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Sefer Shoftim Chapter 1

The death of Yehoshua left the people without a leader, symbolising a new period in the history of the Jewish people. As Yehoshua’s final speeches show (Yehoshua Chapters 23 and 24), there was much work remaining in order to finish conquering the land. Their first action was to ask God, via the Urim u’Tumim (breastplate of the High Priest), which tribe should be first to wage war against the Canaanite inhabitants of the land. The tribe of Yehuda was chosen. With the help of the tribe of Shimon they captured the Canaanite King Adoni-Bezek.

The chapter continues with a discussion of the military conquest of areas that were captured in the time of Yehoshua, such as Hebron. It is unclear why they are repeated here, but it could be to highlight the difference between the two periods. During Yehoshua’s time, the land may have been conquered, but not fully settled. Without inhabitants, it could not be claimed as truly their own. The distinction between military victory and permanent possession is highlighted here. Thus while Yehoshua represents the military conquest, Shoftim represents the attempt to settle the land.

 

The chapter ends with a discussion of areas of land from which the Canaanite nations were not successfully expelled and lists which tribe is responsible for each of these failures.

 

Do the people deserve this rebuke?

In Sefer Yehoshua, the nation is not rebuked for their failure to conquer the entire land. Yehoshua reminds them of the task before them, but does not appear to hold them responsible for failing to have achieved it. In fact, when promising the people that they will inherit the land of Israel, God states that He will not drive out the inhabitants quickly. Instead, it will be a slow process (Shemot 23:29-30). Why then do the people receive rebuke at the start of Shoftim?

 

Yehuda Elitzur, in the Da’at Mikra commentary to Tanach, explains a fundamental theological difference between the circumstances in the two books. In the time of Yehoshua, we are told that “the children of Yehuda were not able to drive out” the inhabitants of Jerusalem (Yehoshua 15:63). In contrast, in our chapter we are told that “the children of Binyamin did not drive out” the inhabitants of Jerusalem (Shoftim 1:21). A significant difference is highlighted in the contrast between the two phrases: “lo yochlu”, they were not able to, and “lo horish”, they did not drive out. Yehoshua represents inability; Shoftim represents unwillingness.

The rebuke is absent in Yehoshua, as the people simply were not able to have conquered more land. However, in the time of Shoftim, they failed to grasp the opportunities before them, and for this they received rebuke.

 

We are not held accountable for things beyond our control. But, when we waste the chances before us that is another matter. We should make the most of the opportunities: we may not be fortunate enough to have them offered to us again.

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