Chronology of the Judges Period

The chronology contained in the Book of Judges has always apparently been more easily avoided than dealt with. Not even a full page is given over to discussion of the problems involved in the chronology of the book in the most commonly cited commentary (Boling, 23).

In view of this, I took matters into my own hands, and proceeded to discover several things. I’ve found the process to be instructive, not least about the inadequacies of trying to force this chronology into a pre-conceived timespan, as most seem to have done. As Judges is a book in the Deturonomistic History, it is clear that its chronology should be considered to have been an integral part of that history’s wider chronological plan, leading from the period depicted at the end of the book of Joshua to the period depicted at the beginning of the book of Samuel. To excuse away the complex chronological workings of this element of the DH is to ignore all of it. For this DH chronology to be investigated, it needs to be accepted at face value. Thus, obviously the face value of the DH depicts an Exodus from Egypt in the mid 15th century, a “conquest” of Canaan at the end of that century into the first part of the 14th century, a period of judges from that point down through the end of the twelfth century, then the time of Samuel in the 11th century leading up to Saul, David and Solomon in a united monarchy, and then the divided kingdoms until each went into exile. Whether these events are depicted precisely as they occurred and whether the general time-setting of each is correct is beside the point, for the moment. The creator of the chronological framework for the DH clearly presents this timeframe. It is with this appreciation for the chronological framework set forth by the author/ editor that I have approached the book of Judges.

One element of that approach was to experiment with isolating the judges into regional rules. This yields a roughly East and West set of oppressions and judges The other element was to follow the chronological indications of the text as closely as possible, in order to determine what the author was trying to convey. The combination has paid off quite well, yielding an understandable framework that fits with known historical events, and which fits perfectly within the DH chronological framework of roughly 1350-1150 BC.

Timing the Beginning

This has been done before. As far as I’m concerned, all these dates are “give or take a nickel.” Maybe even a dime or a quarter….

Taking the fourth year of Solomon’s reign as 967/6, we reach 1446/5 as the year of the Exodus (1Kgs 6.1). That would place the episode of the spies being sent into Canaan in summer 1444, at which point Joshua is depicted as being 40 years old (given that he and Caleb were roughly the same age; Jos 14.7). Joshua is said to die at age 110, in 1374 (Jos 24.29). Israel is then said to continue in the good graces of the Lord “all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the Lord did for Israel”(Jos 24.31; Jgs 2.7), so for probably about another twenty years or so until around 1350, at which point they presumably “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord,”beginning the cycle of sin-oppression-repentance-judge/release depicted in the book. So, the first oppression in following this scheme of dates should be set right around 1350.

A Synchronism

One of the more useful of the chronological indicators that I found was what appears to be a synchronism, linking the beginning of the timing of the oppression of the Ammonites and the beginning of the oppression of the Philistines: “So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the Ammonites, and they crushed and oppressed the Israelites that year” (Jgs 10.7-8). The narrative then continues with the Ammonite oppression, the judgeship of Jephthah, and “after him” Ibzan of Bethlehem (12.8-9), and “after him” Elon of Zebulun (12.11-12) and “after him” Abdon of Pirathon (12.13-15). Only then (Jgs 13) is the Philistine oppression taken up and described, much in the way we find the events of Hezekiah’s reign in a puzzling order. His sickness and embassy of Merodach- baladan in 2Kgs 20 are placed in the narrative after the death of Sennacherib (681) is described, although they certainly happened before, as Sennacherib outlived Hezekiah, who died in 698. The reason for the chronological oddity is purely literary in the Hezekiah case, following through the same subject matter (the Assyrian/Sennacherib theme) to its end, and then relating other, actually earlier episodes which are unrelated to the first theme. I suggest that this is an example of the same method in Jgs 10 through 12. First, all the Ammonite/Jephthah related materials are presented, including the judges who followed Jephthah chronologically (note the “After him” in each case). Then the author returns to the new subject of the Philistine oppression, which actuallybegan at the same time as the Ammonite oppression (Jgs 10.7), and proceeds to relatethe stories involving Philistines (Samson, the Danites moving north), and then the unconnected story of the Benjaminites.

The Results

The following chart represents what I’ve found concerning the periods of the various judges.
“West” indicates a location west of the Jordan, and “East” to the east of it. The locations are determined by the various stories of the judges themselves and the locations mentioned. The dates are all quite rough, for which see the notes, below.

West East
Cushan-Rishathaim and Othniel (1) ~1350-1300 Eglon and Ehud (2) ~1325-1225
Shamgar, Jabin and Deborah (3) ~1275-1220
Midian and Gideon (4) ~1220-1170 Midian and Gideon (4) ~1220-1170
Abimelech ~1170
Tola ~1170-1150 Jair (5) ~1170-1150
Philistines and Samson (6) ~1150-1100 Ammonites (6) ~1150-1130
Dan takes Laish (7) ~1150 Jephthah (8) ~1130-1125
Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon ~1125-1100

(1) “Cushan-rishathaim of Aram-Naharaim” (Jgs 3.8). This is obviously a garbled version of the name of one of the later Hurrian kings, either of Mitanni/Hanigalbat or of Hurri-land. Although the chronology for the kings of Mitanni is not settled, note these examples of their names: Tushratta, Shuttarna, Shattuara. The /r/, /sh/, and /t/ in the biblical name seems to recall such a name. The territory, however, “Aram-Naharaim,” or “Aram of the Two Rivers,” is exactly the territory of Mitanni, which is generally referred to in the Amarna letters of about this time as Nahrima/Narima (EA 75, Moran 145; EA 140, Moran 226; EA 194, Moran 272; EA 288, Moran 331). I’ve placed this period at about 1350-1300 because of the discussion in the section “Timing the Beginning” above. I’ve placed it in the West part of the chart due to Othniel’s associations with the central hill country (Jos 15.16-17; Jgs 1.12-13).

(2) Eglon properly belongs in the category of an oppressor of the east, as he is said to have taken “the city of palms” (Jgs 3.13), which is almost certainly Jericho. I’ve placed the beginning of Eglon’s oppression at about 1325 because this is the approximate date given by Kenyon to the “Middle Building” at Jericho. The Israelites attack and (re)take the fords of the Jordan (3.28), implying that this is the kind of oppression suffered under Eglon, centralized in the Jordan Valley. (Note also that the 80 years of peace under Ehud continue down to just before the Midianite invasion, which affected the entire land, Jgs 6.4. This period followed by Gideon leads in the East up to the time of Jair, and in the West up to the time of Abimelech, and Tola shortly thereafter.)

(3) Back to West of the Jordan. Shamgar is not given a length to his judging (3.31), though it is stated to have been “after Ehud” (Jgs 3.31) and is included in parallel with Jael in the Song of Deborah (Jgs 5.6), placing him also within the time of Jabin, but obviously near the end, for she is the one who kills Sisera, effectively ending the oppression of Jabin (Jgs 4.17-21). Shamgar’s confrontation with the Philistines would thus be dated to the initial arrival of these invaders in Canaan. Hazor stratum XIII is probably Jabin’s, with the full city inhabited (both upper city and lower city) for the last time.This stratum belongs to the LB IIB and ends in a massive conflagration dated about 1250.

(4) The period of 1220-1170 was a period of upheaval throughout the Mediterranean. Ancient and powerful kingdoms ceased to exist, long established trade patterns were destroyed, and massive migrations of peoples occurred. There is evidence of severe drought and famine in Anatolia. The invasion of the nomadic Midianites into the Israelite territories came about so that they could survive. Note Jgs 6.4-6, where an explicit emphasis is placed on produce and herd animals: food. Also, Gideon has to thresh his wheat in a wine press in order to hide it from the Midianites (6.11). Their invasion of Jezreel, the bread-basket of Israel, also supports this. (See Drews, Mazar 287-291, Redford 241-256, CAH 2.2 passim, on the general period of the coming of the Sea Peoples and the end of the Late Bronze Age.) Further, the Midianites apparently overran the entire land, all the way to the coast and Gaza (Jgs 6.4). For this reason, I’ve included them on both the East and West sides of the chart.

(5) Jair is specifically “the Gileadite” (Jgs 10.3), and so is placed in the East, following Tola, who was at
“Shamir in the hill country of Ephraim.” There was probably a slight difference in the years in which they judged, with Jair beginning sometime after Tola, not necessarily after he died. In connection with the synchronism noted above in the section “A Synchronism” and in note 6 below, Tola and Jair become the judges just prior to both the Philistine and Ammonite oppressions respectively, with Tola in the West and Jair in the East. Jairs dates are determined by his directly preceding the Ammonite oppression.

(6) Archaeological evidence places the foundation of the Philistine pentapolis and their expansion in about 1150 BC, just after the death of Ramesses III. They threw off Egyptian overlordship and expanded into territory that Israel had claimed (Coogan 152-154; see esp. the map of Philistine expansion on p. 152). It is important to note the synchronism provided in Jgs 10.7 regarding the identity of the new oppressors of Israel: the Philistines and the Ammonites. Jgs 10.7 through 12.15 covers the series of events related to the Ammonites (see also the section “A Synchronism” above). With Jgs 13.1, we return to the Philistine oppression noted in Jgs 10.7. This also includes the story of Samson, whose exploits occur after about 1150 because of the notice of Philistines being in Timnah, into which they expanded around that time.

(7) The tribe of Dan was apparently dispossessed of its tribal allottment by the Philistines’ expansion, and they took Laish, destroying it and resettling in it. This would also be approximately 1150 BC. At this period in the archaeological record, there is evidence of a not too severe destruction, and a change in the culture at the site (NEAEH 326).

(8) The 300 years mentioned as the length of time of Israel’s presence in the Transjordanian territories in Jephthah’s message to the Ammonites (Jgs 11.26) need only be approximate. In the scheme presented here, the timing is only about 30 years off. The message is not meant to be an actual part of the chronological framework of the author, but only a rough “guesstimate” on the part of the character, entirely fitting the situation. Still, it is a good approximate total in light of this scheme and the other chronological indications in the DH, as noted above in the section “Timing the Beginning.”

Detailed Chart

Although I prefer the rough dates given in the chart above, one can also utilize the actual lengths of the oppressions and judgeships given in the book of Judges and gain roughly the same, useful, and historically intriguing dates, using 1350 as the starting point, and counting years inclusively. Note especially that the theoretical placement of Tola and Jair works perfectly, with Jair beginning to judge after Tola began. Very interesting:

West East
Cushan-Rishathaim (Mitanni) 8 1350-1343 Eglon of Moab 18 1325-1308
Othniel (Judah) 40 1343-1304 Ehud (Benjamin) 80 1308-1229
Shamgar (Galilee) ? w/in Jabin
Jabin of Hazor 20 1279-1260
Deborah (Ephraim) 40 1260-1221
Midianites 7 1221-1215 Midianites 7 1221-1215
Gideon (Jezreel) 40 1215-1176
Abimelech (Shechem) 3 1176-1174
Tola (Issachar) 23 1174-1152 Jair (Gilead) 22 1173-1152
Philistines and Samson 40 1152-1113 Ammonites 18 1152-1135
Ibzan (Bethlehem) 7 1130-1124 Jephthah (Gilead) 6 1135-1130
Elon (Zebulon) 10 1124-1115
Abdon (Pirathon in Ephraim) 8 1115-1108

Conclusion

In view of the historical and archaeological connections with this arrangement and suggestion of dates for the Judges period, I would have to say that this scheme makes very good sense of the chronological framework given in the book of Judges. There is no way to deal honestly with the text and squeeze the stories into the period of 100 years (as Boling, xx, 11, 23) or even 200 years (CAH 2.2, 553), in order to accomodate a thirteenth century Exodus, through some kind of strange, unrealistic treatment of the chronological framework in Judges and elsewhere. The text presents a believable scenario, without need for special pleading. In any case, I myself am quite impressed by these results as further support for a roughly mid-fifteenth century Exodus and late fifteenth to early fourteenth century date for the “conquest,” which Joshua and Judges both present as a few battles with Canaanite kings and armies, some Canaanite cities raided with only a very few destroyed, and with the Israelites seemingly remaining semi-nomadic and only settling into permanent settlements later, after the Gideon period (“and he sent all the rest of Israel every man to his tent” Jgs 7.8). This scenario also corresponds with general archaeological evidence regarding settlement of the central hill country of Canaan being Israel (CAH 2.2, 331-337; Mazar 334-356; Dever ABD; Dever What 108-124; Coogan, 127-142).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Boling, Robert C. Judges. Anchor Bible 6A. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975.
CAH 2.2: Cambridge Ancient History. Volume II, Part 2. 3rd Edition. I. E. S. Edwards, et al., eds. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
Dever ABD: Dever, William. “Archaeology and the Conquest.” ABD 3.545-558
Dever What: Dever, William. What Did the Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It?. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.
Drews, Robert. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 BC. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.
Mazar, Amihai. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000-586 BCE. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Moran, William. The Amarna Letters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
NEAEH: New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. Ephraim Stern, ed. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society and Carta, 1993.
Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

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