Israel’s period of the Judges represents arguably the dark ages in Israel’s history. It ranges from the end of Joshua’s rule to the installation of King Saul.
It was a time, when Israel was being dominated by foreign invaders resulting in a breakdown in society, where everyone did what was right in their own eyes as the Hebrew people left the worship of God and chased after idols.
Judges chapter 2 provides an interesting description of the generation that followed Joshua writing:
10 After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. 11 Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. … In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist.
Though they were experiencing God’s judgment during this chaotic period, at times God raised up leaders, such as Gideon and Deb, who would deliver Israel from the invaders.
These leaders or judges had no real administration function, as they focussed primarily on delivering Israel from their oppressors.
Because there was no centralized government or capital city as such, there have only been a handful of archaeological finds from this era.
So, archaeologists were delighted when they announced the discovery of a name from this period, Jerubbaal, that had been written in ink on the side of a small, one litre jug.
The pottery is dated to around 1100 BC and fits within the time frame of the judges. Because of its small size, archaeologists believe this was a personal jug and its contents were probably quite valuable to its owner, perhaps containing perfume, oil or medicine.
But what makes this particular find potentially more historic is that Jerubbaal was the secondary name of Gideon, one of the more famous judges from this period:
7 Early in the morning, Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) and all his men camped at the spring of Harod. The camp of Midian was north of them in the valley near the hill of Moreh. (Judges 7:1 NIV)
It is difficult to know if this small vessel discovered at Khirbet al-Ra’i belonged to Gideon, who defeated the Midianites after God whetted down his army from 22,000 men to just 300, but archaeologists have not ruled it out.
Since, the name Jerubbaal only appears in the Bible during the time of the judges, at the very least, the discovery confirms the popularity of the name during this period.
But according to the Bible, the name Jerubbaal has an unusual origin.
When God raised up Gideon to deliver the Midianites, who were plundering the Hebrews during their harvests, he didn’t have the full support of his fellow kinsmen.
After Gideon destroyed an altar of Baal at Shechem, and offered up a burnt offering to the Lord, the people wanted to put Gideon to death.
However, Gideon’s father, Joash, talked them out of it, by noting if Baal was truly a god, he should be able to mete out judgment against someone who destroyed one of his idols (Judges 6:29-32).
Of course, that never happened. Joash, perhaps mockingly, renamed his son Jerubbaal, stating “Let Baal contend against him, because he pulled down the altar” (Judges 6:32).
The name Jerubbaal literally means ‘Baal will contend’ and it would be a constant reminder to the Hebrews that Baal was a false god, because he couldn’t stop Gideon.
After defeating the Midianites, the people wanted to make Gideon their permanent king, but he refused, stating that neither he nor his sons would rule over them, but that God would rule over them (Judges 8:23).
In other words, this time of chaos would only end once the people fully turned back to God.