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Reign of the Judges

Gideon Choosing His SoldiersJoshua’s generation remained faithful to the Lord (see Joshua 24:31 ), but spiritual apostasy soon became rampant in the following generation. “And there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel.”  The Israelites became less united and more tribal.

“And they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, which brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods, of the gods of the people that were round about them, and bowed themselves unto them, and provoked the Lord to anger.” ( Judges 2:10, 12 .)

It is an interesting situation when a nation is ruled by judges.  Many times in the Old Testament, the Lord warns Israel of the very negatives things that could happen to them if they should have a king.  In many ways, they would be protected from the burdens of having an unrighteous king by having righteous ruling judges.  But the government did not function well, because the people became so corrupt.  However, the leaders of Israel were not exactly judges.  They did not sit in judgment, but were more military leaders who governed the people.  They also did not reign over a unified Israel, but had influence over various tribes at various times.

Israel’s history during the reign of the Judges is very similar to that of the Book of Mormon peoples prior to the visit from the resurrected Christ.   (See  Helaman 12 .) When the Israelites turned from the Lord, their enemies began to prevail (see Judges 2:14–15 ). Suffering under oppression and war, the people would cry unto God and He would raise up a Deborah or a Gideon to deliver them. But once peace and security were reestablished, the people turned again to their former ways (see Judges 2:16–19 ).

In the first chapters of Judges, we see military campaigns in which the Israelites gain some advantage (with 12 judges having victories — Judges 3 – 15), but they fail to follow the Lord’s directive to cleanse the land of the unrighteous inhabitants, and they eventually become idolatrous apostates due to the influence of the indigenous cultures.

“The material culture and international trade of the Canaanites was highly advanced, but their religious ways stood diametrically opposed to Israel’s. Based on the fertility cults led by the god Baal, the Canaanite religion was an extraordinarily immoral form of paganism, including . . . prostitution, homosexuality, and other orgiastic rites.

“The population of Canaan was mixed. In addition to the Canaanites near the sea and a few Hebrew clans, the Amorites are mentioned often in the Old Testament. Abraham descended from this Semitic people. Many of the other peoples listed in the Bible as inhabitants of the land (Hittites, Hivites, Horites, Jebusites, etc.) represent Canaan’s non-Semitic elements, although their tribal names preserve their distant origins. These people fully adopted the Canaanite religion and way of life by the time of the Israelite invasion.” (S. Kent Brown, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, Oct. 1973, p. 58 .)

Intermarriage with heathens further weakened the faith of the Israelites.  Remember that even the dietary laws of Moses were meant to keep the Israelites away from the pagan table.  Many spiritual laws were broken by Israel in order to partake in the idolatry of heathen culture.

In addition to tempting the Israelites away from their religion and covenants, the heathen nations fought with the Israelites and plundered them.  Sometimes, in their desperation, the Israelites humbled themselves and turned to the Lord.  In Judges 6 we read about Gideon, who sought a sign from the Lord and was approved.  His father called him Jerubbaal:

“Gideon’s father, Joash, owned a grove and an altar dedicated to the false god Baal. Groves of trees played a prominent part in ancient heathen worship. Since it was thought wrong to shut up the gods with walls, groves of trees were often used as natural temples. Within the groves the immoral rites of the heathen religions were performed.

“Gideon and ten other men followed the Lord’s commandments to tear down the grove and the altar and in their place erect an altar to Jehovah. The men of the city cried for Gideon’s death, but Joash defended his son’s actions. Joash named Gideon Jerubbaal , “let Baal plead,” meaning that if Baal was upset by Gideon’s actions Baal could defend his own cause. The name Jerubbaal remained with Gideon on some occasions thereafter ( Judges 6:25–71).

With Gideon, the Lord was able to manifest His power and did so with miracles that the entire nation could see.  He was able to conquer with a small band of just 300 men.  The tribes east of the Jordan, however, failed to support Gideon, even though they were the most threatened by invaders from Arabia.  Gideon physically punished these tribes for their treason after he defeated the Midianites.  Later, Gideon refused to be king, giving credit to the Lord for his victories.  To show how idolatrous Israel had become — when Gideon made an ephod out of the spoils of war, the Israels began to worship it; they treated it like an idol ( Judges 8:24–28 ).

The historian Josephus said this about the Israelites: “After this, the Israelites grew effeminate as to fighting any more against their enemies, but applied themselves to the cultivation of the land, which producing them great plenty and riches, they neglected the regular disposition of their settlement, and indulged themselves in luxury and pleasures; nor were they any longer careful to hear the laws that belonged to their political government: whereupon God was provoked to anger, and put them in mind, first, how, contrary to his directions, they had spared the Canaanites: and, after that, how those Canaanites, as opportunity served, used them very barbarously.” ( Antiquities of the Jews, bk. 5, chap. 2, par. 7.)

The Israelites greatest enemies were not the power-hungry Midianites or Moabites but inward vacillation, apathy, disobedience, and rebellion. Their outward enemies raged through them constantly only because the inward weaknesses raged unchecked also.  For example, Gideon’s neighbors, not a group of pagan Canaanites, were worked into a murderous frenzy when Gideon destroyed the altar of Baal.


Judges 13 – 21

Samson Slaying A Lion by Gustave Dore“Samson could have been one of the greatest leaders in Israel since Joshua if he had been true to his Nazarite vows and to his Lord. If Samson, foreordained and chosen by the Lord, had been able to master himself, he could have set an example of spiritual and physical courage that would rank with the finest in history. But we can learn from Samson’s failure to avoid self-justification and uncontrolled passion so that we might join modern Israel in becoming a mighty and pure people before the second coming of the Lord.”

Samson was a “Nazarite,” that is, he was set apart for the service of the Lord.  A Nazarite is not the same as a “Nazarine.”  Jesusand his early followers were called Nazarines, because they were from Nazareth in northern Israel.  The word, Nazarite, comes from the Hebrew word nazar, which means “to separate.”  A Nazarite was separated from the people by his covenant and by his behavior and calling.  He made a vow of dedication to Jehovah.  Samson’s birth into the world was heralded by an angel ( Judges 13:16–25 ).  His birth was a miracle, since his mother had been barrren.  Israel had been in bondage for 40 years when Samson was born.  He could have been a deliverer for them.  With this in mind, the choices Samson made equated to a wasted and tragic life.  He was self-indulgent, immoral, and vengeful.

The writer who describes to us the life of Samson attributes Samson’s great strength to the Lord.  Whenever Samson uses his strength, even in an act of bad temper or ill-thought-out revenge, the writer attributes his strength to the spirit of the Lord.  Perhaps Samson’s great strength was a gift from the Lord, and that is what the author is citing.  This is one of those situations where the story doesn’t seem to represent what it says it does…that the Lord inspired and strengthened Samson to commit acts of anger and violence.

A summary of the adventures of Samson.  At his own wedding (which was not in the covenant — he chose a Philistine woman), Samson proposed a riddle born of the fact he had killed a lion with his bare hands, and a beehive was established in the carcass.  To save her own life, his wife revealed the answer to thirty Philistines.  Samson lost his wager and therefore was in debt.   He was furious and wreaked havoc on the Philistines at Ashkelon to get the spoils necessary to pay his debt.  Samson’s promised wife father offered her to Samson’s best man.  Now, the writer says it was the Lord’s will that Samson chose a Philistine woman to marry, so that Samson could be a blight on the Philistines.  Perhaps the Lord knew Samson would be incorrigible, and saw fit to inflict him upon the Philistines by placing Samson among them.  Samson tried to visit her, but her father rebuffed him.  Though the father offered Samson her younger sister, his ire was kindled.  He caught 300 foxes (a feat in itself) and attached firebrands to their tails, then sent them among the crops of the Philistines to burn them.  The Philistines took revenge by killing Samson’s former fiancee and her father.  Then Samson took revenge by slaughtering many of them.

Other Philistines came up to Judah to take Samson.  3000 Judaites went to Samson to find out why the Philistines were upon them, and since they were in bondage to the Philistines, determined to hand Samson over to them to keep the peace.  Promising not to harm Samson, the Judaites bound him with new rope and turned Samson over to the Philistines.  Imbued with strength, Samson broke his bonds and slew 1,000 of the Philistines.  This adventure made Samson thirsty, and the Lord provided him with water.  The Bible says Samson judged Israel for 20 years.  It’s difficult to picture Samson as the type of judge we are familiar with.  Samson then went down to Gaza and visited a harlot.  The Gazites were waiting to ambush him in the morning, but Samson went out at midnight and took the gates and posts of the city.  Then Samson met Delilah.

Delilah discovered through her wiles, that if Samson’s hair were to be shorn (that is, if he ruined the symbol of his Nazarite covenant), Samson would lose his strength.  When we read this story — every time Samson told her a lie about the source of his strength, she set upon him and tried to overcome him — Samson doesn’t seem very bright.  She manages to shear his hair while Samson slept.  He was bound and captured by the Philistines, who put out his eyes.  They fettered him and set him to grinding (probably grain) in the prison house.  Three thousand Philistines were spectators in the building where they bound Samson to the pillars for sport.  Samson called upon the Lord in his extremity, and in one last inspired surge of strength brought the building down upon himself and the Philistines.   If this story had a “biblical” ending, the Philistines would have released the Israelites from bondage, because of their fear of Israel’s God.  But the story just ends.  The following story about Micah, who followed his own path rather than the Lord’s typifies both Israel’s condition, and our condition in modern times:  Israel forsook her covenant with the Lord and everyone “did that which was right in his own eyes” ( Judges 17:6 ; 21:25 ).

The stories of Micah the Levite and the Danite migration, in chapters 17 and 18 , and the account of the rape of the concubine at Gibeah and the subsequent punishment of the Benjamites, in chapters 19–21 , are samples of Israel’s worst days. Nothing in the stories show the Israelites doing what was right.

*This article was adapted from the LDS Institute Old Testament Manual.

Next: Ruth

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