Many Tribes or One Nation?

The Concept of Nation in Relation to Israel in the Period of the Judges.

In discussing the concept of nation within Israel’s political, social and/or religious structure during the period of the Judges it becomes imperative, first of all, to remove the obstacle of modern concepts of nationhood from the equation, in favour of attempting to determine the nature of the unity expressed by the final author(s) of Judges. To this end, this paper will try to ascertain the characteristics of the “nation” being claimed in the finished work and then decide, using existing scholarship about supporting and/or contradictory evidence within Judges, whether the claim appears valid. Separating early or core stories from the redactions that followed will help in focussing on the most likely circumstances that existed, as well as the nature and extent of the rhetoric and propaganda used by the redactor(s) to recast the period in a different light.  

Modern concepts of nation, for westerners at least, serve to confuse the issue when considering the question of whether Judges-era Israel was tribally structured or nationally united in some manner. Nationhood, in the sense of countries having sovereign and fixed national borders and central governmental structures, is a relatively modern concept for Europeans, occurring in the West only over the last three to five centuries, and one that may yet be more idealistic than true. Despite a general feeling that modern national boundaries are fixed, a study of world maps covering just the last century shows that the borders and sovereignty of nations tends to be rather fluid. National identity, therefore, has also been somewhat tenuous, shifting with the ideological, religious or political powers and philosophies that were dominant at various times. Since current definitions of nationhood have failed to properly explain phenomena such as the indigenous American nations, the nation of Islam, and the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and other communist bloc entities, it seems folly to apply them retroactively to form an opinion of Israel’s unity in the period of Judges. Dominant cultures and powers, and the extent they recognize and respect the sovereignty of other national or ethnic entities, more fully determine any people’s claim to unity and self-rule. The question faced, then, might better be expressed as whether Israel represented, in the period of Judges, a body politic or religious institution that was truly some type of dominant force over the people claimed to be united.

The books of Joshua and Judges recount the story, or stories, of Israel’s settlement of Canaan and their first centuries residing in the land. On a cursory reading, the two books seem to form a progressive history, but this view fails under closer scrutiny. It becomes apparent that various redactions have formed something more akin to theological development in story-telling as opposed to anything that is historically accurate.[1]  Intrinsic to the flow of the narrative was what Soggins termed, “the ideological thesis of the twelve federated tribes in the prehistoric period.”[2]  Ultimately, it is this ideological thesis that needs examination.

The book of Joshua depicts the occupation of Canaan by a unified Israel and the division of the land between the individual tribes, albeit with echoes within that decry both the unity of the conquerors and extent of the conquest. Rather than the unified defeat of Canaan, Judges recounts a partially successful occupation that resulted in skirmishes of individual Israelite tribes, usually in concert with a limited number of other clans, generally against Canaanites who beleaguered the Israelites’ very existence. Within the introduction, Judah and Simeon are described as being successful in their efforts to occupy much of Canaan (1:1-20, 22-26), while Benjamin, Manasseh, Ephraim, Zebulun, and other northern tribes did not achieve total occupation of the land, opting instead for partial conquest, relocation, and treaties or other arrangements with the Canaanites (1:21, 27-36). From a theological perspective, God is described as being with Judah and Simeon, as well as Joseph initially, but God punishes the various Joseph or northern tribes for their inappropriate behaviour by leaving the Canaanites in their midst (2:20-3:4).

Unity is claimed, although tentatively, in the recurrent stories of shophtim[3] who, in many cases, deliver Israel from oppression by other powers, issuing in periods of peace in the land. According to the narrative, periods of subjugation to ‘foreign’ powers were allowed or instituted by God to punish Israel for the people’s apostasy. In actuality, the unity claimed in Judges is wholly dependent on the validity of the claims for nationhood made in Joshua, since the stories in Judges are constructed to tell of a society in the process of disintegration. A literal reading of the two books depicts a narrative of ordered political structure gained and subsequently lost due to the recurrent themes of Israel doing evil in the sight of the Lord (e.g. 2:11, 3:7, 4:1, etc.) and doing what was right in their own eyes (17:6, 21:25).

The book of Judges is a compilation of various stories, generally thought to consist of both prehistoric oral traditions and written documents, pulled together within a connecting framework of much later origin.[4] The earlier traditions that make up the deliverer stories seem to possess little, in content or concept, that would indicate the presence of nationhood. These sagas, to varying degrees, fit the deliverer pattern laid out in Judges 2:11-19.[5] Setting aside the story of Othniel (3:7-11) as a later fabrication or insertion, possibly to bring the number of judges to twelve and to include Judah as the source of a deliverer[6], the deliverer stories depict the errant behaviour, resultant judgment by God, punitive foreign oppression, some semblance of repentance, raising of a deliverer, liberation and resulting peace of particular tribes that were earlier described as errant in the introduction of Judges. These areas, at a later time, become collectively known as Israel. The stories are considered by most to be legends originating in various regions and tribes, and depict localized tribal battles fought by, at best, regional tribal alliances[7].

The narratives of Deborah and Barak provide an interesting glimpse into this pattern. The Song of Deborah (5:1-31) is considered one of the oldest and finest examples of poetry in the Hebrew Bible. It has been surmised by many that the Song predated the prose version (4:1-24), despite the general assumption that it was a later inclusion into the book of Judges, and that the prose was based in large part on the poem.[8] Lindars took exception to these assumptions and concluded that each were relatively independent of the other in their original forms, but that some smoothing may have occurred in editing.[9] In either case, the treatment of tribes in both versions proves interesting. According to Lindars, who went to great lengths to distinguish between the original prose narrative and later additions and glosses, much of Chapter 4 was added at later times. The original began, he wrote, with v.4 “Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, sent and summoned Barak …”, leaving out any mention of her “judging Israel” or being in Ephraim. Likewise, Lindars maintained that the second half of v.7 and all v.10 were glosses. If these are removed, the remainder of the narrative contains no regional or tribal assignments. In contrast, the poetic version lists ten tribes, some of which are different from the classic twelve tribe list. Avoiding the tangent of Lindars’ interesting discussions about the actual age of the poem, it is nonetheless pertinent that there are such major differences in the way tribes are treated in the two accounts.

Not surprisingly the southern tribes, Judah, Simeon and Levi, are not mentioned, but the omission of Manasseh and Gad demands explanation. Moreover Machir and Gilead … are treated as equivalent to the rest in status. Dan appears to be located on the coast, contrary to its early position in the Shephelah or its later position in upper Galilee.”[10]

The primary interest in this tribal listing is the doubt it casts on the validity of the tribal accounts in Joshua. Since the claim to Israel’s fading unity in Judges is based largely on the conquest of the land and tribal allocations as depicted in Joshua, the contradictions found in the Song of Deborah present a problem. Either the tribal accounts in the Deborah narrative are earlier than those in Joshua, showing that the Joshua account as a later construction is fallacious or overstated, or these variations show that the tribal structure and identity were somewhat fluid or nebulous, decrying the organizational underpinnings that would engender a tribal confederacy. The remaining individual stories contained in Judges, with the possible exception of the concluding story of the united Israel assault of Benjamin (19:1 -21:25), narrate the efforts of very limited numbers of the tribes.

The notion of a tribal confederacy of all Israel, as opposed to a national entity, has been proposed by many to explain the organization of the Israelites. The aforementioned Song of Deborah lends some credibility to the notion of a confederacy, with its list of six participating and four abstaining tribes, but the idea of confederacy is hardly synonymous with any sense of unity, since it can be rather broad in its meaning. One of the ways in which structure has been construed is by likening Israelite society to the Greek and Italian amphictyonies – city-states in “sacral union around a common sanctuary”.[11] The main arguments against this view revolve around the concept of an amphictyony as a “limited arm of autonomous city-states to achieve certain purposes.”[12] The amphictyony, an association that provided a monthly rota for the care of the central temple and possibly some governance issues, existed amongst other types of socio-political alliances that served different purposes for the same populations. In the case of the social structure demonstrated in Judges, no other alliances were allowable and the tribes were actually aligned against existing Canaanite city-states – in the words of Gottwald, “anti-state”. In short, it appears that this type of organization was one tool the Greeks and Italians of a later date used to defend their city-states and sanctuaries from outsiders, whereas the Israelites appeared to be the outsiders against whom the Canaanite city-states defended themselves.

The other sagas included in Judges do not decry the claim of some form of confederation or alliance between various tribes at different times. These instances, however, could be easily understood as temporary tribal coalitions to attack or defend against common enemies. In the Ehud story (3:12-30) the battle was initiated by Benjamin and joined by Ephraim, while in the Jephthah narrative (11:1-12:7) the Ephraimites were insulted by not being invited into the battle with the Gileadites and waged war against them. There is some sense in these narratives that the tribes may be vying for some form of leadership or hegemony, but there is no sense of a central dominating or ruling group that maintains an all-tribe federation. Even the apparently central element of Yahweh worship does not indicate any necessarily uniform or systematized worship practices that bind the tribes into a religious union. 

If, as Soggins suggests, Judges represents part of an “ideological thesis of the twelve federated tribes”, what was the aim of finished product? Most agree that the goal was the dissemination of a theological, rather than historical, message. While the exact dating is unknown, it is generally accepted that the final version of Judges was post-exilic.[13] The pre-monarchic, central stories were told, written, collected and redacted time and again over several hundred years. The final author, then, presumably had some knowledge or sources of information of the major events leading up to the period of the exile – the monarchic period, the divided monarchy, the northern exile and, perhaps most importantly, the southern exile. Judges can be seen as part of a larger discourse, generally called the Deuteronomistic History that, through moral and theological perspectives, attempts to come to terms with the loss of the land, or that which was promised to Israel by God.

In Joshua, as mentioned earlier, DH depicted the almost total conquest of Canaan by an Israel united under Joshua of Judah. In the manner in which the narratives flow, Judges depicts the deterioration of both the occupation and unity under one particular type of human leadership – “judges” or deliverers. In later instalments, it becomes apparent that the monarchy, promoted as the better form of human governance in the concluding chapters of Judges, also fails to live up to its calling, eventually resulting in the exile of Israel and Judah. One of the central tenets of DH is Israel as theocracy; a unique nation governed by God. While certainly not the only issue contained in Judges, this tenet is a dominating thread coursing through much of DH work in Judges.

Propaganda is a form of communication aimed at convincing large numbers of people of the validity of a particular claim or agenda. Sometimes it is used to promote a belief that is simply not true, but generally it expounds on issues or events in which truth may be present, just not necessarily obvious. Just as it has been used in the perpetration of great evil, it can also be used in the promotion of good and right ideals. Is Judges, among other things, an example of propaganda aimed at convincing the post-exilic Jewish community that it has a divinely called position as God’s chosen people in the land, and that it has a history of direct governance by God? In order to make the claim of being a divinely called and governed nation under God, either some commonality or unity of the Israelite people had to exist in times past when the call occurred, or a particular event had to happen which gave them a new identity. Absent the latter, it appears DH set out to emphasize, or create, the former.

If the assumption of propaganda is true, DH would set out to tell a story of acquisition of the land with the blessings of God, but followed by an explanation of the loss of the divine gift. The pattern in Joshua fits the first requirement, almost total God-directed conquest, just as the compilation in Judges begins the long descent into exile. The eventual loss of land, and therefore identity, by the Israelites had to be the result of human behaviour and it would make sense that it would be primarily caused by the first Israelites to be so sternly punished. Hence, the stories focus the erroneous behaviour – apostasy, doing evil in the sight of the Lord, and doing what was right in their own eyes rather than as directed by God – of the tribes that eventually made up the northern kingdom, those that were exiled first. The story also had to be told with hope, a way in which the Israelites could regain that which was promised to them. It, therefore, had to be a prescriptive document educating the Israelites about the behaviour that was errant, as well as the behaviour that would curry God’s favour and rekindle the covenant promise.

Pre-existent unity had to be a central component of this set of arguments. There are several theories about the origins of the Israelites, and most do not include these people having common ethnic, geographic or national identities. Reasonable arguments can be made for the Hebrews being somehow related to the ‘Apiru, a general group described in Egyptian sources as anyone challenging Egyptian authority.[14] An equally tenable argument is that they were of ethnically and socioeconomically mixed peasant origins and revolted against the Canaanite city-states forming and reforming tribal entities in the process.[15] In any case, DH had to go to considerable lengths to create the appearance of a common, united, national history for this disparate people to have a God-given claim to the land. It is possible to still see the works of DH used by some to make this claim. Joshua, Judges and the books that follow are used in article on the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs website to justify the presence and activity of the modern state of Israel, citing the chosen nature of the Jews to possess the land and the need for the state to function as a theocracy through republicanism.[16] The question of Israel’s claim to nationhood and possession of the land, in its simplest terms, may not be so much different now than it was two and half millennia ago.

In the final analysis, of course, the answer to the question of tribal or national status for Israel in the period of the Judges is unknown. The evidence points to the tribal existence of an ethnically mixed population in the land of Canaan that, in times of need, aligned themselves for mutual benefit. Intertribal battles are recorded, however, that mitigate arguments of a nation with a central unifying social, political or religious structure. The need for the appearance of unity, being apparent to DH at a much later time, may have been incorporated into the book of Judges to justify the claim of the nation of Israel to the land promised by God.


Bandstra, Barry. 1999. Reading the Old Testament. Online version, Hope College Department of Religion website, (Holland, MI.) http://www.hope.edu/academic/religion/bandstra /RTOT/RTOT.HTM.*

Elazar, Daniel J. 1993. “The Book of Judges: The Israelite Tribal Federation and its Discontents.” Biblical Studies page, Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs website. (Jerusalem, Israel) http://www.jcpa.org/dje/articles/judges.htm.*

Geoghegan, Jeffrey C. 2003. ” “Until This Day” and the Pre-Exilic Redaction of the Deuteronomistic History”, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 122, No. 2, Summer 2003, (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature)

Gottwald, Norman K. 1985. The Hebrew Bible – A Socio-Literary Introduction. (Philadelphia: Fortress press.)

Hayes, John H. and Miller, J. Maxwell. 1977. Israelite & Judaean History. Old Testament Library Series. (London: SCM Press Ltd.)

Lindars, Barnabas. 1995. Judges 1-5: A New Translation and Commentary. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark).

Olson, Dennis T. 1998. “The Book of Judges”, Volume II of The New Interpreter’s Bible – A Commentary in 12 Volumes. (Nashville: Abingdon Press.) Accessed through online subscription to Cokebury’s iPreach Biblical resources available at http://www.cokesburylibraries.com/NXT/.*

Soggin, J. Alberto. 2001. Israel in the Biblical Period: Institutions, Festivals, Ceremonies, Rituals. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark).

* These texts, being electronic versions structured within Java framework, have neither numbered pages nor individual url’s. An effort was made to identify them by subtitle and paragraph number with the section.


[1] Lindars, 99

[2] Soggin, 9

[3] ~yjip.v, usually translated Judges, seems to refer more to the general meaning of leading, as opposed to the specific purpose of judicial review.

[4] Hayes, 287-288.

[5] Lindars, 101-107.

[6] Lindars, 129-135, .

[7] Hayes, 310-311

[8] Olson, “Judges 4.1-5.31”,  ¶10

[9] Lindars, 165-175.

[10] Lindars, 213.

[11] Hayes, 299.

[12] Gottwald, 282.

[13] Proposed by M. Noth – generally accepted by most of the sources used incl. Gottwald, 103-104,Hayes, 218-  221.

[14] Hayes, 248-251.

[15] Gottwald, 284-288.

[16] Elazar. No attempt was made to determine the “official” nature of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. It was sufficient for this paper to draw attention to a pattern of use for Judges that in some ways mirrors its use by DH. Whether this article was mainline or marginal in political thought, a majority or minority view, official or unofficial, seemed insignificant to this paper.

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