Judging and perceiving (2)

As noted in the first Judges post here, the Israelites’ downfall appears to begin in the time of the Judges.  The people had not completely driven out the Canaanite inhabitants from the land, instead being assimilated and integrated, to some extent.

Here, we might acknowledge that the politico-military events described in Judges involve what would today be termed “ethnic cleansing.”  One people group, the “chosen” ones, wiped out other groups.  Some of these realities, as described, are horrific to most 21st-century ears, including mine.  What to do with this?  Some would say that we have in the Hebrew Bible a manifestation of merciless God; others have asserted that the whole Exodus and Conquest of Canaan scenarios were entirely fabricated.  I lean heavily toward affirming historical significance and accepting the events as described, although that inclination is informed by these realizations:

  1. Ancient writers don’t appear to view historicity and the recording of history in the same way a 20th- or 21-st century journalist would.
  2. Theologically oriented narrative sequences do not depend on precise dates and time periods.  Truth and “accuracy” are not to be seen in our strict terms.
  3. The God-ordained conquest of Canaan was not to be the end of the story, and ultimate deliverance is not physical.

With the above in mind, I set out to record some anecdotes harvested during my reading of Judges.  Please note that I do not present these observations as researched.  I hope they will be, at least at points, insightful, but it will be up to the reader to determine accuracy (e.g., of speculation about the meaning of names)—and to discern whether any insights or theories here can hold water.

First, I note that the tribes of Israel ask who will take the lead.  God replies (1:2) that Judah—indicating the tribe descended from the fourth son of Jacob—would do so.  Is the early, prominent mention of power/leadership indicative of what is to come in the book?  It could be signaling something I want to pay attention to, but I shouldn’t allow myself to assume the book is playing into my presuppositions.

Right away in the narrative, we read of violence.  Horrific, mean-spirited, gruesome violence.  Adoni-bezek (meaning “lord of Bezek”), a Canaanite king, was captured and had his thumbs and big toes cut off.  Othniel, the nephew of Caleb (and cohort of Joshua, of conquest fame), arises as a military leader.  His name is said to mean “Lion of God” . . . so “Othni” must mean “lion,” because the oft-seen syllable “el” is a shortened form of “Elohim.”  Othniel’s battle success earns him a wife; he becomes Caleb’s son-in-law, as well.  And isn’t that interesting?  For the Hebrew who hears or reads this story, the faith of Caleb and Joshua (the God-oriented two of the twelve spies who had been sent on reconnaissance) becomes linked to the work of God.

The Israelites settled in with existing people groups, e.g., the Amalekites and Jebusites (from what would become Jerusalem).  This had not been the plan.  God calls the people on the carpet, as it were, in 2:1.

Following the death of Joshua, the deliverer, the new generation is generally unfaithful.  More unholy integration is noted in 3:5-6.  In the memorable story of Ehud and his brutal slaying of the Moabite King Eglon, there is no mention of God.  Only the sword.  The land’s “rest time” under Othniel and Ehud is roughly 120 years—a long period, it seems to me.

Shamgar, officially Judge #3, has only one event attributed to him.  Perhaps he is particularly strong, or at least driven by adrenaline, foreshadowing Samson:  he kills 600 Philistines single-handedly.  As with Ehud, God is not mentioned in connection with Shamgar, so I begin to suspect that the narrative is intent on showing a misplaced focus, i.e., on human strength apart from God.

God shakes things up in the person of Deborah.  She is the only female judge and is also a prophet.

Next:  Deborah, Gideon, and Abimelech


Judging and perceiving (1)

It took me six days, but I did it.  I had told myself I was going to sit down and read the Hebrew Bible book of Judges in a sitting.   It’s only 21 chapters and should have taken 2-3 hours, I figured.  I was pre-motivated by the redemptive and historiographical “kingdom” significance I perceived, but it still took me six days.  Pathetic, I know.

I did learn a few things.  Or, more accurately, I observed a few things that might or might not be valid.  (You’ll have to be the judge.)  For instance, the duration of the period of the Judges seems to have been between 300-400 years.  Early on in reading, I also recalled that the people of Israel sometimes eliminated the existing inhabitants of a region, and sometimes, they didn’t.

The book of Judges begins by telling us that Israel hasn’t completely driven out the Canaanites from the land.  Instead, Israel follows their corruption and child sacrifice, becoming just as bad or worse.  – The Bible Project

This seems to be the beginning of the Israelites’ downfall.

Out of the gate, I will admit to having prejudged Judges:  I’ve begun to see it as (1) a historical theology book (2) in which Israel’s stark slide toward ignoring God’s kingship could be plainly seen.  My premise, in other words, is that we find a significant era in the time of Israelite Judges.  The Bible Project’s video introduction bears this out, referring to the “tragic downward spiral of Israel’s leaders and people” and to a “descent into madness.”  Of course, there had been numerous departures from God in the past, but once the people had been finally delivered from the Egyptian oppression and enslavement, had suffered, wandered, and finally been given their promised inheritance in the new land, it would seem that God’s reign would be clear to them—and honored by them.  This was not to be the case.

I judge that I have more to learn about the word “judge” (Heb. shophet).  I have come to suspect that the English word does not do justice to the original role, as conceived and lived out among the ancients.  The role also seems to have shifted with the time, personality, and need.  One source¹ frames the scene well, I suspect:  the Hebrew judges were people “who served roles as military leaders in times of crisis, in the period before an Israelite monarchy was established.”  It’s important to recognize that there was no “nation of Israel” per se at this point in history.  The judges, therefore, were not national leaders; they were “unelected non-hereditary leaders”¹—more like regional/tribal lords who arose, or who were elevated, based on military need and proven might.

Some judges failed miserably at points, but they also had many impressive successes.  In general, we see in the book of Judges that it is God’s power that provides victory.  On the contrary, when God is forgotten or ignored, bad things happen.

The number of Judges counted in this time period varies from 13-16, upward to 19 or 20 if others are counted that are not mentioned in Judges or 1Samuel.  The events of Eli’s and Samuel’s lives, for example, seem to be in the line of Judges.

Next:  the first three Judges

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_judges

The open God of ancient Israel’s history

Yesterday, I posted some fairly lengthy material on Judges 8 and 1Samuel (“Summary from the 8s:  Observations from Ancient Israel’s History“).  Here is the conclusion, followed by a short expansion on the point of what I take as God’s concession in granting Israel a King.

Two realities seem clear:

  1. Judges 8:  The record of the time of the Judges starkly shows Israel’s faithlessness and lack of loyalty.
  2. 1Samuel 8:  The origin of Israel’s Kings reveals the beginning of what became a progressively bad scenario:  God’s people were looking (a) less to God and (b) more to humans as their leader.  Having essentially forgotten the Exodus with its Red Sea, the cloud-by-day and fire-by-night, the manna and quail, and the initial conquests, the people wanted a human king.  And God conceded.

I present the following as a pretty good summary of an underlying concept:

God is sovereign ruler of His people.  When His people reject Him in one way or another, negative things occur.  His sovereignty will be seen, but not always in the way the people expect or desire.

On the point of “concession” as suggested in point #2 above:  many reader-interpreters have inferred God’s approval, thinking that He must’ve looked favorably on the idea of a human king, or He would not have allowed it.  God, though, is in some senses an “open” God, listening to humans, interacting, and even “changing His mind” on occasion.  He allows many things He does not approve of.  His sovereignty is not threatened by human decision or input; the fact that He allows our discretion does not change the ultimate reality that He is God.  On the contrary, His actual sovereignty is enhanced because He does not force it on people.

I believe that God did not want His people Israel to develop into a kingdom with a human king—but that He allowed that development, anyway.  He yielded, in a sense, acceding to the people’s will and granting them another king.

Other examples of God’s allowing bad decisions (but continuing to work despite them) can be seen throughout biblical literature.  Consider these examples, and add your own:

  • the choices of Lot and his wife
  • the actions of Joseph’s brothers
  • the hardening of Pharoah’s heart
  • the murderous rampage of Herod
  • the treachery of Judas

For a bit more on an “open” view of God, see here:


Summary from the 8s: observations from ancient Israel’s history

The Weather Channel™ has its local weather forecast “on the 8s,” occurring every ten minutes, starting with 8 minutes after the hour.  Those are usually pretty good summaries of local weather (as I recall . . . we haven’t cable or any other such TV service for more than three years).

In paying recent attention to chapter 8 of Judges and chapter 8 of 1Samuel, I’ve observed substantial historical weight.  Here in these chapter 8s, we seem to find pretty good summaries of negative aspects of historical Israel.

Judges 8
After the account of Gideon’s unusual army and a resounding defeat of the Midianites,

The men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us, both you and your son, also your son’s son, for you have delivered us from the hand of the Midianite. . . .”  But Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you . . . the Lord shall rule over you.”

Aspects of the leader (and some of his actions) and not appropriate for emulation today, but oh, for Gideon’s spiritual acuity and his devotion to God’s sovereignty.  His insight stands in contrast to the people’s desires.  Those desires, unfortunately, are to progress with time. . . .

1Samuel 8
This chapter 8 begins with this event:

When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel.

In making that appointment, perhaps Samuel felt he was acting according to established pattern¹ (see Eli, 1Samuel chapter 2), but his poor judgment led to the people’s distrust of the system of judges—and to their desire for a progression to something new.  With hindsight, I wonder why Samuel, who was clearly sanctioned and blessed by Yahweh throughout the narrative (see 1Sam 3:19-21, to start), didn’t also call to mind a striking double-negative in Israel’s recent history:  (1) his predecessor Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas had been killed when (2) the ark of God was taken by the Philistines.  If Samuel had been superstitious, he might have been afraid to install his sons as priests.

And the story continues:

Yet his sons did not walk in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.  Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations.”  But the thing displeased Samuel. . . .

And it should have displeased Samuel.  But the Lord told Samuel to listen anyway, because the people were not rejecting Samuel, after all; they were rejecting God Himself (1Samuel 8:9).

God told Samuel to warn the people what would happen.  And warn them he did:

[The king you want] will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots . . . and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and fifties . . . and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. . . .

This king-like-other-nations’-kings would . . . well, he would be like all the other kings!  He would conscript, and he would tax, and he would build up the “empire”—his own royal reign.  According to the ancient text preserved in this chapter 8, Samuel concluded his warning with the dire prediction that the people would bemoan the resulting situation, crying out because of this king they had chosen for themselves.  We ought to note who is doing the choosing—and for whom.  And the most terrible thing of all?

. . . the Lord will not answer you in that day.

But the people persisted:

No!  But we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

And the Lord made it happen.  And the Lord knew what was going to happen.  I’d say there is a rather solid prediction in chapter 8, and it’s not about fair weather.

Other 8s
Now . . . maybe it was boredom, but I became curious about the chapter 8 thing and started to look other chapter 8s in the Hebrew Bible.  Starting with Genesis . . . .

Genesis 8:  At the outset of this chapter, it is reported that “God remembered Noah” after the flood—or, as the New Jerusalem Bible has it, God “had Noah in mind.”  The covenantal aspect of God might be said to begin here.

Leviticus 8:  Here we find the ceremonial “setting apart” of Aaron and his sons in a “priestly” class—and an atonement ceremony that involved Aaron, his sons, and Moses the deliverer, too.  I haven’t thought previously about possible leadership connections (for lack of a better term) between Israel’s priests, judges, and kings.  I don’t know that there is any dark light shed on the Aaronic priesthood at the outset, but it is curious to me that God set in this role the family of the man who had overseen the making of the golden calf.

Deuteronomy 8:  Here, too, is a major section about the covenant between God and His people.

Joshua 8:  The destruction of Ai is founded on the “word of the Lord” . . . see 8:8:  God makes a point of saying “I have commanded you.”  It is God’s doing.

I’m not thoroughly familiar with the storyline of Joshua, but I have the general impression that things began to deteriorate after his death.  If the people, in the eras of the Judges and Kings, had had both the faith and perspective of Joshua, perhaps redemptive history would have played out differently.  I can conceive of an entirely different, 1000-year historical progression in which the scenario would not have included kings at all . . . and perhaps the mission of the Redeemer Christ would have looked a bit different when He came, as well.

Postlude on the 8s
Back to documented events and observation over hypothesis.  Two realities seem clear:

  1. Judges 8:  The record of the time of the Judges starkly shows Israel’s faithlessness and lack of loyalty.
  2. 1Samuel 8:  The origin of Israel’s Kings reveals the beginning of what became a progressively bad scenario:  God’s people were looking (a) less to God and (b) more to humans as their leaders.  Having essentially forgotten the Exodus with its Red Sea, the cloud-by-day and fire-by-night, the manna and quail, and the initial conquests, the people wanted a human king.  And God conceded.²

I present the following as a pretty good summary of an underlying concept in at least those two chapter 8s:

God has always been the sovereign ruler of His people.  When His people reject Him in one way or another, it is not pleasing to Him.  Since the beginning of Israel’s “kings” era, the people’s loyalties were divided, and as a result, things proceeded differently.

God will always be sovereign, but not always in the way the people expect or desire.

¹ A cynical view might query whether Samuel felt entitled, based on political clout, to pass on his exalted standing to his descendants.

² Not at all incidentally, I see God’s response as an open concession, not approval or pleasure.  Tomorrow’s follow-up will append a brief expansion on this point.