Cycles of Oppression – Judges 3:7–5:31

Read the Passage: Judges 3:7–5:31

Mesopotamian Oppression (3:7–11)

In studying Judges 1-3 we noted that the book of Judges narrates Israel’s disobedience, deteriorating faith, and military defeats. While the events in this book are largely discouraging, it is clear that the negative events recounted in this narrative are the result of Israel’s lack of faith in God. Consequently, the need for a Messiah is highlighted. As the book unfolds, a cyclical pattern is evident, which consists of apostasy, chastisement, and deliverance. In this book liberation from oppression always comes when God raises up a judge (or a governor), of whom there are 12 mentioned in this book—plus the prophetess Deborah and the usurper Abimelech. There are seven cycles of disobedience in Judges that can be outlined as follows: 3:7–11; 3:8–31; 4:1–5:31; 6:1–8:32; 8:33–9:57; 10:1–12:7; 13:1–16:31. Within each cycle there are between 1 and 4 judges who rule.

In Judg. 2:11–19 the author of Judges gives a generic summary of Israel’s pattern of apostasy and deliverance. Beginning in Judg. 3:8, the author begins to narrate specific examples of rebellion and liberation via the judges. The first judge mentioned is Othniel, who was Caleb’s brother. This helps explain the reiteration of the Caleb narrative in Judg. 1:12–15 (from Josh. 15:15–19), where Othniel is first mentioned. Other than the scant details mentioned in these verses, little is known about Othniel, for he is only mentioned one other time in the Bible at 1 Chron. 4:13. For these references we learn that Othniel was Caleb’s younger brother, that he married his niece, that he was of the tribe of Judah, and that he judged Israel for forty years after eight years of oppression. Interestingly, of the twelve judges in this book, only Ehud, Othniel’s successor, is said to have judged longer.

Moabite and Philistine Oppression (3:12–31)

Judg. 3:12 contains a clause that is repeated throughout the book of Judges, “And the children of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord.” This larger passage contains the second of the seven cycles of disobedience narrated in this book. There are two judges in this cycle: Ehud and Shamgar. Ehud is a well-known Bible character, for he is the only individual in the Bible identified as being left-handed. (Yet, note that there are groups of unnamed soldiers who are left-handed or ambidextrous at Judg. 20:16–17; 1 Chron. 12:2–3.) Judges 3:12–30, narrates in a memorable manner how Ehud slayed the Moabite king Eglon, through subversive tactics, and led the army of Israel in the slaughter of ten thousand Moabites. Ehud’s victory, which occurred at God’s initiative (cf. Judg. 3:20), resulted in 80 years of peace for Israel, after 18 long years of oppression. Observe that very little is known about Shamgar, as he is only mentioned at Judg. 3:31; 5:6.

Canaanite Oppression (4:1–5:31)

Judg. 4:1–5:31 contains one of the most interesting narratives in the book of Judges. Here we find the account of the prophetess Deborah and the timid judge Barak. This passage is much discussed, for it contains one of the few accounts in the Bible where there is a female in the place of political leadership. Other notable examples of influential women in the Scripture include: Miriam (cf. Exod. 15:20–21), Huldah the prophetess (cf. 2 Kings 22:14), the daughters of Philip (cf. Acts 21:8–9), and Phoebe the deaconess (cf. Rom. 16:1), among others. Deborah clearly engaged in the legal duties of an Israelite judge (cf. Judg. 4:4); however, she differs from the other judges in that she did not willingly exercise military leadership (cf. Judg. 4:6–9). In this passage Deborah summoned Barak to engage the Canaanites in battle; yet, presumably out of fear, he was reluctant to do so. Therefore, God used a woman named Jael to execute the Canaanite King Jabin.

Judg. 5:1–31 contains a lengthy song, sung by Deborah and Barak, on the occasion of the death of the Canaanite King Jabin, after 20 years of hard oppression. Note that in the Bible God’s people often sing songs to celebrate the mighty works of God. Examples include Moses’ song (cf. Exod. 15:1–19), Mary’s song (cf. Luke 1:46–56), and the New Song sung by believers at the end of the age (cf. Rev. 5:8–14). This song gives more details about Deborah’s leadership and the battle between Israel and the Canaanites. Here we learn that Deborah considered herself to be a “mother in Israel” (Judg. 5:7) and that her heart was to minister to Israel via her service (cf. Judg. 5:9). Further, in this passage we see that Jael is praised for her deception and killing of Jabin. This fulfills the prophecy of Deborah recorded at Judg. 4:9. If we knew nothing else about Barak, we might not consider him a judge; but he is listed with other judges at Heb. 11:32.

Application Questions:

  1. How can we tell if trials, suffering, and evil in this life are punishment for our sins or are just the result of living in the fallen world?
  2. Can you identify with the treadmill pattern of sin and repentance in the book of Judges? How can we make progress in the Christian life?
  3. What is the significance of the biographical detail, “The Spirit of the Lord came upon Othniel, and he judged Israel” (Judg. 3:10)? What makes a good ruler?
  4. Do you think Ehud’s deception of the Moabite king, and his claim of being God’s messenger, was correct? Are there any acts permissible in war but not in peace?
  5. In what ways can we sing songs of deliverance, as did God’s people in the Bible? Is your appreciation of music similar to that of God’s people in Scripture?