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Outlines Of Jewish History -Rev. Francis E. Gigot D.D.







              1. Within:

              A return in general to the patriarchal life:

              Tribal independence;


                                          Family life;










              2. Without:

              A. Further conquests.


                            B. Cohabitation with the heathens; intermarriages.


                            C. Successive periods of oppression and freedom.




              3. The Judges:

              Meaning of the title.


                            How recognized as military leaders?


                            Nature and extent of their power.


                            Length of their rule.






              1. Religious Organisation:

              Lack of powerful unity.


                            Poverty of Levities.


                            High priests without influence.




              2. Idolatry: Successive falls of the Israelites.


§ 1. Length and Obscurity of this Period

1. Length of the Period of the Judges. It would be a hopeless task to undertake the accurate reckoning of the number of years between the death of Josue and the beginning of the judgeship of Heli. Time and again the numbers given for the duration of the different judgeships appear to be only round figures; and in fact, some scholars look upon the whole chronology found in the book of Judges as a systematic chronology, in which a generation is regularly reckoned at forty years. This hypothesis is rendered all the more probable, because it removes the apparent discrepancy which would arise if the figures supplied by the book of Judges were taken strictly and their total of 410 years compared with 3 Kings 6:1, where we are told that only 480 years elapsed between the exodus and the fourth year of Solomon’s reign; whereas at least 600 years should be admitted for this same interval if the figures mentioned for the different judgeships are strictly accurate. There is another way, however, of getting rid of this difficulty: it is to suppose that some of the oppressions and deliverances were in part synchronous; and this view for which are adduced Judges 3:31, compared with 9:1, etc., has numerous supporters in the present day, although it can hardly be denied that the chronology of the period as presented in the book of Judges is on the face of it continuous (MOORE, Critical Commentary on Judges, p. xl).

But even though we should admit as probable the synchronism of several oppressions, judgeships, etc., falling within this period, it would still remain impossible to tell which oppressions or judgeships were actually synchronous, how far “rest” enjoyed by some tribes coincided with the oppression undergone by the others, and to determine how many years elapsed between the death of Josue and that of the ancients of Israel who outlived him (Josue 24:31; Judges 2:7, sq.).

These and other such difficulties ever made it impossible to determine, with anything like certainty, the duration of the period of the judges. The ancient Jews, followed in this by Eusebius, simply added the years of oppression to those of the different judgeships, and thereby obtained for this period only 219 years. Some Catholic scholars of this century have admitted a still shorter duration, chiefly because of certain synchronisms with the annals of Egypt, and have reduced this period to about 160 years, and it must be said that the many notes of time found in the several narratives of the book of Judges seem rather to favor this shorter duration (cfr. Speaker’s Bible, vol. ii, p. 119). The most common view, however, holds that the period of the judges lasted upwards of 400 years (see VIGOUROUX, Manuel Biblique, tome ii).

2. Obscurity of the Period of the Judges. The obscurity just noticed about the length of the period of the judges extends also to its events. These events were recorded at a time not far removed from their occurrence, and hence numerous details which were then so well known both to the writer and his readers as not to require a distinct mention, are now altogether unknown to us. To this first cause of obscurity we may add another, derived from the fact that the writer of the book of Judges intended to compose much less a history of the period than a thesis in which he would prove by some well-selected facts that Israel’s apostasy from Jehovah invariably resulted in national misery, whereas its conversion was invariably followed by Divine rescue from oppression and by national prosperity (cfr. Judges 2:11, sq.). Accordingly, the facts he sets forth are not presented in those historical circumstances of time, place, etc., which, however necessary for our good understanding of this period of Jewish history, were really foreign to his purpose. But the main cause of obscurity will ever be the very peculiar government of the Hebrew commonwealth during this same period, for whilst “kings, priests, heads of tribes, etc., offer points of comparison with the same functionaries in other nations, the Judges stand alone in the history of the world; and when we think we found officers resembling them in other nations, the comparison soon breaks down in some point of importance,” and becomes almost useless (KITTO, Cyclopædia of Biblical Literature, art. Judges).

It must be added, however, that this obscurity is being gradually removed by a careful study in the Eastern countries themselves of the archæology, topography, public and private, social and domestic customs of the Arabic tribes (cfr. VIGOUROUX, Bible et Découvertes Modernes, tome iii).

§ 2. Social Condition during the Time of the Judges

1. Social Condition Within. The settlement of the tribes in their respective territories and the death of Josue without a previously appointed successor, brought to an end even the appearance of that supreme power and central authority which had prevailed in Israel under Moses and Josue. The scattered tribes did not care to invest any member of a special tribe with an authority superior to that of their own local officers, and in preserving their independence within their own territories they naturally came back to that simple social condition of their ancestors, which we have already described under the name of the Patriarchal Life, and which is substantially that of the Bedouin tribes of the present day; each tribe had probably its hereditary authorities whose power was very limited because there were no new laws to frame, no functionaries to appoint and pay, no taxes proper to fix or collect, etc.

This simplicity of organization was also noticeable in domestic life. The father of a family was ruler over his household and the eldest son inherited his authority, whilst the women attended to all the details of the household. All lived on the produce of the field and of the flock, which produce was also occasionally exchanged with the busy Phenicians, or with passing caravans, for some rich cloth or jewels, or for arms, etc.

The administration of justice was also of the simplest description, for there were neither judges to dispense justice, nor police to guard the laws, nor court-houses for the trial of offenders. Cases were decided at the gates of towns by the elders of each community, and the sentence was carried out by those interested in its execution. It was also at the gates of towns and villages that private business transactions were ratified in presence of the inhabitants who acted as witnesses (Ruth 4:1–12). In case, however, the elders could not settle a dispute satisfactorily, the Mosaic law had provided that recourse should be had to the priests.

Naturally, there was no standing army, no militia, so that in the event of a war, each man armed himself as best he could, and following the head of his village, repaired to the common rendezvous of the tribe. There was likewise no provision made for any protracted campaign, and military tactics were practically limited to the art of swift marches and sudden attacks (cfr. VIGOUROUX, ibid; and GEIKIE, vol. ii, chap. xiv, which is little more than a translation of the chapter of Vigouroux on this question).

Finally, during the whole period of the judges, we would look in vain for the national commerce, the flourishing industry and the culture of arts which were to exist under the monarchy, that is, when the Jewish people became again a national unit, not only in belief, but also in public life.

2. Social Condition Without. The imperfect conquest of Chanaan by Josue had left powerful enemies of Israel, even within the limits of the territories assigned to the different tribes, and according to God’s designs the Hebrews were to conquer and destroy them. In point of fact, the opening chapter of the book of Judges makes us acquainted with the wars of conquest waged by Juda, Benjamin, the House of Joseph (that is Ephraim and Western Manasses) against the Chanaanites, the Jebusites, etc., and with the remissness of which several tribes were guilty in not destroying the old cities and inhabitants of Chanaan, because they deemed it more advantageous simply to make them tributary. It tells us also that Juda was not successful when it attempted to expel the lowlanders from its own territory “because they had many chariots armed with scythes,” and that the tribe of Dan was actually compelled by the Amorites to forsake the plain of the sea-coast and to take refuge into the mountains.

The immediate result of this lack of concerted action in pursuing to the end the war of extermination, was the cohabitation of the Israelites with the remnants of the conquered races, that is, the very social condition against which Moses and Josue had repeatedly and strongly warned the chosen people, because they foresaw that truce and leagues with the heathen Chanaanites, would soon lead to intermarriages and these again to their natural consequences: idolatry, moral and social degeneracy (Judges 3:5, 6).

It is the same lack of concerted action in Israel against its enemies, which accounts, at least partially, for the many periods of oppression and freedom which are mentioned in the book of Judges. If, as granted on all hands, the oppressions befell only a part of the land at a time, it was because that part of the land had been left by the other tribes to fight alone against the enemies who had invaded its territory; and again, if the oppression was done away with, it was when all, or at least several, tribes, combined their efforts under the guidance of a common leader to throw off the yoke which had been gradually imposed upon them. It was then, naturally speaking, the lack of a central authority capable of keeping grouped together and of directing effectively all the forces of the nation, which made the Israelites liable to be subjugated by their surrounding enemies, and which ultimately led them to ask for a king (1 Kings, 8:19, 20).

3. The Judges. From the foregoing remarks it is easy to gather the probable meaning of the title of Judges in connection with this period of Jewish history. It did not mean primarily, as this title would naturally suggest to our minds, one in charge of administering justice, except in so far as supreme judicial authority in the East belongs invariably to the one invested with the highest power in the land, and in so far as it is the office of a judge to free those who appeal to him from their oppressors, and to secure the punishment of these same oppressors. Beyond this, it is impossible to point out a connection between the Judges of Israel and the peaceful magistrates to whom we ascribe this title; and this is important to bear in mind, in order to be able to realize the sense in which such personages as Samson, Jephte, etc., could be called Judges: they freed the Israelites from, and avenged them of, their oppressors (cfr. Luke 18:3, 5).

“In nearly all the instances recorded, the appointment of a Judge seems to have been by the free unsolicited choice of the people. The election of Jephte, who was nominated as the fittest man for the existing emergency, probably resembled that which was usually followed on such occasions; and probably, as in his case, the judge in accepting the office, took care to make such stipulations as he deemed necessary. The only cases of direct Divine appointment are those of Gedeon and Samson, and the last stood in the peculiar position of having been from before his birth ordained ‘to begin to deliver Israel’ ” (KITTO, Cyclopædia of Biblical Literature, art. Judges). It was then most likely, when the oppression had become unbearable, that popular choice or direct Divine appointment led to the recognition of a man as a military leader.

Of course only those who were willing gathered around him, under the immediate leadership of their own chiefs of villages, clans and tribes. His military power over such volunteers, like that of an Arabic sheik of the present day, depended mostly on their own will, or on his skill in the management of men. “If victorious, he could speak as a master, but before the battle he could do little more than persuade. It must not be thought, moreover, that the Judges ruled over all the tribes, at least up to the time of Heli and Samuel. None of them, except Othoniel, seems to have ruled over Juda and Simeon; Debbora is the heroine and prophetess only of the northern tribes; Gedeon is the liberator of the centre of Palestine; Jephte, of the districts beyond Jordan, and Samson does not appear to have had authority over even his own tribe of Dan, and appears as judge only because of his personal exploits against the oppressors of the Israelites” (GEIKIE, Hours with the Bible, vol. ii, pp. 509, 511; EWALD, History of Israel, vol. ii, p. 365, English translation).

Freed from their oppressors, the volunteers who had gathered around the military leader, naturally returned to their homes, and the judge usually ceased to rule, although his fame continued to command respect and guarantee peace, and his well-known skill and wisdom caused him to be consulted in all important matters, a fact which explains how in Debbora and Gedeon we see the indications of a rule for life. In Gedeon we find, indeed, a successful attempt at a regular monarchical rule which he even passed to his son Abimelech; but in the other judges, it is most likely that little besides their reputation passed to their children.

§ 3. Religious Life during the Period of the Judges

1. Religious Organization. One of the natural consequences of the precarious and temporarily active rule of each judge over a limited extent of territory was the utter powerlessness of those Hebrew leaders to establish and maintain the religious organization described in the law of Moses. They were selected for the almost exclusive purpose of freeing a section of the country from oppression; for this sole purpose they were followed by volunteers, and they apparently never did much else in behalf of their countrymen. Had they tried to enforce upon all Israel the perfect unity of belief and worship required by the Mosaic law, they would have signally failed in their attempt, because, on the one hand, not even their fellow-tribesmen would have helped them in bringing about this religious condition throughout the land; and, on the other hand, it does not seem that, like Moses and Josue, they could reckon, in the event of a general desertion, on the direct intervention of Jehovah to vindicate their authority.

It is true that the Tabernacle had been erected in Silo, and that this sanctuary should have been a great rallying point for all the tribes; but this town “was remote from many of them, and lay in the territory of Ephraim, a tribe disliked for its pride and selfishness, so that, in the general anarchy of tribal division and patriarchal rule, private altars were erected by individuals” (GEIKIE, Hours with the Bible, ii, p. 519). Nor was this lack of powerful religious unity made up for by the influence of the ministers of the sanctuary, for during this long period of transition between the wandering life of the desert and the fully organized civilization of later days, the priests and Levites of Israel seem rather to have had a precarious mode of existence. If we look upon the story of Michas, in Judges 18:13 b, sq., as illustrative of the condition of the Levitical order during this period—and this character of the episode referred to can hardly be questioned—it is clear that the public teachers of religion were then so inadequately provided for that they had to wander in different places to secure a living.

Finally, the high priests of the period, those supreme heads of the Jewish priesthood, whose chief duty was to watch over the religious life of the theocratic nation and to exert the strongest and widest influence upon the direction of the national worship, are not mentioned in that connection before the time of Heli. It may, of course, be admitted that the new line of high priests—the line of Ithamar, the youngest son of Aaron—to which Heli belonged, had had the greatest difficulty in being recognized by the people at large, and, in point of fact, the high priesthood returned later to the line of Eleazar (1 Kings 2:30–36; 3 Kings 2:26, 27); but whatever the cause, it is plain that the high priest possessed but little public authority during the period of the judges.

2. Successive Falls of the Israelites into Idolatry. The social and religious disconnection of the tribes, which is so prominent a feature in this period of Jewish history, afforded to the Israelites a good opportunity for indulging the idolatrous tendencies they had inherited from their ancestors, by freely yielding to the influence of the heathen nations with which they were surrounded, and hence we read that time and again “they forsook Jehovah and served Baal and Astaroth” (Judges 2:11, sq.). At first they probably combined the worship of Jehovah with that of the Chanaanæan deities, but gradually they embraced fully an infamous worship, which, by its pompous and sensual rites, appealed powerfully to the low and idolatrous instincts of their nature. Divine Providence, however, watched over them, and by alternations of freedom and servitude following upon their faithfulness or unfaithfulness in the service of the true God, not only prevented them, as a nation, from settling down permanently in idolatry, but also led them to consider Him as the only God of the land He had promised to the patriarchs of old.

Of course, it is conceivable that both the punishment with which Jehovah visited the idolatry of the Israelites and the deliverance which He granted to their conversion might at times appear to us simply the outcome of natural events; but there is no doubt that in both sets of events the chosen people recognized the immediate working of an angered, or, on the contrary, of a forgiving God, and that they repeatedly fell away from His pure worship only because they gradually lost sight of their good resolves and of His merciful dealings with them.

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