XVII AN ERA OF BACKSLIDING
JUDGES As we begin the book of Judges, we soon become aware of how quickly the people of Israel began to backslide after the death of Joshua. It began with a departure from complete obedience. As they settled into their new homeland they became soft and decided there was an easier way to complete the conquest than the one God had prescribed.
After a summary of the various areas inhabited, judges 1:28 puts
the finger on the beginning of the problem by saying, “And it came to
pass, when Israel was strong, that they Put the Canaanites to tribute, and did not utterly drive them out.
God had said, “Annihilate them,” but the people said, “It is easier
and more practical to enslave them and collect taxes from them. “ Already, they were beginning to do what was right in their own eyes.
From that event onward, it was all downhill. Verse 29 says, “Neither did Ephraim drive out the Canaanites. “ Then in verse 30, “Neither did Zebulun drive out the inhabitants. “ In verse 31, “Neither did Asher drive out the inhabitants. “ Verse 33: “Neither did Naphtali drive out the inhabitants.“ Finally, in verse 34: “And the Amorites forced the children of Dan into the mountain; for they would not suffer them to come down to the valley.“
They had lost the offensive and were now on the defensive.
To make known His displeasure, the Lord appeared before them
in the form of a Theophany, as the Angel of the Lord. He denounced
their disobedience and pronounced against them the prophesied judgment of Joshua 23:13. No longer would He fight for them to drive the inhabitants out, “but they shall be as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare unto you” (2:3).
The Sin Cycle Judges 2:10 introduces us to the new generation that “knew not the Lord,” and verse 11 tells us that they “did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served Baalim.” In this chapter, we are introduced to the sin cycle that continues through the rest of Israel’s national history. We are also introduced to God’s chastisement on His disobedient children. The description of the four stages of the sin cycle begins in verse 13:“And they forsook the Lord, and served Baal and Ashtaroth. “ When the people forsook God, they involved themselves with the idolatrous worship system of the land and God’s anger was kindled against them.
Phase two of the cycle is described in verse 14:
And the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel, and he delivered
them into the hands of spoilers that spoiled them, and he sold them
into the hands of their enemies round about, so that they could not
any longer stand before their enemies.
The occupation by foreign troops would last for a given period of
time until eventually the people could no longer bear the oppression,
but would groan and cry out in repentance. This would initiate phase
three of the cycle as described in 2:18b: “It repented the Lord because of
their groanings by reason of them that oppressed them and vexed them.”
Verse 16 summarizes phase four of the cycle: “The Lord raised up
judges which delivered them out of the hand of those that spoiled them.“ This completes the cycle of sin, oppression, repentance, deliverance.
I wish I could say that the cycle ended there. Unfortunately, after
the four phases were completed and the people seemed to have learned their lesson, their obedience lasted only as long as the Judge lived. Then, with the next generation, the cycle began all over again. Verse 19 sums it up: And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they returned, and corrupted themselves more than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them, and to bow down unto them; they ceased not from their own doings, nor from their stubborn ways.
And so it went; the cycle continued over and over and over again.
Sin, oppression, repentance, deliverance. As we read, we want to cry
out, “When will final deliverance come?” Not only did the cycle continue over and over, but it was a descending cycle. Each new generation sinned “more than their fathers.” And each rallied less and less wholeheartedly behind the God-appointed Judge. As time went on, the involvement of Israel in support of the judge became less and less, until finally, the last Judge, Samson, was actually bound by the people of Israel and turned over to the enemy.
Theme: God’s Sovereign Choices There is an underlying theme running through the book of Judges. First, that no flesh shall glory in God’s presence. Second, when God gives victory, He brings it to pass in such a way that the human instrumentality can in no way claim that it was his effort which brought success. Examining God’s choices of individuals who became Judges, we will see that they are not people one would normally expect to be champions of justice, experts in military strategy, or have the ability to rally others behind them for victory over occupation forces.
Dating the Judges Before we go into the historical narratives of the individual Judges, we need to consider two technical aspects about the book. First of all, if we add up all of the numbers in the book of Judges, as they relate to years of rest and years of oppression, we arrive at a total of 410 years. According to our chronology based on I Kings 6:1, this is about seventy-five years too long.
We learned from I Kings 6:1 that from the fourth year of Solomon’s
reign back to the Exodus was 480 years. If the period of the judges was 410 years, that leaves only seventy years for the wilderness
wanderings, Joshua’s leadership, Saul’s reign, David’s reign, and
Solomon’s first four years. We know that the wilderness wanderings
lasted forty years, and that Joshua’s leadership lasted about twenty-one years. Saul and David each reigned forty years, and I Kings 6:1 records the first four years of Solomon’s reign. These activities total 145 years.
If we place the book of Judges using chronological parameters,
we see that we can have 335 years as the period of time covered by the book. This is because the Judges did not judge sequentially, but some judged simultaneously in different geographical areas.
The second consideration is that the book of Judges overlaps I
Samuel by a period of approximately forty-five to fifty years. Judges
13:1 begins a forty year period of oppression by the Philistines. This
forty-year period begins with the birth of Samson at approximately 1095 B.C. First Samuel begins with the birth of Samuel, but I Samuel 7:13 records the termination of the forty years of oppression which began in Judges 13. So, if we date the birth of Samuel at about 1100 B.C. and begin Judges 13 in 1095 B.C. with the birth of Samson and the beginning of the Philistine oppression, then the oppression comes to an end in I Samuel 7, at about the same time that Samson died in Judges 16. While Samuel was using Bethel as a central location for his small circuit of his prophetic office and function as priest and judge, at the same time, Samson was living near the Mediterranean seacoast. He was involved in a personal vendetta against the Philistines, which God in His sovereignty was using as a form of judgment against them.
XVIII A ROSTER OF JUDGES
JUDGES Chapters 3 through 16 describe the adventures of the individual Judges as each in turn delivered Israel from an oppressor.
Othniel Othniel’s exploits begin in Judges 3:9. He was the son of Kenaz, the younger brother of Caleb. He was also Caleb’s son-in-law (1: 13). He was victorious over the king of Mesopotamia and kept the land at peace for forty years.
Ehud According to 3:12, the Israelites again became evil, and God allowed the Moabites to rise up against them. Verse 13 says that the
Moabites were joined by the sons of Ammon and of Amalek. This is
especially interesting in light of the earlier prediction that Israel would
have war with Amalek from generation to generation. We know from
Genesis 36 that Amalek was one of the chiefs and descendants of Esau. The Moabites and Ammonites were the descendants of Lot’s two sons resulting from his incest with Its daughters. The three chastening rods God used were all distant relatives of Israel.
For eighteen years, Israel was forced to serve the Moabites.
Finally, God raised up Ehud, the left-handed man to deliver them. Ehud made a two-edged sword one cubit, (eighteen inches) long. (1) Being left-handed, he strapped it to his right thigh. On the pretext of carrying tribute money, he approached Eglon, the very fat king of Moab. As soon as Eglon accepted the tribute, Ehud announced that he had a private message for him, so Eglon dismissed his servants. “I have a message from God for you,” Ehud stated. Eglon stood to his feet as was customary when one expected to receive a message from deity. Then, with his left hand Ehud drew his sword and thrust it into the stomach of Eglon, pushing it so far that the fat closed over the hilt. Then he fled. By the time the dead king was discovered,
Ehud had rallied the people behind him. They struck down ten
thousand Moabites and the land had rest for eighty years. This is the
longest period of rest recorded in the book of judges.
(1) Concerning the length of Ehud’s sword, it has long been known that a cubit represented the distance from the elbow to the tip of the hand or about eighteen inches. However, archaeologists confirmed this length when they discovered the tunnel of Siloam built in 701 B.C. under the guidance of Hezekiah. The Hebrew inscription in the tunnel says it is 1200 cubits in length. By our measure, the tunnel is 1800 feet, thus confirming eighteen inches as the length of one cubit.
Shamgar Only one verse (3:31) is devoted to Shamgar who, using only an ox goad, slew six hundred Philistines. An ox goad is a cattle prod, used to move stubborn animals. It is the same instrument referred to by the Lord Jesus Christ when He encountered Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus and said to him, “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks”
Deborah Judge number four, Deborah, is introduced in chapter 4. She was selected by God to save the sons of Israel after they had once again turned to evil following the death of Ehud. That time God found it necessary to deliver them into the hand of Jabin, King of Canaan. His capital was Hazor and his army had nine hundred iron chariots with Sisera as commander-in-chief. At the time Deborah was chosen, they had been under the heel of King Jabin for twenty years and were at that point in the sin cycle where they cried to the Lord for deliverance. Deborah, who was also a prophetess (vs. 4), offered Barak the opportunity of going into battle against Sisera with God’s assurance of victory, but Barak refused unless Deborah would go with him. After Sisera had gathered his chariots and his army in the valley, Deborah gave Barak the word from the Lord, “Up; for this is the day in which the Lord hath delivered Sisera into thine hand: is not
the Lord gone out before thee?” (vs. 14). Barak and his army of ten thousand went down from Mount Tabor and won a great victory over Sisera.
For some insight into the battle, we must look at chapter 5 where
we can read Deborah’s poetic account of what transpired. Verses 14 and 15 name the tribes that went into the battle. Interestingly enough, they were not those best known for their military prowess, but those that were more agrarian in occupation and those who wielded the staff of office (the scribes). So this battle between Deborah and Barak, and the host of Canaanites with their nine hundred iron chariots, was not fought by military men, but by office workers and farmers.
In verse 16 and following she scolded those tribes that did not
join the battle. They were more interested in tending their sheep and
their boats than they were in defeating the enemies of God. She went
on to praise those who had “asked their lives unto death” (vs. 18).
Verse 15 describes how they rushed into the valley. We can imagine
them as they rushed down Mount Tabor armed with only pitchforks,
clubs, and other crude weapons, into the valley filled with nine
hundred chariots and a professionally trained, well equipped army.
To really get a grasp of their heroism, we should examine what
chariot warfare was like. The Canaanites, and later the Assyrians and
Babylonians, equipped their chariots with sharp scythes on the axles.
The horses hooves and brow pieces were covered with sharp knife-like devices. Frequently, the chariots would pull logs 8 to 12 feet wide, covered with pitch and set aflame. The whirring scythe blades and flashing knives would cut down the opposition and the flaming logs would roll over them. It was a fearsome opponent that Barak and his army saw waiting in the valley.
Normally, the results of such a confrontation could be predicted in
advance. What chance could foot soldiers, and especially farmers armed with pitchforks and clubs, have against chariots of iron with flashing scythe blades and flaming logs? But God had promised victory, and 5:15 says they rushed into the valley. This is the same word used in describing how David rushed toward Goliath. I believe the situation was similar and because of their faithfulness, God gave them a great victory.
Judges 4:16 says not a single man was left except Sisera, the commander-in-chief who fled on foot for his life. Eventually, he
arrived at the tent of a woman named Jael, the wife of a Kenite. She
encouraged him to enter the tent to lie down and rest. The Kenites,
although neutral in their alliances, were friends of the Israelites. Sisera did not know it, but Jael had sinister plans to destroy him.
If you wish to use this narrative as a sermon, you might title it,
“The Tale of Jael’s Nail.” Jael would probably have been uncomfortable with the normal weapons of war, a sword or a battle-axe, but she would feel quite at home with a tent peg and a mallet since it was the job of the women to pitch the tent. She would have a strong forearm from years of driving tent pegs and while Sisera slept, she drove the peg through his temples and pinned him to the ground.
Deborah, in her poem, rejoiced over this act just before beginning her
taunt over Sisera’s mother in verse 5:28. She painted a vivid picture of Sisera’s mother looking through the lattice work (there were no glass windows in those days) waiting for the return of her overdue son and being encouraged by her friends as they sought to ease her worries by describing his expected victory and glory.
The mother of Sisera looked out a window, and cried through the
lattice, Why is his chariot so long in coming? why tarry the wheels
of his chariots? Her wise ladies answered her, yea, have they not
sped? Have they not divided the prey, to every man a damsel or
two; to Sisera a prey of divers colours, a prey of divers colours of
needlework on both sides, meet for the necks of them that take the
But Sisera lay dead, pinned to the ground in Jael’s tent and Deborah
summarized it in 5:31: “So let all thine enemies perish, 0 Lord; but let them that love him be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might. “ And the land had rest forty years.
Gideon In Judges 6:1, the sin cycle began all over again, “The children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord: and the Lord delivered them into the hand of Midian seven years. “ The Midianites were like Bedouins. They would rush across the land, burning what they could, and what they did not bum they would ravage and take. Nothing was safe. The Israelites had to hide their possessions in the dens and caves of the mountains for protection.
The sin cycle had made another downward circuit. Israel had
sinned and God sent in an oppressor. Verse 6 describes phase 3, “the children of Israel cited unto the Lord. “ Before delivering them, the Lord sent a prophet to remind them of the reasons they were suffering such oppression (vss. 8-10). “Ye have not obeyed my voice. “ But phase 4 was about to begin because God had chosen the one who would deliver them from the Midianites.
You could see the process of winnowing grain if you were to travel
to Israel or any country where it is still gathered by hand. A high hill
where the breeze blows is selected for the threshing floor. Using pitchforks, the reapers will throw the grain high in the air where the wind can blow away the lighter chaff, as the good kernels fall back to the earth. This process has been used for thousands of years and continues today.
In Judges 6, when God sent His messenger to Gideon, he was
threshing grain in a most unusual place. The best translations say that it was in the winepress. Just as the threshing floor was elevated, so the winepress was in a depressed spot, a dug out hole in the earth that would hold the juice when the grapes were mashed. Needless to say, one cannot expect much wind to be present in a hole in the earth. But there was Gideon, fearful of the Midianites, afraid of having his grain stolen, threshing it secretly in a winepress, grain and chaff alike probably falling back down on his head. The words of the Theophany almost sound ironic: “The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valor” (vs. 12). At that moment, Gideon would certainly have not looked like a man of valor.
However, the Angel assured him that he was chosen to defeat
Midian (vs. 16). Always a skeptical man, Gideon asked for a sign, and in response, his offering of bread and meat was consumed by fire from the rock. Gideon then recognized that he had seen the Lord face to face and built an altar.
Following the instructions by the Angel of the Lord, Gideon destroyed
the Baal worship system in his city, pulling down the statues
and idols. The men of the city were ready to kill him for having done
this, but his father Joash defended him, saying:
Will ye plead for Baal? Will ye save him? He that will plead for
him, let him be put to death whilst it is yet morning: if he be a god,
let him plead for himself, because one hath cast down his altar.
With that, Gideon’s exploit was memorialized with a new name.
Verse 32 says: “Therefore on that day he called him jerubbaal, saying Let Baal plead against him, because he hath thrown down his altar.
Gideon still lacked confidence that the Lord had actually selected
him for the task of freeing Israel from the Midianites. God had
revealed Himself to him, answered his request for a sign, and granted
him a significant victory over the Baal worshipers. Still, he sought further reassurance by asking for the sign of the fleece. He even asked for it two times. God was patient and gave Gideon this renewed confirmation of His promised victory.
Gideon rounded up an army of 32,000 men and prepared to lead
them from Manasseh into the Cis-Jordan against the Midianites. When given the chance 22,000 accepted the offer to return home. “Ten thousand is still too many,” the Lord said. He did not want Gideon and his army to take credit for the victory, so He set up a testing system that would eliminate most of the rest. Gideon was left with three hundred men to face and defeat an army. When the victory was won, God would get the glory!
Gideon was certainly an unlikely candidate for heroism or leadership.
He had been unsure of God and himself. Over and over he asked God for a sign to reassure him. Now with only three hundred men and the Midianites encamped in the valley “like grasshoppers for multitude,“ he heard God’s instruction to go down against them. Evidently, he was still hesitant, for God said to him, “If thou fear to go down, go thou with Purah thy servant down to the host. And thou shalt hear what they have to say” (vss. 10-11). Gideon and his servant crawled to an outpost where guards were stationed.
Just at that moment, one of the guards began to describe a dream to his companion. Can you see God’s sovereign hand in all this? Just to reassure His chosen servant Gideon, He caused a man to dream; then made sure he related it to a friend just at the time Gideon was hiding in the underbrush. It was a dream designed to give Gideon confidence. Let’s listen with Gideon: Behold, I dreamed a dream, and, lo, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the host of Midian, and came unto a tent, and smote it that it fell, and overturned it, And his fellow answered and said, This is nothing else save the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel: for into his hand hath God delivered Midian, and all the
When Gideon heard that he bowed his head and worshiped. Then, he
returned to his troops and announced, “Arise,- for the Lord hath delivered into your hand the host of Midian. The balance of chapters 7 and 8 record the victory over the Midianites and the later years and death of Gideon.
XIX DESCENT INTO LAWLESSNESS
JUDGES Chapter 9 recounts the activities of Abimelech, who was a son of Gideon by a concubine. Gideon fathered seventy other sons by a number of wives but Abimelech set himself up as a petty king by executing all but one of them who managed to escape. He was not one of the judges but merely a self-appointed tyrant without a calling from God. Chapter 10 briefly mentions two more judges-Tola, number 6, and Jair, number 7. Then it describes an eighteen year oppression when all of Israel’s neighbors appear to have joined forces against them. This time God refused to deliver them until they had shown some genuine evidence of repentance. His words were scathing:
Ye have forsaken me, and served other gods: wherefore I will deliver
you no more. Go and cry unto the gods which ye have chosen;
let them deliver you in the time of your tribulation.
Their response was to turn to Him and because they did, He raised
up Jephthah to deliver them. Jephthah’s exploits, and his personal tragedy, are recorded in chapter 11 and part of chapter 12.
The remainder of chapter 12 contains a list of later judges: Ibzan,
number 9; Elon, number 10; and Abdon, number 11.
Samson Chapters 13 through 16 comprise what is probably the best known section of the book of Judges. They contain the adventures of Samson, the last judge of Israel. Samson’s judgeship lasted for twenty years after her reached manhood, terminating with his death in approximately 1055 B.C. Samson’s death occurred in the land of the Philistines when he decided to tear down the two supporting pillars which held up the building in which the Philistine lords had gathered to celebrate their victory over the God of the Israelites and the Israelite champion, Samson.
The death of the Philistine lords, who were also the military leaders,
corresponds to the defeat of the Philistines by Samuel in I Samuel 7.
God in His sovereignty, allowed Samson to destroy the military leaders with his own death. That act helped Samuel as he rallied the people to defeat the Philistines who were left without adequate military leadership. The two events parallel and reinforce the overlap of the final years of the book of Judges with the first few chapters in I Samuel.
Archaeologists have discovered remains of Philistine temples and
buildings which they erected during the twelfth century B.C. The type
of construction used was such that two main pillars would support the
entire building. In the excavation, they have found husks, and husks
with strainers, among the various artifacts. These show that they drank strong beverages made from products with husks which required straining before drinking. These beverages were evidently part of their worship system, and we know there was drunken revelry going on when Samson was being humiliated in the Philistine temple.
The proximity of the pillars to one another has been shown to be
such that an individual such as Samson could lean upon them and collapse the entire structure of the building. This is exactly what took place in chapter 16 when Samson used his outstretched arm-reach to collapse the temple.