What does Judges chapter 3 mean?Judges 2 ended with God's explanation for why He had not given Joshua victory over all the nations in and around the Promised Land. He intended to use those nations to test Israel to see whether the people would follow the Lord or not. God's original instructions were for Israel to completely purge the land of the depraved, evil Canaanites (Deuteronomy 20:16–17). This was partly to prevent Israel from imitating those wicked actions (Deuteronomy 20:18). It was also a judgment, from God, against the heinous sin of those cultures (Deuteronomy 7:1–5; 9:4–5).
Judges 3 begins by identifying those undefeated nations that would test Israel's reliance on the Lord. Specifically, they would be used to test new generations of Israelites who grew up without knowing war. These nations included the five Philistine lords, the various Canaanite nations, the Sidonians, and the Hivites. These unconquered enemies would be a source of attack and struggle for Israel for years to come (Judges 3:1–4).
Further, the people of Israel choose to disobey God by living alongside the Canaanites in captured territories. This becomes a source of temptation to idolatry, and all that comes with it. Worship of these false gods included sexual acts, as well as human and child sacrifice. Despite strong warnings, the Israelites of the generation after Joshua intermarried with the other nations and served their gods (Judges 3:5–6).
True to His own Word, God judges His people for doing this evil. When the people forget Him and serve the false gods known as Baal and Asheroth, God sells them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim, the king of Mesopotamia. That king rules over the Israelites for eight years. Finally, the people cry out to the Lord and He raises up the first of many judges who will deliver the nation over the coming centuries. The first judge is Othniel, the son of Caleb's younger brother, and he was already introduced in Judges 1. Othniel captured a city from the Canaanites on behalf of Caleb. In return, Caleb gave Othniel his daughter in marriage (Judges 1:12–13). Now Othniel is used by God to lead the Israelites into battle against the Mesopotamians and to defeat them. Israel is at peace for forty 40 years—a full generation—until Othniel dies (Judges 3:7–11).
After Othniel's death, a new generation of Israelites once again turns from God, following the temptations of the local Canaanite culture. They worship and serve false gods. This time, the Lord enables the king of the Moabites to grow strong enough to defeat His own people for their rebellion. King Eglon makes an alliance with the Ammonites and the Amalekites and defeats Israel, enslaving the people for eighteen 18 years (Judges 3:12–14).
Finally, the people cry out to the Lord for help, and He raises up a new deliverer. Ehud is identified as a Benjaminite. That Ehud, of the tribe of Benjamin, commits an act of predatory savagery against his enemy echoes Jacob's predictions about the tribe of Benjamin being a "wolf." Ehud is also said to be a left-handed man. The tribe of Benjamin will eventually become known for their mighty left-handed warriors. Since ancient peoples tended to view pure-left-handedness with suspicion, it's possible these biblical references imply persons who are ambidextrous: equally adept with both right and left hands (Judges 3:15).
Ehud leads a delegation sent to present a tribute to Eglon, king of Moab, at his palace in Jericho. Ehud makes a special dagger and secures it to his thigh, under his clothes. This object was about the length of a man's forearm, and probably looked like a sharply pointed spike with a handle. After presenting the tribute, Ehud leaves with the group and then doubles back on his own. He tells the king of Moab he has a secret message for him. Eglon sends all his servants out of the room. Ehud pulls out his dagger and stabs the king, who is enormously fat, leaving the sword buried in his belly. The result of the wound is a gory mess, and Eglon apparently drops dead without making a sound (Judges 3:16–22).
After the killing blow, Ehud simply locks the chamber doors and walks away. Eglon's servants see the locked doors, and—possibly due to the odor of Eglon's death—assume he is using the toilet. After enough time passes, they overcome embarrassment and find the king's corpse. By now, it's too late to catch Ehud, who rallies the troops of Israel. He gathers an army of Israelite fighters and leads them to take strategic crossings of the Jordan River. Once the Moabites' escape route is cut off, the Israelite army kills every single Moabite soldier in the land. The Lord has given Israel victory, and peace returns to the land for eighty years (Judges 3:26–30).
The last verse of this chapter gives almost no details about a figure named Shamgar. Scholars note this name might imply a Canaanite or Egyptian, rather than an Israelite. The verse does not explicitly say that Shamgar knowingly fought on behalf of Israel. The timing of his work is also unclear, but it may have overlapped that of Ehud. All that's certain is that Shamgar's actions saved Israel somehow, perhaps by staving off a Philistine invasion from the north. Shamgar's weapon was an oxgoad, used to control cattle. These were spear-like tools not intended for war, but which would have been reasonably effective weapons. Either all at once, or over time, Shamgar kills several hundred Philistines (Judges 3:31).
After the curious note about Shamgar, the book of Judges returns to the more familiar pattern. The next judges of Israel include one of the most famous women in all of Scripture, the prophetess and judge Deborah (Judges 4:4).