Democratic theocracy? The judges of ancient Israel

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The Book of Judges was a fascinating period of conflict and turmoil in ancient Israel. Lasting two hundred years, it spans the period between Joshua and King Saul, roughly between 1200 and 1000 BCE.

What makes the era most interesting is that in this brief period of history, Israel had no kings. There is no specific name for this unique political configuration. However, a democratic theocracy or theocratic republic comes to mind. Israel was a loose confederation of 12 Tribes.

It’s unclear when the Book of Judges was written. It was likely completed at a later time, possibly during the Israelite monarchy or exile after destruction of the First Temple. One indication of this is summed up in the text:

“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

The period of the Judges is portrayed as a dark time in Israelite history, before kings ruled and established stability. Under the various Judges were constant wars with different kingdoms in the region. Some enemies were defeated, while others remained at war with the Israelites.

Who were these Judges? Essentially they were charismatic leaders chosen from amongst the Tribes who led the Israelites during times of danger. Israel fell into frequent periods of idolatry and loose morals. Many worshipped the Canaanite god Baal.

The Book of Judges relates that the Israelites were repeatedly dominated and oppressed by surrounding kingdoms for their sins. After repenting and crying out in despair, God sent figures to lead the Israelites out of trouble. The successful Judges eventually died and the Israelites fell back into further sin. During this period, five Judges in particular stand out: Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson.

In one of the darker periods, Eglon, king of the Moabites, along with the Ammonite and Amalekite kingdoms, invaded the Israelite tribal territories. One of the biggest losses for the Jews at the time was the city of Jericho. From the tribe of Benjamin arose Ehud, a deliverer who significantly, was left-handed.

Ehud went to see king Eglon, bringing tribute from the Israelite tribes with him. Along with bringing tribute, Ehud had concealed a dagger on his right side, a place that Eglon’s guards never checked, assuming Ehud was right-handed.

Ehud tells the Moabite king he has a message that needs to be presented privately. Ehud says he has a message from God. Then he pulls out the dagger and graphically plunges it into Eglon’s large belly. Ehud escapes the palace. With the king dead, Ehud leads the Israelites to attack and conquer the kingdom of Moab.

Following the death of the Judge Ehud, the Israelites “did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” Jabin, a Canaanite king, sent his general Sisera to harass the Israelites for 20 years until the people cried out to God for help.

Deborah was chosen to be Judge of Israel. She appointed Barak as Israelite commander. Barak defeated the Canaanites, but Sisera managed to flee the battle. However, while hiding under a blanket in a tent owned by a woman named Jael, Jael took a tent peg and drove it through Sisera’s head.

Out of this victory came the Song of Deborah. The song honored God, along with the Israelites who were involved in defeating the latest Canaanite threat.

Once again the Israelites relapsed into worshipping idols, particularly the god Baal. The Midianite kingdom now oppressed the 12 Tribes, destroying their land and abusing them with impunity.

A man named Gideon first resisted, but finally relented to become Judge of Israel. Among his first acts, he destroyed his own father’s altar to Baal and replaced it with an altar to God, despite the apparent anger of some Israelites.  Gideon then gathered an army and defeated the Midianites.

Significantly, after his victory, the Israelites pleaded for Gideon to become king of Israel:

“Rule over us — you, your son and your grandson — because you have saved us from the hand of Midian.”

It was a request the Israelites would make again. Despite the pleas, Gideon refused. “The Lord will rule over you,” he said. Under Gideon’s leadership, the Israelite tribes enjoyed years of peace, until his death, when they reportedly returned to idol worship.

Jephthah was considered a mighty warrior, as well as the son of a prostitute. His low birth suggests the judges were chosen by God based on meritocracy and ability, rather than lineage or wealth.

Jephthah was chosen to defend Israel from the Ammonite kingdom. At first, Jephthah tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the Ammonites, but this gesture was refused and the Israelites went to war. Before leading the army, Jephthah made a vow that if the Lord let him defeat the Ammonites, upon his return he would sacrifice the first living being that came out of his house.

The Ammonite army was routed but when Jephthah returned, his daughter ominously came out of the house to welcome him back from his triumph. The story ends in tragedy as Jephthah fulfills his vow and slays his own daughter.

In the final years of the Book of Judges, Israel is under Philistine dominance. God delivers the people through the strongman Samson, a Nazarite who is forbidden to cut his hair.

In a series of events, Samson kills a number of Philistines and damages property. The Philistines threaten to march into Israel to find Samson. However, Samson allows himself to be taken into Philistine custody where he escapes and kills his captors.

Later, Samson falls in love with Delilah. The Philistines essentially bribe Delilah into finding out where Samson gets his superhuman strength. He eventually reveals to Delilah that the power comes from his hair.

While sleeping, the Philistines cut off Samson’s hair. In his weakened state, they tie Samson up and gouge out his eyes. In a great celebration, thousands of Philistines watch as Samson is paraded around their temple. Samson prays to God for strength. His powerful strength returns and he rips apart some pillars, resulting in the collapse of the temple. Samson, Delilah, and all the Philistines attending are killed in the destruction.

After Samson, the Jews again asked for a king to rule Israel. God eventually relents. Reluctantly, the prophet Samuel appointed Saul as king to permanently govern the 12 Tribes. The Biblical theocratic republican experiment was over.

About the Author
Mark Shiffer is a freelance writer living in Canada. He has a degree in history and loves writing about the subject. Mark particularly enjoys Jewish history, as it encompasses a massive time span and many regions of the world.
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