Three footnotes in history

A study of three insignificant men, Judges 12:8-15

Just before the very long and detailed story of Samson’s judgeship, the author of Judges inserts the very brief accounts of three minor judges, who all ruled for brief periods of time, and who some scholars feel were actually contemporaries (Wolf). These three insignificant men were  Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon.

Whenever I read passages of Scripture like this, I wonder what it is there for?  What can we possibly learn from these three men?  Just like the one-verse wonder we studied a few weeks ago, there are indeed lessons of life to be gleaned from these three judges.

1.  Ibzan, 12:8-10

After him, Ibzan of Bethlehem led Israel.  He had thirty sons and thirty daughters. He gave his daughters away in marriage to those outside his clan, and for his sons he brought in thirty young women as wives from outside his clan. Ibzan led Israel seven years.  Then Ibzan died, and was buried in Bethlehem.

Ibzan was to be Israel’s ninth judge, and all we know about him is what is written in these three verses.  Ancient Hebrew tradition suggests Ibzan may have had a familial connection to Boaz, Ruth’s husband, but of course, that is merely conjecture.  He came from Bethlehem, although not the famous birthplace of Jesus, which was distinguished as Bethlehem of Judah; there was a lesser known Bethlehem in the tribe of Zebulun.

It seems as though his biggest accomplishment was having 30 sons and 30 daughters, which we must admit was quite an accomplishment.  Ibzan’s proclivity is greater than that of Jair, who had a scant 30 sons only.  It also contrasts Ibzan with Jephthah, who had only one child, and lost her to a lifetime of service to the temple of the Lord.  It would be hard for even a casual reader to notice the tragic irony.  Jephthah one daughter, and Ibzan had 30 daughters, and was forced to import another “30 daughters” from outside of his clan as wives for his 30 sons!  The juxtaposition of these two stories serves to show the tragic barrenness suffered by Jephthah in consequence of his vow (Yonger).

Not only that, but Ibzan serves to show the worldly mind-set of Israel at this time.  Nothing is mentioned in the Bible for no reason. The fact that these marriages are mentioned at all means that we, servants of God and students of the Word, are supposed to take notice and discover why they are mentioned.  Why did this judge of Israel feel the necessity to look outside his clan for his children’s spouses?  Were there no single men and women available in Zebulun, his own clan?  That’s not likely.  Ibzan in fact deliberately arranged these marriages this way for a purpose.  Clearly, Ibzan had used his children to extend his political influence and his power base outside of his clan.   This man wasn’t concerned with saving Israel from anything or anybody; that’s why there is no record of his doing anything.  There was nothing to record!  His only interest was building his and his family’s influence.  Why would he do this?   Because he was interested in building a strong dynasty, based, not on God, but on strategic planning

For Ibzan to have 60 children in total, he must have had a:

  • extreme wealth, for how else could he support his children, the servants he must have had, pay for the property he needed to live on, and support all those wives?
  • a very substantial harem; scholars estimate Ibzan must have had between 13 and 24 wives!

Clearly, Ibzan may have been considered a judge, but from all appearances he was a royal monarch.  A king.

2.  Elon, 12:11-12

After him, Elon the Zebulunite led Israel ten years.  Then Elon died and was buried in Aijalon in the land of Zebulun.

Ibzan’s successor was Elon, also from the tribe of Zebulun.  All we know about him is the length of his judgeship and the place where he was buried.  Elon’s name actually means “oak,” and there were two other men in the Old Testament named Elon:  the second son of Zebulun, who the tribe was named after, and there was a Hittite, the father-in-law of Esau, named Elon.

There is an interesting bit of wordplay in the Hebrew that is not apparent in the English translation.  Elon is actually spelled two ways in these two verses.  In verse 11, it is spelled with the same consonants as Aijalon in verse 12; only the vowel points are different.  What does that mean?  Is it significant?  This probably indicates that Elon gave his name to the town from which he governed.

Another self-interested man building a kingdom, leaving a legacy.

3.  Abdon, 12:13-15

After him, Abdon son of Hillel, from Pirathon, led Israel.  He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys. He led Israel eight years.  Then Abdon son of Hillel died and was buried at Pirathon in Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amalekites.

Next came Abdon, whose name means “servile.”  Like the sons of another judge, Jair, Abdon’s also rode donkeys.  To us, that statements means nothing, but to the ancient Hebrews, such an observation showed the amazing wealth Abdon possessed.  Also, Ancient Near Eastern monarchs rode donkeys in deference to walking.  This is mentioned clearly for the purpose of illustrating how Abdon, like Jair, was establishing himself as a “king wannabe,” and pretend potentate.    This could be said of both Ibzan and Elon as well.  All three of these judges lived more like kings than like military leaders.

That fact alone would be a disturbing indication of how far from God the people of Israel had drifted by now.  But the very last sentence of chapter 12 is the most troubling of all:

Abdon son of Hillel died and was buried at Pirathon in Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amalekites.

That’s a very ironic statement.  Abdon, a judge of Israel was not even buried in Israel, but in “the hill country of the Amalekites.”   The Israelites had, by this time, had begun to be absorbed by the godless nations all around them.  That is how far the people of God had drifted from Him.

4.  A sad state of affairs

After Gideon, and really beginning with him, judgeship was always on the brink of becoming kingship, with sons succeeding fathers in office.   All the information we have on these minor judges relates, not to their exploits for the Lord, but what amounts to a statement of their wealth and an estimation of their power.

A nation is characterized by the people who lead it. The minor judges of Israel, men like Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon, were all products of their time:  they serve to illustrate the moral and spiritual slide of the nation they serve.  Rather than function as true judges, in the mold of Gideon and Deborah, these latter judges were self-centered materialists, concerned only with building their own little kingdoms, hungry for more and more power.

There is a great warning here for us today.  In our culture that worships power and personality, and promotes self-interest and materialism, such activity does nothing to advance the work of God.  The Church of Jesus Christ would do well to  remember these words:

Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.  But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,  who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.  (Philippians 3:19-21)

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