Shofetim Chapter 1 – Introduction

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 1

The Book of Shofetim, or Judges, picks up after the death of Yehoshua. According to tradition, it was written by the Prophet Shemuel. As per the instructions Yehoshua delivered before his death, the tribes continued their efforts to conquer territory in the land of Israel and to expand and secure their borders. The chapter provides several highlights of these incursions.

For example, the tribe of Yehuda captured Adoni Bezeq, a ruthless dictator who punished the kings whom he vanquished by cutting off their thumbs and big toes and forcing them to scavenge for scraps under his table. The Jews cut off his thumbs and big toes, and he himself acknowledged the Divine justice at play in this punishment before dying in Jerusalem, which the tribe of Judah captured and set aflame.

The chapter also describes the conquest of Devir, Qiryat Sefer and Hevron, which were already discussed in Sefer Yehoshua because of their relevance to the division of territory and are repeated here for the sake of chronology (they actually took place after the death of Yehoshua). Included is the story of Kalev, Otniel ben Qenaz and Akhsa the daughter of Kalev, first recounted in Sefer Yehoshua and recapped here almost word for word. We also read about the tribes of Yosef and their conquest of Bet El.

Several of the tribes – Menashe, Ephraim, Zevulun, Asher, Dan and Naftali – stopped short of removing all of the Canaanites from their midst. Instead, pockets of gentiles were permitted to remain in Israel, provided they paid the requisite taxes to the Jews who ruled over them.

Unfortunately, this failure to cleanse the land of idolatry and to fully establish an exclusively Jewish community in Israel set the stage for future spiritual and political problems. The challenges created by this lack of follow-through will form much of the subject matter of the Book of Shofetim.

It is important to mention one key motif of the Book of Shofetim that differentiates it from the Torah and the Book of Yehoshua – the absence of a “central government”. The tribes act independently or based upon alliances with one another, but not as a collective, national body. Although the entire nation is still united by their observance of Torah, connection to the Mishkan and belief in Hashem, they are no longer politically united by any form of “Federal Government”.

At this point in history, the loose structure of tribal affiliation most resembled the American colonies under the “Articles of Confederation” – at that time, the states functioned as independent, sovereign nations with an agreement to work together but no power over one another. This was, of course, prior to the adoption of the constitution and the establishment of the United States as a single, cohesive entity. With this in mind, we can understand how the Book of Shofetim (written by the Prophet Shemuel who anoints the first King of Israel) is meant to trace the evolution of the community of Israel from this “Articles of Confederation” type arrangement with all of its associated difficulties to the unified monarchy that will finally be constituted in the Book of Shemuel.