One of the core beliefs of Judaism and Christianity is that God is omnipotent, able to do anything that is logically possible. But surprisingly, the Bible does not consistently support this idea ... there’s the following little-known Bible verse: “And the Lord was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.”Judges 1:19 Source

I think the quotation is self-explanatory. How is this verse understood by Christian apologists?

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    Note that this is discussing only what Judah could do, not what God could do; there's nothing demanding here that God was literally doing the work, only that he was "on Judah's side" in some sense, and thus nothing logically inconsistent in saying that God could have driven out "the inhabitants of the valley" but did not. I am unsure however of how apologists have treated the verse. Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 17:43
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    hermeneutics.stackexchange.com Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 17:51
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    @MattGutting only that he was "on Judah's side" in some sense Would that he imply that he was also on Judah's side only in some sense when they drove out other nations not having iron chariots? Followed to its logical conclusion this argument would remove divine providence in Israel's conquest of nations.
    – John Doe
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 18:25
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    I think you do need to ask this on Biblical Hermeneutics, because my ultimate point was that the "he" in "he drave out...but could not drive out" need not refer to God, but could just as well (and more reasonably) refer to Judah. Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 18:32
  • "Christian apologists" since there Christianity isn't very homogenous. Did you have any particular branch or branches of Christianity in mind. The theologies can get quite diverse.
    – user22553
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 20:35

4 Answers 4

  1. וַיְהִי יְהוָה אֶתּ־יְהוּדָה
    And the LORD was with Judah

  2. וַיֹרֶשׁ אֶת־הָהָר
    and he took possession of the hill [country]

  3. ...כִּ֣י לֹא לְהוֹרִישׁ אֶת־יֹשְׁבֵי הָעֵמֶק
    but he could not drive out those living in the valley...

The pronoun "he" in the final line is of interest. In fact, the Hebrew has no pronoun, nor does it have a form of "could". Technically, there is neither subject nor finite verb in the clause at all. The MT would be more formally translated using a dummy subject: "it was not possible to drive out...", as both Gesenius (§ 114l) and Jouon-Muraoka (§ 160, n. 14) have it.1

The question remains: not possible for whom? There are at least two helpful comments that can be made from the Hebrew text that are not evident in English:

  • Line 3 is a dependent clause, subordinated to line 2 and constituting a concession ("...although it was not possible to drive out"); and
  • the English "took possession" and "drive out" are actually the same word: hôrish (~"dispossess").

For both reasons, the one who dispossesses in line 2 must be the same one who dispossesses in line 3.

The identity of the subject of line 2 is best derived from the context:

v. 17: And Judah...defeated the Canaanites
v. 18: Judah also captured Gaza
v. 19: And the LORD was with Judah... and ? took possession but ? could not drive out...
v. 20: And [Caleb] drove out from [Hebron] the three sons of Anak...
v. 21: But the people of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites...
v. 22: The house of Joseph also went up against Bethel, and the LORD was with them.

Notice who is doing the capturing, driving, defeating, etc: people. In every verse. Verse 20, in fact, repeats for a third time hôrish, and Caleb is the only possible subject. As the people go about their various aggressions, the LORD was with them. That's his role here (cf. v. 2).

It's clear, then, that it was Judah who was "unable to cope" with the iron chariots in v. 19. There is no suggestion of Yahweh being unable to accomplish his purpose here. Still, sensitive readers of the text, including (I should hope) Christian apologists, are likely to find the "exceptive" clause of v. 19 disquieting.

We are left to wonder why iron chariots should have proven so decisive if Yahweh was indeed with Judah as verse 19a says he was....There is something profoundly unsatisfying about the simple juxtaposition of the two statements in verse 19.... It is the beginning of a much more mixed picture of Israel’s military fortunes that will be revealed in the rest of the book.2

1. The alternative, which most English translations appear to have adopted, is to add a form of יָכְלוּ = "they could", with the Greek (both versions), Targum, some Hebrew manuscripts, and the BHS apparatus. It's interesting that the grammarians seem to find the MT as written less objectionable than do the translators!

2. Barry G. Webb, The Book of Judges, NICOT; (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 108-109.

  • If there is no could, then where does "not possible" come from? Why not simply "did not"? If I'm remembering correctly it's an Inf Const, is ability/possibility something it marks?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 14:09
  • Sorry, my link to J-M didn't work; the relevant page is not in Google books. They say that ל + לא + inf. construct carries this nuance of permission or possibility (otherwise, why not just לא ?), citing 1 Chr 5:1 and 15:2 ("impossible to enroll", "not permissible to carry"). But mostly a later thing, which is why Judg. 1:19 has its own little exceptive footnote. Not ideal, but otherwise it seems to be grammatically unacceptable apart from emendation. (Either way works fine as far as the argument above goes; I just added a note to defend the plausibility of MT.)
    – Susan
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 14:17
  • +1 Even without the possible..(and i'd probably go with translating without the "possible") Your answer that the subject is Judah is absolutely brilliant.. Hebrew does often change the subject suddenly without making it clear that it has. I believe your interpretation/translation is very reasonable even most reasonable. And your quotes from v17-v22 show how good that translation is. I think the "possible" might be stretching 'cos that's so rare. But hebrew switching subjects suddenly like that is very common.
    – barlop
    Commented Jul 15, 2017 at 9:53

I believe the English Expositor Adam Clarke clarifies this matter:

[And the Lord was with Judah, and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.]

"Strange! were the iron chariots too strong for Omnipotence? The whole of this verse is improperly rendered. The first clause, The Lord was with Judah should terminate the 18th verse, and this gives the reason for the success of this tribe: The Lord was with Judah, and therefore he slew the Canaanites that inhabited Zephath, part of the verse either refers to a different time, or to the rebellion of Judah against the Lord, which caused him to withdraw his support. Therefore the Lord was with Judah, and these were the effects of his protection; but afterwards, when the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served Baalim, God was no longer with them, and their enemies were left to be pricks in their eyes, and thorns in their side, as God himself had said.

This is the turn given to the verse by Jonathan ben Uzziel, the Chaldee paraphrast: "And the WORD of Jehovah was in the support of the house of Judah, and they extirpated the inhabitants of the mountains; but afterwards, WHEN THEY SINNED, they were not able to extirpate the inhabitants of the plain country, because they had chariots of iron." They were now left to their own strength, and their adversaries prevailed against them.

From a work called the Dhunoor Veda, it appears that the ancient Hindoos had war chariots similar to those of the Canaanites. They are described as having many wheels, and to have contained a number of rooms.-Ward's Customs."


God promised to drive out these nations completely on condition;

Deutronomy 11;

22 "For if you are careful to keep all this commandment which I am commanding you to do, to love the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and hold fast to Him,
23 then the LORD will drive out all these nations from before you, and you will dispossess nations greater and mightier than you.
24 "Every place on which the sole of your foot treads shall be yours; your border will be from the wilderness to Lebanon, and from the river, the river Euphrates, as far as the western sea.

But Israel didn't drive out all these people as they were commanded,even though they could by God's help, they preferred instead to make them domestic servants.

Joshua 17:12

12 Yet the children of Manasseh could not drive out the inhabitants of those cities; but the Canaanites would dwell in that land.
13 Yet it came to pass, when the children of Israel were waxen strong, that they put the Canaanites to tribute, but did not utterly drive them out.

Joshua 15:63
As for the Jebusites the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the children of Judah could not drive them out; but the Jebusites dwell with the children of Judah at Jerusalem to this day.

Judges 1:21
But the sons of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem; so the Jebusites have lived with the sons of Benjamin in Jerusalem to this day.

Joshua 16:10
And they drave not out the Canaanites that dwelt in Gezer: but the Canaanites dwell among the Ephraimites unto this day, and serve under tribute.

It was a disregard of an express commandment;

Deutronomy 20:

..and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the LORD thy God hath given thee.
15 Thus shalt thou do unto all the cities which are very far off from thee, which are not of the cities of these nations.
16 But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth:
17 But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee:

This was the trend across all the tribes, a path that displeased God;

1 And an angel of the LORD came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said, I made you to go up out of Egypt, and have brought you unto the land which I sware unto your fathers; and I said, I will never break my covenant with you.
2 And ye shall make no league with the inhabitants of this land; ye shall throw down their altars: but ye have not obeyed my voice: why have ye done this?
3 Wherefore I also said, I will not drive them out from before you; but they shall be as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare unto you.

So the one that couldn't drive out the inhabitants with iron wasn't God but Judah and that for reasons above that the angel gives.

Bottomline, Judah couldnt because God wouldn't.

  • Unfortunately for this answer, the text says "God could not", not that he would not, nor that Judah could not, with or without God's help. Can you improve the answer at least to explain why the text says God could not drive them out of the valley? Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 21:24
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    @DickHarfield The text doesn't say God could not...
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 0:23
  • @curiousdannii I can't make sense of the interlinear translation, but note that some English language Bibles attribute the problem to God's inability (including some that I usually find to be good translations of Greek texts at least); some do not. If you have read and understood the MT Hebrew, and consider it entirely unambiguous in this regard, I will accept your explanation that it does not say God could not. Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 5:22
  • @DickHarfield I was just going from the translation in the question, I haven't looked in detail at it myself yet.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 5:27
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    @curious -- Sorry, unclear. The word יָכְלוּ ("they could") seems to have been added (conjecturally, though I gather there are a few Heb. mss too) as an emendation of MT primarily on the basis of the Greek (x2), Targum, and Latin, all of which have some form of a word for "being able". This is per BHS apparatus.
    – Susan
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 14:07

Every translation I checked, like the top 30 or so say nothing like what the poster as stated here. Seems like a straw man.

"Now the LORD was with Judah, and they took possession of the hill country; but they could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley because they had iron chariots." - Judges 1:19

  • This looks like almost exactly the same verse to me.
    – user3961
    Commented Sep 3, 2016 at 3:05

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