Between Israel’s conquest of Canaan and the setting up of the monarchy, there was a period of about two hundred years known as the period of the judges. With no formal or centralized administration, Israel relied largely on specially gifted men or women whom God raised up to provide leadership.
They were called judges because they carried out God’s judgment, either by driving out enemies who forced their rule upon the Israelites, or by settling disputes among the Israelites themselves. The activities of the judges are described in the book of Judges and in the opening chapters of the first book of Samuel (Judg 3:10; 4:4; 10:2-3; 12:7-14; 15:20; 1 Sam 4:18; 7:15-17).
Features of the era
The basic cause of the Israelites’ troubles during the period of the judges was their disobedience. They had failed to carry out God’s instructions to destroy the Canaanite people left in the land after Joshua’s conquest (Deut 7:2-4; 9:5; Judg 1:21,27-36). The result was that the Israelites followed the false religious practices of the Canaanites. In judgment God used the Canaanites, along with people from neighbouring lands, to oppress Israel (Josh 23:4-5,12-13; Judg 2:11-15,20-23). When, after years of oppression, the Israelites cried to God for help, he raised up deliverers (judges) from among them to overthrow the enemy (Judg 3:9,15; 4:3; 10:10- 16). But once they were enjoying peace and prosperity again, the people slipped back into idolatry (Judg 2:16-20; 8:33; see BAAL). Israel’s territory was at the time divided into tribal areas.
Of the twelve tribes, nine and a half occupied the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea (i.e. Canaan itself). The other two and a half tribes occupied the plateau region east of Jordan. The enemy conquests usually involved only part of Israel, and in some cases different enemies controlled different parts of the country during the same period (e.g. Judg 10:7-8; 11:5; 13:1). There was little unity between the Israelite tribes during the period of the judges. They were separated from each other by settlements of the unconquered Canaanite peoples (Judg 1:19,27-36; 4:2-3) and were usually slow to help each other in times of crisis (Judg 5:16-17; 12:2). Most people were concerned only for their own interests (Judg 15:9-13; 20:12-14). If the people had loved and served God, their loyalty to him would have bound them together in a true unity. The demand for a monarchy would not have arisen. Instead, they took advantage of the absence of a central government to do as they pleased (Judg 17:6; 21:25).
Contents of the book
A summary of Joshua’s conquests that introduces the book shows that the conquest was incomplete (1:1-36) and that the reason for this was Israel’s disobedience (2:1-10). The writer then outlines the characteristics of Israel’s national life during this time – departure from God, Baal worship, foreign domination, cry to God, deliverance by judges, peace, then departure from God and repetition of the pattern (2:11-3:6). The first oppression of Israel came from the north, lasted eight years, and was overthrown by Othniel of Judah (3:7-11). Then Moab, helped by Ammon and Amalek, oppressed some of the eastern tribes along with parts of Benjamin and Ephraim west of Jordan. After eighteen years Moab was overthrown by Ehud, a man from the tribe of Benjamin (3:12-30). Shamgar delivered part of the coastal region from Philistine domination (3:31). Deborah and Barak, with help from a number of tribes, conquered the oppressors who for twenty years had controlled the Galilean region in the north (4:1-5:31).
Invaders from Midian were the next to trouble Israel. They approached from the east, crossed the Jordan, and for seven years raided the helpless Israelites as far west as Gaza and as far north as Naphtali. They were finally driven out by Gideon, who came from the tribe of Manasseh in central Canaan (6:1- 8:35). After Gideon’s death, one of his sons, Abimelech, tried to establish himself ruler in central Canaan. After a short but violent reign he was killed (9:1-57). Little is known of the activities of the judges Tola and Jair (10:1-5). Then for eighteen years the Ammonites imposed a cruel rule over the area east of Jordan (and over parts of some western tribes as well). They were conquered by Jephthah, one of the eastern tribes’ greatest heroes (10:6-12:7). After Jephthah came the judges Ibzan, Elon and Abdon (12:8-15). For forty years the Philistines dominated the territory inland from the coast, spreading across the tribal territories of Dan and Judah. With his spectacular one-man victories against them, Samson began the movement that eventually broke their dominance (13:1-16:31).
A separate section at the end of the book highlights the lack of a central government to administer justice in inter-tribal affairs. As a result people did as they pleased, something that was well illustrated by the actions of the tribes Dan and Benjamin. Dan was originally located on the central coast, but it found itself being squeezed out of its territory by oppression from the Philistines and expansion from the stronger tribes that bordered it (Judah and Ephraim). Determined to maintain its tribal identity and its independence, Dan went looking for a new location. With a ruthless disregard for the rights of others, it gained its new territory in the far north (17:1- 18:31). The tribe of Benjamin became involved in an inter-tribal dispute when some of its people were guilty of violence against members of another tribe. When it ignored a nationwide demand for justice and refused to punish the offenders, the other tribes attacked it and almost wiped it out (19:1-21:25).