Book of Judges
The period after Joshua and before the kings of Israel
By Samuel or others
The study Book Judges tells the history of God’s people after their arrival in the land flowing milk honey God had promised their ancestors and of how they live in the period between the conquest of that land of Canaan and their turning away from God and toward earthly kings in search of order and safety.
It also continues the Israelites’ story of faithfulness—and faithlessness—since they have been freed from slavery in Egypt.
Two great leaders, Moses and Joshua, have warned them that if they fall away from faithful worship of God, they will suffer for it; but as is often the case with human beings, a warning is not enough.
They have to experience things for themselves.
Before There Were Kings
Book Judges Introduction recounts the experience: On more than one occasion, the people of Israel fall away from the worship of their God, are punished for it, and then pray for deliverance.
The deliverer is a divinely appointed judge, a combination of military general and civil leader, a redeemer or liberator.
It’s a cycle that is repeated many times in the Bible Book Judges, which finally ends in atrocity as we see how far the people fell in those days when “there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what seemed right to them” (21:25).
One of the most famous judges, Samuel, whose story is not told until the books of Samuel, is traditionally credited with recording the many stories that appear in Judges.
This book is divided into three sections:
- The conquest and settlement of Canaan,
- The exploits of the judges,
- A collection of stories.
The juxtaposition of so many differing stories reflects the involvement of many storytellers and editors in this final version of Judges and the importance they all placed on every divinely inspired story—even those stories that are crude, gruesome, and heartbreaking.
Putting GOD First
Judges shows us an unromantic view of life, love, and faith—but one that seems completely realistic. We see people at both their best and their worst.
It is the story of a society in slow descent, arrested sometimes by God’s intervention through human agents, and it reads as cosmic truth.
We are often guilty of exalting things other than God: our possessions, our relationships, our institutions, even our nation.
The stories of the people of Israel remind us that we should place true faith in God alone, and that when we forget, the spiritual and real-life results may be devastating.
Modern readers wrestle with the violence in the Old Testament. In the wake of events like the holocaust, when the Jews were slaughtered by the millions, many do not see God as a protecting God or as a God of might.
But in Judges we learn about a God who fights for His chosen people or empowers champions to protect them.
This was certainly the way the people of God in the time of Judges thought about God, as defender and protector, and the way people in the ancient Middle East understood faith, worship, and divinity.
But the Lord is different from all the other gods. He is jealous, so when His people abandon Him, all that power is turned against them in the form of invading armies.
The Israelites have need of judges who can lead them in their military exploits and who can keep them faithful to the mighty God of Israel.
The book of Judges marks the beginning of a new era, starting after the death of Joshua (Joshua 24:29–30). Rather than following a single, central leader, the Israelites would answer to Yahweh directly in a kind of theocracy.
Before he died, Joshua left three crucial legacies for God’s chosen people.
- First, they had a strong position in the Promised Land after breaking the Canaanite stronghold over the region (Joshua 24:11).
- Second, each tribe clearly understood their God-given mandate to wipe out the remaining inhabitants of the land in their respective territories (Deuteronomy 20:16–18; Joshua 23:12–13).
- Finally, Joshua left Israel with a renewal of their covenant with God, in which they agreed to forsake all other gods and commit themselves to worship and obey Yahweh alone (Joshua 24:24–28).
Judges begins with a report on the effort by each tribe to drive the Canaanites out of their regions. It begins on a positive note. The people ask the Lord who should attack the Canaanites first.
The Lord tells Judah to begin and promises the land has been given into their hand. Judah invites the people of the tribe of Simeon to fight with them, promising to assist Simeon in capturing their territory when the time comes (Judges 1:1–3).
Success is immediate. Judah destroys a city called Bezek, though they fail to destroy the leader of the city. This man is labeled with the title Adoni-bezek.
Rather than following God’s command to destroy the wicked Canaanites, the men of Judah cut off the enemy leader’s thumbs and big toes. This imitates Canaanite practice, as the defeated leader points out.
It also defies God’s desire that Israel not take on Canaanite sins. The Adoni-bezek is taken to Jerusalem, where he dies. Next, Judah captures and wipes out the inhabitants of Jerusalem—or possibly a fortification near it—and sets it on fire.
Then they proceed to fight in the hill country, the desert wilderness of the Negeb, and the lowland (Judges 1:4–10).
The writer of Judges then repeats a report from the book of Joshua (Joshua 15:15–19).
The report explains how Caleb, who had been given Hebron in the hill country, defeated the Anakites there and then gave his daughter in marriage to the one who defeated the nearby city of Debir.
He also tells how the descendants of Moses’ father-in-law moved into the region of the Negeb, in southern Judah, and lived among the people (Judges 1:11–16).
Finally, Judah and Simeon together destroy the city of Zephath, while Judah captures Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ekron. Because the Lord was with Judah, the tribe took full possession of the hill country.
It could not drive out the occupants of the western plain, however, because of their iron chariots. Given what happens to Israel in the following chapters, this failure seems to be one of faith, not of God.
Most likely, the people of Judah lost the nerve to confront their enemy and settled for a less-than-total victory (Judges 1:17–20).
This last failure is the first hint of what is to come for all the other tribes. After Judah’s success, reports on the other tribes are mostly disappointing. The tribe of Benjamin is unable to drive out the new—or surviving—occupants of Jerusalem.
Ephraim, “the house of Joseph” (Genesis 48:3–6) destroys and takes possession of Bethel, but a Canaanite man they allow to live builds another Canaanite city to replace it (Judges 1:21–26).
From there, the news in Judges chapter 1 is all bad. None of the other tribes completes their task of driving the inhabitants from the land or destroying them. This includes the tribes of Manasseh, Ephraim, Zebulun, Asher, Naphtali, and Dan.
Some grow strong enough to eventually enslave the Canaanites in their territories. And yet, despite growing in power, they disobey God’s command to devote all the inhabitants to destruction (Judges 1:27–36).
God’s command to purge Canaan of its wicked inhabitants was meant to keep Israel from taking on their evil practices. The very next chapter of Judges shows how Israel’s disobedience led to immediate consequences (Judges 2:1–5).
Much of the rest of the book of Judges details the echoing effects of Israel’s complacency.
The first verses of Judges chapter 2 are best understood as an extension from chapter 1. Israel failed, tribe by tribe, to drive the Canaanites from the land as God had commanded them.
This seems to have been from some combination of indifference or fear. In response, God appears to the people at a place later named Bochim for its association with “weeping.”
References to “the angel of the Lord” suggest a physical presence of God—likely God the Son before His incarnation in Jesus Christ. This angel speaks to the people, as the Lord, using first-person terminology.
He reminds them that He brought Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. He kept His word to them and promised never to break His covenant with them so long as they did not break theirs.
Despite promises made to Joshua (Joshua 24:23–24), the Israelites did break the covenant with the Lord. They imitated and accepted the depraved people of Canaan. They left pagan altars intact. They did not obey the voice of their God (Judges 2:1–2).
As a response, God announces that He will not drive out the Canaanite people. By the end of the chapter, it will become clear that this happens in two ways: the people will be tempted and troubled by the Canaanites living in their territories, and they will be attacked and plundered by the territories they have not yet captured. The people the Israelites have allowed to stay in the land, and their false gods, will cause trouble and temptation for Israel. In response to God’s rebuke, the people of Israel weep loudly and offer sacrifices to God. As the following verses show, this sorrow is short-lived and ultimately meaningless (Judges 2:3–5).
Starting in verse 6, the writer of Judges seems to re-introduce the storyline. He provides a key to understanding what will follow in the later chapters: the pattern repeated time and again between God and the people of Israel. To do this, the writer goes back to Joshua, who was faithful to the Lord. This information effectively repeats the content of Joshua 24:28–31. Joshua’s leadership not only produced great victories in Canaan, but it also kept the people in faithful obedience to God. When Joshua and his peers died out, however, the following generations did not acknowledge the Lord or the miracles He had done for Israel (Judges 2:6–10).
Instead of following the Lord and keeping the covenant, the new generation of Israelites abandoned Him. As God predicted (Deuteronomy 20:16–18), the people began to worship the false gods of the people of Canaan. They honored idols such as Baal and Ashtaroth—Canaanite fertility gods—and performed all the degrading acts associated with those religions. This would have included things like temple prostitution and even human sacrifice (Judges 2:11–13).
God, provoked to great anger, would then use Israel’s enemies as punishment. Unconquered enemy groups (Judges 3:1–4) would raid and enslave Israel, until the people were in great distress. Then the Lord would raise a deliverer, named using a Hebrew word loosely translated as “judge.” These leaders combined spiritual, civic, and military efforts, specially empowered by God, to save Israel from the nations who afflicting her. The Lord would continue to guide His people through that human judge until the judge died (Judges 2:15–18).
Sadly, once each judge died, the pattern would begin again. The Israelites would go back to worshiping other gods. In fact, with every cycle, their sin became even worse than before. Once again, God’s anger would burn. Once again, Israel’s enemies would conquer her. The people would suffer. Another new judge would come and save the people, a peace lasting only until the judge’s death. In response to their persistent sin, God stops enabling Israel’s conquest of more territory in the Promised Land. He also leaves them to the consequences of allowing the Canaanites to persist in the land. He will continue to use those enemies to demonstrate whether Israel will turn and obey in response to suffering (Judges 2:19–23).
Chapter 3 begins with a brief explanation of the two main groups which will antagonize Israel during the era of the judges. Attacks, enslavement, and oppression come from the unconquered nations surrounding Israel (Judges 3:1–4). Temptation and idolatry come from the people living among Israel in the captured territories (Judges 3:5–6).
After Joshua dies, the people of Israel are left without a leader. How will they know what to do? They are still surrounded by hostile peoples; there is still land to be fought for and won.
The people of God have some military success, but they are not able to drive out all the people of Canaan.
They are forced to live among the pagans; and their ways, women, and gods become a temptation to the people of God. This situation is the catalyst for the next 1,000 years of Israel’s cyclical unfaithfulness and repentance.
Judges 2 ended with God’s explanation for why He had not given Joshua victory over all the nations in and around the Promised Land. He intended to use those nations to test Israel to see whether the people would follow the Lord or not. God’s original instructions were for Israel to completely purge the land of the depraved, evil Canaanites (Deuteronomy 20:16–17). This was partly to prevent Israel from imitating those wicked actions (Deuteronomy 20:18). It was also a judgment, from God, against the heinous sin of those cultures (Deuteronomy 7:1–5; 9:4–5).
Judges 3 begins by identifying those undefeated nations that would test Israel’s reliance on the Lord. Specifically, they would be used to test new generations of Israelites who grew up without knowing war. These nations included the five Philistine lords, the various Canaanite nations, the Sidonians, and the Hivites. These unconquered enemies would be a source of attack and struggle for Israel for years to come (Judges 3:1–4).
Further, the people of Israel choose to disobey God by living alongside the Canaanites in captured territories. This becomes a source of temptation to idolatry, and all that comes with it. Worship of these false gods included sexual acts, as well as human and child sacrifice. Despite strong warnings, the Israelites of the generation after Joshua intermarried with the other nations and served their gods (Judges 3:5–6).
True to His own Word, God judges His people for doing this evil. When the people forget Him and serve the false gods known as Baal and Asheroth, God sells them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim, the king of Mesopotamia. That king rules over the Israelites for eight years. Finally, the people cry out to the Lord and He raises up the first of many judges who will deliver the nation over the coming centuries. The first judge is Othniel, the son of Caleb’s younger brother, and he was already introduced in Judges 1. Othniel captured a city from the Canaanites on behalf of Caleb. In return, Caleb gave Othniel his daughter in marriage (Judges 1:12–13). Now Othniel is used by God to lead the Israelites into battle against the Mesopotamians and to defeat them. Israel is at peace for forty 40 years—a full generation—until Othniel dies (Judges 3:7–11).
After Othniel’s death, a new generation of Israelites once again turns from God, following the temptations of the local Canaanite culture. They worship and serve false gods. This time, the Lord enables the king of the Moabites to grow strong enough to defeat His own people for their rebellion. King Eglon makes an alliance with the Ammonites and the Amalekites and defeats Israel, enslaving the people for eighteen 18 years (Judges 3:12–14).
Finally, the people cry out to the Lord for help, and He raises up a new deliverer. Ehud is identified as a Benjaminite. That Ehud, of the tribe of Benjamin, commits an act of predatory savagery against his enemy echoes Jacob’s predictions about the tribe of Benjamin being a “wolf.” Ehud is also said to be a left-handed man. The tribe of Benjamin will eventually become known for their mighty left-handed warriors. Since ancient peoples tended to view pure-left-handedness with suspicion, it’s possible these biblical references imply persons who are ambidextrous: equally adept with both right and left hands (Judges 3:15).
Ehud leads a delegation sent to present a tribute to Eglon, king of Moab, at his palace in Jericho. Ehud makes a special dagger and secures it to his thigh, under his clothes. This object was about the length of a man’s forearm, and probably looked like a sharply pointed spike with a handle. After presenting the tribute, Ehud leaves with the group and then doubles back on his own. He tells the king of Moab he has a secret message for him. Eglon sends all his servants out of the room. Ehud pulls out his dagger and stabs the king, who is enormously fat, leaving the sword buried in his belly. The result of the wound is a gory mess, and Eglon apparently drops dead without making a sound (Judges 3:16–22).
After the killing blow, Ehud simply locks the chamber doors and walks away. Eglon’s servants see the locked doors, and—possibly due to the odor of Eglon’s death—assume he is using the toilet. After enough time passes, they overcome embarrassment and find the king’s corpse. By now, it’s too late to catch Ehud, who rallies the troops of Israel. He gathers an army of Israelite fighters and leads them to take strategic crossings of the Jordan River. Once the Moabites’ escape route is cut off, the Israelite army kills every single Moabite soldier in the land. The Lord has given Israel victory, and peace returns to the land for eighty years (Judges 3:26–30).
The last verse of this chapter gives almost no details about a figure named Shamgar. Scholars note this name might imply a Canaanite or Egyptian, rather than an Israelite. The verse does not explicitly say that Shamgar knowingly fought on behalf of Israel. The timing of his work is also unclear, but it may have overlapped that of Ehud. All that’s certain is that Shamgar’s actions saved Israel somehow, perhaps by staving off a Philistine invasion from the north. Shamgar’s weapon was an oxgoad, used to control cattle. These were spear-like tools not intended for war, but which would have been reasonably effective weapons. Either all at once, or over time, Shamgar kills several hundred Philistines (Judges 3:31).
After the curious note about Shamgar, the book of Judges returns to the more familiar pattern. The next judges of Israel include one of the most famous women in all of Scripture, the prophetess and judge Deborah (Judges 4:4).
God takes what is different about Ehud and makes it a strength. This is God’s habit throughout the Old Testament — making unlikely heroes into agents of His deliverance from the enemies of Israel.
Earlier God used Moses, an infant marked for death, to liberate His people from Egypt.
Soon God will use two women, marginalized in a patriarchal society, to save Israel from Sisera. And much later, God will choose David, a young boy, to save Israel from the mighty Philistines.
Time and again, God proves He can use anyone to accomplish His goals.
The pattern of Judges repeats, and a new story begins. After the previous judge-deliverer dies, Israel returns to doing evil, including the worship of the gods of Canaan (Judges 2:16–19). The Lord responds by submitting Israel to Jabin, who rules over Canaan. This is a distinct nation-state among the “Canaanites” of the Promised Land in general. Jabin rules from Hazor in the northern part of Israel’s prophesied territory. The Canaanite general is Sisera, whose headquarters are to the west in the town Harosheth-hagoyim. Sisera has command over 900 iron chariots—a great technological advantage in that era. This gives him all the power he needs to cruelly oppress the people of Israel (Judges 4:1–3).
Finally, after twenty years, the Israelites cry out to the Lord for help. The Lord responds by speaking through Deborah, a well-known and well-respected prophetess and judge who lives in the hill country of Ephraim. Deborah seems to act very much in accordance with the English term “judge,” settling disputes and deciding matters for Israel. She is associated with a Hebrew term meaning “torch,” which either refers to the name of her husband or her fiery disposition (Judges 4:4–5).
Directed by the Lord, Deborah summons a man named Barak. Barak lives in Kedesh in the territory of the tribe Naphtali. Deborah’s command from God is to recruit “10,000” troops from Naphtali and Zebulun and gather them at Mount Tabor. Ancient literature used the term “ten thousand” much in the same way modern English uses the term “a million,” as a poetic way of indicating a vast number. Whether the figure is literal or not, the message is clear: God expects Barak to raise a massive number of soldiers. The Lord will then lure Sisera, with his iron chariots and his army, to meet Barak and his forces by the River Kishon. There the Lord will give Barak and Israel victory over Sisera and Canaan (Judges 4:6–7).
Barak’s response is unfortunately timid. He agrees to go only if Deborah will go with him. He might have worried that recruiting troops would be difficult without her. He may also have thought that victory in battle would be more likely if a prophetess was there—despite Deborah already telling him God had promised Israel victory. She agrees to go, but prophesies that Barak will lose the glory of capturing Sisera. Instead, credit for defeating the Canaanite general will go to a woman. Barak and Deborah return to Kedesh and quickly recruit their forces who are prepared to fight the Canaanites. They arrange their army on Mount Tabor, as God has told Barak to do (Judges 4:8–10).
The story pauses, then, to make what at first seems like a random statement. Heber is a Kenite, from the same people group as Moses’ father-in-law Jethro (Judges 1:16). Most of these are friendly to Israel, but Heber will later be identified as an ally of Jabin. This information will become important later in the passage (Judges 4:11).
When Sisera learns that Israel has amassed an army, he orders his 900 iron chariots and his soldiers to head into battle at Mount Tabor, approaching from the west. This is an arrogant move: their position on Tabor gives Israel a tactical advantage, so Sisera must be greatly confident that he can easily win. What happens next is easier to understand with details given in the next chapter (Judges 5:21). Rather than stay on the mountain, the army launches forward at a sudden order from Deborah, who speaks for the Lord. It’s possible God sent an unexpected flood of the river at that exact moment, swamping the Canaanite chariots, and turning their advantage into a crippling weakness (Judges 4:12–14).
The result is dramatic. As noted with Ehud’s victory over the Moabites (Judges 3:29), it is extremely unusual for every single enemy soldier to die in a battle. Yet Israel obliterates the entire Canaanite army, erasing Jabin’s military power in a single stroke. Sisera apparently sees the defeat coming, so he runs in the opposite direction as his forces are routed and destroyed (Judges 4:15–16).
Sisera’s escape takes him northeast. He eventually comes to the tents of Heber, the man mentioned earlier in the passage. Heber has some unspecified peace agreement with Jabin. Sisera likely expects aid, or at least a place to hide from the Israelites chasing him. Heber’s wife, Jael, goes out to meet Sisera and urges him to take refuge in a tent. She covers him with a rug and gives him milk to drink, agreeing to turn away anyone who comes looking for him. This would have been in keeping with ancient middle eastern hospitality, which obligated the host to protect the guest (Judges 4:17–20).
Once Sisera is asleep, however, Jael picks up implements with which a nomadic woman would have been familiar: a hammer and tent peg. The “peg,” in this case, would have been a sharp wooden spike about 1 inch, or 25 millimeters, thick. Jael strikes the spike through the soft spot on the side of Sisera’s head, driving it through his skull and into the ground. The slaughter is summarized with an almost comical understatement: “so he died” (Judges 4:21).
Jael’s motives are not stated. She might have been more loyal to her ancestral allies, Israel, than her husband was. She may have feared Israel’s wrath if they caught Sisera hiding in her home. She might also have resented Sisera’s oppressive and brutal career (Judges 5:30). For whatever reason, the deed is done. Soon after, Barak and his men approach, looking for the runaway general. Jael shows the corpse, and Deborah’s prophecy is fully revealed. A woman—Deborah, for her role in raising and inspiring the army, and Jael for striking down the general—gets credit for the victory (Judges 4:22).
With an entire army slain, Jabin’s defeat is merely a matter of time. Israel presses their advantage until Jabin, as well, is destroyed. The final verses of this chapter poetically repeat Jabin’s name and title three times, emphasizing the relentless and thorough victory granted by God. Israel is once again freed from oppression (Judges 4:23–24).
The following chapter is in the form of a song—a celebration by Barak and Deborah—which retells the defeat of Sisera and Jabin, including details that help make more sense of their impressive victory (Judges 5). Sadly, the pattern of the era of the judges will continue (Judges 6:1), leading to the introduction of the next rescuer of Israel: Gideon (Judges 6:11).
Known as the Song of Deborah, this victory song is one of the oldest passages in the Bible; it is beautiful and powerful, as well as filled with information.
In addition to praising and chastising certain tribes for their role — or lack thereof — in battle, it also celebrates a victory God has given His people through the agency of two women: the judge Deborah and Jael, who, as Deborah prophesied ( verse9 ), brings final victory over the enemy general Sisera.
These cultures value masculine strength, aggression, and war-prowess; they don’t value female ingenuity and courage.
So for the first hearers of this story, the last people they expect to bring military victory are women. But once again, God takes ordinary people with their gifts, strengths, and weaknesses — and brings military victory through the unexpectedly strong hands of women.
The previous chapter uses a straightforward style to explain the story of Deborah and Barak. Through Deborah’s prophetic leadership (Judges 4:4–5) and the obedience of Barak (Judges 4:6–10), Israel defeated the Canaanites in a convincing victory (Judges 4:12–16). The enemy general, Sisera, fled and was ultimately killed by a nomad woman named Jael (Judges 4:17–21). This chapter contains the prophetess Deborah’s victory song about these events, told through poetic imagery, while adding detail and vibrant emotion to the same scenes from Judges chapter 4.
The song begins with a blessing for the Lord. That includes praise for God providing willing leaders and fighting men who offered themselves to join Barak in battle against the Canaanites. It is the Lord who gives victory through those who are willing to follow His lead (Judges 5:1–2).
Deborah directly addresses the defeated kings and princes of Canaan. Her song is not “to” them, but it is meant for them to hear. She sings this song to the Lord, the God of Israel. Hers is a taunt—a deliberate mocking and dismissing of the enemy—ensuring everyone knows that God brought about this victory. And, that this success has freed Israel from oppression to Canaan (Judges 5:3).
Next, Deborah’s song describes the Lord as active. He came to guide Israel as the nation moved from outside of the Promised Land to take action within its borders. This entry into Canaan was accompanied by miracles, signs, and wonders of many kinds (Deuteronomy 6:22–23). The references to natural events, such as earthquakes and storms, is likely a direct counter to the Canaanite religion, which thought of Baal as a deity of storms (Judges 5:4–5).
Deborah depicts the time of Sisera’s oppression (Judges 4:1–3) in dark terms. Likely due to the Canaanites’ iron chariots, major roads were all but deserted. Israel lacked even the tools to defend herself. Out of this hardship, Deborah was called as a prophetess of God (Judges 4:4–5). She describes herself as a “mother,” consistent with her leadership and role as a judge over the nation (Judges 5:6–8).
Despite the danger and a lack of equipment, the commanders of Israel willingly volunteered to join Barak in attacking Sisera and Canaan’s army. Deborah calls for all who hear her song to spread the story of this event. She mentions communal places, such as wells and springs, where people would be prone to meet. They must repeat the triumphs of the Lord and His villagers in Israel. She makes this call to rich and poor alike—including the tradesmen and merchants whose businesses would have been especially disrupted (Judges 5:9–11).
Israel’s path to victory began when the Lord “woke up” Deborah to give a message to Barak. He was commanded to raise an army. Willing leaders and fighters came from the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir—a part of Manasseh— Zebulun, Issachar, and Naphtali. All willingly risked their lives (Judges 5:12–15).
However, Deborah also asks why the people of other tribes refused to come. She specifically calls out Reuben, Gilead—a part of Dan—and Asher. Reuben’s depiction as wavering strongly resembles a prediction given by Jacob on his deathbed (Genesis 49:3–4). These rebukes are rhetorical questions (Judges 5:16–18).
Despite the lack of support from some Israelites, the battle was won. On the battlefield, Deborah poetically claims that nature, itself, went to war against Sisera. Part of this is the River Kishon as swelling to a torrent. This swept the enemy away and would probably have turned the fields below mount Tabor into a muddy trap for chariots. That Deborah gave an urgent command to attack, just as Sisera’s men approached, suggests God arranged for the perfect combination of strategy and natural disaster to overwhelm the Canaanite forces (Judges 5:19–22).
In much stronger, more direct terms than were used for Israel’s tribes, Deborah curses a town called Meroz for not helping the Lord against the mighty Canaanites. This might have been an area though which Sisera fled (Judges 4:15, 17), but was not stopped or challenged (Judges 5:23).
Deborah boldly blesses Jael for cleverly killing Sisera after he ran from the battle and attempted to hide. The moment is depicted in this song using repeated phrases and an echoing style. This is something like a “slow-motion replay” used to profound effect. The song describes the moment in detail, lingering on the body of Sisera and his utterly humiliating defeat at the hands of a woman (Judges 5:24–27).
Next, the song turns to imagine the reaction of Sisera’s mother, as she waits for him at home. These details shed some light on Sisera’s reputation. His mother and other noble women assume he is so busy dividing up loot from battle that he’s running late. Part of that assumption seems to be the soldiers enjoying the women of Israel—crassly referred to as “wombs”—suggesting Sisera had a reputation for that kind of cruelty. The unspoken implication is that Sisera’s friends and family will soon learn the unthinkable has happened: he has been defeated and killed (Judges 5:28–30).
Finally, Deborah prays for God to bring similar defeat to all His enemies. She pleads for those who honor God to be strengthened, and become like the sun: bright, invincible, and powerful. The final phrase of the chapter returns to the typical narrative style of the book of Judges, noting that Deborah and Barak won forty years of peace in Israel (Judges 5:31).
As the start of the next chapter shows (Judges 6:1), Israel will then fall into the same cycle of sin and oppression seen before (Judges 2:11–19). This will bring about the next judge, Gideon, whose story takes up all of chapters 6, 7, and 8.
This unnamed messenger brings a familiar message, one we find coming from both well-known and unknown prophets in the Scriptures: “I am the Eternal God, and I have done many things for you.
You swore to be My people, but you have turned away from Me and turned toward other gods.”
God has brought the patriarch Abraham out of the east and initiated a relationship with him. Later the people of God make a covenant with Him, a sacred contract that both sides are expected to honor.
When they are faithful to God and God’s laws, the people of Israel prosper.
Whenever the Israelites fall away from true belief and true practice, God withdraws His blessing from them. This messenger is simply reminding them of what they already know — as prophets sometimes must.
The pattern of Israel’s faithlessness and God’s judgment repeats once more. After 40 years of peace, Israel returns to the evil practices of serving Baal and other false gods of the Canaanites. As promised, God turns Israel over to oppression. This period of hardship comes in a form much different than earlier struggles.
Israel’s subjugation under the Midianites is not like prior conquests. Israel is not occupied by their enemies, nor enslaved by them. Rather, Midian and their allies from east of the Jordan River invade the land every year at harvest time. They arrive with countless camels and tents and overwhelming numbers of soldiers and take all the crops and livestock away from Israel, leaving them with almost nothing. Israel’s enemies lay waste to the land and then leave until the next harvest season (Judges 6:1–5).
After seven years, Israel is completely crushed. The phrasing used in this passage implies more than military defeat. Israel is humiliated, despairing, and miserable. The nation is just as emotionally and spiritually ruined as they are helpless. Finally, they beg God for rescue (Judges 6:6).
This time, God does not immediately raise up a deliverer. First, He sends a prophet. That messenger reminds the people that He is their Provider and Savior. They are suffering because they did not obey Him (Judges 2:11–19). This prophet is not named. Neither does Scripture say, exactly, whether the people responded to his message in any way (Judges 6:7–10).
When the Lord raises up a new judge, he selects an improbable man. The Angel of the Lord—likely Christ in a pre-incarnate form—appears to a man named Gideon. This son of Joash is processing grain in a winepress. Normally this work would have been done in a roomy meadow. Because of Midianite raids, Gideon is hiding as he does the work of a servant. Still, the Angel refers to Gideon as if he were an established warrior. Gideon objects that he is the least of an unimportant clan. Yet God insists Gideon will save Israel because the Lord will be with him. Gideon asks for and receives miraculous evidence that this message is truly from the Lord God (Judges 6:11–24).
The Lord’s plans for Gideon do not wait. That same night, Yahweh commands Gideon to dismantle an altar to Baal and an Asherah pole on his father’s land. These were artifacts used in the worship of the false gods of that region. Gideon is told to replace those with an altar to the One True God of Israel, and to sacrifice one of his father’s bulls. Gideon obeys—at night, with as much secrecy as possible. As expected, the men of the town quickly discover what he has done. Gideon’s father, Joash, saves Gideon from the mob. He vows to kill anyone who kills Gideon. He also points out that the neighbors’ own beliefs about Baal imply that Baal should be able to defend himself. Gideon’s second name becomes Jerubbaal, reminding the people of his contention with the Canaanite deity (Judges 6:25–32).
As promised, the Spirit of the Lord comes on Gideon. This inspires his clansmen, and fellow tribesmen. People of the surrounding tribes answer the call to follow Gideon into battle against the Midianites. The enemy is once more camped in the Valley of Jezreel. As they prepare for their attack, Israel’s forces begin to assemble (Judges 6:33–35).
Despite seeing many confirmations, Gideon seems to have yet another crisis of faith. Though he seems to realize he’s being presumptuous, Gideon asks God to respond to a test. Gideon’s request is meant to prove that a supernatural God is the one giving him these commands. Gideon uses a furry animal skin to create this test. When God successfully completes the miracle, Gideon unbelievably asks God to do another, this time in reverse. God graciously does this, as well. These moments are the source of the phrase “putting out a fleece,” meaning to ask God for some unreasonably narrow sign to prove He is speaking. This incident might suggest just how fearful Gideon was—which makes his obedience and eventual success even more admirable (Judges 6:36–40).
After giving Gideon several miraculous signs (Judges 6:36–40), God wants the attack on Midian to commence. Gideon has gathered a force of some 32,000 Israelites to follow him into battle. They rise early in the morning and make camp in the hills, just a few miles south from the Midianite camp in the valley below (Judges 7:1).
The Lord then says a surprising thing to Gideon. He wants the number of Israelite troops reduced. When the battle is over, God wants everyone to clearly understand that He gave Israel the victory. There is to be no doubt that the Lord, not the people, has accomplished this victory. The Lord tells Gideon to send home anyone who admits to being too afraid to stay for a fight. This step is not without precedent, as it follows commands about warfare which God gave to Moses (Deuteronomy 20:5–8). Two-thirds of the available men leave (Judges 7:2–3).
Next the Lord tells Gideon the remaining thousands of men are still too many. He has Gideon take the army down to a nearby brook to drink. Gideon is to divide the men into two groups: those who kneel to drink or those who use their hands. Scholars debate whether this was meant to sort out those less aware or those accustomed to kneeling in pagan worship. Or it might simply have been a quick way to reduce the task force to a smaller size. In any case, only 300 pass this test. With those 300 men, God says He will give Gideon the victory. The others are sent away (Judges 9:4–8).
That night, the Lord tells Gideon to attack the Midianite camp. Before any objection can be expressed, God offers Gideon another sign in case he is afraid. The Lord says Gideon should spy on the enemy camp, along with his servant Purah. There, he will hear something to bolster his courage. Gideon and his servant get close enough to the vast encampment of enemy fighters to overhear two men talking. One described a dream about a cake of barley bread rolling into the Midianite camp and smashing a tent flat. The other interprets the dream, saying that it represents the sword of the Israelite Gideon. Despite having no reason to say such a thing, the other soldier says God has given the Midianite camp into Gideon’s hand (Judges 9:9–14).
In response to this encouragement, Gideon worships God. He immediately returns to his own camp, awakens his 300 men, and announces that the Lord is going to give Midian into their hands right now. He gives each man a ram’s horn trumpet and a clay pitcher with a torch inside of it. He describes what they will do with them, possibly demonstrating so they know exactly how to proceed. The task force descends to the Midianite camp and takes up positions around the perimeter (Judges 7:15–18).
Following Gideon’s lead, his men all blow their trumpets and smash their clay jars, holding the torches high. They repeatedly shout out “a sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” while continuing to blow their trumpets. This results in a sudden burst of noise, light, and battle signals from every side. A normal army would not have given a horn and torch to every soldier, so Gideon’s army seems massive in the darkness. Further, the attack is timed just after the changing of the guard. At that moment, most Midianites are sleeping, while others are walking back into their camp, armed, and in the dark (Judges 7:19–20).
The response in the camp is chaos. Being surprised by crashing, shouting, sudden lights, and military horns would have been unnerving enough. Worse, in the confusion, Midianites begin to mistake one another for enemy attackers. That probably included the guards just coming back from their duty. Anyone coming across such a skirmish would assume the same and fight back. In this way, the entire Midianite encampment is overcome with a sweeping wave of utter mayhem. The Midianites try to run away, fumbling to reorganize in their panic. Eventually, the survivors gather themselves enough to flee east, trying to cross the Jordan River into friendly territory (Judges 7:21–23).
Gideon calls out to several of the tribes of Israel to join him in chasing the Midianites down. He does this using messengers. A single man running or on an animal could move much faster than a group on foot. Gideon’s signal is taken to the men of the tribe of Ephraim, who are closer to the Jordan River. They mostly cut off the Midianites’ escape route, chasing down those who managed to get through. The Ephraimites eliminate their targets and kill two princes of Midian. Their heads are brought to Gideon (Judges 7:24–25).
The following chapter details the completion of Gideon’s victory. This does not come without resistance, and consequences, from other Israelites (Judges 8:1).
Gideon is one of the most powerful judges of Israel: he attacks and overthrows kings; he plunders their royal treasures; and after his great success against the land of Midian, the people of God actually want to make him their king. This desire is logical.
Other peoples have kings to lead them into battle and to rule over them. Why not them? But this is not God’s desire for His people, and Gideon knows that pain, destruction, and bloodshed follow when someone pursues the throne against God’s will.
Gideon tells them he will not rule them — and neither will his sons — so they can get that idea out of their heads. But the thirst for power leads to intrigue, and one of Gideon’s sons plays on the people’s continual desire for order at the hand of a king.
Gideon is not content to allow any of the fleeing Midianite army to escape (Judges 7:19–23). He wants total victory and will chase the fleeing remnant led by the Midianite kings Zebah and Zalmunna.
First, the men of Ephraim confront Gideon. In response to his call, they captured and killed two commanders of Midian. They seem upset they weren’t asked to participate in the earliest attack, in the Valley of Jezreel. Gideon cools their fury with flattery: suggesting they have done more to bring victory over Midian than he has. Gideon also implies that their tribe is far more prestigious than his clan (Judges 6:15), so they have no reason to worry about their reputation (Judges 8:1–3).
Next, Gideon and his 300 men (Judges 7:8) cross the Jordan River to pursue the escaping Midianites. Exhausted, they come to the Israelite town of Succoth. Sadly, the people of the town refuse to provide bread to Gideon’s men. They are afraid Gideon will fail and Midian will retaliate. Gideon promises to return after his victory and punish the men of Succoth. He hints at “thrashing” them with wilderness plants for their disloyalty to Israel. The same refusal to help happens down the road at the town of Penuel. Gideon declares he will return to tear down their defensive tower. Both towns act more favorably to their oppressors than to their own people, and Gideon intends to make examples of them (Judges 8:4–9).
The Hebrew term for “thousand,” ‘eleph, is also used for a clan or division. Scripture indicates that only 15 ‘eleph are left of Midian’s forces, after 120 ‘eleph have already fallen. Some commentators suggest “divisions” is a better translation in these passages. Among the reasons is that an army of 135,000 men would have been among the largest in the entire ancient world—exceeding those of nations like Egypt and Greece. The exact numbers are not as important as the fact that Gideon’s army is outrageously smaller than his enemy, and yet they rout them, once again. Overtaking the remnant, Gideon and his men catch them by surprise. Once again, the Midianites panic and are defeated by a small number of Israelites. Zebah and Zalmunna run for their lives but are quickly captured (Judges 8:10–12).
Instead of celebrating, or returning directly home, Gideon makes good on his threats to the towns that rejected his cause. He takes a particular path to reach Succoth, apparently being discreet so the visit is unexpected. He forces a young man from the town to list all the elders and officials. In what would have been a public humiliation, Gideon has these leaders flailed with switches embedded with briers and thorns, just as he said he would. The English phrase used in translations of this incident is apt: Gideon “taught the men of Succoth a lesson” (Judges 8:13–16).
Consequences are more dire for the town of Penuel. Gideon promised to tear down their tower, so there would have been no reason for him to arrive by stealth—his target cannot run away, as the men of Succoth might have. It seems likely the men of the town resisted. Gideon never threatened to kill anyone from Penuel, yet here “the men” are casualties. If the townspeople fought back against Gideon’s punishment, bloodshed would have been likely (Judges 8:17).
Finally, Gideon confronts the captured kings of Midian. This most likely happens further into Israeli territory. Gideon challenges the two men for a specific crime: murdering some men at Mount Tabor. In a shocking revelation, it seems those men were Gideon’s own brothers. Gideon then orders his young son to kill the kings. However, Jether is not a soldier, and has never killed before. He is afraid to execute the men in front of a crowd. The kings taunt Gideon to do his own dirty work, which he does, taking spoils from their supplies (Judges 8:18–21).
The people of Israel offer Gideon a throne. They ask him to become their ruler, a role to be passed along to his son and grandsons. He rightly refuses, insisting that the Lord rules over Israel. However, Gideon then proceeds to act very much like a king. He asks for the characteristic gold earrings collected from the enemy. Depending on the exact size of an ancient shekel, the tribute adds up to as much as 71 pounds, or 19.6 kilograms, of gold. This would be enough to make a solid bar roughly the size of a liter or quart container. With this and the spoils taken from the kings of Midian, Gideon is now a wealthy man (Judges 8:22–26).
What Gideon does next is difficult to understand. He uses some of the gold given in tribute and makes an “ephod.” In most contexts, an ‘ephowd was a shirt-like garment associated with priestly duties (Exodus 28:6). The same word was also used more generally for religious items or icons. He installs this item in his hometown of Ophrah. The ephod becomes an idol, worshipped by Israel. Its existence causes some harm for Gideon in his family; the “snare” mentioned is likely something beyond the temptation to idolatry. Despite this strange failure, Israel remains at rest and free from their enemies for forty years (Judges 8:27–28).
During his last forty years, Gideon uses his wealth and influence to build an enormous family. With his many wives, he has seventy sons. Also, he takes a concubine who appears to be a Canaanite, from the Canaanite town of Shechem. Against God’s law, Gideon has a son with her (Deuteronomy 7:3–4). The child is named Abimelech, literally meaning “the king is my father.” This son will be involved in terrible bloodshed after Gideon’s death (Judges 8:29–32).
When Gideon dies, the people of Israel immediately dive deeply into worship of Canaanite deities, called Baals. Scripture uses the term zanah to describe this practice. The word is also used for fornication and adultery; it implies something shameful, degrading, and immoral. The English term “whoring” is shocking, but it captures the sense of how God sees the sin of idolatry. Once again, the people of Israel set aside their God (Judges 8:33–34).
The end of this passage also notes how Israel’s love for Gideon did not extend to his descendants. After he dies, the people seem to turn away from his sons and wives. This might have been part of what motivates Abimelech, son of Gideon’s concubine, to his terrible acts in the next chapter (Judges 8:35).
Abimelech was not like Gideon’s other seventy sons, born to his many wives as he ruled over Israel as judge (Judges 8:29–30). Abimelech was born to Gideon’s concubine in the city of Shechem (Judges 8:31). He craved to inherit his father’s position of authority over Israel. Unfortunately, as a concubine’s child, any of his brothers had a more legitimate claim to Gideon’s legacy.
Abimelech devises a way to overcome this obstacle. He convinces his mother’s family in Shechem to plead with the leaders of that city. Their position is that it would be better to answer to him than be obedient to all of Gideon’s other sons. The leaders agree. They give Abimelech money to carry out his plot, agreeing that he will become their ruler when he does so. Abimelech uses the money to hire rough, immoral men. These paid goons help him slaughter his brothers. Only the youngest, Jotham, escapes by hiding (Judges 9:1–6).
The leaders of Shechem and the people of the region gather at the official town pillar to make Abimelech their king. Jotham, survivor of Abimelech’s massacre, learns of the coronation and interrupts it by calling down to those assembled from the top of Mount Gerizim. From this vantage point, he can be heard without being immediately captured (Judges 9:7).
Jotham delivers a fable that turns into a prophetic curse on both Abimelech and the leaders of the city. In this story, the trees look for a king. This offer is rejected by the olive tree, the fig tree, and the grapevine. All of these are valuable, productive plants—they have no need or desire to seek power over others. So, the trees settle for something inferior: the bramble. This refers to a thin, thorny shrub. At the time, these were a nuisance at best and a fire hazard at worst. The bramble agrees to rule, but only if the other trees genuinely want it as king. If they are being insincere, fire will come out and devour the trees (Judges 9:8–15).
This parable points out that Abimelech is worthless and dangerous. He’s only power-hungry because he has nothing else to offer. The story also sets up a prophetic curse. Jotham concludes by saying that Shechem’s leaders did not act in good faith toward Gideon. Nor are they choosing Abimelech for his merits. Since they are acting in bad faith, Abimelech and Shechem’s leaders will devour each other with fire (Judges 9:16–21).
Abimelech becomes king over Shechem, but the Bible doesn’t say he was Israel’s “king.” Rather, the terminology used here simply indicates he had power, or rule, or influence. His command over Shechem only lasts three years. God sends an evil spirit between Abimelech and Shechem’s leaders. This might refer to a literal demon. However, the same phrasing is also used to imply disagreement and anger. Whether by a supernatural instigator, or simple rivalry, God will work to hold both sides accountable for the murder of Gideon’s sons. This begins with Shechem’s leaders hiring men to ambush Abimelech. This might imply an assassination attempt, but it more likely means a disruption of local trade (Judges 9:22–25).
When that fails, Shechem’s noblemen put their confidence in a man named Gaal. This man’s name carries ironic symbolism. Abimelech’s name means “the king is my father,” but Jotham made a point of saying Abimelech was the son of a concubine servant (Judges 9:18). The name Ga’al ben Ebed literally means “loathing the son of the servant.” This is the puppet Shechem’s leaders choose. In what is likely alcohol-induced arrogance, Gaal swears he would remove Abimelech from the throne by force if he were in charge (Judges 9:26–29).
Zebul is Abimelech’s officer in Shechem. He remains loyal and sends messengers to warn Abimelech of the plot. Zebul’s suggestion is to ambush the city by hiding in the fields outside the gate overnight. Shechem’s eastern gate faces the rising sun, and a field surrounded by hills. In the morning, Zebul maneuvers Gaal to be at the gate. When the attack comes, Gaal struggles to recognize the approaching enemy thanks to the long shadows. Using this surprise, Abimelech and his men attack the city and chase Gaal and the plotters away (Judges 9:30–41).
Abimelech is not content with this outcome. The next day, he and his men kill all the people of the city who come out to work in the fields. Next, they attack the city and slaughter everyone in the lower parts of the town. Then, in an act of brutal cruelty, they burn the stronghold of Shechem with the remaining survivors inside (Judges 9:42–49).
For reasons not made clear, Abimelech and his fighters then move on the town of Thebez. Once again, they trap the city’s population in their stronghold. This time, however, the stronghold is a tall tower. When Abimelech foolishly gets too close, a woman drops an upper millstone on him. These were wheel-shaped rocks weighing around 25 pounds, or 11 kilograms. The impact crushes Abimelech’s skull. He commands his armor-bearer to quickly kill him so that it can’t be said he was killed by a woman. This is futile since future generations will recall exactly how and why Abimelech died (2 Samuel 11:21). Abimelech’s followers show no passion for their mission: as soon as he is dead, they immediately stop fighting and go home (Judges 9:50–55).
With the death of Abimelech and the destruction of Shechem and its leaders, God fulfills the curse of Jotham. This brings a measure of justice to the sad ending of Gideon’s story (Judges 9:56–57).
This chapter comes after the death of Gideon and the short rule of his son Abimelech over Shechem and the surrounding region (Judges 9). Perhaps to calm the chaos of Abimelech’s reign of terror, two more judges rise to save Israel. Little is revealed about either of them. The first is Tola of the tribe of Issachar. Tola saves Israel in some way, perhaps resolving the power struggles that would have resulted from Abimelech’s actions. He rules over Israel as judge for twenty-three years from his home in a town called Shamir in the hill country of Ephraim (Judges 10:1–2).
Jair the Gileadite rules as judge next, for twenty-two years. He operates from his home east of the Jordan River in the region of Gilead. Jair has thirty sons, each of whom rides a donkey and rules over a city in an area called by the title Havvoth-jair, which literally means “the settlements of Jair” (Judges 10:3–5).
Following Jair’s rule, Israel returns to the typical pattern of the book of Judges (Judges 2:11–19). They ignore God to worship false idols, forsaking the Lord. This time, their worship includes more than just the Canaanite gods known as Baals and Ashtaroth (Judges 3:7; 8:33). Israel also embraces the deities associated with the nations around Israel, including Syria, Sidon, Moab, the Ammonites, and the Philistines. God is furious. He “sells” them—meaning He allows them to be taken (Deuteronomy 30:15–19; Judges 2:1–3)—into oppression under the Ammonites (Genesis 19:36–38; Judges 3:13) and the Philistines (Genesis 10:13–14; Exodus 13:17). These foes crush Israel, in their respective regions, for eighteen years (Judges 10:6–8).
The Ammonites oppress those living east of the Jordan River in the region of Gilead, but they also push over the river to attack the territories of Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim. Finally, the suffering of Israel grows painful enough that they once more cry out to the Lord. This time, though, their plea for mercy takes the form of a confession. They admit to sin through idolatry and all the depravity that came with it (Deuteronomy 12:29–31). Rather than immediately promising deliverance, God responds by listing many of the nations from whom He has saved Israel over the years (Judges 10:9–12).
In a shocking statement, the Lord then flatly refuses to save Israel again. Instead, in a suggestion brimming with sarcasm, God tells Israel to turn to their idols and false gods for help. To their credit, the people seem to understand the greater point, and they prove their true repentance through action. They again confess to their sinful ways and get rid of the idols. They begin to serve the Lord again, asking for His deliverance but agreeing that He can do with them as He chooses. God’s intent was never for Israel to suffer forever, and He prepares for their next rescue (Judges 10:13–16).
The Ammonites begin to mount another attack against the Israelites from Gilead. The Israelites in Gilead assemble their own fighting force and encamp against the Ammonites. A battle is clearly coming. However, the leaders of Gilead admit they have nobody to lead their army against the Ammonites. They announce an incentive: whomever takes the job will become a “captain” or “chief” over all of Gilead (Judges 10:17–18).
God ultimately sends an unlikely answer: Jephthah (Judges 11:1–3), an outcast warrior with questionable friends.
Judges 11 begins the story Jephthah, one of the most complex of Israel’s Judges (Judges 2:16). Depending on how one interprets his character, he could be considered a powerful warrior or a leader of gangsters. He seems to have trusted in the Lord, but also made senseless vows. He rescued Israel from oppression, but also engaged in civil war against other Israelites.
Jephthah is the oldest son of a prostitute and a man named Gilead. His father bears the same name as the region in which they live. Gilead’s sons by his legitimate wife drive Jephthah away from their home when they are grown. Their goal is to keep him from sharing in their father’s inheritance. Jephthah flees from Gilead to a land called Tob, where he gains his reputation as a warrior. This comes as the leader of what appears to be a group of bandits (Judges 11:1–3).
Meanwhile, the Ammonites have been oppressing Israel for many years (Judges 10:7–8). They now stage another offensive against the region of Gilead (Judges 10:17–18), on the east side of the Jordan River. The Israelites in Gilead want to fight back against the Ammonites. To do so effectively, they need an experienced leader. The elders of Gilead travel to the land of Tob to offer Jephthah the job of commander of the army (Judges 11:4–6).
Jephthah objects, blaming the leaders of Gilead for being complacent while his brothers drove him away. They insist they want him back to help in the fight against the Ammonites. The elders agree to make Jephthah head over all the people of Gilead, including themselves, if he will lead them. Jephthah agrees and returns with the elders to Mizpah, where he takes the oath and becomes the functional leader of the region (Judges 11:7–11).
The Ammonites are massed not far away from Mizpah. Before engaging in battle, Jephthah attempts to negotiate with them. He asks the Ammonite king why he is attacking their land. The king replies that the Israelites wrongly took the land of Gilead from his ancestors during the time of Moses. Jephthah responds with a long message of his own. In it, he clearly shows that the Ammonite king’s claim is false. Gilead never belonged to the Ammonites. The Amorites lost it when they attacked Israel for attempting to pass through peaceably. Gilead was given to Israel by God Himself, and for three hundred years, Ammon has made no claims to it (Judges 11:12–26).
Jephthah’s message concludes by insisting that Israel has never harmed the Ammonites. He firmly asks the king of Ammon not to sin against Israel by making unjust war. The king refuses to listen to these arguments. Most likely, his earlier excuse was just that: a casual lie meant to justify his aggression (Judges 11:27–28).
For the first time in this passage, the Lord’s Spirit comes on Jephthah. He successfully recruits fighters from Gilead and the larger territory of the tribe of Manasseh. He then prepares to attack the Ammonites from Israel’s base at Mizpah. Before the battle, however, Jephthah makes a tragically misguided vow. He promises God to offer “as a burnt offering” whatever or whomever comes to meet him if he returns in victory. The wording of this vow and Jephthah’s intent are among the most debated words in the entire Bible. Jephthah attacks and utterly defeats the Ammonites, completely turning back Israel’s enemy from being any further immediate threat (Judges 11:29–33).
Jephthah arrives home safely to Mizpah following this victory over Ammon. His daughter—his one and only child—comes out of his house to greet him with tambourines and dancing. Jephthah remembers his vow. He tears his clothes in grief, telling his daughter about what he has promised the Lord. Depending on what his intentions were, he was either obligated to offer her as a human sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10) or devote the rest of her life to service to God. For her part, the daughter agrees that the vow must be kept. She says Jephthah must do to her as He vowed since the Lord gave victory (Judges 11:34–36).
What the daughter requests from Jephthah is among the reasons some interpreters believe she became a religious devotee, rather than a sacrifice. Her primary regret is that she will never have children, not that she will die. Rather than act immediately, Jephthah agrees to his daughter’s request: two months of freedom to travel in the mountains with her friends and grieve that she will never marry or have children. Jephthah then carries out the vow—in whatever fashion that implies. For years afterward, the women of Israel would grieve for the daughter of Jephthah, for four days every year (Judges 11:37–39)
The judges are often people of great faith or great strength or great power who lead and direct. But like all of us, they are imperfect and sometimes make grave mistakes.
Jephthah’s name is now remembered mostly because of the foolish vow he makes to sacrifice the first thing he sees when he returns from his great victory.
Although this vow comes out of his unfaithfulness — Jephthah does not trust God to give him victory — Jephthah shows immense faithfulness in keeping his word despite the tragic consequence of losing his only child.
The dialect difference between the “sh” sound on the east side of the Jordan in Gilead and the “s” sound on the west side of the Jordan in Ephraim is noticeable to both tribes.
Jephthah is judge over Israel (Judges 11:11). His life is marked by misery and violent success in battle. With the Lord’s help, Jephthah and the people of Gilead and Manasseh have thoroughly defeated the Ammonites who were oppressing them from the east (Judges 11:32–33). However, Jephthah foolishly bound himself to a vow to the Lord that required him to offer his daughter, his only child, as an offering (Judges 11:30–31; 34–35).
Now Jephthah and Gilead are confronted by a surprising enemy with unclear motives. The men of Ephraim, who live to the west of the Jordan River, cross over, armed for battle. They demand to know why they were not asked to be included in the fight against the Ammonites. Before even hearing a response, they threaten to burn Jephthah’s house down with him in it (Judges 12:1).
Jephthah’s response is simple: The Ammonites had oppressed the people of Gilead for years (Judges 10:7–8, 17–18; 11:4). Clearly, the Ephraimites weren’t eager to fight until now. Jephthah claims he had called on Ephraim, but this might be a reference to their earlier indifference. Left with no other options, Jephthah says he risked his own life, attacked the Ammonites with his own people, and the Lord gave victory (Judges 12:2–3).
Were the men of Ephraim truly angry they had not been given the chance to participate in the war? Were they expressing wounded pride and honor? Or were they using this as an excuse for aggression and expansion? Not only did they cross the Jordan armed for battle, and threaten to kill Gilead’s leader, but they also taunt the people of Gilead. Calling them “fugitives of Ephraim” implies the people have no right to this territory. In any case, Jephthah takes the threat seriously. He gathers his fighting forces and successfully attacks the invading Ephraimites army (Judges 12:4).
The survivors of Ephraim’s army scatter and attempt to run for home. Unfortunately, for them, the men of Gilead have captured the crossing points of the Jordan River (Judges 3:28). They capture soldiers of Ephraim, one by one, as they attempt to cross over. Those they can identify are immediately killed. Those who claim not to be from Ephraim are subjected to a language test. Gilead’s men force the fleeing soldiers to pronounce the Hebrew word “shibboleth.” Those from Ephraim are betrayed by their regional accent, and the Gilead soldiers slaughter them (Judges 12:5–6).
After Jephthah’s death, three more judges are established in Israel. Along with Shamgar (Judges 3:31), Tola (Judges 10:1), and Jair (Judges 10:3), these are sometimes called “minor” or “secondary” judges since so little is known about them. Ibzan judges for seven years, from Bethlehem, and has thirty sons and thirty daughters. He expands his influence and power by marrying all his children to spouses outside his own clan. The most obscure judge of the Bible is Elon the Zebulunite, who judges Israel for ten years before dying and being buried in Zebulun. Abdon, the son of Hillel is from the town of Pirathon in the Ephraim hills, also described as the hill country of the Amalekites for unknown reasons. Abdon’s wealth and far-reaching influence are signaled by the fact that he has forty sons and thirty grandsons, each with his own donkey. Abdon serves as judge for eight years (Judges 12:7–15).
Next, Israel will begin another cycle of sin, oppression, calls for mercy, and rescue (Judges 2:16–19).
The upcoming chapters contain the story of perhaps the most famous of all the judges: Samson.
This chapter begins like many others in the book of Judges (Judges 2:16–19) but continues in an unusual way. Another generation of Israelites fall into depravity and sin: serving the gods of the Canaanites and the nations around them. The Lord responds once more by turning His people over to a foreign power, this time the Philistines (Judges 13:1).
God does not wait, this time, for His people to cry out for help in their suffering. Instead, the Lord appoints a deliverer before the man is even born. Also unusual is that this new judge will only “begin to save Israel.”
Manoah and his wife live in Zorah, in the territory of the tribe of Dan. This is in south-central Israel near the heart of Philistine power. One day, “the angel of the LORD,” Yahweh Himself in some temporary human form, appears to Manoah’s wife. He announces that although she has been barren, she will give birth to a son. Barrenness and miraculous intervention are common aspects of God’s work in Israel throughout the Old Testament (Genesis 11:30; 25:21; 29:31). He tells her not to drink alcohol or eat anything the law describes as unclean. Her son is meant to live under a Nazarite vow (Numbers 6:1–21) from the womb. The boy is destined to begin to save Israel from the Philistines (Judges 13:2–5).
The woman seeks out her husband and tells him this news. Manoah quickly prays, asking God to send back the strange “man of God,” who they believe only has the appearance of an angel. His request expresses faith that the prophecy is true. He doesn’t seem to question “if” this will happen but asks for more information about how to raise their son. The Lord grants this request and reappears. “The angel of the LORD” repeats how important it is that Manoah’s wife follows the restrictions for someone under a Nazarite vow (Judges 13:6–14).
Manoah still doesn’t grasp the nature of this Person to whom he speaks. He believes the stranger to be a man of God, but he does not understand this is “the angel of the LORD.” He asks the stranger to stay so he can bring a meal. The stranger refuses to eat yet encourages Manoah to offer the Lord a burnt sacrifice. Manoah asks the stranger’s name but is told it is too wonderful for them to understand. This somewhat echoes God’s self-identification to Moses (Exodus 3:14), as well as other Scriptures describing the Lord as beyond human comprehension (Isaiah 55:8–9). Manoah offers the young goat and a grain offering to the Lord on a large rock (Judges 13:15–18).
As Manoah and his wife are observing their guest, “the angel of the LORD” disappears into the flames of the offering and vanishes up towards heaven. The couple instantly recognize this supernatural disappearance as proof they have been talking to “the angel of the LORD,” meaning Yahweh Himself. They fall on their faces in humble worship. Manoah briefly fears they will die because they have seen God (Exodus 33:20). The wife assures her husband that if God meant to kill them, He would not have accepted their offering. Nor would He have shown them these things or told them about the child (Judges 13:19–23).
They do not die, and the woman gives birth to a son. She names him Samson, and the boy is blessed by God. When he is a young man, the Lord’s Spirit begins to stir in Samson. This begins while he is in a specific place between his hometown and a town called Eshtaol (Judges 13:24–25).
This holy, sanctified beginning to Samson’s life is as “clean” as his story will be. The rest of his life is a series of scandals, questionable choices, and bloodshed. Despite not being an especially “heroic” character, Samson is still used by God for His greater purposes.
The longer the Israelites are in Canaan, the more they find themselves drawn into the beliefs and practices of those around them. Samson, although he is a deliverer of his people and set aside by God, demonstrates the worst traits of his people.
He actually takes a wife from among the other people who are trying to conquer Canaan, the Philistines. But in all of this, we are told, God is working out a purpose; Samson has the Spirit of God.
Not only does God use imperfect human beings for His own designs, but God can use human weakness to achieve His goals. Samson’s weakness, although it leads to his personal destruction, becomes God’s strength and leads to great victories for Israel.
Samson was set apart, even before birth, as a Nazirite (Judges 13:5, 24–25). His unique mission as a judge (Judges 2:16–19) is not to achieve Israel’s redemption, but to “begin to save Israel from the hand from the Philistines.” The nature of Samson’s early life might look like one deeply connected to God. Immediately, however, that image falls apart. The Samson we meet in his adulthood does not seem interested in this mission. Nor does he seem committed to maintaining a godly character.
Samson travels the short distance from his parents’ home in Zorah to the Philistine city of Timnah. There he sees and likes a young Philistine woman. He returns home and demands that his parents get her for his wife. They object and ask him if there isn’t any Israelite woman he could marry. Philistines were not among the explicitly-forbidden nations, from which Israel was never to take wives (Deuteronomy 7:1–4). Yet they are just as idolatrous, opposed to God, and currently oppressing the nation. Samson’s parents seem to object more out of distaste than piety. Samson blatantly rejects any reasons other than personal preference: this is what he wants, so this is what he intends to get (Judges 14:1–3).
What follows is a statement which is key to understanding the entire story of Samson. Despite being irresponsible, impulsive, violent, and blatantly sinful, God empowers Samson in his conflicts with the Philistines (Judges 14:19; 15:14–15; 16:3). Here, God allows this designated man to insist on marriage into a pagan culture. That paradox is resolved by noting that God plans to use Samson as an instigator. The Lord’s intent is for Samson to disrupt the Philistine’s sense of control over Israel. Samson’s poor choices will result in his own misery, but God will also arrange events so that they help Israel, in the end (Judges 14:4).
On his way to Timnah to make wedding arrangements, Samson is attacked by a young lion. The Lord’s Spirit supernaturally empowers him. He tears the lion apart with his bare hands. He tells no one—perhaps because this is the first time such a thing has happened. He proceeds to Timnah to meet the young woman and talk with her. This affirms his infatuation; he resolves that marrying her is the right thing to do (Judges 14:5–7).
Once the wedding arrangements are made, Samson once again returns to Timnah for the wedding feast. Scripture does not say how much time passed between visits, but it might have been many weeks. On the way, he stops to see the lion’s carcass. He discovers something extremely unusual: a beehive inside the remains. Whether this means a hive in the lion’s skull, or the dried remnants of skin and bone, no details are given. Samson scoops out honey and eats some—a ritually unclean act. He even shares the honey with his parents without telling them what happened (Judges 14:8–9).
Samson hosts a traditional week-long wedding feast. This may have involved copious amounts of alcohol. Thirty Philistine companions are assigned to him for the week. He challenges them to a bet. If they can solve his “riddle” within the seven-day celebration, he will give each of them a set of clothes. If they cannot solve it, each of them will give him a set of clothes. True riddles can be solved by clever thinking; the guests might have thought Samson was adding entertainment to a gift. They agree, not realizing that what Samson has in mind is a blatantly unfair trick (Judges 14:10–13).
Samson’s challenge is not a true “riddle,” but a poetic reference to a secret only he knows: the lion carcass with a beehive in it. After three days, the Philistine men seem to suspect this is not a fair challenge. Frustrated, they threaten to kill Samson’s bride and her family if she does not get the answer. Likely terrified, she manipulates Samson to tell her the secret. When he finally gives in, she tells her fellow townspeople, and they declare the answer to the puzzle on the last day of the feast. Samson immediately realizes that he’s been betrayed, reacting with a crude insult of his bride (Judges 14:14–18).
In a rage, Samson heads to the fortified Philistine city of Ashkelon, about a full day’s travel away. Once again empowered by the Spirit to spark rebellion against the Philistines (Judges 14:4), he attacks thirty men there. He takes their clothes and returns to Timnah to pay off his wager. He then leaves, without the bride, and likely without even consummating the marriage. Thinking that Samson will not return, his bride’s father gives her to one of the groomsmen (Judges 14:19–20).
Samson will return after some time, while assuming he still has marital rights with the Philistine woman. When he realizes she’s been given to someone else, his rage will again boil over (Judges 15:1–3).
Samson believes he is still married to his Philistine bride. Scripture doesn’t clearly state if the marriage had been consummated before the end of the seven-day wedding feast. However, Samson left that celebration in a rage after his bride betrayed the secret of his unfair riddle (Judges 14:14–19). His former father-in-law believed Samson was not coming back. To protect her interests, the woman was married to one of the thirty companions who threatened to kill her if she did not give them Samson’s secret (Judges 14:20).
What happens in this chapter helps illustrate the danger of seeking revenge. Ultimately, no one ever “gets even” or “settles the score,” as implied by those English expressions. Instead, vengeance leads to a vicious cycle of escalation. What starts with Samson’s foiled attempt to cheat others climaxes in a scene of incredible carnage.
When Samson arrives at his father-in-law’s home in Timnah, he is not allowed access to the woman he thought was his bride. His father-in-law explains why, but offers Samson his younger daughter, claiming she is even more beautiful. Samson believes he is the victim in this situation. His remark suggests that he knows his actions at the wedding (Judges 14:12) and afterwards (Judges 14:19) were wrong. What he is about to do, however, he thinks is justified (Judges 15:1–3).
The Hebrew word su’āl is subject to interpretation like any other animal name. It’s commonly rendered as “fox,” but many scholars believe it refers to a “jackal.” Jackals common to Samson’s area were pack animals about the size of a small dog or coyote. As scavengers who live in burrows near human settlements, they would make an ideal weapon for Samson’s plot. He captures hundreds of these and sets them loose in Philistine grain fields, tied in pairs on either side of a burning torch. He also ensures that harvested wheat and olive groves are ignited. This would devastate the resources of an entire region (Judges 15:4–5).
The Philistines retaliate by killing Samson’s former bride and her father (Judges 14:15). Why, exactly, they did so is unclear. They might have thought this would appease Samson. Or they were simply looking for a brutal response. Samson sees this as an attack on himself, so he seeks even more vengeance. That revenge isn’t described in detail. The Hebrew words imply it was vicious and overwhelming. Most likely, it involved more death and destruction. He then runs to hide at notable landmark called “the cleft of the rock at Etam” (Judges 15:6–8).
With Samson established as a major threat, the Philistines gather an army and prepare to attack the people of Judah near where Samson is hiding. When asked why, the Philistines say they have come to capture Samson and avenge his attacks. The men of Judah agree to turn Samson over to avoid being attacked by the Philistines. They find Samson, who agrees to be tied up and surrendered so long as the Israelites don’t attack him (Judges 15:9–13).
As Samson is brought to the enemy army, the Philistines start to cheer and shout. Samson is suddenly overcome with the power of God’s Spirit. He rips the ropes from his arms as if they were burned threads. He tears the jawbone from the carcass of a donkey, giving him a crude club about the size and shape of a hatchet. With this, Samson utterly annihilates the enemy forces. Depending on how the Hebrew terms are translated, he either kills a tally of a thousand men, or at least an entire company of several hundred (Judges 15:14–15).
When the bedlam is over, Samson tosses the jawbone aside and shouts out a fierce, prideful, poetic celebration of his victory. This includes a play on words in Hebrew, as the terms for “donkey” and “heap” are identical. The spot of this slaughter becomes known as “Jawbone Hill,” with the Hebrew name Ramath-lehi (Judges 15:16–17).
Samson was empowered by God’s Spirit but is neither invincible nor immortal. The intensity of the battle would have left him exhausted, battered, and dehydrated. In fact, Samson is now so thirsty he thinks he might die. For the first time, he is recorded praying—but what he says is more an accusation and a demand than a humble request. The Lord graciously provides water, however, and Samson is revived (Judges 15:18–19).
There’s more to Samson’s story. Most of his life is not described in any detail. His purpose was to begin breaking Israel free from the Philistines (Judges 13:5). He will not accomplish that freedom, but those who come after him will (1 Samuel 7:11–14) The Bible notes that he served in his unique role for twenty years (Judges 15:20).
Samson’s bride and Delilah are both presented as unfaithful and deceitful, and Delilah’s name has become synonymous with any wily and seductive woman who wants to ruin a man.
Although these betrayals are part of God’s purpose, some readers have used these particular stories to put down all women. It’s good to remind ourselves that earlier in the Book of Judges God uses Deborah and Jael, brave and strong women, to achieve His purpose.
The characters in the story of God’s people — men and women alike — are sometimes good and sometimes evil. Even a Levite, someone set aside to the priesthood of God, can behave with selfishness and cowardice.
The previous chapter ended with a summary statement: Samson judged Israel for twenty years (Judges15:20). Only a few notable incidents in Samson’s life are recorded, and none are tied to specific dates. We’re not told exactly when his tenure began. Nor do we know how much time passes between his victory over the Philistine army (Judges 15:14–15) and his arrival in Gaza.
It’s clear Samson is still living for himself and not according to the commands of the Lord. No reason is given for him to be in Gaza. This is the southernmost of the Philistines’ five major cities (Joshua 13:3). Perhaps he was on a mission. Perhaps he planned to move through quietly, assuming he would not be recognized. While there, he goes to a prostitute. Someone in Gaza recognizes him, so the local men prepare an ambush. They expect him to leave in the morning and think they can corner him at the locked city gates (Judges 16:1–2).
Instead, Samson leaves the prostitute at midnight, rips the entire gate structure out of the ground, and walks away with it. He carries the gate some distance away, dropping it on top of a hill. This not only leaves the city exposed and vulnerable, but it is also a deeply humiliating act. A city’s gates were centers of commerce and the main point of defense. To “capture the gates” of an enemy was to be in total control (Genesis 22:17; 24:60). While Israel is subjugated, Samson is openly insulting the Philistine nations who rule the region (Judges 16:3).
What happens next is introduced with deep foreshadowing. The Valley of Sorek is named after a variety of grapes. Samson’s Nazirite vow (Judges 13:5) was supposed to keep him from all grape products (Numbers 6:1–4). The woman he falls for is referred to as Delilah. This might imply “weakness,” in contrast to Samson’s great strength. Her name can mean “night,” the opposite of Samson’s name which plays on the word shemesh, meaning “sun.” That same connection to night may foreshadow the result of their relationship, which is literal blindness (Judges 16:21). Unlike the previous woman Samson “saw,” this is a woman whom he “loves.” The lords of the five Philistine cities hear about this and spot an opportunity. They offer Delilah the modern equivalent of millions of dollars. Her mission is to seduce Samson into telling the secret of his supernatural strength. She agrees (Judges 16:4–5).
Delilah is not subtle. And yet, she is extremely clever. Rather than trying to disguise her quest, she hides it in plain sight. She simply asks Samson how someone could subdue him. In the context of two lovers, such a blunt series of questions would seem more sincere than suspicious. And yet, one would expect Samson to suspect something. Yet he can’t resist playing her game. At first, he lies, telling her he can be subdued with fresh bowstrings: the un-dried tendons or sinews of animals. Delilah tries just that, with men waiting in ambush, only to find Samson is as strong as ever (Judges 16:6–9).
This begins several repetitions of the same basic pattern. Delilah acts hurt and betrayed, claiming that Samson is teasing her with his lie. That, itself, may have begun as flirtatious banter. Each time she asks, and he lies, she tries his method and he can impress her with his strength. Over time, this probably lulled Samson into a false sense of security. In his mind, her attempts and cries of warning were a game, not an attempt to hurt him. Delilah tries using new ropes (Judges 15:4–5), but these don’t work, either (Judges 16:10–12).
That Samson is growing less suspicious and more trusting is shown in his next lie, involving his hair. That ends with the usual results, but it’s a dangerous move. The actual secret of Samson’s strength is his uncut hair, the only explicit requirement given to him before his birth (Judges 13:4–5). Delilah’s flirting and teasing turns to manipulation. She questions his love and makes him sick at heart until he finally gives in. Trying to prove his love, Samson tells her the truth: if his hair is cut, he’ll be as weak as anyone else (Judges 16:13–17).
Samson assumes Delilah loves him. He probably thought that when she tried tying him up before, she was simply teasing and playing a game. Those attempts were relatively tame: tying him or weaving his hair. Samson assumes someone who loves him won’t go as far as to shave his head. Perhaps he’s right—but Delilah isn’t acting in love. Now that she knows he’s opened his deepest heart, she calls for her patrons to send men and payment. She lulls Samson to sleep—possibly making him drunk or using drugs so he won’t know that his head is being shaved (Judges 16:18–19).
As before, Delilah calls out a warning. As before, Samson wakes up and attempts to free himself. This time, however, it’s not a game or a joke. Too late, Samson realizes his hair is gone, that Delilah was lying, and that he’s being captured for real. The hiding men spring out and maim Samson, taking his eyes. He’s bound with heavy metal shackles and enslaved in a Philistine prison (Judges 16:20–21).
Samson’s hair is not a magical substance that grants him strength. Rather, it’s an outward sign of his commitment to obey God. While Samson’s life was filled with blatant disobedience, this is a line he had not yet crossed. By telling his secret—to a woman he never should have trusted, let alone slept with—Samson might as well have shaved his own head. He’s violated his purpose, and God takes away his strength. And yet, perhaps because of this experience, Samson’s faith begins to heal and mature, symbolized by his slowly regrowing hair (Judges 16:22).
The Philistines hold a huge celebration to honor their god Dagon. They see this as a victory of their deity over the God of Israel. Thousands of noblemen crowd into the temple. In what’s likely a drunken, foolish choice, Samson is brought out of the jail to be put on display. Showing a new sense of humility, Samson prays for one more burst of strength. He then strains against the pillars holding up the entire building. God grants his request, and the temple collapses, killing Samson along with innumerable Philistine leaders (Judges 16:23–30).
God’s purpose for Samson was to disrupt the Philistine’s comfortable, secure control over Israel (Judges 13:5; 14:4). The chaos Samson spread during his life certainly spread fear (Judges 14:19, 15:14–15; 16:3). In death, however, he does more to shatter Philistine oppression than he did in his entire life. That his family can so readily come and bury him suggests that the local power structure has been completely scrambled. Later men such as Samuel will complete the liberation (1 Samuel 7:11–14). For now, this catastrophe ends the twenty-year tenure of one of the Old Testament’s most complicated figures (Judges 16:31).
Samson is the last pure “judge” of Israel in this era (Judges 2:16–19). Samuel will bridge the transition from judges to prophets (1 Samuel 7:3–6) as Israel moves towards a monarchy (1 Samuel 8:4). In the meantime, Israel will continue to live in spiritual chaos and sin, disregarding the will of God (Judges 17:6, 21:25). The events which close out the book of Judges highlight the tragic, disturbing results of that rejection.
Beginning with this chapter, the book of Judges shifts its focus. Chapters 3 through 16 described how God routinely saved Israel from oppressive enemies through His deliverers: the judges (Judges 2:16–19). The rest of the book discusses the everyday lives of Israelites during this time before Israel had kings. The final chapters of show how far the people of Israel had fallen from faithful service to the Lord.
The first story is about a man named Micah and his family. They live in the hill country of Ephraim. Micah is introduced by his confession to his own mother. He admits that he has stolen a considerable sum of money from her. His motive for confessing is selfish: he overheard her speaking a curse on the thief. He seems to want her to ask for a blessing from the Lord for him instead of harm. She presumes to declare a blessing on her son on behalf of the Lord. She also dedicates part of the stolen silver to creating at least one idol. The purpose of the image is apparently to provide Micah with a protective sacred object of blessing in his house shrine. This home-arranged temple was apparently filled with other religious objects and relics (Judges 17:1–5).
This passage indicates that even if Micah and his mother have some respect for the One True God, Yahweh, they also disobey most of the basic commands given by the Lord. This single incident involved covetousness (Exodus 20:17) leading to dishonor for a parent (Exodus 20:12), theft (Exodus 20:15) and likely lies (Exodus 20:16), followed by the creation of idols (Exodus 20:4–5) and the worship of false gods (Exodus 20:3). More importantly, this is not an isolated incident. In this phase of Israel’s history, they were without a monarch or other centralized government. But the people were also in a state of spiritual anarchy: there was no king and everyone simply did as he chose without regard to God’s will (Judges 17:6).
One day, a man from the tribe of Levi arrives at Micah’s house. The Levites were the priestly tribe of Israel with no territory of their own (Numbers 3:5–10). The law allowed them to live in designated cities throughout Israel (Joshua 21) or, if led by God, to settle elsewhere. The young man has left behind his previous home in Bethlehem of Judah and is traveling around, looking for somewhere new to live (Judges 17:7–8).
When Micah learns the young man is a Levite, he offers him a job. The position is to become Micah’s personal family priest. Micah uses the term “father” in the context of a revered spiritual leader (Genesis 45:8). For the price of clothes, room and board, and a salary, the Levite agrees to become the leader of the family’s own personal religion. As a member of the tribe of Levi, he should have known better. Whether he does, or does not, he makes no effort to correct this gross violation of God’s plan for Israel’s faith (Judges 17:9–11).
Micah “ordains” the Levite as his priest. Despite all his violations of God’s commands, and his nonsensical approach to faith, Micah is convinced God will give him prosperity, simply because he has a genuine Levite priest (Judges 17:12–13).
As it happens, this Levite will not prove to be a wise investment, nor will his presence bring an overall benefit to Micah or his family (Judges 18:19–20).
This chapter completes the story of Micah and his hired family priest (Judges 17:13).
The people of the tribe of Dan don’t have enough space in their allotted territory (Joshua 19:40–46). This is because of their failure to follow God’s command to take it from the depraved nations living there (Judges 1:34–36). They’ve been forced to live in the hill country between the territories of the tribes of Judah and Ephraim. So, the Danites decide to find a new place to live. They send five scouts to search for land they can conquer and claim (Judges 18:1–2).
Those five “spies” set out north, stopping for the night at Micah’s estate. While there, they recognize the voice of Micah’s priest. This probably means they hear his accent and identify him as someone from Judea. They ask if their mission will be successful, implying they want to know what God thinks. The priest quickly tells them that the Lord will have His eye on their journey. This doesn’t mean anything, really, but the five spies take it as a positive sign (Judges 18:3–6).
Next, the Danite scouts travel to the far north of the Promised Land. They find a town called Laish, 100 miles, or 160 kilometers, from their current home and beyond the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. They return home with their report: the Sidonian inhabitants of Laish are easy targets. They realize the town is too far from neighbors to call for help, the people are peaceable, and have no idea they are in danger. The Danite spies insist this land is their destiny, eventually convincing their kinsmen to agree. This is a tragic mirror image of Israel’s failure at the borders of the Promised Land (Numbers 13—14). There, most of the Israelite scouts claimed they could not defeat the Canaanites, though God guaranteed them victory. Here, the Danite scouts plead to attack a territory which God has not given to them. So, six hundred warriors take their families and possessions and begin to migrate (Judges 18:7–11).
As the caravan moves, the five scouts lead it to Micah’s estate. When they arrive, they quickly find and greet the priest, only to steal Micah’s religious objects from his personal shrine. This includes the household gods, the carved and metal images, and the ceremonial ephod. The young Levite priest protests, at first. The men of Dan tell him to shut up, yet also offer to take him with them. They say he’d be better off as priest to an entire tribe of Israel. The Levite is thrilled at this prospect and helps the men take Micah’s cultic worship objects (Judges 18:12–20).
The Danites break camp and continue their journey north. The armed warriors remain at the back of the procession; civilians and livestock are in front. Micah realizes what they have taken, gathers some neighbors, and chases after the Danites. When he catches up to them, he complains that he’s lost everything. The Danites tell Micah they will kill him and his family if he doesn’t leave. This is exactly why they arranged their forces in the rear, to make it clear Micah has no hope of stopping them. Rather than risk total annihilation, Micah gives up and goes home. It’s not likely he sees the mercy God extends him in this moment, or that he repents of his idolatry. As far as Scripture is concerned, this is the end of his story (Judges 18:21–26).
The people of Dan arrive in Laish. As hoped, the people there are helpless and unprepared for war. So, Dan’s warriors slaughter the Sidonians living there and burn the city. Then they rebuild and occupy the town. They change the name of the place to Dan, after their ancestor, the son of Jacob, and the same name given to their tribe (Genesis 30:5–6). Finally, they establish a center of false worship with a focus on Micah’s carved image. Tragically, the spiritually bankrupt young Levite man is revealed to be the grandson of Moses (Exodus 2:22). He and his sons serve as the first false priests in a pattern lasting until Dan’s invasion by the Assyrians centuries later (Judges 18:27–31).
The writer of Judges gives another example of the depth of Israel’s wickedness in the days before the nation had kings (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 21:25). The central figure in this story is a Levite, but not the same person mentioned in the previous chapters (Judges 17:7; 18:15).
This man lived in a remote area controlled by tribe of Ephraim. He arranged to take a woman from Bethlehem, in the territory of the tribe of Judah, as a concubine. In most ancient contexts, a ” concubine ” was some combination of a servant and a lesser wife. Typical concubines were women from families with little wealth or status. They would be supported and cared for, but not given the same rights as a “full” spouse. Kings, on the other hand, often took numerous concubines for purely sexual purposes (Judges 19:1).
The concubine is said to have been unfaithful to her husband. Scripture does not specify exactly what happened. However, it uses the Hebrew word zanah, which most often implies sexual immorality or adultery. Either in addition to adultery, or separate from it, she abandoned the Levite and went home to her father in Bethlehem. The Levite waited four months and then went to persuade her to return to Ephraim with him. He appears to be gracious and forgiving. She responds well, as does her father (Judges 19:2–3).
In keeping with the cultural laws of hospitality, the Levite’s father-in-law entertains the man with food and drink. He urges the Levite to extend his stay for several days. Striving to be polite, the Levite remains longer than he wishes. Finally, he insists on leaving late one afternoon with his concubine, his servant, and their donkeys. As it’s late, the sun is already low in the sky when they approach the city of Jebus (Judges 1:21). At that time, the city later named “Jerusalem” was under Gentile control. The servant suggests they stop there rather than travel at night (Judges 19:4–11).
However, the Levite refuses to stay in a city occupied by non-Israelites. Instead, the group pushes on a few more hours to Gibeah, controlled by Israelites of the tribe of Benjamin. Rather than finding hospitality and safety, they find a cold and unwelcome environment. Nobody offers to take them in for the night. So, the small group prepares to sleep outside, in the city square (Judges 19:12–15).
What happens next is a tragic, deliberate echo of Lot’s experience in the city of Sodom (Genesis 19:2–7). An elderly worker, who is not a native of Gibeah, sees the small group in the square. Though they have ample supplies, he is adamant they cannot stay in the open. He demands they come to his home, offering to meet all their needs. As did Lot, this man likely knows that unsecured visitors to the city are in grave danger (Judges 19:16–21).
While the group is eating and drinking together, a mob surrounds the old man’s house. The men are described using a Hebrew term which literally means “sons of wickedness.” They violently demand the Levite be sent out to be raped. The old man pleads with them not to do something so heinous. In desperation, he offers them his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine, inviting the mob to violate them (Judges 19:22–24).
The throng of depraved men completely ignores this request. They continue to demand access to the Levite. Finally, in an act of shocking cruelty, the Levite physically forces his concubine outside and into the hands of the mob. They rape and beat her, releasing her only shortly before the sun rises. She makes it to the door of the old man’s house and collapses on the threshold, unable to enter. Whether locked out or simply ignored, she dies on the doorstep (Judges 19:25–26).
The Levite, portrayed here as oddly cold towards his concubine, opens the door in the morning and demands she get moving. She does not answer, having died from her injuries. The Levite picks up her corpse and puts it on a donkey. Then he returns, with the body, to his home in Ephraim. There, he further dishonors the concubine by dismembering her body and sending it in twelve separate pieces, presumably to each of the twelve tribes and with a messenger (Judges 19:27–29).
Israel reacts with stunned surprise. They indicate that such heinous things have not been seen since the people left Egypt. This, itself, connects the deep depravity of Israel with cities such as Sodom, which was destroyed in the time of Abraham. If the Levite’s intent was to get the attention of his countrymen—to warn them and call them to respond—he is successful (Judges 19:30).
In the next chapter, the Levite will further explain what happened. Israel will rally to punish those responsible, but the tribe of Benjamin will refuse to hand over the guilty men. This sparks a bloody, chaotic civil war which nearly obliterates an entire tribe of Israel (Judges 20).
Certainly the “outrage” the Israelites are reacting to is the Levite’s brutal dismemberment of the woman.
- Why would someone slaughter a woman and send her parts across the country?
- What is the meaning behind this heinous crime?
Once they hear the Levite’s story of his attack by the Benjaminites, the community of Israel supports the Levite and holds Benjamin accountable for the Gibean men’s wicked actions.
When all the tribes come to the aid of the Levite, we see an Israel that is united — against Benjamin.
This story lays the groundwork for our understanding of relations between the tribes as Israel enters the monarchical period.
Saul, the first king and a Benjaminite, will abandon the laws of his God and will be replaced by David from Judah, who has the support of the rest of Israel.
In this chapter, the people of Israel respond to the outrageous events described in chapter 19. A Levite man’s concubine was brutally abused and murdered by men from Gibeah, a city in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 19:22–28). The Levite dismembered her corpse and sent pieces throughout Israel along with the story of what had happened. Israel’s leaders react in shock and anger, resolving to meet to settle the issue (Judges 19:29–30).
Representatives from eleven tribes—every tribe except for Benjamin—gather at a town called Mizpah. There were several locations with this name, but the one in question is not far from Gibeah (Judges 19:14). There, they hear the Levite reiterate what happened to his concubine. It’s almost certain that this meeting is a formality. Israel’s leaders have likely discussed what happened and resolved how to respond: the meeting depicted here involves major troop movements. The Hebrew word ‘eleph can refer to “thousands” or to “divisions,” and Israel sends four hundred to Mizpah. Benjamin’s tribe notices what is happening but does not attend the meeting (Judges 20:1–7).
The eleven tribes of Israel agree they will not disband their gathering until Gibeah is held accountable. Supply systems are arranged in anticipation of a siege. Before attacking, however, Israel invites the tribe of Benjamin to join their cause. Gibeah is a Benjaminite city, and the purpose of this summit is to punish those who are guilty. They hope the tribe of Benjamin will agree to bring justice. Instead, the Benjaminites assemble their own forces. Despite being about one-fifteenth the size of their attackers, they resolve to protect Gibeah (Judges 20:8–17).
Before their first attempt to take Gibeah, Israelite leaders travel to Bethel. At that time, the ark of the covenant was there (Judges 20:27). The people ask for God’s guidance, but only to know which tribe should take the lead. The Lord answers that Judah should go first. The next day, Israel’s army forms battle lines and attacks Gibeah. The soldiers of Benjamin emerge from the city and counterattack. The natural terrain of Gibeah probably made it difficult to assault. The people are also fighting on their home soil, so they know it well. Benjamin’s well-prepared and motivated soldiers kill about one in twenty of the invading Israelite fighters (Judges 20:18–21).
After that humiliating defeat, representatives of Israel travel to Bethel once again. Mourning their struggle, the Israelites bring to God the question they likely should have asked in the first place: whether they should be attacking their fellow Israelites at all. The Lord tells them to keep attacking. The second attempt, however, fails as badly as did the first. A total of one in every eleven Israeli troops has been killed outright. This is more than the total number of soldiers in Benjamin’s entire army. In response, the entire group, including soldiers, travels to Bethel. They appeal to God’s will through tears and sacrifices. They once again ask the Lord if they should attack. The Lord tells them to continue—and this time, He promises victory (Judges 20:22–28).
The Israelites use a new strategy for their third attempt on the city. They position part of the army in hiding nearby, then reform the same battle lines used previously. They attack Gibeah as before, but as soon as the fighters of Benjamin emerge from the city, Israel’s army falls back. Benjamin’s army falls for the trap, being drawn out of the city in pursuit of the false retreat. Only a remnant is left behind in Gibeah. Once the city is vulnerable, Israelite soldiers in hiding emerge and attack the city (Judges 20:29–34).
The final portion of the chapter begins with a summary: that Benjamin was defeated, losing almost all the tribe’s fighting men. After Israel’s false retreat draws out Gibeah’s defenders, a group ambushes the city, conquers it, and sets everything on fire. The retreating Israelite army from the prior passage sees the smoke, which is their signal to turn and fight the Benjaminite army. The tribe of Benjamin instantly realizes they are defeated; they attempt to run. Israel’s forces surround them, cut off escape, and slaughter nearly the entire army. Rather than stopping there, Israel’s forces sweep through the territory of Benjamin, devastating animals, buildings, and people in a terrible storm of destruction. The tribe is almost completely exterminated, with only a small number of soldiers left in hiding (Judges 20:35–48).
The consequences of these actions are dire: the tribe of Benjamin has been virtually annihilated. Israel now must decide what to do to prevent an entire tribe from disappearing. The following chapter explains the process of establishing peace and restoring Benjamin’s future.
Immediately after Israel slaughters nearly the entire population of the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 20:47–48), the people seem to realize they have gone too far. This results in grief and threatens the extinction of the Benjaminites. The Lord instructed Israel to attack Benjamin at Gibeah (Judges 20:28), bringing judgment on that city for its heinous sins (Judges 20:11–13). Yet there is no hint that God commanded Israel to completely wipe out the entire tribe. Israel, acting on its own, seems to have gone beyond God’s judgment to, once again, do what was right in their own eyes (Judges 17:6).
Only six hundred men of the tribe of Benjamin remain alive. Women, children, and even cities have been destroyed. The tribe will quickly die out unless wives can be found for the surviving men. This is major problem, however, since the Israelites who gathered for battle took a hasty oath. They vowed to God they would not give their daughters as wives to the Benjaminites. Now that no women remain, however, the oath seems to guarantee than no more Benjaminites will ever be born. Marrying Canaanite women is not an option (Deuteronomy 7:1–5). The people mourn and offer sacrifices to God, but He seems prepared to let them suffer the consequences of their actions (Judges 21:1–4).
First, the leaders investigate to see if any clan did not send a representative to aid in the civil war. Israel had taken an oath to put any such clan to death. They soon identify that nobody from Jabesh-gilead in Manasseh came to the assembly. Israel sends soldiers to kill every man, married woman, and child in the clan. Unmarried young women are spared to give to the Benjaminite men as wives. This echoes the methods sometimes used against the depraved, evil Canaanites (Joshua 6:17), but not God’s own people. The other eleven tribes find the surviving men of Benjamin hiding in caves, fearful for their lives after the slaughter of the battle. Israel proclaims peace and gives to them the four hundred young women from Jabesh-gilead. Of course, two hundred more wives are needed to restore the tribe (Judges 21:5–15).
The leaders of Israel hatch another scheme that will allow them to keep their oath not to provide wives for Benjamin, while still allowing Benjamin to acquire Israelite wives. This plot involves twisting their vow, warping the intent of the promise by creating a loophole in its literal words. In short, Israel decides that women “taken” are not women “given,” so they stage a kidnapping and hasty negotiation. Israelite leaders tell the remaining unmarried men of Benjamin to hide near an upcoming feast. A group of young women are expected to participate in the dances there. The Benjaminites are to each grab one young woman to carry back to their territory as a wife. When the fathers and brothers of these young women object, the Israelites will assure them these young women are needed to save the tribe of Benjamin, convincing them to agree to the marriages (Judges 21:16–22).
In this way, the men of Benjamin begin to produce a new generation. They rebuild their towns and continue as one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The author makes a point of repeating the fact that Israel was without a king during this era (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1). The final echo of this point comes after stories of moral failure, violence, and chaos. Israel is not merely without a central government; the people are not following their Creator God, and the result has been death and misery (Judges 21:23–25).
The next major phase of Israel’s history will begin with the ministry of the judge-and-prophet Samuel. He will complete the work begun by judges like Samson (Judges 13:5; 1 Samuel 7:14–15) and oversee the nation’s transition into a monarchy (1 Samuel 8:19–22).
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