Judges 1 The Disposition of the People of Israel

Cracked pots, Picture taken by Enric from the Monestary of Sanahin, Armenia shared under creative commons 4.0

Joshua 1: 1-21 The Mainly Positive Beginnings of the Southern Tribes

1 After the death of Joshua, the Israelites inquired of the LORD, “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” 2 The LORD said, “Judah shall go up. I hereby give the land into his hand.” 3 Judah said to his brother Simeon, “Come up with me into the territory allotted to me, that we may fight against the Canaanites; then I too will go with you into the territory allotted to you.” So Simeon went with him. 4 Then Judah went up and the LORD gave the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hand; and they defeated ten thousand of them at Bezek. 5 They came upon Adoni-bezek at Bezek, and fought against him, and defeated the Canaanites and the Perizzites. 6 Adoni-bezek fled; but they pursued him, and caught him, and cut off his thumbs and big toes. 7 Adoni-bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off used to pick up scraps under my table; as I have done, so God has paid me back.” They brought him to Jerusalem, and he died there. 8 Then the people of Judah fought against Jerusalem and took it. They put it to the sword and set the city on fire.

9 Afterward the people of Judah went down to fight against the Canaanites who lived in the hill country, in the Negeb, and in the lowland.10 Judah went against the Canaanites who lived in Hebron (the name of Hebron was formerly Kiriath-arba); and they defeated Sheshai and Ahiman and Talmai.

11 From there they went against the inhabitants of Debir (the name of Debir was formerly Kiriath-sepher). 12 Then Caleb said, “Whoever attacks Kiriath-sepher and takes it, I will give him my daughter Achsah as wife.” 13 And Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, took it; and he gave him his daughter Achsah as wife. 14 When she came to him, she urged him to ask her father for a field. As she dismounted from her donkey, Caleb said to her, “What do you wish?” 15 She said to him, “Give me a present; since you have set me in the land of the Negeb, give me also Gulloth-mayim.” So Caleb gave her Upper Gulloth and Lower Gulloth.

16 The descendants of Hobab the Kenite, Moses’ father-in-law, went up with the people of Judah from the city of palms into the wilderness of Judah, which lies in the Negeb near Arad. Then they went and settled with the Amalekites.17 Judah went with his brother Simeon, and they defeated the Canaanites who inhabited Zephath, and devoted it to destruction. So the city was called Hormah. 18 Judah took Gaza with its territory, Ashkelon with its territory, and Ekron with its territory. 19 The LORD was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain, because they had chariots of iron. 20 Hebron was given to Caleb, as Moses had said; and he drove out from it the three sons of Anak. 21 But the Benjaminites did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem; so the Jebusites have lived in Jerusalem among the Benjaminites to this day.

The book of Judges comes from a world that would seem alien to a modern reader. It is a time where the tribes and families that make up Israel are no longer united under a charismatic leader like Moses or Joshua and are not a nation in the modern sense. Moses and Joshua may have been able to hold the tribes together through the wilderness and the initial conflict with the Canaanites in the promised land, but with the death of Joshua the tribes and families no longer work together in harmony. The book of Judges narrates a theologically interpreted story of the decline of Israel in this time between the initial occupation of the promised land and the anointing of the first king of Israel.

The book of Judges is a challenging book for many reasons, but one which we encounter immediately is the expectation that the Canaanite people who occupy the promised land will be destroyed. Throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua the have frequently echoed the command to destroy the people in the land so that the people of Israel would not adopt their practices or worship their gods. The violence of the occupation of the promised land can seem difficult to reconcile with the vision of God that many modern Jews and Christians have, and it is often hard to reconcile modern values with the actions of ancient people. The failure of the people to fully remove the populations that existed in the promised land and the failure of these tribes and families to consistently live the values outlined in the law highlights, in the view of the author of Judges, the danger of alternative visions of structuring society and of worshipping other gods to the identity of the people of Israel. As people who live in a secular and pluralistic nation it can be difficult to imagine the ideal of a theocratic and homogenous population living according to the vision of books like Deuteronomy. Apparently this vision was difficult for the people in the time of Judges to adhere to as well.

Judges begins its narration in the time after the death of Joshua. The initial military actions undertaken by Judah and Simeon are viewed in a mainly positive light. Judah and Simeon are both located at the southern end of the territory that the tribes occupy and form a mutual alliance to deal with the significant Canaanite forces still in their region. The numbers throughout Judges are difficult to translate, especially the Hebrew word ‘elep which is frequently translated thousands, but which may refer to a much smaller number in some places.[1] Even if the number of people the tribes of Judah and Simeon defeat at Bezek is less than 10,000, it is still a large battle for tribes with no standing army. The initial defeat of the Canaanites and Perizzites and their actions toward the captured king Adoni-bezek are reminders that the ancient world is a violent place. Adoni-bezek, in the narrative of Judges, views his own loss of thumbs and big toes as divine repayment[2] (although the word for God here is the generic god and not necessarily the God of Israel) for his own action of removing the thumbs and toes from kings he has conquered. The narrative is not always consistent as we see in verse eight and twenty-one, where Jerusalem is taken and burned by Judah but the residents of Jerusalem remain and are not driven out by Benjamin.

The battle in the hill country takes us back into the narrative of Joshua, where the land of Hebron is given to Caleb, the only other survivor of the Exodus journey. Caleb’s family defeats Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai who are descendants of Anak (Joshua, 15:14), the feared Anakim who originally caused the people of Israel to fear occupying the promised land. (Numbers 13: 28) These once feared ‘mighty men’ are now defeated and the final living member of the people who left Egypt finally receives his inheritance. The narrative of Caleb, Othniel, and Achsah highlights that we are dealing with collections of families who are working together rather than an organized nation. Othniel, who will be lifted up as the first judge, takes the city of Kiriath-sepher and wins the promised hand of Achsah, daughter of Caleb. Marriages in the ancient world were primarily economic arrangements that were to be mutually beneficial to both parties. Although Achsah may not have any choice in the marriage, she will show her own initiative in relation to both Caleb and Othniel. As Barry Webb can highlight:

From the moment of her entry (v. 14a), Achsah ceases to be an object acted upon by two men. She seizes the opportunity to get something which neither her father nor her husband has considered. Her father has already given the land of the Negeb as her dowry (v.15c). Achsah greatly enhances its value by negotiating successfully for water rights, something of great importance given the predominantly dry nature of the area. (Webb 2012, 104)

Women in the bible are often more assertive than interpreters give them credit for, and especially in the book of Judges we will see a number of women play large roles. This may also highlight the difference between the relatively positive beginning of Judges where women are able to negotiate on behalf of themselves and their families and the very dark conclusion of Judges where women are often the victims of violent acts which deny them safety and the ability to work for their own futures.

The book of Judges is not universally negative toward people who are not a part of the people of Israel, and this is highlighted by the position of the descendants of Hobab the Kenite. This partnership which goes back to Moses allows both the people of Israel and Kenite to live at peace and benefit from their relationship. The military conquest of Judah and Simeon is viewed in a predominantly positive manner, but they remain unable to expel the inhabitants of the plain who have iron chariots, which would have been the pinnacle of military technology in the early iron age. The clans of Judah and Simeon gain control over the majority of their territory but the Canaanite people and their religion prove incredibly challenging to expel completely from their region. The story gets significantly darker as the focus turns to Benjamin, who was not asked to partner with Judah and Simeon, and their inability to drive out the Jebusites and their cohabitation with the Jebusites in Jerusalem.

Judges 1: 22-34 The Less Positive Beginning of the Northern Tribes

22 The house of Joseph also went up against Bethel; and the LORD was with them. 23 The house of Joseph sent out spies to Bethel (the name of the city was formerly Luz). 24 When the spies saw a man coming out of the city, they said to him, “Show us the way into the city, and we will deal kindly with you.” 25 So he showed them the way into the city; and they put the city to the sword, but they let the man and all his family go. 26 So the man went to the land of the Hittites and built a city, and named it Luz; that is its name to this day.

27 Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages; but the Canaanites continued to live in that land. 28 When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not in fact drive them out.

29 And Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer; but the Canaanites lived among them in Gezer.

30 Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants of Kitron, or the inhabitants of Nahalol; but the Canaanites lived among them, and became subject to forced labor.

31 Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon, or of Ahlab, or of Achzib, or of Helbah, or of Aphik, or of Rehob; 32 but the Asherites lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land; for they did not drive them out.

33 Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath, but lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land; nevertheless the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh and of Beth-anath became subject to forced labor for them.

34 The Amorites pressed the Danites back into the hill country; they did not allow them to come down to the plain. 35 The Amorites continued to live in Har-heres, in Aijalon, and in Shaalbim, but the hand of the house of Joseph rested heavily on them, and they became subject to forced labor. 36 The border of the Amorites ran from the ascent of Akrabbim, from Sela and upward.

The two tribes of Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) are the two largest northern tribes and they unite to go against Luz (which will be renamed Bethel). The taking of Bethel shares many commonalities with the taking of Jericho in the book of Joshua (Joshua 2, 6) where a hesed (faithful) agreement is made with a resident of the city which allows the city to be taken. Bethel becomes the northern counterpoint to Jerusalem, and yet the destruction of Luz gives birth to a new city of Luz in the land of the Hittites. After the initial success of the northern tribes we receive a litany of all the Canaanites that are not driven out from the land. The Canaanites prove to be difficult to remove from the land and these remaining tribes either lack the ability or the will to secure their inheritance. In many cases the Canaanites become forced labor for these tribes and families, but in the case of Dan it is the Canaanites who retain control of most of the land forcing the Danites back into the hill country.

The inertia of the time of Joshua comes to a halt. The stage is set for the cyclical pattern of decay among the people which the book of Judges narrates. As Michael Hattin says eloquently:

Leaderless, and no longer certain of their mission, the people of Israel instead settle down, content to farm their fertile plots, raise their flocks and families, and leave the process of possession incomplete. The Canaanites continue to dwell among them, with their religious and moral system intact, and the siren call of their gods soon took effect. (Hattin 2020, 10)

Israel was always intended to be an alternative to Egypt, Canaan, and the other moral and religious visions present in the ancient world. Instead, we find the people at the end of this narrative adopting the enslaving practices they found themselves victims of in Egypt and tolerating the presence of competing visions for society complete with alternative religious systems. There is no Moses or Joshua to rally the people from their lethargy, nor is there a strong sense of unity among the tribes. The book of Judges attempts to make sense of a dark time in the story of Israel and after one chapter we are in a position to encounter the recurring challenge of faithfulness to the vision their God intended for the people. They were unable or unwilling to create a space free of alternative moral and religious visions to attempt this great divine experiment of a people living in a covenant with their God, a people living a life ordered by the law of God. Instead they live out their vocation as a covenant people in a place of competing messages and loyalties and the results do not live up to the hope of the author of Judges.

[1] For a complete discussion of the problem of large numbers in the book of Judges see Barry G. Webb’s note on translation. (Webb 2012, 71-74)

[2] The notion of divine ‘repayment’ will also feature in the stories of Gideon, Abimelech, and Samson.

6 thoughts on “Judges 1 The Disposition of the People of Israel

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