Judges

The Book of Judges in the BibleThe book of Judges is one of the historical books in the Old Testament. On a timeline, it occurs immediately after the book of Joshua. Following it are the events recorded in Samuel and Kings.

Once the people settle in Israel, they are governed by a series of judges, hence the name for this book. These people are not judges in the sense that we would understand today, but instead they should be thought of as informal military heroes who were called and empowered by God to rescue his people from the oppression of surrounding nations.

A reoccurring pattern in the book of Judges is that the Israelites are oppressed, they call out to God for deliverance, he raises up a judge to save them, they turn to God for a time, but later fall away. The cycle repeats.

The actions of some of the judges are noteworthy and significant. Other judges are scarcely mentioned, some only garnering the briefest of citations in a single paragraph or verse.

…and the Rest

So far, we have covered seven of the 15 judges mentioned in the book of Judges. They are the more commonly known judges, merely because there is more written about them. That leaves eight remaining judges, for whom very little is known. Often their entire life is summarized in just a couple of verses. They are:

Othneil (Judges 3:7-11) overpowered foreign oppression, resulting in 40 years of peace — until he died. (Trivia: He was Caleb’s nephew.)

Ehud (Judges 3:12-3:30) posed as a peaceful envoy with a private message for the king. The message was thrusting a sword into the king’s fat belly. Ehud then escaped, rallied the troops, and routed the enemy army. Then there was 80 years of peace. (Trivia: he was left-handed.)

Shamgar (Judges 3:31) killed 600 Philistines. (Trivia: he used an oxgoad — “a sharp wooden stick”)

Tola (Judges 10:1-2) led Israel for 23 years; then he died.

Jair (Judges 10:3-5) led Israel for 22 years; then he died. (Trivia: he had 30 sons, who rode 30 donkeys, and controlled 30 towns.)

Ibzan
(Judges 12:8-10) led Israel for seven years; then he died. (Trivia: he intermarried his 60 children to people from other tribes.)

Elon
(Judges 12:11-12) led Israel for ten years; then he died.

Abdon
(Judges 12:13-15) led Israel for eight years; then he died. (Trivia: his 40 sons and 30 grandsons rode 70 donkeys.)

From this, I have two general observations:

1) For many, there is seemingly strange trivial information provided. While it may seem nonsensical to us now, it may have had important meaning back then. If we can ascertain it, additional insight could be gained.

2) More importantly, the recorded impact of these judges was largely limited to their lifetime; no mention is made of them setting up a successor or influencing others to lead after their death.

Contemplation: What are you doing to extend your influence beyond your life?

Abimelech — A Failure

One of Gideon‘s sons was Abimelech. It is arguable if Abimelech should be counted as a judge. If so, he would be classified as a failure, for he violently seized power, did not fight for or liberate his people from foreign powers, but instead fought internally, with much loss of life as a result — including his own.

Abimelech was the son of a concubine (or slave). Interestingly, another judge, Jephthah, was a son of the prostitute. Jephthah, however, unlike Abimelech, was a successful judge, who liberated his people, whereas Abimelech killed — or caused the death — of his people.

Both Abimelech and Jephthah had a less than ideal start in life, but what they did with it was opposite from each other. Jephthah became a hero; Abimelech, a tyrant.

[Judges 9 and 10:6-12:7]

The Victory and Despair of Jephthah

Another judge, who is prominently noted in the book of Judges is Jephthah. Jephthah, the son of a prostitute — which doesn’t say much for his dad — was exiled from his people. However, when they became oppressed by a foreign power, they turned to him, asking for his help.

Eventually he agreed to their petition, doing exactly what they asked.

In his zeal for victory, however, he made an ill-advised vow to God. He promised God that if he were granted success, he would sacrifice the first thing he saw when he returned home. Tragically, it was his daughter — his only child — who first greeted him upon his victorious homecoming.

Distraught over his rash promise, his daughter urged him to do exactly as he had pledged.

It is unclear to me if this was to be a literal sacrifice, as Abram almost did with Isaac, or a figurative sacrifice of giving her over to God’s service, as Samuel’s mother did with him.

Regardless, Jephthah‘s reckless pledge resulted in a painful and regrettable loss for the otherwise victorious Jephthah.

We can learn from Jephthah‘s foolhardy words, guarding carefully what we say and promise.

[Judges 10:6-12:7]

An Unnamed Levite

If judge Deborah is the reluctant hero and Micah is the anti-hero, then the final character listed in the book of Judges might be viewed as a questionable hero. This judge, a Levite whose name is not given, has a dubious set of morals and a morose method of getting attention. Consider:

  • The Levite had a concubine who ran away from him. He waited four months, before looking for her.
  • Upon their trip home, the men of Gibeah, with their unrestrained sexual appetites, desire the Levite. His response is to offer them his concubine as an alternative.
  • After abusing and misusing her all night, she crawls to the house and dies.
  • The Levite then cuts her body up and sends the pieces around the country.

His countrymen, sufficiently riled up, go on a rampage against the men of Gibeah, who are aided by surrounding cities from the tribe of Benjamin. This effective “civil” war results in tens of thousands of people being killed and the tribe of Benjamin being essentially annihilated.

While all the other judges in the book of Judges went after other nations, this quasi judge went after his own people. Yes, evil was confronted, but at a high cost and over an event that could have been avoided.

[Judges 19:1 to 21:48]

Judge Deborah

Deborah is another familiar judge, with two chapters in the book of Judges devoted to her. There are some noteworthy facts about her:

1) She is the only female judge in the entire book. This was very counter-cultural for the day — and very cool!

2) She was the only judge who actually “held court” — which would be consistent with our modern understanding of what a judge does.

3) She was also a prophetess. Although there are many prophets listed in the Bible, there are only seven prophetesses (a female prophet).  They are:

  • Miriam (Moses and Aaron’s sister), Exodus 15:20
  • Deborah, Judges 4:4
  • Huldah, 2 Kings 22:14 and 2 Chronicles 34:22
  • Noadiah (a bad prophetess), Nehemiah 6:14
  • Isaiah’s wife, whose name is not given, Isaiah 8:3
  • Anna, the prophetess in the temple who was waiting for Jesus, Luke 2:36
  • Jezebel, the evil prophetess mentioned in the Revelation 2:20.

Deborah was also a reluctant hero. She didn’t want notoriety, but that is exactly what she received.

Do As I Do

Just before Gideon goes to battle, he tells his men to “watch me,” “follow my lead,” and “do exactly what I do.” His men did and God used their collective actions to throw the enemy into complete confusion. As a result, a great victory was won. Gideon’s actions were worthy of emulation.

From a spiritual perspective, Paul said the same thing. He says what you have seen me do, you should do, too.

Frankly, I’m not sure I would want anyone to do everything I did. Yes, I do believe that I have some worthy qualities, but certainly there are a few areas that are not worthy of emulation, at least not all the time.

You may be familiar with the saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Well, Gideon and Paul are bold enough to effectively say, “Do as I do.”

Would you be confident enough in your actions to tell someone to “Do everything you see me doing”?

[Judges 7:17, Philippians 4:9]

Gideon Doubts God

Ultimately, Gideon, the Judge, obeys God and realizes a great victory, but he first needs a lot of confirmation to deal with his doubts:

1) Gideon first asks for a sign that the angel had really spoken God’s words. God acquiesces; when the angel touches his staff to the food Gideon prepared, it miraculously ignites and is burnt up.

2) Gideon questions God’s promise of victory and gives God a test to perform. He places a fleece (a wooly mass) on the ground and asks that only the fleece have dew on it in the morning. God lovingly does what Gideon asks.

3) Gideon second-guesses his first test. He gives God another test, but desires the opposite outcome. God patiently complies and in the morning the ground has dew and the fleece is dry.

4) Although Gideon does not voice any more doubts, they still exist. So God offers a final confirmation. God tells Gideon to sneak up to the enemy camp, where Gideon overhears two soldiers talking about a dream one had about Gideon’s forthcoming victory.

Encouraged, Gideon goes forth with his 300 men — and God’s help — routs 135,000.

It is not wrong to have doubts — and God is generally patient with us when we do — but ultimately we need to obey and do what we are told — even when it doesn’t make sense.

[Judges 6:17&21, Judges 6:36-38, Judges 6:39-40, Judges 7:10&13-14, Judges 8:10-11]

God Talks to Gideon – and Us

Another familiar character in the book of Judges is Gideon (with three chapters devoted to him). Gideon is generally a fearful man who is cautious of God’s call, but who does fully obey God.

There are three initial things that God tells Gideon (though an angel):

  1. “The Lord is with you mighty warrior!” Gideon’s response is to change the subject.
  2. “Go in the strength that you have and save Israel.” To this, Gideon in effect says, how? I am nobody!
  3. “I will be with you.” At this point, Gideon asks for proof that the words are really from God.

We can learn two key lessons from this exchange. First, God may see us differently then we see ourselves — and it’s unwise to question God’s perspective.

The second is that often we need to move forward to the extent that our abilities allow (we need to do our part) and God will be with us (making up for what we lack). This is an important balance to maintain. One error is to not do anything, even what we can do, because of the enormity of the task, while the other extreme is to try to do it all ourselves without God’s help. Instead, we need to do what we can and trust God to do the rest — just like Gideon.

[Judges 6:12-16]

Here Comes the Judge

When I think of a judge, I immediately conjure up an image of a person wearing a black robe and presiding over a hearing or trial. Indeed, that is the primary definition of the word “judge.”

However, that understanding is greatly misleading when reading the book of Judges in the Bible. In the biblical context there are no black robes, judicial hearings, or legal proceedings. The judges in the Bible were unofficial — albeit accepted — rulers, often filling the role of military leader, freeing the nation from foreign tyranny and occupation.

Given this definition, I count 15 people in the book of Judges who could possibly be considered a “judge:”

  1. Othneil (Judges 3:7-11)
  2. Ehud (Judges 3:12-3:30)
  3. Shamgar (Judges 3:31)
  4. Deborah (Judges 4:1 to 5:21)
  5. Gideon (Judges 6:1 to 8:35)
  6. Abimelech (Judges 9:1-57)
  7. Tola (Judges 10:1-2)
  8. Jair (Judges 10:3-5)
  9. Jephthah (Judges 10:6 to 12:7)
  10. Ibzan (Judges 12:8-10)
  11. Elon (Judges 12:11-12)
  12. Abdon (Judges 12:13-15)
  13. Samson (Judges 13:1 to 16:13)
  14. Micah (Judges 17:1 to 18:31)
  15. An unnamed judge, simply referred to as “a Levite” (Judges 19:1 to 21:25)

How many of these names are familiar to you?