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Judges 1. Israel’s Failure to Complete the Conquest of Canaan
Stephen O. Smoot
The book of Judges begins an unspecified amount of time after the death of Joshua, the famed military commander of ancient Israel who led the conquest of Canaan (Joshua 24:29–33). The book is in one sense a continuation of the narrative presented in the book of Joshua, and in another it is a retelling of the Israelite conquest of Canaan. It opens with a predicament: some Canaanite opposition to the newly settled Israelites was a lingering threat to them. This sets up the main narrative that runs throughout the text: how Israel will respond to each new successive threat as it begins to make Canaan its home. In an appreciable sense, the main framing device of the book of Judges appears to contradict the historical portrait given in the book of Joshua. Whereas Joshua gives the impression that the hostile Canaanites were largely pacified as a result of Israel’s decisive victories in the land, Judges seems to depict a number of different Canaanite groups that remain both serious military and spiritual threats to Israel.
The first chapter of Judges opens with a lengthy narrative about how the tribe of Judah was commissioned by the Lord to lead the fight against the remaining Canaanites (Judges 1:1–20). The language used in Judges to describe the ongoing military activity of the post-Joshua generation unmistakably echoes the language used to describe the fighting in Joshua’s time, such as in verse 17, which uses the Hebrew word ḥerem (“ban” or “accursed thing”) already encountered: “And Judah went with Simeon his brother, and they slew the Canaanites that inhabited Zephath, and utterly destroyed [yacharimu] it. And the name of the city was called Hormah [chormah].” Thematically the link between Joshua and Judges is unmistakable.
Judah, however, was not the only tribe to encounter Canaanite resistance. The second half of Judges 1 (verses 21–36) reports that many of the northern tribes of Israel also faced stiffened resistance. The book of Judges thus opens in a highly dramatic manner, depicting how Israel had failed to completely capture the land of Canaan despite the opposite impression given in the book of Joshua. As mentioned, this sets up the cycle of national crises that require the series of judges (shofetim), or charismatic military chieftains, to rise up and rescue Israel from successive threats in the land, hence the name of the book.
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