A Study in Contrasts

The book of Judges concludes with the story of the final judge, Samson, followed by the recounting of several ignominious episodes from that time in Israel’s history. The dark nature of those stories stands in stark contrast to another from the same era—that of a non-Israelite woman named Ruth.

The well-known story of Samson of the tribe of Dan brings the biblical narrative of Israel’s judges to a close. For the third time in the account, the Philistines were the nation’s oppressors (Judges 13:1). During this period God chose Samson from birth and declared that he would be a Nazirite, under a vow to serve God in very specific ways (see Numbers 6). He could not cut his hair, nor drink wine, nor touch a dead body. He would “begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines” (Judges 13:5–7). Forty years of Philistine oppression would include the life and death of Samson. But even though appointed as a judge, he would not deliver Israel entirely. Both Eli the high priest and Samuel the prophet would work in Israel at the same time as Samson, but the final deliverance would be left to Samuel and to David after him.

Samson was a man of great contrasts. He was chosen by God for the work of deliverance, yet his own appetites and weaknesses got him into trouble. Refusing to find a wife among the Israelites, he chose a Philistine woman and demanded that his parents negotiate the marriage (14:1–4).

We begin to sense something of Samson’s character here, as he marches back home and insists that his father go through the normal Near Eastern procedures and obtain this woman as his wife. . . . Biblical law forbade marriages to members of another nation. . . .”

Trent C. Butler, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 8: Judges

He went on to break his Nazirite vow in several ways, eating defiled honey from the carcass of a lion and likely drinking alcohol at his wedding. He then slew 30 Philistines in settling a mind game over the meaning of a riddle (10–20). When his father-in-law gave up Samson’s wife to a companion, Samson avenged himself by setting fire to the Philistines’ crops. Their retaliation was to burn his father-in-law and wife, and this brought an even more vicious reaction: Samson “attacked them hip and thigh with a great slaughter” (15:1–8).

Trying then to leave the Philistines alone, he retreated, only to be brought back into conflict when the men of Judah appealed for his cooperation to appease their overlords: “We have come down to arrest you, that we may deliver you into the hand of the Philistines” (verse 12). Though Samson allowed this, he was soon strengthened by “the Spirit of the Lord” and broke the ropes binding him. Taking an ass’s jawbone, he then killed a thousand men (verses 14–15).

In yet another example of ungodly behavior, Samson next visited a prostitute in Gaza. The local people heard that he was among them and planned his murder. His strength delivered him once more as he tore out the city’s gates and posts and carried them to a hilltop near Hebron, a journey of about 40 miles uphill (16:1–3).

Samson’s final years concern his encounter with the Philistine woman Delilah. In the infamous story, she was bribed by the Philistine lords to discover the secret of Samson’s strength. Though he feigned cooperation three times and though the Philistines were lying in wait to capture him, he remained strong (verses 4–15).

Finally, Delilah pestered him enough to cause him to divulge that he was a Nazirite, whose commitment to the terms of the vow, represented in part by his unshaven head, was the secret of his strength. Thus, if his hair were removed, he would be as weak as any other man. Once he broke his vow by giving away his secret, he did not realize “that the Lord had departed from him.” Captured easily by the Philistines, they blinded and imprisoned him in Gaza (verses 16–21).

In what seems like an ignominious end, Samson now redeemed himself. At a great assembly in the Philistine temple of Dagon to celebrate Samson’s capture, he was made an object of ridicule. Asking the boy who led him by the hand to place him against the pillars of the temple, he now prayed, “O Lord God, remember me, I pray! Strengthen me, I pray, just this once, O God, that I may with one blow take vengeance on the Philistines for my two eyes!” (verse 28). Asking to die with the 3,000 Philistine men and women present, he dislodged the pillars, bringing down the temple; “so the dead that he killed at his death were more than he had killed in his life” (verse 30).

Having judged Israel for 20 years, Samson was buried by his family in his home territory.

Final Reminders

Judges concludes with five additional chapters (17–21) that do not discuss leaders. They focus rather on several examples of what happened during part of the more than 300 years of the book in the lives of individual citizens and tribes. It is the compiler’s way of bringing home the lesson of the book at a very personal level.

First is the story of a man in Ephraim who returned money he had stolen from his mother (17:1–2). Her thankful response was to dedicate it to the Lord, yet she did so by requesting that he make two idols. Not satisfied with having these images in his house, Micah either already had or built a shrine, had other household gods for requesting spiritual guidance, made a priest’s breastplate (ephod), and named one of his sons his priest. In other words, he made everything he needed to counterfeit worship of the true God; Micah created his own syncretic religion.

The situation only deteriorated when he asked a visiting Levite to take up salaried residence. He agreed, and Micah consecrated the man (17:7–12). What could be better than having one’s own private priest? His conclusion that God would now bless him (verse 13) could not be further from reality, however, since he had done all of this in contravention of God’s prescribed ways. This man could not be a priest according to God’s law, since he was a descendant of Levi but not through Aaron’s lineage (see Exodus 40:12–15; Numbers 3:5–10).

Later a group of Danite spies, in search of territory for their tribe, met Micah’s priest and learned about the religious shrine (Judges 18:1–4). Returning en route to claim land they had decided to attack, they took Micah’s religious trappings with them. When Micah’s priest challenged them, they persuaded him to join them. The aggrieved Micah was unable to stop them (verses 11–26). Capturing Laish from a quiet, settled people, they burned the city, rebuilt it and renamed it Dan. The priest and the idols from Micah’s home became the center of Danite religious worship.

We now learn that the Levite who became a personal priest was none other than a descendant of Moses. Some translations have “Manasseh” here in place of “Moses,” but this appears to be the result of a scribe inserting a letter to free Moses’ line of the sin of idolatry. In any case, a descendant of Manasseh could not be a Levite. The Levite’s descendants remained in this unlawful and idolatrous condition “until the day of the captivity of the land”—a reference either to the fall of the region to the Assyrians 300 years later (see 2 Kings 15:29), or more likely to the capturing of the ark of the covenant much earlier when Shiloh was destroyed (see 1 Samuel 4). Even the line of Moses can be corrupted when there is no (faithful) king in the land.

In a second narrative that took place in the days of Aaron’s grandson, another Levite had an unfaithful concubine who ran away from Ephraim to her father’s home in Judah. The Levite pursued his wife, met her hospitable father, and was detained from leaving with her until several days had passed in feasting. Finally he left with his concubine, arriving at the outskirts of Jebus (later Jerusalem) at evening. Refusing to stop in a non-Israelite city at night, they pressed on to Gibeah of Benjamin, where an Ephraimite took them in. Some of the local Benjamites demanded sexual relations with the Levite, but the Ephraimite and the Levite offered their female family members instead. The Benjamites abused the concubine all night and left her to die at the doorstep (19:1–26).

The episodes at Gibeah and the personal experiences of the Levite serve as background, demonstrating how individualized and deep-seated is the Canaanite rot in Israel, as well as the communal implications of personal actions.”

Daniel I. Block, The New American Commentary, Volume 6: Judges, Ruth

The Levite took her home and cut her body into 12 pieces, sending a piece to each of the 12 tribes (verses 27–29). Four hundred thousand from the tribes assembled and decided that the Benjamites must surrender the attackers of the Levite’s concubine. The Benjamites refused and went to battle against the rest of Israel. After three attempts, Israel was victorious, but at the cost of more than 65,000 lives (chapter 20).

This dire situation for Benjamin brought on the next problem: too few survivors to sustain the tribal line. The Israelites’ solution was to strike the men, married women and children of the city of Jabesh Gilead because it had not supported the recent battle against Benjamin, and to give the remaining virgins to Benjamin. The number was then augmented by young women from the city of Shiloh. This allowed the tribe of Benjamin to rebuild and recover (chapter 21).

The book of Judges comes to an abrupt end with this final tragic story of mayhem in Israel, when “there was no king in Israel” and “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 21:25).

Ruth, Redemption and Royalty

A biblical countering of the generally sorry state of affairs exposed in the book of Judges is found in the story of Ruth, found in the section of the Hebrew Scriptures known as Kethuvim (the Writings). We depart here from the order of the Hebrew books, since Ruth begins, “Now it came to pass, in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land” (Ruth 1:1). A moving story of redemption and mercy, of acceptance and blessing follows. The account also points forward to the coming of the faithful royal King, historically and prophetically.

While we know that at some point in the chronological sequence of Judges the story of Ruth takes place, it is difficult to attach a precise date. That there was a famine severe enough to cause people from the town of Bethlehem (“House of Bread”) to leave and seek food elsewhere is clear, but exactly when is not. This is the same town from which the wandering Levite departed on what became an idolatrous journey. But the outcome for Ruth will be very different.

If the words of James are true (and they are), that ‘faith without works is dead’ (James 2:17), then this book paints a picture of a lofty theology and an inspiringly vibrant faith. In this respect it speaks to readers of every age.”

Daniel I. Block, The New American Commentary, Volume 6: Judges, Ruth

Famine, then, caused what would become Ruth’s family to leave their town and cross the Jordan to the land of Moab. There Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their two sons settled. The father died and the young men married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. After about 10 years the two sons also died.

The three widows then had to decide what to do. They set out with Naomi to return to Judah, but Naomi tried to persuade them to go back to their Moabite homes. She could not provide them with husbands even if she should remarry and have further sons for them; too much time would have to pass. Orpah departed, but Ruth promised to stay with Naomi in beautiful words that have become famous: “Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me” (Ruth 1:16–17).

This sets the scene for all that would happen to Ruth as the two came to Bethlehem at the time of the barley harvest.

Boaz the Redeemer, Father of a King

A feature of the law of God as given to Moses is the care to be given by family members to disadvantaged relatives. By her own admission, Naomi’s life had been arduous, and now on her return she and Ruth would need help. She proposed to Ruth that she seek out a wealthy relative of Elimelech, a man named Boaz. Ruth decided that gleaning in the fields after the reapers might be the answer to their immediate need for food.

Unaware of who owned the fields, she began gleaning on the land belonging to Boaz, who arrived to ask God to bless the reapers. Noticing Ruth, he enquired of his workers who she was. They explained that Ruth was the Moabite daughter-in-law of Naomi. Boaz showed her favor by telling her to stay close to his female reapers, protecting her from any of the young men and providing water for her as she worked. Ruth asked why he was showing her, a foreigner, such favor. His reply shows that her good name and loyalty to Naomi had preceded her.

Sharing a meal with his workers, she saved some food for her mother-in-law and returned home that evening with much grain. Naomi asked where she had gleaned. When she learned that it was in the fields of Boaz, she explained to Ruth that he was the very relative she was seeking and thanked God for the blessing. Ruth then continued to glean with Boaz’s young female reapers and intended to do so until the end of the harvest.

Boaz Pouring Six Measures of Barley Into Ruth’s Veil by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, pen-and-ink drawing, ca. 1645

Naomi now made a new suggestion. Since Boaz was a relative who was able to help them, Naomi planned to seek Ruth’s future security, or “rest,” with him (3:1; 1:9). She advised Ruth to bathe and put on her best garment and to visit Boaz at the threshing floor after the evening meal. She was simply to uncover his legs and lie by his side after he fell asleep. Boaz awoke at midnight, shivering, and was surprised to find a woman there. In the darkness he asked who she was. “I am Ruth, your maidservant. Take your maidservant under your wing, for you are a close relative” (3:9). This is an extension, in formalized language, of the levirate—the means by which a relative provided a childless widow with the possibility of an heir to continue the family line (Deuteronomy 25:5–10). Literally, “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer.” That is to say in modern terms, “Marry me.”

Surprised by Ruth’s request that he, an older man, meet this need, Boaz remarked, “Blessed are you of the Lord, my daughter! For you have shown more kindness at the end than at the beginning, in that you did not go after young men, whether poor or rich” (verse 10). He promised to fulfill her request, but only provided one who was a closer relative did not wish to help her.

Protective of Ruth’s honor, he advised her to stay till dawn and then to leave quietly until he could meet with the other relative. So she returned to her mother-in-law with six measures of barley. Naomi advised Ruth to be patient until she knew the outcome, “for the man will not rest until he has concluded the matter this day” (verse 18).

Boaz then met his relative and explained the situation, offering the man first right to redeem Elimelech’s land for Naomi. He agreed, but then learned that the redemption must also include Ruth’s portion and marriage to her. Now the relative refused for lack of money and asked Boaz to fulfill the redemption (4:1–6). With the elders of the town present, the agreement was witnessed and confirmed.

The Book of Ruth shows how God rescued Elimelech’s family from extinction and how Elimelech’s family triumphed over tragedy, leading to the birth of David, a rightful heir to the kingship of Israel.”

Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Ariel’s Bible Commentary: The Books of Judges and Ruth

The elders and the townspeople were thrilled with the outcome, and Ruth the Moabitess was welcomed into the fold of Israel as fully as she could be. They said to Boaz, “We are witnesses. The Lord make the woman who is coming to your house like Rachel and Leah, the two who built the house of Israel; and may you prosper in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring which the Lord will give you from this young woman” (verses 11–12).

The child that was born to Boaz and Ruth was a son, Obed, the grandfather of David, future king of Israel. From this line was born Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, according to God’s doing and plan, Ruth the faithful non-Israelite Moabitess was redeemed; the Judaic line of Perez through Elimelech and Naomi was preserved; and the royal line of David culminating in the King of kings, Jesus Christ, was established—truly an encouraging counterweight to the often troubled period of the judges.