Period of Judges




Apart from the evidence of archeology, the chief sources of information are the Book of Judges and 1 Samuel 1-8. It is evident that this is not a homogeneous account, although there is a unity of outlook. Four groups of material may be observed: (1) Judges 1:1-2:5, extracts from an ancient account of the Conquest; (2) Judges 2:6-16:31, a series of narratives in an editorial framework concerning the individual judges and the story of Abimelech (9:1-56); (3) Judges 17-21, two narratives unconnected with any of the judges, illustrative of the general conditions of the period; (4) 1 Samuel 1-8, which center upon the person of Samuel.

Chronological limits.

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 (Josh 24:31; Judg 2:7), an approximate date for the commencement of the period of the Judges may be set at 1200 b.c. There is considerable uncertainty concerning the length of Saul’s reign, but a tentative date of 1020 b.c. may be nominated for his accession. The period of the Judges, therefore, was c. 1200 b.c.—1020 b.c., i.e. approximately 180 years.

Internal chronology.

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 (Judg 10:7). No separate allowance has been made for the forty years of Eli’s judgeship (1 Sam 4:18). Among attempts to reduce the overall total are the exclusion of the years of foreign domination, or the exclusion of the minor judges and Abimelech, the usurper. All such attempts are conjectural, and a simpler explanation is that the chronology is relative rather than absolute. An examination of the territory affected in each invasion shows that only a small area was affected. Sometimes the struggle against an aggressor was confined to one or two tribes, and only in the case of the Canaanite attack (Judg 4:5) and the later phase of the Philistine aggression (1 Sam 4:7) was a majority of the tribes involved. It is likely, therefore, that the periods of foreign oppression and of the individual judges, overlapped. This allows serious consideration of the chronological data within the Book of Judges, but care is required in interpreting the figures. The recurrence of the figure forty and its multiples suggests that it may be a round figure to indicate a generation.

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 Tent of Meeting and the Tabernacle; by the fact that the region where the Israelites spent the greater part of the period was named Kadesh (i.e. “sanctuary”)—barnea; and by the fact that after the settlement the central sanctuary was to continue as the focal place of the national worship (Deut 12:5ff.; 16:1ff.), where difficult cases were to be tried (17:8-13).

Historical background.

Israel’s judges.

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, 1 Kings 3:3ff.). This may have been the reason why the so-called minor, or pacific, judges—Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon—were accounted judges, although the brevity of the records may account for the absence of any warlike exploits. Indeed there is a hint of unrecorded exploits in the case of Tola, who “arose to deliver Israel” (Judg 10:1). Deborah herself judged Israel before leading Israel against the Canaanites (4:4). The high priest would also be regarded as a judge (cf. 1 Sam 4:18) as the central sanctuary was, traditionally, the place of arbitration. High priest, wise man, and warrior—from these three classes came Israel’s judges. Their conduct frequently fell far below that of the great characters of the OT period, but they were men of faith (cf. Heb 11:32, 33) who fulfilled a vital role in a time of crisis.

The importance of the period

Division and disunity in Israel.

The rise of the monarchy.


(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. Hos 2; Jer 2, etc.), but not until the Exile did the nation, as a whole, break free from this influence.

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 (Judg 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).

3) There was also a decline in the standard of individual leadership following the death of Joshua (Josh 24:31; Judg 2:7). The stories of Deborah and Barak, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson make thrilling reading, but their blemishes of character are for the most part sadly apparent. Not until Samuel arose, late in the period, was the leadership comparable to that of Moses and 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” (Exod 12:38) are considered. The frequent murmuring and lapses of faith in the wilderness were ominous portents of future events. Even after two generations had witnessed Yahweh’s power to deliver and provide, polytheism was still widely diffused (Josh 24:15).


R. K. Harrison, A History of Old Testament Times (1957), 121-140; J. Bright, A History of Israel (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 Book of Judges.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)




1. The Canaanites

2. Foes Without


1. Struggles of Individual Tribes

2. Civil Strife

3. The Six Invasions

4. Need of Central Government




I. Sources.

Our chief sources of information are the Book of Jud and 1Sa 1-12. The material contained in these is not all of the same age. The oldest part, by common consent, is the So of Deborah (Jud 5). It is a contemporaneous document. The prose narratives, however, are also early, and are generally regarded as presenting a faithful picture of the times with which they deal. The Book of Ruth, which also refers to this period, is probably in its present form a later composition, but there is no adequate ground for denying to it historical basis (Konig, Einleitung, 286 ff; Kent, Student’s Old Testament, I, 310 f).

II. Chronology.

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 1Ki 6:1, where the whole period from the Exodus to the 4th year of Solomon is reckoned at 480 years. Various attempts have been made to harmonize these divergent figures, e.g. by eliminating the 70 years attributed to the Minor Judges (10:1-5; 12:7-15), by not counting the 71 years of foreign domination, and by theory that some of the judges were contemporaneous. It is probable that the 480 years of 1Ki 6:1 was a round number and did not rest on exact records. Indeed, it is doubtful if there was any fixed calendar in Israel before the time of the monarchy. The only way then to determine the length of the period of the Judges is from the date of the Exodus. The common view is that the Exodus took place during or just after the reign of Merenptah in the latter half of the 13th century BC. This, however, leaves hardly more than 150 years to the period of the Judges, for Saul’s reign fell in the 2nd half of the 11th century BC. Hence, some, to whom this seems too short, assign the Exodus to the reign of Amenophis II, about 1450 BC. This harmonizes with the 480 years of 1Ki 6:1, and is supported by other considerations (POT, 422-24). Still others have connected the Exodus with the expulsion of the Hyksos about 1580 BC (G.A. Reisner); and this would fit in very well with the chronological data in the Book of Jgs. The objection to the last two views is that they require a rather long period of subjection of the Israelites in Canaan to Egypt, of which there is no trace in the Book of Judges.

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 (Jud 1:3), but the actual possession of the territory assigned each still lay in the future and was only gradually achieved. The Canaanites remained in the land, and were for a time a serious menace to the power of Israel. They retained possession of the plains and many of the fortified cities, e.g. Gezer, Harheres, Aijalon, Shaalhim, and Jerusalem on the northern border of Judah (Jud 1:21,29,35), and Bethshean, Ibleam, Taanach, Megiddo, and Dot along the northern border of Manasseh (Jud 1:27,28).

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" (Jud 17:6).

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 Jud 3:7-10 was more likely a king of Edom than of Mesopotamia (Paton, Early History of Syria and Palestine, 161-62).

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 Jud 17; 18. A considerable portion of the tribe of Dan, hard pressed by the Amorites (Jud 1:34 f), migrated from their allotted home West of Judah to Laish in the distant north, where they put the inhabitants to the sword, burnt the city and then rebuilt it under the name of Dan. This took place early in the period of the Judges, apparently during the first generation after the conquest (Jud 18:30).

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 (Jud 3:7-11), Ehud from the Moabites (Jud 3:12-30), Deborah and Barak from the Canaanites (Judges 4; 5), Gideon from the Midianites (Judges 6-8), and Jephthah from the Ammonites (Jud 10:6-12,17). In the strife with the Philistines, which was not terminated during this period, Samson (Judges 13-16), Eli (1Sa 4-6), and Samuel (1Sa 7:3-14; 9:16) figure. Of these six wars those which brought Othniel, Ehud and Jephthah to the front were less serious and significant than the other three. The conflicts with the Canaanites, Midianites and Philistines mark distinct stages in the history of the period.

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 (Jud 5:6,8). It seemed as though they were about to be subdued by the people they had a short time before dispossessed. Then it was that Deborah appeared on the scene. With her passionate appeals in the name of Yahweh she awakened a new sense of national unity, rallied the discouraged forces of the nation and administered a final crushing defeat upon the Canaanites in the plain of Megiddo.

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 (Jud 6:1,3). This evil was suddenly put an end to by the bold stroke of Gideon, whose victory was long treasured in the public memory (Isa 9:4; 10:26; Ps 83:9-12). But the people, at least of Manasseh and perhaps also of Ephraim, now realized that it was no longer safe to depend upon such temporary leadership. They needed a permanent organization to ward off the dangers that beset them. They therefore offered the kingship to Gideon. He formally declined it (Jud 8:22,23), but still set up a government at Ophrah which the people looked upon as hereditary (Jud 9:2). He was succeeded by his son Abimelech, who, after slaying all but one of his 70 brothers, assumed the title of king. The new kingdom, however, was of short duration. It ended after three years with the ignominious death of the king.

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 (1Sa 4-6). In the face of such a foe as this it was clear that only a strong and permanent leadership of the whole people would suffice (1Sa 9:15; 10:1); and thus the rule of the Judges gave way to the monarchy.

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 (Jud 8:24-27), the images of Micah (Judges 17-18), and the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter (Jud 11:34-40). In the transition from a nomadic to an agricultural life it was inevitable that the Hebrews with their native heathen proclivities would adopt many of the crude and even immoral religious customs and beliefs of the people among whom they settled. But the purer Mosaic faith still had its representatives. The worship of the central sanctuary at Shiloh remained imageless. Leaders like Deborah and Samuel revived the spirit of Moses. And there can hardly be a doubt that in many a quiet home a true and earnest piety was cultivated like that in the home of Elimelech and Naomi.

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.