Israel in the Days of the Judges

Deborah Beneath the Palm Tree
by James Tissot
Wikimedia Commons

The book of Judges presents the stories of several individuals who led the people of Israel during the difficult days that preceded the establishment of the monarchy. There were twelve judges in Israel, six major judges and six minor judges.

The major judges were Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. They are called “major judges” because their stories are presented with some details of their activities.

The minor judges were Jair, Tola, Ibzan, Elon, Shamgar, and Abdon. These six judges are called “minor judges” because the texts do not give much information about their work.

What follows is a brief summary of the work of the judges who delivered Israel before the establishment of the monarchy under Saul, the first king of Israel.

Othniel (Judges 3:7-11).

Othniel was the first judge listed in the book of Judges. He was the brother of Caleb and belonged to the tribe of Judah. During the time of Othniel, Israel was oppressed by Cushan-rishathaim of Aram-naharaim. The Israelites served the Arameans for eight years. After Othniel defeated the Arameans, he judged Israel for forty years.

Ehud (Judges 3:12-30).

Ehud was the second of the major judges. According to the text, Ehud was a left-handed Benjaminite warrior who delivered Israel from the hands of Eglon, king of Moab. During the days of Ehud, the Israelites were oppressed by Eglon for eighteen years. After Ehud defeated the Moabites, the land had rest for eighty years.

Shamgar (Judges 3:31).

Shamgar was the first minor judge who delivered Israel from the hands of the Philistines. Shamgar’s name is not a Hebrew name. Most scholars believe that Shamgar is a Hurrian name since the name occurs in texts from Nuzi.

Although he may have a Hurrian name, it is possible that he was an Israelite. If Shamgar was not an Israelite, then he probably was a Hurrian, serving as an Egyptian military officer stationed in Canaan.

Nothing is said about Israel’s oppression nor the length of Shamgar’s judgeship. According to the biblical text, Shamgar delivered Israel by killing six hundred of the Philistines with an oxgoad. According to the Song of Deborah, in the days of Shamgar “caravans ceased and travelers kept to the byways” (Judges 5:6 NRSV). This statement reflects the oppressive situation faced by Israel in the days of Shamgar.

Deborah (Judges 4–5).

Deborah was the only woman judge mentioned in the book of Judges. She was the wife of Lappidoth and from the tribe of Ephraim. In her days Israel was being oppressed by Jabin, king of Canaan, who was ruling in Hazor, and by Sisera, who was the commander of Jabin’s army.

According to the text, Deborah “used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment.” This statement indicates that Deborah regularly decided disputes among the people and administered justice as a judge.

During this period of oppression, Jabin and the Canaanites oppressed Israel for twenty years. Deborah and Barak, the leader of Israel’s army, delivered Israel by defeating Jabin and killing Sisera. After Deborah and Barak defeated the Canaanites, the land had rest for forty years.

Gideon (Judges 6–8)

Gideon was an Abiezrite, one of the clans of Manasseh. He was also called Jerubbaal, a name he received for destroying the altar of Baal, the god of the Canaanites. In his days, Israel was oppressed by an alliance composed of Midianites, Amalekites, and some unknown “people of the east.” These invaders would come against Israel and take the produce of the land and deprive the people of their food and sustenance. They also took sheep, cattle, and donkeys, leaving the people impoverished and hungry.

Although the biblical text does not say that Gideon was a judge or that he delivered Israel, he is credited with mobilizing a large army composed of warriors from the tribes of Naphtali, Asher, Manasseh, and Ephraim. Gideon and the army of Israel defeated the Midianite alliance and ended the annual raid that took place at harvest time.

In the days of Gideon, the Midianites oppressed Israel for seven years. After Gideon and the army of Israel defeated the Midianite alliance, “the land had rest forty years in the days of Gideon” (Judges 8:28).

Tola (Judges 10:1-2)

Tola, one of the minor judges of Israel, delivered Israel after the days of Abimelech. Abimelech was the son of Gideon who tried to establish kingship in Israel. He was crowned king by the citizens of Shechem, but he never had popular support in Israel.

Tola was the son of Puah and a man from the tribe of Issachar. Tola lived at Shamir, a place situated in the hill country of Ephraim, the place from which he judged Israel.

According to the text, after Abimelech died, Tola “arose to save Israel.” Since no foreign oppressor is named, it is evident that Tola’s work was related to the political turmoil caused by Abimelech’s attempt at establishing kingship in Israel. Tola judged Israel twenty-three years.

Jair (Judges 10:3-5)

Jair was a man from Gilead, a city in the half-tribe of Manasseh that was located on the other side of the Jordan. Jair judged Israel twenty-two years.

The biblical text does not provide any information about his work as a judge. The only thing said about him is that he was a rich man who had thirty sons and who rode thirty donkeys. Jair and his sons controlled thirty towns in Gilead.

Jephthah (Judges 10:6–12:7)

Jephthah was a judge who judged Israel for six years. He was a man from Gilead, a city in the half-tribe of Manasseh located on the other side of the Jordan. His father’s name was Gilead. Jephthah’s mother was a prostitute.

Gilead had other sons by his legitimate wife. Gilead’s son drove Jephthah out of their house because they did not want him to inherit a portion of their father’s estate.

During the days of Jephthah, Israel was oppressed by the Ammonites for eighteen years. In their desperation for someone to fight for them, the elders of Gilead brought Jephthah back from his exile. Jephthah is better known for sacrificing his daughter to celebrate his victory against the Ammonites.

Ibzan (Judges 12:8-10)

Ibzan, a man of Bethlehem judged Israel after Jephthah. It is unknown whether this Bethlehem was the city in Judah or was the Bethlehem located in the tribe of Zebulun (Joshua 19:15-16). Ibzan led Israel for seven years. Nothing is said about his work as a judge or whether he fought against foreign oppressors.

Ibzan had thirty sons and thirty daughters whom he gave into marriage to men outside his clan. He also brought in thirty young women from outside to marry his sons. It is probable that these marriages reflect political alliances between clans.

Elon (Judges 12:11-12)

Elon, the minor judge was from the tribe of Zebulun. He judged Israel ten years. Nothing is said about his family or his work as a judge. After his death, Elon was buried in Aijalon in the land of Zebulun.

Abdon (Judges 12:13-15)

Abdon, the son of Hillel, was from Pirathon, a village located in Ephraim. He judged Israel eight years. Nothing is said about his work as a judge. Abdon had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys. The reference to his sons and grandsons may indicate his wealth and his prominence in Ephraim.

Samson (Judges 13–16)

Samson was a judge from the tribe of Dan. In his days Israel again abandoned the Lord by doing evil in his sight. As a result of their apostasy, the Lord gave Israel into the hands of the Philistines who oppressed them for forty years.

Samson was called from his mother’s womb “to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines” (Judges 13:5). Samson was dedicated to be a Nazirite, but over and over again Samson violated his Nazirite vow by defiling himself.

Although Israel was being oppressed by the Philistines, Samson married a Philistine woman and consorted with Delilah, who probably was also a Philistine woman. In the end, as an act of revenge against those who had blinded him, Samson killed himself and in his death, he killed more Philistines than he had killed during his life

Samson judged Israel twenty years but he did not deliver Israel from the Philistine oppression. Samson’s failure to deliver Israel from the oppression of the Philistines became one of the reasons the people of Israel asked for a centralized government as a way to deal with the menace posed by the Philistines.

Although the twelve judges provided leadership in times of crisis and helped Israel deal with external threats, they were unable to provide a permanent solution to the problems faced by the community and lacked the continuity necessary for political and social stability in Israel.

To Be Continued: See Studies on Deborah

NOTE: For other studies on the Book of Judges, read my post Studies on the Book of Judges.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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