The Emergence of Israel in the Land of Canaan Judges

The book of Judges continues the Deuteronomistic History’s narrative of Israel in the land of Canaan. While the book of Joshua presented an ideal description of a united Israel, the book of Judges shows how the Israelites repeatedly failed to continue this unity because of infighting, lack of cooperation, and apostasy. Perhaps more importantly, the book of Judges gives us data that can help reconstruct the process by which Israel gradually established itself in Canaan.

The book of Judges begins with an introduction describing the successes and failures of the tribes of Israel. This summary focuses mostly on the failures of these tribes, highlighting how the Israelites were unable to remove the Canaanites from their lands and therefore were forced to live side by side with them. This is followed by a second introduction that reports the death of Joshua. The central core of the narrative is found in chapters 3–16, which recount the stories of the judges themselves. These stories are presented sequentially, with one judge following another; however, this chronology is not accurate since it would make the period of the judges over four hundred years long instead of the more likely two hundred years. The narratives follow a geographical pattern beginning with Othniel, who is from Judah in the south, to Tola, from Issachar in the north, and Jephthah, from Gilead in the east. In all, twelve judges are listed, suggesting that the narrative is artificially constructed. Scholars also divide the judges into “major” judges, such as Deborah and Gideon, who receive extended narratives, and “minor” judges, who are summarily described. The book concludes with a double ending that balances its dual introduction. In the first concluding narrative, the shrine of Micah and the migration of the tribe of Dan are discussed. The second narrative recounts the rape of the Levite’s concubine.

            The overriding theme of the book of Judges is the repeated apostasy of Israel in the premonarchic period, followed by divine punishment, repentance, and ultimately deliverance. There is also a focus on kingship in Judges, but the treatment of this concept is mixed. In Judges 9 an attempt at establishing kingship is divinely rejected by Yahweh. This seems to reflect an antimonarchic tendency that is a recurrent theme in the Deuteronomistic History. At the same time, the narrative implies that a strong central monarchy could provide more stability and minimize external threats to Israel.


The judges described in the biblical texts are not individuals who preside over law cases. Rather, judges functioned mainly as military leaders. While these individuals may have originally existed as local heroes, in the book of Judges they are described as leaders over all of Israel who emerged in times of crisis. Moreover, not all of the judges are depicted positively, nor are they all fully developed characters.

            While not all of the characters are treated equally, there are some common traits among the judges as a group. For the most part, they fit the mold of the hero in ancient literature. Even less developed characters such as Jael and Ehud are noteworthy simply because of their heroic exploits. Many of these individuals outwit their opponents to reverse the situation to their advantage.

            Women play an important role in Judges as well. While only three are named (Deborah, Jael, and Delilah), these and other women figure prominently in the narratives. Perhaps most notable is Deborah, a woman who wielded both judicial and military powers. However, that she is both a judge and a woman is not highlighted by the text. In other words, the Deuteronomistic historians apparently had no issue with a woman who was a judge, military leader, and prophet.

History and the Israelite Confederation

The thirteenth and twelfth centuries BCE saw the decline, and in some cases the fall, of several powerful nations, resulting in significant power shifts and population migrations. It is within this political and social maelstrom that Israel developed as a nation. As already discussed, the book of Joshua’s depiction of the conquest of Canaan is not supported by either the biblical sources or the archaeological data; rather, the growth of Israel was gradual, inconsistent, and highly complicated.

            In this premonarchic period, Israel consisted of a group of loosely connected tribes, which is often referred to as a confederation or league. The evidence from both the biblical narratives and archaeological data suggests that the Israelites were a disparate group made up of many different ethnicities, including Canaanites. Although it is difficult to discern how or why these tribes banded together, there are some reasonable hypotheses. There were certain security, social, and economic benefits to be gained by being a part of a larger entity. Moreover, escapees from slavery in Egypt settled in Canaan and shared the stories of Yahweh’s victories and the deliverance of his people.  The stories of Yahweh’s triumph may have been attractive to other groups and may have persuaded them to adopt him as their primary deity. The unifying symbol of this confederation appears to have been the ark of the covenant. Since it was a movable shrine, it is possible that it traveled from one tribal center to another. Furthermore, it was not just a religious symbol but also a military standard that led the tribes in their military campaigns of defense and conquest.

Folly in Israel

The phrase “in those days there was no king in Israel” serves as a bookend for the final three chapters of the book of Judges and highlights the anarchy of the era.  The tribes and territories involved in these final chapters seem to adumbrate the drama of kingship that will unfold in the monarchic era.  The story of the Levite’s secondary wife and the civil war that ensues serves as evidence for the Deuteronomistic historians of the disastrous consequences of anarchy.  The tribal confederation has fractured and a transition to monarchy is approaching.

Implications for Our Study

The book of Judges provides an account of the early history of Israel in Canaan that in many ways refutes the idealized portrait presented by the book of Joshua. Judges shows that Israel’s emergence in Canaan was not swift and complete, but slow and uneven. In addition, the text demonstrates that the Israelites themselves were not totally unified politically or religiously under the exclusive worship of Yahweh. This is most clearly indicated by the repeated references to infighting and apostasy. Eventually the confederation needed to be replaced by a more centralized form of government that could protect the land and its people from this infighting and from growing external threats such as the Philistines. In sum, Judges closes with Israel in a state of anarchy, setting the stage for the establishment of the monarchy in the late eleventh century BCE.