'Studies in the Old Testament'

Joshua, Judges - and Sin! - 5

August, 2010

(Continued from page 434)

The 'Five Judges'


We notice an underlying theme running through the book of Judges which we observed developing in Joshua.  First, that no flesh shall glory in God's presence. Second, when God gives victory, He brings it to pass in a manner that ensures that the human instrument used can never claim that it was his, or her, effort which brought success.  Examining God's choices of individuals who became Judges, we will see that they are not people one would normally expect to be champions of justice, experts in military strategy, or have the ability to rally others behind them for victory over occupation forces. 

We are introduced to Ehud in Judges 3:151:
". . .the son of Gera, a Benjamite, a left-handed man; by him the children of Israel sent a present unto Eglon the king of Moab" - the "present" was a smoothly accomplished assassination which led to freedom from tyranny.  In a different, but equally ruthless manner, judge Shamgar slew six hundred Philistines using the simple weapon of an ox goad.  Then we have Deborah, a rarity in that she was the only woman judge, indicating that God can use even those that the world would consider weakest.  She was also (Judges  4:41) "a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth" who (v51) "used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment."

As we go through their history we notice that there is hardly anyone who we would have selected as an ideal person to be a judge but we learn that these judges represent the society from which they sprang and are, in many ways, ordinary people.  However, when we read of Samson we gain an impression of a man many people would choose to be a judge from a description of him and from the accounts of his exploits.  Yet we find that the one individual, of all those chosen, who may have actually looked like a champion, is morally decadent and even worse than any of the other judges.  We learn the same lesson from the account of the selection of David, who was not even one of the first seven sons of Jesse who passed before Samuel (1 Samuel 6:71):

"But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart."

Samuel would have chosen the impressive looking Eliab (v6) just as today many ministries chose to exalt 'Superstar' Christians, men of reputation, who seem to have more prominence than saints of God who have been faithful for half-a-century or more, and we often seem to be more interested in sports heroes and rock stars who have become recently converted, but have no spiritual maturity.  We may be very surprised when we stand before the Bema seat and discover that the 'Superstars' are not the ones who receive the greater rewards, but the bed-ridden saints of God who spent years in prayer.  God can clearly use anyone regardless of background or commitment if He wishes to because He is sovereign and may even choose someone who, from all outward appearances, appears to be an ideal choice.  But, just as we have sen in these Scriptural examples, because the person looks like an ideal choice, it does not mean that he or she really is one.  The book of Judges demonstrates that, in the midst of this descending sin cycle, God is going to use a variety of individuals to bring deliverance to His people and, even though  the individual may be obedient or rebellious, morally pure or morally decadent, God will bring His will to pass because He is sovereign and He will claim the glory for Himself.  The gifts and calling of God are without repentance and without turning back and, whether it's a Jephthah  or a Samson, when God has determined to use these people and has given them this gift of deliverance regardless of the spiritual condition of the individual, He will honor the gift and use it for the benefit of His people.  Although, in the end, the judge himself may lose his reward, the will of God will be done.  We must all stand before the judgement seat of Christ to be called to account for our faithfulness in our appropriation of the gifts that God has given us and those who are called to be pastors and teachers have an awesome responsibility for the way in which they have handled the Word of God and have been a testimony to others in their personal lives and through the spoken word.  Our prayer should be that God will grant us grace and mercy each day to be faithful to Him who has called us into His service and that our motives may be pure so that we may stand before Him unashamed in that day (James 3:12):
"Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment."

Chapters 3-16 describe the exploits of the individual Judges as each in turn delivered Israel from an oppressor. 

We first meet Othniel (which means
lion of God; force of God)7 who is a local celebrity because he is the nephew of Caleb and his earlier exploits indicate that he is a good starting point as the first judge.  His exploits begin in Judges 3:9 and we learn that he was the son of Kenaz, who was the younger brother of Caleb (Judges 1:11-15; 3:1-11; 1 Chronicles 4:13).  We are introduced to his prowess as a warrior in Joshua 15 where we follow the battles of the tribe of Judah for Hebron (also known as Kiriath Arba; ref.  Joshua 14:15) which had been granted to Caleb who expanded this inheritance after Joshua's death.  We read how Caleb said (v162):

"The one who attacks Kiriath-sepher and captures it, I will give him Achsah my daughter as a wife."  17  And Othniel the son of Kenaz, the brother of Caleb, captured it; so he gave him Achsah his daughter as a wife.

So we learn that Caleb is the uncle of Othniel and he takes him for his son-in-law (cf.  Judges 1:13).  When the sons of Israel sinned "in the sight of the Lord, and forgot the Lord their God, and served the Baals and the Asheroth" (Judges 3:7-82) we learn that "the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, so that He sold them into the hands of Cushan-rishathaim (the name literally means "the doubly wicked Cushan")8 king of Mesopotamia; and the sons of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years."  When the path of the sin cycle strikes home in the hearts and minds of the sons of Israel we learn that they "cried to the Lord" and then "the Lord raised up a deliverer for the sons of Israel to deliver them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother" (Judges 3:9).  So effective was Othniel that we learn that he was victorious over the king of Mesopotamia and kept the land at peace for forty years (Judges 3:11) before he died.   

According to Judges 3:12, the Israelites again became evil, and God allowed the Moabites to rise up against them. Verse 13 tells us that the Moabites were joined by the sons of Ammon and of Amalek which is especially interesting in light of the earlier prediction that Israel would have war with Amalek from generation to generation (Exodus 17:16).  We know from Genesis 36 that Amalek was one of the chiefs and descendants of Esau and the Moabites and Ammonites were the descendants of Lot's two sons who resulted from his incest with his daughters.  Once again we see that the sin of other people can have far-reaching effects and, far down the road of history, there may be an affect that leads to pain and misery for another generation.  Here we see that the three chastening rods God used were all distant relatives of Israel.  For eighteen years, Israel was forced to serve the Moabites until they cried to the Lord again (v15), and God raised up a second judge the left-handed Ehud, to deliver them from their enemy.  Ehud made a two-edged sword one cubit (eighteen inches) long.  Prior to a later archaeological discovery a cubit was assumed to be eighteen inches because it represented the distance between the elbow and the tip of the hand.  However, thanks to the discovery of the Tunnel of Siloam, built in 701BC  under the guidance of Hezekiah, we know for certain that a cubit is eighteen inches because the Siloam inscription written in eighth-century Hebrew, says that the tunnel is 1200 cubits in length and, when measured, it was found to be about 1800 feet in length.

Ehud came from the tribe of Benjamin renowned for their high incidence of left-handed or ambidextrous warriors, and we read of the reputation of their left-handed slingers & bowmen in Judges 20:16 and 1 Chronicles 12:2).  So, being left-handed, he strapped his short stabbing sword to his right thigh and, on the pretext of carrying tribute money (protection money), he approached Eglon, the very fat king of Moab.  In that day almost everybody was right-handed and they would be searched on the left side to see if they carried a weapon and so the king's palace guard searched Ehud on the wrong side. As soon as Eglon accepted the tribute, Ehud announced that he had a private message for him, so Eglon dismissed his servants.
"I have a message from God for you," Ehud stated (v20) and, as Eglon stood to his feet as was customary when one expected to receive a message from deity, he drew his sword with his left hand and thrust it into the stomach of Eglon, pushing it so far that the fat closed over the hilt and, though he did not withdraw the sword, we read that "the refuse came out" (v222). Then he fled but, like an accomplished assassin, he took the time to shut and lock the roof chamber doors behind him so that he had plenty of time to make good his escape for the servants assumed the doors were locked because the king was relieving himself. By the time the dead king was discovered, Ehud had rallied the people behind him and they struck down ten thousand "robust and valiant" Moabite men, so that none escaped (v29), and the land had rest for eighty years. This is the longest period of rest recorded in the book of judges.

Only one verse (Judges 3:31) is devoted to our third judge Shamgar who slew six hundred Philistines using an ox goad, or cattle prod, designed to move stubborn animals. Ironically, it is the same instrument referred to by the Lord Jesus Christ when He encountered Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus and said to him,
"It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks (goads)" (Acts 9:5).  Again, because of the evidence we have from the Old Testament, we do not notice the man for this time it is the method that is remarkable, for an ox goad is a very crude instrument but, since the Israelites didn't have the iron weapons used so devastatingly by their enemies, such as the Philistines, God used what His servant had.  The important thing is not the method, or the messenger, but the message - and Shamgar wrought an awesome message to the enemies of God!

So we see again that even an ox goad can be dedicated to God if it is in the right hands. We remember that God used the rod of Moses, a stone from the slingshot of David, and in the New Testament, a boy who had only five loaves and a few fishes (Matthew 14:17-19; John 6:9) and Dorcas who had only needle and thread (Acts 9:36-39).  All of these things were used by God showing that, whatever we have, if we put it in His hands, He will use it.  When we read of these ordinary,  often terrified, judges in these chapters we see little men and women - working with our unique and exemplary God.

Judges, Chapter 4 reveals the exploits of our fourth judge, Deborah, who was selected by God to save the sons of Israel after they had once again turned to evil following the death of Ehud. That time God found it necessary to put His people into the hand of Jabin, King of Canaan. Jabin's capital was Hazor and his army had nine hundred iron chariots with Sisera as commander-in-chief.  At the time Deborah was chosen, they had been under the heel of King Jabin for twenty years and were at that point in the third phase of the sin cycle, crying out to the Lord for deliverance. Deborah, who was also a prophetess (vs. 4), offered Barak the opportunity of going into battle against Sisera with God's assurance of victory, but Barak refused unless Deborah would go with him.  The fact that she was a woman has caused questions as to why she occupied the position of a judge. A thorough reading of chapters 4 and 5 makes it clear that women played the predominant roles in this entire incident, and their significance is a reflection on the weakness of male leadership in Israel at that time. The entire book of Judges shows us the behind-the-scenes exposé of the spiritual decline and weakness prevalent in Israel. Nothing in the Mosaic law directly prohibited women from taking a place of responsibility that was normally the place of men and the principle seems clear that when a man was not on the scene to deliver the people, God chose to use a woman. However, this incident cannot be taken as justification for contradicting the pastoral qualifications listed in the New Testament Epistles, for Old Testament procedures do not necessarily justify New Testament policies. That pastors of churches should be men, not women, is made clear by such passages as I Timothy 3 and I Corinthians 14, and there are no records of women pastors in the New Testament. However, there are extensive references to the important place and activity of women in the New Testament congregations.  It is also interesting to note that Deborah did not lead this military reprisal herself, but chose Barak to serve as the commander of the tribe, and this lends credit to her position as a God-fearing judge.

Some commentaries9 call Barak a weak general and say that he should have been "out in the thick of the battle, but here he is hiding behind a woman's skirt."  But I believe that they miss a point that is just as relevant to the church today.  If you have a prophet, or prophetess as in this case, in your church and they make an epoch-shaking prophecy, as here, wouldn't it be rather wise to take them along to prove that the word they have from the Lord is true and accurate?  After all, it is not every day, even in these days of the Judges, that a prophetess declares (Judges 4:6-72):

6 . . . "Behold, the Lord, the God of Israel, has commanded, 'Go and march to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men from the sons of Naphtali and from the sons of Zebulun.  7  'And I will draw out to you Sisera, the commander of Jabin's army, with his chariots and his many troops to the river Kishon; and I will give him into your hand.'"

What would be more useful than to have a faithful servant, who has the ear of the Lord, alongside you to know when the Lord has spoken a word that may alter the nature of a spiritual battle?  We should also notice how readily Deborah agrees to go along and has a prophecy to confirm the outcome which we know was fulfilled through Jael, the wife of Heber (Judges 4:91):

And she said, I will surely go with thee: notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honour; for the Lord shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman. And Deborah arose, and went with Barak to Kedesh

Again, commentators9 look upon this as a sign that this passage is intended to indicate the weakness of male leadership at that time. After Sisera had gathered his chariots and his army in the valley, Deborah gave Barak the word from the Lord: 
"Up; for this is the day in which the Lord hath delivered Sisera into thine hand: is not the Lord gone out before thee?" (v141), and Barak and his army of ten thousand went down from Mount Tabor and won a great victory over Sisera.  We read the details of the battle in Judges, Chapter 5, where Deborah gives a poetic account of what transpired and, in verses 14 and 152 names the tribes that went into the battle:

14  "From Ephraim those whose root is in Amalek came down, Following you, Benjamin, with your peoples; From Machir commanders came down, And from Zebulun those who wield the staff of office.  15  "And the princes of Issachar were with Deborah; As was Issachar, so was Barak; Into the valley they rushed at his heels; Among the divisions of Reuben There were great resolves of heart.

But, also named, are those who chose other activities and made themselves unavailable for the battle to free their nation:

16  "Why did you sit among the sheepfolds, To hear the piping for the flocks? Among the divisions of Reuben There were great searchings of heart.  17  "Gilead remained across the Jordan; And why did Dan stay in ships? Asher sat at the seashore, And remained by its landings.  18  "Zebulun was a people who despised their lives even to death, And Naphtali also, on the high places of the field.
 
We notice that these "warriors" were not those best known for their military prowess, but were among those that were more agrarian in occupation and from among those who wielded the staff of office (scribes). So God teaches us another salutary lesson, for this battle between Deborah (Ephraim) and Barak (Naphtali), son of Abinoam, and the host of Canaanites with their nine hundred iron chariots, was not fought by Israeli military men, but by office workers and farmers!  Truly, when God says He will give us the victory, it means with the materials or people that He chooses, for He chooses
"the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and . . . the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong" (1 Corinthians 1:272).  Deborah scolds those tribes who did not join the battle and who showed they were more interested in tending their sheep and listening to music, sitting in their boats, or engaging in commercial activities, than they were in the interests of the people of Israel and defeating the enemies of God. She went on to praise those who had "risked their lives unto death" (vs. 181) in routing the Canaanites from the land.

Judges 5:152 describes how they rushed down Mount Tabor into the valley with "great resolves of heart," armed with crude weapons such as pitch-forks and clubs to attack an army of nine hundred chariots and professional, trained, well equipped, warriors.  So severe was the situation in Israel, that verse 8 implies that the whole nation was virtually unarmed. The rhetorical question:
"was there a shield or spear seen among forty thousand in Israel?" implies the answer, "No." Thus, Deborah and Barak were all the more thrilled that the people had so willingly volunteered themselves for such a dangerous mission. This may seem difficult for some to comprehend, but the same statement is repeated in I Samuel 13:22, where even in the days of Saul the tribes were still virtually unarmed. Hence we understand the statement that the Lord used the Philistines and all the Canaanite nations to "teach them war" (Judges 3:2).

When we examine chariot warfare in those days we get an idea of their incredible heroism. The Canaanites, and later the Assyrians and Babylonians, equipped their chariots with sharp scythes on the axles.  The horses' hooves and brow pieces were covered with sharp knife-like devices. Frequently, the chariots would pull logs 8 to 12 feet wide, covered with pitch and set aflame. The whirring scythe blades and flashing knives would cut down the opposition and the flaming logs would roll over them. It was a fearsome opponent that Barak (who, despite his modern-day critics, is honoured by God among the "Heroes of the Faith" in Hebrews 11:32) and his army saw waiting in the valley.  Normally, the results of such a confrontation could be predicted in advance. What chance could foot soldiers, and especially farmers armed with pitchforks and clubs, have against chariots of iron with flashing scythe blades and flaming logs? But God had promised victory, and Judges 5:15 says they rushed into the valley.  This is the same word (Hebrew
mahar), meaning "to make haste," used in describing how David rushed toward Goliath (1 Samuel 17:48).  As David showed massive courage and great faith in his God, pitting his youth and a stone-throwing sling against a monster of a warrior in full armour, we see office workers and agricultural workers showing similar faithfulness, and God rewarding them with a great victory just as He promised through Deborah. 

Judges 4:16 informs us that not a single man was left except Sisera, the commander- in-chief who fled on foot for his life. Eventually, he arrived at the tent of a woman named Jael, the wife of a Kenite. She encouraged him to enter the tent to lie down and rest. The Kenites, although neutral in their alliances, were friends of the Israelites and, although Sisera did not know it, Jael had sinister plans to destroy him.  Some have used the account of Sisera's death to title their sermon, "The Tale of Jael's Nail."  Just as the other victors in this fight for freedom may have felt uncomfortable wielding a sword or battle-axe,  Jael would also have been uncomfortable with the normal weapons of war, but she would feel quite at home with a tent peg and a mallet since it was the job of the women to pitch the tent. She would have a strong forearm from years of driving tent pegs and hard physical work so, while Sisera slept, (v262) "she reached out her hand for the tent peg, and her right hand for the workmen's hammer. Then she struck Sisera, she smashed his head; and she shattered and pierced his temple."  Deborah, in her poem, rejoiced over this act just before beginning her taunt over Sisera's mother in Judges 5:282:

28  "Out of the window she looked and lamented, The mother of Sisera through the lattice, 'Why does his chariot delay in coming? Why do the hoofbeats of his chariots tarry?'  29  "Her wise princesses would answer her, Indeed she repeats her words to herself,  30  'Are they not finding, are they not dividing the spoil? A maiden, two maidens for every warrior; To Sisera a spoil of dyed work, A spoil of dyed work embroidered, Dyed work of double embroidery on the neck of the spoiler?'

She painted a vivid picture of  Sisera's mother looking through the lattice work windows waiting for the return of her overdue son and being encouraged by her friends as they sought to ease her worries by describing his expected victory and glory.  But Sisera lay dead, pinned to the ground in Jael's tent and Deborah summarized it in 5:312
"Thus let all Thine enemies perish, O Lord; But let those who love Him be like the rising of the sun in its might." Again we read that the land was undisturbed for forty years.

In Judges 6:11 we find the sin cycle began all over again:
"The children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord: and the Lord delivered them into the hand of Midian seven years".  At this particular time in history Egypt was very weak. It had been a world power, but it was now weak as a result of the pharaohs who held office proving themselves to be weak - which led to internal problems and troubles. As a result Egypt was losing its grip upon its colonies and the nomadic tribes to the east and south of the Dead Sea began to push in because they had experienced drought in their land for several years. So these nomadic tribes of the desert began to encroach upon the territory of Israel. The Midianites and the Amalekites were among the Bedouins of the desert who ravaged across the land and burnt anything they could not take with them so that nothing was safe.  These desert nomads had learned to domesticate camels and were now using them for the purpose of long-distance raids into more settled areas. Midian was south of Edom, near the Gulf of Aqaba. The oppression headed by the Midianites was also aided by the Amalekites and the children of the east, nomadic groups from the Syrian desert. The statement that their "camels were without number" (Judges 6:5) is the first documentation of extensive use of camels in a military campaign, giving the Midianite-Arab alliance a tremendous advantage against the Israelites. The Israelites had to hide their possessions in the dens and caves of the mountains for protection.  The sin cycle had made another downward circuit as Israel's disobedience caused God to send in the Midianite oppressor. Verse 6 describes phase 3, "the children of Israel cried unto the Lord."  Before delivering them the Lord sent an unnamed prophet to remind them of the reasons they were suffering such oppression (v8-10): "Ye have not obeyed my voice."  But phase 4 was about to begin because God had chosen the one who would deliver them from the Midianites - but what unusual circumstances to find a warrior of God! 

The children of Israel had fled from their homes and lived in caves and dens. There is abundant evidence in the land of Israel today that they lived in these abodes, especially during the period of the judges.  The once proud people of God were reduced to living like animals in caves and skulking around to carry out tasks that they should have been free to perform openly - if they had not been disobedient to their Lord.  The process of winnowing grain has been used for thousands of years and can still be observed in places like Israel today. A high hill where the breeze blows is selected for the threshing floor and the reapers use pitchforks to throw the grain high in the air so that the wind can blow away the lighter chaff and the good kernels, which are heavier, fall back to earth.  Judges 6 describes how God sent His messenger to Gideon (of Manasseh), son of Joash the Abiezrite, and found him threshing grain in a most unusual place. The best translations say that it was in the winepress which was always put at the foot of the hill because they brought the heavy grapes downhill from the vineyard to the lowest place. Whereas the threshing floor was elevated a winepress was the opposite, situated in a depression in the ground that would hold the juice when the grapes were mashed, and not at all ideal for threshing for it would be sheltered from the wind.

So the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon who was working in this situation, fearful of the Midianites, afraid of having his grain stolen and therefore threshing it secretly in a winepress, despite the inadequacy of the conditions.  Without the wind to do its work chaff and grain alike would be falling on him and he would not cut an imposing figure when the angel of the Lord appeared in another Theophany, and His words would have sounded ironic, even humourous:
"The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valour"  (vs. 121). At that moment Gideon wouldn't  have looked like a mighty man of valour with chaff and kernels on his head!  In this conversation Gideon clearly reflected the state of Israel, mentally and spiritually. Perhaps it was not that he had an inferiority complex, but was skeptical, even cynical, and some commentators suggest he was weak and cowardly.7  But this was the man that God called (Judges 6:141):

And the Lord looked upon him, and said, Go in this thy might, and thou shalt save Israel from the hand of the Midianites: have not I sent thee?

This is an unusual call and commission for Gideon for it is so powerfully stated - but to a man who clearly did not believe he was the man for the job at this point, for he responds (Judges 6:151):

And he said unto him, Oh my Lord, wherewith shall I save Israel? behold, my family is poor in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father's house.

The position Gideon occupied in his own thinking was as a member of a nation that was presently under the heel of the Midianites.   It was bad enough to be under Egypt, but now they were even under these nomads of the desert, the Midianites!  So here he is in hiding, fearfully threshing grain at the foot of the hill.  He makes it clear that he has nothing to offer and has no conspicuous place in the tribe of Manasseh (one of the sons of Joseph).  He honestly seems to feel that he was the last man in Israel to be used of God and he was probably right in his assessment and this could have been why God chose him, for proud and arrogant men are constantly mentioned in Scripture as those the Lord will bring down, as James 4:6 tells us:
"God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble."
 
Gideon needed encouragement and the Angel assured him that he was chosen to totally defeat Midian (vs. 16 - "you shall defeat Midian as one man").  In spite of this promise, Gideon still asked for a supernatural event to confirm the fact that this was no mere angelic being, but an appearance of God Himself!  The ephah of flour (one bushel) weighed over thirty pounds and was certainly a considerable gift to be given in this time of scarcity and (v20-24) the food was laid upon a rock that served as an improvised altar.  It was placed according to the directions given by the angel, who told him to lay them out in order and "pour out the broth … as a libation unto the Lord."  Then the angel reached forth his staff (rod) and touched the offering and there rose up fire out of the rock, miraculously consuming the entire offering.  In the flame, the angel departed out of his sight and, shocked by this experience, Gideon prayed for mercy because he had seen the Angel of the Lord face to face (vs. 22) and believed that seeing God would bring about his death.  Therefore, the Lord reassured him verbally:
"Peace be unto thee; fear not: thou shalt not die" (v231).  This promise left such an impression upon Gideon that he built an altar on the spot where the Theophany had appeared to him and called it "Jehovah-shalom" (the Lord is Peace).  The statement that this altar was still in Ophrah "unto this day" (vs. 24) means that it was still standing in the day of the author of the book of Judges. Thus, it serves as another apologetic evidence of the reality and veracity of the original incident. Throughout the book of Judges, as well as many other early Old Testament books, this statement is made as a part of the author's defense of the literalness of the original incident. Such statements cannot be dismissed lightly, as they so often have been by liberal commentators who want to believe that these books were written much later than the events which they describe.

Following the instructions by the Angel of the Lord (v25-32), having convinced Gideon of His power, God now instructed him to sacrifice his father's young bullock to the Lord.  In addition, he was to throw down the altar of Baal that belonged to his father. This incident reveals the strange and inconsistent situation that prevailed in Israel. Though they claimed to worship the Lord, they had mixed the true religion of their God with the cultic religion of the Canaanites. Gideon's father's name, Joash, means "Yahweh has given," yet he was, apparently, a priest of Baal since he maintained a Baal altar as well as "the grove" (Asherah, the Canaanite female deity). This situation gives us a glimpse into the terrible spiritual condition of the people of Israel just one century after entering the Promised Land. They were not only willing to compromise with pagan religion, but now their own religion had become totally confused with it. Gideon was ordered by God to tear down both the altar to Baal and the wooden Asherah and replace it with an altar
"unto the Lord … in the ordered place" (261), i.e., with stones laid in due order.  Gideon carried out the Lord's instructions, but he did it at night with his servants out of fear of his father's household and the men of the city.  When the outrage was discovered in the morning the men of the city were ready to kill him for having done this but his father Joash defended him, saying (v311): "Will ye plead for Baal? Will ye save him? He that will plead for him, let him be put to death whilst it is yet morning: if he be a god, let him plead for himself, because one hath cast down his altar."  The Baal worshippers would also have recognised the significance of the second bullock offered upon the altar of the Lord for, in Canaanite religious practices, the god El was characterized by the sacred bull as the head of the Canaanite pantheon.10

Another interesting contrast is the fact that the number seven was considered unlucky by the Canaanites, whereas it was virtually a sacred number to the Israelites. Thus, offering the second bullock of seven years old to Yahweh, the Lord God of Israel, was a deliberate denial of the power of Baal and an assertion of the victory of Yahweh over Baal.  We note that Gideon's father, taking note of his son's unusual (and perhaps unexpected) act of bravery, defended his son by asking the townspeople if they would plead for Baal for, by asking "will ye save him," he was implying that Baal, if he was really a god, should be capable of saving himself.  "If Baal cannot save himself, how do you expect him to save you?" is the real implication of Joash's reply. The passage makes it clear that Joash was convicted and challenged by his son's action and therefore memorialised the exploit by calling him Jerubbaal, meaning "let Baal plead" (cf.  Judges 7:1 - and  2 Samuel  11:21 where he is called Jerubbesheth, meaning 'contender with the idol' as an alternative name used by those who did not even want to say the name, 'Baal'11), for we read in verse 321:

"Therefore on that day he called him Jerubbaal (meaning 'Let Baal contend against him'), saying Let Baal plead against him, because he hath thrown down his altar.

Gideon still lacked confidence that the Lord had actually selected him for the task of freeing Israel from the Midianites, although He had revealed Himself to him, answered his request for a sign, and then granted him a significant victory over the Baal worshipers, he is still hesitant. God has to overcome the fear in him and develop courage and faith and strengthen Gideon for He is truly patient with His servants and His next step is to fill this man with His Spirit (Judges 6:341):

But the spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon, and he blew a trumpet; and Abiezer was gathered after him..

The blowing of the trumpet meant war and the people began to gather to Gideon to war against the Amalekites.  Still, Gideon sought further reassurance by asking for the sign of the fleece and even asked for the "reverse test" so that he might be absolutely sure that it didn't occur by chance! His question as to whether or not God would save Israel by his hand implies that he was still afraid to fully trust God's promise. Thus, he prayed that the fleece would be wet and the ground would be dry. Then he reversed the condition, asking that the ground be wet and the fleece be dry. As an encouragement to the fearful leader, God answered his request. Many believers through history can probably equate with this shakiness of faith - but few of us have had to risk life and limb in an undertaking of this magnitude. This has often raised the question of the use of "fleeces." The context of the entire story indicates that the fleece incident would have been unnecessary if Gideon had fully trusted the Lord and there is nothing in the New Testament to indicate that Christian believers ought to use signs and circumstances in attempting to discern the will of God (e.g., if it rains today I will know that I am not to go to church!). Such a dependence on signs is the exact opposite of a clear exercise of true faith. God wants us to believe His Word and clearly act upon it.

God was patient and gave Gideon this renewed confirmation of His promised victory and so Gideon rounded up an army of 32,000 men and prepared to lead them from Manasseh into the Cis-Jordan against the Midianites.  Perhaps Gideon thought he needed more men for the Midianites were like grasshoppers on the hills. They were disorganized, but by sheer numbers they would have overcome the Israelites, but God made it clear that he was not going to allow the Israelites to make the same mistake as in Joshua's day when they committed the presumptuous sin at Ai, thinking that they knew how many warriors were required and how the victory would be won.  He is told by God that he has too many men with him in order to bring about the kind of victory God intends. Therefore, the total number will have to be cut down. The details of the story are significant, in that Gideon and his men encamped by the aptly named well of Harod (
"spring of trembling"), perhaps Ain Jalud near the foot of Mount Gilboa.8  The Midianites were across the valley to the north, by the hill of Moreh, some four miles away. On Gideon's behalf we should remember that he had never led an army and that the vast majority of his soldiers were untrained and inexperienced. Thus, the scene is set for the famous incident that follows.

When given the chance 22,000 accepted the offer to return home (Judges 7:3) but God said, "Ten thousand is still too many" and, to show that He did not want Gideon and his army to take credit for the victory, He set up a testing system that would eliminate most of the rest.  Although  ten thousand men would seem too few already, and enough to make anyone afraid, God says, "You still have too many men. You have to reduce this number. I cannot give you victory with this number of men in your army." So Gideon and his men went through another test (Judges 7:5-71):

So he brought down the people unto the water: and the Lord said unto Gideon, Every one that lappeth of the water with his tongue, as a dog lappeth, him shalt thou set by himself; likewise every one that boweth down upon his knees to drink.

And the number of them that lapped, putting their hand to their mouth, were three hundred men: but all the rest of the people bowed down upon their knees to drink water.
And the Lord said unto Gideon, By the three hundred men that lapped will I save you, and deliver the Midianites into thine hand: and let all the other people go every man unto his place.

There have been different interpretations made of the manner of the selection of this army.  First God asked "
whosoever is fearful and afraid" to return home -  and twenty-two thousand left, leaving only ten thousand men. Anyone who has ever been in battle will honestly admit that he was afraid. Therefore, it would not be improper to suggest that those who went home were the wisest and the most honest of the entire group. Of the ten thousand that remained, there were still too many so Gideon, therefore, was instructed to bring them down to the water where God would "try them" (vs. 4). There are two basic views on the water trial with most commentators assuming that those who lapped were those who drank water while crouching or standing, lapping it from their cupped hands so they could keep watch for the enemy. However, ancient Jewish interpretation, as reflected by Josephus (Antiquities V;6:3), prefers to interpret the passage in a directly opposite manner. The men selected by Gideon who lapped water out of their hands and were looking about were, in reality, the ones who were the most afraid of all! While the correct interpretation may never be totally settled, the details and context of the story give it great credibility.  Thus Gideon was left with only three hundred men to face and defeat a massive army of grasshopper proportions so that, when the victory was won, God would get all the glory!

Gideon is a good example of a judge for us, and certainly strikes a chord of recognition with many Christians reading their Bibles today, for he was an unlikely candidate for leadership and not one from whom we might expect acts of heroism.  He had been unsure of God and himself from the very first appearance of the Angel of the Lord and repeatedly asked God for a sign to reassure him. Now he found himself going into battle with only three hundred men and, with the Midianites encamped in the valley
"like grasshoppers for multitude," he heard God's instruction to go down against them. Evidently, he was still hesitant, for God said to him, "If thou fear to go down, go thou with Purah thy servant down to the host. And thou shalt hear what they have to say" (v10-111) and so Gideon and his servant crawled to an outpost where guards were stationed.  There can be no doubt that the element of fear is deliberately woven throughout the entire story for even Phurah's name means "foliage," indicating that Gideon was hiding behind his armour-bearer! At the moment they arrived one of the guards began to describe a dream to his companion. We see God's sovereign hand causing a man to dream so that His chosen servant Gideon will be reassured by the recounting of the dream to a friend just at the time Gideon was hiding in the underbrush.  The dream was designed to give Gideon confidence for this is what he overheard (v13-141):

Behold, I dreamed a dream, and, lo, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the host of Midian, and came unto a tent, and smote it that it fell, and overturned it, And his fellow answered and said, This is nothing else save the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel: for into his hand hath God delivered Midian, and all the host.

When Gideon heard this symbolic description of the victory of the barley bread, representing Gideon the barley thresher, over the Midianites he bowed his head and worshipped (v15) before returning to his troops where he announced, "Arise, for the Lord hath delivered into your hand the host of Midian."  In Judges 7:16-22 we read the account of Gideon's strategy. He divided his three hundred men into three groups and he armed them with three things: pitchers, lamps, and trumpets (Hebrew  shophar rams' horns). The lamps were put inside the pitchers, so that the light could not be seen, and they held them in one hand and their trumpets in the other hand. When they went into battle, their cry was to be, "The sword of the Lord and of Gideon."  Incredibly, we do not read that Gideon or any of the three hundred men held even one sword between them (supported by the evidence from Judges 5:8 and the victory wrought through  Deborah and Barak)!  Commentators7 have argued that the Midianites ruled over the Israelites to such an extent that they did not let them have an arsenal and kept weapons such as swords for themselves so that Gideon's strategy was more or less forced on him and he had no choice but to employ pitchers, lamps, and trumpets. But, if this is so, we need to seek the reason that the Midianite who listened to the dream of his compatriot stated: "This is nothing else save the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel."  Why would he state "sword" if the Israelites had no swords?  Other commentators9 have stated that he might have been speaking "in jest."  We have no evidence that this is true but we do know that pitch-forks and clubs were used by Deborah and Barak's army  to win a famous victory so, surely, Gideon's men would have been equipped with these poor weapons at the very least?  It is consistent with Scripture to accept that Gideon now had so much faith in God that he was confident to go into battle in such a way that only the hand of God could bring about victory and there could be nothing of man that could win victory, for we do not read that he asked any more questions or tests from God, but meekly worshipped his God (v15). After all, pitchers, lamps and trumpets make the poorest of  weapons!

Several factors regarding ancient Near Eastern warfare should be noted when interpreting this incident. As a normal custom in those days, armies rarely fought at night .  We have the example in I Samuel 17 where the two armies were prepared to re-engage each other day after day but did not fight at night.  When an army did engage in battle at night, only a minority of men carried torches in order to light up the battlefield. In addition, only a certain number of men would carry and blow trumpets during the conflict. Therefore, when the Midianites awoke to the sight of three hundred torches and the sound of three hundred trumpets blaring at them from every conceivable direction, they would assume that thousands upon thousands were attacking them.  But which man would dare to carry out such an outrageous tactic unless they truly believed Almighty God was leading them? Truly, Gideon had slowly grown into a great man of faith so when he posted his three hundred men in three groups around the camp and, at his signal (v17), blew their trumpets and broke the pitchers so that the light shone out, they were relying on God alone. As they stood there holding the torches in their left hands and the trumpets in the right they shouted: "A sword for the Lord and Gideon" and the Midianites woke and "all the army ran, crying out as they fled.  And when they blew the 300 trumpets, the Lord set the sword of one against another even throughout the whole army; and the army fled as far as Beth-shittah toward Zererah, as far as the edge of Abel-meholah, by Tabbath." (Judges 7:21-222).  Again some commentators7 infer that they attacked each other purely out of confusion "as they imagined a much larger Israelite force attacking them and as they perhaps mistook their own retiring guards for Israelites", but verse 22 tells us clearly that the Lord caused them to attack each other with their swords at the sound of Gideon's men blowing their trumpets.  It was truly the miraculous "sword of the Lord" that brought a victory wrought solely by the hand of God!

Gideon allowed the tribes of Naphtali, Asher, the two parts of the tribe of Mannaseh, and Ephraim to pursue the Midianites and kill two of the leaders, Oreb and Zeeb.  It is interesting that Ephraim questioned Gideon angrily because he had not informed them that he was going into battle to fight the Midianites and he chose diplomacy instead of confrontation (Judges 8:1-3).  We can only conjecture upon the outcome if they had been invited to be part of the original battle.  Would they have accepted that all but three hundred men must drop-out of the ranks and then go into the battle armed with trumpets and lamps?  Considering the later evidence, where Gideon took revenge on some fellow country-men at Succoth and Penuel, two Israelite cities in the Trans-jordan territory of Gad (cf.  Genesis 32:22, 30; Josh 13:27), for not giving his exhausted 300-strong army bread (8:5-9, 14-17) to attack a remnant of about 15,000 Midianites (120,000 had been killed!), we can only fear the worst.  First Corinthians 14:8 says, "For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" This speaks of the testimony and witness of believers which must be certain and clear and solidly backed by the Word of the Lord and all revelations claimed to be from God must be consistent with this standard.  Could Gideon really have trusted Ephraim, or any other tribe to partake in this great victory, unless God had told him specifically that this was part of His plan?  Truly there are many lessons in these passages about the invitation and use of those who claim to be fellow believers but who may refuse to help those who are obeying orders clearly received from the Lord, or who spurn you when you ask them for their help. 

Gideon caught up with the Midian kings, Zebah and Zalmunna, and killed them in revenge for the death of his brothers at Mount Tabor (8:18-21), an incident that we have no information about.  As a result of this stunning victory, the men of Israel urged Gideon to "rule thou over us." For the first time the tribes begin to desire a king and a central government. However, Gideon refused the offer because he rightly believed that "the Lord shall rule over you."  Israel was designed by God to be a theocracy that recognized the Sovereign God and Gideon refused such a position for himself and his sons.  Many more years would pass before God would reluctantly authorize a true king in Israel. However, the desire for centralized leadership to replace the loosely confederated tribal amphictyony had already been initiated and we see that this request had evil consequences later, for Abimelech, his usurper son, probably knew of this attempt to crown Gideon and illegitimately attempted to make himself king of Israel. Having refused the kingdom, Gideon requested instead that they give him the earrings of his prey, which they had taken from the fallen Ishmaelites (used interchangeably here for Midianites; cf. Gen 37:25, 36, where the same groups are interchangeably referred to in the narrative about Joseph). Both Ishmael, by Hagar, and Midian, by Keturah, were sons of Abraham; and their descendants became closely allied. The men willingly responded and spread a garment upon which each man cast the earrings of his prey.  The weight of the golden earrings was one thousand seven hundred shekels of gold (about seventy pounds), from which Gideon, for some unexplained and possibly well intentioned reason, made an ephod. The nature of this ephod is uncertain but we know that it was part of the attire of the high priest (Exodus 28:4) and, on occasion, it was consulted by using the Urim and Thummim stones which were upon it as a source of divine guidance. Whatever Gideon's reason for making the ephod, the end result was that all Israel went "whoring" after it so that it became a "snare unto Gideon, and to his house" (v. 27).  Instead of giving glory to God for His miraculous deliverance, the people began worshipping another idol obtained from the spoil of that deliverance. The fact that it became a "snare unto Gideon" would imply that he was not happy with this result but, sadly, this proves again the mistake of fallible man trying to pre-empt the designs of God.

Chapter 9 recounts the descent into lawlessness and we read of the activities of Abimelech (Judges 8:33-9:57; 2 Samuel 11:21), who was a son of Gideon by a concubine. So we see that Gideon's sin of taking more than one wife (he fathered seventy other sons by a number of women) led to more disasters, for Abimelech set himself up as a petty king by executing seventy of his half brothers (only Jotham, the youngest managed to escape; v5), and so many commentators eliminate him as a judge and consider him to be merely a self-appointed tyrant without a calling from God.  Abimelech defeated Gaal, who conspired against him (9:26-41), captured Shechem and razed the city (9:42-49), but then died a humiliating death at Thebez when a woman defending a strong tower threw a millstone which struck him on the head, causing a death-dealing wound.  Abimelech tried to reduce the shame of being killed by a woman by ordering his armour-bearer to kill him with a sword (9:50-54), but he cannot expunge the record of God dealing with a man in this way because he had killed his brothers to get to power thus insulting his father and Almighty God, for the very death he dealt to his seventy brothers, who were slain "upon one stone" (v5) was wrought through a single millstone (vs. 53) - and that thrown by a woman!  It is interesting to note that a century later, Israel's other questionable first king, Saul, also died in a disgraceful manner at Mount Gilboa just a few miles away! Abimelech "ruled" over Israel 3 years (9:22).

Chapter 10 briefly mentions two more judges, Tola, son of Puah (Judges 10:1, 2), who is the sixth judge, and was probably from one of the leading families of Issachar (cf. Gen. 46:13; Numbers 26:23).  Tola judged Israel 23 years (10:2), and Jair (of Gilead-Manasseh), judge number seven (Judges 10:3-5), was probably a descendant of the Jair who distinguished himself during the days of Moses and Joshua (Numbers 32:41; Deuteronomy 3:14; Joshua 13:30; 1 Kings 4:13; 1 Chronicles 2:21). Jair judged Israel 22 years (10:3) and had 30 sons who were itinerant judges (10:4).

We then read of an eighteen year Philistine-Ammonite oppression when Israel's neighbours joined forces against them.  They had now sunk to such depths that God refused to deliver them until they had shown some genuine evidence of repentance. His words were scathing (Judges 10:131):

Ye have forsaken me, and served other gods: wherefore I will deliver you no more. Go and cry unto the gods which ye have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your tribulation. 

Their response was to turn to Him and, because they did, He raised up judge number eight, Jephthah (of Gilead-Manasseh), son of Gilead by a harlot (11:1) and we read of the deliverance from the Philistines and Ammonites at his hands in Judges 10:6-12:7 which is also recorded as a work of faith in Hebrews 11:32.  Although he was driven off by his vengeful half brothers and fled to the land of Tob, the elders of Gilead brought Jephthah back and made him their chief at Mizpah (11:4-11).  Jephthah was confident enough in his God to send a message to the King of Ammon saying that the Israelites had been in possession of Gilead for 300 years, too long for the Ammonites to challenge their right to it (11:26), and he then subdued them, conquering some 20 cities (11:32, 33). Jephthah is notable for having foolishly promised "whatever comes out of the doors of my house to greet me when I return . . . it shall be the Lord's, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering".  Commentators7 try to argue that he did not burn her as an offering but this is difficult to prove and against the clear meaning of the text in verse 31, relying on v39 ("and she had no relations with a man") to prove she led a dedicated nun-like existence somewhere after returning from a time of mourning on the mountains (Judges 11:31-40).  Jephthah also defeated the Ephraimites in a civil war after they were offended because they had not been asked to join in the battle against the Ammonites (12:1-6).  We have seen that the men of Ephraim also quarreled with Gideon (8:1) when he didn't summon them to help him rout the Midianites.  Again they angrily demanded that Jephthah give them the reason why he did not ask for their help in the battle. This apparent problem of jealousy of Ephraim was a real infection that led to a defection and later on, when the kingdom is divided into north and south, we find that Ephraim is the centre of the rebellion.  Jephthah judged Israel six years (Judges 12:7) before he died and was buried in his home-town of Gilead.

In Judges 12:8-10 we meet judge number nine, Ibzan (of Judah or Bethlehem-Zebulun; cf. Joshua 19:15) who had 30 sons and 30 daughters, for whom he arranged marriages outside the family, thus indicating his wealth and social prominence.  He judged Israel for seven years and a Jewish tradition identifies Ibzan with Boaz of Bethlehem-Judah.  Little is known of Elon (of Zebulun), judge number ten (Judges 12:11-12), except that he was buried at Aijalon in Zebulun, distinguishing if from the better known Aijalon in Danite territory (12:12) and judged Israel for ten years.  Abdon (of Ephraim), son of Hillel, was number eleven (Judges 12:13-15) and his wealth and prominence is revealed by the fact that he had 40 sons and 30 grandsons, who all rode on donkeys (12:14).  Abdon was a native of Pirathon and was later buried there in the hill country after judging Israel for eight years.

We notice that not all of these judges join the "roll of honor" in Hebrews 11:32-342:

And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets,  33  who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,  34  quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.

The twelfth judge Samson (Judges 13:2), son of Manoah, is rightly named here in Hebrews and we study him as a man who had it all from birth, was a mighty warrior for God and, despite apparent fraternization with the Philistines and being enslaved by Delilah, blinded, and imprisoned at Gaza (16:4-22), died gloriously when he pulled down the Temple of Dagon, killing himself and about 3,000 Philistines (16:23-31) after judging Israel for twenty years (15:20, 16:31)

Wilkinson and Boa12 make the point that each judge is a saviour and a ruler, a spiritual and political deliverer. Thus, the judges portray the role of Christ as the Saviour-King of His people. The Book of Judges also illustrates the need for a righteous king and, including First Samuel, the seventeen judges include warrior-rulers (e.g., Othniel and Gideon), a priest (Eli), and a prophet (Samuel). This gives a cumulative picture of the three offices of the Perfect Judge, the Lord Jesus Christ, who excelled all his predecessors in that He was the ultimate Prophet, Priest, and All-Conquering King.


(Continued on page 436)

'Joshua, Judges - and Sin'

Joshua defends the cunning Gibeonites

Joshua's long day!

The Book of Joshua

The four phases of the 'Sin Cycle' in the Book of Judges

The 'Five Judges'

Chronological difficulties and the Book of Judges

The overlap of Judges and I Samuel

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