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Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament

Jim Moyers


The Book of Judges could also be entitled “The Book of Rulers,” as the Hebrew title can mean either.  It depicts a chaotic time with no unifying leader after the death of Joshua.  The conquest of Canaan was far from complete with ongoing conflicts with surviving Canaanites and the Philistines, “sea-people” from Crete who settled coastal Palestine (the name is a derivative of Philistine) about the time the Israelites were establishing settlements to the east.  The tribes of Israel were far from united; some of the conflicts in Judges involved battles between the tribes.  Many of the stories are about one tribe or only a few tribes rather than a united Israel with at some of the judges appearing to be leaders of a single or only a few tribes rather than Israel as a whole.  Israel in the Promised Land was falling apart.  Or perhaps the situation reflected in Judges is one of various tribes which had not yet become a fully united nation.

There’s not much in the way of edifying stories in Judges.  Some of the stories are appalling to a degree unmatched in the rest of the Bible.  In fulfillment of a vow made in anticipation of victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah offered up his daughter as a burnt sacrifice to Yahve (11).  In an incident reminiscent of the visit of the angels to Lot before the destruction of Sodom, the last episode in Judges involves a visiting Levite threatened by locals who demanded “to know” him.  To save himself he put his concubine/wife (he is referred to as her husband) out to be ravished and killed by the mob after which he cut her body into twelve pieces which he sent to the twelves tribes in an appeal for their help in avenging her death.  In the aftermath, tens of thousands of Israelites were killed by other Israelites, with one tribe nearly wiped out (19-21).  I still recall my shock at discovering this account many years ago when I was reading the Bible cover to cover in an effort to sort out my growing doubts about the religion in which I had grown up.  My already shaky faith in the Bible as the Word of God began to resemble the walls of Jericho.  

As with the book of Joshua, the “history” in Judges is at best questionable, a mix of probably genuine historical memory, legend with some degree of factual basis, myth, and simple folk tale, sometimes all combined in a single story.  The combination of multiple sources is indicated by inconsistencies and textural difficulties.  Again, it is important to keep in mind that the compilers of Judges were not intent on creating a record of history as we understand it but were making a theological point about the outcome of Israel’s breaking of the covenant with Yahve.  But, apart from examples of the result of apostasy, Judges is not a particularly religious book.  Even the cult of Yahve seems degenerate; images, human sacrifice, deception, and theft are associated with worship of Yahve with no clear indication of it being unacceptable.     

There is also a political theme summed up in the verse which concludes Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25).  The writer(s) was clearly an advocate for the later Davidic monarchy.  The tribe of Benjamin and its city of Gibeah, later the home of King Saul, are the villains in the story of the Levite and his concubine.  Several stories are critical of what became the northern kingdom of Israel.  The clear inference in the story of the images and priest stolen by the tribe of Dan during its migration to the north is that Israel’s sanctuary at Shiloh, which was a competitor of the later Jerusalem temple, was founded upon theft as well as the forbidden cult of images (18).  A reference to “the day of the captivity of the land” of northern Israel (18:20-21) establishes a date for the book of Judges sometime after the 722/721 BCE Assyrian conquest.

While the book in its current form is much later than the time in which it is set, parts of Judges are much older than the book itself.  The Song of Deborah ((5) is regarded as the oldest extensive fragment of Hebrew literature.  Samson, whose name is related to a word for the sun may have originally been an ancient solar hero whose myth was absorbed into Hebrew tradition.  The hair from which Samson’s strength was derived is similar to myths in which the hero’s hair symbolizes the strength of the rays of the sun.  

Judges opens with what is believed to be a fragment of an early tenth century BCE chronicle which apparently was added to the beginning of the book.   The conquest of Canaan after the death of Joshua is described with the tribe of Judah taking the lead (1:1-2:5).  Some of the accounts parallel those of Joshua with one passage (1:11-15) duplicating the text of Joshua 15:13-19.  The focus is on individual tribes and their success or failure in driving out the Canaanites.    

What seems to be the original opening of the book begins in 2:6, picking up where the book of Joshua left off.  After the death of Joshua, “there arose another generation . . . who did not know Yahve. . . . and served the Baals. . . .So the anger of Yahve was kindled against Israel and he gave them over to plunderers . . . and sold them into the power of their enemies round about” (2:10-11, 14).  But Yahve eventually took pity on them and “raised up judges who saved them out of the power of those who plundered them” (2:16).  But when the judges died the people inevitably returned to their evil ways and again brought down the wrath of Yahve in the form of an enemy oppressor.  Again and again the same cycle repeats.  The people of Israel “play the harlot” by worshipping other gods.  Yahve is angry and sends an enemy to punish them.  In fear and misery they repent whereupon Yahve sends a hero judge to save them.  Things go well for a while.  Then the “people of Yahve did what was evil in the sight of Yahve” again, and an enemy takes over until another deliverer is sent.

A number of the judges are only briefly mentioned with little description of their deeds.  But some are described at length in detailed stories which for the most part lack a clear religious focus.  A moralizing commentary along the lines of “the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of Yahve” ties the stories together but isn’t part of the stories themselves.

The first detailed story tells how Ehud, “raised up to deliver Israel,” assassinated the king of Moab.  Ehud, who was left-handed, concealed a sword under his clothes on his right side when he delivered tribute money to the king.  He asked for a confidential meeting with the king which was granted, whereupon he thrust the sword into the belly of the king who was very fat.  The fat closed around the sword and “the dirt came out.”  Leaving the sword in the king, Ehud calmly left, locking the door behind him.  The king’s attendants assumed that the king was “relieving himself” but eventually broke in to find “their lord dead on the floor.”  There followed a battle in which ten thousand Moabites were slain, “and the land had rest for eighty years” (3:15-30).

Again Israel fell into evil and, in a rare OT instance of female leadership, the prophetess Deborah came to the rescue.  She recruited Barak to lead an army against Sisera, the commander of the enemy army.  Barak refused to go unless Deborah went with him.  She agreed to do so but told him that a woman rather than himself would receive the glory of defeating Sisera.  The enemy was defeated and Sisera fled.  He found refuge in the tent of Jael, the wife of a member of non-Israelite tribe that was neutral in the war.  While he was sleeping Jael drove a tent peg into the Sisera’s temple (4).  Chapter 5 is the song, likely dating to near the time of the incidents it describes, sung by Deborah and Barak in celebration of their victory.  The song describes the battle and their victory, praising those who responded to Barak’s call to arms, shaming and cursing those who refused Barak’s call, tells how Jael killed Sisera, and imagines his mother’s anxiety as she waits for him to return from battle. As the very ancient text in some places is so badly damaged as to be almost unintelligible (Oxford Annotated Bible note), parts of the translation are guesswork.

The story of Gideon (7-8) defeating a large army with only three hundred men is, along with the tale of Samson, one of the Judges stories I recall from childhood.  There is an explicitly religious element to Gideon’s story with the once again wayward Israel reproved by an angel who then appeared to Gideon to tell him that he had been chosen to deliver Israel from the Midianites.  As usual with those who receive a divine summons, Gideon protested that he was not up to the task but was given signs to prove he had been selected by Yahve.  Gideon began by destroying his father’s altar to Baal.  The neighbors were upset by what they saw as sacrilege, but Gideon’s father defended him saying that, if he was a god, Baal should be able to “contend for himself.”  Gideon became known as Jerubbaal,  “Let Baal contend.”  However that name would seem to better befit a worshipper, not an opponent, of Baal.  The Oxford Annotated Bible notes this along with the confusion of the two names that occurs in the text and other inconsistencies as evidence that several different sources were combined in the story of Gideon.  

After defeating the Midianites, Gideon pursued their kings (probably better described as tribal chieftains) across the Jordan.  He asked for food for his three hundred men from Succoth, an Israelite city, but was refused.  After the capture of the kings, he returned to the city where he “took thorns of the wilderness and briers and with them taught (apparently tortured) the men of Succoth” (8:16).  Gideon refused a request that he become a king over Israel, saying that Yahve was the rightful ruler of Israel.  The story of Gideon ends on a puzzling note with him collecting golden earrings, booty from the Midianites, to melt down and make an “ephod,” a mysterious object which seems to have some sort of cultic significance in that “Israel played the harlot after it, and it became a snare” (8:27).

After the death of his father, Gideon’s son by a concubine who lived in Shechem, the site of an important shrine in northern Israel, stirred up his mother’s people to kill his father’s seventy legitimate sons and install himself as king.  He ruled Israel for three difficult years until he was stuck down by a millstone thrown by a woman from a tower he was besieging.  Not wanting the shame of having been killed by a woman, he asked one of his soldiers to run him through with a sword (9).  

After the brief mention of several minor judges, there follows the story of Jephthah (11), the dishonored son of a harlot, who was called out of exile to deliver Israel.  He rashly vowed to offer as a burnt offering the first thing to greet him on his arrival home if he was granted victory over the Ammonites.  Much to his grief, his daughter met him with “timbrels and dance.”  Jephthah had “opened my mouth to Yahve, and I cannot take back my vow.”  His daughter asked to be allowed to “wander on the mountains and bewail my virginity” (an Oxford Bible note explains that to die childless was a terrible disgrace for an Israelite woman) for two months.  “And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. . . .  And it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah four days in the year” (11:39-40).  I wonder if that is perhaps an indication of some pre-existing ritual lamentation for a fertility goddess who died every year at the time of harvest that was incorporated with a new rationale into ancient Israel.  

Jephthah also figures in the “Shibboleth” (a word meaning “ear of grain”) episode in which he led a fight against the tribe of Ephraim which had not come to aid him against the Ammonites.  The defeated Ephraimites from the other side of Jordan tried to hide their tribal identity to escape back into their home territory.  But sentries were stationed at the river fords to demand that anyone seeking to cross say the word “Shibboleth” which the Ephraimites mispronounced as “Sibboleth.”  Betrayed by their accent, the fleeing Ephraimites were slain. (12:1-6).

Jephthah was followed by several judges about whom not much is said.  It is strangely noted that one “had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy asses” (12:14).  Then, after forty years of Philistine oppression Samson came along.

The story of Samson (13-16) begins promisingly with the annunciation of a hero to be.  An angel appeared to a barren woman to tell her she would bear a son.  The son would be “a Nazirite to God from birth; and he shall begin to deliver Israel.”  His hair was not to be cut and his mother before the birth was to refrain from grapes (associated with the religion of the Canaanites), alcohol, and unclean things.  Presumably the same restrictions applied to Samson.  

Samson grew, “and the Spirit of Yahve began to stir him.”  But evidently the vows of a Nazirite didn’t include sexual continence as Samson repeatedly got into trouble with Philistine women.  However it seems that God was involved in even that, for Yahve "was seeking an occasion against the Philistines.”  In a series of encounters with wild beasts and Philistines Samson repeatedly escaped as “the Spirit of Yahve came mightily upon him” giving him great strength with which he killed his enemies.  

Samson seems to be a kind of folklore character, strong in body but weak in mind.  Despite being repeatedly betrayed by Delilah who, mistakenly believing that he had told her how to defeat his strength, set the Philistines upon him, he didn’t seem to catch on to what was happening.  Finally he revealed the true secret of the link between his hair and strength, was given a haircut while he slept, and hauled away to be enslaved and ridiculed by his enemies.  But Samson got his final revenge as his hair and strength grew back, and he pulled down the temple of Dagon on the Philistines and himself.  

The story ends by saying that Samson judged Israel twenty years.  But there is nothing to indicate that he did much of anything that wasn’t related to his sexual adventures.  How he may have benefited Israel is less than clear.  Sandmel describes the story of Samson as one of a folk hero transformed (to a degree) into a religious story.  But the religious aspect of the story is almost entirely limited to the angel’s visit before his birth.

The book of Judges ends with two stories which make no reference to judges.  The first (17-18) begins by somewhat confusingly describing a man, Micah, who first stole and then returned his mother’s silver.  In thanks she consecrated it “to Yahve to make a graven image and a molten image” (17:3).  The images were installed along with other cultic objects in Micah’s shrine which was presided over by his son.  An editorial comment seeks to explain the discrepancy between the description of the shrine and Mosaic law, “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6).  When a wandering Levite who happened to be a grandson of Moses came along, Micah hired him as his family priest.  But the tribe of Dan, on the move after they had failed to subjugate their allotted land, stole the objects in Micah’s shrine with the help of the Levite who had assured them that they had the blessing of Yahve.  They then moved on to slaughter the peaceful inhabitants of the poorly defended northern city of Laish, which they renamed Dan and made their new home.  The cultic objects stolen from Micah were installed in the shrine at Shiloh where they remained with the descendants of the Levite as priests until the Assyrian conquest.

The story of the Levite who turned his concubine over to a mob to save himself and the resulting war which almost exterminated the tribe of Benjamin ends Judges on a very dismal note with the repeated editorial comment: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25).

© 2021 James Moyers