Period of the Judges

1240 BCE - 1000 BCE

A series of significant destructions ushered in Iron Age I. Hattusa, the capital of the Hittites, was sacked, as were the Syrian cities of Ugarit (a rich source of texts concerned with Canaanite mythology and religion) and the important trading center of Emar on the Euphrates River.

Despite the Merneptah Stele’s claim that “Israel is laid waste, his seed is not”–the earliest extant extra-biblical reference to “Israel” (1209 B.C.E.)–Egypt lost control of Syria-Palestine in this period due to internal difficulties, war with the Sea Peoples, and weak pharaohs. In fact, the influence of all the major powers–Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt–waned in this period, though Assyria experienced a brief resurgence under Tiglath-Pileser I (1114-1076 B.C.E.), who campaigned successfully against Babylon. Eventually, however, a group of seminomadic, Semitic tribes known as the Arameans took over Syria and Mesopotamia. Their language, Aramaic, gradually spread throughout the ancient Near East, completely replacing Akkadian as the language of international commerce by the sixth century B.C.E. Parts of Ezra-Nehemiah and Daniel are written in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.

The cause of this widespread change has been attributed to draught, famine, the revolt of agrarian groups who resented the social control imposed by urban elites, and the invasion of the mysterious Sea Peoples, a group of peoples from the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the island of Crete who raided the coasts of Egypt and Syria-Palestine.

The Philistines, who ultimately gave their name to the Levant as “Palestine,” arrived with the Sea Peoples and settled along the southern coastal plain, especially in the city-states of Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza, each ruled by a “tyrant.” Their conflict with the Israelites in the hill country of Syria-Palestine is the primary historical setting of the book of Judges. The bronze armaments of the Israelites were gravely inferior to the iron weapons of the Philistines. Israel, in this period, was a loose confederation of independent tribes with no central government. At times of Philistine attack, charismatic military leaders called “judges” (not to be confused with magistrates) would lead individual tribes or, occasionally, groups of tribes in battle. Religiously, these tribes may have gathered around a central shrine or ark containing the tablets of the law and celebrated at least three festivals: Passover in the spring; Weeks, or Pentecost, in the summer; and Tabernacles in the fall.

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