Editor’s Note: This study on Judges originated from a handout and class notes in Dr. Robert Chisholm’s Hebrew class at Dallas Theological Seminary.
Today we are going to study the book of Judges, but I think it always helps to understand the context of a book before you study it, so first I want to show how Judges fits into the history of the nation of Israel.
You need to understand that the people were unable to take total possession of the land under Joshua and even for years after his death. Why do you think that was so?
Judges 1:19 gives the Israelites perspective for why this was so.
19 Now the Lord was with Judah, and they took possession of the hill country; but they could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley because they had iron chariots.
Do you think that was the real reason that the Israelites couldn’t kick the enemy out? Did chariots stop God from killing the Egyptians at the Red Sea? The rest of chapter 1 and 2 give an account of how they failed to drive out the enemy.
Judges 2:2-3 & 20-23 give God’s perspective on their failure.
2:1 Now the angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land which I have sworn to your fathers; and I said, ‘I will never break My covenant with you, 2 and as for you, you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed Me; what is this you have done? 3 Therefore I also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; but they shall become as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.’”
So, we see the real reason is disobedience and lack of faith in God.
Judges 3:5-6 sums up for us how the Israelites handled the test.
5 And the sons of Israel lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; 6 and they took their daughters for themselves as wives, and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods. 7 And the sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and forgot the Lord their God, and served the Baals and the Asheroth.
Principle: If you hang around with bad people, you will pick up their bad habits.
So the book of Judges is all about the various tribes of Israel living among her enemies and being oppressed by one enemy after another. When things got really bad, God would raise up a judge who would lead a military campaign and defeat that particular enemy and there would be peace for a few years and the cycle would begin again. What we basically see in Judges is six of these cycles. In each one, things got a little worse. It really would be better to describe the cycles as a downward spiral.
Often we go to the Bible and look for theological propositions, or do a character study on some individual—like Elijah, Joseph or Gideon, and ignore the narrative sections or stories, but there is a lot to learn from the narrative parts of the Bible. One thing that is very helpful is to look at the Bible as a piece of literature and not just a book full of theological statements. It certainly makes it more enjoyable, but more importantly, it helps discover what points the author may be trying to make.
One of the literary things to look for is repetition of phrases. We will see that in Judges. Another thing to look for is what the author does with character roles. I think an evaluation of the various characters in Judges points to something significant. I think the book of Judges demonstrates (in a negative manner) the importance of competent leadership to the people of God. Although God raised up several judges or leaders to accomplish military victories, many failed miserably in other respects. Despite their military successes, the spiritual climate in Israel grew bitterly cold as violence and anarchy swept through society. The book’s final chapters include a sordid account of idolatry, gang rape, civil war and kidnapping. The book concludes with the somber words, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (21:25; 17:6; 18:1; 19:1). This set the stage for the rise of Samuel and David, through whom God restored some semblance of covenantal loyalty and societal order.
You cannot read through the book of Judges without noticing that women appear at several strategic points in the narrative. They assume a variety of roles, including heroine, seductress and innocent victim, among others. Their changing roles throughout the book contribute powerfully to the book’s portrayal of the disintegration of Israelite society. The portrait culminates in 1 Samuel 1 with the oppressed figure of Hannah, through whom the Lord reverses the downward spiral detailed in Judges and brings to realization the leadership ideal presented at the beginning of the book.1
Our study will examine the interrelationship between the male and female characters in Judges and seek to explain:
I have divided the book into several sections. One thing that helped me divide the book was the repetition of the phrase, “Then the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord…”
We see it in:
It turns out that if you divide the book according to the roles of the women in the book, these divisions coincide fairly well with the introductory phrases.
In the first part of chapter 1 we see that Joshua dies and the Israelites go on to take control of part of the promised land. By the end of chapter 3 we are introduced to the exploits of Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar. These three judges bravely deliver Israel from foreign oppressors. Though the accounts are brief, the author paints a picture of militarily effective men who display daring and courage.
Let’s look at them in detail.
We are introduced to Othniel first in 1:13 when he takes part in the military campaign led by Caleb.
In 1:13 he presents Othniel as a divinely empowered warrior who demonstrates military efficiency in an almost matter-of-fact way. When Caleb offered his daughter to the one who captures Kiriath-sepher, vs. 13 simply says, “And Othniel captured it.”
Verse 1:14 probably says in your Bible that Achsah persuaded Othniel to ask her father for a field, but this is a bad translation of the Hebrew. The “to him” is not in the Hebrew. The NIV goes as far as to translate this as, “she came to Othniel.” They took a lot of liberty with the text, as they are wont to do.
This is more properly translated as such, “Then it came about, when she came, that she persuaded him (her father) by asking for a field.” (We are introduced to what is about to take place, then we see the action…) “Then she alighted from her donkey, and Caleb said to her, ‘What do you want?’”
I want to spend the time correcting this translation because I think it is important to understand that Othniel is no weak or greedy man asking his father-in-law for a handout. Instead, it is Achsah asking for a dowry from her father.
It is here that I want to draw the information for the first main section which emphasizes the warrior like character of Othniel and the blessing of a father for his daughter.
It might seem to us at first that Caleb is not treating his daughter very well when he offers her as the prize for bravery, But we need to recognize that Caleb’s challenge to the soldiers would ensure that his daughter married a strong and brave man who would more than likely be the leader of the family and provide for her. I think we can also conclude that if this warrior took the city, it would be because he had faith in God. That was the only way the Israelites ever won a battle. So the chances were also good that Caleb would be providing a man of God for his daughter. So, I conclude from this section that Caleb is going to find a good husband for his daughter.
Caleb’s gift to his daughter also illustrates the protective concern which fathers should display towards their wives and daughters.
The reason I am pointing this out about Caleb is because later we will see a father who makes a similar promise, but with tragic consequences for his daughter (10-12:). We will also see that the men of Israel degenerate to the place where they are oppressing their own women and not taking care of them.
Achsah is a role model of the maiden won by bravery in battle. This will contrast sharply with the role of women in the end of the book. It’s like something out of a King Arthur movie. But this was written long before the Knights of the Round Table. Next time you see a King Arthur movie, you will say, “Hey, that’s like something out of the Bible.”
So we have a model warrior, a brave leader and a woman who benefits from his leadership.
First I want to point out that not much is written about Othniel. But this is normal if an author wants to portray a character as an ideal or model for others. The author doesn’t want us to know everything about him, especially his mistakes or weaknesses. He is a role model.
For the author of Judges, Othniel is a model of the ideal warrior who follows Joshua’s directive, bravely defeats the enemy and takes the land God has given his people.
After reading about Othniel in chapter 1, we see that the Israelites did a sorry job of ridding the land of enemies.
In 3:7-11 we will read of more of Othniel’s exploits as he defeats Cushan-Rishathaim. Again, we are not told much about him or how he did it. We are simply told that he delivered the nation. Unfortunately, no Israelite warrior would fully measure up to the ideal established by Othniel until David emerges hundreds of years later.
In the story of Ehud we have a brave and cunning warrior who tricks the enemy and we read all the gory details. We might be repulsed by his actions, but to the Israelite audience this would have been comical and inspirational. Ehud is another example of a brave warrior who trusts God (cf. 3:28) and defeats one of the enemies of the nation.
Not much is said about Shamgar, so we can’t draw too many conclusions about him. But I do think we can assume that since he is associated with Othniel and Ehud, that he is to be viewed in a positive light.
To summarize, the book’s first three chapters, while not entirely positive in their assessment of Israel’s early history, paint a somewhat ideal picture of heroic warriors and of an Israelite woman who inspires great deeds and receives a blessing from her father.2
The first thing we see is that a woman is leading Israel at this time. This would raise a question among the readers. What is a woman doing leading? Things must really be bad. They were. There were no men brave enough to lead. Look at Barak’s response to Deborah’s order in vs. 8. “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go, I will not go.” This sounds like some little child talking to his mother. Deborah’s response in verse 9 shows that Barak’s attitude was less than appropriate. Barak would not receive the honor for the victory, but a woman would.
We see that Barak does defeat the enemy, but Sisera, the king, escapes and seeks shelter in the tent of an ally. Here we are introduced to Jael. In spite of her husband’s loyalty to Sisera, she is loyal to Israel. So she invites Sisera into her tent, gives him some milk, tucks him into bed because he is exhausted from fighting all day, and then, while he is sleeping, she drives a tent peg through his head.
In chapter 5 we have a long song commemorating the event. In the song, special praise is given to Jael for defeating Sisera. This could have been sung in Barak’s honor.
We are also introduced to Sisera’s mother in 5:28f. She is seen looking out the window waiting for her son to return. She assumes his delay is because he has defeated the enemy and is raping a woman or two. The irony is that he is being killed by a courageous woman.
What do we learn from the story?
By the end of this story, we see that Israel has taken a step backward in terms of male leadership. Fortunately, two women rose to the occasion to compensate for the men’s weakness.
Next we have the story of Gideon. Probably all of us have heard about Gideon. He is best known for defeating the Midianites with only 300 men.
But Gideon sends us mixed signals. He is full of doubts and fear. He questions and tests God throughout the story. (The testing of God with the fleece is the most famous scene.) But God has patience with him and uses him to destroy the enemy. This can offer encouragement and hope to us that God can use us in spite of our fears and doubts.
But I want to look at Gideon from the perspective that we are studying today—which is declining male leadership.
At this point the next important woman enters the story. When Abimelech was at Thebez a woman threw a millstone down on his head (9:53). The text emphasizes she did this by herself and that she “threw” the millstone. This suggests an heroic act of strength and casts the woman in the role of a warrior.
My question is, “Why, if all the men and women in the city were in this tower, was it a woman who takes the initiative to kill him?” I think it shows the men were wimps. They had no initiative.
So, in the account of Abimelech’s death, a woman delivers Israel again (once more, ironically, by a fatal blow to the head with an unconventional weapon, cf. 5:26 with 9:53). Only, this time the oppressor is an Israelite. Gooding writes,
Things have seriously deteriorated when the bondage from which Israel has to be delivered in this fashion is no longer a bondage to some foreign power but a bondage to one of Israel’s number, who, instead of being a deliverer of Israel, has installed himself as a tyrant and is maintaining his tyranny by ruthless destruction.
So, what we have seen so far is that the role of the women has changed from one who inspires brave warriors to go into battle, to delivering Israel from the foreign oppressor by herself, to delivering Israel from oppression from one of her own countrymen.
We can see that the leadership is disintegrating. Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar were brave and wise warriors. Barak was not so brave. Gideon was not so brave and not so wise. Now we will look at another leader who was not so brave and very foolish.
We have our introductory phrase in 10:6 and then are introduced to Jephthah beginning in 11:1. Immediately we see that Jephthah is a “valiant warrior,” but he was the son of a prostitute. He is like Abimelech in this regard.
His half brothers, the legitimate children ran him off, and he began to associate with “worthless fellows.” But in learning to survive and fend for himself “on the street,” he became stronger in the process, and when things got really bad in the land, the elders asked him and agreed to let him lead the nation if he would help them.
In 11:29 we see that the Spirit of God came to help him, but Jephthah was not as confident in God as he should have been and he made a bargain with God which was very rash. Like Barak and Gideon he uses a big “IF” prior to the battle. The precise wording of the vow indicates that he intended to offer a human sacrifice and not an animal, but he expected it to be a male. (We can deduce this because he used the masculine form.) He only had one child, which was a daughter, so he probably was thinking of a male servant.
The vow proved to be a rash and foolish one, because when he returned, victorious, the first person he saw coming out of his house was his daughter. I think he kept his vow and sacrificed her. There is no reason to think he just sent her to the temple for a life of service to God. The tribute paid to his daughter every year (11:40) seems more appropriate if she was killed, rather than still living.
In contrast to Caleb, who brought blessing on his daughter, Jephthah’s foolishness brought a curse on his daughter.
Finally, in 12:4 we see Jephthah embroiled in a civil war against the Ephraimites. In contrast to Ehud who took the fords of the Jordan against a Gentile army, Jephthah is fighting against fellow Israelites.
Once again the crisis in Israelite leadership is evident. The changing role of the story’s major female character draws attention to this. Now a woman becomes the innocent victim of her own father’s lack of faith and wisdom.
Next we have the story of Samson. He appears to have the qualities necessary for a great leader.
However, we don’t have to look very far to find his weakness which was for women. He marries a Timnite woman. It says that God sanctioned the marriage (14:4). It might mean that God placed the desire for the Timnite woman in Samson’s heart, or it could indicate that God was going to utilize this, without approving of, the marriage. He is involved with a prostitute in Gaza, and he is also involved with another Philistine prostitute, Delilah, which proved to be his downfall.
There is some irony here. 14:2 says Samson “saw” a Timnite woman, and 16:1 says he “saw” a harlot in Gaza. When he is captured by the Philistines, they poke out his eyes so he won’t be “seeing” any more women.
Since we are looking at Judges as a story, we should recognize that in contrast to Jael, who lured a foreign general to his death, a foreign woman, Delilah, lures the greatest of Israel’s warriors to his death. Samson is now in the role of Sisera. God allows Samson to avenge himself, but he dies in the process.
Samson’s death in the Philistine temple makes the decline in Israel’s leadership complete. Deficient faith has given way to lack of wisdom. No more individual leaders appear in the book. The final chapters describe a period of anarchy which surpasses the turmoil produced earlier by Abimelech.
Without effective spiritual leadership, the people of Israel (like all humans), with their propensity to rebel, fell away from the Lord. Idolatry and civil war take over.
The women in this section play prominent roles as innocent victims. In chapter 19 a Levite, traveling with his concubine (a concubine? That should raise a question in the reader’s mind.) decides it would be safer to spend the night in Israelite territory than in Jebusite territory. Again, more irony. He was wrong. It would have been safer to stay in Jebusite territory. A group of Israelite men come to the place he is staying to have sexual relations with him. (The parallel to Sodom and Gomorrah should be obvious.) He sends his concubine out to satisfy them and they rape her all night and leave her to die.
When the Levite asks the Benjamites to turn over the perpetrators, they refuse, so he cuts up the dead woman into 12 parts and sends her parts to the different tribes and calls the other tribes to help him and civil war breaks out. The Benjamites are almost wiped out. The cities, women and children are destroyed and only 600 men escape. So that the tribe of Benjamin will not become extinct, the other tribes annihilate the town of Jabesh Gilead, who would not take part in the civil war, give 400 virgins to the 600 Benjamites and then send the other 200 Benjamites to Shiloh to kidnap 200 more women dancing in the vineyard during the harvest celebration.
It is ironic and deplorable that the nation has stooped so low. Although the Israelites supposedly abhorred what the Benjamites did to the Levite’s concubine, they repeated on a mass scale, the same crimes.
Israel’s moral decline is complete. Women in the beginning of the book inspired men to great deeds, then they played the role of national deliverers—first from external oppressors and then from internal oppressors. Now they are being raped, kidnapped and slaughtered by their own countrymen. Compare the end of the story with the story of Sisera. In the beginning the threat to the women was from outside the land. It was Sisera’s men who would have raped the women if they had won the battle, but now we see that the decline in male leadership is so bad that Israelite men are oppressing their own women.
How does all this apply to us?
People often turn to the book of Judges to prove that it is okay for women to lead, but I think you can see from these stories that the men were weak and not doing what they were supposed to. Deborah, Jael, and the woman who killed Abimelech were great. I can find no fault with them. But what we’ve seen shows that this society is actually in decline. When the opportunities for women to lead arise, it is actually a sign that something is wrong.
The issue of male leadership is especially prevalent in our day. It is almost a dirty word to many people. A few diehard conservative Christians still believe in it, but not too many others. It certainly is not politically correct. But we can see that the problem of male leadership is a common problem throughout the Bible.
It began with Adam. He was not leading when he ate the fruit. He was following Eve’s lead. I know most of you have heard the explanation of Gen. 3:16 which says the woman’s desire would be to rule over her husband, but that God wanted the man to lead. It is man’s natural inclination to back down and not take the initiative. God has made us this way so that the only way we can succeed as leaders is by stepping out in faith and trusting Him to catch us when we fall or fail. And we will fail. We will make bad decisions. That is why we don’t take the lead. We are afraid. When men fail to take the lead, women usually step right in and do it. They often do a good job too, but this is not God’s ideal, and the end result is ruin.
What is the biggest reason for not taking the lead? — Fear — Fear of failure. Think about all those passages in Judges where the hero said, “If…” (Barak, Gideon, Jephthah…) They were afraid of failure.
I think one of the main points of the book is that men need to take the initiative and be leaders. One of the signs of a declining society is lack of male leadership. Men need to have faith in God and they need to live wisely. If they don’t lead, the women will more than likely step in. They will do a good job, but they will not be able to stem the tide of the decline and eventually, society will go downhill so much that they become victims to all kinds of atrocities.
Does this sound anything like our society? I think we are fast approaching a period like we have just read about.
To read more on the subject of why men don’t lead, check out the study on “Why Men Don’t Talk.”
Judges is not a very pretty book. If one made an accurate movie about it, it would have to be “R” rated because of all the violence and sexual perversion. But Judges was placed in the Bible for a purpose. Judges shows just how bad things got in Israel before David came along. Again, we can look at our chart of the OT which shows how Judges fits into Israelite history.
While we’ve been tracing the decline of Israelite society through the role of women, the author of Judges has also begun to weave another theme into the story line that he wants to bring out for his readers. The clue to this new theme is a different phrase which he repeats at the beginning of each section. The phrase is this, “Now there was a (certain) man from …”
This phrase is found in the Bible only twice in Judges, once in Ruth and a couple times in 1st and 2nd Samuel. I think this is a pretty good clue that Samuel wrote Judges and Ruth too.
There were two women that we didn’t deal with in our earlier survey—Samson’s mother and Micah’s mother. They didn’t fit into the earlier scenario, but they do play an important role in the unfolding of the other theme. These ladies serve as foils in the story in preparation for Hannah and her son.
Judges 13:2 says, “and there was a certain man of Zorah…” and his wife was barren and the angel of the Lord appeared to her and said she would have a son whom she would dedicate to the Lord’s service and she had Samson. As we already seen, Samson was a great fighter, but not much of a leader. His life was a tragedy. So Samson’s mother is a foil for Hannah who appears in 1 Samuel.
Judges 17:1 says, “now there was a man of the hill country…” We are introduced to the other mother. Micah’s mother was also a foil for Hannah. When her son admitted that he stole the 1100 shekels of silver from her, she blessed him (when she should have rebuked him). When he returned the money, she consecrated it to the Lord and commissioned her son to have a carved image and a cast idol made from a portion of the silver. This idol ended up being used by the Danites to establish a religious cult at Shiloh (18:30-31). Again, we see that this character’s life led to evil conditions in the land.
Ruth 1:1 says, “Now it came about in the days when the judges governed, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem went to Moab…” This is a similar phrase to the ones used in Judges and the author is about to introduce Ruth, the heroine of this story. Again, we have a woman as the prominent character. Ruth stands out like a bright light in the midst of the darkness of the period of the judges. She is a model of faithfulness, loyalty and love—which is God’s ideal. But we see that it is a foreign woman who fulfills the ideal, and not one of God’s own people.
Then we come to 1 Samuel.
1 Sam 1:1 says, “Now there was a certain man from Ramathaim-zophim…”
Here Hannah is introduced. She is barren, like Samson’s mother. She prays to God for a child and makes a vow that she will dedicate her son to God’s service. We see that she promises that a razor shall never come to his head. The introductory phrase, “Now there was a certain man…” should have reminded a reader that this was related to the story of Samson. This vow about long hair should certainly remind us of Samson’s story. God hears her, Samuel is born and she dedicates him to the Lord. God uses Samuel to raise up a king for Israel in 10:17f. If you remember, the final comment in Judges was, “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” God changes that in 1 Samuel. This is another literary clue that the book of Judges is preparing us for King David.
So, it seems clear to me that the same author has written Judges, Ruth and Samuel. In Judges he shows the decline of the nation. In Ruth, he shows that it is a foreign woman who carries on the ideal of God’s loyal love. Then in 1 Samuel, he shows the rise of the nation back to greatness through the leadership of David. The story of David and Goliath should remind one of the earlier judges—Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar. Doesn’t David use an unconventional weapon in battle against the giant, Goliath?
I am amazed at the continuity between the books of Judges, Ruth and 1 Samuel and the skill which the author used to tie them together.
But we shouldn’t just be amazed at the story. Men should be convicted of their responsibility to trust God and lead. And women should be convicted of the futility of stepping in and picking up the slack when men fail to lead.