Note: This article received a significant update on October 24, 2021 with a completely new solution for the Judges timeline. This new solution has yet to be incorporated in the overall timeline. For the original, 2018 version of this article click here.
The book of Judges presents an interesting puzzle in the in the chronology of Israel. On the surface, it seems straightforward enough, recording the acts of each judge and the time between events from the time of Joshua until just before the events of I Samuel. However, there is a problem: the total of the years given in Judges is both too large and too small when considered against the whole of scripture.
I Kings 6:1 gives the time from the Exodus to the laying of the foundation of the temple in the fourth year of King Solomon as 480 years. The total of the years given in the book of Judges is 410. If you include the 40 years given for Eli in I Samuel, this increases to 450 years. Add 40 years for the time in the wilderness, 40 years for David, and 4 for Solomon and the total is 534 – 54 years greater than the total given in I Kings. At the same time, there are years missing from the total. First, no duration is given for the time from the beginning of the conquest of Canaan by Joshua until the first oppression recorded in Judges. Second, neither Judges or I Samuel provides a duration for the judgeship of Samuel or the reign of Saul. Thus, we have the unique problem of needing to add years to a total that is already too high.
Arriving at a correct chronology for the Judges period will require us to build a complete chronology from the Exodus to King Solomon in order to reconcile to I Kings 6:1. This in turn will require us to both fill in some gaps and identify ways to compress the timeline to fit. 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 direct 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 David 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.
Before we begin, I should note that the lack of archaeological links and the level of interpretation necessary means that there is more than one possible chronology for this period, and indeed mine is far from the first attempt. I will lay out what I believe makes the most sense, and in some cases will provide multiple options. I will also present what I believe is the best solution based on the available information. However, the reader should understand that the best we can be expected to do with the available information is to get to an approximate solution, particularly for the early part of the book.
An Overview of Judges
I see the Book of Judges as consisting of four distinct segments: The Introduction, the Early Period, the Late Period, and the Appendix. The Introduction provides a summary of the situation at the end of the conquest of Canaan and then revisits the death of Joshua – a sort of “here is what you missed from last week’s episode”. It then provides the overall narrative pattern of the book: Israel forsakes the LORD and serves other gods, the LORD delivers them into the hands of an enemy, the people call on the LORD in their misery, and He sends a judge to deliver them. Things are good all the days of the judge, but once he or she is gone, the people quickly revert to following other gods and the cycle repeats. This cycle is particularly evident in the Early Period.
The Early Period begins with the first oppression and first judge (Othniel) and continues through to the brief reign of Gideon’s son Abimilech, covering Judges 3:7 through the end of Chapter 8. In this portion of the book we only hear about those judges that did something significant in delivering Israel from an oppressor: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah and Barak, and finally Gideon. These deliverances are separated by a period of peace, ostensibly the time required for the judge to pass on and the people to fall back into sin. What is interesting is that the length of the various oppressions is precise: 8, 18, 20, and 7 years. However, the length of the peace that follows is always 40 years or, in Ehud’s case, twice 40 = 80 years. To me this is schematic and indicates a generation. When we get into the detailed chronology of this period we will look at potential ways to handle this.
Beginning with Abimilech, we enter the Late Period (Judges 9-16). Here it seems we are being given the names of all of the judges in a sequence much like the lists of kings in Kings and Chronicles. Not all of these judges are significant, with many being given a number of years with no account of anything that took place while they were a judge. In fact in his Antiquities of the Jews, Flavius Josephus goes so far as to say that Ibzan, “did nothing in the seven years of his administration that was worth recording”, and makes similar comments about the next two judges (Ant 5.271-3). For whatever reason, it seems that beginning with Abimilech, there is a more complete history available to the writer of Judges and that is what is passed down to us. Also of note, and key to constructing a proper chronology, is that in the Late Period the time allotted to each judge changes from being a spacer between oppressions and likely overlaps those oppressions.
Finally, we enter what I call the Appendix (Judges 17-21): Two additional stories that fall in this period, but are not dated to any particular judge. In fact, the book of Ruth could be considered a third part of this Appendix, but we won’t address that here. The stories of Micah’s idol and the Levite’s concubine and subsequent war with Benjamin don’t impact the overall chronology, but we will try to place them once we have a chronological framework in place.
In solving a problem like the chronology of the Judges period, it is best to start with what we can be certain about: the firm dates and time periods that we can rely on. While the specifics of the period of the judges are fuzzy, scripture does provide clear and easily datable boundaries for this period. 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. (NKJV)
This scripture is the primary basis for what is known 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. Thus, the fourth year of his reign would be 966 BC. Subtracting 480 years from this date gives us a date of 1446 BC for the Exodus. Adding back the 40-year period between the Exodus and the entry into Canaan (Deuteronomy 1:3, Joshua 4:19) gives us a starting date of 1406 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, and forty years for the reign of David (II Samuel 5:4-5). This puts the right bookend at 1010 BC at the death of Saul.
Figure 1: Total Years vs. Available Time
As shown above in Figure 1, this math gives us 396 years in which to fit Joshua, 450 years of judges, Samuel, and Saul.
If making everything fit were not enough of a puzzle, we have one other requirement: 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? (NKJV)
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 1407 BC and 300 years later would be 1107 BC. At this point, we have a choice of how to interpret this. We can choose to interpret the 300-year figure as a precise number and thereby date the beginning of Jephthah’s six-year judgeship to 1107 BC. But 300 is a round number, and as such may not be precise. If I, writing in 2021, were to say, “Columbus (re)discovered America 500 years ago”, you would not say that I was wrong, even though the actual number is 529 years, because you would recognize that I am giving a rounded number. Similarly, the 300 years given by Jephthah may not be exact. In fact, Josephus quotes him as saying, “for ABOVE three hundred years”. So, we should also consider the possibility that Jephthah is reasonably close to that 300-year mark but perhaps somewhat later.
Filling in the Blanks
Before we can begin to figure out how to compress everything into the available time, we first need to get a complete picture of what it is that we have to compress. So far, we have a total of 410 years from Judges, and 40 years for Eli, for a total of 450 years. However, we still have some missing pieces.
Our first, or left-hand bookmark rests on the crossing of the Jordan river by Joshua and the armies of Israel to begin the conquest of Canaan. The first number given in Judges is the 8-year oppression by Cushan-Rishathaim recorded in Judges 3:8. But how much time had elapsed from the beginning of the conquest to the start of that oppression? Judges 2:7-10 tells us:
7So the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua … 10When 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. (NKJV)
So we need to allow adequate time for conquest of Canaan to be completed, and for Joshua and the other elders of Israel to die out. Considering that, except for Joshua and Caleb, everyone above the age of 20 that came out of Egypt had perished in the wilderness, the maximum age for these elders would be 60 and most were more likely in their mid to late 50’s.
In the middle of the Early Period, we have one judge that does not have a number of years associated with him, namely Shamgar. We will need to find those missing years or otherwise understand why no years are assigned to him.
Finally, our right-hand bookend rests on the death of Saul. At this point we are beyond the scope of the book of Judges, but we need to assign a reign length to Saul and, before that, to Samuel for the period between the death of Eli and the coronation of Saul. Paul assigns Saul a 40-year reign in his speech at Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13:21. However, there is no Old Testament reference to the length of Saul’s reign. That number may have been given in I Samuel 13:1, but the text there is fragmentary. Some translations have inserted numbers there, but it’s important to understand that those numbers do not appear in any extant manuscripts. The best we can tell from the fragment is that the length of Saul’s reign likely ended in a “2”, but that’s it. With the absence of an Old Testament reference to tie it to, I am going to dismiss Paul’s 40-year number for now and see what else we can find. Perhaps we can verify this number or at least understand where it comes from. And we can’t forget that we still need a number for Samuel or to convince ourselves that his term as a judge completely overlaps that of Eli and the reign of Saul.
Fortunately, we have another witness to consult to try and fill in these gaps. I’ve already mentioned Flavius Josephus, but perhaps it’s time to give him a more formal introduction. Josephus was a first century AD Jew who wrote several works on Jewish history and religion for his Roman benefactor, most importantly his Antiquities of the Jews, a history of the people of Israel from creation to the time of the Jewish Revolt (69 AD). Most importantly, Josephus was in possession of the Hebrew scrolls recovered from Herod’s temple before its destruction, and so likely had access to information that is now lost to us. Of particular interest to us are Antiquities Book 5 covering the period from the death of Moses to the death of Eli and Book 6 covering the period from the death of Eli to the death of Saul.
Table 1 below shows the full set of references from both the Old Testament books of Joshua, Judges, and I Samuel as well as the corresponding information given by Josephus. The differences between the two are highlighted. In general, Josephus is in very close agreement with the Biblical sources, and he provides numbers to fill in the gaps that we have identified. On the downside, he leaves out one judge (Tola) entirely and fails to provide a number for another (Abdon). All together, Josephus gives us a total of 60 additional years: 28 between the conquest of Canaan and the first judge, and 32 for Samuel and Saul. That gives us more to compress, but at last we have a full set of numbers to work with.
Table 1: References in the Old Testament and Josephus
|Event||Biblical Reference||Biblical Years||Josephus Years||Josephus Reference|
|Jordan Crossed||Joshua 5:6, Deut 29:5, Many others||40||40|
|Conquest Complete||Joshua 14:10. 45 years from initial spying||7||7||Ant 5.117: Joshua for 25 years after Moses. Ant 5.84-85 18 years from death of Joshua to first judge. 43 years total conquest to first judge, including 8 year oppression|
|Death of Joshua and Elders||Joshua 24:31, Judges 2:7||Not Given||28|
|Oppression by Cushan-Rishathaim, King of Mesopotamia||Judges 3:8||8||8|
|Othniel – Judah||Judges 3:11||40||40||Ant 5.184|
|Oppression by Eglon, King of Moab||Judges 3:14||18||18||Ant 5.187|
|Ehud||Judges 3:30||80||80||Ant 5.197. Note 5.198 curiously indicates “a short breathing time” after the Moabites before the oppression by Jabin|
|Shamgar / Philistines||Judges 3:31, Judges 5:6 – Shamagar was alive at the time of Deborah||Not Given||< 1 year|
|Oppression by Jabin King of Hazor||Judges 4:3||20||20||Ant 5.200|
|Deborah & Barak||Judges 5:31||40||40||Ant 5.209|
|Oppression by Midian||Judges 6:1||7||7||Ant 5.210 Chapter Heading|
|Gideon / Jerubbaal||Judges 8:28||40||40||Ant 5.232|
|Abimelech||Judges 9:22||3||3||Ant 5.239 referring to Jotham’s time in hiding|
|Tola – Ephraim||Judges 10:2||23||Missing||None|
|Jair – Gilead||Judges 10:3||22||22||Ant 5.254|
|Oppression by Philistines + Ammon||Judges 10:8||18||18||Ant 5.263|
|Jephthah – Gilead||Judges 12:7, 300 years Judges 11:26||6||6||Ant 5.270. 300 years Ant 5.262|
|Ibzan – Judah||Judges 12:8||7||7||Ant 5.271|
|Elon – Zebulon||Judges 12:11||10||10||Ant 5.272|
|Abdon – Ephraim||Judges 12:1||8||Not Given||Ant 5.273|
|Oppression by Philistines||Judges 13:1||40||40||Ant 5.275|
|Samson – Dan||Judges 15:20 – “In the days of the Philistines”; Judges 16:31||20||20||Ant 5.316|
|Eli – Levi||I Samuel 4:18||40||40||Ant 5.357|
|Samuel – Levi||None||Not Given||12||Ant 6.292|
|Saul||None||Not Given||20||Ant 6.378, 10.143|
|David||II Samuel 5:5||40||40|
|Solomon||To Foundation of Temple, I Kings 6:1||4||4|
|Total||541||570||Composite total of 601 years (570 + 23 + 8)|
The political situation in the Levant during this period is largely one of Egyptian control. In the generally accepted, orthodox chronology, the area of Canaan is ruled by Egypt throughout the Judges period, specifically the 18th through 21st dynasties of the Egyptian New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period. There is a period where Egyptian control loosens in the late 18th dynasty, particularly from Akenaten until early in the 19th dynasty. In the New Chronology of David Rohl, Canaan is outside the Egyptian sphere of influence until roughly the time of Gideon when it is conquered by Thutmose I, and Akenaten aligns with Saul and David. Regardless of the timeline used, after the conquest by Thutmose I the other major political powers in the Near East (the Hittites, Mittani, Assyrians and Babylonians) do not make incursions into the area of Israel until much later.
In the Judges narrative and into the time of Saul and David, the Philistines are the primary oppressor of Israel. The Philistines were, however, vassals of the Egyptian Pharoah. Thus, when we read about the actions of the Philistines we should see an Egyptian hand pulling the strings. As vassals, the cities of the Philistine pentapolis would have been required to send tribute to Pharoah and their oppression of Israel may be seen simply as a way to acquire resources to meet their Pharaonic obligations. At other times, we may see the Philistines as Pharoah’s policemen, assigned to keep order over the various city states, rural villages, and herdsmen in the area.
During this period, the archaeological evidence for Israel is scant. This might be expected given that the people of Israel at this time were largely farmers and herdsmen. In particular, they were not carving monuments in stone, and it seems that their material culture (pottery, jewelry, idols, and the like) was little different from their Canaanite neighbors. Thus, there is little for the archaeologist to find that denotes the presence of Israel or confirms any of these events. That does not mean, however, that this period is completely devoid of archaeological evidence. We do have a number of inscriptions from Egypt and Israel’s neighbors that confirms their presence in this time period.
- 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. David Rohl in his New Chronology has identified a number of the figures from the time of I Samuel with those mentioned in the Amarna letters, most notably Saul.
- The Merneptah or Israel Stele. A stone slab found at Thebes records a military campaign by Merneptah, perhaps also taking credit for some of the actions of his father, Rameses II. 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 datable mention of the name Israel in recorded history, and the only one from the period of the judges. It has been dated to c1208 BC in the orthodox chronology.
- The Berlin Pedestal. An inscription found in the Berlin Museum, believed to be from a statue pedestal, contains a name ring that reads Israel. The dating of this inscription is disputed, but it may date as early as Thutmose III or as late as Rameses II. The majority would put it at the early end of that range, making it older than the Merneptah Stele by about 100 years.
- The Shasu of YHWH Name Ring. Found in a temple constructed in the reign of Amenhotep III is a list of the enemies of Pharoah which mentions the “Shasu of YHWH”. Shasu can loosely be translated as nomads, particularly cattle herders of the area of Palestine. The inclusion of the name of YHWH (Yahweh) makes this a clear reference to Israel. While the name is not specifically, “Israel”, this reference also predates the Merneptah Stele.
- Excavations at Jericho indicate that it was destroyed in a manner consistent with the biblical text. The destruction has been dated based on the recovery of scarabs naming the Egyptian Pharoah Sheshi of the early Hyksos period.
- 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 in the standard chronology.
- In 2019 a pottery sherd was recovered from the Khirbet al-Ra’I dig site in central Israel that included the name Yrb’l (Jerubba’al), the alternative name for Gideon. This sherd has been dated to 1100-1050 BC, or about a century after where we would place Gideon, and while it may not be linked to THE Jerubba’al, it does attest to the name. If the dating is correct, this may refer to someone that was named after the famous hero.
- The great temple of Ba’al Bereth at Shechem shows a destruction by fire in this period, consistent with that attributed to Abimilech in Judges 9.
The Late Period
At last it’s time to start building our timeline. You are probably expecting me to start with Joshua and work forward in time. However, given the apparently more complete records for the Late Period, I believe it will be more valuable to start at the end – the death of Saul – and work backward to Abimilech. This will give us a good idea of how much compression is still needed in the Early Period.
The key question for the Late Period is, what judges or events, if any, should be placed in parallel? Recall that we have Jephthah at the 300-year mark or perhaps a bit later. This 300-year mark is a mere 97 years before the death of Saul. However, the sum total of the years given from Jephthah to Saul is 163 and so we are looking for at least a 66-year reduction. With that in mind, let’s get started.
Samuel & Saul
Josephus gives a period of 32 years for Samuel and Saul combined in the heading to Antiquities Book 6. He then breaks this down as a sole reign of 12 years for Samuel followed by a 20-year reign for Saul, with Samuel overlapping the first 18 years of Saul’s reign (and so a total of 30 years for Samuel’s judgeship). Josephus has already addressed the overlap between Samuel and Saul, and no further overlaps are possible in the context of the events of I Samuel. Thus, I will use 32 years as the correct number for this period. However, before we move on, we need to consider how to best allocate the years between Samuel and Saul.
I Samuel 7:2-3 states:
2So it was that the ark remained in Kirjath Jearim a long time, it was there twenty years. And all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD. 3Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel …
This verse occurs right after the ark has been returned after its capture by the Philistines. Beginning with verse 3 is the account of the battle of Mizpah which ends Israel’s 40+ year oppression by the Philistines (see Judges 13:1). Thus, it appears that we have a 20-year period where Samuel is the sole judge before Saul is anointed as king. In my article on Saul I found, based on the details of the narrative in I Samuel, that the minimum length of Saul’s reign is about 12 years. My sense here is that Josephus got it backward and that we should give 20 years to Samuel and 12 to Saul. Note that this solution also gives Samuel a total of 30 years but as 20 alone plus ten overlapping with Saul as opposed to 12 and 18.
As noted above, Paul gives Saul a 40-year reign length in Acts 13:21. If Saul actually reigned for only 12 years, or even 20 years, where does this 40-year number come from? I believe the 40-year reign for Saul to be a Jewish tradition from Paul’s time. I see two possible sources for this number. First, the time from the recovery of the Ark in I Samuel 7:2 to the installation of the ark in Jerusalem in II Samuel 6 was almost exactly 40 years (32 or Samuel and Saul plus 7 ½ for David), with much of this time equated with Saul. It is also possible that the 40 year number comes from rounding up the 32 year combined reigns of Samuel and Saul.
If you are keeping score, the 32 years for Samuel and Saul means that we have a mere 65 years remaining to the 300-year mark for Jephthah and 131 years to fit in there. I Samuel 4:18 states that Eli had judged Israel for 40 years. We know that his death occurred at the time of the loss of the ark to the Philistines and immediately preceded the judgeship of Samuel. With Eli then firmly slotted we can at last begin to address the information provided in Judges. Figure 2 shows what we have so far.
Figure 2: Dates from I Samuel and Josephus
We are now prepared to dig into the information in Judges, beginning with Samson. The relevant chronological information is as follows. First, a 40-year period of oppression under the Philistines begins (Judges 13:1). Then, Samson’s birth is foretold with the prophecy that, “he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines” (Judges 13:5). Finally, we learn that Samson judges Israel for 20 years (Judges 16:31). Putting these pieces together, Samson was born, grew to adulthood, judged for 20 years, and died within the 40-year period of Philistine oppression. The only way to make this fit is for Samson’s death to coincide (or nearly so) with the end of that 40-year period of oppression. The overlap here is clear, and this is the first step in solving our time compression problem. What is not immediately clear is where to place Samson relative to Samuel and Eli.
The prophecy about Samson said that he would “begin” to deliver Israel from the Philistines, so when did that deliverance ultimately occur? There is no indication of any period of peace until I Samuel 7:13, following the battle of Mizpah where it states, “the Philistines were subdued and did not come any more into the territory of Israel”. However, I do not think it is appropriate to overlap Samson with Samuel. The capture of the ark was an event of significant importance and had it occurred during the Judges period it would have been recorded there. Thus, I believe that the period recorded in Judges ends shortly before the capture of the ark and that event signifies the start of the I Samuel account, with I Samuel 1-3 being back story that occurred during the Judges period. This means that the 40-years of oppression under the Philistines, as recorded in Judges, ends at the same time as the Judges narrative. Even though the oppression would in fact continue for another twenty years under Samuel. It also places the 40-year oppression and Samson in parallel with Eli. As we will see below, this three way parallelism is the key to solving the late period.
Scripture records a series of four judges prior to Samson. These are Jephthah (6 years), Ibzan (7 years), Elon (10 years), and Abdon (8 years). Placing Eli in parallel with the 40 year oppression and Samson in parallel with Eli has effectively removed 80 years from our timeline. If we place the sequence of Jephthah through Abdon end to end and immediately prior to Samson, we get the picture in Figure 3.
Figure 3: Jephthah to Samson
This solution achieves the necessary compression. Jephthah is after the 300-year mark, but not too far after. In fact, he begins in 1092 BC, at the 315 year mark. It is therefore quite reasonable for him to use a round figure of 300 years in replying to the king of Ammon. This seems to fit our requirements. The implication from this solution is that not only was Samson in parallel with the 40-year Philistine oppression, but so were Elon and Abdon, and to some extent Ibzan. There is a mere 11 years between the end of the 18-year oppression under the combined Philistines and Ammon and the beginning of the 40 year oppression by just the Philistines. This also makes sense as the Egyptian dominance in this period was continuous and so it would be unlikely for the Israelites to be left alone for long.
With Jephthah in a reasonable place, we can move on to Abimilech and the judges that succeeded him. Here we have Abimilech (3 years), Tola (23 years), and Jair (22 years). At this point, we have a choice. Tola and Jair ruled for almost the same amount of time and in different parts of the country, Tola in Ephraim, and Jair in Gilead. This means that there is a potential to overlap them, and this option may be supported by the fact that Josephus leaves Tola out of his account. For the late period we so far have overlapped the judges with the oppressions as the judges list appears to be continuous and it would be logical to continue to do so here, but it would also be possible to place these judges before the 18-year oppression of the Philistines and Ammon. Here are the options:
- Place everything end to end, including the 18 year oppression. This gives a total of 66 years. My sense is that this is too long and it is also inconsistent with our approach for the rest of the period
- Place Abimilech, Tola, and Jair end to end and overlap Jair with the oppression. This gives a total of 48 years
- Place Tola and Jair in parallel and in sequence with the oppression. This gives a total of 44 years
- Place Tola, Jair, and the oppression in parallel. This gives a total of only 26 years
I am going to dismiss Option 1 at this point as we still have 354 years to fit in the 315 years between the entry into Canaan and Jephthah so we are still looking for some compression. Option 1 is also inconsistent with the overlap between judges and oppressions that I believe applies to the late period. Options 2 and 3 give very similar results, however Option 2 is more consistent with our approach for this period. Finally, Option 4 gives us maximum compression. Let’s keep this one in mind in case we need it later. But for now, I will proceed with Option 2. Option 2 gives us the timeline shown in Figure 4, and we can now move on to the early period.
Figure 4: Timeline for the Late Period
The Early Period
In the late period, and on through the reign of David, the primary villain is the Philistines who need no introduction. The early period however features a different character in each oppression. And so, before I dive into the timeline, I think it would be worthwhile to review each of these briefly.
The first oppression of eight years is under Cushan-Rishathaim. Most English translations based on the Masoretic Text title him “King of Mesopotamia”. The Septuagint however titles him king of “Syria-of-Rivers”, and Josephus calls him the king of Assyria. It seems that Cushan’s kingdom was not familiar to the later compilers and editors of Judges, and so I tend to think that it was not Assyria (though it likely became part of Assyria later). The name “Syria-of-Rivers” given in the Septuagint is perhaps the most revealing and places this kingdom between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what today is eastern Syria and western Iraq. If this is indeed the correct location, then Cushan was most likely a king of the Mittani, a Hurrian kingdom that would later be absorbed into the Assyrian empire. I have not been able to find a satisfactory link between the name Cushan-Rishathaim and any ruler of this area, though we don’t have a complete list for this period, particularly in the context of the New Chronology.
The next oppression of 18 years is under Eglon, king of Moab. We don’t have a list of Moabite kings from this period and so it’s not possible to equate him with any historical figure. What is interesting about this king is that his palace was at Jericho. Jericho as a city was destroyed by Joshua and not rebuilt until the reign of Ahab (I Kings 16:34), so how was it that Eglon had his palace there? Archaeology has shown that there was a single, small palace built on the Jericho mound between its destruction and rebuilding, known aptly as the “middle building”. I believe that this is likely where the encounter between Eglon and Ehud took place.
The next oppressor, for 20 years, is Jabin King of Canaan whose capital was Hazor. As noted above in the Archaeology section, this name has been found on inscriptions from this period. Also, Hazor was destroyed approximately 1200 BC, or close to the time where we will place Deborah and Barak. I should note that scripture does not specifically record a destruction of Hazor in this period (it does record a destruction by Joshua). It only states that, “the children of Israel grew stronger and stronger against Jabin king of Canaan, until they had destroyed [him]” (Judges 4:24).
The Midianites were, according to modern scholarship, a loose confederation of tribes that lived southeast of Israel on the eastern side of the Gulf of Aqaba. Thus, we are not given the name of a single Midianite king responsible for this next seven-year oppression. Rather, the account of the battle with Gideon lists two princes, Oreb and Zeeb, and two kings, Zebah and Zalmunna. The Midianites were descended from Abraham through his second wife, Keturah, and recall that Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, was a priest of Midian.
Before returning to the timeline, we need to address the one judge in this period who is not given any years, namely Shamgar. Shamgar is essentially a footnote at the end of Judges Chapter 3:
31After him [Ehud] was Shamgar the son of Anath, who killed six hundred men of the Philistines with an ox goad; and he also delivered Israel. (NKJV)
This is, incidentally, the first time that the Philistines are mentioned in the context of a biblical event. Shamgar merits mention here as one who accomplished something significant and a deliverer of Israel. Judges does not mention a number of years and Josephus credits him with less than one. What is often overlooked however is that the next judge, Deborah, mentions him in the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. Specifically placing the events of her time, “In the days of Shamgar, son of Anath” (Judges 5:6). It would seem that the lack of a number of years assigned to Shamgar is because he was in parallel with numbers given elsewhere. As he is mentioned before the start of the oppression under Jabin and then by Deborah at the end of that oppression, I believe that he reigned in parallel with that oppression and overlapped into Deborah’s reign. Thus, we do not need to look for any missing years and can continue with our chronology.
An interesting insight into the early period is that the dates are built around the beginnings and ends of the oppressions, and the event that accomplished the delivery from that oppression. We are not given specific “reign” lengths for each judge as we are in the late period. While Josephus interprets the space between events in this period as a reign length for the judge, I don’t believe that is accurate. The story line is generally, the judge dies, the people revert to idolatry, and then a new oppression begins – meaning that the reign length for the judge is somewhat less than the time to the next oppression. Also, Judges 4:4 indicates that Deborah was already judging Israel before she enlists the help of Barak in defeating Sisera, overlapping into the period of oppression, and continued for an undetermined time afterward. This may be the case with Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar as well. The event in which they delivered Israel is not necessarily the beginning of their service as a judge, though it well could be that event which elevates them in status as was clearly the case with Gideon.
The Early Timeline
At this point, with Abimilech anchored at 1140 BC at the start of the Late Period, and with the beginning of the conquest of Canaan in 1406 BC, we have 266 years of time remaining to fill. Looking at Table 1, Josephus gives us 288 years to fit into this period – the years given in Judges plus 35 years from the entry into Canaan until the start of the first oppression (25+18 = 43 to Othniel, the first judge – 8 years of oppression = 35). Again, we have options:
- For those that want to take the 40 and 80-year periods between judges as exact, we need to trim 22 years from somewhere. There are really only two choices:
- Reduce the time from the start of the conquest to the first oppression from the 35 years given by Josephus to a mere 17 years. This implies that Joshua and the elders that outlived him had all perished a mere ten years after the completion of the conquest and Israel had already fallen into sin. This is just not enough time in my opinion as there would still be a majority of people alive who had witnessed the miracles of the conquest.
- Move Tola in parallel with Jair in the late period. Recall that this was the maximum compression option that we initially put to the side. As it turns out, it gives us almost exactly the 22 years that we are looking for. The fact that Josephus does not mention Tola at all may indicate that he was in parallel, similar to Shamgar. The fact that the years given to Tola (23) and Jair (22) are almost the same is also interesting and may indicate parallel judgeships. Finally, they ruled on opposite sides of the Jordan which adds to the plausibility of parallel reigns.
- For those not wishing to pursue either of the above options, the remaining option is to compress the periods between oppressions. Beginning with Othniel and continuing through Gideon to Abimilech, there are three 40-year intervening periods and one of 80 years for a total of 200 years. If we interpret these 40-year intervals as structural and representing a generation (as opposed to being exact numbers), then we can adjust them downward. We have 22 ‘extra’ years and so a reduction of 11% (22/200) gets us what we need. This means that each 40-year period is reduced to 35.6 years. Realistically, the numbers likely varied with this number being the average, but as we have no other basis for allocating the 22 year reduction I will use the average numbers.
Regardless of which option we choose, the basic structure of our timeline will be the same, just squeezed in different ways. As indicated above, I do not believe that Option 1.1 is viable because it compresses the time between the conquest and the first oppression to an unreasonable level. The other two options can be represented graphically as shown below in Figures 5 and 6. Both options are identical from Moses through to the beginning of Othniel’s judgeship. From that point, Option 1.2 shifts approximately 5 years later in each of the 40-year intervals between judges (10 years later in the 80 year interval after Ehud). In the late period, the 18-year oppression under the Philistines and Ammon and the start of Jair’s judgeship do not move and the extra years in Option 1.2 are accommodated by moving Tola into parallel with Jair.
Either of these options could be correct. While Option 1.2 will be appealing to some because it retains the exact number of years given in Judges for the periods of peace, these may still be structural and not exact numbers. Option 2 is appealing because it does not require what may be an artificial parallelism between Tola and Jair to get the numbers to work out. In the end though, the dates are not very different and should there ever be an archaeological find that produces an approximate date for one of these judges it is unlikely to be precise enough to distinguish between the two proposed timelines. Thus, I leave it to the reader to choose the one they find the most appealing. My official timeline will however be based on Option 2.
Figure 5: The Early Period Option 1.2
Figure 6: The Early Period Option 2
The book of Judges ends with two stories (and the book of Ruth might be considered a third) that take place in this period; but, on the surface, we are not given any specifics that allow us to tie these events to the time of a specific judge. While exact dates are not possible, I do believe that there are clues as to where to place these events on the timeline.
The Conquest of Laish (Dan)
Judges 17 and 18 are concerned with events leading up to the conquest of the city of Laish by the tribe of Dan. Laish is in northern Israel and was not part of the original territory allocated to Dan by Joshua. Indeed, the land originally given to Dan was along the coast west of Judah and included at least one Philistine city, Ekron. Naturally, the presence of the Philistines and their predecessors in these coastal cities would be a good reason for Dan to look elsewhere for land.
The conquest of Laish by Dan is recorded in Joshua 19:47 where the city is called Leshem. It’s clear from the context that this is the same city and event, and its inclusion in Joshua indicates that it must have occurred very early in the Judges period. 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.
Civil War with Benjamin
Judges 19-21 concerns the causes and the aftermath of the civil war which resulted in the near destruction of the tribe of Benjamin. This series of events is harder to date as it 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 believe that these events also took place early in the period covered by Judges. Probably not later that the time of Ehud, and perhaps only shortly after the death of Joshua.
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 7 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.
Figure 7: Ussher / Nolen Jones chronology for the period of the Judges
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 and 6 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. I also believe that my approach is superior to that of Nolan Jones as it simultaneously reconciles to both scripture and Josephus.
The Judges in the Orthodox Chronology
The complete Judges timeline is shown below in Figure 8 against the orthodox, or standard chronology for Egypt. On this timeline the Exodus occurs in the reign of Amenhotep II, somewhere after his Year 9, his last recorded campaign in Canaan. The Israelites arrive in Canaan in the reign of Thutmose IV and are established by the reign of Amenhotep III.
Figure 8: The Judges in the Orthodox Chronology
The first flaw relative to the orthodox chronology is that Jericho was, based on the latest scarabs found in the destruction, destroyed some 300 years before the time of Thutmose IV, during the early Hyksos period. Also, if the Berlin Pedestal can be dated as early as Thutmose III, then this mention of Israel would predate even Moses, much less the arrival in Canaan. The mention of the Shasu of YHWH in the temple of Amenhotep III does however align with a time that Israel is already in the land, as do the mention of the “Habiru” in the Amarna letters. However, our understanding of the Egyptian presence in Canaan in the time of Amenhotep III is such that it would not permit an outside power from beyond the Euphrates (i.e., Cushan) to have control far enough south to oppress Israel.
In the middle section of the timeline, archaeological evidence indicates the arrival in Canaan of a genetically distinct group from southern Europe around 1200 BC and this is consistent with the first mention of the Philistines at the time of Shamgar. There is also indication that Hazor was destroyed c1200 BC which is consistent with a final defeat by Israel. Oppression by a king of Hazor in this period is not inconsistent with Egyptian dominance under Ramesses II as the king would likely be an Egyptian vassal. The general chaos in the reign of Ramesses III with the invasion of the Sea Peoples would likely permit the raids by the Midianites prior to Gideon.
As we move to the later part of Judges and into I Samuel the primary oppressor becomes the Philistines. However, in this period Egypt is again weak as we are now into the Third Intermediate Period, a time where the national government has collapsed, and multiple Pharaohs are ruling in different parts of the country. This would not preclude an oppression by the Philistines, it would just mean that they were acting on their own accord.
The Judges in the New Chronology
For those not familiar with it, the New Chronology was proposed as a solution to the many “dark ages” in ancient history and specifically to internal inconsistencies in the chronology of the Third Intermediate Period. The issues with the orthodox, or generally accepted chronology were first raised by Peter James in his 1991 book Centuries of Darkness. The main proponent of the New Chronology has been David Rohl whose 1995 book A Test of Time proposed a revised chronology for the Third Intermediate Period in Egypt and looked at the implications of this change to the synchronisms between Egyptian and biblical history. Rohl and others have subsequently proposed an alternative chronology going all the way back to the time of the flood. The New Chronology is perhaps best known from the film Patterns of Evidence: Exodus where its alignment between archaeology and history was highlighted. The New Chronology has not achieved broad acceptance but is worth discussing due to the alignment it creates between the archaeological evidence and this timeline. The alignment between the Judges timeline and the New Chronology is shown in Figure 9.
Figure 9: The Judges in the New Chronology
In the New Chronology, the Exodus occurs under the Pharoah Dudimose (Manetho’s Tutimaeus) of the late Thirteenth Dynasty. The conquest of Jericho then occurs in the early Second Intermediate Period while Sheshi, the Pharoah whose scarabs are found at the time of the Jericho destruction, reigns in Avaris in Egypt. With Egypt embroiled in the internal conflicts of this period and foreigners ruling in the Nile delta, there is no Egyptian presence in Canaan to oppose Joshua’s conquest.
Following the death of Joshua, Egypt remains absent allowing invasions from Mesopotamia and Moab. The power of the Hyksos kings remains in the Egyptian delta, extending up the coast to the southern Levant, but not into the hill country of Israel. In this context, Jabin is able to carve out an independent kingdom in Canaan and oppress the Israelites. However, with the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt by Amose, the first Pharoah of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the political situation in Canaan changes.
Amose makes his first campaign into Canaan and perhaps as far as Syria in the 22nd year of his reign. This coincides with the period of Midianite oppression. What, if any, relationship exists between this campaign and the raids from Midian is not clear. But from this time forward, Canaan is back in the Egyptian sphere of influence. Thutmose I campaigns as far as the river Euphrates in his year 2, but this does not seem to coincide with a renewed oppression. The next oppression begins with Thutmose III’s first campaign into Canaan. He would campaign in Canaan and beyond almost annually for a period of 19 years, from his 23rd to 42nd reginal years, including one campaign that specifically mentions the Shasu. Based on where we have placed Jephthah, the campaigns of Thutmose III align exactly with the 18-year oppression by the Philistines and Ammon that is recorded in Judges 10. In fact, Jephthah’s victory over Ammon coincides with Thutmose III’s final campaign. If the Berlin Pedestal can be dated as early as the reign of Thutmose III, it makes sense for him to claim victory over Israel in this context. Amenhotep II follows up on his father’s efforts with campaigns in his years 2, 7, and 9. It is this second campaign in his 7th year that aligns with the beginning of the next, 40-year oppression by the Philistines.
By the time Amenhotep III takes the throne, Samson is wreaking havoc with the Philistines and by the end of his reign he has seen the defeat of his Philistine vassals at the battle of Mizpah and the rise of the kingdom of Israel under Saul. It’s no wonder that he lists the Shasu of YHWH as enemies.
Finally, David Rohl has made much of the link between Labaya of the Amarna Letters and Saul. In this timeline, the correspondence between the Pharaoh and his Canaanite vassals regarding the troubles being created by Labaya and the Habiru fit very well with what we know from I Samuel, including Saul’s ultimate defeat and the rise of Ishbosheth and David.
The timeline for the book of Judges is a puzzle, but one that is largely solvable. The limited amount of information available for this period makes the creation of a single, uncontested timeline impossible. However, we have managed to create a timeline that reconciles the information in Judges with the writings of Josephus and leaves only a few options to choose from. When aligned with the orthodox chronology for Egypt, this timeline presents the usual problems in alignment. But when placed next to the New Chronology for Egypt, the alignment is excellent and contributes some new insights as to the causes of the later oppressions.
 Thiele, Edwin R.; The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings; Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, © 1983
 This 450 years matches the number that Paul gives in his speech at Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13:20. However, this number should be understood as the sum of the years given in scripture and not the actual elapsed time.
 See https://patternsofevidence.com/2019/06/01/artifacts-show-biblical-exodus/ for photos and more detail on the Israel Stele, Berlin Pedestal, and Shasu of YHWH name ring.
 Some manuscripts of Josephus have a 40-year reign for Saul in Ant 6.378. However, Josephus gives the 20-year reign again in 10.143 with all manuscripts being in agreement. Also, he has given 32 years total for Samuel and Saul and then gives 12 years for Samuel, so Saul must have a reign of 20 years to maintain consistency with the rest of the book. Consequently, the manuscripts that show 40 years likely reflect either a scribal error or an attempt by a later Christian copyist to align this passage with Acts 13:21. As Paul and Josephus were contemporaries it’s interesting that Paul’s number, which must reflect the Jewish tradition at that time, differs from that of Josephus.
 This is the sum of the years from the entry into Canaan using the numbers from Josephus and the 23 years given in Judges for Tola
 The last mention of the Philistines in the historical books is II Kings 18:8, in the reign of Hezekiah; however, they would continue to be a presence in the land until they were finally wiped out by Nebuchadnezzar II. See Jeremiah 47:4
 Nolen Jones, Dr. Floyd, The Chronology of the Old Testament, Green Forest, Arkansas, Master Books, 2017, pp71-94
 All of the major city states in Canaan in this time period were Egyptian vassals, not just the Philistines.
 See Rohl, David, A Test of Time, London, Random House, 1995, Chapter 9. For a more scholarly discussion see Newgrosh, Bernard, Rohl, David M., and Van der Veen, Peter G., The el-Amarna Letters and Israelite History, Journal of the Ancient Chronology Forum (JACF), Vol 6, 1993.