Each of the different judges ruled a particular region, therefore some of their terms probably overlapped. Several of them could have given leadership to the nation at the same time. After all, travel wasn’t easy back then. It appears that Jephthah was busy with the Ammorites in Transjordan and at the same time Samson was concerned with the Philistines to the west. The period of judges spans about 325 years from the death of Joshua to the anointing of Saul as the first king.
The Cycles of Apostasy
The Book of Judges records seven cycles of apostasy. They always began with a relapse into sin and idolatry, which was then disciplined by God. Sin brought ruin and servitude under a foreign power, the Israelites would cry out in repentance, and God would raise up a spirit-empowered “deliverer”, or judge. The judges provided military, and sometimes spiritual, leadership for the people during these times. After being restored through a particular judge’s leadership, the people would enjoy a period of peace and then fall right back into idolatry once again. This was a vicious cycle for all these 325 years.
Mesopotamian Oppression – the first punishing oppressor, Cushan-rishathaim, came from the far north. “Mesopotamia” literally translates “Aram of the two rivers”. which is a reference to the Tigris-Euphrates valley. After eight years of servitude to these foreign oppressors, the people repented and God raised up Othniel, Caleb’s younger half-brother, to deliver Israel. Then the people enjoyed peace for 40 years.
Moabite Oppression – they were Israel’s neighbors in the Transjordan area, and they captured Jericho and subjugated the people for 18 years before the Lord raised up Ehud, a left-handed Benjamite, to deliver them. Ehud was called the cloak-and-dagger judge. He slew Eglon, the king of Moab, and the Israelites quickly destroyed the Moabite army. 80 years of peace followed after this – the longest such time in the period of the judges.
Canaanite Oppression – Israel’s next apostasy was followed by 20 years of oppression under Jabin, king of Canaan, who reigned at Hazor. Joshua had conquered Hazor, but the Caananites apparently rebuilt the city. When Israel cried out for help, God raised up Deborah, a godly woman who was already serving in a judicial capacity in Israel. She called on Barak to take command of the Israelite forces and draw Jabin’s army into battle. Barak and Deborah assembled their forces on Mount Tabor in the Valley of Jezreel. Sisera, Jabin’s general, gathered the Canaanite chariot force, crossed the upper reaches of the Kishon, and then proceeded toward Mount Tabor. As the Israelites descended upon the Canaanites from the mount, a sudden rainstorm caused the Kishon to swell and overflow. The Canaanite war chariots became suck in the mire, and General Sisera fled on foot before meeting death at the hands of Jael. 40 years of peace followed Israel’s deliverance by Deborah and Barak.
Midianite Oppression – this was the fourth oppression that was brought upon Israel. They were aided by some desert tribesmen, the Amalekites. After 7 years of unhindered pillage, the people once again repented. For their deliverance, God raised up Gideon, who lived in the village of Ophrah, which was located in the Valley of Jezreel where the attacks had been centered. Gideon gained recognition and a new name, Jerubbaal (let Baal content), by delivering his town’s people from the influence of Baal worship. When the Midianites and their allies assembled in the Valley of Jezreel for battle, Gideon gathered his army of 32,000 at the foot of Mount Gilboa and camped at the spring of Harod. The Midianites were just across the valley on the north side of the hill of Moreh. As the Lord had commanded, Gideon surprised the enemy with a night attack by his much-reduced army of 300 men. The remnants of the Midianite troops were pursued back to Transjordan, and the people enjoyed another 40 years of rest.
Abimelech’s Oppression – After the death of Gideon, Abimelech, his son by a concubine, claimed the kingship that his father had rejected. He secured his throne by killing Gideon’s other sons and reigned for three years at Arumah between Shechem and Shiloah. He suffered a terrible death while besieging Thebez. Israel’s restoration after the rebellion of Abimelech probably took place under the leadership of Tola and Jair.
Ammonite Oppression – Judges 10:6 says that the Israelites served not only the false gods of Canaan, but also those of Aram, Sidon, Moab, Ammon, and Philistia. Adopting the religious customs of their neighbors brought God’s discipline once again to the people of Israel. God delivered his people into the hands of the Philistines and Ammonites. In response to Israel’s cry of repentance, God gave his people deliverance through Jephthah, one of the most interesting and problematic judges.
Philistine Oppression – The last major cycle of apostasy recorded in Judges resulted in 40 years of oppression by the Philistines. They had migrated from the Aegean Islands around 1168 B. C., and had eventually settled on Israel’s southern coastal plain and gained control of the coastal plain north to Mount Carmel, including the Jezreel Valley all the way to the Jordan River. To deliver Israel from them, the Lord raised up Samson. He had great potential for leadership and service, but his spiritual unfaithfulness and unbridled passions prevented him from fully delivering the Israelites from the Philistine menace.
History of the Jezreel
When the Israelites first conquered Palestine, they occupied the hill country, but the Canaanites and their powerful chariot forces maintained control of the plains and lowlands, including the Jezreel. Most of the valley was allotted for the half-tribe of Manaseeh, with this land being shared with Zebulun and Naphtali in the north. Neither of these tribes took full possession of the Jezreel because of the Canaanites living in the land. This valley continued as a battlefield and “no-man’s land” until the conquests of David. It is probable that at this time the Levitical cities in the Jezreel (Jokneam, Taanach, Kishion, and Daberath) became functional as cities of refuge. When Solomon later organized his kingdom into 12 administrative units, the Jezreel was divided among the fifth, ninth, and tenth districts.
At the division of the monarch in 931 B. C., the Valley of Jezreel fell to the northern kingdom. A fragment of a stele indicates that the Egyptians captured Megiddo in the time of Pharaoh Shishak in 924 B. C. The plain was again under Israelite control in the days of Omri and Ahab, who maintained a winter capital at Jezreel. It was in 733 B. C. that the Assyrian forces of Tiglath-pileser III captured Galilee and the Jezreel from the northern kingdom. The Valley of Jezreel, with Galilee, became an Assyrian province and continued as such until the days of Josiah, who took advantage of Assyria’s weakness and extended his rule into Samaria, the Jezreel, and possibly Gilead.
After Nebuchadnezzar’s victory at the battle of Carchemish in 605 B. C., all the land of Israel fell under the domination of Babylon. The king would have passed through this valley on his way to pillage and besiege Jerusalem.
During the Roman rule, the valley was thought to have been neutral territory. The eastern extension of the Jezreel (the Harod Valley) was part of the Decapolis. Jesus grew up in the hills of Nazareth, which overlooked the valley, and there is at least one reference to his traveling through the valley to Nain in Luke 7: 1 1.
The map below shows all Israel’s oppressors and which direction they came from.
The Cites of the Jezreel
There were many important cities in this valley. Among them are the following: Megiddo, Beth-shean, Jezreel, Taanach, Ibleam, and Dothan. The first two are the greatest in historical significance, and it is these that we will describe more in depth.
This ancient Canaanite and Israelite city was located on the southern side of the Jezreel Valley about 22 miles southeast of today’s Haifa. It was strategically situated to guard the major pass through Mount Carmel and also to control travel along the Via Maris. The site also served as a junction with the road going northwest to Acco and southeast to Beth-shean.
The first historical mention of Megiddo occurs in the annals of Tuthmose III, who defeated a Canaanite army nearby in 1468 B. C. Megiddo was a strong Canaanite city-state at the time of Joshua’s conquest and was among the Canaanite cities not originally taken by the Israelites. The city later became an Israelite possession in the time of David and was fortified by Solomon. The multiple defense gate at Megiddo is identical to the gates at Hazor and Gezer. Excavations there have uncovered a large palace, probably the governor’s residence. There have also been other numerous structures uncovered containing feeding troughs, and storage facilities.
The city had a well-planned water system, with a 224-foot tunnel leading from the interior of the city to a spring outside the city walls. This ensured safe access to water in time of siege. The city fell to the Assyrians in 733 B. C. and Josiah was killed near there in 609 B. C. In post-biblical times, both Napoleon (1799) and Allenby (1918) defeated Turkish forces there, and according to Revelation 16:16, it appears that a great apocalyptic battle is destined to occur at this site.
This ancient city was situated at the crossroads of two valleys – the eastern (Harod) extension of the Jezreel and the Jordan. This strategic site controlled north-south traffic between the Jezreel and Transjordan. The site is mentioned in Egyptian sources from the time of Tuthmose 111 (15th Century B. C.). It was, along with Megiddo, one of the Canaanite cities that was not captured by the Israelites at the time of the conquest. During Saul’s reign, it was in the hands of the Philistines, and the bodies of Saul and his sons were displayed on the walls of Beth-shean after they were killed in battle. David appears to have captured the city as his kingdom expanded northward, and it later belonged to the fifth administrative district of Solomon.
The city benefited from the rich soil, abundance of water, and warm weather that produced agricultural abundance. One of the sages of Israel said, “If the garden of Eden is in the land of Israel, then its gate is at Beth-shean.”
Despite its choice location, the city was deserted about 700 B. C. and not reoccupied until the Hellenistic period, when it became known as Scythopolis. It rose to its greatest period of prosperity when it was taken by Pompey in 63 B. C. and became the capital of the Decapolis, although it was the only city of that district located west of the Jordan River.
Excavations there have uncovered eighteen levels of occupation. One interesting discovery was a series of temples that were built by the Egyptians in 1400 – 1200 B. C. in honor of various deities, including the god Mekal, named as “Lord of Beth-shean” on an inscription found there. It is also noted for having the best preserved Roman theatre in Palestine.