Symbolic of the twelve tribes there are twelve judges in the book of Judges. Thus in order to reach the number 12 there are brief asides mentioning Shamgar (Judges 3:31), Tola and Jair (Judges 10:1-5), and Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon (Judges 12:8-15). It is interesting that each time the aside includes one more judge. The first time one judge, the second time two judges, and the third time three judges (for a total of six judges). They all basically follow the same pattern, but the increasing number of judges mentioned as asides and not fitting the cycle pattern ideal shows that the nation is continuing to increasingly spiral out of control. The other six judges are Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson. Each of the judges mentioned as asides begin, “After him,” except for Tola, which begins, “After Abimelech.” Abimelech does not count as one of the judges of Israel. Except for quoting the asides of Tola, Jair, and Ibzan, Elon and Abdon, we will be examining the cycles of Jephthah and Samson.
“After Abimelech there arose to save Israel Tola the son of Puah, son of Dodo, a man of Issachar, and he lived at Shamir in the hill country of Ephraim. And he judged Israel twenty-three years. Then he died and was buried at Shamir” (Judges 10:1-2).
“After him arose Jair the Gileadite, who judged Israel twenty-two years. And he had thirty sons who rode on thirty donkeys, and they had thirty cities, called Havvoth-jair to this day, which are in the land of Gilead. And Jair died and was buried in Kamon” (Judges 10:3-5).
The next time we see a cycle is with Jephthah, though it is missing some elements. The cycle opens,
“The people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of YHWH and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth the gods of Syria, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines. And they forsook YHWH and did not serve him” (Judges 10:6).
Here we have the names of two Canaanite deities – the Baal gods and the Asherah goddesses and then the text says generically the gods of the surrounding nations – Syria, Sidon, Moab, Ammon, Philistia.
The cycle continues,
“So the anger of YHWH was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the Ammonites, and they crushed and oppressed the people of Israel that year” (Judges 10:7-8).
The Philistines would be to the west and the Ammonites to the east. The Ammonites are not to be confused with the Amorites mentioned in the next few verses who are Canaanites. Ammon and Moab were the children/grandchildren of Lot.
The text says, “For eighteen years they oppressed all the people of Israel who were beyond the Jordan in the land of the Amorites, which is in Gilead” (Judges 10:8). We are talking about where the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh live on the other side of the Jordan. The text continues, “And the Ammonites crossed the Jordan to fight also against Judah and against Benjamin and against the house of Ephraim, so that Israel was severely distressed” (Judges 10:9). And the cycle continues, “And the people of Israel cried out to YHWH saying, ‘We have sinned against you, because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baals” (Judges 10:10).
The response of YHWH to the people is enlightening: “Did I not save you from the Egyptians and from the Amorites, from the Ammonites and from the Philistines? The Sidonians also, and the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you, and you cried out to me, and I saved you out of their hand. Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more. Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress” (Judges 10:11-14). Clearly the situation has continued to deteriorate and God is frustrated with Israel.
Israel’s answer was good: “‘We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.’ So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served YHWH, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel” (Judges 10:15-16). Now note verse 18 (Judges 10:18): “And the people, the leaders of Gilead, said to one another, ‘Who is the man who will begin to fight against the Ammonites? He shall be head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” Note the contrast with the first verse of the book: “After the death of Joshua, the people of Israel inquired of YHWH, ‘Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?'” They should have inquired of YHWH but instead they inquired of each other and then said that the one who did it they would make like their king.
The next verse reads, “Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute. Gilead was the father of Jephthah…” and we find out that Gilead was married and had children by his marriage too. This raises the question why Gilead saw a prostitute – this would likely be a cult prostitute involved in Canaanite worship. So Jephthah had a father who blended YHWH and Canaanite god/goddess worship. His brothers drove him out of the house but now that they are in trouble they go and offer him headship over the Gileadites if he will lead them in to battle. They made vows to this effect before YHWH. Again, they did not inquire of YHWH to see what He thought of these things but figured if YHWH allowed Jephthah to save them then YHWH wanted him to be their leader and head.
We had seen the apologetic quality of the Torah explaining why Israel could take the land that it did beyond the Jordan. And here we see a similar argument in Judges 11 explaining why Israel was right to do so and why the Ammonites could not have it back. Specifically the reason was that it was not under the control of the Ammonites but the control of the Amorites and the Amorites were Canaanites under the curse. This chapter shows that Jephthah knew quite a bit about the history of Israel. And the next verse (11:29) says that the Spirit of YHWH was upon Jephthah.
Jephthah may know his history and have the Spirit upon him, but then he did something incredibly stupid. He made a vow to YHWH, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever [or whoever] comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be YHWH’s, and I will offer it [or him] up for a burnt offering” (11:30-31). The obvious danger is that Jephthah may very well offer up one of his children as an offering just like was common in some of the area religions and as God detested in the Torah. And that is exactly what happened.
Jephthah had only one child, a daughter, and she was the one who came out to greet him. She was a virgin girl, the text tells us. The whole thing is very tragic and very reminiscent of the religious customs of the peoples following other gods. Note that the amount of text devoted to this is many verses compared to two verses concerning the battle – which does not give us any of the gory details as we have often seen the Bible does not do. But all of these details concerning the stupid oath and such show us the decline of the nation. Then we see the Gileadites and the Ephraimites have it out for each other. Ephraim is often late to the party, so to speak, as we have seen before. This is where the famous text regarding how one pronounced the Hebrew word, “Shibboleth” (Judges 12:6).
Jephthah judged Israel six years and then he died and was buried. If I may be sarcastic, “Some deliverer.”
There are a number of similarities between Jephthah and Saul. Both are called a “man of valor” (Judges 11:1, 1 Sam 9:1), both had Ammonites as enemies, recognized at Mizpah, Gilead was a battleground, were the people’s choice, and the choice was due to a threat, both made a self-serving vow for victory (Judges 11:30f, 1 Sam 14:24 where Saul vowed to kill anyone who ate before the battle was over), the given reason for the vow was vengeance on his enemies, the vow threatens special offspring (Jephthah’s only child; Jonathan).
Both make similar statements regarding this misery: “My daughter you have made me miserable” (Judges 11:35), “My father has made trouble” (1 Sam 14:29). By contrast Jephthah was remorseful (11:35-40) and Saul was stubborn (1 Sam 14:39, 44). The children in question were both compliant (Judges 11:36, 1 Sam 14:43). However, the daughter was sacrificed (Judges 11:39) but Jonathan was spared for the time being (1 Sam 14:45). And then in both the Ephraimites show up late (Judges 12:1-6, 1 Sam 14:23).
Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon are mentioned briefly next, again as we noted earlier so that we have 12. These follow the same formula as the ones mentioned earlier. “After him…” Bethlehem is likely Bethlehem of Zebulun (cf. Joshua 19:15) and not the one more familiar to us of Judah. Whenever Bethlehem of Judah is the one meant it says in or of Judah (cf. Judges 17:7).
After him Ibzan of Bethlehem judged Israel. He had thirty sons, and thirty daughters he gave in marriage outside his clan, and thirty daughters he brought in from outside for his sons. And he judged Israel seven years. Then Ibzan died and was buried at Bethlehem.
After him Elon the Zebulunite judged Israel, and he judged Israel ten years. Then Elon the Zebulunite died and was buried at Aijalon in the land of Zebulun.
After him Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite judged Israel. He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys, and he judged Israel eight years. Then Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite died and was buried at Pirathon in the land of Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amalekites.
The cycle resumes that will now bring up the judge Samson, “And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of YHWH, so YHWH gave them into the hand of the Philistines for forty years” (Judges 13:1). And like so often we see in Scripture there is a story of a wife who was barren and had no children and an angel that appeared to her and said that she would bear a son. This son was going to be a Nazirite from the womb. Thus she was instructed regarding the particulars of the Nazirite vow – “be careful and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean,…No razor shall come upon his head.” Samson is the anti-Samuel of the book (predictably now like Saul).
Manoah, Samson’s father, like Gideon before him, also spoke to this angel and did not know that he was speaking to an angel of YHWH. The story has many parallels with the Gideon narrative in this regard. For example, Manoah was afraid he would die now that he had seen an angel of YHWH.
What you will then see unfold during the story of Samson is him breaking each part of the Nazirite vow – he will drink, he will eat honey from a dead animal carcass, and eventually he will get a hair cut.
Samson and Saul are similar figures as well. Saul later had the same enemy – the Philistines. Both had the Spirit of YHWH come and go. Judges 13:25, 14:6, 19, 15:14 and 1 Sam 10:6, 10, 11:6. Both have a time when the Spirit simply leaves – for Samson when he gets his hair cut (Judges 16:20) and for Saul in 1 Sam 16:14. Both have a situation of enemy ridicule at the end – the Philistines make sport of Samson (Judges 16:25) and Saul is simply afraid of Philistine ridicule (1 Sam 31:4). And both commit suicide. Note the difference though: Samson’s leads to victory (Judges 16:30) and Saul kills himself in defeat.
One of the interesting characteristics of the Samson cycle is this riddle:
“Out of the eater came
Something to eat.
Out of the strong came
Something sweet” (Judges 14:4).
And the answer:
“What is sweeter than honey?
What is stronger than a lion?” (Judges 14:18).
There are other little poetic bits:
“If you had not plowed with my heifer,
You would not have found out my riddle” (Judges 14:18).
“With the jawbone of a donkey,
Heaps upon heaps,
With the jawbone of a donkey
Have I struck down a thousand men” (Judges 15:16).
Nevertheless, the main genre, as with most of judges, is not so much prophetic poetry (except for Deborah’s song) but prophetic narrative.
And the story is fairly simple. Samson wanted a wife from among the Philistines as a pretext to harass the Philistines and overthrow their oppression. His first test was a battle with a young lion that he defeated with his hands (having the Spirit upon him). He ate the honey from the unclean dead carcass after some days. And Samson put a riddle to the people that they could not solve except by using Samson’s wife.
Because Samson had lost the wager over the riddle he owed 30 linen garments and 30 changes of clothes and so he went and struck down 30 men in Ashkelon to pay those that “solved” the riddle. And he left rather steamed. When he came back after some days to find his wife he discovered that she was given to his best man and her father offered her younger and prettier sister. But Samson went and caught 300 foxes and put a torch that he would light between each pair of tails and let them run around the grain fields and olive orchards of the Philistines. His Philistine wife and father-in-law were burned in retaliation by their own people.
In the next part of the scene the men of Judah bind Samson and turn him over to the Philistines. The Philistines were upset because Samson had retaliated for what they did to his wife. But the Spirit of YHWH came upon Samson and the ropes on his arms broke/melted away and he used a “fresh jawbone of a donkey” (another dead animal bone situation) and struck down 1,000 men of the Philistines. Like Israel did in the wilderness, Samson accused God of letting him die of thirst and God opened up a spring for him to drink.
The next scene shows Samson going into a prostitute. Here we see the degeneration of a judge that had been the son of a prostitute (Jephthah) to now a judge who was using a prostitute. Here is someone who is supposed to be a sort of “lay priest” (Nazirite) but he is sleeping with a prostitute.
After this, he fell in love with Delilah. And the Philistines would use her to try to find out why Samson was so strong. She was to seduce him, though that would not be difficult. She asked him how he might be bound so that no one might subdue him. And the first time he lied saying that if bound with seven fresh bowstrings that have not been dried then he would become weak like any other man. The Philistines tried it, but it did not work. The whole thing was then repeated again this time with new ropes that have not been used. And then again with weaving seven locks of his head and such. Delilah did this one herself. And eventually, “he told her all his heart” and revealed that if he had a hair cut then he would be weak like any other man.
Throughout the whole Samson narrative one should be thinking that Samson does the same sorts of things that the people of the surrounding nations do. And the Philistines did to him what would be typical for those nations to do to a captured enemy – they gouged out his eyes. The lords of the Philistines offered a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to rejoice but what they do not understand is that it was not their god at all who was in control of these events. YHWH was punishing Samson for his folly.
During Samson’s life, serving 20 years as a judge, unlike most of the earlier judges, he never did overthrow the nation oppressing Israel – instead he simply irritated them and annoyed them. He just made life more difficult for them. But at his death he was entertainment for his captors and standing between the pillars he asked YHWH to strengthen him just one more time. And he pushed the pillars over and the house fell on the 3,000 men and women Philistines and himself. As the tragedy of Samson says, “So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he had killed during his life.” The book has been showing that God can save with fewer and fewer (cf. the Gideon cycle) and now with one.
Thus we have seen with the judges in Judges that the nation spirals out of control and each cycle ends with death. We have seen that the judges from Ehud on, as well as Abimelech, resemble Saul and not David. And we have seen the six judges mentioned as asides increasing by one judge each time. Even with the increasing chaos, the literary masterpiece of judges shows order.