How Long Did the Judges Rule Israel?
by Jeffrey W. Hamilton
A passage that has given scholars difficulty over the years is Acts 13:17-20.
The New American Standard renders it thus: "The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with an uplifted arm He led them out from it. For a period of about forty years He put up with them in the wilderness. When He had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, He distributed their land as an inheritance -- all of which took about four hundred and fifty years. After these things He gave them judges until Samuel the prophet."
Yet the New King James Version reads in this manner: "The God of this people Israel chose our fathers, and exalted the people when they dwelt as strangers in the land of Egypt, and with an uplifted arm He brought them out of it. Now for a time of about forty years He put up with their ways in the wilderness. And when He had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, He distributed their land to them by allotment. After that He gave them judges for about four hundred and fifty years, until Samuel the prophet."
The difficulty comes in the placement of the phrase "about four hundred and fifty years." The Textus Receptus, from which the King James Version and the New King James Version are translated, has the phrase appearing after the Greek phrase that is translated "after these things," yet several of the oldest Greek manuscripts place the time-period phrase before the phrase "after these things." (Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 1930) We are then left with the question as to which rendition is the more accurate.
As is often the case, another passage can often clarify obscure matters. In I Kings 6:1, we are told that it was 480 years from the time the children of Israel left Egypt to the fourth year of King Solomon's reign, when Solomon began to build the temple. This time period spans the period of the Judges. From the 480 years, we must subtract the year it took the children of Israel to reach Mount Sinai, the 40 years they wandered in the wilderness, and the approximately 10 to 25 years they took to conquer the land of Canaan. We must also subtract the 4 years of Solomon's reign and the 40 years of David's reign. We probably should also subtract at least a portion of Saul's 32 year reign since it overlaps with Samuel's life. Samuel, the last judge of Israel, died prior to the end of Saul's reign, though we do not know precisely how many years prior. This leaves the period of the judges to be between 338 years and 385 years in duration.
A supporting passage is found in Judges 11:26 where Jephthah, the ninth judge of Israel, states that it has been 300 years since Israel began occupying Ammorite territory. The occupation began just prior to the death of Moses and the conquering of the land of Canaan (Numbers 21:25-26, Deuteronomy 2:36).
It would be nice to simply add up the reigns of each of the judges recorded in the book of Judges. Unfortunately, there are several gaps in the records and it is difficult to detect if the reigns of some of the judges might have overlapped. Each of the judges ruled over a portion of Israel's territory, so one judge could have been reigning in one region while another judge reigned in a different region. This is seen by adding all the years of oppression with the years of peace recorded in Judges up to Jephthah's reign. Even with no information of the length of Shamgar's rule, we come up with a total of 319 years and this does not include the time it took to conquer Canaan nor the three generations of peace after Joshua. Obviously, some overlap must have occurred.
In the commentaries available, there are many attempts to have the period of the judges to be 450 years and still harmonize with I Kings 6:1. Most involve including Joshua as a judge, as well as the reigns of Saul and David. Even with these additions, the time span only reaches 435 years, which still is not close to 450 years.
Of course the most simple solution is to accept the older manuscripts' placement of the 450-year period to the time from Israel's stay in Egypt to the conquering of the land of Canaan. If we assume the stay began with Israel's enslavement (400 years according to Genesis 15:13-14 and Acts 7:6) and continues through the year to reach Mount Sinai and the 40 years wandering in the wilderness, then we find it took Israel about 9 years to conquer the land of Canaan. The periods coincide very nicely and do not require odd interpretations of passages.
This is the reason most translations use the 450 years as a summation of Acts 13:17-19 and not as the length of the period of the judges in Acts 13:20.