The People of the Bible—Part IX
The Book of Judges

Gideon, Abimelech, Jephthah, and Samson

DURING a period of 450 years after the death of Joshua there were no definite governmental arrangements in Israel. The record is that during this period everyone did what seemed good in his own sight. (Judges 21:25) For the most part the trend was toward unrighteousness and worshiping false gods. As punishment for their evil ways, God permitted the Israelites to be subjected by their enemies, the Canaanites, whom they had not completely driven out of the land as he had commanded.—Judges 2:13-15

“Nevertheless,” the record says, “the Lord raised up judges, which delivered them out of the hand of those that spoiled them.” (ch. 2:16) Othniel, a nephew of Caleb, was the first of these judges; and the well-known Samuel the prophet was the last. (Judges 3:9-11) Little is known of most of these judges in Israel except the simple fact, as related, that through them the Lord delivered his people from their enemies when they cried to him in their distress. One of the judges was a woman—Deborah, who through the able generalship of Barak, delivered the Israelites from bondage to Jabin, king of Canaan, whose army was commanded by Sisera. (Judges, chapters 4 and 5) Barak is named in Hebrews 11:32 as one of the Ancient Worthies. Following the great deliverance under the generalship of Barak, the Israelites had rest for forty years.—ch. 5:31

Gideon, a Faithful Judge and Leader

But they did not remain faithful to the Lord and he “delivered them into the hand of Midian seven years.” (ch. 6:1) They were delivered from this captivity by Gideon, whom the Lord raised up as a judge and leader. Concerning Gideon we are given considerable information.

Gideon was the fifth judge of Israel, and when first mentioned he is visited by an angel while threshing “wheat by the winepress, to hide it from the Midianites.” The angel said to Gideon, “The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valor.” (ch. 6:11,12) That he was addressed as a mighty man of valor might indicate that he had already been active in resisting the enemies of Israel, or the statement could be prophetic of Gideon. Gideon’s reply to the angel was not too enthusiastic, for it was difficult for him to see how, under the circumstances, it could be said that the Lord was with him, or, in fact, with any of the Israelites; so he asked the angel, “If the Lord be with us, why then is all this befallen us? and where be all his miracles which our fathers told us of, saying, Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt? but now the Lord hath forsaken us, and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites.”—vs. 13

This reply does not necessarily indicate that Gideon doubted the assertion of the angel but perhaps was simply his way of getting further information and a firmer assurance. Gideon reasoned that if God performed miracles in the past to deliver his people, he should be able to do so again; and Gideon wanted to be assured that this would be the case. Through the angel the Lord replied to Gideon, “Go in this thy might, and thou shalt save Israel from the hand of the Midianites: have not I sent thee?” Even this assurance did not convince Gideon, for he replied, “Oh my Lord, wherewith shall I save Israel? behold, my family is poor in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.”—vss. 14,15

Here Gideon displays the characteristic humility which has been possessed by all whom the Lord has used for outstanding service. His family was poor, and evidently circumstances were such that Gideon had been made to feel that he was of little importance in the family, hence his surprise and commendable hesitancy when the Lord indicated him to be his choice for a deliverer of his people. Again the Lord reassured this humble man, saying to him, “Surely I will be with thee, and thou shalt smite the Midianites as one man.” (vs. 16) When assured by the Lord, “Surely I will be with thee,” even the humblest and the weakest of men become valiant and courageous if they have faith in him; but Gideon’s faith needed bolstering. He did not doubt the Lord, but he wanted to be sure that it was the God of Israel who was communicating with him; so he again replied, “If now I have found grace in thy sight, then show me a sign that thou talkest with me.”—vs. 17

Then Gideon asked the messenger not to depart “until I come unto thee, and bring forth my present, and set it before thee.” The messenger promised to remain; “and Gideon went in, and made ready a kid, and unleavened cakes of an ephah of flour: the flesh he put in a basket, and he put the broth in a pot, and brought it out unto him under the oak, and presented it. (vss. 18,19) Then the messenger of God said to Gideon, “Take the flesh and the unleavened cakes, and lay them upon this rock, and pour out the broth. And he did so. Then the angel of the Lord put forth the end of the staff that was in his hand, and touched the flesh and the unleavened cakes; and there rose up fire out of the rock, and consumed the flesh and the unleavened cakes. Then the angel of the Lord departed out of his sight.”—vss. 20,21

The angel of the Lord had appeared to Gideon in human form, and it was only through this miraculous manifestation of divine power and the sudden disappearance of the heavenly messenger that Gideon realized with whom he had been speaking. Then he said, “Alas, O Lord God! for because I have seen an angel of the Lord face to face. And the Lord said unto him, Peace be unto thee; fear not: thou shalt not die.”—vss. 22,23

Baal Worship Destroyed

Now that Gideon had been assured that the Lord’s blessing was with him, he was ready to proceed with the task of liberating the Israelites from the Midianites. As a necessary preparation for this, Baal worship must be destroyed in the land. This was a severe test upon Gideon, for his own father had established a “grove” for this heathen worship.

The same night that the angel of the Lord first spoke to Gideon, the Lord said to him, “Take thy father’s young bullock, even the second bullock of seven years old, and throw down the altar of Baal that thy father hath, and cut down the grove that is by it: and build an altar unto the Lord thy God upon the top of this rock, in the ordered place, and take the second bullock, and offer a burnt sacrifice with the wood of the grove which thou shalt cut down.”—vss. 25,26

Gideon carried out these instructions. He utilized the help of ten of his servants “and did as the Lord had said unto him.” He carried out the instructions at night because he feared the reaction of his father’s household and thought it would be best to have the act completed before they discovered it. Gideon did not underestimate the violent reaction of the Baal worshipers; for when the “men of the city” learned what had been done and that Gideon was responsible, they demanded that he should die.

They made this demand of Gideon’s father, Joash. But his father, although he had established the altar of Baal and the grove which his son had destroyed, was a good reasoner; and he replied to those who demanded Gideon’s life, “Will ye plead for Baal? will ye save him? he that will plead for him, let him be put to death whilst it is yet morning: if he be a god, let him plead for himself, because one hath cast down his altar.”—vs. 31

Joash had evidently been somewhat impressed with the fact that Baal had been unable to prevent the destruction of his own altar, and wisely his sympathies were moving toward Gideon, and his confidence in the God of Israel was mounting. He named his son, Jerubbaal, “saying, Let Baal plead against him, because he hath thrown down his altar.”—vs. 32

An Army Assembled

An acute crisis developed. The record is that “then all the Midianites and the Amalekites and the children of the east were gathered together, and went over, and pitched in the valley of Jezreel. But the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon.” He blew a trumpet, and the men of his father’s household were gathered to him. He also sent messengers “throughout all Manasseh; who also was gathered after him: and he sent messengers unto Asher, and unto Zebulun, and unto Naphtali; and they came up to meet them.” (vss. 33-35) Things were moving rapidly, and Gideon found himself surrounded with an army ready to follow his leadership in an attack upon Israel’s enemies. For one who had been considered least in his father’s house this must have been rather a frightening situation, and it is no wonder that he felt the need of further reassurance from the Lord.

So “Gideon said unto God, If thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said, Behold, I will put a fleece of wool in the floor; and if the dew be on the fleece only, and it be dry upon all the earth beside, then shall I know that thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said.” (vss. 36,37) The Lord was patient with Gideon and honored his request. The next morning, when he examined the fleece, it was thoroughly soaked, containing, as the record states, “a bowl full of water,” while the ground around it was dry. This should have been very convincing, but still Gideon was not fully satisfied. So, to make doubly sure, he reversed the conditions, asking the Lord on the second test to let the fleece remain dry and the dew fall on the surrounding ground.

Gideon realized that he was asking a great deal, and he said to God, “Let not thine anger be hot against me, and I will speak but this once.” Again the Lord honored Gideon’s request, “for it was dry upon fleece only, and there was dew on all the ground.” (vss. 39,40) Gideon, it should be remembered, lived at a time in Israel’s history when the nation had drifted into idolatry and now for years had been oppressed by their enemies. He had little or nothing in the way of personal experience or observation upon which his faith in the Lord could rest. So, like Moses after his forty years in Midian, he seemed to need assurance in various ways that he had been called to deliver his people.

It was this very lack of self-assurance that enabled the Lord to use Gideon so marvelously. However, there was another lesson the Lord wanted him to learn, which was not to depend upon the strength of numbers; for God told him that the army which he had mustered was entirely too large. “The Lord said unto Gideon, The people that are with thee are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me.”—ch. 7:2

The original size of the volunteer army that placed themselves at the disposal of Gideon was thirty-two thousand. Under the Lord’s instructions he told his men that any among them who were afraid should return to their homes, “And there returned of the people twenty and two thousand; and there remained ten thousand.” (vs. 3) Then the Lord said unto Gideon, “The people are yet too many; bring them down unto the water, and I will try them for thee there: and it shall be, that of whom I say unto thee, This shall go with thee, the same shall go with thee; and of whomsoever I shall say unto thee, This shall not go with thee, the same shall not go.”—vs. 4

The test was a simple one. “Every one that lappeth of the water with his tongue, as a dog lappeth, him shalt thou set by himself; likewise every one that boweth down upon his knees to drink.” (vs. 5) Only three hundred out of the ten thousand lapped the water, and these three hundred were to constitute the entire army which Gideon was to lead against the Midianites.

Further Strengthened

A tremendous army of Israel’s enemies had camped in the valley of Jezreel, and no doubt Gideon needed some direct assurance from the Lord that such an array of armed strength could be routed by a mere three hundred men. So “the same night” the Lord instructed Gideon to take with him Phurah, his servant, down into the camp of the Midianites “and thou shalt hear what they say.” The Lord told him that what he heard would give him courage for the attack which was to be made later.—vss. 9-11

This visit to the ranks of the enemy was made by night, and unobserved by the enemy’s watchmen. “And when Gideon was come, behold, there was a man that told a dream unto his fellow, and said, Behold, I dreamed a dream, and, lo, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the host of Midian, and came unto a tent, and smote it that it fell, and overturned it, that the tent lay along. And his fellow answered and said, This is nothing else save the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel: for into his hand hath God delivered Midian, and all the host.” (vss. 13,14) Hearing the account of this dream and its interpretation gave Gideon the assurance he needed that the little band of three hundred whom the Lord selected to be his army could actually rout the Midianites. Returning to his soldiers, he said, “Arise; for the Lord hath delivered into your hand the host of Midian.”—vs. 15

Gideon’s three hundred soldiers had been given no arms, but now he gave each one a trumpet, a lamp, or torch, and an earthen pitcher. It is doubtful that any other army in the history of mankind has been thus equipped. Although the record does not say so, it is likely that Gideon’s method of fighting and plan of attack were directed by the Lord. Furnishing them with their weapons, Gideon separated his troops into three groups, deploying them on the sides of the hills surrounding the host of Midian encamped in the valley below. Gideon took his place with one of the little companies.

He instructed all to do as he did. When he blew his trumpet, they were to blow theirs. Simultaneously they were to break the pitchers, which were being used to conceal their torches. Then they were to shout, “The sword of the Lord, and of Gideon.” The Midianite who interpreted the dream of his fellow had said, “This is nothing else save the sword of Gideon.” (ch. 7:14) Probably many of the Midianites had heard about this dream and its interpretation; so when they heard the shout of the three hundred, they would surely think the dream was coming true.

Apparently there was more involved in Gideon’s strategy than appears on the surface. Small though his army was, he had them deployed in such a manner as to virtually surround the camp of the Midianites. Ordinarily only the captains of an army would be sounding trumpets and carrying torches, and for the Midianites to hear three hundred trumpets sounding and see three hundred flickering torches surrounding them on all sides would certainly give the impression that they were being attacked by a tremendous army.

Fear and panic spread through the ranks of the enemy. Thus the “Lord set every man’s sword against his fellow, even throughout all the host.” (vs. 22) As the Midianites attacked each other they fled, and Gideon’s victory was complete. Having accomplished the task of routing the main army of the Midianites, Gideon then “sent messengers throughout all mount Ephraim, saying, Come down against the Midianites, and take before them the waters unto Bethbarah and Jordan.” (vs. 24) The men of Ephraim responded to this call, and joined thus in the fruits of victory. But these men complained to Gideon because he had not asked them for help from the beginning. His reply was, “Is not the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abiezer?” (ch. 8:2) This satisfied the Ephraimites.

Gideon is one of the humblest and at the same time ablest statesmen of the Bible. When the angel of the Lord first spoke to him, he explained that he was the least of his father’s house, and he maintained this spirit of humility. He heard the Midianites use the expression, “The sword of Gideon,” but when he instructed his little army to use this as a battle cry, he added the Lord’s name, and put it first—“The sword of the Lord, and of Gideon.”

Gideon continued his campaign against the enemies of Israel until they were completely routed out of the land, although after the initial attack he used greater numbers of men. When his victories were complete, the “men of Israel said unto [him], Rule thou over us, both thou, and thy son, and thy son’s son also: for thou hast delivered us from the hand of Midian.”—ch. 8:22

But here again Gideon’s humility and proper perspective are manifested; for he replied to this request, saying, “I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the Lord shall rule over you.” (vs. 23) Thus again did this faithful judge in Israel keep the Lord before his people, emphasizing that only by obedience to him could they expect to remain free and prosperous.

In defeating the enemies of Israel, there was a great slaughter of men, and from the corpses the Israelites had collected earrings of gold. While Gideon refused to be king, he requested these earrings, and his men gave them to him. Verse 26 reads, “The weight of the golden earrings that he requested was a thousand and seven hundred shekels of gold; beside ornaments, and collars, and purple raiment that was on the kings of Midian, and beside the chains that were about their camels’ necks.”

With this gold “Gideon made an ephod … and put it in his city, even in Ophrah: and all Israel went thither a whoring after it: which thing became a snare unto Gideon, and to his house.” (vs. 27) Perhaps Gideon had good intentions in making this golden ephod, not realizing the temptation it would present to the Israelites to worship it instead of God; but it was a mistake by which this great man of God was snared.

The results of Gideon’s example and faithful judgeship lasted only as long as he lived. “It came to pass, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the children of Israel turned again, and went a whoring after Baalim, and made Baal-berith their god. And the children of Israel remembered not the Lord their God, who had delivered them out of the hands of all their enemies on every side: neither showed they kindness to the house of Jerubbaal [a name given to Gideon by his father when he destroyed the altars of Baal. It means, ‘Let Baal plead’] … according to all the goodness which he had showed unto Israel.”—vss. 33-35

Gideon was the father of seventy sons, “of his body begotten: for he had many wives.” (vs. 30) A concubine who lived in Shechem bore him another son, who was named Abimelech. Departing from his father’s example, Abimelech aspired to be a king, and had himself accepted as such for a time, having first mercilessly slain his brothers.

He intended to kill them all, but Jotham, the youngest son, hid himself and thus escaped. Later, because of the desire of the people that Abimelech should be their king, Jotham related one of the very interesting and pointed parables of the Old Testament. (ch. 9, vss. 7-21) In this parable Jotham describes the trees endeavoring to persuade one of their number to rule over the others. The olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine all refused, giving good reasons. Then all the trees invited the bramble to rule over them, and the bramble accepted. In its acceptance speech the bramble said, “If in truth ye anoint me king over you, then come and put your trust in my shadow: and if not, let fire come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon.”—vs. 15

Jotham then explained to those who had made Abimelech king that if they had acted sincerely and if they had dealt properly with his father’s house, then they could expect Abimelech’s rulership to be a blessing to them. If not, much trouble was ahead for them; for they would find that as with the bramble, a fire would go out from their king and destroy many and that finally the king himself would be destroyed, bringing to an end the unhappy experiment. The latter proved true—“upon them came the curse of Jotham, the son of Jerubbaal.”—vs. 57

Jephthah and His Daughter

After the death of Abimelech a series of judges were raised up by the Lord to direct the affairs of Israel, but little or no information is given concerning them until we come to Jephthah, a son of Gilead, who is introduced as being a mighty man of valor. (Judges 11:1) But Jephthah was socially ostracized by his brothers because he was the son of a harlot, and he “fled from his brethren, and dwelt in the land of Tob.”—ch. 11:3

Yet his ability as a leader and militarist was apparently recognized even by those who thought themselves socially superior; so when Israel became sore oppressed by the Ammonites, the elders sought out Jephthah and asked for his help, promising him the leadership of the nation after he defeated the Ammonites. Jephthah reluctantly accepted and was victorious, as many other Israelitish generals previously had been when the Lord’s blessing was upon them.

However, Jephthah’s name is prominent in the sacred record not because of his military victories, but because of a vow which he made to the Lord in anticipation of the victory which would be given to him by divine help. The vow was that whatever first came out of his house when he returned from the battle would be offered to the Lord in sacrifice.—Judges 11:30,31

When Jephthah did return from the battle, his young daughter was the first to come out from the house to meet him. The account says, “It came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back.”—vs. 35

Among the noble of Israel the making of a vow before the Lord was a very serious thing. Solomon wrote that it is better not to vow, than to vow and not to pay. (Eccles. 5:4,5) Jephthah held this viewpoint; and while his vow proved to be much more costly than he had expected, having entered into such a solemn obligation, he saw no way of changing it. Nor did his daughter rebel. She understood the situation and asked only for two months in which, as the record states, “I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows.” Jephthah granted this request. After the two months “she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man.”—ch. 11:36-39

It is generally supposed that Jephthah actually offered his daughter in sacrifice, as a bullock or goat would be offered; and, indeed, a casual reading of the King James Version of the Bible rather favors this viewpoint. But the marginal rendering of verse 40 seems to give a different thought. It explains that the daughters of Israel went yearly “to talk with the daughter of Jephthah, the Gileadite, four days in a year.”

This, verse 39 explains, became a custom in Israel. Obviously Jephthah’s daughter must have remained alive, else the daughters of Israel could not have talked with her each year. Examining the record more carefully, it becomes apparent that what really happened was that the girl remained a virgin throughout her entire life, which, from the Israelitish viewpoint, was a tremendous sacrifice for the father to ask of her.

This thought is evident from the record. When Jephthah explained his position to his daughter, and she asked for two months’ grace, she did not request these two months in order to prepare for death, as some commentators explain, but in order to bewail her virginity. (vs. 37) When she returned, and her father “did with her according to his vow which he had vowed,” it is explained that “she knew no man.” Indeed, as one who was led of the “Spirit of the Lord” (vs. 29), it was not possible for Jephthah to have made a vow to offer his daughter as a sacrifice, for this was contrary to Mosaic law.—Deut. 12:30,31

After his victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah found it necessary to put down a rebellion of the Ephraimites within Israel. Their rebellion was largely due to the fact that they had not been consulted in the choice of Jephthah. His period of judgeship lasted for six years.

Samson the Mighty

After Jephthah’s death a number of other judges served the nation, but they are merely mentioned in the record. The next judge who is given prominence is Samson, the son of Manoah. He was raised up to be a judge because, as in the case of the others, “the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord.” As punishment, “the Lord delivered them into the hand of the Philistines forty years.”—Judges 13:1-5

Considerable detail is given in Judges, chapter 13, concerning events leading up to the birth of Samson. His mother had been barren, and an angel appeared and announced to her that she would have a son. Manoah, her husband, was not present when this occurred, and he prayed that he might also see this visitor, who had not as yet been recognized as an angel. This request was granted, and during the interview with the angel, Manoah offered a kid in sacrifice upon a rock, and as it burned the angel ascended from them in the flame. Then, of course, they knew they had been visited by an angel, which impressed upon them the great importance to Israel of the son who would be born to them—that he would be, as the angel explained, one who would “begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines.”

Samson is noted for his great strength; and while, according to the standards of the New Testament, his personal life is not to be commended, at heart he evidently was loyal to the Lord, so much so that in the 11th chapter of Hebrews he is named as one of the Ancient Worthies. (vs. 32) Despite the irregularities in his personal life, Samson evidently had great faith in God.

In keeping with the Lord’s instructions, from infancy Samson’s head was not shaved, for his parents were instructed that he was to be a lifelong Nazarite (under the terms of the Jewish Law a Nazarite was one who was separated from the people and devoted exclusively to the service of the Lord, either for a limited period of time, or for life.) One of the outward characteristics of a Nazarite was his uncut hair.

Samson revealed to Delilah that the secret of his strength was in his hair. We are not to suppose from this that there was some mysterious way in which strength flowed from his hair to his body. The thought seems to be that as long as he retained his hair, the emblem of devotion to God, he was given power by the Lord to accomplish the mighty feats of strength recorded concerning him.

Learning the secret concerning Samson’s hair, Delilah took the opportunity, while he slept, to have a man cut it off. Probably this would not have been permitted by the Lord had not this great man been breaking his vows of dedication in his flirtations with Delilah. With his hair gone, God withdrew his support, and the Philistines captured Samson, put out his eyes, and cast him into prison.

Since Samson, with the strength which the Lord supplied, had vexed the Philistines so long, they gloried over the fact that they now had him under control. They made doubly sure that he would not escape from them by binding him with fetters of brass. To celebrate this victory over the mighty Samson, the lords of the Philistines gathered together to offer sacrifices to their god, Dagon.

This gathering was in their temple, and it was a great assembly. “The house was full of men and women; and all the lords of the Philistines were there; and there were upon the roof about three thousand men and women, that beheld while Samson made sport.” (ch. 16:27) What a humiliation for the mighty Samson!

But the situation soon changed. Samson’s faith came to the rescue; his hair had begun to grow again; and he asked the Lord to assist him once more, that he might avenge himself against the Philistines. The story of what followed is well known. Bracing himself between two of the pillars which supported the roof of the building, he pushed them asunder, “and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.”—vs. 30

Here again we must assume that it was strength specially given by the Lord that brought down the temple of the Philistines. All the exploits of strength on the part of Samson were just as much miracles as was the destruction of the walls of Jericho or the parting of the River Jordan. Just why the Lord chose to manifest his strength through a man, we may not know, except that it helps to illustrate that our God is in no wise limited in the methods he can use to accomplish his purposes.

An Antitypical Lesson

Interesting lessons may be drawn from the manner in which the Lord dealt with the judges of Israel, although as individuals they can hardly be classed as being typical. In the New Testament they are mentioned only once, and that is in Paul’s gallery of faith heroes, which he enumerates in the 11th chapter of Hebrews.

God’s method of delivering Israel under the leadership of the judges is, however, indicated to be typical. In Isaiah 1:26 the Lord makes a promise concerning the coming time of deliverance for Israel and the world, saying, “I will restore thy judges as at the first.”

Christ and his faithful followers of the present age will be the judges in that future day of judgment. Just as Israel came under bondage to their enemies because of disobedience to divine law, so all the world is now in bondage to sin and death—Jews and Gentiles alike. But in God’s due time he will raise up these judges who have been prepared in advance for the great responsibility, and through them all the willing and obedient of mankind will be delivered from death. It is a glorious prospect!

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