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Judges – Abimelech through Samson

"In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes."

This is part of a series of articles, describing each of the 66 books of the Bible and how it relates to the one overall story of God’s relationship with man. The story is examined in terms of the five recurring themes below. The series cover page can be reached here.

& Justice
Love &
Pursuit of
& Sin
A Redeeming

There is no definitive information on the author of Judges, although it is traditionally attributed to the prophet Samuel. It describes events from the death of Joshua until the beginning of the monarchy. However, it describes them from a later perspective, as if looking back to the time when “there was no king in Israel” (Judges 17:6) from a time when there was a king. That would put it from at least after Samuel anointed the first king, Saul. There is reference to the city of Jerusalem still being controlled by the Jebusites, so the book was written before King David had conquered that city.

The literary style of the book is literal, historical narrative. The tone is matter-of-fact, even when describing obvious miracles. People and places are named in real-world context, with nothing “once upon a time” or “in a galaxy far, far away”.

This book describes the ups and downs of the people as they settled into their Promised Land. Joshua had led them to conquer much of it, but not all. Work remained in order to make it truly their home. In the absence of a single strong leader, “every man did what was right in his own eyes” (with mixed results!). The book includes all five of the major themes presented in this article series.

The Last Eight Judges

The first half of the book describes 13 “judges” or leaders. During this period, the twelve tribes of Israel did not act as one nation. Each tribe considered itself to be autonomous, allying or fighting with the others as issues ebbed and flowed. (Think something like the original colonies before we became the “United States”.) The pagan inhabitants of the land — sometimes collectively called “Canaanites” — were also a multitude of separate city/states, each with their own kings and territories. That dynamic is something to keep in mind when following the accounts of the various battles described in this book.

Because of length, the summary of this book has been broken into two articles. This article discusses last eight judges: Abimelech, Tola, Jair, Jepthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson. In addition, the book of Judges ends with two non-judge stories also discussed in this article. The first five judges are discussed in the previous article.

Judge #6: Abimelech, the anti-Judge

Chapter 9 tells a sad story of the next “judge”. Abimelech, son of Gideon by his concubine, became the leader in Israel…but not a good one. He went to his mother’s people in the town of Shechem and convinced them that he was the son of Gideon who should succeed him as leader. With their help, he killed 69 of his 70 half-brothers, sons of Gideon’s multiple wives. Only the youngest, Jotham, managed to hide and escape the slaughter. Verses 7-21 give his speech calling out Abimelech and the Shechemites for their betrayal.

After just three years as ruler, the men of Shechem turned against Abimelech, and against one another, in a soap opera of treachery and deceit. A man named Gaal was trash-talking Abimelech, saying “Would, therefore, that this people were under my authority! Then I would remove Abimelech.” And he said to Abimelech, “Increase your army and come out.” (Judges 9:29) The ruler of Shechem, named Zebul, sent to Abimelech letting him know of the trouble-maker. When Abimelech arrived and set up an ambush , Zebul dared Gaal “Where is your boasting now…? Go out now and fight with them!” (Judges 9:38) Gaal fought, lost the battle, and found himself locked out of the city by Zebul.

The next day, as the people of the city came out to go about their business, Abimelech was still in attack mode. He killed the people in the fields, then destroyed the entire city. The leaders of Shechem took shelter in the inner chamber of a temple. Abimelech set fire to the temple, killing all of the leaders.

Abimelech then went on to another city, Thebez, to repeat the performance. He captured the city, trapping the leaders in a central tower. As he prepared to burn the tower, and the leaders, a woman dropped a millstone from the top of the tower onto Abimelech’s head. So much for the short, wicked term of this judge!

Judges #7 and 8: Tola and Jair

The next fifty years or so are covered in the first five verses of chapter 10:

Now after Abimelech died, Tola the son of Puah, the son of Dodo, a man of Issachar, arose to save Israel; and he lived in Shamir in the hill country of Ephraim. He judged Israel twenty-three years. Then he died and was buried in Shamir.
After him, Jair the Gileadite arose and judged Israel twenty-two years. He had thirty sons who rode on thirty donkeys, and they had thirty cities in the land of Gilead that are called Havvoth-jair to this day. And Jair died and was buried in Kamon.

Judges 10:1-5

Judge #9: Jephthah

The rest of chapter 10 is back to business as usual: The Israelites did evil, worshipping all of the local gods and forsaking their true God. He allowed the Philistines and Ammonites to punish them for eighteen years. The deliverer, Jepthah of the town of Gilead, is introduced in chapter 11.

Jepthah was an outcast because he was the son of a prostitute. But those who rejected him changed their minds when they needed a strong warrior, and he was the best available. They agreed to his demand that he become the leader of Gilead if he succeeded in defeating their enemies.

At first, Jepthah tried diplomacy. The Ammonites were accusing the Israelites of stealing their land during the initial entrance into Canaan. He sent a message contesting that, insisting that the Israelites had asked for peaceful passage through the disputed territory and had taken the land only after being attacked first. (See Numbers 21:21-26.)

When diplomacy didn’t work, Jepthah made an tragic and unnecessary vow to the Lord: “If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30-31) God granted the victory, as He would have done even without the vow as long as Jepthah followed Him faithfully. When Jepthah returned home after the battle, the first thing to meet him was not a sheep or cow, or even a pet dog or cat; it was his only daughter. 🙁

Afterward, the tribe of Ephraim were upset that they were left out of the battle. Jepthah responded that he had asked, and they did not come out to help him. The conflict resulted in Gilead taking control of an important ford of the Jordan River, killing any Ephraimites who attempted to cross. (Judges 12:1-7)

Jepthah led for six years.

Judges #10, 11, and 12: Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon

The next three judges are named in a few verses of chapter 12:

Ibzan led for seven years (verses 8-10).

Elon led for ten years (verses 11-12).

Abdon led for eight years (verses 13-15).

Judge #13: Samson

Chapters 13 through 16 tell the story of Samson. As usual, the people did evil and the Lord delivered them to their enemies. It was the Philistines this time around, for forty years. We are told more about Samson’s birth than we are of the other judges. His parents had not been able to have children. An angel appeared to his mother, though, telling her that a special baby was on the way. The child was to be dedicated to God, a Nazarite (see Numbers 6:2-21), even before birth. The mother was to drink nothing fermented and eat nothing unclean. Chapter 13 describes the full conversation with the angel.

When he grew up, Samson had great physical strength as the Lord empowered him. But he had a fatal weakness for women. The story mentions three who were associated with Samson becoming angry enough to kill Philistines in an escalating series of back-and-forth revenge: the Philistine daughter of a man from the town of Timnah (territory of the tribe of Dan), a prostitute in Gaza (Philistine territory), and — most famous of all — Delilah from the valley of Sorek (tribe of Judah territory).

The Timnite’s daughter

Chapters 14 and 15 tell of Samson’s marriage to the Timnite’s daughter. On the trip to her home to negotiate the marriage, Samson killed an attacking lion. On a later trip for the actual wedding, he noticed that the carcass had become home to a hive of bees, so he ate some of the honey. He used the incident as the basis for a bet with his 30 groomsmen at the wedding. Could they solve the riddle: “Out of the eater came something to eat, and out of the strong came something sweet.“?

They did…by threatening his new wife until she cried during the entire 7-day wedding feast. Eventually, he told her the answer, and she told them. In his anger at the cheating (and at losing the bet!), Samson went to the Philistine town of Ashkelon, killed 30 of their men, and used the spoils to pay the bet. Then he stomped back home without his wife. Her father gave her to one of the groomsmen instead.

Later, Samson came back ready to see his wife again, only to find her now unavailable. This time, his revenge was burning Philistine grain fields and vineyards just at harvest time, a devastating blow.

A troubling point is how Samson went about burning the fields. The text says that he “went and caught three hundred foxes, and took torches, and turned the foxes tail to tail and put one torch in the middle between two tails. When he had set fire to the torches, he released the foxes into the standing grain…” (Judges 15:4-5) Tying a burning torch between two animals would mean that they couldn’t escape into their burrows but would run around frantically in their attempts to. It would be an effective way to spread a lot of fires. But wasn’t there a better and easier method to accomplish his goal?! How would he catch and tie so many animals? What did those animals ever do to him to deserve such cruelty?

The word translated “fox” could also mean “jackal”, a wild dog that ran in packs and was considered a menace…not a fluffy puppy fox. The word “catch” implies traps or snares more than chasing the animals down bare-handed. The text doesn’t say how long Samson took to set up his revenge, or whether he had helpers. So this is not quite as impossibly crazy as it seems. Still, it was not Samson’s finest hour!

Their revenge was burning his wife and her father! In turn, he “struck them ruthlessly with a great slaughter“. He then went to stay in a cave in the area of Judah. When the Philistines came looking for him, the men of Judah turned him over. As they approached the Philistines with Samson tied with ropes, he burst the ropes and killed over a thousand men.

Another troubling “How/why” point is that the weapon used to kill those men was the jawbone of a donkey. However, that particular bone is surprisingly large and would make a formidable club, especially in the hands of a warrior with supernatural strength. The best image I could find to show scale is this one, demonstrating a musical instrument made from such a jawbone.

After killing the men, Samson bragged, but did not give any credit to God for his victory. He did, however, complain to God when he became thirsty afterward. Despite his ingratitude, God provided water for him.

The prostitute of Gaza

The encounter with the prostitute is told in the first three verses of chapter 16. When the men of Gaza were told that Samson was there, they lay in wait for him by the city gate. He got up during the night and left, carrying the gate with him!

He carried those heavy gates from Gaza all the way to Hebron, a distance of over 35 miles! The text does not say how long the trip took him, though.


The rest of chapter 16 is Delilah’s story. The rulers of the Philistines told her to find out the source of Samson’s strength. At first, he lied to her. Three times, he told her a false way to capture him: tie him with fresh bowstrings, or with new ropes, or weave his Nazarite-long hair into a loom. Three times she did what he said, then called in men to capture him. Three times, he easily escaped. Finally, after much nagging, he told her the truth: If his hair was cut, then his strength would be gone. This time, when she called the men in, they caught him, gouged out his eyes, and set him to grinding grain in prison.

The Philistines held a big celebration to praise their god, Dagon, for delivering Samson to them. He was brought out on display. He prayed for one last surge of strength, and used it to destroy the temple where the celebration was being held:

And Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” And he bent with all his might so that the house fell on the lords and all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he killed in his life.

Judges 16:30

Samson judged Israel for twenty years.

The Sin of Israel

Chapters 17 through 21 give two stories illustrating how far the Israelites strayed from their covenant promises during this period. The text does not say when these two events occurred in relation to any of the judges. Context suggests that they probably happened more toward the beginning of the period rather than toward the end, however. For instance, Aaron’s grandson Phinehas — the priest during Joshua’s time as they entered the Promised Land — was still the priest in Judges 20:27-28.

Idolatry of Micah and the Danites

The first story, in chapters 17-18, tells of a man named Micah who decided to set up his own worship center (as opposed to the designated center at Shiloh, Joshua 18:1). To start with, Micah had stolen 1100 shekels of silver — a considerable amount — from his mother. When he heard her curse the thief, he returned the money to her. She used part of it to make household idols, which he installed in a shrine in his house while appointing his son to be their “priest”.

Later, a Levite was passing through, and Micah offered him a very nice living to stay and be a more official priest instead of his son. (Note that Levites were not priests; they were tasked by God to assist the priests.) Then Micah said, “Now I know that the LORD will prosper me, seeing I have a Levite as priest.” (Judges 17:13)

Meanwhile, the tribe of Dan was looking for territory. Joshua 19:40-48 names their allotted area farther south in Israel, but Judges 1:34 tells how the Amorites interfered with their ability to settle there. They passed Micah’s place on their way north, stole his idols, made his Levite/priest a better offer, and took everything with them to the quiet town of Laish. They attacked and burned Laish, rebuilt and renamed the city, and set the idols up there for themselves.

So they set up for themselves Micah’s graven image which he had made, all the time that the house of God was at Shiloh.

Judges 18:31

Sin and Civil War in Benjamin

The story in chapters 19 through 21 is even worse. A Levite from the area of Ephraim married a concubine from Bethlehem. She left him and went back to her home; he went after her to convince her to return to him. On their way back home, they stopped in the Benjamite town of Gibeah. Apparently, Gibeah was competing with Sodom for “great sinners of history”: They repeated almost exactly the same story as Genesis 19:1-9, with the men of the town demanding the visitors for homosexual rape, and the women of the house being offered as substitutes. In this case, though, there were no angel rescuers. The concubine/wife was raped and killed. In a gruesome method of communication, the husband sent pieces of her body to all the tribes of Israel.

The tribes joined together and gathered an army to retaliate against Gibeah. Rather than condemning Gibeah’s actions, however, the tribe of Benjamin defended them instead. Of three battles, Benjamin won the first two against the combined eleven other tribes. But in the third battle they were very badly defeated. The tribe of Benjamin was almost completely wiped out; only 600 men were left out of almost 26,000.

Much as the other tribes wanted to punish Benjamin, they did not want the tribe to cease to exist. They found a way to provide wives for those remaining 600 men so that the tribe could rebuild. The massed army had sworn that none of their daughters would be married into Benjamin. But one town, Jabesh-gilead, had not joined the war. As punishment for not joining in (not honoring their covenant with the other tribes), Jabesh-gilead was destroyed and its 400 young women taken to be Benjamite wives. The other 200 wives were “allowed” to be stolen by the Benjamites (therefore not “given”, and not breaking the vow).

One Story

Major ThemeExamples in this Scripture
God’s Sovereign PlanWith each cycle, it was God who chose to punish and chose which enemy to use as His tool. Then it was God who chose to raise up a judge to deliver the people.
God made a point of sending an angel to tell Samson’s mother of her coming special child. This was not the first time that a child born to a formerly barren woman was a mark of God’s action in the world. Think of Isaac born to Sarah (Genesis 21:1-7), or John the Baptist born to Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-25, 57-80)…or Jesus born to a virgin Mary! (Luke 1:26-38, Luke 2:1-7)
God’s Majesty, Holiness & JusticeGod’s justice was meted out each time the Israelites sinned. The sin was usually to follow the gods of their neighbors, knowing that God is the only one who deserves worship. He doesn’t share His glory with anyone.
God’s Love & Pursuit of RelationshipGod would have been very justified in giving up on His chosen people. But because He loved them and was faithful to His covenants, He continued to rescue them from their well-deserved punishment time and again.
Man’s Rebellion & SinThe sin-cycle repeats again…and again.
Abimilech was more an example of sin than he was a judge/deliverer.
Despite his strength, Samson’s sin kept tripping him up. His childishness and hubris are remembered as much as his victories.
Micah and the Danites were trying to manipulate God by having their own sort-of priest. Meanwhile, they were absolutely disrespecting all of God’s laws and lumping Him in together with idols of other gods.
Gibeah and the Benjamites were trying to outdo Sodom and Gomorrah in their sinfulness!
God’s Solution: A Redeeming SacrificeThe idea of a Deliverer is also repeated each cycle.

Continue to Ruth.