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.
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.
Because of length, this article discusses only the first five judges: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, and Gideon. The remaining judges and the rest of the book are discussed in the next article.
The first couple of chapters set the scene for the remainder of the book.
Chapter 1 describes a good start that goes downhill. The tribe of Judah, with help from the tribe of Simeon, obeyed God’s instructions to take possession of their allotted territory. That was the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea, the southern portion of the Promised Land up to Jerusalem at the northern end of the territory. The tribes of Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh also went to possess their areas, north of Judah and Simeon. They did not completely drive out all of the Canaanite inhabitants as God has commanded them to, however. Judah took the hill country but left some people in the valley areas. Despite Judah winning a battle for Jerusalem, Ephraim and Manasseh did not drive out its Jebusite inhabitants but instead coexisted with them. They also left some of the other cities in their territory in Canaanite hands. Zebulon, Asher, Naphtali, and Dan made almost no progress toward possessing their areas.
Chapter 2 shows God rebuking the people for their failure to follow His commands. He repeated that He would not break His covenant with them. But there were consequences for their breaking of that covenant. God would no longer help them drive out the inhabitants. Instead, those peoples would continue to be a problem to the Israelites and a temptation to worship their false gods.
Verses 6-10 is a recap of Joshua’s death with very similar wording to Joshua 24:29-31.
Verses 11 through chapter 3 verse 6 are a preview summary of the entire book:
- The people did evil and turned away from God to the local idols.
- God punished them by letting enemies defeat them.
- The people cried out to God.
- He lifted up a judge to rescue them.
- They stayed faithful only until that judge died.
The First Five 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.
Judge #1: Othniel
In chapter 3, verses 7-11 tell of the first cycle. The people did evil and served the Baals and Asheroths (Canaanite gods and goddesses). God allowed Cushan-rishathaim, king of Mesopotamia, to defeat them for eight years. The deliverer was Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, to whom God gave victory over Cushan-rishathaim. The land had rest for forty years 1, until Othniel died.
Judge #2: Ehud
Verses 12-30 give us the next cycle. The people again did evil. God’s punishment was Eglon, the king of Moab, for eighteen years. The deliverer was Ehud the son of Gera, the Benjamite. It is noted that Ehud was left-handed. That was significant because he wore (and could hide) his sword differently than other men. When Ehud came to present the required tribute to Eglon, he said that he had a secret message for the king. After the king sent everyone else away so he could hear the message in private, Ehud drew the sword and stabbed Eglon. Eglon was so fat that the entire sword went in, including the handle! Ehud locked the door behind him and escaped before servants broke in and found the dead king. Once escaped, he gathered the Israelite army and defeated the army of Moab. This gave the land peace for eighty years until Ehud died.
Judge #3: Shamgar
Shamgar gets only one verse:
After him came Shamgar the son of Anath, who struck down six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad; and he also saved Israel.Judges 3:31
Judge #4: Deborah
Chapter 4 tells us the next cycle. The people again did evil. God’s punishment was Jabin, king of Canaan, and his army commander, Sisera, for twenty years. The deliverer was Deborah, a prophetess, and a man named Barak…and a woman named Jael. Here’s what happened:
Deborah called Barak and told him that God commanded him to attack Sisera. God would give Barak the victory. Barak said that he would only go if Deborah went also. She agreed, but told him that his timidity would forfeit his honor of the victory; the honor would go to a woman instead.
Barak went to the battle with 10,000 troops to face Sisera’s army, which included 900 iron chariots (a formidable force at that time). God routed Sisera and all his chariots and soldiers, giving the battle to Barak. Sisera left his chariot and fled on foot. He took refuge in the tent of a man named Heber, who was a Kenite, not an Israelite, so Sisera saw him as an ally. Heber’s wife Jael invited Sisera in. She gave him something to drink and a place to sleep…then drove a tent peg through his head while he slept! When Barak came looking for Sisera, he found his enemy already dead, and at the hand of a woman as Deborah had predicted.
Chapter 5 is a song by Deborah and Barak recounting the event and praising God for the victory.
The peace this time lasted 40 years.
Judge #5: Gideon
The next cycle is described in chapters 6 through 8. The people again did evil. God’s punishment was via Midian this time, for seven years. The deliverer was Gideon, who was later also known as Jerubbaal.
The Midianites were devastating the Israelite agriculture and livestock, making it almost impossible for Israel to raise its food. Gideon was threshing grain in a winepress rather than in the open, in hopes of keeping it concealed from the enemy. The “angel of the Lord” came to him there, telling Gideon that he was to be the one to defeat the Midianites.
Gideon was not so sure of that. He felt inadequate, but the angel promised to be with him. Gideon prepared an offering of meat and bread, which the angel accepted by touching it until it went up in flames…then disappearing! Gideon expected to die when he realized that he had been speaking directly to the angel of the Lord, but God reassured him. Gideon built a permanent altar there to commemorate the event.
Next, God told Gideon to destroy his father Joash’s altar to Baal and its matching wooden Asherah post. He was to build an altar to God on top of the old Baal altar, and sacrifice two bulls using fire made from the Asherah wood. Gideon obeyed…in secret at night for fear of the townspeople. Sure enough, when his work was discovered the next morning, his neighbors called for his death. His father Joash stood by him, though, saying “If Baal is a god, let him fight for himself!” That led to Gideon’s new name, Jerubbaal, which means “Let Baal contend against him”.
Gideon summoned warriors to gather an army. But he still wanted more reassurance. He first asked God to let the dew fall only on the wool fleece that he laid on the ground, while the ground around it remained dry. The next morning, he was able to wring a bowl full of water from the fleece. Then he reversed his request, asking for wet ground and dry fleece. God granted that request also.
Gideon had over 30,000 soldiers ready to go when God stopped him: “The people who are with you are too many for Me to give Midian into their hands, for Israel would become boastful, saying, ‘My own power has delivered me.’” (Judges 7:2) First, God had him send home everyone who was afraid of the coming battle. That got rid of two-thirds of the troops, leaving 10,000 still ready to go. God said “That’s still too many.” When the remaining soldiers were drinking from a spring, God eliminated those who kneeled down to drink, keeping only the 300 who lapped the water up from their hands 2.
As one last reassurance, God told Gideon to sneak down to the huge camp of Midianites to hear what they were saying. What he heard was one man (an enemy soldier, remember) relating a dream that he interpreted as meaning that God would give Gideon victory. That gave him the courage to take his 300 men to the enemy, in a very unique battle strategy.
Gideon split his men into three groups of 100, spaced around the Midianite camp. For weapons, they carried trumpets in one hand, and hidden torches in the other. At a signal, they all blew the trumpets and showed the torches. The enemy thought that they were surrounded by a large force and panicked, turning on one another as they ran away. Now the larger Israelite force was able to chase them down, block them from access to the water sources, and kill two of their leaders.
During the pursuit, Gideon asked for supplies from the town of Succoth. He was refused: The leaders of Succoth didn’t expect him to win, and didn’t want to be punished when Midian won. Gideon said “OK, when I win, I’ll come back and do the punishing!” After Gideon captured the two kings of Midian and routed the entire army, he went back to Succoth and kept his word.
For that victory, the Israelites wanted to have Gideon rule over them, but he refused, saying that only God should be their ruler. He did accept a large quantity of gold, which he made into a ceremonial ephod to be kept in his city. That was a mistake, because the ephod came to be treated as an idol, honored above the God who made the victory possible.
The land had forty years of peace while Gideon lived. Gideon had many wives, and seventy sons by them. He had another son, Abimelech, by a concubine…which also a mistake.
Continue to Judges – Abimelech through Samson.
Footnotes and Scripture References
- There is debate over whether this is a literal 40 years, or a round number meaning “a generation”.
- It has been suggested that “lapping” was less vulnerable than kneeling to put one’s face to the water, making these soldiers more conscientious. Whether that is correct or not, they were still far in the minority.