When the Judges Ruled: The Minor Judges

Interspersed among the six better-known judges are the six low-profile judges: first Shamgar, then Tola and Jair, and finally Ibzan, Elon and Abdon. They are called “minor” because their accounts are brief; together they take up less than two percent of the text. Shamgar has been immortalized in a Sunday school ditty; the names of the others are Bible trivia. Some say that the author only slotted them in to reach the proper number twelve. Others side with Jewish historian Josephus, who believed that they received short shrift because they were unimportant.

These six judges, however, serve a vital purpose in the book and send an essential message to its readers. They provide quick breaths of fresh air in a book otherwise suffocating with apostasy. The author uses the well-known long narratives to advance his theme – that without a righteous king, the leaderless people will do what they please, and lapse into idolatry and rebellion. Along the way, however, he inserts some exceptions to this sad trend. His brief clips on minor judges affirm that solid leaders – who foreshadow the coming King – can deliver peace and prosperity.  These judges encourage us to stand firmly for Christ even as things go from bad to worse.

Shamgar: Be Who You Are, Use What You Have, Do What You Can (3:31)

Shamgar followed Ehud and was a contemporary of Deborah and Barak (5:6). While they dealt with King Jabin and the Canaanites to the north, Shamgar singlehandedly confronted the Philistine threat to the west. He was likely the son of a mixed Israelite-Canaanite marriage, since his own name is of Hurrian origin, and his father’s name venerates the Canaanite goddess Anat. Although a humble herdsman, he became a warrior when God called him, and wielded his oxgoad to kill 600 Philistines. Although Samson later eclipsed this feat by killing 1000 Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey (15:15), Shamgar surpassed the big judge in integrity, and was happy to work for God without all the Samsonian drama.

The Lord teaches us through Shamgar that no matter who we are, what we have, or where we live, He can use us. We do not need a long heritage of faithful forefathers or long years of special training. We can loyally stand for Christ in our unnoticed corner, far away from the main action. Using the humble tools He has given us, we too can “save Israel.” Moses’ shepherd’s staff, David’s sling and Shamgar’s oxgoad accomplished great things. When accounts are rendered, we will learn that the most effective deeds were often done quietly and unassumingly when everyone’s attention was elsewhere.

Tola: Regain Lost Ground (10:1-2)

Tola, likely named for his distant relative Tola the son of the patriarch Issachar, led Israel twenty-three years from Shamir, a central location in the mountainous district occupied by Ephraim. Tola faced the tall task of following the predator Abimelech, Gideon’s wicked son who left the country in shambles. Tola saw the need to restore order and decency, and “arose to deliver Israel.” Rather than despairing over the departure, he imagined how things should and could be, and then pursued this vision with all his might. Leadership is showing others what true greatness is, and then helping them achieve it.

Unlike the arrogant Abimelech, Tola was likely a humble man – his name means “worm.” Humility is closely connected with the fear of the Lord, which He rewards with “riches and honor and life” (Pro 22:4). The world has always exalted the conquering hero who refuses to submit and who exerts his strength to achieve his way and to destroy any challenger. The Lord Jesus, however, flatly negated this Nietzschean will to power in the Beatitudes, which begin with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mat 5:3).[1]

Humility matters. Spiritual success requires us to heed Peter’s words: “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (1Pe 5:5). Paul stressed to Timothy and Titus the critical importance of humility in spiritual leaders, insisting that an assembly will rise no higher than its guides (1Ti 3:6; Titus 1:7).  Peter also cautioned that effective leaders will not be “domineering over those in your charge” but “examples to the flock” (1Pe 5:3).

The crushed bodies of tola worms yield a brilliant scarlet dye, which contributed to the variegated colors of the tabernacle hangings and the high-priestly vestments. This scarlet color matches Mark’s Gospel, which portrays the humble service of God’s Son. He wore a scarlet robe at Gabbatha and then shed scarlet blood at Golgotha to deliver His people (Mat 27:28). Christ said prophetically through David’s words, “I am a worm and not a man” (Psa 22:6). Tola the judge and tola the color both prefigure the Lord Jesus, who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Php 2:8).

Jair: Maintain the Heritage (10:3-5)

Apart from Shamgar, the Lord called the minor judges to hold, not to fight. Their heroism lay in maintaining and disseminating truth. Through their spiritual leadership, the people remained obedient, and the Lord brought the political stability and economic prosperity He had promised (Deu 28:1-14).

Jair of Gilead valued what Tola his predecessor bequeathed him and maintained this legacy for twenty-two years. Besides respecting Tola’s recent achievements, Jair also treasured the legacy of his ancestors. He was named for his forefather Jair, the son of Manasseh, who courageously captured the whole region of Argob in Bashan, and “called the villages after his own name, Havvoth-Jair” (Deu 3:14). Now many years later, his namesake Jair the Judge restored and administered this same cluster of villages.

Jair’s numerous sons, donkeys and cities are material evidence that God blessed him for obedience. God had said, “Blessed shall you be in the field” (Deu 28:3), and so under Jair’s steady hand Israel’s crops began to flourish. Naomi “had heard in the fields of Moab that the LORD had visited his people and given them food” (Rth 1:6), and so she and Ruth journeyed from Moab back to Bethlehem during Jair’s judgeship.

Those who inherit peace must guard against complacency. Maintaining a spiritual trust requires light from the Lord. Jair’s name means “may the Lord enlighten,” and in safeguarding the spiritual trust handed to him, he must have depended on the books of Moses for guidance. We who “walk in the light” today must also look to the Lord and His Word to restore and maintain the deposit of truth that we have received (1Jn 1:7; 2Ti 1:14).

God blessed Jair with thirty sons who helped administer the thirty villages. Each son had a donkey colt – an important detail in the accounts of both Jair and Abdon. We will misunderstand the donkeys of Scripture if we associate them with absurdity and obstinacy. In the Bible, the faithful donkey symbolizes peace and prosperity – as the horse symbolizes war and conquest (Zec 9:9-10). By mentioning donkey colts, the author depicts the tranquility that prevailed under the minor judges, and the nobility of their sons.

When Christ returns to defeat His foes at Armageddon, He and His army will ride white war horses (Rev 19:11-15). But at His first coming, as Zechariah prophesied, the Lord Jesus in royal ceremony rode a donkey colt into Jerusalem, just as Solomon rode a mule to Gihon to be anointed king (1Ki 1:33). Although Christ’s chosen beast made Him a king in contemporary eyes, the donkey colt also signaled that He was meek like Moses, who also rode a donkey (Exo 4:20). A king on a donkey is not looking for war. The Lord rode in not to conquer but to be crowned – although the only crown He received was made of thorns.

Ibzan: Broadcast Blessing (12:8-10)

Despite Jephthah’s basic faith (Heb 11:32), he rashly slew his virgin daughter, leaving him without progeny (she was his only child). The author vividly contrasts Jephthah’s one daughter with the next judge Ibzan’s thirty daughters, and notes that all thirty got married. The Lord also blessed Ibzan with thirty sons – an enormous family. Since Ibzan and his wives received the promise, “Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb” (Deu 28:4), we may infer that Ibzan rejected the Canaanite influences that had corrupted Jephthah and remained faithful and obedient to the Lord.

Like Tola, Ibzan walked into a bad situation – the fallout from Jephthah’s disastrous feud with the Gileadites. The Lord respected Ibzan’s righteous leadership, however, and blessed the land with a peace that lasted through the tenures of his successors, Elon and Abdon. Although one man, he extended his influence and made many alliances through the sixty marriages of his sons and daughters. Christian homes have the same positive impact today.

Ibzan achieved the standard that the Lord later set for spiritual leaders through Paul: “He must manage his own household well … for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1Ti 3:4-5). He must have “faithful children who cannot be charged with dissipation or rebellion” (Titus 1:6 NET).

Ibzan and the other minor judges teach us to raise our ideals above mediocrity and to always see spiritual significance in the routine affairs of daily life. Leaders seek to bring themselves and others much closer to their potential.

Elon: Be Strong but Gentle (12:11-12)

Elon was a distant descendant of Zebulun, perhaps named for Elon the son of Zebulun and the family of Elonites that descended from him (Gen 46:14; Num 26:26). We know less about Elon than any other judge. Since the author, guided by the Holy Spirit, meticulously recorded his origin, length of leadership, and burial, we conclude that unsung everyday heroes matter to God.

Elon’s name means “strong one” and is often translated “pillar” or “oak” – images of stability.  This description, coupled with his successful judgeship, suggests that Elon had biblical meekness – strength clothed in gentleness, inner strength from the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:23). A leader must be strong, because the right thing to do is usually the hardest, and the right path is often the loneliest. He communicates his vision and inspires others to join him – but he must be willing to walk alone if necessary. A meek person has developed convictions that make him strong as steel, and he will act with resolve and even blaze with anger when necessary (cf. Num 12:3; 20:10). He maintains self-control, however, and is never harsh or grasping, exhibiting “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2Co 10:1; see also Mat 11:29).

Abdon: Pass on the Torch of Truth (12:13-15)

The Lord had blessed Jair with thirty sons and Ibzan with thirty sons and thirty daughters, and now He graces the eleventh judge Abdon with forty sons and thirty grandsons. If with Ibzan’s offspring and their marriages the author teaches that God desires to spread blessing horizontally, then with Abdon he shows that the Lord also intends to propagate blessing vertically from one generation to the next (see Exo 3:15).

We can assume that Abdon taught his children God’s Word, following Moses’ instruction: “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deu 6:7). Since his name means “service,” we can infer that Abdon was also a servant – a servant-leader, like the Lord Jesus (Joh 13:1-17). Greatness lies in serving others. As a teacher, Abdon helped his family see what was possible; as a servant, he helped them obtain it.

Each generation must keep the deposit of truth intact and successfully pass it to the next (2Ti 2:1-2). In the account of Abdon, the author implies that with vision and effort, it is possible to see spiritual heritage survive. With Tola, Ibzan and Elon, we have seen the transfer of truth from one judge to the next, and now with Abdon we see the same transfer within his own family. These successful transmissions of truth contrast with the central theme of Judges: Israel became progressively Canaanized because lack of leadership led to ignorance of God’s Word and failure to transmit it. The cautionary tale still applies: the first generation believes. Without diligence in the Scriptures and dependence on God, however, the second generation will only assume, the third generation will flat-out deny, and the fourth generation will have no clue.


Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon and Abdon are small islands of sanity in a sea of apostasy, chaos and violence. They are welcome reprieves in a book that otherwise lurches and spirals out of control. By keeping the faith, these six men kept the peace in their time. If you stand against sin and departure in your corner, if you exert a positive influence on others, if you tackle your everyday routines for His eyes, then you are like these minor judges. The people of God may never compliment or even recognize the work you do for the Lord. Don’t be discouraged! God sees what you do, and He keeps detailed records for reward.


[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.