The book of Judges is not necessarily a strict, chronological history. It is a basic survey that follows from the closing years of Joshua’s ministry and runs to the beginning of Samuel’s ministry. In fact, the early chapters of Judges clearly overlap with the final events that are found in Joshua.
The book can be outlined in the following manner;
Chapters 1 and 2 provide an introduction to the entire period.
Chapters 3-16 records the key historical events.
Chapters 17-21 are like appendices of sorts. The events recorded in those chapters took place during the time between chapters 2 and 3, around the time before Othniel, the first Judge.
The time frame for the book historically is between 1390 BC to 1051 BC, roughly 340 years. Biblical historians obtain that date by syncing recorded solar eclipses and other astronomical data from Assyrian records with the start of Solomon’s reign which is placed around 970 B.C. 1 Kings 6:1 says that the foundation of the temple was laid in the fourth year after Solomon ascended to his throne, which was 966 B.C. The text goes on to state that it was also the 480th year after Israel was brought out of Egypt.
There is no reason to disregard the 480 years as genuine, historical 480 years. Counting backward 480 from 966 brings us to 1446 B.C., roughly the time of the Exodus. Israel wandered in the wilderness 40 years and once they crossed over into the land and began conquering it, they were probably a decade or so under Joshua’s leadership. Hence, the official period of the Judges would start around 1390 B.C.
Now, the conquest of the land involves the indispensable element of the promise YHWH made to the fathers that there would be eternal occupation of the land of Canaan by God’s covenant people.
Returning to Genesis 12:1, God told Abram He would take him to a land that He would show him. Later in 12:7, God appeared to Abram and promised to give the land to his descendants. God reiterated His promise as recorded in Genesis 13:14ff.; 15:7-8, and 15:18-21. The same promise is restated to Moses in Exodus 3:7,8 and 3:16,17.
YHWH delivered Israel from slavery so that Israel would be enslaved to Him and He would be their sovereign Lord. They had a King – YHWH. They had a covenant constitution – the law of Moses in Exodus. They were a nation of people, so all they needed was their land.
When we come to Joshua and Judges, Israel is being led into the promise land. Under the leadership of Joshua, the military resistance by Canaanites had been broken.
One interesting note about this time is what are called the Armana letters, a series of correspondence of vassal kings in Canaan to Pharaoh. The vassal kings complained bitterly of an incursion of the Apiru, a Nomadic people who were coming into the land plundering the various nation-states. Historians debate the identity of the Apiru, but there is good reason to think they may have had in mind Israel during the conquest.
When we come to the book of Judges, the land is not cleared of the Canaanites, but the conditions are just right for the Israelite tribes to finish the job. All the low lands were taken, but they had yet to conquer the highlands, where the choicest land was. There was a reason, according the Scripture, for why this situation remained as it did.
The Canaanites were left for the purpose of testing Israel in two important ways:
First, to test whether Israel would trust and obey God. Judges 2:20-23 states that God would no longer drive out before them any of the nations which Joshua left. That was for the purpose of testing whether or not Israel would keep the way of the Lord to walk in it as their fathers. Would Israel do what God asked of them? Would they trust His leading? In a similar way, that is like what James wrote in the first chapter of his book. God brings trials for a reason, in order to strengthen our faith and to teach us to obey his commands.
Secondly, was for the purpose of training up the next generation for war. Judges 3:1-2 states that God left those nations there in order to test Israel by them especially all the generations who had not experienced any of the wars of Canaan. It was for the purpose of that generation to be taught the ways of war. Why was that exactly?
The younger generation didn’t really know how to defend themselves or fight because they had grown up during the wilderness wanderings and the early years of the conquest when the older generation fought all the battles. Thus, they were ignorant of how important it was to fight God’s enemies and defend their inheritance.
The first chapter of Judges illustrates the importance of those two tests. After Joshua died, the Israelites rose to the challenge of driving out the Canaanites. The early record of the chapter describes those instances of them working together to drive them out the land.
Things began to go in the wrong direction when after defeating Adoni-bezek, instead of executing him, they turned him into something of a war trophy, cutting his toes and thumbs off like he had to kings he had conquered, and then taking him back to Jerusalem as a prisoner.
Later in 1:19, when Judah took possession of the hill country they could not drive out all the inhabitants because they had iron chariots. Did they trust God or call upon His help to defeat them?
The remainder of the chapter, verses 21, 27, 29, 30, 31, and 33 has the sad testimony of the people not driving out the Canaanites. Instead, what they did was compromise with them. That was truly a disastrous sin. They would let them remain in the land unharmed, but would make them pay tribute or let them live among the Israelites as forced labor. That was not what God wanted at all, and it was a serious compromise that cost Israel their souls and God’s blessing.