Shmoop-ites, before we get down to business, we have to make one thing clear: Although Israel is a medieval society inarguably dominated by males, masculinity is nevertheless under constant assault throughout Judges. Most males have devolved into big, dumb, impulsive, and occasionally savage idiots. Man's place at the top of the gender food chain is in serious jeopardy as women, on multiple occasions, violently (and sometimes literally) crush powerful men during moments of orchestrated weakness. Man's competence as patriarch of the family is left in serious doubt as his spouse and offspring are killed by ritual sacrifice, murderous siblings, fire-wielding mobs, and brutal sexual assault. And his mojo is way out of whack as lovers betray him, marry other dudes, and basically force him to turn to prostitutes and bride-kidnapping for sexual fulfillment. Could this gender identity crisis be partly to blame for the exorbitant violence in Judges? We dunno. But you'll find many parallels in Judges to the more modern "demise of guys" if you look carefully.
Figuratively speaking, it sometimes seems like the women in Judges live on one of two planets. The first, Planet Amazon, is where you live if you have any sort of power—physical, sexual, social, spiritual, etc. The second, Planet Ingenue, is where you live if you're a victim of violence or marginalization—arranged marriage, murder, ritual sacrifice, rape, kidnapping, etc. One of the interesting things about Judges is how separate these planets appear. In one chapter, women are damsels married off to the winner of a contest; in the next, they're prophetic leaders endowed with God's power. Later, they're the only ones strong enough to defeat some of the biggest bullies in the Bible; but in the next chapter, they're objectified sex objects. It's enough to give a Shmooper whiplash!
Of course, on closer inspection there's a good bit of overlap between these two spheres. Take Jephthah's daughter, for instance. She's the victim of a tragic religious mix-up, it's true, but she's also a model of devout courage. And don't even get us started on Delilah: Sure, she's the only person who could overpower Samson, but was she also a victim of sexual exploitation by the Philistines? Even Jael, the undisputed man-eater of Judges, might not be a perfect model of girl power. One of the things that makes Judges so great is that it gives us the chance to examine femininity across the whole spectrum, from women's historical subjugation to a depiction that mirrors the modern "rise of women" and everything in between.
One of the most heartbreaking incidents in Judges is Samson's disastrous marriage. In a misunderstanding of classical proportions, his wife is given to another man before Samson consummates the marriage, and in a fit of jealous rage he avenges his abandonment on the entire Philistine nation, setting off a feud that consumes his whole life. An overreaction? Maybe, but Samson's flaming fox freak-out is symbolic in many ways of the jealousy and fear of abandonment in God's relationship with Israel.
More than perhaps any other book in the Bible, Judges drives home the idea (repeated throughout the Bible) that "I the Lord God am a jealous God" (KJV Ex. 20:5). In fact, jealous is one of his names (see Ex. 34:14), and he lives up to it during the lovers quarrel that is Judges.
God and Israel have a super unhealthy relationship. The very first of the Ten Commandments forbids worshipping other gods, and Israel's inability to do just that is a huge red flag that this probably isn't going to go well. Another issue is God's out-of-control jealousy toward other gods. This isn't just pout-at-home-and-eat-ice-cream jealousy; it's more like the slash-the-tires-of-every-guy-your-ex-looks-at kind. Like, seriously psycho. And although they are clearly guilty of infidelity, Israel gets upset when it seems like God's never there. If these two were our friends, we'd be giving them serious it's-time-to-break-up pep talks.
And yet, they're miserable when they're apart too. For better or for worse, it seems like they belong together, though they might always always be stuck in this "can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em" cycle of jealousy and abandonment. Maybe they like it this way. Who are we to judge?
Can't we all just get along? Not in this book. Judges is violent with a capital V, and probably a capital everything for that matter. But once we get beyond our shock all that almost exploitative blood and guts, where does it fit into our understanding of the story?
One of the most interesting things about the violence in Judges is that there are so many different kinds of violence. Some of it is unambiguously "good"—they even sing songs about it! Some of it is categorically "bad"—Israel even goes to war over it (don't get us started on the irony of that). And some of it is… Well… What would you call it? Is it good to keep your word (yeah!) and sacrifice your daughter (oh…)? We don't know the answers, but we've got plenty of questions to get you started.
If you ever happen to find yourself in the Book of Judges, you'd better watch your back. There are traitors everywhere. Don't accept any gifts, go in anyone else's tent, or let your half-brother come over for a friendly visit. Oh—and definitely don't fall in love. Because these traitors are just waiting until you've given them your trust to turn around and cut out your heart. Of course, as with basically everything in Judges, each betrayal can be understood as symbolizing Israel's breach of the trust God gave them through the covenant.