“There Was No King in Israel”
The Era of the Judges
Jo Ann Hackett
The period in Israel's history that extends for most of the twelfth and eleventh centuries BCE is the era of the judges, which archaeologists call Iron Age I. As the era begins, the group called Israel emerges in the central highlands west of the Jordan River. Over the course of the period, that early group expands to encompass the boundaries of later Israel and Judah, the familiar territories of the twelve tribes—an expansion that brings tension as early Israel conquers territory from the Canaanites in the valleys. Eventually, Israel's expansion is stopped by similar Philistine expansion eastward from the southern coast. These are the centuries before the establishment of a monarchy, a time when “there was no king in Israel” (Judg. 17.6; 18.1; 19.1; 21.25 ).
What do we know of this formative period in Israel's history, and how do we know it? The first question will concern us throughout this chapter; there are several answers to the second. Our most familiar sources of information for the time of the judges are the biblical books of Judges and 1 Samuel, and the book of Ruth may supply additional information. Furthermore, several poems in the Bible dated early in the Iron Age depict Israel's self-conception and beliefs during that era. Another, and fast-growing, source for the period is archaeology. Archaeologists and those who compare excavated remains with tribal societies the world over have expanded our understanding of Iron Age I society in Israel, and with each season of fieldwork they continue to provide new data to think about and integrate. A few written records from the era of the judges have also been recovered, which set in context also provide information. Finally, ancient sources and, again, archaeology inform us about the neighbors of ancient Israel during the early Iron Age, especially the Philistines, the Transjordanian peoples (the Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites), and some of the Phoenician cities.
We know only the rough chronology of the period. As we shall see, the ordering of stories in the book of Judges is artificial, and the kind of information archaeology offers can give only a broad outline of the times. Consequently, the discussion that follows is arranged topically rather than chronologically, with consideration of the sources as its organizing principle.