IN THE face of danger from their enemies, the Israelites began to pray. But it was too late. The land was so full of sin that their prayers were in vain. God had no intention of answering them until they prayed in the spirit of repentance. Their many idols made their worship sinful. It was all in vain, because God does not hear the prayers of idolaters. Equally useless were the frantically constructed barricades and other military preparations.
An Invasion of Israel
Three days later wave upon wave of invaders from the north pushed over and past Shiloh, leaving thousands of dead and wounded in and about the camp! Within days the soldiers of Mesopotamia moved over all Canaan. They bottled up Canaanites and Israelites alike in a state of destruction and helplessness. It seemed to powerless Israel that God was helping the invaders more than He had previously helped Israel, though actually God had simply withdrawn His helpful power from the Israelites. Wherever the Mesopotamians conquered large numbers of people, they left strong garrisons of soldiers to keep the vanquished people under their power. Valuables were stripped from the Israelites. A system of semi-slavery was developed by which Israel was forced to raise animals and crops for the conquerors. No tribes or areas were overlooked in this matter of constant contribution. The easy life of Israel was transformed in just a few weeks into one of misery and servitude. There was no outlook for anything but this unhappy condition for some years to come. (Judges 3:5-8.) After a time, when they could see no way out of their trouble, the Israelites fell into a state of sincere repentance. For many, life became a round of tears, forced labor and prayers. Still the years of servitude wore on. Meanwhile a man by the name of Othniel felt quite strongly that something should be added to those prayers and tears. He was of the tribe of Judah, a nephew and son-in-law of Caleb. He had years before distinguished himself in leading troops to vanquish many Canaanites. (Judges 1:12-13; Judges 3:9.) In their disorganized state the Israelites had little military strength to resist their conquerors. But Othniel secretly managed to establish an underground movement that grew with each passing month. When he decided the time was right for an uprising, secretly armed Israelites made a strong surprise attack on the Mesopotamian garrison at Shiloh. It was so sudden — and successful — that not one enemy soldier escaped to alert troops stationed elsewhere.
Repentance Brings Deliverance
Othniel distributed the captured arms to equip more Israelites for hasty assaults on other enemy barracks in other parts of Canaan. The result was that within a few days Israel enjoyed a surprising victory over all the enemy soldiers stationed in Canaan. When news of what had happened finally reached the wicked ruler of Mesopotamia, he gathered thousands of troops together. They moved swiftly southward from the vicinity of Damascus to attack the Israelite camp at Shiloh. Meanwhile, the Israelites were so encouraged by their victory that Israelites of fighting ability swarmed from all parts of Canaan to swell Othniel's army. Before the Mesopotamians could reach Shiloh they were ambushed by thousands upon thousands of Israelite troops desperately hungry for freedom. The enemy from the north slowly fell away — until with God's help the main body of soldiers perished. The remnants of the occupation forces fled for their lives. Victory for Israel was complete. (Judges 3:10.) At last, after eight long years as a captive nation, Israel abruptly emerged to freedom. God had listened to the prayers of the repentant. He had chosen the man Othniel to lead the people to victory and freedom. In fact, God chose Othniel as the first of a line of righteous men who were inspired to lead and guide Israel for many years to come. The attitude of the people had changed so much during their eight years of servitude that they were quite willing to obey God now. They cooperated with Othniel in the reform he required to be carried out for the good of the nation. Intermarriage with the Canaanites and worship of strange gods were forbidden. Those who indulged in these things were harshly punished. There was a return to the ways of living according to God's laws. The result was an Israel much happier and more prosperous than the nation had been for a long time. Under the leadership of Othniel, God's chosen servant, Israel enjoyed forty years of peace. During those forty years Othniel was the first of the leaders — since the time of Joshua — known as JUDGES. They weren't the kind of judges who were instituted only as men who decided on cases of justice. They were more like rulers, and they headed Israel from Joshua's time until the time of Samuel. (Judges 3:11.)
Lessons Soon Forgotten
Othniel maintained law and order in Israel. But soon after his death the people had no strong leader and again began to lapse back into their sinful ways. God's anger again was roused against them. Once more they were bound to fall under a curse, though they had no idea how God planned to punish them. The nation of Moab, east of the Dead Sea, was then ruled by a man by the name of Eglon. Much of the territory occupied by Israel east of the Jordan had at one time been part of Moab, and Eglon was determined to recover it. He didn't realize that his strong desire had been planted firmly in his mind by God, who planned to use him to chasten Israel. Besides building his own army into a strong fighting force, Eglon enlisted the aid of thousands of troops from the Ammonites and Amalekites, two small nations that hated Israel because of that nation's previous victories over them. (Judges 3:12-13.) Eglon's forces pushed westward across the Jordan with such strength that the main body of Israel in the central area of Canaan fell captive almost immediately to the Moabites and their allies. Not many Israelites were slain by Eglon, because it was his purpose to cripple Israel as a fighting force and then exact heavy tribute from the people. Eglon established strong garrisons west of the Jordan to keep Israel powerless. To show that he had extended the ancient borders of his nation west of the river, he set up north-south rows of images in the area of Gilgal. Here he also built a palace for himself so that he might more closely exert control over the captured Israelites. For eighteen years the Israelites were in bondage to Eglon. (Verse 14.) Again, as might be expected, the Israelites went into their state of repentance. They regretted, as usual, falling into such a sinful condition. Their tears, sufferings and prayers touched the ever-merciful heart of the Creator, who this time chose a sturdy, left-handed Benjamite named Ehud to help change the course of events.
Outwitting a Heathen King
Ehud's part started when he was chosen to head a group of messengers to bear a valuable tribute to the king of Moab. Irksome as it was to the Israelites, wicked Eglon required that the gifts of gold, silver, jewels and produce be brought to him with the pomp and ceremony only a king could demand. On this occasion, Ehud, who had great strength and skill in the use of his left hand, hid a sharp dagger beneath his clothes on his right hip. After the tribute had been presented to Eglon, Ehud and his bearers left and headed back toward Shiloh. Ehud went only as far as the nearby border that had been marked by the stone images. There he told the others to return to Shiloh without him. He quickly returned to the king's palace with the excuse that he had a secret message for Eglon. When guards told the king, he asked Ehud into his private quarters and dismissed his servants. (Judges 3:15-20.) "Now what is this secret message you claim you have for me?" the king asked. "Would it surprise you to know that it is from God?" queried. "What do you mean — from God?" Eglon demanded, lifting his weighty body from his chair and moving excitedly toward Ehud. "I mean THIS!" Ehud exclaimed. His left hand slipped under his cloak and whipped out his dagger with such speed that the Moabite ruler didn't have time to shout for help Ehud quickly thrust the dagger into Eglon's body, then hastily left the room and noiselessly locked the doors behind him. Justice had been done. He slipped out the private entrance leading outside, locked the door, took the key and set out for the area of Mt. Ephraim. Later, when servants came to wait on their king and found the doors locked, they believed that Eglon didn't want to be disturbed. They left, but when they returned to find the doors still locked, they became concerned. At the risk of facing the king's wrath, they obtained a key and cautiously opened the doors. To their horror they found their ruler dead from a dagger that had been thrust past the hilt into the obese body. (Judges 3:21-26.)
God Is Wise and Just
At this point, as at other instances in past episodes of the Bible Story, a few readers will be inclined to shudder a bit. They will wonder why God would allow one of His chosen people to execute someone, and why the story should be included in a version written especially for younger people. The Bible should be read by young and old alike. It is a frank description of the history of Israel, in part, describing the many woes brought on by human nature. In that telling there is no allowance for the delicate feelings of individuals. God specifically chose Israel for a certain purpose, and a part of that purpose included ridding Canaan of the heathen peoples who lived there. In a later judgment these once-heathen people who have not had an opportunity for salvation will be given that opportunity by God. (Matthew 12:41-42; Revelation 20:11-12; Isaiah 65:19-25.) As far as God was concerned, it was no different for an Israelite to execute an idolatrous heathen king than it was for an Israelite soldier to slay an enemy soldier in battle. Israel, remember, was a fleshly nation, and unconverted — except for a very few like the prophets and judges. Only God has the authority to tell anyone to kill. It is the responsibility of God, only, to decide when a wicked person should be executed for his own good and the good of those around him. Nevertheless, today it is not a Christian's duty to execute this kind of justice. God leaves that to the unconverted who run this world. Jesus said His kingdom is NOT of this world (John 18:36.), otherwise his servants would fight. Israel was of this world. But the Kingdom of God is of the world tomorrow. And Christ will fight to establish it when He comes again. Ehud lost no time in reaching Mt. Ephraim, a few miles to the northwest, where he summoned many Israelite men to tell them what had happened. "These Moabite soldiers stationed here to keep us captive are the choicest warriors of their nation," Ehud told them. "But when they hear that their leader is dead, they will lose their desire to keep guarding us, and will want to flee across Jordan to their country. It is according to God's will that you take up your hidden arms now and follow me!" (Judges 3:27.) By the time news of their ruler's death reached the Moabite soldiers massed near Jericho, Ehud and the Israelite soldiers had come charging out of the Mt. Ephraim area and were well on their way toward the Jordan river. As Ehud predicted, having been inspired by God, leaders of the Moabite troops in Canaan quickly decided to move their soldiers back to Moab when they learned that their king had been mysteriously slain. They had a feeling that the God of Israel had something to do with the matter, and they feared it was an omen that Moabite troops might also meet death if they were to remain in Canaan. Ten thousand Moabite soldiers of the Jericho region set off on the shortest route toward the Jordan — a road that ran almost directly eastward. Ehud's inspired foreknowledge of how the enemy would retreat made it possible for the Israelites to know they should station themselves at the Jordan River to prevent the escape of the Moabite army. Long before the Moabites could reach the river, the Israelites were ready and waiting in ambush. When the Moabites arrived, the Israelites closed in on them with such surprising fury that when the fray was over, every Moabite of the ten thousand was dead. When the remaining Moabites at Eglon's palace and those stationed elsewhere in Canaan heard about what happened to the ten thousand picked troops, all fled eastward inside the true borders of their nation. Israel was free from the oppression of Moab. Because of his ability in leadership, Ehud became the second Israelite ruler known as a judge. He remained in power for many years of peace and prosperity in Israel, which meant that during that time the people were obedient, for the most part, to God's laws. (Judges 3:28-30.) A short verse at the end of the third chapter of the book of Judges names a man by the name of Shamgar as another man of leadership who was possibly a lesser judge in western Canaan during Ehud's time. The Philistines, a nation of city-states on the shores of the Great Sea, had joined with Moab in attacking the Israelites in that region and had kept them in servitude for many years as farmers. The servitude was abruptly ended when the husky crop producers turned on their conquerors with their soil-tilling implements. An unusual accomplishment of this encounter was Shamgar's wielding an ox-goad (a sharpened, metal-tipped hardwood pole) so swiftly and expertly that he killed six hundred Philistines, though possibly part of that number was included in the efforts of Shamgar's fellow farmers. (Verse 31.)
And Now a Northern Foe
It might seem discouragingly repetitious to report that after Ehud died, Israel again lapsed into a state of rebellion against God. But it happened! Once more God used a pagan king to punish the people. This time it was Jabin, a strong ruler in north Canaan. He was a descendant of that Jabin who had many years previously tried to attack the army of Israel with iron chariots. He had been overcome by Joshua and had lost his city in flames. This next Jabin had rebuilt the city of Hazor, and had become so powerful that he overcame the Israelites in the northern part of Canaan. Ironically, this later Jabin used nine hundred iron chariots as a means of victory. The general of his army was the dreaded Sisera. For twenty drawn-out, unhappy years Israel suffered under the terrible domination of Jabin. (Judges 4:1-3.) Again, as usual, Israel cried out to God for mercy. The people showed proof of their repentance by departing from the evil ways they knew were forbidden by God. As a means of rescuing Israel, God used a woman by the name of Deborah. She lived in Mt. Ephraim, and was one of such good judgment and fair thinking that many Israelites came to her for advice. This woman was not a judge in the sense that she was a ruler with authority, though God chose her to help Israel in several ways. (Verses 4-5.) For one thing, God gave Deborah knowledge of what could happen in Israel's favor, but it was necessary for a man who was a military leader to carry out the plan. Deborah knew of such a man. His name was Barak. He came from his home in the north when she sent for him. "God has disclosed to me that if a capable man such as you can succeed in gathering ten thousand armed Israelites on Mt. Tabor, then He will give them victory over the Canaanites who seek them out there for battle," Deborah told Barak. "With a promise such as this from God, is there any good reason why you should refuse to be the one who can be of such great service by gathering and leading those men against the Canaanites?" (Judges 4:6-7.) "I can manage to organize the army," Barak replied, "but I would want to know more about what God has revealed to you. I'll go to Mt. Tabor with the men, but only if you will accompany me to advise me in the crucial moments." Deborah agreed, but told Barak that since he was depending too much on a woman and was not showing enough manly leadership, God would allow a woman to destroy General Sisera. Barak secretly organized the necessary troops. Most of them came from the northern tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun, though many men from other tribes swelled the number. The army succeeded in getting to the flat area of Mt. Tabor, and there encamped. (Verses 8-10.) When Sisera, the general of Jabin's army, learned about the Israelites being on Mt. Tabor, he gathered his men to go there. Included in his mighty fighting force were nine hundred chariots and thousands of trained warriors so feared by Israel. (Verses 12-13.)