The book of Judges is a complete work by itself. There are a total of 12 judges in the book of Judges symbolically representing the twelve tribes. And the book shows the whole nation degenerate into moral and religious chaos. There is an ideal theological framework laid out in Judges 2:6-23. It borrows from the conclusion of Joshua (compare Joshua 24:28 and Judges 2:6, Joshua 24:31 and Judges 2:7, Joshua 24:29 and Judges 2:8, and Joshua 24:30 and Judges 2:9) and highlights themes from Deuteronomy. The full framework includes such things as Israel did evil, in His anger YHWH handed them over to raiders, whenever Israel went out to fight they were defeated, eventually YHWH raised up judges who saved them out of the hands of these raiders for as long as that judge lived but when the judge died the people returned to their evil ways even more corrupt than the ways of their fathers and the pattern repeats. As the nation declines the pattern gets more and more truncated — with portions of the pattern missing because that is how much worse things had become. The book thus shows the downward spiral of Israel. This is especially due to the failure of one generation to teach the next about YHWH.
The first chapter gives us an overview of the whole book before the book restarts with Judges 2:6. It is not much of a surprise that it is the tribe of Judah that takes the lead in continuing the conquest in Judges 1, especially since this is the tribe of future king David. Judges 1:1 reads, “After the death of Joshua, the people of Israel inquired of YHWH, ‘Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?'” And the answer was Judah, not Joshua’s tribe of Ephraim, the son of Joseph. We see Simeon, who live within the territory of Judah and are eventually absorbed into the tribe of Judah, helping Judah. But the tribe of Benjamin (Saul’s tribe) failed to dislodge the Jebusites in Jerusalem. The tribes of Joseph are described as successful in a few words. Thus the first half of this chapter shows us Judah and Joseph continuing the conquest.
Judah’s conquest is not described as total. “YHWH was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron” (Judges 1:19). Given the consistent teaching of the Prophets concerning trusting in YHWH rather than looking at such factors like “chariots of iron” (cf. Isaiah), this is meant to not be simply descriptive but critical of the tribe of Judah. (Other failures by Judah recounted in the section were letting the Lord of Bezek live as a servant and letting the Kenites accompany them but then settle among the Canaanites). And the section shows some parallelism between Judah and Joseph. Both carry this theme that YHWH was with them and both end with statements regarding “to this day.” YHWH was with Joseph when they took Bethel (Judges 1:22-26) and the statement regarding Benjamin failing to dislodge the Jebusites from Jerusalem “to this day” answers for Judah to the verse regarding Joseph “And the man went to the land of the Hittites and built a city and called its name Luz. That is its name to this day.”
Block’s commentary offers a helpful chart showing the following:
For Judah: The status of the survivor was an important figure with title (Lord of Bezek), ruler over many. The ‘action of Israelite protagonists’ is Judah finds, fights, pursues, seizes, mutilates, deports him. The ‘fate of the antagonist’ is that he loses his realm, loses his fingers and toes, and loses his life. For Joseph: The status of the survivor was a nobody without a name, traitor to his own people. The ‘action of Israelite protagonists’ is Ephraim entreats, negotiates, lets him go free, spares his family. And the ‘fate of the antagonist’ is that he moves to another site and builds a city. Putting the story this way shows just how much regression there is from Judah to Joseph. Things get much worse. Both stories show compromise and tolerance (not positive attributes) and show Israel becoming like the world around them — becoming increasingly Canaanized. What Judah did to the Lord of Bezek is what the Canaanites would have done, it was in fact what that Canaanite had himself done to many other kings. And the survivor who built a city in Joseph was no Rahab of Jericho — this survivor was not a new convert to Israel’s God. Israel fights wars like the nations around them rather than trusting in God.
It is also worth noting that Judges 1 relies on Joshua 15 as it tells the story of Caleb’s victories. Joshua 15 says, “he gave to Caleb…a portion among the people of Judah, Kiriath-arba, that is, Hebron (Arba was the father of Anak). And Caleb drove out from there the three sons of Anak, Sheshai, and Ahiman and Talmai….” Judges 1 says, “and Judah went against the Canaanites who lived in Hebron (now the name of Hebron was formerly Kiriath-arba), and they defeated Sheshai and Ahiman and Talmai.” FYI, Anak was a giant. Also compare Joshua 15:13-14 and Judges 1:20 and really all of Joshua 15:13-19 and Judges 1:10-15. Here is where we are introduced to Othniel who will be the first judge in the book of Judges and the only one like King David. We might also note again that Joshua 15:63 had said that it was the people of Judah who did not drive out the Jebusites from Jerusalem whereas (as quoted above) Judges 1:21 blames the tribe of Benjamin. I believe I wrote about this in the relevant post on Joshua.
The second half of the chapter follows the pattern of “[tribal name] did not drive out the” inhabitants in their territory. It begins with the tribes of Joseph (though they are not called by that name until later in the list). Notice the pattern: “Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of…” (Judges 1:27). “When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not drive them out completely” (Jud 1:28). “And Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites…” (Jud 1:29). “Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants of…but became subject to forced labor” (Jud 1:30). “Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of…” (Jud 1:31-32). “Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of…became subject to forced labor for them” (Jud 1:33). “The Amorites pressed the people of Dan back” (Jud 1:34). “The Amorites persisted in dwelling in…but the hand of the house of Joseph rested heavily on them, and they became subject to forced labor” (Jud 1:35). “And the border of the Amorites…” (Jud 1:36). Where the text mentions the people being set to forced labor reveals a pattern and the section shows an inclusio in mentioning the tribes of Joseph (Manasseh and Ephraim) and then ending by mentioning “the house of Joseph.” The section shows clearly the decline of Israel, especially when one gets to the tribe of Dan when the Amorites take the offensive against them.
The chapter is a polemic for Davidic leadership rather than leadership from the sons of Rachel (Joseph and Benjamin). This is especially the case because of the narrative analogy of Othniel and David. Othniel was the one who conquered Kiriath-sepher (aka Debir). Note the offers of marriage for victory, the similar opponents, and the “least in the family” comparison. In Judges 1:12 Caleb offers his daughter Acsah to the one who takes the city and in 1 Sam 17:25 Saul offers his daughter to the one who wins the contest. In Judges 1:10 the region is that of the Anakite giants and in 1 Sam 17:4-7 the enemy is Goliath the Giant from Gath. In Judges 1:13 the victor was the least of Caleb’s brothers and in 1 Sam 16:11 David is the least of Jesse’s sons.
Despite Judah’s faults, noted earlier, at least with the tribe of Judah they are taught that Israel is the instrument of God’s judgment on the Canaanites as the Lord of Bezek says, “As I have done, so God has repaid me”) and the tribe of Judah was the object of God’s loyal-love. But Joseph shows loyal-love to a Canaanite and the Canaanites become God’s instrument of judgment on Israel (as with the Amorites on Dan and cf. ch.2). Also, in the beginning Israel inquired of God but now in ch.2 an angel of YHWH comes to confront Israel.
The main message of the first chapter is to show that Israel as a whole failed during the next generation after the elders who outlived Joshua had died. The next chapter makes the point that God swore, “I will never break my covenant with you,” and then the people went and made covenants with the people of the land and did not break down their altars. The people of Israel failed to live radically set apart to the Lord. And so we see again the familiar theme from the Torah of the nations and their gods being thorns in your sides and a snare to you.
It is also worth noting that the order of Judges 1 generally follows the order of the “judges” throughout the book. And that the order reflects a Spiritual decline in Israel with Dan as the worst (and thus last) example. Thus the order in Judges 1 is very similar to the order of these main “judges”: Othniel (Judah), Ehud (Benjamin), Deborah (Ephraim), Gideon (Manasseh), [Tola (Issachar)], Jephthah (“Gilead”), Samson (Dan). In fact, Block calls this chapter not a conquest account but an anticonquest account. You can see what he calls “retrogression” of their fortunes as the verbs change from defeat, to capture, to dispossess, to not dispossess, to press and the results show Kenite allies living among the people, then some Canaanites living at a distance, and then some Canaanites living among the Israelites, and then the last part about the Amorites saying that the Israelites are permitted to live at a distance.
Block also notes similarities between the anecdotes in the chapter. They all shift focus from tribes to individuals, all have to do with important cities, and a character is introduced who takes a remarkable and unexpected initiative. A Canaanite who escapes Judah’s attack (dies in Jerusalem), a woman more assertive than her hero husband (Hebron), and a Canaanite (Bethel) who builds a city in Israel’s territory.
Israel is being tested to see if they will conduct holy war against the Canaanites and totally remove them from the land. God left these for this purpose: 5 rulers of the Philistines, all the Canaanites, Sidonians, and Hivites living in the Lebanon mountains from Mt Baal Hermon to Lebo Hamath. This list appears to describe peoples in each part of the land. It was a test of obedience to God’s commandments. But Israel failed the test.
Description of their failure: “The Israelites lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. They took their daughters in marriage and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods” (Jud 3:5-6). They did not live radically set apart from the Canaanites. (The intermarriage with those under the curse means that their descendants become under the curse – a point stressed in the Genesis narratives and the Deuteronomy sermon.) We will see plenty of examples of these three things in verses 5-6 throughout Judges.
And so we have seen an overview of the whole book and the message is clear: Israel (with Saul-like leadership) goes into a downward spiral and even reaches a tailspin at the end.