Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

The Meaning of the Minor Judges: Understanding the Bible's Shortest Stories

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

The Meaning of the Minor Judges: Understanding the Bible's Shortest Stories

Article excerpt

The book of Judges is a somewhat neglected book in Christian pulpits and Bible curricula today. If the stories of Judges are known or taught, usually only the so-called "major" judges attract interest while the remaining narratives (especially from chapters 1-2, 17-21) suffer from neglect. But the so-called "minor" judges are perhaps the most neglected parts of the book, no doubt because of their positioning (between the major cycles), brevity, and their presumed unimportance which may derive from the unfortunate label "minor."

But it is my contention that the three passages (3:31; 10:1-5; 12:8-15)1 describing the minor judges contribute a great deal to the theological meaning of the book of Judges because they reinforce the progressive patterns and themes of the whole book, provide thematic transitions between cycles, and bring the total number of leaders to twelve in order to indict all Israel. The essential themes that emerge from a study of the minor judges may be summarized as follows: (1) foreigners may serve as deliverers; (2) judges are acting like kings by asserting status, building dynasties, and making alliances; (3) judges are arranging marriages with outsiders (probably non-Israelites); (4) the twelve leaders in chapters 3-16 are a representation of the tribes and actions of all Israel; and (5) the "canaanization" of Israel intensifies as its leaders are multiplied. While these five themes are emphasized throughout the entire book of Judges, they are acutely stressed in Judg 3:31, 10:1-5, and 12:8-15.


The accounts of the six minor judges punctuate Judges 3-16 at three strategic points. From a formal perspective, these three notices may be described as intentional literary "interruptions"2 because they are so terse and non-cyclical. But from a pedagogical (or didactic) perspective, the three notices can be also described as complementary and essential to the theological strategy of the book.

First, the Shamgar notice relates to the two previous cycles (Othniel and Ehud) because all three accounts document deliverance for Israel (3:9, 15, 31; employing the root V^'). Shamgar also relates to the following cycle (Deborah and Barak) due to the socio-historical parallel that existed in the days of both Shamgar and Jael, when "caravans ceased and wayfarers went by roundabout paths" (5:6; NJPS).3 And like the Ehud and Deborah accounts, the Shamgar notice features the use of makeshift weapons (3:31; cf. 3:16; 4:21; 5:26).

The second cluster of minor judge notices (Tola and Jair) relates to the preceding Gideon-Abimelech stories because of the emphasis on royal prerogatives like having many sons to insure dynastic succession (10:4; cf. 8:30-31). The identification of Jair as a "Gileadite" (10:3) relates to the following Jephthah story which shares the same geographical setting (cf. 10:8, 17-18; 11:1-11, 29, 40; 12:4-7).

The third cluster of minor judge notices (Ibzan, Elon, Abdon) relates to the preceding accounts by revisiting the royal theme of many sons (12:9, 14; cf. 10:4)- note especially how the mention of Abdon's seventy (grand)sons echoes the earlier reference to Gideon's seventy sons and many wives (8:30-31). This theme also provides a stark contrast with the childless major judge Jephthah (11:34), who is sandwiched between two minor judges who have major-sized families (Jair and Ibzan: 10:4; 12:9).4 More importantly, the third cluster of minor judges anticipates the Samson story by introducing the theme of foreign marriages (12:9; cf. 14:1-3, 10-11; see below).

In the macro-structure of the book of Judges, the first minor judge is placed among the "first triad" of stories (3:7-5:31) which share a relatively positive portrayal of Israel's leaders. The second and third lists of minor judges are positioned among the "second triad" of stories (9:1-16:31) which share a relatively negative portrayal of Israel's leaders.5 In fact, the three minor judge passages show a moral/spiritual progression from the ambiguous Shamgar (3:31) to the royal aspirations of Jair (10:4) and to the foreign alliances of Ibzan (12:9) and the intensified royal aspirations of Abdon (12:14). …

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