JUDGES

John McMath

INTRODUCTION

The book of Judges continues the historical narrative of the people of Israel in the land after the death of Joshua to the beginning of the united kingdom under the ministry of Samuel.

The book is called shophetim in Hebrew, Kritai in the LXX, and Liber Iudicum in the Latin Vulgate. In all three languages these words mean "judges." The English "Judges" follows this tradition.

Although the judges did sometimes decide civil disputes (e.g., Deborah), their major function was political and military leadership.

The Hebrew root sh-ph-t for "judge" probably derives from a Semitic term with a semantic range including "ruling and controlling," as well as "correcting," "putting in order," or "making just." The book of Judges also emphasizes the empowerment of the Spirit of God. This "filling" of the Spirit has led many commentators to note that the judges reveal God’s work of specially gifting people for God’s work. While there are parallels to the political functions of the judges in Mesopotamia and in Carthage, and even in ancient Ebla, the divinely empowered status of the Israelite judges appears to be unique in history.

Author. Who wrote Judges is unknown. Critics have pointed to the obvious three-part structure of the book (see the outline) as evidence for a complicated tradition history. But such a hypothesis is unnecessary. The central point of the book, that even divinely empowered human leaders cannot lead Israel to spiritual triumph, is well served by the structure of the book. The commentary will assume that the book is the work of a single author.

The author of Judges used sources, as all historians do. The story of the wars of occupation (1:1–2:5) may have been a parallel account to the Joshua story (with some significant differences of emphasis). The appendix (chaps. 17–21) may have come from other hands. Certainly the Song of Deborah (chap. 5) was ancient by the time the final author included it in the book. The stories of the individual judges may have come from separate sources. However, a single author put the material into its canonical form under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The Talmud attributes the authorship of Judges to Samuel. The major argument against this view, however, is that the book seems to be an argument for a king, whereas Samuel seems to have opposed the idea. Those who favor Samuel’s authorship of Judges say that he opposed, not so much the idea of a king, as the Israelites’ motivation for seeking a king. The people saw a king as a solution to their immediate political and military problems, and Samuel saw a godly king as a representative of the King of kings. Samuel may have written the book as a polemic against mere human kingship, since even the divinely empowered leaders failed. Ultimately, the work was designed to be anonymous and should be read that way.

Date. Several clues point to the conclusion that the author of Judges wrote during the early years of the monarchy. First, the hectic days of the judges appear to be viewed from a more stable and secure position. Second, Jdg 1:21 points to a time before David’s capture of Jerusalem when the "Jebusites … lived with the sons of Benjamin … to this day." Third, 1:29 reports Canaanite control of Gezer, a major site about 20 miles west and slightly north of Jerusalem on the international trade route at the entrance to the Aijalon Valley. Not until later (in 970 BC) did Gezer come under Israelite control.

The note of 18:30, that the idolatrous priests of Micah continued to serve "until the captivity of the land" has led some critics to insist on a postexilic date for the writing of Judges. However, it is unlikely that such a dreadful situation would have been allowed during the years of David and Solomon. E. J. Young’s suggestion (in An Introduction to the Old Testament [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949]) that "land" should read "ark" (so that the verse refers to the Philistine capture of the ark of the covenant in about 1075 BC), makes good sense, and requires only a minor change of the consonants (‘arets to ‘aron). However, there is no manuscript support for this, and modern scholars have generally not accepted that idea.

Themes. The key to understanding the work of the judges appears in 2:16: "The Lord raised up judges who delivered them from the hands of those who plundered them." "Delivered" is the common verb meaning "to save." This is ironic, for Moses was sent to deliver the people from Egypt, and ended up presiding over funerals in the wilderness for 38 years. Joshua, whose name means "Deliverer" or "Savior," succeeded only partially in delivering the people. The apparent motivation for the writing of the book of Judges is the recurring failure of the judges to deliver the people. This theme occurs twice in the book: "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes" (17:6; 21:25). That even divinely empowered human leaders could not lead Israel to spiritual triumph points to the need for a great King beyond even Saul and David. The term "great King" is a Near Eastern concept, first applied by the Hittites, of a "king above the kings," or leader of an empire. In the context of Israel in the time of the judges, the term "great King" refers to the messianic leader who alone can fulfill the needs of mankind.

Purpose. The book of Judges continues the history of Israel, bridging the years between the conquest and the rise of the monarchy.

But, in addition, the author was building a case for the need for a great King. In doing so he demonstrated the downward trend of the spiritual condition of Israel over the centuries of the judges, arguing that temporary and local leaders could not provide a solution for the underlying problems the people of Israel faced. Genuinely impressive victories under Deborah and Barak and then Gideon were followed by the nation’s collapse again into sin and idolatry. The later judges Samson and Jephthah gave only limited respite from anarchy. Chapters 17–21 show a period of history in which the people of Israel increasingly slid into apostasy. The location of these chapters in the book may not be chronological, but the intention is clear: to give the reader a bad portrait of Israel without God as their King.

Background. Judges is included in the larger corpus of material often called the "Primary History"—Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Ezra-Nehemiah—all probably written by prophets, and distinguished from the chronicler’s history. This constitutes a well-planned metanarrative behind the entire history of Israel, written by multiple authors who used a wide variety of literary sources from about 1500 to 400 BC.

In this larger historical framework the story of heroes and prophets, deliverers and judges, kings and conquerors is one of frequent tragedy. Moses, the man of God, was unable to enter the promised land. Joshua, the conqueror, was unable to lead the people to nearly complete victory over the land of Canaan. Judges, one after another, staved off defeat for decreasing periods of time. Saul was a failure. David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband Uriah murdered. Solomon acquired numerous wives and horses, and slid into idolatry. Many of the kings of Israel and Judah were a rogues’ gallery with occasional bright moments on the way to the increasingly predictable destruction of the kingdom.

The metanarrative, then, tells a broader story, of which Judges is merely a part. Biblical theologians speak of the "center" or "theme" of biblical theology. From Genesis to Revelation the Bible is designed to reveal God in His glory. For this overarching glory of God, two great parallel themes develop: the kingdom program and the redemption program, intertwined from Gn 3:15 (the "protoevangelium"; see the comments there) to eternity.

The author of Judges despaired of the possibility of a mere earthly kingdom providing the foundation for lasting godliness. God knew that no earthly king could ever solve Israel’s problems. The massive sin problem of mankind demands a King who is also the Redeemer.

For this reason it is best to see the metanarrative of the primary history as a messianic prelude. The messianic "seed" predicted in Gn 3:15 and followed through the kingly line is picked up by the prophets as the great King who would suffer for sin and ultimately rule on the earth and in heaven for all eternity.

The King who was "not in Israel" (Jdg 18:1) in the time of the judges was not merely a temporal head of state. The great King is Messiah the Prince, Jesus Christ. Judges is then part of an overall biblical narrative with a trajectory pointing to Christ and eternity. Jesus, whose name is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew "Joshua," is the great "Deliverer."

The period from the death of Joshua to the establishment of the monarchy was roughly 300 years. Judges recounts the turmoil of the tribes during the years following the failure to occupy the land completely. The surrounding world was also in turmoil. Significantly, the Egyptians were in disarray during the Amarna Age (15th century BC), followed by the resurgence of the Nineteenth Dynasty pharaohs Ramses II and Mernepthah. The Hittites were in mortal confrontation with the Mesopotamian Mitanni, and minor regional powers jockeyed for position. The Philistines, part of a larger Aegean people group sometimes called "Sea-Peoples," were migrating into the region during this period, and posed a threat to Israel.

The years of the judges’ rulership and the years of rest, when added together, comes to a total of between 410 and 490 years. Most interpreters allow for an overlapping of judgeships to account for this chronological problem. Samson and Jephthah, for example, were possibly contemporaries, with Samson in the West and Jephthah in the East.

Most conservative scholars believe the exodus occurred in 1446 BC, and the conquest under Joshua was from 1405 to 1400. In Jdg 11:26 Jephthah indicated that Israel had occupied the region of Heshbon and Aroer for 300 years. Since Jephthah (and Samson) were at the end of the line of judges, this means the period of the judges extended from about 1400 to at least 1100. The period may have extended another 49 or 50 years (for a total of 349 or 350) because Saul began his reign in 1051. Or more likely, the period of the judges may have begun in 1351 and ended 300 years later in 1051.

The book of Judges is a story of warfare, assassinations, treachery, and general mayhem. Ehud’s secretive stabbing of Eglon, Jael’s tent-peg exploit, and Gideon’s execution of the kings all may seem somewhat less than ethical today. In many ways the treatment of these issues is like that of the imprecatory psalms (e.g., 109:6–13) in which the enemies of Israel are viewed as the enemies of God, and their cruel punishment is a means of glorifying God.

Some of the judges, however, are particularly distasteful. Samson and Jephthah raise the question, "How can a good God use evil men?" The answer is that God’s judgment is often carried out in political and military movements. In this way the Babylonian invasion was explained to Habakkuk and the coming of Cyrus, king of the Persian totalitarian empire, was extolled as God’s servant in Is 44–45.

Perhaps these ethical shortcomings are a part of the argument that human deliverers will always fall short of the perfection that people expect and desperately need.

The following outline of Judges assumes that a single author used his literary art to put existing historical materials into a coherent frame. The dual prologue is matched by a parallel pair of epilogues framing 12 stories of deliverers. The prologues explain the historical failure and theological basis of the period. The list of judges is divided into two parts; the early judges were generally helpful, and the later ones were much less sympathetic. The epilogues graphically portray the tenor of an age when every man did what was right in his own eyes.

OUTLINE

I. Two Prologues: Israel’s Partial Obedience after Joshua’s Death Leads to a Cycle of Sin and Grace (1:1–3:6)

A. An Account of Obedience and Failure (1:1–2:5)

1. Stage Setting (1:1)

2. Faithful Judah (1:2–21)

3. Failure of the Northern Tribes (1:22–36)

4. Israel’s Lament (2:1–5)

B. The Theology of Sin and Grace (2:6–3:6)

1. Account of the Death of Joshua and the Aftermath (2:6–10)

2. Account of the Idolatry of Israel (2:11–13)

3. God’s Anger Displayed in the Rise of Oppressors (2:14–15)

4. The Judges Raised Up as a Respite from Oppression (2:16–19)

5. God’s Anger at Covenant Transgression Resulted in Pagan Nations that Could Not Be Driven Out (2:20–23)

6. Nations Left to Test and to Punish (3:1–6)

II. Twelve Deliverers Demonstrate a Cycle of Increasing Failure (3:7–16:31)

The Early Judgeships:

A. Othniel: The Model of the Judges Cycle (3:7–11)

1. Israel’s Sin of Idolatry (3:7)

2. Israel Sold into Mesopotamian Oppression for Eight Years (3:8)

3. Heartfelt Cry for Deliverance (3:9a)

4. A Deliverer Raised Up: Othniel, Son of Kenaz (3:9b–10)

5. Forty Years of Rest (3:11)

B. Ehud: The Left-Handed Judge (3:12–30)

1. Eighteen Years under Eglon of Moab (3:12–14)

2. Ehud’s Clandestine Mission (3:15–24)

3. Slow Response of Eglon’s Servants (3:25)

4. Ehud’s Escape and the Muster of Ephraim (3:26–30a)

5. Eighty Years of Rest (3:30b)

C. Shamgar: An Enigmatic Interlude (3:31)

D. Deborah: A Mother in Israel (4:1–5:31)

1. The Military Campaign against Hazor (4:1–24)

a. Twenty Years under Jabin of Hazor (4:1–3)

b. Deborah the Prophetess Called on Barak the Soldier (4:4–10)

c. Heber the Kenite Introduced (4:11)

d. The Battle of the Kishon (4:12–16)

e. Sisera Meets Jael (4:17–22)

f. The Long Campaign against Jabin (4:23–24)

2. The Song of Deborah (5:1–31)

a. Call to Praise the Lord (5:1–5)

b. Deborah’s Motivation, as a Mother in Israel (5:6–11)

c. The Muster of the Tribes (5:12–18)

d. The Battle at the Kishon (5:19–23)

e. Jael: Most Blessed of Women (5:24–27)

f. Lament of Sisera’s Mother (5:28–31a)

3. Forty Years of Rest (5:31b)

E. Gideon: A Lesser Son of a Lesser Son (6:1–9:57)

1. Introduction to the Gideon Episode (6:1–10)

a. Seven Years of Oppression by Midian (6:1–6)

b. The Covenant Message of a Prophet (6:7–10)

2. Gideon’s Call to Deliver Israel (6:11–40)

a. Gideon Called by the Angel of the Lord (6:11–18)

b. Gideon’s Presentation and Fear (6:19–24)

c. Hacking the Altar and Asherah (6:25–27)

d. Confrontation with Joash (6:28–32)

e. Muster of the Northern Tribes (6:33–35)

f. Sign of the Fleece (6:36–40)

3. The Defeat of Midian (7:1–25)

a. The Camp at Harod (7:1)

b. The Selection of the Fearless (7:2–3)

c. The Selection of the Unobservant (7:4–8)

d. Gideon Overheard a Dream (7:9–14)

e. Preparation for the Battle (7:15–18)

f. The Battle on the Plains of Esdraelon (7:19–23)

g. The Muster of Ephraim (7:24–25)

4. Aftermath of the Battle (8:1–27)

a. Appeasement of Ephraim (8:1–3)

b. No Help from Succoth and Penuel (8:4–9)

c. Capture of Kings; Routing of Midian (8:10–12)

d. Punishment of Succoth and Penuel (8:13–17)

e. Execution of Zebah and Zalmunna (8:18–21)

f. Gideon Offered the Kingdom (8:22–27)

5. The Era of Gideon’s Rest (8:28–35)

a. Forty Years of Rest (8:28)

b. Gideon’s Later Life and Descendants (8:29–32)

c. Israel Forgets the Lord (8:33–35)

6. Abimelech and the Fall of Shechem (9:1–57)

a. Abimelech’s Treachery and Jotham’s Response (9:1–21)

(1) Abimelech Conspired to Become King of Shechem by Treachery (9:1–6)

(2) Jotham’s Fable (9:7–15)

(3) Jotham’s Challenge and Escape (9:16–21)

b. The Fall of Shechem and Abimelech (9:22–55)

(1) Three Turbulent Years of Rule (9:22–25)

(2) Gaal, the Challenger (9:26–29)

(3) Zebul, the Lieutenant, Warned of Treachery (9:30–33)

(4) The Defeat of Gaal (9:34–41)

(5) The Capture of Shechem (9:42–45)

(6) Burning the Tower of Shechem (9:46–49)

(7) Death of Abimelech at Thebez (9:50–55)

c. Fulfillment of the Curse of Jotham (9:56–57)

The Later Judgeships:

F. Tola and Jair: Two Minor Administrators (10:1–5)

1. Tola: Twenty-Three Years of Stability (10:1–2)

2. Jair: Twenty-Two Years of Prosperity (10:3–5)

G. Jephthah: Outcast Deliverer (10:6–12:7)

1. Gilead and the Challenge of Ammon (10:6–18)

a. Sin and Affliction for 18 Years (10:6–9)

b. Supplication until God Could Not Bear It (10:10–16)

c. The Muster of Ammon and Gilead (10:17–18)

2. Jephthah Called to Face Ammon (11:1–11)

a. Jephthah Introduced (11:1–3)

b. Jephthah Agreed to Lead Gilead (11:4–11)

3. The Battle of Ammon (11:12–40)

a. Jephthah’s Diplomacy (11:12–28)

b. Jephthah’s Foolish Vow (11:29–33)

c. Jephthah’s Daughter (11:34–40)

4. Civil War with Ephraim (12:1–6)

5. Six Years of Rest (12:7)

H. Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon: Three Minor Administrators (12:8–15)

1. Ibzan: Seven Years a Family Man (12:8–10)

2. Elon: Ten Years in Zebulun (12:11–12)

3. Abdon: Eight Years with Donkeys (12:13–15)

I. Samson: A Deeply Flawed Deliverer (13:1–16:31)

1. Forty Years of Philistine Oppression (13:1)

2. Conception and Birth of a Remarkable Boy: Samson Introduced (13:2–25)

a. The Angel of the Lord Appeared to Manoah’s Wife (13:2–7)

b. Manoah Spoke with God (13:8–14)

c. Sacrifice before the Angel of the Lord (13:15–20)

d. Common Sense of Manoah’s Wife (13:21–23)

e. Samson’s Birth and Divine Empowerment (13:24–25)

3. Samson’s Marriage at Timnah (14:1–15:20)

a. Samson Chose a Wife from the Philistines (14:1–4)

b. Samson Took His Parents to Meet the Girl (14:5–9)

c. Samson’s Wedding Debacle (14:10–20)

(1) The Feast (14:10–11)

(2) Samson’s Riddle (14:12–14)

(3) Treachery on Treachery (14:15–20)

d. Samson’s Destruction of Philistine Crops (15:1–8)

e. Samson Submitted to the Men of Judah (15:9–13)

f. The Battle of Lehi (15:14–19)

g. Twenty Years of Samson’s Leadership (15:20)

4. Samson’s Lust and Death (16:1–31)

a. Samson and the Harlot of Gaza (16:1–3)

b. Samson and Delilah (16:4–22)

(1) Delilah Introduced (16:4–6)

(2) Three Tests of Strength (16:7–14)

(3) Delilah Extracted the Secret of Samson’s Strength (16:15–17)

(4) Samson Captured by the Philistines (16:18–22)

c. Samson’s Humiliation and Vengeance (16:23–31)

(1) Samson’s Humiliation (16:23–27)

(2) Samson’s Vengeance (16:28–31)

III. Two Epilogues: The Abominable Spiritual Condition of Israel Called for a Great King to Stabilize and Lead the Nation (17:1–21:25)

A. The Idolatry of Dan (17:1–18:31)

1. Idolatry in Ephraim (17:1–13)

a. Micah and His Mother (17:1–6)

b. A Levite for a Priest (17:7–13)

2. Danites on the Move (18:1–31)

a. Danite Patrol Meets the Priest of Micah (18:1–6)

b. Danites Find a New Place to Settle (18:7–10)

c. Journey of the Six Hundred to Ephraim (18:11–13)

d. Subversion of Micah’s Priest (18:14–20)

e. Confrontation with Micah (18:21–26)

f. Establishment of Idolatry in Dan (Laish) (18:27–31)

B. The Perversion of Benjamin (19:1–21:25)

1. Degrading Murder of a Levite’s Concubine (19:1–30)

a. A Levite Fetched His Concubine in Bethlehem (19:1–9)

b. Journey to Gibeah (19:10–15)

c. Kindness of a Stranger in Gibeah (19:16–21)

d. Perversion of the Men of Gibeah Leads to Rape and Murder (19:22–26)

e. Grisly Summoning of the Tribes (19:27–30)

2. Resolution to Punish the Guilty (20:1–17)

a. Muster of the Tribes at Mizpah (20:1–7)

b. Agreement to Punish Benjamin (20:8–11)

c. Deployment of Benjamin and All Israel (20:12–17)

3. Civil War and Benjamin’s Defeat (20:18–48)

a. Inquiring of the Lord (20:18)

b. First Failed Attack (20:19–23)

c. Second Failed Attack (20:24–28)

d. Third Attack and Success by Ambush (20:29–48)

4. Reconstitution of a Lost Tribe (21:1–24)

a. Dilemma for the Tribes of Israel (21:1–7)

b. Destruction of Jabesh-Gilead (21:8–12)

c. Gift of Wives to Benjamin (21:13–15)

d. More Wives from Shiloh (21:16–24)

5. The Refrain: No King in Israel (21:25)

COMMENTARY ON JUDGES

I. Two Prologues: Israel’s Partial Obedience after Joshua’s Death Leads to a Cycle of Sin and Grace (1:1–3:6)

The prologues illustrate the historical failure of the tribes, even with the best of intentions, to capitalize on the efforts of Joshua. The reasons for this failure are ethical and theological. The people of Israel forgot the Lord and began to live as though He does not exist. The only real solution to the sin principle in the nation is the grace of God.

A. An Account of Obedience and Failure (1:1–2:5)

This first prologue includes details that parallel portions of the book of Joshua, thus building a context for the spiritual failure recounted in the second prologue. That the Canaanite population was allowed to remain in significant enclaves led to the downfall of the nation.

1. Stage Setting (1:1)

1:1. The phrase after the death of Joshua forms the context for the entire book. The people asked the Lord who should be first to go up and fight against the Canaanites who were still living in the land. The miracle-marked leadership of Moses and Joshua was over, and no clear leadership had yet arisen. No God-ordained and empowered leadership of the nation was in sight. Joshua’s death is reported again at the beginning of the second prologue (2:8; cf. Jos 24:29).

2. Faithful Judah (1:2–21)

The listing of tribes in this prologue is not exhaustive, but moves generally from south to north, beginning with Judah.

1:2. God responded to Israel’s inquiry that Judah should go up first against the Canaanites. Judah’s alliance with Simeon is reported in these verses as the beginning of continued efforts to rid the land of the Canaanites. These events are to some extent paralleled by the account in Jos 15–17.

1:3–5. The Canaanites generally represent all the native people of the land. The word Perizzites is related to "village life" (Hb. perazon in 5:7). Thus the Perizzites were the village dwellers, that is, peasants living in unwalled settlements in the hill country, and the Canaanites were occupants of the cities.

Ten thousand men were defeated. A continuing problem in OT studies is the large numbers often reported. Most scholars agree that the population and army deployment sizes, as well as the numbers killed in various encounters, are improbably large. Expositors have suggested a variety of explanations, but none solves all the problems. The best solution involves attempts to understand the Hebrew eleph, traditionally translated "thousand." If an eleph is understood as a "company," "clan," or "army unit," some problems are eased, but others are made worse. It is better not to be dogmatic about the numbers.

1:6–7. The defeat of Adoni-bezek ("Lord of Bezek") is difficult to locate geographically. Bezek is also mentioned in 1Sm 11:8 as the place where Saul assembled an army. The ruin of Khirbet Bezqu northeast of Gezer, which is about 20 miles northwest of Jerusalem, may preserve the name.

The severing of thumbs and big toes was a means of humiliating the severely defeated kings. Adoni-bezek admitted that he had done the same to his own foes, so he deserved no mercy. The humiliation and mutilation of royal prisoners was not unusual in ancient Near Eastern warfare. While no example of the severing of thumbs and toes is evident in ancient monuments, many reliefs show prisoners bound, kneeling, and mutilated. Also heaps of hands are common in the Egyptian monuments.

1:8. Jerusalem does not refer to the Jebusite fortress in the tribal allotment of Benjamin, which the Benjamites could not take (v. 21). Instead this is the unfortified western hill, known today as Mount Zion, outside the wall that now contains the Jewish and Armenian quarters of the modern old city Jerusalem. Few remains in this area can be dated to the Late Bronze Age except for a few potsherds.

1:9–15. Judah defeated the Canaanites in the Negev in Hebron and Kiriath-sepher. The Negev is the southern arid region of Israel. Hebron is about 20 miles south of Jerusalem, and Kiriath-sepher, also called "Debir," is about 10 miles southwest of Hebron.

1:16–17. Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, was a Kenite and a priest of Midian (Ex 18:1). His priesthood was related to the general revelation priesthood of Melchizedek (see the comments on Gn 14). The Kenites were apparently a nomadic Semitic people living in the Sinai area. Their transplantation to the Negev indicates a uniting of spirit with Israel. Apparently a monotheistic tradition among nomadic people existed in the desert from the earliest times. The exact locations of Arad, Hormah, and Zephath are difficult to know. Hormah means "ruin" and could easily be a commemoration of Israel’s destruction of the place. Zephath probably means "lookout" and may originally have been associated with a high spot nearby.

1:18. The men of Judah took three Philistine cities: Gaza … Ashkelon … and Ekron. This makes some sense only if the Hebrews’ conquest and settlement of the land was taking place during the Late Bronze II Age (1400–1200 BC). If the Judges period came later, during the time of Philistine dominance in the region, this note would be ludicrous. The coastal plain, from Gaza to Dor, was occupied strongly by the Philistines from at least 1158, according to archaeological data from Lachish, near Gath. Only an early reference to the cities of the coastal plain in Israel’s hands makes sense. Since all three of these cities were along the coastal strip and were stations along the international trade route, Judah was probably not able to hold them for any length of time. The Philistines, when they finally arrived on the scene, apparently fought the Egyptians for control of the area before ever running into Israel.

1:19–20. Judah could not drive out the Canaanites in the valley because they had iron reinforced chariots. This may seem to contradict v. 18, but apparently a partial success is in view. Caleb was given Hebron … as Moses had promised (cf. Jos 15:13).

1:21. The Jebusites living in Jerusalem are included among the Amorites in Jos 10, but they may have had a mixed ancestry. Ezk 16:3 suggests Jerusalem’s background was Canaanite, Amorite, and Hittite. The owner of the threshing floor David purchased later for the temple was Araunah the Jebusite. His name is probably the Hurrian word ewrine ("lord") and not a personal name at all.

3. Failure of the Northern Tribes (1:22–36)

1:22–25. The house of Joseph spied out Bethel. These spies were probably an "armed reconnaissance patrol," distinguishing it from the mission of the two undercover agents sent by Joshua to Rahab (Jos 2). The word spied is from the verb "to observe." The deliverance of the young man who betrayed the city is a simple parallel to the Rahab story. Kindly is chesed, the common word for God’s loyal, covenant-based love.

1:26. The man and his family who helped the Joseph tribes capture the city were allowed to escape to the north into the land of the Hittites, roughly equivalent to Syria today. The Hittites at that time controlled the region roughly north of the Litanni River, about 30 miles northwest of the Sea of Galilee.

1:27–36. This passage parallels Jos 13, adding detail but making no changes in the situation. Many of the tribes had difficulty driving the Canaanites out of their areas.

Manasseh included several key cities of the Jezreel Valley. Beth-shean controlled a strategic crossing of the Jordan River and remained in Canaanite and Egyptian hands. Later the Philistines took over the place and hung King Saul’s body from the wall (1Sm 31:2, 8–10).

4. Israel’s Lament (2:1–5)

2:1–5. Israel’s lack of an appropriate countermeasure for Canaanite iron chariots was not their biggest problem. Their lack of genuine commitment to the Lord resulted in Israel’s failure, and that set the stage for the era of the judges, a period of cyclical failure in the face of internal and external enemies. Since the Israelites did not obey the Lord by tearing down the altars of the Canaanites, they would become thorns in their sides and their gods would become a snare. Israel did not drive out the Canaanites, so their pagan culture continued to exist—and in some places to thrive—well into the Iron Age (beginning around 1200 BC). Likely, the Philistines of Iron Age I, rather than Israel, expelled the Canaanites.

B. The Theology of Sin and Grace (2:6–3:6)

This second prologue introduces the theological context of the period of the judges. Here is the account of another full generation that grew up knowing neither the Lord nor His doings. This unfortunate failure of the people over time to educate their own children contributed to many of the moral and spiritual breakdowns of Israel during this era.

The contrast between those who served the Lord (2:7) and those who served the Baals (2:11) is striking. The essence of godliness is a willingness to submit to the King, that is, the Lord of Israel, but the essence of sinfulness is a growing willingness to submit to the gods of the nations. Israel, surrounded by an ungodly culture, slowly took on the characteristic worldview of that culture and began to serve and worship the "Baals." The text here accounts for the distinction between the received religion of Canaan, found in the myths and legends represented in the Canaanite city of Ugarit, versus the folk religion of the region, which included individual Baals on every mountaintop and sacrifice place. Canaanite religious practice emphasized the fertility of land, animals, and man, through the imitative magic of prostitution and orgiastic feasting. This religious system was attractive to many Israelites.

The answer to the sin problem in Israel is not given all at once. In the progress of revelation, God chose at this time to reveal to Israel that sin is a corrosive problem that cannot be solved without His grace. Even the divinely empowered temporal solutions—the judges themselves—would not be the answer to the underlying sin problem. On the deepest level this is an object lesson about the need for Messiah, the great King.

1. Account of the Death of Joshua and the Aftermath (2:6–10)

2:6. The sons of Israel went each to his inheritance to possess the land. This is the ideal outcome of God’s instruction to the people to conquer the land. This passage follows chronologically from Jos 24:28.

2:7. In the phrase the people served the Lord, the word "serve" is `ewed, also used in v. 11 of the worship of the Baals. The point is not so much a syncretism as a contrast. That service, which should belong only to God, was given illicitly to the Baals. The elders … had seen all the great work of the Lord (lit., "the great doings of Yahweh"). The word "work" or "doings" normally refers to God’s miracles in the exodus and the conquest. These mighty acts of miraculous power were foundational to Israel’s history, but they stopped at the end of Joshua’s ministry. Not until hundreds of years later were the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha authenticated with miracles. Other authenticating miracles occurred in the NT times, and then died out with the end of the apostolic era (Eph 2:20; Heb 2:3–4).

2:8–10. In the phrase another generation … who did not know the Lord, the word "know" (yada‘) implies a personal, experiential knowledge, not merely an intellectual acquaintance. That a generation could grow up without this vital relationship speaks volumes about the parents, and about the importance of the Dt 6 imperative to teach from personal passion.

2. Account of the Idolatry of Israel (2:11–13)

Next the narrator introduced the schematic called the "Judges cycles." Each of the cycles included the following elements in this approximate order: sin (the Jewish people fell into idolatry); subjugation (foreign powers vanquished and ruled Israel); supplication (the Jewish people cried out to the Lord); and salvation (God raised up judges to liberate Israel from foreign domination).

2:11. The term translated evil is hara‘ (lit., "the evil" or "the evil thing"). Ra’ is the common term for evil in the OT, and is almost always indefinite, emphasizing the abstract quality of evil. With the definite article, as here, the author specified a particular evil, namely, their serving the Baals.

Some scholars have suggested their evil was the sin of taking foreign wives. More likely, however, the often-repeated phrase Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord refers to Israel’s debauched practice of Canaanite religion, complete with its pervasive sensuality (see the comments under "B. The Theology of Sin and Grace [2:6–3:6]" above for information regarding Baal worship). The failure to drive the Canaanite population out of the promised land resulted in a cultural context for spreading depravity. The second generation of Israelites in the land had been effectively compromised.

The words the sons of Israel did evil occur in 2:11; 3:7, 12; 4:1; 6:1; 9:23; 10:6; and 13:1, each time at the introductions to the accounts of the major oppressions by foreign powers. The statement serves as a refrain, marking the progression of the evil in Israel.

Why is Baals in the plural, whereas the singular Baal occurs in v. 13? The myths of Baal, Yam, and Asherah speak of only one Baal. According to their beliefs, the great God El was an aloof and detached overlord who was said to be living far away on a mountain. Under him Baal was the god of fertility who made sure the rains came in season. His conflicts with the chaos monster, Yam ("the Sea"), and with Mot ("Death") form the core of Canaanite religion. With the prostitute goddesses Anat and Asherah, Baal was the model for Canaanite debauchery. In their theology, Baal engaged in sexual relations with these goddesses and thereby brought fertility to the earth. Their worshipers could generate their favor by also engaging in cultic sexual acts done in their name. Baal would then cause his worshipers’ crops and herds and procreative abilities to be fertile.

The plural "Baals" refers to various portrayals of Baal on hilltop shrines called bamot. Unfortunately, many of the Israelites simply adopted the seemingly attractive local religious traditions.

2:12–13. That Israel worshiped other gods refers again to the polytheistic nature of the Canaanite religion. Other peoples, including the Phoenicians, Moabites, Philistines, and others, worshiped a wide variety of gods and goddesses, most of whom fit the general fertility cult pattern. Yet many of them also had unique elements of evil or sensuality associated with them. Many stone and metal images of these gods have been found in the ruins of Canaanite and Israelite settlements.

3. God’s Anger Displayed in the Rise of Oppressors (2:14–15)

2:14–15. When God gave the people up to their plunderers, they were helpless to rise in their own defense. Wherever they went, the hand of the Lord was against them for evil. This contrasts strongly with God’s promise to Joshua in Jos 1:5: "No man will be able to stand before you all the days of your life." Had Israel lived in sincere obedience to God’s law, the Lord would have given them success. Their turmoil, however, was an indication of God’s judgment against them for their disobedience.

4. The Judges Raised Up as a Respite from Oppression (2:16–19)

2:16. Judges are introduced as deliverers raised up by the Lord. These judges stood in opposition to the oppressors, whom the Lord had raised up. God used oppressors and judges alike to teach Israel the principles of godliness.

2:17. Israel, however, failed to follow the Lord. The reason for their failure is made clear in this analysis: (1) They did not listen to their judges, that is, they refused to obey them. (2) They played the harlot and bowed … down to other gods. To "bow down" is to worship, in the sense of a wholehearted submission of life to a god. Here it is likened to spiritual unfaithfulness or harlotry. (3) They turned aside quickly from the way of their fathers who obeyed the Lord. (4) They did not do as their fathers had done.

2:18–19. The Lord had pity on the people because they were oppressed by their enemies. So he used judges to deliver them. But the success of any given deliverer was short-lived. The deliverance lasted until the death of the judge. Here is a powerful demonstration that deliverance available through even the greatest human leaders will always be deficient. A deliverer who could truly solve the deepest human problems must be infinite, not only in power, but even in being able to produce transformation in the lives of people. All others will eventually fall short.

5. God’s Anger at Covenant Transgression Resulted in Pagan Nations that Could Not Be Driven Out (2:20–23)

2:20–21. Israel had repeatedly transgressed God’s covenant, causing His anger to burn against them. Israel was not merely a people group sharing ancestors and culture. They were a nation explicitly chosen by God and created for His purposes. They were to exist in covenant relationship with Him forever—with the primary obligation to listen to and obey His voice.

2:22–23. God’s purpose in leaving the Canaanites and other nations was to test Israel. "Test" here, of course, does not mean that God was in doubt as to the outcome. It is clear that God, who knows the end from the beginning, knew that Israel would fail (Dt 31:29). The point was to demonstrate that fact through experience, and thus further demonstrate Israel’s need for a saving relationship with the Lord.

6. Nations Left to Test and to Punish (3:1–6)

3:1–2. That various nations were still in the land was a test for Israel. This meant that … generations of the sons of Israel would be taught war. But 2:22 states that God’s purpose in testing Israel was to see if they would obey Him (cf. 3:4). The ideal would have been universal godliness and obedience, as a result of which God would have established them peacefully and securely in the land. But the reality, because of sin, was growing ungodliness accompanied by intermittent wars. Every generation of Israel would experience threats and violence until the second coming of the Prince of Peace. The presence of Canaanite nations then fulfilled two purposes expressed here: to demonstrate, by failure, Israel’s need for the Messiah; and to chastise Israel for that failure by constant violence and warfare.

3:3. Some scholars question the reference to the five lords of the Philistines as if it were anachronistic. Of course there were Philistines in the land from as early as the time of Abraham who met with King Abimelech of Gerar, who was a Philistine (Gn 21–22). Possibly the Philistines were a relatively small people group along the coast, perhaps working as vassals of the Egyptians, until the large migrations began around the turn of the Iron Age (around 1200 BC). It is also possible, since the editing of Judges did not take place until the beginning of the monarchy (around 1000 BC), that this note about five Philistine kings was a name for the region from that era.

3:4–6. Again the nations in the land of Canaan were there to test Israel (cf. the comments at v. 1) to see if they would obey Him. Unfortunately the Israelites intermarried with the daughters of these unconquered nations and served their gods, thus failing the test.

II. Twelve Deliverers Demonstrate a Cycle of Increasing Failure (3:7–16:31)

The Early Judgeships:

Though 12 judges are often cited, there were actually only six major judges. Also, Shamgar was not, properly speaking, a judge. And Abimelech was a usurper and is not counted among the judges. Five minor judges appear by name only, without any account given regarding their oppressors or their wars, if any.

The first set of major judges, Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, and Gideon is presented in chaps. 3–10. They are generally sympathetic characters who served local constituencies and perhaps had overlapping terms of office. The moral tone of their stories is relatively high, but with a slow downward progression. The second set of judges includes only Jephthah and Samson (along with the five minor judges). The two are generally conceded to be late in the period (perhaps near 1100 BC), and to be overlapping in time, with Samson on the west of the Jordan and Jephthah on the east. There is little to admire in Jephthah and Samson. Jephthah may have sacrificed his daughter (Jdg 11:31 and 39), and he precipitated a deadly civil war (Jdg 12:1–6). Samson was an unmitigated scoundrel who killed many Philistines but ultimately failed to break their power over Israel.

The repeated statement that Israel did evil (2:11; 3:7, 12 [two times]; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1) pointed out the need for a genuinely godly leader. In time, of course, even the kings themselves demonstrated their inability to maintain godly leadership.

A. Othniel: The Model of the Judges Cycle (3:7–11)

Othniel is given a brief discussion. His judgeship serves merely to demonstrate the pattern of the cycle.

1. Israel’s Sin of Idolatry (3:7)

3:7. Israel did what was evil (lit., "the evil thing"), explained by two statements: they forgot the Lord their God and they served the Baals and the Asheroth. The sin of transgressing the covenant began with forgetting the truth of the basic relationship. Israel had forgotten who they were and who the Lord was, and as a result they began to behave like the nations that surrounded them.

General Location of Major Judges and Adversaries

Adapted from The New Moody Atlas of the Bible. Copyright 2009 The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago.

2. Israel Sold into Mesopotamian Oppression for Eight Years (3:8)

3:8. Subjection to a Mesopotamian power is the first of many such oppressions, and this is the only instance where the power was some distance away. All the later oppressors were close by. Little is known of Cushan-rishathaim ("Cushan of double evil," an epithet that may have been given him by the Israelites). The oppressor here is Mesopotamia (Hb. Aram-Nahariyim, lit., "Aram of the Two Rivers") referring more specifically to the Aramean or Syrian region at the northwestern corner of the Mesopotamian alluvial plain.

None of the history of the great powers of that time (Egypt, Mitanni, Hittites) is represented in this brief passage. Cushan must have been a warlord-sized king who was too small to be noticed by his major contemporaries.

3. Heartfelt Cry for Deliverance (3:9a)

3:9a. When Israel was truly contrite, the nation cried to the Lord. Then He raised up a deliverer. A deliverer (judge) was one who rescued a people whose situation was otherwise hopeless. The Bible is clear about the need of sinners for a Savior, not merely a coach or even a physician. People are not simply sick in sin, nor are they merely untrained in righteousness. Mankind is "dead in [their] trespasses and sins" (Eph 2:1) and in need of God’s grace for deliverance.

4. A Deliverer Raised Up: Othniel, Son of Kenaz (3:9b–10)

3:9b–10. Othniel, a brother of Caleb (Jos 15:13–19), and thus a younger contemporary of Joshua himself, prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim by the power of God. The fighting probably took place in the north, although Othniel was of the tribe of Judah.

5. Forty Years of Rest (3:11)

3:11. After noting the land’s 40 years of rest (perhaps the length of time is approximate), the passage ends with the note that Othniel … died. The rest from oppression lasted only for the life of this judge.

B. Ehud: The Left-Handed Judge (3:12–30)

Ehud was the next of the "major" judges—major in the sense that much detail is given of his work. Ehud was confronted apparently by a coalition of raiders led by the king of Moab, who set up his headquarters in the City of the Palms, that is, Jericho.

1. Eighteen Years under Eglon of Moab (3:12–14)

3:12. Moab was the desert kingdom directly east of the Dead Sea, from the Arnon River at the midpoint of the Dead Sea north to south, to the Zered River at the southern tip of the Dead Sea. During the Late Bronze Age, this area was sparsely populated. Archaeologist Nelson Gleuck found the ruins of approximately 22 towns or villages in this area dated to the time of this account.

3:13–14. Ammon was the kingdom on the plateau from the Arnon River to the Jabbok River, north of Moab, and the Amalekites were semi-nomadic peoples who inhabited much of the region. The city of the palm trees (Jericho) had been destroyed by Joshua and was in ruins at this time. Eglon must have built his summer palace in the fertile flat lands to the east of Jericho.

2. Ehud’s Clandestine Mission (3:15–24)

Ehud’s action here is what modern military leaders would call a "special operation." He went in under the false pretenses of diplomatic cover to carry out an assassination. Ehud planned his operation carefully, choosing a weapon and the setting for the greatest advantage. The cover, approach, execution, and retreat were all well planned, with the intention of summoning the tribes afterward. Ehud’s act is a finely detailed act of war. Significantly, that war had been imposed by Eglon, the invader and oppressor. So there is no inherent ethical problem in the Ehud cycle.

3:15. Ehud was left-handed. Through much of history and literature left-handed people have suffered bad press. Archaeology demonstrates that the left-handed were not considered a serious military threat. Figures on monuments in victorious military poses are almost always right-handed. For example, in the famous chariot scene from the chest of Egyptian King Tut, the king is drawing his arrow with the right hand. And on the Egyptian Narmer Palette King Narmer raises his mace with his right hand to smite an Asiatic prisoner. The gates leading into walled cities were approached by ramps that put right-handed soldiers at a disadvantage, with the shield arm on the wrong side. Various languages, in their handling of the vocabulary of left and right, put the lefty in a bad light. In Latin, for example, the right hand is "rectus" or "dextra," and left is "sinister."

This seemingly innate (and unreasonable) prejudice proved the undoing of evil King Eglon. He and his keepers simply could not believe that a left-handed man was a threat. This incident is particularly ironic in light of Ehud’s heritage; he was a Benjamite, lit., a "son of the right hand."

3:16. Ehud’s double-edged sword, hidden where it would not be found on the right hip, is an object of some interest. During the Late Bronze Age, most weapons were made of bronze, which was cast in a variety of heavy shapes. Bronze tended to be brittle, and thin blades were simply not durable enough for use. Most of the swords shown in the monuments of this period are the so-called "sickle" swords, shaped a bit like a sickle, with the single axe-like smiting edge on the outside. But Ehud’s sword must have been more like a dagger, with two sharp edges and small enough to be easily hidden in the folds of his garment. He made it himself, and it was about a cubit (18 inches) long, including the handle. Since it was probably made of bronze, it is unlikely it would have survived long in battle. It was a one-time-use weapon, specifically formed for this mission.

3:17–18. Warlords who could hold territory by force collected protection money (euphemistically called "tribute") from the villages in their area. No government services of any sort were provided for the people in such regions. Eglon certainly had no sense of empire. He was in business merely to extract money from his victims.

3:19. Whether Hebrew pesilim, from psl, "to hew or cut," is to be translated idols (NASB and most translations) or "stone quarries" (NIV), this place was clearly a well-known landmark near Gilgal. The Gilgal in question was probably not the better known Gilgal to the east of Jericho, but rather a town on the border of Benjamin and Judah north of the pass of Adummim, about 15 miles northeast of Jerusalem. From this landmark Ehud turned back and carried on his fatal conversation with the king.

3:20. Ehud went to Eglon while he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber. In this upper room the rare breezes might be caught.

3:21–24. Ehud thrust his sword into Eglon’s belly. The stealthy treachery is emphatic, and is clearly portrayed as a heroic action. Ehud left the sword in the king’s stomach and fled. Relieving himself (v. 24) is literally "covering his feet" (cf. 1Sm 24:3).

3. Slow Response of Eglon’s Servants (3:25)

3:25. Ehud had locked the roof chamber when he left, so that Eglon’s men needed to use a key to enter. Keys in the ancient world were relatively unusual. Several examples have been found and are on display in the Israel Museum and elsewhere. Such keys were large items designed to reach through a door and interface with a heavy bolt on the far side.

4. Ehud’s Escape and the Muster of Ephraim (3:26–30a)

3:26–30a. Departing from Eglon, Ehud called for help by blowing a horn (shophar) to summon the tribe of Ephraim. Fighting men arrived quickly to block the fords of the Jordan, where ten thousand Moabites, all robust and valiant men were struck down (v. 29; cf. the comments on 1:4).

5. Eighty Years of Rest (3:30b)

3:30b. Eighty years takes the chronology down to the early to mid-thirteenth century, depending on the overlap with Othniel. This provides the earliest point in the chronology for Shamgar, who came after him (i.e., after Ehud).

C. Shamgar: An Enigmatic Interlude (3:31)

3:31. Some expositors call Shamgar a minor judge, but more likely he was not related to Israel at all, except that he was in the right place at the right time. Virtually every detail in this verse is a linguistic or archaeological problem.

Shamgar’s name is the first problem. It is not Hebrew. Various suggestions have been made. The Canaanite hypothesis is probably best, taking the name as a shin prefix participle on the Semitic verb mgr. Shin prefixes are unknown in Hebrew, but are found in Ugaritic and perhaps other NW Semitic languages, and they correlate to the Hebrew mem prefix found on some participles. Mgr is the common verb "to farm." That would yield the translation "farmer," which fits the oxgoad nicely.

Son of Anath may refer to his heritage from the village of Anath. Several such places have been identified. Or it may refer to a well-known Canaanite goddess of love and war. Perhaps Shamgar gained this label after his exploits recorded here.

At first thought the oxgoad may seem a strange weapon. The Hebrew is malamad, which is echoed in the name and shape of the Hebrew letter l (lamed). The oxgoad likely was a long stick with a point at one end for poking the ox and a shovel at the other for doing necessary work around the ox. Sharpening either or both ends would produce a formidable weapon in the hands of a stout peasant warrior.

Shamgar’s Philistines are a problem because of their timing. Rameses III defeated the great wave of Sea Peoples around 1190 BC. Israeli archaeologist David Ussishkin (who led the excavation at Lachish in the Judean Shephelah) insists that the Canaanite cities of the plain did not fall until roughly 30 years after that time (cf. New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land [Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society], 904, and other references in the literature). Shamgar’s timing is difficult to pin down. He is said to have done his work after Ehud. He is also said to have been a contemporary of Jael and Deborah (5:6), putting him in the late thirteenth century. As stated earlier, the Philistines may refer to a regiment-sized force of Philistines that raided the coast of Canaan some 50 years before their great migration.

The closing note in this verse announces that Shamgar also saved Israel. The Hebrew yasha’ is the same term used of deliverance by the other judges, and so this has led some to classify Shamgar as a judge.

D. Deborah: A Mother in Israel (4:1–5:31)

Deborah, the third of the judges, and the only woman in the sequence, appeared about the same time as Shamgar, mentioned in 5:6. Her gender, the ineffectiveness of Barak, and even her husband Lappidoth (4:4) contribute to the feeling that strong male leadership was lacking at that time in Israel.

1. The Military Campaign against Hazor (4:1–24)

This chapter recounts a second battle of Hazor (following Joshua’s initial burning of the site in Jos 11). This cannot be a duplicate report, for the details are different, except for the name of the king.

a. Twenty Years under Jabin of Hazor (4:1–3)

4:1–2. Joshua 11 also records the fall of Hazor, which Joshua burned. Its king at that time was also called Jabin. The Canaanite population seems to have continued until the beginning of Iron Age I (c. 1200 BC). Jabin may have been the king’s name, or it may have been his title, in much the same way the terms Pharaoh, Czar, Caesar, and others are used as titles.

4:3. Sisera, Jabins’ commander, had nine hundred iron chariots. This is a huge chariot army, but not unparalleled in the ancient world. The Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III spoke of capturing over 900 chariots at Megiddo (c. 1470 BC). A chariot army required substantial state resources. One could compare the development and deployment of a chariot army to the building of a modern aircraft-carrier battle group. The same resource commitment, technology research and development, personnel training and support, and logistic infrastructure went into fielding such an army. Chariot soldiers could not be militia or conscripts, but had to have been professionals who devoted their full time to training and preparations. In the feudal structure of Canaan these men would have been land-owning nobility with servants to care for their properties.

Chariot horses were specially bred and trained for combat. Most horses will not voluntarily proceed into the kinds of situations pictured on monuments. They must be trained to charge, trample, and obey commands under noisy, frightening circumstances. Such horses would have been quite expensive and would have required large pastureland and training areas.

Hazor’s lower city, nearly a square mile in area, was once believed to consist mostly of the Canaanite chariot camp. However, Israeli archaeologist Yagael Yadin’s excavations have shown the lower city to have been a relatively densely populated area during the Late Bronze Age (NEAEHL, 597). The horses and chariots may have been housed in the surrounding countryside. Certainly the professional troops for such an army could not have all lived in Hazor.

b. Deborah the Prophetess Called on Barak the Soldier (4:4–10)

4:4–5. Deborah, who was judging Israel at that time, may have been a "seer"-type prophet, whose visions under the palm tree provided inspiration for the people. The culture of the era would not normally have supported a woman in military and political leadership, so the situation speaks of the probable lack of qualified men. She is an "exception that proves the rule"—that is, the rule being God’s intention that men provide spiritual leadership (Gn 2:20, 23; 1Tm 2:11–15). The extraordinary circumstances around her serving as a judge in Israel indicate just how unusual it was for a woman to exercise this kind of leadership. Deborah’s palm tree must have been a well-known landmark, but of course it is impossible to identify it today. Palm trees of various kinds are common throughout Israel.

4:6–10. Deborah’s involvement with leaders from Naphtali and Zebulun (v. 6) indicates the national scope of the Canaanite problem at this point. Barak’s home was Kedesh of Naphtali, overlooking the Hula Valley in the Lebanon range, about 16 miles north of the north end of the Sea of Galilee. The Kedesh in vv. 9–10, which was used as a meeting place, cannot reasonably be the same place. This Kedesh is probably near the south end of the Sea of Galilee and the slopes of Mount Tabor. From the northern slopes of Tabor one could see ten thousand men gathered for battle, but they would be hidden from the Canaanite forces in Jezreel to the south.

c. Heber the Kenite Introduced (4:11)

4:11. Heber the Kenite is introduced here in anticipation of the exploit of Jael, his wife (v. 17). The oak in Zaanannim is probably near the lower Galilee Kedesh and was mentioned in Jos 19:33 as a landmark on the border of Naphtali.

d. The Battle of the Kishon (4:12–16)

The climax of this confrontation took place on ground apparently of Deborah’s choosing, since no self-respecting chariot captain would willingly deploy his chariots in a swamp.

4:12–13. Mount Tabor is the volcanic dome that dominates the central Jezreel Valley and is the primary landmark along the international trade route in this region. The gathering of a major force at Mount Tabor had obvious military significance to those who needed to keep the trade route open. Sisera deployed his forces—some nine hundred iron chariots and the foot soldiers with them—from Harosheth-hagoyim (perhaps in the western Jezreel Valley area) to the river Kishon, a swampy area near Megiddo that drains through the pass of Beth Shearim into Haifa Bay. This location would have seemed preferable since it was quite broad, with room to deploy chariots and associated infantry. An observer from a high spot near Nazareth would think this land was ideal for fighting, when in fact it can turn into a quagmire in the rain.

4:14–16. Barak defeated Sisera, killing every soldier in his army.

e. Sisera Meets Jael (4:17–22)

4:17–22. In a serious breach of hospitality, Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite killed Sisera by pounding a tent peg through his head into the floor while he slept. Barak found him there, killed by a woman. The irony of Jael’s deadly action, in the larger context of Deborah’s leadership, points to a failure of the classic biblical pattern of male leadership. As Adam was first created, and then Eve, the Bible shows ontological male-female equality (Gn 1:27) with a pattern of male functional leadership (Gn 2:20, 23; 1Tm 2:11–15). Hence, the actions of Deborah and Jael provide the exception that proves the rule—that men are expected by God to be godly leaders. Moreover, it emphasizes the sorry state of Israel’s male leadership in the period of the Judges, being so problematic that women were required to lead in this military situation.

f. The Long Campaign against Jabin (4:23–24)

4:23–24. Apparently the struggle against Jabin did not end on the day of the battle of the Kishon. Instead Jabin was not destroyed until some time later. The text does not suggest that Hazor was burned or even occupied.

2. The Song of Deborah (5:1–31)

This song, one of the earliest Hebrew songs, bears most of the earmarks of Hebrew poetry, including the parallelism and meter. This chapter provides a number of insights into the life of Israel in the settlement period.

a. Call to Praise the Lord (5:1–5)

5:1–2. The words the leaders led in Israel are parallel to the words the people volunteered. The enigmatic term pera (leaders, NASB) must be translated as something to do with leadership—in contrast to the people who volunteered. Ugaritic suggests a leadership function.

5:3–5. The song challenges kings to hear and rulers to give ear. Sing (shir) and sing praise (zāmar) are technical terms also found in the Psalms (e.g., 49:1, "hear," "give ear"; 30:4, 12, "sing"—the participle mizmor is generally translated "psalm"). The attitude toward the kings of the earth establishes an anticipatory pattern: that is, the author is looking forward to the day when the nations and their kings will bow and worship the King of kings (Ps 2:8; 110:1).

b. Deborah’s Motivation, as a Mother in Israel (5:6–11)

5:6–7. In the days of Shamgar and Jael, the highways were deserted. The instability of life in Israel at the end of the Late Bronze Age is poignantly illustrated in this passage. The roads could not be protected and made secure because there was no longer any central government to do the job. For most of the Late Bronze II era (c. 1400–1200 BC) the Egyptians had given up on their pretensions to empire. Israel was certainly not a central power in any sense of the word, and had little overall influence on the situation. Village life consisted of the families who lived on the land, namely, subsistence farmers and stockkeepers who provided food for marketplaces in larger cities. A secure village life was essential for the stability of the overall economy.

The last major Asiatic campaign of the Egyptian Empire was the expedition of Pharaoh Mernepthah (c. 1230 BC), recorded in the famous Israel stele (which celebrates Mernepthah’s victory over the Libyans). Deborah’s description of life in Israel at the end of the Late Bronze Age is a good explanation for the need Mernepthah found to make his expedition in the first place.

5:8–9. Archaeologists have long held that no walls datable to the Late Bronze Age existed in the land of Israel, and so they question the statement in v. 8 that war was in the gates. However, even a cursory examination of the Egyptian monuments dating to that period show the major cities of Israel/Canaan, secure behind their massive walls, falling to the armed technology of Pharaoh. Many of these walls certainly were built in the Middle Bronze Age, and many of them continue to stand today! There is no reason that the walls, even in time of peace and expansion, could not have continued to serve their intended purpose during the Late Bronze Age.

Deborah clearly had in mind here (and in v. 11) the gates of the regional commercial cities. When trade and agriculture are disrupted by bandits, a nation is in deplorable condition. These cities, like the Canaanite centers, were fortified, at least in a rudimentary way, especially as chaos again swept over the land.

In v. 8 the Hebrew word for Then is ‘az, a common temporal particle used to introduce the military moves mentioned in vv. 8b, 11b, 13a, 19, and 22. Both commanders and volunteers (v. 9) responded in times of warfare.

5:10–11. The mention of the sound of those who … recount the righteous deeds of the Lord may provide a glimpse into Israel’s most important communication device: word of mouth. Much of the history and lore of Israel was committed to poetry and song for dissemination to the whole culture. The rich (those who ride on white donkeys and sit on rich carpets) and travelers were challenged to sing of the Lord’s victory.

c. The Muster of the Tribes (5:12–18)

5:12–13. The nobles and the warriors were those who came to Deborah for help in the midst of the trouble with the northern Canaanites. The word "nobles" is the Hebrew ‘adirim, from ‘adar, "to be prominent or powerful," and "warriors" translates the more common word gibborim, used of men of substance who were also prepared to go to war. David’s "mighty men" are called gibborim in 2Sm 23:8–39. Boaz, the husband of Ruth, is called a gibbor, referring to his substantial place in the community.

The Hebrew word translated survivors (Jdg 5:13) is sarid. But a surviving remnant (as from a defeat) seems out of place here. N. Na’aman has suggested that this Hebrew word refers to the town of Sarid (c. six miles south of Taanach, about 25 miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee, and a likely mustering spot for the Canaanites, see VT 40 [1990]: 423–26). That would yield the translation, "Then down to Sarid he marched to the nobles; the people of the Lord came down to me as warriors." This is the preferred view, since it smoothes the interpretation.

5:14–18. Verses 14–18 give the poetic account of Deborah and Barak’s summons to battle. Ephraim and Benjamin, two southern tribes, are mentioned first, perhaps because of their association with Deborah. Why Ephraim is associated with Amalek is difficult to know, but perhaps it is because some of Ephraim’s territory lay in formerly Amalekite lands. The staff of office refers to a "commander’s staff," held by leaders of military units. The staff may have been a ceremonial emblem or a practical weapon. The commander would be called on to dispatch the leaders of a defeated enemy, and might do that with the mace or axe he carried for that purpose. In some contexts this staff seems to be the tool of a scribe, so some have suggested that this staff was an administrator’s emblem; but that seems unlikely here in the midst of battle.

Machir usually refers to the half tribe of Manasseh that stayed east of the Jordan in the Golan, the far north region of Israel. But here it refers to Manasseh itself, since the fighting took place on Manasseh’s western territory in the Jezreel Valley. Zebulun and Naphtali (v. 18) are singled out for special praise, presumably because they were the first to respond to the call to duty. Their unique position across the international trade route made them a difficult and urgent problem for the Canaanites.

Other tribes, farther removed from the trouble, did not participate, and are mentioned in anger. Reuben, on the border with Moab, was the farthest away, and chose to stay in relative tranquility beside the campfires, listening to the whistling or playing small flute-like instruments to call the flocks of sheep. For Gad, Deborah uses instead the name Gilead, usually the pastoral region north and east of the Dead Sea between the Yarmuk and the Jabbok rivers shared by Gad and Manasseh. Gad was probably in mind here to round out the Transjordan tribes.

The mention of Dan who chose to stay in ships indicates that Dan was not engaged in the battle because they were occupied with Canaanites and Philistines to the west. This verse probably dates to a time before Dan had migrated to Laish in the far north. The reference to ships implies that Dan occupied at least some of the Mediterranean seacoast. The river Yarkon, on the northern border (now in the northern suburbs of Tel Aviv), would have provided an anchorage for small vessels, as would the promontory at Joppa.

Asher was overrun with Phoenicians by this time. Most of the coastline, from Carmel to Tyre, seems to have stayed in Canaanite and Phoenician hands. There is little evidence of early Israelite occupation here until the time of Solomon.

d. The Battle at the Kishon (5:19–23)

5:19–22. The battle took place at Taanach near the waters of Megiddo. Taanach is Tel Ta’anak on the southern edge of the Jezreel Valley, about 25 miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee. The Kishon River runs through the swampy lowlands to the north of the city. The reference to the fighting stars is probably part of Deborah’s poetic license. Most likely she was referring to the sudden downpour of rain from the heavens, which God sent just in time to defeat the Canaanite chariots. Nothing impedes a chariot maneuver like too much soft ground. The dashing of his valiant steeds is almost certainly sarcasm, for the horses were up to their haunches in mud.

5:23. Deborah pronounced a curse on Meroz, a village whose location is not known but was probably in the vicinity of Mount Tabor and the battlefield, apparently because its inhabitants did not come to the Israelites’ aid in the battle or in apprehending Sisera when he fled.

e. Jael: Most Blessed of Women (5:24–27)

5:24–27. This extended account of Jael’s heroic act spells out in poetic style what was recorded in prosaic style in 4:17–21.

f. Lament of Sisera’s Mother (5:28–31a)

5:28–31a. This poetic description of Sisera’s mother is not a statement of sympathy for her but rather is a sardonic evaluation of her false expectations. She anticipated that Sisera should have already returned in victory and wondered at his delay in coming. Her princesses incorrectly encouraged her to believe that Sisera and his warriors were delayed by dividing the spoil, ravaging two maidens for every warrior, and gathering spoils of expensive dyed work of double embroidery (likely to be received by her). The writer implies she would experience great sorrow and disappointment when discovering the truth of Sisera’s end and is mocking all such arrogance toward the Lord. She calls on the Lord, therefore, asking that all [His] enemies perish in the way of Sisera and that those who love the Lord grow stronger like the rising of the sun in its might.

3. Forty Years of Rest (5:31b)

5:31b. This note takes the chronology to about 1200 BC, or the end of the Late Bronze Age II in Canaan.

E. Gideon: A Lesser Son of a Lesser Son (6:1–9:57)

The Gideon cycle represents the largest portion of the book of Judges. It has 100 verses. Compared with the Samson episode, which has 71 verses, Gideon’s victory was of major importance to the entire nation, since the Midianites and their allies raided wherever they pleased throughout the land. Chapter 9 should probably be included in the cycle, since it recounts the misadventures of Gideon’s son, Abimelech.

Gideon appeared on the scene as an unlikely deliverer. While he was a relatively godly man, he was immature and timid. Many scholars have tried to demonstrate the steady decline of Israelite morals and leadership in a downward spiral. It is better to see the first set of judges, which ends with Gideon’s story, as good but incomplete heroes. But lasting deliverance was yet to come.

1. Introduction to the Gideon Episode (6:1–10)

This portion introduces the Midianites and their allies, along with the hero of the story, Gideon. The story is set in the north, in the Jezreel Valley of Manasseh, near Gideon’s town of Ophrah. This town should probably be identified with ruins found in the modern town of Afula, conveniently near Mount Moreh, the Jezreel Valley, and En Harod (all about 15 miles south of the Sea of Galilee), sites that figure in the narrative.

a. Seven Years of Oppression by Midian (6:1–6)

6:1–6. The Midianites were the offspring of Abraham, through his handmaid Keturah (Gn 25:2). They were camel caravaneers in the Joseph narrative (Gn 37), close allies and relatives of Moses in the wilderness (Ex 2:15–25), and objects of an Israelite attack and plundering (Nm 31:1–24). The Midianites were probably a broad collection of related tribes, led by separate "kings" or "princes," without a common political focus. The transportation for Midianite aggression was the camel, which gave them both range and speed, allowing the raiders to do their damage and get away before effective counterforce could be mounted. The Midianites with the Amalekites and the sons of the east destroyed Israel’s troops, attacking like locusts in number. The Amalekites, descendants of Esau (Gn 36:12) had been enemies of Israel before (in Nm 14:45 and afterward). The sons of the east (bene qedem) are nomadic peoples in general, perhaps other descendants of Esau not otherwise specified.

b. The Covenant Message of a Prophet (6:7–10)

6:7–10. The sending of a prophet was a new development. Previously the people had cried out and had been rewarded with deliverance by the Lord in the form of a judge. This time a prophet, otherwise unknown, was sent to encourage them not to fear the gods of the Amorites and to deliver the rebuke, you have not obeyed Me.

2. Gideon’s Call to Deliver Israel (6:11–40)

This extended account of Gideon’s call to the work puts him in a different class from other judges, who simply appeared on the scene or were given brief histories. Gideon was not a nobleman, even though his father Joash was apparently the headman of the district. His family is of little importance outside the region. That seems to be the point of the passage, as God demonstrated His willingness to work through the most humble and the most poorly equipped if they will walk in faith. Gideon’s growth in faith and courage is a theme in this passage.

a. Gideon Called by the Angel of the Lord (6:11–18)

6:11. The angel of the Lord spoke to Gideon when he was beating out wheat in a wine press. Wheat was normally threshed on a wide, flat beaten area called a threshing floor. The best ones were on high ground in the midst of the fields. The idea was to dislodge the grain from the stalks by marching oxen and people over them. Next came winnowing, tossing wheat and chaff in the air to allow the wheat, which is heavier than the stalks and chaff, to fall to the threshing floor while wind blew away its chaff. This process was normally a time of communal celebration and was easily visible to anyone passing by. But the Midianite threat made any such event impossible. The wine press, on the other hand, was a square or round vessel, often cut out of the rock, in which grapes could be trodden. The juice from this process ran through a conduit to a lower and smaller wine vat from which the juice was collected in jars for fermentation. Such presses are normally found in the midst of gardens and vineyards, out of sight of passersby. Gideon was so fearful of the Midianites that he prepared this grain in a secluded wine press. He no doubt hoped to be able to thresh enough grain for a meal or two. This speaks of the desperation of the people under the oppression of the Midianite raiders.

6:12–14. The angel of the Lord appeared to him at the wine press. Scholars continue to argue about the identity of the angel of the Lord in this passage and throughout the OT. Since this angel has the authority of God Himself and was actually willing to accept worship, it seems likely that this is a theophany, a visible manifestation of God on earth. This is the extent that the text reveals. Nevertheless, since the Scriptures affirm that "No one has seen God at any time" and it is "the only begotten God … [who] has explained Him" (Jn 1:18), this visible manifestation was likely a preincarnate appearance of Christ (or a Christophany). When Gideon questioned why the Midianites oppressed Israel, the angel told him that Gideon was being sent by God to deliver Israel.

6:15. How shall I deliver Israel? Gideon’s humility is not feigned. He was really an insignificant son in an unimportant family. In a society in which clan pecking order was paramount (cf. the dispute with Ephraim later) Gideon was simply being realistic about his chances of gaining a following.

6:16–18. God’s answer to Gideon, Surely I will be with you, is reminiscent of God’s call of Moses. In answer to Moses’ complaint, "Who am I?" God replied, "I AM" the One who is sending you to Pharaoh (Ex 3:14). The point is clear: a person’s social status is insignificant when compared to walking with God. The power and the strength are in God Himself.

b. Gideon’s Presentation and Fear (6:19–24)

6:19–24. The presentation of an offering to the angel of God demonstrates Gideon’s understanding that he was in the presence of God. The offering was accepted by the angel in the classic way—by a consuming fire. In the early biblical period all sacrifices were accepted by fire that issued from the presence of God (Lv 10:1–2; 1Kg 18:38).

Gideon’s fear in the presence of the angel is only reasonable if this was a divine manifestation. The angel’s reassurance was a means of building Gideon’s faith.

The altar Gideon built was another step of faith. The statement about the altar’s continued existence (To this day it is still in Ophrah of the Abiezrites) indicates that the book was either written or had a final editing a significant time after the events described.

c. Hacking the Altar and Asherah (6:25–27)

6:25–27. Following Gideon’s call by the angel of the Lord, he was commanded to demonstrate (and stretch) his faith by destroying his father’s altar to Baal and the Asherah pole nearby. The altar was a structure of cut stones where sacrifices were made to Baal. The Asherah pole was a sacred tree or carved pole set in the ground representing the Asherah consort of Baal. Together the two elements formed the Canaanite high place, scene of the debauched worship of the Baal cult, often involving immoral acts by the worshipers in order to curry the favor from Baal to grant fertility to one’s endeavors. This format was adopted by Israelites, and was opposed only by the godliest of the kings of Judah.

Gideon’s destruction of the high place was a severe blow to his entire community. Much as a synagogue, church, or mosque would be to later towns, the high place was a focus of the investment of resources, both financial and emotional. Its destruction made a clear statement.

d. Confrontation with Joash (6:28–32)

6:28–30. The destruction of the altar of Baal and the Asherah pole was a blow to the entire structure of that community. A death sentence for Gideon seems outlandish to modern ears, but would have made perfect sense in the ancient world. When the men of the city learned that Gideon was responsible, they wanted to kill him.

6:31–32. But Joash, Gideon’s father, said, let him [Baal] contend for himself. This statement was a challenge to the worldview of the people of Ophrah. If Baal were who he claimed to be, he could certainly take care of himself. In fact baalism focused on the ability of Baal to defeat the chaos monster and even death itself, bringing order and life to the people of the world. If any of this were actually true, it would be no small matter for Baal to destroy Gideon on the spot. But when this did not happen—and no doubt many there must have expected such a reaction from Baal—this was a powerful testimony to the helplessness of the Canaanite god. This statement by Gideon’s father is witness to the underlying but dormant faith in the God of reality that continued to smolder in the hearts of Israel.

e. Muster of the Northern Tribes (6:33–35)

6:33–35. The eastern peoples again came across the Jordan and camped in Jezreel. So the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon; and he blew a trumpet. The words "came upon" translate the Hebrew labash, "to clothe," or "to put on clothing." This is a more picturesque image than the simple statement in 3:10 that the Spirit of the Lord "came upon" Othniel.

f. Sign of the Fleece (6:36–40)

6:36–40. Gideon’s immature faith is pictured in this two-phase testing of the Lord’s authority. That the Lord cooperated in this action and did not rebuke Gideon is hardly a ringing endorsement of the practice. Modern-day Christians who are tempted to use "the fleece" should be aware that no promise of miraculous guidance applies to the present day. In addition, there is nothing in the Gideon narrative that indicates that the divine or human author intended Gideon’s actions to serve as a model for how God’s people should make decisions.

3. The Defeat of Midian (7:1–25)

This massive battle resulted in the defeat of Midian. This in turn kept the nomadic nation at arm’s length from Israel for many generations. Isaiah 9:4 refers to this battle as a great moment in Israel’s history.

a. The Camp at Harod (7:1)

7:1. The likely location of the spring of Harod and the hill of Moreh is in the western reaches of the foothills of Gilboa, on the south side of the Harod Valley (which has nothing to do with Herod the Great at the time of Christ) opposite Mount Moreh, about 25 miles south of the Sea of Galilee. The springs form the headwaters of the Harod River, which drains past Beth Shean into the Jordan. The likely position of the Midianite camp was across the valley to the north, less than two miles away, at the foot of Mount Moreh.

b. The Selection of the Fearless (7:2–3)

7:2–3. A large number of men from the tribes of Manasseh, Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali (6:35), with the strange absence of Issachar on whose boundaries the events took place, arrived on the scene to take part in the battle. Rather than congratulating Gideon on his successful recruitment job, God informed Gideon that he would have to reduce the number. Those who were fearful accounted for the first 22,000; these were allowed to go home.

c. The Selection of the Unobservant (7:4–8)

7:4–6. To make the army even smaller, God told Gideon to separate between those who lapped the water with his tongue as a dog laps and those who knelt to drink. This description is somewhat ambiguous. Likely each of the 300 men in the first group scooped the water in one hand, held his weapon in the other, and drank by lapping from his palm as a dog laps, while the others knelt, putting their faces to the water, and then drank. Some have suggested that, in this way, the 300 showed that they were more alert for battle and therefore better soldiers. On the other hand, Josephus wrote that the 300 were actually less watchful than the others, and thus God’s power was more evident (Antiquities of the Jews, 5.6.3, lines 216–217). According to this view, God reduced Gideon’s army to 300 careless and carefree men.

7:7–8. An alternative and more likely proposal is that this test was purely random and arbitrary, designed to reduce the number of warriors, so that Israel would be small enough to give God the glory for the victory rather than take credit in their own military strength. The point of the passage is to demonstrate to Israel that God wins battles by His own might and not by the strength of His people. That is why the Lord told Gideon, I will deliver you (7:7). The 300 chosen do not necessarily reflect a more alert group or a less battle-ready army, as if God chose them on the basis of their military savvy. Such an understanding plays against the whole theme of the episode, which focuses on God’s power to deliver. If ever God did something arbitrarily, the selection of these 300 would be a prime example, done by Him to demonstrate His astounding power. It did not matter which 300 were chosen. This is all about God, not Gideon and his men.

d. Gideon Overheard a Dream (7:9–14)

7:9–14. Gideon still needed some support for his faith, however, and that night the Lord sent him into the Midianite camp with his servant Purah to overhear a Midianite dream. The dream of a barley loaf that devastated a tent demonstrated for Gideon the extent of the demoralization of the enemy camp.

e. Preparation for the Battle (7:15–18)

7:15–18. Gideon divided the 300 men into three companies of 100 men each, and gave them trumpets … pitchers, and torches. These three commonplace objects, one for each soldier, became the basis of Gideon’s defeat of the Midianites. The trumpets were ram’s horn shofars. These were not musical instruments, as anyone who has heard a shofar blown knows. Only the leader of a military unit ordinarily had access to such a noise-making device. So from the sound of 300 shofars the Midianite soldiers would have inferred the existence of an enormous body of soldiers. The pitchers would have been common earthen pots, of the sort made in a few moments by a potter, large enough to carry some provisions, and later to hide the torches. Torches would have appeared to the Midianites as the fires of the 300 Israelite soldiers.

f. The Battle on the Plains of Esdraelon (7:19–23)

7:19–23. At the beginning of the middle watch (about 10:00 p.m.) Gideon’s men blew their trumpets and smashed their pitchers, and held up the torches. These sounds and sights, along with 300 men shouting, A sword for the Lord and for Gideon! led to Midian being routed. Naphtali, Asher, and Manasseh were summoned for the chase.

g. The Muster of Ephraim (7:24–25)

7:24–25. Ephraim was called up in this maneuver to cut off a retreat. Oreb and Zeeb, Midianite field commanders, were captured and killed by Ephraim.

A few statistics are in order to indicate the miracle involved with this victory. The Midianite army numbered about 135,000 soldiers (see 8:10 for the 15,000 Midianite survivors plus the 120,000 killed in the battle). The army of Gideon numbered 300. That yields a ratio of 450 Midianite soldiers to each Jewish soldier. Who else but God could receive the credit for such a victory? And this is precisely the point of the narrative. It is God, not Gideon, who is the hero in this and every story!

4. Aftermath of the Battle (8:1–27)

a. Appeasement of Ephraim (8:1–3)

8:1–3. The leaders of Ephraim rebuked Gideon for not asking them earlier to be involved in the battle. Yet God had deliberately limited the size of the army. Gideon certainly had the right to rebuke them, but he wisely appeased the Ephraimites, downplaying his own role while exalting theirs.

b. No Help from Succoth and Penuel (8:4–9)

8:4–9. After the men of Ephraim had dealt with Oreb and Zeeb at the fords of the Jordan, Gideon went after the two kings of the enterprise, Zebah and Zalmunna. The relationship of these kings and commanders may have been similar to that of General Sisera and Jabin of Hazor.

Gideon, still with only his original 300, in spite of Ephraim’s pride, pursued the enemy past Succoth and Penuel, stopping to ask for food. When their request was refused by village leaders who were reasonably apprehensive about the chances of Gideon’s little band to rout the Midianites, Gideon responded with a harsh promise of retribution.

c. Capture of Kings; Routing of Midian (8:10–12)

8:10–12. Gideon crossed the river with his men at the fords of Succoth, just north of the Jabbok River. He then followed a route up the Jabbok watercourse to the desert. This must be the way of those who lived in tents. Penuel and Succoth dominated this route.

The Midianites by this time had arrived in Karkor (perhaps located in the Wadi Sirhan east of the Dead Sea) and thought themselves out of range of pursuit. However, Gideon, still pursuing them, went through Nobah and Jogbehah, about seven miles northwest of Amman (which is northeast of Jericho), and surprised the unsuspecting and demoralized enemy, routing them again.

d. Punishment of Succoth and Penuel (8:13–17)

8:13. Gideon returned from battle by the ascent of Heres (lit., "the pass of the Sun"). This place is unknown, but was probably in the Jabbok region east of Penuel, which is about 22 miles northeast of Jericho.

8:14–16. That Gideon captured a youth and had him write down the names of 77 princes and elders of Succoth attests to fairly widespread literacy in this era. The Hebrew language was written with an alphabet that could be easily learned. The writing here was probably scratching on a potsherd. When the men of Succoth refused to give bread to Gideon, he disciplined them by striking them with a switch made of thorns and briers.

8:17. As he had vowed (v. 9), Gideon demolished the tower of Penuel, the symbol of its power and perhaps a religious symbol as well. It was probably a citadel guarding an approach to the city.

e. Execution of Zebah and Zalmunna (8:18–21)

8:18–21. After killing Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian, and the murderers of his actual brothers (in Gideon’s words, the sons of my mother, v. 19), Gideon took the crescent-shaped ornaments from the camels’ necks.

f. Gideon Offered the Kingdom (8:22–27)

8:22–27. The grateful people of Israel offered hereditary kingship to victorious Gideon. Many of the people may have thought that a unified nation would be better able to stand against outside oppressors. This method of choosing a king was not unusual in the ancient world. Tribal and city-state-sized groups often chose a king who had demonstrated prowess in battle, frequently by defeating the previous king. The hereditary right of a king lasted only until another king could successfully challenge the son or grandson. After Israel in the north seceded from Judah in the south following the death of Solomon in 931 BC, the northern kingdom of Israel followed this pattern of cyclical coups.

It is to Gideon’s credit that he refused this offer. Yet he took to himself a number of the prerogatives of a king. He amassed a fortune (v. 26), acquired royal robes (v. 26), made an ephod to consult the Lord (v. 27), and established a harem (v. 30). He even named his son Abimelech (lit., my father is king, v. 31).

From the gold earrings … ornaments … pendants and camels’ neck bands, Gideon made an ephod, which later proved to be a snare. It was probably intended as a means of communication with God. The ephod was a kind of jeweled vest or chest piece and was the most elaborate of the Aaronic priestly garments, used in some unknown way to ascertain the will of God. The amount of gold on the ephod itself indicates that it had an idolatrous image on it. Gideon’s taking the gold earrings to make the ephod is a reminder of Aaron’s use of gold earrings to make the golden calf (Ex 32:2–4). Gideon used this to establish a worship system devoted to him, even as done by the Canaanite kings. This led to spiritual disaster for Israel who played the harlot with the ephod.

5. The Era of Gideon’s Rest (8:28–35)

a. Forty Years of Rest (8:28)

8:28. This rest period probably overlapped with Deborah’s rest, and takes the story line to about 1160 BC.

b. Gideon’s Later Life and Descendants (8:29–32)

8:29–32. Gideon had seventy sons, including Abimelech by a concubine … in Shechem. One of Gideon’s worst characteristics was his penchant for wives and concubines. The presence of many wives normally had two purposes: to demonstrate vast wealth (for it was quite expensive to support them all) and to demonstrate political power (most wives were the result of alliances with foreign rulers). While several of Israel’s kings later took multiple wives, Gideon was the first Israelite leader to do this. The hatred and murder that plagued Gideon’s family are typical of OT polygamous marriages.

c. Israel Forgets the Lord (8:33–35)

8:33–35. As soon as Gideon died, the people went back to worshiping the Baals. The words, the sons of Israel again played the harlot, are literally, "the sons of Israel returned to the practice of fornication." This was true both spiritually, in that they practiced idolatry, but also physically, since fornication was a key element in Canaanite worship and culture. This evaluation is presented four times in the book of Judges (2:17; 8:27, 33; 19:2) Also the people forgot the Lord and were unkind to Gideon’s family. The temple mentioned here belongs to Baal-berith (only here and 9:4), literally, "lord of the covenant," referring to the patron deity of Shechem. Israel forgot the true God, who had delivered them from … their enemies. Ironically, they did so in Shechem, the very place where Israel had recommitted themselves to the Lord and swore never to worship the Canaanite gods (cf. Jos 24).

6. Abimelech and the Fall of Shechem (9:1–57)

Abimelech is not called a judge, and God did not raise him up to save Israel. This chapter is thus a break in the cyclical action, functioning as an epilogue to the Gideon narrative. In a polygamous society, when jealousy and warfare break out between half-brothers, the refugees would flee to their mother’s relatives for help. This is what seems to have happened at Shechem. The purpose of the author is to emphasize the anarchy that results when anyone but the Lord is the leader of Israel.

Shechem had been important in the biblical narrative since the time of the patriarchs. Jacob’s sons captured Shechem, and Joseph was buried there. Joshua did not conquer it, but apparently the city cooperated with him. Nevertheless ties to the Canaanite past continued. Gaal, son of Ebed, stood against Abimelech and appealed to the townsmen’s loyalty to the men of Hamor, the Canaanite founder of the city (v. 28).

a. Abimelech’s Treachery and Jotham’s Response (9:1–21)

The story of Gideon could easily have ended in 8:28. That the narrative continues with the account of Gideon’s many concubines and sons, including Abimelech, argues for a continuing story line with a more dismal point. Gideon may have delivered Israel in the short term, but he was a failure as a father and ultimately as a leader of Israel.

(1) Abimelech Conspired to Become King of Shechem by Treachery (9:1–6)

9:1–2. Gideon may have officially rejected the offer of kingship but his son Abimelech (lit., my father is king) had no compunctions against pursuing kingship. He went to the whole clan of his mother’s father and claimed authority to rule over Shechem because he was their kinsman. He said, Remember that I am your bone and your flesh. This was not an unimportant consideration in antiquity.

9:3. Abimelech’s mother’s relatives were inclined to follow Abimelech (lit., "their hearts leaned toward Abimelech"). As is often the case in politics, emotion trumped reason.

9:4–5. Abimelech then hired worthless and reckless fellows. Like David after him, Abimelech started out with a motley crew of worthless men (cf. 1Sm 22:1–2). But unlike David, Abimelech failed to develop their character or skills. As noted above, the era of the judges was one of instability in the region. Outlaws, even whole tribes of fringe people, were like scavengers around the edges of society, waiting for openings to move in and obtain an advantage. Abimelech then killed all of his brothers except one, Jotham, Gideon’s youngest, who hid. He killed them on one stone implying a similarity to sacrifice on a stone altar, indicating that they were not killed in battle but by formal execution. This note foreshadows the fable to come and signals a complication in the forthcoming plot.

9:6. Beth-millo (lit., "house of the fill") may refer to the massive Middle Bronze II structure in Tell Balata, known as the Migdol or "Fortress Temple." It is a large temple built on the remains of a Middle Bronze fortress within the walls of Shechem. It would have served admirably as a defensive citadel. The pillar may well be the sacred stone (masseba) set up in front of that temple. Abimelech was crowned king here, although his "reign" probably never reached beyond a small area of Manasseh.

(2) Jotham’s Fable (9:7–15)

9:7–15. The lecture of Jotham to the elders of Shechem is the finest biblical example of a fable, a short prose or poetic morality lesson in which animals or plants behave like people. The stylized account of the trees searching for a king among the plants, only to settle on the bramble, is classic satire in fable form. The bramble, a noxious bush, represents Abimelech in the fable. The other trees, that would have been more qualified, were simply not willing to serve such a miserable constituency. So the story is a backhanded swipe at Shechem itself. In detail there are enough disjunctions between the fable and the surrounding story to make some scholars wonder if the fable was composed earlier and was part of the local culture. Possibly Jotham knew the fable from his childhood and repeated it here for polemic effect.

(3) Jotham’s Challenge and Escape (9:16–21)

9:16–21. By beginning and ending the challenge with the same phrase, If you have dealt in truth and integrity (vv. 16, 19), Jotham emphasized (with this literary device called an inclusio) the main point of his criticism. His tone was ironic, as he leveled his critique at the truthfulness and moral integrity of the elders of Shechem.

b. The Fall of Shechem and Abimelech (9:22–55)

(1) Three Turbulent Years of Rule (9:22–25)

9:22. Although Abimelech was acclaimed king by the men of Shechem, the narrator refused to grant him that honor, saying only that Abimelech ruled over Israel three years. The Hebrew word for "ruled" is yasar, "to govern, to be a captain" and does not indicate kingship.

9:23–25. The men of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech in revenge for his slaughter of Gideon’s sons. The evil spirit mentioned here might just as well be called "bad blood"; certainly no demonic spirit is in view. The opponents of Abimelech sought to make his reign more difficult by ambushing the caravans that came through Shechem. This would have the effect of drastically reducing commerce. During the Amarna Age (early 14th century BC), Labayu of Shechem was accused of the same tactics by the king of Megiddo. This is a likely story, since Shechem was in an ideal location for such an ambush. The phrase that the violence … might come probably refers to the principle of vengeance. The men of Shechem likely believed that an evil deed would be repaid somehow, and they justified their own evil deeds as a way of hastening the vengeance.

(2) Gaal, the Challenger (9:26–29)

9:26–29. Gaal was an elder of Shechem who presumably had not supported Abimelech. When he arrived in the city, he was welcomed with a wild party and an emotional denunciation of Abimelech. Gaal challenged the people to follow him, and he challenged Abimelech to oppose him. The hand of God in judgment governs this entire story, in fulfillment of the curse of Jotham (v. 20).

(3) Zebul, the Lieutenant, Warned of Treachery (9:30–33)

9:30–33. Zebul, Abimelech’s second-in-command, apparently witnessed the party in Shechem, and so he warned his master of the treachery, advising him to mount an attack at sunrise, the traditional best time for a surprise attack.

(4) The Defeat of Gaal (9:34–41)

9:34–41. Abimelech responded to the challenge, and he drove Gaal and his relatives out of Shechem. The diviners’ oak (v. 37), a terebinth or oak, marked a sacred spot well known to the men of Shechem, but it cannot be identified today.

(5) The Capture of Shechem (9:42–45)

9:42–45. Abimelech and his soldiers then slaughtered many of the inhabitants of Shechem who emerged from the city and those who were in the field. In his foolish vindictiveness Abimelech destroyed and dismantled the main city of his realm, sowing salt over it as a symbol of total defeat. This use of salt is documented much later in the Roman destruction of Carthage, and perhaps represents a curse: "May the land be forever useless," since salt in significant amounts would make agriculture difficult. The city was not mentioned again as being rebuilt until the time of Jeroboam I, two centuries later (1Kg 12:25).

(6) Burning the Tower of Shechem (9:46–49)

9:46. The tower mentioned here is the same as Beth-millo, mentioned in v. 6. For its significance, see the comments there.

9:47–49. Abimelech and his men cut branches from … trees, placed them in the tower’s inner chamber, and set them on fire, thus killing about a thousand men and women. This vicious behavior is included as further evidence of Abimelech’s excessive vindictiveness and cruelty.

(7) Death of Abimelech at Thebez (9:50–55)

9:50–55. When Abimelech attacked Thebez (about 10 miles northeast of Shechem, a strategic fortress at the convergence of the roads to the Jezreel valley at Dothan, and at the northern border of Abimelech’s domain) people fled to the roof of the tower. A woman threw an upper millstone against Abimelech. This was a large, cylindrical stone used to grind grain against a lower, fixed stone. It could be carried, and when dropped from an upper story by a woman it served as humiliation to Abimelech at his death.

c. Fulfillment of the Curse of Jotham (9:56–57)

9:56–57. In these verses all the elements of Jotham’s curse have been fulfilled. For the first time in the book God is seen clearly acting with the law of retribution in mind. The people of Shechem received the king they deserved, and the king received the subjects he deserved. The principle is that God is just in working out the consequences of people’s sins.

The Later Judgeships:

Several minor judges are mentioned in passing between the major judges of this later period, Jephthah and Samson. While neither Jephthah nor Samson was particularly praiseworthy, together they served to outline the geopolitical situation of the era. Both men operated during the end of the twelfth century (1100 BC). Jephthah faced the Ammonites in the east, and Samson fought the Philistines in the west. These twin threats, from opposite sides of the central hill country, served as the stimulus that ultimately led Israel to call for a king.

F. Tola and Jair: Two Minor Administrators (10:1–5)

Little is known of these minor judges. Archaeology provides little help in identifying their towns or the oppressors who gave them reason to rise to power.

1. Tola: Twenty-Three Years of Stability (10:1–2)

10:1–2. The location of Shamir, a common name, is probably someplace in the hill country of Ephraim.

2. Jair: Twenty-Two Years of Prosperity (10:3–5)

10:3–5. Jair’s thirty cities in … Gilead are called Havvoth-jair (lit., "tent-settlements of Jair"). The dates for these two judges are not known, but they were likely contemporaries on opposite sides of the Jordan River.

G. Jephthah: Outcast Deliverer (10:6–12:7)

In this passage the author again took opportunity to give details of the cycle of sin and judgment that characterized the judges era. In this case the sin of the nation had increased so badly that God Himself refused—at least the first time asked—to save them from their enemies.

1. Gilead and the Challenge of Ammon (10:6–18)

While Israel dealt with the minor powers of Ammon and Philistia, the great powers were apparently on the sidelines. During the later period of the judges, the great world powers of Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, and Egypt did not interfere, thus giving Israel about 150 years to develop as an independent nation. The Mittani of Mesopotamia, known from the Amarna correspondence, had years before been neutralized by the Hittites. In turn, Egypt and the Hittites fought to a draw at Kedesh on the Orontes River (near the NT town of Syrian Antioch) in 1290 BC. The Sea Peoples, moving into the region, apparently destroyed the Hittite Empire around 1200 BC before fighting Egypt to a standstill along the coast of Palestine. All this mutually destructive activity left the great powers exhausted. They simply did not care what happened in the former lands of the empire, including Israel.

a. Sin and Affliction for 18 Years (10:6–9)

10:6–9. A long list of foreign gods is presented in v. 6, including, for the first time, the gods of the Ammonites and of the Philistines. The Israelites were quick learners when it came to sin. Though these various gods were similar in many ways—all were part of the fertility pantheon—they were distinctive as well. Dagon of the Philistines was probably not a fish god, as has sometimes been thought. The name Dagan is the common Semitic word for "grain," suggesting that Dagan/Dagon may have been a West Semitic fertility god. In fact, he is included in the literature of Mesopotamia. The Ammonites’ god was Milcom (corruption of Molech), who delighted in child sacrifice, and Moab served Chemosh, who also accepted human sacrifice. Both of these are represented by ugly metal statues in the literature and may well be gods of the underworld. God was angry at Israel because His people were so engaged in the idolatrous worship of these nations, and so for eighteen years the Philistines and Ammonites fought against Israel on both sides of the Jordan (v. 8).

b. Supplication until God Could Not Bear It (10:10–16)

10:10–16. This passage is the most striking confrontation between God and Israel in the book. Israel’s confession of sin in v. 10 is clear and concise. God’s response in vv. 11–14 is a detailed catalog of His mighty works up to that point (deliverance from Egypt, Ex 12; Amorites, Nm 21:21–25; Ammonites, Jdg 3:13; Philistines are mentioned in Jdg 3:3, but not elsewhere until chap. 15; Sidonians are mentioned also in Jdg 3; Amalekites are mentioned in Numbers and Judges as a constant threat; Maon is obscure—perhaps the LXX is correct in translating this Midian, Jdg 7). God’s response was also a reminder that Israel had turned away, choosing to serve other gods. More significantly, the seven nations from whom God had delivered Israel correlated with the number of false gods they had worshiped (10:6). Israel’s reply of contrition in v. 15 is pathetic. Verse 16b states that God could bear the misery of Israel no longer, meaning that He could no longer stand by and allow Israel to be oppressed. Some have suggested that this phrase should read, "His soul was short with the misery," suggesting that God had run out of patience with Israel’s repeated attempts at insincere repentance. Nevertheless, since God did empower Jephthah to deliver Israel (Jdg 11:29, 33), it seems better to understand the phrase as referring to God’s compassion for Israel.

c. The Muster of Ammon and Gilead (10:17–18)

10:17–18. This passage speaks volumes on ancient warfare customs. The Ammonites and Gileadites mustered for battle (v. 17) before Gilead had chosen a general. The call of Jephthah to be both general and political leader (v. 18) is almost an afterthought. Mizpah, where the Israelite army gathered, is a common name, meaning "watchtower," and is not otherwise identified.

2. Jephthah Called to Face Ammon (11:1–11)

a. Jephthah Introduced (11:1–3)

The Jephthah story is notable for God’s use of an unlikely person. As Israel continued its decline in this era, the Lord had to turn to one of dubious background and character to defend His people. Nevertheless, this does give encouragement to those who would serve the Lord that it is not human pedigree but divine empowerment that brings success. If only Jephthah had ended as well as he began.

11:1–2. Jephthah is called a valiant warrior (gibbor hayil), a term that normally speaks of a man of status in the community because of property ownership, pedigree, and/or war-fighting skill. Jephthah probably was called this because of his fighting ability and not because of community status. He was the son of a man named "Gilead" by a prostitute, likely a Canaanite, who is not named. His brothers refused him his inheritance because of that disgrace. Jephthah was forced into the life of an outcast.

11:3. Taking to himself a group of worthless fellows (cf. 9:4), he built for himself a small private army, apparently becoming the only significant force in the area. When the Ammonites decided to capitalize on Israel’s weakness in the region after almost 300 years, Jephthah was the only leader with the experience to help. So it was that the men of Gilead turned to who could best be described as a local gang leader to come to their aid. Jephthah’s victories led this unlikely leader to be identified in the biblical roll call of faith (Heb 11:32).

b. Jephthah Agreed to Lead Gilead (11:4–11)

11:4–11. These negotiations between Jephthah and the men of the region revealed their desperation and Jephthah’s own wariness. When Jephthah repeated all these words of the negotiated settlement before the Lord, he was solemnizing the contract before God (v. 11).

3. The Battle of Ammon (11:12–40)

This battle took place c. 1100 BC, and although God granted Jephthah victory, this was not the end of conflict with the Ammonites. They were not finally subdued until the time of David, 100 years later (2Sm 12:31).

a. Jephthah’s Diplomacy (11:12–28)

11:12–28. This passage provides details that are not available elsewhere about Ammon’s territory and Israel’s length of time in the region. The most prominent geographical feature of the region is the Wadi Jabbok, which begins in a series of springs northwest of Amman, Jordan, runs northward as far as modern Zerqa, then westward to the Jordan, dropping some 2,500 feet in the process through a spectacular rocky gorge.

The Ammonites, probably allied with the Moabites, saw an opportunity for territorial expansion. In this extended historical-geographical description Jephthah presented Israel’s argument for ownership of the land on which Reuben and Gad lived. While at Kadesh, Moses asked permission to pass through (v. 17) the territory of Edom and Moab, and was refused (Nm 20). These two peoples, along with Ammon, descended from the same family as Israel, and God had given them inheritances in the plateau (Dt 2:5, 9, 19). No such relationship existed with the Amorite Sihon (v. 19), however, and Moses wasted little time liquidating that kingdom along the Arnon River (on the east side of the Dead Sea, at its mid-point north to south, Nm 21).

The Israelites possessed the Amorite territory from the Arnon as far as the Jabbok, and from the wilderness as far as the Jordan (v. 22). One could wish that the text had been a bit more specific in describing the eastern boundary. Certainly the Ammonites occupied the area around Amman itself, and probably to the edge of the plateau, along a line roughly from Jogbehah (25 miles northeast of the Dead Sea) to Heshbon (14 miles east of the north end of the Dead Sea). Reuben probably occupied most of the Medeba plateau from Bezer (about eight miles east of the north end of the Dead Sea) to the Arnon, and Gad stretched along the rolling hills east of the Jordan. The exact boundary under dispute here is open to question.

The mention of three hundred years of occupation (v. 26) is the key to understanding the dating of the Judges period. Though this is certainly a round number, it is inherently plausible and easily fits a conquest date of c. 1400 BC, putting Jephthah c. 1100 BC, near the end of the period of the Judges. Jephthah’s argument in this passage was simply that each nation had received its inheritance from the hand of God. He referred to the honorable behavior of Israel, and requested similar honorable acts from Ammon. Although he did say that the Ammonites could possess what Chemosh … gives you to possess, he was not necessarily acknowledging Chemosh as a true god. He was merely negotiating with the Ammonites, with some irony, based on what the Ammonites themselves believed.

b. Jephthah’s Foolish Vow (11:29–33)

11:29–33. In the process of destroying twenty cities of Ammon from Aroer to … Minnith (v. 33), Jephthah committed an act that has earned him a large amount of scholarly examination. His vow to sacrifice as a burnt offering whatever (or whoever) first came out his front door showed his lack of faith as he approached battle. It was a mistake common in Israel—thinking that one could negotiate with God and thereby win His favor.

While it is true that human sacrifice was prohibited by Moses (Lv 18:21; Dt 12:31), it is not at all clear that Jephthah had the training and background in the Lord to know that. The surrounding nations—the most important being Ammon and Moab—practiced the sacrifice of children. The slaughter of the crown prince of Moab in 2Kg 3:27 was an example of such an atrocity. Jephthah may well have been influenced by these pagan practices in his misguided devotion to the Lord. However, it is possible that Jephthah’s daughter was not killed. One way of reading the Hebrew conjunction "and" in the phrase it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering is as a "disjunctive"—(or), thus giving Jephthah a choice (11:31).

c. Jephthah’s Daughter (11:34–40)

11:34–40. Although this passage has historically been interpreted that Jephthah did indeed offer his daughter as a human sacrifice, this is unlikely for several reasons. First, his daughter took the news of her fate with surprising calm, saying you have given your word to the Lord; do to me as you have said. It is unlikely that she would be so placid if she were facing death. Second, she asked that she be given time to weep because of [her] virginity, not for her life, implying that she was not to be a burnt offering but more likely confined as a virgin servant in the tabernacle precincts. Psalm 68:25 uses similar language to speak of virgin tambourine players serving in the tabernacle and dancing in procession. Although this would be wonderful for a worshiper of the Lord, she would have considered this sorrowful because Jephthah had no other children, and being kept a virgin would mean the end of his line. Third, at the end of her mourning period, the text says her father kept his vow and she had no relations with a man, not that he killed her as a human sacrifice. Therefore, it is best to assume that Jephthah did not make a burnt offering of his daughter, but instead sacrificed her to serve in the tabernacle. In any case, Jephthah’s foolish vow is emblematic of the period and had serious implications for his family.

4. Civil War with Ephraim (12:1–6)

12:1–6. The story now shifts from Jephthah’s foolishness to Ephraim’s arrogance. The large tribe of Ephraim again complained of missing out, as they had done with Gideon some years before (8:1). Jephthah reminded them that he had asked for their assistance but they had not responded. At this point, Jephthah apparently ran out of patience for diplomacy, and his discussion with the leaders of Ephraim resulted in civil war. Part of the reason for the civil strife was that the Ephraimites had called the Gileadites fugitives … in the midst of Ephraim and in the midst of Manasseh, a taunt that called these descendants of Joseph traitors for having settled across the Jordan. After the battle, the defeated Ephraimites tried to escape across the Jordan at the fords. As the Ephraimites fled to cross the Jordan, it was not readily apparent to the Gileadite followers of Jephthah who they were, since many non-Ephraimites crossed the Jordan often as well. So the Gileadites devised a test to catch the Ephraimites. The test for Ephraimites—pronouncing the word "Shibboleth"—is of interest to linguists, who explain that the sibilants in the Semitic languages are notorious for dialectic shift. In the 300 years of separation of the tribes, small variations of pronunciation probably occurred. This also argues for a more lengthy period of the Judges than critics are willing to allow.

5. Six Years of Rest (12:7)

12:7. This brief period of peace, having come only after a brutal civil war caused by mutual affronts, suggests the overall declining situation in Israel.

H. Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon: Three Minor Administrators (12:8–15)

Before launching into a detailed description of Samson’s exploits, the author mentioned three minor judges, who had no apparent military function but served as regional administrators.

1. Ibzan: Seven Years a Family Man (12:8–10)

12:8–10. Ibzan ruled from Bethlehem, which is probably the less well-known site in Zebulun (about seven miles east of Mt. Carmel in the north), since the southern Bethlehem is normally called "Bethlehem in Judah." His marriage practices and his habit of going outside the clan for mates for his children indicate an effort on his part to unify Israel after the tragic civil war.

2. Elon: Ten Years in Zebulun (12:11–12)

12:11–12. Elon is virtually unknown. His town may be related to the more famous town in the Aijalon Valley, but this is unlikely.

3. Abdon: Eight Years with Donkeys (12:13–15)

12:13–15. Abdon lived in Pirathon about six miles south of Shechem, on the border of Manasseh and Ephraim. His wealth is indicated by his many children. He had sons and … grandsons who rode on … donkeys, a sign they considered themselves nobility since this was a mark of high rank (10:4).

I. Samson: A Deeply Flawed Deliverer (13:1–16:31)

The Samson cycle is one of the most fascinating in the Bible. Most readers find themselves at once attracted and repelled by this amoral hero. His insatiable lust and sinful pride led him to self-destruction. Yet he too was used by God to deliver Israel.

1. Forty Years of Philistine Oppression (13:1)

13:1. The mention of a forty-year oppression by the Philistines supports the assertion that Samson was a contemporary of Jephthah. If the Philistines arrived in force to attempt a takeover of the land around 1154 BC, as suggested by archaeologists, 40 years of oppression and some time for Samson to grow to maturity would put these events shortly after 1100 BC.

2. Conception and Birth of a Remarkable Boy: Samson Introduced (13:2–25)

In contrast to Jephthah, Samson was divinely appointed and empowered, surrounded by signs of divine selection.

a. The Angel of the Lord Appeared to Manoah’s Wife (13:2–7)

13:2–3. These events took place in the twelfth century BC, about 100 years after the Danites had migrated north (see the chronological explanation at Jdg 17:1). As such, it appears that Manoah and his wife remained in the ancestral area of Dan, indicating that their families had not migrated north with the bulk of the tribe. Zorah, about 15 miles west of Jerusalem, is one of the critical guard cities on the western approaches to Jerusalem. It sits across the Sorek Valley (to the north about two miles from Beth Shemesh) on an impressive natural hill. As the Philistines began to mount their offensive drives into the hill country, Zorah would have been on the front line.

Manoah’s wife was barren, but Ps 113:9 cites the classic image of God blessing "barren women" who became "joyful mothers." This miraculous conception and birth echos Isaac and prefigures the Messiah, with the point that life always comes from the Lord.

13:4–7. The instructions about no wine and strong drink and no razor relate to the unusual requirement that Samson be a Nazirite from birth. The Nazirite vow (Nm 6) was generally a temporary vow related to special spiritual discipline or work. Samson was the only perpetual Nazirite mentioned in Scripture.

b. Manoah Spoke with God (13:8–14)

13:8–14. Manoah was understandably hesitant to take his wife’s word for such a momentous announcement. He wanted to hear it from the angel himself. The angel of God (vv. 6, 9) is also called the angel of the Lord (vv. 3, 13). The definite article "the" suggests that this angel, like Gideon’s angel, was a theophany (see comments on 6:12–14 above).

c. Sacrifice before the Angel of the Lord (13:15–20)

13:15–20. This remarkably detailed passage reinforces the divine power of the angel of the Lord. He refused a meal, suggesting a lack of fellowship between the nation and their God. He asked instead for a sacrifice, and he helped to point Manoah toward a correct understanding of his visitor. When asked his name, he responded it is wonderful. The Hebrew pel’ suggests something that is beyond understanding and is a word associated with the wondrous acts of God (cf. Is 9:6).

The sacrifice, a whole burnt offering, is accepted in a miraculous way, with fire coming from the Lord to consume it. It also included a further a miraculous aspect: the angel … ascended in the flame of the altar. Then, Manoah and his wife fell on their faces to the ground, in the classic attitude of worship.

d. Common Sense of Manoah’s Wife (13:21–23)

13:21–23. Having seen the angel of the Lord, Manoah said, We will surely die. This reflects Manoah’s traditional understanding of the consequence of seeing God (Ex 33:20). His wife, on the other hand, put the whole event in context, realizing that something truly marvelous had happened and that they were not likely to die. Manoah, though a good man, is shown to be spiritually obtuse, but at least his wife had common sense.

e. Samson’s Birth and Divine Empowerment (13:24–25)

13:24. Samson’s birth and growth are noted briefly. As he grew, the Lord blessed him. Samson’s name is the diminutive of shemesh, "sun," and perhaps reflects his sunny disposition. A more troubling possibility is that Samson was named for the pagan sun god Shamash. Such names were common in the ancient world.

13:25. Eshtaol is probably Tel Eshtaol located several miles farther north up the Sorek Valley (about 12 miles west of Jerusalem) from Zorah. Eshtaol is always mentioned with Zorah. Between the two was located the Mahaneh-dan ("Camp of Dan") where Samson first felt the stirring of God’s Spirit. Later he was buried there (16:31). The major site in the region, Beth Shemesh (about 17 miles west and slightly south of Jerusalem), must certainly have been within the region known as the "Camp of Dan." This tel commands the entrance to the Sorek Valley from the west.

3. Samson’s Marriage at Timnah (14:1–15:20)

These chapters give a first look at the central tragedy in Samson’s life, namely, his uncontrollable lust. His parents, despite their godly outlook, simply could not reign in this strong-willed son.

a. Samson Chose a Wife from the Philistines (14:1–4)

14:1–3. Samson saw a Philistine woman in Timnah, which is Tel Batash, about four miles west of Beth Shemesh and Zorah in the Sorek Valley. The border between Philistine and Israelite territory must have run roughly north and south between the two settlement areas. Standing on Beth Shemesh, it is possible to trace the strategic situation, as the two Danite cities of Beth Shemesh and Zorah presented a strong defensive position toward the west, where the Sorek Valley widens to connect with the Aijalon Valley just to its north. Philistine chariots roamed freely on that plain, hesitating only as they approached the narrow confines of the upper Sorek Valley.

When Samson asked his parents to get this Philistine woman as his wife, they questioned the wisdom of that suggestion. But he liked her appearance.

14:4. In Samson’s request the Lord … was seeking an occasion against the Philistines. This is the key to the entire Samson narrative: in spite of Samson’s lack of godliness, the Lord was accomplishing His own agenda through the life of Samson.

b. Samson Took His Parents to Meet the Girl (14:5–9)

14:5–9. The trip to Timnah took the family through the vineyards of Timnah, where Samson first received the Spirit of the Lord, and tore [a young lion] as one tears a young goat. This seemingly irrelevant exploit is the prelude to Samson’s riddle of v. 14. The lion was a part of God’s plan for dealing with the Philistines, as will be seen in Samson’s wedding banquet and interplay with his companions, resulting in the death of 30 Philistines!

c. Samson’s Wedding Debacle (14:10–20)

The customs mentioned here are virtually the same as customs attested elsewhere in the Scriptures. The wedding process was divided into two phases: betrothal and the marriage. Betrothal was nearly as binding as the marriage itself, and was normally arranged by the parents. It was not uncommon for the couple involved to hardly know one another before the betrothal. The marriage feast involved both families, all their friends, and the entire community of the bride. Wedding ceremonies must have been simple, an exchange of agreements between parents and then between the couple in the presence of witnesses. The wedding feast was the more significant event. Samson’s marriage is strange in that the bride continued to live in her father’s house. Normally the bride joined the young man in his parent’s home. When the Philistines fought with Samson and the girl was given to another, she continued to live in her father’s house and the bridegroom visited her there.

(1) The Feast (14:10–11)

14:10–11. This feast, a bachelor party consisting of Samson and 30 young Philistine male companions, provided the context for the riddle game.

(2) Samson’s Riddle (14:12–14)

14:12–14. Middle-Easterners loved the challenge of logical conundrums, and these are found or hinted at regularly in their literature. Samson’s confrontation with the Philistines over a riddle could have been a similar serious game. If they could solve his riddle, he would give them thirty linen wraps and thirty changes of clothes. If not, they would give him the same.

(3) Treachery on Treachery (14:15–20)

14:15–20. This passage suggests interlocking treachery on the part of the Philistines, Samson’s wife, and Samson himself. When threatened by the Philistines if she did not find out from Samson the meaning of the riddle, she pressed Samson for it. She told the Philistines the answer to the riddle, and they relayed it to Samson. Samson accused them of taking advantage of his wife, remarking that if they had not plowed with [his] heifer they could not have succeeded. The use of the term heifer to describe his wife is likely a reference to her rebellious stubborn spirit (Jr 50:11; Hs 4:16). That the Spirit of the Lord came upon him mightily is a testimony to God’s desire to punish the Philistines, not to Samson’s virtue (on Jdg 14:20, see 15:2).

Ashkelon, situated on the Mediterranean and protected by the rest of the Philistine pentapolis, was the natural center of Philistine higher culture. There Samson in anger killed 30 otherwise uninvolved Philistines. It might appear that this was an act of personal vengeance. Yet, the Spirit of God motivated it. Therefore, while Samson may have been seeking revenge for what was done to him, he seems to have unwittingly become an instrument of God in fulfilling his role as judge and defeating the enemies of Israel.

d. Samson’s Destruction of Philistine Crops (15:1–8)

15:1–8. In retaliation for the loss of his wife, Samson tied the tails of three hundred foxes together, set them on fire, and released the foxes into the standing grain and vineyards and groves. As noted above, the region around Timnah is excellent for agriculture. Adequate rainfall makes it possible to grow many crops without irrigation. In the flat alluvial valley, grain of all kinds will grow nicely, separated into fields by windrows of stones and hedges. The rolling hills are a fine location for olive trees and vineyards. In the summer, as the grain is ripening in the sun, a fire could easily be spread in the manner suggested here. The Philistines then burned Samson’s wife and her father (v. 6). Then Samson took revenge by slaughtering many Philistines. All of this, as vindictive as it clearly was, can be seen in the larger narrative as a part of God’s plan to punish the Philistines through Samson’s judgeship.

He then went to live in the cleft of the rock of Etam. This could be virtually anywhere in the hill country, where limestone outcroppings are abundant, and caves make a convenient hiding place.

e. Samson Submitted to the Men of Judah (15:9–13)

15:9. Lehi in Judah (about 12 miles southwest of Jerusalem), where the Philistines … camped means "jawbone." This was the name given to the place in Judah after the battle described here.

15:10–13. The conversation between the Philistines and the men of Judah here gives insight into their relationship. The Philistines are called rulers of Israel, a term that implies dominion or sovereignty. As part of the prediction of blessing for godly obedience in Dt 15:6, Israel was promised that they would "rule" nations, but the nations would not "rule" over them. The corollary, that disobedience will result in foreign rulers, is made clear in Israel’s history. The men of Judah were willing to obey Philistine orders, and Samson, apparently unwilling to resist the efforts of the men of Judah, went quietly with them, bound with new ropes. When Samson saw the Philistines and heard them shouting, the Spirit of God empowered him yet again and the battle was on.

f. The Battle of Lehi (15:14–19)

15:14–19. In this battle against the Philistines Samson killed a thousand men with a jawbone. A jawbone found at Tel Qasile in the northern portion of the Philistine Plain illustrates this striking story. It is fitted with flint teeth, making it a sickle for cutting grain. A fresh jawbone, one still moist from a recently dead donkey, would be the best weapon, for it would not be as likely to break under stress. Later God opened a hollow in the region to provide water for Samson, who named it En-hakkore. Although this location cannot be identified, the author’s point in including this story is to show that God not only empowered Samson by His Spirit (15:14), but also physically sustained him with water, so that Samson would accomplish God’s purposes as judge.

g. Twenty Years of Samson’s Leadership (15:20)

15:20. This brief note covers twenty years of Samson’s life. He is called a judge here over Israel.

4. Samson’s Lust and Death (16:1–31)

It is fitting that Samson should die as he lived, in a confusion of passion and blood.

a. Samson and the Harlot of Gaza (16:1–3)

16:1–3. This brief episode provides insight into Samson’s character as both morally weak and physically strong. As for his moral weakness, he made a habit of frequenting the Philistine city of Gaza and other cities, looking for sensual entertainment. On this occasion he went to Gaza and visited a harlot there, resulting in an attack plot by the local Philistines. Samson outsmarted them by getting up in the middle of the night, ripping out the city gates (posts, bar, and all), and carrying them to Hebron, a distance of 40 miles (although some consider this to be a hill just outside of Gaza in the direction of Hebron). The author includes this demonstration of amazing strength and prowess not merely to show Samson’s ability to destroy a defensive feature of the enemy. Rather, he is contrasting Samson’s moral weakness with his enormous physical strength. Imagine the sort of judge Samson could have been if his moral might was comparable to his physical power.

b. Samson and Delilah (16:4–22)

(1) Delilah Introduced (16:4–6)

16:4–6. In the valley of Sorek Samson fell in love with Delilah. As noted above, the Sorek Valley provides one of three western approaches to Jerusalem and the hill country, though it is the least accessible of the three. The word Sorek derives from a word meaning "bright red," which apparently refers to the quality of the grapes. Samson’s Nazirite vow was certainly in jeopardy on this account.

The passage records a simple intelligence operation on the part of the Philistine leaders who proposed a substantial bribe to Delilah.

(2) Three Tests of Strength (16:7–14)

16:7–14. Samson told her he would be weak like anyone else if she bound him with seven fresh cords. These cords (yetharim) were actually made from animal intestines and may have been used as bowstrings. Fresh cords, like fresh donkey jaws, may have been tougher than the seasoned variety. But Samson was playing a dangerous game. Next, new ropes were proposed, and Samson snapped them easily. Tow translates a rare Hebrew word (ne’oret) found only here and in Is 1:31, where it is translated "tinder." Ugaritic evidence suggests the material may be produced by combing flax.

Samson suggested she weave seven locks of his hair with a web (probably a horizontal loom, with lines pinned to four corners on the floor, since Samson was asleep during the weaving process). The Hebrew text (MT) of 16:13–14a was shortened through a mistaken scribal omission, and has generally been restored (by NASB, NIV, ESV) according to the LXX reading, adding elements of the story pattern that are present in the other three Delilah sections.

(3) Delilah Extracted the Secret of Samson’s Strength (16:15–17)

16:15–17. Then Samson told her that if his hair was shaved with a razor he would become weak. The best ancient razors were made of flint or obsidian. The hard, glass-like igneous rock has sharp edges. Of course Samson’s hair did not give him his strength. Instead God’s Spirit gave him strength (as found in 14:19 and elsewhere in the Samson narrative). But Delilah’s razor-wielding was as much a symbol of Samson’s spiritual bankruptcy as a cause of his downfall.

(4) Samson Captured by the Philistines (16:18–22)

16:18–21. The basis of Samson’s strength was not primarily his own physical prowess (which must have been substantial) neither was it his long hair, which was merely an external symbol of his Nazirite vow. The Nazirite vow was designed by God (Nm 6:1–2) as a way for Israelite men to set themselves apart for special service or prayer. God had honored Samson’s Nazirite status in using him for the special task of defeating Israel’s enemies. When his hair was cut it was only an outward symbol that the Lord had departed from him, the real reason for his utter defeat. Cutting Samson’s hair indicated that he had broken his vow by foolishly telling Delilah about it. What happened to Samson could not happen to a believer today because in the OT it was normative for the Spirit to come upon people temporarily for special service and then to leave. It is only after the birth of the Church in Ac 2, that the Lord Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit’s universal and permanent indwelling of believers was fulfilled (Jn 14:16–17). As a result of Samson’s defeat, he was made physically blind to represent his foolish spiritual blindness and made to grind grain, the hardest and lowest kind of slave labor possible.

16:22. After Samson’s hair was shaved, time passed, and it began to grow again. There was no magic in the hair, of course, but rather it represented the restoration of Samson’s Nazirite vow. The word "began" is a literary foreshadowing of the work of the Spirit in Samson’s life (see 13:5, 25 where it was used of the Lord beginning to use Samson). Here it suggests that God was not done with him, but would yet again use him, and that he would have his opportunity for vengeance on the Philistines.

c. Samson’s Humiliation and Vengeance (16:23–31)

(1) Samson’s Humiliation (16:23–27)

16:23–27. To add insult to tragedy, the Philistine leaders chose to exhibit Samson in the temple of Dagon, including coercing him to entertain them.

(2) Samson’s Vengeance (16:28–31)

16:28–31. Philistine temples, such as those found superimposed at Tel Qasile on the Yarkon River (on the north side of modern Tel Aviv), are not large at all. The pillars of these temples were probably not massive. They may have been about a yard in diameter and perhaps six to seven yards tall.

The structure at Qasile was held up by two pillars about two yards apart. The roof, made of large wooden rafters supported by a central wood or stone beam, would certainly have collapsed if the pillars were forced apart. About 3,000 Philistines who were on the roof were killed.

Samson’s life ended in tragedy. Yet God used him to accomplish the deliverance of Israel, for a time, from the Philistines.

III. Two Epilogues: The Abominable Spiritual Condition of Israel Called for a Great King to Stabilize and Lead the Nation (17:1–21:25)

The incidents described in chaps. 17–21 do not follow chap. 16 chronologically. Rather they are events from the earliest period of the judges. This is evident in 18:30 where Jonathan, the Levite who became the Danite pagan priest, is identified as the grandson of Moses (see comments there). This puts the story within 100 years of the conquest under Joshua. The author’s purpose in using these stories here was to identify them as archetypical events, indicating the rampant apostasy and degradation that occurred when there was no king and each man did what was right in his own eyes (17:6; 21:25).

The author deliberately framed these narratives to resemble stories previously recorded in Scripture. For example, the story of the Levite and his concubine (19:1–26) deliberately calls to mind the account of Sodom in Gn 19, indicating that Israel in the period of the Judges was as sinful as Sodom. Also, the story of the battle with the Benjamites (Jdg 20:1–48) reminds readers of Israel’s failures in Ai (Jos 7–8). Thus, the author shows Israel’s unwillingness to obey the Lord, thereby repeating the sins of their fathers. This portion of the book serves to characterize the judges period as a time of spiritual decline and political chaos, the lack of a king being directly related to the spiritual problem. Although some think this is merely a defense of David and his dynasty, the narratives in the books of Samuel and Kings demonstrate that neither David nor his sons met Israel’s need. Hence, the book points ultimately to the Messianic descendant of David who would fulfill the promise of kingship in Israel.

A. The Idolatry of Dan (17:1–18:31)

1. Idolatry in Ephraim (17:1–13)

This disgusting episode of a thieving Ephraimite named Micah and his mother demonstrates the depths into which Israel had sunk. Micah was a thief, and his mother was a fool. The two made the silver into idols and consecrated a family member to be a priest! Eleven hundred shekels of silver probably represented the old woman’s life savings. There being no banks or mutual funds, it was kept in and around the house in the form of silver, gold, or precious stones.

a. Micah and His Mother (17:1–6)

17:1–4. Micah admitted to his mother that he stole eleven hundred pieces of silver from her, but that he was returning them to her. She then took two hundred pieces to have them made into idols. The OT uses no fewer than 10 words to speak of idols. Most of them have to do with the method in which the idol was made. In this passage (v. 4) the terms pesel and massekah are used. The first may be translated "carved [graven] image," the second "cast [molten] image." Many examples of such idols are extant, and descriptions of them are available in archaeological literature. The earlier example of Laban and his household gods (the teraphim, "household idols" of Gn 31:19; see the comments there) demonstrates the value placed on such objects. Probably a set of household gods represented the wealth of the household, as well as a family’s inheritance that would be passed along.

17:5. To go along with his new collection of idols (or perhaps just one idol) Micah turned a portion of his home into a shrine, probably building a niche in one wall, an architectural feature regularly found in sacred buildings in Israel. He then formally consecrated one of his sons to be a priest, thereby perverting the true intentions of the Aaronic priesthood, which was to be a continuous picture of the work of Christ in the tabernacle and temple service.

17:6. The refrain there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes is repeated, reminding readers of the spiritual decline that results from the lack of a king, and particularly, the lack of the Messiah (see introductory remarks after III. Two Epilogues, above).

b. A Levite for a Priest (17:7–13)

17:7–13. The young Levite who later became Micah’s priest obviously had no better grasp of the principles of the worship of the Lord than Micah did. He was from Bethlehem, which was not one of the Levitical cities, suggesting that by this time the Levites had probably been scattered because of lack of support, and sought any sort of living they could find. Micah assumed that having the Levite living in his house meant that the Lord would prosper him. The idea of the Levite as a "good luck charm" is clearly far away from the biblical pattern of the Levite as servant of the Lord in the tabernacle. Micah’s arrangement betrays a misunderstanding of the purpose of the priesthood altogether.

2. Danites on the Move (18:1–31)

a. Danite Patrol Meets the Priest of Micah (18:1–6)

18:1–6. That the Danites had a difficult region to settle is unquestionable. The Philistines were able to operate in most of Dan’s territory without fear of opposition, since their chariots could easily control the plains and rolling Shephelah country in the area west and south of Jerusalem. Their failure, however, was because of spiritual shortcomings rather than military weaknesses. This episode at Micah’s house demonstrates the character of these men more than any technical description. The Danites lacked the faith to follow through on God’s commands to take the land, and their idolatry is the outward evidence of that lack of commitment to the living God.

That an inheritance had not been allotted to the tribe of Dan (v. 1) probably reflects their pessimistic view of their situation. Joshua had allotted a tribal territory to Dan (see Jos 19:40–48), but the territory had hardly been handed over to them. It was their responsibility to secure it, and this they failed to do. Because the Philistines were such a constant threat to them, they began to scout out other places to live, to which they could relocate. So a patrol of five men was sent to spy out the land. This parallels Jos 2:1, the story of the spies at Rahab’s house, in a perverse way. When the five men went to Micah’s house, they recognized the voice of the Levite. So they asked him to ask God if their journey would be prosperous.

b. Danites Find a New Place to Settle (18:7–10)

18:7. When the five scouts went to Laish, they were impressed that the people there were living in security. On the advice of the spies the tribe moved to Laish, about 100 miles north. A Canaanite civilization had existed at the headwaters of the Jordan for at least a millennium and a half by the time the Danites got there. Laish was founded in the upper Jordan valley at the same time as many urban centers in the ancient East. The location is an obvious one, a hill near a luxuriant spring surrounded by fertile farmland next to the international trade route. Not surprisingly the site has been almost continuously inhabited.

18:8–10. The spring that made Laish desirable flows from the base of Mount Hermon, itself a vast pile of porous limestone. Water runoff from Hermon’s snow seeps through the limestone and is conducted through springs and rivers to the whole area throughout the entire year and makes life possible in this otherwise relatively arid region. A massive fortification system gave the people of Laish a sense of security. Here indeed was a city that was quiet and secure (v. 7), in contrast to the tribe of Dan’s assigned location in the region of the Philistines (see Jos 19:40–48).

c. Journey of the Six Hundred to Ephraim (18:11–13)

18:11–13. Six hundred men armed with weapons of war … camped at Kiriath-jearim several miles northwest of Jerusalem, and then went to Micah’s house in Ephraim. Six hundred is the approximate size of a British regiment. The Danites probably did not have such a sophisticated organization, but the number (like the number that Shamgar slew, 3:31) is suggestive of careful military planning.

d. Subversion of Micah’s Priest (18:14–20)

18:14–20. The 600 Danites took the graven image and the ephod and household idols (teraphim) and the molten image from Micah’s house and encouraged the priest to go with them and be the priest for their tribe. This theft betrays an underlying relationship between idolatry and mere avarice: the idols represented pagan deities; they also represented monetary wealth. That wealth provided a kind of security that could also be sought in a relationship to the gods.

e. Confrontation with Micah (18:21–26)

18:21–26. When Micah confronted the 600 sons of Dan for taking his idols, he realized he was outnumbered, and so he returned home. The 600 operated with the threat of raw military strength. No one seemed to be operating from the standpoint of spiritual appropriateness.

f. Establishment of Idolatry in Dan (Laish) (18:27–31)

18:27–31. The 600 burned the city of Laish with fire, but then the city was rebuilt, and named Dan. Recent archaeology at Dan has confirmed a burn layer dating c. 1200–1150 BC, fitting the biblical pattern nicely. Self-appointed priests ministered there.

Verse 30 represents several difficulties. First, a textual problem has been introduced by the Masoretes, who inserted an additional Hebrew letter ("nun," equivalent to an English "n") elevated between consonants in the name "Moses" to make it Manasseh as found in some English translations. Since neither the versions nor other manuscript evidence supports this addition, it is best to assume that the idolatrous priest was in fact a descendant of Moses through Gershom. The purpose of the Masoretic addition was likely to preserve the honor of Moses the lawgiver. Second, the text indicates that the pagan priesthood that began with the Danite migration continued until the captivity of the land (gelot ha’aretz). This whole phrase is not found elsewhere, although the term gelot is often used of the exile of Israel. Young, Keil, and Delitszch and others have suggested a textual emendation (from ha’aretz = the land to ha’aron = the ark, and associated the time frame with the battle of Aphek (1Sm 3:15ff.). But there is neither manuscript nor version evidence in support of this suggestion. Thus it more likely refers to the exile of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC or the southern kingdom of Judah in 586 BC. This would point to the book of Judges being written at a significantly later date than the events described within it or perhaps further copying and editing of the book after one of those later dates. This would have been an important reminder to Israel that, once again, after the exile, they were without a king, and therefore not to fall into the same sin of doing what was right in their own eyes.

B. The Perversion of Benjamin (19:1–21:25)

1. Degrading Murder of a Levite’s Concubine (19:1–30)

This story paints a grim picture of the period. Morals had died. The family unit was breaking down as society deteriorated. No chronology is given, and none is possible, but the story itself sounds like an indictment of modern Western culture. Almost all the characters are anonymous, suggesting that they serve as pictures of the entire nation at a time when "every man did what was right in his own eyes" (17:6; 21:25).

a. A Levite Fetched His Concubine in Bethlehem (19:1–9)

19:1–9. A certain Levite … of Ephraim … took a concubine for himself from Bethlehem (v. 1). Probably a number of Levites left the Levitical cities designated for them in Joshua 20–21 because of lack of support from their society at large. This particular Levite seems to have no particular ethical persuasion, disregarding his responsibility of being holy as a servant of the Lord. He arranged for a concubine from Bethlehem, who left him out of anger. Although the NASB translation states that she played the harlot, the Hebrew root zanah is more likely related to the Akkadian "to be angry; to hate." None of this was morally acceptable. He went to the concubine’s father to persuade her to return, but the father-in-law, following normative Middle Eastern hospitality, kept urging the Levite to stay day after day for five days. The reader perhaps is expected to assume that the father is quite devoted to his child.

The father-in-law seems not to have known how to take the whole matter. His background was clearly simple, as his speech abounded with nomadic metaphors (in v. 8 the word afternoon is lit., "the pitching"; in v. 9 the clause "the day has drawn to a close" is "the camping of the day"; and in v. 9 the Levite’s home is lit., his "tent").

b. Journey to Gibeah (19:10–15)

19:10–15. The Levite, his concubine, and his servant were near Jebus at the end of the day, but rather than staying there, they went on to Gibeah.

c. Kindness of a Stranger in Gibeah (19:16–21)

19:16–21. The city square or a town was always just inside the main entrance to a city, inside the gate if there was one. The square was used as a primary meeting place, political forum, business locale, and resting place. The Levite’s willingness to spend the night in the square was not unusual. The danger of the square came as a surprise here for the simple reason that this should have been the safest place to be: inside the gate, in a public place, where everyone would pass by. The danger of the place is one more indication of the deterioration of Israel. In typical ancient Near Eastern hospitality an old man took the Levite into his home overnight.

d. Perversion of the Men of Gibeah Leads to Rape and Murder (19:22–26)

19:22–26. This passage is a strong reflection of Gn 19 and the story of Lot’s visitors in Sodom. In the same way Sodom was exceedingly evil and in peril of judgment, so the Benjamites here were in danger of judgment. The literary parallel is meant to underline the moral vacuum of a nation which has rejected living by the law of the Lord and did whatever it thought was right in its own eyes. The men of Gibeah are described in much the same manner as the men of Sodom, and their brutality is straightforwardly exposed. This is the only mention of any homosexuality among the Israelites, although it was common (and religiously sanctioned) among the Canaanites. The practice is forbidden in Lv 18 and 20. The old man refused to give his guest over to the worthless fellows of the city. Strangely, he then offered them his own virgin daughter, and his guest gave them his concubine, and they raped … and abused her all night. The behavior here is terribly shocking, and reminiscent of Lot’s offer of his virgin daughters to the men of Sodom (Gn 19:8). Nevertheless, it is reported here, not merely for shock value, but to demonstrate God’s basis for the judgment that is about to fall, just as it fell on Sodom. The devastation of Benjamin is the sad but necessary justice of God, wielded in the hands of the rest of Israel, who are scarcely better than their brothers.

e. Grisly Summoning of the Tribes (19:27–30)

19:27–30. Strangely, the guest/Levite, finding his concubine dead in the doorway … with her hands on the threshold (v. 27), then took her home and dismembered her. She is anonymous in death even as she was in life. Her desecrated corpse, cut into twelve pieces, served to summon the tribes to civil war.

2. Resolution to Punish the Guilty (20:1–17)

a. Muster of the Tribes at Mizpah (20:1–7)

20:1–7. The disgusting climax of the previous episode led to an attack by the rest of the tribes of Israel on the men of Benjamin. When the tribal muster arrived, the Levite explained his situation, with the ironic conclusion, they have committed a lewd and disgraceful act in Israel.

b. Agreement to Punish Benjamin (20:8–11)

20:8–11. One-tenth of the men were chosen to supply food for the rest of the people. For the first time in the book, the statement occurs that all the men of Israel were … united as one man. They were determined to attack Gibeah in return for the rape of the Levite’s concubine in Gibeah.

c. Deployment of Benjamin and All Israel (20:12–17)

20:12–17. When the Benjamites were given opportunity to give up the evildoers (lit., "sons of Belial"), they chose not to betray their brothers. Even their left-handed slingers came out to battle, numbering 700. The 26,700 Benjamites fought 400,000 men of the other tribes.

3. Civil War and Benjamin’s Defeat (20:18–48)

The tragedy of civil war underlines the failure of the leaders of Israel in this intermediate period before the kings of Israel. Neither judges nor clan leaders seem to have been able to stabilize Israelite society. This state of affairs lays the foundation for the call for a king in 1 Samuel. Ultimately, the OT demonstrates that no merely human king can bring peace to the earth. Ultimately, only the Messiah, the ideal King, can do that. The OT uniformly looks forward to the work of the Messiah.

a. Inquiring of the Lord (20:18)

20:18. The inquiry at Bethel may mean they asked the priests to consult the Urim and Thummim.

b. First Failed Attack (20:19–23)

20:19–23. Battle lines were drawn for an assault on Gibeah. Israel lost 22,000 of its 400,000 on the first day of the campaign. This loss was a disaster, as is often the case in an infantry attack on a hardened position. The leaders inquired of the Lord, who ordered a second attempt.

c. Second Failed Attack (20:24–28)

20:24–28. A second attack was organized in much the same way as the first, and resulted in the predictable second disaster with a loss of 18,000. Praying and fasting all day and the intervention by Phinehas the priest led to a promise from God that they would be successful the next day.

d. Third Attack and Success by Ambush (20:29–48)

20:29–48. The tactical situation here is reminiscent of Jos 7–8 and the battle of Ai. The main attack must have come from the north, near Rahmallah and along the ridge route. The ambush, when it finally came from the west, may have been hidden in the rocky wadi of Nahal Atarot, which eventually drains into Aijalon Valley. Even the burning of Gibeah is similar to Ai. Benjamin suffered the loss of all but 600 of their men.

4. Reconstitution of a Lost Tribe (21:1–24)

a. Dilemma for the Tribes of Israel (21:1–7)

21:1–7. When the horror of what had just happened became clear to the men of Israel, they despaired at the loss of the tribe of Benjamin from the ancestral 12 tribes. Since all the towns of Benjamin had been destroyed (20:48) and virtually everyone killed, and since the men of Israel had vowed to give the surviving Benjamites none of their daughters, they had a difficulty.

b. Destruction of Jabesh-Gilead (21:8–12)

21:8–12. They solved this problem by noting that the city of Jabesh-gilead (in Manasseh, about 60 miles northeast of Jerusalem, east of the Jordan River) was not represented in the camp. A quick decision was made to kill everyone in that town except the young virgins, who were then given to the men of Benjamin. Jabesh-gilead turns up a number of times in the OT (1Sm 11:1 rescued by King Saul and 2Sm 21, where they retrieved Saul’s bones).

c. Gift of Wives to Benjamin (21:13–15)

21:13–15. The survivors of Benjamin at the rock of Rimmon were willing to accept peace and young wives, but there were not enough wives.

d. More Wives from Shiloh (21:16–24)

21:16–24. An additional supply of wives was requisitioned from the annual dances at Shiloh. Because no family could voluntarily give their daughters to Benjamin since they vowed they would not do so (21:1), the survivors were told to ambush the girls they needed from Shiloh, where the people of every tribe went to worship at the tabernacle, thus absolving the Israelite parents of responsibility for voluntarily giving the girls in marriage. This highly unorthodox method of reconstituting a tribe apparently worked, for Benjamin continued in existence until the Assyrian deportation in 722 BC. This appalling episode points to the central theme: without a great King, the people of God can have no stability.

5. The Refrain: No King in Israel (21:25)

21:25. The book of Judges closes with the refrain, In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes (cf. 17:6). This serves as the end of the inclusio (literary parenthesis) begun in 17:6, designed to surround the stories of the epilogue. The epilogue began with this same statement as an opening parenthesis, followed by the horrific stories of Israel’s self-willed behavior, and concludes with a restatement of this theme as a closing parenthesis. This epilogue captured the problem of the time of the Judges. Without a king, everyone did what was right in his own eyes, ignoring the law of the Lord. As such, it points to that future day, when a righteous King would come and lead Israel into the fear of the Lord.

Together, the books of Joshua and Judges provide the historical transition between Moses and the monarchy. They set forth the foundations of history and geography that form the framework for the rest of the OT. These books are indispensable for an understanding of that history. In addition they lay the foundation for the claim that Israel needed a king. In the larger sense, though, the failure of Joshua and then the judges to deliver Israel pointed to the need of the nation and of everyone for the great King, the Messiah, who will come to deliver and set up His kingdom for all time.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bimson, John. Redating the Exodus and Conquest. Sheffield, England: Almond Press, 1981.

Biran, A. Biblical Dan. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1994.

Block, Daniel I. Judges, Ruth. New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999.

Cundall, Arthur. Judges. Tyndale Old Testament Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1968.

Finkelstein, Israel. The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1988.

Garstang, John. Joshua–Judges. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1935, 1978.

Gordon, Cyrus H. Before the Bible: The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.

Lindsey, F. Duane. "Judges." In The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Old Testament, edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985; reprint, Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 1996.

Mazar, Amihai. Excavations at Tell Qasile, Part 1. Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1980.

_________. Excavations at Tell Qasile, Part 2. Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1985.

Wolf, Herbert. "Judges." Vol. 3 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, edited by Frank Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992.

Wood. Leon. Distressing Days of the Judges. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975.

 

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