In the process of researching the text for my illustration my own biblical analysis must boldly go where no man has gone before.*
Judges 1 and 3 tells the story of Othniel. To illustrate this story I must try and work out things about the characters that the majority of Bible commentaries and studies have never tried to work out before.
In this example, I wanted to figure out how old Othniel is in the narratives in which he features. Casually reading through the text in Judges one assumes he is military leader of some kind and thus probably 30-40 and the two stories about him probably run one into the other, but neither assumption is true when you look deeper.
The Bible does not tell us how old Othniel is in the text, so how can we work this out?
To discover the age of Othniel I first examined those who surround him in the story, namely Caleb and Joshua. In Judges 1:13, the text tells us the relationship between Caleb and Othniel but due to the structure of the text in Hebrew it is not clear if Caleb is Othniel’s uncle or his brother. It has been translated to reflect the ambiguity “Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother”. I have found that many great commentators have not gone beyond this text and have simply stated that it is impossible to know if he is his uncle or brother. So putting this to one side for now I considered the limiting factors which can help us determine Othniel’s age.
The first piece of solid data is not in Judges but in the parallel telling of Othniel’s defeat of Debir in the book of Joshua. In Joshua 14:10 Caleb states “So here I am today, eighty-five years old!”, he then goes on to battle Hebron and then Debir where Othniel excels; so Caleb is 85 at the battle of Debir. Critically (and thankfully), Caleb tells us “I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the Lord sent me from Kadesh Barnea to explore the land.” This means the Battle at Debir is 7 years into the Conquest of Canaan (38 years from Kadesh Barnea until the start of the conquest - Deuteronomy 2:14). This gives Othniel a maximum age at this point because Numbers 14:29-30 states that no one aged 20 or over would enter the land except Joshua and Caleb. Thus Othniel cannot be older than 65 years old at the Battle of Debir. (20 plus the intervening 45 years).
Next, in regards to Joshua in this matter we have one solid piece of data: “Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of a hundred and ten” Judges 2:8. We also know that the 8 years of oppression from Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram Naharaim did not start until after Joshua’s death because “the people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel” and it is only after Israel do evil that the oppression under Cushan begins (Judges 3:7-8). The oppression lasts 8 years, afterwards there is peace in the Land for 40 years until the death of Othniel. So we know Othniel died approximately 48 years after Joshua. But, knowing this only helps us if we know how old Joshua was when he entered the land, or at Kadesh Barnea. There are no concrete dates for this but a rough reference to his age is included in Numbers 11:28, “Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses’ aide since youth.” Since all of Israel (i.e. including the Tribe of Ephraim and therefore Joshua) was enslaved to Pharaoh until the Exodus, Joshua would not have been Moses’ aid before the time of the Exodus. I’d interpret the word youth as pertaining to an age between 13 and 25, this age bracket restricted further by the fact that Joshua is employed as one of the twelve “spies” sent into the land. While it is not impossible he could have been just 13-18 it seems unlikely to me as he represented the whole of the tribe of Ephraim is this mission, as Numbers 13:3 tells us “all of them were leaders of the Israelites” (Caleb was 40 years old). As a result, we can say he was roughly 20-25 when he spied out the land. To back up this point, I believe Joshua was 20 or over because God states "In this wilderness your bodies will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more [...] Not one of you will enter the land I swore [...], except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.” Num 14:29-30, I believe that if Joshua was under 20 years old at this point there would be no need for the stated exception. This gives us a number with which to extrapolate the age of Othniel when Joshua died.
Joshua at Kadesh Barnea age ~21 > Battle of Debir Joshua age ~66 > Joshua dies age 110 (44 years later) > 8 years of Oppression > 40 Years of peace then Othniel dies.
From this we can see that when Othniel liberates Israel from Cushan- Rishathaim he is ~52 years older than he was at the battle of Debir, which is very interesting as he would have been around 70 years old. Also, he is ~92 years older at his death than he was at the Battle of Debir.
Finally, we'll consider the limiting factor of Othniel’s maximum age at his death. Moses lives until the age of 120, Aaron 123, Joshua 110, Samuel 111. It seems unlikely that Othniel would have lived more (or much more) than 120, in line with his contemporaries**. You can see this in this helpful graph from creation.com. (http://creation.com/images/creation_mag/vol20/agegraph.gif) So if we say Othniel died at around 120 this fits in with the chronology and is consistent with the rest of the Bible.
Concluding Othniel’s age
We have found that Othniel was between 16 and 28 at the Battle of Debir ; he was between 68-80 years old when he freed Israel. Even though any age in this range fits, for my own work I will be using ages at the lower end of the range as I feel it fits most naturally with the narrative and isn’t stretching his age to the maximum at the point of his death. We can also conclude that Othniel is Caleb’s nephew- considering there is a 60+ year age gap(!) it is unlikely he is his brother. In addition, avunculate marriage is forbidden in Leviticus 18, and considering “the people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua” it’s unlikely that if Othniel was Caleb brother the match between Othniel and Achsah would have been permitted.
With these figures you might wonder how it is that 85 year old Caleb has an eligible (and desirable) daughter, and whether Achsah was a great deal older than Othniel. While we cannot know for sure, I discovered more details on Caleb and his family in 1 Chronicles 2 and 4 list Caleb’s family and descendants. It is normal for the son’s names to be mentioned but very unusual for daughters to be mentioned,and yet 1 Chronicles 2:49 says “And the daughter of Caleb was Achsah.”. Interestingly it records he had a wife and two concubines that bore him children and Achsah’s mother the last listed of these concubines, so from this I believe it is likely Caleb was fathering children even late in his life.
In our search for truth in the Bible we must not limit our search to the book of the Bible we are researching. We need the full counsel of God’s word to draw reliable conclusions. I didn’t expect this research to take me through Numbers, Joshua, 1 Chron, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Exodus and others. I thank God for his Word and his Spirit which reveals all truth. I also thank God I live in the age of the internet, without which I couldn’t hope to achieve the detail this project aspires to (I used BibleGateway.com and other software like ISA). This powerful tool that was not available to our forebears even 25 years ago like it is now, but as a wise man once said “with great power comes great responsibility”***. Our responsibility as Christians is to do greater and clearer exegesis than has ever been possible before.
* = As far as I can tell from all my commentaries and the internet no one has tried to determine the age of Othniel before.
** = Some attribute Gen 6:3 to be a and explicit restriction on the age of mankind at 120 which is not a certain interpretation, certainly people (even after the flood) lived longer including Nahor and Abraham. There are a few different interpretations the most consistent with the rest or scripture is that God is not talking about mankind’s lifespan for eternity, but the amount of time all humanity of that day has to repent before the coming of the Flood.
*** = Wise man Spider-man's Uncle Ben.