The Judges Period

JUDGES 1 The period of the judges extended from the end of the conquest, around 1400 B.C., until Saul was anointed king of Israel in approximately 1050 B.C. An Egyptian document, Papyrus Anastasi I, describes Canaan at that time as something like the American "Wild West," with roads nearly impassable by chariot and boding ever-present dangers from wild animals and robbers. During this era Israel functioned as a tribal society led by leaders called judges, and its religious center was at Shiloh (Jos 18:1).

By the late thirteenth century B.C. the Israelites were the major political power in the region. That changed, however, with the invasion of the Philistines in the early twelfth century B.C.' The Israelites were almost continuously at war with the Philistines for the next two centuries, until David finally subdued this troublesome adversary once and for all.

A major socioeconomic change took place in the eastern Mediterranean region during the period of the judges. The city-states that had predominated in the Late Bronze Age 4,5 were destroyed in the late thirteenth and early twelfth centuries B.C., ushering in the Iron Age., Rural shepherds like the Israelites could no longer depend upon the city-states for produce and were forced to settle down and become agriculturists in order to survive. Thus, while the Israelites were pastoralists, dependent largely upon flocks and herds for their economic security (Ge 46:32-34; 47:3; Ex 12:38; Jdg 5:16) and dwelling in tents (20:8) at the beginning of the Judges period, by the time of Gideon, around 1190 B.C., at least some of them had become farmers living in villages (6:3 —4,11,27-30,37).' Many scholars claim that the record of the conquest in Joshua is idealistic, with a more realistic account detailed in Judges 1. However,the two books identify the same list of cities that could not be conquered (Jos 13:3-4; 15:63; 16:10; 17:11-12,16; Jdg 1:27-36).The focus in Joshua is not on those failures but rather on the victories resulting from remaining true to the Lord. Judges, on the other hand, emphasizes Israel's failings during a period when the people of God followed the pagan ways of the nations around them.

The Amarna Tablets and the Habiru

JUDGES 2 A few decades after the conquest, in the mid-fourteenth century B.c., a reformer and visionary named Amenhotep IV came to the throne in Egypt. He instituted sweeping changes in the areas of art, politics and especially religion. Amenhotep IV rejected the traditional pantheon of Egyptian deities and worshiped only "Aten," the sun disk. Amenhotep changed his name to Akhenaten,"One who is effective on behalf of the Aten," and built a new capital which he called Akhetaten,"the horizon of Aten," in Amarna about 250 miles (403 km) north of the original capital of Thebes (see El Amarna and Thebes on the map of Egypt on page 346). Life in the new capital centered upon the worship of Aten. Following Akhenaten's 17-year reign, the conservative Egyptians soon reverted to their old ways, moving the capital back to Thebes' and reestablishing their traditional gods.

In 1887 a Bedouin woman discovered a number of clay tablets with writing on them among the ruins of Akhetaten.2 When it was learned that the tablets were valuable, the local natives dug up several hundred of them and sold them to various museums and individuals. A few more were later found in officially sanctioned excavations. Altogether,382 tablets have been recovered, nearly all of which are diplomatic correspondence and thus referred to in total as the Amarna Letters. The letters are written in Akkadian (Babylonian), the international language of the day, instead of in Egyptian hieroglyphics.3 They span a period of about 20 years during the mid-fourteenth century B.C. A stamped brick identified the building where the tablets were found as the "Place of the Pharaoh's Correspondence." A few of the letters are in the form of outgoing correspondence, but the vast majority are incoming diplomatic messages from throughout the ancient Near East. Some 106 of them are from Egypt's vassal kings in Canaan and thus are of great interest to students of the Bible. The letters from Canaan provide a rare glimpse into conditions a half century or so after the conquest.' This was early in the period of the judges, when individual tribes were consolidating their hold upon the land. The Biblical account is similar to the situation reflected in the Amarna Letters.The city-state rulers reported hostilities throughout Canaan. In particular, they complained about a group of people called Habiru. If the pharaoh did not take action, the letters warned, all of Canaan would be taken over by these people.The king of Jerusalem lamented,"The war against me is severe ... Habiru have plundered all the lands of the king."But who were these Habiru?

The Habiru are mentioned in texts from various places in the Near East between about 1750 and 1150 B.C. These texts indicate that they were nomadic tribesmen or fugitives who had penetrated urbanized areas and were proving troublesome to the metropolitan populations. It is possible that there is a linguistic connection between the term "Habiru" and the Biblical name "Hebrew." Some of the Habiru in the highlands of Canaan in the mid-fourteenth century B.C. may in fact have been the Israelites, since the Bible identifies them as having been in this area at that time. Although it is certain that not all people called Habiru were Israelites, the indigenous peoples of Canaan may well have dubbed the Israelites as such, and the name may have stuck as Hebrews. See the study note at Genesis 10:21 for another possible origin for the name Hebrews.

Eglon's Palace

JUDGES 3 Eglon, king of Moab,' led a coalition of Moabites, Ammonites and Amalekites from east of the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley and subdued the Israelite tribes during the second half of the fourteenth century B.C. (Jdg 3:12-14). He established a headquarters at Jericho, the City of Palms (8 mi —nearly 13 km—northeast of the Dead Sea), and from there collected tribute from the Israelites. When British archaeologist John Garstang excavated Jericho in 1933 he discovered a large structure that he identified as the palace of Eglon. He dubbed it the "Middle Building," since it was sandwiched between Iron Age structures above and the destroyed Bronze Age city below. It had been erected sometime during the second half of the fourteenth century B.C., precisely the time of Eglon.

The building measured 39 feet (11.9 m) by 48 feet (14.6 m) and had much expensive local and imported painted pottery inside.A cuneiform tablet, a rare find in Palestine, attested that the owner had been involved in high-level administrative activities. No other buildings from that time period were discovered, so it is evident that there was no local community. The single structure that was excavated had been occupied for a relatively short period of time and then abandoned. This matches the situation in Judges .Apparently Eglon traveled to Jericho periodically to collect tribute from the Israelites. There he constructed a luxury villa: as mentioned in chapter 3. But this building was indeed abandoned after 18 years when Eglon was assassinated by Ehud and the Moabites fled back across the Jordan River.

Deborah and Barak and the destruction of Hazor

JUDGES 4 After 20 years of oppression Deborah and Barak rallied six Israelite tribes and defeated the army of Jabin, king of Canaan, at the Kishon River (Jdg 4:15).Sisera was Jabin's general. Deborah and Barak continued their offensive "until they destroyed"Jabin, who ruled at Hazor see"Map 3"),I According to the chronological data in the Old Testament this event would have occurred during the second half of the thirteenth century B.C.

Excavations at Hazor have indeed revealed evidence of massive destruction at this time—so severe that the city was not rebuilt until the time of Solomon, during the tenth century B.c.2 An intriguing aspect of the destruction is that the heads and hands of the statues of both deities and dignitaries were intentionally broken off (cf. 1Sa 5:4). Excavators suggest that this could have been the work of the Israelites, carrying out Moses' injunction to"cut down the idols of their gods" (Dt 12:3).

At first glance it might appear strangely coincidental that Jabin was the name both of the king of Hazor defeated by Deborah and Barak and of the king of the same city defeated by Joshua (Jos 11). However, an eighteenth- or seventeenth-century B.C. royal letter from Hazor, eighteenth-century tablets from Maria and a thirteenth-century Egyptian text all refer to kings at Hazor with the name Jabin. Clearly, Jabin was a dynastic name at Hazor (much as individual Egyptian rulers were each called Pharaoh), and the Bible accurately reflects this historical fact.

The Bulletin and Poetic Accounts of the Battle of Kadesh

JUDGES 5 Judges 4 records in prose the defeat of Sisera, captain of Jabin's army, at the hand of a Kenite woman. This is followed in chapter 5 by a poetic account of the same event. Differences in style and detail between the two versions have led many scholars to discount the reliability of one or the other account. For instance, chapter 4 mentions only the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun as having been involved in the battle (4:6,10), while chapter 5 also includes Ephraim, Benjamin, Manasseh and Issachar (4:13-18). Some argue that the two versions stem from separate sources that were later combined by the ancient editor of the book of Judges. This conclusion, however, is unnecessary, as the seeming discrepancies can be explained by other means.

That prosaic and poetic accounts of the same events occurred together in antiquity can be demonstrated by Egyptian literary carvings. In the fifth year of the reign of Egypt's Rameses II (1275 B.c.),the Egyptian army fought Muwatalli II of the Hittites at the site of Kadesh ("Map 5") near the Orontes River., The Egyptian triumph is depicted in paired wall reliefs that were carved on several Egyptian temples, always accompanied by double inscriptions recounting the heroic role of Rameses II in the victory (although the victory was not as complete as the inscriptions suggest).

One of the two accounts appearing with the battle scenes is known as the Poem, a poetic description of the entire battle with an occasional prosaic section. A prose text (known as the Bulletin) provides supplementary information, namely an account of the pharaoh questioning two Hittite scouts. Like Judges 4 and 5, the Bulletin and Poem recount a military victory in differing forms: one prosaic,the other poetic.In addition,the two works do not repeat precisely the same information but complement one another, with the Poem being the more complete or universal account of the battle.The appearance of these two segments, together with the same two battle reliefs on several temples, indicates that they were intended to be read together and had been commissioned and composed at the same time.

Therefore, the fact that Judges 4 comprises a narrative account of the battle, against Jabin and Sisera, while Judges 5 is a poetic rendering of the same event, is not a signal that one report is less reliable than the other. It was not uncommon for significant events to be memorialized in a literary, poetic form while also being recorded in more ordinary prose. As the Bulletin account gives more precise information regarding specific events at the Kadesh battle, Judges 4 most likely focuses on the two tribes that provided the most significant military force, even though other tribes assisted in the fight.

The Descent of Ishtar

JUDGES 6 Modern Christian readers of Judges 6 may be astonished to learn how quickly—and evidently almost casually—Israelite families fell into the worship of pagan gods and set up shrines in their honor. It is helpful to see how widespread and universally accepted these myths of pagan gods were. For example, there are several versions of the Descent of the Goddess Inanna (also called Ishtar) Into the Underworld.

A Sumerian version begins with the goddess Inanna determined to visit the underworld, perhaps in order to rule there. She gains admission but must pass through seven gates in order to enter the underworld. At each gate she is divested of the symbols of her prestige and divinity: her crown, jewelry and garments.The process is symbolic of death, and Inanna arrives naked, as the dead do when they enter the underworld. Inanna is then condemned for her act of entering the underworld, and her corpse is hung up.

Inanna's servant Ninshubur appeals to the gods, and Enki, the god of wisdom, fashions two creatures who enter the underworld and revive Inanna. Inanna is allowed to return to the world above but must find a substitute to take her place. She determines not to take anyone who has mourned for her but is angered to discover her former lover Dumuzi arrayed in splendid robes rather than in mourning clothes. Dumuzi's sister Geshtinanna pleads for him,and an arrangement is made whereby Dumuzi and Geshtinanna will each spend half of the year in the underworld. Their cycles of descending into death and again ascending symbolize the seasons and the apparent annual death of vegetation (in an Akkadian version, no plants on Earth would grow while Inanna/Ishtar was in the underworld).

Variants of this myth can be found throughout the ancient world. Dumuzi is mentioned in the Bible under the name Tammuz., The Canaanite counterpart to the Sumerian Inanna or the Akkadian Ishtar is Astarte (or sometimes Anat). The Egyptian goddess Isis plays a similar role. Although the details differ, there are overtones here as well of the Greek myth of Persephone.Through these myths ancient peoples attempted to come to terms with issues of fertility, the seasons, sexuality and death. Because the myths were almost universally held, and because they seemed to help people understand the most fundamental problems of life, it was difficult for the average Israelite to avoid succumbing to their allure. Despite all they had been told to the contrary, many Israelites believed that they could embrace these myths and the gods and goddesses behind them and yet remain faithful to their God, Yahweh, and his covenant.

Changes in Canaan

JUDGES 7 During the course of the period of the judges (c. 1400-1050 B.c.), major political, social and economic changes impacting the Israelite tribes took place throughout the Mediterranean region.When the Israelites entered Canaan' they encountered fortified city-states.On the eve of their entry Moses warned them that they were going in to face great cities fortified"to the sky" (Dt 9:1). Israel managed to subdue the highlands, leaving that area nearly devoid of any urban population. Urban centers, however, remained intact in the lowlands. In the late thirteenth century B.C., for reasons not totally understood, urban cultures throughout the Mediterranean began to collapse. Beginning in the twelfth century B.C. a new culture appeared in Canaan—small, unwalled, agricultural villages dispersed across the landscape. Archaeologists refer to this as the Iron Age I, period. These agricultural centers provide the first tangible archaeological evidence for Israel's presence in Canaan. Prior to the twelfth century B.C., evidence for Israel's existence in the land is virtually impossible to find. Also, we have no records in the Bible or elsewhere of God's people encountering the Egyptian forces that sometimes swept through Canaan during the Late Bronze Age. The first documented encounter, in fact, does not occur until the time of Merneptah at the end of the thirteenth century., A group of scholars, therefore, believes that Israel did not exist in the land until about 1200 B.C. Some maintain that the Israelite nation emerged from the indigenous Canaanite population at this time. This theory totally dismisses as nonhistorical the Biblical record of the patriarchs/. Egyptian sojourn, exodus,, wilderness wanderings, conquest and the period of the early judges.

While it is true that there is sparse evidence for the Israelites in the land of Canaan during the Late Bronze Age, several identifiable factors may reasonably account for this:

  • For the first 200 years of their existence in Canaan, the Israelites had no material culture of their own.The generation that had departed from Egypt equipped with knowledge of building techniques, crafts, etc., had died out during the 40 years of wilderness wandering.Those who entered Canaan, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, had been born and raised as shepherds in the Sinai wilderness. Thus, during the early period of the judges (fourteenth and thirteenth centuries B.c.) the Israelites, although present, were archaeologically "invisible."

    • The rural, pastoral existence of the early Israelites is not likely to have left much behind in the way of material evidence.

  • The number of Israelites who entered Canaan may have been relatively small. The issue here is how we are to understand the census figures given in Numbers 1. It is possible that the total number of Israelites departing Egypt was only around 20,000; if so,their archaeological impact upon entering Canaan would have been minimal.

  • Some of the language of the book of Joshua is misleading to the modern reader, and this problem is compounded by the picture of "Israel During the Period of the Judges" typically shown on Bible maps.we get the impression that the Israelites ruled all the territory that had been allotted to them by Joshua and that they were a unified nation with fixed borders. This perception is entirely erroneous. Joshua's allotment represented the ultimate, ideal situation, but many areas were never conquered.The tribe of Dan, for example, was totally unable to secure its prearranged territory.

  • Because the Israelites tended to be rural and pastoral in their lifestyle, and because they settled in the highlands, they tended to be bypassed by major military forces sweeping through the area, such as the army of the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II (c. 1279- 1 213).These frequently nomadic shepherds and herdsmen were much more likely to be troubled by local enemies like the Amalekites (Jdg 6-7) and the Ammonites (chs.10-11).

There are limits to what archaeology can tell us about early Israel. However, what information this discipline does provide cor-responds well with a careful reading of the Biblical account.

The Merneptah Stele

JUDGES 8 The Merneptah Stele is an inscribed stone slab discovered in Pharoah Merneptah's mortuary temple in Thebes, Egypt (see the map of Egypt on p. 346), in 1896 (Merneptah is sometimes spelled Merenptah). This monument is the earliest record of Israel outside the Bible and contains the only mention of Israel in Egyptian records. This reference occurs in a short section describing a military campaign in Canaan conducted by Merneptah during the first few years of his reign, around 1210 B.C. It claims that "Israel is wasted, its seed is not; and Hurru is become a widow because of Egypt."

As was often the case in ancient records, the text exaggerates Merneptah's accomplishments. He did not in fact annihilate Israel as the stele implies. Israel's mention in the list of city-states and nations supposedly defeated by this pharaoh attests that Israel was an important entity in Merneptah's day—assuming that he would not have seen fit to boast about defeating an obscure or defenseless people group. The real importance of the Merneptah Stele, however, is difficult to exaggerate:

  • It demonstrates that Israel was a recognized people in the land of Canaan in approximately 1200 B.C. This is important because some scholars today suggest that Israel did not even exist as a recognizable entity at this time. In the light of this contemporary witness to Israel's existence, such a claim makes no sense.

  • It provides us with an outside boundary for fixing the date of the exodus and conquest. Some scholars postulate a very late date for the conquest—even as late as about 1150 B.C. in the Iron Age 1.1 However, the stele indicates that Israel was already in the land and apparently well established.' Although it does not totally rule it out, the stele also makes unlikely the more broadly accepted "late date" for the exodus and conquest (in the late thirteenth century).

Abimelech at Shechem

JUDGES 9 Gideon's son Abimelech at-tempted to become king of Israel by taking control of Shechem, an important commercial and political center. He was given funds from "the temple of Baal-Berith" (Jdg 9:4), also known as "Baal of the covenant." Baal was the Canaanite storm god and the god of fertility.2 Further references to the "temple of their god" (v. 27), the "tower of Shechem" (vv. 46 — 47,49) and the "temple of El-Berith" (v. 46) all appear to regard the same temple. Several archaeological findings at Shechem relate directly to Judges 9:

  • A great fortress-temple excavated there has been identified as the temple of this chapter. It was constructed in the seventeenth century B.C. and lasted until the city's destruction by Abimelech in the twelfth century B.C. The largest temple yet found in Canaan, it measures 70 feet (21 m) by 86 feet (26 m), with foundations 17 feet (5 m) thick.

  • In front is a courtyard with a sacred stone 4.8 feet (1.5 m) wide and 16.5 inches (.4 m) thick. It was broken in antiquity but still stands 4.8 feet (1.5 m) high.This sacred stone may be the"pillar" where the coronation ceremony took place when Abimelech was declared king (v.6).

  • The city gate from the time of Abimelech was excavated on the eastern side of the site. It was from this point that Abimelech's rival, Gaal, observed Abimelech and his men approaching the city (vv. 35-37). Leaving the security of the walls of Shechem, Gaal engaged Abimelech in battle but was defeated (vv.38-40).The gate is an impressive structure some 54 feet (16.5 m) wide and 44 feet (13.4 m) deep, with orthostats (stone slabs) lining its walls.

  • Evidence of massive destruction from the time of Abimelech has been found throughout the site, attesting to his razing of the city (v.45).


JUDGES 10 Excavations of Rabbah-Ammon, the capital of ancient Ammon, indicate occupation levels going back to the Early Bronze Age.' Although it appears to have been an important city in the Middle Bronze Age, it experienced the population decline that was characteristic of the region's Late Bronze period. Fortifications appear again from the Iron Age, suggesting that Ammon was once again becoming a powerful state.

The Bible indicates that the Ammonites were related both to the Moabites, and to the Israelites (Ge 19:37-38). By the time of the exodus the Ammonites and Moabites together occupied the southern Transjordan. When the Israelites passed through this territory on their way to the promised land, they were specifically forbidden because of this relationship to conquer the land of the Ammonites (Dt 2:19,37).

During the period of the judges, the Ammonites and Amalekites aided the Moabites in regaining land lost to Israel (Jdg 3:13), but the Lord raised up Ehud to deliver his people. Later, Jephthah routed the Ammonites who were oppressing Israel, especially the Transjordanian tribes (10:6-33).That Ammon had become an impressive force by this time is evident from the eleventh-century s.c. massive stone fortifications that have been discovered there. When Nahash ascended the Ammonite throne in approximately 1020 B.C., he attempted to reestablish control over the Transjordanian tribes, attacking Jabesh Gilead (1Sa 11:1). King Saul led 33,000 soldiers to rescue the town, crushing Nahash's forces (1Sa 11:4-11).

Nahash and David were on friendly terms while David was fleeing from Saul. When Na hash died David sent his condolences to his heir, Hanun, but Hanun shamed the delegation David had sent, thereby inciting war (2Sa 10:1-6). David's army defeated Hanun's mercenaries, and Rabbah, the Ammonite capital, was eventually defeated by Joab (2Sa 11:1;12:26-31).

The Ammonites later declared their independence from Israel after the Egyptian pharaoh Shishak invaded the region only much later called Palestine., In the mid-ninth century B.C. the Ammonite king Baasha joined the league that stopped Shalmaneser HI as he drove toward the Mediterranean Sea., This league, mentioned in Assyrian annals, was headed by Hadadezer of Damascus and Ahab of Israel. Soon afterward the Ammonites, Moabites and Meunites attacked Jehoshaphat (2Ch 20:1-30), perhaps fearing that Judah was growing too powerful under his rule. But the members of the Transjordanian league turned against each other and ceased to threaten Judah (2Ch 20:22-23).

King Uzziah of Judah was able to regain control over Ammon in the early eighth century. When the Ammonites attempted to revolt against Uzziah's successor, Jotham, they were quickly defeated and afterward sent an annual tribute to Jotham (c. 740 s.c.), The Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser reduced all the states of the area to vassalhood around 732 B.C., including Israel,Judah and Ammon.' Several Ammonite kings are mentioned in subsequent Assyrian annals as having paid tribute to Sennacherib and Esarhaddon,8 and it appears that Ammon enjoyed a degree of prosperity under Assyrian rule.

When the Assyrian Empire fell to the Babylonians in 612 B.C., Ammonites moved into territory once held by Judah. Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon protected the Ammonites from invading Arab forces, while using Ammonite forces to harass the Judahites in the Transjordan (2Ki 24:2).' As Babylonian oppression increased, however, Ammon joined a conspiracy, led by Judah, against Babylon.When it failed, as Jeremiah had warned that it would, many survivors fled to Ammon as Nebuchadnezzar crushed Jerusalem. Ammon was later annihilated as Nebuchadnezzar attacked Rabbah (c. 581 s.c.). Although Ammonites still lived in the area at the time of the exiles' return from captivity (Ne 2:10), they never again enjoyed autonomy.

The Virgin

JUDGES 11 The request of Jephthah's daughter to be allowed to go out into the hills and weep over her virginity (Jdg 11:37) strikes modern readers as almost incomprehensible.Why would a girl who was about to be put to death as a sacrifice focus attention on her virginity?' In order to begin to understand this, it is necessary to recognize the enormous importance attached to virginity in ancient cultures, especially in Israel. A few examples will make the point: + In Aeschylus's play Suppliant Maidens, a father appeals to his daughters to maintain their virtue in the face of the lustful desires of men. He charges them,"Honor your chastity more than your life" (line 1013). .1. Euripides' play Alcestis tells the story of a woman who gives up her life to save that of her husband. Awaiting her death, she weeps over the fate that has befallen her. In her lamentation, she looks upon her bed and declares, "0 bed, where I lost my virginal maidenhood by this man for whom I die. Farewell!" (lines 177— 179). Like Jephthah's daughter she thinks of her virginity as she faces death. • Josephus, in Antiquities, 1.246, recounted the story of Rebekah from Genesis 24 and had her say,"They call me Rebekah. My father was Bethuel, but he is dead, and Laban is my brother and, together with my mother, he takes care of all our family affairs and is the

The Virgin

guardian of my virginity." The Genesis account does not explicitly cast Laban in this role, but the idea is one that both Jewish and Gentile readers of the time would readily have comprehended. + The story of the rape of Absalom's sister Tamar by Amnon (2Sa 13) illustrates both how strongly young women felt about their celibacy and its significance for their reputation. In the story Amnon deceived his half -sister Tamar and raped her by force, then despised her and sent her away. Prior to this Tamar had worn a special garment that signified her virgin status, but after the rape she tore it in her grief. Even so, she would have been willing to marry Amnon, one of the vilest characters in the Old Testament, rather than live with the disgrace of being an unmarried woman who had lost her virginity. + Deuteronomy 22:13-21 describes a man who marries a woman but then begins to loathe her and to tell people that she has not come to the marriage as a virgin. It falls upon the woman's family to produce evidence of her virginity (Dt 22:17). This confirmation evidently consisted of bed clothes stained with her blood on the wedding night, at which time she had purportedly lost her virginity.The elders of the town were to punish the man for slandering her (Dt 22:19). But had the woman actually engaged in inter-course before marriage she would have been stoned to death (Dt 22:21).

For the issue of human sacrifice, see"Human Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East" on page 182.

+ The Hebrew Bible regularly refers to cities or countries by the term "virgin" (e.g., Isa 47:1; Jer 31:4). This is because a virgin in ancient Israel was to be protected from outsiders. In the same way cities and countries were to be protected from invaders and kept inviolable.

Given this cultural background, it is clear that Jephthah's daughter, like most Israelite girls, would have regarded the preservation of her virginity until marriage as central to her identity.This young woman would never obtain the goal of coming to marriage as a chaste bride.

The Reliability of Judges

JUDGES 12 The book of Judges is often regarded as an amalgamation of history, legend and simple fiction. The findings of archaeology, however, have demonstrated that we have good reason to maintain the accuracy of the accounts preserved in this book. Drawing together the essential data, we can summarize evidence that supports reading Judges as a trustworthy account:

  • Immediately after the conquest the Israelite tribes were engaged in securing their assigned allotments. It was a time of conflict and turmoil. A group of about 100 letters written by Canaanite kings to the king of Egypt indicates that there was much hostility in Canaan approximately 50 years after the conquest. A people called Habiru (a term from which the name Hebrew may have been derived) were attacking the cities and taking over the land.

  • Early in the period of the judges Eglon, king of Moab, built a palace at Jericho, where he collected tribute from the tribes (3:15-30). A palace from the time of Eglon matching the Biblical description has been excavated at Jericho.

  • Judges 4—5 documents the demise of Hazor, the most powerful city-state in Canaan, at the hands of a coalition of Israelite tribes. Excavations there reveal destruction at this time (second half of the thirteenth century B.C.) so severe that the city never recovered. Evidence points to the Israelites as the most likely agents.3 This victory made Israel the strongest force in the region.

  • An inscription of Pharaoh Merneptah, who ruled from approximately 1210-1202 B.C., states that he annihilated the Israelites. Although the boast was far from the truth,the inscription demonstrates that Israel was an important group in Canaan at that time.

  • Early in the twelfth century B.C. the tribe of Dan migrated from its original allotment west of Benjamin to the city of Laish in northern Galilee (ch. 18). The Philistines, who had taken over the southern coastal area, had most likely forced them out. At the site of Laish, renamed Dan, excavations uncovered a burn layer dating to the early twelfth century B.C. (v. 27) and subsequent occupation by newcomers who used a new type of pottery known to be of Israelite origin.

  • In the mid twelfth century B.C. Gideon's son Abimelech at-tempted to become king of Israel (ch. 9). The ill-fated affair took.

The Archaeological of Philistia

JUDGES 13 Egyptian texts suggest that the Philistines were part of a large-scale emigration of various tribes from the Aegean, referred to as Sea Peoples, who attempted to enter Egypt. As they made their way by land and sea down the Mediterranean coast, they left a swath of destruction behind them. The tribes arrived at the border of Egypt around 1177 B.C. but were repulsed by Rameses III. They retreated to Canaan and settled in previously conquered areas. The Philistines seized one of the choicest parts, the south-eastern coast, which became known as Philistia.

The Philistines had five major centers: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath (1Sa 6:17; "Map 4"). Excavations at these sites have revealed a common pattern of Philistine settlement—the previous city was violently destroyed and a larger, well-planned,fortified city built in its place. The Philistines brought with them their native Aegean culture in the form of architecture, pottery, cultic items, metallurgy (1 Sa 13:19-22),2 burial customs and language.

Soon the Philistines expanded eastward and dominated the Israelites (Jdg 13:1). The tribe of Dan was directly impacted, since its allotment was in the northern sector of Philistia.3 Samson was the first Israelite military leader to counteract the Philistine oppression, probably in the later part of the twelfth century B.C. (v.5).


JUDGES 14 Joshua 15:10-11 informs us that Timnah was situated between Beth Shemesh (Tell er-Rumeilah;) and Ekron (Tel Mil:me; also see "Map 4").The only site of significance between these two places is Tel Batash. Philistine pottery uncovered in excavations there further confirms the identification of Tel Batash as the Biblical Timnah., Tel Batash is located in the coastal plain, in the western part of the fertile Sorek Valley, 16 miles (26 km) from the Mediterranean coast and 20 miles (32 km) west of Jerusalem.

Timnah was on the eastern border of Philistine territory, with the two larger cities of the Philistine confederation, Ekron and Ashkelon, 3.5 miles (5.6 km) to the west and 30 miles (48 km) to the southwest, respectively (Jdg, 14:19). Samson himself lived in Mahaneh-dan, the "camp of Dan," at the edge of the Israelite hill country 6 miles (9.6 km) east of Timnah.The Bible's statement that Samson "went down to Timnah" (v. 1) is literal; there is an 800 foot (244 m) drop in elevation between the area of Samson's home and the base of Tel Batash.

Excavations were carried out at Tel Batash between 1977 and 1989. The town of Samson's day was a fortified urban center about five acres in size, well planned and densely populated.2 The buildings were constructed of mud brick walls on stone foundations. A storage jar with a letter in-cised on the handle shows that there was knowledge of writing in the town. A clay bully (lump of clay with impressions on it) was found, indicating that some of the writing was done on papyrus.

Samson and the Temple of Dagon

JUDGES 16 Only limited excavation has been undertaken at Gaza ("Map 4"), so we have little idea of what the city of Samson's day was like.' However, grinding houses (Jdg 16:21) and a temple (vv. 23-30) similar to those referred to in Judges 16 have been unearthed at other sites. Grinding houses, known both from ancient texts and excavated examples,were places where prisoners would grind grain for their masters.The tools were simple, hand grinding stones—a loaf-shaped upper stone and a larger, slightly concave, lower stone called a saddle quern.

Samson spent his days kneeling in front of a quern, pushing an upper stone back and forth, grinding grain into meal.

Samson's greatest feat was the destruction of the temple of Dagon. The only definite Philistine temples found to date are those at Tell Qasile, on the outskirts of modern Tel Aviv.Three temples, each larger than the previous, were built on the same spot over a period of 150 years. The latest, from the eleventh century B.C., approximately the time of Samson, measured 26 feet (7.8 m) by 48 feet (14.6 m). Two pillars supported the roof, just as in the temple of Dagon described in Judges 16. They were made of cedar wood approximately 1 foot (30.5 cm) in diameter and rested on stone bases set in the floor. It would have been possible to dislodge the central pillar in the Tell Qasile temple, since it was held in place on the stone base only by the weight of the roof. A large man with his arms extended could have spanned the 7 foot (2.1 m) distance between the two pillars. Also, it is conceivable that the pillars of Dagon's temple were closer together than those of the Tell Qasile temple.

Tombs in Ancient Israel

JUDGES 17 The most important feature of ancient Israelite burials is reflected in the interment of Samson in the tomb of his father. Other individuals are specified to have been buried in their father's tombs, including Gideon (Jdg 8:32), Asahel (2Sa 2:32) and Ahithophel (2Sa 17:23). The first such burial noted in Scripture is that of Abraham, interred in the tomb of Sarah, his wife, later followed by their children and grandchildren., Caves were often used for such tombs. Only the wealthiest could afford a tomb that had been quarried out of rock; the prophet Isaiah condemned the royal steward Shebna for his arrogance in constructing just such a burial monument (Isa 22:15-16). The poor could not afford a rock-hewn tomb and were buried in common graves dug into the soil (cf.2Ki 23:6; Jer 26:23).

The graves of the poor have generally not been preserved for archaeologists. Excavations have unearthed many examples of family burials in caves and rock-hewn tombs from the Old Testament period, with instances of more than 100 individuals interred in a single tomb. These tombs consisted of a square chamber or, in more elaborate examples, up to nine chambers for members of the extended family. Each chamber typically contained three waist-high benches that lined the room on every side except the entrance. The deceased were laid out on these benches immediately after death, along with burial gifts, including bowls for food, perfume juglets,oil lamps, weapons and jewelry., The benches included ledges to prevent the contents from falling off, and headrests were frequently carved out of the rock to hold the deceased's head. After the flesh of the corpse had decayed, the bones were collected along with the gifts and deposited into a repository hewn beneath one of the burial benches. Thus the repositories were filled with the bones and objects of generations of the family. This process of burial makes it clear that the Biblical phrase"gathered to their fathers" (e.g.,Jdg 2:10) was more than metaphorical.

The Migration of the Danites

JUDGES 18 The tribe of Dan was unable to occupy its assigned allotment west of Benjamin (Jos 19:40-46; Jdg 1:34).The Danites chose to migrate to Laish, which they renamed Dan. This took place after the time of Deborah in the late thirteenth century B.C., around the time of the destruction of Shiloh ("Map 3") around 1100 B.c.(18:31).2 The incursion of the Philistines into the southeastern coastal plain in approximately 1177 B.C. may have precipitated the migration.

Laish/Dan has been identified as Tell el-Qadi, now called Tel Dan, at the foot of Mount Hermon, approximately 25 miles (40 km) north of the Sea of Galilee. Excavations have revealed a prosperous Late Bronze Age, city that was destroyed by fire early in the twelfth century B.C., most likely by the Danites (v. 27). Laish had a strong connection, perhaps as a partner in international trade, with coastal Sidon, approximately 28 miles (45 km) to the northwest (vv. 7,28).5 The most impressive discovery in the destroyed city of Laish was a tomb containing imported pottery from Greece.

After the destruction a nomadic or semi-nomadic culture occupied the site. This culture is distinctive for its use of pits apparently dug for storing grain. Large storage jars, well known from the highlands where they are associated with Israelite settlement, were located in the pits. The jars were fashioned from clay not native to the Tel Dan area, indicating that the new settlers had brought them from elsewhere. Archaeologists have identified this new culture as that of the Danites.This tribe soon became urbanized, however, and built a dense array of domestic and industrial structures across the site (v. 28). This stratum was destroyed in a fierce conflagration in the mid-eleventh century B.C., possibly at the hands of the Philistines at the same time Shiloh was destroyed.


JUDGES 19 The name Gibeah ("hill") indicates several different locations in the Old Testament. The Gibeah of Judges 19 —21, however, first mentioned in this passage, and then throughout the Old Testament, is specifically associated with the tribe of Benjamin.This particular Gibeah was destroyed by the rest of the Israelites during the period of the judges (20:40).1 Gibeah was apparently inhabited again some time later; King Saul came from this city (1Sa 10:26). Saul in fact fought the Philistines in the region and seems to have Made Gibeah his base of operations (15a 15:34; 22:6; 23:19). Later we read that David chose three of his thirty mighty men from this city (2Sa 23:29; 1Ch 12:3).

Centuries later the prophet Hosea cited ancient Gibeah as an example of wickedness (Hos 9:9;10:9).2 Hosea seems to have been referring to the events of Judges 19-20, illustrating the profound impact of this terrible episode on the psyche of the nation. Gibeah became known as a place of corruption and judgment, not unlike Sodom and Gomorrah.

Despite the frequency of Biblical references to Gibeah, its location has been a source of intense dispute among scholars. The debate is focused on whether Gibeah was near modem Jeba or at the impressive Tell el-Fill, which is located on the watershed highway slightly more than 3 miles (4.8 km) north of Jerusalem.

W.F. Albright excavated at Tell el-Ful in 1922-23 and again in 1933. He found traces of an Iron Age village that had been destroyed, as well as the remains of a strong fortress that had been built soon after. The stronghold measured approximately 111.5 feet (34 m) by 170.6 feet (52 m) and was constructed of large, uncut stones that had been joined in a fairly crude fashion. The walls were nearly 5 feet (1.5 m) thick. Al-bright dated the village destruction layer to the twelfth century B.C. and the strong-hold to the late eleventh century B.C. The -sequence of these remains matches the Biblical chronology: destruction during the period of the judges and fortification during the life of Saul.

Paul Lapp led a salvage operation in 1964, just before King Hussein of Jordan leveled Tell el-NI in order to build a palace (the area was at this time under Jordan's control). Lapp concluded that the first period of habitation should be dated approximately 1200-1150 B.C., while the fortress should be assigned to the period of approximately 1025-950 B.C. These more precise dates still coincide with the Old Testament accounts. Lapp's study of the pottery record confirmed a gap in habitation between the earlier village and the fortress., We would expect to see such a lull following the large-scale destruction described in Judges 20. Lapp also uncovered evidence of significant later Iron Age settlements on the site. The conclusions by Albright and Lapp in favor of the identification of Tell el-Fill as Gibeah are still accepted by the majority of scholars.

A vocal minority, however, argues that Jeba is a better candidate for ancient Gibeah. One argument is that Tell el-Fill is located on a hill above a large plain; it is therefore unlikely that its inhabitants would have been ambushed by hidden Israelite warriors, as 20:29 describes. This scenario is more plausible in the hilly, canyon-filled region of Jeba.

The question remains open.The destruction of Tell el-Ful was a substantial setback, and sufficient archaeological work has two yet been done at Jeba. At this point we can confirm that the habitation pattern at Tell el-Fill matches the Biblical chronology, while such a fit has yet to be demonstrated at Jeba.


JUDGES 20 Approximately 7 miles (11 km) northwest of Jerusalem lies Tell en-Nasbeh, a mound 853 feet (nearly 260 m) long by 426.5 feet (nearly 130 m) wide, covering a total surface area of about 7.7 acres. Most scholars identify this site with the Biblical Mizpah ("Map 4"). Little is known about Mizpah during the pre-monarchial 'period because the city is seldom mentioned in texts and few archaeological remains from this era have been discovered. Excavations between 1926 and 1935 unearthed three tombs, two caves and various fragments of pottery from the Late Chalcolithic and Early Bronze I periods, which predate any Biblical reference.

Judges identifies Mizpah as the assembly point for a combined Israelite military force that attacked the Benjamites at Gibeah (Jdg 20:1). Mizpah's central location on the watershed highway between Ramah and Bethel would have made it a natural mustering point, even if no archaeological record of a major settlement exists from that period. The force then moved north to Bethel' to inquire of the Lord before launching its attack, and Mizpah played no further role in the account.

By the time of Samuel, Mizpah had become an important regional center. The prophet summoned all the Israelites there to seek forgiveness for their idolatry.While the assembled Israelites were fasting before the Lord, the Philistines launched an attack, but God intervened with thunder and scattered them (1Sa 7:5-11). After this.Samuel, who was serving as Israel's judge, returned to Mizpah each year as part of a circuit that also included Bethel and Gilgal (15a 7:16). It was also at Mizpah that Samuel revealed Saul as Israel's first king (1Sa 10:17-21).4 Philistine and other local pottery, along with the remains of rock-cut cisterns and houses, attests to a resurgence of population around the time of Samuel, as the Biblical text suggests.

During the divided monarchy,Mizpah was a border city between Israel and Judah. In approximately 895 B.C. King Baasha of Israel pushed his territory south as far as Ramah and built a fortification there (1Ki 15:17-22; 2Ch 16:1-6).This cut off Judah's primary land route to the coastal plain. King Asa of Judah responded by bribing the Arameans to attack Israel from the north. Baasha had to redirect his forces to this northern front, and Asa seized the opportunity to dismantle the Israelite fortification at Ramah. He then used the materials to construct Judahite strongholds farther north in Mizpah and Geba.

Excavations at Tell en-Nasbeh have revealed the remains of a massive defensive construction of the early ninth century B.C. A wall of roughly shaped and plastered stones reached a height of nearly 46 feet (14 m) and was reinforced by a series of ten towers. A stone glacis (slope at the base of the fortification wall) ended in a dry moat 16.4 feet (5 m) wide and 6.56 feet (2 m) deep, while a double gate complex protected the entrance to the city. It is the only fortification of this type in the region. Houses were built against the inside of the wall. Remains of olive oil presses and storage bins from the period have also been unearthed, along with a cemetery on a ridge just outside the city. These finds confirm that Asa expended considerable resources in the strengthening of this crucial defensive position.

Following the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and most of Judah in 586 B.C.,5 Mizpah became the residence of Gedaliah, the Babylonian-appointed governor of Judah (2Ki 25:23; Jer 40:1-41:16). Geda-liah's tenure was short-lived,for Ishmael, son of Nethaniah, and some other political insurgents assassinated him less than six months after his arrival in Mizpah.The city continued to serve as the regional capital until at least the time of Nehemiah. During this era of Babylonian control, larger, more elaborate private dwellings and public buildings replaced the smaller houses of Asa's time. Subsequent Biblical references to Mizpah are few and brief. Even so, numerous examples of Persian seals and seal impressions, pieces of Greek and Roman pottery and other items suggest virtually continuous habitation on the mound throughout antiquity.The cemetery at Mizpah remained in use until the Byzantine period, when a Christian church was constructed nearby.

Jabesh Gilead

JUDGES 21 Jabesh Gilead was located in the territory of Manasseh on the eastern side of the Jordan River ("Map 4"). However, its exact location is unknown. Judges provides no specific information regarding the city's precise location, surrounding topography or characteristics. Judges 21 states that its inhabitants were massacred by 12,000 Israelite warriors because Jabesh Gilead had not sent soldiers for the attack on the Benjamites following the atrocity at Gibeah (chs. 19-20). Only 400 virgins were spared. These unfortunate young women were designated for the Benjamite men, since the other Israelites had sworn not to give them their own daughters as wives.

Jabesh Gilead is next mentioned in the context of Saul. According to 1 Samuel 11, Nahash the Ammonite besieged the city and demanded, as a condition of peace, the right to gouge out the right eye of every resident. The city sent messengers to the newly anointed Saul and begged for help. Saul quickly gathered a sizable pan-Israelite force and devastated the army of Nahash.The residents of Jabesh Gilead did not forget this deliverance. Later, when Saul and his sons died on Mount Gilboa, the Philistines hung their bodies on the wall of Beth Shan as trophies.The men of Jabesh Gilead traveled by night to Beth Shan, reclaimed the bodies and brought them back to Jabesh Gilead for cremation and burial (1Sa 31).2 They then mourned for Saul and fasted for seven days. When David learned of this brave action, he sent special messengers to carry a blessing to the city (2Sa 2:4-7).

Scholars have attempted to approximate Jabesh Gilead's location based upon the fact that it was a night's journey from Beth Shan. Our only other clue comes from Eusebius, a Christian historian from the fourth century A.D. If Eusebius's information is correct, the modern hill Tell Maqlub must be the location of the Biblical Jabesh Gilead. Surface surveys have yielded pottery from Iron Age l,3 which suggests that its habitation history matches the Biblical chronology. The site is only 10 miles (16 km) from Beth Shan, so an overnight trip to Beth Shan on foot is quite reasonable. Tell Maqlub remains unexcavated.