DON’T JUDGE US!
Fascinating Tales from the Book of Judges
INTRODUCTION TO JUDGES with OTHNIEL & SHAMGAR
Part One of Six
IT WAS THE WORST OF TIMES
FAMILY FEUD LEAVES 69 BROTHERS DEAD!
POWERFUL GOVERNMENT LEADER CAUGHT IN "LOVE NEST."
GIRLS AT PARTY KIDNAPPED AND FORCED TO MARRY STRANGERS.
WOMAN JUDGE SAYS TRAVELERS NO LONGER SAFE ON HIGHWAYS.
Sensational headlines like these are usually found on the front page of supermarket tabloids, but the above headlines actually describe some of the events narrated in the Book of Judges.
What a contrast they are to the closing chapters of the Book of Joshua, where you see a nation resting from war and enjoying the riches God had given them in the Promised Land. But the Book of Judges pictures Israel suffering from invasion, slavery, poverty, and civil war. What happened?
The nation of Israel quickly decayed after a new generation took over, a generation that knew neither Joshua nor Joshua's God. “And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great works of the Lord, that He did for Israel... and there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which He had done for Israel” (Judges 2:7,10; and see Josh 24:31).
Instead of exhibiting spiritual fervor, Israel sank into apathy; instead of obeying the Lord, the people moved into apostasy; and instead of the nation enjoying law and order, the land was filled with anarchy.
Indeed, for Israel it was the worst of times.
One of the key verses in the Book of Judges is 21:25: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (see 17:6; 18:1; 19:1).
At Mount Sinai, the Lord had taken Israel to be His “kingdom of priests,” declaring that He alone would reign over them (Ex 19:1-8).
Moses reaffirmed the kingship of Yahweh when he explained the covenant to the new generation before they entered Canaan (Deut 29 ff).
After the conquest of Jericho and Ai, Joshua declared to Israel her kingdom responsibilities (Josh 8:30-35), and he reminded the people of them again before his death (Josh 24). Even Gideon, perhaps the greatest of the judges, refused to set up a royal dynasty.
“I will not rule over you,” he said, “neither shall my son rule over you: the Lord shall rule over you” (Judg 8:23).
Deut 6 outlined the nation's basic responsibilities: love and obey Jehovah as the only true God (vv. 1-5); teach your children God's laws (vv. 6-9); be thankful for God's blessings (vv. 10-15); and separate yourself from the worship of the pagan gods in the land of Canaan (vv. 16-25).
Unfortunately, the new generation failed in each of those responsibilities. The people didn't want to “seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness” (Matt 6:33); they would rather experiment with the idolatry of the godless nations around them. As a result, Israel plunged into moral, spiritual, and political disaster.
One of two things was true: either the older generation had failed to instruct their children and grandchildren in the ways of the Lord, or, if they had faithfully taught them, then the new generation had refused to submit to God's Law and follow God's ways. “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Prov 14:34, NKJV).
The Book of Judges is the record of that reproach.
Who wrote Judges?
In Jewish tradition it is though that Samuel was the author. However, since no author is named in the text, Judges is assumed to be anonymous. The writer could be an historian, a theologian, a lawyer, or an editor. We will refer to the author as a “storyteller” because what we are reading is a collection of stories.
Who are the judges?
Let us visit the dangerous world of ancient Israel. This world is inhabited by heroes, heroines, despicable villains, a chorus of rebellious Israelites, countless silent victims and Yahweh the God of Israel who does whatever it takes to win His people back from the false gods of Canaan into covenant loyalty.
We will meet Othniel who wins a bride as a reward for single-handedly taking a city in which Israel’s warriors show no interest. Could this be the storyteller’s brief outline of an ancient love story? Discover how Israel’s war hero takes on and defeats a dreadful world-class oppressor and brings peace to the land.
We will meet Ehud, Israel’s civil servant, who makes a wooden dagger which he hides beneath his clothing. He gains access to an oppressive king’s private apartment where he commits the perfect murder. Ehud then makes his escape and, after calling out the Israelite army, slaughters the robust Moabite invaders who have oppressed Israel for eighteen years.
We will marvel over the courage of Barak who charges down a mountainside on foot as he leads his warriors to defeat an oppressor equipped with iron chariots and unknown numbers of infantry.
We may gasp as Jael, the woman who – when home alone – deceives and slaughters an oppressor charioteer rapist by securing his head to the floor with a tent peg and hammer.
Sing along with Deborah as she celebrates with glee the triumphs of Yahweh because her people are free at least from twenty years of oppression.
Follow Gideon as he changes overnight from skeptic to popular hero. He defeats vast numbers of invaders with a token force by simply standing still and making lots of noise!
Be intrigued by the story of Jephthah who is first betrayed by his family, then head-hunted to be an army commander and tribal leader. As the result of a vow made under duress, he is obliged to sacrifice his treasure. Be further captivated when the identity of the story’s prime mover is revealed.
Be amused at the stupidity of the Philistines who take the bait and attempt to answer Samson’s unanswerable riddle. Discover how Samson, armed only with a bone, can slaughter a thousand Philistines! Even though disabled and alone he is still able to kill even more Philistines and to demonstrate that their non-existent god is a creation of their own imaginations.
Ponder the complex character of Israel’s God (Yahweh) who manipulates nations and characters as He drives their stories forward. Yahweh uses any means available to secure the loyalty of wayward Israelites. When reason and argument fail, intimidation and violence are employed. When intimidation and violence fail, Yahweh only speaks when He is spoken to.
The storyteller of Judges does not sanitize these stories. He presents them to us in their raw authenticity. Judges is full of shocking episodes of real violence and intriguing subterfuge which are presented viscerally on the page but are neither glorified nor trivialized.
The book of Judges was written by a scribe who dared to be dark and allow the ancient text to breathe. Do not imagine that you know what is going to happen next or who will do what to whom. In these stories the characters willingly take enormous risks with their lives. We as readers, are treated like mature adults who can process the brutality of these episodes as they are presented.
Intro: The storyteller wants us to be impressed with the successful performances of Israel’s first three deliverers. They are able to defeat formidable oppressors. First, Cushan, who is a world-class tyrant with a long fearful name associated with Babylon and able to travel from his distant homeland. Second, an alliance of three armies with a portly king, and third, a regiment of Philistines.
The character of Othniel is the narrator’s first judge-deliverer. His story is told only in outline form. We have met Othniel before. He is well connected as a member of Caleb’s family, and he already possesses honor as Israel’s champion and war hero.
Judges 1:11 From there they went against the inhabitants of Debir. (The name of Debir was formerly Kirjath Sepher.)
Judges 1:12 Then Caleb said, “Whoever attacks Kirjath Sepher and takes it, to him I will give my daughter Achsah as wife.”
Judges 1:13 And Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother, took it; so he gave him his daughter Achsah as wife.
Judges 1:14 Now it happened, when she came to him, that she urged him to ask her father for a field. And she dismounted from her donkey, and Caleb said to her, “What do you wish?”
Judges 1:15 So she said to him, “Give me a blessing; since you have given me land in the South, give me also springs of water.” And Caleb gave her the upper springs and the lower springs.
He is the master of Debir, a city associated with scrolls and records (Judges 1:11-13; Joshua 15:16-17) which is his plunder by right of conquest (Deut 20:14). His prestige is further reinforced by his marriage to Achsah, Caleb’s daughter – she became his bride as a gift from her father because of his valor. Such is the caliber of those who Yahweh raises up to deliver an oppressed Israel.
When Othniel is empowered by Yahweh’s spirit, he is able to defeat one who is characterized as a formidable world-class tyrant.
The storyteller is careful to display the status of Yahweh’s first judge-deliverer not by presenting us with an ingenious account of a military campaign, but simply by the terrifying nature of the name of the oppressor.
This invader’s name is meant to intimidate. He is called Cushan-Rishathaim. His name is Babylonian and it means “double-wicked.”
The idea is that he is worse than any tormentor that Israel has faced in recent times.
Deut 9:4 Do not think in your heart, after the Lord your God has cast them out before you, saying, “Because of my righteousness the Lord has brought me in to possess this land”; but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out from before you.
His name is also a contemptuous metaphor for Babylon, “the land of double bitterness.”
Cushan is the king of “Aram-naharaim” which is the “Land with Two Rivers” and identified as Upper Mesopotamia and the Tigris and the Euphrates.
The totality of Cushan’s vivid name – “king” of the Land with Two Rivers who is twice as wicked as anyone else – is the narrator’s caricature used to impress upon us not only the dread of Israel’s new owner, but also the heroic ability of Othniel, the one who defeats him.
When equipped with Yahweh’s spirit, Othniel is able to conquer none other than the “Great Conquerer,” an ambitious and formidable world-class king who is able to travel from his own land and whose fearsome name is carefully recorded four times in the narrative, twice in 3:8 and twice in 3:10.
There are wide gaps in Othniel’s story. We are not told how he delivers Israel; no details are provided about his preparation, his campaign or the battle itself.
The only indication of Othniel’s deliverance method is the phrase “he went out to war” (v.10), which means that he leads Israel’s army in battle against the oppressor’s army.
We are not told if Othniel accomplishes Israel’s deliverance by acting alone like Ehud and Samson, with a few men like Gideon or at the head of Israel’s militia like Barak and Jephtah. We don’t know how difficult the victory was or how long it took. The storyteller’s interests lie elsewhere.
The story of Yahweh’s first judge-deliverer is hardly a story at all! It is told in sparse detail in order to emphasize extreme contrast.
First, we are to be in no doubt about the tyrannical nature of Israel’s first oppressor.
And second, we are not to have any doubt about the identity, honor, status and caliber of the one who delivers Israel: Othniel, Israel’s war hero (1:1-13) and Yahweh’s first judge-deliverer, who is empowered by Yahweh’s spirit (3:10) and supported by his new bride (1:13-15).
Here is the outline of his story:
• The evil that Israel does is specified as forgetting Yahweh and serving resident gods of Canaan: the Baals and Asherahs
• In response, Yahweh becomes angry.
• Yahweh “sold” Israel in a change of “ownership” which lasts for eight years.
• Israel “cries out” to Yahweh.
• Yahweh raises up a deliverer.
• The spirit of Yahweh comes upon the deliverer.
• He judges Israel.
• He delivers Israel.
• Yahweh gives the king of the oppressors into the deliverer’s hands.
• The land rests for forty years.
• The judge-deliverer dies.
Judges 3:7 So the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord. They forgot the Lord their God, and served the Baals and Asherahs.
Judges 3:8 Therefore the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel, and He sold them into the hand of Cushan-Rishathaim king of Mesopotamia; and the children of Israel served Cushan-Rishathaim eight years.
Judges 3:9 When the children of Israel cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the children of Israel, who delivered them: Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother.
Judges 3:10 The Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he judged Israel. He went out to war, and the Lord delivered Cushan-Rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand; and his hand prevailed over Cushan-Rishathaim.
Judges 3:11 So the land had rest for forty years. Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died.
Our next judge we will examine slightly out of order.
Judges 3:31 After him was Shamgar the son of Anath, who killed six hundred men of the Philistines with an ox goad; and he also delivered Israel.
Israel’s oppressors are yet again humiliated when 600 Philistines are slaughtered – not in honorable combat with suitably armed warriors, but ignobly by a farmer who improvises with a farming tool which he uses for prodding oxen as they pull his plough.
Shamgar’s heroism is so impressive that he is regarded with honor as the son of a deity. His name is likely Canaanite, and he acquires a matronym: “son of Anath,” the name of the Canaanite goddess of war.
Songs are sung about such characters.
One other note about Shamgar’s clever improvisation – it fits with others who also improvise with weaponry to rid Israel of enemies.
This illustrious hero is mentioned in Deborah’s song for “Victory in Israel Day alongside Jael who uses a tent peg and a hammer. Samson also makes do with what he finds as he humiliates the Philistine with the jawbone of a donkey.
Judges 5:6 In the days of Shamgar, son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways were deserted, and the travelers walked along the byways.
The heroic performances of the first three judge-deliverers send a clear warning to those who would invade Israel: you may acquire this people and their land from their God for a few years as a gift or a bargain, but you will be manipulated and used and thwarted by Yahweh; you will not return home.