The chronology for the period of the Hebrew judges is at best a puzzle and at worst a tangled mess. Scripture provides plenty of names and durations, but as we will see, reaching a conclusion as to who was active when is far from simple. Unlike the later period of the Kings, the information provided in Judges lacks both internal and external reference points to allow us to find dates. While Egypt was the primary foreign power for much of this period, no interaction with Egypt is recorded. Much of this is simply because, “In those days there was no king in Israel” (Judges 21:25), and consequently no central government to fight wars, build monuments, keep records, or (perhaps most important to the Egyptians) levy taxes and pay tribute. To get some idea of how the judges fit into the period between the Exodus and the coronation of Saul we will need to look at the whole of scripture and what scant archaeological evidence we have and try to find a solution that makes sense in the larger context.
While the specifics of the period of the judges are fuzzy, scripture does provide clear and easily datable boundaries for this period. More specifically, I Kings 6:1 provides us with the overall span of time between the Exodus and the reign of Solomon:
And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel had come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, which is the second month, that he began to build the house of the LORD.
This scripture is the primary basis for what is know as an early exodus, and the early date is the basis for the timeline proposed here. To those proponents of a later exodus in the reign of Ramses II I would suggest that the book of Judges cannot be reconciled with a later date as can be deduced from the discussion to follow. Consequently, the Judges account supports an early date for the exodus.
The information given in I Kings 6:1 allows us to construct a set of bookends if you will for the period of the judges: A beginning and ending date inside of which to attempt to build a chronology. The current accepted date for the reign of Solomon is 970-930 BC following Thiele. Subtracting 480 years from the fourth year of Solomon’s reign (966 BC) gives us a date of 1,446 BC for the exodus. Adding back the forty year period between the exodus and the entry into Canaan (Deuteronomy 1:3, Joshua 4:19) gives us a starting date of 1,406 BC and the bookend on the left. On the right side we can subtract from the fourth year of the reign of Solomon the four years of his reign, forty years for the reign of David (II Samuel 5:4-5), and the years of the reign of Saul. The Old Testament does not provide any information on the length of Saul’s reign. The only reference that we have is found in Acts 13 in a speech by Paul to the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch:
“After that he gave them judges for about four hundred and fifty years, until Samuel the prophet. And afterward they asked for a king, so God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin for forty years.” (Acts 13:20-21)
In this passage, Paul both solves the problem of the length of Saul’s reign and hands us another problem with his statement about the duration of the period of the judges. Given that this was a speech in a synagogue we must expect that both facts were generally accepted and taught in the Jewish community of the time. Sticking to Saul for the moment, by subtracting the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon (40+40+4 = 84) we get a date of 1,050 BC (966 + 84) for the beginning of Saul’s reign. Given overlapping partial years, this is adjusted to 1,049 BC as shown in Figure 1.
A Quick Note on Saul: In this article I have used the traditional 40 year reign of Saul. However, I believe that Saul’s actual reign was much shorter. The 40 year period assigned to Saul is at best a conflation of the time of Samuel’s judgeship and Saul’s kingship, with a significant overlap. In a separate article on Saul, I assign him a reign of only 12 years with a ten year overlap with Samuel. Some versions of Josephus would give him a reign of 20 years with an 18 year overlap with Samuel. Other scholarly research also supports a shorter reign. Any reduction in Saul’s reign would add years to the time between the “bookends” and likely reduce the amount of overlap in the later Judges period.
Based on the available scriptures we then have a period of 357 years available to us into which to squeeze the events of Judges, but also all of the book of Joshua and I Samuel 1-12. How is it then that Paul ascribes 450 years to the period of the judges? Paul may be simply summing up the periods of the judges and the intervening periods of peace as shown in Table 1. Note that in this reckoning, Eli is included as the final judge. No duration is given directly for Samuel’s judgeship, but I Samuel 4:18 gives a period of forty years for Eli.
|Peace||Joshua and Elders||Joshua 24:31||Unknown|
|Servitude||Cushan Rishathaim||Judges 3:8-9||8|
|Servitude||Eglon King of Moab||Judges 3:14||18|
|Peace||Ehud + Shamgar||Judges 3:30||80|
|Servitude||Jabin King of Canaan||Judges 4:3||20|
|Peace||Deborah + Barak||Judges 5:31||40|
|Servitude||Philistines + Ammon||Judges 10:7-9||18|
|Eli||I Samuel 4:18||40|
|Samuel||I Samuel 8:1-4||Unknown|
As the table shows, the total of the years given in Judges, plus Eli, totals to 450. This interpretation requires us to lay each period end to end much like the kings lists of the period. However, this is not necessarily the correct solution. As we have already seen, the available time is only 357 years and we still need to account for the life of Joshua and the period between the death of Eli and the coronation of Saul. Furthermore, the text gives us indication that there is at least some amount of overlap. For example, Judges 15:20 states that Samson, “judged Israel twenty years in the days of the Philistines”, indicating that Samson’s twenty years is included in the forty years of servitude to the Philistines. Eli and Samuel were also active during a period of Philistine supremacy so we should look for additional overlaps in this period and at least consider the potential for others.
Dan and Gibeah
Before diving into the chronology of the specific judges, we should address the portion of Judges that falls outside of the period listed in Table 1. Judges 1:1 – 2:10 provides a summary of the last portion of the book of Joshua with some additional details and a summary of what remained unconquered at the death of Joshua. Judges 2:11-23 then provides the introduction and overview to the book. Judges 3-16 is the portion of primary interest to us for the construction of a timeline, but what of the last four chapters, Judges 17-21? The last four chapters recount two stories, specifically that of Michah’s idol and the capture of Laish and that of the Levite’s concubine at Gibeah and the near destruction of Benjamin.
The story recounted in Judges 17-18 parallels that found in Joshua 19:40-48 except that in Joshua the name of the captured city that is renamed “Dan” is given as Leshem instead of Laish. I believe that these are two versions of the same story, with the Judges version providing more color. Based on the details in this story and the parallelism with Joshua 19, I believe that these events took place very early in the period of the judges; either during the life of Joshua or shortly thereafter. Probably no later than the judgeship of Othniel.
The story of the Levite’s concubine and the near destruction of Benjamin does not have a parallel in Joshua. However, the behavior displayed by the children of Israel is similar to that found in Joshua 22:10-34. Considering that Benjamin appears to have recovered by the time of Saul and the type of military action described here is consistent with that in Joshua and inconsistent with the later period of the judges I have to believe that these events also took place early in the period covered by Judges.
Jephthah, the Anchor Point
In all of scripture, there is only one reference that allows us to fix a date for any of the events found in Judges relative to any other point in history. That reference is found in Judges 11:26 and quotes a letter sent by Jephthah to the king of Ammon:
While Israel dwelt in Heshbon and its villages, in Aroer and its villages, and in all the cities along the banks of the Arnon, for three hundred years, why did you not recover them within that time?
This tells us that in Jephthah’s time, Israel had occupied the area east of the Jordan river for 300 years. This area was conquered in the last year of the wilderness period, just months before the entry into the land. We thus date the conquest of this area to late 1,407 BC and consequently Jephthah’s letter to 1,107 BC. From this date we can locate the period of oppression by the combined Philistines and Ammonites as beginning in 1,125 BC followed by Jephthah’s intervention in 1,107 and the end of his judgeship in 1,101, a scant 52 years before the coronation of Saul! This can be seen in Figure 2:
As I have given thought to Jephthah’s 300 year statement it has certainly occurred to me that this could be a round number, and more specifically that the actual number could be slightly larger, perhaps by a few years. For the time being though let us use it as a precise date and see where that leads us.
At the beginning of the period described in Joshua and Judges, Egypt was the ruling power in Canaan with the cities of Canaan vassals of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Egyptian power probably reached a peak under Ramses II (1279-1212 BC) and was in decline after that. Ramses VI (c1145-1137 BC) is the last Pharaoh for whom monuments have been found in Canaan. In the last hundred or so years of the judges and into the reign of David, the Philistines were the dominant power. The key archaeological finds from this period as they relate to Judges are:
- The Amarna Letters, particularly letter EA286. The Amarna letters are a collection of correspondence between Egypt and foreign powers, primarily from the reign of Pharaoh Akenaten. Several of these letters are from the ruler of Jerusalem, a vassal of the Pharaoh, requesting aid against the “Habiru” which some have associated with the Hebrews though this remains hotly debated in secular circles.
- The Merneptah or Israel Stele. A stone slab found at Thebes records a military campaign by Merneptah. Most of the inscription concerns a war with Libya but the last three lines describe a campaign in Canaan:
Hatti [Hittites] is pacified;
The Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe:
Ashkelon [Philistines] has been overcome;
Gezer [Canaan] has been captured;
Yano'am [unknown] is made non-existent.
Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;
This is the first mention of Israel’s presence in Canaan in recorded history, and the only one from the period of the judges. It has been dated to c1208 BC.
- Excavations. Archaeological digs have been conducted at many biblical sites in ancient Canaan. Of particular relevance here are those conducted at Hazor which confirm that it was ruled by an Ibin (etymologically similar to Jabin) and was destroyed by fire approximately 1200 BC.
A Proposed Timeline
Jephthah provides us with an anchor point from which to build a chronology. Recognizing that we need to compress a total of 450 years of combined rule and periods of peace down to less than 350, working from a 1,107 BC date for Jephthah provides an indication of where that compression needs to occur.
The total time listed in Judges before Jephthah is introduced in Judges 11 is 319 years. However, the available time for these events is only 299 years (from the entry into Canaan) and we still need to add a period for the conquest of Canaan and the remaining life of Joshua and the elders that outlived him (Joshua 24:31). The early portion of Judges follows a predictable pattern: the Lord allows a foreign power to oppress is Israel for a period of time due to their disobedience, a judge is raised up to break the power of the foreign oppressor, and a period of peace ensues, sometimes corresponding with the rule of a judge. This predictable cycle of servitude and peace can be seen in Table 1. This cycle seems to end with a period of peace under Gideon. There are two more periods of servitude mentioned, but no more periods of peace. Following Gideon we have the short reign of his son Abimelech as king and two judges, neither of whom is credited with actions. If we continue the pattern of servitude and peace, then the period of peace under Gideon would be followed by the 18 year period of servitude to the Philistines and Ammorites immediately preceding Jephthah. Using this as a starting point and following scripture to work backwards, provides the solution shown in Figure 3.
This particular solution provides a good fit, not only with scripture but also with the archaeological evidence as follows:
Joshua and the Elders
Scripture does not give us the period between the entry into Canaan and the first period of servitude under Cushan-Rishathaim. It only states that Israel continued to serve the Lord all the days of Joshua and the elders that outlived Joshua (Joshua 24:31). Joshua’s age at his death is given as 110 years (Joshua 24:29) but we are not provided with any information to determine his age at any of the important events in this period. The best we can do is estimate from the life of Caleb who can be assumed to be of similar age. In Joshua 14:10, Caleb states that he is now 85 years old and it has been 45 years since he went to spy out the land. This tells us that the conquest of Canaan is now in its seventh year at the point where the children of Israel are receiving their inheritance. If we assume that Joshua is of the same age, then he would live an additional 25 years to reach the age of 110. Interestingly, the solution shown in Figure 3 allows exactly 25 years following the conquest of Canaan for the remaining life of Joshua and the elders that outlived him. Conceptually I would like to see a somewhat longer period here, but this works. Others who have tried to provide a solution for this period of time have estimated it between ten and seventy-one years, with an average of 32.6 years, so it seems reasonable.
The Amarna Letters
The period of the Amarna letters corresponds to a period of peace under Othniel in this timeline. In those letters, Abdi-Hiba, king of Jerusalem, complains to Pharaoh of a people he calls “Hibaru” that are overrunning the land. He requests help from Pharaoh, but Pharaoh does not send any. The word Hibaru is cognate with Hebrew those association remains hotly debated. Assuming that it is the children of Israel that are being referred to here, it fits the biblical narrative. At this point in time the children of Israel would have been continuing to expand and claim their inheritance and the lack of Egyptian intervention allowed them to do this.
Jabin, Hazor and the Israel Stele
Egypt was still the primary foreign power in Canaan in the late 13th century BC and the Canaanite cities of that time were vassals paying tribute. I find it very interesting that in this solution to the Judges chronology, the defeat of Jabin king of Canaan and his general Sisera by Deborah and Barak falls just before the events described on the Israel Stele of Merneptah and the archaeological evidence for the destruction of Hazor. Jabin was clearly the principal power in Canaan at this point in time and would have had other Canaanite cities and probably the Philistines under his sway as well as the children of Israel. However, he would have still been under the dominion of Egypt. The defeat of Jabin’s army by Deborah and Barak would have created a power vacuum and an opportunity for not only the children of Israel to escape his rule but also for the other cities of Canaan. With Jabin unable to retain control, Merneptah was forced to intervene and put these rebellious cities back under Egyptian control. Thus, the stele records a campaign against Gezer, Ashkelon, an unknown city, and the children of Israel. Scripture records in Judges 4:24 that, “the hand of the children of Israel grew stronger and stronger against Jabin king of Canaan, until they destroyed Jabin king of Canaan”, indicating that some time passed between the victory of Deborah and Barak and the ultimate destruction of Jabin and his capital, Hazor. This is consistent with the archaeological evidence which shows that Hazor was destroyed c1200 BC or about ten years after the initial victory of Deborah and Barak.
Abimelech, Tola, and Jair
Linking the beginning of the 18 years of servitude under the combined Philistines and Ammonites to the end of the 40 years of peace under Gideon creates some parallelism in the account. Abimelech’s rise to power as king in Shechem then corresponds with the rise of the Philistines as a power in western Canaan. From my perspective the desire for leadership is increased in times of crisis and this could explain the desire to have a king.
Nothing is recorded about the actions of Tola or Jair, only that they judged Israel for a period of time. As we will see shortly there seems to have been a number of parallel judges in the period after Jephthah.
It is now time to turn our attention to the period following Jephthah’s victory over the Ammonites. Joshua lists three judges that follow Jephthah during a period of 25 years. There is no reason to not simply add these names to the chronology following Jephthah as shown in Figure 4. The key questions for this period are the duration of time that Samuel judged Israel before Saul’s coronation as king, when the 40 year oppression by the Philistines began, and where to put Samson.
Samuel and Eli
Scripture does not provide us with the length of time that Samuel judged Israel, how long he lived, or other direct indicator of how long we should assign to his judgeship. We do however have one clue that we can work with. Following the capture and return of the ark of the covenant by the Philistines, we see in I Samuel 7:2 that the ark was at Kirjath Jearim for 20 years. This corresponds with the beginning of Samuel’s judgeship. The next (and final time in I Samuel) that the ark is mentioned is I Samuel 14:18 where Saul asks Ahijah the priest to bring the ark to him at Gibeah following Jonathan’s victory. Based on I Samuel 13:1, this appears to be in the second year of his reign or shortly afterward. Thus, I have assigned Samuel a period of (20-2 = 18) years prior to the reign of Saul. Samuel would of course continue to be a presence until approximately 30 years into Saul’s reign when he anoints David to be king.
Eli is said to have judged Israel for 40 years, ending with the capture of the ark (I Samuel 4:18). The ark was in the land of the Philistines for seven months (I Samuel 6:1) before being returned to Israel with Samuel’s judgeship starting almost immediately thereafter. Thus, the period between Eli and Samuel was probably less than a year and Figure 4 shows Eli immediately preceding Samuel. While Eli was identified as a judge of Israel, his primary role was that of High Priest and it should be no surprise that there were other parallel judges.
Judges 13:1 identifies a 40 year period of Philistine oppression. The end of this period came at the battle of Mizpah in the beginning of Samuel’s judgeship. Following the battle I Samuel 7:13 states that, “the Philistines were subdued and did not come any more into the territory of Israel”, thus ending the period of their oppression. Adding 18 years for Samuel and 40 years for the Philistines gets us to (1049 + 18 + 40 = 1107 BC) or subtracting two half years, 1108 BC, only one year after Jephthah’s victory over the Ammonites. This makes perfect sense as only Ammon was defeated. The Philistines were not subdued and therefore Israel moved almost directly from a period of oppression by the combined forces of the Philistines and Ammonites to, with Jephthah’s victory, oppression by the Philistines alone.
Samson was not to be Israel’s ultimate deliverance from the Philistines. The prophecy given by the Angel of the Lord prior to his birth states only that, “he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines” (Judges 13:5). The final deliverance was only accomplished by Samuel. The entire Samson story is set in the 40 year period of Philistine oppression. During this period he was born, grew to manhood, and judged Israel for 20 years (Judges 15:20), beginning their deliverance. Based on this information I have placed Samson late in the 40 year Philistine period and perhaps his last act in destroying the temple of Dagon may belong at the very end of that period but there is no way to know for sure. As he was grinding grain in a Philistine prison, he is absent from the events of I Samuel 4-6, if he was indeed still living.
The complete proposed timeline then is given in Figure 5.
There have been many both ancient and modern attempts to solve the puzzle of the Judges chronology. Too many to give space to here. What I will do though is provide some insight on what is perhaps the most well known of these, that being the chronology of Bishop Ussher. This chronology is discussed at length by Dr. Floyd Nolen Jones. Ussher used dates of 1491 BC for the Exodus and 1011 BC for the fourth year of Solomon’s reign and Nolen Jones sticks with these dates. Figure 6 shows a composite of the Ussher chronology and that of Nolen Jones, but adjusted for an Exodus in 1446 and 966 as the fourth year of Solomon’s reign which is the modern consensus following Thiele.
Ussher’s approach to solving the problem of the extra years was to collapse the periods of bondage and peace so that the period of bondage was included in the period of peace as shown above. Ussher however seems to have ignored Jephthah’s letter fixing the defeat of the Ammonites 300 years after the conquest of Gilead (299 years after the beginning of the conquest of Canaan). Consequently, Ussher has Jephthah following immediately after Jair and the continuation of his chronology is shown in grey. Meanwhile, Nolen Jones, recognizing the hard date provided by Jephthah has a different arrangement for Jephthah and the three judges that follow him while agreeing with Ussher on Samson and nearly so on Eli.
In addition to ignoring Jephthah’s 300 year anchor point, Ussher also has a short period of only nine years allotted to Gideon’s judgeship which doesn’t seem to fit with the account in Judges 8:28-32 as it doesn’t allow for him to have seventy sons or die, “at a good old age”. Nolen Jones’ approach would allow for a full 40 years under Gideon while still allowing a short gap between Jair and Jephthah.
As a final note, I feel the approach provided in Figure 5 is superior to that of Ussher in that the archaeological evidence aligns with a later date for Deborah and Barak as noted in the discussion of the Merneptah stele and Hazor destruction layer. It also allows for a more direct reading of scripture in the early part of the chronology.
Greetings from Glen You write- “The sojourn of the ark in Kirjath Jearim, between its capture by the Philistines and…
Greetings from Glen, Australia This is a most interesting site. Encouraged by the new chronology based on a radical down…
Thanks Todd for doing this! You showed me this first project in 2005 in Singapore. I am keen to see…
Certainly – questions are welcome
Thanks again for the feedback. I will take all of this into account when it comes time to rework this…