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Sefer Shoftim Chapter 3

Chapter 3 begins with a recap. Not only have the Jews not driven out the nations of the land, but they have even married their daughters and served their gods. This makes God angry and he allows them to be persecuted by Aram Naharaim for eight years (this nation lived in the land situated at the north-east of modern-day Syria and northern Iraq). When this persecution becomes unbearable, the people cry out to God and He sends them a Shofet (judge). The first judge is Othniel ben Kenaz, whose success results in peace for 40 years. This is a demonstration of the cycle we learnt about in Chapter 2.

 

Following Othniel’s death, the people descend into idolatry once more. This time, it is Eglon, the Moabite King, who wages war and oppresses the Jewish people. He rules over them for 18 years before God sends a new Shofet: Ehud ben Gera. The text gives a detailed account of how the left-handed Ehud tricks his way into Eglon’s palace with his sword strapped to his right side.  Right-handed soldiers wear their swords on their left side. The guards do not check his right side, as it doesn’t occur to them that Ehud might be left-handed.

 

Ehud claims that G-d has asked him to deliver a message to Eglon and requests a private audience. He then draws his sword and stabs Eglon in the stomach. Eglon was overweight and his belly envelopes the sword, allowing Ehud to escape before anyone realises what he has done. Without their King, the Moabites are vulnerable to attack and the Jewish people defeat them. An 80-year period of peace and tranquillity begins.

It is noteworthy that in this one chapter, constituting just 31 verses, 166 years have been recounted. 120 of those years are calm and tranquil. As discussed in our previous article, whilst the focus is on the cycle of sin and punishment, we must remember that this chaos was actually a minority of the time.

Who was Othniel ben Kenaz?

The first Shofet of this period is very significant. Othniel was Calev’s younger brother. Calev ben Yefune and Yehoshua bin Nun were among the twelve spies who had been sent by Moshe to scout out the Land of Israel. However, Calev and Yehoshua were the only ones who returned with a positive report (Bamidbar 13). Othniel is also mentioned earlier in Sefer Shoftim for successfully conquering the territory of Dvir from the Canaanite giants that lived there. As a result, he wins the hand of Calev’s daughter in marriage (Shoftim 1:10-15).

Othniel therefore represents two important values. Firstly, he represents the final link with the generation of Yehoshua, a symbol of what the people should be aspiring to achieve. Secondly, as a leader who successfully battled the other nations of the land, Otniel represents the military aim the people should be working towards.

 

An ancient midrashic work presents Othniel as a successor figure to Yehoshua. Based on the phrase "the sun rises and the sun sets" (Kohelet 1:5) our Sages state that even before the sun sets on one leader, it has already arisen on another leader (Yalkut Shim'oni 26). Just as Yehoshua was the natural successor to Moshe, Othniel is the natural successor to Yehoshua.

 

Therefore, Othniel’s appointment as the first judge of Israel reminds the people of Yehoshua’s parting message: to serve God faithfully and conquer the land. Unfortunately, with his death, the people descend once more into sin. Othniel’s influence on his own generation was profound, but he does not manage to achieve along-lasting impact. Future generations will require their own leaders to guide them.

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