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There are a number of unusual or unconventional weapons used in the book of Judges:

  • Shamgar uses an oxgoad to strike down Philistines (3:31)
  • Jael uses a tent peg to kill Sisera (4:21)
  • Gideon's army is equipped with jars, torches, and trumpets (7:20)
  • A woman uses a millstone to kill Abimelek (9:53)
  • Samson uses a donkey's jawbone to strike down a thousand men (15:15)

There are swords and daggers too, of course. But it is striking the number of strange weapons used in the narratives. Is this meant to be thematic? And if so, what point is the author developing?

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  • In 1 Samuel 13:20 the use of unconventional weapons is due to the fact that making swords was forbidden. Maybe there was a similar reason at this time
    – b a
    Apr 9 '19 at 9:37
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Historical interpretation

In the time of judges the people were disorganized, there was no king, and no army, no tax base to support dedicated weapons production or a standing army and thus and no military weapons, so the people used farm implements ("ox goads") or household implements ("pots") when they fought.

They fought with the tools of ordinary life.

E.g. We see in the song of Deborah a complaint that the people have no weapons: a small shield or a spear was not seen among forty thousand in Israel. (Judges 5.8)

In fact this type of disorganization is one of the themes of Judges, and is one of the reasons the people clamor for a king when they are threatened by an organized army. After Isreal has a king, you see more normal weapons being used.

Homiletical theme

The use of all these various weapons create many teaching opportunities as given in חִידָה's answer. But the larger unifying theme is that God wanted the people to rely on him rather than on the strength of their own army or their own devices. He created many miracles for them to defeat their enemies with the simple farm tools they had. In this way, the call for a dedicated tax base to fund weapons and training and a dedicated king to lead a standing army is viewed as a rejection of God's provision (1 Sam 8.7)

'And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them."

Many view the call for a king as just an attempt to want to imitate other nations as if this was about fitting in, but if you take into account that they had no weapons or trained soldiers but were being attacked by armies that did, then the desire for a king is understood more fully.

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Why are there unusual weapons (donkey jawbone, etc.) in the book of Judges?

  • By analyzing the Hebrew context and meaning of the weapons used by Judges like Samson, readers will notice the use of Hebrew puns / riddles for explaining the origin of geographic names / landmarks.
  1. Regarding the "Jawbone" used by Samson : In Judges 15:14-19, Samson (Shimshon, שִׁמְשׁ֔וֹן) defeats the Philistines with an odd weapon - a donkey’s jawbone (Lehi, לְחִ֣י) - calling the place of his victory “Level-Jawbone” (רָ֥מַת לֶֽחִי).

While Samson was thirsty after the Philistine battle at Lehi, he prayed to find something to drink and God cleaved the socket of Samson’s weapon to make water pour out of the donkey’s jawbone. After reviving his spirit by drinking water from the donkey’s jawbone, Samson called his place of rejuvenation “Eye of the Crier” ( עֵ֚ין הַקּוֹרֵא֙). - The event of Judges 15:19 appears to provide an origin story for the natural Spring at Lehi.

[Shoftim (Judges) 15:19] “ And God cleaved the socket which was in the jawbone, and water came out of it, and he drank, and his spirit returned and he revived; therefore he called its name En-hakkore, which is in Lehi until this day. “ ( וַיִּבְקַ֨ע אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הַמַּכְתֵּ֣שׁ אֲשֶׁר־בַּלֶּ֗חִי וַיֵּצְא֨וּ מִמֶּ֚נּוּ מַ֙יִם֙ וַיֵּ֔שְׁתְּ וַתָּ֥שָׁב רוּח֖וֹ וַיֶּ֑חִי עַל־כֵּ֣ן | קָרָ֣א שְׁמָ֗הּ עֵ֚ין הַקּוֹרֵא֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּלֶּ֔חִי עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה )

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  • This answer has a lot of good informaiton. +1. It's unfortunate that someone would downvote it.
    – Robert
    Jan 31 at 20:10
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It was explained to me, that for instance the Oxgoad was used because the Jews were very poor at the time and didn’t afford swords and such of the time. I think also to illustrate their use of what was given to them. The jars and torches was a fear and stealth tactic to sneak in then illuminate the enemy camp, that is why he reduced his army to 300, god didn’t pick them, Gideon selected the men that didn’t let their guard down and stayed alert when they stopped to drink,

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  • Welcome to BHSE! Please make sure you take our Tour; see below left. If possible, we'd like to have answers with Biblical text or other supporting documentation for analysis. Thanks. Apr 9 '19 at 18:17
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Gideon's army is equipped with jars, torches, and trumpets (7:20) This demonstrates God's great power, as the city fell without use of regular weapons. God didn't need swords or a big army, he just needed Gideon to trust him.

Samson uses a donkey's jawbone to strike down a thousand men (15:15) The way this one was explained to me was that touching a dead animal body was considered very unclean, and Samson was meant to be holy and set apart. This shows how far God's people have fallen.

Perhaps the use of strange weapons also has something to do with showing the sin and evil amongst God's people, as they don't even use 'honourable' methods such as swords?

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The questions I first had regarding the unusual weapons included…Who was attacking and who was defending? Where and when did the events take place over the 350 year stretch of Judges? Was the fighting from a short, mid, or long distance? Would the defender know he’d soon be attacked? Did the situation force them to be creative or had they brought the weapons they wanted?

After reading the 5 stories I don’t see these as thematic. In Jael’s, Gideon’s, and Woman with a Millstone stories, the weapons appear to be exactly what they needed given the circumstances. The other two stories are that of Shamgar, the first “minor judge”. That seems a little vague. The last of the 5 is Samson’s; he could use any or no weapon.

-Shamgar uses an Oxgoad (Judges 3:31) Shamgar slew 600 with an oxgoad, an 8’ long farm tool used for spurring oxen. He was the first of the “minor judges”, so this is an introduction.

-Jael uses a Mallet and Tent Peg (4:21) Jael kills the deep-in-sleep Sisera in her tent with a mallet and tent peg. Others were in pursuit of Sisera and she just helped them. She had to kill Sisera quickly and powerfully at night.

-Gideon’s army uses Jars, Torches, and Trumpets (7:20) Gideon’s 300 soldiers had to attack the uncountable Midianites. Gideon had to design a surprise attack, so they loudly blew their trumpets and broke their jars. Taking their torches in their left hands and trumpets in their rights, they cried, “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” From the mountain top down they boldly shouted and attacked, and the Midianites saw the torches and enemies all around them. They ran in sudden terror.

-Woman uses a Millstone (9:53) Abimelech was fighting to get into the city’s tower, but the woman cast a millstone down onto his head. She really couldn’t have used many other weapons, especially from the tower.

-Samson uses a Donkey’s Jawbone (15:15) I think this stresses the point that a donkey’s jawbone wasn’t much, but Samson was the one with immense strength. He needed very little and even killed 1,000 with this.

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