What does Judges 3 mean?
Chapter Commentary:
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).
Verse Context:
Judges 3:1–6 names the nations the Lord leaves in existence in and around the Promised Land. These nations will plague future generations of Israelites to see if they will be faithful. Some of these represent unconquered territories whose inhabitants will raid and oppress Israel: the Philistines, Canaanites, Sidonians, and Hivites. Groups living amongst the captured regions will tempt Israel in different ways. These are listed as Canaanite, Hittite, Amorite, Perizzite, Hivite, and Jebusite peoples. Starting with the very first generation after Joshua, the people betray God, intermarrying with these depraved nations and serving their gods.
Judges 3:7–11 describes Israel's first cycle of rebellion and rescue. The very first generation after Joshua forgets the Lord and serves the Canaanite gods known as Baals and Asheroth. In anger, God allows them to be conquered and enslaved by the king of Mesopotamia. The people cry out to God eight years later, and He raises up the first "judge:" Othniel, Caleb's nephew. He leads the people to victory over the Mesopotamians. This is followed by forty years of peace.
Judges 3:12–30 describes another phase of sin, judgment, and deliverance in Israel. The people again provoke God's anger, so He strengthens Eglon, the king of Moab, to defeat and enslave them. After eighteen years, He raises up Ehud as the deliverer. In an infamously graphic assassination, Ehud kills Eglon in his palace in Jericho, then leads an army of Ephraim fighters to take the fords of the Jordan River. Having cut off the Moabites' escape route, the Israelites wipe out the Moabite army, leading to eighty years of peace.
Judges 3:31 occupies an interesting place in this part of Israel's history. While some of Israel's judges are described over the course of several chapters, this solitary verse covers the entire work of Shamgar. Though he is later mentioned in Deborah's song (Judges 5:6), the Bible says little about him. Likely, his time as a judge overlapped that of Ehud. All we know, for sure, is that he killed several hundred Philistines with a plowman's pole.
Chapter Summary:
God leaves several Canaanite nations in and around the Promised Land to test Israel's reliance on Him. Some live among the people, others are part of unconquered territories. The Israelites immediately ignore God's commands and begin serving other gods. First, the Lord subjects them to Mesopotamia. After eight years, the first judge, Othniel, leads them to victory and peace. Israel again rebels and is conquered by Moab for 18 years. Ehud's brutal assassination of the Moabite king sparks another period of freedom and peace. In a single brief statement, the obscure Shamgar is celebrated for his victory.
Chapter Context:
After Israel's failure to complete their mission, as described in chapters 1 and 2, chapter 3 begins by describing the idolatrous nations God left intact to test Israel. In the first of many such cycles, the people sin, are conquered, then are rescued by a "judge." This chapter describes the victories of Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar. Chapter 4 mentions the first of the truly famous names among the judges, describing the careers of Deborah and Barak. This is followed in chapter 6, which introduces Gideon.
Book Summary:
The Book of Judges describes Israel's history from the death of Joshua to shortly before Israel's first king, Saul. Israel fails to complete God's command to purge the wicked Canaanites from the land (Deuteronomy 7:1–5; 9:4). This results in a centuries-long cycle where Israel falls into sin and is oppressed by local enemies. After each oppression, God sends a civil-military leader, labeled using a Hebrew word loosely translated into English as "judge." These appointed rescuers would free Israel from enemy control and govern for a certain time. After each judge's death, the cycle of sin and oppression begins again. This continues until the people of Israel choose a king, during the ministry of the prophet-and-judge Samuel (1 Samuel 1—7).
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