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You know what we miss the most about high school? No, it's not that one crazy teacher or our first real crush. What we miss most is the drama. Suzie said what? Carlos went where? Beauregard was with whom? Ahh, the intrigue! Love! Hate! Friendship! Enemyship! Betrayal! Redemption! There was never a dull moment, and the same is true of the Book of Judges.
The hottest gossip for Judges High School's class of approx. 1380 to 1050 BCE: Israel and God. They've been an item for a while now. God really likes Israel, and Israel likes God back—most of the time. It's really been up-and-down between those two (see Genesis through Joshua). Still, God asks Israel to the prom in Canaan, and she says yes. In fact, Israel makes a covenant with God to go to the dance, have a great time, and—here's the kicker—to dance with him and only him (see Exodus 20:1-6).
Only once they get to the dance, she's not a very good date. She's constantly going off and dancing with other gods. God's like, "Izzy, baby, why you gonna go and do me like that?" But chosen nations just want to have fun so Israel runs off with some spiky-haired god on a motorcycle. Inevitably, things go wrong for Israel, and she comes crawling back to God, calling from a payphone in the middle of nowhere with no money. And he's so crazy about his covenant people, he always sends someone to help her out of the mess she's made.
Those someones are called judges, and there are 12 of them in the Book of Judges: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and of course the big guy, Samson. These are the dudes (plus one dudette. Woo!) that save Israel from trouble so she can get back to being God's Charleston partner, and everyone's happy again.
Buuuut… Israel just can't seem to resist those other gods, and she ditches God over and over, each time with disastrous results. And every time, God takes her back… until she runs off again… and so it goes a total of seven times. Moral of the story: Israel's gotta dance with the deity what brung 'er, or there's gonna be trouble.
And there's plenty of trouble in Judges. You'd be hard-pressed to find a book in the Bible with more sorrow, heartache, betrayal, deception, war, destruction, and almost Tarantino-esque violence. It's part of what makes Judges so exciting. So, Shmoopites, put on your powder-blue tux or your pink puffy-sleeved dress, and let's head to the dance-floor, a.k.a. the Land of Canaan, for some good old (testament) fashioned fun! Go ahead, cut loose: We won't judge.
Do you have any heroes? We're going to guess yes, because we all need someone—an astronaut, a firefighter, our mom, the president, Aquaman—to look up to. But here's an uncomfortable question to consider: What happens if that hero goes bye-bye?
You may have already had this experience: Sometimes, heroes die. Or, they just go away—maybe for a while, maybe forever. Other times, they fall from the pedestal we've put them on. And sometimes, we simply outgrow them. When that happens, it often forces us to change the way we think about not just the hero, but about ourselves. After all, that hero was, in essence, our goal: We wanted to be him or her when we grew up. Now what?
Throughout Judges, Israel finds itself in that same situation. In the beginning, they're reeling from the loss of Joshua, who's been their fearless leader for decades. Without a prophet or a judge or a king, Israel has a national identity crisis, turns away from their God, and basically falls apart. God, seeing Israel running around in circles through the centuries, periodically sends them new judges they can follow, idolize, and emulate. The only problem is, eventually those judges die just like Joshua, and Israel's right back where it started.
Judges addresses the problem that heroes are mortal, and therefore temporary. Which begs the question: Is it healthy to be so reliant on our heroes? Judges is a story about a people totally dependent on theirs, and these people are a wreck. Do we ever fall into the same vicious cycle as them?
Now, this is all pretty bleak, but don't forget: Idolizing a hero isn't a bad thing in and of itself. The key to doing it right is remembering that we don't want to actually be LeBron James, or Meryl Streep, or Superman (we wouldn't be caught dead in those red underpants). Rather, they're symbols of the qualities that we aspire to embody some day. When our heroes fall, it's sad, but it's not the end for us.
Okay, enough of that. Just remember, as you travel through Judges—captivated by the wars, lies, sex, betrayal, and violence—that it's more than just a soap opera. Judges, like all great literature, can help you live a happier life if you let it.
"There's Violence in the Bible": Famous Directors on Violence in Film
Might these filmmakers perchance have had Judges in mind when they referenced Biblical violence?
God and Sex Author Michael Coogan on the Bible
This interview with a Bible scholar gives some context to all that sex in Judges.
Women as Violent Characters in Movies
An interesting article to help us think about the black widows of Judges.
Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949)
The epic story of love and betrayal from the guy who brought you The Ten Commandments.
Samson and Delilah (1996)
A made-for-TV movie starring—wait for it—Michael Gambon, Dennis Hopper, and Elizabeth Hurley as Delilah.
Ancient Samson Mosaic Discovered in 2012
A mosaic depicting scenes and lettering from Judges was discovered in an ancient synagogue excavated in 2012. Cool!
Ancient Samson Seal Discovered in 2012
A penny-sized carving showing what we think is a man and a lion gives the Samson vs. lion story some archeological street cred.
"Hey There Delilah" (Bible Version)
A clever rendition of the Plain White Ts's 2006 acoustic pop hit—with a Judges twist.
Audio Reading of the Book of Judges (KJV)
You can listen to each chapter of Judges online here, or download free MP3s for your next Hebrew Bible listening party.
Camille Saint-Saens's Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila (London Symphony Orchestra)
From Saint-Saens' well-loved operatic retelling of Samson and Delilah. Perfect background music while reading chapters 14-16. Or synchronized swimming.
Audio of Judges 4 & 5, "The Song of Deborah" (KJV) à la Lawrence Olivier
There cannot be a more delightful way to hear the story of Deborah, Barak, Jael, Sisera, and the gang than for the legendary Lawrence Olivier to read it like he's reciting Shakespeare.
Samson the Nazirite #1 (Comic Book)
If any Bible story deserves the comic book treatment, it's Samson and Delilah. Read the first 10 pages for free!
Samson at the Opera
A performance of Camille Saint-Saens's Samson et Dalila. Check out those flowing locks!