Times and Seasons

7. The Period of the Judges (Part a)Praying hands

The Book of Judges records happenings in Israel during the period between the Entry into the Land under Joshua and the accession of King David. During this time the people were ruled by the "Judges". The English term is something of a misnomer; the Hebrew word really denotes a counsellor, a kind of tribal Elder. It is true that such justice as was done in those turbulent days was usually administered by the current "Judge" but in practice he was as much a military leader as a civil functionary. One very popular misconception is that the Judges ruled in strict succession over the entire country, rather like a dynasty of kings, but research shows that this was not the case. A particular judge's influence usually extended over one part of the land, sometimes in the north, sometimes south, sometimes east, rarely over the whole. Not infrequently more than one judge was functioning at the same time in different areas. These facts make it impossible to assess the length of the period of the Judges by merely adding together the years of their judgeships as was formerly done.

Another common mistake is to assume that the events recorded in the Book of Judges followed each other in the order in which they are written, that it is a strictly chronological history of the times. In fact it is a collection of quite separate stories of happenings in various parts of the country at quite different times and the Book itself offers very little guidance as to the precise order in which they occurred. Some reference framework from outside the Book has to be found against which these stories can be set in their proper positions.

The first element in such a framework is the statement in 1 Kings 6:1 to the effect that King Solomon founded the Temple at Jerusalem in the four hundred and eightieth year after the Exodus from Egypt. The practice of chronologists of recent centuries to add together the lengths of the periods, which produced a total of nearly six hundred years, led to doubts being cast upon the verity of this statement. This difficulty has been felt throughout the Age, and it has been pointed out that most of the early Christian writers make no mention of it and on this account it has even been suggested that it is a late interpolation. There is no evidence of this, but there is always the possibility.

Fortunately however, there is now no need to rely on the 1 Kings 6:1 text to establish the length of this period. One of the older elements of uncertainty was the date of the Exodus, which a century ago was thought most likely to have been at the time of the 19th Egyptian dynasty, in the 13th century B.C., but during this present century the combined results of increasing knowledge of Egyptian history and the excavation of cities destroyed by Joshua have established that it was in fact during the 18th dynasty, and that Amen‑hotep II was the Pharaoh of the Exodus, round about 1450 B.C. Since the time of Solomon's accession is also known with only a few years doubt as about 980 B.C. (1450‑480=970 B.C. a common date for the start of Solomon's reign) it follows that the 480 years of 1 Kings 6:1 is satisfactorily verified by independent history.

It remains therefore to test this position by fitting the narrative of the Book of Judges into this framework of 480 years. The only time feature that is given is the statement in Judges 11:26‑28 that the conflict between Jephthah and the Ammonites was three hundred years after the entry into the land. But the possible arrangement and permutations of all the other events to fit whatever period is selected as the time of the Judges is almost endless and largely dependent upon personal opinion, in the absence of chronological indications. And in all the various solutions which have been put forth for generations past, one important factor appears to have been overlooked or at least unheeded. This is that the entire history of the period appears to be one of incessant conflict with neighbouring peoples, invading and pillaging the land. One is led to enquire why the nations and tribes of the Middle East should have been in such a constant state of turmoil. The answer is to be found in what might be called the political background of Canaan during these four centuries. Knowledge of that might go far to explain those constant incursions of alien peoples into Israel.

mapDuring Moses' early life the lands of Canaan and Syria were under the iron control of Egypt. The warlike Pharaohs of the 18th dynasty maintained Canaan as a buffer state against Asiatic aggression. With the death of Thutmose III, the Pharaoh who "sought Moses' life" and who died eight years or so before Moses returned from Midian, the rising empire of Mitanni on the Upper Euphrates—more or less modern Kurdistan—wrested the power from Egypt and began to control the area. When Joshua's forces crossed Jordan the Mitannians were dominant in the north. But thirty years later they were dispossessed by the Hittites, a rising power emanating from what is now modern Turkey. There always had been Hittite settlements and colonists in Canaan but now they had full political control. This state of affairs continued for a century and then Egypt, perhaps having recovered somewhat from the disastrous consequences of the Exodus, invaded Canaan to do battle with the Hittites. The two armies fought each other to a standstill at the battle of Qadesh and the net result was a treaty of friendship between the contending parties which ensured a measure of peace in the major part of the country for about another century, to the year 1200 B.C. From then on, until the days of David two centuries later, there subsisted throughout the Middle East what has been called "the times of confusion", in which no great power was dominant anywhere and intermittent invasions, wars and transient conquests were common. The effect of this on the national life of Israel is well illustrated by the sad comment of the compiler of "Judges", several times repeated, "in those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes".

It is only during the last century that detailed knowledge of this empire of Mitanni has been established, but now that it is known, one of the most obscure narratives in the Book of Judges can be explained, and an additional confirmation of the date of the Exodus obtained. The first foreign oppression, following Israel's first apostasy soon after the death of Joshua, was when the Lord "sold them into the hand of Chushan‑rishathaim, king of Mesopotamia: and the children of Israel served Chushan‑rishathaim eight years" (Jud.3:8). No commentator or scholar has ever yet hazarded a guess at the identity of this king with the terrifying name, but the knowledge of the short supremacy of Mitanni over Canaan solves the enigma. "Mesopotamia" is the Greek form of the Hebrew Aram‑naharaim, meaning "Aram of the two rivers". This was the ancient name of the territory between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris which at a later date became the empire of Assyria. This was the area occupied by the empire of Mitanni in Joshua's day. This king Chushan‑rishathaim was one of the kings of Mitanni who extended his sway over Canaan and was then defeated and pushed back by Othniel, as related in Judges 3. Since Mitannian influence in Canaan endured for only a century, and came to an end thirty‑five years or so after Israel entered the land, the date of the Exodus is confirmed within a very few years independent of Bible chronology. The Mitannian king overthrown by the Hittites was Mattiwaza; his predecessor Tushratta could quite likely be the one referred to in Judges as Chushan‑rishathaim, and since the sister of Tushratta was married to Pharaoh Amen‑hotep III, who was reigning while Joshua was conquering Canaan, everything seems to fit in.

So Joshua died, probably twenty years or so after the entry, the people forgot God, violated the covenant, and were in consequence allowed to fall under the dominion of the Mitannians for eight years. Othniel, the nephew of Caleb, emerged as a military leader and engaged the enemy in combat. At precisely the same time, so far as ascertained history can show, the Hittites attacked the Mitannians from the north and defeated them. It looks very much as though they were caught between the Hittites in the north and Joshua in the south; at any rate, they were expelled from Canaan and "the land had rest forty years".

During this period several notable events occurred. First of all came the interlude of Ruth and Boaz. Boaz was the son of Rahab of Jericho and Salmon prince of the tribe of Judah. He must therefore have been born within a few years of the Entry. Elimelech and Naomi, in the story of the Book of Ruth, emigrated at much the same time into Moab because there was famine in Israel. If there was famine in Israel it was because Israel had apostatised and broken the Covenant, otherwise under its terms freedom from famine was guaranteed. This therefore must have been the apostasy following the death of Joshua which led to the eight years' oppression of Chushan‑rishathaim; during that time Naomi was in Moab. She came back to Canaan with Ruth because "she had heard…that the LORD had visited his people in giving them bread" (Ruth 1:6), which means that the people had returned to the Lord and were keeping the Covenant—obviously this was the time of "rest" under Othniel. So the story of Ruth and Boaz fits in about forty to fifty years after the Entry during the time of Othniel the first Judge.

Twenty years or so earlier, perhaps just after the death of Joshua, must be placed the story of Micah and his graven image, recorded in Judges 17 & 18. A certain Ephraimite named Micah had set up an idol in his house and instituted a form of idolatrous worship. To him there came a young Levite from Bethlehem who was engaged as a kind of family priest. In the course of time there passed that way a party of men from the tribe of Dan, whose territory lay in the south‑west near the sea. Because the Danites could not effectually dislodge the native inhabitants they were seeking another part of the country in which to dwell. They persuaded the Levite to come with them, complete with idol and all accessories, to be their own High Priest in their new abode, which came to be in the extreme north of the country. Thus was instituted a centre of idolatry which remained in Israel right up to the time of the captivity. The point of the story is that this Levite was a grandson of Moses. Although in the A.V. of Judges 18:30 he is named as Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh, this is because the Jews in later times substituted Manasseh for Moses with a special mark in the Hebrew to indicate that Moses was in the original—this to dissociate the revered name of their founder with the disgraceful conduct of his grandson. So the descendants of Moses were priests of idolatry in Dan until the Captivity seven hundred years later.

At a later time, but still probably before the death of Othniel, came the civil war in which the tribe of Benjamin was all but annihilated. Although no note of time is given in the account in Judges 19‑21 it is evident that it must have been soon after the beginning, since only six hundred men of Benjamin were left after the fighting and no women or children, yet by the time of Solomon the tribe was back to its normal strength. Because of a scandalous proceeding in the Benjamite town of Gibeah, the rest of the tribes made war against them having first asked counsel at the house of God—the Tabernacle where Phinehas the grandson of Aaron was High Priest (Jud.20:18,28). In the upshot the slaughter of Benjamin was so extensive that special measures had to be taken to avoid the tribe completely dying out from Israel. All this at a time when "the land had rest" and the nation was professedly obeying the laws of the Lord; the story is a biting commentary on the decline of Israel's high standards inculcated at Sinai little more than a century previously.

There now ensues that dreary repetition of national disasters prefaced each time by the monotonous refrain "and the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the LORD: and the LORD…" (Jud.3:12) in each case allowed them to become subject to their enemies until they repented and turned to him. Then He raised up a deliverer. Othniel was the first such deliverer and he saved them from the Mitanni king; but Othniel died probably about seventy years after the Entry, at say about 1340 B.C., and Phinehas the High Priest, grandson of Aaron, must have died very soon after. Now there was no one left who had participated in the stirring events of the crossing of Jordan and the conquest of the land; the Israelites were intermarrying with the people of the land and serving their gods and all the high ideals of the generation that survived the Exodus were being forgotten. And at this stage the old enemies, Moab, Ammon and Amalek, staged a concerted attack in the southern part of the country and Israel came under the heel of the Moabites for eighteen years.

Chapter 3 tells the story. Israel repented and cried unto the Lord. God raised them up a champion, Ehud of the tribe of Benjamin, the tribe they had so recently all but annihilated, and he raised a force of men and successfully routed the enemy, so successfully that Ch.3:30 says the land had rest for eighty years. Although not hinted at in the Bible account, this may very well have been partly because at this period Egypt had embarked upon a determined attempt to overthrow the Hittite power in the north, an attempt in which Egypt was only partially successful, and although the theatre of operations did not involve the southern tribes, it may well be that the peoples to the east who had formerly caused trouble, the Moabites and Ammonites and so on, were keeping themselves quiet and out of the way.

But although there was relative peace in Judah, Benjamin and the tribes to the south, the situation was different in the north, where the inconclusive war between Seti I and Rameses II of Egypt and the kings of the Hittites continued to rage, despite treaties of peace and apparent agreement. The disturbed state of Syria had to be reflected in the fortunes of the northern tribes, Issachar, Zebulon, Ephraim, and this is where the oppression and succeeding defeat of Jabin the King of Canaan is most likely to be placed. Jabin was almost certainly a Hittite vassal king reigning in Hazor; his territory lay in the front line of the Hittite defences. With the Egyptians attacking from the south and Israel in possession in the south he probably recognised little difference between the two peoples. In any case the possession and occupation of the northern tribes' territory gave him at least a useful buffer state between himself and the Egyptians, and thus for twenty years (Jud.4:3) the hapless Israelites found themselves caught between two fires. This was apparently the worst of all the oppressions; a term is used not employed with any of the others. Jabin "mightily oppressed the children of Israel".

Eventually Israel again "cried unto the LORD" and there came to the front a man of Naphtali, who together with Deborah the prophetess who, it is said, occupied the position of Judge, at least of the northern tribes, sallied forth with ten thousand men to engage Jabin's general Sisera. Chapters 4&5 tell the story, how Sisera's "nine hundred chariots of iron"—typically Hittite; only the Hittites had iron chariots—were utterly routed, all his forces scattered, and Sisera himself ignominiously slain by a woman. The triumphal "taunt song" of Deborah and Barak (Chap.5) is one of the masterpieces of the Old Testament. What the Egyptians under Rameses II were at the same time failing to achieve. Barak had achieved for them. One is led to wonder if the boastful inscriptions of Rameses II recounting his successes in this campaign do not borrow something from the achievements of Barak, whose defeat of the Canaanite and Hittite forces under Jabin and Sisera must at least have been of considerable help. The fact remains that the treaty of B.C.1273 which regularised the position left neither Hittite nor Egyptian in a position of dominance and in consequence Israel entered upon a short time of peace—according to Jud.5:31 a period of forty years,—which probably overlapped to some extent the eighty years "rest" of Ehud's deliverance from the Moabites in the south. Rameses II married the daughter of the Hittite king Hattusilis II (or III) as sign of eternal friendship and went back to Egypt with his bride, there at once to start plotting against his new father‑in‑law, and Israel, perhaps for the first time since Othniel, experienced relative peace throughout the land.

So passed the first two centuries of the period of the Judges. The next two, to the end, were to be much more violent. Israel was to be torn by enemy action and inter‑tribal strife almost continuously until at last, in desperation, the people beseeched Samuel to find them a king, one who could make them into a nation like the other nations. None of the Judges ever achieved that.


The second and final instalment, in the next issue, gives the rest of c