The book of Judges addresses two major themes, namely
- The problem of the sinful nature, specifically as it plays out in the life of the Israel, and its relevancy to the whole of humanity, and
- The person and role of the king, and in particular his role in handling the sinful nature and lifestyle.
We see these two themes culminating in the last verse of the book,
“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25)
This verse reveals a very important principle, i.e. without the king, the problem of sin would not be resolved. In fact, it will spiral out of control, and destroy all traces of morality if possible. This we see in our current society, as we experience the moral landslide spinning out of control at a staggering pace. All pillars of society are being broken down and redefined at a pace that leaves even the children of God in a state of shock.
Religion is being abandoned to serve gods produced in the image of man – all for the pleasure, indulgence and satisfaction of the sinful human nature. For many the idea of serving a being greater than us is ridiculous and a sign of stupidity.
Marriage is being replaced by loose relationships, removing the necessity for commitment and moral values. This is very fast resulting in same sex relationships, leading to sexual promiscuity. From there everything goes South. Abortion, family values, rock solid moral standards are removed to the outskirts of society to be burnt on the stake of worldliness! Children are not gifts from God as a sign of the unity between husband and wife. They are the mere results of sexual pleasure, often more of a nuisance than anything else.
The book of Judges makes the reality of human depravity and its consequences clear and looks for the answer to this problem in the most unexpected place. For the author of Judges, the solution is not found in human systems and rules or other man-made solutions. The answer lies in a person, a king, who will deal with the problem of sin and depravity. Therefore, it presents us with the judges, or deliverers, individuals who would be a partial answer to the immediate problem, but a foreshadow of the ultimate King and Deliverer.
By the end the book, this King was not yet a reality. But this was intended. The idea was to create a longing for Him, a deep desire for a permanent King, who would bring everlasting freedom from sin and guilt and shame!
We find 12 judges, literally translated “deliverers” in the book of Judges. There was an apostate, self-appointed “judge” – Abimelech, who was in fact not a judge, but a tyrant (chapter 9). There were also two others mentioned in 1st Samuel, namely Eli and Samuel, who would be the last judge and the transition to the first king.
In the book of Judges, we find these 12, some major, some minor. Each played a role in driving the two major themes in the book. Israel sinned and was subdued (the problem of sin), the judge was raised up by God and delivered them (the answer in the King).
The first of these was Othniel. He was either the younger brother or cousin of Caleb (3:9). The language is not clear. We find him going to war in Judges chapter 1 and winning the hand of Caleb’s daughter in marriage.
He’s role as judge is a wonderful picture of Christ. Although not a thoroughbred Jew, he was associated with the tribe of Judah (1:1-2, 12). An important observation must be made here. The tribe of Judah was to be leaders in the nation of Israel. This was according to the blessing Jacob gave Judah before his death:
“Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you. Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” (Genesis 49:8-10)
During the wanderings in the desert, Judah was the tribe who led the others. Judges 1:1-2 clearly gives Judah precedence over the other tribes. Now, when God starts raising up deliverers, He starts with the tribe of Judah! It is not a coincidence, but a God ordained plan set in motion. The message is clear: the coming Deliverer-King will be from the tribe of Judah.
Taking this further, Othniel’s name can either be translated as “Lion of God” or “God’s power”, both reflecting the blessing in Genesis 49 and the promise of the coming Messiah. Psalm 110 picks up the themes of the Messiah’s kingship, ascension, and High priestly role, and in Revelations 5:5 the elder calls Jesus the “Lion from the tribe of Judah, … [who] has been victorious”.
The way that he is appointed as judge is also significant. He is called by God, the Spirit of God empowered him, and he is obedient in his role, culminating in the defeat of the enemy. All these aspects of Othniel’s role as deliverer was ultimately fulfilled in Christ Jesus. He took the scroll in the synagogue and read:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Othniel’s judgeship then becomes the model for all judges that would follow. He sets the standard of the role and person of the ultimate Savior-King – a very high standard indeed!
The Assassin with a dagger
This brings us to the second judge, a left-handed man named Ehud. He was from the tribe of Benjamin. Later we will learn more about this tribe, but for now the book shows us that they were trained in left-handed combat (Judges 20:16). This would unsettle the enemy in battle, giving the Benjaminites a huge advantage. Ironically, Benjamin means “son of my right hand”.
Ehud starts off on the wrong “hand”, as left-handedness was regarded a disablement. But God uses the despised and lowly to bring victory and deliverance. From the most unlikely He would raise up a deliverer.
The crowds were amazed when Christ spoke and performed miracles. “Is he not the son of Joseph, the carpenter” they would ask. Nathaniel said: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” And yet, despised and rejected by men, with no beauty that we should desire him, He came to perform the greatest act of deliverance. He accomplished true freedom from sin and broke the shackles of death. He crushed the head of the serpent as God had promised!
Ehud went about this in a very cunning and deceptive way. Firstly, he used his left-handedness to hide the weapon (3:16). Secondly, he tricked Eglon in believing the message was from the oracles of his own gods. This we see in the way he turned around at Gilgal, where the carved images of the Moabites were (3:19). Ironically, this was also the place where Israel committed themselves to Jahwe and a covenant relationship with Him. Thirdly, he used ambiguous language when he said he has a secret “message” from God. The word translated “message” can also refer to thing, which in this narrative points to the hidden dagger. In fact, he did have a secret message from God, which was a hidden dagger! The underdog outwitted the might, fat king and made an open spectacle of disgrace of him.
Ehud was a courageous and intelligent deliverer, raised up by God to defeat an enemy who lived and grew fat off the spoils of his slaves. The result of his act was a rest of 80 years – that would equate to two generations of Jews having rest and peace from the effects of the sin they were so easily entangled by.
The Ninja with a stick
We find only one verse dedicated to the 3rd deliverer, a man named Shamgar. His story is not as neatly packed as that of Othniel, nor as spiced up as Ehud’s, but it is still very insightful.
He was not an Israelite. This we deduct from his name and the ascription “son of Anath”. This suggests that he had been a Canaanite and was either himself a follower, or his father was a follower of the Canaanite goddess of war, Anath. Either way, he was definitely not a push-over. You get the idea that Shamrock knew how to handle a stick even better than a modern-day Ninja does!
We see some cracks appearing in his role compared to that of Othniel. If Othniel sets the standard, Shamrock deviates. He is not from the nation of Israel to start with – in fact he is associated with the very gods of the Canaanites from whom Israel need deliverance. Furthermore, in both Othniel and Ehud we read that God raised them up. This is omitted from Shamgar’s judgeship. We also read about the role of God’s Spirit in Othniel, and this is in fact omitted from both Ehud and Shamgar. And lastly, we read nothing about rest and its duration.
As we move along in the stories of the judges, we will see this gradual deterioration in the people called to be Israel’s deliverers. By the time of Samson, we just have to ask all sorts of questions about his character and conduct. We also do not find any mention in the book of Judges of more deliverers after him.
The book of Judges wants us to understand that without the deliverer king, sin could not be dealt with. It is only in the person and work of this savior and leader, that the power and effects of sin would be dealt with, and only through him that the sinful nature would be controlled.
All three these judges in chapter 3 left no lasting impact on the effects of sin. The moment they died, sin rocked up and raised its ugly head to bring bondage and enslavement.
We need to realise the role of the judges. It was never about the wars and battles they fought. Instead, it was all about the defeat of depravity and bringing freedom, rest and peace from that very same corruptness. It was all about plucking the elect from the downward spiral of sin, guilt and shame. The wars were the way they would accomplish this, defeating the utterly wicked, the fattened calf and the multitude of enemies. All of these typified the enslavement and bondage. The judges had to break them to break the cycle of self-destruction.
If we can understand this as a foreshadowing of the work of Christ, we will understand the reason why He lived the life He lived and why He did the works He did. It was to break and destroy human depravity and accomplish freedom and rest. This He did by destroying our arch-enemy and his co-workers. He is truly the Lion of Judah, and He is seated at the right hand of the Father to subdue all enemies. Genesis 49:11-12 takes the blessing to Judah into the future:
Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes.
These words are echoed in Revelation when He is described as the rider on the white horse, who “judges and makes war in righteousness” and who “whore a robe stained with blood” (Revelation 19:11-16).