This started out as a quick who's who for the book of Judges, compiled as I read, to provide myself with a frame of reference when reading through the book in the future. As often happens, however, I couldn't help noticing patterns and forming ideas as I ploughed through, so before the who's who, here's my introduction to the book...
Introduction to Judges
The Biblical book of Judges is the seventh book of the Old Testament, between Joshua and Ruth.
Judges generally proceeds chronologically, beginning at the end of Joshua's life, and recounting, one by one, the stories of Israel's leaders (including conquering leaders as domination ebbed and flowed) over the next (at least) 390 years, ending with the death of Samson. (The last three chapters are out of order with the rest of the book, included as a kind of appendix - the events they describe took place within the first generation of Israelite settlers in the Promised Land.)
Each of the Israelite judges and foreign conquerors (as well as the sole Israelite 'bad guy', Abimelech) are ascribed periods of rule, in terms of numbers of years. The one exception to this is in the case of Shamgar, who is merely listed somewhat contemporaneously with Deborah.
Generally, judge (or foreign conqueror) replaces judge (or foreign conqueror) - the book doesn't include any accounts of co-rule, except in the final instance, where Samson judged Israel for the final twenty years of the Philistines' forty-year domination (he famously wiped out their leaders as he went out in a blaze of glory - kind of an early suicide bomber, actually).
As with a lot of the rest of the Old Testament, of course, it's somewhat debatable how accurate these records are, in terms of lengths of rule, identification of rulers, and whether or not this represents a complete list of all rulers from the period. It may have been an incomplete record, with only notable personages mentioned with regard to the point of the book.
The point of the book, by the way, seems to be an account of the Israelites' (collectively and individually) complete inability to hold it together for any reasonable period of time. So soon after Moses and Joshua, they began fulfilling the worst-case scenarios predicted by the venerable lawgiver. Actually, it's quite head-shakingly, eyebrow-raisingly tragicomic. These people were seemingly hell-bent on breaking all the rules, and when they did attempt to honour God, they did so outrageously blasphemously, apparently unaware of how offensive their attempts were.
"I stand in the way of temptations, naturally, necessarily; all men do so; for there is a snake in every path, temptations in every vocation; but I go, I run, I fly into the ways of temptation which I might shun; nay, I break into houses where the plague is; I press into places of temptation, and tempt the devil himself." (John Donne)
But who knows how we would have acted if we were there then?
You may be saying, "What terrible people you have been talking about!" But you are just as bad... (Romans 2:1)
Reading the book, I get the feeling that the exodus-period laws and lore were quickly lost as the nation dispersed throughout the land, and communication became more fraught. No longer holding a singular focus, the various tribes and clans simply went their own way, often clashing amongst themselves.
"In those days Israel had no king, so the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes." (Judges 17:6)
"I felt fine when I did not understand what the law demanded." (Romans 7:9)
And who can blame them? I think people have this idea that Israel was a united front during this period, but a careful reading of the text suggests otherwise. There is even an episode where men from one tribe were able to turn out infiltrators from another, because the infiltrators could not (not did not, but could not) pronounce a certain word as they did. It takes time and distance for differences in language to develop from a common tongue. In our own age of communication, we forget how insular the various groups of the world have been until relatively recently.
I don't know whether any lessons can be learned from the book of Judges. Rather, I see it as a quasi-historical document to answer the question, "What happened after Joshua died, before Saul became Israel's first king?"
Rather than providing detailed biographies, the information I've compiled below simply recounts each power take-over and duration. Names or nations in italics are the non-Israelite rulers.
The Israelites turned away from Yahweh and began worshipping Baal and Asherah, two prominent Canaanite gods. So Yahweh gave control over Israel to Cushan-rishathaim, king of Aram-naharaim, for eight years.
Having been subdued by the Aram-naharaimites, Israel petitioned to Yahweh to reinstate their autonomy. Yahweh acquiesced, and strengthened Othniel, a prominent member of the tribe of Judah, who overcame the Aram-naharaimites and became Israel's first judge, a position he held until his death, forty years later. Throughout these forty years, Israel was at peace with the surrounding nations.
After Othniel died, Israel returned to its previous prostitution, causing Yahweh to chasten them through the hand of Eglon, king of Moab, who subjected the Israelites to his rule for eighteen years.
Once again (and establishing a pattern that would hold until the time of the kings), Israel, chafing under the yoke of oppression, sought help from Yahweh, who provided the help in the person of Ehud, a man from the tribe of Benjamin. Ehud wrested control from the Moabites and went on to become Israel's longest-serving judge (according to the records), maintaining peace for the remaining eighty years of his life.
Shamgar's is an interesting case. The barest information is provided by Judges, but it seems that, in the aftermath of Ehud's death, the neighbouring Philistines aggressively asserted themselves, and were summarily put down by this Shamgar, apparently a member of the tribe of Naphtali. We are not told how long he maintained control, but it was probably an inconsequential period, because soon enough, Israel was again subdued...
The Israelites once more grew complacent and turned away from Yahweh, who allowed a Canaanite king, Jabin of Hazor, to conquer them. Jabin, through the commander of his army, enjoyed a reign of terror for twenty years.
Eventually, the Israelites again repented of their evil ways, and peace was orchestrated by Deborah, a prophet of Yahweh from the tribe of Ephraim. Deborah established a forty-year period of peace in the Promised Land.
When Israel inevitably slipped back in to idolatry, Yahweh opened the doors to the Midianites, who completely overran the land, forcing the Israelites into hiding for seven years.
When the Israelites were sufficiently penitent, Yahweh empowered Gideon, of the tribe of Manasseh, to drive out the Midianites, and restore peace to the land for his remaining forty years.
After Gideon's death, one of his sons, Abimelech, established himself as king of Israel, with the support of the people of his hometown, Shechem. An ungodly man, Abimelech ruled as king over Israel for three years, an interesting aberration in the period of the judges. Abimelech was eventually undone as a result of trouble between himself and Shechem, and he met a bloody end.
With Abimelech out of the way, a new judge, Tola, of the tribe of Issachar, arose to lead Israel. He maintained his position for twenty-three years.
Tola was succeeded by Jair, of the tribe of Manasseh, who judged Israel for twenty-two years.
After Jair died, the Israelites once more turned away from Yahweh, turning not only to Baal and Ashtoreth, but also to the gods of the Aramites, the Sidonites, the Moabites, the Ammonites and the Philistines. Basically, every god but Yahweh was worshipped. Yahweh responded by handing the Ammonites the reins of power, while the Philistines also made a nuisance of themselves. This continued for eighteen years, mostly in the lands to the east of the Jordan River and the most heavily populated areas west of the river.
Eventually Jephthah was coerced by the leaders of his tribe, Manasseh, to instigate revolt against the Ammonites. He was successful and became the judge of Israel for six years.
Ibzan, of the tribe of Ephraim, succeeded Jephthah as judge, ruling over Israel for seven years.
Ibzan was in turn followed by Elon, a Zebulunite, who judged Israel for ten years.
The next judge was Abdon, a member of the tribe of Ephraim, who maintained the peace for eight years.
No judge initially succeeded Abdon, and Israel slid predicatably into the ways of evil. Yahweh punished them by allowing the Philistines to overrun the Israelites. Philistia subjected Israel to domination for forty years.
The final judge listed in the book of Judges was Samson, a Danite. He was selected by Yahweh for this position before his birth, and was raised by his parents with this in mind. Yahweh was with him as he grew, and when he reached manhood, he singlehandedly defended Israel against the oppressive Philistines. Yet peace was eluded, and while Samson judged Israel for the final twenty years of the Philistines' forty-year rule, they continued to be a presence in the land.