After the death of Joshua, the Israelites, surrounded by pagans, often forgot God and began to worship idols and indulge in vices. For this, God more than once deprived them of His help and turned them over to the power of the neighboring pagan people. This misfortune brought the Israelites to their senses and forced them to bring their minds back to God again. When they repented, the Lord sent them deliverers who liberated them from the enemy and ruled over them. These chosen ones of God were called judges. In all, the Israelites had fourteen judges.
Amongst the judges Gideon is famous because, with few troops, but with God’s help, he delivered the Israelites from the enemy Midianites, who oppressed the Israelites for seven years. The Israelites had to hide from them in gorges and fortifications. Such a misfortune forced the Israelites to convert and turn to God. Then the merciful Lord sent them a deliverer in the person of Gideon.
One day Gideon prepared to flee from the enemy and threshed the wheat in order to have bread for the road. At that time an angel of the Lord appeared to him and commanded him to gather his troops against the enemy. Gideon, fulfilling the command of God, began to gather his forces and collected thirty-two thousand soldiers. After this Gideon turned to the Lord with a request to give him a sign that the Lord would in fact use him to serve the Hebrew people. Gideon prayed thus, "If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that Thou wilt deliver Israel by my hand" (Judges 6:37).
Gideon’s prayer was heard. On the next day, having got up early, Gideon began to press the fleece and pressed out of it a whole cup of water, as it was covered with dew.
Then again Gideon turned to the Lord with a prayer: "Lord, let not Thine anger be hot against me, let me speak but this once: ...let it be dry only on the fleece and upon all the ground let there be dew" (Judges 6:37-40).
The Lord heard Gideon’s second prayer and did so that night. Only the fleece was dry, and there was dew on all the ground.
Then the Lord said to Gideon, "The warriors that are with thee are too many. I will not give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves before Me, saying, ‘My own hand hath saved me’" (Judges 7:2). Then the Lord commanded Gideon to let all those go home who were fearful. Twenty-two thousand returned, and ten thousand remained with Gideon.
The Lord again said to Gideon, "The people are yet too many," and He commanded Gideon to bring them to the water. At God’s direction, Gideon separated those who drank the water by drawing it up with a cupped hand, from those who drank straight with the mouth as they bowed down to the water. There were 300 men who drank with a cupped hand. The Lord then said to Gideon, "By the 300 men that drank from the hand will I save you."
Gideon took with him the 300 soldiers, provisions, and trumpets and those that remained were sent home.
That night God led Gideon on a visit to the Midianite camp. The Midianites and the Amalekites had settled in the valley in numbers like grasshoppers; their camels were innumerable. There were as many as the sand by the seaside. Gideon, with his servant Phurah, made his way to the Midianite camp and heard one man tell another his dream, that a cake of barley bread tumbled into the Midianite camp, rolled up to a tent and hit it so that the tent fell, toppled over and crumbled.
To this the other soldier answered, "This is nothing else save the sword of Gideon; for into his hand hath God delivered Midian and all the host." And Gideon took heart.
Having returned to his camp, Gideon woke up his troops and gave each man a lamp within a pitcher and a trumpet. He divided them all into three companies and told them to surround the enemy camp and to do whatever his company did and to shout, "The sword of the Lord and of Gideon."
When everyone had taken his place, Gideon ordered his company to break the pitchers and with their lamps shining, to blow on their trumpets and cry, "The sword of the Lord and of Gideon." Both the other companies did this as well.
Such fear and terror came over the Midianites that in their great confusion and in the darkness they began to kill each other, and finally they turned in flight. Gideon completely routed them, and with a huge plunder returned home victorious.
After this victory the Israelites offered Gideon and his descendants royal power over them, but he refused it and said, "I will not rule over you neither shall my son rule over you: the Lord shall rule over you" (Judges 8:23).
The judge Samson was famous for his unusual and supernatural strength. Even from his birth, at the instruction of an angel of God, he was consecrated by his parents to God, and as a sign of this he could not cut his hair. One day in a field a young lion attacked him. Samson grabbed the lion by the jaws and tore it to pieces, as if it were a baby goat. Many times, the Philistines, the enemies of the Israelites, attempted to seize him, but always unsuccessfully. Once he tore off new strong ropes with which he was bound. Another time, with an ass’s jaw bone he massacred a thousand Philistines. A third time he carried away on his shoulders the gates of the Philistine city, Gaza, in which they wanted to hold him captive. Finally, a Philistine woman named Delilah, with whom he fell in love, having found out that his strength and power were contained in the long hair on his head, cut off his hair while he was asleep and handed him over to the Philistines. They took him, put out his eyes and imprisoned him in a dungeon. Having fettered him with two bronze chains, they forced him to work for them. In the meantime, the hair on Samson’s head began to grow back, and at the same time his strength began to return, since his soul was cleansed by repentance for his delusions. One day the Philistines brought Samson out during a festival for general reviling in their pagan temple, and they made sport of him. Samson asked the boy who was leading him by the hand, to take him to the two columns on which the whole building rested, so that he could lean against them. Having prayed to God, he pushed against the columns with his hands and dislodged them from their place. The building collapsed. All the Philistines who were there were buried under the ruins of the building, and Samson himself with them.
The Prophet Samuel, from the tribe of Levi, was the last judge of the Hebrew people.
For a long time Samuel’s parents did not have any children. One day, Samuel’s mother, Anna, during ardent prayer before the tabernacle, made a vow to God that if she were to bear a son she would consecrate him to the Lord. Anna’s prayer was heard, and in a year she bore a son. Anna called him Samuel, which means "obtained from God."
When Samuel was a youth, his mother took him to the tabernacle and gave him over to the high priest Eli for the service of God. The high priest Eli was also at that time a judge of the Israelite people.
The high priest Eli had two sons, Hophri and Phineas, who were priests of the tabernacle, but they were depraved people. They celebrated the service to God without reverence and corrupted the people with their misbehavior. Eli saw Samuel’s piety and appointed him to serve in the tabernacle.
Samuel always slept inside the tabernacle, not far from the place where Eli slept. Once Samuel heard a voice in a dream, which called to him, "Samuel, Samuel!"
Samuel immediately ran to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me."
Eli replied, "I did not call you. Go back to sleep."
Samuel went and lay down, and again the voice called him, "Samuel, Samuel!" A second time Samuel went to Eli, but Eli again replied that he had not called him.
When this was repeated a third time, Eli understood that the Lord was calling the boy and said to him, "Go back to sleep. If the voice again calls you, say, ‘Speak Lord, for Thy servant heareth.’"
Samuel went to sleep and again heard the voice calling him. Samuel replied as Eli had taught him. Then the Lord revealed to Samuel that the whole house of Eli would perish because Eli knew how impiously his sons acted, and he did not control them.
The next day Samuel passed on to Eli what the Lord had said to him. Eli obediently accepted the prediction. Soon Samuel’s prediction was fulfilled.
The Philistines attacked the Israelite troops and killed them. Then Eli, at the request of the Israelite elders, sent the Ark of the Covenant to the camp with his sons, the priests Hophri and Phineas. But the ark did not help the Israelites. They again were massacred by the Philistines. Hophri and Phineas were killed, and the ark was captured. Thus the Lord showed the people that holy things do not help those who do not respect the holy commandments of God. When Eli found out that the ark was seized by the Philistines, he fell over backward from his seat and died.
The Ark of the Covenant, being greatly sacred to the Lord, did not long remain with the Philistines. God Himself convinced them by first mashing their idol Dagon, then sending the inhabitants of that town inful growths on the body. Finally, their fields were destroyed by mice. The frightened Philistines put the Ark of the Covenant in a new chariot, harnessed to it two young cows and let it go out of their land. The cows, without being driven, went by themselves to the Israelite land. The Israelites met the Ark of the Covenant with great joy.
After the high priest Eli, the Prophet Samuel was appointed judge of the Israelite people. Samuel governed the people not only as a judge but also as a prophet of God. He persuaded the Hebrew people to destroy all pagan idols, such as they had, to pray to God for forgiveness, and to fast. All the people repented and said, "We have sinned before the Lord." By Samuel’s prayers the Lord saved the Hebrews from the Philistines. Samuel was strict and just and enjoyed great respect and love from everyone. He governed the people for forty years. In his old age he transferred his authority to his two sons, who accepted presents and judged unfairly. The impatient Hebrews began to ask Samuel to put a king over them, such as other nations had. Samuel tried to persuade the people to remain with their former form of government, but he was unsuccessful. Then Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to him, "Listen to the voice of the people in everything that they say to you, for they did not reject you, but they rejected Me as a ruler over them." Then the Lord said that He warned the Israelites that a king would force all the people to serve him, would take the best land for himself, and they would have to give up everything to the king. The people did not heed Samuel’s warning and said, "No, let a king rule over us, and we will be like other nations."
At God’s command, Samuel anointed Saul as king, having poured on his head the consecrated oil, and then the Holy Spirit came down on Saul, and Saul received from above the power to rule the people.
NOTES: See the Book of Judges and I Samuel, chaps. 1-10:1-16.
(from: The Law of God by Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy)