The book of Judges deals with events in Israel during the two hundred years that followed Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. Israel under Joshua had won a great victory, but the people had not been fully obedient to God’s command to destroy all the Canaanites. As a result those Canaanites who were left in the land became a source of trouble to Israel, both religiously and politically.
During this period Israel’s history developed a pattern that is repeated many times in the book of Judges. Time and again Israel turned away from God, copied the religious practices of the Canaanites, became politically weak and finally fell under the power of neighbouring tribes or nations. But God, who used these enemies to punish his disobedient people, was long-suffering and merciful. In each case he gave them, in his time, a deliverer from among their own people who overthrew the enemy and led Israel back to himself.
These deliverers were called judges, because they carried out God’s judgment in defeating the enemy and delivering his people. Other judges, less warlike, carried out God’s judgment by guiding the everyday affairs of his people according to his law. From these leaders, military as well as civilian, the book takes its name.
Israel and its enemies
It appears that the various conquests by enemy nations, and the deliverances by the Israelite judges that followed, never involved the whole of Canaan. Usually the only tribes involved were those in the area of the enemy’s activity. Also, some of the conquests and deliverances may have occurred in different parts of the country at the same time. For example, the story of Jephthah and the Ammonites may belong to the same period as the stories of Samson and the Philistines (Judg 10:7-8; 11:5; 13:1). There was little unity in Israel, and each tribe (or group of tribes) looked after its own area without concern for the other tribes.
The main reason for this lack of unity was the people’s departure from God. If they had made him the centre of their national life, their loyalty to him would have bound them together. Their disunity was made worse by their failure to destroy the enemy among them. Canaanite strongholds in a number of key places kept the tribes apart. In Canaan itself (the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea) the tribes were broken into three main sections – northern, central and southern – while the eastern tribes were separated from the rest by the Jordan River.
This breaking up of Israel created not only political disunity but also religious disunity, for it meant that many of the tribes were cut off from Israel’s central place of worship at Shiloh (Josh 18:1; 22:9). In short, most of the nation’s troubles, material, political and spiritual, were a direct result of the people’s failure to obey God and wipe out the Canaanites (Judg 1:21,27-36; cf. Deut 7:2-4; 9:5; Josh 24:14-24).
The religion of the Canaanites
Canaanite gods were known as Baalim (plural of Baal; see Judg 2:11-12; 10:10; 1 Kings 16:31), and goddesses as Ashtaroth (plural of Ashtoreth, or Astarte; see Judg 2:13; 1 Sam. 7:3-4) and Asherim (plural of Asherah; see Judg 6:25-26; 2 Kings 23:4). These were gods of nature and fertility who, among other things, were believed to have the power to increase agricultural productivity. Since Israel knew Yahweh as the Creator of nature, the people easily fell to the temptation to combine Canaanite ideas with their own and so worship Yahweh as another Baal. The word baal was a common Hebrew word that meant master, husband or owner, and since the Israelites knew Yahweh as their master, husband and owner, they further linked the Canaanite Baals with him (Hosea 2:5-10).
The places where the Canaanites liked to carry out their Baal rituals were the sacred hilltop sites known as high places (Num 33:51-52; 2 Kings 23:13). Among the features of these high places were the sacred wooden or stone pillars known as Asherim (named after Asherah, the goddess whom they represented; Judg 6:25-26; 1 Kings 14:23). From the beginning Israelites had worshipped Yahweh at various places in the hills (e.g. Gen 22:2; Exod 17:8-15; 19:3), and again the people readily fell to the temptation to take over the high places of Baal and use them in their worship of Yahweh. All this was in spite of God’s command that the high places of Baal were to be destroyed (Num 33:52; Deut 12:2-3).
Prostitutes, male and female, were available at these high places for fertility rites. These were religious-sexual ceremonies that the people believed gave increase in crops, herds, flocks and family
(1 Kings 14:23-24; Hosea 2:5,8-9; 9:1-2,10-14). In following the Baals, the Israelites were also guilty of spiritual prostitution. The covenant bond between Israel and Yahweh was likened to the marriage bond; therefore, Israel’s association with Baal and other gods was spiritual adultery (Judg 2:12-13,17; Jer 2:20; 3:6-8; Hosea 2:13; 4:12).