Othniel was either the nephew or brother of Caleb (one of the 12 spies sent to the land of Canaan), and Israel’s first judge. After the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, Othniel freed the Israelites from King Cushan-Risathaim, who ruled the region of Aram Naharaim (part of Mesopotamia). Cushan-Risathaim had oppressed the Israelites for eight years, and after Othniel overpowered his forces, the Jews enjoyed peace for forty years—until Othniel died.
We read about Othniel’s time as judge in Judges 3:7–11, but he’s also mentioned elsewhere. Both Joshua 15:15–17 and Judges 1:11–13 tell us that Caleb promised to give his daughter Achsah (or Aksah) in marriage to whomever conquered Kiriath Sepher (also known as Debir). Othniel conquered it and Caleb gave him Achsah to be his wife.
Ehud, whose name means “where’s the glory?” is most known for two things:
Being left handed
Brutally killing the king of the Moabites
After Othniel died and the Israelites fell back into disobedience, “the Lord gave Eglon king of Moab power over Israel” (Judges 3:12). Eglon gathered the support of the Ammonites and Amalekites and together they captured the Israelite city of Jericho.
“Again the Israelites cried out to the Lord, and he gave them a deliverer—Ehud, a left-handed man, the son of Gera the Benjamite. The Israelites sent him with tribute to Eglon king of Moab.” —Judges 3:15
Ehud concealed a small, double-edged sword under his clothes—on the right side, where he could easily draw it and the king’s men (apparently) wouldn’t think to check for weapons. After delivering the Israelites’ tribute to King Eglon, Ehud dismissed his men and told the king—whom the Bible makes a point of telling us is “a very fat man” (Judges 3:17)—that he had a secret message for him.
In the privacy of the king’s upper room, Ehud told Eglon, “I have a message from God for you” (Judges 3:20), and then plunged his sword into the king’s belly. Then things get pretty graphic:
“Even the handle sank in after the blade, and his bowels discharged. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it.” —Judges 3:22
Ehud escapes from the upper room using the porch (or depending on the translation, the uh, bathroom), leaving the king’s chamber locked from the inside. The servants saw Ehud and assumed the meeting was over, and since the door was locked from within, they assumed the king was using the bathroom (which, in a manner of speaking, he was).
With the king dead, the Israelites launched a surprise attack, killed 10,000 soldiers, and conquered Moab. Moab became subject to Israel, and there was peace for 80 years. (You know, until Ehud died.)
Shamgar son of Anath was a judge, but we only get one verse to learn of his accomplishments:
“After Ehud came Shamgar son of Anath, who struck down six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad. He too saved Israel.” —Judges 3:31
An oxgoad is essentially an ancient cattle prod, an eight foot wooden rod with a metal spike on the end. OK so it was basically a spear, but saying he killed 600 Philistines with a cattle prod sounds way more impressive, right?
The only other mention of Shamgar is in The Song of Deborah (Judges 5):
“In the days of Shamgar son of Anath,
in the days of Jael, the highways were abandoned;
travelers took to winding paths.” —Judges 5:6
This verse makes Shamgar a contemporary of both Jael and Deborah, and some scholars have argued that these are two different people called Shamgar (“son of Anath” could also be translated as “Anathite”).
While Judges tells us that Shamgar “saved Israel,” it doesn’t tell us that he established a period of peace, and interestingly, the next judge mentioned (Deborah) refers back to Ehud again—not Shamgar. Some have suggested that Judges 3:31 was added much later, possibly reconciling Judges 5:7 with an oral tradition.
Deborah was both a prophetess and judge. Her name means “honey bee,” and she was also the wife of a man named Lappidoth. Deborah was the only female judge.
After the death of Ehud, the Israelites “did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (Judges 4:1), so God handed them over to Jabin, king of Canaan. With his commander Sisera and an army of chariots, he oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, and they finally cried to the Lord for help.
Deborah was leading the Israelites, and she summoned Barak son of Abinoam to command the Israelite army, telling him God would give Sisera and his army into his hand. Barak said he would only go if Deborah went with him, and Deborah prophesied:
“Certainly I will go with you . . . But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” —Judges 4:9
Barak took 10,000 soldiers and slaughtered Sisera’s entire army, but Sisera fled and hid in the tent of a woman named Jael. While Sisera was hiding under a blanket, Jael drove a tent peg through his head, fulfilling Deborah’s prophecy.
The Israelites eventually defeated King Jabin, and there was another forty years of peace.
After the victory, Deborah wrote a song celebrating what God had done and honoring the Israelites who played a role in defeating the Canaanites. Known as “The Song of Deborah,” Judges 5 is believed to be one of the oldest biblical passages. Analyzing Deborah’s word choice and the way she describes Israel (she only mentions 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel, for example), scholars believe it could date back to the ninth or tenth century BC.
Gideon is one of the most well-known and important leaders from the Book of Judges. There are more verses dedicated to him than any other judge. Interestingly, while he’s listed among the judges, the Bible never explicitly calls him a judge or states that he “saved Israel,” as we see with most of the other judges.
His name means “hewer, slasher, hacker,” but in Judges 6:25–32, Gideon earned another name—Jerubbaal—for tearing down idols to Baal. The Israelites who worshipped Baal wanted to kill Gideon, but his father Joash told them to let Baal defend himself, because his altar was torn down. The name Jerubbaal means “let Baal contend against him.”
In Gideon’s time, the Israelites had once again embraced the idolatry of their neighbors, and God used the Midianites to punish them for seven years. The Midianites ravaged their farmlands, destroying crops and killing everything in sight “like swarms of locusts” (Judges 6:5).
The angel of the Lord appears to Gideon
This time, when the Israelites cried out for help, God sent a prophet to remind them what he’d done for them, and then the angel of the Lord—a mysterious biblical figure who some believe was Jesus—appeared to Gideon and commanded him to save Israel:
“Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” —Judges 6:14
Gideon resisted, suggesting that he was too insignificant to save Israel and then asking for a sign. The angel of the Lord touched his staff to some meat and bread, and it caught fire. Then the angel of the Lord disappeared. It was the first of many times that Gideon asked God for a sign and received one.
Gideon destroys the Asherah pole
Shortly after this, God told Gideon to destroy his father Joash’s Asherah pole (an idol used to worship Baal) and replace it with an altar to the Lord. He was afraid, so he did it at night. The next morning, everyone wanted him dead, Joash said, “If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar” (Judges 6:31), and Gideon became known as Jerubbaal. (Both names are used throughout Judges.)
The fleece test
Later, Israel’s enemies gathered forces, and the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon (Judges 6:33–34). He summoned the tribes of Israel, and then proposed two tests to confirm God’s promise from before.
First, he put a wool fleece on a threshing floor and said:
“If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” —Judges 6:37
In the morning, the ground was dry, and the fleece was full of dew. But Gideon was still hesitant, so he tested God again:
“Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” —Judges 6:39
Once again, God delivered this sign, and this time Gideon accepted it.
Gideon defeats the Midianites
As Gideon prepared to fight the Midianites, God said:
“You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’” —Judges 7:2
And so God gradually whittled Gideon’s army down from 32,000 men to 300. The Midianite and Amalekite armies camped in the valley below them, “thick as locusts,” and “their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore.”
Understandably, Gideon was afraid, so God told him to sneak into the camp and listen to what the troops were saying. There he found a man who was telling his friend about a dream:
“A round loaf of barley bread came tumbling into the Midianite camp. It struck the tent with such force that the tent overturned and collapsed.”
His friend responded, “This can be nothing other than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, the Israelite. God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands.” —Judges 7:13–14
This gave Gideon the confidence he needed to execute his battle plan. His men surrounded the camp, and when Gideon gave the signal, they all broke jars, blasted trumpets, raised torches, and shouted, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon.”
Then God caused the Midianite soldiers to turn on each other, and they fled. Gideon sent messengers to Ephraim (an Israelite tribe which hadn’t been called to fight yet), and the Ephraimites killed two Midianite princes.
Gideon pursued the two kings of Midian, routed their armies, captured them, and executed them.
After this victory, the Israelites attempted to make Gideon their king, saying, “Rule over us—you, your son and your grandson—because you have saved us from the hand of Midian” (Judges 8:22).
Gideon refused, proclaiming: “The Lord will rule over you” (Judges 8:23).
But as a favor, Gideon asked them all to give him one of their gold rings, and he had them melted down and made into an ephod—a garment used in oracle-related rituals. The Israelites worshiped it, and the ephod “became a snare to Gideon and his family” (Judges 8:27). Before Gideon even died, the Israelites had already gone astray again.
While Gideon lived, the Israelites enjoyed forty more years of peace. And when he died, they abandoned his family and returned to worshiping Baal.
Fun fact: Gideon named one of his sons Abimelech, which means “my father is king.” Some scholars speculate that while Gideon initially refused to become king, he may have agreed later. This would make him Israel’s first king, not Saul.
Tola, son of Puah, was a “minor judge” (which just means the Bible doesn’t say much about him) who led Israel for 23 years after the death of Abimelech (Gideon’s son). He was from the tribe of Issachar, and his grandfather was a man named Dodo. When Tola died, he was buried in Shamir.
When Tola came onto the scene, Israel was a mess. Gideon had 70 sons, and Abimelech (a son he’d had with one of his slaves) had them all slaughtered on a stone—except Jotham, who escaped—attempting to seize power for himself and establish a Jewish monarchy. He governed (not “judged”) Israel for three years, and fought and killed many Israelites who opposed him. He died fighting against his own people.
The Bible says Tola “rose to save Israel” (Judges 10:1), but it doesn’t tell us what he saved them from. It could have been any number of the neighboring nations Israel frequently warred with, or perhaps, in the wake of Abimelech’s death, he saved them from themselves.
That’s pretty much all the Bible tells us about Tola. He gets just two verses (Judges 10:1–2). But there are some additional details we can glean from the names mentioned here.
This isn’t the only Tola in the Bible. The first Tola was one of the sons of Issachar (whose family formed the tribe that Tola the judge belonged to), making “Tola” the name of a clan as well. Tola the judge was the son of Puah, which is an alternative spelling of Puvah, which is the name of one of the first Tola’s brothers.
Interestingly, Tola means “worm,” but his name wasn’t an insult, because it carried another meaning: “worm of scarlet.” Tola is the word used to describe the expensive cloth that was used in the Tabernacle.
Jair gets about the same coverage as his predecessor, Tola: a whopping three verses:
“He was followed by Jair of Gilead, who led Israel twenty-two years. He had thirty sons, who rode thirty donkeys. They controlled thirty towns in Gilead, which to this day are called Havvoth Jair. When Jair died, he was buried in Kamon.” —Judges 10:3–5
Since he was a Gileadite, scholars believe Jair was likely a descendant of a much older Jair: Jair, son of Manasseh. This first Jair was the one who named these thirty towns Havvoth Jair (which just means “towns of Jair”).
As with Tola, Jair is sometimes referred to as a “minor judge,” simply because Judges doesn’t say much about him.
Jephthah was a mighty warrior and the son of a prostitute. His father, Gilead, also had sons through his wife, and Jephthah’s half brothers drove him away to the land of Tob, where Jephthah led a “gang of scoundrels” (Judges 11:3).
We read about Jephthah in Judges 10:6–12:7, and while he delivered Israel from its enemies, his story ends in one of the most unforgettable tragedies in Scripture—a tragedy of his own making.
Before Jephthah was a judge, the Israelites were basically worshiping any god that wasn’t Yahweh. They worshiped the Baals, Ashtorahs, the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines. But not their own God.
When the Israelites’ enemies oppressed them, they cried out to God, and he refused:
“When the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Philistines, the Sidonians, the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you and you cried to me for help, did I not save you from their hands? But you have forsaken me and served other gods, so I will no longer save you. Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you when you are in trouble!” —Judges 10:11–14
But the Israelites repented, getting rid of their foreign gods and once again serving the Lord. And he showed mercy through Jephthah.
Jephthah defeats the Ammonites and makes a sacrifice
Israel fought with the Ammonites, and knowing Jephthah was a mighty warrior, they went to the land of Tob to ask him to lead them, promising to make him the head of Gilead if he agreed. He accepted, and began by negotiating with the Ammonite king, attempting to resolve the conflict peacefully.
The king refused, and the Israelites began driving the Ammonites out of the land. The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah (Judges 11:29), and Jephthah made a foolish (and completely unnecessary) vow:
“If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” —Judges 11:30–31
The Lord gave the Ammonites into Jephthah’s hands, and the first thing out of Jephthah’s house was his only daughter.
Jephthah may have been expecting to be greeted by livestock (it was common for them to live in the same space as people). Vowing to make a human sacrifice would’ve been against the law (Deuteronomy 12:31, but it’s possible that Jephthah was so unfamiliar with Israel’s God and the Torah that he was willing to sacrifice any human servant or attendant, too. When Jephthah came on the scene, Israel had been giving themselves over to other gods, so he may have simply been treating God like one of them.
But whatever he intended, Jephthah definitely hadn’t planned on sacrificing his daughter. He basically blames her for his mistake:
“Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.” —Judges 11:35
She asks for two months to mourn, and Jephthah lets her grieve with her friends.
“After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed.” —Judges 11:39
The tragedy of Jephthah’s sacrifice in many ways overshadows his accomplishments, and it inspired an annual tradition in which young Israelite women leave for four days to commemorate his daughter.
The shibboleth test
The tribe of Ephraim felt left out because—once again—God’s judge hadn’t invited them to the battle (Gideon forgot to bring them along, too). Jephthah insists that he did call them to fight with the rest of the Israelites, and when they didn’t come, the fighting simply started without them.
After some name calling, the two armies began fighting: Gilead vs. Ephraim. The Gileadites won, and captured the river crossing that led back to Ephraim. Whenever an Ephraimite wanted to cross, the Gileadites asked if they were an Ephraimite. If they said, “No,” the Gileadites tested them to say “shibboleth.” Ephraimites pronounced it “sibboleth.” And then the Gileadites would kill them.
Fun fact: This is where the modern meaning of “shibboleth” comes from. It’s basically anything that can be used to distinguish one group from another.
Jephthah led Israel for six years, and when he died, he was buried in Gilead.
Ibzan of Bethlehem led Israel for seven years. He’s only mentioned in Judges 12:8–10. While the Bible tells us Ibzan “judged” Israel, it gives no record of any battles he fought or enemies he overthrew, nor does it say he “saved” Israel, as we see with several other judges.
Pretty much the only thing we know about Ibzan is that he had 30 sons and 30 daughters, and he made a point of marrying all of them to people outside of his tribe. This likely would’ve helped extend his influence throughout Israel, and could have played a role in creating a period of peace.
Some scholars believe that Judges intended to demonstrate that each tribe of Israel produced a leader at some point, and that Ibzan was the judge from the tribe of Asher—but the text doesn’t tell us that.
Elon from the tribe of Zebulun is perhaps the most unknown judge. We only get two sentences about him, and there’s little we can gather from them:
“After him, Elon the Zebulunite led Israel ten years. Then Elon died and was buried in Aijalon in the land of Zebulun.” —Judges 12:11–12
Again, we don’t know if Elon’s role as judge included any military leadership, or if this was a period of peace. His name means either “oak” or “terebinth” (another type of tree), which doesn’t tell us much.
Scholars believe there’s a relationship between the name Elon and the place where he was buried—Aijalon—because in ancient Hebrew they’re spelled the same, but Aijalon doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Bible. No one knows what it means, where it is, or what the relationship between these two names is.
Abdon son of Hillel came after Elon and was another obscure “minor judge.” His name is “formed on the root ʿbd with an abstract or diminutive ending, thus evoking the sense of ‘service’ or, possibly, ‘servile’” (Robert G. Boling, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary).
Here’s everything Judges tells us about him:
“He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys. He led Israel eight years. Then Abdon son of Hillel died and was buried at Pirathon in Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amalekites.” —Judges 12:14–15
Most scholars believe Abdon was wealthy, since his family owned (at least) 70 donkeys. His family was large, but some speculate that since he had fewer grandsons than sons, his family could have been becoming less prominent.
There are three other people named Abdon in the Old Testament, and we know even less about them. Abdon was also an ancient city which belonged to the tribe of Asher (Joshua 21:30, 1 Chronicles 6:74).
Samson is hands down the strongest person in the Bible, and God basically uses him as an agent of chaos against the Philistines. His strength came directly from the Spirit of the Lord, and it enabled him to do numerous supernatural feats—including the one that led to his death.
Interestingly, Samson is also one of the few people in Scripture who had a miraculous birth. His mother had been unable to get pregnant, but the angel of the Lord appeared and told her she would conceive. The angel instructed her to raise him as a Nazarite and not cut his hair.
Samson’s hair was both the secret of his strength and his Achilles’ heel.
As Samson came of age, he became impulsive and lustful, which strangely, God used. He saw a Philistine woman and demanded that his father get her for him. This was “from the Lord, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines; for at that time they were ruling over Israel” (Judges 14:4).
On his way to visit the woman, a lion came toward him, and the Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson and gave him strength. He “tore the lion apart with his bare hands as he might have torn a young goat” (Judges 14:6).
When he returned to marry the woman later, he found a hive of honeybees in the carcass of the lion, and he ate some honey. His discovery inspired a riddle, which he shared with the Philistine guests at his wedding feast:
“Out of the eater, something to eat;
out of the strong, something sweet.” —Judges 14:14
He challenged his guests to solve it within seven days. If they could, he’d give them 30 linen garments and 30 sets of clothes. If they couldn’t, they’d do the same for him. They were stumped, so they threatened his new wife and said they’d kill her and her family if she didn’t tell them the riddle.
Over the next several days, she coaxed the answer out of Samson, and when they shared it with him he angrily replied:
“If you had not plowed with my heifer,
you would not have solved my riddle.” —Judges 14:18
Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson again, and he killed 30 men, took their clothes, and gave them to the men who solved the riddle. And then he left his wife and went home (Judges 14:19).
The guy has some flaws, OK?
Samson’s vengeance on the Philistines
Assuming Samson hated his wife, his father-in-law gave her to one of the men who was at the wedding. When Samson came back and tried to visit her room, her father refused to let him in and offered her younger sister instead. (He was obviously a great guy, too.)
In his anger, Samson caught 300 foxes, tied their tails together in pairs, tied torches to them, and set them loose in the Philistines’ grain fields. He burnt down all their grain, vineyards, and olive groves (Judges 15:5).
He wasn’t exactly the “eye for an eye” type.
When the Philistines found out who started the fire, they burned Samson’s wife and father-in-law to death. In return, he killed a bunch of Philistines and hid in a cave.
The Philistines prepared to fight the Israelites in order to take Samson prisoner. 3,000 Israelites went to fetch Samson from his cave, and he allowed them to tie him up and take him to the Philistines. When the Philistines saw him they started shouting, and the Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson again. “The ropes on his arms became like charred flax, and the bindings dropped from his hands” (Judges 15:14).
Then Samson put Shamgar (the cattle prod judge) to shame: he killed 1,000 Philistines with a donkey’s jawbone (Judges 15:15).
After all that jawboning, Samson was thirsty. He cried out to the Lord, and God miraculously created a spring for him (Judges 15:18–19).
Samson and Delilah
Later, Samson went to the city of Gaza and slept with a prostitute. The people of Gaza learned he was there, gathered around the city gate, and planned to kill him at dawn. Instead, he got up and left in the middle of the night and casually ripped out the city gate and carried it away on his shoulders.
And then the biblical author just moves on.
Awhile after that, Samson fell in love with a woman named Delilah, who lived in a valley that bordered the Philistines and the Israelite tribe of Dan. The Philistine rulers approached her and asked her to trick Samson into revealing the secret of his strength, promising to reward her with eleven hundred shekels (or about 28 pounds) of silver each (Judges 16:4–5).
Basically, they’ll make her filthy rich if she helps them capture him.
When she asked Samson, he lied, and told her that if someone tied him up with seven fresh bowstrings, he’d “become as weak as any other man” (Judges 16:7). So naturally, she tied him up with seven fresh bowstrings. The Philistines were hiding in the room, waiting to capture him, and in an uncharacteristic display of restraint, he snapped the bowstrings and didn’t kill anyone.
Delilah reacted by saying, perhaps playfully or poutily (it doesn’t say), “You have made a fool of me; you lied to me. Come now, tell me how you can be tied” (Judges 16:10).
Samson played along, and lied again:
“If anyone ties me securely with new ropes that have never been used, I’ll become as weak as any other man.” —Judges 16:11
She ties him up. It doesn’t work. She gets upset again. He lies again. She tries the new thing. It doesn’t work either.
Now, the Bible doesn’t go into detail about how much Samson loved Delilah, but it’s probably safe to assume that his love for her was why he eventually tells her his real weakness:
“No razor has ever been used on my head,” he said, “because I have been a Nazirite dedicated to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man.” —Judges 16:17
It’s also possible that Samson was simply that arrogant, and he didn’t believe it was possible for someone to cut his hair. Delilah put him to sleep and had the Philistines cut his hair. As soon as they cut the seven braids of his hair, his strength—and the Lord—left him (Judges 16:19).
The Philistines captured him, gouged out his eyes, bound him with bronze shackles, and forced him to grind grain in prison.
But as time passed, his hair grew (Judges 16:22).
The death of Samson
The Philistines celebrated and praised their god, Dagon, for delivering Samson to them. All the rulers gathered at the temple to Dagon, and three thousand Philistines watched from the roof. As part of the celebration, they forced Samson to perform.
Then they put him by the pillars supporting the temple, and Samson asked a servant to move him to where he could feel the pillars so that he could rest against them.
“Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.” —Judges 16:28
And then Samson ripped out the two pillars that supported the entire temple, and it collapsed, killing everyone including Samson (Judges 16:29–30).
An eye for an eye, and two eyes for three thousand plus lives.
Samson’s whole family went to retrieve his body, and they buried him “between Zorah and Eshtaol in the tomb of Manoah his father” (Judges 16:31).
Samson judged Israel for twenty years.
The rulers of Israel
Every time Israel repented, God showed mercy, and raised up someone to deliver them from their enemies and lead them toward himself. Judges reveals that in the absence of a leader, Israel would always wander astray.
“In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” —Judges 21:25
But it also shows us that even leaders appointed by God can do evil deeds and mislead God’s people. In the centuries that followed the Book of Judges, Israel would repeat the same lesson with a series of kings.
Israel didn’t need a judge or a king to save them—they needed a Messiah. And if the Bible is to be believed, we do, too.