The Chronology of The Period of the Judges.

By Prof. Willis J. Beecher, D. D.

Auburn Theological Seminary, Auburn, N. Y.


The marginal references in most of our Bibles date the Exodus at 1491 B. C. This date seems to be obtained as follows:

  B. C.
Supposed date of Rehoboam's accession 975
Solomon's reign, I Kgs. X., 42; 2 Chron. IX., 30,     40 yrs.
Date of founding Temple, I Kgs. VI., 1, after Exodus,   480 yrs.
Less year of Solomon's reign, I Kgs. VI., 1; 2 Chron. III.       4


The current opinions in regard to this may be arranged in three classes: 1st, the opinions of those who, in an approximative, general way, defend the numeral 480, generally at the cost of discrediting some of the other biblical numerals. Examples are the schemes of Cassell and Bachmanin in the American edition of Lange. 2d, the opinion which discredits the 480, holding that the period was at least a century or two longer than that. An accessible presentation of this view is the article Chronology," in McClintock and Strong's Cyclopedia. 3d, the opinion which discredits the numeral 480, regarding it as, say, a century and a half too long. A clear and compact presentation of this view may be found in Lord Hervey's Introduction to the Pulpit Commentary on Judges, or in his Introduction to the Speaker's Commentary on the same book. This is certainly the prevalent opinion on the subject. if any opinion can fairly be so called. Discussions more or less full with descriptions of the literature of the subject, may be found in the articles already mentioned, and in the other introductions and articles in all the great commentaries, Bible dictionaries and other books of reference.

All these opinions, however, are confessedly based on conjecture, and not on proof. They all have this decided defect, that they discredit what ought to be the most decisive evidence in the case, namely, the explicit statements of the Old and New Testaments. None of them, therefore, can be regarded as final. The question is still open for investigation.

The subject may be conveniently treated under the form of a consideration of some of the reasons commonly assigned in favor of the shorter chronology.

1st. It is alleged that the 480 in I Kgs. may be explained as an interpolation, and the 300 in Judg. XI., 26 as a misreading. But this is only negative, and with the probabilities strongly against it. Some copies of the Septuagint, indeed, have the reading 440 instead of 480; but all the other testimony is uniform in favor of the integrity of these numerals as they now stand.

2d. Josephus, they allege, gives this interval variously as 592, 612, or 632 years, and Eusebius as 600 years, while other patristic writers give various other numerals. Evidently, this argument also has at best only a negative force, especially when it is employed in the interest of the shortened chronology; to say nothing of its being worthless by reason of the secondary and conflicting nature of the evidence on which it rests.

3d. It is alleged that the several genealogical lists contain an average of perhaps six names each for the period of the Judges, from the death of Moses to the birth of David; in other words, that they indicate a period of about six generations, that is, of something less than 200 years. This argument is admirably, though briefly, presented on page 111 of the Pulpit Commentary on Judges. It is the one argument for the shortened chronology which has some value.

But it has also decided elements of weakness. Lord Hervey, for example, counts ten genealogical lists, in all, crossing the period of the Judges. He counts these as containing from five to eight generations each. Now it is possible, and, from what we know of the Hebrew genealogies, not very improbable, that each of these lists may have omitted some of the generations. In that case, the omitted generations may be different in the different lists. It is possible that some may mention generations which some or all of the others omit, so that the true number of the generations may be larger than that of even the longest list. In fact, some scholars actually claim that some of the genealogies, that of Samuel, for instance, extend through double the above number of generations. See "Samuel," in McClintock and Strong. Questions like these can only be determined by tabulating the lists, in the light of such additional information as we can find. Until this is correctly and carefully done, the induction from a few lists, each taken by itself and unchecked by other evidence, is a very precarious basis for argument. The assertion, therefore, that the number of the generations from the Exodus to the Monarchy does not exceed even the number mentioned in the longest of the genealogical lists cannot be accepted as final.

But suppose that the tabulation had been made, and had resulted in showing that we have no reason for lengthening the lists. Lord Hervey and others, counting the generations as four or five in the shortest lists, and eight or nine in the longest, proceed by averaging them, making the period to be that of six, or at the outside, of seven generations. Palpably, this is bad arithmetic. If we count the lists as genuinely historical, the whole number of generations cannot well be less than that which appears in the longest list. It would be competent for the advocate of the short chronology to show, if he could, that the generations in some of the lists were exceptionally brief, or were properly something less than generations; but it is not competent for him to dispose of them by arbitrarily averaging the longer lists with the shorter.

But even if we waive all this, most of these men who argue that the time from the entrance into Canaan to the birth of David did not exceed that of seven generations, and was therefore not far from 200 years, themselves assign a period of 400 or more years to the four generations of the sojourn in Egypt, Gen. XV., 13, 16; Ex. VI., 16-20. No one holds that the sojourn was less than 215 years; but it was a period of four generations in the Hebrew genealogies. This and other well-known instances prove that a comparatively short list of generations may cover several centuries of time. This may be explained, in part, by the fact that it was customary to omit, in the lists, some of the links in the chain of descent. We do not know on what principles the omissions were made; but the mere fact that they were made is sufficient to prevent such inductions from the genealogies, as those which we are criticizing, from being conclusive.

4th The advocates of the shorter chronology say that their mode of procedure brings the Exodus within a few years of B. C. 1313, which is the traditional Jewish date for it. If this argument have any weight, it should lead them to adopt that date, which they seem not at all disposed to do.

5th. They say that their computation brings the Exodus to about the times of Menepthah, who is supposed to be the Egyptian Pharaoh under whom the Exodus took place; and that it is confirmed by the coincidence. But this is reasoning in a circle. The chronology of the Egyptian kings of this period is itself greatly dependent on the data given in the Bible. Except by using the biblical data, we have no adequate means of determining when Menepthah reigned. Dates thus based upon a certain interpretation of the Bible cannot be made to serve, in turn, as a basis for that interpretation.

6th. They assert that if we add the periods of rest and oppression, as given in the history, the sum is much more than 480 years; and that there is no plausible selection from the smaller numerals, which will check, and thus prove, the larger. The first of these assertions is true; the second is mistaken.

The Book of Judges consists of five parts: 1st, Preparatory matters, chaps. I. and II., 1-5; 2d, the Connected History, chaps. II., 6 to XIII, 1; 3d, the Accounts of Samson, chaps. XIII., 2 to XVI.; 4th, the Account of the Founding of Dan, chaps. XVII., XVIII.; 5th, the Account of the Benjamite War, chaps. XIX. to XXI. The prefatory matters which compose the first part were probably prefixed after the rest of the book was written. The third, fourth and fifth parts are each a complete historical composition by itself. They begin alike with the formula: "And there was a man," introducing a narrative. In paucity of chronological materials, and in being evidently out of their proper chronological order, they resemble one another, and differ decidedly from the connected history of the second part. As they clearly belong to periods of time treated in the second part, it is remarkable that the events they relate are not there mentioned. This looks as if the author of the connected history had these three narratives in his possession, already written by himself or by some one else, before he wrote the connected history, and purposely omitted the facts contained in them from his main narrative, because he intended to append them in full to that narrative. They contain, however, sufficient notices of time to enable us to determine to what place in the chronology they belong, when once we understand the chronological system employed.

Now it is quite natural to assumre that the 480 years of I Kgs. VI., 1 is intended to begin with the beginning of the forty years of the Exodus; but it puts no strain on the meaning to suppose that the intention is to date from the end of the forty years, provided we have evidence to that effect. Whether we have such evidence will appear as we pursue our investigation. If we have, the date in I Kgs. will become 480 years from the crossing of the Jordan, that is to say, 520 years from the crossing of the Red Sea.

The numbers 480 and 520 are each even multiples of forty. Taken in connection with the numerous periods of forty years which are explicitly mentioned in the historical account of those times, as given in the Bible, this fact is remarkable, and has always been so counted. The suggestion is very strong that we have here a peculiar mode of counting time, by periods of forty years; and that the expression: "The land had rest forty years," means had rest to the close of the forty year period then current.

The period of 480 years closes, approximatively, with the two forties of the reigns of David and Saul, 2 Sam. v., 4; I Kgs. II., 11; I Chron. XXIX., 27; Acts XIII., 21. The administration of Saul was preceded by an interval which included the administration of Samuel, and that by another period of forty years, during which Eli was judge, I Sam. IV., 18. We have, therefore, at the close of our long period, three forty year periods, with one interval of unspecified length.

Again, at or before the beginning of our long period, the life of Moses is described to us as consisting of three successive periods of forty years each.

Still again, the second part of the Book of Judges, which gives chronological data throughout, and therein differs from the other parts, calls our attention to the following forty year periods. It is convenient to designate them by the names of the distinguished persons or events mentioned in connection with them. We have the forty of Othniel, Judg. III., 1 ; the two forties of Ehud, Judg. III., 30; the forty of Deborah, Judg. V., 31; the forty of Gideon, Judg. VIII., 28, and that of the Philistine oppression, Judg. XIII., I. Here, then, are six forties after the crossing of the Jordan. The first five are evidently consecutive; the sixth is separated from the fifth by an interval.

With the beginning of this interval, that is, at the close of the five consecutive forty year periods from the crossing of the Jordan, there begins another succession of numbers. It is, apparently, an enumeration of the successive chief magistrates of Israel, with the number of the years of the administration of each. Up to this point, there has been nothing of this kind; but here we have the following:

Abimelech     3 years, Judg. IX., 22.
Tola   23 years, Judg. X., 1.
Jair   22 years, Judg. X., 3.
Samson   20 years, Judg. XV., 20.
Ammonite Oppression   18 years, Judg. X., 8.
Jephthah     6 years, Judg. XII., 7.
Ibzan     7 years, Judg. XII., 9.
Elon   10 years, Judg. XII., 1.
Abdon     8 years, Judg. XII., 14.
  117 years.


Except in the case of Samson, these numerals are here given in the order in which the writer of the Book of Judges gives them. The place assigned to Samson is that assigned to Bedan, I Sam. XII., 1 . The years of the Ammonite oppression are given along with those of the Judges because the narrative so gives them, this being the only item of the kind. The result, as we shall see, seems to show that we are correct in this treatment of it.

In this aggregate of 117 years, w-c have three forties lacking three years. Add the previous five forties, and the result is eight forties lacking three years. Add the three forties of Eli, Saul and David, with the three years of Solomon's reign which had elapsed before the founding of the temple, in the second month of his fourth year, and we have exactly eleven forties. Then, if the interval within which Samuel was judge lasted fort) years, we have, in it, the twelfth forty of a period of 480 years from the crossing of the Jordan.

This fitting together of the numbers is too complete to be accidental. Its completeness and exactness arc quite in contrast with the complicated and inexact combinations of numbers in most of the articles on this subject. Look at it again. In the numerals for the administrations of Abimelech and his successors, we have three complete forties, lacking three years. At the close of our long period, we have a succession of forties, plus the three years -which preceded the fourth year of king Solomon. The deficiency in the one series balances the excess in the other, making the forties even. We are able distinctly to identify eleven of the twelve forties needed to make up the number 480, and we have an interval remaining which, from the events which occurred in it, must have been about forty years, and is likely to have been just, the missing period of forty years required to make up) thc480.

This finds additional confirmation in Jephthah's assertion that, in his time, Israel had dwelt for 300 years in the cities across the Jordan, Judg. XI., 26. Of course, the 300 here is naturally expected to be a round number, and not exact. Now, of the 117 years above mentioned, 86 preceded the accession of Jephthah. Add the 86 to the five forties of Othniel, Ehud, Deborah and Gideon, and we have 286, making about 287 years during which Israel had dwelt in the cities east of the Jordan, up to the time when Jephthah was negotiating with the Am1monites. This is sufficiently near to the round number 300 to confirm the validity of both.

If our position is well taken, the forty years of the Philistine oppression, mentioned above, are probably the same with the forty years of Eli, or rather with the forty year period which terminated three years after the death of Eli; since they are mentioned at the point when the narrative is brought up to that date, and since we know that the period of Eli was a period of Philistine oppression, I Sam. IV., 9. But several other plausible hypotheses might be formed, and, among them, that the Philistine forty years was the earlier forty year period which included the time of Samson.

Our theory seems to require us either to assign forty years to the period after Eli, during a part of which Samuel was chief magistrate, or else to count that period as entirely overlapped by those of Eli and Saul. Now the Bible does not tell us the length of Samuel's administration. Josephus, Ant. VI., XIII., 5, says that it covered twelve years before the accession of Saul and eighteen after that accession. The latter numeral he repeats, Ant. VI., XIV., 9. But it is inconsistent with better established numerals, and is therefore mistaken. Saul reigned 40 years, Acts XIII., 21. David began to reign at 30 years of age, 2 Sam. V., 4; Jos. Ant. VII., XV., 2. David was therefore born about the tenth year of Saul, and was about eight years of age when Saul had reigned eighteen years. But Samuel, instead of dying at that date, lived long enough to be associated with David after David had become a man and a celebrated hero, I Sam. XIX., I9-24; Josephus Ant. VI., XIII., 5 and VI., XI., 5. The numeral 18, being thus fictitious, detracts from the trustworthiness of the numeral 12 which Josephus connects with it, as giving the years of the separate administration of Samuel. Besides, Josephus seems to have regarded the twelve years as being the whole interval after Eli's death. But the narrative makes the impression that Samuel was a young man at the death of Eli, and explicitly says that he was an old man before the accession of Saul, I Sam. VIII., 1. His administration was marked by a long interval of supremacy over the Philistines, I Sam. VII., 13, 14. His circuits as judge, I Sam. VII., I5, 16, and indeed, the whole tenor of the accounts concerning him, point to a considerable length of time during which, as judge, he was the sole chief magistrate of the commonwealth of Israel. Further, we are explicitly informed, in I Sam. VII., 2, that a part of this interval was twenty years. The whole, therefore, must be longer than the twelve years which Josephus seems to give to it. If we understand the twenty years as dating the beginning of Samuel's administration, and the twelve as giving its duration, making the interval to be 32 years, plus whatever time had elapsed before the twenty years began (I Sam. V. and VI., especially VI., 1), we get numerals that are much more plausible. But since this is a rather unnatural interpretation of the Joselphus numeral 12,and since we have found that this numeral is somewhat discredited by the bad company it keeps, and since it is uncertain whether the seven months during which the ark was in the country of the Philistines is inclusive or exclusive of the time during which it was in the Philistine cities, the proof that the interval was limited to about 32 years is of but little weight. Still less have we any other testimony that can be depended upon as to the length of time between Eli and the Monarchy. From our scheme of forties we infer that it was forty years; and the inference, at least, agrees with all the known facts in the case, and is contradicted by no trustworthy evidence.

7th. The advocates of other views assert that the numeral 480 in I Kgs. is contradicted by the 450 of Acts III., 29, if the latter numeral applies to the period of the Judges; for, they say, Acts XIII., 20. makes the reign of Saul to be 40 years, and this, with the 40 years of David, 2 Sam. v., 4, and I Chron. XXVI., 31 and XXIX., 27, and the 4 years of Solomon, I Kgs. VI., 1, added to the 450, makes a period much longer than 480 years. Hence many of them regard it as probable that the 450 years is the period of the sojourn in Egypt and the wandering, and not that of the Judges; while others hold that either the 480 or the 450 must be regarded as erroneous.

It is true that the passage in the Acts is obscure, but it is most natural, on any reading, to refer the numeral to the period of the Judges. Thus referring it, we sufficiently remove all difficulties, if we count it to be, in a merely general way, identical with the number in Kings. Nothing in the apostle's purpose required that he should be more exact than this. Or, the 450 years may bcgin earlier than the 480, and so terminate with the accession of Saul or the death of Samuel or the birth of David. On the scheme just sketched, Paul's "about 450 years" correspond well with the 437 years from the crossing of the Red Sea to the beginning of Saul's reign.

8th. Finally, it is alleged that, if the biblical numerals are correct, they designate long periods of time which are not marked by any historical events. If this were true, it would have no great weight as argument against the numerals; for long periods might naturally elapse without any events which would call for record in so brief a history. But, as it happens, the allegation is mistaken, as well as inconclusive.

In presenting our scheme we have already presented an amount of evidence for it which far outweighs that for the schemes that contradict it. But the application of any such scheme to the facts of the history ought to give us the means of testing it somewhat more decisively. It is supposable, at the outset, that the facts may be found to be absolutely inconsistent with it. Or they may be found to be barely capable of being adjusted to it, in which case, they must be regarded as, on the whole, confirming it, unless they can be shown to agree better with some other equally plausible scheme. Or again, they may be found to fit it so readily, and to be so illuminated by it, as to make the confirmation altogether decisive. The actual state of the case approaches at least as near to the third as to the second of these alternatives.

According to the scheme just presented, the events of the first forty years after the crossing of the Jordan were the fighting of the great battles of the conquest, the accomplishing of certain of its minor details, mentioned in Joshua and in the first chapters of Judges, the distribution of the land west of the Jordan, followed, after a little, by the oppression of Cushan Rishathaim, lasting eight years, and the deliverance under Othniel, Judg. III., 9.

The events of the second and third periods of forty years were the eighteen years' oppression by Moab, with the deliverance under Ehud, Judg. III., 12-30; then the Danite expedition, Judg. XVII., XVIII., and after a little, the Benjamite war, Judg. XIX.-XXI. That the Danite expedition was previous to the times of Samson appears from the fact that it gave the name to the place Mahaneh-Dan, Judg. XVIII., 12, which name it still bore when Samson lived, Judg. XIII., 25. That it was before the time of the Benjamite war appears from the fact that it established Israelite settlements in Dan, where they had not been before, Judg. XVIII., 29 and context, and that the Benjamite war found the settlements there, Judg. XX., 1. That the Benjamite war was early in the times of the Judges appears from the fact that "Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron" was then living, Judg. XX., 28. Moreover, the remnant of Benjamin obtained their wives largely from the maidens who attended the out-door dances in connection with the Lord's feast at Shiloh, Judg. XXI., 19-23, In the nature of things, these women must have been mostly Ephraimites; and their homes in Benjamin were not very far from those of their Ephraimite relatives. It follows that, for a generation or two after, and never at any other time in history, the people of Benjamin might be counted as "among the peoples" of Ephraim. They are so counted in the song of Deborah, Judg., V., 14. This shows that the Benjamite war occurred long enough before the middle of the forty year period of Deborah, so that then a generation of Benjamite warriors had already sprung up, whose blood relation to Ephraim had not yet become distant. Other items of evidence might be added, but these are sufficient to show that the eighty years of Ehud were not an empty period in history, but were marked by stirring events. We must not omit to notice, however, that the war with Benjamin was bloody and demoralizing; and must have left Israel in a condition which afforded his enemies a tempting opportunity to band together against him.

Such a banding together was, in fact, the characteristic event of the fourth forty year period from the crossing of the Jordan. In the north was the oppression for twenty years by the Canaanite king Jabin, from which Deborah and Barak delivered Israel, Judg. Iv., 3. Contemporaneous with this, and probably a part of the same movement, was a Philistine oppression in the southern parts of the country, from which Shamgar was the deliverer, Judg. X., 1 ; V., 6 and III., 31. The mention of this is very brief, but it seems to have been a severe oppression. Shamgar's weapon was an ox-goad. In Judg. v., 8, Deborah asks:

"If a shield may be seen, or; spear
Among forty thousand in Israel?"

These seem to be indications that the Philistines, at this early period, employed the same policy of disarmament which they afterward enforced in the days of Saul. The events of the fifth period were the Midianite oppression of seven years, and the deliverance under Gideon, Judg. VI.-VIII. This was followed by the unsuccessful attempt to establish a kingdom, with Gideon for the first monarch, Judg. VIII., 22, 23.

The sixth period opens with the short reign of Abimelech. That so weak and bad a king as Abimelech should have succeeded in maintaining himself even for three years, with sufficient prestige to entitle his name to be in the list of Israel's chief magistrates, is a fact which shows how strongly the idea of monarchy had taken hold of the minds of the people. Gideon's refusal and Abimelech's folly prevented the idea from being the realized; but from that time, the chief magistrates of Israel followed one another in regular succession, and( the years of each successive judge appear in the record.

At the time of the close of the sixth period, the Philistines had so far recovered from the chastisement they received under Shamgar, that they were again oppressing Israel, Judg. XIII., 5, and X., 7; I Sam. XII., 9, 1 . During the first decade of the seventh period, Samson's public life began. At that time, the Philistines had secured from Israel an acknowledgement of allegiance, Judg. XIV., 4 and XV., 11, etc. By his exploits, especially at his death, .Samson appears actually to have accomplished the promises of deliverance that were made through him. At least, the violence of the Philistine oppression was broken. But this oppression was at once succeeded by another not less distressing that of the Ammonites, which lasted eighteen years, that is, till after the close of this period, Judg. X., 7, 8, 9, etc. The seventh period may fairly be called that of Samson, and the sixth, the period next before that of Samson.

The eighth period begins during the Ammonite oppression. It includes the deliverance under Jephthah, the civil war that followed, the three brief administrations which succeeded, and the first three years of Eli. Perhaps it was near the close of this period, after the bitterness caused by the Ammonite war had subsided, that Elimelech went to the country of Moab to sojourn, Ruth I. This period is naturally named after Jephthah.

The ninth period is that of Eli, extending to three years after his death. It was a period of religious corruption, I Sam. I.-IV., and of servitude to the Philistines, I Sam. IV., 9. Near its close, a determined effort was made to throw off the yoke, I Sam. IX. The Israelites were signally defeated, and the ark captured.

The tenth period is that of Samuel, When it opens, Israel is in subjection, the ark and the sanctuary are separated, and Israel has no chief magistrate; but Samuel is already universally recognized as the Lord's prophet, and as a man of prime influence. For more than twenty years, he labors to elevate the public sentiment of the nation to a degree which will render it feasible to make a movement for independence and public reforms. At the end of that time, he places himself at the head of a carefully planned movement, accepts the chief magistracy, I Sam. VII., 6, achieves independence by a single decisive victory, and enters upon a remarkably successful administration, I Sam. VII., IX., X., XII. Three years before the close of the period occurred the bloodless revolution by which the theocracy was transformed into a monarchy, with Saul for the first king.

The eleventh period is that of the reign of Saul. It is a time of vicissitudes such as Israel has never before seen. Under their new king, the people are sometimes victorious, and sometimes reduced to servitude of unprecedented severity, I Sam. XI., XIII., XIV., etc.

The twelfth period of forty years covers the last thirty-seven years of the reign of David, with the first three of Solomon. Israel, hitherto a loose confederacy of tribes, maintaining a precarious existence, within narrow limits, on the two banks of the Jordan, became a strong empire, extending from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates.

So brief a sketch, of course, does not exhibit the historical sequence of the events as they would be exhibited in a fuller presentation of them. But even this sketch is sufficient to complete the proof which has been given, in this article, of the following four propositions:

First, it is possible to make a complete scheme of the biblical numerals for the period of the Judges, including every one of them, without a discrepancy or an improbability, or a word of special explanation for any special case. Merely upon the pointing out of the principles which govern the chronological statements of this period, every date falls at once into place. After the crossing of the Jordan, there were five consecutive periods of forty years each, defined as such; then three periods of forty years each, defined by other numerals; then four periods of forty years each, defined approximately by the terms of office of Eli, Saul and David, and by the historical facts concerning Samuel; making in all the required 480 years from the crossing of the Jordan to the Founding of the Temple. So far as the periods are concerned, however, it would still be supposable that some of them may have been contemporaneous instead of successive, thus reducing the aggregate to 480 years from the crossing of the Red Sea, or even bringing it within yet shorter limits. But the remaining three propositions seem to weigh against this.

Sccondly, on applying this chronology to the events, it becomes at once clear that all the persons who are called Judges of Israel were in good faith, actual chief magistrates of the nation. No two administrations were contemporaneous. We have no further occasion for guessing that one was military judge, and another merely civil judge, and that one officiated only in Northeast Israel, and another only in Southwest Israel. We need waste no further ingenuity in trying to combine into one the four separate Philistine oppressions of the days of Shamgar, of Samson, of Eli, and of Saul; or in explaining away the supposed incongruities of the four accounts, since these have no existence, but are mere results of an attempt to identify things which are different.

Thirdly, using this chronology, all the recorded events of the period, without exception, readily find their places in an intelligible order; while, to a large extent, the order is such that we can trace the sequences, and see how one condition of affairs sprang from another.

Fourthly, except in the case of the undated events recorded in the three separate treatises which narrate the history of Samson, that of the Danite expedition and that of the Benjamite war, our chronology finds the events to have occurred in substantially the order in which they arc related in the narratives.

As much as this can hardly be said of the other current schemes. From the Egyptian monuments or from other sources, we may sometime obtain more explicit evidence on many of these points. Nothing much short of new and explicit evidence can set aside such proof as has just been sketched of the true interpretation of the biblical chronology for the period of the Judges