The Judges of Israel - internal chronology
This page investigates the various individuals named in the book of Judges with a view to ascertaining overall timing and chronology with reference to purely Biblical indicators. The book of Judges presents certain problems for chronology. Although there are frequent indications of the duration of a period of oppression or relief throughout most of the book, it is not always clear how to interpret these. For example, it is quite possible that some of the leaders may only have had authority over their own tribe or region, thus leading to possible overlaps between their times of leadership. Also, some of the periods of relief are given as 40 years, and it is possible this is a symbolic figure representing a generation, rather than a value intended to be taken literally. If this is the case, then values of 20 or 25 years are often used as a more realistic timespan from one generation to the next. Finally, there are places where no time markers are given, especially in the closing chapters, and there is no explicit link onward to the books of Samuel. A way of estimating this final link is described below. Several different approaches are given here with a view to obtaining an overall estimate and approximate placements for the different figures within this.
The written form of Judges is quite formal and stylised, which also suggests that some sophistication is needed in interpreting it. There are 6 major and 6 minor judges, each introduced by a characteristic formula. Half-way through the book - chapter 10 verse 11 out of a total of 21 chapters - there is a list of 7 "traditional enemies" of Israel. At the time-frame of this chapter (Jephthah's), not all of these had actually been described as being oppressors (for example, the Sidonians). Hence, it is quite credible that the book does not seek to exhaustively describe events in this portion of Israelite history, but rather takes certain edited highlights believed to be particularly useful to later generations.
As regards when the book as a whole was written, it seems probable that it was compiled after the era had closed. It is likely that at this stage, individual tribes kept their own records in whatever form seemed most useful to them. During the unification process leading up to the monarchy, the records could have been brought together and compiled into a single account. The lack of a clear-cut ending to Judges (in the sense of a victory over foes) can probably best be seen as a stylistic choice highlighting the rather chaotic consequences of the era ("In those days Israel had no king: everyone did as he saw fit
"). The increasing refrain "Israel had no king
" of the last few chapters may well suggest a compilation date in the early monarchy period.
The page is divided into the following sections:
The only overall time indicator for this period is to be found in 1 Kings 6.1, 'In the 480th year after the Israelites had come out of Egypt, in the 4th year of Solomon's reign over Israel... he began to build the temple of the LORD'. Dates for Solomon's reign vary slightly, but a typical figure has him beginning to rule in 975. This would give an Exodus around 1450. However, not all source texts agree about the figure 480 - for example the Septuagint gives 440.
It should be noted that the duration given in this verse is longer than just the book of Judges on its own. Firstly, it begins at the Exodus, not the Conquest of Canaan. Also, it includes the span from the end of Judges to year 4 of Solomon. As discussed below, there are two main possibilities for the end-point of Judges. In one, the last part of Samuel's judgeship and the whole of Saul and David's reigns must be included. In the other, Judges ends part-way through David's reign. It is also unclear whether "Year 4" refers to Solomon's sole reign after David's death, or to the 4th year of their joint reign, which would be just before David's death.
Hence, the overall figure of 480 years has been contested, since the individual figures scattered through the book of Judges for periods of oppression and liberation, plus the additional sections at the ends sum to a significantly longer period. Several explanations have been made for this discrepancy, largely based on the possibility that the apparently sequential episodes in Judges were in fact overlapping, as portions of comparable Egyptian and Assyrian records are known to be. Another possibility is that the 480 years was - in the writer's mind - to be associated not with the complete period but rather with periods when Israel was not oppressed by other nations. If the various lengths of time mentioned in Judges are summed excluding all the periods of oppression, we arrive at an overall figure of 328 years. To this must be added 40 years wandering in the wilderness, together with an estimate for the judgeship of Samuel and the reigns of Saul, David and Solomon (first 4 years). This results in a value between 440 and 480 depending on the duration of Samuel and Saul's leadership, suggesting that perhaps something of this kind was in the author's mind.
In these pages, the 1 Kings 6.1 datum is not taken as any more binding than any other piece of information about this era. As explained above, there are uncertainties about how best to interpret this verse.
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The following verses within Judges are pertinent (introductory words are shown to help decide if there could be gaps present):
- 2:8 ... Joshua died at age 110. As he was a reasonably young man at the time of the Exodus (40 years before Conquest), but able to be trusted with leadership in the battle against the Amalekites at Rephidim, this might give about 30-40 years from the entry into the land until his death.
- 2:10 "Another generation grew up" ... This implies a further gap of perhaps 20-30 years, but might be seen as included in the above.
- 3:8 "The Israelites did evil..." ... Cushan-Rishathaim ... 8 years oppression followed by relief under Othniel, and 40 years peace.
- 3.14 "Again the Israelites did evil..." ... Eglon of Moab ... 18 years of oppression followed by relief under Ehud, and 80 years peace.
- 3:31 "After Ehud came" ... Shamgar who fought against Philistines ... no time indications are given.
- 4:1 "After Ehud died" ... Jabin ... 20 years of oppression followed by relief under Barak and Deborah, and 40 years peace. There is an implication of a longer conflict in 4:24, and it is not clear if this is included either in the 20 or 40 years.
- 6:1 "Again the Israelites did evil..." ... Midianites ... 7 years of oppression followed by relief under Gideon, and 40 years peace.
- 9:22 "No sooner had Gideon died" ... Abimelech son of Jerub-baal ruled for 3 years.
- 10:2 "After the time of Abimelech" ... came Tobed of Issachar ... 23 years.
- 10:3 "He was followed by" ... Jair of Gilead ... 22 years
- 10:8 "Again the Israelites did evil..." ... Philistines and Ammonites ... 18 years oppression followed by relief under Jephthah, and 6 years peace. There is also a summary figure Jephthah gives in his speech, of 300 years since entry into the land. It may be presumed this is an approximate value rather than exact, firstly because great exactness was not called for in the context, and secondly because it is not clear that Jephthah's background would have enabled him to know an exact figure. This speech was made at the end of the period of oppression and before the relatively short time of peace under Jephthah's rule.
- 12:8 "After him" ... Ibzan of Bethlehem ... 7 years.
- 12:11 "After him" ... Elon the Zebulunite ... 10 years.
- 12:13 "After him" ... Abdon son of Hillel ... 8 years.
- 13:1 "Again the Israelites did evil..." ... Philistines ... 40 years of oppression.
- 15:20 and 16:31 ... Samson led for 20 years. As he was not successful in driving out the Philistines, it is not clear whether or not these 20 years should be included in the 40 above.
- Chapters 17-19 are concerned with internal matters and do not carry any indications of time. They may fit within the above scheme or be placed afterwards.
Numerous comments about who the individuals concerned were, and where they were based, are given in the companion pages. These various date indications are used here with a view to estimating the length of time of the Judges era.
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The above list of year indications gives a span of overall durations, depending on whether a maximally-extended or minimal time is sought. To extend as far as possible, the individual year-lengths are taken as read, with certain unknown intervening times estimated in a suitable way. To contract as far as possible, it is noted that some of the periods of judgeship can be overlapping. This is not suggested in the text, but it could be considered feasible for judges and oppressors arising in different areas of Israel. The maps on the companion page are used to suggest periods that might be partially or completely overlapping. As another means of compression, the 40-year intervals of peace are replaced with a smaller estimate for a generation, say 25 years. The numbers in the "Minimal" column in [square brackets] represent the elapsed time assuming no overlaps but with the shorter generation length only.
|Cushan-Rishathaim / Othniel
|Eglon / Ehud
|Jabin+Sisera / Barak+Deborah
||(parallel with above so already included, or [20+25])||126 
||25+40 (extra 5 years allows for increase in Israelite resistance)||311|
|Midian / Gideon
||10+10 year gap before Tola||378|
||23+10 year gap before Jair||411|
||(parallel with above so already included, or )||184 
||22+10 year gap before Jephthah||443|
|Ammonites / Jephthah
||18+6+10 year gap before Ibzan||477|
||1 (mostly parallel to the above so included, or )||209 
||7+10 year gap before Elon||494|
||3 in Ibzan in south (so parallel), 10 if Ibzan in north, or ||212/219 
||10+10 year gap before Abdon||514|
||5 if Ibzan in south, included if Ibzan in north, or ||217/219 
||8+10 year gap before Samson||532|
||40 (20 year judgeship included in this)||457
||25 (20 year judgeship included in this)||242/244 
|Movement of Danites
|War against Benjamites
Notice that Jephthah's comment to the Ammonites that Israel had occupied the land for 300 years occurs after 386 years with a straightforward reading, 202  with a minimal duration, and 461 with a maximal one. Presuming that his statement was reasonably accurate, this would suggest that a certain amount of compression is desirable, and that the maximal value extends the period by too much. The value is quite close to that indicated by a reduction in generation length but no overlap of office. For example, a generation length of 30 years with no overlaps, and all other figures as the "minimal" column comes out at almost exactly this value, as does reintroducing the new generation growing up after Joshua's death.
It can be seen that the overall span of possible time ranges is quite large. A straightforward reading of the values gives just over 450 years between the start of the Conquest and the end of the book of Judges, but in principle this could be compressed to about 250 years (325 if no overlapping periods are allowed), or extended to a little over 600. How does this mesh with the situation described in the first book of Samuel describing the transition to monarchy?
A number of estimates have to be made here. First, the 40 year oppression of the Philistines is taken to end with their defeat under Samuel at Mizpah (1 Sam. 7:7-13). This was not, of course, the end of the Philistines as a threat to Israel. Both Saul and David continued to contend against them, as did some of the kings of the divided monarchy (though to a lesser degree). However, the battle at Mizpah represented a significant success for Israel and secured this border for some time. A later alternative would be David's defeat of them in the Valley of Rephaim (2 Sam. 5:17-25), shortly after being accepted as king by the whole of Israel and moving from Hebron to Jerusalem. Samuel was the Israelite judge at Mizpah, and must have been at an age where his military leadership would be accepted - perhaps 30-40 years old. He was considerably older - perhaps 60 - at the time when Saul took the throne, and although he anointed David for kingship he did not live to see him ascend to the throne. The duration of Saul's reign is also uncertain, as the Hebrew text has been damaged at the crucial place in 1 Samuel 13:1. A minimal estimate would be 2 years, and a maximal one 40, following Acts 13:21. (This very interesting problem is followed up in more detail at The reign-length of Saul
). For the time being the value of 20 years is taken as the value to be used as an average. David's reign is typically quoted as starting in 1012 BCE. Assembling these values, we end up with the battle at Mizpah occurring (approximately) between 1090 and 1045 BCE, with say 1065 as an average value. The battle at Rephaim would occur around 1005. Using the table above, and matching the end of the Philistine oppression with this date, leads to the following estimates:
|Event||"Average"||Minimal (with overlap)
||Minimal (no overlap)||Maximal|
|David's reign starts||1012||1012||1012||1012|
|Saul's reign starts||1032||1014||1014||1052|
|Battle at Mizpah||1060||1045||1045||1090|
|Start of Conquest||1515||1290||1370||1660|
If the defeat at Rephaim is taken as the end point (which could only be done if Saul's reign was substantially less than 40 years, thus excluding the maximal figures), this would result in a reduction of 40-55 years to these figures: with "average" figures the Conquest begins around 1460, and with "minimal" ones, around 1250 or 1330 depending on overlaps being used or not.
The companion page on external chronology discusses how this might fit with Egyptian dynastic dating and other similar considerations.
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As an alternative way of estimating the overall duration, several of the genealogical lines given in the early chapters of 1 Chronicles can be used to determine how many generations span this era. With an additional estimate of a typical generation-length, this gives an overall figure. Although so such an estimate is likely to err on the side of being too small, as explained below, it is an entirely independent route for establishing a timespan and so has value.
There are numerous genealogies (chiefly though not exclusively to be found in the early chapters of 1 Chronicles) that extend over this period. Further details may be found below, but in brief, ones have been sought which begin with an individual identified as (or reasonably suspected to be) a contemporary of Moses, and conclude with someone identified as a contemporary of David. As with all Biblical genealogies, the several possibilities must be inspected critically with a view to assessing the likelihood of any of them skipping generations. It is a common feature of the genealogies associated with a key individual that a few generations immediately prior to the person concerned to be given in detail, then a number are omitted to highlight the connection to the original family or clan head. Hence, any time estimate is likely to be biased on the short side rather than being too long. The relevant lines of descent are:
- Libni - Asaiah
- 5 generations (taken from 1 Chronicles 6.29-30)
- Aaron - Zadok
- 10 generations (taken from 1 Chronicles 6.1-10, with supporting evidence from other sections including Ezra 7.1-5 which gives an additional generation, i.e. a total of 11)
- Zimmah - Asaph
- 10 generations (taken from 1 Chronicles 6.39-42)
- Mahli - Ethan
- 10 generations (taken from 1 Chronicles 6.44-46)
- Korah - Heman
- 18 generations (taken from 1 Chronicles 6.33-38)
The first of these is assumed to be almost entirely incomplete. The next three show consistency, but Exodus 6 suggests that members of the principal Aaronic line tended to have children later, thus increasing the average duration of a generation. Additionally, Zadok (as David's priest and advisor) may be presumed to be rather older than the musicians Asaph, Ethan and Heman. Thus in terms of years, the 11-generation Aaron - Zadok line may not differ greatly from the 18 generation Korah - Heman line. Assuming a 20-25 year generational length, this suggests that approximately 350-450 years elapsed between the Exodus and the start of David's reign. At face value, and bearing in mind that this estimate is more likely to be too short than too long, this would seem to preclude some of the extremely compressed, and cast doubt on some of the extremely expanded models of the Judges era.
The most commonly repeated genealogy (to be found in Matthew and Luke as well as numerous places of the Old Testament) is that of the line of Judah, tracing a 5-generation link from Judah to Nahshon, and then a 5-generation link from Nahshon to David. Unfortunately this is far too short a time gap to be a complete lineage. Salmon may well be Nahshon's literal son, and have married Rahab, and Jesse can be presumed to be the immediate parent of David, but there must be significant time gaps between the intermediate generations. The book of Ruth suggests (if for example the identification Boaz=Ibzan is correct) that this episode occurred late in the Judges period, in which case the interval Salmon - Boaz may be lengthy, with the other links immediate parent-child ones. This, of course, remains as speculation.
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|Libni (this generation present at Exodus)||Mahli (this generation present at Exodus)|
|Asaiah (1 Chr. 15:6 - contemporary of David)||Amaziah|
| ||Ethan (1 Chr. 15:17,19 - contemporary of David)|
|Aaron (this generation present at Exodus)||Korah (this generation present at Exodus)|
|Eleazar||Abiasaph (AKA Ebiasaph)|
|Bukki||Zepahaniah (AKA Uriel)|
|Ukki||Uzziah (AKA Azariah)|
|Zerahiah||Shaul (AKA Joel)|
|Ahitub||Ahimoth (AKA Mahath)|
|Zadok (eg 2 Sam. 8:17 - contemporary of David)||Elkanah|
| ||Zuph (AKA Zophai)|
| ||Toah (AKA Nahath)|
| ||Eliel (AKA Eliab)|
| ||Heman (1 Chr. 15:19 - contemporary of David)|
|Zimmah (this generation taken as present at the Exodus by correspondence with other descent lines)|
|Baaseiah (AKA Maaseiah)|
|Asaph (1 Chr. 15:19 - contemporary of David)|