After Joshua’s death, the tribes of Israel continue their conquest of the southern regions of Canaan, but they are unable to cleanse the land thoroughly of its native inhabitants. God declares that these remaining people will be an impediment to Israel’s enjoyment of the promised land. Generations pass, and the younger Israelites turn away from God, intermarrying with the Canaanites and worshipping the local deities. God threatens to abandon Israel because of the disobedience of the youth, but he selects a series of judges, or rulers, to act as temporary leaders for the people.
Throughout the lives of these judges, the narrator tells us, Israel’s behavior follows a consistent pattern: the people of Israel fall into evil, God sends a leader to save them, and, once the judge dies, the people commit even greater evil. When the Israelites’ continued worship of the Canaanite gods leads to an invasion by the nation of Moab, God sends Israel a left-handed man named Ehud to be its deliverer. Ehud visits the Moabite king and offers to give the king a secret message from God. When the king dismisses his attendants, Ehud draws a sword strapped to his right thigh and plunges it into the obese king, killing him. Ehud escapes and leads the Israelites in regaining control of the Jordan River valley.
A prophet named Deborah emerges as Israel’s new judge after Israel returns to evil and is invaded by a mighty army from the north. Counseling Israel’s tribes under a great tree, she calls for an insurrection, and, together with God’s help, the Israelites defeat the king’s 900 chariots, sending the Canaanite general, Sisera, into retreat. When Sisera seeks refuge in a local woman’s tent, the owner, Jael, lures Sisera to sleep and kills him, hammering a peg into his skull. Deborah recounts the victory in a lengthy song, extolling God as a warrior and herself as the “mother in Israel” (5:7).
God commissions a humble man, Gideon, to save Israel from its next invaders, the Midianites, who impoverish and scatter the people. Gideon tears down his father’s altar to the god Baal, and the Israelites respond in droves to his call to fight. God demands fewer men for the battle, and, in a test, Gideon leads the men to a river to drink. Those who cup their hands to drink are sent home, and the remaining three hundred men who lap the water with their tongues are chosen for God’s army. Spying on the enemy troops at night, Gideon overhears a Midianite soldier tell his friend about a dream in which a small loaf of bread was able to knock down a large Midianite tent. The friend interprets the dream as a sign that Midian will be defeated by Israel. Gideon and his few men surround the camps, and—with the sound of trumpets and broken jars—the Israelites emit such a clamorous war cry that the Midianites turn and slay each other. Israel attempts to make Gideon its king, but Gideon refuses, proclaiming that God alone is ruler of Israel.
Widespread worship of the god Baal plagues Israel, and Gideon’s son Abimelech serves a violent three-year reign as Israel’s king. His tyrannical reign ends when a woman throws a millstone on Abimelech’s head. Pressured by the Philistines from the east and the Ammonites from the west, Israel turns from its idol worship and God selects a new judge, Jephthah, the son of a prostitute, to challenge the Ammonites. Jephthah promises God that, if he is victorious, he will sacrifice to God the first thing that comes out of his house the day he returns from battle. Upon devastating the Ammonites, Jephthah returns home to see his daughter emerge from his house, dancing, to greet him. Jephthah laments his promise, but his daughter encourages him to remain faithful to God, and Jephthah kills the virgin girl.
The Philistines continue to oppress Israel, and the angel of God appears to a childless Israelite couple, promising them a son who will become Israel’s next deliverer. The couple raises their son, Samson, as a Nazirite—a person who symbolizes his devotion to God by never cutting his hair. God blesses Samson with exceptional abilities, and one day Samson kills a lion with his bare hands. Contrary to his parents’ urging, Samson chooses a Philistine woman to be his wife. During the wedding ceremony, he baffles the Philistines with a riddle, the answer to which they discover only when Samson’s wife reveals the answer to them. Samson burns with anger and goes home without his wife, but when he returns to retrieve her, the Philistines have given her to another man. Samson captures three hundred foxes and ties torches to each of their tails, setting the Philistine crops ablaze. When the Philistines pursue Samson, the Israelites hand him over to his enemies, bound at the wrist. With God’s power, Samson breaks his bindings and uses the jaw-bone of a donkey to kill a thousand Philistine men.