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Judges 2; 4; 6-7; 13-16 

In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.

As a backdrop to the material we cover this week, it is important to understand the political and geographical situation of the times; in particular, it is not a world of simple borders and completely governed land.

Today we grow up in a world where for the most part national boundaries are clearly defined, and countries exercise control over all the land within those boundaries, regardless of how desolate or uninhabited it might be. In the days of ancient Israel, however, sovereignty was usually only exercised over cities, which might be widely scattered, and among “enemy” cities as well. Confederations and alliances among these city states were not only common but constantly changing and rather volatile. Furthermore, it was seldom possible or wise to attempt to control land in between walled communities.

A careful reading of the scriptures leads us to conclude that the twelve tribes were not assigned broad swaths of contiguous land, but rather specific cities, often scattered over wide areas and among other less desirable or “targeted” towns (they seem to have concentrated on taking those cities which were most warlike and threatening, or those most desirable). Through the time period we call “The Judges,” the territory of the tribes was in constant flux, as their power to control increased or diminished, and their ambitions shifted.

Conquering Israel
Not only did there not seem to be a plan to immediately conquer all of the city states which existed in the Holy Land at the time, but even the initial plan of taking targeted cities fell far short. The books of Joshua and Judges list more than twenty cities that were apparently on Joshua’s itinerary to subdue, but were never conquered.1

Perhaps most telling is that of the forty-eight cities given or assigned to Levi, three are listed as unconquered at this time, twelve show historical and/or archeological evidence that they were not taken, and another approximately thirteen are not likely to have been conclusively held even though perhaps defeated. If this accounting is any indication, at the death of Joshua and the decline of Israel’s military exercise, less than half of the area given to the tribes was actually occupied. That situation seems to have continued through the era of the judges; certainly it is Saul’s reign as king before Israel begins to exist as a nation such as we know today, with clear boarders, total land control, and military garrisons to defend such. The possessing of the land promised to Abraham for his seed waited not only for the apparent four hundred years of bondage, but for an additional equivalent time period after the deliverance.

Some historians and Old Testament scholars go so far as to claim that Joshua’s campaigns were quite limited, and did little to conquer territory beyond the cities given to the tribe of Benjamin, immediately to the west of the Jordan crossing.2 We might get “the impression that Joshua led a sweeping conquest of the whole country. However a more careful reading of the text coupled with archaeological excavation has given rise to three theories about the invasion all of which presume that the Israelites gradually invaded the land. . . .It seems that the ‘conquest’ was not a sweeping military victory but a gradual process. . . .”3

Tribal Territory
We have several accounts of the division of the land to sift among or reconcile if we hope to have a clear picture of when the tribes received their territory and how. As early as the first wanderings, the tribes seem to have been talking about the division of the land, though since the record was written much later this may have been added or reconstructed. Additionally, Joshua (and even Moses) seems to be “reassigning” at times. The giving of cities to the tribes may have been by means of:

  • Inspiration to the prophet
  • Single conquests (i.e., after conquering a city, another would be allocated)
  • Random lottery (“lot”)
  • Negotiation among the tribes (e.g., Gad and Gilead, Judah and Simeon?)
  • Preferred areas, even because of occupations (Reuben, Gad, etc.)
  • Particular abilities or skills (Ephraim)
  • Desire of the tribe (e.g., Dan gives up conquering the Plain of Sharon and goes to Upper Galilee)
  • Reassignment
  • Size of the tribe (Ephraim)
  • Etc.

Perhaps most interesting among the various versions of the assigning of the cities for each tribe and the subsequent occupation is the conspicuous absence of certain tribes. Our story in Judges documents the destruction of the tribe of Benjamin (note the refusal of some during the reign of King David to acknowledge the claim of those professing to be of Benjamin). The continuing existence of some other tribes as a group is questionable; most notably, many scholars question the survival of Reuben and Simeon, perhaps past the entrance into the land.4

Why the Failure?
The instruction from the Lord seems quite clear:

And ye shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein: for I have given you the land to possess it. . . .but if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell. (Numbers 33:53, 55)

Many reasons are given for not conquering: lack of diligence (faithfulness) in following the instruction to conquer, lack of faith and courage, lingering despair from the time of the spies, straying from the Covenant, Amorites not yet wicked enough, desertion, idolatry, intermarriage, enemies who have chariots of iron, deception by enemies (see the example of Gibeon), to teach the rising generation about war, etc. In some places we are even told that it was the Lord who deliberately left some inhabitants among the Children of Israel in order to test and try them. Clearly this is one area where the account is severely clouded by its retelling and reworking during a much later time, undoubtably at least as late as the reign of King Saul (or the other kings). Significant to us in understanding the period of The Judges is that the Israelites were be no means conclusively settled yet in lands they considered their own, nor did their military campaigns (even their initial attempts to conquer the land) cease at the death of Joshua, but rather were just beginning.

The book of Judges relates the history of Children of Israel from the death of Joshua, their second great Exodus leader, until the time of the prophet Samuel.

Unlike Joshua, clearly called through priesthood authority, or Samuel, raised up to be a great spiritual leader to a nation, the leaders of this era demonstrate the chaos of the times through their precipitous debuts and sporadic leadership.

The quote at the end of Judges5 capsulizes the mood of the times. This time of anarchy was sometimes actually quite peaceful and productive, without the negative aspects of an overbearing monarchy. At the same time, there lacked a cohesive national force, and the progress of civilization was impeded by selfish personal agendas and individual departures from the covenant.

Although the count may be forced, it is generally accepted that there were 12 judges.

  • Othniel
  • Ehud
  • Shamgar
  • Deborah
  • Gideon
  • Tola
  • Jair
  • Jephthah
  • Ibzan
  • Elon
  • Abdon
  • Samson

Some of these are considered by historians as minor judges, added to complete a perfect list of twelve when the stories are retold in later years, as they are only applicable to certain tribes/areas, and are thus lacking in the scope of a national leader and an epic struggle. In particular, it should be pointed out that the judge of this time in the Old Testament was much different from our stereotypical judge of the Book of Mormon. Not only was their role and realm different, but their rise to prominence as well.

Additionally, the Book of Mormon peoples are often credited with being more righteous than those of the Old Testament times as evidenced by their switching from kings to judges, while the Israelites did exactly the opposite.6 It should be clear, however, that since the net result for both peoples was eventually almost identical, though the form of government is sometimes praised, unless the people are righteous the consequences are virtually the same.

Mormons are well aware of the prominent “Cycle of Apostasy” that repeats itself throughout the Book of Mormon. What they may not realize is that this cycle appears at least as dramatically, if not more so, in the Old Testament. Since the cycle is less detailed and the story more briefly told, largely in the single book of Judges, many miss this dominant theme in the Bible.

This week we note the many influences that surrounded the Children of Israel and enticed them to stray from the gospel path. Our lesson emphasizes four major influences (ideally for good) in our lives: (1) parents, (2) friends, (3) God, and (4) covenants.

The Israelites were particularly handicapped by their parents not completing the conquest and “driving out the inhabitants of the land.” This left a major force or influence in the land which it seems the Lord did not intend, knowing that they were not yet strong enough to resist the pressure of these “pagans.” The Israelites had a particularly graphic idiom to express this multi-generational impact: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:2).7 The message to us is clear: we are greatly influenced by the surroundings we are born into and live among, and that is largely established by our parents. In fact viewed in this light, the comment about the sins of the parents being carried to the 3rd & 4th generation is less of a curse and more of a statement of fact concerning natural consequences.8

Perhaps the most notable positive influence of a judge is the woman of the twelve, the fourth judge, Deborah. Though the story Deborah should be a study in and of itself, a brief overview belongs in this examination of the book of Judges.

We aren’t supplied with much information about how she came to be a judge; her account begins with her already serving in that capacity.

And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time. And she dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in mount Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment. (Judges 4:4-5)

She seems to have been from the tribe of Ephraim. She seems to have been highly regarded and sought out by people of many (if not all) tribes. She obviously commanded the respect of Barak (who becomes the military leader of the successful campaign against the Canaanites), not only to the extent that he appeared at her summons, but that he had faith in her revelations and her inspiring presence. When the Israelites throw off the dominance of the Canaanites, Deborah becomes a heroine of paramount importance, perhaps the heroine of Israel, both then and now, the “Mother of Israel.” Certainly that she was called a prophetess is an indication of her stature.

As prophetess, she joins the ranks of a few in the annuls of the scriptures: Anna, Asenath, Eve, Hannah, Miriam, Rebekah, Noadiah, and Huldah. Now if we look at the meaning of the word prophet and the types of prophets, we find that there are three distinctions in meaning: (1) a priesthood position of leadership, (2) the key religious figure of an era, people, or region, & (3) one particularly given to receiving revelations (and proclaiming them), especially concerning Christ. Though Deborah was not the leader of the church at that time (definition # 1), clearly she filled admirably the other two definitions of prophetess.

In looking at the role Deborah played in the overthrow of Sisera one cannot help but be reminded of the comment in the Book of Mormon that the Nephites at one time chose military leaders based on their ability to receive revelation, their spirituality.

Like Moses, Deborah seems to have had a considerable reputation as a poet. In fact, the Old Testament is one of the oldest records linking poetic skill with military poweress. Many cultures since that day have a tradition of warrior poets; in some the greatest compliment that could be paid a warrior was to say that he or she was a skilled poet.

The story of the farmer-turned-captain who routed the Midianites, a confederation of desert people, bares many similarities with the story of Deborah, though the story has some features uniquely its own. His calling is certainly striking, and if ever there was a representative of the “reluctant hero,” surely it must be Gideon.

His protestations begin immediately, with his argument to the angel sent to call him that no one of any significance ever came (or should come) from the tribe of Manasseh,9 certainly no one expected to be a “deliverer.” In addition to that, he points out that he is the most insignificant person in the most unimportant family in all the tribe.

The incident is well known where Gideon twice puts out the fleece to test the truth of his calling, but a close reading will show that this testing and reassurance scenario is played out nearly a dozen times, beginning with the sacrificial offering strictly presented before the angel, and subsequently consumed. Finally convinced, Gideon leads his small band of three hundred in one of the most enthralling epic scenes to defeat the Midian force, and eventually all 135,000 Midianites are slain by the Israelites.

The moral of this story certainly is that “with God, all things are possible,” and that the Lord often calls the unlikely (in the eyes of the world) to champion his cause. Gideon’s words at the end of the oppression are telling:

“And Gideon said unto them, I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the LORD shall rule over you.” (Judges 8:23)

The third most notable judge in our line, the twelfth, is the hero Samson. His story is often told to show, again, what one could do with God’s help, and more particularly how tragic when one does not live up to their potential. As such, his life is certainly a stirring epic account. Intriguingly, Samson’s entire life is a prophecy and a foreshadow of the life of the Savior. That it ended on a pitiful note, ignoring good influences (parents, covenants, etc.) and succumbing to bad (evil friends in particular), is something worth remembering.

1 See Joshua 13-17 and Judges 1 & 3.

2 “Now Joshua was old and stricken in years; and the LORD said unto him, Thou art old and stricken in years, and there remaineth yet very much land to be possessed. . . .Now therefore divide this land for an inheritance unto the nine tribes. . . .” (Joshua 13:1, 7)

3 “The oldest theory was the belief that there was a conquest of the whole country. In the 13th century B.C. the Israelites invaded Canaan from Transjordan. The 12 tribes of Israel united in this invasion and quickly conquered the whole country in three campaigns in central, south and north Canaan. All the Canaanites were thought to have been killed during these campaigns. This hypothesis, of which there are many variations, in no way corresponds to what is written in the Old Testament. Indeed, on the basis of a superficial reading of Joshua 1-11 we might well believe that this is the story of a massive conquest of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. However, the events reported actually took place in the small area inhabited by the tribe of Benjamin. Only in a few short passages do we find any mention of a campaign in the south (Josh 10.16-42) and in the north (Josh 11.1-15). Judges 1 also presents us with a totally different picture. Here we read of operations which were carried out by individual tribes or groups even after Joshua’s death. Finally, passages such as Josh 13.1-7 and Judg 1.27-36, list many Canaanite cities which were never occupied. These data concur with the fact that long after Solomon many Canaanites still lived unhindered on the land. Apparently the original inhabitants of Canaan were later incorporated into Israel. . . .No evidence supports the idea of a violent invasion on a large scale.” (Atlas of the Bible, 62-64)

Added to this, some scholars speculate that there may have been considerable cooperation among the peoples of the land and the Israelites in a joint effort to overthrow the ruling class in “peasant revolts.” (Atlas of the Bible, 62-64)

“We . . . gain a very strong impression that the lists of the 12 tribes which are to be found in Joshua and Judges – and elsewhere – relate in fact to a later theological reconstruction. The Old Testament data make it clear that certain tribes, those of Reuben and Simeon among others, no longer existed at a very early stage (perhaps even before the entry into the land) and that in an earlier period other . . . clans, such as Machir and Gilead among others, must also have existed. In actual fact in the Old Testament we are constantly dealing with different groups of tribes.” (Atlas of the Bible, 64)

5 “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25; also Judges 17:6)

6 Clarke in particular argues convincingly that the establishing of a monarchy is nothing more than idolatry in a different form.

7 “What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?” (Ezekiel 18:2)

8 “Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the rebellious; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.” (JST Exodus 34:7)

9 The tribe of Manasseh seems to have acquired a strong reputation for cowardice and desertion during the Exodus. (Based on the first census in the desert, where Manasseh has peculiarly small numbers, some theorize that some of the tribe of Manasseh, and only Manasseh, stayed behind in Egypt, or turned back shortly after departing, perhaps even before the dramatic crossing of the Red Sea. A second less arguable story has many hundreds of the tribe joining the Midianites when Jethro came to visit Moses.)