26. Israelites conquer most of the land of Canaan; The first two Judges

The allocation of the land of Canaan among the ‘Twelve Tribes of Israel’ was a mere formal arrangement on Joshua’s part. It did not mean that the Israelites had captured the entire land of Canaan. It was in fact the reason why most of the Jewish tribes remained caught up in the battles to oust the locals.

The valiant and the brave tribe of Judah led these conflicts and the tribe of Simeon that had been allotted the territory next to that of Judah’s supported them.

Bezek was then a city state in Canaan and its king was a merciless ruler. He had defeated in war and enslaved, kings of seventy cities around him. Moreover, he had even cruelly chopped off the thumbs of their hands and the big toes of their feet to incapacitate them and ensure that they never reached out for their weapons against him or organized a revolt. The forces of Judah and Simeon launched an attack on Bezek and the king was brought to his knees. Defeated at the hands of Israelites forces, he was imprisoned and as tit-for-tat justice, they chopped off the thumbs of his hands and the big toes of his feet limbs as well. References in many works state that during his last days, the king of Bezek was repentant and accepted that God had punished him for his cruel deed of chopping off the thumbs and toes of the seventy kings.

Along with Bezek, the Israelites also conquered important kingdoms of Bethel, Negev, Zephath, Gaza, Ashkelon, Ekron, Hebron, Jerusalem, etc. Though they were initially unsuccessful in ejecting from the city, the Jebusites, who were inhabitants of Jerusalem, they did eventually succeed in doing so and even went on to enslave them when they mustered the required strength.

In fact, while commanding the Israelites to conquer Canaan, God had asked them to defeat the Hittite, Girgashite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite and the Jebusite kingdoms, which were much larger and stronger as compared to Israel, so says the story. But the command was not followed and realized by the Israelites. They conquered many Canaanite kingdoms but could not fully oust their local inhabitants who, in course of time, became a constant source of menace for the Israelites.

Joshua’s death resulted in a leadership void. The lack of accountability and that of a governing hand, led also to dwindling discipline among the Israelites, who, within a few years of Joshua’s death, once again took to local Canaanite customs and practices and were in fact caught up in them. They forgot their God, Who had always been their protector and they also forgot the principles and the tenets of their religion. Morally speaking, they kept falling and were given to excessive indulgence in pleasure and vices. They became dissolute. They went to the extent of worshipping local Canaanite deities like Baal, Astaroth, etc. and forgetting God’s command the Israelites even entered into wedlock with the local Canaanites.

And what resulted was but the obvious!

The cruel and powerful king Chushan of Edom, the neighbouring region of Mesopotamia and an enemy for sure, invaded Canaan and enslaved the Jews. For the next eight years he kept extorting money from the Jews and resorted to various ways and means to exploit them.

Rendered frustrated by Chushan’s harassment, the Israelites finally realized their mistake. They had no strong and able leadership like Joshua‘s and it was rather late in any case. At the end of their tolerance now, they turned to the God they had forgotten and began calling out to Him.

God was of course watching all this. A plan to release the Jews from the clutches of Chushan was indeed taking shape and with it was already chosen, the person, who would implement it.

After eight years of insufferable and agonizing torment, Othniel, the son-in-law of Caleb, who belonged to the tribe of Judah, came forth to the rescue of the Jews. He was the first Judge.

Othniel

‘The Era of the Judges’ had thus begun in the history of the Jews.

Extremely brave and fearless, Othniel built the Jewish army again and declared war on the Mesopotamian Edomites. Chushan was killed by Othniel in a fierce war and the Israelites were thus set free.

Othniel led the Jews for the next thirty five or forty years, a period that was more or less peaceful for the Israelites. But after the death of Othniel the problems and issues of the past resurfaced and the Israelites were back to square one.

Again a vulnerable lot, the Israelites, were now attacked by the Moabites. The Moabite King Eglon and his forces defeated the Israelites and enslaved them and for the eighteen years that followed, they were an object of continual harassment. Unable to bear the atrocities inflicted on them by the Moabites, the Israelites once again prayed to God for mercy.

By the grace and compassion of God, there came forward from the tribe of ‘Benjamin’, ‘Ehud’, for the protection of the Jews. Not only brave, courageous and confident, Ehud was also farsighted and shrewd and thus also, the second ‘Judge’!

Ehud too rebuilt an army of the Israelites and proceeded with his plans as per the divine wish. A contingent to offer the choicest and costliest of gifts to King Eglon was to be sent and Ehud was to lead it. As decided, Ehud wore a long and loose cloak in which he hid a 20-inch double-edged sword. After offering the gifts to Eglon, Ehud revealed that he wished to deliver in privacy to Eglon, a special, secret message from God. Granting the request, the king ordered all his staffers and bodyguards to leave and to close the doors of the room behind them. Eglon stepped ahead to listen to the special message from God. Leaning forward as if to deliver the message Ehud drew out the sword that he was carrying and stabbed Eglon in the stomach. The sword tearing through him killed him instantly and Eglon collapsed. Ehud did not attempt to retrieve the sword and calmly walked out of the room leading the guards to believe that all was well. He in fact, told the guards that the king had ordered for privacy and was not to be disturbed. He left the palace in composure and headed straight for Mount Ephraim.

Ehud kills Eglon

As was planned, Ehud sounded the horn on reaching Ephraim and announced the good news to the representatives of Jews gathered there. He stationed his forces at strategic and vantage positions. Enraged that the king had been killed, the Moabite forces chased Ehud. But not a single Moabite soldier could cross the Jordan River to enter Canaan as Ehud had deployed his forces on the road leading to the crossing point over the Jordan. A battle ensued and the bravado of Ehud’s forces led to the killing of ten thousand Moabite soldiers in the day-long battle, so says the story.

So the second Judge, Ehud pulled the Israelites out of the abyss of calamities and resettled them. It was for the next sixty two years that Ehud led the Israelites.(To be continued…)

– Shulamith Penkar-Nigrekar

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