Is the Book of Judges Really History? (Part 1)

The book of Judges spans approximately 300 years (ca. 1365–1065 BC) and opens with the Israelites, settled in Canaan, continuing their conquest of the Canaanites (1:1; cf. 2:1–3). The 12 judges of this period were charged with leading Israel’s military and directing the nation to worship God.

However, many critical scholars discredit the veracity of Judges. We will explore why we must defend biblical history and examine the archaeological evidence that supports the book’s historicity.

Israeli archaeologist and professor Israel Finkelstein is a popular author and in-demand speaker. His beliefs influence millions worldwide. He wrote, “The Bible’s stirring picture of righteous Israelite judges—however powerful and compelling—has very little to do with what really happened in the hill country of Canaan in the Early Iron Age.”1

Finkelstein and other scholars assign a later date to the period of the judges than is warranted by the biblical text (Late Bronze Age) because they reject internal biblical chronology. They believe the narrative of Judges is merely moral storytelling from a much later time, an ancient Near East practice.

This understanding uses historical criticism—reading a text in its context. Although historical criticism is a valid and useful means of interpretation, and archaeological evidence helps reveal the ancient context, higher critical assumptions have hijacked it for biblical interpretation by denying Scripture’s divine inspiration and inerrancy.

This higher critical assumption, now shared by many neo-evangelical scholars, restricts the biblical authors to knowledge from their time and to the influence of the dominant religious viewpoints of their culture. While the biblical authors may have adapted and reacted to the epic myths of their day, critics believe the authors’ understanding was still governed by these cultural realities. As Robin Baker, professor of Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the University of Winchester, explains,

Some of the [literary] features of Judges [as heroic epics] . . . militate against defining the book as an objective chronicle of an epoch in Israel’s national life. These characteristics, while limiting the value of Judges as a historical record of the Settlement, are entirely consistent with the approach to recording the past in the dominant literary tradition in Syro-Palestine at the time when the work was written, namely, the Mesopotamian tradition. For the Assyrians, as demonstrated in their royal inscriptions and . . . mythological explanatory works, it was not historical verisimilitude in the recording of data, but the theological message conveyed by, and sometimes concealed within, the narrative, which gave such works their purpose and value. I submit that Judges merits appraisal as an outstanding model of the ancient Near Eastern genre of theological commentary on the past.2

Without divine revelation that distinguished Israel from the nations and gave it its land and a covenantal basis for existence, the accounts of Judges have no promise of future fulfillment, only an immediate sensation of personal inspiration.

Furthermore, if the text claims historicity but depends too heavily on ancient, nonhistorical myths, then who cares today what an ancient culture thought about God or morality? If truth that comes from God does not transcend time, then why should people allow it to shape their lives? Empty moralizing without absolutes has caused many contemporary Christians to deconstruct their faith and prompted people without faith to justify rejecting God and pursuing what culture promotes.

Israel alone was bequeathed biblical prophecy. God revealed it to the Israelites because from their line would come the Messiah, giving the light of God’s future promises to the world. God has preserved Scripture through every conceivable threat, ensuring that the unchangeable truth of His Word will affect every culture throughout history.

ENDNOTES
      1. Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed (New York, NY: The Free Press, 2001), 122.
      2. Robin Baker, “The Book of Judges: A Spiritual History?” The Bible and Interpretation, August 2016 (bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/2016/08/bak408031).

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