Sunday School Lesson #19

Lesson 19: Judges 2; 4; 6-7; 13-16


The translation “judge” is misleading, for it suggests that the person it describes had judgment as his or her primary duty. However, the judges of Israel lived in a time before the powers of government had been separated into anything like legislative, executive, or judicial functions. As a result, “leader” would be a more accurate translation, for the people that the King James translation calls the judges of Israel were leaders more than they were judges.

In addition, the word “judge” is misleading because of the way we think about law and judgment. We understand the rule of law and the function of a judge under that rule; however, the ancients did not see government as a matter of the rule of law. Of course they knew what laws were. But whereas we understand ourselves to be governed by laws that are administered by people, they understood themselves to be governed by people who had the wisdom or the right to make laws, or who had the ability to interpret the previous decisions of other judges and the documents (such as religious texts) that were relevant. In general, the law was what the ruler said, not what he or she administered. For the Israelites, the judge (whether one of the judges in this part of the Old Testament, or a patriarch, such as Abraham, or a prophet, such as Moses, or a king, such as David) was always only a representative of the true ruler, God. The law was that which God decreed. This means that though we think of law in impersonal, even objective terms, the Israelites always thought of it as coming from a person: the judge or God or God through the judge.

Note also that the period between the reign of the judges, with Othniel as the first judge and Samuel as the last, is historically more murky than much of the rest of the Old Testament.

As we will see in probably every lesson from the Old Testament, as Moses had promised, when Israel was faithful to its covenant, it prospered and when it was unfaithful, it was subjected to its enemies.

Judges 2:1-5 and 10-16 is a good synopsis of the material in the reading for this lesson. If you were to write one sentence that encapsulated what you see in those verses, what would it say? See also Judges 6:1-8 for another synopsis.

Let’s look at three of the judges, Deborah, Gideon, and Samson. Doing so will help us understand better the time of the judges.


What does it mean to say that Deborah was a prophetess (Judges 4:4)? The word is used in five other places—Exodus 15:20, 2 Kings 22:14, 2 Chronicles 34:22, Nehemiah 6:14, and Isaiah 8:3. Do any of those help us understand what it means? Read what the Bible Dictionary in the back of the LDS edition of the scriptures says about what the word “prophet” means. Does that description preclude women from being prophets? How does our use of the word today differ from its use in the Old Testament?

What is the point of the story of Deborah?


When the angel of the Lord calls Gideon (Judges 6:11-16), why does he call him a “mighty man of valour”? What is Gideon’s response? Where have we heard this before? Why does the Lord keep calling men who have what we would describe as a poor self-image (such as Enoch and Moses)? How did the Lord reduce the number of Israelites who were to go into battle (Judges 7:3-7)? Why did he do so (Judges 7:2)?

What specific things can we learn from the story of Gideon?


The story of Samson is not an uplifting story. He betrays his covenants, he marries a foreigner, he breaks his Nazarite vow, and finally kills himself in the act of avenging himself by killing 3,000 people. Why does the Bible not only include it, but also give us a great deal of detail about Samson’s reign?

22 comments for “Sunday School Lesson #19

  1. May 20, 2006 at 2:40 pm

    There is a great story in Joshua that people may want to use in their lesson plans for teaching Judges. Chapter 2 of Judges makes the point that the children of Israel were righteous only as long as the older generation–those who crossed Jordan–was still alive. It might be fun to read about Caleb in Joshua 14 to illustrate the faithfulness of the “elders of Israel.” I didn’t have time to cover this great man last week, so I am excited to be able to teach about him tomorrow (only a few people I know know anything about Caleb).

    It is interesting to contrast Judges 2 with Gideon: Judges 2 laments that Israel did not follow in the ways of its fathers, whereas Gideon is told to destroy the idols his fathers built. The reasons for the difference are obvious, but it may serve as a good introduction to a more meaningful discussion about honoring parents, following in their ways, the good and bad of family traditions, etc.

  2. May 20, 2006 at 5:46 pm

    Brian: Thanks for the Caleb mention, I hadn’t noticed that Caleb was Othniel’s older brother and that Othniel won Caleb’s daughter’s hand in marriage for conquering the land Hebron. (There’s also some interesting Jewish legends about him given in the Jewish Encyclopedia.)

    Also, I think your idea about using Gideon to ask about dilemmas in honoring our parents is a good one. However, I think it’s a bit simplistic to view Gideon as a shiny example of faith. Looking this up in some commentaries (the WBC doesn’t have a book on Judges, so I got some library books…), I found many (most?) scholars also have reservations about Gideon. In particular, he seemed a bit slow in recognizing and showing faith in God when he was first called to save Israel, and he gave in to building his people idols in Judges 8:24-27.

    Since I always try to give my kids a “moral to the story” (though the boys just like to hear the rated-R bible stories and have little patience for spiritual lessons…), I probably focus too much on the morality of the characters in the story. Nevertheless, I also think Ehud’s behavior was suspect (deceptive), and I think Jephthah’s initial vow to sacrifice to God was pronounced out of weak faith. In my mind, this only leaves Othniel and Deborah as judges without moral flaws. One scholar (J. Clinton McCann) suggests that the moral flaws of the judges, coupled with the Israelites’ penchant for apostacy, sets the stage for the establishment of a monarchy in 1 Samuel.

    (I’ve only put a few comments regarding this in my lesson notes so far, but hopefully will flesh out these arguments there in more detail soon….)

  3. May 20, 2006 at 8:34 pm

    Robert C: thanks for the Caleb link. I don’t intend to use Gideon as a “shining example of faith”–he seems very reluctant to follow the Lord. But I do think that what he did–throw down his father’s idols–was a shining example: one, everyone knew the idols were “bad”, and two, the Lord told him to do it. So my plan is not to focus on the people (Caleb vs Gideon) but more on what the Lord told them to do (follow parents vs rebel against parents–or at least parents’ idols). Thanks for helping me to clarify.

    (Parenthetically responding to your parenthesis: Of course I already checked your notes before preparing my lesson. Very helpful!)

  4. annegb
    May 21, 2006 at 10:28 am

    I haven’t been back to Sunday School since I yelled (well, I didn’t yell, but I was a bit strident) at the teacher to be nicer to Lot’s wife.

    But there’s a good chance I’ll make it today. Maybe I’ll know what’s going on.

    I do appreciate these, Jim.

  5. May 22, 2006 at 1:27 pm

    I’ve found some pretty interesting things written about the role of women in the book of Judges. I posted a quote I particularly liked here.

  6. May 22, 2006 at 7:07 pm

    Robert C: I read that the Book of Ruth is sometimes considered to be an extension of the Book of Judges. I don’t think that argues against what you wrote in #5, but I think it changes the meaning a little. Perhaps Ruth was meant to be a vindication of women, in response to the declining role throughout Judges.

  7. May 22, 2006 at 7:09 pm

    Robert C: Your quotation from Bledstein is very interesting, and your analysis is even better. That is something I will definitely use when I teach this lesson.

    Everyone: I think you can see that one way I got a little ahead was by spending less time on these materials. But your questions and suggestions have added a good deal to them. Thanks, and please keep doing that.

  8. May 23, 2006 at 12:31 pm

    BrianJ: I neglected to respond to your point in #6, sorry about that.

    I have a difficult time reading Ruth as an extension of Judges. In spite of that, I think it does make sense to read it as you suggest, as a response to the declining fortunes of women that we see in Judges.

  9. Mark
    May 26, 2006 at 9:48 am

    Jim, your intro provides a good context to understanding the tribal, city-state mentality of life in Israel before things started to get more united under Saul. I think the theocratic rule they lived under was a source of strength to them (at least when they were righteous) when they were just starting out. If you want to trace the mentality of being governed by ‘people who had the wisdom or the right to make laws, or who had the ability to interpret the previous decisions of other judges’ that persists throughout the middle east to this day, you could argue this is where it started. In fact, I have to cringe a little when I hear American leaders saying they want to ‘liberate’ Iraq and other countries with a western style democracy, which may be valuable to us, but to them, it’s a difficult concept.

    btw- I took a class from you at the Y in the ’70s – I think it was a logic class.

  10. May 26, 2006 at 11:06 am

    Mark, thanks for your participation. I hope the logic class was useful to you. For the most part, students in it either find it something they already know or something they don’t understand at all. (The curve is often bi-modal and U-shaped.) I used to teach a lot of logic, but I haven’t done so for a long time.

  11. Mark
    May 26, 2006 at 7:53 pm

    Jim, yeah, your logic class taught me to think a little differently and it was really good – except for one thing: I would use some of that stuff to go home and argue with my wife, but she still won! Couldnt figure that one out :)

  12. June 3, 2006 at 6:03 am

    Matthew Faulconer has raised an interesting question which has sparked some discussion at the Feast wiki regarding Judges 14:19 where the scripture says the Spirit of the LORD comes upon Samson just before Samson goes and slays 30 people to settle a wage. Does this suggest that God approved of Samson’s actions? If not, how are we to understand D&C 121 where it says the powers of heaven will withdraw when authority is exercised unrighteously? I’d be anxious to hear others’ thoughts on this issue….

  13. June 3, 2006 at 9:04 am

    Robert C: I read the phrase “Spirit of the LORD” to be somewhat figurative in the Old Testament. I think that any time something mighty, amazing, or unusual was done, people would attribute it to the LORD in order to show God’s supremacy and that he is the source of all power. In this case, I think the phrase is recognizing that Samson was born with amazing strength that the Lord gave him, but Samson would use that strength however Samson chose.

    The phrase seems to be used differently in the New Testament, PoGP, BofM, and D&C, so there I read it to really mean that the Spirit was with the person.

  14. June 3, 2006 at 4:16 pm

    Robert C: I’m with BrianJ on this one. I don’t think the phrase necessarily refers to either the Holy Ghost or to the Son’s spirit. It can be a post hoc way of justifying something out of the ordinary.

  15. June 3, 2006 at 6:44 pm

    Thanks Brian and Jim (#13 & #14). I think yours is a sensible reading (I seem to recall this point also coming up in regards to Joseph saying it was God’s will that his brother’s sold him into Egypt). But I still think we should read the verse as the writer of the scripture intends it, and I think it’s interesting to consider why God allows Samson to retain his physical strength for such an unrighteous act, even if God doesn’t approve of the action per se.

    I’m thinking here about the concept of being as Gene England talked about it in his class on Hamlet, where being is related to the medieval Christian notion of submitting to the ordered world that God has created. Of course this raises all sorts of philosophical and theological issues (which are way out of my depth), but I think these are good issues to consider regarding this scripture, and I think the Mormon view on these philosophical and theological issues may be unique (relative to other Christians) in light of D&C 121….

  16. June 3, 2006 at 10:52 pm

    Robert C: “But I still think we should read the verse as the writer of the scripture intends it”

    I think that Jim F and I agree with you on this; our disagreement is on what exactly the writer intended. I think that the writer intended it as a figure of speech–like the phrase I heard so often in Brazil: “Are you going to do _____?” “Se Deus quiser.” (God willing). The people who used that phrase rarely considered God’s will at the time they said it.

  17. June 3, 2006 at 10:54 pm

    I was in too much of a hurry in the above comment, let me try to explain a little better:

    What I object to (at least in the argument I’m trying to articulate here—I reserve the right to change my mind on a whim!) is Brian’s subtle shift in time. Brian is saying we should read Judges 14:19 as God originally giving Samson strength and then letting Samson do as he pleases with that strength. But Judges 14:19 says God’s spirit comes upon Samson and then, immediately afterward, Samson slays thirty men. From the perspective of the writer, Samson’s strength in slaying the thirty men seems to be currently associated with God’s Spirit, not just associated in some past tense. Even if the scripture writer is just doing “post hoc justification,” I think this manner of justification is an embedded part of the scripture, so I don’t think it should simply be dismissed as a cultural difference, at least not without deeper consideration.

    As part of that deeper consideration, I am reminded of a lecture by Gene England on Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech. On England’s view, “to be” is associated with accepting the world as it is (not worrying about avenging his father’s death) and “not to be” is to fight the way God has structured the world (avenging his father’s death). I don’t remember the exact association and am too ignorant to elaborate, but England used a medieval Christian view to support his argument saying that in medieval Christianity, this world is God’s world, and since God is perfect, the world as it is must be perfect, and the Christian should accept God’s world rather than fighting against it or believing it is imperfect. This submissive view toward the way things are seems similar to the attitude the ancient Hebrew writer has: since Samson slayed thirty men, it must be that it was with God’s help.

    I think there is a deep aspect of humility embedded in these submissive, attribute-everything-to-God world views. And I think this humility is worth emulating (one related BOM scripture that comes to mind is Alma’s acknowledgement in Alma 29 that his desire to be an angel proclaiming the gospel is sinful). But this submissive view is fraught with theological difficulties, particularly for Mormons b/c D&C 121:37 says (roughly) that the powers of heaven withdraw themselves when unrighteous dominion is exercised (it seems the implication is that whatever heavenly power someone has must be not only acceptable to God, but must also be considered righteous…). It is this theological tension that I think the Samson story raises—a tension that I think is very interesting to contemplate….

  18. June 3, 2006 at 11:00 pm

    Brian (#16): I think you make a good point, but I think this is a dangerous and slippery-slope approach to ancient scripture. Several invocations of Yahweh in the story of Ruth can be (and have been) viewed this way, but I think the story is much richer (spiritually) when read as significant. I’m fine with viewing expressions as figurative expressions instead of literal expressions (e.g. 40 days and 40 nights), but I think the expressions themselves should be taken as significant (a long period of time!), otherwise what is to stop the reader from imposing his own beliefs and presuppositions onto the text?

  19. June 4, 2006 at 11:37 am

    Robert C: Like you, I reserve my right to change my mind on a moment’s notice. I’m not sure I’ve changed my mind, but I don’t see the sharp dichotomy between your position and BrianJ’s. You say that, for the writer, “Samson’s strength in slaying the thirty men seems to be currently associated with God’s Spirit, not just associated in some past tense.” That doesn’t seem to me to be contradictory of BrianJ’s suggestion that “the phrase is recognizing that Samson was born with amazing strength that the Lord gave him.”

    As you point out, prior to modernism (about the 16th century), the standard assumption was that we are attribute everything to God. As a result, we see God changing the Pharoah’s heart–rather than the Pharoah changing his heart–in Exodus. The idea seems to be something like “Ultimately all power is God’s, so we recognize that fact by attributing important events to him.”

    I am in general agreement with the position you ascribe to Gene, though I don’t know that I would say that medieval (and earlier) thinkers believed that the world was perfect. But they did believe it is his creation and the manifestation of his power and glory, so they attributed its events to him. I think you’re right that this is an important mark of humility, worth emulating at least in some respects.

    Of course, one possible understanding of the Samson story is that the Lord wanted to show his power over the Philistines and that he used Samson to do so. The morality of the story doesn’t fit well with our own, but neither do a lot of the other stories in the Old Testament. This is the reading that produces the tension you refer to, and I agree that it is a tension worth thinking about.

    Another possible reading is that the phrase is a later insertion, made by editors as part of their justification of their politics. This reading, of course, is one that decides not to take the scriptural text we have as it is. For that reason, I think it is a dangerous one for a Sunday School class. Where does that kind of revision stop? Whenever we find a passage difficult we can just chalk it up to meddling editors or poor translations and move ahead without having our prejudices challenged. But I think that one of the major functions of scripture study is to challenge our prejudices. So, if we aren’t engaged in historical research and criticism, as we are not in Sunday School, and if we don’t have the historical, linguistic, and critical tools to make such judgments (which most of us don’t), then I think we ought not to rely on these kinds of explanations.

    (Here’s why, on the medieval view, the world could not be perfect: only God is perfect, so not even he could create a perfect world. If he were to do so, he would have created a second God–a second perfect being–and there is only one God. This is the origin of Leibniz’s argument that this is the best of all possible world: it is the best God could make it without duplicating himself, which is impossible.)

  20. June 5, 2006 at 4:40 am

    Jim F.: Thanks for your thoughtful resonse. I agree that there is not a sharp dichotomy between my view and Brian’s. I think it is more of a sublte distinction which I happen to think is important (probably in large part due to the fact that I’ve been reading Blake Ostler’s new volume of Exploring Mormon Thought which makes me particularly sensitive and vulnerable to imposing theological significance onto scriptural passages).

    On the one hand I think there are important lessons to be learned by contemplating the particular word choice in these scriptures. With Pharoah, I think the children of Israel learned more about God’s power because of the many plagues that ensued from Pharoah’s hardened heart—in this sense, Pharoah’s hardened heart was used to help Israel, and we can learn something by considering this as an act of God (whether we view this as an act in accordance with God’s will, an act that was foreknown by God and part of God’s plan for Israel, or several other possibilities). With Samson, we might learn something about the power of covenants—because of the Nazirite vow, perhaps God was bound (a la D&C 82:10) to give Samson strength as long as Samson obeyed his side of the covenant, regardless of how he used that strength (thanks for the alternative views given above; for the sake of argument, I’m assuming here that Samson’s killing the 30 was unrighteous). These (potential, and somewhat subtle) scriptural lessons seem to be a result of (or are at least more potent because of) the phrasing that attributes unusual acts to God. It is lessons like these that I worry Brian’s view might miss.

    On the other hand, I agree with Brian’s view that scriptural phrases should be read with the cultural background of the writer in mind—to read theological significance into these phrases is unjustified and dangerous (I would argue that reading theological implications into D&C scriptures is more justified and less dangerous b/c of a different cultural context of the writing, though extreme caution should still be exercised…). Saying God hardened Pharoah’s heart does not mean that God took away Pharoah’s agency or caused Pharoah’s heart to be hardened—that would be an unjustified theological assumption. Likewise, saying God’s Spirit came upon Samson does not imply that God approved of Samson’s actions or that God gave Samson particular powers specifically to slay the 30. I think the dichotomy I was trying to paint above only occurs if one imposes (unwarranted) theological implications onto these OT phrases, and I think this is a valid point that you and Brian are making….

    Writing out these comments along with you and Brian’s helpful responses has really helped my understanding and thinking on these issues, thank you— I only worry my poorly articulated comments have been more confusing than enlightening for others!

  21. June 5, 2006 at 10:48 am

    Verse 4 seems to me to suggest that this phrase isn’t meant to be interpreted simply as a figure of speech. I interpret verse 4 as saying that Samson’s parents tried to prevent Samson from marrying someone outside the covenant because they didn’t understand that that Samson’s marriage to a Philistine was part of the Lord’s plan to punish the Philistine’s for their dominion over the Lord’s people, Israel.

    I think that verse supports one of the reading’s my dad gives as possible above: “one possible understanding of the Samson story is that the Lord wanted to show his power over the Philistines and that he used Samson to do so.” But should we find this reading as suggesting a morality different from our own? I haven’t in the past felt squimish about (see Mormon 4:5) which says that God punishes the wicked through the wicked. Thinking about it now, maybe the same morality is implied in both scriptures.

  22. June 6, 2006 at 1:45 pm

    Robert C: Thanks for your explication. I’m essentially in agreement with what you say. Indeed, I am more inclined to what you say in your second paragraph than in your third, even though I defended Brian’s view. I think you are right that we have to be careful that our interpretations, often containing theological presuppositions, at least some of which are often implicit rather than explicit, elide the teachings that we will see if we find a way to get beyond or behind those theological assumptions. (That last sentence is unnecessarily long, but I’m unnecessarily lazy enough not to go back and edit it.)

    Matthew: Thanks. I like your point that the morality we see in these verses is the same in both cases.

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