The Book of Judges Simplified for Kids
No one knows exactly who wrote the Book of Judges, but we do know that the text was written generations after the events depicted took place. Judges 6:24, for instance, says that an altar Gideon built “still stands there in Ophrah” (indicating that the writer lived after Gideon). Other verses make similar claims, including Judges 15:17, which explains that Jawbone Hill got its name because Samson killed some Philistines with a jawbone there.
One thing is certain: The book’s author (or authors) had a goal in mind when they wrote it. They wanted to persuade the Israelites in their day that to be blessed and win wars, they should worship Yahweh and not other gods. Every story in the book is framed in this way, making it the book’s recurring theme.
But the stories themselves often resist any simple moralizing imposed by the author or authors. Gideon is full of doubt, Jael lies to kill Sisera, Samson marries outside of Israel, etc.
So, how do you read this text with kids?
Assuming you’re okay with exposing your kids to some of the violence in the stories, here are a two options to explore. We hope you choose one that works well for you.
1. Explore how listening to our inner voice helps us overcome our challenges. Hopefully, we never have to fight in war, as these characters in the stories do. But by looking at how ancient people attributed success or failure to their view of the divine, we can explore our own relationship to our inner compass. What happens when we ignore it? What happens when we align ourselves to it?
2. Enjoy the stories as stories. Many of these stories have entered the public imagination simply because they’re surprising (even humorous) at a narrative level. Your kids might enjoy them the way they would any other story.
The Book of Judges
After Joshua died, Yahweh chose leaders called judges to fight against other nations in the area. Over time, some of the Israelites started worshiping gods besides Yahweh. When this happened, Yahweh didn’t help them win their battles.
The Story of Ehud
Head’s up: This story is gruesome (and is likely an example of dark humor in the Hebrew Bible).
One time, King Eglon of Moab captured Jericho from the Israelites and forced them to pay taxes to him for nearly 20 years.
When the Israelites begged Yahweh for help, Yahweh chose Ehud from the tribe of Benjamin to save them. Ehud was tasked with taking taxes to the king, but before he did, he hid a dagger under his robes.
Ehud delivered the taxes with the other Israelites to Eglon, who was a very large man. Afterwards, Ehud snuck back into Eglon’s throne room and told Eglon he had something to say to him in private. Eglon sent his guards away. Then Ehud said the message was from Yahweh and he pulled out his dagger and shoved it so far into Eglon’s stomach that it got buried in Eglon’s fat. Then Ehud locked the door and climbed out a side window.
When Eglon’s guards saw that his door was locked, they assumed that he was just going to the bathroom. They waited for a long time until they felt like they had to check on him, and when they did they found he was dead.
Ehud led the Israelites into victory against the Moabites, resulting in 80 years of peace for Israel.
Deborah and Barak
When Ehud died, the Israelites disobeyed Yaweh and were conquered again — this time by a king named Jabin and a commander named Sisera.
At that time, the Israelites would ask Deborah, a prophet and judge, to settle their disputes.
One day Deborah sent a message to a man named Barak. She told him that he needed to gather 10,000 men to fight Jabin and Sisera’s army.
Barak said he wouldn’t go unless Deborah went too, so she did. They stood on Mount Tabor, waiting for the right moment. Then Deborah said it was time — that Yahweh had already gone ahead and fought the battle for them.
So Barak and his 10,000 men ran down the mountain to fight Sisera and his soldiers. Yahweh confused Sisera’s army, making it easy for Barak and his men to win. Terrified, Sisera ran away, leaving his soldiers to die.
Soon enough, Sisera came to the camp of Heber, an Israelite whose family had a treaty with Jabin. Heber’s wife Jael welcomed him into the camp and invited him to rest in their tent. Sisera laid down and asked for something to drink, so Jael gave him some milk and a blanket. Then Sisera asked her to wait by the door and tell anyone who showed up that he wasn’t there.
Sisera fell asleep. Then Jael grabbed a hammer and drove a tent peg through his skull.
Barak, who had been pursuing Sisera, showed up at the tent to find Sisera — dead.
Not long after, the Israelites killed Jabin as well, and Deborah and Barak sang a celebratory hymn about their victory.
The Story of Gideon
For 40 years, the Israelites enjoyed peace. Then they started disobeying Yahweh again and were soon conquered by the Midianites. The Midianites stole almost everything the Israelites owned, and they begged Yahweh for help.
So one day an angel visited the town of Ophrah and sat beneath a large tree that belonged to a man named Joash. Joash’s son Gideon was farming nearby, and the angel walked up to Gideon and said, “Yahweh is with you.”
Gideon doubted the angel’s words, pointing out the fact that things were now terrible for the Israelites after the Midianites had defeated them.
Upon hearing Gideon’s doubts, Yahweh himself spoke out, saying that he’d chosen Gideon to rescue Israel from the Midianites.
But Gideon still doubted. His clan was weak, and he was a nobody. He said he would need proof before he believed, so he told Yahweh to wait there while he brought a sacrifice, and Yahweh did.
Gideon prepared a sacrifice of a goat and broth and thin bread, and while he was doing it the angel touched the meat with a stick and burned it all up. This terrified Gideon, who thought he was going to die because he’d seen an angel. But the angel calmed him down and reminded him that Yahweh had chosen him to defeat the Midianites.
But Gideon still doubted. He wanted Yahweh to prove it. Gideon said that he would set out a sheep skin on the ground and if, in the morning, the sheep skin was wet with dew but the ground was dry, he would believe.
The next morning the sheep skin was wet but the ground was dry. But Gideon still doubted. So he told Yahweh that he’d need to see the opposite happen the next day: Wet ground but dry sheep skin. Again, it happened.
So Gideon gathered together an army of 33,000 men, but Yahweh told him the army was too big and that anyone who was too afraid to fight should leave. And with that, more than half the soldiers left.
Yahweh said it was still too big and that Gideon should watch how the soldier drank water from a river. Those who drank straight from the river were sent home, while those who drank by scooping water into their hands first got to stay. The army had gone from 33,000 men to 300.
As Gideon approached the Midianite camp that night, he heard one Midianite tell another that he’d had a dream where a loaf of bread tumbled into the camp and knocked over their main tent. The other soldier said it was a sign that Gideon would defeat them.
So Gideon believed and surrounded the camp. He gave each soldier a trumpet and a clay pot with a lantern inside. When the signal came, they blew their trumpets and shattered the clay pots, and then Yahweh made the Midianites fight each other. Gideon and his soldiers — and more soldiers he called to help — chased down and killed the remaining Midianites.
Then Gideon killed those who had refused to help him or who had mocked him. And when the Israelites begged him to become their king, he refused but asked everyone to gather together the gold they had so he could make a statue that they all started worshiping.
Gideon had lots of wives and 70 sons. When he died, the Israelites went back to worshiping Baal.
The Story of Abimelech
Abimelech, who was one of Gideon’s sons, convinced the people that he should be the king. He bought an army and killed all of Gideon’s other sons except for one, named Jotham, who cursed Abimelech.
Some people started to doubt that Abimelech should be king. In response, Abimelech and his army set their fortress on fire and were just about to do the same to another one when a woman at the top of the fortress grabbed a large stone and threw it down on Abimelech’s head. Knowing he was about to die, Abimelech pleaded with one of his soldiers to kill him so people wouldn’t say that he was killed by a woman. And that’s how Abimelech died.
The Story of Samson
The Israelites again disobeyed Yahweh and were again conquered — this time by a group called the Philistines.
A man named Manoah and his wife weren’t able to have children. Then one day, an angel appeared to Manoah’s wife and told her that she’d soon have a son but that she shouldn’t ever cut his hair. This son would free Israel from the Philistines.
Manoah’s wife had a son and named him Samson.
Samson grew up and fell in love with a Philistine woman he’d seen. One day he was traveling to visit her when a lion attacked him. Samson was so strong, he killed the lion with his bare hands. When he returned back that way much later, bees had made a hive in the lion’s carcass. Samson scooped up some of the honey and brought it back to his parents.
Samson and his parents threw a seven-day celebration for the wedding, and when the Philistines saw how strong Samson was, they had 30 men stay with him during the celebration. Samson challenged the men to a riddle. If they guessed the riddle, Samson said he’s give them each a set of clothes, but if they couldn’t guess the riddle, the men would have to give him a set of clothes.
The men agreed to the game, and Samson said, “What was strong and mighty but is now sweet and tasty?”
The Philistine men couldn’t think of the answer, so they pressured Samson’s bride to tell them. She went to Samson and said she must not like him because she wouldn’t tell her the answer. After seven days of hearing his bride beg, Samson told her and she went straight to the Philistine men and told them. When they told Samson the answer — that the lion is strong and mighty while honey is sweet and tasty — he knew his bride had told them. He was so angry that he traveled to a nearby Philistine village and killed 30 men, took their clothes, and then gave those clothes to the men at his wedding party.
Then he went back home. Meanwhile the bride’s father married her off to one of those 30 men instead of Samson, which made Samson so angry that he caught 300 foxes, tied them in pairs by the tales with oil-soaked rags, and set them loose on the Philistine wheat fields, burning everything.
The Philistines were so angry they told the Israelites to hand Samson over to them, which they did. But Yahweh’s spirit entered Samson, and he grabbed a donkey’s jawbone and killed 1,000 Philistines with it. Then he went back to Israel, where he led the people for 20 years.
Samson fell in love with a woman named Delilah, and the Philistines secretly urged her to get Samson to say what made him so strong. She pled with Samson to tell her. So Samson said he’d lose his strength if he was tied up with seven new bowstrings, and just like that, a group of Philistines bound him with seven new bowstrings, but it didn’t work. He broke the bowstrings easily.
Samson then said he’d become weak if he was tied with new ropes, but the Philistines tried that and it didn’t work. Then he said he’d be weak if his hair was in seven braids, but the Philistines tried that and it didn’t work.
Delilah was angry that Samson wouldn’t tell him the real reason, and she pestered him every day until, finally, he gave in. He told her the truth, that it was because he never cut his hair. So the next time he fell asleep, she cut all his hair off and the Philistines overtook him. They poked out his eyes and thanked their god, Dagon, for giving them Samson. Then they brought Samson out so they could mock him, chaining him between two columns.
Samson pled with Yahweh to give him strength one last time so he could get revenge, and with that he pushed the two columns over, sending everything crashing down and killing everyone inside, even himself.