When the Hebrews arrive at Canaan, the land promised to them
millenia earlier when God told Abraham at Shechem that the land would belong to
his descendants, they they begin the long, painful, and disappointing process of
setting the land. There were, after all, people already living there. These
people, the Canaanites, were a Semitic people speaking a language remarkably
close to Hebrew. They were farmers, some were nomads, but they were also
civilized. They used the great Mesopotamian cities as their model and had built
modest imitations of them. They had also learned military technology and tactics
from the Mesopotamians, as well as law. So the Hebrews, uncivilized, tribal, and
nomadic, found themselves facing a formidable enemy. Even the accounts of this
period in the Hebrew bible, the books of Joshua and Judges paint a
pretty dreary picture of the occupation.
After a few spectacular victories and some impressive
territorial gains along the coastal plains, the Hebrews are eventually driven
out of these areas and settle in the central hill country and a few places in
the Jordan River valley. While they held their own against the Canaanites, a new
player had arrived on the scene. These people, the Philistines, had rushed down
from the north and overwhelmed everyone in their path. They had chariots and
iron weapons and few could stand against these new technologies.
So the Hebrews found themselves living in the worst areas of
Canaan, spread thinly across the entire region. The balance of power constantly
shifted as local kingdoms would grab and then lose territory, and the Hebrews
would find themselves first under one and then another master.
All during this period, the Hebrews rarely if ever organized
into a single group. They were divided, rather, into separate tribes which
administered themselves using tribal logic. There was no center of Yahweh
worship (as there would be in later years), and no central government. There
are, however, two types of figures that regularly dominate the landscape: the
judges and the deliverers.
The judges are a curious sort and we're not sure what the
office involved. What we do know is that they exercised some authority over all
the tribes of Israel and were generally recognized by all the tribes. While the
translation of the term, "judges," seems to imply judicial activities,
that is, deciding disputes between tribes, the word in Hebrew, "shopetim"
(-im is the plural), implies legislative duties as well. So its possible that
these "judges" exercised some kind of legislative and judicial control
over matters involving all the tribes of Israel. Unlike the patriarchal age in
which the "father" was the ruler, "judges" weren't gender
specific. The most important "judge" of this period is, in fact, a
The deliverers (in Hebrew, "moshia") were
specifically military commanders. They organized intertribal armies and led them
into battle against foreigners: Philistines, Canaanites, Moabites, Ammonites,
etc. They arose in times of the greatest oppression of the Hebrews and, in the
Hebrew account of them, specifically elected by Yahweh to free the Hebrews from
oppression. Most of the names are familiar: Gideon, Samson, etc.
The Hebrews themselves, however, do not seem to have settled
comfortably into the Yahweh religion. According to Hebrew history, the Hebrews
regularly abandon the Yahweh religion for local cults, particularly Canaanite
cults. The Canaanite religion focussed on the god Baal, and the Hebrews
frequently disassemble their Yahweh altars and build Baal altars. Those Hebrews
that settle in the Canaanite cities literally disappear into the Canaanite
religion; the Yahweh religion seems to have been largely maintained among the
nomadic groups in the hill country.
Uncertain of their future, wracked by constant warfare and
even civil war, and barely holding on to their Yahweh religion, the Hebrews
would eventually long for the identity and stability of a unified nation and a
monarchy. This act of disobedience towards Yahweh (according to the Hebrew
account) would turn this scattered group of tribes into a briefly glorious
kingdom and empire.