The very first judge was also the best judge and the one with the least “exciting” cycle. We saw in Joshua that the text was not written to be a movie script. One of the main reasons for this is that the bloodshed, which is what makes the movies exciting to many viewers, is often left out of the story in Scripture. In ideal situations there is only a single verse that notes Israel had a major victory, without getting into the blow-by-blow bloody and gory details. What we find in Judges is that the need to spell out the details is actually an indictment of a judge’s shortcomings. We will begin seeing this with the second cyle.
The first cycle is one of the least detailed and yet one of only two that contains all the elements of the ideal cycle (true of only the first two cycles). The cycle begins, “And the people did what was evil in the sight of YHWH.” This was no generic good and evil — they did what was evil “in the sight of YHWH.” They disobeyed the first commandment, and thus all of the revealed will of God, as “they forgot YHWH their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth.” Their rebellion was such that they broke relationship with YHWH (even though He was “their God”) and served the Baals and Asheroth.
By saying “the Baals and Asheroth” the author says that the people of Israel worshiped all of the Canaanite gods and goddesses. Baals and Asheroth (to be consistent Asheroth should be rendered “Asherahs”) are both plural. The Baals were male gods and the Asherahs were female goddesses. Baal means “master, lord or husband.” The combination of male and female gods reminds us that the sins of worshiping these gods were often sexual in nature. Thus “the Baals and Asherahs” is a merism for all of the Canaanite gods/goddesses.
And as we should expect this leads YHWH to be angry with His people and to give them over to their enemies. The cycle then continues with the people of Israel crying out for help and YHWH raising up a deliverer to save them, the land having rest for the lifetime of the judge, and the death notice for the judge. The first judge was from Judah, though a Kenizzite and thus not a descendant of Judah, the youngest brother of Caleb — the renowned spy who had sided with Joshua against the ten faithless spies. We pick up this cycle with the name of the judge and quote through the notice of his death:
Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. The Spirit of YHWH was upon him, and he judged Israel. He went out to war, and YHWH gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand. And so his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim. So the land had rest forty years. Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died. (Judges 3:7-11).
We noted in the last post the points of similarity between Othniel and David. Clearly we are meant to understand Othniel as a proto-David (especially since it repeats the part about him being the youngest). And this proto-David faces a more powerful foe than any of the rest of the judges will have to face. Cushan-rishathaim is the most powerful of the kings that God would send to invade Israel during the age of the judges. He is portrayed in this short description as akin to the later great kings of Assyria or Babylon — a world-emperor. King of Mesopotamia is literally king of “Aram of the two rivers” (which describes Mesopotamia, the region of Assyria and Babylon between the Tigris and Euphrates). His name means, “Cushan of double wickedness,” a pseudonymn that has made it difficult to identify him in extra-biblical sources.
The problem is that eventually the judge died (after a generation, 40 years) and the people would return to their evil ways and then some. The death of the one who had the Spirit, the leader governing Israel, led to this because the people of Israel did not have the Spirit. But in this cycle there is absolutely nothing negative said about Othniel, which is most assuredly intentional. Block calls him a “paradigmatic” leader. He set the paradigm for other judges to follow.
But the important point that I want to emphasize is that the text does not even tell us how he defeated the emperor. It only tells us that YHWH gave this world-emperor into his hand. As you continue through the judges you will find that much more will be said about the way they defeated the foes standing against them. Thus it is instructive that it does not say more here, but reads akin to the victories in Joshua.
The second cycle is the only other one with the major elements of the cycle. Each one after this will continue to regress from the leadership paradigm set by Othniel. This time the judge was from the tribe of Benjamin and the foe was also from outside of the land of Canaan – this time from Israel’s kin in Moab (descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot). The cycle begins,
And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of YHWH, and YHWH strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of YHWH (Judges 3:12).
Eglon of Moab, after gathering to himself Ammonites and Amalekites, went and defeated Israel and took possession of the city of palms. This city was mentioned in Judges 1:16 as the place from where Judah and the Kenizites had gone up (likely to be understood as the rubble of Jericho).
The savior this time is “Ehud, the son of Gera, a Benjaminite, a left-handed man” (Judges 3:15). Ehud is meant to be a type of Saul. He is from the same tribe (1 Sam 9:1ff), both had Ammon and Amalek as enemies (Judges 3:12, 1 Sam 10:27 and 15:1-31), and both are associated with Gibeah (Saul’s hometown in 1 Sam 10:26). Ehud’s association with Gibeah is revealed by the comment that he was “left-handed” (see Judges 20:15-16).
Block calls this account “an anti-Moabite (as well as anti-Canaanizing Israelite) satire.” Eglon is a form of the word for bull or calf and a play on the word round or rotund. Eglon then, as Block notes, is portrayed as a dumb fattened calf going to slaughter. There are many such similar things going on in Judges that are lost in translation. The warning to Israel is that they should not eat and get full and grow dumb (a theme of Deuteronomy).
Irony is also a common feature of judges. It is ironic, for example, that there would be a hero from the tribe of Benjamin (which means, “son of my right hand”) who is “left-handed.” This does not mean that he is left-handed the way we think of such things, a better translation would be to say that he was ambidextrous. Apparently the most effective people to use slings were ambidextrous. They would train so that they could use both hands to fight with these slings. The author uses a different spelling of Benjamin (which presumably does not mean “son of my right hand”) in the text in order to highlight this detail.
And rather than follow the paradigm of Othniel — “He went out to war, and YHWH gave [Eglon] into his hand” — the text instead describes Ehud assassinating Eglon king of Moab and then leading the people of Israel against Moab. It is even suggested that the text describes Ehud as escaping from the “throne” room through the toilet. Ehud is not the ideal judge — such an assassination and messy exit sound like something a Canaanite would have done.
The third judge mentioned is Shamgar. Judges 3:31 says that he killed 600 of the Philistines with an oxgoad and also “saved Israel.” This addition of Shamgar allows the author to show Israel being oppressed and “saved” a total of seven times and to allow the total number of judges to be the same as the number of tribes — 12. This is the only verse about Shamgar and thus the formula is broken in a major way to recount this. There are four more judges, unlike Shamgar, who will fit the paradigm formula (though all are missing some major element of it). In fact, the next judge reads as if Shamgar is an afterthought since it refers back to Ehud (Judges 4:1).
And YHWH sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. The commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-hagoyim (Judges 4:2).
Note that already they are being oppressed by Canaanites in the Promised Land rather than more powerful neighbors in the region (i.e., Moab) or world (i.e., Mesopotamia). The Philistines that Shamgar had opposed were somewhere between region and local as they were technically not Canaanites but they lived in the land (coming from the sea).
Deborah, the prophetess, was the judge of Israel at that time (Barak should have been the judge). And she confronted Barak about his failure to attack Sisera despite YHWH telling him to do so. He refused to go unless Deborah also went. And she said that she would but that Barak would not get any glory from the war because YHWH would sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.
And here we see the Kenites (aka Kenizzites) come into view again. “Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far away as the oak in Zaanannim, which is near Kedesh” (Judges 4:11). We do not know how this plays into the narrative at this point.
The whole army led by Sisera was routed and then killed in their retreat by the army led by Barak (but really by Deborah). Except Sisera had escaped on foot.
Then we see the problem that we noted earlier with the Kenites living within the territory of Judah as well: “But Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite” (Judges 4:17). If Heber had been anything like Caleb and Othniel he would not have made peace with a Canaanite king like Jabin of Hazor.
But like the wife of Othniel the Kenite, the wife of Heber the Kenite, will play an unexpected role. While Sisera was fast asleep, Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite, took a tent peg and took a hammer in her hand and then she drove the tent peg into Sisera’s temple and into the ground.
So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel. And the hand of the people of Israel pressed harder and harder against Jabin the king of Canaan, until they destroyed Jabin king of Canaan (Judges 4:23-24).
And then like the prophetic poems of Genesis, Deborah sang on that day. She blessed YHWH, she sang to YHWH, she made melody to YHWH, the God of Israel. There is a theme of the commanders in Israel offering themselves willingly (Judges 5:2, 9). This leads her to bless YHWH. There is a curse put upon Meroz because they did not come to help. And a blessing upon Jael.
It is masterful poetry, retelling the narrative, as you can see:
He asked water and she gave him milk; she brought him curds in a noble’s bowl.
She sent her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet;
She struck Sisera;
She crushed his head;
She shattered and pierced his temple.
Between her feet he sank, he fell, he lay still;
Between her feet he sank, he fell;
Where he sank, there he fell—dead (Judges 5:25-27).
And what the whole episode does is draw some parallels between the prophetess Deborah and the prophet Samuel and the hesitating military leader Barak and Saul. Thus the Scriptures show us a narrative analogy of Judges 4-5 and 1 Sam 15.
Barak’s enemies are described as Canaanites, Saul’s as Amalekites. Both are summoned by prophets (Saul by Samuel and Barak by Deborah), both fail to slay the enemy (Sisera gets away on foot from Barak, Saul spares Agag). Note in this comparison that Saul is worse than Barak.
In both situations there is a substitute slayer. In Judges it is Jael who kills Sisera the army commander (4:21, 5:26f). In Samuel it is Samuel who slays King Agag. In both stories there are Kenites involved. Jael betrayed the peace that her husband had with Jabin (4:11, 17f). In 1 Sam 15:6 Saul tells the Kenites to depart from the Amalekites because of the kindness that the Kenites showed to the people of Israel when they came out of Egypt.
And as a final point of comparison both stories have sonless mother language. Judges 5:28 about Sisera’s mother: “Out of the window she peered, the mother of Sisera wailed through the lattice:’Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?” And about Agag’s mother in 1 Sam 15:33, Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.”
So Saul is no better than Barak, if anything he is worse. Remember that Saul is the climax of this decline, though Saul’s reign is beyond the scope of the history recorded in this book. Nevertheless, we have quickly seen the decline of Israel through these narratives. It is increasingly becoming like Canaan, a point that will become even more pointed in the narrative of Gideon. It takes less and less powerful nations, who live closer and closer, to afflict Israel. And the stories are becoming more and more “interesting” (which itself is an indictment of the decline and Canaanization of the nation).
These reflections on Judges rely heavily on the teaching of the late Al Groves at WTS.