Judging Israel — A nation begins to form

“In that time there was no King in Israel and everyone did as he saw fit”.


FINALLY, the Israelites had begun to live out the promise made to Abraham.  Each of the tribes had been allotted land, with the exception of the Levites who were to be perpetual priests and dedicated to Yahweh.  It was excellent land in the best of all locations:  in the middle of all the major trade routes; prolifically fertile, good irrigation, good insect life, all the natural resources that a nation would need to prosper and grow.  But these were a group of nomads who are now settled and the arduous task of  building a national and religious identity lay ahead of them.  The books of Judges, Joshua, Ruth, Samuel I and II describe the circumstances of the Israelites and their transition from tribe to kingdom.

THE LAY OF THE LAND:  The major powers of the day:  Egypt, the Hittites, the Mitanni and Babylonians, were otherwise occupied.  Egypt’s 18th Dynasty rulers after Amenhotep III were focused inward.  In the 19th Dynasty, Seti I and his son, Rameses II, campaigned north against the Hittites but pretty much left Canaan alone.  In the 20th Dynasty, Merneptah and Rameses III did invade the Palestine regions, most likely against the Sea Peoples,  a group of people from the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the island of Crete who raided the coasts of Egypt and Syria-Palestine.  Despite the Merneptah Stele’s claim that “Israel is laid waste, his seed is not”–the earliest extant extra-biblical reference to “Israel” (1209 B.C.E.)–Egypt lost control of Syria-Palestine  The Egyptians’ aim was to keep control of the coastal highway and they were unsuccessful.  The Philistines were part of sea peoples and were repelled by Pharoah Merneptah (1238-1228) – yet they returned in greater numbers under the rule of Rameses III to challenge Egypt.  They were kept from infiltrating Egypt, but not from occupying land that Egypt claimed along the southern Canaanite shoreline.  In the area previously assigned to Judah and Dan, the Philistines established a strong foothold of 5 independent cities:  Ashkelon, Gaza, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath.

The Hittites, under Shuppiluliuma (1375-1340) kept the Mitanni empire busy, ultimately taking it over.  The Hittites did not invade Canaan, being otherwise interested in Egypt during this time period.  In fact, the influence of all the major powers–Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt–waned in this period, though Assyria experienced a brief resurgence under Tiglath-Pileser I (1114-1076 B.C.E.), who campaigned successfully against Babylon. Eventually, however, a group of seminomadic, Semitic tribes known as the Arameans took over Syria and Mesopotamia. Their language, Aramaic, gradually spread throughout the ancient Near East, completely replacing Akkadian as the language of international commerce by the sixth century B.C.E. Parts of Ezra-Nehemiah and Daniel are written in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.

Years B.C. Archae- logical Period
Conditions and Events in Palestine 
Conditions and Events Outside of Palestine 
Late Bronze Age 
Canaan: a province of Egypt; dotted with powerful walled cities; city-state plan of government; extensive trade and industry; flourishing nature religion.  Hebrews invade from the east (thirteenth-twelfth centuries).  Philistines invade from the west and occupycoastal region (twelfth century). EGYPT: weakened by war against Sea People unable to control PalestineHITTITE nations collapses
Early Iron Age 
Philistines establish city-states; Hebrews struggle to hold territory: period of the Judges; war with Canaanites: battle of Taanach; battles with Moabites, Midianites, Amalekites, Philistines;an abortive attempt at Hebrew kingship; the tribe of Dan is forced to migrate; the war against Benjamin ASSYRIA: Under Tiglath Pileser I holds Syria until I 100 EGYPT: still weak 


Abraham’s promise was beginning to fray.  The book of Judges chronicles the constant struggle to remain independent and to keep what they’d been given.  The familiar pattern continued:  the people sinned, they were forced to serve those they’d once controlled, they cried out to Yahweh and Yahweh would raise up a Judge, charismatic military leaders, to lead an individual tribe or, occasionally, groups of tribes in battle. Religiously, these tribes may have gathered around a central shrine or ark containing the tablets of the law and celebrated at least three festivals: Passover in the spring; Weeks, or Pentecost, in the summer; and Tabernacles in the fall.

 Greater_Israel_mapTHIS IS NOT YOUR FATHER”S PROMISED LAND — MAKING DUE WITH WHAT YOU GOT:  In the book of Joshua, Yahweh tells Joshua  (Joshua 1:3-4) “I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses.  Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates — all the Hittite country — to the Mediterranean Sea in the west.”   Likewise, Genesis 15:18-21 (KJV): “In the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates: The Kenites, and the Kenizzites, and the Kadmonites, And the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Rephaims, And the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”

Did they get this?  No.  The above map shows what the Promised Land would  have looked like.  The promise had clearly been scaled back.  Instead of occupying the entire region, the Israelites were confined to a small crescent of land between the the shores of the Mediterranean and the Jordan river; sandwiched between two hostile powers, the Hittites and the Egyptians.  THE LORD has promised them the land of the Hittites and much of Egypt, yet he’d scaled back what they received.  Why?  Perhaps because they were incapable of obeying him he’d judged them incapable of holding the land?

The LORD was giving them their chance.   And they were blowing it.  The website “Enter the Bible”  explains it this way.  (https://www.enterthebible.org/oldtestament.aspx?rid=27)

 “Again the contrast with Joshua is striking. With Joshua at the helm, “Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua” (Joshua 24:31a). As a result, Israel enjoyed success, victory, and total possession of the land. In Judges, the angel of the Lord informs Israel that their failure to subdue the land of Canaan is due to their failure to obey God’s commands, especially in the matter of worshiping Baal, the god of the Canaanites. By means of a flashback, the people are reminded of the faithfulness that characterized Israel as long as Joshua was alive (Judges 2:6-9 // Joshua 24:28-31).

The most important part of the introduction appears in verses 11-19, an intricate presentation of the recurring pattern of apostasy, oppression, and deliverance that will structure much of the following narrative, especially with regard to the major judges: Israel’s apostasy in serving the local Baals angers the Lord, who hands them over to domination by their rivals in Canaan (vv. 11-15). Moved by their distress, God would raise up a charismatic leader, a judge/deliverer who would throw off the foreign oppression. Upon the death of these leaders, however, Israel would fall back into apostasy and the cycle would repeat (vv. 18-20).

Why those nations were allowed to remain in the land, contrary to the account in Joshua, becomes clear in 2:20-3:6. They remain to “test” Israel’s faithfulness (vv. 1, 4). Unfortunately, Israel intermarried with these indigenous peoples and failed the test. The introduction suggests that the story of Israel recounted in Judges will not be a happy one; rather it will be one marked by decline and failure.”

olive grove - israel


Canaanite religion, a fertility or nature religion, reflected the major concerns of the populace – increase and productivity. Until recently, information about Canaanite belief was drawn largely from the negative statements in the Bible, but since 1928 new data has been forthcoming. While plowing a field, a farmer discovered a Canaanite necropolis at Ras es-Shamra in northern Syria at a point along the seacoast to which the “finger” of Cyprus appears to be pointing. The necropolis belonged to the ancient city of Ugarit, known to scholars from references in the El Amarna texts. One of the excavator’s most exciting discoveries was a temple dedicated to the god Ba’al with a nearby scribal school containing numerous tablets relating the myths of Ba’al written in a Semitic dialect but in a cuneiform script never before encountered. The language was deciphered and the myths translated, providing many parallels to Canaanite practices condemned in the Bible and making it possible to suggest that the religion of Ba’al as practiced in Ugarit was very much like that of the Canaanites of Palestine.

The texts1 portray a divine hierarchy headed by the benign father-god El, a rather subordinate figure in some of the myths, and the mother goddess, Astarte, who appears in the Bible as Ba’al’s consort. The numerous children include: Ba’al, the god of rain or weather and fecundity; Yam, the sea god; Mot, god of death; Koshar or Kothar, the artisan god; Shemesh, the sun god; Anat, the sister-consort of Ba’al; and numerous other minor figures. One myth reflects the seasonal cycle which must have been basic for cultic observances. It tells of a battle for sovereignty of the land between Ba’al and Yam, in which Yam, defeated by magic weapons supplied by Kothar, is confined to the ocean bed. (Compare Prov. 8:29; Ps. 89:9 f.) The triumphant Ba’al builds a castle and, in a victory feast, extols his prowess in battle and his role of lord of the land. During the banquet, messengers from the uninvited Mot bring a challenge to Ba’al, and when Ba’al and Mot meet, the god of life is overcome by the god of death. Without rain Mot’s deathly powers begin to encroach upon the fertile land. El descends from his throne and sits on the ground pouring ashes on his head and, in a ritual act, gashes his face, arms, chest and back (cf. I Kings 18:28). Anat too, conducts mourning rites, weeping over hill and mountain as she searches for the dead god. Finally, having discovered Ba’al’s fate through the sun god, Anat encounters and defeats Mot, grinding him and scattering his remains. In some manner not explained, Ba’al was revived and life returned to earth. For the seasonal pattern of the ritual, Ba’al’s death symbolized the aridity of summer; the defeat of Mot symbolized the time of harvesting crops and fall sowing; and the rebirth of Ba’al symbolized the coming of the autumnal rains. Numerous “stage directions” point to some form of dramatic enactments.2 Within this and other myths, gods perform sexual and cultic acts prohibited in the Hebrew religion, suggesting that some biblical prohibitions may have been directed against participation in Canaanite religion as much as against some violation of accepted mores.


As a god of productivity, Ba’al was well suited for the social and economic climate of Canaanite business society. There can be little doubt that the prophetic idealization of the wilderness period and the outcries for justice for the widow and orphan reflect Canaanite social mores which made it possible to seize every opportunity to profit from the death of a neighbor’s father or husband. On the other hand, in another Canaanite tale in which a certain Dan’el (or Daniel) is a symbol of those who maintain social order, Dan’el judges the cases of widows and orphans, and this text sets forth the responsibility of a son for his father, so that it should not be assumed that Canaan was without any moral code.

(from http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/gerald_larue/otll/chap9.html)


The Israelite villages built by the settlers of Canaan were on hilltops. They were quite small, possibly 400 people in the largest of these—Shiloh or Gibeon, for instance. These towns were mostly unwalled, though they were part of larger political units or regional chiefdoms that provided security. The Israelite villages within a given region were subjects of the major town of the area, some of which, like Shechem, were very large and controlled considerable territory.daily-life-ancient-israel

Israelites lived in nuclear households during the time of the Biblical Judges, often with their relatives in clusters of houses around a common courtyard. Houses were made of mudbrick with a stone foundation and perhaps a second story of wood. The living space of the houses consisted of three or four rooms, often with sleeping space on the roof or in a covered roof loft. One of the first-floor rooms was probably a courtyard for domestic animals, mostly sheep and goat.

At that time of the Biblical Judges, the hills were densely overgrown, covered with a thick scrub of pine, oak and terebinth trees. And it was often too rocky for the sheep, so raising animals never stood at the forefront of the economy. Instead, the early Israelite settlers of Canaan would burn off some of the brush, terrace the hillsides within an hour’s walk of the village, and plant grain, primarily wheat. Other lesser crops included lentils, garbanzo beans, barley and millet. They had orchards on these terraces as well.


THE LEADERS:  There are few heroes, in the sense we think of heroes, written about during this period with the exceptions of Gideon and Deborah, that we wholeheartedly admire.  Mostly they seem to be just muddling through – not much better than the people they serve.

Jill Katz, an archaeological anthropologist writing in the May/June 2012 issue of the Biblical Archaeology Society, describes Israel’s tribal culture at the time as following the “Big Man” model.  They were small, autonomous, village-based agricultural communities.  Leadership is informal and based on achievement, charisma, personality etc.  It is not inherited.  There is no caste system with inherent superiority.  They are equals, more or less.  They establish relationships and reciprocal obligations through gift giving.  Katz writes:  “This type of political organization can continue unimpeded for centuries, even millenia.  But in certain circumstances, a threshold is crossed and a new type of leadership emerges, that of a chief who is given (or seizes) significant power and authority.  This is eventually what happened in Israel.

The Judge, Ehud, for example, kills the evil Moabite king through pure trickery.  There is no feel-good ending.  Around 1302 BC, Eglon, king of Moab, moves his palace near Jericho in a large forest of palm trees.  From his new headquarters, he begins to exact tribute from the Benjamites and essentially terrifies and controls ⅓ of their territory.  It couldn’t have happened to a worse people, apparently.  The wickedness of the Benjamites is well known.  It seems that Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, and her family at this time moved OUT of Israel and into Moabite territory where they were killed fighting in Eglon’s army against Israel.  Yet although the tribe of Benjamin is almost wiped out to extinction, a small remnant survives to play a huge part of the gospel story.oasis at hazeroth

Sampson, another judge, is a narcissistic man who cares very little his people nor the powers he’s been given from Yahweh.  Yet Yahweh uses him against the Philistines.

 The case of Deborah, as a judge and prophetess, is extraordinary.  First, because of her immense faith in Yahweh and actions.  And second, because she is a respected woman in a tribal society that values men.  The Jewish Encyclopedia.com has the following entry re: Deborah.

Historic Background of Song of Deborah.

A faithful picture of the conditions obtaining at the so-called “time of the Judges” is found in the Song of Deborah (see Judges, Book of, § 3), which is not only the most important historic source in Judges, but also the earliest source of Hebrew historical tradition. It may be gathered from the text (Judges v.), which unfortunately has been much mutilated, that the principal reason for the temporary union of the tribes in the war of Yhwh, aside from the oppressions under which they suffered, was the religious conviction that Israel could not serve Yhwh more worthily than by engaging in war with Canaan (verse 23). But long-continued bitter oppression had discouraged the Israelitic troops; and any flickerings of rekindling courage were quenched by threatened attacks (verses 6 et seq.). In this period of general discouragement (verse 8) arose the prophetess Deborah, who, by her firm faith in Yhwh and in His helping hand, reawakened in the masses and among the chiefs the feeling of the solidarity of the tribes of Yhwh. Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir (Manasseh), Zebulun, Naphtali, and Issachar send troops under the leadership of their respective princes, with Barak, the son of Abinoam—who, according to verse 12 (“lead thy captives captive,” reading ), had suffered personal injury—as commander-in-chief of the entire Israelitic army (verses 12-15). Only a few tribes remained behind; and upon these scorn and curses are hurled: upon Reuben for its indecision; upon Gilead for its indifference; upon Dan and Asher for their covetousness; and upon Meroz for its cowardly egoism (verses 15-18, 23). Sisera and his allies collect their army on the plain of the River Kishon before Haroseth, where the war-chariots can deploy and the bowmen afford protection. In the battle that ensues Yhwh aids the Israelites by a storm. The Canaanites are defeated in Taanach, on the southern border of the plain of Jezreel, and their leader, Sisera, is killed in flight by the treachery of the Kenite woman Jael (verses 19-22, 24-27).

 If one compares the performance of the Israelitic tribes, as described in the Song of Deborah, with the other statements referring to immediately preceding conditions, it will be furthermore seen that this common action of the Israelitic army was in fact an extraordinary event and one momentous for the development of the Israelitic people. For the territory of the Israelitic tribes, which it may be estimated numbered at that time 130,000 persons (according to Judges v. 8 there were 40,000 men able to bear arms), was very limited, as appears from Judges i. 27-33. In the interior the Canaanites held the boundaries of the plain of Jezreel to the south, east, and north (ib. verses 27 and 30); important localities in the mountains of Galilee (ib. verses 31 and 33), the entire coast southward to Dor (ib. verses 27 and 31), and the fortress of Gezer on the south-west frontier of Ephraim, which covered important passes to the mountains (ib. verse 29). Some of the Israelitic tribes found settled abodes only with great difficulty, having to contend even with the hostility of the other tribes. It is reported of the Danites (ib. xvii. et seq.) that, after being driven from the coast, they sought refuge on the western side of the plateau (ib. i. 34, v. 17, xvii. et seq.), and that, being unable to remain there, they traversed the territory of Ephraim, and finally settled in the vicinity of Laish at the sources of the Jordan.

It is clear from the story of Deborah and the importance that it holds for Israel, that women played an important role in ancient Judaism and were leaders.  Just as Hatshepsut was a Pharaoh, despite being a woman, Deborah was a respected Judge and led men in battle.  As the story tells us, Sisera, the Canaanite king, is killed by a woman as he sought refuge.  Israelite women were not shrinking violets.


 Yet after 410 years of internal chaos and infighting, the Israelites had had enough.  When Samuel’s sons become the High Priests and immediately followed in the tradition of graft and corrupt rule:  the people put their foot down.  They wanted a king.  A delegation makes it clear to Samuel that they want to be like everyone else.  They don’t see their problem as being a lack of faith in Yahweh’s or their inability to obey his commands.  They just see years and years of foreign domination and they want to be strong.  They’d had it with tribal leadership.  As Samuel cautions them, be careful what you ask for.  Or, as the old saying goes:  when the gods want to curse you — they grant your wishes.  Despite Samuel’s better judgement, the nation wants to unite under the young King Saul.  Yahweh agrees but fortells that Israel’s sufferings will increase.  They are still struggling with Baal worship and other sins which caused their struggles.  The journey continues.


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