I really enjoyed most of Judges. Certainly, after the narrative dry spell of Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, it was so refreshing to actually see stories again. Some of them, like Deborah’s, were actually quite cool, too. Then we got to Judges 19 and the stories just started to make me angry. Granted, they seem intended to illustrate why Israel really needs a monarchy, but those final three chapters were still tough to read.
According to Collins, “this history was put together and edited no earlier than the late seventh century B.C.E., several hundred years after the supposed time of the conquest and judges. The final edition is no earlier than the Babylonian exile, possibly later” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.95).
As for purpose, I think that there are a few different things going on in the book.
The first and most obvious is that it argues in favour of a monarchy, and appears to argue against division between the tribes (as in the Israelites’ frequent weeping over having to kill their “brethren,” the Benjaminites). In other words, it may have been intended to serve as a warning against having an Israel that is not under a united monarchy.
There also seems to be some propaganda against certain specific tribes (and in favour of certain others). For example, Dan gets their shrine through theft, clearly an attempt to smear the northern kingdom’s holy sites. There’s also two references to Judah leading the way, in Judges 1:1-2 and Judges 20:18. In both cases, it stands out from the surrounding text, which suggests to me that these two passages were deliberately added for a purpose. This all comes back to the first purpose, except that instead of just promoting a united monarchy, it’s specifically hinting that Israel needs a monarch lead by Judah.
Then there’s the simple repetition of Israel falling into sin and idol worship – a narrative we should be amply familiar with after coming out of Exodus/Numbers.
Many of the stories just seem to be preserved for no particular reason, or at least no propagandistic reason. The listed names of judges for whom little/no details are provided, for example, seem to be simply a preservation of historical records. I also noted in my discussions of Jephthah and Samson that some of the stories seem to hint at pre-YHWH and, certainly, pre-monotheistic origins.
Certainly, I think it’s clear that much of the material comes from local folk stories, which would fit with my perception of Joshua as a similar local folk hero.