Israel in the Period of the Judges

Written by A. D. H. Mayes Reviewed By A. R. Millard

The hypothesis of a league binding the twelve tribes of Israel during the pre-monarchic period has been widely favoured since Martin Noth propounded it in detail in 1930. It gives an answer to the question of how the several tribes could display political and religious unity as Israel in terms of an understood historical analogy. Lately a number of criticisms have been levelled at different aspects of Noth’s reconstruction, and now Dr Mayes presents a careful scrutiny of the five key themes: the Tribal Lists, the Central Sanctuary, the Judge of Israel, the Tribal Borders, the Nature of Warfare. In each case he finds Noth’s results less than convincing. The evidence points to times before the invasion for the origin of Israel as Yahweh’s People, and to Kadesh as the place where the nation began. While the tribes entered Canaan in distinct groups and were separated by circumstances until the rise of David and Saul, they retained the same deity and unifying name.

Dr Mayes’ discussion is pursued entirely on the same level as Noth’s, that is to say, it is primarily a work of literary criticism, then of historical. Consequently passages in Deuteronomic style are automatically dated to the end of Judah’s history, the Rachel tribes are viewed separately from the Leah tribes, and the early chapters of Joshua are applied to the whole nation only at a secondary stage. The lists of tribal boundaries and territories are segmented on the same bases, though with a readiness to share Alt’s view that they contain some genuine elements. The author is ready to offer explanations of his own at some points, as in suggesting that Saul’s coronation took place at Gilgal not because that was a recognised shrine, or because of any amphictyonic element, but simply because there was no other suitable meeting place outside Philistine control. We could wish a similar, more imaginative approach could have been introduced in connection with the tribal lists. Need we suppose the invaders were totally ignorant of the land they were aiming to occupy? Perhaps we can envisage spies and scouts reporting, adding to a basic knowledge already common, as the texts describe. Then the lists may be seen as actually what they claim to be. Some areas of Canaan were more thoroughly known than others; some boundaries could be traced along recognisable natural features between towns and villages whereas others had to be defined in terms of towns and their surroundings. Difference in content can then produce a difference in form, even in lists compiled at the same time. Here the weakness in any study that looks at Old Testament history or literature without attention to its ancient context becomes clear. There are some texts from Egypt displaying knowledge of Canaan in the Ramesside period, there are cadastral surveys in cuneiform from the third millennium B.C. onwards, there are boundary descriptions in international treaties from Ugarit—all these are comparable to the Israelite lists in form or exhibit the same type of geographical knowledge. The Ugarit treaty documents have already been used in clarification of the forms in Joshua, see M. E. J. Richardson, Tyndale Bulletin 20 (1969), pp. 97–101, though there is room for much further work.

Accepting its limitations as a critique of Noth’s hypothesis on its own ground, we can be grateful for Dr Mayes’ study. All future writing on the Conquest and Judges periods will need to take account of his work as a carefully argued dissent from an influential opinion. Insofar as the existence of Israel and her faith are pushed back to Kadesh, the question of origins still remains.

A. R. Millard

University of Liverpool