THE BOOK OF JUDGES
The period of the Judges marks a low point in Hebrew history. You’ll find the wildest stories in the Bible here.
BEFORE THE JUDGES — 1-2
After Joshua, God appointed Judah and his brother Simeon to take up the sword. It there was one thing God was good at, it was picking warriors of mythical proportions. Single handedly they killed 10,000 at Bezek (1:4), and when they captured the king, they cut off his thumbs and big toes before he died (1:6-7). Next it is the people of Judah who take Jerusalem and “put it to the sword and set the city on fire.” The cities of Hebron and Debir next fell to the people of Judah (1:10-13, 20). Judah and Simeon defeated the people of Zephath and renamed the city Hormah. The lord was with Judah when he took possession of the hill country and the lord was with Judah when he was turned back by inhabitants of the plain because they had iron chariots (1:17-19). The last moment of glory for God was when the house of Joseph put Bethel to the sword (1:22-25).
Thereafter the tribes sought to live amongst their Canaanite rivals and enslave them instead of killing them. The Benjamites, lived with the Jebusites in Jerusalem (1:21). The half tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim, the tribes of Zebulun, Asher, Naphtali and Dan did likewise (1-27-36). When God saw this he sent an angel down to warn the Israelites that by making covenants with the Canaanites they were violating their covenant with him (2:1-5). This warning caused a temporary regret (2:4, 5) but as time went, new generations arose who forgot the traditions of their elders (2:10). Worse, they began to worship Baal and the Astartes (2:11-13). The book of Judges is about God’s faltered attempts to revive the holy war against gentiles.
This pattern would repeat every time. God would punish the Israelites for sinning by making them suffer at the hands of their enemies (2:14-15). When they had enough, he would raise a judge — not a courtroom judge, a military leader — from birth to lead them against their persecutors (2:16-18). But when a judge died, they would go back to integrating with the Canaanites (2:19). So God purposefully leaves many Canaanite nations intact so there would be somebody to test the Israelites (2:21-23). This testing would provide for experience in the art of war (3:1-4).
The Bible only makes sense as a book written by men; fallibility is a human attribute, not a deity attribute. If the Bible was the word of a true God it would not be so muddled and disorganized; it would be clear and straightforward. The only Judah (Gen. 29:35) with a brother Simeon (Gen. 29:33) were the sons of Jacob; they were predecessors of Joshua, not successors. The use of personal pronouns and spoken dialogue confirm the reference to Judah and Simeon the persons and not the tribes.
In Bible-speak the term “put it to the sword and set the city on fire” (1:8) means total annihilation of people and property. The tribe of Judah is credited with taking the city of Jerusalem but then in (1:21) it was the Benjamites who could not drive the Jebusites out of Jerusalem after the city was supposedly burned down. Jerusalem was not supposed to have been taken until the time of David (2 Sam. 5:6-9).
The men of Judah were credited with wiping out Hebron and Debir, but so was Joshua (Josh. 11:21). The verses, Judges 1:10-5, 20 were copied almost word for word from Joshua 15:14-20. Another take off from the book of Joshua was the city of Hormah. Did the ghosts of Judah and Simeon raze Hormah or did Joshua (Josh. 12:14)?
God was supposed to be with Judah when “he” took possession of the hill country but where was God when inhabitants of the plain drove Judah back with chariots of iron (1:19). It means that God’s chosen were technologically more backward then the pagans.
Thereafter, every invading tribe could not defeat the gentile settlers. Somebody had to be blamed and the blame fell on the influence of the pagan Gods Baal and Astartes. It does not seem to occur to God that maybe the Israelites are switching gods because they lost their taste for war. So what does God do? He rewards the gentile followers by letting them plunder and enslave the Israelites. Baal and Astartes have outwitted God.
Apologists might argue that I am misinterpreting these passages; it doesn’t mean what it says. They might argue that these were examples of how things would go if they were going right; because in the stories to follow, everything goes wrong. On other occasions they will defend supernatural events as being literally correct. I’m taking the middle ground; it always means what it says.
In modern language, this God loves war, he loves the glory of the kill, he loves to abuse his power by hardening the hearts of gentiles when he should be using it to soften their hearts. He is a lying God who claims to value love and mercy when in reality he thrives on hate and vengeance. And now the Israelites are tired of his torment so they desert him for other gods. But this God is a stalker, he is obsessed with the Israelites enough to torture them until they return to do his dirty work.
OTHNIEL — 3:5-11
The Israelites lived in peace with their neighbors, they intermarried, and they adopted their gods. So God punished them by making them serve King Cushan-rishathaim for eight years before the Israelites cried out for a deliverer. Othniel was the first judge. He went to war against King Cushan-rishathaim and prevailed. His reign lasted for forty years until he died.
EHUD AND SHAMGAR — 3:12-31
When the Israelites slacked God made King Eglon of Moab stronger. When king had ruled eighteen years the Israelites cried for help so God sent them Ehud. Ehud got near King Eglon by flattering him with a present offering. When he got himself alone with the king he pulled a sword from underneath his clothes and impaled the king through his belly. He escaped before the king’s servants realized what had happened. 10,000 Moabites were killed that day and Israel gained control.
Shamgar had success by single handedly killing 600 Philistines with an oxgoad. A goad is an eight foot rod used to control oxen.
DEBORAH AND BARAK — 4:1-4:24
The oppressor this time was Jabin, king of Hazor who ruled for twenty years. The judge was a female, Deborah. She summoned Barak to go against Jabin’s military general Sisera, but he would not go without Deborah. Deborah and Barak won the battle but Sisera got away. He hid in the tent of Jael, the wife of an ally of King Jabin. When Sisera was asleep, Jael killed him by driving a tent peg into his temple. For a soldier, dying at the hands of a women is considered a disgrace. Without Sisera, Barak was able to subdue King Jabin.
GIDEON — 6:1-8:32
After having been totally annihilated by Moses (Num 31) the Midianites have come back from the dead to rule over the Israelites. Gideon is God’s chosen judge. In a familiar line, God tells Gideon to “strike down the Midianites, every one of them.” So God had Gideon tear down the altar of Baal and sacrifice a bull in its place thus inciting the Midianites into war against him (6:25-32). He gathered from his 32,000 troops, 300 to go into battle (7:2-7). On the day of battle his foe was “as thick as locusts; and their camels were without number, countless as the sand on the seashore.” (7:12). His band of 300 launched a surprise attack by surrounding the Midianites, blowing their trumpets and waving torches, thus causing them to panic (7:16-25).
While pursuing the Midianites across the Jordan, Gideon and his band of 300 became tired and hungry. At the cities of Succoth and Penuel, when he was denied help, he promised revenge. By the time Gideon had caught up, their numbers had reduced to 120,000 to 15,000 (8:10) and Gideon never lost a man. Now if 120,000 was no match for the Gideon 300, you can imagine what he did to the remaining 15,000. Thereafter he returned to Succoth, killed the elders and with thorns and briers his men whipped the townspeople (8:14-16). He returned to Penuel also and “killed the men of the city.” (8:17). Gideon was a prolific man; he fathered 70 sons through many wives (8:30).
Comment: There is a word you should become familiar with; the word is “hyperbole.” It means a figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect. There is a less polite word to define hyperbole but if you read this story to your children, I wouldn’t want to tempt you to use it.
ABIMELECH — 8:33-9
Next in this line of infamous warlords is Abimelech, son of Gideon. Abimelech was not actually appointed a judge by God. He became king by killing seventy of his brothers; only one, Jotham, escaped 9:5). Abimelech was then elected king by the citizens of Shechem (9:6); Shechem was not a gentile city. Within three years, internecine war broke out between Abimelech and the Shechemites (9:22,24). Abimelech killed the people, razed the city and sowed it with salt (9:45). In another battle, Abimelech killed about a thousand men and women by burning the Tower of Schechem. Abimelech met his maker at the city of Thebez. When he came near a tower to burn it, a woman threw a millstone down at his head and crushed his skull (9:53).
JEPHTHAH — 10:6-12:7
When the Ammonites crossed the Jordan River to go against the Israelites of Gilead, the people called upon the mighty warrior Jepthah to lead the battle (10:9-11:1). But Jepthah who had been exiled because he was the son of prostitute, would not help unless they made him head of the Gileadites; the people agreed (11:2-11). Negotiations were tried but failed to avoid conflict. The Ammonites had come to evict Israel from land they conquered. The Israelites, of course, felt entitled to their occupation, arguing that is was not the land of the Ammonites they took (11:2-28).
Before the battle was to begin, Jephthah vowed to God to make a burnt offering of whoever meets him at the door of his house if he returns victorious (11:29-31). When Jephthah returned, non other then his daughter, a child, greeted him at the doorway. She died in flames after two months of bewailing her virginity (11:32-40).
There was an internecine battle with the men of Ephraim who were angry at not given a chance to participate in the battle with the Ammonites. 42,000 Ephraimites were killed in that affair (12:1-6). Jephthah judged for six years until he died. No reason is given for his death (12:7).
Comment: The word enemy per se does not imply evil on the one labeled enemy. The Ammonites were enemies of the Israelites in the same way England was an enemy of Hitler after he marched into Poland and the U.S. was an enemy of Japan after they bombed Pearl Harbor. The Ammonites came in to rescue it friends who were killed and plundered.
Spin masters say that God neither asked Jephthah to sacrifice his daughter nor did he expect him to keep his vow. Tough luck Jephthah! God’s position against human sacrifice is expressed in Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5 and Deut. 12:3; 18:10. When God commanded Jacob to sacrifice his son Isaac, he was only testing Jacob’s faith but did not let him follow through (Gen. 22:1-18).
Jephthah was appointed by God because his faith qualified him to be a judge. If “the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” (11:29), then revelation was established. When Jephthah made his vow, God’s silence implied agreement. By giving him victory, God gave a positive sign; there could be no misunderstanding. Jephthah was committed to fulfilling his part of the vow unless God told him to stop as he did with Jacob. Jephthah even delayed the sacrifice for two months, so there was certainly enough time for God to react.
As a result, Jephthah’s options were all bad. To break a vow was considered a sin and carried the risk of punishment to the fourth generation (Gen 20:5); his daughter would still be cursed. To practice an unauthorized sacrifice carried the risk of death to himself (Lev. 10:1,2). So Jephthah kept his faith by honoring his vow and was not punished. There was not one word from God condemning Jephthah’s actions. God could have even had him killed in his battle with the Ephraimites. Conclusion: God was not above sacrificing children in his holy war against gentiles.
See Jepthah’s Daughter for complete commentary.
SAMSON — Judges 13:1-16:3
The birth of Samson has similarities to the virgin birth of Jesus in the book of Luke. The Philistines had ruled for forty years (13:1). Samson’s mother could not conceive until an angel came and promised her a son. But there was one condition: he was to be raised as a Nazirite (13:2-7). Nazirites were a special class of individuals supposed to be especially devoted to sacrifice; the rules are defined in Numbers 6:1-21. The first rule was to avoid wine, beer, vinegar, grape juice, grapes or raisins (13:3-4). Another was never to get a haircut (13:5). The third that applies to our story is to never go close to the dead, no exceptions (13:6-8).
When their son, Samson, grew up, he took a Philistine for a wife (14:1-3). This was normally against Jewish law (Deut. 7:3, 4), but it was arranged by God as a pretext to act against the Philistines (14:4). Samson killed a lion that attacked him with his bare hands (14:5-9). Nobody knew of the incident and he didn’t tell anyone. He later returned to the scene of the dead lion and saw bees living in the lion’s carcass. He scooped up some honey and ate it. His parents ate some that he brought home, but he didn’t tell them where he got it.
At his wedding feast he bet his Philistine guests thirty changes of garments that they could not solve his riddle. After a frustrating three days, the guests asked Samson’s wife to coax the answer from him (14:10-15). So she nagged him until he gave her the answer and she passed it on to her people (14:16-18). Angered at losing, Samson killed thirty men and paid off the bet with their clothing. His father gave his wife to his best man and wouldn’t give her back. Samson got angry again so he caught 300 foxes, put a torch to their tails and sent them into the grain fields, burning everything up (14:19-15-5). When the Philistines heard this, they burned her and her father. Samson went into another rage and slaughtered Philistines wherever he went. The Philistines threatened the people of Judah to kill one of them for every one Samson killed if they did not arrest him. With Samson’s cooperation, they tied his arms with rope and gave him to the Philistines. When he was in the midst of the Philistines he broke the ropes. Then he found the jawbone of a donkey and used it to kill a thousand men (15:6-17).
Samson judged Israel for twenty years under the Philistines until he fell in love with another Philistine named Delilah. The rulers offered her a generous reward if she found out the secret to his great strength (15:20-16-5). This pattern repeated three times: Samson gave her the wrong answer. She tested him by alarming him from sleep. And Samson would immediately break free. Nobody dared to attack him (16:6-14).
For the fourth time she nagged him day after day until she “tired him to death.” This time he revealed the secret of his hair. That evening they shaved his head when he was asleep. When she awoke him, they saw he was weak, so they gouged out his eyes and bound him with bronze shackles and locked him in prison (16:16-21). Some time must have passed, for Samson’s hair was growing back and they forgot to keep it shaved. On the day the Philistines celebrated his capture; they brought him out of prison and paraded him by some pillars. These pillars must have supported a large building because it was large enough to house 3,000 people. When Samson pushed down the pillars, everyone died (6:22-31).
Micah makes Idols — Judges 17
From the tribe of Ephraim, Micah admitted to his mother of stealing the 1100 pieces of silver; she had put a curse on the thief who stole them. Micah insisted on returning it even though she wanted him to keep it. So she took 200 pieces and had a silversmith make it into an idol. The idol was kept in Micah’s house along with his shrine for worshipping God.
When a Levite had wandered into Micah’s house, Micah offered him to be his priest in exchange for money, clothing and food. The Levite stayed and became like a son to Micah.
City of Dan — Judges 18
The tribe of Danite needed new land to live in so they sent out five spies to look for a suitable site. They first came to Micah’s house, where his Levite priest told them God is on their side. When they found the gentile city of Laish, where the people were prosperous and peaceful, they were pleased (18:1, 2, 7). So they returned with six hundred men, “to a people quiet and unsuspecting, put them to the sword, and burned down the city” (18:27-28). On the way to Laish, they had Micah’s priest and his idols join them; Micah’s protests were met with death threats. When they rebuilt the city they named it Dan (18:8-11; 18:29).
Comment: The city of Dan first appears in Genesis 14:14 (see “Abraham rescues Lot), hundreds of years before the city supposedly got its name. You can choose to imagine that the writer prophesied the renaming of the city or you can choose to believe the obvious, that the story of Abraham rescuing Lot never took place.
I left out the popular rendition of these verses. Preachers don’t concern themselves with the fate of the people of Laish. What’s more important to them is the story of Micah who adopted the idolatrous religious practices of his neighbors and the Danites who weren’t following strict rules of worship. They lament the spiritual decline of the Danites but it seems more like they were terribly vulgar.
The Levite and his Concubine — Judges 19
This is a story of a Levite who had a concubine whose rape started a war. While traveling from her father’s house, they stopped to spend the night as a guest in the Benjamite town of Gibeah (9:1-21). That evening the men of the city surrounded the house and pounded on the door. They wanted “intercourse” with the Levite. The host offered his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine but they refused. So the Levite pushed his concubine outside and they raped and abused her. The next morning he found her dead, so he took her home and cut her into twelve pieces. He sent one piece to each tribal chief with an announcement for a meeting (19:22-30). When he explained what happened they were all angry at the Benjamites of Gibeah. So they demanded the Benjamites to identify the scoundrels. Instead they reacted by mustering 26,000 men from the entire Benjamite tribe to defend Gibeah. The other Israelites mustered 400,000 fighting men to take the city (20:1-20). On the first two days the Benjamites killed 40,000 Israelites. On the third day the Israelites killed 25,100 Benjamites, before they defeated them and then they “put the whole city to the sword” (that means women and children too) and set it on fire. When it was over, only six-hundred men of the Benjamite tribe remained (20:21-47).
Now the eleven tribes had a new problem because there were no surviving Benjamite women and no more Benjamite towns. They couldn’t let the Benjamites become extinct and they couldn’t intermarry between tribes. The first place to find virgins, they decided, was Jabesh-gilead because no one city participated in the war. So they sent twelve thousand solders there but they did not go there to find volunteers. They killed every man, every mother, every child, and every women who was not a virgin (the only way to confirm is to feel for the hymen). They found four hundred virgins but need two hundred more. Shiloh was a city in good standing but they were about to have a festival where a lot of women will be dancing around. The men of Benjamin were instructed to hide in the vineyards. When a young woman came close, they abducted her and made her a wife.
Comment: The writers created this legend of internecine war and wife stealing to end this book with the worst in the darkest chapter in Hebrew history. It was meant to emphasize their need for a king. Fortunes changed in the Book of Samuel when the prophet anoints two kings, Saul and David.