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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Shaping of the Narratives

A closer look at several aspects of the biblical narrative will help us better understand the era of the judges. The chronological scheme, particularly in Judges 3–16 , might enable the dating of some of the events. Unfortunately, however, this chronology is artificial and formulaic. The framework of the deliverers' stories presents the judges as succeeding one another, although the order of the stories is more likely based on a south-to-north (and then east) geographical model, at least to a point, and so the chronological indications may be secondary. The second list of minor judges (Judg. 12.8–15 ) spoils the geographical scheme, but as we will see, these two lists (the first is in 10.1–5 ) probably had a separate transmission history from the narratives around them and were inserted secondarily into the text after the other stories had been gathered together in geographical order.

The geographical movement of the stories is apparent. The first judge, Othniel (Judg. 3.7–11 ), is from Judah (for Othniel, see also Josh. 15.15–19; Judg. 1.11–15 ). His story is so formulaic, so lacking in detail, that it is more a model than an authentic historical memory, but he is at any rate placed in the scheme at the beginning of the list of judges, in the far south. The second judge, Ehud (Judg. 3.12–30 ), is from Benjamin, north of Judah. The third is Shamgar ben-Anat ( 3.31 ), who is simply said to have killed six hundred Philistines, with no geographical location indicated. It is tempting to set the Samson-like Shamgar, who kills with an ox goad, in the southern holding of Dan, where Samson also clashed with the Philistines (compare Samson's killing a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey in 15.14–17; see also 14.5–6; 15.4–5 ); Dan is also north of Judah and west of Benjamin. Deborah, the fourth judge (Judg. 4–5 ), is said to be from Ephraim, north of Benjamin and Dan, even though her military activity takes place farther north at the Wadi Kishon and, according to the poetry in chapter 5 , involves the northern tribes of Machir (which was part of or had replaced Manasseh), Issachar, Zebulun, and Naphtali, as well as Benjamin and her own Ephraim. The fifth judge, Gideon (Judg. 6–8 ), is from Ophrah in Manasseh, and he is followed by Abimelech ( 8.33–9.57 ), not really a judge at all; his story revolves around Gideon's Ophrah and Shechem. So the first five judges are identified according to their home regions in approximate south-north order: Judah, Benjamin, Dan (possibly), Ephraim, and Manasseh.

Next come the minor judges. The first of them is Tola ( 10.1–2 ), and he was from Issachar, just north of Manasseh (although he is said to have lived in Ephraim, 10.1 ). With the seventh judge, Jair, also a minor judge, we move east of the Jordan River ( 10.3–5 ); he hails from Gilead (in the eastern tribal allotment of Manasseh), the northernmost Israelite region in Transjordan. Even though they are minor judges, the stories of Tola and Jair do not interrupt the scheme, because like Jair, Jephthah, the eighth judge, also comes from Gilead ( 11.1–12.7 ). The minor judges' listings were probably introduced into the narrative secondarily, but geographical patterning may have determined the exact point of insertion for Tola and Jair. Thus, with or without the mention of Tola and Jair, there is a south-to-north and then eastward progression of the judges, from Othniel to Jephthah.

With the last of the minor judges, the approximate south-north scheme breaks down. The last three judges before Samson move us back west of the Jordan River, and do not follow any geographical scheme, unless we are to see a reverse, north-south, element in the last four judges listed. Ibzan comes from Bethlehem (Judg. 12.8–10 ), which may be either the well-known Bethlehem in Judah or the less familiar Bethlehem in Zebulun (Josh. 19.15 ). He is followed by Elon of Zebulun (Judg. 12.11–12 ) and Abdon of Ephraim ( 12.13–15 ). Samson, the twelfth judge, belonged to the tribe of Dan while it still held territory in the southern part of Canaan, near the land settled by the Philistines.

The geographical basis for the ordering of the stories in the book of Judges suggests that the sequential chronology implied by that placement is not historical. Furthermore, the number of years given in the book for the period of the judges is over four hundred, much too long a span considering the dating of the Exodus accepted by the majority of scholars, including the authors of this book. Another chronological contrivance supports this conclusion: the numbers of years of peace brought about by each of the major judges, or the number of years of their ruling, is a multiple of 20. Thus, after Othniel's defeat of Cushan-rishathaim, Israel had 40 years of peace ( 3.11 ); after Ehud, it remained free of strife for 80 years ( 3.30 ); after Deborah, for 40 years ( 5.31 ); after Gideon, for 40 years ( 8.28 ). Samson is said to have judged Israel for 20 years ( 15.20; 16.31 ). Even the final word on Eli the priest reports that he judged Israel for 40 years (1 Sam. 4.18 ). Only one judge about whom we have a sizable narrative had a tenure not a multiple of 20: Jephthah is said to have ruled Israel for only 6 years ( 12.7 ). In this way he bridges the major and minor judges. So we have what was originally a south-north list of heroes presented as if they followed one another chronologically, with many of the numbers of years given for them unlikely since they are multiples of 20. In contrast to this formula are the unusual numbers in the lists of minor judges: Tola, 23 years ( 10.2 ); Jair, 22 years ( 10.3 ); Ibzan, 7 years ( 12.9 ); Elon, 10 years ( 12.11 ); and Abdon, 8 years ( 12.14 ). No time period is mentioned in the brief notice about Shamgar ben-Anat ( 3.31 ).

Several factors thus indicate secondary reworking: the framework of Judges 1–16 , the arrangement of the hero stories, and the chronology for at least the major judges. The lists of minor judges, on the other hand, may preserve memories of people and durations that were not shaped by those overarching patterns. Although their placement in the overall narrative may be secondary, they are brief, nonrepetitive notices stating that an individual judged Israel (after a previous judge); something memorable about him (not related to any heroic activity); and a time period that is not an arbitrary multiple of 20, but usually such a specific number ( 22, 8 , and so on) that there is no reason to suppose that a later editor invented it. The two features of the minor judges' lists, then, that argue most convincingly for a separate transmission history are their style (list as opposed to narrative) and the realistic numbers of years of tenure that the lists report. Moreover, the lists, especially the second (Judg. 12.8–15 ), disrupt the geographical ordering of the narratives in Judges 3–16 .

But this does not necessarily mean that the major and minor judges were two completely distinct groups of officials. The language used about the major judges differs from that used about minor judges, but the two are not entirely dissimilar, and the two lists of minor judges do not follow the same pattern. All five of the minor judges in the book of Judges (Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon) are said to “judge Israel,” and only Tola is also said to “deliver Israel.” In the early chapters of 1 Samuel, similarly Eli, Samuel, and Samuel's sons are all chosen to “judge Israel,” and none is designated a “deliverer.” Among the major judges in the book of Judges, Deborah is never called a deliverer, but all the other major judges are described as deliverer or delivering Israel. Both terms are used of Othniel and Samson, and both occur in the generic description of the era in Judges 2.16–19 . Furthermore, although the minor judges Tola and Elon have only short notices, we know a little something, at least, about Jair, Ibzan, and Abdon. We know virtually nothing about the first major judge, Othniel. Among the minor judges, Tola and Jair in the first list “arise” and judge Israel, while of Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon in the second list the texts say merely that they judged Israel, after the previous judge. Shamgar ( 3.31 ) is difficult to fit into either category: his notice is shorter than any other, but he is said to “deliver Israel” (“even he,” as the text says), and he is mentioned in the oldest and best source for the period, the Song of Deborah (Judg. 5.6 ). The difference between the two groups, then, may be less substantial than at first appears.

All of this evidence suggests that the principal difference between the major and minor judges was how they were remembered: the major judges through a narrative telling and retelling of their exploits, even Shamgar's single-handed killing of six hundred Philistines; and the minor judges through some sort of annals that listed leaders' names, regions, and tenure in office. Separate processes for remembering do not mean, however, that one group of judges is less historical than the other. That we have more authentic-sounding numbers for the tenure of the minor judges may mean that the narratives of the heroes who were the major judges were not originally transmitted as the stories of successive leaders of Israel, and so did not include the notice that the person had “judged Israel” for a period of time. They were hero stories, narratives of exploits from this premonarchic era. When they were edited into a series of stories that were to be related chronologically, approximate figures for their time as leaders were added. Jephthah is the exception because he was remembered in both ways: as a name in a list that included years in office and as a hero whose exploits were narrated at length.

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