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Outlines Of Jewish History -Rev. Francis E. Gigot D.D.












(Judges 4, 5)

              1. Oppression of Israel by the Northern Chanaanites.


              2. Debbora and Barac (Personages; Exploits; Canticle).






              1. His Call and Mission (Judges 6).




              2. Successive Victories:

              He refuses to reign.


                            The ephod an occasion of idolatry.




              3. Abimelech: his son (cruelty; reign; death.) (Judges 9)






(Judges 10–12)

              1. Why and How made a Ruler by Galaad?




              2. His Vow:

              Questions connected with the immolation of his daughter.




              3. Quarrel with Ephraim (Sibboleth).






(Judges 13–16)

              1. Peculiar Character of his Judgeship.


              2. Chief Facts of His Life: their historical character.






(1 Kings 1 Samuel 1–4)

              1. The Rise of Heli:

              The change of the priesthood.


                            Union of priest and judge.




              2. Israel’s Defeat at Aphec: its consequences.






1. The First Three Judges (Judges 3). The Biblical notices of Othoniel, Aod and Samgar, the first three judges of Israel, however short, are not altogether devoid of historical interest. What the sacred narrative tells us of Othoniel, for instance, is in perfect harmony with the natural desire of the rulers over Mesopotamia to subjugate the land of Chanaan; and, in particular, it makes us aware of the fact that very soon after the death of Josue Israel began to be unfaithful to God, since the deliverer from foreign oppression was no other than the younger brother of Caleb. Again, what we learn from Aod, the second judge in Israel, shows us that the Moabites, cowed for a time by the rapid and wonderful success of the Hebrews, were again anxious to weaken those dangerous neighbors of the Moabite territory, and that for this purpose they deemed it again necessary to secure the help of other tribes, namely, the Ammonites and Amalecites (cfr. Judges 3:12, 13, with Numb. 22:2–4). Again, in Aod, who treacherously murdered the king of Moab during an audience he had obtained from that prince, we find a striking sample of the barbarity of the age. Finally, in the exploit of “Samgar, who slew of the Philistines six hundred men with a ploughshare,” we have probably an instance of the manner in which the victory of a body of men is simply ascribed to their leader (see an instance of the same kind in 1 Kings, 18:7).

2. Debbora (Judges 4, 5). Far more formidable than either the Mesopotamian invader, or the Moabites and their allies, or the Philistines, was “Jabin, the northern king of Chanaan.” His general, named Sisara, had not only invaded the territory of the Hebrews, but even for twenty long years he had grievously oppressed them, and from his oppression no deliverance could be expected, except from the mighty arm of Jehovah, for the Chanaanæan oppressor had a large army and no less than “nine hundred chariots set with scythes.” Then it was that the God of Israel came to the rescue of His people by inspiring a woman, the celebrated Debbora, to secure the deliverance of her fellow-countrymen. As a prophetess, she spoke in the name of Jehovah, and directed Barac—manifestly a leading captain of the time—to assemble troops, promising him victory and the encouragement of her own presence.

The first battle between Israel and the Northern Chanaanites was fought in the plain of Mageddo, a ground unfavorable for the manœuvring of the Chanaanæan chariots, and it ended in a complete victory for the people of God. Sisara, in his rapid flight, confidently took refuge in the tent of Jahel—the wife of Haber the Cinite, then at peace with the Northern Chanaanites—but, having soon fallen asleep, he was treacherously put to death by her. This glorious victory of Barac was followed by many others which are not detailed in the Biblical narrative, but which resulted in the utter destruction of the northern oppressors of Israel (Judges 4).

This same glorious victory was celebrated by the triumphant Canticle of Debbora and Barac, one of the oldest and finest odes contained in the Bible (Judges 5). Although this poem presents many obscurities which are probably due to the imperfect textual condition in which it has come down to us, it is substantially a natural and straightforward description, first, of Israel’s situation before the rising of the Israelites at the voice of Debbora and Barac (verses 6–8); next, of the actual rising of the tribes against their oppressors (12–18); finally, of the victory won by Israel, and of its sequel, the death of Sisara (19–27) (cfr. MOORE, Judges, p. 127, sq.).

3. Gedeon (Judges 6–9). The next judge of Israel of whom we read in the sacred text is Gedeon, who was miraculously called by God to free His people from the repeated and plundering invasions of the Madianites and other Eastern nations. This was a hard task, even for a most valiant man like Gedeon, and this is why he pleaded the poverty of his family in the tribe of Manasses to which he belonged, and his own lowly position in his father’s house, in order to be relieved from this responsible and dangerous mission. As, however, he was promised Divine assistance, and received what he considered to be miraculous signs of his mission, he resisted no longer, overthrew by night the altar of Baal, which had been erected in his own village of Ephra, probably near Dothain, and gave bravely the signal of war against the oppressors of the land.

Thereupon, Madianites, Amalecites and other tribes crossed the Jordan, and encamped in the plain of Jezrael, an offshoot of the great plain of Esdrælon; and Gedeon, followed by numerous warriors of the tribes of Manasses, Aser, Zabulon and Nephtali, took position not far from the enemy. It was not, however, by means of these numerous troops that Jehovah wished to secure victory to His people, and by Divine command Gedeon put aside three hundred men only, whom he armed with trumpets, and with torches enclosed in pitchers which they broke, crying out, “The sword of Jehovah and Gedeon!” Surprised and panic-stricken, the enemies of Israel attack each other, and make in all speed for the fords of the Jordan, pursued by the rest of the troops of Gedeon. But before all the Madianites and Amalecites could cross the river, the inhabitants of Mount Ephraim took possession of the fords, and in a hard-fought battle defeated them. They also made prisoners two leaders of Madian, called Oreb and Zeb, whose heads they sent to the great Hebrew leader, rebuking him at the same time for not having called upon the men of Ephraim to fight the common enemies of the country. Gedeon appeased them “by one of those proverbial phrases which in the East serve for conclusive arguments” (SMITH, Old Testament History), and then pursued beyond Jordan the rest of the invading army under the leadership of Zebee and Salmana. Passing by Soccoth and Phanuel, places celebrated by their connection with the old patriarch Jacob, he met with a cruel refusal of supplies for his fainting soldiers, and threatened both places with signal vengeance at his return. A third victory crowned his arms, and Zebee and Salmana, overtaken in their flight, were made prisoners. Soccoth and Phanuel experienced the terrible vengeance of Gedeon, and Zebee and Salmana were put to death.

Grateful for this glorious deliverance, the Israelites offered to Gedeon the dignity of a hereditary king, which he refused with these noble words: “I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you, but Jehovah shall rule over you.” But whilst satisfied with the rank of judge, Gedeon asked of his soldiers the rings and other ornaments they had taken from the enemy, and he made with this spoil what seems to have soon become an object of idolatrous worship in Israel.

After the death of Gedeon, his half-Chanaanite son, Abimelech, persuaded his fellow-townsmen of Sichem, that, in place of the divided rule of his numerous brothers, he, their bone and their flesh, should have the supreme authority. To this the Sichemites agreed, and with the seventy pieces of silver they lent him from the treasury of the temple of Baal-Berith he recruited a band of outlaws, by whose means he did away with all his brothers—except the youngest, named Joatham—and was then crowned king in Sichem. His rule was marked by an attempt at a regular royal organization in Sichem and the neighboring towns, and also by a cruelty which rendered him odious to his subjects. After a reign of three years, a rebellion, headed by Gaal, the son of Obed—a man otherwise unknown—broke out, and threatened Abimelech with a speedy death. The tyrant, however, was victorious in a battle against the Sichemites, took and destroyed their city and killed its inhabitants; he also set on fire the citadel of Sichem, suffocating and burning those who had taken refuge therein. But his cruelty was soon to come to an end, for if he was again successful in capturing Thebes, one of the neighboring towns, he met with an ignominious death when he attempted to set on fire its tower.

Thus perished the first man invested with the royal authority over a part of Israel; his cruel deeds were well calculated to make the nation at large hesitate before granting the same rank to any other man, and, in point of fact, Thola and Jair, who are represented in the Bible as his immediate successors, had only the title of judges, and they apparently did nothing great for their country, which might have secured for them an authority which Abimelech had reached with such cleverness and exercised with such cruelty (Judges 10:1–5).

4. Jephte (Judges 10:6–12). The history of few judges is more generally known than that of Jephte, whose judgeship is next described in the sacred narrative. If his illegitimate birth and actual life of a freebooter commended him but little for the important function of a ruler in Israel, his well-known valor, joined to the awful straits to which his fellow-tribesmen were then reduced, prompted the tribes east of the Jordan to offer him the military leadership in the fight they were about to wage against the Ammonites. Jephte consented, but under the condition that, in the event of success, he should retain the supreme command, a condition which the inhabitants of Galaad joyfully accepted, for they had already groaned eighteen long years under the most grievous oppression. His first step in assuming the command was to send an embassy to the King of Ammon, urging the Divine right of Israel to the land of Galaad. Of course these negotiations failed, and the only thing now to be done was to prepare for war. With this end in view, Jephte speedily gathered troops, and when on the point of beginning the campaign made a solemn vow to Jehovah, saying: “If Thou wilt deliver the children of Ammon into my hands, whosoever shall first come forth out of the doors of my house and shall meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, the same shall be Jehovah’s, and I will offer him as a holocaust” (Judges 11:30, 31).

Two principal questions have been agitated in connection with this vow, which Jehovah apparently ratified by granting to Jephte the greatest advantages over the Ammonites and the actual freedom of his country. The first question concerns the precise nature of Jephte’s vow and of its fulfilment.

Since the Middle Ages, many Jewish rabbis and Catholic and Protestant interpreters have thought that Jephte never intended to offer a human sacrifice, but used, whilst making his vow, the word “holocaust” in a kind of spiritual sense, as denoting the completeness of consecration to God’s special and perpetual service to which he would devote the first person of his household he should meet on his return. It so happened that it was his only daughter who was first to meet him, and, in virtue of his vow, he consigned her to a life of perpetual celibacy. Many plausible arguments drawn from the Mosaic law, which so expressly forbids human sacrifices, and of which Jephte must have been aware, from the manner in which the vow and its fulfilment are recorded, etc., have been set forth in favor of this opinion; yet it must be said that the plain meaning of the words used by this judge of Israel whilst making his vow and the unquestionable fact that a vow of perpetual virginity was then unknown to the Hebrews, prove that both the Jewish and Christian traditions, which were unanimous in this regard down to the twelfth century, admitted rightly that Jephte actually immolated his daughter in fulfilment of his vow; and this view is supported in the present day by many able scholars (cfr. for a good discussion, VIGOUROUX, Manuel Biblique, tome ii).

The second question connected with the vow of Jephte has been suggested by Rationalists, who have appealed to the actual immolation of his daughter by a judge of Israel as one of the many facts in Jewish history which would prove that human sacrifices in honor of Jehovah were a part of Hebrew worship from the time of Abraham (Gen. 22) down to the time of Josias, in the seventh century before Christ. Whatever may be thought of the other Biblical passages which Rationalists adduce as proving their position—and which indeed are far from proving it—it is certain that a conclusive argument in their favor cannot be drawn from the present instance. We should far less consider Jephte as a representative worshipper of Jehovah in his quality of judge of Israel than as a freebooter who had suddenly become a Hebrew general, and had accordingly lost nothing of his barbarous and heathen ideas and feelings, so that it is only natural that, under the excitement of immediate preparation for battle, he should have imagined he would honor Jehovah by promising Him what he was wont to consider as most welcome to the gods, a human victim. It is only natural also, that success having crowned his efforts, he should feel in duty bound to immolate his daughter, a fact which from the tenor of the narrative was plainly an extraordinary event (cfr. JAS. ROBERTSON, Early Religion of Israel, 3d edit., p. 255), and should not consequently be regarded as a usual practice commanded, or even tolerated, in Hebrew worship (cfr. CHAS. ROBERT, Réponse à “l’Encyclique et les Catholiques Anglais et Américains,” p. 41).

Like Gedeon, Jephte had to listen to the loud complaints of the Ephraimites for not having called upon them to fight against the Ammonites, but returned a very different answer. A war ensued, in which the men of Ephraim were entirely routed in a great battle east of the Jordan. All those who rushed to cross the fords of the Jordan found them guarded by the soldiers of Jephte, and were unmercifully put to death whenever they failed in uttering the correct sound of sh in the word Shibboleth, and thus betrayed their Ephraimite origin.

Jephte continued to “judge Israel” up to the end of his life, and was succeeded by three judges, of whom the Bible has preserved little besides their names (Judges 12:7–15).

5. Samson (Judges 13–16). The most formidable oppressors of the Israelites towards the close of this period were the Philistines, who, apparently, had been recently reinforced by immigrants from the island of Crete (cfr. PELT, vol. i, p. 326, footnote 2), and who, in their efforts to enlarge their territory eastward, had gradually reduced a part of Israel to servitude. Long years elapsed before the deliverance of God’s people from their powerful oppressors was even begun by Samson, a man whose adventures, as recorded in the Bible, differ so much from the facts which are narrated respecting the other judges of Israel, and bear, apparently, so close a resemblance to the deeds of the mythological heroes of Greece and Rome. Differently from all the judges of Israel already mentioned, his birth and special mission were distinctly foretold to his parents, and differently from Aod, Debbora and Barac, Gedeon and Jephte, he never appears as a military leader who puts to flight the armies of the oppressors of Israel, but is rather “a solitary hero endowed with prodigious strength, who in his own quarrel, single-handed, makes havoc among the Philistines,” so that it is not easy to see “in what sense he can be called a judge at all” (MOORE, Judges, p. 313).

Samson belonged to the tribe of Dan, and was a Nazarite from his birth, that is, he was bound by vow not to use either wine or strong drink, and to refrain from cutting his hair; in point of fact, the extraordinary strength with which he was endowed—and which soon appeared in his tearing a lion “as he would have torn a kid in pieces” (Judges 14:6)—was dependent on his fulfilment of the conditions of this vow, and particularly on his care that his hair should never be cut. In his youth, he married a Philistine woman, a fact which soon became the occasion of his intense hatred against the oppressors of his people, as also of some of his famous exploits, namely, the killing of thirty Philistines at Ascalon, the catching of three hundred jackals, ordinarily called foxes, and setting fire by their means to the splendid harvest of his enemies, and finally the slaying of one thousand men with the jaw-bone of an ass. His second marriage with another Philistine woman named Dalila, who proved still more treacherous to Samson than his first wife, was also the occasion of deeds of prodigious strength—such as, for instance, the carrying of the enormous gates of Gaza “up to the top of the hill, which looketh towards Hebron”; and also ultimately of his deliverance into the power of his enemies and of the destruction both of himself and of the temple and princes of the Philistines, by pulling down the pillars of the house whither he had been brought when taken from his prison.

These leading facts of Samson’s life are more than sufficient to make us realize why the sacred narrative speaks of Samson as a judge of Israel (Judges 15:20; 16:31 b), and describes his mission as that of one who “shall begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines” (Judges 13:5). For since, on the one hand, he did all in his power to avenge his people of their enemies he can justly be regarded as one of the judges of God’s people; and since, on the other hand, he did not succeed fully in shaking off the foreign yoke which was still long to weigh on the Israelites after his death, but simply humbled and weakened the Philistines, it is plain that he only began the great work of Israel’s deliverance.

It is true that the whole history of Samson is treated as purely fabulous by thorough-going unbelievers, who see in this part of the Biblical narrative nothing but legends derived from solar myths (cfr. H. OORT, The Bible for Learners, vol. i, p. 411, sq.). To substantiate their position, they remind us first of the many solar myths which underlie the mythology of the old Pagan nations; next, of the fact that the Hebrews were at that time perfectly acquainted with sun-worship; and, finally, of the derivation of the name of Samson from a Hebrew word meaning “Sun.” Of course, it cannot well be doubted that in the time of the judges the Israelites were acquainted with sun-worship, also that the history of Samson has a close analogy with that of Hercules, and, finally, that the word Samson may be derived from the Hebrew for “Sun.” But even granting all this, it does not follow all at once that the principal deeds of Samson are pure fiction, that even the substance of the Biblical narrative has no real basis on real events. The history of Samson, as it is recorded in the book of Judges, will ever appear to the unprejudiced reader better accounted for by admitting as its basis the actual existence of a hero of great physical strength and lawless life, who distinguished himself in the defence of his nation against the Philistines by such exploits as those of which records have been preserved to us, than by going back to a possible derivation of the word Samson, and to solar myths of which there is not the least actual trace in the Biblical narrative. The first explanation fits naturally in the circumstances of time and place to which the life of Samson is referred by the sacred writer; the second is a mere hypothesis, almost entirely unconnected with the actual conditions of Israel during that period of Jewish history. (For interesting and valuable details going to show the historical character of the principal facts of Samson’s life, see VIGOUROUX, Bible et Découvertes Modernes, tome iii; cfr. also GEIKIE, Hours with the Bible, vol. iii, chap. i.)

6. Heli (1 Kings called also 1 Samuel, 1–4). The time of the judges was practically brought to a close by the judgeship of Heli, whose rise to the high priesthood is shrouded in obscurity, for the sacred text tells us nowhere how this dignity passed from the line of Eleazar into that of Ithamar, to which Heli belonged. It is also unknown by what series of events this head of the sacerdotal body succeeded in joining in his person the twofold dignity of judge and high priest; perhaps we should look upon this union of functions heretofore separated as a temporary experiment of a form of government, which, without being monarchical, would yet place in the hands of one single individual a power sufficient to effect the union of all the tribes against the long and cruel oppression of the Philistines, and which, failing signally to attain its object, prepared all minds for the near setting up of the monarchy in Israel.

However this may be, when we read of Heli in the Bible he appears to us a good but weak old man, equally incapable of leading the Israelites to victory and of checking the perversity of his own children, who profaned the sacred place at Silo and caused all the people to murmur by their sacrilegious exactions. In vain did Jehovah warn repeatedly this unworthy head of the civil and sacerdotal power; the weakness of Heli prevented him from stopping effectively abuses which were soon to be punished in the most exemplary manner. The Philistines, always ambitious, always ready to enlarge their conquests, profited by this weakness of the Hebrew Government to gather troops and march to Aphec, a place which cannot be identified at the present day, and where the Israelites were defeated with the loss of about four thousand men. Alarmed at this reverse, the ancients of Israel had the Ark of the Covenant brought into the camp, borne by the two sons of Heli, Ophni and Phinees, and its presence inspired the Hebrew warriors with the greatest confidence in the future success of their arms, but their hopes were severely disappointed. A battle was fought in which they were utterly routed and sustained the loss of thirty thousand men, of the two sons of the high priest, and even of the Ark of the Covenant. This awful calamity was soon followed by the death of Heli, who, hearing of the capture of the Ark, fell from his seat, broke his neck and died; and by the practical fall of Silo as the ecclesiastical centre of the nation, for this town, being now deprived of the Ark of Jehovah, gradually sank into insignificance (cfr. DEANE, Samuel and Saul, p. 40, sq.).

7. Episodes of the Time of the Judges (Judges 17–21; Ruth 1–4). Intimately connected with the history of this period are two episodes, which are recorded at the end of the book of Judges, and the charming idyl of the book of Ruth.

The first episode, contained in Judges, chaps. 17, 18, presents a sad illustration, chiefly of the religious decay of Israel during the period of the judges. It relates how an Ephraimite, named Michas, owning a shrine with an image and oracle, and having a Levite as his priest, was robbed of his image and priest by a considerable portion of the tribe of Dan when on their way northward in search of new settlements; and how the Danites, after having ruthlessly murdered the former inhabitants of the district at the sources of the Jordan, set up Michas’ image in a sanctuary at which ministered a priesthood claiming actual descent from Moses. The second episode, found in Judges, chaps. 19–21, and whose historical character has been very seriously questioned, gives the story of the causes and consequences of a war between the tribe of Benjamin and the other tribes of Israel. The episode is briefly as follows: The wife of a Levite having been frightfully abused by the inhabitants of a Benjamite town, called Gabaa, the other tribes of Israel arose to avenge the outrage, and asked of the tribe of Benjamin the surrender of the men of Gabaa. The Benjamites refused, and, after having been successful in two encounters, were so utterly defeated that only six hundred men survived the battle. In order, however, that the tribe of Benjamin should not entirely disappear from Israel, force and deceit were successfully resorted to in order to supply wives to the surviving Benjamites, after which the Israelites dispersed to their homes.

In striking contrast with these wild scenes, alas, too much in harmony with a period when “every one did as he pleased” (Judges 17:6; 21:24), stands the charming idyl known as the book of Ruth, and the substance of which is as follows: To escape a famine which had happened in Western Palestine, Elimelech, a man from Bethlehem-Juda, had migrated with his family to Moab, where he died, leaving a widow, Noemi, and two sons who married Moabite women, called Orpha and Ruth. After a lapse of about ten years, his two sons also died, and Noemi now prepared to return to her native town. Ruth devotedly followed her, and, arrived at Bethlehem, went out to glean in the fields of Booz, a wealthy kinsman of Elimelech, and who ultimately married Ruth, with whose filial devotion he had become acquainted. It is from this union that sprang Obed, the grandfather of David.

The history of Ruth furnishes a natural transition between the tribal period and the period of the monarchy. It belongs to the time of the judges, and shows how in the calmer intervals of this disturbed period the practical working of the Mosaic law can secure the peace and prosperity of the Jewish home, and at the same time it prepares for the Royal Period of Jewish history by tracing back the genealogy of David, the real founder of the Hebrew monarchy, to one of the purest characters with which the Bible makes us acquainted. For the numerous illustrations of Oriental life calculated to give to the book of Ruth vividness and reality, see the various commentaries, and also, SMITH, Bible Dictionary, article Ruth, vol. iv, p. 2756, sq.

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