Archaeology and the Book of Judges

During this period of more than 300 years, God periodically raised up judges to rescue and rule over Israel as the Israelites struggled with indigenous peoples over control of the land.

We have examined archaeological finds that illuminate sections of the five biblical books of Moses and the book of Joshua. In this section we focus on a tumultuous time in ancient Israel's history, the era covered by the book of Judges.

Judges begins by describing the settlement of the Israelite tribes in Canaan. The aged Joshua distributes the territory among the tribes. A short while later he dies at the age of 110 (Judges 2:8). Then comes a period during which faithful elders who had lived over from Joshua's time governed Israel. When they died, no leader immediately succeeded them. A dangerous political void existed.

Many among the younger generation, born in the land of Canaan, had largely forgotten the miracles accomplished during Moses' and Joshua's time. "When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the Lord nor the work which He had done for Israel" (Judges 2:10).

The new generation found itself surrounded by many Canaanites who adhered to their own popular religion. Instead of eliminating this foreign influence, as God had commanded, in many instances the Israelites simply coexisted with those holding false beliefs. God had warned them what would occur if this situation were allowed to continue: "Then the Angel of the L ORD came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said: 'I led you up from Egypt and brought you to the land of which I swore to your fathers; and I said, "I will never break My covenant with you. And you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars." But you have not obeyed My voice. Why have you done this? Therefore I also said, "I will not drive them before you; but they shall be thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a snare to you"' " (Judges 2:1-3).

During this period of more than 300 years, God periodically raised up judges—we find at least 12 of them described in the biblical account—to rescue and rule over Israel as the Israelites struggled with indigenous peoples over control of the land. Judges ruled simultaneously with each other in various regions of Israel. The surviving Canaanites frequently attacked and reconquered territory taken by the Israelites.

What does the archaeological evidence reveal about this time?

A change in cultures

The extensive scientific evidence points to a gradual change from a Canaanite building-and-pottery culture to a less-advanced Israelite cultural style.

Charles Fensham, a professor of Semitic languages, argues that "archaeology has shown that [around] 1200 B.C. certain cities in Palestine were demolished. A flowering culture of Late Bronze [Canaanite] was obliterated. The new developments . . . were of a lower culture than the preceding. The break is thus obvious and points to seminomadic groups in process of settling down. This evidence is clearly to be connected with the invading Israelite tribes" ( The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia , Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1982, Vol. II, p. 1158).

This is consistent with the biblical record, which shows that the Israelites, initially slaves in Egypt and culturally impoverished, at first simply took over the existing Canaanite cities as they conquered them. God had told them, "So it shall be, when the LORD your God brings you into the land of which He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give you large and beautiful cities which you did not build, houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, hewn-out wells which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant—when you have eaten and are full—then beware, lest you forget the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage" (Deuteronomy 6:10-12).

Gradual replacement

The book of Judges indicates that this cultural change was gradual. "And it came to pass, when Israel was strong, that they put the Canaanites under tribute, but did not completely drive them out" (Judges 1:28). The Canaanite culture survived for many years until the Israelites finally replaced it.

"The Israelites had lived in Egypt as enslaved [people], and then spent 40 years as seminomads before entering Canaan; this makes it unlikely that they brought a distinctive material culture into Canaan . . . At the end of the Late Bronze Age and the start of the Iron Age, around 1200 B.C., a major change occurred in settlement patterns [in Canaan] . . . While we do not believe the new settlements mark the arrival of the Israelites, we are still happy to call them 'Israelite' settlements. This is because, in our view, the Israelites had been in the land for some two centuries by 1200 B.C. and were therefore involved in the changes that took place at that time" (John Bimson and David Livingston, "Redating the Exodus," Biblical Archaeological Review , September-October 1987, pp. 52-53). Here, then, is additional evidence from archaeology that appears to confirm the biblical account. It shows a gradual supplanting of Canaanite culture by Israelite settlers.

Worship of Baal and Asherah

After Joshua's generation had died out, "the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served the Baals, and they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; and they followed other gods from among the gods of the people who were all around them, and they bowed down to them; and they provoked the Lord to anger. They forsook the Lord and served Baal and the Ashtoreths" (Judges 2:11-13).

Why the seemingly irresistible tendency for the Israelites to worship Baal over Yahweh? Again, archaeology sheds much light on the Canaanite religion and helps us understand the deadly allure the indigenous religious practices held for the Israelites.

In 1929 excavations began in Ras Shamra (the ancient port town of Ugarit) in northern Lebanon. This work continues. The remains of a palace discovered in the first year of excavation yielded a library containing hundreds of ancient documents that provided a wealth of information about the Canaanite religion. What did these tablets reveal? "The texts show the degrading results of the worship of these deities; with their emphasis on war, sacred prostitution, sensuous love and the consequent social degradation" ( The New Bible Dictionary , Tyndale House Publishers, 1982, p. 1230).

Forbidden worship

The pagan religion was enticing to the Israelites for two primary reasons. First, it was not as morally demanding as the biblical religion. Second, the Israelites fell victim to a superstitious respect for the gods that supposedly controlled the land of the Canaanites.

"The Canaanite religion was completely different from the Israelite. So far, no evidence has been found in Canaanite culture of a series of rules of conduct similar to the Ten Commandments . . . It was a great temptation for the Israelite invaders to respect the existing gods of the land which were regarded as being responsible for the country's fertility. In addition, the worship of these gods was much less demanding than the rigid Israelite laws and rituals. Consequently, many of God's people yielded to this temptation. The result was a gradual moral decline of the nation" ( The Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible , Lion Publishers, 1983, p. 153).

Recognizing the great danger to fledgling Israel, God insisted that His people destroy every aspect of the degenerate native religion. "According to the doings of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, you shall not do; and according to the doings of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you, you shall not do; nor shall you walk in their ordinances. You shall observe my judgments and keep My ordinances, to walk in them: I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 18:3-4).

"And you shall not let any of your descendants pass through the fire [be sacrificed] to Molech . . . You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination . . . Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you. For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants" (verses 21-25).

Sexual perversion as religion

The corruption found expression in grotesque cultic sexual practices. "The pagan world of the ancient Near East worshipped and deified sex." So intertwined were sex and religion that "the term 'holy ones' [was used] for its cult prostitutes" ( Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible , Abingdon Press, 1971, p. 79).

Although the details are crude, they reveal why biblical proscriptions against the Canaanite perversions are so pervasive. "[A] ritual involved a dramatization of the myth . . . [and] centered in sexual activity since the rainfall attributed to Baal was thought to . . . fertilize and impregnate the earth with life just as he impregnated Asherah, the goddess of fertility, in the myth. Canaanite religion, then, was grossly sensual and even perverse because it required the services of both male and female cultic prostitutes as the principal actors in the drama.

"Unlike the requirement in Israel, there was no one central sanctuary. Baal could be worshipped wherever there was a place especially visited by the numinous presence of the gods. These places were originally on hills (hence, 'high place') but later could be found in valleys or even within the cities and towns" (Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, Baker Book House, 1987, pp. 160-161).

Infants sacrificed to Molech

Included in these Canaanite practices was child sacrifice, described in the Bible as having children to "pass through the fire to Molech" (Jeremiah 32:35). The Ras Shamra tablets also mention the god Molech. Some unrighteous kings in Israel instituted the practice of sacrificing infants to Molech. God, through the prophet Jeremiah, denounced this ghastly ritual. "For the children of Judah have done evil in My sight," and "they have built the high places of Tophet [related to Molech worship] . . . to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into My heart" (Jeremiah 7:30-31).

In the ancient Phoenician city of Carthage—part of the Canaanite culture—some 20,000 urns containing the remains of sacrificed children were found. The archaeologists at the site apprise us that "the Carthaginian Tophet is the largest of these Phoenician sites and indeed is the largest cemetery of sacrificed humans ever discovered. Child sacrifice took place there almost continuously for a period of nearly 600 years" (Lawrence Stager and Samuel Wolff, Biblical Archaeological Review , January-February 1984, p. 32).

Kleitarchos, a Greek from the third century B.C., described this sacrifice as the heating up of a bronze statue with outstretched arms. Infants placed into these red-hot arms quickly perished.

Struggle for a nation's heart

Obviously, God did not want the Israelites to destroy their own offspring. When righteous kings such as Josiah ascended the throne, they obeyed God and abolished the practice. "And he defiled Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom [in Jerusalem], that no man might make his son or his daughter pass through the fire to Molech" (2 Kings 23:10).

Some might think the prophets were overly harsh in condemning the Canaanite religion. Yet now, with detailed evidence of Canaanite practices found by archaeologists in this century, it is clear why the prophets were uncompromising.

"The prophets and chroniclers tended to be thought of as men who, in their zeal for Yahweh and their anger against foreign religions, had probably gone too far," writes one author. "This objection was leveled at the Bible right up to the present day . . . With us it is accepted as a matter of course that every half civilized community controls the morality of its citizens. But in Canaan in those days the cult of sensuality was regarded as the worship of the gods, men and women prostitutes ranked as 'sacred' to the followers of the religion, the rewards for their 'services' went into the temple treasuries as 'offerings for the god.'

"The last thing the prophets and chroniclers did was to exaggerate. How well founded their harsh words were has only become fully understood since the great discoveries of Ras Shamra . . . What temptation for a simple shepherd folk, what perilous enticement! . . . Without its stern moral law, without its faith in one God, without the commanding figures of its prophets, Israel would never have been able to survive this struggle with the Baals, with the religions of the fertility goddesses, with the Asherim and the high places" (Werner Keller, The Bible as History , Bantam Books, New York, 1980, pp. 286, 289).

Thus the periodic backsliding of Israel into Baal worship described in the book of Judges is a realistic depiction. The description draws support from the archaeological finds that document the struggle for the soul of Israel. God persevered in sending His messengers to warn His people of the dangers of Baalism. An apt description of this struggle was penned by Nehemiah:

"And they took strong cities and a rich land, and possessed houses full of all goods, cisterns already dug, vineyards, olive groves, and fruit trees in abundance. So they ate and were filled and grew fat, and delighted themselves in Your great goodness. Nevertheless they were disobedient and rebelled against You, cast Your law behind their backs and killed Your prophets, who testified against them to turn them to Yourself; and they worked great provocations.

"Therefore You delivered them into the hand of their enemies, who oppressed them; and in the time of their trouble, when they cried to You, You heard from heaven; and according to Your abundant mercies You gave them deliverers [judges] who saved them from the hand of their enemies. But after they had rest, they again did evil before You. Therefore You left them in the hand of their enemies . . . Yet when they returned and cried out to You, You heard from heaven; and many times You delivered them according to Your mercies" (Nehemiah 9:25-28).

A nation's early years

The book of Judges is not just documentation of ancient victories and heroic acts. It represents a realistic description of a fledgling nation that began to assimilate the perverse culture of its defeated foes. The book candidly reveals Israel's struggle—not always successful—against the barbaric Canaanite religion. It explains Israel's frequent relapses and resultant humiliating defeats at the hands of its enemies. Through it all one constant factor shows through: God, who is concerned about the moral and spiritual life of His people.

Future issues of The Good News will examine additional archaeological finds that confirm and help us understand the biblical record.

King David's Reign—A Nation United >< Archaeology and the Book of Joshua—The Conquest
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