Samson is the “imperfect savior” not because he saved God's people despite his flaws and imperfections but because, given the opportunity to deliver God's people, he didn't deliver. In this way he reminds us of and points ahead to Jesus, who did God's will in delivering his people. He also serves as a wake-up call to us, to set aside our idolatry so we can be set apart for God.
Introduction to Samson and Judges 13-16
Samson is the worst judge. He is the last judge in this book and, when he selected his first wife based on how she looked to him (“She's the right one for me”), began the cycle whereby everyone did what was right in their own eyes (14:3; 17:6; 21:25). As things spiraled downward, out of control, and into chaos, Samson came as a judge who didn't even deliver himself, much less Israel.
Yet, Samson figured into God's plan by virtue of becoming God's agent against the Philistines (14:4). The Philistine oppression provided the context for Samson's story. The Philistines were apparently one among several tribes who were left behind in the land to test the Israelites who did not face battles in Canaan (3:3).
God worked his plan out mysteriously, possibly even without Samson's knowledge (14:4). The larger mystery is that God even bothered. When he raised up Samson, he did so from scratch, influencing Samson's parents even before he was born to set him apart under a nazirite vow to be consecrated specially to God. (You can read more about the nazirite vow in Numbers 6:1-21.) But God was on his own—the people weren't even crying out for a deliverer like in the past. It was almost as if they had been comfortable living under a foreign ruler, much like they had to be coaxed out of Egypt by Moses. So it was left for God to deliver his people without their even wanting to be delivered.
But Samson was no Moses. Despite being described in one verse as having “led” (15:20) Israel for twenty years, he did no leading of any kind, except perhaps as a motivational leader, if Israel could be said to draw strength from the ways Samson showed up the Philistines. Rather, Samson is a follower—of his own desires and urges, which got him into trouble on many occasions and ultimately led to his temple-destruction and demise.
Judges describes Samson as one who will only “begin” (13:5) to deliver Israel. This is true. Any deliverance that came as a result of Samson's work was not directly attributable to him. He really only led himself and any leading he did of the people appears to be incidental to him exacting revenge. Everything fell apart after the Israelites him (read chs 17-21 for a very dark and grim depiction of Israelite history and human nature) and when the next judge appeared, Samuel, he was also under a nazirite vow and had to deal with the Philistine threat because Samson didn't take care of it. In short, Samuel had to clean up Samson's mess (see 1 Samuel 4-7).
One final interesting note is that Samson's story is less about him than about the women in his life (as evidenced by his unnamed mother, often referred to as “the woman,” and the references to his wives and the prostitute, although his second “wife” is named). This contrast symbolizes how women affected Samson—he did not follow the positive example of his mother and was tricked time and again by his two wives and almost captured when he spent the night with a prostitute.
Chapter 13—Samson's birth narrative; the faithful example of his mother; the Spirit of the LORD “begins to stir him”
The birth story is completely one-quarter of the Samson story and is focused on the faith of his parents, especially that of his mother, and their fear of God. The promise is only that Samson will “begin to deliver” Israel (13:5). Note that this promise did not come by the hopes or desires of his parents but by the promise of the angel. Samson possibly “began” to fulfill this prophecy, but if so, not until the end of his story when he killed more Philistines in his own death than he had while he was alive (16:30). Tragically, the value of Samson's life appears to be measured by how many he killed.
Ultimately, Samson's “beginning” does not find true fulfillment until the coming of Jesus. Israel was delivered to the Philistines for forty years, reminiscent of the wilderness wandering for forty years. Instead of being delivered by God (via Samson) through it, they fell apart. Samson was supposed to be special, set apart under the nazirite vow, but never lived up to his potential. The specialness of Samson is evident in that only a few others in the bible receive a birth narrative account like this—Ishmael (Gen 16:7-16); Isaac (Gen 17:16-21; 18:10-15); John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25, 57-66); and Jesus (Luke 1:26-45; 2:1-7). Instead of simply appointing a deliverer, God worked to raise one from nothing. Sadly, Samson didn't go along with the plan.
In this section, at the very end, the first occurrence of “the Spirit of the LORD came upon him in power” comes into play. But the phrase appears to be used somewhat ambiguously. The Spirit, somewhat innocuously, enabled Samson to destroy a lion, but later when the Spirit came upon Samson it enabled Samson to accomplish God's work but not in a way that “delivered” Israel; it merely inflicted damage to the Philistines (see 14:19 and 15:14; cf. 14:4). However, at the end of his life, when Samson brought down the temple to Dagon on himself and the Philistines, despite his prayer to God, there is no mention of the Spirit of the LORD.
Chapter 14—Samson marries a Philistine woman; kills a lion; tricks the Philistines and is then tricked himself; kills thirty men in an act of revenge
Although Samson's story began in chapter 13 with his parents, he doesn't make a physical appearance until chapter 14. Suddenly, the grown Samson had a liking for forbidden things: he went down to the land of the Philistines and found a Philistine woman to marry. Despite his parents objections, he instructed his father to arrange the marriage, stating, “She's the right one for me.” This note precedes a pattern that will finish out Judges whereby “everyone did as they saw fit” (see 17:6; 21:25). This phrase is literally the last sentence in Judges! And it's Samson who began it using it!
Even though God was seeking to gain a foothold through through all this (14:4), the fact remains that Samson “began” to lead the people in doing whatever pleased them personally. He selected his wife based on what was good to him regardless of his nazirite vow. Samson's foreign wives are a symbol of Israel's idolatry towards God in these times.
On the way to Timnah to marry his bride, Samson encountered a lion that he destroyed with the help of God. This carcass, which also served as food for him on a later occasion (his interaction with the carcass likely broke his nazirite vow), became the source of a riddle he told to his thirty companions. This scene begins the depiction in Judges of Samson as a one-upper of the Philistines, tricking them even as they try to trick him.
Foolishly, Samson gave the answer to his riddle to his wife, who had been extorted by the Philistines (14:15). Samson was furious that his riddle had been deciphered, blamed it on his wife, and in a brutal act of revenge slaughtered thirty men to obtain the garments he needed to provide his thirty companions. Mysteriously, the Spirit of the LORD enabled him to do this, likely because of the damage inflicted to the Philistines.
Chapter 15—Samson's marital problems; he destroys the economy of the Philistines as revenge; is turned over by his own people to the Philistines; slaughters a thousand men to get away
In 15:1 Samson returned “later” to visit his wife. “Burning with anger” (14:19) after being betrayed by her he had gone home. After cooling off, he decided to pay a visit to his “wife's room” (15:2). But when he arrived he discovered that his marriage had been annulled and his wife had been given to another!
Samson decided he had a “right” to get even and set out to “really harm them” (15:3). His act of revenge this time destroyed the economy of the Philistines when he burned up their crops. As a result of this, Samson's wife and father-in-law were burned by the Philistines, thus fulfilling a promise they had made earlier (14:15). Samson became furious over this and “slaughtered” many of them (15:8).
The Philistines decided to capture Samson to bring him to justice. This was easy for them as the people of Judah were furious with Samson for going against their Philistine rulers. The people would rather be subject to foreign rulers than take a stand for God! And in this case, when Samson could have challenged them on that point as their judge, he didn't. He merely secured a promise from them that they wouldn't kill him themselves (15:12). When they came to arrest Samson, the Spirit of the LORD came upon Samson and he killed a thousand of them with a donkey's jawbone.
He was thirsty after all this “hard work” so he selfishly cried out to God, mimicking the sincere cries to God by oppressed Israelites (see, for example, 6:7). Rather than delivering Israel, Samson wanted God to deliver him from his thirst. God answered his prayer by opening a source of water for him and he drank and was refreshed. The chapter concludes by noting that Samson “led” Israel. Whatever this entailed, it did not include delivering Israel from the Philistine rule (15:20).
Chapter 16—Samson is almost captured; falls in love with Delilah; is tricked by Delilah and captured; kills more Philistines in his death than while he was alive
Samson was nearly undone by his desires when he was almost captured because he spent the night with a prostitute. But continuing his theme of one-upping the Philistines, as they waited for the morning to kill him (16:2), Samson got up in the dark and left the city, taking the city gates with him!
Some time later he met another Philistine woman (Delilah), loved her, and began some kind of relationship with her (presumably a marriage). Just like with his previous wife, the Philistines created an arrangement with her for her to betray Samson. Specifically, she was supposed to find out the source of Samson's strength. Eventually Samson broke, although it took four times for him to finally tell her that the source of his strength was his nazirite vow and that his hair had never been cut. Ironically, despite clearly having been the punchline of a joke, Samson did not figure out what his wife was up to.
Armed with this information the Philistines are able to subdue Samson, gouge his eyes out, and take him prisoner. Samson's bondage in this scene is symbolic of the bondage Israel was under as a result of their idolatry with foreign gods. In another ironic turn of events, the Philistines consider Samson to have been “delivered” (16:23) to them by Dagon in the same way Israel was delivered to the Philistines at the beginning of the Samson story (13:1; 16:23-24). Tragically, the only deliverance in this story occurred when Samson was given to his enemies; he was not able to deliver Israel out of their subjugation to the Philistines.
But Samson got revenge. As his hair began to grow back, he remembered God, and as a final act of revenge prayed to God to give him strength “just once more” (16:28). He did not pray for strength to deliver Israel, however, but to “get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes” (16:28). The text does not tell us whether God answered his prayer, and it is silent on whether the Spirit of the LORD came upon him. But in his last act he took out the support pillars in the temple, bringing the temple down upon itself and on all those who were inside. He killed many more Philistines in his death, even more than during his whole life (16:30).
Samson was a comedic-tragic figure, focused on enjoying life, satisfying his desires, and getting revenge. He never lived up to his potential. In this way he is like those who are like the seed scattered on rocky places (Mark 4:1-20; esp. v. 5-6, 16-17). They started well but didn't end well. Samson had everything going for him—God had prepared him from before his birth to be a great leader to deliver his people. But Samson couldn't overcome his weaknesses. He is a wake-up call to us to keep our eyes focused on Jesus and to set aside any idols we have so we can be set apart for God.
Previous commentaries on Judges are found here: An Introduction to Judges 1-2; Deborah and Barak (Judges 4-5); Gideon (Judges 6-8); and Abimelech (Judges 9).
Context and Story
Despite the appearance of the minor judges, Tola and Jair, the Jephthah story picks up during the aftermath of the Gideon and Abimelek debacle. Judges 6-9 should be read as one unit, as Abimelek, Gideon's son, raised himself up after Gideon's death to avenge the bad name he thought his family received. He took a bad situation, where Israel had devolved into idolatry, and made it worse by creating an immense vacuum of leadership. Despite the forty-five years of seemingly positive leadership from Tola and Jair, Israel appears to be on a downward spiral.
There is a clear emphasis early in chapter 10 (10:6-10) on how far things have indeed fallen. An extended description of the "evil" Israel committed includes idolatry on a mass scale--Israel appears to be worshiping every god in sight except the one, true God! Thus, God, in keeping with pattern in Judges, turns them over as punishment, this time to the Ammonites. True to their part, Israel cries out to God for help, but in a change, God uses an argument originally put forth by Gideon's father (6:31). God tells them that they have turned from him even though he delivered them many times, so why don't they call on the gods they worship to deliver them!
Israel seems to get a little more serious after this. This time, they listen to God and act on their faith. They admit their sin to God, appear to be remorseful and accepting of any punishment God would send, and pack up their foreign gods and serve the one, true God. Their repentance moved God and he "could bear Israel's misery no longer." So he raised up a deliverer, Jephthah.
Jephthah's opponent is the Ammonites. He is already known as a mighty warrior (similar to Gideon, although Gideon was called one by God; 6:12) but has to be recruited by the tribal elders because he had been run out by his half-brothers over a dispute involving Jephthah's mother (she was a prostitute) and the inheritance. Jephtah is rightly skeptical when they come to him for help (11:4-11) but ultimately secures a commitment from the elders to be their leader.
Jephthah's Vow of Sacrifice
He defeats the Ammonites in a big way (11:33). But with victory comes controversy. Jephthah is empowered by the spirit of the LORD (11:29) but also makes a foolish vow designed to gain God's favor that apparently was already given to him. His vow looks noble but on closer inspection shows him to be impetuous--he promises that he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house to the Lord. Presumably he expected an animal, maybe the pet dog, to come out to greet him, but instead...
...it's his daughter. And in possibly the worst irony in the entire book of Judges, Jephthah blames her for his vow! (11:34-35) Yet, of all characters in this story, and perhaps even in the entire book, Jephthah's unnamed daughter shows the greatest understanding of God. She both fears God and is faithful to him. She knows what it means to fear God and be faithful to him.
She understands that Jephthah must live up to his vow since it was made before the Lord. But does Jephthah ever consider going back on his vow? Does he ever consider appealing to God's mercy that was so prevalent in the experience of the Israelites? He acts as though his hands are tied, despite God's instruction in the law not to sacrifice children (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5). And after an initial mourning period, he follows through on his vow and sacrifices his daughter.
There is a tradition that interprets this event as non-sacrifice but rather as dedication to celibacy. This interpretation focuses on Jephthah's daughter's emphasis on mourning her "virginity" (11:37-39). However, this interpretation, while softening the hard edge of the vow of sacrifice, does not make sense in light of the whole story. Jephthah is portrayed as irresponsible, as a gambler who, although he received the Spirit of God still needed to find security, just like Gideon did, when Gideon twice tested God after also receiving the empowerment of the Spirit (6:34-40). Jephthah was impetuous and this vow, and its consequences, highlight why he was unfit to bring spiritual change to Israel.
Was Jephthah's vow manipulative? What was the reason for it? It was already clearly stated that he had received empowerment by the Spirit of the Lord. Jephthah likely tried to manipulate God: although the Spirit was freely given, Jephthah, just like Gideon, needed to provide for himself a sense of empowerment that he could feel secure in. As a result of trusting in himself he became the very thing he sought to destroy--an idolater, a surrogate Ammonite, for whom child sacrifice was a normal part of religious experience. He focuses in himself the very experience Israel sought to rid themselves of when they cried out for a deliverer in 10:6-10.
They were so saturated with idolatry it took a great declaration from God to wake them up. But the deliverer took them right back to where they began. The similarities between Jephthah and Gideon are intentional. Things are going from bad to worse for Israel.
The Spirit of the LORD
The narrator of Judges lets us know that Jephthah was empowered by the Spirit of the LORD. This empowerment appears to have enabled Jephthah to advance boldly against the Ammonites and we're left with the impression that it was just a matter of time before Jephthah would be victorious. Yet, Jephthah disregards the Spirit's empowerment and makes a rash, foolish vow concerning sacrifice, in an effort to curry God's favor. Wasn't God's favor already with him as a result of the Spirit's empowerment?
The Spirit of the Lord in Judges is a little tricky to nail down. It works both practically in the experience of the deliverers it "comes upon" but also narratively in the story of Judges to point out the strugge and disintegration of the Israelites.
In Othniel's case (3:10-11), the presence of the Spirit meant immediate victory. But in Gideon's experience (6:34-40), he was hesitant after receiving empowerment by the Spirit; the presence of the Spirit had a delayed effectiveness. Similarly, for Jephthah, the Spirit of the Lord appeared to point him in the right direction but he stumbled, unnable to trust completely in God and it led to a devastating moment for him and Israel. Finally, by the time of Samson, when the Spirit of the Lord rests upon him, he is able to do impressive things but he is far from being a deliverer. In fact, the narrator tells us Samson only "began to deliver Israel" (13:5).
What should we make of this? On one end, Othniel was competely effective, and on the other end, Samson was completely ineffective (or just beginning to be effective). In between, Gideon delivered but reverted back to idolatry almost immediately after deliverance and Jephthah delivered but also slipped back almost immediately. His slip led the people towards violence--both in his sacrifice of his daughter and in the vicious civil war that began shortly after.
This evidence points us towards a truth about God's Spirit and how he works. As we consider the disintegration of Israel over the course of this book, we also see this represented in how the Spirit was able to work in the deliverers God raised up. When Israel was more focused in the beginning of the book, the Spirit met with great success in Othniel. As Israel began to disintegrate, become more chaotic, and take a more permanent stance against God, the Spirit began to be less effective in the deliverers.
Was this the Spirit's fault? Hardly. The Spirit was the agent of God's presence. But how can God work through a deliverer if the deliverer does not cooperate with God? The principle is this: The Spirit is effective, but not always automatically so. God's presence through the Spirit must be met with cooperation on the part of his followers. The fact that God resides within us (1 Cor. 6:19) is a mere point of interest if we are not serious and dedicated to cooperating with him in the work he desires to do in and through us.
Jephthah's story ends on a ridiculous and tragic note. Just like Gideon, Jephthah is called out by the Ephraimites, who are upset that they were not included in the fighting men. They threaten to burn down Jephthah's house retaliation! Jephthah offers an explanation, but rather than waiting to see how Ephraim would respond, he gathers a fighting force and goes against them. Ultimately, it would cost the lives of 42,000 Ephraimites.
Just like Gideon, who started so well in overcoming fear to lead a victorious army but finished poorly by taking the people back into idolatry, Jephthah began well but didn't finish well. He was rejected by his family because of his lineage but built a reputation for himself and was recruited by the tribal elders, then received empowerment by God's Spirit and led Israel victoriously through battle but left a legacy of foolishness and violence because he could not bring himself to trust fully in God.
As Jesus says, "Whoever has ears, let them hear" (Matt. 11:15).
Questions are from Judges 10-12 (Jephthah) and 2 Peter 3.
The study questions are from Judges 9 (Sunday morning text), Psalm 8 (Sunday morning scripture reading), and 1 John 2:1-6 (our Wednesday devotional text).
Abimelek's story is connected to Gideon's. He continues the legacy left behind by Gideon and even extends it. Not only does he not improve the leadership vacuum left behind by Gideon's idolatry but he creates a leadership crisis. He leaves behind a broken nation, a ruined name, and a scenario ripe for chaos, into which Jephthah (chapters 10-12) and Samson (chapters 13-16) will follow. Abimelek, in one sense, is the pivotal "judge" in Judges. He has the opportunity to clean up Gideon's mess and start over or to make things worse. Selfishly, he chooses the latter.
Abimelek is Gideon's son, but by a concubine. Gideon had many sons by many different wives, but Abimelek was different because he was conceived with a concubine, a servant-wife of Gideon's. The situation Abimelek inherits is unusual, compared to the pattern of sin in the rest of the stories in Judges. The pattern that exists often ends with a judge's death which is followed by a period where Israel reverts back to sin and idolatry. They are then turned over to a foreign nation for judgment, cry out to God after a time of oppression, and are rescued by God when God sends a deliverer to rescue them. But Abimelek's story picks up almost immediately after Gideon's death.
Abimelek is not content to see how things develop. Rather, he surveys the scene, considers what his role could be going forward, and makes a power-play for the leadership of Israel: he sets himself up as a judge. He considers that, because of Gideon's popularity (despite the idolatrous turn at the end of his life), Israel may want leadership to continue from the house of Gideon. So he goes to Shechem, not coincidentally the place of his birth, and asks the rest of his blood-brothers to ask the people there if they would rather be "ruled" by him or by the rest of Gideon's sons (2). He reminds them that he, and not the other sons of Gideon, is their flesh and blood. This is a way of saying he knows them: he knows the land, the scene, the eccentricities of the Shechemites.
This sounded like a good idea to the Shechemites, especially when they realized they could follow and be led by one who "is related to us" (3). They immediately gave him tribute, a payment to guarantee his protection over them, which Abimelek used to hire "reckless scoundrels" to work for him as enforcers. One problem with this payment, besides the immorality of it, was the location of the money: it came from the temple of Baal-Berith, a false god. Through this connection, Abimelek is already working for himself...and for a false god. The God of Israel is really nowhere to be found in this narrative, as a godless people follow a godless leader, the son of the man who led them there.
Abimelek must have realized how he had manipulated his way into leadership. Still, at this point, he was just a regional leader. To solidify his leadership, and to erase any competition, he paid a visit to his half-brothers in Ophrah. When they came out to meet with him, he killed them all on one stone. (Oddly enough, Abimelek himself is later done in by "one stone," a millstone dropped the top of a tower that crushed his head.) However, one half-brother, the youngest, Jotham, escaped.
When the people realized what had happened they came to Abimelek to crown him king. This is reminiscent of the time of Samuel when the people also wanted a king. Samuel felt rejected, and was reminded by God that they were actually rejecting him, not Samuel. In this case, the people did not even consult God--they took the responsibility upon themselves of crowning Abimelek king.
But there is one person in this story who speaks for God, who stands up for what is right and for the people: Jotham, the escaped half-brother. When he heard what had happened, and how Abimelek had been made king, he ascends a hill and speaks to the people from there. He tells a story about the deceit of power. He tells about the trees who kept inviting different types of fruit and trees to be king over them. But each one realized that they had to take care of themselves first and weren't able to be king over the trees. Finally, a thornbush accepted. Jotham compares Abimelek, literally, with the thorn that gets caught in the flesh.
The point of his parable is judgment. He calls on the people to discern if their actions in killing Gideon's sons and in crowning Abimelek king have been honorable to Gideon's name. The result of his parable is that they will see the "fruit" of their decisions through the leadership of Abimelek--if they have honored Gideon (which we know they have not) then positive things will result. If they have not honored Gideon, then they will be consumed as a result of their bad choices.
After this, Jotham fled and lived in exile because he feared the reaction of Abimelek.
Abimelek's Reign of Terror
Abimelek reigned as king for three years without incident. But after three years, and despite Abimelek's attempts to leave him out of the story, God showed up. He stirred up trouble between Abimelek and the Shechemites (his own people) so that the murder of Gideon's sons would be avenged. This avenging would affect both Abimelek (who committed the murders) and the Shechemites (who were complicit in the murders). The Shechemites set up an ambush on the hilltops to rob people who passed by, thereby creating terror in the kingdom among those who needed to travel.
To make matters worse, a mysterious man named Gaal moved into the area and challenged Abimelek's authority. He reminded them that even though Abimelek himself was a local boy, his father was not. He pointed to an alternative ruler who was more "home-grown" than Abimelek and stated that if he had an army, he would call out Abimelek's army for a fight!
Abimelek heard about this challenge and because he couldn't back down from a fight, after a period of posturing between the two men (Abimelek and Gaal), there was a skirmish between Abimelek's troops and Gaal, who commanded the citizens of Shechem. Abimelek won round one, and round two began the next day when the defeated Shechemites tried to get back to life-as-usual. As the people went out into the fields, Abimelek attacked them, defeated them, and trashed the city, going so far as to salt it so nothing could be grown there.
Then things went from bad to worse. Despite having destroyed the city, Abimelek wasn't satisfied in his "revenge tour." He heard some people were holed up in the "tower of Shechem." So he grabbed branches, ordered his men to do likewise, and burned the tower down, killing about a thousand people who had sought sanctuary inside the temple.
But Abimelek wasn't done. His need for revenge was strong, and he went to another town and captured it as well. Inside the city, the people sought refuge in another tower. Abimelek knew how to defeat them, so they gathered more wood and began to set fire to this tower also. But this time, a woman used all her strength to lift a heavy millstone to the top of the tower, where she shoved it over the edge. Abimelek looked up just in time to see the millstone come down upon him and crack his skull.
He realized he was dying so he called to his armor-bearer. But he had a strange request: he wanted his armor-bearer to kill him, to spare him the indignity of being killed by a woman. The armor-bearer listened to his boss and ran him through with his sword, and he died.
Israel did not even grieve the loss of Abimelek. It was such a strange time and set of circumstances that when Abimelek was killed the Israelites simply "went home."
Actions and Consequences
Why did Israel go through all this? Why is this story in Judges? There is concluding coda to this story which sums up Judges: actions have consequences. Abimelek raised himself up in an ungodly way and didn't bother to recognize God at all during his reign. Accordingly, God recognized him, but not in the way Abimelek would have wanted. The narrator of Judges tells us, "Thus God repaid the wickedness that Abimelek had done to his father by murdering his seventy brothers. God also made the people of Shechem pay for all their wickedness" (56-57). Actions have consequences. Ignoring God comes back around. Ultimately, Abimelek's story reminds us to follow God, not our own desires, because only God's agenda provides us with the purity that will keep us from destructive, selfish leadership.
Abimelek's story also reminds us that we are all leaders because we all influence others. From Abimelek, to Jotham, to Gaal, all three men used words to influence others. Abimelek led them astray, Jotham was the only one rooted in truth, and Gaal led others to their destruction. What kind of leader are you? Are you a patient leader, waiting for God before you give "marching orders" to the people you influence? Or are you an impatient leader, impetuously leading others astray as you stumble along, hoping to find another angle to keep you in front of people?
In Luke 17:1-4, Jesus provides a teaching about not causing others to stumble in their faith. It seems like a generic teaching...until Jesus says that it would be better for you to have a millstone tied around your neck than to cause someone to stumble in their faith. It seems that Jesus may be recalling the story of Abimelek as he teaches this. The connection is the millstone because it reminds us the millstone that was used to crack the skull of Abimelek. Looking at the context of Jesus' teaching, we see the emphasis on not causing others to stumble in their faith.
What was Abimelek noted for? Causing others to stumble. He led them astray, did not focus on God at all, and killed many people who consequently lost the ability to focus on God.
Could this be Abimelek's curtain call, to be remembered by Jesus, not as Israel's first king (albeit a regional one), but as the poster boy for causing others to stumble? He is, finally, a reminder to us to check the substance of our lives, to ensure that we are living for God, protecting and forgiving others, not leading them astray through our words and actions.
The Cycle of Sin and Deliverance in Judges
Maybe more than the rest of the judges, the story of Gideon functions as a cycle. His story begins with a lengthier section devoted to the cycle of sin and deliverance within Judges and itself includes a cycle to describe Gideon's behavior and action. The narrative cycle in Judges is described at length in chapter two and includes these elements:
This cycle is not limited to chapter two and Gideon--it appears throughout the entire book of Judges. For example, Othniel's story begins with a description of the "evil" committed by the Israelites. They were "sold" into the hands of the king of Aram because God's anger "burned against" them. But they cried out to God to be delivered and God raised up Othniel as a deliverer to save them. The result: the people had peace in the land.
This cycle appears both in short descriptions (as in the case of Othniel; 3:7-11) and in long descriptions (as in the case of Gideon and Jephthah, whose stories take up three chapters each in Judges, and possibly in the case of Samson, who has four chapters dedicated to him). Other episodes where this cycle is seen include:
The cycle—1) 5:31b; 2) 6:1; 3) 6:1; 4) 6:6; 5) 6:7, 12; 6) 8:28; 7) 8:33
Note that the cycle actually begins at the end of the previous narrative, due to the efforts of Deborah, Jael, and Barak. Because of their deliverance of the Israelites from Sisera, the land is at peace (5:31b). But quickly, and without any triggering event (which indicates to us how quick, easy, and almost unnoticeable it is to fall away from peace to evil), the Israelites are back to committing evil in the eyes of God (6:1). Consequently, God "gave them into" the hands of the Midianites, who oppressed them for seven years (6:1, 4). Finally, the people had enough and cried out to God for help (6:6).
But this time, there is an interlude of sorts to the cycle. When the Israelites cried out, God first sent a prophet to remind them that what happened to them was a result of their own actions: they had not listened to God (6:7-10). Then, without telling the Israelites, God sent an angel to raise up Gideon, the "mighty warrior" (6:12), to deliverer the Israelites. Gideon, of course, is successful and the land has peace during his lifetime (8:28). Sadly, after his death, the people turned back to idolatry, thus beginning the cycle over again (8:33).
But what happened in between this cycle? How was Gideon a deliverer?
Another Cycle in the Life of Gideon
The story of Gideon is actually told as another cycle, one of being called by God, answering him, testing him, serving him, finding victory, but ending in failure. Because of this, Gideon is an example of how we can be called by God and even be victorious in our work for God but end in failure if we do not keep our commitment to God.
1. 6:1-12--The call of God, in God's time
Gideon's story begins during Israel's oppression under the Midianities. The Midianites were vicious and destroyed everything Israel had. The story even indicates to us that the Midianites would come to Israel with the sole intent of burning and destroying the Israelites' crops, which meant they were destroying not just a source of food but also the food-based economy within Israel. As a result, the people were afraid of Midian, which is why we see Gideon hiding as he goes about his work.
Gideon may have lived out of fear, but God saw something different in him. When the angel came to Gideon, he called him "mighty warrior." This shows us that God's view of us is sometimes very different from our view of ourselves. We may look down on our flaws, fears, and failures, but God sees what we can truly be. He called Gideon, the mighty warrior, because he needed a warrior to deliver. God raised up whom he needed at the time he needed.
2. 6:13-24--Testing God
At first, Gideon didn't know what to think. He even wonders if it's the "true" God who has sent this message--after all, the "God" he knows is a God who does great things and is far different from the "God" who has abandoned them to the Midianites (6:13). To get at the truth (as he considers it) he decides to test God. He asks God to "wait" for him while he goes and gets some supplies with which God, if it is really him, can do something great.
But God showed his great patience by waiting. And when Gideon returned, he set out the offering and God consumed it with fire. Gideon then realized it really was God and worshiped him.
3. 6:25-32--Serving God
Gideon was now ready to serve God. God had passed his test, revealed himself to Gideon, and Gideon worshiped him. But the task God asked of Gideon wasn't exactly the first thing Gideon would think of: God wanted him to tear down his father's idol to Baal! He wanted Gideon to take a stand for God, starting in his own home! Gideon accepted the challenge, but because of fear, he did it at night so he wouldn't be seen.
The next morning, when the townspeople realized what had happened, they were in an uproar! And Gideon was nowhere to be found. His father, whose idol had been destroyed by Gideon, had to defend Gideon. Gideon's fear was too much for him.
4. 6:33-40--Testing God II
Gideon's fear led him to test God again. When God called him to command an army to go against the Midianites, Gideon asked for another sign to test the veracity of God's promise (6:36). He asked God first to provide dew on a fleece Gideon laid out but have the ground be dry, and after God passed this test, Gideon asked him to reverse this: keep the fleece dry while making the ground around the fleece wet. Of course, God passed this test, too.
We may be tempted to see ourselves in this story. How often have we tried to test God with our own "fleece"? But this story is really about God--specifically about his patience in working with us with our own limitations. God knew what Gideon was capable of, but he waited while Gideon learned what he was capable of. God is always faithful to us.
5. 7:1-15--Overcoming Fear
Gideon now knew that God was with him. This realization allowed him to overcome fear and, combined with a revelation from God through a dream to another (6:13), he gathered the army as God directed him to, whittling it down to a size by which they would be victorious only because God was with them.
Of course, because God was with them and because Gideon had overcome his fear to serve God, Israel was victorious in their battle against Midian. God led the small fighting force of Israel to victory against a much larger army. Yet, even in this victory, Gideon shows a hint of the pride that will later be his downfall as he link himself to God in his victory shout (7:18). As a result of this victory, Israel is able to enjoy peace in their land.
Sadly, it does not end well for Gideon. He got his start by tearing down an idol but finished by setting up a new idol. The Israelites came to their military hero and asked him to be their king. Gideon turned down the invitation...but then acted as a king anyway. The false humility in Gideon's reply and actions demonstrate that pride had taken root in his life. He created a gold-covered clothing item but set it up as an idol so it became a snare to his family and caused Israel to "prostitute" themselves to other gods (8:33). Gideon left behind a legacy of idolatry.
Questions are from Judges 6-8 (Gideon) and 2 Peter 2.
This story, while often thought to be about Deborah, is really about three people: Deborah, who was an actual legal judge, Barak, the military leader, and Jael, the simple housewife who ended up saving the day.
The context for this story is the Israelite oppression under the Canaanites. The LORD "sold them" (4:2) into the hands of the king of Canaan because of the "evil" they did in the eyes of LORD. This evil occurred after the death of Ehud, which plays into the pattern created at least in the early part of Judges: the people commit evil before God; God turns them over to foreign rulers; they are oppressed and cry out for help; God hears their cries and sends a judge to deliver them; they have peace in their land; they turn back to evil after the judge dies.
As expected, because of their oppression, and apparently also because of Sisera's nine hundred iron-fitted chariots, the people cried out to the LORD for help.
God heard their cries and answered (all this is inferred) by speaking through Deborah to Barak. Deborah is not the judge or deliverer in this story. Nowhere is God described as "raising up" a judge (see 2:16; 3:9, 15). She was a prophet who was described as "leading" Israel at that time. Since she was leading while Israel was under oppression she probably acted more like a judge as we would understand one—she decided disputes among the Israelites.
Yet she also received the word from the Lord that called Barak to be a deliverer for God's people and she was tasked with the responsibility of passing this on to Barak. Barak will deliver God's people by defeating Sisera in battle. Specifically, God will "give" Sisera into Barak's hands.
Interestingly, it is Deborah calling all the shots in this story even though Barak was called as the deliverer: she calls him, she delivers the message to him that he will be God's deliverer, she tells him he won't get the glory (because of his hesitation), then she orders him to go to battle ("Go! This is the day the LORD has given Sisera into your hands!")
Deborah is a leader. Even though she is never labeled in Judges as the deliverer in this story, by functioning as a prophet who brought God's word and as a leader who called and empowered the deliverer (even though the glory went to someone else), she is the example of what it means to stand for God in chaotic times.
Barak is called by Deborah and told he will win the battle. We can assume he's some kind of military leader within Israel, or at least an experienced fighter, but for some reason he is reluctant to go into battle. He will go only if Deborah accompanies him.
Barak is often criticized because of this: he wasn't a real man, he wasn't committed to following God, etc. But what if we viewed Barak with a little less criticism? If someone delivered a message from God for and to you, wouldn't you feel better if that messenger of God accompanied you? Barak may have viewed Deborah as a good luck charm of sorts—God would be with him because God was with Deborah.
It may also be that he was unfaithful. But I wonder if, when we view him as unfaithful, we're reading ourselves into his story?
The real problem for Barak is that, inadvertently or not, his actions demonstrate that he does not fully trust God as God. The word of God is delivered to him but he wants the broker of God's word, the middle-woman, to accompany him, wrongly believing that the fulfillment of God's word (prophecy) will be delivered through the presence of Deborah, not on the strength of God's word itself. As a result, God will still deliver his people but Barak will not get the glory from this military victory.
The narrative of Judges is clear that even though Barak advances, it is God who does the work of routing Sisera's army (4:15). As a result of God's work, all of Sisera's fighters were killed. But Sisera was able to escape, which leads to the revealing of the real deliverer—the non-Israelite, Jael.
Here's what we learn from Barak: When we follow God, and specifically when we do what he calls us to do, he gives us all the resources we need to serve him. There's no magic charm, magic prayer, magic person, or even magic book that guarantees God's presence with us. His promise is all we need.
As Sisera escaped, the narrative focused on an alliance that had been made between the king of Canaan and the family of Heber. This was convenient for Sisera because it gave him an out—he could run for protection and run he did (he "fled on foot"; 4:15, 17). He made his way directly to Heber's house where he was met by Jael, Heber's wife. He demanded aid from Jael and appeared to receive it, although not in the form he demanded: when he asked for a drink of water to quench his thirst he was given milk, which made him sleepy. But before he fell asleep he made another demand of Jael: she was to keep watch for him and if anyone came by asking if a man was inside her tent, she was to tell them no.
Wait a minute—no man inside the tent? What did Sisera consider himself to be? While it's obvious he told Jael to say this for his protection, it is humorous (and a bit ironic) that he undermined his own manhood and "invincibility" by hiding under a rug and demanding Jael lie for him.
But the final irony came while he was asleep. Jael grabbed a tent peg and drove it through his skull, killing him. The she went out to meet Barak to turn over the dead Sisera.
This is intended to be both ironic and something that showed the glory of God--that God ensured his will was done despite the human alliances made by his enemies.
The hero of the story is Jael—an unlikely hero. This unlikely hero—a woman, a non-Israelite—did the work of God (4:23)! The true hero should have been Barak, or perhaps even Deborah, but it was a non-Israelite who served God in the unlikeliest of ways. This teaches us that no matter how small or insignificant we think we are, God can do great things through us if we are willing to follow him as he leads us. In fact, there is no "small" or "insignificant" with God—he is ready to use anyone who loves him, anyone who is ready to do his work. All you need to do is make yourself available to be led by God.
Jael was the hero in Judges 4, not Barak, because she acted in simple obedience out of her faith. Barak got hung up by a false view of God—he believed, idolatrously, that God's presence was available to him in the person of Deborah. And it cost him.
Here are four false views of God we have today in the church:
1. The "Santa Claus" god who exists to give us everything we want. This god hangs us up because if we don't get what we think we deserve, we start to question his goodness.
2. The "he-didn't-really-mean-what-he-said-he-just-wants-to-know-if-you-are-willing" god. This god offers hard teachings but doesn't really mean them. This god usually is behind the biblical teaching about money. When Jesus told a rich guy to go sell everything he had and then come follow him, he didn't really mean it, he just wanted to know if the man would be willing to do so. This view of god hangs up because it removes the hard questions of discipleship from our lives.
3. The "we're-right-and-no-one-else-is" god. This god allows us to feel prideful that we've read the Bible correctly and no one else has. This view of god also hangs us up because it gives us a false assurance that our faith is about knowledge of spiritual things, or activities at the church building, or having the correct forms of worship, rather than Jesus.
4. The god of tradition. This view of god is deadly because it keeps us rooted in the past rather than looking at how we should serve God in the present and in the future.
This is why Jesus contrasted tradition (and all false views of god) with true faith in the living God (Mark 7). He showed us that faith is internal belief and simple action that is driven by that faith.
This was exemplified by Jael, who knew what she needed to do for God and did it.
This study guide includes questions from our series on Judges (Jdg 6-8), 2 Peter (1:16-21), and our scripture reading series in Psalms and 1 John.
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