure of Judges

Webb, like Wenham, identifies Chapter 1:1-3:6 as a prologue, or Overture.

1:1, opening with “after the death of Joshua” represents both continuity and discontinuity. Chapter one concludes essentially revealing the hopelessness of Israel’s attempts to meet the expectations as laid out. The overture climaxes with the meeting with Yahweh’s messenger who makes it clear that they are not to make agreements with the inhabitants of the land (2:1-5), and God’s speech in 2:20-22 about his faithfulness.

Chapter 2:20-22 lays out Yahweh’s rationale for not giving the whole land over to Israel as promised. They failed their end of the bargain. The structure of the overture is:

  1. Israel comes to terms with the Canaanites (1:1-2:5)
  2. Israel is ensnared by their Gods (2:6-3:6)
  3. Israel is now in conflict with Yahweh (2:20-22)

Webb identifies the same pattern of “The Israelites did what was evil” – six times throughout 3:7-16.31. He identifies motifs like improvised weaponry, worthless fellows, seizure of the fjords of the Jordan, weak women overcoming male heroes, and flaming torches that emerge throughout the narrative. And the following issues as thematic:

  1. Israel’s special status as a nation separated to Yahweh (a holy people)
  2. Israel’s going after other gods in willful violation of this status,
  3. The implied contest between Yahweh and those other gods
  4. The freedom of Yahweh’s activity compared to Israel’s presumption that it can use him as required.

Samson epitomises the Israelite condition – he is set apart, chases foreign women, and calls on Yahweh when he gets into trouble.

Webb calls the concluding chapters (divided along the same lines as Wenham) a coda, because he sees it as bringing balance to the book in terms of literary symmetry. He sees some chiastic closure with Judah receiving prominence in chapters 1 and 19, Jebus/Jerusalem and the Jebusites in 2:1-5 and 19:10-12, the weeping at Bethel and the weeping at Bochim (2:1-5 and 20:18, 26), and the Danite migration in 19 as closure for Dan’s failure to secure territory in 1:34.