Champion of Israel
The rugged old warrior stood on the eminence gazing at the little Canaanite town in the valley. The hero of a thousand fights, Caleb was the idol of his men and at eighty seven years of age boasted that his strength was as it had been forty years earlier. A twin key figure with Joshua in the conquest of Canaan after the entry of Israel into the Promised Land, he believed that he was wielding the sword of the Lord and therefore was invincible. He had just led his men to the capture of the town of Hebron but there was still more fighting to be done. His eyes fell upon his own trusted followers, hardened campaigners all, and at the crowd of younger men, not so experienced as yet in the arts of war, but eager to test their mettle and demonstrate their valour in the wars of the Lord. Caleb looked again at the town in the valley and came to a sudden decision. "He who attacks Kiriath-sepher. and takes it" came his stentorian voice "l will give him Achsah my daughter as wife" (Jud.1.12).
The eighteen-year-old girl standing behind him looked up in sudden alarm. Her eyes met those of her cousin, Othniel, son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother, and not many years, perhaps six or seven, older than herself. Othniel's eyes were already seeking hers; he flashed a reassuring half smile, hardening quickly into a look of determination. Wheeling round to face his own detachment of men, he shouted "To Kiriath-sepher. Come" and in a moment they were plunging down the rocky declivity towards their goal. Caleb watched them go, a grim smile on his face; then, to his own men. "Come, we have work to do" and the dry dust rose from the ground as they tramped in the opposite direction.
"And Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother, took it; and he gave him Achsah his daughter to wife" (RSV). And so Kirjathsepher, afterwards known as Debir, became an Israelite stronghold and its luckless inhabitants, those of them who were not able to get away in time, were mercilessly put to the sword, for these were barbaric days, and for all the romance and euphoria that has been associated with Israel's occupation of the Promised Land, Joshua and his followers were in no wise different from the barbaric invaders which have repeated the process in every land and in every generation since. They believed they were doing the work of the Lord, but so have professed Christians in similar circumstances in later times. And it has to be remembered that the Lord had already told these Israelites that they had no need to fight to obtain the land. If they would exercise faith in Him and just march in, He would see that they could settle and the decadent and immoral Canaanites who possessed it would melt away. "By little and little" He told them, obviously by natural decrease as the generations passed; they had no need to fight. The Lord told them how they could obtain the land peaceably, but they chose to fight. so Kiriath-sepher fell, and with it the literary treasures of the Canaanite civilisation, for the name means "the city of books" and this was the place where all the knowledge and learning and history of the Canaanites was stored. Despite their decadence and their immorality, the Canaanites were a civilised people and stemmed from the older civilisations of the Euphrates plains, more civilised by far that these Israelite invaders. So the books were all destroyed and no trace of them has ever been found, to the lasting loss of later generations who would fain know more about these peoples who lived when the world was young.
So Othniel returned triumphant and his uncle was as good as his word and the young conqueror claimed his bride. "When she came to him she urged him to ask her father for a field; and she alighted from her ass. And Caleb said to her, 'What do you wish?' She said to him 'Give me a present; since you have set me in the land of the Negeb give me also springs of water'. And Caleb gave her the upper springs and the lower springs" (Jud.1.14,15 RSV).
This young lady appears to have known her own mind. These men around her, her father and her new husband and others, were soldiers, having known no other trade in their lives. Caleb, who had endured the rigours of the Exodus for forty years, had only experienced 'living off the land" as his people journeyed towards their goal. Othniel was only in his teens when they entered the land. They had probably given little thought to what would happen when the fighting was over. But Achsah had. She knew that eventually her husband would have to lay down his arms and commence earning a living. And in that land and at that time the only possibility was farming. Her father had given her, as dowry, an area of land, but it was hot and arid (the expression "south" land in the AV really means desert land; it was the territory now known in modern Israel as the "Negev", dry and waterless). "Give me also springs of water" she entreated. Caleb apparently had overlooked that essential. So he re-drew the boundaries to include suitable springs or streams and the lady was content. Although the Scripture does not give any details of their future married life it is evident that they did settle down happily for 1 Chron. 4. 13-14 does give the names of their two children, Hathath and Meonothai and their grandchildren, Joab and Ophrah.
After that, nothing, for some thirty years, during which the family must have lived, and prospered sufficiently well, and enjoyed the time of relative peace which ensued after the land had been won and settled. Joshua and Caleb, and Eleazar the High Priest, who came into Canaan with them, had long since gone the way of all flesh. But things were not going well in Israel. "And Joshua, the son of Nun, died, an hundred and ten years old,… and all that generation were gathered unto their fathers, and there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel. And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord". (Joshua 2.8,10) Othniel and Achsah were of that younger generation but they were of the minority who remained loyal to God. They must have viewed with apprehension the lapsing into idolatry and the violation of the Covenant with God which guaranteed prosperity and peace whilst the nation remained loyal, and promised adversity and invasion by enemies as the penalty for disloyalty. And now the rain was ceasing to come, the crops were failing, the cattle dying off, and the threat of invasion becoming more real; but still the people in the main went on worshipping Baal as had the Canaanites before them. All this became a test of faith, for the temptation to leave the famine-stricken land of Israel for a greener land across Jordan among the unbelievers, and forsake the land the Lord had given them, was strong and some among Israel yielded to that temptation. Only thirty miles away at the village of Bethlehem lived at this same time another couple whom Othniel and Achsah must have known quite well, Elimelech and Naomi, but they had forsaken the land and gone over Jordan to live in Moab. Related by blood to Salmon the prince of the tribe of Judah, Elimelech should have set a better example, but to Moab he went in fear of what was coming although his cousin Boaz, loyal to God, remained. So the story of Boaz and Ruth is intertwined with that of Othniel and Achsah, for they all experienced the disaster that came upon the land.
"Therefore the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim, king of Mesopotamia, and the children of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years" (Jud. 3.8).
Invasion ‑ servitude ‑ oppression; these were to be the lot of the unfaithful people. Eight years long were they to reflect upon the consequence of their folly and, perchance, then begin to take some heed to the exhortations of the few faithful souls among them like Othniel and Boaz and others, who endured the judgment with patience, knowing that the Lord would lift his hand if and when the people repented. But in the meantime they groaned under the iron hand of the alien king.
Who is this Chushanrishathaim, the longest king's name in the Bible? No commentator has ever been able to suggest who he was, and of course there are not wanting those who suggest that he never lived and that the whole story is a fiction without foundation. But Twentieth century discovery can perhaps furnish a clue. The word Mesopotamia is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Aramnaharaim, meaning Aram of the two rivers, and this denoted the territory between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates which at a much later date became the land of Assyria. At this time, however, it was the seat of the empire of Mitanni ‑ a name unknown until quite recent times. The Mitannians were an Indo-Aryan people from the north and were at the peak of their power in the days of Joshua; soon afterwards they were overcome by the Hittites. Their king at the time of Joshua was Tushratta and his sister was married to Pharaoh Amenhotep III who was the reigning Pharaoh of Egypt when Israel was invading Canaan. And he oppressed Israel eight years.
But even the longest lane has a turning. In the story of Ruth and Naomi (Ruth 1.6) it describes how Naomi determined to return to the land of Israel because she had "heard that the Lord had visited his people in giving them bread". Now this can mean only one thing, that Israel had repented and turned to the Lord and in consequence He had removed the oppressor and sent the rains, and the crops had grown, and all was well again. So this marked the end of the eight years' oppression. In the parallel story, that of Othniel, it is recorded (Jud. 3.9-11) "and when the children of Israel cried unto the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer to the children of Israel, who delivered them, even Othniel, the son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother. And the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he judged Israel and went out to war: and the Lord delivered Chushan-rishathaim, king of Mesopotamia into his hand, and his hand prevailed against Chushanrishathaim. And the land had rest forty years".
So Naomi and Ruth came back from Moab to find a worthy successor to Joshua as the accepted ruler of the nation. Othniel, the victorious warrior, the champion of Israel, fresh from his victory over the Mitannians, leading a people chastened by their first experience of the penalty of the broken Covenant, resolved now to serve the Lord in sincerity and truth. It was in the power of that national mood that the men of Israel followed Othniel into battle against their oppressor and triumphed.
The Mitannians were a vigorous and warlike people. For a century past Egypt had been hard put to it to hold them back on the northern frontier with Syria. Now, with Egypt weakened and impoverished on account of losses suffered by the Plagues and the Exodus, Mitanni was moving in to fill the vacuum, hence the eight years oppression. But their rule was short-lived. Another power further away still, the Hittites, was attacking Mitanni from the rear. Caught between two fires, Hittites in the north and Othniel with his Israelites in the south, the Mitannians retreated and a year later, under Tushratta's son Mattiwaza, were no more. This event has been dated at 1370 BC; an analysis of the data afforded by the first few chapters of Judges and the Book of Ruth gives the onslaught of Othniel lying between the years 1360 and 1380, a witness to the accuracy of Bible history.
So the followers of Othniel went out to battle as they had done in the days of Kirjathsepher thirty years earlier. They had been young men then, as had been their leader, with life opening out before them. Now they were in their fifties, with the sobering knowledge of their years of disloyalty to God and the Covenant and the hardships that had brought them. But they had come back, and God had received them, like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son, and, they would not fail again. Perhaps the best part of the story is at the end, when they returned triumphant to find Israel a free nation again and the sincere worship of the Lord restored in the towns and villages of Israel.
For forty years thereafter Othniel ruled Israel in justice and righteousness. His personal influence, as a champion for God, must have been tremendous, for during all that time the nation was free from enemies. The Egyptians in the south were quiet; the Hittites in the north were busy consolidating their hold on Mitanni. The nation increased and prospered accordingly. The High Priest, Phinehas, son of Eleazar, performed his sacred office and all seemed well. There must have been lapses; the threat of idolatry was always there and Jonathan the renegade grandson of Moses had already set up his idol shrine in the territory of Dan in the far north (Jud. 13) but these were minority events in the otherwise orderly and God-fearing life of the nation.
"And Othniel the son of Kenaz died". He would have been a little over a hundred years of age. A champion for the Lord, like his predecessors Moses and Joshua, he was the third in a line of great leaders who endeavoured to keep the nation on the straight and narrow way. Each of them illustrated the influence an upright and high-souled leader can exert over the people he leads and serves - and how quickly that influence can be dissipated when the magic of his presence is removed. After the notice of his death the narrative continues "and the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord . . . ." All the old troubles returned, and once again the penalty of the Covenant. One might be pardoned for asking whether it had all been worth while in the efforts to restore the nation to its rightful place before God. So soon did they relapse. The answer is that of course it was all worth while. The light that burned so brightly during that forty years of Othniel's rule was never completely extinguished during the time of darkness which followed. Some there were who remained loyal, and when at last the people repented again and the Lord raised up another deliverer it blazed into brightness once more. One day it will blaze up for the last time and will not be extinguished. As said Isaiah seven centuries later "Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee .... for the Lord shall be thine everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended".