Christian Churches of God
Judges for Israel
(Edition 2.0 20060313-20061214)
After the death of Joshua, the Israelites again went after foreign gods to worship them and forgot the One True God, so God removed His protection from them. When they got into difficulties they would repent and ask God to help them again. About this time God raised up Judges to deliver Israel from their many captivities. This paper has been adapted from Chapters 59 and 60 of The Bible Story Volume III by Basil Wolverton, published by Ambassador College Press.
Judges for Israel
We continue here from the paper The Sun Stood Still (No. CB53).
During that time, many of the Canaanites who had fled to neighbouring lands were gradually moving back into some of the cities and sites from which God had removed them. There were also some cities and areas, especially west of the Jordan, that hadn't been reached by the Israelites (Josh. 13:1-6). All this meant that Israel's wars of conquest weren't yet over. If Israel had been fully obedient and faithful, Canaan could have been cleared of all the enemy in only a short time.
When at last Israel decided to again take up arms to continue the defeat of the Canaanites, there was the question of which tribe should move first. Phinehas, who had become High Priest after Eleazar's death, consulted God at the Tabernacle, and God made it known that the tribe of Judah should go first, and that He would help the soldiers of Judah overcome their enemies.
Then the men of Judah asked the men of the tribe of Simeon to go with them into the territory allotted to them to fight the Canaanites. They agreed because the men of Judah said they would help the Simeonites to take their territory when the time came. It meant a stronger and larger armed force to be used in both their territories (Jdg. 1:1-3).
Only a few miles southwest of Shiloh was a city called Bezek. It was here they came across thousands of rearmed Canaanites. Many of these Canaanites served their new king out of fear. He was a cruel tyrant who cut off the thumbs and big toes of any of his people who refused to submit to him. The Israelites remembered God's promise to them, and lost no time in attacking.
In that one battle ten thousand of the enemy fell before Judah and Simeon. During the excitement the king of Bezek, Adoni-bezek, managed to escape and flee southward with a few aides. Having heard that he was a cruel man the Israelites made a special effort to capture Adoni-bezek. Mounted Israelites managed to catch up with him in the mountains. Instead of killing him, they taught him a lesson he never forgot. They followed his custom of cutting off his enemies' thumbs and big toes by doing the same to him.
Adoni-bezek took his punishment bravely, however, and admitted that the God of Israel was dealing with him as he justly deserved. He claimed that at one time or another his prisoners had included a total of seventy rulers, and that he had cut off the thumbs and big toes of all of them!
Day after day the men of Judah and Simeon moved southward to clean up all opposing forces. They spread westward to the city of Gaza on the Great Sea and eastward almost to the southern tip of the Salt (Dead) Sea.
God helped them to be almost completely successful in their campaign. However, some Canaanites managed to escape and refortify some of the conquered cities, such as Jerusalem (v. 21). These few exceptions were only because the Israelites weren't all entirely obedient or didn't have sufficient faith in God (Jdg. 1:4-20).
About that time, the tribe of Ephraim (sometimes called the house of Joseph), set out over its territory, especially to the southwest, which included Shiloh and the area around it. Ephraim found that the city of Bethel obviously had been remanned into a strong fortress, even though Joshua and his troops had slain Bethel's soldiers during the capture of the nearby city of Ai.
Knowing nothing of what Bethel was like now or how many soldiers were within the walls, the officers of Ephraim sent out a few scouts to try to discover these things. The scouts hid at night at a safe distance away, but close enough to keep a careful watch to try to determine where the city entrances were and how they might be used to get inside Bethel.
Opportunity came in an unexpected way one evening. A Hittite man was coming out of the city and they said to him, “Show us how to get into the city and we will treat you well.” So he showed them, and they put the city to the sword but spared the man and his family. Perhaps God had purposely sent the Hittite to inform the Israelites.
Later the man went to the ancient land of the Hittites to the north; he founded a city and called it Luz, which had been the ancient name of Bethel (Jdg. 1:21-26).
What the tribes of Judah, Simeon and Ephraim did as their part of taking over Canaan was a fairly good example to the other tribes. But even though all the Israelites had God's unfailing promise to exert His tremendous power in helping them, some of the tribes failed to overcome their enemies in various areas.
Instead of eliminating the Canaanites from some of the regions Israel allowed the Canaanites to stay. And when Israel became strong they pressed the Canaanites into forced labour but never drove them away completely (vv. 27-33).
In other areas some of the Israelites got tired of fighting against their enemies. They decided to integrate with them (vv. 34-36). Over the years this meant that many Israelites intermarried with the Canaanites. This is always the result of integration. So Israel fell to worshipping the pagan gods and idols of Canaan. God had repeatedly warned them not to integrate for this very reason (Ex. 20:3-7; Ex. 23:31-33; Deut. 12:29-32; 6:4-7,14; 7:1-11; Josh. 23:6-8; Jdg. 3:1-7).
By the time another generation had grown up since Joshua's death, much of Israel had taken integration lightly and had fallen into sin! The proposed last stages of the conquest of Canaan had come to a stop. Prosperity was declining little by little as the Israelites began to live more and more like the Canaanites around them.
The greatest number of Israelites in one area was still in and around the Shiloh-Mt. Ephraim area. Regardless of the degenerating condition of the tribes as a whole, there were people who still came to the Tabernacle to offer sacrifices and consult with the High Priest and his assistants. Shiloh was still the centre of the nation, and it was there that a peculiar and awesome thing happened.
One day a strange man was seen walking toward Shiloh from the direction of Gilgal. As it turned out, this was the Angel of Yahovah.
"Listen Israel! I brought you up from Egypt and into this land I promised to your fathers. I made a covenant with you that I would help you conquer the land if you would do your part by obeying me (Ex. 23:23-28). You were to destroy all the pagan altars. You were forbidden to make any agreement of any kind with your enemies or to integrate with them. But you have not obeyed me! Why? Remember, I also said that if you were to fail to drive out the Canaanites, they would become as thorns in your sides and their gods would be as deadly snares! (Jdg. 2:1-3; Ex. 23:31-33; Deut. 7:16; Psa. 106:34-40; Josh. 23:12-13). Now, because you have broken my covenant and intermarried with the Canaanites, don't expect any more help from me in driving them out! On the contrary, I shall allow them to prevail over you!" (Jdg. 2:1-3).
When the Angel of the Lord finished speaking the people wept aloud; afterwards they called that place Bokim. Then they offered sacrifices to the Lord (Jdg. 2:4-5).
The expressions of repentance didn't last long. When days passed and nothing awesome occurred, many people began returning to their wrong ways. In fact, they slipped still further into the idolatrous practices of the Canaanites with whom they continued to intermarry. Many were the gods they foolishly worshipped along with their pagan enemies (vv. 11-13).
In his anger against Israel the Lord handed them over to raiders who plundered them. He gave them into the hands of their enemies all around, and they could no longer resist. Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress (vv. 14-15).
Then the Lord raised up Judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. Yet they would not listen to the Judges and continued to worship false gods. Whenever they had a Judge the Lord was with him and saved Israel from their enemies. When the Judge died the people returned to their evil ways and worshipped false gods. The Lord was very angry with Israel and left some nations to test the obedience of those Israelites who had not been in any of the wars in Canaan (vv. 16-23). This was to teach them warfare, as there was yet more land to conquer (Jdg. 3:1-2).
The Israelites continued to intermarry with nations around them. They did evil things and forgot their God and served the pagan gods of the other nations. Once again the Lord burned with anger and delivered them into the hands of the king of Aram. The easy life of Israel was transformed in just a few weeks into one of misery and servitude. The outlook was bleak for Israel for the next eight years (Jdg. 3:5-8).
Repentance brings deliverance
After a time, when they could see no way out of their trouble, the Israelites became sincerely repentant. For many, life became a round of forced labour, tears and prayers. Still the years of servitude wore on.
Then the Lord raised up a man by the name of Othniel. He was of the tribe of Judah, a nephew and son-in-law of Caleb. Years before, he had distinguished himself in leading troops to vanquish many Canaanites (Jdg. 1:12-13; 3:9).
The Spirit of the Lord came upon Othniel and he became Israel’s Judge and went to war (3:10). At last, after eight long years as a captive nation, Israel abruptly emerged to freedom. God had listened to the prayers of the repentant. He had chosen the man Othniel to lead the people to victory and freedom. In fact, God chose Othniel as the first of a line of righteous Judges who were inspired to lead and guide Israel for many years to come.
The attitude of the people had changed so much during their eight years of servitude that they were quite willing to obey God now. They cooperated with Othniel in the reforms he required for the good of the nation. Intermarriage with the Canaanites and worship of strange gods were forbidden. Those who continued to do these things were harshly punished. There was a return to living according to God's Laws. The result was an Israel much happier and more prosperous than the nation had been for a long time.
Under the leadership of Othniel, God's chosen servant, Israel enjoyed forty years of peace. During those forty years Othniel was the first of the leaders – since the time of Joshua – known as Judges. They weren't the kind of Judges who were instituted only as men to decide on cases of justice; they were more like rulers, and they headed Israel from Joshua's time until the time of Samuel (Jdg. 3:11).
Lessons soon forgotten
Othniel maintained law and order in Israel. But soon after his death the people had no strong leader and again began to lapse back into their sinful ways. God's anger was again roused against them. Once more they were bound to fall under a curse, though they had no idea how God planned to punish them.
The nation of Moab was then ruled by a man by the name of Eglon. Much of the territory occupied by Israel east of the Jordan had at one time been part of Moab, and Eglon was determined to recover it. He didn't realise that his strong desire had been planted firmly in his mind by God, who planned to use him to chasten Israel.
Besides building his own army into a strong fighting force, Eglon enlisted the aid of thousands of troops from the Ammonites and Amalekites, two small nations that hated Israel because of that nation's previous victories over them (Jdg. 3:12-13).
For eighteen years the Israelites were in bondage to Eglon (v. 14).
As might be expected, the Israelites again became repentant. They regretted, as usual, falling into such a sinful condition. Their sufferings, tears and prayers touched the ever-merciful heart of the Creator, who this time chose a sturdy, left-handed Benjamite named Ehud to help change the course of events (v. 15).
Ehud's part in delivering Israel started when he was chosen to head a group of messengers to take a valuable tribute to the king of Moab. On this occasion, Ehud, who had great strength and skill in the use of his left hand, hid a sharp dagger beneath his clothes on his right hip. After the tribute had been presented to Eglon, Ehud and his bearers left and headed back toward Shiloh. Ehud went only as far as the nearby border that had been marked by the stone images. There he told the others to return to Shiloh without him. He quickly returned to the king's palace with the excuse that he had a secret message for Eglon. When guards told the king, he asked Ehud into his private quarters and dismissed his servants (Jdg. 3:16-20).
"Now what is this secret message you claim you have for me?" the king asked.
"Would it surprise you to know that it is from God?" Ehud said.
"What do you mean, from God?" Eglon demanded, lifting his fat body from his chair and moving excitedly toward Ehud.
"I mean THIS!" Ehud exclaimed. His left hand slipped under his cloak and whipped out his dagger with such speed that the Moabite ruler didn't have time to shout for help. Ehud quickly thrust the dagger into Eglon's body, then hastily left the room and locked the doors behind him. Justice had been done.
Later, when servants came to wait on their king and found the doors locked, they believed that Eglon didn't want to be disturbed. They waited a while but when the king did not open the doors they took a key and unlocked them. To their horror they found their ruler dead from a dagger that had been thrust into his obese body (Jdg. 3:21-26).
While the king’s servants waited Ehud escaped to Seirah.
God is wise and just
At this point, as at other instances in past episodes of The Bible Story, a few readers will be inclined to shudder a bit. They will wonder why God would allow one of His chosen people to execute someone, and why the story should be included in a version written especially for younger people.
The Bible should be read by young and old alike. It is a frank description of the history of Israel, in part, describing the many woes brought on by human nature. In telling that, there is no allowance for the delicate feelings of individuals.
God specifically chose Israel for a certain purpose, and a part of that purpose included ridding Canaan of the heathen peoples who lived there. In a later judgment God will give these once-heathen people the opportunity for salvation (Mat. 12:41-42; Rev. 20:11-12; Isa. 65:19-25). As far as God was concerned, it was no different for an Israelite to execute an idolatrous heathen king than it was for an Israelite soldier to slay an enemy soldier in battle.
Israel, remember, was a fleshly nation, and unconverted – except for a very few like the Prophets and Judges. Only God has the authority to tell anyone to kill. It is the responsibility of God, as determined under His Law, to decide when a wicked person should be executed for his own good and the good of those around him. Nevertheless, today it is not a Christian's duty to execute this kind of justice. It is usually the unconverted that run this world. Jesus said His kingdom is NOT of this world (Jn. 18:36), otherwise his servants would fight. When a nation is to be run by Christians it is to be run according to God’s Laws. Israel was of this world. But the Kingdom of God is of the world tomorrow. And Christ will fight to establish it when He comes again.
To continue the story: Ehud lost no time in reaching Mt. Ephraim, where he summoned many Israelite men to tell them what had happened.
"These Moabite soldiers stationed here to keep us captive are the choicest warriors of their nation," Ehud told them. "But when they hear that their leader is dead, they will lose their desire to keep guarding us, and will want to flee across the Jordan to their country. It is according to God's will that you take up your weapons now and follow me!" (Jdg. 3:27).
So they followed him down and took possession of the fords of the Jordan that lead to Moab. They did not allow anyone to cross over. At that time they struck down about ten thousand Moabites and not a man escaped. Israel was now free from the oppression of Moab and the land had peace for eighty years.
Because of his ability in leadership, Ehud became the second Israelite ruler known as a Judge. He remained in power in Israel for many years of peace and prosperity, which were given because the people were obedient, for the most part, to God's Laws (Jdg. 3:28-30).
Judges 3:31 mentions a man by the name of Shamgar as another man of leadership. He was possibly a lesser Judge in western Canaan during Ehud's time. The Philistines, a nation of city-states on the shores of the Great Sea, had joined with Moab in attacking the Israelites in that region and had kept them in servitude for many years as farmers.
The servitude was abruptly ended when the farmers turned on their conquerors with their soil-tilling implements. An unusual result of this encounter was Shamgar's wielding of an ox-goad (a long wooden rod with a metal tip used for driving draft animals) so swiftly and expertly that he killed six hundred Philistines, though possibly part of that number included the efforts of Shamgar's fellow farmers (v. 31).
Back to old ways
It might seem depressingly repetitious to report that after Ehud died, Israel again lapsed into a state of rebellion against God, but it happened! Once more God used a pagan king to punish the people. This time it was Jabin, a strong ruler in north Canaan. He was a descendant of that Jabin, who, many years previously, had tried to attack the army of Israel with iron chariots. He had been overcome by Joshua and had lost his city in flames. This next Jabin had rebuilt the city of Hazor, and had become so powerful that he overcame the Israelites in the northern part of Canaan. Ironically, this later Jabin used nine hundred iron chariots as a means of victory. The general of his army was the dreaded Sisera.
For twenty drawn-out, unhappy years Israel suffered under the terrible domination of Jabin (Jdg. 4:1-3). As usual, Israel again cried out to God for mercy. The people showed proof of their repentance by departing from the evil ways they knew were forbidden by God.
As a means of rescuing Israel, God used a woman by the name of Deborah. She lived in Mt. Ephraim, and was one of such good judgment and fair thinking that many Israelites came to her for advice. God chose Deborah, the prophetess of Ephraim who was leading Israel at that time, to help Israel in several ways (vv. 4-5).
For one thing, God gave Deborah knowledge of what could happen in Israel's favour, but it was necessary for a man who was a military leader to carry out the plan. Deborah knew of such a man. His name was Barak. He came from his home in the north when she sent for him.
"God has disclosed to me that if a capable man such as you can succeed in gathering ten thousand armed Israelites on Mt. Tabor, then He will give them victory over the Canaanites who seek them out there for battle," Deborah told Barak. "With a promise such as this from God, is there any good reason why you should refuse to be the one who can be of such great service by gathering and leading those men against the Canaanites?" (Jdg. 4:6-7).
Barak replied, "If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t."
Deborah agreed, but told Barak that because of the way he was going about it, God would allow a woman to destroy General Sisera.
Barak organised the necessary troops from the northern tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun and they followed him. And Deborah also went with him (vv. 8-10).
When Sisera, the general of Jabin's army, learned about the Israelites being on Mt. Tabor, he gathered his men to go there. Included in his mighty fighting force were nine hundred chariots and thousands of trained warriors so feared by Israel (vv. 12-13).
The Way to Peace
Only God's supernatural help could save Israel now!
Inspired by God, Deborah informed Barak that the Israelites should charge down the slope at once to attack, and that they would have God's supernatural help (v. 14). Barak was inspired by Deborah's example and faith. He ordered the men to follow him down the mountain.
At Barak’s advance the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera abandoned his chariot and fled on foot. But Barak pursued the chariots and army as far as Harosheth Haggoyim. All the troops of Sisera fell by the sword; not a man was left. God was beginning to fight Israel's battle as He had promised (v. 15).
Sisera fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Hever the Kenite, because there were friendly relations between Jabin king of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite.
Jael happened to see the tired Canaanite general staggering toward her tent. She knew who he was, and went out to meet him.
Sisera's prophesied doom
"Come rest in my tent," she told him as she helped him along (Jdg. 4:15-18).
Inside the tent, he wearily lay down, exhausted by his race for freedom. When Sisera asked for water, Jael gave him milk to quench his thirst and to make him sleep more soundly, and then covered him with a blanket (Jdg. 5:25).
"If anyone comes to ask about me, don't mention that you have seen me," Sisera warned Jael. "You will be well rewarded if you protect me from any of those fanatical, God-fearing Israelites!"
Those were the last words uttered by the pagan Canaanite general. He was so weary that he fell asleep almost immediately. Jael listened until she could be certain that he was asleep. Then she pulled up a sharp tent stake and reached for a hammer. Being very careful not to make a sound, she entered the room where Sisera slept and drove the stake through Sisera's temples, then into the ground, killing the general almost instantly (Jdg. 4:19-21; 5:26).
God allowed Jael to take Sisera's life in this cold-blooded manner as a warning to us all. Those Canaanites were better off dead. They sacrificed many of their babies in the temples of Baal and filled adjoining graveyards with jars containing these tiny corpses. When building a new house, a Canaanite family would sacrifice a baby and put its body in the foundation to bring good luck to the rest of the family. Archaeologists who have found the many tiny skeletons of these sacrificed babies have wondered why God did not destroy the Canaanites sooner. He would have done so if Israel had obeyed His command to execute all the idolatrous Canaanites when they first conquered the land (Deut. 7:1-6).
Because Sisera was an idolatrous Canaanite, he was one more to be purged from the land after he had been used for the purpose of punishing the Israelites and bringing them to repentance. As one who sought to destroy the army of Israel, he was denied the so-called honour of dying in action, as a high-ranking soldier would ordinarily prefer.
Only a little while after this incident Jael looked out to see the victorious Israelites trotting across the plain. She ran out toward the men, waving frantically to attract their attention. When they reached her she told them that she had an important message for their leader, and Barak approached her to hear what she had to say.
"If you are seeking Jabin's general, Sisera, I can take you to him at once," Jael told Barak.
So he went with her, and there lay Sisera with the tent peg through his temple – dead. Then Barak remembered Deborah's prophecy that a woman would destroy Sisera because Barak had at first depended too much on Deborah's faith. In humiliation, Barak realised his lack of faith was a sin against God. He fully repented and was forgiven by God in whom he now fully trusted (Heb. 11:13, 32, 39).
Although Israel was victorious that day in becoming free, the one who had planned to defeat Israel was still safe in his quarters to the north. That was Jabin, king of the northern Canaanites. On hearing of the defeat of his army, he quickly sought refuge, but within a few days he fell into the hands of his enemies and lost his life (Jdg. 4:22-24).
Deliverance from the Canaanites was considered such a happy accomplishment that a great celebration was held by Israel. Songs were composed, and Deborah and Barak led the people in praising God with loud, hearty enthusiasm (Jdg. 5:1-31). Most of them realised that their Creator was the source of their strength and power, though at times they forgot that important fact because every man insisted on doing what he thought best (Jdg. 17:6).
God had specifically commanded His people not to do what they thought best (Deut. 12:8) because that way is often wrong and leads to death (Pro. 14:12; 16:25). Most of the Israelites had not yet learned that man's conscience is not a reliable guide for conduct – that man needs God's Law to tell him how to live (Deut. 12:32).