Old Testament Tales - Times of the Judges

1. What does the Bible mean by judge in the book of Judges?
2. What was a Baal?
3. What was an Asherah?
4. Who was the first Judge in the book of Judges?
5. Why was it important that Ehud was left-handed?
6. What was Gideon’s fleece?
7. Who was the first “king” in Israel?
8. What was the Tower of Shechem?
9. What was Jephthah’s vow?
10. When was a lisp important?

The book of Judges opens with the conquest of southern Canaan and destruction of Jerusalem. Further north, the other Israelite tribes gain hold of the hill country but can’t conquer the cities of the plains since they’re protected by armies with chariots (Judges 1). Unable to separate themselves completely from their enemies, God’s people begin to mix their religion with that of the locals. Ba’al was a title meaning “Lord” and could be applied to divine or human rulers, including God, but came to mean a false god in the time of judges. Names such as Jerubbaal (a name given to the judge Gideon) in the Bible began to be changed to Jerubbosheth, where bosheth means shame. Asherah was generally the female consort of the Baal, and Asherah poles symbolized power and fertility. The Bible tells how God refused to give His people control of the Promised Land because they failed to obey Him and occupy it fully. But he gave them “judges,” or military leaders/prophets, to defend them.

The stories in Judges refer to different rulers in separate times and places over individual tribes. There was no single nation of Israel. Othniel (related to Caleb who was one of only two spies to fully trust God, Num 13:30) was the first judge, freeing Judah from the king of Mesopotamia and bringing 40 years’ peace. Later the Benjaminite Ehud freed them from the king of Moab using unexpected left-handed swordplay. In northern Canaan (Galilee) meanwhile, the Israelites fell prey to well-armed city-dwellers intent on driving them out. Deborah was a well-respected prophet (yes, women can be prophets) who worked with Barak of Naphtali to produce an impressive military plan (Judges 4), splitting the opposition and bogging the enemy’s chariots down in swampy land near the Kishon river. Later, the southern tribes, under attack from Midian, protect themselves by hiding while their villages are raided. When raiders spread north, Gideon is chosen by God as judge (Judges 6); he cuts down the Asherah poles, calling the tribes together under his leadership and God’s guidance. In order to confirm God’s presence, Gideon puts out a fleece, first asking that it should be wet and the ground dry at daybreak (not too unlikely), then asking the opposite (so I guess it’s okay to ask God for more than one sign). Gideon gathers a large army then whittles it down at God’s command till a small, quiet strike force engineers a successful surprise attack at night (Judges 7). Interestingly, Israel has peace for 40 years again (Judges 8, perhaps 40 really is symbolic of a generation), but one of Gideon’s sons, Abimelech, tries to kill the others and have himself proclaimed king (Judges 9). When the people of Shechem refuse to follow him, the Tower (temple) of Shechem (a highland stronghold controlling Megiddo to Jerusalem) is destroyed, the land laid waste with salt, and the wooden city burned (all very much in keeping with historical evidence). Abimelech himself dies when a woman throws a millstone on his head, but demands his warriors fake a more heroic battle wound.

The story continues with leaders and people turning away from God, conquest by the Philistines, Ammonites, and Amorites. Jephthah the Gileadite, cast out for his ignoble birth (Judges 11) is recalled as a judge East of the Jordan. He promises to sacrifice whatever greets him first after battle and ends up condemned to give up his only daughter (though it’s unclear if he sacrifices her or merely keeps her a virgin). The Gileadites end up fighting with Ephraim and Menasseh (Joseph’s tribes), using a lisping mispronunciation to determine the nationality of spies (Judges 12).


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