OT History Part 5: Period of Judges -- 1400-1106 BC

Table of Contents

Chapter 5.1: Bad Beginning

Scholars have a fancy word for it: amphictiony. This is a Greek word describing a loose confederation of neighboring states, bound together only by a common religion and implies their alliance is chiefly aimed at defending some central religious shrine. In some ways, this period in Israel's history, lasting roughly 350 years (approximately 1400-1040 BC), was just that. Even when under extreme pressure, it often took heroic prodding to unite enough of the people to take any action at all.

This Book of Judges was probably written during Saul's reign, most likely by Samuel. It appears to be a compilation, not necessarily in chronological order. Some of the foreign oppressions overlap, with different actors working on different problems. Thus, to view the book as a straight-line chronology is a serious mistake. Twelve judges are mentioned, six in detail. All are quite human and failing themselves, some more than others. We can see a pattern of common human conduct: We fall into disunity without something to hold us together, something that grips us. The lesson from God is clearly that He alone is the one operable gripping force. All others fail.

Judges 1:1-8 -- Who's first? The remaining task of military/civil conquest was hardly the same kind of thing as the religious conquest of Joshua. This is more like work and frankly more hazardous. Still, they were asking God and it should have turned out well. The text indicates it did. We can't know if the sack of Jerusalem (v. 8) was separate from the Jebusite fortress there, or if it was later re-occupied by them. The inclusion of Simeon in the battle plans was an invitation for the latter to also help settle the area. Simeon was offered no distinct territory because of the curse in Genesis 49:5-7 (including Levi), with the result that they were to be scattered and merged with other tribes.

1:9-20 -- While Caleb is not named specifically as the commander, this describes his victories in the Hebron area. He would naturally take up a strong leadership after the death of Joshua. The names of the other kings in the area are Aramaean, suggesting they were populated by the same folks who later conquered Damascus. No one knows exactly where they came from, but it illustrates how Israel wasn't the only nation trying to occupy this land. The little story of the giving of Caleb's daughter in marriage indicates a major promotion for the groom. The word describing Othniel's relationship to Caleb means a close male relative, but more often a cousin than a brother (v. 13). The hand of Achsah, as well as the rule of the city, was implied by this offer. What Achsah requested was a gift of springs to compensate her for the land being so arid (v. 15). The term "southland" was synonymous with "arid, dry place." So Othniel got the girl, the city, some dry ranch land and water rights as well. Including such a detailed record of the transfer of title would prevent any dispute arising later, as it surely would otherwise.

The Kenites are mentioned as helping to conquer and occupy the area. They were the relatives of Moses by marriage to Zipporah. They left Jericho (v. 16, "City of Palm Trees") and scattered across the dryer region in the far south of this southern hill country. This whole region was the first liberated, longest held and the best held of all the land of Canaan. While Judah and Simeon early on took the coastal area later occupied by Philistines, they never held all of it securely. This was the birth of the Iron Age and Israel did not gained that technology until about the time of David. This early display of iron weaponry -- specifically chariots -- was beyond the tactical abilities of Bronze Age warriors of Israel. These chariots would be lighter and more maneuverable than the older wooden ones. This may have been some early colonists of the ancient sea-faring folks, because the Philistines didn't come and occupy in force for a century or so. They jealously guarded the secrets of iron forging until David conquered them once and for all. We are guessing the Philistines were allies with the old Hittite Empire, the first people to capitalize on the use iron weaponry.

1:21-26 -- Judah and Simeon thus paved the way for Benjamin's claim, which included Jerusalem (v. 21). The Jebusite fortress was separate from the city that fell. This verse is the clue that the Book of Judges was written before David's reign, for he took it early on (2 Samuel 5:6-9). Ephraim and Manasseh together finished off Bethel. It would be fair to assume that earlier fighting in the area over Ai was not a complete capture of the city, but the slaughter of its army. The city was probably secured well and required a serious siege. We have here a story how scouts found a fellow willing to trade his life for betraying the city (v. 24). Reading between the lines, we see a city well protected by a wall, perhaps with hidden gates aside from the obvious main entrance. The man was allowed to escape and flee to Syria -- at that time the southern edge of what remained of the old Hittite Empire. We note the name of the city later called Bethel had not yet changed from Luz yet, as the man built a new city with that old name (v. 26).

1:27-29 -- A string of forts held apparently under Egyptian authority defied them, running along the valleys of Jezreel to Megiddo and across to Dor on the coast (vv. 27-29). While Israel did at times prosper to the point of oppressing them, they never got around to clearing them out. Gezer was an ancient fortress with walls 14 feet thick. The town held the pass between Joppa and Jerusalem, and was eventually granted to Solomon as a gift from Pharaoh.

1:30-36 -- We can't identify all the cities left by Zebulun, Asher, and Naphthali (vv. 30-33). These three were granted land in the area from Carmel, up the coast of Phoenicia and inland to the Rift Valley. While we know that David and Solomon were on friendly terms with Phoenicia, we are told here they were supposed to be gone. Dan was pressed back into a tight pocket around Zorah and Eshtaol, a foothills area west of Jerusalem (v. 34). We learn later a large portion of Dan finds it easier to migrate the the headwaters of the Jordan far to the north (ch. 18). It appears these same folks kept an area on the southwest of the Dead Sea. We know where the famous Ascent of Akkribim ("scorpions") is, which climbs the north face of a wadi that feeds into the Dead Sea, but would be hard pressed to identify "The Rock."

The narrative attributes all of these failures at clearing the inhabitants to a lack of faith in God's promises. All of these had been delivered into the hands of Israel, but there seemed insufficient will to keep coming back to God and seeking guidance. Too many shortcuts were taken; too often they compromised. They seemed to have grown weary in the task, and fell short of God's command.

2:1-5 -- Due to this failure of faith, Jehovah announced His judgment against Israel at Bokim. We see the first full generation that followed Joshua and his lieutenants, but did not seem to remember Moses. Almost immediately, they began adopting the pagan deities of locals: Baal and Astarte. It was quite easy for an early pagan mix to find its way into the traditional worship of Jehovah, since many of the Mosaic rituals were derived from common Semitic rituals also used in Baal worship. It was to be a very long time before they were completely cured of this sin.

Chapter 5.2: Early Judges

Judges 2:6-9 -- Just so long as Joshua lived, all was well. In this sense, we see that he serves as the first judge. It is important to see that the office of judge in this setting is more of national chieftain or elder and includes the idea of interpreting the application of Moses' Law. These judges were executing the judgments of God. Thus, most of them were military leaders, for they executed Jehovah's judgment against the sin of oppressing His people.

2:10-23 -- We are given a recitation of a clear pattern, repeated endlessly:

At the conclusion of this description, we are reminded that Jehovah announced from this time forward, the Canaanites would not be driven out. Whatever was left after Joshua was buried would remain.

3:1-11 -- Othniel vs. Cushan-rishatahim: The Hittites had surged into Assyrian holdings in an area known as Mitanni, which was the northern end of Mesopotamia (includes the City of Charan). This was not the original Hittite people, but an element from within the withered old empire, claiming their former glory. One of their petty Lords extended his conquests into Canaan (v. 8). It's hard to be sure what his name means, given the Hebrew habit of twisting a despised name sarcastically to give it a unique meaning in their language. Scholars tell us this ruler's name as given probably means "Doubly-Evil Cushan." You may recall the difficulty with calling Othniel Caleb's "brother," when they have different fathers -- Caleb, son of Jephunneh versus Othniel, son of Kenaz. Kenaz was supposedly the head of the clan, so it's more likely Othniel was an uncle, but perhaps born later than his nephew. We know nothing of this battle.

3:12-29 -- Ehud vs. Eglon: The King of Moab rose up and began ravaging the Jordan East Bank. He also took the area around Jericho. He had an alliance with Ammon and the scattered Amalekites. This was quite likely more of a regional subjugation rather than national. Reading between the lines, we get a picture of a petty tyrant always fearful and suspicious of those around him. It might have been that Eglon was one of several lords eligible for the throne and held it rather precariously with the help of a private troop of bodyguards. Quite likely they were drawn from his relatives. A man in his position could ill afford to trust anyone when there is significant competition for his place. There is a distinct sense of political instability, intrigue and layers of secrecy.

The Benjamites (v. 15) had a large number of lefties and ambidextrous men. Ehud was to carry the tribute, and the official greetings, etc. He also carried a rather long sword (approximately 18 inches/45cm) strapped to his right thigh (v. 16). Many ancient cultures regarded lefties with suspicion if not loathing and would never think to expect a weapon there. This man Ehud was a young nobleman, important enough to bear the tribute as an official representative for his own tribe of Benjamin, at least.

This being summer, Eglon was taking his ease in a small room atop his royal manse, built on the shore of the Dead Sea, just about where the Jordan flowed into it. This upper room would have been latticed on all sides for maximum cooling. It's unlikely he would deign to appear in person for the presentation of tribute, so we have to imagine courtiers carry the message to him. Once the ceremony was complete (v. 18), the delegation left and Ehud stopped at the entry way where there would have been statues (Hebrew: "quarried" stone) of pagan gods (v. 19). He claimed to have a more private message for the king. Once Eglon heard this, he would have invited this head of the delegation up to the breezy chamber to relate something too important to be trusted to servants. Besides, Eglon was a nervous and vulnerable ruler, not trusting even his own servants. He sent them out before he allowed Ehud to speak. He closed the doors (v. 20). Eglon would have been sitting in a rather informal session, receiving a report from a spy or informer, he thought. Whether Ehud expected this is not the point; he may have been willing to die in the attempt. However, he claimed to have a word from God and Eglon was sure it was good news. He stood as he would before any oracle from a god. Ehud's weapon was lost in the fat of Eglon; his subterfuge was quite sufficient to allow his escape.

His act was heartening and helped rally the soldiers for something they had long wanted (vv. 28ff). They first blocked the fords to prevent reinforcements, then destroyed the royal bodyguard and slaughtered the king's entourage. Reading between the lines again, it would seem the bodyguards were the sole source of Eglon's power. Once they were removed, the rest of the Moabites and their friends weren't too interested in pursuing the matter. Eglon's nervousness would indicate he was not all that popular with his own people.

3:31 -- Shamgar vs. Philistines: Shamgar was a Hurrian; "son of Anath" was a figure of speech meaning "warrior," a professional soldier. This fight was probably against an early invasion force and Shamgar took the only plausible weapon at hand at the time, an ox goad. This would have been a long, stiff cane pole, with a sharpened metal point at one end and a chisel-shaped blade at the butt, for scraping the plow. He would have used it as a lance, a long spear-like weapon, but heavier. Most likely a small patrol stumbled upon him and he took them out and the activity gained the attention of other Philistine patrols in the area. We have to understand the Philistines customarily lined up in a queue to fight one-on-one as an honorable challenge. By day's end, 600 died. This discouraged further Philistine incursions for awhile.

4:1-24 -- Deborah and Barak: Notice the ruler of Hazor arose at the death of Ehud, indicating Shamgar was active during Ehud's judgeship. Now both were gone. Jabin was surely a title instead of a proper name for the ruler of Hazor. Since the city had been destroyed once under Joshua, this would be new occupants pretending to her former glory and power (v. 2). There was a central, upper mound that goes far back into pre-history, but the city Joshua destroyed had spread far out around that central mound. This later re-occupation seems restricted to the original mound and archaeologists have found there hints that this was sponsored by the revived Hittite Empire. This accords with Jabin's use of iron chariots (v. 3), another Hittite innovation. Hazor's ruler managed to re-take enough territory to hold the combined valleys of Meggido and Jezreel. The two together formed a broad open area from the Mediterranean coast north of Mt. Carmel, slanting a bit southeast and running down into the Rift Valley. In such terrain chariots hold a tremendous advantage. The warlord Sisera was native to Harosheth, a city well-placed where the Kishon River (Meggido Valley) passed through a narrow gorge just above the coastal plains.

Deborah was clearly a national judge, working from under a famous landmark not far from the Tabernacle (v. 5). She summoned Barak from his home far north of Chinnereth, in Kedesh of Naphtali (v. 6f). He was told to raise an army of 10,000 from Zebulon and Naphtali and face Sisera near Mount Tabor, where Barak would have some tactical advantage over the charioteers. Barak lacked sufficient trust in God to go without the prophetess. While her comment about a woman taking the glory might have been taken as a warning that it would be hers, she was actually referring to Jael. Jael was the wife of a Kenite man named Heber, who departed from his kin and moved farther north. He must have become rather powerful and well-known. We cannot estimate the nature of his apparent neutrality, be Sisera certainly believed in it. It was this bunch of Kenites that reported the Israeli army marshaling at Mount Tabor.

As Sisera led his troops toward the mountain, he sought the shallower fords far upriver between Taanach and Meggido. To his utter surprise, he was hit by high water from unseasonal storms, which he would have taken as a manifestation of his god, Baal. We learn this from the Song of Deborah (ch. 5). The Hebrew troops were able to take advantage of Sisera's problem, advancing down from the high ground and catching the Canaanites mostly dismounted and stalled at the ford. The Canaanites were scattered and lost their chariots; Sisera fled on foot. His goal was what he believed were neutral holdings of the detached Kenite Heber, living in the area east of Chinnereth Sea. Jael was the lady of the nomad sheikh and contrived to hide Sisera in her private tent, under a heavy blanket, used as flooring in ancient tents. Instead of water, she gave him milk, which would have made him drowsy on top of his physical exhaustion. However, in the Song of Deborah, it's described more as a large meal of something resembling cottage cheese. It's still a delicacy with Arabs today. While he slept, she was able to drive a tent stake through his temples. This would be a slender metal rod, driven in by a large wooden mallet. Even today, the tent is the responsibility of women among Bedouins, so we can assume she was adept at this. We have no way of knowing her motives for violating this supposed truce between her household and Jabin's people, but to Israel she was a heroine.

5:1-31 -- The Song of Deborah: We have a rather difficult time making sense of all the imagery here. The words and syntax are about the oldest samples of Hebrew anywhere in writing. It's very much more archaic than the language of the Book of Judges itself. Part of what we do understand is the chiding of those who chose not to participate and the praise for those did. The East Jordan tribes stayed home, but probably gave it serious thought. Large portions of Zebulon and Napthali left a few of their own to handle it alone. Most of the tribal leaders were behind it, but wide swaths of the populace were unwilling.

Chapter 5.3: Gideon and the Midianites

Judges 6:1-10 -- We have here a general picture of Arab raiders. They lived in tents, often bringing the whole family. It appears the Midianites would establish a base camp, and then send out raiding parties in all directions. Most likely, they were simply collecting crops after they were harvested and processed for storage. For the first time we know of, camels were used as combat animals. Their use enabled far longer ranging on non-stop trips. The Ammonites arrogantly moved into the land and occupied open areas as if vacant. In a certain sense, it was becoming true, for during these raids a lot of Israelites hid in caves. Most people took care to travel off the beaten path, often crossing terrain where there were no paths.

6:11-24 -- Gideon was nobility. He would have been working with servants, which are seldom mentioned in the biblical text. Under better circumstances, his personal presence might not have been so critical to the task. Threshing wheat in a low place like this is very inefficient. Threshing included the idea of winnowing, but without much wind in this case. The hollow of a wine press would not be large, so not much grain could be threshed at one time. Gideon felt the greeting from the angel was mocking (vv. 12-13). That he wanted a sign (v. 20) is not so much to diminish his character, but is more a measure of his discouragement and desperation. He then realized the visitor was God's direct representative and that it might herald his death, but God reassured him (v. 23).

6:25-32 -- There was as much politics as there was religion in what followed. Gideon was required to do something that would be a strong statement about where his loyalty lay. His act deprived the community of their center of pagan worship, which had been sponsored by Gideon's family. He was to take the young bull (previously marked for pagan sacrifice) and offer it to God, in such a way as to be obvious what it was about. He was also to destroy the altar to Baal and the Asherah's "grove" -- the word meant anything from a single stump to a large collection. The point was that they were grown, lavishly nurtured, then they were chopped off high and carved into an image. Whatever it was, Gideon made total destruction of the community shrine. So politically sensitive was the act that he did it at night. The community wanted to punish him for this affront to their god. Apparently Gideon's family was with him on this, because the patriarch (his father Joash) defended him. If Baal is truly a god, let him punish Gideon himself. His answer implied there might be a fight and no one wanted to go that far. They already had trouble enough with Midian.

6:33-40 -- At the usual season of harvest, the Midianite hordes moved into the Valley of Jezreel, grazing their camels and harvesting Israel's grain, raiding their other food supplies, etc. Gideon rose up and announced his intention to resist this time -- "blowing the trumpet" (shofar, a ram's horn hollowed out) should not necessarily be taken literally, but is an expression commonly used in that time. His clan rallied to him and made preparations. During these preparations, Gideon put out his fleece.

7:1-8 -- The Well of Harod is not fully identified today, but was probably at the foot of Mount Gilboa on the south side of River Jezreel, or just opposite across the river. Either way, the assembled Isrealite troops would be just out of sight around a long bend in the river, with a low crest between them. At the nearest, the Midian army was encamped about 4 miles away. The armed troops of Midian had taken a solid commanding position with good water and grass, while the raiding parties spread out over the land.

Whittling the attacking troops down to a level that would give God the proper credit was tricky. The first bunch to leave did so voluntarily -- they simply weren't ready to fight. That would make sense; don't use conscripts, but volunteers. Still too many, the final test was purely tactical in nature: those who went face down to drink would not be aware of their surroundings. The few who thought to drink from their hands were being cautious and could keep their eyes on surroundings. The result was a mere handful of folks by comparison to the original muster.

7:9-15 -- The Lord confirms yet again His support for Gideon, by having him and one other person sneak up and spy on the Midianite camp. They overheard the best evidence that Midian was already worried. This spying mission would have taken place just after nightfall.

7:16-22 -- Apparently, the order to attack came that same night, given the method of time keeping. The night was roughly 12 hours, divided into three 4-hour watches. The spying mission could have been completed before the first was up. The battle orders would have taken a few minutes to implement, using clay pots (with handles, "pitchers") to mask the glow of torches. There was no real need of weapons. This was an example of psychological warfare, because no one actually attacked. In the confusion, the Midianites and their allies attacked each other. They fled to some unidentified location, but it was obviously down in the Jordan Valley. While helter-skelter at first, they would have attempted to stay together in an orderly withdrawal, marching in mass, but without the full complement of camels, many of which would have been sent out with the raiding parties.

7:23-25 -- The uproar served as a signal to surrounding communities that now was the time to attack. As the sun rose, the pursuit was joined. The other clans and tribes of Israel were asked to converge on the Jordan Valley from both sides to prevent escape. Messengers would have been dispatched, individual runners moving far faster than marching armies. They would have had plenty of time to arrive and pass the word, it appears, because the slaughter was considered successful.

8:1-3 -- The fuss that followed was about captured booty. The Ephraimite leaders charged Gideon with excluding them from an opportunity to reclaim some of their lost wealth, under the custom that to the victor goes the spoils. The battle in the valley near Moreh would have presumably netted quite a lot of stuff. But battles are about glory, too. Gideon's answer indicated they really didn't get that much and that the glory of capturing the kings (essentially generals) was a better prize. This indicated they captured the most powerful groups with their plunder, anyway. "We got a little stuff; you got lasting glory." This answer appeared to pacify the offended leaders.

8:4-17 -- The pursuit turned up the Jabbok River Valley (same route in reverse that Jacob took on his return from Damascus). When Gideon requested food support -- not even troops -- he was rudely dismissed. Since they were technically at war, all communications would have been from the top of the walls to the troops on the ground below. The towns would have remained closed to at least appear they felt threatened by the passing Midianites. These towns were somewhat in the service of the Midianites, having let them escape, and probably gave them safe passage into Canaan in the first place. Why else would this be the goal of the fleeing army as their exit point? When the unidentified speakers on the walls answered arrogantly, Gideon promised to treat them as the collaborators they were.

The Midianites thought they were safe out in the desert. Gideon's pursuit was wholly unexpected. The attack was successful enough to permanently terrorize the Midianite nation. Upon his return back down the Jabbok Valley, he mocked the two cities' leaders and punished them as promised. This included leveling the refuge tower of which Penuel was so proud, along with executing their leaders. For Succoth, he first got intelligence on who the city's leaders were, then proceeded to humiliate them in public.

8:18-21 -- Gideon queried his captives about an execution they held when they had occupied the area near Mount Tabor. Gideon no doubt knew about this already, but was preparing them for their death, that they would know why they were about to die. Their actions forced upon Gideon the requirement of blood vengeance, for the victims were his literal brothers, of both the same father and mother. Their answer was an attempt at flattery, but to no avail. He attempted to humiliate them by having his young son execute them. Arrogant to the end, they insisted he do it himself. The final note is not praiseworthy, for it implies he took the crescent amulets that were on the camels' collars, superstitiously regarded as protection from demons.

8:22-28 -- Their offer was natural and Gideon's refusal to become king is laudable. "Stay on as our king." Instead, he asked that they give him one small part of their war trophies: the gold earrings worn by every free man among the desert tribes. It amounted to about 70 pounds (30 kg) and he made it into an ephod -- a word describing something that could theoretically be worn as part of priestly regalia, but no one is quite sure what it looked like. Whatever it was, it became a symbol for pagan worship.

8:29-35 -- While declining to become king, Gideon nonetheless took advantage of his fame and built quite a large household. He had 70 sons, legitimate heirs and at least one from a Canaanite concubine. This sign of compromise became the source of his family's near demise. The name Baalberith means "Lord of the Covenant." While the Lord is indeed a God of covenants, this was not Him being worshipped, but a pagan corruption. It involved at least a temple building with all the pagan trappings of the day. It would have been the center of perhaps a federation of cities in the area, the very thing Joshua went about destroying.

With every judge, we get the distinct sense that Israel as a people sank deeper into superstition and heathen religion. The Law of Moses, along with a large corpus of unwritten teaching in how to deal with Jehovah, was gradually passing from memory.

Chapter 5.4: Abimelech ben Gideon

Judges 9:1-6 -- Gideon was unwilling to take any throne, but his illegitimate son was hardly so noble. Aside from wives with legitimate heirs, Gideon felt a need for a concubine. This woman was a Canaanite, belonging to the clan of Shechemites that had been in the land from long ago. We see the place called Shechem in the days of Abraham (Genesis 12:6), but quite likely that was a scribal update for a much older name. The city traces roots back near the time of the Tower of Babel. When Israel was living in the land with his 12 sons, you may recall the incident where a young man named Shechem raped Dinah, their sister (Genesis 34). While the men of the town were slaughtered, that does not mean every male, nor would that prevent the women from bringing in distant male relatives to repopulate the city. Hamor had other sons beside Shechem. Later, the city became a central focus for worship during the Conquest. The first service of worship in celebration of victory inside Canaan took place on both sides of city, which sat in the saddle between to peaks, Mounts Gerizim and Ebal. The name Shechem was rather common, meaning "Neck," and implied someone who worked hard bearing burdens, taken from the idea of a yoke.

We find that this son of Gideon wanted to bear the burden of ruling as king. He left his father's home in Ophrah and went north to Shechem. While the city had been given to the Levites as a City of Refuge, we can be sure they were at this point still a minor presence there. The place was dominated as yet by the old Canaanite clan of Shechem. Excavations have identified the old Tower of Shechem as a double tower over the gate, which gate faces southeast. Just beside this stood the temple of Baal-berith. Abimelech took advantage of his father's fame and sought the political support of his mother's relatives. With this support, he persuaded the old nobility to consider the advantage of having this single son of the aging Gideon -- one of their own -- ruling in place of the 70 other sons of Gideon, who would surely have to fight it out among them as to who would have primacy.

Apparently these same nobles were members of a political faction would could call the Shrine Party. These men would hold a great deal of power and influence in the city. The Temple of Baal-berith was no doubt secure enough to function as the city's treasury, a common arrangement in ancient times. Later we will see that they are not the only party seeking political power in the city. As the official treasurers, they were in a position to disburse a pile of silver to Abimelech to secure his ascendancy over the rest of Gideon's sons. While not a great deal of money -- one piece of silver for each life to be taken -- it was a clear symbol of the party's backing. It was enough to persuade young and foolish men who would do anything for a few coins. They captured all but the youngest son of Gideon. It was clear the action was not a battle, but a serial execution. It probably took place over several days and each was killed much as one might slaughter an animal for sacrifice. Upon his triumphal return to Shechem, the Shrine Party held a ceremony on the open plain in front of the city. This was near an ancient tree, well known for the place where Israel had buried the collection of pagan idols his family kept (Genesis 35:4). It's also where Joshua had erected a pillar as a monument to the renewal of the Covenant (Joshua 24:26). It was before this pillar they crowned him king. While we know next to nothing of Beth Millo, it would appear this was a large noble family that could muster a powerful force of armed men, based in a fort. While that fort may have been the double tower of Shechem, it seems to have been someplace outside the city.

9:7-21 -- From his hideout, the surviving son of Gideon, Jotham, heard of the coronation. He climbed up onto Mount Gerizim, where there is even today a flat triangular table-rock. It's a perfect pulpit and a single man with a good strong voice could be clearly heard in the city below, even as far as the peak of Ebal beyond. There he told a parable of what had happened. He shows how those with worthwhile occupations have no desire to rule. Only the most worthless dream of ruling. Thus, Abimelech compares nicely to the dry brambles clinging to the side of the mountain at Jotham's feet. That such could offer a "shadow of protection" is ludicrous on the face of it. Instead, it was the one greatest threat to everything, because these were the first thing to catch fire if hit by stray lightening. What the men of Shechem sought for their protection would eventually destroy them. When his sermon was done, before anyone could act to detain him, Jotham fled to someplace called Beer ("The Well"). While many places are so named, a good guess would be Beersheba, far to the south.

9:22-29 -- The author of the text makes clear it was the hand of God that caused a falling out between Abimelech and his chief supporters. While evil, he was crafty enough to realize they were an unsteady support and he was not living in the city where they could easily harm him. So when three years had passed, it occurred to them that, since they were not good enough to host his court, they would set up ambushes so that anyone bearing tribute to Abimelech, or toll-paying traffic, would be plundered, denying him revenue. In connection with this, a fellow named Gaal came with his cousins during the grape harvest. This was a major festival in what might well be considered the heart of the largest vineyard territory in Canaan. Gaal campaigned for a revival of the old Shechemite nobility to rule, instead of this upstart "king." He won over the Temple Party, but the city administration remained loyal to Abimelech.

9:30-41 -- The mayor, Zebul, advised Abimelech to bring his troops overnight. This would offer quite a sunrise to Gaal. Most battles took place at dawn, the day after arriving at the field of contest. Troops could hardly be expected to fight well after a full day's march. Gaal had issued a challenge to Abimelech and expected to have a fair chance to see what he was up against before he decided to fight or flee. Gaal's reactions seem to indicate he expected a small force. He had seen no evidence of a major encampment.

Instead, as he went out to face Abimelech, he was greeted by a substantial force. While the Hebrew wording is difficult, it seems to describe a force that came over the ridge directly across the open field in front of the city gate, with another group coming up out of the trees, of which the huge ancient shrine oak was the closest. Two more groups were descending from the hilltops on either side of the city. When Gaal wondered out loud what he was seeing, Zebul mocked him, implying that he was seeing the ghosts of his own guilt. When the battle was joined, Gaal and his rebels fled. Abimelech didn't bring the battle inside the city walls at that time. Rather, he had a more dastardly plan in mind. He knew Zebul would gather enough power from those opposed to the Temple Party and have Gaal and his kin evicted from the city. Abimelech backed off to a nearby town, Arumah.

9:42-49 -- Under normal circumstances, the defeated bunch would have been driven out under amnesty. They would have made a deal to leave the city under a promise that they could travel unmolested. Yet, no sooner had the last of the train cleared the gate, and then Abimelech's troops attacked, killing everyone, including women and children. This time divided into three companies, one group of attackers blocked the city gates to prevent retreat, while the other two attacked the travelers in the field. Then the troops merged into a single force and turned to attack the city itself. After decimating the civilian population, he turned to the soldiers who had been quartered in the gate towers. This surviving group had moved into the temple, which was probably well fortified itself. The Temple Party had fled there with all their families. The structure must have been partly of wood, for Abimelech told his troops to follow his example in cutting a leafy branch for tinder to set a blaze. Anyone who has played much with tree cutting and fire knows green oak leaves burn exceedingly well, once a fire is started on dry grass. His final act was to ritually sow the city with salt, which was a warning to anyone not to rebuild the city, or replicate their rebellion.

9:50-57 -- It's safe to assume the city of Thebez, 13 miles to the north, was party to this revolt. Abimelech wasted no time in attacking that city. While Shechem's double tower was technically outside the city proper, the tower in Thebez was inside the walls. After breaching the walls, he still had to flush the inhabitants from their refuge. Before he could repeat his fire trick, a woman dropped an upper millstone on his head from above. This would have been a large flat wheel of stone, light enough for one person to carry, but heavy enough to break toes if dropped on one's foot. From a second floor level, it was fatal, though not immediately in this case. To die by the hand of a woman was the ultimate insult for an arrogant warrior like Abimelech. He persuaded his equipment steward to finish him off first.

As soon as he was dead, it was as if everyone woke up from an awful nightmare. Suddenly, the fighting stopped. As if puzzled and embarrassed to find themselves there, the soldiers dispersed. The author reminds us that Abimelech was repaid for his evil, as was the city of Shechem. Jotham's parable was prophetic.

10:1-5 -- We are told of Tola, who came next, but whose judgeship went unremarked. A few more details are given of Jair, whose sons founded the cities known as Havoth-jair scattered along the Yarmuk Valley and hills directly south of there, in northern Gilead. Riding on donkeys (actually, onagers) signified their noble status.

Chapter 5.5: Jephthah

Judges 10:6-9 -- Because of their unfaithfulness in chasing every pagan god and goddess from the Canaanites and surrounding nations, God withdrew His protection from Israel. The wording in Hebrew is emphatic that the Children of Israel left no stone unturned in looking for new deities to worship. Thus, they fell under the oppression of two nations. They were pressed on one side by the ever-increasing presence of the Philistines and on the other side by Amorites. In the midst of all this, the Ammonites had mobilized to take advantage of their weakness.

10:10-18 -- The folks called on God and He told them their sin. They turned around, and put aside their pagan habits. The Ammonites had gathered in Gilead. This had once been their home long ago between the Arnon and Jabbok Rivers, but the Amorites had driven them out into the wilderness to the east. The army of Israel marshaled at Mizpeh (Mizpah). The word means "tower" and could be any number of places in Israel where such a structure stood, but was probably the one northeast of Gibeon. The leaders of the Gilead clans, as the primary victims of this event, decided that if they could find a decent commander, he would become their king.

11:1-3 -- There was a particularly heroic warrior named Jephthah. He was the illegitimate son of Gilead by a harlot. When Gilead's legal heirs grew up, they ran off this whoreson. Obviously they had the support of the community elders in this act. He moved to the area called Tob, just to the northeast of Gilead, far out in the upper Valley of Jair. Being such a grand warrior and leader, all sorts of adventurous types gravitated to him. The term "lawless men" means those like himself who had little to lose.

11:4-11 -- So when the Ammonites began ravaging the land, the elders sent messengers to Jephthah and begged him to come home and help out with the war effort. He answered harshly with the question, "Where were you when I needed you?" They promised to make him their king and he yielded. The whole thing was confirmed in a solemn ceremony before the Lord -- that is, in the presence of the priests, etc. with lots of witnesses.

11:12-28 -- Jephthah showed incredible tact in dealing the Ammonites. He explained how the nation endeavored to pass through in peace and found the disputed territory in the hands of the Amorites. While Israel avoided conflict with Edom and Moab, they were directly attacked by the Amorites. They trusted God, won the battle and won the land by right of conquest. Showing his limited understanding of Jehovah, Jephthah commented that a nation should gladly accept whatever land their god gives them -- Chemosh, the Ammonite god, had apparently given them their territory east of the Amorites, just as Jehovah had given Gilead to Israel. Balak never went to war with Israel, but tried to persuade Jehovah to abandon His people. Would the Ammonites claim to be any better able against Israel? In many ways, the Ammonites were regarded as more or less one with Moab, since they were both sons of Lot. Moab's lack of dispute over Aroer, right on the north bank of the Arnon, gave Israel tacit right to keep it. In all that time, not once did the Ammonites present their claim. Now they want to stake their claim? Jephthah used a customary exaggeration of about 300 years, a round number, when it may have been just over 200.

11:29-40 -- Jehovah fell upon Jephthah and empowered him to lead the army over the Jordan, past some unknown landmark called Mizpah of Gilead and right down on the encamped army of the Ammonites. He defeated them and pursued them. The narrative names places we cannot now identify, but the scene described is one of pushing them back out into the wilderness areas. The Ammonite forces were so badly reduced they could not rise again for quite some time.

In the midst of all this, we see Jephthah vowing to offer Jehovah a human sacrifice. He clearly had insufficient knowledge to understand this was not a part of God's ways. However, by this time the copies of the Law of Moses may have been unseen for a long time and certainly not commonly taught, as the priests had been commanded. I'm sure Jephthah expected to lose one of his better servants, but it was his daughter and only child who met him that day. He was heart-broken. There is no justification for assuming he simply made her the equivalent of a nun. Since she did not weep for something so simple as being forced to remain a virgin. Rather, it was a deep shame for a woman to die childless. Without giving birth, she had completely failed her purpose, according to that culture then. The resulting festival of weeping would have little meaning if she had simply lived without marriage.

12:1-7 -- Ephraim had been slow to support Gideon in the past and pulled the same stunt here. Then they had the gall to complain that Jephthah had hastily gone off to battle without them. Recall that Jephthah had gone in God's timing, at God's urging. Taunting the Gileadites as deserters of the tribe of Ephraim, they mobilized and crossed over the Jordan in Gilead. So Jephthah's army reassembled and met their cousins at Zaphon, somewhat north of the Jabbok on the eastern hills above the Jordan. The Ephraimite army was soundly defeated. Further, to prevent them escaping back home, elements of the Gileadite forces held the fords of the Jordan and proposed a test to see if anyone crossing was from the West Bank. By this time, the the northern tribes had lost the sharp "sh" pronunciation, having softened it to an "s" sound. It became apparent when they were asked to pronounce the word "shibboleth" -- meaning "an ear of grain."

Jephthah's tempestuous rule ended after six years. His burial appears to have been near the fort from which he launched his attack on Ammon, Mizpah of Gilead.

12:8-15 -- We next see relatively uneventful periods of rule from Ibzan, Elon and Abdon.

Chapter 5.6: Samson, Part 1

Judges 13:1-7 -- After the Philistines had established their presence on the southwest coast of Canaan, they began to exercise dominion over Israel. Their rule was harsh and oppressive and was allowed by God because of yet another apostasy. This domination continued unchallenged for 40 years. Such a long period of judgment was in part due to their complete failure to call on their God. Conspicuous by its absence is any mention of calling on Jehovah.

The Tribe of Dan is described as being in a camp. This indicates the degree of difficulty they were having, since they had never possessed their allotment of land. What little they may have occupied was taken from them by the Philistines, so they were already prepared to migrate to another region of Canaan. While they were thus abiding as yet in the wadi just downslope from Jerusalem, in the Valley of Sorek near Zorah, one of the local families had a visit from God. An angel appeared to the barren wife of a man name Manoah. The end of their public shame was heralded by this visitation, typically marking the birth of someone great. The angel ordered that both mother and child must come under the Nazarite vow (Numbers 6:2-21). She reported the visit to her husband, apparently believing the visitor was simply a prophet of God.

13:8-14 -- The man requested in prayer that the "Man of God" would return and confirm his wife's report. When the visitor reappeared to her, Manoah's wife ran to get him. The angel reaffirmed his instructions from God, leaving no doubt in Manoah's mind what was required.

13:15-23 -- Manoah also had in mind to give proper honor for this blessing. The angel's name would be meaningless to Manoah, but it was a typical request of that day. To know someone's name was believed to offer some power to invoke the person so named. Had the man been a prophet of God, he still might decline such honor, but all the more so an angel. However, it must be clear that Manoah suffered a bit from having mixed notions of paganism, along with the general low level of proper knowledge of God that was endemic in the nation of Israel at that time. He offered to prepare a ritual meal to honor his guest. The angel declared Manoah should instead make an offering to God. It would be typical of people at this time to offer as much hospitality as an honored guest might accept. The motive was not entirely selfless, because to have such a powerful man staying in their home would promise all manner of blessings from God. As soon as the offering was made, the angel ascended in the flames, an unmistakable sign he was not human. Manoah's fearful reaction was typical of someone largely ignorant of the Word of God and his wife answered his concerns correctly.

13:24-25 -- The child she bore was named Samson (Heb. Shim-shone - "little sun"). This showed how far things had gone, for just across the Valley of Sorek there was a shrine to the sun god at Beth-shemesh ("House of the Sun"). For Manoah to name his son after the local shrine god indicated the deep ignorance of God's Word. Still, God kept His promise. Samson became quite the leader among his people.

14:1-9 -- It was a mere 5 miles or so down the valley to Timnath, just over in Philistine territory. Samson fell hard for a young lady there and asked his father to negotiate a marriage, as was the custom of the time. He waved aside his father's objections and insisted she was the best choice. This would be a violation of the Nazarite Vow, which we often see Samson seems to despise. His parents went along with it, certain it was God at work making an opportunity to embarrass the Philistines. As a part of this customary negotiation between families, the trio went down and stayed in Timnath a few days.

While there, in a place holding fruit forbidden to Samson -- a vineyard -- he was attacked by a young lion. The lions native to that area were relatively small, rather like the American cougar. They were deadly, yet Samson shredded the creature as if it were a tiny lamb, because of the power of God working in him. He didn't report the incident to his parents. On a subsequent visit to his intended bride, Samson checked the place where the lion was killed and found that bees had made a hive in the carcass. Bees won't approach rotting flesh, but this dry climate would have desiccated the body quickly, providing a good shelter. He managed to pull out some honeycomb, touching the carcass in violation of his Nazarite vow. He was munching this on the way home and brought some to his parents, without revealing how he had gotten it. His silence was probably to keep from revealing he had violated his vow.

14:10-20 -- Manoah went for one last visit to finalize the details of this odd marriage, after which Samson proceeded to host a celebration according to custom. The local notables selected 30 local boys to ensure all social obligations were met. Naturally this would call for some sort of competition, measuring each other. We don't know the rules of his wager and riddle, but they evidently found it appropriate. Samson offered to provide 30 nice outfits to these fellows if they could solve his riddle. If not, they would have to collect that much for him.

Such outfits would have included body armor and weapons. This was probably more than they could afford, but it appears Samson was prepared to make good on his wager. The text is a bit confusing here, but it appears the celebration was supposed to last seven days, after which the union would be consummated. After three days they had no clue to the riddle and blackmailed the bride into wheedling the answer out of Samson. He hadn't told his own family; how could she expect higher regard? Still, her constant nagging did him in and he told her.

The group of young men sprang their surprise on him just before they were to depart and leave the couple alone. It was obvious to him how they got the answer and his anger was boundless. He left the celebration and his bride, which would be a scandal, indicating she had been found unfaithful. To prevent such a public embarrassment, she was given to the best man. From there Samson traveled down to Ashkelon, a major city of the Philistines about 20 miles away. Chances are the folks there wouldn't know who he was, nor would the folks back in Timnath hear about it. His encounter with 30 men was likely one or two at a time in ambush or in some sort of challenge combat, which was common in Philistine culture. By taking advantage of the right of plunder, he paid off his lost wager at the cost of 30 Philistine warriors. Samson would have chosen his opponents on the basis of their attire and good armor.

Chapter 5.7: Samson Part 2

Judges 15:1-8 -- Thinking to reconcile with his abandoned bride, Samson brought a gift to her house to make amends. Her father wouldn't allow him to see her, but attempted to distract him with what he felt was a better offer: the younger sister. While we cannot know precisely why this angered him, we can see it certainly did. In his rage, he decided that the Philistines as a whole were at fault.

The Hebrew word is ambiguous; the beasts he captured are more likely jackals than foxes. He caught a large number and tied them in pairs. Then he tied their tails together with a torch and lit it. When released, the tethered pairs ran zigzagging through the countryside, setting afire various Philistine crops. The loss was quite large and the Philistines inquired who caused the damage. Whoever answered told the whole story, connecting the damage to vengeance over a soured marriage and to the family in Timnath. The officials punished the family with burning to death. Samson's response was to again take vengeance, this time on the official party that carried out the immolation. The phrase "smote them hip and thigh" (v.8) means he slaughtered the whole group of them. He then retired to stay in a cave near Etam, about 10 miles south of Jerusalem.

15:9-17 -- The Philistines weren't just going to take this lying down. They sent a military expedition up to Lehi, half-way up the Sorek Valley from their border. When the local Israelite officials asked the cause of this obviously punitive raid, they were advised to find Samson and hand him over. They gathered together 3000 men to show him how seriously they viewed this and went to Samson's hideout at Etam. Their discussion with him indicated Samson felt he had simply been getting even. After promising they would not physically attack him themselves, so that he wouldn't have to defend himself and kill any of his countrymen, he agreed to be bound with new ropes, which would be stronger than used ropes.

When the Philistines saw Samson bound, they burst into celebration. Once actually among them, Samson was seized by God's power and snapped the ropes like soft linen twine. Unlike other battle scenes, we here get the distinct feeling of a wild melee in a cluttered camp. He managed to find a donkey's jawbone, which would be shaped like two hatchets side by side, joined at the base of the handle and killed a thousand of them. Being the witty poet, he composed a victory song about turning the tables on the Philistines. The place had been named Lehi ("Jaw") probably because of the shape of the bend in the valley. It gained a new name: Hill of the Jawbone. He wisely tossed the weapon away, preventing it from becoming an object of veneration.

15:18-20 -- The battle took place in a dry area, probably in the dry season. While wandering about the battlefield, he was seized by a terrible thirst and cried out to God. Was he to wreak so much vengeance on Philistia only to die of thirst? God allowed him to discover a spring that broke open nearby. He named the spring Enhakkore -- "The Spring of He Who Called" -- and the name stuck. It was common for new sources of water to be named by the discoverer. It is mentioned in passing that his judgeship lasted 20 years.

16:1-3 -- Samson's exploits of strength continued, as did his immoral living. While visiting a prostitute in the city of Gaza, some troops set an ambush outside the city gates. These gates would have been closed and barred at night. They expected to catch him when he came out at the opening of the gates at dawn. Samson didn't wait, but simply tore off the gates and door frame as one unit and carried them all 40 miles away to a hill near Hebron.

16:4-17 -- Apparently spending most of his days in the Sorek Valley, Samson again falls for a Philistine woman. We have a name this time: Delilah. The arrangement is not described, but it would seem simple co-habitation. The Philistines governed their coastal region through the office of a lord over each of the chief cities: Gaza, Ekron, Ashkelon, Gath and Ashdod. It was these five lords who came to visit Delilah and persuade her to help them by offering each 1100 pieces of silver if she could reveal to them the source of Samson's inhuman strength. He responded with several lies: seven new bowstrings, new ropes, weaving his 7 locks of hair together and so on. Each sounded plausible to her in her pagan belief system. Each time, a Philistine ambush was in the house and he rose up from the various bindings and killed them. Why it is he would continue going back again and again, knowing what awaited him is confusing only to modern Westerners. He wanted what he wanted and didn't expect Delilah to be faithful.

16:18-21 -- Eventually she wore him down and he spilled the truth. She recognized the connection instantly with his Nazarite vow and his long hair. Every other part of the Nazarite vow could be broken and recovered shortly. This item would require quite some time to recover. So she cut his hair and the trap was sprung. This time, he was no greater than any mere man. He was captured, taken to their work prison and blinded. They also bound him with brass fetters, just to make sure and forced him to grind grain on a large mill usually run by a draught animal.

16:22-31 -- However, they forgot about the hair issue over time. We have no idea how long the hair or the time, but we do now there came a point when God was ready to use him again. It became long enough for him to renew the Nazarite vow. This came at the time when the Philistines were honoring their god Dagon, whom they had adopted from the Syrian city of Ugarit. This came no doubt during their association with the renewed Hittite Empire.

The celebration called for the five lords to gather in the temple, which seems to have been built like a theater. In the midst of this, wishing to credit Dagon with their capture and humiliation of Samson, they had their enemy brought to the temple. The place where he was chained was between the two central pillars holding up the roof of the structure. The best seats in the house were on the roof, overlooking an open area in the center. Samson asked his tender let him lean on those pillars. He prayed to Jehovah for the return of his strength one last time, so that his calling might be completed. The Lord granted his request and Samson was able to move the massive pillars from their place, collapsing the entire building in a jumble of cut stone blocks and crushed bodies of the Philistine nobility. The body count in that one event was higher than that of his entire 20 year judgeship together.

His family managed to remove his remains from this mess and buried his body in the family grave.

Chapter 5.8: Migration of Dan

Our narrative ties up loose ends, explaining why the City of Dan remained deeply pagan throughout its history, and whence came its pagan priesthood. The nation of Israel had sunk into a deep spiritual ignorance. The Law of Moses was all but forgotten, honored only in a smattering of cultural reflexes and badly diluted with heathen superstition. The writer of this portion clearly lived during the Monarchy Period and so described the times as hopelessly lawless.

17:1-6 -- The location of the story is some unidentified hamlet in the mountains of Ephraim, presumably near Shiloh. A young man of noble birth, introduced to us as Micah, had stolen a pile of silver from his mother. She had pronounced a curse on it and the fellow obviously feared its power (v.2). In her joy at recovery, she attempted to undo the curse by devoting a portion of it religious purpose, giving it to a silversmith to fashion into an idol. The language describes a wooden carving with the silver applied as a coating. The artisan would have been allowed to keep a certain amount of the silver from the project. Micah took the new idol and gave it a central place in his shrine. The shrine included an "ephod" -- something used in divination -- and some wooden idols for a supporting cast. He commissioned one of his sons as a full-time priest. Thus, in Micah's poor benighted mind, he had established himself in Jehovah's good graces.

17:7-13 -- A young Levite, who was supposed to teach the Law of Moses, was at loose ends, looking for a chance to capitalize on his position in seeking a better job than simply joining the dozens already hanging about the Tabernacle at Shiloh. Likely he had come up from his family home in Bethlehem for his rotation in the temple service and was hoping to improve his circumstances while in the area. We later learn his name was Jonathan, known to be a "son" of Gershom (also spelled Gershon) -- that is, descended from the Gershomite Clan of the Tribe of Levi, those responsible for carrying the Tabernacle furnishings when moving. They were otherwise hauling just about anything for temple use -- menial labor, but requiring a devoted cadre, holy unto the task (Numbers 4:21ff). How it is his family had moved to Bethlehem, 10 miles SE of Jerusalem, when their allotment was across the northern end of Canaan (Joshua 21:27-33) is not mentioned.

This young Levite, with a certain social standing, was probably traveling from town to town, looking for a sponsor. Passing by Micah's home, he was offered the customary hospitality given to VIPs. Upon learning the Levite's ambition, Micah just knew Jehovah was smiling on him, for here was an official priest of God looking for just such a situation. Micah installed him as the new household priest and was ever more certain of God's favor.

18:1-6 -- The Tribe of Dan, pressed into a narrow strip in the western foothills of the Judean Ridge, was ready to make a move. They sent out 5 of their best men to survey the land and find a likely place. As leading men, they were offered lodging in Micah's household. They recognized the voice of the previously wandering Levite. Finding this genuine priest of Jehovah and a fancy shrine, they asked him to perform divination on their behalf. He assured them their mission would succeed and they departed in a positive frame of mind.

18:7-10 -- They found the City of Laish, or Leshem, probably a colony of Sidonians, living prosperously and without any significant security arrangements. Of particular note was their isolation from Sidon and no other local alliances. The spies brought back a report to their tribal leaders encouraging a war party to go conquer and colonize.

18:11-13 -- This war party was so confident of success, they brought all their families, animals and property. This means traveling rather slowly. The first stop outside the Upper Sorek Valley was a campsite west of Kiriath-Jearim, formerly Baalah of the Gibeonite Confederation. Their stay gave the place the name "Camp of Dan" which stuck from then on. Following the same path as the spies (now guides), they also passed by Micah's home.

18:14-21 -- Remembering the good word they got from the household priest, the guides mentioned him to the leaders of the expedition. It was decided they had a greater need of his service and the contents of the pagan shrine than Micah did. They began gathering all the furnishings, and invited Micah to join them. Ever the ambitious one, Jonathan quickly agreed. Expecting a hostile reaction, the soldiers positioned themselves to the rear of the formation.

18:22-26 -- Micah mounted a recovery effort. He found himself outnumbered and the Danite expedition would not even listen to his complaint. Lacking sufficient force to respond, Micah went home. Clearly, his mother's curse came true and the apparent blessing was short-lived.

18:27-31 -- The expedition arrived in the valley above Lake Huleh, the source of the Jordan River and managed to take the city of Laish and its surrounding lands. They rebuilt the place and called it after their tribe, Dan. They built Jonathan a new shrine and he became the progenitor of a long line of priests serving the city and its pagan temple until Assyria came and took the northern tribes of Israel captive. Indeed, the city served as one of the two centers of worship to rival the Temple of Jerusalem, when the northern tribes went their separate way under Jeroboam.

Chapter 5.9: The Crime of Gibeah

It is hard to imagine the degree of moral decline that set in before there was a king over Israel. This last section of Judges helps to explain several things:

Not to be confused with the pagan city of Gibeon nearby, Gibeah can be thought of as the tribal capital of Benjamin's small territory. It was just north of Jerusalem, which was still in Jebusite hands.

Judges 19:1-14 -- We have an unknown Levite, apparently living near the Tabernacle at Shiloh. He traveled to Bethlehem and took a concubine. While not forbidden, such arrangements were discouraged in the Law. After a time, she "played the whore against him." Whether that is meant literally is in dispute, but she surely did so in Covenant terms. She left a man serving Jehovah in the Tabernacle and went away into pagan living.

The Levite could have had her executed, but was not that kind of man. He went to retrieve her lovingly. She had returned to her home town and when the Levite found her, she brought him home to her father. Her father was overjoyed by this meeting and persuaded the Levite to stay awhile. Motives are not mentioned, but he pressured the Levite to stay longer than planned. At midday, the Levite departed with his concubine and two servants, riding donkeys. The dozen miles to the Jebusite stronghold brought them near sunset. The servants were eager to seek lodging there, but the Levite would have none of it. He observed the scruple of refusing lodging among pagan enemies.

19:15-26 -- They pressed farther north and reached Gibeah. With adequate supplies, the Levite proposed to spend the night in the open town square. Just being inside the city gates was safety from wild beasts and that was good enough. As the skies darkened, an older fellow hurried in from the fields and saw them there. Apparently they were acquainted with each other, as the old man was originally from the Levite's hometown. He insisted the party lodge with him. While he may have been observing old-fashioned courtesy, it's more likely that he knew all too well the current moral climate of that city and did not approve.

Most city dwellers of any means had a home with a courtyard. Visit any European nation's countryside, and you'll see many of the better farm houses built that way. While doors themselves weren't that secure, an enclosed courtyard would have been built with rather heavy gates. It would have required some heavy work to break in, but it appears that was a part of the threat. The scene that follows echoes that of the angels' experience in Sodom some 1000 years before. The chief city of Benjamin had sunk that low. The phrase "Sons of Belial" is more than just a figure of speech. These men had entered a pagan cult that called for this behavior, probably one of the Baals. Raping a servant of Jehovah would be a combined religious and political act.

The offer of women was rejected, but the Levite sent out the concubine anyway. Nothing can justify this act; it shows just how deeply the moral decline had gone. Such treatment of women as animals is definitely not consistent with the Law. The horde of men gang-raped the concubine to the extent she died. She had managed to crawl back to the gate of the courtyard.

19:27-30 -- At dawn, the Levite tried to arouse her, but she was dead. He loaded her body on the beast she had been riding and went home. There, he carved up her remains as the symbol behind a message to the leadership of each of the Twelve Tribes. Their reaction was strong. They agreed that nothing this evil had happened since the Exodus.

20:1-11 -- So the nation gathered at Mizpah, a town on the northern edge of Benjamin's tribal territory. Whether for war, politics or even sacred assembly, it would have been the same crowd for any purpose. This was the leadership of the nation. They were numbered at 400,000. The leaders of Benjamin could not have been unaware of such a gathering. The Levite was asked to relate his story and it was just too much for them. They determined that no one would go home without first taking some sort of action. They settled on a drawing of lots to determine who should represent the nation. It would mean sending roughly one-tenth of the force to fight, while the rest would gather supplies in support of what might be an extended effort. This atrocity had brought the nation together as never before and they wisely began calling on Jehovah.

20:12-17 -- The first act was to send messengers throughout Benjamin's territory. They first publicly declared the rape night a crime, and then demanded that the guilty should be turned over for judgment. The issue was framed in terms of holiness: Sin must be purged. The Benjamites resented this intrusion on what they considered a local matter and mustered their own forces in preparation for the confrontation. It is worth noting this is not some empty gesture, as the Benjamites were easily some of the best warriors of Israel. Not only were many of them lefties, but quite skillful at long-range weapons -- slingshots and archery. There were a surprisingly large number of professional soldiers.

20:18-28 -- After seeking Jehovah's guidance at Shiloh, the first attack was led by Judah. The Benjamites were outnumbered, but took advantage of their distance weapons in battle to weaken the opposition before making direct contact. The troops of Judah would be in some disarray from the missiles and unready to join battle. On the next day, it was much the same story. This time the whole army gathered at the Tabernacle for fasting and prayer. We may be sure God took them seriously before, but here they were making a commitment far greater than before. When God was sure He had their undivided attention, He changed the course of events. The High Priest again came before the Lord and was assured they should try yet again and were promised success this time.

20:29-48 -- The next day they assembled for battle as before, but set up an ambush. Since Gibeah was Benjamin's safe fortress against defeat, it was necessary to remove this haven to ensure victory, as well as bring the judgment directly where it belonged, to the city that hosted this heathen debauchery. As the field forces melted under the rain of missiles as before, the Benjamites got too confident and ran out of the shadow of the city walls. When the fleeing national troops reassembled (the site of Baal-tamar is unidentified), the pursuing Benjamites had left the city undefended, just as had happened under Joshua at Ai. The ambush forces rose up out of the fields west of the city and destroyed it. The smoke of the fires was the signal for the national troops to turn and engage Benjamin. The majority of Benjamin's forces were killed. A mere handful escaped to Rimmon. The carnage did not stop, however, until the rest of the Benjamite people had been killed.

21:1-4 -- The thrill of victory was short-lived. Once complete, the reprisal left everyone with a sense of remorse. Obviously, they had gone too far. In their indignation before the battles, they had universally vowed before Jehovah not to allow any of their daughters to marry a Benjamite. The nature of the vow precluded undoing it. The thought of cutting off the whole tribe was too much to bear, as the whole of Benjamin was a mere handful of surviving warriors.

21:5-12 -- They needed a loophole. Taking note of another vow made at the assembly in Mizpeh, they investigated the possibility that any city had failed to send troops in response to the Levite's grisly message. It turned out Jabesh-gilead, in the Jordan Valley just above where the Brook Cherith flowed into the river, had not sent a single man. The vow had been to destroy any such city and so the troops turned to yet one more raid of reprisal and carried out their vow. Only virgin women were allowed to live, but that was still not enough to begin the task of rebuilding Benjamin.

21:13-25 -- A group of messengers was sent to declare peace to the Benjamites at Rimmon and persuade them to come down to Shiloh. The brides were given, but it left them short: 400 virgins of Jabesh-gilead for 600 surviving soldiers of Benjamin. Determined not to fall short of any effort to revive Benjamin, one final measure was proposed. Since giving their daughters was forbidden, the Benjamites would have to be allowed to kidnap brides. To avoid violence, the leadership of the nation decided to wait until the next festival that brought crowds down to Shiloh. The Benjamites were advised to hide in the vineyards on the hillsides around Shiloh. When the virgins made their processional dance around the area, the men were to nab what they could from the crowd of eligibles. The leadership promised to intercede with the girls' relatives if trouble arose. Having secured a bride for each man, they returned to their destroyed cities and rebuilt.

Reading between the lines, we can see that this was the turning point in many ways. As a sort of compensation, the Tribe of Benjamin hereafter are accorded much deference. National leaders made every effort to rebuild the tribe, seeking ways to compensate for what turned out to be injustice. Also, having such a small number, the Tribe of Benjamin had a very easy time of keeping genealogical records. Upon returning from the Exile in Babylon, they were the one tribe that knew exactly who was related to whom. Further, this wave of sentiment here at the end of the Period of Judges paved the way for Saul's coronation as king, for he was a Benjamite. It is noted in the text one last time that this story took place before there was a king, with no structure to guide the people or to enforce the Law on any consistent basis.

Chapter 5.10: The Story of Ruth

Ruth is Scripture, but also one of the most moving love stories. While it's quite likely the book comes to us through the work of Samuel, it is uncertain whether he composed to story. It's obvious he was not the last editor, as there is mention of Ruth's connection to King David, who rose to prominence after Samuel's death.

Ruth 1 -- A man of the Tribe of Judah -- Elimelech -- living during the period of Judges fled with his family to Moab to escape a famine in Israel. This meant a journey of roughly 50 miles, assuming they went the better route north of the Dead Sea. Recall that Moab is on the eastern shore of that sea, with her northern border at the River Arnon, about halfway down the coast.

While there, Elimelech died and his two sons married local women. This was not contrary to the Law of Moses, provided the women adopted Judaism. We can assume they did, insofar as anyone kept the Law back then. Then the two sons died and the household was not but widows. In ancient times, this was a guarantee of poverty. Naomi had had enough misery and tragedy, so proposed to release her daughters-in-law back to their own people, as they were young enough for some hope of remarriage.

On the way home, she persuaded Orpah to accept this idea, but Ruth would have none of it. She had become thoroughly attached to her mother-in-law and risked a great deal to help her survive. When they arrived in Bethlehem ("House of Bread"), at the beginning of the barley harvest, everyone marveled to see her return, speaking her name, which meant "Pleasant." She insisted they call her " Mara," meaning bitterness. Don't mistake her words as blaming God in our modern sense. She had accepted her fate and was still trusting Jehovah to take care of her. She clearly knew in Whose hands her fate rested. Her comment is in the same vein as Job's "The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away."

2:1-3 -- One of Elimelech's relatives fared much better financially. His name was Boaz and he owned a great deal of land. In ancient times it was common at grain harvest to leave a few stray heads lying here and there. Conditions of agriculture would produce a crop that was thin in spots, short stalks here and there and so forth. Given that most landowners paid day laborers to harvest their crops, these areas were bypassed. The method of harvest was to cut an arm-load of what amounts to tall dry grass, tie it in a bundle (sheaf) with a few loose stalks and leave the sheaf standing in the field. At the end of the day, these would be gathered and stacked for processing later. The entire process resulted in stray stalks falling out here and there. In Leviticus 19:10ff Jehovah clearly demands that such losses were to be left for the poor to glean, especially widows. While they would thus have to work a bit harder to get much grain, one could usually gather enough to make it worthwhile.

Ruth suggested Naomi let her glean in the fields. These fields were all in one area, with markings, but apparently no fencing, between different owners. Ruth could ignore the boundaries so long as she didn't get in the way. At one point found herself in the section belonging to Boaz. As relatives, Naomi and Ruth had an even stronger claim on his gleanings than the simple demands of the Law. By this kinship Boaz was supposed to make some minimal effort to take care of Naomi, but the obligation was a moral one, not a matter of direct command. Boaz was not the nearest relative living.

2:4-23 -- When Boaz made his inspection that day, after a hearty greeting of the reapers, he asked about the young woman gleaning. His steward identified her as his relative and he immediately stated his intent to extend his favor on her efforts. His stated reason was that he knew well her circumstances and that she had taken on herself a burden of responsibility in caring for an elderly widow. He offered far more hospitality than was necessary, or even customary. Her humility is genuine and we have a picture of two people with unusually high character. Then he ordered his workers to be sloppy enough in harvesting to ensure she got plenty without much work. She brought home an "ephah" of barley grains, roughly the same volume as about 5 gallons of water (22 liters). Naomi was impressed and asked whose field had yielded so much. When Ruth mentioned the name Boaz, Naomi recognized him as her husband's relative, using a phrase implying he had right of redemption (Leviticus 25:25ff). So Ruth stayed in his fields for the duration of the harvest.

3:1-5 -- We get a picture here that Ruth was still quite young. Though known to be a despised Moabite, she had quickly established herself as honorable. With no other family support to work on her behalf, Ruth had only Naomi to arrange a second marriage for her. Tradition has it Boaz was already quite old and apparently a bachelor still. There is a suggestion in the text his wealth and good reputation were not enough to overcome some unknown deficiency that kept him single. Ruth could have easily gone after a younger and more desirable man and surely Boaz assumed she would. The only family within reach of Ruth was her mother-in-law, so it fell to Naomi to arrange a marriage for her.

3:6-13 -- Keep in mind the cultural settings that placed significant barriers in the way. There were few situations in which an honorable man would address a woman not of his household or employed by him. Naomi cannot approach him about a marriage proposal, because that's the province of men only. She instructs Ruth in the customs regarding this, then suggests Ruth do something that would normally be scandalous. At the end of a good harvest, Boaz would spend the night on the threshing floor, ostensibly to guard his grain, but it was a good excuse to sleep on high ground during the season of cool breezes. As soon as reputable folks were in bed asleep, Ruth approached Boaz and lay down at his feet. During the night he awoke and was startled by the form lying at his feet. When he asked who it was, she identified herself and essentially proposed marriage. That is, she asked him to execute the levirate obligation to raise up children in his cousin's name (Deuteronomy 25:5ff). The concept was keeping a family line from dying out if it could be helped. In this case, Boaz would be the nearest eligible relative, except for one other man. Boaz praised her on the grounds that she once again took the more honorable course. She chose a lonely elder bachelor over any number of younger eligible men.

3:14-15 -- The most difficult thing for us to grasp here is the completely different perspective folks had toward marriage in those days. We are taught to think of romantic love as a powerful force that takes its own path, often in complete disregard of common sense. We assume happiness is invariably bound to what amounts to irresponsible passion. The ancient Hebrew saw love as devotion, trusting passion to grow from that. Any man who could redeem her would have to be wealthy. Ruth could have sought out a younger, more desirable redeemer and had a long marriage and the attendant social opportunities. In seeking out Boaz, she was sacrificing all that, giving a few years' happiness to someone who had given up hope on marriage. However, to maintain her high honor, he suggested she could stay only until dawn neared and then must depart before she was recognized. He also had her take home as much grain as a human could possibly carry, as a gift for Naomi in recognition of the part she played in this.

3:16-18 -- She managed to arise while it was still dark, as evidenced by Naomi's question. Upon hearing Ruth's story, Naomi was certain it was only a matter of time. Boaz was not the sort of man to put off such important business.

4:1-8 -- It was apparently that same day Boaz went to the city courts. That is, he went where legal business was conducted, as publicly as possible, in an area near the city gate reserved for such things. It was common to find retired men of honor sitting there, acting as a people's jury, but with some genuine judicial powers. Ten men were the traditional minimum requirement for many things: a synagogue could be formed, some capital sentences could be passed on criminal acts and the marriage blessing could be pronounced before God. In the presence of such a council, Boaz pulled aside the relative who had first right of redemption on Elimelech's property. When the man declared his intent to redeem it, Boaz advised him the property had other obligations attached, which the man found disagreeable: having to marry Ruth and raise up children in her husband's name, which was essentially in Elimelech's name. He would also assume responsibility for Naomi's welfare. He could use the land, but could not keep it once those children were of age to take possession. The man suffered no dishonor; his refusal was on the grounds of risking his own family inheritance. He simply couldn't afford it on those terms; it would have meant borrowing money he could not pay back before losing possession of the land. To publicly seal his passing of rights, the man took off one of his sandals and handed it to Boaz to "stand in his place" on this matter. From the context, we can assume that custom died out before the Monarchy.

4:9-22 -- Boaz summed up the legal action before this court of ten men. At this point, Ruth was legally his wife and he received the ritual marriage blessing. The announcement would spread like wildfire in the little town. In essence, the family name and property of Boaz and Elimelech were combined into a single household. Their son, Obed, was the heir of both. Naomi sealed the the inheritance beyond any challenge when she adopted Obed as her own son (v.16). The author closes by reciting the family lineage by going back to Pharez. He was the son of Judah by Tamar, his Canaanite daughter-in-law (Genesis 38). Tamar was the woman who used subterfuge to force Judah to perform his levirate duty.

Ed Hurst
21 March 2004, revised 04 February 2016

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