Period of Judges
JUDGES, PERIOD OF
Apart from the evidence of archeology, the chief sources of information are the
There is considerable agreement among scholars that the Israelites entered the Promised Land c. 1230 b.c., although a date in the 15th cent. b.c. has not been completely abandoned. This conclusion has been reached as a result of a careful integration of the Biblical data with archeological evidence from Egypt, Edom, Moab, Ammon, and Canaan. Making allowance for the latter years of Joshua and the elders who outlived him (
The conclusion reached in the previous paragraph raises the problem of relating the chronological data supplied in Judges to a period of under two centuries. The following table provides the relevant facts:
To this total of 410 years there must also be added approximately twenty years for Samuel, making a total of 430 years. This figure could be reduced, since Samson’s judgeship was prob. within the period of Philistine oppression, and the Ammonite and Philistine oppressions were, in part, contemporaneous (
The structure of Israel.
It is widely recognized that the structure of Israel during the period was an amphictyony, a form that had its parallels in Greece and elsewhere in the Mediterranean region. The number of the tribes, the religious nature of the bond that united them, and the centralization of their religious and administrative organization at a sanctuary are features of this pattern and are consistent with Israel’s traditions. The amphictyonic structure originated with the Covenant event at Sinai and is witnessed to in the wilderness period by the centrality in the twelve-tribe structure of the
The main feature of this period was the emergence of individuals who delivered their fellow countrymen from these oppressors. The word “judge,” which suggests a preoccupation with legal affairs, is misleading, for besides judicial functions they exercized a saving, liberating activity that was conceived to be the result of a direct endowment from Yahweh. This has led to this company being described as “charismatic” individuals, i.e. they were the recipients of the divine grace. Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson are rightly accounted judges because of their spectacular exploits against Israel’s oppressors. Some of these appear to have ruled subsequently over the people almost like local kings. The anointing of the Spirit was also revealed in the display of exceptional wisdom (as in the case of Solomon,
The importance of the period
Division and disunity in Israel.
The rise of the monarchy.
APPROXIMATE CHRONOLOGY OF THE JUDGES’ PERIOD
(Where relevant, Scripture references and the area of Israel involved in each incident are noted)
Religious and moral decline.
Canaanite religion was a polytheistic nature cult in which the observable powers of nature were personalized and worshiped. This religion, as revealed in its cultus and mythology, was linked with the recurring seasons and was designed to promote fertility in agriculture, livestock, and human beings. Whereas it was not devoid of praiseworthy features, the moral level was relatively low; cultic prostitution of both sexes was a prominent feature. Human sacrifice was also practiced, but not as frequently as is commonly supposed.
Into this situation came Israel, with a religious faith that was expressed in forms superficially resembling Canaanite customs, but on an entirely different basis. Instead of a gross polytheism, was a belief in Yahweh, whose sovereignty in nature and history was such that other gods paled into insignificance. It was accompanied by a highly moral approach to the whole of life, the result of a unique covenant relationship with Yahweh, following His mighty deeds in delivering them from Egypt. The final victory of Yahwism over the Canaanite religion has transformed history, but in the initial phases of the conflict was a pronounced religious and moral decline in Israel for the following reasons:
1) Because of the failure to complete the Conquest, Israel was surrounded by the Canaanite religion, which, by nature of its appeal to man’s sensual nature, had a fatal fascination. Moreover, there would be a temptation to defer to the nature gods of the land, who were conceived to be responsible for its fertility because they controlled the rain and the springs, The problem of the relationship between Yahweh and the Canaanite gods would become acute as the number of mixed marriages multiplied. Syncretism was inevitable in such a situation, with the gods of one nation being absorbed into the pantheon of the other, a process in which the functions and even the names of the deities became confused. The prophets attacked this Canaanization of Yahweh worship (e.g.
2) Linked closely with this was the ineffective leadership exercised by the Israelite amphictyony. A strong central authority could have averted major religious deviations; its absence made possible a gradual decline from Mosaic standards. The later editor accounted for this moral decline by the absence of the firm centralized authority exercised by the king (
3) There was also a decline in the standard of individual leadership following the death of Joshua (
4) Admittedly, the standards of the average Israelite usually fell below that of their leaders. This is hardy surprising when the background of bondage in Egypt and the fact that they were a “mixed multitude” (
R. K. Harrison, A History of Book of Judges.Times (1957), 121-140; J. Bright, A (1960), 142-166; M. Noth, The History of Israel, 2nd ed. (1960), 141-168; W. F. Albright, Archaeology of Palestine (1960), 87-120. See also bibliography for
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
III. GENERAL POLITICAL SITUATION
1. The Canaanites
2. Foes Without
IV. MAIN EVENTS
1. Struggles of Individual Tribes
2. Civil Strife
3. The Six Invasions
4. Need of Central Government
V. RELIGIOUS CONDITIONS
VI. THEOLOGICAL INTERPRETATION
Our chief sources of information are the Book of Jud and
The period of the Judges extends from the death of Joshua to the establishment of the monarchy. How long a time elapsed between these limits is a matter of wide difference of opinion. The chronological data in the Book of Jgs, i.e. omitting Eli and Samuel, make a total of 410 years. But this is inconsistent with
See, further, JUDGES, BOOK OF, IV.
III. General Political Situation.
The death of Joshua left much land yet to be possessed by the Israelites.
1. The Canaanites:
The different tribes had received their respective allotments (
2. Foes Without:
Besides these foes within Canaan, the Israelites had enemies from without to contend with, namely, the Moabites, Midianites, Ammonites, and Philistines. The danger from each of these quarters, except that from the Philistines, was successfully warded off. The conflicts in which the Israelites were thus involved were all more or less local in character. In no case did all the tribes act together, though the duty of such united action is clearly taught in the So of Deborah, at least so far as the 10 northern tribes are concerned. The omission of Judah and Simeon from this ancient song is strange, but may not be so significant as is sometimes supposed. The judges, who were raised up to meet the various emergencies, seem to have exercised jurisdiction only over limited areas. In general the different tribes and clans acted independently of each other. Local home rule prevailed. "Every man did that which was right in his own eyes" (
That Canaan was not during this period subdued and kept in subjection by one of the great world-powers, Egypt or Babylonia, is to be regarded as providential (HPM, I, 214 f). Such subjection would have made impossible the development of a free national and religious life in Israel. The Cushan-rishathaim of
IV. Main Events.
1. Struggles of Individual Tribes:
Much of what took place during this period is unrecorded. Of the struggles through which the individual tribes passed before they succeeded in establishing themselves in the land, little is known. One interesting episode is preserved for us in
2. Civil Strife:
3. The Six Invasions:
Six wars with other nations are recorded as taking place in this period, and each called forth its judge or judges. Othniel delivered the Israelites from the Mesopotamians or Edomites (
After the first successes of the Israelites in Canaan a period of weakness and disintegration set in. The Canaanites, who still held the fortified cities in the plain of Esdraelon, banded themselves together and terrorized the region round about. The Hebrews fled from their villages to the caves and dens. None had the heart to offer resistance (
But the flame thus kindled after a time went out. New enemies came from without. The Midianites invaded the land year after year, robbing it of its produce (
4. Need of Central Government:
A great danger was needed before the people of Israel could be welded into unity and made to see the necessity of a strong central government. This came eventually from the Philistines, who twice defeated the Israelites in battle, captured the ark, and overran a large part of the country (
V. Religious Conditions.
The Hebrew mind to which Moses addressed himself was not a tabula rasa, and the Palestinian world into which the Israelites entered was not an intellectual blank. Formative influences had for ages been at work on the Hebrew mind, and Palestine had long been inhabited by people with fixed institutions, customs and ideas. When then Israel settled in Canaan, they had both a heathen inheritance and a heathen environment to contend with. It should therefore occasion no surprise to find during this period such lapses from the purity of the Mosaic faith as appear in the ephod of Gideon (
VI. Theological Interpretation.
The Biblical historian was not content simply to narrate events. What concerned him most was the meaning lying back of them. And this meaning he was interested in, not for its own sake, but because of its application to the people of his own day. Hence, intermingled with the narratives of the period of the Judges are to be found religious interpretations of the events recorded and exhortations based upon them. The fundamental lesson thus inculcated is the same as that continually insisted upon by the prophets. The Divine government of the world is based upon justice. Disobedience to the moral law and disloyalty to Yahweh means, therefore, to Israel suffering and disaster. All the oppressions of the period of the Judges arose in this way. Relief and deliverance came only when the people turned unto Yahweh. This religious pragmatism, as it is called, does not lie on the surface of the events, so that a naturalistic historian might see it. But it is a correlate of the ethical monotheism of the prophets, and constitutes the one element in the Old Testament which makes the study of Israel’s history supremely worth while.
Josephus, Ant, V, ii-vi, 5; Ottley, Short History of the Hebrews, 101-24; Kittel, History of the Hebrews, II, 60 f, 2nd German edition, II, 52-135.