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Notebook: The Judges of Israel

J Grant

After the death of Joshua "the people served the Lord…all the days of the elders that outlived Joshua" (2.7).1 Following this, however, decline set in as "there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord…And they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, which brought them out of the land of Egypt…and provoked the Lord to anger (2.10,12). The book of Judges sets out the record of thirteen judges who were raised up by God to defeat Israel’s enemies and judge the nation. "Thirteen is a strange number; its first mention in the Word of God is in Genesis 14.4: ‘Twelve years they served Chedorlaomer, and in the thirteenth year they rebelled’. So according to the law of first mention, thirteen is associated with rebellion".2

Seven of these judges (Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah and Samson) were raised up to defeat enemies who had brought Israel into servitude. In the record of five of them (Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon) there is no enemy mentioned, so it can be assumed that no outside enemy had oppressed them. Unlike the other twelve there was one judge (Abimelech), an ungodly man, who was self-appointed, a son of Gideon, and guilty of slaying seventy members of his family to achieve his ambition to be king (9.1-6).

There can be seen, therefore, three causes of failure in Israel. First, there were the attacks from the enemy outside; second, the danger of failure arising from a loss of devotion to the Lord; third, the attempt by an Israelite to promote himself over the people - a carnal man seeking kingship, and prepared to sin grievously in his attempts to achieve his gaol. Even in the assembly today the same three causes of declension are to be found.


The enemy was Chushan-rishathaim, King of Mesopotamia. The problem was that the Children of Israel had failed to defeat the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (3.1-7) and expel them from the land. As a consequence they had mingled with them, had intermarried and had adopted the worship of Baal (3.6). James in his epistle warns against this situation occurring: "Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God (James 4.4). The Lord was angry with Israel and "sold them into the hand of Chushan-rishathaim" (3.8). The danger was that of cultivating the friendship of the world. Othniel was raised up as a deliverer and liberated them (3.9).


The children of Israel "did evil again in the sight of the Lord" (3.12) and as a result Eglon, King of Moab, in league with the Ammonites and the Amalekites, became their master (3.13). This nation was descended from the first born son of the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughters (Gen 19.30-38). The nation, therefore, pictures the flesh. Jeremiah confirms this when he writes, "Moab hath been at ease from his youth" (Jer 48.11). Isaiah writes of Moab’s pride (Is 16.6). The victory of Ehud over Moab was gained in battle after he had slain Eglon (3.15-26).


Very little is known about this man. His exploits occupy only one verse in the Word of God. He is, however, an encouragement to those who are not prominent amongst the saints, but who love the Lord. He uses an ox goad, an instrument that he was skilled in handling. The meaning of his name (pilgrim, stranger) gives the lesson to be learned, which Peter also teaches, that we are strangers and pilgrims (1 Pet 2.11).

Deborah and Barak

Deborah is the only woman judge. This reveals a sad situation where men were not leading the nation. The enemy was Jabin, king of Canaan. His name, which may have been a title, means discerner, one marked by human intelligence, anxious to obtain knowledge and understanding. He pictures, therefore, human intellect, which is opposed to the "wisdom that is from above" (James 3.17). It is significant that the monarch who relied on human intellect was defeated in a battle when heavenly power, not under human control, had a vital part: "They fought from heaven; the stars in their courses fought against Sisera" (5.20). We do not know exactly what took place but heavenly intervention was effective.


Gideon did not consider himself worthy to be a judge. He declared to the angel of the Lord who appeared to him, "My family is poor in Manasseh, and I am least in my father’s house" (6.15). The enemy was the Midianites and Midian means strife, something that ought never to be found amongst believers. Before he could lead the people, however, he had to cast down his father’s altar of Baal. This required courage because the men of the city, when they saw what he had done, sought Gideon to put him to death, but his father intervened (6.25-32). The account of how the number of men who gathered to Gideon’s call was reduced to three hundred (7.1-8) is of great interest. God does not depend on numbers to carry out his work. One sadness that marked this remarkable man’s latter days was that he made an ephod, "a priestly garment… perhaps adorned with costly gems",3 and set it up in his city, Ophrah. The Israelites "went thither a whoring after it: which thing became a snare unto Gideon, and to his house" (8.27). Good men have to be careful that they do not over-reach themselves and introduce amongst God’s people that which is not in accord with Scripture.


Abimelech, a son of Gideon, was not fit to be a judge. He argued that it would be better if he was to "reign over" (9.2) the nation, rather than have all the family of Gideon, seventy sons in total, appointed to this. It was never, though, the purpose of God that all of Gideon’s sons should reign. However, to achieve his purpose Abimelech put the sons of Gideon to death, with the exception of Jotham. He assumed kingship, but the curse placed upon him by Jotham (9.7-21) was fulfilled and Abimelech perished in the siege of Thebez. His "reign" (9.22) lasted only three years. The lessons are clear. Leaders of God’s people are appointed by God and there is no succession from generation to generation on the basis of natural family links. Carnal ambition was the cause of his downfall.

Tola and Jair

What a contrast between Abimelech and Tola. The former is marked by carnal ambition for an exalted place in Israel; the latter, whose name means a worm, is surely marked by humility. After the tumultuous years of Abimelech, Israel would be pleased to have the steady hand of this humble man in governing the nation.

The controlling influence of Tola was followed by the wise rule of Jair, a name which means bearer of light, one who enlightened. He was an instructor, a teacher. He brought the light of the Word of God to the people. Tola and Jair judged Israel for a period of forty-five years, but, despite their wise leadership, after the death of Jair "the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord" (10.6).


This judge, because "he was the son of a harlot" (11.1) was excluded from the family circle to ensure that he would not inherit any of his father’s wealth. The elders of Gilead,4 however, had to turn to him in order to overcome the Ammonites who were oppressing them. Jephthah agreed to this on the condition that he would be their "head" (11.9). He had to be persuaded to undertake this task as he had not forgotten being cast out from his father’s house (11.7). He also vowed that, if given the victory, he would give as a burnt offering whatever met him first on his return home. It is sad to note that after the defeat of the enemy the attitude of the tribe of Ephraim led to a civil war resulting in the death of 42,000 Ephraimites (12.1-7). Jephthah warns us of three things: of nursing a grudge, of being rash, and of becoming involved in warfare with God’s people, no matter how provocative they are.

Ibzan, Elon and Abdon

Little is known of these three judges but they also have left lessons for others to follow. Ibzan, meaning splendid, indicates that his rule was excellent. His home was in Bethlehem (House of Bread) and from there he fed the people, just as we must be "fed from Scripture".

Elon (oak grove) indicates that he was a man of strength. Abdon means servitude, indicating that he was willing to become a bond servant of the Lord.


Before Samson’s birth his parents knew that he was called of God to judge Israel (13.2-5). When he came of age he married a Philistine woman, causing much heartbreak and grief and ultimately resulting in her death (15.6). He never led Israel in battle, but he did display his God-given strength until eventually he divulged the secret of this (his long hair) to Delilah, a women of the Philistines. While he slept they cut off the "seven locks of his head" (16.19), took him captive, and blinded him. His greatest victory, however, was won when his hair grew again. He used his returned strength to bring down the house of Dagon while the Philistines were gathered to offer sacrifices to their God. He knew that he would die but, nevertheless, he pulled down the two main support pillars of the building and slew thousands of Philistines. Samson misused his God given power (16.1-3) and was attracted to the world. He also teaches us a positive lesson - do not let past failure deny us present victory.

1 All the references in this article are from the book of Judges unless otherwise stated.

2 A M S Gooding; The Thirteen Judges.

3 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament.

4 Gilead is the land on the east side of the Jordan occupied by the tribes of Gad, Reuben and half of Manasseh.


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