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Lexicons give the meaning of Othni-El as “Lion of God,” but the word othni comes from a root word that means “to force.” Hence, it refers to the force or power of God (as displayed in the power and roar of a lion).
Without some context, it is difficult to know more than this, but when we combine it with the next two Judges, Ehud and Barak, a picture begins to emerge. Ehud means “united,” and Barak means “lightning,” which, as we will see shortly, is a representation of the sons of God. Thus, the phrase should be understood as the power (voice) of God united with (or in) His sons.
The word picture is of a son of God roaring as a lion, as if the lion is within him, or united with him. Essentially, it is the voice of God coming through the sons of God in a display of power. In that context, Acts 1:8 comes to mind,
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be My witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.
This is the power of the Lion of the tribe of Judah (Rev. 5:5) being displayed when the sons of God become Christ’s witnesses in the earth.
In the story in Judges 3:12-30, Israel again forsook the law of God, so God strengthened Moab to cross the Jordan and to occupy Jericho, the “city of the palm trees” (Judges 3:13). Israel remained under the dominion of Moab for 18 years, which was 10 years longer than their first captivity. This is significant because 18 is the biblical number for oppression or bondage. See my book, The Biblical Meaning of Numbers from One to Forty.
Captivities meant that the people had to pay yearly tribute (taxes) to a foreign king, in this case, Eglon, king of Moab. Eglon’s name comes from egel, “calf, bull, heifer.” It reminds us of the molten calf which Aaron made for Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 32:4). There again the word for “calf” is egel. A heifer is eglah.
This captivity, then, suggests that God had put Israel into bondage to the golden calf which they had desired to worship. In general, when the Israelites desired to worship foreign gods, God responded by putting Israel under the dominion of the “chosen people” of those false gods. In this case, it appears that the Israelites wanted to worship the god of the Moabites. But that god had “chosen” the Moabites as his people, and so the Moabites were given dominion over Israel.
We seldom truly understand the detrimental effects of worshiping false gods. In our ignorance, we think that we can retain dominion given to us by the true God and still worship false gods. But Yahweh does not allow this, and so He whips us with the rod of our own choosing to show us that those false gods only bring us into bondage.