What does Judges chapter 1 mean?The book of Judges marks the beginning of a new era, starting after the death of Joshua (Joshua 24:29–30). Rather than following a single, central leader, the Israelites would answer to Yahweh directly in a kind of theocracy. Before he died, Joshua left three crucial legacies for God's chosen people. First, they had a strong position in the Promised Land after breaking the Canaanite stronghold over the region (Joshua 24:11). Second, each tribe clearly understood their God-given mandate to wipe out the remaining inhabitants of the land in their respective territories (Deuteronomy 20:16–18; Joshua 23:12–13). Finally, Joshua left Israel with a renewal of their covenant with God, in which they agreed to forsake all other gods and commit themselves to worship and obey Yahweh alone (Joshua 24:24–28).
Judges begins with a report on the effort by each tribe to drive the Canaanites out of their regions. It begins on a positive note. The people ask the Lord who should attack the Canaanites first. The Lord tells Judah to begin and promises the land has been given into their hand. Judah invites the people of the tribe of Simeon to fight with them, promising to assist Simeon in capturing their territory when the time comes (Judges 1:1–3).
Success is immediate. Judah destroys a city called Bezek, though they fail to destroy the leader of the city. This man is labeled with the title Adoni-bezek. Rather than following God's command to destroy the wicked Canaanites, the men of Judah cut off the enemy leader's thumbs and big toes. This imitates Canaanite practice, as the defeated leader points out. It also defies God's desire that Israel not take on Canaanite sins. The Adoni-bezek is taken to Jerusalem, where he dies. Next, Judah captures and wipes out the inhabitants of Jerusalem—or possibly a fortification near it—and sets it on fire. Then they proceed to fight in the hill country, the desert wilderness of the Negeb, and the lowland (Judges 1:4–10).
The writer of Judges then repeats a report from the book of Joshua (Joshua 15:15–19). The report explains how Caleb, who had been given Hebron in the hill country, defeated the Anakites there and then gave his daughter in marriage to the one who defeated the nearby city of Debir. He also tells how the descendants of Moses' father-in-law moved into the region of the Negeb, in southern Judah, and lived among the people (Judges 1:11–16).
Finally, Judah and Simeon together destroy the city of Zephath, while Judah captures Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ekron. Because the Lord was with Judah, the tribe took full possession of the hill country. It could not drive out the occupants of the western plain, however, because of their iron chariots. Given what happens to Israel in the following chapters, this failure seems to be one of faith, not of God. Most likely, the people of Judah lost the nerve to confront their enemy and settled for a less-than-total victory (Judges 1:17–20).
This last failure is the first hint of what is to come for all the other tribes. After Judah's success, reports on the other tribes are mostly disappointing. The tribe of Benjamin is unable to drive out the new—or surviving—occupants of Jerusalem. Ephraim, "the house of Joseph" (Genesis 48:3–6) destroys and takes possession of Bethel, but a Canaanite man they allow to live builds another Canaanite city to replace it (Judges 1:21–26).
From there, the news in Judges chapter 1 is all bad. None of the other tribes completes their task of driving the inhabitants from the land or destroying them. This includes the tribes of Manasseh, Ephraim, Zebulun, Asher, Naphtali, and Dan. Some grow strong enough to eventually enslave the Canaanites in their territories. And yet, despite growing in power, they disobey God's command to devote all the inhabitants to destruction (Judges 1:27–36).
God's command to purge Canaan of its wicked inhabitants was meant to keep Israel from taking on their evil practices. The very next chapter of Judges shows how Israel's disobedience led to immediate consequences (Judges 2:1–5). Much of the rest of the book of Judges details the echoing effects of Israel's complacency.