Times and Seasons

7. The Period of the Judges (Part b)

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The first instalment, last issue, described the first two centuries of the Judges' rule, from the conquest under Joshua to the defeat of the Canaanites by Deborah and Barak, in the time of Rameses II and Merneptah, Pharaohs of Egypt.

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The second half of the times of the Judges opens about the year 1200 BC, nearly two hundred years before David. The political domination of Canaan by the Hittites had long since passed away; the control exercised since then by Egypt had dwindled to a shadow, and Assyria had not yet arisen to threaten Israel. The twelve tribes could now, if they wished, become a powerful State in their own right and their own territory, able to resist all enemies—but it required a David to bring that about and David had not yet come. And Israel was still idolatrous. Some there were who were faithful to God and the Covenant, but the majority served the gods of the land, Baal and Moloch and Dagon. The Tabernacle at Shiloh, centre of national worship and the place of the Day of Atonement sacrifices, was probably at this very time the scene of an unknown disruption which resulted in the legal line of High Priests from Eleazer the son of Aaron being dispossessed in favour of a scion of the junior line of Ithamar. In the far north a rival sanctuary in Dan was served by apostate priests of the descendants of Moses where Jehovah was worshipped in the form of a graven image. All this meant that the penalty of the violated Covenant must again fall upon the people. And to all this has to be added the disastrous effect upon Israel from now onward of another important factor, that unpredictable element, the weather.

It would seem that no researcher, modern or ancient, into the Book of Judges has ever considered the possible relation between the events of those times and the prevailing weather. Not surprising, perhaps, since nothing is said about weather in the Book and in any case until quite recent years nothing was known about weather conditions in the ancient world. Things are different now. The researches of leading climatologists such as Brooks early in the last century and Lamb later on have established a fairly detailed picture of what our ancestors experienced in this field. With regard to the period in question, it is now known that about 1400 BC, just when Joshua was entering Canaan, there was a marked world climatic change which introduced a cool and rainy era persisting for two centuries. For naturally dry and hot desert areas such as the Middle East this facilitated generally fertile and productive conditions well suited to the needs of nomadic or semi‑nomadic peoples such as Israel and her neighbour nations. Agreeably to this, apart from the three relatively short periods of oppression from Chusan, Eglon and Jabin, described in Part a of this treatise, Israel enjoyed relatively long periods of "rest", times in which the national life went on generally unmolested. In fact the general prosperity and productiveness of the land might well have contributed to the decline into idolatry so characteristic of this period. So soon as the champion, Othniel or Ehud or Barak, had delivered them from the oppressor they went back contentedly to their farms and their lives of relative ease.

All this was to change and it was the climate that did it. Round about the year 1200 BC, say the climatologists, there was another sudden and drastic change in world climate. The rainy phase ended and a hot, dry era commenced which continued for another two centuries until the year 1000 BC—the time of David. The second half of the period of the Judges was to be subject to this very different state of the weather.

This warmer and drier climate—which was world‑wide—had its effect upon the semi‑desert regions of the Middle East, and so upon the dwellers in those regions. Crop‑growing became more difficult because of diminished rainfall. Pasture for cattle became more difficult to find. The nomadic desert tribes who depended for their food largely upon Nature's wild‑growing profusion found their supplies drying up, increasingly so as year succeeded year and the wilderness increasingly became desert. So they moved into the more settled territories where there were farmers with cultivated crops, and there were conflicts for food. In the first two centuries of Israel's occupancy of Canaan her enemies were the forces of the great military empires; in these later two centuries it is noteworthy that the empires are there no more. The enemies now are raiding parties of miscellaneous tribes, Midianites, Amalekites, Philistines, and their chief purpose is not political control but food and land. The whole picture now is that of tribes and communities on the move, seeking new lands where they can find sustenance for themselves and their flocks. Throughout these two centuries there was no more peace for Israel; almost all the time they were fighting off one or another of the surrounding tribes endeavouring to pillage their land and possessions. The most reasonable explanation for this sudden change in the affairs of Israel is to be found in the effect of this change of climate on their neighbours.

The first impact of this migration of peoples driven by hunger was the mass invasion of the central areas of Ephraim and Manasseh by the Midianites and "children of the east"—a general term for the Bedouin Arabs of the eastern regions—in the time of Gideon. The story in Judges 6 has all the signs of a starving multitude seeking food. They came across Jordan in their thousands, every year as soon as there were growing crops, and they "destroyed the increase of the earth,...and left no sustenance for Israel….as grasshoppers for multitude; for both they and their camels were without number...and Israel was greatly impoverished." (Judges 6:4‑6) They came with their cattle and tents, and eventually they came to stay. And so it was until the angel of the Lord came to Ophrah and appeared to Gideon.

The story of Gideon is well known, how that with only three hundred hand‑picked men he put a hundred and thirty‑five thousand Bedouin to flight by means of an artifice and defeated them so thoroughly that they troubled Israel no more—in fact the Midianites never appear again in Old Testament history as an adversary of Israel. For the moment, at any rate, the central tribes were free from food‑raiding aliens.

For a God‑fearing stalwart like Gideon, there is a sad and somewhat puzzling sequel. He had, before the decisive battle, built an altar to the Lord at Ophrah, at the Lord's behest, upon which he burned as an offering the appendages of Baal worship in his village (Jud.6:24‑31). Now after this signal defeat of the Midianites he collected their gold and raiment and from these fabricated an ephod, the sacred jewelled garment with which the High Priest of Israel communed with God to receive Divine instruction. This looks very much as if Gideon was setting up a centre of worship to rival the only authorised one at Shiloh where the Tabernacle was situated, and the question must immediately arise; why did Gideon, a man of faith and hitherto fully loyal to God, do such a thing. He had only just refused the request of Israel to reign over them as king on the grounds that the Lord was their king and the only one who should reign over them. The narrative says that "all Israel went...a whoring after it: which...became a snare unto Gideon, and to his house" (Jud.8:27). One is led to wonder if there is any connection between Gideon's apparently irreligious action and the unknown disruption which took the High Priesthood of Israel away from the legal line of Eleazar and gave it to the unauthorised line of Ithamar. No reason is given in the Old Testament for this transfer and there is not the slightest reference to it. Phinehas the grandson of Aaron is the last of Eleazar's line said to have been a High Priest and he died about a hundred and fifty years before Gideon. The next known High Priest is Eli, of the line of Ithamar, and he could have assumed office during Gideon's latter years. The descendants of Phinehas are recorded in the O.T. but no reference to their High Priesthood is made beyond Phinehas until Zadok in the time of David. Josephus, in his "Antiquities" (5.11.5) does say that after Phinehas, his descendants Abishua (Abiezer), Bukki and Uzzi (Ozi) officiated as High Priests and after that the office passed to Eli; his authority for the statement is unknown. But if in fact the Midianite invasion and its aftermath in the time of Gideon did take place soon after the climatic change that inspired it, say about 1180‑50, then Uzzi as an old man and Eli as a young man would fit in very well and Josephus's assertion looks very possible. Is it conceivable then that at this time there had been a kind of "power struggle" within the priesthood which resulted in the legal line vested in Uzzi being ousted and the unauthorised line, represented by Eli, taking his place? If such was the case, was Gideon's action an attempt to set up a separate sanctuary which could be served by the legal High Priest, Zerahiah the son of Uzzi? It may have been a commendable idea, if so, but would not have the Lord's approval, for Shiloh was the place of his sanctuary, the Tabernacle, and He could be depended upon to rectify what man had done wrong—as in fact He did do in the days of Samuel. Be all this as it may, it must have been at about this time that the disruption occurred which placed Eli in office as High Priest, leading eventually to the corrupt state of the priesthood when later on Samuel appeared upon the scene.

So Gideon administered justice among the central tribes of Israel from his headquarters in Manasseh whilst either the young Eli or perhaps Eli's father officiated as High Priest at Shiloh. Manasseh and the north had peace for forty years, during which time Gideon died and his son Abimelech took power for three years. But while Manasseh and the northern tribes thus enjoyed a period of relative peace from the Midianites and peoples of the East, things were not so peaceful in the south.

The same climatic change which sent the Midianites scouring for food in central Israel also affected the Philistines in the south. Up to the days of Gideon, Israel had experienced no trouble with the Philistines; they kept themselves more or less to themselves. But about the time of this change 1200 BC, the Philistines along the sea‑coast had been caught up in a great wave of invaders by sea from the direction of Greece, the so‑called "sea peoples", who invaded the coastal lands of the Middle East in force, with their possessions, women‑folk and children, also searching for somewhere to live and secure food and the necessities of life. This mass movement of strangers reached Egypt and was only stopped by Pharaoh Rameses II in a great sea battle and series of land engagements. The impact of all this sent the Philistines moving in the direction of likely areas of settlement and so they now began to come into conflict with Israel. From this time, about 1180 BC, to the reign of David two centuries later, the Philistines were a constant thorn in the side of Israel. The Old Testament records their conflicts with Samson, Samuel, Saul and David but it does not give the reason for their constant forays—their need for food and land in a time of increasing drought and famine. This is where Samson comes into the picture.

It is likely that Samson was born roughly soon after Gideon's death, round about 1140 BC. The forty years of Philistine oppression, which affected only the south‑western area of Israel where Samson was born, coincided partly with the end of Gideon's forty years peace in central Israel, and partly with the following area of trouble, Gilead and the Ammonites, in which the Gileadite hero Jephthah figured. Eli would be High Priest, but his forty years' judgeship over Israel had not yet commenced. It was said of Samson, not that he would deliver, but that he would "begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines". (Jud.13:5) and this came true. Samson harried the Philistines a great deal but Israel suffered under them the whole twenty years of his judgeship. It was David at the end who finally broke the Philistine power.

Nearly a century of the hot dry climate had now elapsed and the effect was beginning to be felt in Israel with enemies pressing on every side. It was the time of almost incessant conflict which was now developing which eventually led up to Israel's demand to Samuel to make them a king. Despite the Covenant made at Sinai which constituted them a nation holy unto God, they were still no more than a loosely knit confederation of tribes, fighting each other as often as they were fighting outsiders. They were beginning to realise that they could only survive as a nation, but would not accept that nationhood in God's way. Most of them were still idolaters, so now, while Samson was alive and operating in the south‑west against the Philistines, it seems that other martial figures arose to do battle in other parts, Tola in Ephraim and Jair in Gilead on the east of Jordan, each fighting a different enemy who sought to invade the land (Jud.10:1‑5). This, it would seem, led up to the last great oppression and victory of Israel before the dawn of the new era associated with the last and greatest of the Judges, Samuel.

According to Judges 10 the epoch of Gideon, of Tola and of Jair was followed by a time in which the apostasy of Israel was so great that the Lord "sold them into the hands of the Philistines, and into the hands of the children of Ammon" (Jud.10:6‑9). This must of necessity coincide with the Philistine oppression of which Samson was the central character. At the same time, says the narrative, the Ammonites from the east invaded Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim, and Gilead—virtually the whole of central and eastern Israel. The hapless Israelites were caught on both sides and the result appears to have been a national repentance in response to which God raised up a deliverer in the person of Jephthah the Gileadite (Jud.11). Jephthah raised a force and carried the initiative into the enemies' land, defeating the Ammonites so decisively that they ceased to be a threat to Israel for nearly a century, until the time of Saul.

This campaign of Jephthah against the Ammonites provides the only definite chronological link afforded by the Book of Judges. It occurred three hundred years after the Entry to the land (Jud.11:26), and so took place in 1113 BC or thereabouts. In so doing it brings the history into the period of Eli, Samuel and Saul, which have to be dated backwards from the known dates of Solomon and David. It follows that Eli was still High Priest and an old man, and that Jephthah's expedition must have been at about the same time that the child Samuel was brought to the Tabernacle at Shiloh by his mother. After Jephthah came three more local heroes, Ibzan in Bethlehem just after Samson's death, Abdon in Ephraim and Elon in the far north, Zebulon. Each probably fought the local enemies and ruled over local areas for a few years, and then as they passed away Samuel was coming into prominence as the last and the most noteworthy.


To be continued