The children of Israel who for generations had lived in close communion, standing or falling as one, were now separated, cast among strangers in an unfamiliar land.
Dividing North from South the rolling plain of Esdraelon, still unconquered, was hazardous for traveling Israelites. Ravines of the hill country isolated one group from another and small valleys were still occupied by remnants of Canaannite tribes, Amorites, Hittites and Jebusites. Some as vassals but others as proud, Baal worshipping dwellers in unconquered, walled cities. Small wonder that in the years ahead Israel would often wander from her chosen path!
With a will to obey their God the children of Israel set to work, as well as they were able, to take possession of their designated territories. They cut down the trees and established villages in the hills. They rebuilt the burned-out cities and occupied them. But what did these desert wanderers know of sophisticated, two-story houses and plastered floors? They had no knowledge of city planning, drainage systems and the strong fortress walls of Canaanite culture. They constructed houses hastily of the fallen stones, haphazardly placed within unsubstantial city walls. They neglected the cisterns and the sewers, having no leaders to organize the work, but they did turn their dynamic vigor to providing food for themselves by mastering the art of farming. Always close to their hearts as they worked was the thought of Shiloh nestled among small hills north of Bethel where the Ark of the Covenant, symbol of their Ruler and light of their existence, rested amid its colorful trappings.
And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all
the days of the elders that outlived Joshua, who had seen all the
great works of the Lord, that he did for Israel. And Joshua the
son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died, being an hundred and
ten years old. And also all that generation were gathered unto their
fathers: and there arose another generation after them, which knew
not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel.
Slowly the memories of Egypt, Sinai and Kadesh-Barnea faded, and inevitably Israel's power declined. Puzzled that the nebulous God of their fathers no longer smoothed their paths, many took to experimenting with their neighbors' Baals and Asherahs. The Lord of Israel was a God of conquests; was it not logical to turn now to the gods of weather and of fertility? The surrounding nations who had so feared invincible Israel under her strange, invisible God now saw only a few leaderless and struggling tribes, interspersed with equally weakened Canaanites. From all directions, foreign powers pressed inward.
However the divine spark could not die. Here and there were families who would not turn to Baal but cherished doggedly the old teachings, the covenant of the Promised Land. For some two hundred years Israel's wavering history is dotted with dedicated men and women who insisted on the right to freedom of God's people. These leaders are known to us as judges. Actually they were informal local rulers or helpers, usually military leaders who brought again into focus Israel's power when obedient to her God. In their districts their wise counsel sustained and comforted their sorely tried kinsmen.
One of the first such rulers was a man called Othniel, of whom we know little save that he beat back an invader, apparently from Mesopotamia. For "forty years" he ruled, and kept his people faithful. After his death however the old uncertainties crept back and the people turned again to Baal.