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History of IsraelJudges
Although Moses was the Israelite's first true "shofet"—judge—the historical period of "Judges" begins after the death of Joshua, the student of Moses and the leader who brought the Israelites into Canaan.
Joshua was a loyal servant of Moses, as well as a powerful leader and mighty warrior. After Moses' death, Joshua brought the Israelites into the land of Canaan. Even before entering the land, Joshua exhibited his military prowess when leading the charge against the Amalekites in Rephidim, who descended on the Israelites shortly after the Exodus from Egypt. At the Jordan River, upon entering the land, the waters parted for Joshua, similar to the miracle that occurred for Moses at the Red Sea (Joshua 3-4). Joshua conquered the city of Jericho in the famous battle, then went on to defeat the nation of Ai. An alliance of Amorite kings challenged Joshua, and as that battle continued into the evening hours, Joshua prayed to God for the sun and the moon to stand still (Joshua 10) so he could complete the battle in daylight hours. The Israelites emerged victorious.
Following Joshua's death, the Israelites found themselves essentially without a leader, lacking a strong person to unite them all. Years of battle and bloodshed awaited them, as they were tasked with destroying the hostile nations living in the land, in order to truly inherit it. This decentralization of leadership threatened to undermine their efforts, and it was at this point that the "judges" arose to lead the people. The judges ruled sequentially, and their duties went beyond the legal duty of the modern judge. They were in charge of the moral and military lives of their people as well, exhorting them to follow in the ways of God, while also leading them into battle.
Although accounts differ as to whom is actually considered a "judge," based on the Books of Judges and Samuel, there is a general agreement that there were twelve judges, beginning with Othniel and ending with Samson. (Some scholars count the High Priest Eli and the Prophet Samuel as judges as well.) Of the twelve, only five are given extended narratives in the text: Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephtah, and Samson. During this period, the Israelites were successful in conquering the Land, as recounted by the thrilling stories recounted in the text. At the end of the period of the Judges, internal strife threatened to implode the Israelites from within.
In Judges 17:6, God laments the lack of leadership and lack of obedience to Divine Law. This period of divisiveness and freewheeling was ended when the Jewish people were united under their first king, King Saul. Saul was anointed (by Divine guidance, and at the request of the people) by Samuel, whose own sons were ineligible to rule due to their dishonesty.
Following the reign of Saul, with the anointing of King David, the Davidic dynasty began, ushering in the next chapter in Israelite history.