Readings: Judges 2:11–23; Judges 3:7–12
Judges 1 and 2 provided us with the historical background of the book of Judges, serving as an introduction to the stories that follow. Judges 2:11–23 gave us a paradigm, a general pattern for the action of the rest of the book (Israel sins, God sends an oppressor, the people suffer and cry out in repentance, God sends a judge who delivers, the people are saved; repeat cycle). In Judges 3:7–12, we receive the recorded story of a specific judge: Othniel.
The account in Judges 3 is very short. It is brief and not at all fleshed-out. It is as if the author wanted the first story to be perfect, a model story to illustrate his general pattern from the previous chapter, so he cut out all unnecessary details. The story of Othniel is very straightforward and simple, free of froufrou, with minimal background information or personal details. Unlike other stories, we are given no details of battle, no records of heroics, nothing.
It is quite simple. Othniel does not make a shiny dagger and plunge it into a king like Ehud. He does not defeat an overwhelming number of foes with only a small band of men like Gideon. He does not tear apart a lion with his bare hands like Samson. Othniel barely does anything. But that is the point. Here, at the beginning of the account of all the judges, the author wants to show us that the judges did not have to do anything. It was the LORD who was at work. Othniel did not defeat the foes—it was God who delivered His people. Verse 10 tells us that “the Spirit of the LORD was on Othniel” when he judged and delivered Israel. God may have used human men as, but it was still God who was at work.
The account of Othniel is the only story in the book of Judges that follows the pattern of Judges 2, and it follows it to a “T.” Othniel served as a perfect example of a judge. In his commentary on Judges, Dr. Dale Ralph Davis compares the story of Othniel to playing an “open hand” of a card game with a first time player. You play it easy, going through it step by step so that the beginner can understand. You do not toss in any unexpected twists or turns, but just show the basics as a sample. That is what the author of Judges is doing in this passage. He is giving us a perfect sample judge.
But if you think that this is the way all the stories are going to be, you will be sorely disappointed. Everything would go downhill from here. Othniel began the long list of judges that ended with Samson. That long list would be a downward spiral. From Othniel to Gideon, Israel had some rest between their oppressors. After Gideon, however, the judges became more messed up, with no periods of rest. But here, at the beginning, we start with a judge who actually did his job, and he did it without breaking any of God’s commands.
Judges 3:9 tells us that the first judge, Othniel, was the same Othniel whom we met earlier in chapter 1 (compare 3:9 with 1:13). Othniel is Caleb’s nephew, the husband of Achsah. He was already known for his faithfulness and valor, having captured the city of Kiriathsepher for Caleb and, by that victory, won the hand of Caleb’s daughter. He was a member of the faithful remnant in Israel, an upright man.
Othniel found himself to be in the typical situation of the book of Judges—the people of Israel, his kinsmen, forgot the LORD their God and served the Baals and Asheroth, falling into the idolatry of the nations around them. As the Angel of the LORD had prophesied in Judges 2:3–5, the nations living in the Promised Land had become a snare to Israel.
Because of their wickedness, the LORD gave them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim, king of the Mesopotamians. Verse 7 explicitly tells us that this is the LORD’s doing. In our day and age, we are used to thinking of historical and political events as cause-and-effect. If you look hard enough at the events leading up to an invasion or a war, then you can explain why they happened. However, this verse makes it clear that this oppression was God’s doing. Israel had no one to blame but herself. God was actively involved in her history. To quote Dr. Dale Ralph Davis, this is not a “tame natural process, but blazing supernatural wrath!” The sovereign God who had given the land to Israel is the Lord of all things that transpired. Cushan would not have been able to take Israel if God had not given them into his hand.
Does this teach us that every time something happens, we should automatically put it down as an act of God? Should hurricane Katrina be listed as an act of punishment for the sins of New Orleans? Is the existence of the AIDS virus a direct punishment on homosexuality and fornication? Maybe, maybe not. On the one hand, yes, God is still the sovereign ruler over all of history and all things come from His almighty hand. And, generally, all natural disasters, diseases, and deaths are a result of man’s sin. However, who are we to “put words into God’s mouth” and assign Him explicit motives? Just ask Job or Isaiah. Isaiah explains in Isaiah 55:8 that none ofus as humans will ever be fully able to comprehend the ways of God or be able to explain His motives.
Israel, however, did have special revelation (not to mention the prophecy of the Angel of the LORD) telling them that this calamity came upon them because oftheir specific sin. We do not have special revelation from God telling us that the tidal wave in Indonesia came because of the Muslim influence there or anything like that. We had best be careful with trying to assign motives to God.
But, back to Cushan-rishathaim (say that five times fast!). Cushan-rishathaim means “Cushan the double wicked.” He was from “Aram-naharaim,” which in Hebrew means “land of the double rivers.” “Cushan-rishathaim from Aram-naharaim” rhymes in Hebrew, and was probably given as a term of derision by those he oppressed, because, let’s face it, who would name their son “double wicked”? It would be similar to “the Menace” being added to the name “Dennis” not by his parents, but by those who observed his activities.
Most scholars agree that the land from which this tyrant came was Mesopotamia (in fact, many Bible translations simply translate it as “Mesopotamia”). This would have made Cushan and his people the oppressors who traveled from the furthest away of all of Israel’s tormentors in the book of Judges. His name, his status as king, and his homeland make him a “perfect” villain; someone who all of the original audience of the book of Judges would see as a stereotypical villain, kind of like the mustached outlaw in a black hat in our culture.
When the children of Israel cried out to the LORD, He raised up Othniel as judge. He had a perfect lineage, being related to Caleb, the faithful spy from the Book of Numbers. He also had a perfect name: Othniel means “God is my strength.” Names in the Bible were not randomly assigned; they usually had meaning and importance. Verse 10 tells us that the Spirit of the LORD was upon Othniel. He lived up to his name and knew that He had to depend on the LORD) for His strength. After he defeated Cushan by the LORD’s power, there was peace for forty years—a number of perfection and completeness in the Bible.
So Othniel seems to have been the perfect judge. He had a perfect lineage, a perfect name, and the perfect enemy. But he died. That was the problem with all the judges. They all died and Israel had no one to rule over them. None of the judges was “perfect” in any sense. None brought lasting peace; none completely unified Israel against her common foe.
Throughout the book, the author laments that the oppression of Israel happened because “there was no king in Israel.” The people of Israel all desired kings. They believed that if they had a king to unify them, all their troubles would be solved. However, history proved otherwise: in Samuel’s day, Israel asked for a king, and got Saul. Under David, it was better, but the whole line of kings never solved any of Israel’s problems. They still fell into idolatry and they still were oppressed by their enemies.
The problem was that Israel continued to put her trust in man for deliverance. Throughout the entire book of Judges (yea, throughout all of the Old Testament), Israel regularly and continuously relied upon men to save them. Some of these men delivered. There were some truly righteous and holy men who followed God’s will and truly saved Israel. These were men like Joshua, Othniel, and David, and women like Deborah. But for the most part, Israel’s deliverers were a bunch of losers (sorry to be blunt, but it is true).
What else could we expect from totally depraved humans? Yet, how often we do the same thing! We all know that we should trust God. We all mouth the words to our friends when they are going through a difficult time. “Oh, just trust in God, I’ll be praying for you.” But we really place more trust in doctors, teachers, lawyers, and preachers. The truth is: even if these people are truly godly, upright people, they will fail. They cannot promise true and lasting deliverance. Jesus told us that we must truly trust God with a childlike faith. A young child never questions his parents. He knows that they know what is best and that they are looking out for him. A child will follow his parents wherever they tell him to go. Maybe they ask “why,” maybe they can be stubborn at times, but deep inside, they do truly trust their parents. We need to radically change the way we go about “trusting God.” We need to give our lives over to Him wholeheartedly and live for the LORD.
As written above, the whole Old Testament history of Israel serves as an excellent excursus on the total depravity of man and his inability to do anything to get out of it. Thank God that is also shows us the utter faithfulness of the LORD to His covenant. Israel keeps falling into sin, keeps failing to live up to their side of the covenant…except that they do not have a “side” in the covenant—the covenant is unilateral, which means one-sided (and thankfully it is one-sided on God’s side, not on ours, which would be a catastrophe). Remember when God made the covenant with Abraham (and with the nation of Israel, his descendants) in Genesis 15? God made Abraham take a cow, a goat, a ram, a dove, and a pigeon and cut them all in half. God then appeared to Abraham and walked between the divided animals. This was a common way of ratifying covenants in ancient Near Eastern culture (a little more bloody and involved than a handshake, but a lot more binding). The walking between the animals was symbolic of saying, “May what has happened to these animals lying here, cut in two, happen to me if I should go against the promises of this covenant.”
Notice one thing: God never made Abraham walk between the animals. God never required Abraham to ratify the covenant. The entire responsibility—the very terms of the covenant—rests with God, not man. It is a covenant entirely of grace, traceable throughout all of Scripture. God’s people sin, but He delivers them. They fail, but He continues to send deliverers, and ultimately He sends the greatest Deliverer—His Son.
Where are we in this story? The temptation with too many Bible studies today is that they try to make an example for us to emulate “dare to be a Daniel” or “you ought to be an Othniel”). And while If it is dangerous to just try to moralize the message of Scripture, it is a important to find solid applications from the text to our lives. So where do we find ourselves in this passage from Judges?
Often we find ourselves at the beginning of the story, fighting the temptation to idolatry. Idolatry is very tempting. We fall into idolatry, thinking that it will bring rest and deliverance from all our troubles. Maybe we look to alcohol or drugs, seeking solace in them. Maybe we look to more subtle idols, like clothing and looks that promise acceptance. Maybe we look to pornography and fantasy. We all have our own personal idols, things that take the place of God, things that make us comfortable, but in reality, things lead us away from the one true God. We look to these things to find peace, happiness, and comfort. Instead, we find bondage. That is what idolatry and all sin leads to bondage.
Every day, we are bombarded with the idea that sin pays. And do you know what? Sometimes it does. If every time you looked at a Playboy magazine, a finger fell off, it would be pretty easy to avoid looking at pornography. If every time you stole something from work, your car broke down, it would be easy to resist that temptation. But that is not the way it happens. Often times, you can indulge your idols and not get caught. Sinning can be downright enjoyable. Sinning can lead to temporal prosperity.
Cushan-rishathaim was an idolater. He was tremendously prosperous (until very late in his life). Think of all the times the Psalmist cries out to God about how the wicked prosper while the righteous are being oppressed. However, in Psalm 49 the psalmist puts it all into perspective: the wicked man may prosper, but he will die. Idolatry may lead to a comfortable, even happy life here on earth, but it will not help you find lasting comfort and peace. That is where the temptation to idolatry is found: it promises temporary comfort. Satan uses it to lull us into a temporary comfort so that we will not think about death and what comes after death.
So really, the Lord’s judgment to Israel and to us, is a merciful act keeping us from sinning, keeping us from becoming complacent in our sin. God will never be content to leave one of His elect in idolatry. He may let us stray into idolatry and sin, but He will never ever leave us here. He is faithful to His covenant. “If we are faithless, He remains faithful; for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). He will ring us to the point where we cry out for deliverance. Remember Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15)? God may let us backslide and turn away from Him for a time, but He will never permit His elect to remain comfortable in their idolatry.
As He did with Israel, God will punish us when we fall away; He will not leave us in our idolatry. He will not let us get too comfortable in our sin. That is a most comforting thought. As a loving Father, God will discipline us and by His sovereign grace bring us to the point of crying out for forgiveness. And He will forgive-again and again. The book of Judges shows us how patient God truly is. Israel keeps falling into sin, again and again. Again and again, God comes and rescues them, for He is full of mercy and love for His chosen people.
Are you currently caught in a web of sin? Do you feel the downward spiral your idolatry is bringing upon you? This story of Israel provides a simple paradigm. When you find yourself in your sin, cry out to God.
Do not just cry out because of the pain that your sin brings you, cry out in sorrow for your sin, genuine repentance. If God heard the false repentance of Israel in Judges 2, how much more will He hear you, His child, if you are truly repentant? The LORD is a loving Father, slow to anger and abounding in love.
We see this most clearly in Christ. Christ came to die for our sins, to pay the ransom for us ungrateful idol-worshippers. It is not anything we did. We really would rather be worshipping our idols and living in rampant sin. But God in His abundant mercy sent His Son to ransom us, to free us from the tyranny of the devil. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Lesson 3: Points to Ponder
1. Why did Israel pursue other gods?
2. Why would God permit His covenant people to become oppressed? Why would God send a deliverer to save those who had rejected Him?
3. Do we often credit God for the tragedies that we see faking place in the world? What about those within our own lives?
4. Have there been times when you placed your confidence more in what man could do instead of what God has done?
5. Give examples of how we often seek comfort from that which the world has to offer.
6. Have you witnessed the downward spiral of a church member who gave in to the idolatry around him? Have you seen it in your own life?
7. Have you also witnessed God using someone to deliver such a person? How can you be used to help someone out of his rebellion against God?