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The Judges of Israel - who were they?


This page investigates the various individuals named in the book of Judges -both oppressors and deliverers - with a view to ascertaining who they are and what their background was.

The book of Judges is largely made up of a recurring pattern of 1) Israelite abandonment of faithful adherence to God, 2) oppression from an outside party, 3) Israelite repentance, and 4) relief obtained through the actions of a leader. This basic theme is occasionally broken up with matters of an internal nature not related to outside oppression - for example the attempted kingship of Abimelech, or the descriptions in the closing chapters of the book concerning the movement of the Danites and civil strife with the tribe of Benjamin. The structure of the book is quite stylised, with 6 major and 6 minor judges listed. The distinction is taken to be there are few or no biographical details given for the minor judges. Additionally, each major judge is introduced with the phrase, "[Again] the Israelites did evil", whereas the minor judges are introduced simply with "After him" or "After he died" with reference to the preceding figure. Often, too, the adversaries of the minor judges, and the degree to which they met with success, is not given.

The Judges The Oppressors

The Judges

Othniel's descent is interesting, though not straightforward to plot. He is routinely identified as "son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother", and was married to Caleb's daughter Acsah. At face value this makes him either brother or nephew to Caleb, depending whether "son of Kenaz" is intended to be taken literally or in the sense of "descendant". 1 Chronicles 4:9-23 (dealing with Caleb and Kenaz amongst others) is difficult to interpret, as it appears to be made up of several disjointed fragments - perhaps all that was available to the chronicler at the time of composition. Gen. 36:11 (and elsewhere in this chapter) identifies Kenaz as a son of Eliphaz, son of Esau, and hence a leading Edomite family. Caleb's own descent is expressed through Jephunneh (eg Num. 32:12 - Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite, also Jos. 14:6,14) Since Num. 13:6 and elsewhere firmly identifies Caleb as of the tribe of Judah, it can be presumed that his family was integrated into Judah well in advance of the Exodus, in other words at some stage during the Sojourn in Egypt. Interestingly, the Kenizzites are listed in Gen. 15:19 as occupying the land promised to Abraham. This is, of course, before the birth of Esau, let alone Kenaz, so is best explained as a territorial description defined in terms of later settlement. Othniel himself is presented as living in the Hebron area.

He is indicated as coming from the tribe of Benjamin, and indeed this name is elsewhere (1 Chronicles 7:10 and 8:6) linked with that tribe.

Shamgar (minor)
He is said to be from Anath, probably the same place as Beth-Anoth mentioned in Joshua 15:59 in the hill country of Judah. The name Shamgar may be related to the Hurrian name shimiqari. This is known as a frequent personal name in the Nuzi text archive. As his parentage and tribal affilation is not indicated, it has been suggested that he may not in fact have been an Israelite, but perhaps a Canaanite acting in allegiance with Israel. He is mentioned near the start of the Song of Deborah. It is possible that his family entered Israel first in the time of Cushan-Rishathaim. His adversaries are said to be Philistines.

Son of Abinoam, from Kedesh in Naphtali, he was summoned as Israel's leader by Deborah. Initially reluctant (and so deprived of the honour of killing Sisera) he was successful in leading the Israelites to victory. He is remembered by Samuel (1 Sam. 12:11, though the Hebrew has "Bedan"), and also by the writer of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews amongst a collection of other figures from the Judges and United Monarchy periods (Heb. 11.32).

The name "Gideon" means "smiter", and may well have been a name given in summary of his exploits. In this case his original name would be "Jerub-baal", also given as "Jerub-besheth" in 2 Sam. 11:21, replacing the word "Baal" with the Hebrew for "shame". The name Joash is linked with several tribes including Benjamin and Judah. Abiezer, the founder of Gideon's clan, is mentioned in Jos. 17:2 - Iezer of Num. 26:30 is a contraction. Amongst his family was Abimelech who briefly attempted to rule as king from Shechem.

Tola (minor)
Tola, son of Puah, is said to be from the tribe of Issachar but living in the hill country of Ephraim. Both names are identified with that tribe in Gen. 46:13, Num. 26:23, and 1 Chr. 7:1-2.

Jair (minor)
Jair is identified as being from Gilead, in the area later called Havvoth Jair (the camps of Jair). A descendant of Manasseh by the same name initially captured this area from the Amorites (Num. 32:39-41).

Jephthah was acknowledged as a warrior. An illegitimate son of Gilead and so of the tribe of Manasseh, he was forced away from his home by the legitimate sons. Hence, though from Mizpah in Gilead, he had lived a considerable time in Tob, a city and region east and north of Ramoth Gilead. He agreed to return from there to lead Israel against the Ammonites on the condition that his reinstatement was permanent rather than just for the moment. After a failed attempt at diplomacy he waged a successful war. A rash vow - based apparently on the assumption that Yahweh would require human sacrifice in thanks for victory - led to his daughter being killed as a burnt offering at the end of the campaign.

While in Tob he accumulated followers - these are variously cast by translators as a "group of adventurers who went around with him" or "worthless fellows who went raiding with him". The overall image is quite like the later followers of David who initially were associated with him because of his military skill and the prospect of reward. The somewhat mercenary tension between a protector of Israel and a ruthless brigand is like the descriptions of the habiru found in the Amarna letters and elsewhere. For more details see the page discussing the New Chronology identication of the Amarna period with the time of David (Under construction). Note that conventionally both Jephthah and David are substantially later than Amarna: in NC Jephthah is earlier and David contemporary with this era.

Ibzan (minor)
Ibzan is said to come from Bethlehem. Whilst this suggests the town south of Jerusalem to a modern reader, the earlier name for this town is Eprath (see Genesis 35:19 and 48:7, where the explanation "that is, Bethlehem" reads as a later annotation). In the book of Ruth the name Bethlehem begins to be used regularly for the town in Judah. In Joshua 19:15 the town is in the region given to the Zebulunites, in the north of the country. Hence it is difficult to know in Judges which town is meant. Since Ibzan is followed by Elon of Zebulun, the northern location must be seen as entirely possible for Ibzan, with the two judges arising from close to each other. Commentators following the southern possibility often make an identification of him with Boaz in the book of Ruth. Nothing is said about his adversaries, if indeed there was a threat to Israel in his time.

Elon (minor)
Elon is said to be of the tribe of Zebulun. One of the immediate sons of Zebulun also had this name (Gen. 46:14, Num. 26:26), and "Helon" of Num. 1:7 and 2:7 may be the same.

Abdon son of Hillel (minor)
Abdon is said to come from Pirathon, south-west of Shechem. The name is listed as a house in Benjamin (1 Chr. 8:23) and as an ancestor of Saul (1 Chr. 8:30).

(of the tribe of Dan)... Under construction.

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The Oppressors

Cushan-Rishathaim of Aram Naharaim
There are two main linguistic possibilities for this name. One is a fairly straightforward interpretation, that he was an aggressor arising from the area called Naharaim. In the strict sense, addition of "Aram" to this name suggests a date after the time of the Aramean incursion into this area, in other words from the time of Tiglath-pileser onwards (conventionally approx. 1100 BCE, NC 975). However, this could indicate the time at which the book of Judges was compiled from earlier separate accounts. It is known that individuals from this area established a number of short-lived states in various parts of the Levant, often establishing themselves as a military elite leadership. This occurred at about the same time as the early Second Intermediate Period in Egypt, and the Hyksos occupation of the Delta can be seen as the culmination of this movement.

An alternative explanation is to see this name as a Hebraisation of a Hyksos name, with a better rendering of the name being Chushan-Ri Shathaim. The first part of this name is a plausible Hebrew representation of one of the Hyksos names in Gardiner's kinglist, x'-ws(r)-r(j)'. The Shathaim part would be indicating he was a Sethite (bearing in mind that the Hyksos seem to have had a particular reverence for the god Set). So we have here Chushan-Ri of the Sethites, originally from Aram Naharaim. This view favours the idea that the Hyksos were of Asiatic origin related to the Mitanni. It also requires an Exodus before the Hyksos occupation of Egypt.

Finally, in NC terms there is the possibility of aligning this name with an early Kassite ruler of Babylon - the name Kashtiliash occurs several times through this dynasty. The Kassites took over Babylon shortly after the Hyksos conquest of Egypt. However, it is not at all clear that Kassite rule ever extended into Canaan, so the identification here is principally on the grounds of similarity of name.

Eglon of Moab

Relationships between Israel and Moab at the time of Conquest appear to have been good. Israel specifically avoided Moabite land, though after defeating the Amorite kings in transJordan took control of the plains areas north of the Arnon gorge. As discussed in the Cities of Refuge page, Eglon's attack would have compromised this area, while perhaps leaving the town of Bezer in Israelite hands. Seemingly the area returned to Israelite control after the Moabites were repelled by Ehud.

Sisera and Jabin

Jabin is given as the name of 2 kings of Hazor, and may be presumed to be either a family or dynastic name. The first was defeated during the Conquest by Joshua. The one in view in Judges is a different individual, ruling 100-150 years later and - from the account - giving the impression of being a more important ruler. He is said to have commanded iron chariots, which at face value implies an Iron Age date. This is difficult to achieve with any reconstruction of the Judges dates. However, the same Hebrew word also means "hard" or "strong", being adopted for use for the metal later. Hence the chariots may not literally have had iron accoutrements. His general, Sisera, may possibly have been a lesser king in his own right. The name is non-Semitic and perhaps Illyrian. His exploits and fate are much more in the foreground than those of Jabin.

Deborah's song in chapter 5, indicates that several Canaanite kings were involved in the battle, suggesting that Jabin was leader of a coalition. This in turn leads to a possible identification of the battle at Megiddo with that of Thutmose III. For more details please refer to the page discussing Barak and Deborah.


Midianite groups had been adversaries on several prior occasions to Israel, during the Exodus and early Conquest. However, other Midianites had been friendly and well-disposed, suggesting that the term is used as a loose ethnic grouping rather than a unified nation. The territory occupied by Midianites extended from Edom down the east coast of the Gulf of Aqaba and Red Sea, though as traders and nomads they were also found rather more widely. Judges portrays them as making extended military use of camels, a major departure from the Pentateuchal use as rare beasts of burden.


The Ammonites had not been attacked by Israel during the Conquest. However, the OT records ongoing hostility between the two nations, of which the oppression relieved by Jephthah is a small part. There are indications in the early parts of Deuteronomy that they had controlled areas of transJordan much closer to Canaan, but had been displaced by the Amorites.

List of enemies

Judges 10:11 - centrally located in the book - gives a list of oppressors of Israel. The list consists of "Egyptians, Amorites, Ammonites, Philistines, Sidonians, Amalekites and Maonites". Some Septuagint manuscripts have Midianites as the last name. The OT contains several similar lists of "traditional enemies", many of them based on the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 15:18-21. A similar phenomenon may be noted in other ancient cultures, such as the "Nine Bows" enemies of Egypt.

There are several things to notice about this list. First, the Sidonians are not mentioned elsewhere in Judges as oppressors, perhaps confirming the idea that the book does not attempt to give an exhaustive account of events spanning the time from Conquest to the start of the Monarchy period. Secondly, the list is very much a late second-millennium, pre-divided Monarchy list. As considered elsewhere, the presence of the Amorites and absence of the Arameans is quite indicative of this era. The absence of Assyrians or Babylonians is also noteworthy. For another similar situation, please refer to the page discussing Balak and Balaam.

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