Judges — Outstanding Leaders in Israel’s Early Days
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The book of Judges picks up where Joshua left off in the history of Israel—with the passing of the second generation of those who came out of Egypt. In contrast to the repeated triumphs of the people under Joshua, it covers the ups and downs of the young nation of Israel following his faith-filled administration until the establishment of a unified kingdom under Saul. Over and over, the children of Israel repeated the following cycle:
- The Hebrews cohabited and compromised with the pagan peoples surrounding them.
- They strayed from God.
- He subjected them to oppression under foreign nations.
- The people repented and cried out for the Lord to help them.
- YHWH raised up a deliverer to rally the tribes and rescue them from their enemies.
- The liberator then maintained order and adherence to God’s Law for the rest of his life.
In all, we read about the careers of twelve judges in Israel, plus one self-proclaimed king, from eight different tribes in Israel. The extent of the influence of these individuals seems to have been regional, rather than covering the entire territory of Israel, and there appears to be some overlap in the duration of their administrations. For a map that shows where each judge lived, go to http://oneyearbibleimages.com/judges_map.jpg.
Although the author of this book is anonymous, it is most likely that the prophet Samuel or one of his contemporaries compiled the records presented in Judges. The repeated phrase, “In those days there was no king in Israel,” (Judg. 17:6, 18:1, 19:1 & 21:25) indicates the book was written after the establishment of the monarchy; while the mention of Jebusites still inhabiting Jerusalem (1:21) tells us the book was written before David took the city as his capital [See Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps & Charts, p. 74].
Judges Chapter 1
With the death of Joshua there was a question as to who should lead the children of Israel in battle (Josh. 1:1). Fulfilling the prophecy of Jacob in Genesis 49:8-12 and foreshadowing His choice of Judah to reign over the twelve tribes of Israel, the Lord designated Judah to continue to lead the fight against the Canaanites who remained in their territory (v. 2). Since the tribe of Simeon was living among them, the leaders of Judah naturally picked that family to accompany them into battle—first in their own territory and then in Simeon’s (3). The campaign was successful—with Judah defeating the Perizzite king, Adoni-Bezek, and chopping off his big toes and thumbs (4-6). The disgraced monarch admitted it was poetic justice, since he had done the same thing to 70 other kings (7).
The men of Judah also killed the inhabitants of Jerusalem and set it on fire (8). From there, they went against “the Canaanites who dwelt in the mountains, in the South, and in the lowland,” as well as those in Hebron [known at the time as Kirjath Arba] (9-10). When they went to Debir [known then as Kirjath Sepher], Caleb made his offer of giving his daughter’s hand in marriage to whomever would defeat that city for him (Judg. 1:11). As we know from the previous account in Joshua 15:15-19, Othniel, Caleb’s nephew undertook this challenge and was granted Caleb’s daughter, Achsah, as his wife (Judg. 1:12-13). She negotiated with her father to give her not only some land in the South, but also springs of water as her dowry (vv. 14-15).
The family of Moses’ father-in-law—whom the prophet invited to join the Israelites in Numbers 10:29-32—accompanied the men of Judah and settled in the Wilderness of Judah near a place called Arad (Judg. 1:16). Judah and Simeon “attacked the Canaanites who inhabited Zephath, and utterly destroyed it,” calling the city Hormah, which means “devotion” or “destruction” (v. 17). The Philistine cities of Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ekron were taken—along with their surrounding territories (18). Because God was with them, Judah was able to drive out the Canaanites who lived in the mountains, but they weren’t able to get rid of the people of the plains, since they had chariots of iron (19). As previously mentioned (in Joshua 14:9-14 & 15:13), the Israelites gave Hebron to Caleb, as Moses had ordered, and then Caleb got rid of the three sons of Anak who lived there (Judg. 1:20).
With YHWH’s help, the descendants of Joseph fared well when they went to war against Bethel (v. 22). When the tribe sent spies to scope out the city [which was at that time known as Luz], they apprehended a man and offered him clemency, if he would tell them how to get in (23-24). When he complied, they killed everyone there, but spared the man’s family, as promised (25). So the fellow moved to the land of the Hittites, built a new city and gave it the name of his previous home (26).
The descendants of Benjamin were not able to get the Jebusites out of Jerusalem; therefore, that pagan people lived in their territory until the time of King David (21). Likewise, Manasseh was not able to displace the inhabitants of Beth Shean, Taanach, Dor, Ibleam, or Megiddo and their surrounding (27). Later on, “they put the Canaanites under tribute, but did not completely drive them out” (28). Ephraim couldn’t get rid of the Canaanites who dwelt in Gezer; nor did Zebulun drive out the residents of Kitron or Nahalol (29-30). Eventually, these folks were put under tribute, as well. Asher had Canaanites living in Acco, Sidon, Ahlab, Achzib, Helbah, Aphik, and Rehob—which meant they, too, were living with pagans among them (31-32). Naphtali also had interlopers in Beth Shemesh and Beth Anath, who were eventually put under tribute (33).
The Danites were even worse off. The Amorites forced them into the mountains and continued to occupy Mount Heres, Aijalon, and Shaalbim (34-35). Eventually “when the strength of the house of Joseph became greater, they were put under tribute.” The chapter concludes by informing us of the boundary of the Amorites (36).
Judges Chapter 2
After the Israelites cohabited for a while with these groups of pagan people, YHWH sent His principle angel to confront them. Apparently, the Angel of YHWH had been headquartered until that time at Gilgal, where Joshua had encountered Him after their arrival in the Promised Land (See Joshua 5). Verses 1-2 of this chapter tell us He relocated from there to another spot and told the people in God’s behalf:
Not only had the children of Israel failed to wipe out the pagans within their territory, but they also had not demolished the trappings of their false worship. Consequently, the Lord told them He would no longer drive their enemies out, “but they shall be thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a snare to you” (Josh. 2:3). Upon hearing this bad news, the people wept so bitterly, the place where the angel appeared was called Bochim, which means “weepers” or “weeping” (vv. 4-5). Joshua was still living at this time, since verse 6 says he “dismissed the people” to return home, once they had offered sacrifices to the Lord.
As long as Joshua and the elders who outlived him remained alive, “the people served the LORD” (7). Verses 8-9 tell us this faithful “servant of the LORD,” lived to the ripe old age of 110, before he died and was buried “within the border of his inheritance at Timnath Heres, in the mountains of Ephraim, on the north side of Mount Gaash.” Following the passing of his immediate successors, “another generation arose after them who did not know the LORD nor the work which He had done for Israel” (10). So, while these men may have done a decent job of leading the people, they failed to pass on a heritage of faith and godly conduct that would keep their nation strong.
In the spiritual vacuum that remained, the descendants of Israel turned from YHWH to the regional fertility gods—called Baals, or “lords”—and goddesses—the Ashtoreths, which means “star”—worshiped by the pagans around them (11-13). Naturally, the Lord was even more outraged, “So He delivered them into the hands of plunderers who despoiled them; and He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer stand before their enemies” (14). No matter what they undertook, the Lord worked against them, until the people “were greatly distressed” (15).
However, their compassionate God would periodically raise up “judges who delivered them out of the hand of those who plundered them,” whenever the misery of the people grew too great (16 & 18). Even so, the people ignored His good counsel through their deliverers and committed spiritual and physical prostitution with other gods (17). They refused to obey YHWH’s commandments, as their forefathers had tried to do. As soon as the leaders died, they reverted to even more stubborn and rebellious behavior than before (19).
Again the Lord passed a stern sentence: “Because this nation has transgressed My covenant which I commanded their fathers, and has not heeded My voice, I also will no longer drive out before them any of the nations which Joshua left when he died, so that through them I may test Israel…” (20-22). So He left the Canaanites in the land (23).
Judges Chapter 3
The first few verses of this chapter list the nations that God left in the land to test Israel and to teach those who had enjoyed the peace their parents secured for them how to defend themselves. There were five Philistine rulers, the Canaanites, Sidonians, and Hivites—all of which God left in Israeli territory to see whether the next generation “would obey the commandments of the LORD” (Judg. 3:1-4). No doubt, YHWH’s particular concern was His instructions to wipe these guys out, destroy their idols and not intermarry with them (c.f.—Ex. 23:20-33 & 34:11-17; Deut. 7:1-11 & 20:16-18).
Not only did the children of Israel live among the pagan peoples of the land, but they totally disregarded the Lord’s commandments, intermarrying with those people and serving their false gods (Judg. 3:5-6). Naturally, YHWH was deeply offended when they forgot Him and went after rival deities (v. 7). In the heat of his righteous anger, “He sold them into the hand of Cushan-Rishathaim king of Mesopotamia,” who dominated Israel for eight years (8).
When the Hebrews cried out to the LORD for mercy, He raised up “Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother” from the land of Judah as Israel’s first deliverer (9). The Holy Spirit took hold of this man, who had previously conquered Debir (Judg. 1:11-13), and he led Israel to war. With God’s help Othniel defeated Cushan-Rishathaim and rescued his people from the power of the Mesopotamians (Judg. 3:10). During the 40 years that Othniel judged Israel, the nation enjoyed a time of peace (v. 11).
After Othniel’s death, the Hebrews “again did evil in the sight of the LORD,” so He enabled Eglon king of Moab—along with his allies, the Ammonites and Amalekites—to defeat Israel in battle (12-13). For 18 years, the children of Israel served Eglon, after he captured the City of Palms [probably referring to a resettled, but not fortified, Jericho] (14).
When the Israelites were miserable enough to turn to YHWH for help, the LORD raised up Ehud, a left-handed Benjamite, to rescue them (15). When Ehud was sent by countrymen with tribute to the king of Moab, he strapped an impressive dagger with an 18-inch, double-edged blade “under his clothes on his right thigh” (16).
After presenting the tribute, Ehud sent his companions on home, while he turned back and told Eglon, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” (17-18). Once the Moabite monarch had emptied the upstairs room of all his attendants, Ehud continued, “I have a message from God for you” (20).
As the king rose from his seat to hear the promised message, “Ehud reached with his left hand, took the dagger from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly” (21). Since Eglon probably did not know this envoy was armed, and most individuals are right-handed, the king would not have expected Ehud to reach for a weapon with his left hand. He was caught completely off guard. So obese was the pagan monarch that “the handle went in after the blade, and Eglon’s fat closed in over it, so that Ehud did not withdraw the sword from his belly” (Judg. 3:22, HCSB). Ew! When the king’s intestines spilled out of the wound, Ehud discreetly slipped out and locked the doors of the upper chamber behind him (v. 23).
Eglon’s servants came to check on him and were surprised to find the doors locked (24). Assuming he was relieving himself, they waited to the point of embarrassment for him to let them back in (25). When they could bear the suspense no longer, they used a pass key to let themselves in. That’s when they discovered their master’s grisly corpse.
Ehud made his escape during their delay (26). At Seirah, he blew the trumpet in the mountains of Ephraim to call Israel to battle (27). “Follow me,” Ehud cried, “for the LORD has delivered your enemies the Moabites into your hand” (28). Seizing the shallows of the Jordan where people typically crossed over to Moab, the Israelites managed to intercept and slaughter about 10,000 Moabite warriors—thus subduing their previous masters and gaining political stability for 80 years (29-30).
Another judge by the name of Shamgar killed 600 Philistines men with an ox goad to deliver Israel (31).
Judges Chapter 4
Sometime after Ehud’s death, the Israelites fell back into their old habits and were again disciplined by YHWH—who tuned them over to Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor (Judg. 4:1-2). This guy had a general by the name of Sisera, who used the king’s 900 iron chariots to harshly oppress the children of Israel for 20 years (v. 3).
The only female judge named in the Old Testament was a prophetess named Deborah. Verses 4-5 tell us her husband’s name and that she held court under a palm tree between Ramah and Bethel in the mountains of Ephraim. One day she called Barak, a man from Naphtali, and told Him YHWH had designated him as the man to lead Israel into battle against Jabin’s army (6). Her exact words astounded the fellow:
For whatever reason, Barak was unwilling to go, unless the prophetess agreed to accompany him (8). “Very well,” she replied, “I will go with you. But since you have made this choice, you will receive no honor. For the LORD’s victory over Sisera will be at the hands of a woman.” (Judg. 4:9, NLT) Apparently, Barak was okay with that, so Deborah accompanied him to Kedesh, where he called 10,000 men from the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali to join them (10).
When Sisera heard that Barak had assembled an army at Mount Tabor, he gathered his troops and the 900 chariots of iron and amassed his forces at the River Kishon (12-13). With that, Deborah encouraged Barak, “Up! For this is the day in which the LORD has delivered Sisera into your hand. Has not the LORD gone out before you?” So Barak descended Mount Tabor with his 10,000 men (14), who were undoubtedly outnumbered by Sisera’s army. Nevertheless, YHWH helped Barak and company utterly defeat them, so that Sisera jumped out of his chariot and fled the battle on foot, while Barak’s men slaughtered every last member of Sisera’s forces (15-16).
Verse 11 tells us that Heber, one of the descendants of Moses’ father-in-law, “had separated himself from the Kenites and pitched his tent near the terebinth tree at Zaanaim, which is beside Kedesh.” It was to the tent of Jael, Heber’s wife, that the general fled—“for there was peace between Jabin king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite” (17).
This woman was something else! She went out to meet the Canaanite general and urged him to take shelter with her (18). After the soldier entered her tent, she covered him with a blanket, and offered him a drink of milk when he asked for water (19). A trusting soul, he asked Jael to stand watch at the door and tell anyone who asked if there was a man about that there was not (20).
Now anyone who has ever drunk a glass of milk before bedtime can tell you it makes you sleep long and hard. So when the exhausted general dozed off, Jael grabbed a tent peg and a mallet and drove the spike clean through the man’s head and into the ground (21). That was the end of Sisera!
By the time Barak came looking for Sisera, Jael was happy to inform him of the general’s fate. She went out to meet the soldier from Naphtali, saying, “Come, I will show you the man whom you seek” (22). Then she showed Barak where Sisera lay dead, with the peg driven through his head.
The chapter concludes: “On that day God defeated Jabin king of Canaan in the sight of Israel. Israel became stronger and stronger against Jabin king of Canaan until finally they destroyed him.” (Judg. 4:23-24, NCV)
Judges Chapter 5
To commemorate their victory, Deborah and Barak wrote a song (Judg. 5:1). They credited God with raising up leaders and willing volunteers (v. 2). They pictured Him as having marched from Edomite territory, causing earthquakes and torrential rain (4-5).
Verse 6 indicates that trouble started sometime during the administration of Shamgar, when Israel’s “highways were deserted, and the travelers walked along the byways.” After “They chose new gods,” not only were people afraid to travel, but they apparently moved from unwalled villages into fortified cities (7). War with Jabin left them helpless and distressed—“Not a shield or spear was seen among 40,000 in Israel” (Judges 5: 8, HCSB). But then “Deborah, arose, …a mother in Israel” and everything changed.
Verse 9 praises God and “the rulers of Israel who offered themselves willingly with the people.” The following verses seem to allude to old men recounting the righteous acts of YHWH in behalf of the helpless villagers (10-11). When God’s people gathered for war against their oppressors, the LORD showed up, too, to do battle against those mightier than they (13).
We learn from verses 14-15, that there were representatives from the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir, Zebulun and Issachar under the command of Deborah and Barak. The tribes of Reuben and Gideon stayed at home to watch their flocks (15-17). Likewise, Dan and Asher did not bother to leave their ships or coastal lands (17). Zebulun and Naphtali, on the other hand, came out en masse and “jeopardized their lives to the point of death…on the heights of the battlefield” (18).
When the battle was joined “by the waters of Megiddo,” it was not the kings of Canaan who went home with the spoils of war (19). On the contrary, the very angels [called ‘stars’] “fought from the heavens…against Sisera” (20). Flood waters from the Kishon River swept the Canaanite army away (21). You can hear the rhythm of Sisera’s army’s retreat in the lines: “Then the horses’ hooves pounded, The galloping, galloping of his steeds” (22).
The angel of YHWH cursed Meroz, a presently unknown city in northern Israel, for not coming to take part in the battle (23). But Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, is declared “Most blessed among women” for her role in defeating Sisera (24). “He asked for water, she gave milk;” verse 25 says it was rich with butterfat on the top! A full seven lines in verses 26-27 are dedicated to describing in detail how Jael killed the sleeping general with the tent peg.
Meanwhile, the song-writers imagined a scene in Sisera’s hometown, where his mother anxiously awaited his return: She wondered from her perch at the window, “Why is his chariot so long in coming?” (28). Her attendants offered the explanation that the army was busy “finding and dividing the spoil”—including captive virgins and exotic garments (29-30).
The song concludes, “Thus let all Your enemies perish, O LORD! But let those who love Him be like the sun when it comes out in full strength” (31a). From the time of this decisive victory, we are told that “the land had rest for forty years” (31b).
Judges Chapter 6
Third verse, same refrain: “Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD” (Judg. 6:1, NIV). This time, He let the Midianites oppress them—to the point that the Hebrews were living in caves and mountain forts to escape the cruelty of their enemies (v. 2). For seven years, the Hebrews were unable to gather their harvest without Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples coming in and ruining their crops, stealing their livestock and impoverishing them, to the point that they just couldn’t stand it any more (3-6).
“When the Israelites cried out to Him because of Midian, the Lord sent a prophet to them…” (Judg. 6:7-8, HCSB). He reminded them of how YHWH had delivered them from their oppressors in Egypt, drove out the inhabitants of Canaan and gave them their land (vv. 8-9). He became their God and told them not to fear the gods of the people who previously lived there (10). Yet, they disregarded His commandments.
Sometime after this message was given to the Hebrews, the Lord sent His messenger to one Israelite in particular. A young man by the name of Gideon was trying to hide from the invaders, beating his grain in a winepress located beneath a big shade tree on his father’s property (11). The Angel of YHWH made Himself visible to Gideon with this greeting: “The LORD is with you, you mighty man of valor!” (12).
Gideon, obviously fed up with all their troubles, said to the Angel, “O my lord, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about… But now the LORD has forsaken us and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites.”(13). Isn’t it funny how we sin against God, and then blame Him for the consequences?
Indirectly addressing this protest, the Lord told Gideon, “Go in this might of yours, and you shall save Israel from the hand of the Midianites. Have I not sent you?” (14).
Like so many of us who prefer to bemoan our troubles, rather than be used of God to solve them, Gideon replied, “Please, Lord, how can I deliver Israel? Look, my family is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father’s house” (Judg. 6:15, HCSB). As He had previously dealt with a similar objection from Moses (Ex. 3:10-12), the Lord answered, “Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat the Midianites as one man.” (v. 16).
Having come from an idolatrous generation that did not really know YHWH personally, Gideon wanted proof of who it was that was relaying these orders. He told the angel to stay put, while he went and got a young goat, some unleavened bread and some broth to place before his heavenly visitor (17-19). When Gideon had spread the offering on a rock nearby and poured out the broth, according to the angel’s instruction, the messenger touched them with his staff, causing them to spontaneously combust (20-21). This action, coupled with the sudden disappearance of the angel, convinced him of the messenger’s identity. Gideon was afraid for his life, but YHWH assured him he would not die (22-23). Then Gideon built an altar on the spot, and called it YHWH Shalom—which means, “I AM is peace” (24).
That night, the Lord challenged Gideon to put his new faith into action by tearing down his father’s altar to Baal, erecting a new altar to YHWH, and making a burnt offering of his father’s prize bull, using the wood of the idols (25-26). Gideon rounded up 10 family servants and did as he was told, “But because he was afraid of his family and the men of the town, he did it at night rather than in the daytime” (Judg. 6:27, NIV).
The next morning, everyone was up in arms about the destruction of the altar and its sacred images. They were ready to drag Gideon out of his home and execute him on the spot (vv. 28-30). Gideon’s father, Joash, refused to turn over his son, but suggested that Baal could avenge this desecration himself—if he was truly a god (31). Therefore Gideon was nick-named Jerubbaal, which means “let Baal contend” in commemoration of his father’s wise advice (32).
When the Midianites and Amalekites gathered together, as usual, and camped in the Valley of Jezreel, the Spirit of YHWH moved Gideon to blow the trumpet to call his countrymen to war (33-34). Messengers were dispersed to the territories of Manasseh, Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali, who all gathered with the young man to oppose the invaders (35).
Some of you may be familiar with the practice of “putting out a fleece,” when seeking guidance from the Lord. That expression comes from the final five verses of this chapter.
Although God had told Gideon He would deliver Israel through him, the man needed some reassurance. So he proposed a test:
Graciously enough, God did just as He was asked, and Gideon was able to wring out an entire bowlful of water from the fleece that was lying on the dry floor (38).
Still, Gideon was not quite convinced—very likely he was hoping the first test was just a fluke. Therefore, he said to God, “Do not be angry with me, but let me speak just once more…” This time he asked God to keep the sheepskin dry and make the ground wet (39). Again, the Lord complied, more than happy to bolster the man’s faith (40).
Judges Chapter 7
In this chapter we find yet another favorite Sunday school story: The tale of Gideon’s 300 mighty men. Having been convinced by the fleece that he was God’s man for the hour, Gideon moved his troops to a location opposite the Midianite encampment (Judg. 7:1). While they were there, the Lord informed Gideon that his army was too big. He needed to thin the numbers down, so that Israel wouldn’t take credit for their deliverance (v. 2). Gideon was ordered to follow the protocol given in Deuteronomy 20:8, dismissing everyone who was apprehensive about the battle (Judg. 7:3). 22,000 of the men went home, while 10,000 remained.
That was still too big a number for YHWH to work with, so He told Gideon to bring the remaining men down to the water, “and I will test them for you there” (4). When Gideon brought his men to the river to drink, about 300 out of the thousands that were present scooped up some water and lapped it like a dog; while the rest knelt down and drank directly from the stream (5-6). It was this little band of vigilant oddballs that God told Gideon He was prepared to use (7). The rest turned over their provisions and their horns and went home (8).
That night, the order came from YHWH for Gideon to attack their enemies (9). Anticipating Gideon’s hesitation, the Lord told him to take a servant and go eavesdrop on the men in the opposing camp (10-11).
When Gideon and his attendant, Purah, listened at the guard post of the Midianite encampment, they overheard one soldier telling another about his dream: “To my surprise, a loaf of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian; it came to a tent and struck it so that it fell and overturned, and the tent collapsed” (12-13). Amazingly his companion gave this interpretation: “This is nothing else but the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel! Into his hand God has delivered Midian and the whole camp” (14).
That boosted Gideon’s faith, so that he worshiped God, and then returned to rally his troops (15). He divided his 300 into three companies, giving each man a trumpet, an empty pitcher, and a torch (16). He instructed them all to watch him closely and imitate his every move. When the time was right, they were all to blow their trumpets and shout, “The sword of the LORD and of Gideon!” from their positions surrounding the enemy camp (17-18).
During the momentary disorganization of the watchmen during the changing of the guard, Gideon and company blew their trumpets, shouted their battle cry and broke the pitchers that covered the torches in their hands (19-20). To the enemy, this cacophony of ram’s horns, shouting voices and shattering pottery must have been terribly disorienting, as they were aroused from sleep. Used to seeing but one torch for every hundred or so men and hearing one trumpet to summon thousands, the Midianites and Amalekites must’ve thought there were at least 1,000 times as many attackers as Gideon had in his little band.
Scripture mentions nothing about the Israelites having swords of their own—only the trumpets and torches. All they had to do was stand still around the camp and watch, as the whole army screamed in terror, scattered and turned against one another (21-22). It was no trouble for the men of Israel to regroup, arm themselves from the corpses of their enemies and pursue them (23).
“Then Gideon sent messengers throughout all the mountains of Ephraim, saying, ‘Come down against the Midianites, and seize from them the watering places as far as Beth Barah and the Jordan…’” (24). The Ephraimites did just that, managing to capture and kill two of the Midianite leaders, Oreb and Zeeb. And then they brought Gideon the heads of the two men (25).
Judges Chapter 8
Everything was going so smoothly, until the men of Ephraim decided to make an issue of not being invited to join the party earlier (Judg. 8:1). Gideon poured on the diplomatic charm, however, to diffuse the conflict:
By the time he and his troops crossed the Jordan River, they were worn out with fatigue and hunger (4). When he asked the residents of Succoth to supply them with bread to nourish the men who were in pursuit of the kings of Midian, the leaders replied, “Why should we give your soldiers bread? You haven’t caught Zebah and Zalmunna yet” (Judg. 8:5-6, NCV). In response to their insolence, Gideon vowed to come back and give those officials a good thrashing with thorns and briars, once he was victorious over the Midianite kings (v. 7). When he got the same response at Penuel, Guideon said he’d be back to tear down the tower of that city (8-9).
Of the original army under Zebah and Zalmunna, only about 15,000 remained by the time they reached Karkor; the other 120,000 had fallen in battle (10). Gideon went up a round-about way and “attacked the army while the camp felt secure”—catching up with the two kings and routing their troops (11-12).
On his way back, Gideon intercepted a young man from Succoth and had him write down the names of all 77 of the leading men of the town (13-14). When he arrived at the city, he displayed the captured kings, saying, “Here are Zebah and Zalmunna, about whom you ridiculed me,” and then he gave the elders the beating he had promised (15-16). “Then he tore down the tower of Penuel and killed the men of the city” (17).
In the next few verses we learn the possible reason that YHWH might have chosen the youngest son of Joash to fight against the Midianites. He asked the two kings a seemingly random question: “What kind of men were they whom you killed at Tabor?” (18). “Men like you,” they answered, “each one with the bearing of a prince.” (Judg. 8:18, NIV). He then informed them that they were his half brothers—“sons of my mother.” Had they let his relatives live, he might have spared them (19). As it was, he ordered his oldest son, Jether, to kill the kings (20). When the boy hesitated, the kings told Gideon to do the dirty work himself, which he did (21).
After executing Zebah and Zalmunna, Gideon pocketed the crescent ornaments that hung from their camels’ necks. No doubt, these were made of gold and were emblems of the Middle Eastern worship of the moon god, which was prevalent until the time of Muhammad. Perhaps they were intended as mementos of his victory, but Gideon never should’ve taken them, since the Law forbade the Israelites from coveting even the precious metals from which pagan artifacts were made (Deut. 7:25).
Because of his defeat of Midian, the Israelites asked Gideon and his descendants to rule over them (Judg. 8:22). With false modesty, the leader replied, “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the LORD shall rule over you” (23). If this wasn’t so, why else would he have named his concubine’s son Abimelech, which means “My father is king” (31)?
He also made the request that each man contribute the gold earrings from their plunder (24)—also quite likely emblems of their devotion to the moon god. So each fellow tossed the earrings from their plunder onto a garment they spread out for that purpose, until there was well over 1,700 shekels, or 44 pounds of gold—not counting what Gideon had stripped from the kings and their mounts (25-26)! All of this Gideon made into golden ephod [which he may have felt was some sort of tribute to YHWH] and set it up in his home town, Ophrah (27). Unfortunately, Israel began to worship the image as an idol, which brought trouble on Gideon’s family.
The Midianites were subdued, and Israel enjoyed peace during the 40 years of Gideon’s administration (28). He went on to father 70 sons from the many wives he acquired (30). When he died at a ripe old age, he was buried in his father’s tomb at Ophrah (32). Once again, the children of Israel worshiped false gods, selecting Baal-Berith as their favorite (33). Not only did they not remember the LORD their God, but they failed to honr Gideon’s family for all the good God had used him to do for Israel (34-35).
Judges Chapter 9
The seeds of discord Gideon had unwittingly sown by giving his son a pretentious name sprang up against the rest of the judge’s family, when Abimelech went to Shechem to visit his mother’s family. He said to them all, “Ask the people of Shechem whether they want to be ruled by all seventy of Gideon’s sons or by one man. And remember, I am your own flesh and blood!” (Judg. 9:1-2, NLT).
When Abimelech’s uncles talked it over with the rest of the city’s residents, they sided with the concubine’s son and gave him 70 silver coins from the temple of their god, which he used to hire mercenaries (vv. 3-4). With these hired soldiers, he went home, rounded up all 70 of his half brothers, and slaughtered them on one stone. Only the youngest brother, Jotham, managed to escape and hide from the murderers (5).
When the people of Shechem and Beth Millo crowned their new king under a huge oak near his mother’s home town, Jotham climbed Mount Gerizim [the mountain of blessing from Deut. 11:29] (Judg. 9:6). From the top of this mountain, he shouted, “Listen to me, you men of Shechem, that God may listen to you!” (7). Then he told them a parable about some trees petitioning an olive tree, a fig tree and a grape vine to rule over them—each time being refused, because these noble plants were too busy producing fruit (8-13). He concluded this little fable by telling how the trees came at last to a thornbush, which responded to their request: “If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!” (Judg. 9:14-15, NIV).
Then Jotham got to his point. “Now make sure you have acted honorably and in good faith by making Abimelech your king, and that you have done right by Gideon and all of his descendants. Have you treated my father with the honor he deserves?” (Judg. 9:16, NLT). He reminded them all how Gideon had risked his life to free them from the Midianites and accused them of taking part in the shameful murder of his sons (vv. 17-18). “[I]f then you have acted in truth and sincerity with Jerubbaal and with his house this day,” the young man said, “then rejoice in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you.” (19). But if not, he declared this curse: “let fire come out from Abimelech and devour the people of Shechem and Beth Millo; and let fire come out from the people of Shechem and Beth Millo and devour Abimelech!” (20). With that, Jotham fled for his life to Beer, where he stayed out of fear of his evil brother (21).
Everything seemed fine for about three years (22). Then “God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the citizens of Shechem, who acted treacherously against Abimelech” (Judg. 9:23, NIV). Here is the first example from Scripture of God sending an evil spirit to accomplish His will toward someone. Under the influence of this spirit of rebellion, the Shechemites started attacking people who passed by their city, trying to lure Abimelech into their clutches (v. 25).
About the same time, a smooth-talking fellow named Gaal started trash-talking Abimelech and challenged him to a fight (26-29). Zebul, the rightful mayor of Shechem, sent word to Abimelech that the upstart was inciting rebellion against him and advised the king to come and ambush the city and destroy the rebel (30-33). When Abimelech did just that, the boaster was caught unaware and soundly defeated (34-41).
With many of their soldiers slaughtered, the people of Shechem again enjoined Abimelech in battle. But Abimelech defeated them, captured the city, killed everyone inside, leveled it to the ground, and scattered salt everywhere, so nothing could grow there (42-45). He also burned 1,000 men and women alive in the temple of Baal-berith (46-49).
When Abimelech attacked the city of Thebez, the entire population fled to a strong tower within (50-51). As Abimelech prepared to do the same thing to their tower as he had done to Shechem’s temple, “a certain woman dropped an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head and crushed his skull” (52-53). Not about to suffer the disgrace of being killed by a woman, Abimelech ordered his armor-bearer to finish him off (54). When “the young man stabbed him with his sword,” Abimelech’s men broke off the attack and went home (Judg. 9:55, NLT).
The chapter concludes by telling us that this fulfillment of Jotham’s curse was God’s punishment on Abimelech for killing his brothers and on Shechem for aiding and abetting him (vv. 56-57).
Judges Chapter 10
Israel’s next rescuer was a guy by the name of Tola, a fellow from Issachar, who lived in Ephraim (Judg. 10:1). After judging Israel 23 years, he died and was buried in Shamir (v. 2).
Jair, a man from Gilead, was in charge for 22 years (3). This guy must have made a pretty decent living, having had 30 sons—each with his own donkey and his own town (4)! Their little metropolitan area was called Havoth Jair—which means “the settlements of Jair,”—the name still in use at the time that Saul’s monarchy was established in Israel.
After Jair passed away, the Israelites really got into idolatry big-time—serving not only the Baals and the Ashtoreths, but also the gods of Syria, Sidon, Moab, Ammon, and the Philistines (6). So, for 18 years, YHWH let the Philistines and the Ammonites harass the people of Gilead, Judah, Benjamin and Ephraim (7-9). The Israelites were so distressed, they cried out to the Lord, admitting their sin (10).
He gave them a history lesson, reminding them how He had previously delivered the Hebrews from the Egyptians, the Amorites, Ammonites, Philistines, Sidonians, Amalekites and Maonites (11-12). Since they continued to forsake Him and serve other gods, YHWH didn’t care to rescue them anymore (13). Instead, He said, “Go and cry out to the gods which you have chosen; let them deliver you in your time of distress” (14).
They agreed that their sin was great and told the Lord to do whatever He thought was best: “only deliver us this day, we pray” (15). To show they were serious, the people got rid of their foreign gods and focused on serving YHWH alone (16). At that point, He could no longer stand to see them suffer, so He took action.
When the Ammonites assembled again and encamped in Gilead, the Israelites mustered their army and camped at Mizpah (17). As they wondered who would lead them this time, the people decided whoever it was would be put in charge over all the inhabitants of the country east of the Jordan (18).
Judges Chapter 11
God’s choice may surprise you: “Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valor, but he was the son of a harlot…” (Judg. 11:1). Gilead, his father, bore other sons by his actual wife. According to verse 2, they drove the illegitimate son away as soon as they could, saying, “You shall have no inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.” Jephthah moved to a place called Tob and gathered a band of ne’er-do-wells, not unlike Robin Hood and his merry men (3).
Oddly enough, when the Ammonites made war against Israel, it was Jephthah that they called to be the leader of their army (4-6). He reminded them how they had mistreated him and wondered why they should seek his help now (7). They said they’d be willing to make the man their leader, if he would just help them fight their enemies (8-10). Jephthah agreed, then went and had a little talk with YHWH in Mizpah (11).
The new leader of the Gileadites was a shrewd man, indeed. He sent a message to the king of Ammon asking what his issue was, that he should pick a fight with Israel (12). The Ammonite monarch said it was Israel’s fault for taking away part of his kingdom back when they first arrived from Egypt (13).
Jephthah corrected the king, providing a history lesson of how Israel was shunned by Edom, Moab and Ammon when the nation returned from Egypt (14-17). So Israel carefully went around their territories, and instead attempted to pass through the land of Sihon king of the Amorites (18-19). When Sihon mustered his troops for war, “the LORD God of Israel delivered Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they defeated them. Thus Israel gained possession of all the land of the Amorites, who inhabited that country,” along with more Amorite territory closeby (20-22). Since YHWH God of the Hebrews had given them this land to possess, Jephthah asked why they should have to give it to the Ammonites instead (23).
He concluded by saying, “Will you not possess whatever Chemosh your god gives you to possess?” (24) He also reminded the Amonite king that Balak, king of Moab didn’t attack Israel; neither did any of the Amonite kings who ruled in the 300 years following Israel’s conquest of Canaan (25-26). He asserted, “…I have not sinned against you, but you wronged me by fighting against me. May the LORD, the Judge, render judgment this day between the children of Israel and the people of Ammon” (27).
Unfortunately for the king of Ammon, Jephthah’s wise words fell on deaf ears (28). So the Spirit of YHWH came over Jephthah, who gathered an army from Gilead and Manasseh, and advanced from Mizpah toward the people of Ammon (29). On the way, Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, pledging the first thing that came to meet him from his house as a burnt offering, should YHWH grant him victory against the Ammonites (30-31).
YHWH gave Jephthah a decisive victory, so he subdued the Ammonites (32-33). When the victorious general returned home, who should come to meet him first, but his only child—a daughter, who greeted her father with music and dancing (34)? Had he promised a bull or a goat, or a sum of money, Jephthah would’ve been fine, but now he deeply regretted his vow, since he felt obligated to sacrifice his own child (35).
The girl must have possessed some fear of YHWH—even though both she and her father were ignorant of the Law, which forbade human sacrifice (See Deut. 12:31 & 18:10). She said, “My father, if you have given your word to the LORD, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, because the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the people of Ammon” (Judg. 11:36). All she asked was 60 days to “go and wander on the mountains” with her friends and mourn over the fact that she would die a virgin and never marry or have children (v. 37).
So her father allowed her that time, after which she came back home, so Jephthah could carry out his vow (38-39). To commemorate this tragedy, it became the custom for four days out of the year for Israelite virgins to mourn the death of Jephthah’s daughter (40).
Judges Chapter 12
As they had done with Gideon, the men of Ephraim gave Jephthah a hard time about not including them in the fight against the Ammonites—even going so far as to threaten to burn his house down (Judg. 12:1)! Jephthah countered by saying he asked for their help, but they didn’t do anything about it (v. 2). With melodramatic flair, he added, “So when I saw that you would not deliver me, I took my life in my hands and crossed over against the people of Ammon; and the LORD delivered them into my hand” (3).
The two groups actually went to battle, with the men of Gilead defeating the upstarts and then intercepting the fugitives at the fords of the Jordan (4). As a test of each man’s identity, the Gileadites required each man to say, “Shibboleth,” the Hebrew word for an ear of wheat (5). The Ephraimites would mispronounce it, saying “Sibboleth,” and would then be executed by the Gileadites—a full 42,000 warriors perished this way (6)!
After that, Jephthah judged Israel for 6 years, before he died and was buried in the territory of Gilead (7).
A fellow named Ibzan from Bethlehem was Israel’s next judge for a total of 7 years (8-9). This guy had 30 sons and 30 daughters. Imagine trying to find spouses for that many kids!
Elon from the tribe of Zebulun judged Israel for 10 years (11). “After him, Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite judged Israel” (13). This fellow, too, had a big family of 40 sons and 30 grandsons, who rode like royalty on 70 young donkeys during his 8-year administration (14). Apparently an Ephraimite, the man was buried in his home town of “Pirathon in the land of Ephraim, in the mountains of the Amalekites” when he died (15).
Judges Chapter 13
The next four chapters are dedicated to one of the most famous, but least self-controlled of all the judges over Israel. During another stint of gross idolatry, God let the Israelites suffer for 40 years under the oppression of Philistine overlords (Judg. 13:1).
YHWH sent the Angel of the LORD to a town called Zorah in the territory of Dan to visit a woman who had been unable to bear children (vv. 2-3). The unnamed woman, whose husband was called Manoah, was instructed by the angel “not to drink wine or similar drink, and not to eat anything unclean,” since she was going to become pregnant with a son (4). Once the lad was born, she was not allowed to give him a haircut, “for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb; and he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines” (5).
You may recall from Numbers 6 that a Nazirite was someone set apart for service to God. Usually this was the result of a vow taken by the individual in question. But in this passage—along with 1 Samuel 1 and Luke 1—we find there were rare occasions when the parents of a miracle child set him apart from birth for a special assignment.
The woman came home and told her husband that “a Man of God,” who looked like an angel, came to her and shared this unusual arrangement (Judg. 13:6-7). Wanting to see and hear all this himself (perhaps doubting his wife’s sanity?), Manoah prayed for YHWH to send the man back “and teach us what we shall do for the child who will be born” (8).
When the angel appeared a second time to the woman, she ran and got her husband, while the heavenly messenger waited in the field (9-10). After verifying he was the same Person who had appeared to his wife before, Manoah said, “Now let Your words come to pass! What will be the boy’s rule of life, and his work?” (11-12).
The Angel of YHWH really didn’t answer Manoah’s question. He just repeated his instructions from before (13-14).
Remembering his Middle-eastern manners, Manoah asked the fellow to stay for dinner (15). The angel said Manoah was welcome to offer the meal to the Lord, but he himself did not intend to eat it (16). When Manoah asked what his name was, the angel replied, “Why do you ask My name, seeing it is wonderful?” (17-18). Strong’s Greek & Hebrew Dictionary says that word, pili, or pali, can also be translated “incomprehensible.”
Still not realizing whom he was addressing, Manoah brought a young goat with an appropriate grain offering, and sacrificed them on a nearby rock to YHWH (19). Amazingly enough, “the Angel of the LORD ascended in the flame of the altar,” while the Danite and his wife were watching (20)!
Manoah and his wife immediately hit the dirt. When the identity of their visitor finally sank in, Manoah was convinced he and his wife were going to die, “because we have seen God!” (21-22). But hers was the voice of reason: “If the LORD had desired to kill us, He would not have accepted a burnt offering and a grain offering from our hands, nor would He have shown us all these things, nor would He have told us such things as these at this time” (23).
True to His word, the Lord gave the couple a son, whom they named Samson—which means “like the sun” (24). As this little light of their lives grew, it was obvious the blessing of God was upon him. The final verse in this chapter informs us that “The Spirit of the Lord began to work in Samson while he was in the city of Mahaneh Dan, between the cities of Zorah and Eshtaol” (Judges 13:25, NCV).
Judges Chapter 14
When he had reach a marriageable age, Samson went south of Danite territory to Timnah, a town near the southern tip of Judah’s territory. There he met a young Philistine woman and told his parents she was the girl he wanted to marry (Judg. 14:1-2).
Being God-fearing Hebrews, Manoah and his wife tried to dissuade their son, saying, “Can’t you find a young woman among your relatives or among any of our people? Must you go to the uncircumcised Philistines for a wife?” (Judg. 14:3, HCSB). Nevertheless, Samson insisted she was the one for him and demanded that his father make the arrangements (v. 3). Manoah and his wife didn’t know that this was something YHWH had instigated, so that Samson could have an excuse to fight against the Philistines, who had dominion over His people (4).
On their way down to Timnah, in the vineyards at the outskirts of the town, a young lion attacked Samson (5). The Spirit of YHWH came over him with such power that Samson tore the lion apart with his bare hands (6). Without telling his folks what had happened, Samson went on to visit the girl and liked her even more (7).
The next time he came to Timnah, he took a little detour to see the carcass of the lion he had killed (8). To his surprise, the strong man found a swarm of bees and honey in the remains of the lion. Again, not mentioning what had happened or where it came from, Samson walked along eating the honey and gave some to his father and mother to eat, as well (9). Most likely the reason for his secrecy was that no Nazirite was allowed to approach a dead body (Num. 6:6-7).
In keeping with the custom of the day, Samson held a wedding feast—most likely for family, friends and neighbors in the village (Judg. 14:10). At some point in the festivities, Samson proposed a wager to his 30 Philistine guests:
Intrigued, they asked what the riddle might be, to which he replied: “Out of the eater came something to eat, and out of the strong came something sweet” (14).
Completely stumped for three days, and not willing to pony up on the bet, the men demanded of Samson’s fiancé that she get him to explain the riddle “or else we will burn you and your father’s house with fire” (15). The poor girl cried all over the place and accused her husband-to-be of hating her and keeping secrets (16). Samson told her nobody knew the meaning of the riddle—not even his own parents, but she wouldn’t let up on him. Worn out with her nagging, on the final day of the feast he let her in on the secret—and then she promptly passed it on to the Philistine men (17).
At the very last hour, the men of the city solved Samson’s riddle, saying, “What is sweeter than honey? And what is stronger than a lion?” Knowing exactly how they had learned the answer, he fumed, “If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have solved my riddle!” (18).
Even though the Philistines had cheated, Samson was true to his word. Again, the Spirit of YHWH empowered him, so Samson “went down to Ashkelon and killed thirty of their men, took their apparel, and gave the changes of clothing to those who had explained the riddle” (19). Since he was so disgusted with the whole situation, Samson stormed back home to his parents’ house, whereupon Samson’s betrothed was given by her parents to his best man (20).
Judges Chapter 15
That summer, during wheat harvest, Samson took a young goat and went to visit his girl in Timnah. When he told her dad he intended to go see his wife, the old man wouldn’t let him into her room, explaining that he had married her off to Samson’s best man (Judg. 15:1-2). Instead, he offered her younger sister as a bride.
Samson was so mad, he decided to get even with the Philistines for causing him to lose the girl of his dreams (v. 3). Somehow, he managed to round up 300 foxes, tied them tail to tail and fastened a blazing torch between each pair, and then released them into the standing grain (4-5).
The Philistines, in turn, were so outraged about losing their grain harvest, that they went and did what they had threatened to do when this whole thing started with Samson’s riddle (Judg. 14:15)—they burned the girl and her dad to death (Judg. 15:6).
Samson then vowed not to stop causing them trouble until he got full revenge the Philistines (v. 7). According to verse 8 in the New International Version, “He attacked them viciously and slaughtered many of them.” Then he holed up in a cave in the rock of Etam.
After the Philistines surrounded the nearby town of Lehi, the men of Judah asked what was up (9-10). Their answer: “We have come up to arrest Samson, to do to him as he has done to us.”
At that 3,000 men from Judah marched to Samson’s cave and reminded him that the Philistines ruled over them (11). When they confronted him and demanded to know why the Philistines were so ticked off, Samson replied, “As they did to me, so I have done to them.”
He struck a deal with the men, agreeing to let them arrest and restrain him, so long as they promised not to kill him themselves (12-13). Bound with two new ropes, they led their prisoner back toward the city.
When the Philistines came rushing at him with a shout, the Holy Spirit came upon him so powerfully that Samson broke his bonds, as if they were scorched through (14). Grabbing what he could find close at hand, Samson whacked those soldiers to death with nothing but the jawbone of a dead donkey (15). He made up a little jingle about killing heaps of Philistines—1,000 men—and then named the place Ramath Lehi, which means “height of a jawbone” (17-18).
When Samson complained that God gave him a great victory, only to die from thirst, the Lord “split the hollow place that is in Lehi, and water came out, and he drank,” reviving the strong man (19). He then renamed that spot, En Hakkore, or “spring of One calling.”
The chapter concludes by informing us that Samson was a judge in Israel for 20 years during the Philistine domination (20).
Judges Chapter 16
With no bride to tame his raging hormones, Samson went to Gaza and found a prostitute to service him (Judg. 16:1). Somehow the Philistines in Gaza got wind of the transaction and surrounded the place, in hopes of catching their enemy on his way out of town (v. 2). He laid low until midnight, and then uprooted the city gates and used them as a shield between himself and his would-be attackers (3). When he got to the hilltop facing Hebron, he deposited the apparatus there.
Next we read the infamous tale of Samson and Delilah. This beauty was hired by the Philistine rulers to get Samson to tell her the secret of his strength (4-5). Why he put up with her, I’ll never know, because twice she pressed him to tell her the secret of his strength, and both times she had the Philistines do to him what he told her (6-12). The third time, he came close to telling her the truth: “If you weave the seven locks of my head into the web of the loom,” he’d be as weak as any other man (13). When she tried it, he again broke free, but he still didn’t get it that this woman was a treacherous fiend out to trick him (14)!
When she gave him the classic line, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me? You have mocked me these three times, and have not told me where your great strength lies” (15), Samson should have just walked away from the relationship. After all, what loving woman would betray her man to his enemies? But he was so smitten, and she was so persistent, he finally divulged the truth: “No razor has ever come upon my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother’s womb. If I am shaven, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak, and be like any other man” (16-17).
Somehow the vixen knew this was the real deal, so she called her accomplices and had them bring a razor and her money for turning Samson over to them at last (18). She worked her magic, lulling the strong man to sleep on her knees, and then someone came and snipped off the seven locks of hair from his head [I’m guessing they were long braids or something similar.] (19). “Then she began to torment him, and his strength left him.”
This time, when Delilah cried, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” he was not able to break free, as before. In fact, the sad truth is that the man had become so fleshly, he did not even recognize that the Spirit of YHWH “had departed from him” (20). What a cold, cruel woman she must’ve been, to allow her lover to be dragged away in chains!
Once Samson was in their power, the Philistines “put out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza,” where they chained him to a mill at the prison to grind grain (21). The next statement is indicative of God’s grace more than a mere natural occurrence: Even in his state of utter humiliation, God was restoring Samson, as “the hair of his head began to grow again after it had been shaven” (22).
Not long after, the Philistine rulers called all their subjects together to celebrate their victory and sacrifice to their god, Dagon, whom they credited for delivering their Samson into their clutches (23). It wasn’t enough for them to sing their idol’s praises for helping them defeat the enemy who had killed so many and destroyed their land, they wanted to rub Samson’s nose in their victory, as well (24). Like a trained circus bear, they brought him into the temple and had Samson perform (25).
But God had one final mission for His servant. The blind hero asked the boy who was guiding him to direct his hands to “the pillars which support the temple,” saying he wanted to rest against them (26). Then he made this desperate plea to YHWH, while 3,000 of his enemies looked on from the roof watching him: “Lord God, remember me. God, please give me strength one more time so I can pay these Philistines back for putting out my two eyes!” (Judg. 16:27-28, NCV). Then with a mighty effort and the cry, “Let me die with the Philistines!” the strong man knocked down the supporting pillars and demolished the pagan temple and everyone in it (vv. 29-30).
With this last act, Samson killed more Philistines than he had in his entire lifetime—all 20 years of his career as judge. Somehow his family found out and came and dug Samson’s body out of the rubble, so that they could bury him in the tomb of his father Manoah (31).
Judges Chapter 17
The next two chapters explain how the tribe of Dan came to be located in a land outside of their allotted territory—and how they became the most idolatrous among the families of Israel.
In verse one, we’re introduced to a fellow named Micah, whose home was somewhere in the mountains of Ephraim. He had stolen some silver from his mother. When she discovered it was missing, she pronounced a curse, but when he admitted he had taken it, she blessed him instead (v. 2).
Just to show how confused these people had become, the woman dedicated the money to YHWH for the purpose of making an idol from it (3)—something the Lord had forbidden the children of Israel to do under any circumstances (Ex. 20:23). She took a portion of the coins and gave them to a silversmith to fashion into a carved image overlaid with the precious metal, which Micah placed in a shrine in his home (Judg. 17:4-5). Then Micah made a priestly uniform and consecrated one of his sons to serve as a priest for his household. Verse 6 gives this statement as an explanation for this blatant disregard for God’s Law: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
A young Levite who had been living in Bethlehem of Judah migrated from his home to the mountains of Ephraim (vv. 7-8). When Micah met him and learned the fellow was a Levite, he offered him a job serving as his personal priest—for an annual wage of four ounces of silver, a change of clothing, food and shelter (9-10). This seemed agreeable to the fellow, so he accepted the position and became like one of Micah’s own sons (11-12). So deluded was the idolatrous fellow, that Micah told himself, “Now I know that the LORD will be good to me, since I have a Levite as priest!” (13).
Judges Chapter 18
Meanwhile, the tribe of Dan—who, according to Judges 1:34 had not been able to take possession of their allotted territory near Judah, because the Amorites living there were resistant to their efforts to claim the land—was also looking for a place to relocate (Judg. 18:1). They sent five scouts from the cities of Zorah and Eshtaol [Samson’s old stomping grounds] to see if they could find a place suitable for them to live (v. 2).
Passing through Ephraim, they spent the night at Micah’s house, where “they recognized the voice of the young Levite” (3). Upon inquiry, they learned the Levite was Micah’s personal priest, and they asked him to ask God whether their journey would be successful (4-5). In typical fortune-teller style, the Levite replied, “Go in peace. Your journey has the LORD’s approval” (Judg. 18:6, NIV)—which is exactly what they wanted to hear.
Moving on, the men traveled north to a city called Laish, where the people lived in peace, prosperity and safety, according to the culture of the Sidonians—yet they were isolated from anyone else (v. 7). When they returned to the other Danites, the men were excited to report: “Come on, let’s attack them! We have seen that the land is very good… When you get there, you will find an unsuspecting people and a spacious land that God has put into your hands, a land that lacks nothing whatever” (Judg. 18:8-10, NIV).
So an army of 600 Danites left Zorah and Eshtaol and marched northward (v. 11). The place where they bivouacked, just west of Kiriath Jearim was renamed Mahaneh Dan, which means “camp of Dan” (12). As they journeyed from there through the territory of Ephraim, the five spies informed their relatives about the ephod and idols Micah had in his home (13-14). The troops marched right up to Micah’s house, where the five greeted the Levite and then helped themselves to Micah’s idols and worship paraphernalia (15-17).
When the priest asked what was going on, the Danites told him to be quiet and come with them (18-19). They asked, “Is it better for you to be a priest to the household of one man, or that you be a priest to a tribe and a family in Israel?” Naturally, the idea of such a promotion was quite attractive to the young man, so he helped them gather all the stuff up and accompanied the Danites, their families and their livestock from Micah’s home (20-21).
Once the theft was discovered, Micah gathered a bunch of his neighbors to pursue the troop (22). The Danites threatened to take his life and those of his family members, if he made an issue of recovering the stolen goods (23-25). Micah, who had so congratulated himself earlier, now returned home in humiliation, having realized this army of self-serving men was too strong for him to resist (26).
With Micah’s priest and possessions in hand, the Danites went on to massacre the unsuspecting people of Laish, and burned the city with fire (27). Then they rebuilt the city, renamed it Dan in honor of their ancestor, and lived there instead of in their rightful territory (28-29). There the Danites set up the idols they had stolen from Micah; “and Jonathan the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh, and his sons were priests to the tribe of Dan until the day of the captivity of the land” (30-31).
Judges Chapter 19
The last three chapters of this book paint an even worse picture of the degeneration of the people of Israel. This sad episode also involved a man from the territory of Ephraim.
Again, we are reminded that “there was no king in Israel” at the time (Judg. 19:1). A Levite living in the remote mountains of Ephraim acquired a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah; but she ran back home to her father’s house, where she stayed for four months (vv. 1-2). The Levite came looking for the girl, spoke kindly to her and intended to take her back home (3). When her father saw the fellow, he was glad to have his company, and detained the Levite and his servant for three days, partying the whole time (4).
By the fourth day, the Levite had everyone up early in the morning, intending to head home. “But the young woman’s father said to his son-in-law, ‘Refresh your heart with a morsel of bread, and afterward go your way’” (5). By the time this banquet was over, the father-in-law had delayed him yet another day and persuaded the Levite to spend another night (6-7). This scenario was repeated a second time, but this time the Levite was unwilling to fall for the old man’s scheme again, so on that fifth day, he took his leave with the concubine and his servant late in the afternoon (8-10).
The man, his servant, his woman and his two donkeys made it as far as Jebus [or Jerusalem] when it started getting dark (10). The servant suggested they spend the night there, but the Levite was concerned about staying with foreigners, so they pressed on to Gibeah in Benjaminite territory (11-14).
The party set up camp in the open square of the city, since “no one would take them into his house to spend the night” (15). About that time an old fellow, who also happened to be from the mountains of Ephraim, came home from working the fields to where he was staying in Gibeah (16). Although the Levite assured him they had everything they needed to spend the night where they were, the old man would not accept no for an answer (17-19). He insisted the threesome spend the night with him (20). Therefore, he took them all home, fed the animals, washed the feet of his guests, and then fed them a nice meal (21).
They were all enjoying dinner, when suddenly a mob of “perverted men surrounded the house and beat on the door,” demanding that the old man let them have sex with his male guest (22)! The dear old fellow went out and tried to reason with them:
Now the Levite may have been cool with this, but I’m sure the old man’s daughter and his guest’s concubine would have objected to the arrangement, had women been allowed to speak for themselves in those days!
Nevertheless, the wicked men wouldn’t listen, so the Levite shoved his poor concubine out the door to save his own skin (25). All night long the brutes took turns raping the woman, and then slunk away at daybreak. The poor woman crawled to the front door, where she collapsed (26).
When he got up that morning, the man callously ordered the concubine, “Get up and let us be going” (27). Upon finding her dead at the threshold, he unceremoniously loaded the girl’s body on his donkey, and then went home (28).
There, he took a knife and chopped the woman’s body into twelve pieces, and had each gory member delivered to a different territory of Israel (29). Naturally, his countrymen were shocked and gathered together to do something about the appalling situation (30).
Judges Chapter 20
From north to south and east to west, the Israelites made themselves available to the Lord in Mizpah—400,000 strong (Judg. 20:1-2). Benjamin, however, declined to attend (v. 3). When they all demanded the story from the Levite, he told them about the shameful behavior of the Benjaminites, and challenged those present: “Now, all you Israelites, speak up and give your verdict!” (Judg. 20:4-7, NIV).
The people agreed unanimously not to rest until this horrible crime was punished (vv. 8 & 11). Their plan was to select 10% of their armed forces by lot, provide for that army and send them to slaughter the men of Gibeah for what they had done (9-11).
They challenged the men of Benjamin to hand over the guilty parties from Gibeah, “that we may put them to death and remove the evil from Israel!” (12-13). But the Benjaminites refused to cooperate. Instead 26,000 skilled Benjaminite warriors assembled at Gibeah to defend the city, with its 700 men—many of whom were left-handed and expert marksmen with a slingshot (14-16).
With Judah designated as God’s choice to lead them, the children of Israel went to fight against Benjamin at Gibeah (18-20). The first day, the defenders of Gibeah slaughtered 22,000 Israelites (21). Demoralized, the Israelites went back to Bethel “and wept before the LORD until evening” (22-23). They asked God whether they ought to continue their campaign against their relatives, and the Lord said yes.
The second day, another 18,000 Israelites were cut down by the men of Benjamin (24-25). This time, the tribes fasted, made offerings to YHWH and asked again whether He wanted them to break off their attack (26-28). This time, the Lord replied, “Go up, for tomorrow I will deliver them into your hand.”
The third day, “Israel set men in ambush all around Gibeah,” and then drew the defenders out of the city, as before (29-32). The tribes lured Benjamin to a place called Baal Tamar, where the fighting was fierce (33-34). With the Lord’s help 10,000 “select men from all Israel” managed to kill 25,100 men of Benjamin (35).
Meanwhile, the men in ambush swooped down on Gibeah, slaughtering all its inhabitants with the sword (36-37). When the Benjamites looked behind them, and saw the city going up in smoke, they realized what had happened, and that’s when the tide of battle changed in favor of Israel (38-41). Although they fled for their lives, 18,000 men of Benjamin fell on the battlefield; 5,000 on the roads and 2,000 at a place called Giddom—for a total of 25,000, all of whom were men of valor (42-46). A mere 600 men managed to hide out at the rock of Rimmon for four months, while the other tribes went into Benjaminite cities and slaughtered every living thing and burned them to the ground (47-48).
Judges Chapter 21
When the fighting was over, the men of Israel remembered the oath they had sworn at Mizpah, not to let any of their daughters marry men from Benjamin (Judg. 21:1). They wept bitterly to God, when they realized that they had practically wiped out the population of an entire tribe in Israel (vv. 2-3). Because of their vow, they were worried about finding wives for the 600 men of Benjamin who were still living (7).
The next morning, they all got up early, built an altar, and offered sacrifices to YHWH (4). That’s when they came up with a solution to the problem of wives for their relatives: Having vowed to kill anyone who didn’t show up for battle, the Israelites went and executed all the men of Jabesh Gilead, who were not represented in the army (5-6 & 8-9). 12,000 men were ordered to kill every male from that area and every woman who had slept with a man (10-11). When that was carried out, there were 400 virgins from Jabesh Gilead taken as captive brides, so the Israelites sent for the surviving Benjaminite men and presented the girls to them (12-14). Still, it was not enough to pair up all the survivors, which made everyone sad—“because the LORD had made a void in the tribes of Israel” (15).
Since they were 200 girls short, and the men had sworn not to offer their daughters as wives to Benjamin, the only solution the Israelites could think of was for the Benjaminites to capture wives for themselves (16-18). They proposed that the bachelors hide out in the vineyards during the festival at Shiloh commemorating Jephthah’s daughter and grab the virgin of their choice from the girls that came out to dance (19-21). When the men of their families complained, they would remind them of the necessity of the situation and urge the men not to make an issue of it—after all, they wouldn’t be violating their oath by giving the girls voluntarily (22). Any father who really cared about his little girl would have had the sense to keep her home that night—or at least their moms would have, provided the men mentioned it to them!
That’s what the men of Benjamin did: They caught enough dancers to give them all wives, and then they went and rebuilt their cities (23). The rest of the tribesmen went home, and everything [slowly] got back to normal (24).
The final verse tells us a third time, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (25).
If there’s anything to be learned from this disturbing book of the Bible, it’s that any compromise of God’s Law puts people on a slippery slope to social disaster. Without a central government headed by a strong, Spirit-filled leader, even the best system of laws will fail to keep a nation on track. When people do whatever they please, anarchy will eventually prevail.
That’s a good thing to remember. I hope it’s not too late for our country to turn around.
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible—© 1982, by Thomas Nelson, Inc.