Israel’s first Warrior-Judge, quietly on a path to heroic destiny.
The story of Othniel is gleaming gem almost buried in the chaotic rubble of the book of Judges, quietly waiting for us to notice (Judges 3:7-11). During the wilderness wanderings, a set of hopeful parents named their son Othniel: Lion of God or Strength of God.
Othniel was the nephew of the much more well-known Caleb of “Caleb and Joshua” fame (see Numbers 13 and 14 or watch this brief animated account). Sadly, Caleb means dog. He is thought to be an outsider, possibly an Edomite, whose faith and courage vaulted him to inclusion and fame. Caleb speaks up powerfully in several very challenging situations. He encourages and exhorts others to faith. But Othniel . . .? He never speaks a word. He fought the good fight of faith. But he was a man of action not words. Othniel begins life with a strong name and becomes a strong hero of faith. Just as strong as his uncle, only much less vocal. This silent, reserved hero inspired the entire Stones of Gilgal saga. As Othniel and his friends, six ordinary young Israelites in an extraordinary era, battle evil together, they sink their roots deeper and deeper into the bedrock of Truth and Love, slowing being transformed from a stand of saplings to a forest of giants––“oaks of righteousness” for the display of God’s splendor (Isaiah 61:3).
A Quiet Hero
Othniel had been one of Joshua’s young warriors, coming of age during a time of glorious miracles.
The stopping of the flooded Jordan River.
The crumbling walls of Jericho.
The sun standing still.
His story as judge of Israel begins about twenty-five years after the Israelites conquered and settled Canaan. How could they forget Yahweh so soon? How could they forget the wonders he worked to save their parents from the war hosts of Canaan? Can you imagine Othniel’s consternation when the next generation began to worship the vile gods of those very Canaanite enemies?
When the people abandoned Yahweh, he pulled back his protecting hand. He allowed Cushan-Rishathaim, king of Aram, to oppress them. This king was not an ordinary evil adversary. Rishathaim means Double Wickedness. Think Hitler plus Stalin, Pol Pot plus Idi Amin (if you remember the horrors of the 1970s), or Vladimir Putin plus Kim Jong-un. The people were trapped in a living nightmare for eight years. Finally, they remembered the God of their fathers––and the Holy Spirit stirred Othniel to action. He came out of retirement as the first Judge of Israel. First he led the people back to a commitment to the covenant. Then he led the army to glorious victory.
A Quiet Story
The male hero-judges who followed Othniel were much more colorful and much less noble:
the bloody assassin Ehud,
the fearful Gideon,
the brave but impulsive Jephthah,
or (the most tragic of all) the undisciplined Samson, distracted and derailed by idol-worshipping Canaanite women. These were God’s heroes through a period of several hundred turbulent years.
Only the sole female judge in the center of the book, the prophetess Deborah, matches the faith and integrity of Othniel—but that is another story. Don’t you feel a bit sorry for God when you consider the raw material he had to work with in that era, ? On the other hand, if you ever feel unworthy or question what God could do through you, remember these faulty men. They were deeply flawed, but they listened to God and they obeyed. God used them powerfully to save his people.
Othniel is shown with no other flaw than his silence. Even his story is quietly told. How many times had I read Judges 3 over a lifetime of Bible study without really seeing him? Then when working my way through the Bible studying the Holy Spirit, Othniel stepped out of the shadows. From Genesis through Joshua, the Holy Spirit seemed to work in situations more than in individuals: Brooding over a formless world during the creation process. Striving with the depraved hearts of humanity prior to the flood. Then we come to Othniel, stirred to greatness and filled with the Spirit.
The birth of the Stones of Gilgal Saga
I still remember my thought process at that point.
Hmmm . . . I really wish we knew more about him. Wait, didn’t I just read how he defeated giants a few pages back? I turned back to Judges 1 and read the story again.
Hmmm . . . Othniel won the hand of the fair maiden, Caleb’s daughter Acsah, a battle prize for his courage and faith.
Hmmm again . . . I never really saw the implications of that story before. Acsah asked for what she needed. Water for a dry land. She understands that life in the Promised is about more than war and warriors. They need to grow crops and pasture their flocks and herds. Othniel neither answers nor gets up out of his chair to do anything. When she doesn’t get an answer from her new husband, Acsah doesn’t hesitate to go to her father. Both of the men in her life are larger-than-life war heroes, but she is their match. A strong bronze-age woman of mettle unafraid to face off with warriors.
The Plot Thickens . . .
Her father put her up as a battle prize?
For a girl like Acsah that would be a nightmare, not a romantic “once upon a time” fairytale. I know it was a different era, a patriarchal society, but Caleb seems so wise in every other way. Why would he do that to her? Was she of such striking beauty and the young warriors of so little faith that he could think of no better incentive to induce them to face giants? Was she an independent creature who refused all suitors because none measured up to Dad? Was Othniel too quiet and shy to ask for a woman’s hand on his own?
Hmmm . . . hmmm . . . and hmmm . . .
When I reached the end of the Book of Judges, I discovered that the final stories are not in chronological order. They did not happen after the days of Samson, but during the first twenty-five years of life in the Promised Land—during the time of Othniel. You could consider them an appendix, but the book is more artfully constructed than that.
I like to think of the Book of Judges as a library shelf holding a set of biographies, the lives of the hero-judges from Othniel to Samson. Those biographies are supported by bookends describing the glorious days of Joshua crumbling into chaos. The bookends help us see how bad a mess Othniel had to clean up.
Bookend One: Chapters 1 and 2 (and a little of 3) describe in broad terms what transpired after Joshua died.
Bookend Two: Chapters 17 –– 21 describe in two detailed and very disturbing stories how faithlessness to Yahweh and the covenant led to chilling faithlessness within society.
The final bookend also introduced me to two more characters whose lives greatly impacted the story:
Phinehas, grandson of Aaron, the first high priest.
And Jonathan, grandson of Moses.
Those two Levite cousins were also children born in the wilderness, coming of age at the same time as Othniel.
To these four—Othniel, Acsah, Jonathan, and Phinehas, I added Salmon the prince of Judah and Rahab the girl he marries. Salmon only appears in genealogies, but he lived through the same exciting era. One more character seemed necessary to complete the cast, Abihail, a fictionalized daughter-in-law of the biblical Achan.
The more I thought about Othniel and his contemporaries, the more they seemed to be begging me to tell their story. At least Acsah was—Othniel still doesn’t say much. I never dreamed of writing a book, let alone a series, but this set of characters convinced me that their impressive and important story had been buried too long amid the spectacular events of the time of Joshua. It was time someone told it.