Judah is first
The first chapter of Judges seems to describe the situation among the Israelite tribes just after the death of Joshua and immediately before the appearance of the first judge. Instead of a single leader, a “judge,” leading the tribe or united nation in war, each tribe functioned in its own self interest, with no leader named. This was when the tribes battled the Canaanites to secure their land. judges appeared after the tribes settled in tribal territories, when they ignored the will of God, were attacked by enemy forces, and required a savior.
The many successes of the tribe of Judah are described as well as the failures of all of the other tribes.
A careful open-minded reading of chapter one reveals many questions to which there are no answers, just speculations, questions that leave readers the opportunity to decide for themselves what was said and what happened. I will discuss some views in the main body of this essay and in the footnotes.
The following are some of the many questions that this chapter raises:
- What is the purpose of this chapter which seems to repeat much of what was already revealed in the book Joshua?
- When did the recorded events occur, before or after Joshua’s death?
- Why was the tribe of Judah generally successful in its conquests while the other tribes generally failed?
- Who led the tribe of Judah in its battles, or did the tribe have no leader at that time?
- Didn’t God promise that Israel will successfully conquer Canaan, why didn’t God help Israel?
- Should we understand the story in a natural way, that God does not help people, but expects people to work out their own destiny?
- If we accept the view that God helps people, what did Israel do to stop the help?
- Should we accept pious explanations of some of the events mentioned in this chapter or see these solutions as parables designed to provoke thinking?
- Should we accept biblical numbers literally?
- Are there mistakes in this biblical book?
Judah vs. Joseph
One of the several possible purposes of his book is that the author wanted to extol the tribe of Judah. During the early reign of King Solomon’s son Rehobaom, ten tribes disassociated themselves from the tribe of Judah and formed the northern kingdom of Israel. They lasted about 200 years until 722 BCE when they were conquered, exiled, and became the Ten Lost Tribes because we have no idea what happened to them. Judah in the south lasted until 586 BCE when they were defeated by the Babylonians and many Judeans were exiled to Babylon.
Some scholars maintain that the author of Judges is showing that Judah is far superior to Joseph, the tribe that assumed leadership in the new country of Israel. Thus we see that Judah assumes the leadership role at the outset of the period of the judges when the tribes asked which of them is willing to be the first to attempt to conquer and hold Canaanite land, and Judah agreed to do so, while the other tribes sat back hesitantly, perhaps in fear, waiting to measure their success. Judah also takes leadership at the conclusion of the book of Judges in 20:18 where God states that Judah shall lead the people in battle. In contrast, the tribe of Ephraim, part of Joseph, attempts to assume leadership twice, in 8:1-3 and 12:1-6, and fails. Additionally, only Judah did not violate God’s command in Deuteronomy 11:31 forbidding making a treaty with the Canaanites and allowing them to remain in their land.
The chapter describes the tribe of Judah being repeatedly successful not only in defeating Canaanites in their territory but even pagans dwelling far to the north, south, and west, and doing so in valiant and intrepid battles. In contrast, all of the other tribes except Dan could only conquer some land, and the tribe of Joseph, the future leader of the northern country Israel, could only defeat a single city and then only by stealth and deception, by finding a way to enter the city without its inhabitants knowing that they were being attacked. Dan was totally unable to vanquish the land it desired and had to settle for property in the far north.
However, after a long series of successes, Judah is unable “to drive out the inhabitants of the valley because they had chariots of iron.” This scriptural explanation is straightforward and reasonable, for this was the beginning of the iron age and Israel did not yet develop the capability of using iron, as we will see also in future chapters. However, some commentators, such as Rashi, Radak, Gersonides, and others were bothered by the question, wasn’t God helping the tribes and doesn’t God have the power to overcome iron chariots? They answer that God didn’t help Judah at this time because the tribe sinned. They also use this excuse to explain the lack of success of the other tribes.
These commentators explain why God didn’t help Benjamin capture Jerusalem: Abraham had made a covenant with Abimelech in Genesis 21:23-27 that his descendants would not harm Abimelech’s descendants until the time of his great grandchildren, and Abimelech’s great grandchildren were still alive at that time.
Why did the Kenites travel from Jericho to the Judah territory? Rashi explains that they went to learn Torah from Othniel, the first judge.
The Bible is filled with stereotypical round numbers that should not be taken literally. Judah slaughters 10,000 enemy forces in 1:4; after being captured the Canaanite king Adoni-bezek told the tribe of Judah that he was repaid for what he did, he had subjugated 70 Canaanite kings; several judges are reported to have served for 40 years.
 However, while the chapter speaks about the tribe of Judah taking the initiative in fighting for land and mentions no leader, Rashi states that “there are those (who state that the words) ‘Judah shall go,’ refers to (the first judge) Othniel.” Also, while the chapter does not say so, and seems to imply that each tribe sought out its own land, with no mention that the land they wanted to acquire was land Joshua allotted to them, Rashi comments that the tribes wanted to know who will be the first tribe that will attempt to secure the land that Joshua assigned to each tribe.
 Many people understood biblical prophecies as predictions of what will occur, such as the successful conquest of Canaan, while others, such as Tosaphot Yevamot 50a, s.v. teda, and Malbim on Isaiah 11, took the prophecies as predictions of what should happen. In fact, they note that most if not all famous biblical prophecies never occurred.
 They apparently assimilated.
 As with other books of the Prophets, and as we saw in discussions of Joshua, the book has many errors. One is in this verse (19). The word “able” is missing, apparently a scribal oversight. It is added in the Septuagint Greek and the Targum Jonathan Aramaic translations.
 There is no mention in the chapter of any sin by an individual or the entire tribe of Judah.
 They assume that the Philistines who dwelt on the Mediterranean coast, for Abimelech was a Philistine, were occupying Jerusalem at that time.
 Some scholars say the Hebrew eleph should not be translated “thousand,” but military units. Thus Judah vanquished ten military units.
 Why did Judah cut off Adoni-bezek’s thumb and big toe. Judges gives no reason. Various ideas have been offered, such as: to make it impossible for him to fight if he escapes, to frighten other Canaanites who may hesitate and not fight realizing what could happen to them, and if Adoni-bezek was also a priest to disqualify him from this service.
 The number 70 also appears, among other places, in Exodus 24, Numbers 11, the heirs of Gideon in 9:2, 5; and the family of the judge Abdon in12:14. See my “Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets,” chapter 39, for a discussion of the significance of numbers in the Bible.
 In 13:1, the Philistines lorded over Israel for 40 years.