THE TREACHERY AND DEATH OF ABIMELECH: TOLA AND JAIR: 8:33-10:5

Thus far in our study of Judges, we have dealt with the background information given in 1:1-3:6, the first major period of the judges in 3:7-5:31, which was the period of Othniel, Ehud and Deborah, and most of the second major period, that of the Midianite oppression, 6:1-10:5.

In the last two essays we have studied the judgeship of Gideon. In this essay, we will complete the portion of the book of Judges on Gideon’s family. In 8:33-34 we see the classic pattern of the period of the Judges being repeated. After the death of the judge, in this case Gideon, the people slide back into idolatry. In chapter nine we find the story of Abimelech and Jotham. We learned last week that Gideon had 70 sons by his many wives, and that he had another son by his concubine in Shechem. That son’s name was Abimelech.

After the death of Gideon, Abimelech decided to establish himself as king in the land by killing all of Gideon’s other sons, Abimelech’s half-brothers. There is no indication whatsoever that any of Abimelech’s brothers had given any thought to setting up a monarchy; but they would have been the only other possible claimants.

Abimelech began by persuading the Shechemites, his mother’s people, to finance his effort (vv. 1-3). Apparently Abimelech had some of his father’s leadership skills, but not his father’s scruples. They gave him 70 pieces of silver from the temple to Baal in Shechem (v. 4). It was not uncommon in those days to use temple treasury for political purposes.

Abimelech used the money to hire a crew of armed men; and he marched on Ophrah, where he evidently met with little resistance. He captured and executed all of the sons of Gideon, with one exception. The fact that the sons were killed “on one stone” is the indicator that it was an execution. Somehow Jotham, the youngest of Gideon’s sons was able to hide; and thus to escape (vv. 4-5).

Then Abimelech was proclaimed king by the Shechemites (v. 6). It would appear that Abimelech’s kingdom was quite small. Verse 22, which says that Abimelech ruled over Israel for three years, must be understood to mean over just a small portion of western Manasseh. And its weakness can be seen in the fact that it did not survive his death. Abimelech cannot, and is not, given a place among Israel’s judges. He was not called by God to deliver Israel. On the contrary, he was a murderer who carved out a little kingdom for himself.

In the next paragraph, verses 7-21, we find an interesting fable and challenge proclaimed by Jotham, the one surviving son of Gideon. Jotham was imaginative. He climbed Mt. Gerizim and used it as a pulpit to denounce the shameful actions of Abimelech and the Shechemites. You will recall that it was precisely here about a century and a half before that Joshua had divided the people according to the instructions of Moses, half on Mt. Ebal and half on Mt. Gerizim (Deut. 27-28), and taking advantage of the natural acoustics, renewed the covenant (Josh. 8:30-35). Now Jotham took advantage of the same natural amphitheater to expose Abimelech by telling the fable and to denounce him.

The fable was easy to understand. Notice that Jotham didn’t condemn the idea of a monarchy. He simply pointed out that a worthless person had been chosen. The bramble was totally worthless in comparison to the various trees. And for the bramble to invite the trees to take refuge in its shade was, of course, ridiculous. However, the bramble certainly was a threat to burn up the trees with fire, because in summer the dry brambles were ideal fuel for scrub fires fanned by the wind. Jotham’s point was obvious. Abimelech could offer no security to the people of Shechem. To the contrary, he would bring destruction on them.

In verses 16-19 Jotham applied the fable directly to the Shechemites; and then in verse 20 he predicted that their lack of good faith and honor would end in they and Abimelech destroying one another. Then Jotham fled. ?

In the next paragraph, verses 22-25, we learn that Jotham’s prediction began to come true. During Abimelech’s three-year reign, the lords of Shechem became hostile to him. And then they betrayed him by setting up ambushes in the mountains to rob all of the travelers. Apparently the purpose of this was to deprive Abimelech of the revenues he would normally extract from the travelers. Obviously they would not pay Abimelech if he could not guarantee safe passage through his territory.

In verses 26-33 we find a new player on the scene. His name was Gaal. Nothing is known about Gaal except what we see in this chapter. We are told that he moved to Shechem with his family. And evidently Gaal was a slick talker like Abimelech; and he made a big impression on the lords of Shechem. Therefore, “they put confidence in him” (v. 26). Gaal began to talk about what he would do if he were in charge, and one of the things he would do would be to remove Abimelech.

Well, that was enough for Zebul, the ruler of the city, who was loyal to Abimelech. He sent a message to Abimelech to alert him to the situation (v. 31), and he suggested a plan for dealing with it (vv. 32-33). In verses 34-41 we see that Abimelech followed the suggested plan (vv. 34-35), and with Zebul’s help (vv. 36-38), he defeated Gaal, whose forces were driven behind the city gates (vv. 39-40). Then Zebul drove Gaal out of the city (v. 41).

Although Zebul’s action had brought things in Shechem under control, Abimelech was not satisfied. He was angry with the people for their rebellion. Verses 42-49 tell us that Abimelech at this point gave up any pretense of governing Shechem. He was determined to punish the city severely, so the next day he went against the city with his army. In a surprise attack he killed all of the people and razed the city to the ground.

Next he turned his attention to the city’s fortress, called the tower of Shechem, or the temple of El or Baal-berith (vv. 46-47). He dealt with that group of about a thousand people by burning them to death (vv. 48-49).

Verses 5-57 tell us that Abimelech then went to the city of Thebz and its tower. As you can see, his strategy was the same as with Shechem. He took the town; and then he began to burn the tower fortress (vv. 50-51). But Abimelech was not cautious enough; and when he went up to the base of the tower to place wood for its burning, a woman threw down an upper millstone, which would have been 2-3 inches thick and about 18 inches in diameter; and it hit Abimelech on the head. In order to avoid the embarrassment of being killed by a woman, he had his armor-bearer finish him off with a sword (vv. 52-55).

And then the author applied the moral. “Thus God repaid Abimelech for the crime he committed against his father in killing his seventy brothers; and God also made all the wickedness of the people of Shechem fall back on their heads” (vv. 56-57)

The section ends with a reference to two unimportant judges; namely Tola and Jair. We are told that Tola “rose to deliver Israel, and that he ruled Israel for 23 years. But the story of Tola’s deliverance is not told. And nothing said about Jair other than the fact that he had thirty sons and ruled Israel for 22 years.

When we turn to what we can glean from today’s lesson by way of application, the first and main lesson is the necessity of acting in good faith and honor. Abimelech failed to act in good faith and honor in several ways

—He was full of guile (his approach to Shechem).
—He was religiously unfaithful (willing to use money from a Canaanite temple to
advance his own personal cause).
—He was a traitor to his family.
—He was a brutal murderer (the execution of his brothers and the people of Shechem).

Not only do we learn the necessity of acting in good faith and with honor. We learn, second, that God is ultimately in control. Notice that the author attributed the downfall of both Abimelech and Shechem to God, even though the agent of Shechem’s demise was Abimelech, and that of Abimelech was an anonymous woman. God’s judgment does not always come within this life, as it did with Abimelech. But it always comes.

GIDEON’S VICTORY, IDOLATRY AND DEATH: 7:1-8:32

In the last essay, we began the second major period of the Judges, that of the Midianite oppression, which appears in 6:1-10:5. We studied chapter six, which told about the Midianite oppression and Gideon’s call to overthrow them. In this essay we are studying chapters 7-8, in which we find Gideon’s victory over the Midianites, his eventual fall into idolatry, and his death.

Chapter seven opens with the armies of Israel and Midian camped on the battlefield. Then in verses 2-8 we find the famous story of the Lord’s cutting Gideon’s army from 32,000 men to 300. Clearly the Lord wanted this victory to manifest his power rather than the power of men.

The reduction of the forces takes place in two stages. The first stage is God’s direction to Gideon to permit all who would admit they were afraid to leave (vv. 2-3). It astonishes that so many did. Nearly two thirds of the army left when given the opportunity, which might be the reason that the Lord decided to reduce the army so radically. Such a large percentage of fearful men easily could have led to panic and defeat.

The motive behind the second stage of the reduction is a bit mysterious (vv. 4-7). That is, no one knows why the Lord used the method he did to cut the army. It could have been a matter of alertness, because someone lapping water from their hand could stay alert by keeping their head up, whereas someone kneeling down to the water could not. But that is only a guess. At any rate, only 300 of the remaining 10,000 drank that way; and so all but the 300 were sent home.

The 300 took the provisions of the 9700, and so they now each had a trumpet and a jar (v.8). Although the Lord already had assured Gideon of victory, in verses 9-15 we see how he gave Gideon another experience to build up his confidence. He told him to go to the Midianite camp to listen to their talk. So he and his servant went (vv. 9-12). And they overheard a Midianite tell one of his friends a dream. And the friend interpreted it to mean that Gideon would defeat the Midianites (vv. 13-14). After hearing this amazing dream and its interpretation, Gideon returned to his camp completely convinced that God would give the Midianites into their hands (v. 15). He was as pumped as he was going to get; and he returned to prepare the attack.

In verses 16-24 we see the results. Gideon divided the 300 Israelites into three companies. He gave each soldier a trumpet, a torch and a jar (v. 16). Some have wondered how they could have carried three things in two hands. The trumpets would have been rams horns, and they would have been on some sort of string and would have hung around their necks. Moreover the torches were placed in the jars.

The three Israelite companies surrounded the Midianite camp in the middle of the night; and at the moment indicated by Gideon, they blew their trumpets, broke their jars, waved their torches and shouted, “For the Lord and for Gideon.” The clamor created such an impression that the Midianites were thrown into a panic (vv. 17-21). It may even have stampeded their camels. At any rate, the Midianites began to attack one another. Thousands were killed, and the rest fled across the Jordan (v. 22), with Gideon’s 300 brave men in pursuit.

A call was sent out to the tribes to help, and many fighting men came, including many from the tribe of Ehpraim (vv. 23-24). Presumably these, apart from those from Ephraim, would have been the troops that had been sent home earlier. The Ephraimites secured the fords of the Jordan and captured two Midianite kings (vv. 24-25).

Then at the beginning of chapter eight we see the Ephraimites complaining to Gideon for not calling them out at the beginning of the conflict (v. 1). No real explanation is given for that decision not to call them out. At that time Ephraim, located in central Canaan, was the strongest of the tribes. Perhaps Gideon didn’t believe that his influence was sufficient to send a call to the more southerly tribe, which also was the strongest tribe. But once the initial victory was won, he called them out so that they could share in the triumph and the booty. And he overcame their anger by flattering them (vv.2-3).

In verse 4-17 we are told how two Israelite cities located east of the Jordan along the Jabbok River directly east of Shechem, Succoth and Penuel, not only refused to help pursue the Midianites, but also refused to feed Gideon’s troops. Apparently they were so afraid of the Midianites they wouldn’t even help their fellow Israelites (vv. 4-9).

Gideon went on about his business; but before leaving, he told the residents of the two cities that he would be back after completing his victory to trample the flesh of the inhabitants of Succoth with thorns and briars (v.7) and to smash the tower of Penuel (v. 9). Gideon did gain that final victory and captured two Midianite kings (vv. 10-12). Then he fulfilled his promise to the two cities. He came back and punished the seventy-seven leaders of Succoth and broke down the tower of Penuel as he had promised (vv. 13-17).

Verses 18-21 tell us the fate of the two Midianite kings. We learn that they had been responsible for killing Gideon’s brothers. And he killed them as punishment according to the law of retaliation, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” The kings seemed to have no problem with that. It was the code by which they lived and died.

In verses 22-28 we see both the strength and weakness of Gideon. Some of the northern tribes offered to make Gideon an hereditary king, with his son and grandson ruling after him. This indicated the high esteem in which they held Gideon. Gideon showed his strength by resisting the temptation to place an earthly crown on his head and on the heads of his descendents (vv. 22-23). But Gideon showed his weakness when he asked each person in the tribes to give him a gold earring that they had gotten as booty. They gladly complied, because the spoil had been large. He collected 1700 shekels of gold, 40-75 pounds of it, depending on whether the measure was a light or heavy shekel (vv. 24-26).

Then Gideon made an ephod. An ephod was the garment worn by the high priest in Judaism. It isn’t known why Gideon made the garment. Some have suggested that Gideon made a solid gold image of an ephod that became an idol. Others have said that Gideon wanted to exercise a priestly role in the community, and had the ephod made for himself to wear when he fulfilled that role. Whatever the case, the ephod became an object of idolatry in Gideon’s hometown; as people there began to worship it (vv. 27).

In verses 29-35 we see that Gideon became very wealthy, that he had many wives and children. But his son who caused the most problems was not one of the seventy sons of his wives, but the son of his concubine in Shechem. His name was Abimelech; and we will study his life in the next study. After 40 years of rest for the land (v. 28), Gideon died (v. 32)

For application this week, we will look at chapters 6 through 8 from the perspective of Gideon rather than from the perspective of God. From Gideon’s perspective, he had to be four things, all of which we also must be if we are to properly relate to God. First, he had to be open to the supernatural. And he was. He was willing to listen to the angel of the Lord and to accept a sign when it was given (6:17-22). I trust that each of us is open to the supernatural.

Second, Gideon had to have faith. Although Gideon’s faith wavered, as indicated by his insistence on the fleece sign (6:36-40), he genuinely believed in the Lord and in doing the Lord’s will. And when Gideon was willing to go into battle with only the 300 men whom the Lord had allowed him (7:15-18), he showed great faith. I don’t know if I have “the great faith,” that Gideon had, but I trust that I have the faith necessary to do God’s will for my life. And I trust that you do as well.

Third, Gideon had to be obedient. He had to obey in small things before he could be obedient in big things. He obeyed in respect to tearing down the altar to Baal and the sacred Pole (6:25-27) before he obeyed in the great battle against the Midianites. Most of us are not called to do “big things.” But if we are obedient in the small things that we re called to do, I trust we will be ready if and when God calls us to a big thing.

And finally, fourth, Gideon had to be courageous. For example, he knew that his family and the townspeople would be incensed if he tore down the altar to Baal (6:25-28), but he had the courage to do it anyway. And when God called him to defeat the Midianites, he was ready. The same is true for us. If we don’t have the courage to do a small thing, we won’t have the courage to do a big thing when that call comes.

THE MIDIANITE OPPRESSION AND CALL OF GIDEON: 6:1-40

Thus far in our study of Judges we have noted that 1:1-2:5 provides background information for the main part of the book. In that passage we are told that after the death of Joshua the tribes resolved to continue the war of extermination of the Canaanites; and they had some initial successes.

But those successes were limited. Indeed there was a broad spectrum of success. For example, Judah and Simeon had considerable success (1:3-19), but Manasseh, Ephraim and Zebulun failed to drive out the inhabitants of several named villages, though they succeeded in using the Canaanites as forced labor (1:27-30).

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Judah and Simeon were the Danites. The tribe of Dan not only failed to drive the Canaanites out of their inheritance, they couldn’t even settle there. Eventually at least some of them completely gave up on settling in the central part of Canaan and migrated far to the north to a city they conquered there, and named Dan.

After recording a rebuke from the Angel of the Lord for Israel’s lack of faithfulness to the covenant in 2:1-5, the author contrasted the faithfulness of the people while Joshua was alive, in 2:6-10, with their lack of faithfulness after Joshua died, in 2:11-19.

Next, 2:20-23 we saw the results of Israel’s continued apostasy. In effect, the Lord washed his hands of Israel’s attempts to conquer the Promised Land. “I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died,” said the Lord (verse 21).

In the last essay, we moved into the main body of the book, which presents the history of the judges. We studied the first major section; namely, 3:7-5:31, which covers the period of Othniel, Ehud and Deborah.

In this essay we take up chapter six. Obviously the victory over Jabin and Sisera, which was so clearly the work of the Lord, led to a resurgence of faith in the Lord. But with the passing of the years, as so often is the case, the memory of the great deliverance faded from the consciousness of the people. And once again Israel turned to other gods. This time the chastening nation was the Midianites, with help from the Amalekites (6:1-6).

Midian was located in the deep south, south of Edom and east of the Gulf of Aqaba, which is the eastern border of the Sinai peninsula. The Amalekites, you may recall, dwelled in southern Palestine, south of Judah.

The impression given by the text is that the Midianites did not occupy the land of Israel, but they swept through it every year with all of their people and herds. They lived off the land and devastated it. Thus the image of locusts in verse five is very appropriate. Moreover the Midianites were so cruel in their oppression while in the land that the Israelites were not safe dwelling in cities and towns. Therefore they hid in caves and the like in the mountains while the Midianites were in the land.

Israel’s faith in the Lord was small; but they finally did, in their desperation, call on him for help. He responded by sending a prophet, who reminded Israel of the Lord’s past blessings, and of Israel’s idolatrous failures (6:7-10).

Next comes the call of Gideon. Gideon’s call took place in two parts. The first part was a conversation he had with the angel of the Lord in verses 11-24. And the second part was the carrying out of instructions given in a dream. That’s in verses 25-32. Notice that the divine visitor not only is called “the angel of the Lord” in verse 11. But in verse 14 he is called “the Lord.” That quite clearly indicates that the “angel of the Lord” was the Lord himself in human manifestation.

It is uncertain where Ophrah was located; but Joash as an Abiezrite was of the half-tribe of Manasseh that settled west of the Jordan in central Canaan (Josh. 17:2). The oak, the sacred tree, evidently was located on Joash’s property.

The fact that Gideon, the son of Joash, was threshing the grain in a winepress provides further proof that the Midianites were greatly feared. Ordinarily grain was threshed in the open by means of a threshing sledge drawn by oxen. Only the poorest people threshed their grain by beating it with a stick. Moreover the fact that the harvest could be threshed in an area as small as a winepress indicated that the harvest was small.

As Gideon threshed the grain, the angel of the Lord appeared to him, addressed him as a “mighty warrior,” and told him the Lord was with him. Gideon was wary, because it didn’t look to him as if the Lord was with him or any one else in Israel.

But the Lord responded by commissioning Gideon as a delivering judge (v. 14). But Gideon objected. How can I do that? I am the least in my family; and we are from an insignificant tribe (v. 15).

The Lord answered that objection easily. “But I will be with you,” he said (v. 16). There is an interesting parallel here to the great commission in Matt. 28 (19-20). Both Gideon and the disciples of Jesus were given a commission followed by the Lord’s promise to be with them.

But Gideon still was not satisfied, and he asked for a sign that this person really was the Lord (v. 17). He also asked the stranger to wait while he went into the house to get a present for him. The Lord agreed, and Gideon went into the house to prepare a meal (vv. 19-24).

This meal, given as a present, was a kind of tribute that one would give to a superior in that culture. Once the meal was prepared and brought out to the angel of the Lord, he told Gideon to put it on a rock, probably on some part of the winepress. Then the Lord touched the food with his staff, and fire appeared from the rock completely consuming the food, after which the angel of the Lord vanished (vv. 20-21).

That was enough to convince Gideon that he had been dealing with the angel of the Lord; and he was filled with fear (v. 22), because according to Ex. 33:20 no one could look upon the Lord and live. But the Lord reassured him, this time presumably by an inner voice (v. 23). Gideon responded by building an altar at that spot.

That was the first part of Gideon’s call. In verses 25-32 we see the second part. This aspect of Gideon’s call apparently came in a dream. At least the Lord communicated to him at night. It could be called Gideon’s first assignment. The Lord told him to pull down the altar to Baal that belonged to his father, cut down the sacred pole bedside the altar, build an altar to the Lord, and sacrifice a bullock on it using the wood from the pole (vv. 25-27).

The purpose of this is fairly obvious. Before Gideon could be a deliverer for the nation, he had to be a deliverer for his own family. This altar to Baal belonged to his father, though it served the entire town. The fact that Joash had an altar to Baal on his property shows the extent to which Israel had sunk into idolatry.

So that altar had to be torn down; and an altar to the Lord built. Moreover, a sacrifice of cleansing and purification had to be offered to purify Gideon and his family. All this Gideon did, but at night, because he feared the reaction of both his family and the townspeople.

He was right. The townspeople were quite upset the next morning when they discovered what Gideon had done (vv. 28-29). They discovered that Gideon had done it, and they wanted his head so to speak (v. 29). But his father Joash had a perfect defense of Gideon at hand. He suggested that if Baal was all they contended, that is if he really is God, he ought to be capable of defending himself against the offense done by Gideon. And so Gideon was spared.

Soon the Midianites came for their annual spoiling of Israel. But God had prepared Gideon to resist them this time (vv. 33-35). This apparently was the eighth consecutive year that they came. They crossed the Jordan and camped in the Valley of Jezreel. But this time the Lord “took possession of Gideon.” That verb literally means “to cloth with.” Thus Gideon was “clothed with” the Spirit of God. You will recognize this as typical of God’s charismatic movement upon a judge of Israel. Thus equipped, Gideon was ready to do what was necessary. He sent out a call to Israel’s tribes beginning with his own; and they responded (v. 35).

Now then, in the next paragraph we see Gideon’s faith slip a bit (vv. 36-40). The patience of the Lord in this section is really remarkable. Gideon asks the Lord to demonstrate by means of a sign whether or not he would deliver Israel. The sign that Gideon proposed was the famous one of laying out a fleece overnight. He asked the Lord to have dew fall on the fleece but not on the ground around it. And it happened. But Gideon, realizing that wool tends to draw dew more readily than ground or rock, was not satisfied with his own test. So he asked the Lord to do the opposite the next night. And that happened.

Thus Gideon finally was ready both religiously and mentally to take on the Midianites. We will study that in the next essay. But we must do some application on today’s lesson before we close. I see three points in respect to the Lord. First, God’s call implies God’s empowerment. When the Lord called Gideon, he called Gideon a “mighty warrior” even though there was no indication that Gideon was such a person. The Lord knew that he was going to supernaturally empower Gideon, and of course he did. Now each of us may not need as great a supernatural empowerment as Gideon, but whatever we need, he will provide.

Second, God’s commission implies God’s accompaniment. When the Lord commissioned Gideon, he told Gideon that he would be with him when Gideon fulfilled that commission. And the Holy Spirit does the same for us. Whatever he calls us to do, we can count on the Lord’s being there for us. He will see us through, no matter how rough the situation.

And third, God’s commitment implies his patience. As Gideon wavered in his faith, and asked the Lord to wet a fleece one night and then wet the ground around the fleece the next night, the Lord patiently went along, and nurtured Gideon’s faith.

From Gideon’s perspective, he had to be four things. First, he had to be open to the supernatural. He was willing to listen to the angel of the Lord and to accept a sign when it was given (6:17-22). Second, Gideon had to have faith. Although Gideon’s faith wavered, he genuinely believed in the Lord and in doing the Lord’s will. Third, Gideon had to be obedient. He had to obey in small things before he could be obedient in big things. He obeyed in respect to tearing down the altar to Baal and the sacred Pole before he obeyed in the great battle against the Midianites. And fourth, Gideon had to be courageous. He knew that his family and the townspeople would be incensed if he tore down the altar to Baal, but he had the courage to do it anyway.

The same is true for us. If we are to accomplish God’s will in our lives, we must be open to the supernatural; we must have faith; we must be obedient (beginning with small things); and we must be courageous.

FROM FIRST APOSTASY TO DELIVERANCE FROM JABIN: 3:7-5:31

All right, we are now ready to move into the main body of the book, the period under the judges. It begins at 3:7 and continues through 16:31. It consists of three major sections. The first is from the first apostasy to deliverance from Jabin, which is 3:7-5:31. That was the period of Othniel, Ehud and Deborah. The second is the time of the Midianite oppression, during which Gideon served as the primary deliverer of the people. That is found in 6:1-10:5. And the third is the period of Ammonite and Philistine supremacy during which Jephthah and Samson were the major figures. It is located in 10:6-16:31. Today we are going to cover that first section, 3:7-5:31.

The section begins in 3:7-11 with a summary of Israel’s first apostasy and deliverance. That is the typical pattern in a nutshell. Aram-naharaim was an area in Mesopotamia near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Therefore the attack probably came from the north. Since Othniel was a leader of a southern tribe, it suggests that there was still some measure of unity among the Israelite tribes early in the period of the judges.

Asherahs refer to cult objects dedicated to the goddess Astates. She was the consort of Baal and the goddess of fertility, especially vegetation. Thus the tree was a symbol of her realm of authority. The asherahs probably were wooden pillars that symbolized the sacred tree.

Note in verse 10 the supernatural empowerment of Othniel by the Holy Spirit. And notice also that the peace lasted as long as the judge lived. That was an important part of the pattern. While the judge was alive, he could keep the people faithful. But as soon as the great leader died, the people slipped back into apostasy.

After the death of Othniel, Israel’s apostasy brought about oppression by the Moabites, verses 12-30. Notice in verse 12 that “the Lord strengthened King Eglon of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil” in his sight. God was still in control. And he was using Moab, in alliance with the Ammonites and the Amalekites, to chastise his wayward people.

Moab was located east of the Dead Sea. Ammon lay northeast of Moab. And the Amalekites dwelled south of Judah, and thus west of the Dead Sea. The forces led by Eglon crossed the Jordan in approximately the same area that Israel had years before, because their first objective was “the city of Palms,” which was Jericho, verse 13.

According to the recurring pattern, after a number of years, verse 14, Israel repented; and the Lord raised up a left-handed judge named Ehud, verse 15. The deliverance was accomplished in an unusual way. Israel sent Ehud to Eglon with an impressive tribute, verse 15. But Ehud had a sword strapped to his thigh, verses 16. And by means of a careful plan, he assassinated Eglon and escaped, verses 17-26. The details are rather gory.

Once back in Israel, Ehud raised an army, verse 27; and his strategy was clear. He cut off possible escape by the Moabite forces across the Jordan by seizing the fords, verse 28. And then he essentially wiped them out, verses 29-30.

The mention of Shamgar in verse 31 is interesting, but leaves any unanswerable questions. First, it departs from the usual pattern. There is no mention of Israel’s having done evil, of Philistine oppression, nor of a time of rest for the people. Second, Ehud is mentioned once again in 4:1 suggesting that there was no judge between Ehud and Deborah. Third, Shamgar is named in Deborah’s song (5:6) in connection with unsafe roads. It may be that Shamgar lived during the time of Ehud or Deborah and was a judge only in the sense of having successfully fought against the Philistines.

In chapter four we find the story of Deborah, followed in chapter five with a song of triumph from her victorious days. Let me first set forth some of the geography. Hazor where Jabin reigned was located north of the Sea of Galilee, which is quite far north. Deborah on the other hand was judging Israel “between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim” (vv. 4-5. Thus she was serving far to the south. Barak, whom Deborah chose to lead the army of Israel (v. 6), was from Kedesh in Naphtali, which was a little northwest of lake Hula, not far from Hazor in the north. So once again there appears to be more unity among the tribes during the days of the judges than is sometimes thought.

With this particular story, we may be as much as a century beyond the initial conquest of Canaan by Joshua. You may remember that Joshua had conquered a king Jabin of Hazor during the northern part of that first phase of the conquest. That story is recorded in Josh. 11:1-15.

Of course some scholars want to claim the author of Judges is confused. But there is no serious problem here. The kings of Hazor may have taken the name Jabin as an hereditary name, a practice known in those ancient times. For example, all of the kings of Egypt were known as Pharaoh. At any rate, Jabin probably was an old man, because he has very little prominence in the narrative. Instead it is his general Sisera who is at the forefront of the story.

Notice that there is no doubt about Sisera’s superior military power. He had 900 chariots at his command. And he subjugated Israel for a lengthy period of time (v. 3). Notice also that Deborah did not come on the scene quite as suddenly as some of the other judges. That is, the Lord had brought her to prominence by enabling her to judge the people in the sense of dispensing justice. Thus at the time of the events recorded, she already had a considerable reputation in Israel (vv. 4-5).

Deborah commanded Barak by divine authority. He was to rally the troops at Mount Tabor, which was located at the junction of the tribal portions of Issachar, Naphtali and Zebulun, a little southwest of the Sea of Galilee (v. 6). It is interesting that Barak would not go without Deborah (v. 8). One commentator suggests that he was afraid. However, that was not it. He understood and appreciated the inspirational value of Deborah’s person; and he wanted that for both himself and his troops.

Deborah agreed to go with him, but she prophesied that Barak would get no glory. Rather it would go to a woman. As we shall see, that is exactly what happened, though the woman was not Deborah (v. 9). Verse 11 is parenthetical and simply serves to introduce the family of the heroine Jael who comes into the narrative a little later. Then verses 12-16 describe the battle in such brief terms that it would be impossible without some information from the song in chapter five to tell what happened.

We are told in verse 15 that Sisera’s army was thrown into a panic; but we are not told why. But in the song in chapter five, we learn what happened. There we see how the Lord threw the armies of Sisera into a panic. It rained so much that the fields became sodden with water. And then the rivers overflowed. These circumstances would have rendered the chariots of Sisera useless (5:19-21). And Israel won a total victory.

The rest of chapter four (vv. 17-21) contains the story of Jael. It is a rather gruesome story. She was the wife of a Kenite, a nation at peace with king Jabin. So Sisera, who was fleeing from Barak, came to her tent and trusted her to help him. Jael gave Sisera food and a place to rest. And she agreed to warn Sisera if the Israelites came. Then he fell into an exhausted sleep. But instead of warning Sisera, Jael murdered him by driving a tent peg through his head. When Barak caught up with Sisera at Jael’s tent, Sisera was dead. And the war with King Jabin soon was over (vv. 22-24).

As I indicated earlier, chapter five contains a triumph song of Deborah. Verse one is a prose introduction. Thus the poem proper begins at verse two with a summons to praise the Lord. Then the song unfolds in three sections. The first two sections have three subsections, and the third has two.

In the first section, 5:3-11, the significance of the victory is extolled. The first sub-section, verses 3-5, exalts the glory days of Israel when Moses was alive. Notice the link to Mt. Sinai in verse five. God spoke to Israel there out of a storm, and possibly out of an earthquake. The fact that the Lord won the day for Israel in Deborah’s day by a storm and an earthquake adds power to the poetic connection.

Then the second sub-section, verses 6-8, presents the decline of the nation prior to the rise of Deborah. The third sub-section, verses 9-11, concludes the section with a presentation of the joyful turn of affairs following the victory.

Verse 12 is a fresh summons to rejoice in the victory; and the second section of the song, 5:13-21, which supplies a vivid description of the conflict and Israel’s victory, follows that. The first sub-section, verses 13-15a, extols the tribes who answered the call to war. Then the second sub-section, verses 15b-18, delineates the cowardice of those who did not rally to Deborah. And the third sub-section, verses 19-22, proclaims the successful result of the conflict with the supernatural help of the Lord.

Then comes the third section, 5:23-31, which provides a dramatic conclusion. Its first sub-section, verses 23-27, strongly contrasts the failure of the city of Meroz to support Deborah’s cause with Jael’s heroic act of killing Sisera. And then the second sub-section, verses 28-30, gives a scornful picture of the mother of Sisera vainly awaiting his return and the anticipated spoil of the battle that he would bring to her.

The song then closes with the hope, founded on the victory, that all of the enemies of the Lord might perish, and that her friends might shine brightly as the sun (v. 31).

As we think a moment about application of these two chapters to our lives, the first point I would like to make is in respect to 4:6-7. The point is that the divine call always is accompanied by divine enablement. God revealed to Deborah that Barak and the army of Israel could defeat the army of Jabin and his commander, Sisera. She told Barak that God would draw out Sisera and his troops to a certain place and would give them into his hand (v. 6). And that is exactly what happened. God called Barak and Israel to defeat Sisera and gave instructions on how to do it. Barak followed those instructions, and the Lord did what he said he would do.

The ironic thing is that the men who made up Israel’s army were the same men who had been cowering under the cruel bondage of Jabin for twenty years (4:3). But under the inspiration and power of God, they plunged into battle with Barak against a far superior force and won (4:12-16).

The same can be true for us. If and when God calls us to some task, whatever it might be, the divine call always is accompanied by divine enablement. He will enable us to accomplish that which he has called us to do.

THE AUTHOR’S INTRODUCTION: JUDGES 1:1-3:6

In the first essay on Judges, I provided a general introduction to the book. In this essay we will take up the author’s introduction in 1:1-3:6. In the general introduction I mentioned that some scholars argue that the author’s introduction actually consists of two introductions, which were interwoven by the author. The first is 1:1-2:5, which begins, “After the death of Joshua;” and the second is 2:6-3:6, which begins “When Joshua dismissed the people,” which obviously would have occurred before his death.

The first introduction provides background information for the main part of the book. In it we are told that following the death of Joshua the tribes resolved to continue the war of extermination of the Canaanites and that they had some initial successes. For example the tribes of Judah and Simeon defeated 10,000 Perizzites at Bezek (1:4). They also conquered Jerusalem (1:8), Debir (1:11), and some other cities, including several Philistine cities (1:16-18). Likewise the Joseph tribes took Bethel (1:22-26).

But these successes were limited. For example, as during the earlier conquests the tribes did not always occupy the conquered territory or cities. Jerusalem provides an illustration. According to 1:8, the tribe of Judah took Jerusalem and “put it to the sword and set the city on fire;” but 1:21 says,” the Benjamites did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem; so the Jebusites have lived in Jerusalem among the Benjamites to this day” (the tribe of Benjamin is mentioned, because Jerusalem technically was in their territory). Thus Judah probably did not occupy the city after they defeated it; and the Jebusites reestablished themselves in the city after Judah’s army left the scene.

The other tribes did not have as much success as Judah and Simeon. Look at verse 27: “Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of” several named villages. Rather as verse 28 indicates, “they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not in fact drive them out.” Then verses 29-30 indicate that the tribes of Ephraim and Zebulun did essentially the same thing.

Other tribes had even less success. Look at verses 31-32. The tribe of Asher not only did not drive out the Canaanites from the listed cities, but notice the significant change of language. Instead of saying that the Canaanites lived among the Asherites, the text says, “the Asherites lived among the Canaanites.” The same is true of the tribe of Naphtali in verse 33.

But the worst indignities were reserved for the Danites. The tribe of Dan not only failed to drive the Canaanites out of their inheritance, they couldn’t even settle there. Their original inheritance was in the plain west of Jerusalem. The cities are listed in Josh. 19:40-48.

But here verse 34 says, “The Amorites pressed the Danites back into the hill country; they did not allow them to come down to the plain.” You will remember that the “hill country” was Judah’s territory. As the passage continues, verse 35 tells us that some of the Amorites were subjugated by the Joseph tribes, but not by the Danites. Indeed the situation of the Danites was so precarious that some of them at least completely gave up on settling in the central part of Canaan and migrated far to the north to the city they named Dan. The record of that migration is in Judges chapter 18.

The second phase of the conquest went so badly in general that we see in 2:1-5 that the Angel of the Lord appeared on the scene to rebuke the people. Most evangelicals interpret appearances by the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament to be theophanies, which is the term used to denote a manifestation of the Lord himself in human form.

The emphasis here is on the broken covenant. The Angel of the Lord was saying that Israel had violated the covenant so badly that the Lord not only would not now drive out the Canaanites from before them, but he would use the Canaanites as a means of their chastisement. The children of Israel wept at the news, but it evidently was a superficial repentance in light of their subsequent behavior.

In 2:6-3:6 we get the second introduction, or at least an insertion of some material that records the death of Joshua. Indeed chapter 2:6-10 is paralleled in Joshua 24:28-31. The purpose of the author appears to have been to set the faithfulness of the people while Joshua was alive in contrast to the lack of faithfulness after he died. Verses 6-10 show the faithfulness; verses 11-19 the lack of faithfulness.

In a sense verses 11-19 summarize the period of the judges. The history consisted of a four-fold cycle. First, Israel would commit apostasy. They would abandon the Lord by worshipping other gods, verse 11. Then second, the Lord would become angry with Israel for their apostasy; and he would permit them to fall into servitude, verse 14. That is, the surrounding nations would defeat Israel and bring them under bondage. Third, the people would sincerely repent and call upon the Lord, verse 18. And finally fourth, the Lord would raise up a judge who would, by the power of the Lord, bring deliverance, verse 16.

Verses 20-23 indicate the results of Israel’s continued apostasy. In effect, the Lord washed his hands of Israel’s attempts to conquer the Promised Land. “I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died,” said the Lord, verse 21. And verse 22 tells us that the Lord decided to use the Canaanite nations as a kind of continuing test of Israel’s faithfulness. So we have seen two purposes of the alien nations from the point of view of God’s sovereignty. One, they were used by the Lord to punish Israel. And two, they were used by the Lord to test Israel.

In 3:1-6 we see a third purpose served by the foreign nations. They provided Israel with a means of learning the art of warfare. Do you see that in verse 2? If you are wondering about that in light of their earlier conquests, Israel certainly had fighting skills; but they were skills of an earlier age. For example, they could not deal with chariots. The only recorded success against chariots on level ground by Israel was the battle alluded to in chapter 5, verses 4-5, where the chariots got bogged down in mud from torrential rain.

Of course Israel never actually passed the test represented by the nations. Rather they were punished severely by the nations. However, they did eventually learn the art of modern (for their day) warfare.

Turning to application, there are some things we can learn from this introduction about Israel’s religious values, which are applicable to our own time. I would like to suggest four.

First, it is clear that the Lord is righteous. We have seen that the people were unrighteous. And the reason they were unrighteous was because they were not living up to the standards of a holy God. The divine holiness always has made it impossible for God to be in relationship with sinful humanity. Thus sin must be punished. And of course that is what we see in Judges.

Second, it is just as clear that the Lord is sovereign. The author of Judges, like other Old Testament writers, emphasizes the sovereignty of God. When Israel was faithful to the covenant, the Lord by his omnipotent sovereignty delivered Israel against foes of greater numbers and superior technology. As we shall see, the Lord instructed Gideon, for example, to pare a force of 32,000 to 300 so that he could display his divine power. And in the song of Deborah we shall see how the Lord used the forces of nature to help Israel (5:4-5). But when Israel was unfaithful to the covenant, the Lord permitted the nations to punish that unfaithfulness.

Third, not only is the Lord righteous and sovereign, but he also is patient and gracious. As we read through the book of Judges, we will find the cycle of sin, punishment, repentance and deliverance becoming monotonous because it happened so often. But that is simply illustrative of the Lord’s patient forgiveness. Not only was he always loyal to his covenant, he always responded to sincere repentance with gracious deliverance.

And fourth, we learn something about the importance of faith. In the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 11, we find the author including many of the judges in his list of heroes of the faith. And the reason is that they exhibited a great deal of faith. They not always were as moral as they should have been, but they were strong of faith.

Surely these four points are an encouragement to us. Not only can we rejoice in a righteous, sovereign God who is patient and gracious, we can know that faith in him will enable us to do mighty things and ultimately will bring us to the heavenly shore.