Social Conditions.

The present form of the Book of Judges has given rise to the phrase "time of the Judges," which covers the period from the death of Joshua down to the revival and consolidation of Israel as a kingdom under Saul. This period, however, does not correspond with that covered by the Book of Judges, which includes part of Joshua's period; and the events under the last two judges belong to the Book of Samuel. Moreover, the designation "Judges," as well as the account given of their activity in the book in its present form, is inadequate, as the term "judge" was subsequently applied to certain persons who, without being kings, ruled over the whole of Israel like the Kings. This happened, however, only when the people were collected together on extraordinary occasions, as, for instance, in making war upon a common enemy, when the members of several or of a majority of the tribes would place themselves under the leadership of the strong warriors among them; and when the object in view had been accomplished, such leaders returned to the respective spheres of their personal influence. This influence did not extend beyond the bounds of their own tribe or of a few other tribes, though they retained the preeminence they had achieved by their leadership in Yhwh's war. In times of peace, moreover, their activities were chiefly confined to the judicial functions whence they derived their title.

Mostly of Local Importance.

Indeed, most of the judges had only a local importance; for there has been preserved no account of their deeds based on actual authentictradition, but only a formal account composed for a definite purpose and, therefore, of no historical value. Similarly, the chronological framework into which the account of the twelve judges has been fitted is, as regards their sequence and their tenure of office for twenty, forty, or eighty years respectively, a fiction of later time.

The "Great Judges."

All that remains, after separating these later additions to the "historical account" of Judges, is confined to the old stories of the five so-called "Great Judges," which form the substance of the Book of Judges; to these may be added the beginning of the book, if not as an actual historical source, at least as a valuable source on the early ritual. These five Great Judges did not exert a legally or judicially determined influence upon affairs common to the Israelitic tribes: their personal influence was rather confined to one or a few tribes; and only the stress of events brought a majority of the tribes under their leadership. Still they rendered great services by preserving the work of Moses under difficult conditions at a time when neither the life nor the laws of the people had been fully regulated.

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).

The Wars of YHWH.

This is the substance of the song; but a few other conclusions may be drawn from it. It is to be noted that the tribes of Simeon, Levi, and Judah are not mentioned at all; this may be explained on the ground that the first-named two were then already dissolved, and that for some time Judah had not been closely connected with the other tribes (comp. Gen. xxxviii. 1), and was not flourishing, as it subsequently was in consequence of its connection with the southern family of Tamar (Gen. xxxviii.). Since five tribes are bitterly reproved for taking no part in the war it must be assumed that Yhwh's army included at that time nearly all the men dwelling in Israel. This may be historically explained only on the ground that after Israel's decisive victories, which finally placed the tribes in possession of Canaan, an agreement made in Canaan more closely connected the tribes, which had been consolidated by the common war of Yhwh, imposing upon them service in the army and also the recognition of Yhwh and His judgment; and it may be assumed that this agreement was made during the events forming the story of Josh. xxiv.

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.

The Rescue of Individual Tribes by Their Judges.

The Israelites had to wage sanguinary wars with the native Canaanites and with the neighboring peoples, both before winning their permanent dwelling-places—which was of course their primary object—and after having conquered the country, in order to make their possession secure. The story of Jabin, for example (Judges iv.), recounts a victory of the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, which, like Dan and Asher, were half-breed tribes; i.e., they had a larger admixture of Canaanite blood than the other tribes. This is probably the same victory which in Josh. xi. 1-5 is represented as having been gainedby Joshua at the waters of Merom. The event, however, took place after the death of Joshua; and it opened up to the Israelites regions in which the Canaanites predominated, as they did in general in the lands lying toward the coast of the Mediterranean.

Enemies in the east were added to those in the country west of the Jordan. Nomad tribes which camped alongside of Israel near Horeb and Kadesh, the Amalekites and the Midianites as well as the Moabites, appeared on the eastern frontier of Palestine, with the purpose of settling, like Israel, in the western cultivated country; and the Israelites had to stem this movement from east to west, lest they should be overwhelmed by the newcomers. Now the several judges appeared where danger threatened. Ehud the Benjamite, by murdering the Moabite king Eglon, liberated his tribe from the tribute which that king had imposed upon it; and with the troops from Mount Ephraim he recaptured the fords of the Jordan as well as Jericho, which was besieged by the nomad tribes (Judges iii.). The Gileadite Jephthah of Mizpah (ib. xi.) succeeded in repulsing the Ammonites, who at that time were threatening Gilead, that is, the tribe of Gad, and who subsequently even advanced to the valley of the Jordan (I Sam. xi.). Gideon (Jerubbaal), of Ophrah in Manasseh, fell upon the Midianites, who had entered into the territory of Manasseh, at the source of the present Nahr Jalud, on the eastern border of the plain of Jezreel, and drove them toward the valley of the Jordan. Aside from Manasseh, he called also upon the neighboring tribes of Naphtali and Asher to take part in the pursuit, and ordered the Ephraimites to guard the fords of the Jordan, in order to cut off the Midianites' retreat and to capture their kings Oreb and Zeeb (Judges vi. et seq.).

Prognostications of the Kingdom.

After his successes Gideon retained a leading position within his tribe. According to Judges viii. 22 et seq., he was even offered the hereditary rulership, i.e., kingship over the tribe, but refused it as being a heathen dignity. The Midianites described him and his family as men of royal appearance (ib. viii. 18); and the tribe of Manasseh, which was at that time the largest and most important and which occupied the most fertile part of the country, from the plain of Jezreel to Shechem, gained its supremacy over the other tribes probably through the influence of the personality of Gideon and of the reputation he enjoyed among the other tribes (comp. Gen. xli. 50 et seq.). Manasseh, however, had subsequently to cede this supremacy to Ephraim (comp. Gen. xlviii.).

A consequence of the tribal kingship of Gideon, who was first succeeded by his seventy sons, was the tyranny of Abimelech, a son of Gideon born at Shechem, hence of a Canaanite mother. He demanded from the Shechemites to be recognized as sole ruler; and the Canaanite population, which had already recognized Israel's supremacy, decided in favor of the related half-breed. He seized the treasure of the temple, gathered some troops about him, and destroyed all the descendants of Gideon, with the single exception of Jotham. The Shechemites now really proclaimed him king, and he ruled for three years "over Israel," i.e., the territory of Palestine over which Gideon had ruled (Judges ix. 6, 22). He put down with much bloodshed an insurrection of the Shechemites, instigated by an Israelitic clan called Ebed (Jobaal) under the leadership of Gaal; but he was killed soon after in an attack on Thebez (ib. verses 50-54).

Religious Conditions in Israel.

The foregoing are the facts that may in general be gathered in regard to the political conditions and events relating to the Israelitic tribes during the so-called "time of the Judges." It now remains to glance at the religious and cultural conditions during the same period. The sources, and in particular the stories of the Book of Judges in its present shape, recount the repeated apostasy of Israel and its worship of the Canaanite gods: but as the accounts cite only a few specific instances, one has evidently to deal with a survey of the religious conditions of the time from the standpoint of later conditions and conceptions; and these accounts, with their interchange of apostasy and oppression, of repentance and salvation, were in fact added to the book at a later time. At the time of the Judges Yhwh was actually the god of Israel, that is, of its leaders and of the people generally, as appears especially from the Song of Deborah; and in addition Baal, the chief god of the Canaanites, was also prominent in names—for example, "Jerubbaal" = "Gideon"—and therefore probably also in the cult of Israel. Later historians regarded this as a formal apostasy from Yhwh, although it was not so in fact, because no pure cult of Yhwh existed at the time of the Judges. Yet the prophets Hosea and Jeremiah correctly judged the conditions when they complained that the apostasy from Yhwh began with the immigration into Canaan (Hosea ix. 10, x. 1, xi. 1 et seq., xiii. 5 et seq.; Jer. ii. 1-8). A relation arises between Yhwh and Baal which actually leads Israel to the verge of natural religion. The name "Jobaal" is typical of this relation; for it implies the equality of the Canaanite Baal with the Israelitic Yhwh, an implication that could not remain without consequences.

As Israel, after taking possession of the country, soon made its Yhwh analogous to Baal, who had until now been lord of the land, so it also took possession of the hill sanctuaries of the latter (the "bamot"), which were held sacred as being nearer to the godhead. The Israelites soothed their religious conscience by connecting the legends of the Patriarchs with these old Canaanite sanctuaries. Connected therewith were frequently the so-called "maẓẓebot." These were originally large exposed blocks which were "set up" ( from ), i.e., set up-right, on their broad side, and which, as seats of the godhead, received votive offerings of oil and sacrificial blood. Later they probably gave place to artistically hewn pillars which stood near the altar. The cult of Yhwh was also connected with sacred trees standing near the eminence or in the open field; but the Israelites did not accept the "asherim," which probably were originally simple trunks of trees or poles planted beside the altar as symbols of Astarte, the goddess of fruitfulness (see Asherah). As thebamot and their maẓẓebot were originally dedicated to Yhwh (comp. Ex. xxiv. 5 [A. V. 4]), the asherim, which may even have been connected with the phallic cult, had no place beside these altars; and they are in fact not mentioned in early times.

Baal and YHWH.

Whatever facts can be gathered from the original accounts of that time in regard to this Yhwh cult at the old Canaanite sanctuaries, which was perhaps also influenced by the ritual of the Canaanites themselves, are confirmed by the accounts referring to several of these places of worship. Thus there was at Shechem a Baal-berith ( = "covenant Baal"), who was evidently intended as the guardian and protector of the covenant made between the Israelites and the Canaanites in regard to their dwelling together in peace (Judges ix.). As it is not explained whether he was intended to represent Yhwh or Baal, the Canaanite part of the inhabitants of Shechem probably took him to be Baal, while the Israelites recognized him, in spite of his name "Baal," as Yhwh. And Jerubbaal (Gideon), who, as stated above, went to battle in behalf of Yhwh, and erected a sanctuary to Yhwh in his native city of Ophrah, set up in the sanctuary an ephod, that is, an idol, which, in accordance with Canaanite custom and skill, was finely wrought and covered with precious metals. The later reviser of Gideon's story not unjustly regarded this as a grievous apostasy on the part of Gideon and his contemporaries (ib. viii., especially verses 27 et seq.). The Danites, on their expedition to Laish, found a similar idol on Mount Ephraim, together with teraphim, images probably representing progenitors of the tribe or race. While the narrator of the story is sure that both emblems refer to the cult of Yhwh, and are not images of Baal and Ashtaroth, the reviser thinks it necessary always to add the words to in order to indicate that they were carved and cast images (and hence did not belong to the Yhwh cult, which permitted no such images). When the Danites seized the images together with the attendant priest, and carried them to Dan, a sanctuary arose there that subsequently became famous, and whose Levitic priests traced their descent back to Moses (ib. xvii-xviii., especially xviii. 30).

Cultural Status of the Israelites.

The cultural conditions of the Israelites during the time of the Judges were of course dependent primarily on the economic conditions. By conquering the land of Canaan the Israelites were transformed from nomads into agriculturists, for they now dwelt in villages and towns, in huts and houses, and lived on what they raised in their fields, namely, grain, wine, oil, figs, and the milk and meat of their cattle. What they did not need for their own subsistence they sold to the Phenician merchants that traveled through the country, or exchanged for the products of Phenician skill, such as decorated vessels and garments, or for goods imported by the Phenicians from the cultured countries of the Euphrates or from Egypt (comp. Gen. xlix. 20, and for later time I Kings v. 23, 25; Ezek. xxvii. 17; Josephus, "Ant." xiv. 10, § 6). Thus the Israelites, as the inheritors of Canaan, entered at the same time into possession of the richer and more developed culture of that country.

But the pleasures with which they became acquainted through the more refined former lords of the country were attended by the consequences of more advanced culture; and the Israelites in time gave themselves up to voluptuousness and immorality, as the tirades of the Later Prophets amply testify. This more luxurioụs mode of life was not, it is true, adopted at the very beginning of the time of the Judges; indeed Israel remained for some time a rough people, barbarized by continuous wars. Sword law and the vendetta reigned supreme. Neither expeditions undertaken for pillage and plunder (comp. Judges xvii. et seq.), nor treacherous dealings with the enemy, as practised by Samson, nor assassinations, as those committed by Jael and Ehud, gave offense; and even the lives of those nearest and dearest were sacrificed to satisfy a vow, as in the case of Jephthah.

  • Compare the respective sections in the histories of Israel by Ewald, A. Köhler, B. Stade, E. Ronan, H. Winckler (1895, i.), A. Klostermann (1896), C. H. Cornill (1899), J. Wellhausen (1897, 3d ed., iii. 35-50), and H. Guthe (§§ 18-21, pp. 55-64);
  • R. Kittel, Gesch. der Hebräer, 1892, ii. 3-22, 55-90.
  • On the sources, etc., see bibliography to Judges, Book of.
E. G. H. V. Ry.