A Historical Timeline of the Bible
Apparent Bible Contradictions
The Period of the Judges
by Alan Tattersall
June 2006 issue of the Church of God News
There is a story of a sculptor who, when asked about how he carved such magnificent statues of horses, replied, "I just take a block of marble and chip away the parts that don't look like a horse".
Whether this story is true or not, a similar approach can be taken when trying to ascertain the length of the period of the Judges in Israel 's history. I Kings 6:1 says:
And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel had come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv which is the second month, that he began to build the house of the Lord.
Most English translations of 1 Kings tell us pretty much the same thing. That is, the elapsed time between the Exodus and the fourth year of Solomon's reign was 480 years. So we are not dealing with a section of Scripture that is difficult for the translators to address. So then, like the sculptor, let us "chip away" from this figure everything that is patently not part of the Judges period so that we are left with the length of that inauspicious era. So, we need to remove the following:
40 years of Moses tenure - Deuteronomy 29:5
30 years of Joshua's tenure - compare Joshua 14:7 with Joshua 24:29
40 years of Saul's reign - Acts 13:21
40 years of David's reign - I Kings 2:11
The first four years of Solomon's reign.
In total, this means that 154 years have to be subtracted from 480 years, leaving a time span for the Judges era of 326 years. There is room for a small variation since it's unlikely that the lengths of the above-mentioned reigns and tenures are all accurate to the day, and we don't know whether they rounded up or down or even truncated figures when producing the chronologies.
However, this leaves us with an apparent biblical contradiction because, in Acts 13:19-20, Paul says the following:
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 problem is that Paul seems to be ascribing a far longer time to the Judges period than is indicated in
I Kings 6. Yet Paul had access to the Hebrew Scriptures, indeed he was an expert in them. How can we reconcile these two apparently contradictory statements? The answer lies in the quality of the translation of the Acts 13 verses in the KJV, NKJV and certain other versions. But if one looks at other translations a different picture emerges as follows:
And when he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land for an inheritance, for about four hundred and fifty years: and after these things he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet (American Standard Version).
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 (New American Standard Bible 1995).
He destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan. Then he gave them their land as an inheritance for about 450 years. After that he gave them judges until the time of the prophet Samuel (International Standard Version).
After destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan He gave them their land as an inheritance for about four hundred and fifty years. After that. He gave them judges, down to Samuel the prophet (Moffat Translation).
And when he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance, for about four hundred and fifty years. After that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet (RSV).
After he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance for about four hundred fifty years. After that he gave them judges until the time of the prophet Samuel (New Revised Standard Version).
He overthrew seven nations in Canaan and gave their land to his people as their inheritance. All this took about 450 years. After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet (NIV).
That's probably enough to be going on with, but it is clear that these and other translations and versions put a different meaning on Paul's words. He is not, in fact, saying that the length of the Judges period was 450 years, but rather that the time they were in possession of the Promised Land was approximately 450 years.
Although it appears in some of the above renditions that the Judges period came after the 450 years, this isn't so. What Paul is doing here is telling a story. He mentions the period in the wilderness under Moses (verse 18), then he talks of the time when God gave Canaan to Israel , which took place under Joshua. He continues the story by referring to the Judges period (verse 20), then in verse 21 he moves on to the beginning of the period of the Kings. So the reference to 450 years is in fact a purely parenthetical one, an aside if you like, that is not intended to be a part of the story flow.
So, when did they acquire the Promised Land? It didn't happen all at once on a certain day, nor is the precise moment known. But it is safe to say that it happened at some point during the tenure of Joshua. When did they lose it? Well, from a Jewish perspective (and Paul was primarily addressing Jews here), it was when the kingdom of Israel split and the larger northern section of the Promised Land was indeed lost to them. The northern kingdom became an independent nation state with its own king and was not always on friendly terms with its southern neighbour. With that in mind, let's make another chronology, once again in the reverse order.
40 years for the reign of Solomon - 2 Chronicles 9:30
40 years for the reign of David
40 years for the reign of Saul
326 years for the Judges period
This adds up to 446 years and, given that the northern kingdom wasn't lost on the first day of Rehoboam's reign, nor was the Promised Land settled on the very last day of Joshua's tenure, Paul's approximation of 450 years is a remarkably good one, and there is not even a hint of a biblical contradiction here.