This book, which is the continuation of Joshua, takes its name from the men whom God raised up to govern Israel for almost two centuries, from the death of Joshua to the birth of Samuel. The biblical concept of “judge” is not the same as ours; “judges” (liberators, saviors) were people (they included one woman, Deborah) who were seasoned warriors, sometimes chosen directly by God, sometimes by the people, who were given the mission to protect Israel from attacks by its enemies and to take possession (not without a struggle) of the territory earmarked for them in the division; then, once peace reigned, their role was to administer justice.
In most cases their authority did not extend to all Israel but only to one tribe or a group of tribes. This explains why there is no chronological succession in the Judges: sometimes you find a number of Judges contemporary with each other.
Israel’s unfaithfulness Before going into the narrative proper, the first chapter gives a summary of the political and religious situation at the time. After Joshua’s death, now that each tribe had been assigned a particular territory, each began to take possession of its lot, by force. However, they soon realized that the territories allocated were not large enough to accommodate each tribe. In some cases the tribe only managed to win part of the territory or it had to share it with others: in other words, because Israel failed to keep its part of the Covenant (it was supposed to destroy altars erected to the Baals, the gods of the conquered lands), God would not give it total victory.
Everything began to go badly, yet God had pity on them and sent them the Judges; but, as soon as a Judge died the people again began to revert to idolatry. The net result was that God did not wipe out, as they had expected, all the inhabitants of the country (Sidonians, Philistines, etc).
The central part of the book (chap. 3, 6-16ff) deals with the vicissitudes experienced by the various Judges, all of which are on the same lines: infidelity leads to defeat, repentance to liberation; just as sin leads to punishment, and confession to forgiveness. All this is contained in six long narratives, interspersed with shorter accounts of the great deeds of the Judges. The number of Judges is given as twelve, which may be taken as symbolizing the perfect Israel: it is at least possible that there were other Judges, of lesser importance, of whom no record remains.
The chronology of the book is somewhat artificial. Clearly the many references to the figure 40 are symbolic. We see that the references to 40 years-40 years = a generation-or its multiple (80) or its half (20) indicate that these numbers are symbolic. Nor was all Israel affected by the oppression or liberation described.
During this difficult period of settlement the Israelites had to fight the Canaanites, the previous occupiers of the territory, whom Deborah and Barak defeated on the plains of Esdraelon. Deborah was a prophetess, that is, a person who spoke in God’s name and also acted as an administration of justice, resolving all kinds of litigious complaints, thanks to special divine inspiration. She also ruled the people, led the army into battle, appointed generals, declared war and won victory. Scripture also praises Barak, a humble man, full of faith, who, recognizing that the spirit of Yahweh inspired Deborah, worked in support of her (Judg. 4:8).
The Judges also had to fight against other neighboring people-Moabites (Ehud), Ammonites (Jephthah), Midianites (Gideon) and the Philistines, recently settled on the coast (Samson).
The sacred text says of Samson that he would be dedicated to God from birth (Judg. 13:5). God endowed him with enormous strength. His long hair was connected with his being a Nazarite, consecrated to God. However, Samson was not a Judge; he never led an army into battle against the enemies of Israel; his deeds of prowess were isolated, some to defend himself, other indirectly to help his peo ple fend off their enemies.
The book closes with two appendixes (chap. 17-21), which briefly describe the dire straits of an Israel which has strayed from Yahweh on the path of idolatry. Each of these two narratives ends in the same words: “In those days there was no king in Israel” (18:1, 21-25)-apparently reflecting the general attitudes of the Israelites at the time: they saw the establishment of a monarchy as the only way out, and soon it came to be.
The inspired writer of this book prophesies that each of the Judges adores Yahweh and is determined to be faithful to the Covenant. They all invoke God and implore his protection before and after battles, for this purpose going to the sanctuary of Shiloh, the center of worship of Yahweh at this period. The struggles into which they are drawn to gain complete control of Canaan also have the effect of binding the tribes of Israel together, since all make common cause.
The book of Judges shows how the covenant made at Sinai worked out in practice: Yahweh is protective of Israel as long as it stays faithful to its commitments, and punishes it whenever it violates them. God wishes to show the Israelites that oppression is a punishment for impiety, and victory a reward for faithfulness. This is why Sirach( 46:12) praises the Judges and why the Letter to the Hebrews (11:32-34) stresses that their exploits were the reward for their faith and a lesson for us: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Heb 12:1).
This short book deals with a family during the time of the Judges. The Septuagint and the Vulgate both locate it immediately after Judges, whereas the Jews put in among the Ketubim (Writings), as one of the five mequillot used on the main feast days, Ruth being read on the day of Pentecost.
We do not exactly know the precise year when the events of Ruth took place; possibly during the time of Deborah, in view of the famine which forces Elimelech and his family to leave Bethlehem and go into Moab. The author must have written the book during David’s reign, given the reference to it at the end of the book. This would not be surprising in view of the many archaic words it contains, which are indicative of a very early date. Also the serene tone of the narrative would seen incompatible with the calamities which marked later periods. However, some scholars argue for a later date, after the exile to Babylon.
Elimelech emigrates from Bethlehem during a period of acute famine, with his wife Naomi and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilon. They go to Moab, where the sons marry two local women, Orpah and Ruth. In due course Elimelech dies, and ten years later his sons die. Circumstances have improved in Israel and Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem. Ruth offers to go with her, as if she were her own daughter.
Once they get to Bethlehem Ruth has to work to support her mother-in-law. While she is gleaning she meets Boaz, a rich relative of Elimelech, who, attracted by her virtues, decides to take her as his wife, thereby fulfilling the custom of Levirate marriage. A son of this marriage is Abed, the father of Jesse and the grandfather of David.
Although the primary purpose of the book is to show the genealogy of David, this is done in the context of a moral tale. The writer emphasizes that trust in God is always rewarded: his mercy has no limits and extends to all who sincerely seek his help. In this instance it extends to a foreigner, Ruth, and the result is that she becomes the great-grandmother of King David and a direct forebear of the Messiah.
The very fact that Ruth figures in the genealogy of Jesus Christ, as do other foreign women (Matt. 1:3-5), points up the universal scope of the salvation which Christ will bring to all men (1 Tim. 2:4), Gentiles as well as Jews (Heb. 10:34-35; 11:18).
This is a doctrinally rich book which the Church often uses in its liturgy. The names of Ruth and Boaz are read three times at Mass, where the liturgy of the word uses the genealogy given in Matthew. Boaz’ greeting, “The Lord be with you” (Ruth 2:4) is used often in the Mass and elsewhere. Naomi’s lament (1:20) is applied to the sorrows of the Blessed Virgin (feast of 15 September); and Ruth’s words (2:13) are also used to express Mary’s sentiments in the Liturgy of the Hours on the feast of her Immaculate Heart.
The book also contains interesting information about the rite of Levirate marriage, the ceremony for the assigning of property and agricultural customs of the time to do with sowing and reaping.