“Now after the death of Joshua it came to pass, that the children of Israel asked the LORD, saying, Who shall go up for us against the Canaanites first, to fight against them?” (Judges 1:1)
During Moses’ and Joshua’s periods Israel had always had a designated leader. God had not appointed anyone to take Joshua’s place as a national leader. The Canaanites had not yet been fully eliminated and still posed a threat. Israel began looking for someone to lead them into battle.
“And the LORD said, Judah shall go up: behold, I have delivered the land into his hand. And Judah said unto Simeon his brother, Come up with me into my lot, that we may fight against the Canaanites; and I likewise will go with thee into thy lot. So Simeon went with him.” (Judges 1:2-3)
God did not designate an individual, but the tribe of Judah to go fight. Judah asked Simeon to come and assist in the project This makes a lot of sense since the main body of Canaanite settlements lay in the area claimed by Judah and Simeon.
The Book of Judges teaches us how God intended Israel, and the Church to function. In Deuteronomy 17 we learn that it was not God’s intention for them to have a king or powerful national leader, but that one day they would choose to have one anyway. God’s plan was for each individual to take responsibility for themselves. If a problem affected several, they were to work together to correct it. Judah and Simeon collaborating to defeat the Canaanite forces illustrates how this was to work.
This plan was satisfactory for about six hundred years, more than twice as long as Israel survived when they chose a king.
“And Judah went up; and the LORD delivered the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hand: and they slew of them in Bezek ten thousand men. And they found Adonibezek in Bezek: and they fought against him, and they slew the Canaanites and the Perizzites. But Adonibezek fled; and they pursued after him, and caught him, and cut off his thumbs and his great toes.
And Adonibezek said, Threescore and ten kings, having their thumbs and their great toes cut off, gathered their meat under my table: as I have done, so God hath requited me. And they brought him to Jerusalem, and there he died.” (Judges 1:4-7)
Judah and Simeon handily defeated the Canaanite forces under the leadership of king Adonibezek, capturing him alive. Cutting off his thumbs made it far more difficult to hold things and cutting off his big toe affected his ability to walk or run. It would serve to remind him day by day of his inferior status. Since that was the accepted way of demonstrating the conquering kings superiority, and what he had done to seventy other kings, Adonibezek accepted it as only fitting. He lived out the remainder of his life as a captive in Jerusalem.
Six hundred years later, when Saul saved Agag, king of the Amalekites, contrary to God’s command, it appears he had a similar intention to show off his power.
“Now the children of Judah had fought against Jerusalem, and had taken it, and smitten it with the edge of the sword, and set the city on fire. And afterward the children of Judah went down to fight against the Canaanites, that dwelt in the mountain, and in the south, and in the valley. And Judah went against the Canaanites that dwelt in Hebron: (now the name of Hebron before was Kirjatharba:) and they slew Sheshai, and Ahiman, and Talmai.
And from thence he went against the inhabitants of Debir: and the name of Debir before was Kirjathsepher: And Caleb said, He that smiteth Kirjathsepher, and taketh it, to him will I give Achsah my daughter to wife.
And Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother, took it: and he gave him Achsah his daughter to wife.
And it came to pass, when she came to him, that she moved him to ask of her father a field: and she lighted from off her ass; and Caleb said unto her, What wilt thou? And she said unto him, Give me a blessing: for thou hast given me a south land; give me also springs of water. And Caleb gave her the upper springs and the nether springs.” (Judges 1:8-15)
After wiping out the main Canaanite stronghold at Bezek, Judah took and burned Jerusalem before proceeding to attack the other Canaanite villages and towns in the south and eastern mountains. Caleb himself had killed the three giant Anakims, and had taken the city of Hebron. He had offered to give his daughter Achsah as a wife to whoever could take the city of Debir, and his nephew Othniel took him up on the offer, as described in Joshua 15:13-20. The tribe of Judah just mopped up the remaining pockets of resistance at this time.
“And the children of the Kenite, Moses' father in law, went up out of the city of palm trees with the children of Judah into the wilderness of Judah, which lieth in the south of Arad; and they went and dwelt among the people.” (Judges 1:16)
Moses’ Middianite in-laws had joined Israel after they left Mount Sinai some seventy years before. They settled in the wilderness along the western shore of the Dead Sea and were accepted as a part of the tribe of Judah.
“And Judah went with Simeon his brother, and they slew the Canaanites that inhabited Zephath, and utterly destroyed it. And the name of the city was called Hormah. Also Judah took Gaza with the coast thereof, and Askelon with the coast thereof, and Ekron with the coast thereof.” (Judges 1:17-18)
Judah and Simeon then moved to the west, subjugating the Philistine cities along the Mediterranean shore. Unfortunately, they didn’t finish the job and about two hundred years later, the Philistines were able to revolt and establish their own kingdom.
Modern Palestinians still base their claim to part of Israel on the ancient Philistine culture. Their connection to the Philistines is questionable, as they are descendants of the mixed peoples the Assyrians resettled into Israel after they destroyed the northern kingdom known as Israel about 721 BC. In Jesus’ day they were known as the Samaritans.