ON MT. TABOR the Israelite soldiers were able to see the Canaanite forces gathering on a plain several miles away to the southwest. An excessive amount of dust, such as would be raised by horses and vehicles, proved to the Israelites that the enemy's dreaded chariots were being brought up. (Judges 4:10-13.) Only God's supernatural help could save Israel now!
The Canaanites moved to a part of the valley close to Mt. Tabor, then set up camp for the night. Sisera, the Canaanite general, wasn't concerned with the possibility of the Israelites attacking, even though they had some advantage by being on higher ground. He knew they had no desire to tangle with his chariots and his large army. His plan was to capture the lesser-equipped Israelites in their smaller numbers when they were forced to come down off the mountain for necessities. Sisera had no doubt that the small Israelite army would be easy to wipe out under any condition.
Not Enough Manhood in Israel's Men
Meanwhile, in the camp of Israel, Barak worriedly muttered: "If we go down the mountain we'll be wiped out by that huge number of men and chariots!"
"The time hasn't come yet to leave the mountain," Deborah said. "But the soldiers should be ready when that time comes."
The time came early the next morning, a while before dawn. Inspired by God, Deborah informed Barak that the Israelites should charge down the slope at once to attack, and that they would have God's supernatural help. (Verse 14.) Barak was inspired by Deborah's example and faith. He ordered the men to follow him down the mountain. Many of them, as they poured down off Mt. Tabor, were filled with dismay at the prospect of facing what was obviously a superior enemy. They approached the camp of the Canaanites quietly, but it wasn't possible to get beyond the enemy sentries without causing shouts of alarm. When the sentries sounded the alarm, the Israelites attacked with all the courage they could muster.
Bedlam reigned among Sisera's troops as their attackers caught them napping. Shouts, screams, the neighing of startled horses, the clash of metal against metal and the general confusion made it impossible for Canaanite officers to get their men organized. The chariot drivers, stationed at some distance from the infantry, managed to get their horses hooked to many of the chariots and to get moving. However, with men tumbling and scrambling and struggling in all directions, the chariots ran down many more Canaanites than Israelites. God was beginning to fight Israel's battle as He had promised. (Verse 15.)
After making a half-hearted initial attempt to fight off the oncoming Israelites, the whole Canaanite army turned and fled northwestward down the Kishon River valley toward the hoped-for refuge of their fort at Harosheth. By now it was dawn, and in their fright the Canaanites -- especially those in chariots -- might have outrun their Israelite pursuers had it not been that God had decreed otherwise.
Suddenly heavy rains fell in the region of the Kishon valley. The river rose rapidly. The closer the Canaanites moved to the stream, the softer and muddier the ground became. When the chariots ran into these spots they bogged down and came to a sudden stop. Chariots racing up from the rear smashed into them, resulting in a muddy mass of vehicles and struggling horses and men.
The men and horses that managed to get past the soft spots in the ground only plunged on to end up in the swollen waters of the Kishon as it broke over its banks into a flash flood which swept away many of Sisera's troops. (Judges 5:21.) The Israelites swept in close behind to cut off any attempted back-tracking and cut down the enemy with swords, slings, knives and spears.
God had again stepped in to rescue Israel by bringing Jabin's army to a swift end in a welter of mud, water and blood.
As for Sisera, he was among those who raced away in chariots. When his chariot became bogged in mud, he managed in the confusion to leap to safety and run north-eastward across the plain toward the hills. He had no way of knowing whether or not he had been observed, but he felt certain that the Israelites would make every effort to find him.
On the other side of Mt. Tabor, on a branch of the plain, was the dwelling of a Kenite named Heber, who Sisera believed was friendly to the northern Canaanites. After running a few hours, Sisera neared Heber's tent. The Kenite's wife, whose name was Jael, happened to see the fatigued Canaanite general staggering toward her tent. She knew who he was, and went out to meet him.
Sisera's Prophesied Doom
"Come rest in my tent," she told him as she helped him along. (Judges 4:15-18.)
Inside the tent, he wearily lay down, exhausted by his race for freedom. When Sisera asked for water, Jael gave him clabbered milk to quench his thirst and make him sleep more soundly, and then covered him with a blanket. (Judges 5:25.)
"If anyone comes to ask about me, don't mention that you have seen me," Sisera warned Jael. "You will be well rewarded to protect me from any of those fanatical, God-fearing Israelites!"
Those were the last words uttered by the pagan Canaanite general. He was so weary that he fell asleep almost immediately, though he wouldn't have done so if he could have realized even to the smallest extent what was about to befall him.
In another compartment of her tent Jael listened intently until she could be certain, by Sisera's slow, loud breathing, that he was deep in slumber. Then she noiselessly moved outside, pulled up a sharp tent stake and reached for a mallet. Very careful not to make a sound, she entered the room where Sisera slept on his side. With a quick, strong blow of the tent stake mallet, she drove the stake through Sisera's temples, then into the ground, killing the general almost instantly. (Judges 4:19-21; Judges 5:26.)
God allowed Jael to take Sisera's life in this grisly, cold-blooded manner as a warning to us all. Those Canaanites were better off dead. They sacrificed many of their babies in the temples of Baal and filled adjoining graveyards with jars containing these tiny corpses. When building a new house, a Canaanite family would sacrifice a baby and put its body in the foundation to bring good luck to the rest of the family. Archaeologists who have found the many tiny skeletons of these sacrificed babies have wondered why God did not destroy the Canaanites sooner. He would have done so if Israel had obeyed His command to execute all the idolatrous Canaanites when they first conquered the land. (Deuteronomy 7:1-6.)
Because Sisera was an idolatrous Canaanite, he was one more to be purged from the land after he had been used for the purpose of punishing the Israelites and bringing them to repentance. As one who sought to destroy the army of Israel, he was denied the so-called honor of dying in action, as a high-ranking soldier would ordinarily prefer.
Only a little while after this unsavory incident, Jael looked out to see the victorious Israelites trotting across the plain. She ran out toward the men, waving frantically to attract their attention. When they reached her she told them that she had an important message for their leader, and Barak approached her to hear what she had to say.
"If you are seeking Jabin's general, Sisera, I can take you to him at once," Jael told Barak.
"Show us," Barak commanded. Jael led Barak and a few of his men to her tent and into her private compartment, where she drew back a curtain to reveal the nailed-down Canaanite to the startled Israelites. Then Barak remembered Deborah's prophecy that a woman would destroy Sisera because Barak had at first depended too much on Deborah's faith. In humiliation, Barak realized his lack of faith was a sin against God. He fully repented and was forgiven by God in whom he now fully trusted. (Hebrews 11:13, 32, 39.)
Although Israel was victorious that day in becoming free, the one who had planned to defeat Israel was still safe in his quarters to the north. That was Jabin, king of the northern Canaanites. On hearing of the defeat of his army, he quickly sought refuge, but within a few days he fell into the hands of his enemies and lost his life. (Judges 4:22-24.)
Deliverance from the Canaanites was considered such a happy accomplishment that a great celebration was held by Israel. Songs were composed, and Deborah and Barak led the people in praising God with loud, hearty enthusiasm. (Judges 5:1-31.) Most of them realized that their Creator was the source of their strength and power, though at times they forgot that important fact because every man insisted on doing what he thought best. (Judges 17:6.) God had specifically commanded His people not to do what they thought best (Deuteronomy 12:8) because that way is often wrong and leads to death. (Proverbs 14:12 and 16:25.) Most of the Israelites had not yet learned that man's conscience is not a reliable guide for conduct -- that man needs God's law to tell him how to live. (Deuteronomy 12:32.)
For forty more years after Jabin's overthrow, Israel was free from enemies. (Judges 5:31.) But before that many years passed, another generation came into being, and a large part of Israel again fell into living in a disorderly and lawless manner, each man following his own conscience -- doing what HE thought best -- letting his own opinion, instead of God's law, tell him how to live.
The Midianites Again
About two hundred years previously, when Moses was the leader, Israel had almost wiped out the idolatrous nation of Midian on their border east of the Dead Sea. Since that time the Midianites had greatly increased in numbers and, though several generations had passed since the fateful war with Israel, a fierce hatred of their victors still existed with the Midianites.
At this point God stepped in to cause Midianite leaders to fan that hatred so that Midian would be used to punish Israel. The result was that the vengeance-seeking Midianites swarmed up out of their land to end Israel's forty years of freedom, pleasure and sin!
The Israelites had become so disorganized and weak that the fierce Midianites chased them out of their cities and off their farms. By the thousands the Israelites ran for safety into the mountains. They hid in caves and even in the narrow, secluded canyons -- wherever they could hide or fortify themselves. (Judges 6:1-2.)
The Midianites kept on moving back and forth through all areas to rout the Israelites and rob them of their livestock and crops. On their return to each conquered area, the Midianites would attack any Israelites who had tried to return to their homes. Many Israelites were forced to flee outside Palestine to the western shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the sparsely settled coastland of northwestern Europe.
In some regions the attacks by the Midianites were so frequent that the remaining Israelites moved into the wooded mountains to establish permanent residence. Their only homes were many caverns and canyons in the rugged Palestinian hills.
Living Like Animals
Between forays by the enemy a part of the Israelites secretly went back to their farms and grazing areas to try to continue raising crops and stock. Sometimes they were successful for a while. The Midianites couldn't be everywhere at the same time. When they did come, look-outs generally reported their arrival in time for the Israelites to move from the valleys to safety in the mountains hideaways and strongholds.
Despite all this, the Israelites stubbornly continued to live their own way, though they had to live in caves like animals, rather than repent and obey God and have His divine protection.
For two or three harvest seasons Israel managed fairly well on what food could be raised in the more secluded valleys. Then the Midianite soldiers began bringing their families and their herds. Furthermore, the Amalekites and other Arabian tribes began pouring into Canaan, and just at a time of harvest.
Cities were taken over, farms were stripped of their produce and herds and flocks grazing in the valleys were seized by the invaders before the Israelites could hide them in the mountains. The numbers of the enemy were this time so great and so spread out that the Israelites had little or no opportunity to go after food. They were forced to remain in their mountain refuges on the verge of starvation. (Judges 6:3-6.)
Being cooped up without a r regular source of food became an increasingly more serious problem for Israel. Well-organized groups sneaked down at night to seize vegetables or fruit or meat. wherever it could be found, but this pursuit became increasingly more dangerous as the enemy became more watchful, and whole bands of Israelites lost their lives trying to get something to eat.
By the time seven years had passed, Israel was in a desperate, half-starved condition. Life in caves and hollowed-out places had reduced a large part of the people to an unkempt state verging on barbarism.
At this time a man whose name isn't mentioned in the scriptures was chosen by God to remind the Israelites that they had brought this one more calamity on themselves by their disobedience to God. Some of the people had already been begging God for forgiveness and help, and now thousands joined them. (Verses 6-10.)
Repentance Brings Divine Help
The Creator's mercy again was extended to Israel, though as usual the people were required to act in helping themselves. It began in the mountain town of Ophrah, about midway between the site of Jericho and Mt. Ephraim in the territory of the half-tribe of Manasseh. A relatively young man named Gideon was one day threshing wheat in an out-of-the-way place near his father's old winepress, long unused because the Israelites no longer had grapes with which to make wine.
Although hidden from passers-by, Gideon commanded a clear view down the mountain so that he could watch for approaching Midianites. He was certain that he was alone as he hand-threshed the few small but precious bundles of wheat he and a few servants had courageously gleaned the night before in a field below.
Abruptly he was aware that a man was sitting in the shade of an oak tree only a few yards away. Gideon was startled by the strangely sudden presence of this man, who might well have been a Midianite spy. He started to quietly gather up his wheat and scamper for safety, but before he could sack it up and leave, the man got up and sauntered toward Gideon, who was relieved to note that he obviously wasn't a Midianite.
"I see that you are very careful not to let your enemies know what you are doing," the stranger remarked. "Why do you, a strong, courageous young man, seem to fear the Midianites so much? Don't you know that your God is ready and willing to help you?"
"I don't know who you are, sir," Gideon replied, "but if God is willing to help us, why hasn't He rescued us from these terrible conditions?" (Verses 11-13.)
"Because Israel has ignored My laws and our agreement," the stranger answered.
"YOUR laws?" Gideon queried, staring. "MY laws," the stranger replied firmly and calmly. Gideon was a bit shaken by this answer. He met the gaze of the stranger, and realized that the brilliant eyes were those of one far greater than a human being! He respectfully waited for the stranger to continue.
Gideon's Divine Commission
"If you will act with faith in your Creator, you can help rescue Israel from the Midianites, Gideon," the stranger told him.
Gideon could scarcely believe what he heard. Although he had always refused to take part in the idolatrous practice of other Israelites, he couldn't at the moment realize why he should be chosen to help liberate Israel. He had never considered himself an outstanding leader, though he had some reputation among the Israelites of his area as being quite active in the welfare of his people, even at the risk of his own life.
"How is it possible for me to help rescue Israel, my Lord?" asked Gideon. "I am not wealthy and I am the youngest of my father's sons. I do not command any fighting force. Why should I be chosen to do something that many other men are more qualified and better equipped to do?"
"Don't be concerned about such things," the stranger said. "Your God will be your strength, and you shall strike down the Midianites as easily as though their army consisted of only one man!" (Judges 6:14-16.)
Gideon hardly knew what to do. He didn't feel that he could accept such responsibility without knowing for certain that this man was really divinity in human form. On the other hand, he couldn't risk refusing a commission from God.
He asked the stranger to continue resting under the oak tree, excused himself and hurried to his abode not far away to quickly prepare a sacrificial offering of food. When he returned he presented unleavened cakes, broth and a boiled young goat to the stranger, who looked pleased at the sight of the food.
"Place the meat and cakes on this flat rock and pour the broth over them," Gideon was told, and he did so.
The stranger then touched the offering with the end of his staff. Abruptly fire shot up out of the rock, rapidly consuming the food! When Gideon turned his startled gaze up from the spectacle, the stranger had vanished! (Verses 17-21.)
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God's Fantastic Army!
WHEN Gideon saw fire spitting up out of the rock on which he had placed food for his strange guest, the young Israelite was quite startled. He stared in awe as the food was swiftly burned to cinders after his guest had merely touched the rock with his staff.
When he looked up he was even more startled to find that the stranger had miraculously faded from view! (Judges 6:20-21.)
Idolatry Must Go!
Gideon realized then that God, and not some man, had commanded him to lead Israel to freedom from the Midianites. (Judges 6:11-16.) He fell face down by the flaming rock, fearful that he might be struck dead because he had come so close to God.
"Do not be afraid," he heard the voice of God say. "You shall not die because of this close contact with your Creator. Go about your business, and tonight I shall speak to you again."
Gideon was so thankful and impressed that he built an altar there and dedicated it to God. (Verses 22-24.) That night Gideon slept by that spot to protect his wheat from the Midianites and to await God. Before dawn God spoke to him.
"Gideon, you know now that it is indeed your Creator who has chosen you to lead Israel," God said. "Do as I instruct you. The people must cease their worshipping of idols before I free them. Go out tomorrow night and tear down the altar near your father's home dedicated to the sun-god called Baal."
In spite of all precautions by Gideon, someone had seen him coming from the direction of the altar before dawn. When the angry crowd heard of this, it moved to surround the home of his father, Joash. "Bring out your son or tell us where he is!" the people shouted. "He is guilty of tearing down our altar! We must kill Gideon to avenge the sun goddess!"
Joash scowled at the crowd. He was irked at what Gideon presumably had done, but he didn't want to see his son fall into the hands of these wrathful people.
"Why must you demand anything for avenging Baal?" Joash asked the crowd. "If Baal is a strong god, surely he will avenge himself before another day has passed. If my son is the guilty one, Baal will not let him live!" That is why Gideon was renamed "Jerubbaal" -- which means "let Baal do his own pleading." (Judges 6:28-32.)
This advice quieted the mob. None of the worshippers of Baal wanted to say that their pagan god lacked the ability to deal with his enemies by himself. Gradually the crowd dispersed.
Heathen in Fear
Gideon went into hiding. Meanwhile word had leaked out to the enemy that a champion was about to lead Israel to battle against Midian. The Midianites perceived that some strong underground movement was being organized, and they asked the Amalekites and other Arab tribes to come and stand with them against Israel.
Soon thousands upon thousands of soldiers mounted on camels moved into the valley of Jezreel, the place where King Jabin's forces had met miserable defeat several years previously.
Gideon blew a trumpet to assemble the people of Abiezer and sent messengers to the tribes of Manasseh, Asher and Naphtali to ask for men to come and fight against the Midianites. By night thousands of men from these tribes quietly moved into the mountain strongholds close to where Gideon was hiding. (Judges 6:33-35.)
When Gideon realized how many men were subject to his command, he began to wonder if he could successfully fulfill the tremendous task he had been given. Troubled and uncertain, he went to a private place to pray to God.
"I need assurance from you," Gideon prayed. "Please show me again that I am the one you have chosen to lead Israel against Midian. Tonight I shall spread a fleece of wool on the ground at the threshing floor. Tomorrow morning, if the wool is wet with dew and the ground and grass all around are dry, then I shall know for certain that you have picked me to help save Israel."
Early next morning Gideon hurried out to examine the fleece. It was heavy with dew. In fact, Gideon took it up and squeezed out enough water to fill a good-sized bowl. At the same time he could find no sign of moisture on the ground or grass nearby.
He was encouraged by this sign. But the more he thought about it, the more he reasoned that it was possible that the wool had naturally attracted more moisture than the grass would, and he decided to ask God for one more sign. Probably he didn't realize how much he was testing God's patience by this continuing doubt. That he was aware that he was carrying matters a bit too far, however, was evidenced in the manner in which he made his next request.
"I trust you won't be angry if I ask for one more sign," Gideon said to God. "Tonight I shall place the fleece on the ground again. If in the morning only the fleece is dry and the ground and grass around it are wet with dew, then I shall know without a doubt that you have chosen me to lead the Israelite soldiers against our enemies."
Next morning Gideon found that there was an exceptionally heavy dew on the grass and shrubs all around. Even the ground was soft with moisture. But when he picked the fleece up off the wet ground he discovered that it was completely dry! (Judges 6:36-40.)
Gideon no longer had any room for doubt. His confidence lifted. Next morning he ordered all the Israelite soldiers to proceed into the valley of Jezreel. They were poorly armed, and many of them feared to enter the valley in the daytime, what with all the Midianites and their allies camped at the north side of the valley! They went nevertheless, and camped that night on the south side of the valley at the slopes of Mt. Gilboa. When they were numbered and organized into military units, it was found that there were thirty-two thousand of them.
God was ready to teach Gideon a much-needed lesson in faith. Too Many Israelite Soldiers!
That many men would seem to have constituted a fair fighting force for those days. But when a report came by spies that the Midianite soldiers and their allies numbered over a hundred thousand, a great part of the Israelites feared it would be suicide to pit themselves against such overwhelming numbers.
God had a quite different opinion. He pointed out to Gideon that there were TOO MANY Israelite soldiers! He could better show His deliverance with fewer men in His way!
"If Israel should conquer the enemy with all the men who are gathered here now," God explained to Gideon, "then the people will brag of winning by greater strength, though with lesser numbers. If a much smaller number of Israelites is involved in a victory, then the people will have to admit, as will their enemies, that Israel's God alone made victory possible. Therefore reduce the number of your men by proclaiming to them that any who fear to battle the Midianites are free to leave this place. Thus you will also get rid of men who are fearful of failure."
Gideon sent officers to all his men to tell them that they could leave if they wished. To his great surprise and disappointment twenty-two thousand of them withdrew from the army. This left Gideon with only ten thousand men. That meant one under-trained Israelite soldier for at least thirteen battle-trained enemy soldiers. (Judges 7:1 -3.)
At the very time Gideon was feeling dismayed because his army had been so reduced, God told him that it was still too large!
"You must trim your men down to the very best soldiers," God said to him. "Take them all to the nearest stream to drink. The manner in which they drink will determine how many men you shall take to overcome the Midianites and their confederates. I will tell you later which to choose."
Gideon led his ten thousand men to the spring and pool at the foot of Mt. Gilboa. When they reached the stream flowing from the pool, he gave orders for them to stop and drink. Although the men believed that they were going to meet the enemy, most of them dropped their weapons, got down on their hands and knees and put their lips to the water.
Those who tried to be alert in the event of a surprise attack by the enemy from a nearby ridge retained their weapons, quickly stooped down to scoop up the water with their free hands and to lap it up from their cupped palms. Then God told Gideon to place those who kneeled down on one side and those who drank from their hands on the other. The result was surprising!
Most of his ten thousand men had fallen down on their hands and knees to drink. Only three hundred scooped up water with their hands! (Judges 7:4-6.)
God's Shocking Promise
After all had returned to camp, God informed Gideon that by those three hundred men, He would deliver the enemy to Israel! All the other soldiers -- nearly ten thousand -- should be dismissed! God knew that it was difficult for Gideon to understand how a mere three hundred men could overcome such a great multitude. (Judges 7:7-8; Zechariah 4:6.)
"I want you to know that the Midianites, in spite of their numbers, are afraid of Me," God told Gideon. "Go over to their camp after dark and hear for yourself what the average Midianite soldier thinks. I will protect you, but if you are too big a coward to go alone, take your right-hand man, Phurah. When you learn of the state of mind of the enemy, you will be encouraged." So that night Gideon went with Phurah, his servant, across the plain of Jezreel to the camp of the Midianites. (Judges 7:9-11.)
It was so late that most of the guards were within their tents on the borders of the camp, and in the moonless darkness it wasn't difficult for the two Israelites to silently creep past the outer tents. Once within the camp, they appeared in the faint light of the low fires like any other pair of Arabs. No one challenged them.
In passing one of the tents, their attention was attracted to a conversation within by two Midianite soldiers.
"I had a strange dream last night," they overheard one of the men remark. "I dreamed that a huge loaf of barley bread came tumbling down off that mountain across the valley. It rolled all the way over the plain and crashed into one of our tents with such force that it tore the tent to shreds and scattered it in all directions! Could such a dream have any meaning for us?"
"Your dream was an evil omen!" the other soldier exclaimed fearfully. "It meant that Gideon, the Israelite who is rumored to be a magically strong leader through the power of the God of Israel, will attack us with his men and wipe us out. If you ask me, we would be wise to get out of here right away, and I know most of our men feel the same way about it." (Judges 7:12-14.)
Gideon didn't stay to hear more. Now he was thoroughly convinced that God would keep His promise to destroy the invaders. He returned with his servant to Mt. Gilboa, very ashamed of having doubted, and thanked God for the assurance he had received. Now that Gideon had repented of his weak faith, God could use him.
The men rested next day. Well after dark the tiny band set out with Gideon to cross the valley to where the Midianites were camped. They arrived in the early hours of the morning, long before dawn. According to God's instructions, Gideon divided the men into three groups. They silently spread out around the camp, but instead of carrying weapons in their hands, each man carried a trumpet and a tall pitcher! (Verses 15-16.)
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God Fights Israel's Battles!
IN THE deep darkness before dawn Gideon's three hundred men divided into three groups. Silently they spread themselves around the sprawling camp of the Midianites. Instead of weapons, the men had trumpets of rams' horns in their right hands and, in their left, earthen pitchers. Each man had a torch hidden in his pitcher.
Who Determines Outcome of Wars?
As soon as his men were in place, Gideon blew lustily on his trumpet made from a ram's horn. That was the signal for all the men to do likewise on their horns. Then Gideon broke his pitcher and held his torch aloft for all to see. Quickly the three hundred men also broke their earthen pitchers. Light was suddenly revealed from three hundred blazing torches! (Judges 7:16-20.)
The abrupt light and noise from all directions were confusingly startling to the Midianites. Even the guards were caught by surprise. In the darkness it seemed that a vast army was completely surrounding them. To add to their alarm, a multitude of shouting voices came from all around.
"THE SWORD OF THE LORD AND OF GIDEON!" were the loud words that rang over the plain from Gideon's men.
Bedlam resulted. Believing that incredible numbers of armed Israelites were closing in all about them, the Midianites rushed excitedly out of their tents. Campfires were out or were very low. It was so dark that in their frenzy the men collided with each other. Thinking that the Israelites had rushed in among them, they attacked one another. Within the next few minutes thousands of Midianites died by the hands of their own brothers. God has intervened foe Israel!
A little later, when it was evident that the Midianites, in their panic, were racing eastward in the direction of their homeland, Gideon thought of a way to make matters much worse for the enemy. Abandoned camels were wandering about. Some of them were caught. Gideon sent messengers on these mounts to various parts of the land occupied by the Ephraimites to tell the men of that tribe what had happened, and that the Midianites could possibly be cut off from escaping over the Jordan if the Ephraimites would move up quickly to meet them.
At the same time Gideon sent a messenger to the thousands of men he had dismissed from battle duty only a few hours before, informing f them that the enemy was fleeing to the east, and that the Israelites could be of great service by pursuing them. (Verses 23-24.)
The messengers were instructed to rejoin Gideon as soon as their missions were accomplished.
It was dawn before the routed Midianites could reach the Jordan River. When finally it was possible for them to clearly see at a distance, they learned for a fact what they had only imagined at first -- that thousands of Israelites were pursuing them. They pressed on at increased speed along the west bank of the river, hoping for a shallow spot where they could quickly cross to the other side.
By then Gideon's messengers had reached the Ephraimites, who responded by hastily assembling many armed men and sending them off to the east to meet the oncoming enemy.
Later, as the weary Midianites plodded fearfully along the Jordan, still anxiously seeking a place to ford it, they were shocked to see a horde of men guarding every possible fording place.
It was at this point that Gideon and his men, having long since exchanged their trumpets and torches for swords, knives and spears, arrived in time to chase the Midianites into the river. In this fray two high-ranking Midianite generals had already been slain. Their heads were later -- on the other side of the Jordan -- brought to Gideon as tokens of victory. (Judges 7:25.)
Temporary Escape for a Few
"We haven't completely won the battle yet!" Gideon shouted to the Israelites. "A great part of the enemy has eluded us. We can't let them go free. I'm not asking all of you to go after them, because we don't have the food to sustain you. But my three hundred chosen men and I will cross the Jordan to pursue the fleeing enemy troops."
It wasn't long before Gideon and his picked soldiers were on the east bank of the river and in pursuit of the Midianites, who were fleeing down the Jordan valley. The enemy's trail wasn't difficult to find in the sands and soft soil. But sand made travel more difficult, and Gideon's men had walked and trotted many miles, and they were becoming weary from lack of food and rest. (Judges 8:4.)
They were still in Israelite territory, the region east of the Jordan that had been given to the tribe of Gad. When, several miles southward, they sighted the town of Succoth to the right of their route of travel, Gideon was greatly relieved.
"Don't be discouraged, men!" Gideon called out. "Our Israelite brothers in the town ahead should be able to give us enough food to restore our strength!"
When they reached the town, people scurried into their homes as though afraid of them. Hoping to allay their fears, Gideon stood on the main street and loudly announced the identity of his men and himself. He told the townspeople what had happened, why they were passing through and that they were in desperate need of food. (Verse 5.)
One by one doors opened and the chief men of the city slowly sauntered out to confront them.
"About two hours ago thousands of Midianites passed to the north of us on their way eastward," one of the leaders of Succoth spoke up. "Obviously you have only two or three hundred men. Do you expect us to believe you have wiped out most of the Midianite army as you claim, and that those thousands who passed by are actually fleeing from you? Do you take us for fools, that we should believe that your puny little group is actually pursuing an army of thousands? Do you expect us to risk our lives by giving food to reckless hot-heads while the Midianites are still in control of the country?" What contempt for God's sure promise! (Leviticus 26:3, 8.)
The grim expressions of the onlookers turned to sneers. Some of the people laughed and made taunting remarks.
"We don't expect you to have faith in us," Gideon answered. "But you should trust the God who has promised to deliver us from oppression! We're just asking you, as brother Israelites, to give us enough food so that we'll be able to gain strength to move on."
"Indeed you will move on!" another one of the leading citizens shouted angrily. "For all we know, you are only a band of beggars trying to wheedle food! Get out!"
After the splendid cooperation he had received from the other tribes, Gideon was shocked by this lack of brotherly concern and faith in God.
"You refuse to help the people of your own nation who are risking their lives struggling for your freedom. This is defiance of God -- and all because you fear what the Midianites might do to you instead of fearing God!" Gideon retorted. "Your greater fear should be of the punishment you'll receive from God at our hands because of your selfishness, when we return victorious!" (Judges 8:6-7.)
There were smirks and scowls on the faces of onlookers as Gideon's little army wearily moved on to the northeast up the Jabbok River valley to pick up the trail of the enemy. A few miles farther brought them to the town of Penuel, where there was a somewhat unusual stone tower that had long ago been built by the Moabites as a place for observation and as a fortress. The Gadites who lived there were quite proud that theirs was the only town in the territory with such a tower.
Gideon summoned the leaders of the town, related his situation to them and made a desperate plea for food for his men.
Another Town Rebels
"Don't ask us to believe that you intend to attack and defeat thousands of fierce desert soldiers with your miserably small group," the head man of the town sneered at Gideon. "We have enough trouble finding food for ourselves without foolishly passing it out to any heedless band of would-be deliverers who come this way with wild schemes!"
"You mean you refuse to give us any help -- even any stale bread or scraps you may have?" Gideon asked.
Their answer was only a cold, emotionless stare. "We'll be back this way after we have taken care of the Midianites," Gideon angrily told the Gadites gathered about him. "Then you will lose that tower you are so proud of. What's more, you are very likely to lose your lives!" (Judges 8:8-9.)
As at Succoth, Gideon and his men wearily departed amid hostile expressions and unfriendly murmurs from brother Israelites who showed nothing but derision as they viewed this small band in pursuit of an enemy fifty times as great in numbers.
Gideon and his men were exceedingly tired when they reached a refreshing mountain stream flowing southward into the Jabbok River. There they could have concentrated their efforts and their remaining strength on hunting birds and animals for desperately needed food. But precious time would have been consumed in searching and cooking, and Gideon preferred to keep moving.
It was dusk when the band exhaustedly topped a rise to look down into a ravine. What the men saw caused all of them to almost forget their hunger and weariness. Below them, camped for the night in supposed safety among their own people, were the fifteen thousand Midianites they were seeking! Was the ninety-mile chase over?
"Keep out of sight!" Gideon commanded his three hundred weary, hungry, but determined men. "We'll stay here till dark, then attack!"
God Fights Another Battle
There was still enough light for the Israelites to spot the positions of the Midianite sentries. Later, when Gideon and his men silently moved down into the ravine from all directions, the sentries fell noiseless prey. God had again intervened on behalf of the greatly outnumbered Israelites. Most of the rest of the Midianites were already deep in slumber after their exhausting day. Suddenly they were caught completely by surprise when the Israelites fell upon them. Hundreds died as they slept. The others, unnerved by the fearful events of the past hours, were in no condition to defend themselves.
Strengthened by God, Gideon and his men rushed in to slay most of the Midianites while they darted around in a state of fear and confusion. Some of the enemy escaped for the third time in recent hours. Among them were two Midianite kings whom Gideon had especially hoped to capture. Their names were Zebah and Zalmunna. The reason Gideon wanted them was that for the past seven years they had led very destructive and murderous forays against Israel.
Mounted on camels, these two men rode off in the dark to the east in the direction of their native land. They didn't get too far, however. The east side of the ravine was steep and sandy. They were so long getting toward the top that the Israelites overtook them and seized them alive. Gideon felt elated in being able to bring them back westward as prisoners, though he was more thankful that God had miraculously helped his weary men conquer the fifteen thousand fleeing Midianites. (Judges 8:11-12.)
The destruction of the Midianites having been accomplished, Gideon and his men were hungrier and wearier than ever. Happily, small amounts of dried dates, dried figs and dried meat were found in many Midianite knapsacks and saddlebags. It all added up to more than enough food to satisfy the Israelites for the time being and to sustain them on their return journey.
Besides food, Gideon's men found many valuables belonging to the enemy. Desert men of that time often wore golden earrings, and thousands of earrings were taken from the corpses. There were other costly metal trinkets among their possessions, as well as valuable weapons, leather, blankets and robes. These things were loaded on camels for the return to the Mt. Ephraim area.
The refreshed Israelites then set out during the early night toward the west. (Judges 8:13.) The two Midianite kings were strapped to their own richly bedecked camels.
When they arrived back at the town of Penuel, the people came out to jeer. Gideon had given them the impression that he and his men would return after being victorious over the Midianites, but the fact that they returned so soon, and with only a few camels and two prisoners, indicated to the Gadites that Gideon had far from accomplished what he had said he would do. The Gadites refused to believe that, by a miracle from God, three hundred men had slain so great a number of the enemy, as Gideon claimed, though the women and children of Penuel were later to find out that it was true.
"The enemy must have said something to offend you that you should return so soon!" one man yelled at them.
"They were pretty hungry when they last went through here!" another one shouted. "Maybe they ate all those Midianites!"
"They still look hungry!" someone else quipped. "Now we know how they're going to wreck our tower! They're going to eat it!"
There were many more insults heaped on Gideon and his men. Gideon was filled with disgust. He might have passed through Penuel without chastising these rebellious people who had refused to aid a chosen servant of God in the carrying out of a very important mission. But not now! Rebellion is as bad as witchcraft. (I Samuel 15:23.)
Knowing these Gadites had not repented of their rebellion, Gideon signaled his men to action. By now they were very near the tower Gideon had said he would destroy. About two hundred of Gideon's men swarmed toward it. Within minutes, using swords to hack beams, and beams to pry loose the wall stones, they leveled the tower the Gadites looked on with such pride.
At first the men of the town could scarcely believe what was happening. Then they rushed to arm themselves for attack, but by this time it was too late. These wicked Israelites were no different from Midianites. Gideon's men fell on them, and the men of Penuel, according to God's will, lost their lives all because of their willful rebellion against the government God had established for their good. (Judges 8:17.)
Bible Story Book Index
Gideon's Troubled Peace
FROM the town of Penuel, Gideon and his men moved homeward with the spoils from the Midianites, including the two Midianite kings as prisoners. On the outskirts of the town of Succoth they captured a young man from whom they learned the names of seventy-seven of Succoth's leading men, the ones who had refused food to Gideon and his men when they were trailing the Midianites. (Judges 8:11-14.)
"Seek out from the town all the men whose names this fellow has written down and bring them to the main street," Gideon told his soldiers.
Some Were Repentant
Although the adult males of the town were considerable in number, they were cowed by the quick and decisive action of Gideon's men. The leaders were quickly rounded up and brought to the town center.
"You refused us food because you were faithless. You were more afraid of what the Midianites might do to you than what God might do to you for rebelling against Him," Gideon reminded the sullen Gadites. "You refused to believe that God would make it possible for a small number of us to overcome a much greater number of heathens. You will remember that I told you that you should respect and help us, as God's servants, rather than fear the enemy. Now look upon the two kings of the Midianites who were actually fleeing before us with their thousands of troops when we wearily passed through here. We slew all their men, but spared these two men to bring back as evidence we had defeated their army." (Judges 8:15.)
The Gadites stared in amazement at Zebah and Zalmunna. It was plain that they didn't wish to believe what they could plainly see to be true.
Gideon continued: "You are going to suffer, according to God's will, for your miserable attitude toward your Israelite brothers!"
A few of Gideon's men cut limbs from thorny bushes and briers nearby. Then the seventy-seven Gadites, struggling and loudly and angrily protesting, were bound and forced to the ground, face down. They were then chastised with those thorny bush limbs and briers as Gideon had promised. (Verses 7,16.)
The rest of the people of Succoth, gathered not far away, watched in fear and trembling, regretful that their city had so stubbornly and hatefully refused food to their Israelite brothers, and thankful to God that only the leaders had to be punished for their city's shameful misconduct.
When the punishment was finished, it was a repentant, remorseful and silent group that got up from the ground as soon as their bonds were cut. They limped away to their homes, thankful that they had come to their senses and that their punishment wasn't as severe as that of the men of Penuel.
God's Swift Justice
Gideon and his group moved on to the west, crossed the Jordan River and entered the central part of their country. There Zebah and Zalmunna were brought to trial as the two chief leaders of the Midianite oppression of Israel in recent years.
In the course of the questioning, Zebah and Zalmunna admitted they had murdered several of Gideon's brothers.
"If you had spared my brothers then, I would spare you now," Gideon told them. "Since you unmercifully put to death many Israelites, including my blood brothers, you can hardly expect to escape the death penalty for murder." (Verses 18-19.)
There was a rule among the Israelites that the first-born male of a family should be the one to execute anyone who murdered any of his kin. Gideon was the youngest son of his parents (Judges 6:15), and therefore he felt that it wasn't his place to personally execute the two Midianite kings, although their fate was more than a family matter.
Gideon's oldest son, Jether, was only a lad in his teens, but according to Israelite procedure, he was the proper one to avenge the deaths of his uncles. Jether was present at the trial, and like all young Israelite men of that time, he was armed to protect himself from attack by the enemy.
"Come here, my son," Gideon said to Jether. "It is your duty and honor to draw your sword and do away with these two pagan murderers."
Young Jether was startled by his father's decree. He understood why his father spoke to him as he did, and he had been taught that God had commanded Israel to use the sword to slay or drive out all enemies from Canaan. But he had never executed a man. His boyish sensitivity in such a situation was far greater than any desire to try to be a national hero.
"I -- I can't kill these men!" Jether finally spoke out. Gideon wasn't disappointed in his son's reaction. He understood the feelings of a friendly young man who had no desire to execute criminals. Gideon knew that it was up to him to do what his son couldn't do, but even before he could step forward to perform the wretched task, Zebah and Zalmunna fearfully called out for him to deal with them and put them to instant death. (Judges 8:20-21.)
"A Soft Answer Turneth Away Wrath"
After the bodies of the two Midianite kings had been hauled away and their camels stripped of their valuable trappings, the Israelites felt that the struggle with their ancient eastern enemy was officially over. Gideon realized, however, that the struggle to keep the people from idolatry was never over, and he continued his efforts against pagan worship.
Just when he was feeling thankful that matters were going especially well, elders of the tribe of Ephraim came to him to angrily ask why Ephraimite soldiers hadn't been asked to join in the first encounter with the Midianites.
Gideon could have answered in his defense that all the people were aware of the situation, and that the soldiers of Ephraim could have volunteered. He also could have reminded them that he was carrying out explicit orders from God. Instead, he chose to soothe their offended feelings with a soft answer as God commands His servants to do. (Proverbs 15:1.)
"If you feel that your tribe didn't have the opportunity to do enough in this campaign," he told them, "then I must remind you that your soldiers were the ones who showed up just in time to defeat most of the fleeing Midianites at the Jordan River. Without your men there, what would we have done? It was there that God delivered into the hands of your soldiers the two mighty Midianite princes, Oreb and Zeeb. This alone was a great accomplishment compared to what my men and I did!"
Before Gideon had finished talking, the attitude of the elders of Ephraim went through a great change. Obviously they wanted most of the credit for victory to go to their tribe. When they heard Gideon praising their soldiers, they were quite pleased, and departed in a very friendly mood. (Judges 8:1-3.)
A Stumbling block LOOKS Innocent
Not long after that, a great crowd of Israelites gathered before Gideon's home. When Gideon went out to learn why so many were there, there were loud cheers.
"Because you have saved us from the Midianites," a spokesman for the crowd shouted, "we have come to ask you to be our king! We think you should rule Israel, and that the kingship should remain in your family down through the generations!"
Loud cheering broke forth again, finally to subside after Gideon held up his hands for silence.
"I am not the one to rule over you!" Gideon exclaimed to the crowd. "Neither is my son nor his son. If I am chosen by God to be your leader, so be it. But your RULER is God!" (Judges 8:22-23.) There was another burst of cheers. Gideon continued speaking.
"I have a request. Many golden earrings were recently taken from slain Midianites. Unless those who possess them prefer to keep them, I ask that they be contributed for making ornaments by which we will be reminded of God's delivering us from the Midianites."
"We will willingly give them!" several Israelite soldiers shouted.
Someone spread out a coat on the ground, and hundreds of men filed by, in the next few hours, to drop their booty on it. By the time the last trinket had been given, there were thousands of dollars worth of gold on the coat.
Later, Gideon hired men to melt the gold down and re-shape it into a costly vestment to be used and displayed by him and future leaders of Israel as a symbol of their office as judge. Unfortunately, this thing came to be revered so highly by the people that it eventually became an object of idolatrous worship. (Judges 8:24-27.)
Only Forty Years ...
For the next forty years, as long as Gideon was their leader and law-enforcer (referred to in the Scriptures as a judge), most of the Israelites enjoyed the blessings of peace and prosperity. (Verses 28-29.) Since most people don't know how to wisely use
peace and prosperity, such a period can be dangerous. During that time Gideon had several wives. The practice of having more than one wife was tolerated in those times, especially by men who could afford to feed many children. But God punished those who practiced polygamy, though sometimes that punishment befell the children. The Bible doesn't state how many children Gideon had, though it speaks of his having at least seventy-two sons. (Judges 9:5.)
As soon as Gideon died, many Israelites began to abuse their prosperity and turn to idleness and ease. They immediately began to fall away from worshipping God and turn again toward the worship of Baal and Easter, the pagans' chief god and goddess. That false religion had been developed into different names and forms among various nations since the ancient times of Nimrod and his motherwife Semiramis. Soon most of the nation had lost respect for what Gideon had accomplished and what God commanded. It was evident that Israel was once more heading for a downfall, this time to plunge into the misery of civil strife. (Judges 8:30-35.)
An Evil Man Lusts for Political Power
Abimelech, one of Gideon's sons, was very desirous of being king of Israel. He started his ambitious scheme by going to his mother's family in Shechem to persuade them that one of Gideon's sons should reign over the nation.
"Someone has to determine which of my father's sons should rule," he told his relatives. "Now would you prefer about seventy of them to reign over you, or would you choose just one? I am of your flesh and bone, so why should you prefer anyone except me?" (Judges 9:1-2.)
Abimelech's relatives quickly perceived the advantages of having a king from their family. They launched a campaign in and around Shechem to promote the idea of how worthwhile it would be to have a leader of Israel from Shechem, so that their city might be established as the capital of the nation.
Shechem had lately become one of the cities where the worship of Baal was most active. Some of the contributions to Baal were turned over to Abimelech, who used the money to buy the services of the kind of evil men who would do anything for a price. (Verses 3-4.)
Appalling Treachery Afoot
Abimelech's next move was shockingly cold-blooded and barbarous, proving that he would stop at nothing to gain what he wanted. He led his hired band of cut-throats to his father's home in Ophrah, about seven miles northwest, where Gideon's other sons were gathered. The hired hoodlums surprised the sons, and managed to overcome them and tie them up. At this point Abimelech arrived on the scene. He carefully examined and counted all the bound men.
"There should be seventy-one here!" he barked at the leader of the gang he had hired. "You have bound only seventy!"
"We took every man we found in this house," the leader explained. "We saw no one else."
"I wanted you to get ALL of them!" Abimelech snapped. "But go ahead with the job. Use that large stone in the back court."
The stone to which Abimelech referred was a part of the architecture in the backyard, but within the next few minutes it became a gruesome chopping block! (See Judges 9.)
Bible Story Book Index
The Fire That Failed!
AFTER GIDEON was dead and Israel had again started slipping into idolatry, one of Gideon's many sons schemed to become king of Israel. He was Abimelech, an overly ambitious young man who went to violent extremes to push himself into power.
One of his first moves was to pay a band of vicious characters to capture his seventy-one brothers and line them up at a chopping block. One of the brothers escaped, but all the others were beheaded. (Judges 9:1 -5.)
As soon as the dreadful act was finished, the murderers fled, careful to leave no evidence as to who had committed the ghastly crime.
Gideon's youngest son, Jotham, was the one who had escaped being murdered. He had hidden himself when the assassins had first appeared, but when he heard later what had happened, he almost wished he hadn't. He left Ophrah right after that, realizing that Abimelech's men would be looking for him for a long time.
While the search for Jotham was going on, Abimelech wasn't too worried about him. He felt that the youngest son would fear to make any move against him. He went ahead with his plans to become ruler of Israel by obtaining the backing of influential men, families and priests of Baal in Shechem, which resulted in a few days in a celebration and a ceremony in which Abimelech was declared king of Israel. (Verse 6.)
When Jotham learned of this he was quite angry. Even though a son of Gideon, who had been Israel's leader, he didn't yearn to become Israel's king. But he wanted to expose his half-brother for the murderous, power-seeking politician he was, and to help promote in Israel the conduct his father had enforced and practiced against pagan worship.
By night Jotham went up Mt. Gerizim, which towered close above Shechem. Next morning, when the people were up and about, he appeared on the top to call down to them. This wasn't such a tremendous feat as one might imagine, inasmuch as Joshua had successfully addressed hundreds of thousands of people in that same area. Mt. Ebal was close by to the north, and between the two peaks a strong voice could clearly be heard over an unusually large expanse. (Joshua 8:30-35.)
Jotham couldn't have chosen a better place to talk to so many people at the same time and say what he had to say before Abimelech's hired murderers could get to him. It isn't known how many people lived in and around Shechem at the time, but there must have been at least a few thousand residents, including people from the neighboring villages and countryside who were gathered at Shechem for a festival.
"Listen to me, men of Shechem!" Jotham shouted down to them. "You are headed for misery and trouble. But if you will hear what I have to say, and move to correct matters, God will help you!" (Judges 9:7.)
Jotham's Amazing Prophecy
"Let me tell you a story!" he called down. (Judges 9:6-7.) The people listened with tense excitement. "There was a time when all the trees decided that they should have some kind of tree rule over them. They agreed that the olive tree was best fitted as a leader, so they asked the olive tree to be king. The olive tree refused, saying, 'I honor God and man by the oil I produce. Why should I forsake my outstanding service even to be king?'
"Then the trees said to the fig tree, 'Be our king.' But the fig tree answered, 'Why should I give up producing my special sweetness and flavor just to be promoted over all other trees?'
"The trees next asked the grape vine to rule over them. The grape vine replied, 'I cannot be your king. It would mean that I would have to stop yielding the juice from which comes the wine to cheer God and man.'
"The trees finally turned to the bramble to ask it to be their king. The thorny bush answered quite differently. 'If you really want me to be your king,' it said, 'then leave all matters entirely up to me. If you fail to put your trust in me or disagree with what I want to do, I shall spew out fire to burn up everything, even the cedars on the snow-clad peaks of mount Lebanon!'" (Judges 9:8-15.)
People below who listened to Jotham realized that when he spoke of the bramble he was referring to Abimelech, and that when he mentioned the cedars of Lebanon he was referring to the elders and chiefs of Israel.
"If you people think you have done the best thing for Israel in making Abimelech your leader," Jotham continued, "and you really believe that your murder of my seventy brothers was a fitting tribute to Gideon my father, who risked his life for you, then be happy with Abimelech and let Abimelech be happy with you!
"On the other hand, if you have allowed a scoundrel and a murderer to become your king, Abimelech will soon have his differences with you people who have helped him into power. You will eventually destroy him. But he will also destroy you!" (Verses 16-20.)
Momentary Sorrow but not Repentance
Many of the people who listened below were greatly impressed by what Jotham had to say. Some of them were ashamed that they had not united to protest Abimelech's being made their leader, but most of them did not repent of their part in Abimelech's treachery. They waited to hear what more Jotham had to say, but no more words came down to them. God's warning to them was finished. They had no more excuse for remaining on Abimelech's side.
As Jotham finished speaking, he sighted men creeping toward him around the shoulders of the mountain. He realized that they had been sent to take his life, so that no son of Gideon could possibly be left to be set up as leader of Israel in opposition to Abimelech. Before the assassins had time to reach him, Jotham fled.
Jotham's pursuers were weary and winded from their hurried ascent of Mt. Gerizim, and when Gideon's son suddenly bolted down the side of the mountain opposite the one facing Shechem, they were unable to catch their intended victim.
By the time he reached the base of the mountain, Jotham was out of sight of his pursuers. He sprinted toward the south, carefully keeping out of sight in the gullies and defiles until he was well out of the region of Shechem. After traveling about twenty miles, he succeeded in reaching safety in the town of Beer, about eight miles north of Jerusalem. (Verse 21.)
How God's Law Operates
Perhaps Jotham's efforts to remind the local Israelites that they were headed for trouble weren't entirely wasted. Abimelech was leader of the northern Israelites around Shechem and Arumah for three years, but at the end of that time a feeling of dislike and suspicion developed between him and many Israelites, especially those in the Shechem area. Former partners in murder now became enemies. This was the natural result of building a government on murderous plots, evil schemes and unholy religious propositions. Even so, God stepped in to cause differences to develop more quickly in order that Abimelech and his hired murderers and fellow conspirators might come to faster justice. Abimelech probably was aware of God's laws, but he wasn't convinced that the dreadful penalty for breaking them was certain to fall on him. (Romans 15:4; II Timothy 3:16.)
Some of the same men who had helped Abimelech become a ruler hired men to watch for him and his friends as they traveled about in the more wild, mountainous regions around Arumah and Shechem in upper Canaan. They hoped to assassinate him in some out-of-the-way spot, but their attempts were unsuccessful because he had been told of the plan.
All that was accomplished was the injuring and robbing of many other people who were moving through lonely areas. (Judges 9:22-25.)
Meanwhile, a Canaanite named Gaal, who wished to see the Israelite driven out, organized a band of soldiers and went to Shechem to suggest to Abimelech's enemies that they band together against their leader. Gaal volunteered to head the movement.
Abimelech wasn't in Shechem at the time, so many of the men of Shechem felt free to join Gaal. There was a great celebration in the temple of Baal. There, inflamed by much drinking of wine, Gaal loudly announced that the Israelites should turn to the Canaanite leaders if they wished to be free of Abimelech, an Israelite, and that he, Gaal, would remove Abimelech from power if only the people would back him up with fighting men.
Political Confusion Worsens
Many men in Shechem rallied to join Gaal. He was so encouraged that he became certain he could lead a revolution without any danger of failure. He went so far as to send messengers to challenge Abimelech to return to Shechem and fight for the right to be ruler. (Judges 9:26-29.)
This development troubled Zebul, governor of Shechem and one of Abimelech's right-handmen. He knew where Abimelech was, and sent a swift messenger to him to warn that Gaal had taken over the city and was fortifying it. He suggested that Abimelech quietly bring in an army by night, hide in nearby fields and then wait to see what Gaal would do.
That night Abimelech quietly moved his army into the vicinity of Shechem, concealing it in four companies in gullies and behind hills and rocks.
Next morning Gaal strode out through the city's main gate with some of his men. Zebul accompanied them.
"The mighty Abimelech must have heard of my challenge long before this, but I don't see any sign of him," Gaal loudly remarked in a sneering tone. "Perhaps he decided to lead the Israelites back into Egypt!"
Gaal's men laughed at this comment. Zebul smiled, too, but not because of the remark. He was aware that Abimelech's troops were all around. Suddenly Gaal squinted his eyes as though trying to make out something in the distance.
"Look!" he barked, pointing. "Do I see people moving down from the tops of those hills?"
"People?" Zebul echoed. "Aren't you looking at just shadows and rocks?"
Gaal hardly heard what Zebul said, so engrossed was he in staring in other directions. (Judges 9:30-36.)
"Those are people," he exclaimed. "They're coming toward us through the valley and across the plain! We're surrounded!"
"How true!" Zebul remarked with a grim smile. "Now let's see how you'll go about destroying Abimelech as you boasted you would do! And you'll have to hurry, or the opportunity -- if any -- will soon be gone!
"You seem pleased!" Gaal barked angrily at Zebul. "Probably you've had something to do with this!"
One of his men saw him move threateningly toward the governor, and quickly stepped up to ask what the trouble was. "Look around you!" Gaal snapped. "We're about to be attacked, and for some reason Zebul seems to be happy about it!"
The man looked about, but he saw no attackers because the approaching soldiers had moved behind a hill in one direction and had marched out of sight into a depression in the plain in the other direction.
"I see no attackers," he said to Gaal. Gaal stared quickly about, perplexed that no one was in sight. He glanced uneasily at Zebul, then went back to scanning the horizon. "I guess you were right about shadows and rocks," he told Zebul.
"The heat makes them look as though they're moving. But why did you say what you did about my boasting that I would destroy Abimelech?"
"If you have the courage to stand up to Abimelech," Zebul answered, "then you're entitled to boast."
Gaal didn't know whether he was being complimented or insulted, but that wasn't his concern at the moment. He continued blinking at the horizon and hoped that somehow Abimelech would never show up to give him any trouble. His fleeting belief that he had been surrounded had worn the sharp edge off his desire to fight with the man he had challenged to battle. Besides, he had lost a little confidence in himself because of what he thought he had seen.
"If Abimelech comes," Gaal remarked, "I'll meet him in a fair fight in the open, but there is no point standing here all day in the hot sun waiting for something that perhaps won't happen. I'm going back inside the gates."
"If Abimelech should suddenly show up and catch you in the city, we could be besieged for weeks," Zebul observed.
"If he accepts my challenge, we'll see him long before he gets here," Gaal answered.
"Then you'd better start looking!" Zebul pointedly commented.
Gaal glanced around. To his sudden surprise and dismay, he saw men pouring out from behind a nearby hill and more swarming up from a depression in the plain. There was no doubt that they were Abimelech's men, and they were closing in fast. Gaal realized then that he had actually seen them when they were at a greater distance, and that Zebul had also seen them and was silently waiting for them to get much closer.
"It appears that you'll soon have to decide to fight or run," Zebul grinned.
Gaal wasted no time with counter remarks. He yelled to the men who were with him to sound a call to arms. The closest of Abimelech's men were only a few hundred yards from the city by the time Gaal and his men rather hesitantly stomped out to meet them.
Canaanite Ambition Thwarted
Minutes later the two armies closed in battle, but not for long. Abimelech's men cut down the foremost of Gaal's soldiers, and the sight of the slaughter unnerved the rest of Gaal's men. They turned, including their leader, and fled back toward Shechem's main gate. Abimelech's men rushed in behind them, killing and wounding many before they could reach the city. Gaal was among those who managed to race through the entrance to Shechem before the gate was slammed shut. (Judges 9:37-40.)
Satisfied that he had put down the revolution, Abimelech led his army to the town of Arumah, about eight miles southeast of Shechem. There the men rested and took on provisions.
Meanwhile Zebul, the governor of Shechem, who hated Gaal, managed to round up a sizable band of Shechemites who shared his feeling. These men pounced on Gaal and the remnant of his army, and thrust them out of the city.
Because there had been so many people in Shechem in recent days, there was a serious shortage of food. Regardless of the threat of attack by Abimelech, who now regarded Shechem as an enemy stronghold, hundreds of people went out next morning to the surrounding fields, orchards and vineyards to obtain vegetables and fruit. Spies reported this to Abimelech, who immediately led his army back to Shechem. About one third of the soldiers dashed to the main gate of the city.
The Shechemites' Penalty for Murder
The remainder of the army was divided into two companies, and closed in on the Shechemites in the fields and orchards. The victims tried to race for safety in the city, but were either cut down as they ran or were killed by Abimelech's men when they reached the gate.
All of Abimelech's soldiers then converged on the city. They battered down the gates and poured inside, but it wasn't a matter of a quick victory. The Shechemites were prepared to fight, and they put up stiff resistance by showering spears, stones and arrows down from the walls and the buildings. By late afternoon, however, it was evident that the defenders were running out of arms and missiles. From then on the victory swiftly went to Abimelech, whose men slaughtered or chased out all the people. There is no record of what happened to Zebul, governor of the city.
It was a custom at that time that a home, city or village should be strewn with salt if for any reason it was considered a disgraceful or abominable place. To show his contempt for Shechem, Abimelech ordered his men to fling salt all about the city. (Judges 9:41-45.)
While this was going on, fugitives of the Shechem area were fearfully gathering not far away at a tower-like structure built on a mountainside. It was the place of worship of one of the Canaanite gods, and was considered a strong refuge. More than a thousand people swarmed into it. They hoped that Abimelech, who had shown a strong leaning toward pagan gods would spare the place in the event he found them hiding there.
Their period of concealment was short. Again Abimelech's spies informed him what was going on. Abimelech took his men into a nearby region where there was a heavy growth of trees and brush. There each man cut down as large a branch as he could comfortably carry, and took his load to where the people were hiding.
The branches were piled around the base of the structure, then ignited. The tremendous fire that followed speedily destroyed the tower. The hundreds of people inside, unable to escape, were burned to a charred mass for having helped Abimelech murder Jerubbaal's sons, just as Jotham had prophesied. (Judges 9:19-20; Judges 9:46-49.)
>From Revenge to Conquest!
Night had arrived, and as the flames died down in the darkness, Abimelech considered it a successful day. He gave orders for his men to camp for the night where they were. Abimelech's God-given victory made him so conceited and greedy he wanted to conquer innocent cities. Next morning he started them on a march to the city of Thebez about ten miles to the northeast. He had received reports that most of the people there were not in favor of his leadership. His vengeful, bloody desire was simply to wipe them out, just as he had done to others who had stood in the path of his political aims. Abimelech didn't realize that God had allowed him to wipe out Shechem only because of its part in his treacherous murders.
When he reached Thebez late that morning, the people there were so frightened that they fled to a high, walled stronghold within the city. This pleased Abimelech.
"We have them bottled up without so much as having to throw a spear!" he exultantly told his officers. "Spread our men out to camp around Thebez so that no one will escape during the night. Tomorrow we shall take their stronghold and everyone inside it!" Abimelech's army closed in on the city, converging on the high fortress within. The stone structure was large and strong, but the gate was made of timbers. Brush and branches were piled against it so that it could be burned open.
People gathered on the open top floor of the fortress fought hard to keep the attackers away by hurling all kinds of objects down on them. Many invaders lost their lives in showers of heavy missiles from the tower. Abimelech's men countered with arrows, spears and stones, but they realized that they could make little headway until the gate was burned. (Judges 9:50-52.)
The Fire That Failed!
In his eagerness to accomplish a break-through, Abimelech moved closer to the wall. It was a foolish thing to do because he became the intended object of a number of missiles. A heavy chunk from a broken millstone struck him on the head. He thudded to the ground, blood oozing from his scalp. His young armorbearer rushed to him, noting that he was still conscious.
"It was a woman who threw it, sir!" the young man exclaimed. "We'll get her as soon as we get inside!"
"I know," Abimelech muttered, "but don't let it be said that a woman sent me to my death! Thrust your sword through me! Now!"
The armorbearer was hesitant. One of Abimelech's officers nearby, realizing that his leader was dying, shouted at the armorbearer, at the same time motioning for him to do what his superior commanded.
God Restores Peace
The young man obeyed. Abimelech died by the sword, but he would have died only a little later from the head wound. Thus died Abimelech, who had refused to profit from the sad experiences of others who had rebelled against God's laws. Only those who want to obey God can learn from such tragic events. (Romans 15:4; II Timothy 3:16.)
When his men realized that he had been killed, they ceased fighting and withdrew from Thebez. Within minutes the army became disorganized. The men started back to their homes, many of them ashamed that they had taken part in the slaughter of their own people. Their neglected fire, like their war, died. (Judges 9:53-55.)
Jotham's prediction of grief in Israel wasn't an empty one. God had brought destruction upon the destroyers. (Verses 56-57.) All the trouble and misery could have been avoided if the people had shunned pagan gods and had been willing to learn the right and happy way to live by obeying God's laws. God had promised that all would go well with those who obey. (Deuteronomy 6:3.) But Satan has suggested that it would be better to choose any way of life that seems easiest and most pleasant and wait to see what develops. (Genesis 3:4-6.) Unfortunately, almost every generation of Israel preferred to go along with the latter way and learn life's principles in the most difficult and miserable manner. Most of mankind continues to believe that delusive old adage that experience is the best teacher. Experience is really the worst teacher because of the wretchedness and grief that accompany it.
Bible Story Book Index
Courage Without Wisdom
AFTER the death of Abimelech, the next man to become a judge in northern Canaan was Tola. He was from the tribe of Issachar.
Tola led northern Israel twenty-three years. During that time there was peace in that part of the land because the worship of pagan gods and idols was almost completely stopped. (Judges 10:1-2.)
>From Obedience to Idolatry
After Tola died, a man by the name of Jair came into power in eastern Israel. He had thirty grown sons who helped him maintain control as the mayors or rulers of thirty towns in northern Canaan. Jair and his sons chose to rule by God's laws, and for twenty-two more years matters went well for the Israelites in that region. (Verses 3-5.)
Meanwhile, other judges ruled over the Israelites in southern Canaan, but that is another facet of the history of Israel.
Jair's death triggered the return of the Israelites of northern Canaan to idolatry. The pagan nations all about them considered them curious or odd because they observed laws that didn't allow religious orgies and wild festivals. Rather than be thought of as religious oddballs, the Israelites -- who wanted to be well thought of by their neighbors -- gradually fell into worshipping foreign gods.
Their desire to conform to the ways of the people about them wasn't the only reason Israel went over to idolatry. The belief grew that pagan religions offered more freedom because there were less laws to observe. Israel forgot the many wonderful blessings that obeying God brings -- peace, health and prosperity.
This was foolish reasoning, but Israel today reasons the same way. Those who are of a religious bent generally join the largest most Popular churches with a careful eye to conformity. Some of these people are being called out of such worldly churches to become part of God's Church. Those find that God's ways are much different from what they thought, and that the churches from which they came are based on many pagan beliefs.
Because of the disobedience of the Israelites, God became increasingly angry. He allowed two nearby warlike nations to send soldiers into the land. They were the Ammonites, whose country was to the east, and the Philistines, whose nation was on a portion of the southeast shore of the Great Sea west of Canaan -- the Mediterranean.
At first the Ammonite movements in the east consisted only of forays by small bands of soldiers who attacked the Israelites' homes and villages in Gilead, east of the Jordan river, then hastily retreated with any booty they could seize. Gradually the attacking bands grew larger and bolder until they were setting up armed camps well inside Canaan. It wasn't long before the camps were growing into large garrisons from which enemy soldiers crossed the Jordan river into southwestern Canaan to kill and plunder. (Judges 10:6-9.)
Death, disease and poverty moved over Israel in a black cloud of misery. It appeared that if the wretched conditions continued, Israel would be entirely wiped out or fall into permanent slavery.
It was then that the people began to cry out to God. They admitted their sin of bowing down to other gods, and begged for forgiveness and help.
God's reaction was far from hopeful. His reply was probably given through the high priest or someone chosen as a prophet.
Did I not save you previously from the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Philistines, the Zidonians, the Amalekites and the Midianites?" God asked them. "You pleaded for help when you were in danger, and I delivered you from all these enemies. Then you turned around and forsook me! Why should I save you again? Cry to your pagan gods to save you!" (Verses 10-14.)
The Israelites knew better than to waste their prayers on heathen gods in a time of trouble. They were aware that only the God of Israel could help them, and they continued their pleas for deliverance.
And Finally -- Repentance!
"Do whatever you will to us!" they pleaded. "But for now, we beg you to spare us from our enemies!"
If God felt that the Israelites failed to show their sincerity, He didn't have to wait long for evidence of it. All over Canaan the people swiftly turned from the heathen gods, destroyed their idols and temples and eagerly sought to learn God's ways. To many the knowledge of their Creator's laws was quite obscure, because it had been almost a generation since the nation had fallen into idol worship. When God witnessed the smashing of their little "good luck" objects, tearing down images of the national gods of foreign nations and earnestly seeking to find the right way, He felt sorry for Israel.
Again, after eighteen years of oppression, the ever-merciful Creator moved to deliver His chosen people. (Judges 10:8.) He made it known to them that as many as possible should gather to meet the enemy in the land east of the Jordan, and that He would help them.
The Israelites were disorganized, but this wonderful news spurred them to action. During the next weeks thousands secretly came at night -- especially from eastern Canaan -- to gather at Mizpeh, a city in the southern portion of the land allotted to the tribe of Gad. Assembling wasn't easy. Many who wanted to go found it impossible to leave home without being seen by enemy soldiers. Some fought their way free. Others died trying. Most of them had to leave home at the risk of being discovered and having their families taken by the enemy. It was all part of the price they were still paying for breaking the First, Second and Fourth Commandments, which generally lead to breaking the other seven.
It wasn't long before the news of this great gathering reached the Ammonites, who were already bringing up heavy forces along the east side of the Jordan to their main garrison in Gilead. They were about ready for a last mass attack on the half tribe of Manasseh and the tribes of Reuben and Gad in eastern Canaan. Israel's move stepped up the action of the Ammonites, who hadn't expected any mass resistance. If they had also learned another startling fact, they would have acted with even more haste.
God Chooses Whom Man Rejects!
That fact was that the quickly-organized army of Israel as yet had no leader or captain! (Verses 17-18.)
Meanwhile, near the eastern border of the territory of Manasseh in Gilead, there was a rugged man by the name of Jephthah, who was the head of a desert band made up of trained fighters who made a living by somewhat questionable means. They probably raided and looted poorly protected Ammonite settlements and hired themselves out as guards and protectors. Jephthah's father was one of the tribe of Manasseh, but because his mother was not his father's legal wife, his half brothers (whose mother WAS the legal wife of their father) wouldn't allow him to share in their inheritance. Spurned by his own family, Jephthah had left home when a very young man to seek a living elsewhere. (Judges 11:12.)
He had journeyed off to the desert country to the northeast, where he established himself well in the ways of life in the wilderness. (Verse 3.) He became well-trained in riding, hunting and fighting. Eventually he built himself up as a tribal leader, the builder of a small private army that was the fear of fierce nomadic tribes and the protector of the weak and the poor. Jephthah was actually a kind of captain of men little better than cunning desert pirates, but he became respected and famous in his part of the country. He had a reputation for seizing booty only from bands of vicious robbers and killers, especially Ammonites.
In Mizpeh there was growing concern as to who should be chosen to head the army of Israel. Outside of a few men who had been officers of minor rank years previously, there was little choice. It was soon recognized that none of these men were able enough to lead the army. The elders of Israel realized that the leader must be one whom the soldiers would respect in knowledge, resourcefulness, patriotism, courage and experience.
When the name Jephthah was brought up, there were yells of derision, although it was well known that he was a mighty leader and had kept his private band free from Ammonite oppression. (Judges 11:1.) The more the elders discussed him the more seriously he was considered. They now realized the man they had self-righteously cast out was their only hope. The discussions ended with several men riding swiftly out of Mizpeh in the direction of Jephthah's home far east of the Jordan. They were now ready to ask Jephthah to lay down his life for those who formerly would not have given him a piece of bread if he were hungry.
Jephthah was surprised to be visited by chieftains of Israel. He was more surprised to recognize some elders of eastern Manasseh -- and some of his brothers!
"This is quite a gathering," he remarked coldly. "What business could you have with me? And why are my brothers here? To them I am a non-deserving outcast!"
"We realize that this must seem very strange to you," an elder explained, "but all of us are here to ask your help against the Ammonites. We have a large army, but no general. Would you consider leading our newly formed army against them?" (Judges 11:4-6.)
Jephthah could hardly believe his ears. There were almost countless able men in Israel, he realized, yet here were representatives come to ask an outsider to lead their army! He stared at his brothers, who eyed him uneasily.
"I suppose you know my brothers forced me out of my inheritance in disgrace years ago," Jephthah addressed the elders. "They hated me and pushed me out of my home because my mother was a harlot. They caused others to hate me. The elders did nothing to protect me. Why should I now be the one to help you in your time of trouble?"
This time it was the brothers who answered. They stepped forward beseechingly.
"We did wrong, and we are sorry!" they exclaimed. "Forgive us! We beg you to go with us now to Mizpeh to help get our army moving. If you do, we'll see that you shall become leader of all the people of your home region, the land of Gilead!" (Verses 7-8.)
The brothers were so convincing in their sincerity that even Jephthah, a hardened soldier, couldn't help but believe them. He regarded them intently for a few moments, then turned to ask more questions of the elders. He didn't wish to make up his mind without trying to find some underlying motive in this astonishing overture. After the plan had been laid out to him in more detail, and after he had sat before them for a time in thought, he asked them this last question:
"If I take your army against the Ammonites, and God makes me victorious, will the heads of the tribes east of the Jordan actually give me full direction and power to help change the lives of the people?"
There was an affirmative chorus of solemn promises. (Verses 9-10.)
Jephthah turned to his brothers with a nod and a slight smile. The Israelite elders tried to restrain their cheerful shouts. Jephthah's brothers rushed forward to bow before him, but he pulled them up to embrace them.
Days later at Mizpeh, after Jephthah had been made leader of the northeastern tribes, he sent messengers to the king of Ammon, who was camping with a large army south of the Jabbok River in the territory of Gad. Although warfare was the thing Jephthah knew best, he loved peace and had long since learned that avoiding war was more often the wiser course. He was determined to at least try to resolve matters by diplomatic means. He courteously inquired of the king why he had come to fight against the tribes of northeastern Israel.
The messengers returned promptly with the Ammonite king's curt reply:
"The Israelites took away my land when they came up from Egypt. I am here with my army to demand that you return it to me. It is all the territory east of the Jordan between the Armon and the Jabbok rivers." (Judges 11:11-13.)
Jephthah sent messengers back to the king, this time with a clarified piece of information he hoped would give the Ammonite ruler food for thought and perhaps a change of mind:
"You claim that the Israelites took your land when they came up from Egypt. We know, as well as you do, that this is not true. Neither did Israel take away the Moabites' land.
"When Israel came up from Egypt by way of the desert, the Red Sea and Kadesh, messengers were sent to the king of Edom asking permission to pass through his land. He refused. Permission was asked of the king of Moab to pass peacefully through Moab, and he also refused. After the Israelites had camped at Kadesh for a time, they set out to the northeast, careful not to trespass into the lands of Edom and Moab, or disturb those people as they passed by.
"Israel sent messengers to Sihon in Heshbon, king of the Amorites, asking permission to pass through his land. His land is this land now in question. The Amorites had formerly taken it from the Ammonites, and Ammon was never able to recover it. Instead of granting the request to let Israel pass through his land, king Sihon tried to wipe out Israel by the sword. But he was defeated. The God of Israel then turned possession of the land of the Amorites over to Israel. It included the territory from the Arnon river to the Jabbok river, and from the Jordan River eastward into the desert. These are the boundaries of the land you claim as yours, but why do you claim it? (Judges 11:14-23.)
"Our God took that land from the Amorites and gave it to us. If your god Chemosh were to give you something, wouldn't you feel that you should be the rightful owner? Whether it is the land you speak of or any other land, if our God drives out the inhabitants before us, we shall possess that country!
Ammonites Reject God's Decision
"Do you feel that you are better than Balak, king of Moab, who knew better than to fight with Israel over the towns and territory he knew Israel rightfully owned? Did he ever claim we should give him the land Moab had lost to the Amorites? If you have felt that these places you lost to the Amorites should be recovered from Israel, why didn't you do something about it long before this?
"Considering all these things, you honestly must admit that Israel has done nothing to cause you to threaten the nation or to wage war. On the other hand, you are doing the wrong thing to threaten war against Israel!
"Let the God of Israel, who is the Supreme God, judge this matter between Israel and Ammon!"
Again the king of the Ammonites was quite prompt with an answer. It consisted of very few words, and left little doubt in Jephthah's mind as to what would be the next turn of events.
"I say the land I designated belongs to me," the return message read. "Why leave it to your God to prove anything? Prove it yourself!" (Judges 11:24-28.)
Jephthah was through sending messages. He and his officers immediately passed through all of eastern Israel recruiting more soldiers and even sent messengers across the Jordan to ask the tribe of Ephraim to help. He told his officers to get the Israelite army ready to move. While preparations were being made, Jephthah foolishly uttered a very unusual and improper vow, thinking that his chance for victory would be greater if he could promise something to God in return. (Judges 12:1-2; Judges 11:29-31.)
"If you will give us success in battle and if I am allowed to return in peace, then I will dedicate to you whatever first comes out of my door to meet me," he said to God, "and, I will prepare it as a burnt offering!"
God did not approve of this foolishly spoken vow and would have helped Jephthah just as surely if he had not made it. But regardless of what God thought of the vow, He helped Israel charge into the Ammonites with crushing strength. The battle raged over a thirty-mile area that involved twenty towns. When it was over, the Ammonites were completely defeated. (Verses 32-33.)
But the pleasant flavor of victory was soon to turn bitter for Jephthah. His courage and integrity had brought victory but his lack of good judgment was bound to bring grief. As he approached his home on his return from the battlefield east of the Jordan, his young daughter -- his only child -- came dancing out of the house.
He stood speechless, remembering that he had vowed to dedicate to God whatever came to meet him! (Judges 11:34.)
Bible Story Book Index
Those Infamous Philistines
WHEN Jephthah returned to Mizpeh after his victory over the Ammonites, he approached his home to see his only child come out of his house to meet him! (Judges 11:34.)
Doing What Seems Right
He remembered then the vow he had made to God before the battle. Jephthah was so upset that he tore his coat to shreds. As his daughter rushed to meet him, he seized her in a fond embrace. Then he told her of the vow he had made. It was a shock to her, but she didn't complain.
"If you have made a vow to God," she told her father, "then you must keep it. God has given you a victory over the Ammonites, as you asked, so do with me according to your promise in this matter."
A vow to God is something that should be made very seldom -- if ever. Jephthah began to realize that he had been very foolish in making such a rash vow. But, thinking any vow was binding, he was determined to carry it out, even though God certainly disapproved of such an act. The lesson God wants us to learn from the book of Judges is recorded in the last chapter: "In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes." (Judges 21:25.) God had for bidden them to do what was right in their own eyes. (Deuteronomy 12:8.)
"Before I go," Jephthah's daughter told him, "I should like to take two months to visit my friends who live in various places in the nearby mountains, as I shall never see them again!"
Jephthah readily agreed. (Judges 11:35-38.) At the end of two months she dutifully returned home. The Bible doesn't explain the details of what happened. It merely concludes: "... she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed ..." (Judges 11:39.) Though some commentators have thought Jephthah kept his daughter a perpetual virgin, the Jews and most commentators have understood this tragic story as it is explained in the Authorized Version of the Bible.
Jephthah learned a mighty lesson. He discovered, through this tragedy, the real lesson of faith -- that one does not have to vow to God in order to have Him perform what He has promised. What God expects is that we learn to trust Him in everything. When Jephthah finally learned that lesson, he became an outstanding example of faith. Paul even referred to him in Hebrews 11:32 as one of the outstanding examples of faith in the Old Testament.
It later became a custom in Israel for the young women to spend four days of every year in expressing sorrow for Jephthah's daughter. (Judges 11:40.)
When the other tribes of Israel heard that their brothers east of the Jordan had freed themselves from the Ammonites, they reacted in various ways. It should have been a cause for happy celebration, but the people of Ephraim didn't see it that way. They were offended because they hadn't been given part of the glory Jephthah's army earned in fighting the Ammonites. In fact, they were so irked that they formed an army and marched northward to a spot where they crossed the Jordan river and then headed eastward to confront Jephthah.
"Why didn't you let us in on your battle with the Ammonites?" they angrily asked. "Were you trying to take all the glory of winning for yourself? You have acted in an unbrotherly and selfish manner, and for that we should set fire to your home and burn it down on you!"
This was an unfair charge and a ridiculous threat, but Jephthah didn't lose his temper.
"There was no time to lose in preparation against the Ammonites," he explained. "If you had wanted to help, you could have volunteered whatever number of men you might have quickly gotten together when I asked you for help. But you sent no one. So now you have no good reason to complain. Thousands of men, including myself, risked their lives against the enemy, but God delivered us and the matter is over. What, therefore, is your reason for bringing an army to fight me?" (Judges 12:1-3.)
Jephthah's words only served to stir the Ephraimites to greater anger. They began shouting childish insults at the eastern Israelites.
Where Brotherly Envy Leads
"You men of the Gilead area have no national pride!" they yelled. "You are trying to establish a country all of your own, but you won't succeed because you are only the outcasts and the scum of Israel!"
These groundless affronts stung the Gileadites, and though Jephthah tried to keep them under control, the continued yells of contempt soon developed into the action of attack. It wasn't long before a battle was raging.
The Ephraimites had come as the angry ones, but Jephthah's men, after all those insulting remarks, had greater anger, and they fell against their brothers with such power that they quickly defeated the men of Ephraim, who broke ranks and fled in fear and confusion in all directions. Jephthah knew that eventually they would all move to cross the Jordan westward to get back to their home territory to the south, so he ordered his men to rush to the places at the river where it was possible to ford it. He felt that people who had such a miserable attitude should be punished, and God allowed him to do just that.
At first the Gileadites had difficulty in identifying people because there were so many crossing the Jordan. To get safely across, the Ephraimites tried to pose as people from the east of the Jordan so that they wouldn't be attacked. Then someone thought of a good way to determine which were Ephraimites. Each man, as he approached the river, was asked to pronounce the word "shibboleth." Persons who were east of the Jordan could pronounce it correctly, but Ephraimites, because of their particular manner of speaking, couldn't bring themselves to say "shibboleth" but insisted it was "sibboleth." All those who mispronounced the word were slain. By the time the matter was finished, forty-two thousand Ephraimites were dead! (Judges 12:4-6.)
As the elders of Gilead had promised, Jepthah was made judge of northern Israel. He died after being in power for six years. During the next twenty-five years three other judges ruled that part of Israel. None of them did anything particularly eventful, but in those years there was a degree of peace and prosperity in that region. (Judges 12:7-15.)
While all this was taking place, the state of affairs in other parts of Israel varied from fair to miserable. When the Ammonites, years previously, had moved in from the east, the Philistines had come into Canaan from the southwest. All during the time the northern Israelites were troubled by the Ammonites, and during the time of peace that followed Jephthah's victory, most of the rest of Israel was suffering from the inroads by the Philistines. By the time Gideon had died, the people of northern Israel had begun again to fall toward idolatry. Soon northern Israel had fallen away from God's ways to a great extent, and curses were beginning to fall on them. With southern Israel almost completely in the hands of the Philistines, all of the Israelites were once again embroiled in calamity of their own making.
In those days there was a Danite named Manoah who lived in the town of Zorah, which was in the territory of Dan near the border between Dan and Judah. It was about twenty miles west of Jerusalem, and in the land occupied by the Philistines.
Christ Was No Nazarite
Manoah had been married for several years, and though he hoped to rear a large family, his wife had no children. As time went on, the couple had to face the discouraging possibility that Manoah's wife was incapable of bearing children.
One day when Manoah's wife was alone, a strange man came to speak to her. She was startled at the sight of the stranger because of his outstanding appearance. He had unusually expressive and piercing eyes, and gave the impression that he was a man of exceptional and even terrible power.
"I know that you haven't been able to have children," he said to Manoah's wife, "but I want you to know that soon you shall give birth to a son. Listen to my instructions. This son of yours shall be under the vow of a nazarite from the time he is born till his death. Therefore you should not drink wine or strong drink while your son is on the way. And don't eat any food that is unclean. This son of yours shall grow up to be a very special person who shall start to deliver Israel out of the power of the Philistines!" (Judges 13:1-5.)
What Manoah's wife did then will be related a few paragraphs later. The vow of a nazarite should first be explained. When the Israelites camped at Mt. Sinai and received from God complete instructions on how to conduct themselves rightly, those directions included what should be done if one decided to give himself or herself over to special service to God for any chosen period of time, whether it was for a month, a year, or several years. This promise to go into such special service was known as the vow of a nazarite.
Anyone who made such a vow was to do three things: Drink no alcoholic drink nor consume grapes or any product of grapes such as vinegar or raisins; touch no dead body; refrain from cutting the hair. (Numbers 6.) Manoah's son was to observe these rules all his life, and Manoah's wife was to observe them until her son was weaned.
Because Christ was reared in the town of Nazareth in the land of Galilee, the word "nazarite" is sometimes erroneously connected with the place where Jesus lived. For this reason Christ is sometimes referred to as a nazarite. Inasmuch as the Son of God led a perfect life while in human form, there was hardly any necessity for his making a vow to be of special service. And not having made such a vow, there was no reason for Him to observe the three rules that a nazarite was obliged to follow.
Nevertheless, some insist that Christ lived the role of a nazarite. The truth is that Christ didn't have long hair as he is so often pictured. He wasn't averse to drinking wine or grape juice. The New Testament several times mentions the fact that Christ drank wine. (Matthew 11:18-19; Luke 5:29-30.) He also had no aversion to touching a dead body. He was a Nazarene, reared in Nazareth, but never a nazarite. Christ did not live by the rules of the nazarite vow, for these things Jesus did would have broken the nazarite vow. That would have been sin. If Christ had sinned, He could not have become our Savior. (II Corinthians 5:20-21.)
The stranger who had appeared to Manoah's wife left as suddenly and mysteriously as he had arrived. When Manoah returned, his wife immediately went to him and excitedly told him what had taken place.
An Amazing Visitor
"I asked him for his name but he neither answered my question nor told me where he came from!" she exclaimed. "He was such an unusual man that I felt as though I were in the presence of someone holy!" (Judges 13:2-7.)
Manoah was at first inclined to believe that his wife's imagination was a bit overactive, but the more he thought about what she had told him the more he came to believe that some person sent by God had spoken to his wife. The matter began to weigh so heavily on his mind that he prayed that God would again send the mysterious man to give them further instructions as to how they should rear the son who would come to them.
A few days later, when Manoah was working in his fields at a distance from his home, his wife was at the same time working in an area close to their home. She stopped to rest, and it was then that the mysterious stranger suddenly appeared again to her. She was greatly startled, and ran to her husband to tell him that the person who had predicted she would have a son was again present. Manoah hurried back with his wife to find a man who exactly fitted the description she had given him days before.
"Are you the one who spoke to my wife a few days ago?" Manoah asked a bit hesitantly.
"I am the same," the stranger answered. "You predicted we would have a son," Manoah went on. "We would like to learn in more detail how we should rear him."
"I have already given your wife instructions," the stranger replied. "If you hold to them, you will do well." He then repeated those instructions to refresh their memories. (Judges 13:8-14.)
Manoah believed that this man was some kind of a prophet in whom he could rely, and he was so pleased to know that his wife would have a son that he asked the man to stay until a young goat could be broiled for a special feast. The stranger told Manoah that he wouldn't stay to eat, but that if he wished to cook meat, it should be offered as a sacrifice to God.
The more Manoah talked with the stranger, the more curious he became about his identity.
"What is your name?" he finally inquired boldly. "We would like to know so that we may rightly honor you when your predictions come true and our son is born."
"By now you should realize that my name should be kept secret," the stranger replied. "Therefore you shouldn't ask about it."
Manoah still didn't understand who the man was, but he did as suggested and placed a dressed young goat on a nearby large flat-topped rock. As he stepped back to pick up some sticks to make a fire, the stranger pointed at the rock. Flames shot up out of it! Then, as Manoah and his wife stared, he stepped onto the rock and miraculously shot upward with the flames and smoke!
Manoah and his wife were so startled at the sight and by the sudden realization that this man was a visitor from God that they fell fearfully on the ground. When finally they looked around, they saw no sign of the stranger. (Judges 13:15-20.)
"We must have seen God!" Manoah muttered. "No one can look on God and live! We'll surely be struck dead because of this!"
His wife wasn't so alarmed about the matter. She comforted him by pointing out that if God intended to strike them dead, He wouldn't have accepted their sacrifice and He wouldn't have told them that they would soon have a son. (Judges 13:21-23.)
The couple had not actually seen God the Father. The stranger was God's Messenger, Jesus Christ, in human form. If it had been Christ manifesting Himself in His natural spirit state, Manoah and his wife would not have been able to look and live.
Eventually a son was born to Manoah's wife. He was named Samson. He grew up to be an exceptionally strong young man who felt very forcefully that something should be done to free his people from the control and influence of the pagan Philistines.
One day when he was in the town of Timnath a few miles south of his birthplace, he met a Philistine woman and, after becoming better acquainted, they fell in love and decided to marry. He immediately returned home to tell his father and mother that he wanted them to visit the Philistine woman's parents and arrange for his marriage to their daughter.
Manoah and his wife were shocked and disappointed that their only son should choose to marry a foreign woman instead of one of his own people. They did not realize God was using this situation to begin delivering Israel from the Philistines. Samson was so insistent that they finally went to Timnath.
Samson went with them. At one point he went on ahead for some distance to see if the trail was safe. Suddenly a large lion came roaring out from behind a boulder! Unarmed, Samson quickly turned to face the fierce beast with his bare hands as it lunged upon him! (Judges 14:1-5.)
Bible Story Book Index
Samson and the Philistines
SAMSON, the young Danite who insisted on marrying a Philistine woman, was on his way with his parents to where the woman lived. Suddenly he was attacked by a full-grown lion.
Samson Slays a Lion
When he saw the beast coming for him from among the rocks that lined the trail (Judges 14:1-5), Samson deftly moved off his mount. Instead of trying to escape, he deliberately lunged toward the lion. Just as it leaped for him, he dodged. The mighty cat landed on the ground instead of on Samson, who swiftly leaped on the lion the moment it was confused by its failure. Samson straddled the animal's back, locked his arms around the shaggy neck and squeezed hard against the lion's throat. The beast emitted a short roar of rage that trailed off to a gasp as its wind was cut off. It struggled over on its back, frantically pawing the air with claw-extended feet, pinning Samson to the ground.
The thumping weight of the lion might have fatally crushed an ordinary man, but Samson was far from ordinary physically. He hung on, constantly tightening his grip. His head was buried in the beast's thick mane, and breathing was difficult. Summoning all his strength, Samson jerked the massive head backward. He heard the bones snap, and felt the great body go limp. The lion rolled off him, and he lay for a few moments renewing his breath. He staggered to his feet to stare at the dead beast. Samson was a little surprised that he was able to overcome such a powerful animal. He didn't fully understand that he had been given special protection and a great amount of extra strength by a loving God. (Judges 14:6.)
Not wishing to startle or concern his parents with what had happened, Samson dragged the dead lion back from the trail before they rode into sight. He regained his mount and continued with them to the town of Timnath, where arrangements were made for his marriage to the Philistine woman whom God had put in Samson's life so that he would have a necessary closer association with the Philistine oppressors. (Verse 7.)
In those days it was a custom for a period of time to pass after a couple formally decide to marry till the time of the wedding. It was many months later, therefore, that Samson and his parents set out for the marriage ceremony at Timnath.
When they arrived at the place where Samson had slain the lion, the young Danite went aside by himself to the spot where he had left the carcass. Animals and insects had long since consumed the flesh of the animal. Only the bleached skeleton remained. Samson discovered that bees had built their comb inside the rib cage, and that there was honey inside. Although bees were swarming about, he surprisingly managed to get some of the honey to eat without being stung. Neither did the bees attack him while he filled a leather bag with honey. He brought some of the honey also to his father and mother, but he told them nothing about the lion. (Judges 14:8-9.)
Samson's wedding turned out to be quite a social event in Timnath. It included a seven-day feast to which thirty young men were invited as friends of the bridegroom.
Young women were also invited as companions of the bride. Besides these, there were friends and relatives. Most of the people were Philistines, a fact that caused Samson's parents to be rather uneasy, what with some of the Philistine overlords acting unfriendly and suspicious.
At that time riddles were a popular form of conversational entertainment. In the course of the festivities, Samson posed a riddle to his thirty companions, basing it on his experience with the lion and the honey.
A Riddle Spells Trouble
"If you men can give me the answer to a certain riddle before this feast is over," Samson told them, "I'll give each of you a fancy shirt and costly robe. Here's the riddle: 'Out of the eater came something to eat; out of the strong came something sweet.' Now if you fail to give me the right answer before the feast is over, then you shall give me thirty expensive shirts and thirty fine robes. Agreed?"
The thirty men nodded in agreement. They welcomed any opportunity for something that might develop into an argument or trouble for Samson. They acted friendly toward him, but inwardly felt just the opposite. Some of them resented Samson's marriage to a woman with whom they had been more than friendly from time to time, and who had no intention of changing her ways. (Judges 14:10-14.)
The thirty men had no intention of providing shirts and robes for Samson. They therefore went to his wife to force from her the answer to the riddle.
"I would tell you if I knew," she told them. "Samson didn't give me the answer."
"Then find out before this feast is over!" they said to her. "Otherwise we'll burn you together with your parents' home!"
Fearful of what would happen, Samson's wife tried to get the answer to the riddle from her new husband. At first he refused to tell her. She wept bitterly, complaining that it wasn't fair of him to start out their married life by keeping secrets from her. Samson finally was so moved by her tears, pleas and feminine wiles that he told her all about the lion and the honey. Although she didn't believe the story, Samson's wife disclosed to the men who had threatened her, at the first opportunity, all that had been told to her.
"Your husband's story is ridiculous," they told her. "No man could kill a full-grown lion with his bare hands. Possibly he told you this tale to avoid giving you the right answer. And if you're not providing the right answer, we'll carry out that threat we made!"
That afternoon, only two or three hours before the feast ended, the men approached Samson to inform him that they at last had an answer to his riddle. Samson noted that some of them looked very confident. Inasmuch as only he and his wife supposedly knew the answer to the riddle, he could think of only one reason why the men should display such an expression.
"Give me your answer," Samson said to them. "If you have it, I'll stick to my offer to reward you."
"We gave your riddle much thought," one of the men told Samson, "and we were really stumped for days. After some time in conference, we believe that we have the answer. Here it is: 'What is sweeter than honey? And what is stronger than a lion?' "
Samson wasn't too surprised by such an accurate answer. He realized that it was as he had lately suspected -- that his wife was overly familiar with these men, and that she didn't care for him much more than she cared for them.
"Your answer is right, and I congratulate you on your cleverness," Samson informed them. "You mentioned how hard you worked to find the answer. That was a lie! You found the answer only because you forced it from my wife, whom you have known too well!" (Judges 14:15-18.)
These accusations, though true, would ordinarily have brought men swarming over the accuser. Not one man, however, moved against Samson. None was inclined to tangle with this broad-shouldered, powerful man in his time of anger. There was an awkward silence as Samson surveyed the crowd.
"I'll now go and get those thirty shirts and thirty robes I promised you!" he muttered as he stalked out.
"All those clothes would cost him too much," one man remarked with a grin as Samson disappeared. "That's the last we'll see of him!"
But Samson did return. It was a few days later. He was carrying a large, bulging bag. He called the thirty men together and emptied the contents of the bag -- thirty shirts and thirty robes!
"Where did you get these?" the men inquired as they picked them up and admiringly examined the fine material.
"What does it matter to you?" Samson replied tartly. "I took them from thirty well-dressed Philistine men I met on the various streets of Ashkelon. But they don't need the clothes any more because they're all dead now!"
Jaws dropped in consternation at the same moment the men dropped the pieces of clothing as though they were sizzling hot potatoes. Samson walked away, leaving the Philistines wondering if he were a muscular monster or merely a purveyor of tall tales -- or both.
Later they learned that the bodies of thirty Philistines had been found one morning in various parts of their city of Ashkelon, about twenty-four miles southwest of Timnath. All thirty of the bodies were found to be without shirts and robes.
On hearing this report, the so-called companions of the bridegroom were convinced that a monster had indeed been in their midst. They had no way of knowing that Samson's violent actions had been inspired by the God of Israel, who was directing the young Danite in a move for freedom for the southern tribes of Israel against their Philistine oppressors. After delivering the shirts and robes, Samson returned in anger to his home at Zorah without making any effort to visit his bride. (Judges 14:19.)
As the weeks went by, his anger and disgust diminished, and he decided to return to his wife. Taking a young goat as a gift, he went to the home of his wife's father, who was surprised and uneasy when he opened the door and saw Samson.
"I've come to see my wife," Samson said firmly to his father-in-law. "I trust she is here."
Samson's Wife Stolen
"She -- she is," the father answered hesitantly. "But weeks ago you gave me the definite impression that you would have no more to do with her, and consequently I gave her in marriage to the man who was your chief companion at your wedding!"
Samson was stunned by this news, though he might have known that anything could have happened among Philistines during his long absence.
"I should have expected something like that," he murmured bitterly. "She seemed to like him and the other twenty-nine more than me."
"Forget her!" the father exclaimed in an attempt to pacify Samson. "As you know, I have a younger and prettier daughter. If you would take her for your-bride, I would be greatly pleased -- and so would she!"
But I wouldn't!" Samson retorted. (Judges 15:1-2.) Burning with anger, he returned at once to Zorah. On the way he devised a plan to chastise at least some of the Philistine overlords because of their unjust treatment to him and to most other Israelites.
Within the next few days, with the help of several friends, he trapped three hundred foxes. These animals were especially abundant in Canaan and were a specially great nuisance in raiding the vineyard areas.
Samson and his helpers took the caged animals, by night, down into Philistine farming territory where various grains were raised. It was the dry harvest season. Some of the corn, oats, wheat and barley was still standing. Some of it had been cut and stacked or stored.
Samson and his men took short cords and tied the foxes together in couples, with one end of a cord tied to each animal's tail. Then they fastened a firebrand to each cord midway between the tails, and freed them in various areas. The result was that each pair of foxes rolled, raced and struggled all over the fields, dragging their torches and setting fire to the tinder-like grain shocks and uncut fields for miles around. Dry breezes spread the many fires over wide territory, insomuch that there was a tremendous loss of crops to the Philistines during the next several hours. (Judges 15:3-5.)
After the fires were finally put out, the leaders in that area investigated to find out how the fires had started. When they discovered that Samson was responsible, and that he had done it because his father-in-law had given Samson's wife to another man, the Philistines became even more alarmed. Samson had become an object of their fear and respect in recent weeks because of his unusual strength and daring. No one, even in groups, wished to oppose him. The natural thing to do, therefore, was blame Samson's wife and her father for the loss.
It wasn't long before an angry mob converged on the home of Samson's father-in-law, loudly demanding the appearance of the man and his daughter. The two feared the crowd too much to come out. After a while the house was set on fire. The occupants still refused to come out, and perished when the house burned to the ground. (Verse 6.)
When Samson heard what had happened, he boldly appeared before the Philistine leaders. He told them that he was well aware that their actions were in vengeance against him. Then he shouted to them that he wouldn't cease his violent actions toward them until he considered the score settled. This statement greatly disturbed the Philistine oppressors. They decided that they should speak out against Samson so that they wouldn't lose face in the estimation of the oppressed Israelites.
You've had your way around here too long!" someone shouted. This was the signal for the Philistines to choose what should be done. Some, though they disliked Samson, feared him too much to oppose him. Those tried to quiet others who wanted to make a stand against him. They quickly found themselves outnumbered as feeling against the Danite welled up within minutes.
One man, certain that he would have plenty of backing, and wishing to become a hero by opposing Samson, walked up to him and shook his fist in his face.
We've had enough of you!" he screamed indignantly. "After all, you're only an Israelite who should realize that we are your masters!"
The unfortunate fellow couldn't have made a poorer choice of words. Samson stared at him while all looked on in expectant silence. Like a cat leaping for a bird Samson pounced on the speaker, then snatched him up as though he were a light bundle of rags. Before anyone could move to interfere, he hurled the fellow into the knot of men grouped before him. There were grunts and howls of pain as the Philistines were floored under the impact of the hurtling body.
Most of those who were able to get up left the vicinity as quickly as they could. A few joined forces to try to stand up against Samson, coming at him from all sides. This was a foolish move. The Danite beat them off with a fury that spelled death for several.
The sound of the fight quickly attracted other men. Samson planned to get away before the Philistines could attack him in greater numbers, but it appeared that the opportunity had slipped by. From all directions he saw men moving menacingly toward him, men who were determined that his trouble-making for them was about to cease. Some of them carried knives and swords. Others carried clubs. There seemed to be no way of breaking out of the tightening circle of aggressors. The panting, sweating Danite realized that this could be the end.
As the crowd closed in tightly, one over-anxious Philistine leased at Samson. He proved to be the needed weapon for the man at bay. Samson caught him, flipped him upside down to seize him by the ankles and swing him around and around with such force and speed that those closing in on him were mowed down in a senseless heap.
The violence of Samson's action, which left dead and dying all around, was a quick convincer to the Philistines that they were dealing with a man of super-human strength, and that further opposition would result only in more death and injury. They melted away in retreat, giving Samson the opportunity at last, to get out of that region.
More Trouble For Samson
Instead of going to the home of his parents, where the Philistines would be certain to look for him, Samson went eastward into the, land of the tribe of Judah. The Philistines were in power there, too, but he found refuge near Jerusalem in a cave-like fortress named Etam, where some Israelites had gathered to defend themselves against their oppressors. (Judges 15:7-8.)
The Philistines immediately formed an army which marched eastward into the territory of Judah, where the soldiers camped in a rugged area of limestone cliffs in Lehi, near where Samson was hiding. When the leaders of Judah inquired why an army had come against them, they were told that it had come to insure that the men of Judah would find Samson and deliver him, as a bound captive, to the Philistine army.
The men of Judah had no choice in the matter. They knew that the Philistines would attack them if they refused. They bowed to the wishes of their tyrants by promising that they would bring Samson back as a helpless prisoner.
Later, at the fortress of Etam where Samson was staying, a messenger excitedly rushed in with the news that an army was approaching from the north.
"There must be at least three thousand!" he panted. "They've come down to try to capture Samson, the long-haired nazarite!" (Judges 15:9-11.)
Bible Story Book Index
Samson Vexes the Philistines
EVEN before a messenger arrived to warn Samson at the fortress of Etam that thousands of soldiers were coming to take him, the young and powerful Danite spotted the army of three thousand from atop the fortress. He could tell by the dress and insignia of the soldiers that they were of the tribe of Judah. He could think of no valid reason why fellow Israelites would be a threat to him or the men with him.
Samson Is Arrested
When the leaders of the army of Judah met with Samson and the other men at the fortress, the reason for the presence of so many men was soon made known.
"We admire your great strength and we have marveled at the ways you have used it and your sense of humor in making the foxes set fire to the Philistines' crops," the captain of the army of Judah told Samson. "However, you seem to have forgotten that the Philistines are ruling over us, and that no one man can change that unhappy situation. Your violent actions against them and your insulting ways and remarks have only made them more hostile toward us. Why have you caused so much trouble?"
"They are our enemies," Samson replied. "They treated me badly, and I did the same to them. And I might as well enjoy my revenge by having a good laugh at their expense." (Judges 15:1-11.)
"What you did has resulted in more grief than you realize," the captain continued. "Now we have had to promise the Philistines that we will deliver you to them bound and alive! Otherwise, their soldiers will overrun the land with a terrible slaughter!"
Samson silently surveyed the three thousand soldiers below. He was beginning to understand the seriousness of the situation.
"Who figured that so many men would be required to capture me?" he laughed. "I am only one man."
The captain's face turned a little red, but he had a reasonable answer.
"We didn't know how many men would be in and around this fortress."
Samson knew that he would have to submit then and there to the men of Judah or fight against his own people in an attempt to escape. He loved all Israelites and didn't want to hurt any of them.
"I'll willingly go with you if you'll promise to keep me alive," Samson finally said.
"We'll have to bind you," the captain told him, "but I promise you that otherwise you will receive only the best treatment from us."
Samson was free to do as he wished until the soldiers of Judah had eaten and rested and were ready to start back northward. Then the husky Danite's mighty arms were securely bound behind his back with two lengths of strong, new rope. Knots were made especially secure and the rope was bound very tightly over his cloth-wrapped wrists so that there would be no
opportunity for leverage or slack by which the binding might gradually be worked loose. (Judges 15:12-13.)
When the army of Judah started out, Samson was carried on a litter between burros. The captain wished to make certain that nothing happened to the Danite before he could be delivered to the Philistines, who were still waiting to the north in the rugged region of Judah where their army had moved on.
It was not many miles from the fortress of Etam to where the Philistines were encamped. Just before the men of Judah reached the place, the captain gave orders to his three thousand men to disband and return to their homes. He was fearful that the army of the Philistines might have formed a trap ahead for his men. A handful of men were ordered on to guide the burros carrying Samson, and these men were advised to escape, if they could, as soon as Samson was in the hands of the Philistines.
A Surprise for the Philistines
When the Philistines learned from look-outs that Samson was being brought into their camp, they became very excited. They grabbed up their arms and rushed southward to seize the man who had troubled them so much. When they saw him being carried toward them, they begun shouting in triumph. It was quite satisfying to them to view him being borne to his apparent doom in their midst. Instead of seizing him immediately, they stood back and shouted taunts and insults. At this point the men who were guiding the burros felt that they had accomplished their mission, and they turned to flee.
Samson made no effort to do anything. Officers sent men to approach him to examine his bonds to make certain that they were real and sufficient. They reported that the ropes were new, strong and well knotted, and that Samson was truly helpless. Assured, the Philistine officers boldly gathered around Samson.
"So this is the mighty Israelite called Samson!" a Philistine officer haughtily addressed the prone Danite. "You have caused us some trouble in the past, but now you should know that your future is going to be full of a lot more trouble, even though it will be a very short future!"
A great cheer rose from the Philistines. This was too much for Samson, who had been trying to wait for some kind of opportunity. Anger can result in increased strength, and so it was with the muscular Danite. At the same time God imbued him with a special power because he had kept the requirements of a nazarite.
The laughter and hoots of the Philistines increased as Samson jerked himself up and strained at his ropes. In his bound state Samson's bulging muscles, rising veins and expression of anger and agony were a combination to cause great mirth to his enemies. All this was changed within seconds when the bonds snapped and the Danite leaped to his feet. Laughter abruptly faded. Grinning expressions turned to those of surprise and disbelief. Those who stood close to Samson swiftly moved away from him. (Judges 15:14.)
This was a crucial moment for Samson. He knew that he needed more than his fists to protect himself. There was no club, sword, spear or knife within his immediate reach. There were stones, but they could only be thrown, and were awkward to use.
Only the Jawbone of a Donkey
His darting eyes at last focused on the nearby skeleton of a donkey that had died recently and had been freshly picked clean by scavengers. Samson leaped to the bones, jerked the head from the rest of the skeleton and yanked the lower jawbone from the head.
By this time the bolder of the Philistines were beginning to close in on him. Grasping the jawbone by its smaller end, Samson started slamming away all about him, cracking the arms, heads, chests and backs of those who were courageous enough, however unwise, to come close to him. Some of the officers who had taunted Samson were pushed up to him by their surging soldiers, insomuch that they were included among Samson's victims.
When Philistine soldiers at a distance at last realized what was happening, they tried to rush in and overcome Samson by their very numbers. Men were rammed up to the Danite by the hundreds, but Samson swung the jawbone so swiftly and fiercely that no man was able to seize him or even touch him without being severely wounded or slain. Even so, the Philistines continued to pour in to their deaths.
What with Samson being surrounded with Philistines, soldiers more at a distance hesitated to use spears and arrows, lest they kill their own men. The sight of the slaughter of their fellow soldiers by a man crushing their skulls was too unnerving for the Philistines. The rest of them disappeared into the hills, bringing the strange battle to a quick end.
There was silence to take the place of the shouts of fighting men. And on the arid ground lay a thousand Philistine corpses brought to that state because of Samson's swift, strong use of a donkey's jawbone -- and God's help. (Judges 15:15.)
It was a ragged, sweating, weary Danite who looked warily about for more Philistines to rush in. He was breathing hard after his long, fatiguing struggle. He listened for the approach of more attackers, but the only sounds were the groans of the wounded and dying. As Samson uncertainly stood there amid the hundreds of corpses, it was difficult for him to realize what had happened.
"I can scarcely believe it," he muttered to himself. "God must have helped and protected me, or I wouldn't have been able to overcome all these men with the jawbone of a donkey!"
Finally he realized that the fingers of his right hand were still wrapped tightly around the jawbone. Then he tossed it away. He named the place "Ramath-Lehi", which means "Hill of The Jawbone." (Judges 15:16-17.)
Until that moment he hadn't realized how tired and thirsty he had become. He looked around for some source of water, but there appeared to be no brook or spring in the vicinity. None of the dead Philistines had canteens, having excitedly rushed out of their camp with only their weapons.
Samson realized he would be risking death if his enemies should attack him in his tired condition. He fell weakly to his knees in the dry soil, then forward on his face.
God Sends Water
"You have helped me through many great dangers, God!" he muttered wearily. "Surely you didn't spare me to this moment just so I would die of thirst and my body at last fall into the hands of my pagan enemies! Please give me water!"
He lay motionless on the hot ground. His throat began to burn as though he had swallowed hot coals. He was too miserable and worn out to go any farther.
Above his labored breathing he heard a faint sound like the soft gurgle of bubbling liquid.
Samson then raised his head up to see clear water flowing up out of the ground only a few feet away! He stared at it unbelievingly. It took moments for him to realize that God had granted his request and had by a miracle made a spring in a low spot, or hollow place, there at Lehi, called "the jaw" in the King James version. Spurred to action by the sight and sound of the water, he crawled slowly up to it and dropped his head into the cool spring to gulp in the life-giving water!
Soon Samson's strength returned. He was so thankful for the miracle God performed to save his life that he named the place En-hakkore, which means "Well of the Implorer." (Judges 15:18-19.)
He had no difficulty in returning to his home town. The Philistines feared him more than ever. Some believed that he was possessed with a demon, while others thought that the Israelite God he worshipped had something to do with his unusual strength. They decided to leave him alone until some circumstance favorable to them would result in his death.
It was a long, long time, however, before that circumstance developed. After his victorious encounter with the Philistine army, God made Samson judge over southwest Israel. He continued in that office for the next twenty years. During that time, however, the Israelites were still under subjection to their oppressors. (Judges 15:20.)
One day near the end of that twenty-year period, Samson rashly went to the Philistine capital city of Gaza near the Mediterranean, or the Great Sea. This city had been captured by Judah many years previously, but had fallen back into Philistine hands at one of the times Israel had forsaken the Creator.
Samson's reason for going to Gaza isn't mentioned in the Bible, but it was unwise for him to move about in the land of his enemies. To make matters worse, he went into one of Gaza's leading inns. It was impossible that such a powerfully built man -- with the uncut hair and beard of one under a nazarite vow -- should go unrecognized. Since Samson's peculiar features were well known, word spread swiftly that the mighty Danite was in town. Military officials were quite excited when they heard the news. They immediately ordered men to close the gates of the city so that Samson could not leave. Excitement mounted when it was later reported that Samson had been so attracted by the proprietress of the inn that he had decided to stay there till the next day.
Are Gates and Bars Enough?
"This is even more to our advantage!" a Philistine officer exclaimed. "He'll surely stay all night, and we'll better be able to cope with him in the daylight. Then, when he tries to get out, we will have the last laugh. At that time I want every man to come out of hiding and set upon him with every kind of weapon. This time that Israelite, Samson, will come to his death by our hands!" (Judges 16:1-2.)
Some Philistines who were aware of the plot against Samson quickly went to the inn to inform him. Of course they hoped that the Israelite judge would reward them handsomely. Samson realized that this could be a plan to get him out of the place right away and into the arms of his enemies, but he took a chance and left the inn about midnight.
Carefully keeping in the deep shadows, he silently went to the double gates of the city. He thought it strange that no guards were in sight. He hurried to remove the bar that held the gates locked and rigid after dark. To his surprise, after he removed the bar, the gates were still rigid. He pushed and pulled on them, but they wouldn't open. He realized then that another bar had also been fixed to the outside of the gates -- undoubtedly to keep him escaping to safety among his own people.
There was no way out except over the wall. It was too high for him to scale. And in those places where structures were built high against it, it might have been possible for him to get up on the wall, but it would have been too much of a drop on the outside.
Samson was as angry at himself for having blundered into this predicament as he was at the Philistines for trapping him. His first impulse was to step back and hurl himself at the double door in an attempt to crack the outside bar. Then a vengeful notion came to him. He seized the post to which the left gate was fixed and yanked it loose from the wall. He did the same with the right post. The gates and posts, held together by the bar that had been bolted across them from the outside fell to the ground as a solid mass. Samson was free again! Just for a joke -- to have a laugh on the Philistine oppressors -- Samson decided to make them look ridiculous again.
Lifting one edge up, Samson squeezed under the gates and hoisted them onto his shoulders. After balancing them to the best position, he walked away with the gates of Gaza -- posts, bar and all!
But Samson wasn't content just to remove the gates. They were found a few days later on top of a high hill several miles to the east. (Judges 16:3.)
With all his strength and his virtues -- his faithfulness to his nazarite vow, his patriotic love for God and the Israelites -- Samson seemed to have a weakness for pretty Philistine women. To him their pagan culture seemed very charming. Not long after the episode at Gaza, he was attracted to a Philistine woman by the name of Delilah.
There were five main Philistine rulers, and when they heard that Samson had chosen a mate, they found out who she was and sent agents to talk to her.
"We have been instructed by our superiors to ask you to do a great favor for them," the agents secretly told Delilah. "It is something that should be easy for you, but we are willing to reward you well."
"Of course this has to do with Samson," the wily Delilah remarked casually.
"Why -- yes. It does," the spokesman for the agents replied. "And you would like me to find out what makes him so strong so that the rulers of Philistia will know how to deal with him," Delilah went on.
The agents were a bit taken aback by this statement, but at the same time they were relieved that they wouldn't have so much to explain.
"I expected something like this." Delilah told them. "What makes you think, gentlemen, that even a great reward would cause me to betray Samson?" (Judges 16:4-5.)
Bible Story Book Index
The Power of a Woman
SAMSON fell in love with a beautiful Philistine woman named Delilah. (Judges 16:4.) The five representatives of the five rulers of Philistia had come to offer a reward to Delilah if she would discover for them the secret of Samson's strength. When Delilah asked them why they presumed that she could be paid to betray Samson, they felt that she was about to refuse.
Delilah Makes a Deal
"You should do this for the good of our great nation and all your Philistine friends," they anxiously told her. "You would be aiding in keeping down trouble and bloodshed!" Delilah eyed them quizzically for a few moments.
"I suppose you are right," she finally said, casually running one hand over her hair to push it into place. "If I find out what you want to know, how much are you willing to give me?"
"We'll give you a total of 5,500 pieces of silver, and no more," the relieved spokesman for the agents replied. "This money will be delivered to you just as soon as Samson is in our hands!" (Judges 16:5.)
"Be prepared to pay me very soon," Delilah quipped as she smiled at the five men. Although Samson didn't realize it, the woman he loved was proving to be a greedy opportunist who would do anything for enough money.
That same night she began to question Samson about the source of his strength.
"One reason why I admire and respect you so much," she fondly whispered to him in a time of intimacy, "is that your enemies have never been able to overcome you because of your great physical power. I know that you must have some secret source of such unusual power. It would please me if you would tell me that secret."
"I can think of no worthwhile reason why you should know such a thing," Samson replied. "You are a bit too curious to be pleased."
"I suppose so," Delilah tactfully sighed. "I merely hoped that you would share with me the knowledge of what great thing it would take to overcome such a strong man as you."
Samson fondly surveyed Delilah. He had such an ardent affection for her that he didn't wish to refuse her some kind of answer. Yet, he did not completely trust her with the secret of his great strength. And Samson did not want to risk unnecessary danger. So he decided to use his sharp wit again so that, if Delilah talked too much to the wrong people, he might have another good laugh on the Philistines.
"If my enemies were to carefully bind me with seven strong, green strips of bark twisted together," Samson said, "then my special strength would fail me, and I would be no stronger than any other man of my physical development." (Judges 16:7.)
"Samson, why do you tell me such a tale?" Delilah gently scolded him, thereby trying to cause him to think that she didn't believe him.
"Why don't you try binding me with such a cord and see what happens?" Samson asked. "I think I shall do just that, my darling," Delilah replied.
Hours later, Delilah contacted the representatives of the rulers of Philistia to tell them what Samson had told her.
"It could be that Samson made up a story to test your loyalty," one of the men observed.
"I realize that," Delilah answered, "but you'll agree that we'll have to take a chance. Furnish me with the seven strong, green strips of bark braided together, and I'll manage somehow to tie Samson up with them. I'll have men hiding in another part of my home to leap on him if he cannot break the cord!"
"Excellent!" exclaimed the spokesman for the five agents. "We'll send you the cord right away! The rest is up to you!"
Another Laugh for Samson
Later, when everything was in readiness, Delilah produced the cord and playfully wound it about Samson.
"I took you at your word," she told him smilingly, carefully knotting the cord at his wrists behind his back. "Now, if you are as helpless as you said you would be. what if I should call for your enemies to come and take you?"
"This little game of ours wouldn't be very interesting if you already knew what would happen," Samson teased. "If you have some way to get in touch with my enemies this very minute, I'll face them!"
Samson was quite unaware that a number of picked Philistine soldiers were hiding only a few yards away, ready to pounce on him at the expected moment of his helplessness. He was quite surprised when Delilah began shouting.
"Samson is bound!" she called out excitedly. "Come after him, you men!
The hidden men, peeking through small slits in a curtain, failed to move or make any noise. They first wanted to see what the Danite would do. They had been told that he probably would struggle quite fiercely with his bonds if they proved to be too much for him, and the soldiers were taking no chances.
Suddenly Samson broke the cord as though it were made of cobwebs, causing the Philistines to fall back and quietly flee through a rear entrance. Delilah was relieved that the soldiers hadn't rushed into the room. She quickly regained her composure and concealed her disappointment by smiling and applauding. (Judges 16:8-9.)
A few nights later, when she felt that enough time had passed so that Samson wouldn't guess how anxious she was to betray him, she again brought up the subject of his strength.
"Why did you jest with me about the wonderful source of your great power?" she asked in a hurt tone. "I don't think it was fair of you to tell me something that wasn't true."
"I didn't think you had a good reason to be serious," Samson explained, "so I put you off with a light answer."
"But I was serious!" Delilah insisted. "Why shouldn't you tell me what a wondrous thing it would take to overcome such a man as you?"
Again, because of his deep feeling for Delilah, Samson felt that he should give an answer, but he was too wary to tell her all she wanted to know.
Samson Still Cautious
"All right, Delilah," he sighed. "Here's what could prove my undoing. If I were bound tightly with strong, new ropes that have never before been used for any other purpose, then would I be only as strong as any other man of my size and development."
Delilah realized that this wasn't necessarily so, but there was nothing to do but obtain the new rope and again hide the Philistines in her house while she once more went through the rather childish procedure of playfully binding Samson.
"I can't imagine why tying me up seems so fascinating to you," Samson commented, "but if it makes you happy, I don't mind."
By this time Delilah had bound Samson very thoroughly with the heavy, strong, new rope. She believed now that he would have great difficulty in getting free, what with the manner in which she had wound the rope around and around his arms, wrists, waist and neck. After tying a last knot, she abruptly backed away.
"Samson is bound!" she shouted. "Come out and seize him before he can loose himself."
Again the peeking Philistines held back until they could be doubly sure that it was safe to expose themselves. When they saw Samson flex his muscles and break the ropes as though they were fine threads, they once more fled for their lives. (Judges 16:10-12.)
Delilah could well be thankful for the second time that the Philistines left instead of exposing themselves. She repeated her performance of the time before, to try to cause Samson to believe that it was all a little game, however silly, to show him how much she admired his unusual physical power.
For the third time, several nights later, Delilah launched into another attempt to uncover Samson's secret.
"You have mocked me twice in this matter," she told Samson in a wounded voice. "Don't you love me enough to share your greatest secret with me?"
"Of course I do," Samson answered. "Now listen to this. As you know, I often divide my hair into seven different tresses. I'll lie here on the floor in front of your loom. If you can weave my seven locks with the web of your loom, the main source of my strength will depart from me."
For the third time Delilah halfheartedly arranged for Philistines to be hidden in the next room while Samson submitted to having his seven plaits of hair being put through Delilah's loom. Delilah purposely took so much time that Samson fell asleep. When she had his hair woven with the web and securely fastened to the pin of her loom, she cried out to the hiding men to leap out and seize Samson. Awakened, he sat up suddenly, jerking the pin and the web loose from the loom by the strength of his hair and muscles. As before, when the Philistines saw that he was free, they fled. (Judges 16:13-14.)
"How can you say that you love me after mocking me three times about your great strength?" Delilah asked in a slightly displeased tone.
"I can love you without having to answer all your questions," Samson replied with some irritation. "If you really care for me, you won't bother me any more with this subject!"
The Temptress Finally Wins
Nevertheless, from then on, Delilah kept badgering him with questions. Every day and every night she would ply him with questions about the source of his strength. He began to feel that the risk he would run by exposing his secret wasn't worth what he suffered by her nagging. In fact, he felt that he would rather risk death than continue to put up with such nagging.
"All right! ALL RIGHT!" Samson finally exclaimed in desperation, clamping his fists against the sides of his head. "I'll tell you anything you want to know! After that I never want to hear any more from you about why I am as I am!"
Assuming an expression of compassion, though she was really quite elated, Delilah rushed to Samson and threw her arms about him. It appeared that this unprincipled temptress whom Samson unwisely loved was about to succeed where a whole army had failed.
"I'm sorry, my darling!" she murmured. "I guess I didn't realize that I was being so troublesome. If it will help you to get anything off your mind, sit down and tell me all about it!"
"You Philistines probably don't know much about such things," Samson began, "but at the moment I was born I became a nazarite, which meant that I was dedicated to service for the God of Israel for my entire life. (Judges 13:1-25.) There are several special things that a nazarite must do. One of those things is to let his hair and beard grow without any cutting or trimming. (Numbers 6:1-21.) If my hair and beard were to be cut off, my nazarite vow would be broken and God probably would not give me the special protection He has given me all my life. Neither would He give me the special strength I have at times when I am to perform unusual feats!" (Judges 16:15-17.)
Delilah was certain that at last Samson had told her the truth. Later, she contacted the agents of the rulers of Philistia to tell them that Samson was about to become their prisoner. She arranged for the usual men to go into hiding in her house that night.
When Samson returned from business elsewhere, Delilah met him with unusual warmth. Because it was quite late, she sat on the floor and suggested that Samson lie with his head in her lap. She sang to him softly, gently running her fingers through his great mass of hair. Soon he was asleep, but she didn't try to rush matters.
She waited until his heavy breathing indicated that he wouldn't be easily awakened.
It was then that she silently signaled to one of the men in concealment, who hesitantly appeared and fearfully moved toward the sleeping Danite. This man was a barber whom Delilah had hired to join the Philistine soldiers.
Samson's Nazarite Vow Broken
It took time for this timorous fellow to get up courage to apply his razor to Samson's flowing locks, but once he got off to a start, it didn't take him long to deftly crop the sleeping man's hair and beard off short. When his task was done, he lost no time in leaving.
During this most unusual haircut, Samson had at times moved restlessly. Delilah continued singing to him softly, hoping that he wouldn't spoil everything by awakening.
But as soon as he was shorn, Delilah didn't care how soon he awoke. She signaled to the Philistines to come out of hiding, but they didn't dare until they could believe that he was too weak to overcome them.
"Wake up to face your enemies!" Delilah scoffingly muttered to Samson.
Samson moved, but didn't awaken. Delilah pushed his head off her lap and prodded him with her foot. (Judges 16:18-19.)
"Get up, Israelite!" she smirked. "You have company!" Only half awake, Samson slowly got to his knees, at the same time sleepily rubbing his head.
When he felt the absence of hair, his eyes popped open and he lurched to his feet. Because he reeled slightly due to coming out of deep slumber so suddenly, the hiding Philistines believed that he had suddenly become very weak. At last, after running from Samson several times, they had the courage to charge out and swarm over him.
Samson at first tried to beat them off as they came on, but suddenly realized he no longer had his great strength. He began wondering how he had lost his hair and if God had completely deserted him because of his breaking his nazarite vow. The answer was plain when it became apparent that he was powerless against the group of brawny Philistine soldiers. Samson's love for a pretty pagan had been his undoing, just as God had warned the Israelites. (Exodus 23:31-33; Joshua 23:12-13.)
The Philistines hauled Samson to the floor, then pinned him down and bound him. By this time Delilah had disappeared. She had slipped out to collect the 5,500 pieces of silver from the agents who were close at hand.
From then on, for the next hour or so, Philistines closed in from all directions. Samson was dragged outside and confronted by a growing number of enemy officers who were most jubilant about the great victory over one man -- a victory it had taken them more than two decades to accomplish because God had planned it that way.
Amidst the shouts and cheers of the Philistines, Samson realized that he had been betrayed by a woman he should have shunned, and that God was punishing him. Bitter indeed was the distress of this mighty man who had just been outwitted and overpowered by a woman of very low character.
To add to his misery and apprehension, the bound Samson suddenly was aware that someone was shoving two red-hot pieces of metal directly toward his eyes! (Judges 16:20-21.)
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