OU would suppose that, after all that God had done for the Israelites, and after their own promises to serve him faithfully, they would never turn to the idols which could not save their own people, the Canaanites. Yet, when Joshua was no longer living, and the men who knew Joshua had also died, the people began to forget their own God and to worship images of wood and stone.
Perhaps it was not so strange after all. In all the world, so far as we know, at that time the Israelites were the only people who did not worship idols. All the nations around them, the Egyptians, from whose land they had come, the Edomites on the south, the Moabites on the east, the Philistines on the west beside the Great Sea,—all these bowed down to images, and many of them offered their own children upon the idol-altars.
Then, too, you remember that the Canaanites had not been driven out of the land. They were there still, in their own cities and villages everywhere, and their idols were standing under the trees on many high places. So the Israelites saw idols all around them, and people bowing down before them; while they themselves had no God that could be seen. The Tabernacle was far away from some parts of the land; and the people were so busy with their fields and their houses that few of them went up to worship.
And so it came to pass that the people began to neglect their own worship of the Lord, and then to begin the worship of the idols around them. And from idol-worship they sank lower still into wicked deeds. For all this the Lord left them to suffer. Their enemies came upon them from the lands around, and became their masters; for when God left them they were helpless. They were made poor, for these rulers who had conquered them robbed them of all their grain, and grapes, and olive-oil.
After a time of suffering the Israelites would think of what God had done for them in other times. Then they would turn away from the idols, and would call upon God. And God would hear them, and raise up some great man to lead them to freedom, and to break the power of those who were ruling over them. This great man they called "a judge;" and under him they would serve God, and be happy and successful once more.
As long as the judge lived and ruled, the people worshipped God. But when the judge died they forgot God again, and worshipped idols and fell under the power of their enemies as before, until God sent another judge to deliver them. And this happened over and over again in the three hundred years after Joshua died. Seven nations in turn ruled over the Israelites, and after each "oppression," as this rule was called, a "deliverer" arose to set the people free.
The idols which the Israelites worshipped most of all were those named Baal and Asherah. Baal was an image looking somewhat like a man; and Asherah was the name given to the one that looked like a woman. These images were set up in groves and on hills by the Canaanite people, and to these the Israelites bowed down, falling on their faces before them.
The first nation to come from another land against the Israelites was the people of Mesopotamia, between the great rivers Euphrates and Tigris on the north. Their king led his army into the land and made the Israelites serve him eight years. Then they cried to the Lord, and the Lord sent to them Othniel, who was a younger brother of Caleb, of whom we read in Story 40. He set the people free from the Mesopotamians, and ruled them as long as he lived, and kept them faithful to the Lord. Othniel was the first of the judges of Israel.
But after Othniel died the people again began to worship images, and again fell under the power of their enemies. This time it was the Moabites who came against them from the land east of the Dead Sea. Their king at this time was named Eglon, and he was very hard in his rule over the Israelites. Again they cried to the Lord, and God called a man named Ehud, who belonged to the tribe of Benjamin, to set the people free.
Ehud came one day to visit King Eglon, who was ruling over the land. He said:
"I have a present from my people to the king. Let me go into his palace and see him."
They let Ehud into the palace, and he gave to the king a present; then he went out, but soon came back, and said:
"I have a message to the king that no one else can hear. Let me see the king alone."
As he had just brought a present they supposed that he was a friend to the king. Then, too, he had no sword on the side where men carried their swords. But Ehud was left-handed, and he carried on the other side a short, sharp sword which he had made, like a dagger. This sword was out of sight under his garment.
He went into the room where King Eglon was sitting alone, and said, "I have a message from the Lord to you, and this is the message."
And then he drew out his sword and drove it up to the handle into the king's body so suddenly that the king died without giving a sound. Ehud left the sword in the dead body of the king, and went out quietly by the rear door. The servants of the king thought he was asleep in his room, and for a while did not go in to see why he was so still; but when they found him dead Ehud was far away.
Ehud blew a trumpet and called his people together, and led them against the Moabites. They were so helpless without their king that Ehud and his men easily drove them out of Israel and set the people free. Ehud became the second judge over the land. And after that it was many years before enemies again held rule over Israel.
The next enemies to Israel were the Philistines, who lived on the shore of the Great Sea on the west. They came up from the plain against the Israelites; but Shamgar, the third judge, met them with a company of farmers, who drove the Philistines back with their ox-goads, and so kept them from ruling over the land.