Gideon: Against All Odds

Today I begin a series of studies on Gideon, one of the judges of Israel. This series of studies will be done in cooperation with my pastor, Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor of The Compass Church in Naperville, Illinois. Jeff is a great preacher who loves archaeology and often uses archaeological discoveries to illustrate his sermons.

Jeff is one of those rare preachers who likes to preach from the Old Testament. It is hard these days to find a preacher who preaches regularly from the Old Testament. A unique characteristic of Jeff’s preaching is that he begins and ends with the text that serves as the basis for his sermons. As one who has taught the Old Testament for more than thirty years, I appreciate sermons from the Old Testament and give Jeff an A+ for his sermons. It is an honor to cooperate with Jeff on this venture.

This series of studies on Gideon will proceed as follows: this post will introduce the book of Judges. The next post will be an introduction of Gideon. Then, the next four posts will be based on Jeff’s sermons. Jeff will preach the sermon first, then I will write a post based on his sermon. My post will serve as a historical background for Jeff’s sermon and his sermon will be an application of the content of my post. A link to the video of each of Jeff’s sermons will be included with my posts.

An Introduction to the Book of Judges

The book of Judges is a theological interpretation of the life of Israel in Canaan in the days prior to the monarchy. This history describes the activities of military heroes called “judges” who delivered Israel from the hands of nations who oppressed them. This oppression came because of Israel’s apostasy.

According to the writer of the book of Judges, Israel had been faithful to the covenant faith during the days of Joshua and the leaders who succeeded him. But there arose a new generation of Israelites who did not know Yahweh or the work which he had done for Israel: “The people worshiped the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the LORD had done for Israel. . . . Moreover, that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:7, 10).

This new generation of Israelites was indifferent to the demands of the covenant. They abandoned Yahweh to serve the gods of the land, and as a consequence of their disobedience, the curses of the covenant were invoked upon Israel.

The Cycle of Apostasy

The life of Israel in Canaan prior to the monarchy is presented in the book of Judges in a literary device of a cycle of apostasy and repentance that reflects the Deuteronomist’s understanding of Israel’s judgment:

(a) The people of Israel sinned against God

(b) God sent an oppressor

(c) The people cried to God

(d) God raised a judge to deliver Israel

(e) There is peace as long as the judge lived

(f) Israel sinned again after the death of the judge

This cycle of apostasy is clearly seen in the statement found in Judges 2:11-19:

The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshiped the Baals; and they abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. They abandoned the LORD, and worshiped Baal and the Astarte.

So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them, and he sold them into the power of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the LORD was against them to bring misfortune, as the LORD had warned them and sworn to them; and they were in great distress.

Then the LORD raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen even to their judges; for they lusted after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their ancestors had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the LORD; they did not follow their example. Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the LORD would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they would relapse and behave worse than their ancestors (Judges 2:11-19).

The book of Judges reflects the chaotic time in Israel’s history when there was no king in Israel: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Because Israel had been unfaithful to Yahweh and had neglected the responsibilities of the covenant they had to suffer the judgment of God. Only repentance could bring deliverance.

The Judges of Israel

Many Christians have a misconception of what the judges of Israel did for their community. In today’s society, a judge is the person who judges or who renders a verdict in a court of law. However, the Hebrew word shophetim, generally translated “judges” in our English Bibles designates a military leader. Their main responsibility was to fight on behalf of Israel and deliver the people from the oppressive hands of their enemies.

A judge was chosen to lead Israel against their enemies by the endowment of the Spirit of God: “the spirit of the LORD took possession of Gideon” (Judges 6:34). By virtue of the endowment of the Spirit of Yahweh, the judges of Israel were “charismatic leaders.” The word “charismatic” comes from a Greek word that is translated in the Bible as “gift.” A charismatic leader is the person who receives the endowment of the Spirit of God to do God’s work.

There are twelve judges named in the book of Judges. These judges are divided into the Major Judges and the Minor Judges.

There are six major judges: Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. These judges are called “major judges” because their stories are presented with some details of their activities. There are six minor judges: Jair, Tola, Ibzan, Elon, Shamgar, and Abdon. These six judges are called “minor judges” because the texts do not give any information about their work.

The Acts of the Judges

Ehud delivered Israel from the Moabites, 3:12-30. Ehud judged Israel for eighty years (Judges 3:30).

Deborah delivered Israel from the Canaanites, 4:1-5:31. Deborah judged Israel for forty years.

Gideon delivered Israel from the Midianites, 6:1-8:35. Gideon judged Israel for forty years.

Jephthah delivered Israel from the Ammonites, 10:6-12:7. Jephthah judged Israel six years.

Samson fought against the Philistines, 13:1-16:31. Samson was unable to deliver Israel from the oppression of the Philistines. Samson judged Israel twenty years.

Jair was a minor judge from Gilead. Nothing is known about Jair. Jair judged Israel twenty-two years (Judges 10:3-4).

Tola was a minor judge from the tribe of Issachar. Nothing is known about Tola. Tola judged Israel twenty-three years (Judges 10:1-2).

Ibzan was a minor judge from Bethlehem. Nothing is known about Ibzan. Ibzan judged Israel seven years (Judges 12:8-9).

Elon was a minor judge from Zebulun. Nothing is known about Elon. Elon judged Israel ten years (Judges 12:11).

Shamgar was a minor judge in Israel and little is known about him. According to Judges 3:31, Shamgar was the son of Anath. Shamgar fought against the Philistines and he killed six hundred of the Philistines with an oxgoad. The Bible does not say how long Shamgar judged Israel. The name Shamgar is not an Israelite name; the name is probably of Hurrian origin.

Abdon was a minor judge. He was the son of Hillel and he was from the village of Pirathon in the tribe of Ephraim. Abdon judged Israel eight years (Judges 12:13-15).

My next post on this series on Gideon will present a brief introduction of Gideon, the judge who liberated Israel from the oppression by the Midianites.

NOTE: For a complete list on all the studies on Gideon, visit my post, “Studies on Gideon.”

Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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