Although the land had been divided among the various Israelite tribes in Joshua’s time they had not actually conquered it. The book of Judges opens with the recording of numerous battles in which the Israelite tribes fought to secure the land they had been given. This was sometime more successful than others. Benjamin managed to take over Jerusalem but they did not drive out the Jebusites but shared the city with them (1:21). Although wholesale slaughter of a town’s inhabitants was not unheard of, Judges 1 records that it was the exception rather than the rule. The general pattern recorded is that the Israelites moved into an area and established themselves. Once they were powerful enough they might be able to force other groups into forced labour but they did not engage in pogroms.
Not surprisingly, the people began to stray from their devotion to God and turned to the gods of the nations around them. This led the Lord to punish them through defeat at the hands of their enemies. God selected certain people to act as judges and a pattern became established, lasting throughout this period: “Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them. But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways” (2:18-19).