Epilogue: perceiving the Judges

The history of Israelite Judges is an account of a series of so-called deliverersEach one, in sequence, appears to have been victorious over this or that people group, in this or that way, for some length of time.  John Bright has offered a neat historical portrait:

It must be understood that the Israel of the early days in Palestine was not at all a nation as we would understand the term.  On the contrary, she was a tribal League, a loose confederation of clans united one to another about the worship of the common God.  There was no statehood or central government of any sort.  The clans were independent units unto themselves.  Within the clans there was the recognition there was recognition of the moral authority of the sheikhs, or elders, but organized authority was lacking. . . .  [At Shiloh] the tribesmen gathered on the feast days to seek the presence of their God and to renew their allegiance to him.  This tribal structure corresponds perfectly to the covenant-people idea and may be assumed to be an outworking of it.  The covenant league was a brotherhood; it was ruled only by the law of the covenant of God.

One may best to see how the primitive order in Israel operated from a reading of the book of Judges.  Here we see the clans maintaining a precarious existence, surrounded by foes but without government, central authority, or state organization of any sort.  In times of danger there would arise a hero, one upon whom the spirit of Yahweh rushed (Judg. 3:10; 14:6), called a judge (shôphēt).  He would rally the surrounding clans and deal with the foe.  While his victories no doubt gain him prestige, he was in no sense a king.  His authority was neither absolute over all Israel nor permanent; in no case was it hereditary. -John Bright, The Kingdom of God, 31

I’ll add just a comment or two here.  First, I don’t think it’s quite accurate to paint all the “judges” as men over whom “the spirit of Yahweh” rushed.  The judges were a motley crew, so I’d like to guard against a monolithic view that considers only the stories, say, of Gideon, Samson, and maybe Deborah.

Next, Bright has observed some important limitations.  The Judge was not a king; s/he was not absolutely or broadly in power; and there were no dynasties.

Also important from a higher vantage point is this textually based, yet also philosophical probe:  Texts may have multiple aspects or even “purposes” in different times, with different audiences.  A reader in, say, 500 B.C.E. would naturally have read the Judges text differently in his historical/cultural context than you and I read it in our situation.  And that variance ought not to threaten the sincere student; rather, if we’ll allow it, the cognizance of different contexts can illuminate.

In this brief series on the Judges, I have offered but a few snippets.  I didn’t care to go into Ehud or spent much time with a few others.  I’ll conclude this series before the sad case of Eli’s sons and Samuel’s unique influence.  Overall, in reading and observing, I think of all the history of God and his people—not only during the actual time of the Judges, but during the centuries and millennia to follow.  And I’m essentially led to wonder this:  Is the whole history of Judges/Deliverers recorded for ancient Israel and New Israel to see that those deliverers were nothing but human, whereas God is the only One who delivers and is sovereign?  Although some times of peace lasted 40 years or more, no one could ultimately deliver Israel except God.

Did Israel ever comprehend God’s utterly singular sovereignty?  Do we?

Interlude
In the tale of Abimelech, a son of Gideon, the name Ebed or Obed appears.  I suppose it’s doubtful that this would be the same Obed who was the son of Boaz, since Abimelech’s clan is said to have lived quite a bit north of Boaz’s.  Yet the later Israelite reader might connect the two stories, and, after all, the story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz is set in the time of the Judges (Ruth 1:1).  At least, we might note that Abimelech (meaning something like father-king” or “my father is King”) figures into the Judges narrative, in which the Israelites are hopelessly un-delivered.  On the other hand, Naomi’s husband is Elimelech (meaning something like “my God is king”).  Something tells me the reader would pick up more than a name here.  Not only Naomi is given renewal and hope; Ruth, a Moabite outsider of all things, is also given a place within God’s providence.  Here, God is a benevolent, gracious King.  We remember here, with John Bright, that “the idea of monarchy [had been] consciously rejected.  This was Illustrated in the words with which stout Gideon spurned a crown:  ‘I will not rule over you. . . .'”   Bright, 32

Recapitulation
As Bright observed re:  the “primitive theocracy” with a given Judge, “it was the direct rule of God over his people through his designated representative.” (32)   In a very real sense, the entirety of the Christian believer’s life may be summed up in two aspects:  the perceived place/role of God the King, and doing His will.  More succinctly put:  Kingdom and discipleship.  God is our Emperor/King, and we owe Him allegiance, which might also be termed loyal living as a disciple of Jesus, who was God’s “designated representative.”

Coda:  Excursus
N.T. Wright has asserted these truths:

“[T]the call to faith is also a call to obedience.  It must be, because it declares that Jesus is the world’s rightful Lord and Master.  (The language Paul used of Jesus would have reminded his hearers at once of the language they were accustomed to hearing about Caesar.)  That’s why Paul can speak about “the obedience of faith.’  Indeed, the word the early Christians used for “faith” can also mean “loyalty” or “allegiance.”  It’s what emperors ancient and modern have always demanded of their subjects.”

Living by “faith,” therefore, is not merely saying “Jesus, I trust in You,” although that attitude and posture are important.  Living by faith is also living loyally, acting obediently, being a disciple of the one everlasting “emperor.”

Judging and perceiving (5-Jephthah)

Gideon showed mixed allegiance, and faith in God was in evidence at points in his life.  Abimelech was a blight in Israel’s history, showing nothing good at all.  Jepththah was a tragic character—and his story, even more so.

The Jephthah narrative is relatively lengthy (compared to the accounts of, say, Tola or Abdon), so this character is clearly interesting, theologically significant, and/or memorable for the author of the account—and also to the Jews who could come later.  Its dramatic force was noted by such composers as Carissimi (in a mid-17C oratorio predecessor) and Handel (in a mid-18C oratorio).  Handel apparently didn’t care for the outcome of the story, though, so he changed it!

God’s changing attitudes toward the people are intriguing:  first indignant (10:11-14), then influenced by affection (10:16).  He does eventually see this matter through.  In all, the reader perceives that Yahweh, not Jephthah or any other human, is sovereign.  The narrative even labels God (a) a judge called on (b) to judge (11:27), twice using the same root as the one used for the human judges of the book.

The account of Jephthah is not glowing, by any means:

He is the son of a prostitute and is excluded by his half-brothers.  (As with Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid, being driven out doesn’t keep God from paying attention.)

The Gilead elders (presumably the half-brothers) persuade Jephthah to lead them.  He consents to be their ruler, and he vows to offer in sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house when he returns victorious.

Yahweh, using Jephthah and his men, defeats the Ammonites in battle.

Jephthah’s only child, a daughter, becomes a sacrifice, and a commemorative tradition was born:  Israelite girls would mourn the daughter’s fate.

In-fighting begins:  a sort of civil war between Jephthah’s Gileadites and the offended Ephraimites.  42,000 of the latter were killed.

I don’t find the word “rule” or “ruler” in Judges prior to Gideon.  In other words, Othniel “judged.”  Deborah “judged” but was not said to have “ruled.”  Each of these was said to have been “raised up by God,” but that phrase is not used of Jephthah.  He is a “ruler” who appears to have arisen by human non-God-blessed initiative.

Jephthah leads for only 7 years, but his story rings through history.  “Jephthah’s rash vow” and “shibboleth” have been the main takeaways, but perhaps those are not the only things to note.  At this point I would ask—not because I think it’s a pleasant question or even a good question—what the reader ought to take from this story.

Are we to feel only disgust over Jephthah and over the horror of the killing of his daughter to satisfy the vow? 

Or, perhaps a broader, deeper view is called for:  (1) A man keeps his promises to God, period; and (2) Jephthah’s daughter, who in the story is nameless but not character-less, is a heroic figure, not a tragic one.

The daughter is pure, submissive, and faith-filled.  I can imagine that her father Jephthah secretly hoped she would be mauled by wild animals while mourning in the mountains (11:37-38) so he wouldn’t have to have her killed.  In the end, I suppose that, although her human life was valuable, her eternal one was more valuable, and she seems exemplary to me.

Judging and perceiving (4-Gideon, Abimelech)

The book of Judges includes accounts of ~ 13 Judges.  They were by no means homogeneous.  The nature of the role seems to have morphed, or at least it was amorphous.  I think they might be grouped along these lines:

  1. Othneil, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah (mostly admirable folks, as Israel’s stories go)
  2. Gideon, Abimelech, Tola, Jair (mixed)
  3. Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, Samson (more deeply mixed, with some horrific incidents)

With this post we move into the second group, beginning with Gideon, of “fleece” fame.  Gideon is presented largely as a good guy, although not entirely built of faith.  We want to be careful not to be to presumptuous in conceiving of the overall reality when we don’t have a complete picture; what we do have is this piece of literature that presents him in X way.  Perhaps Gideon was actually more or less faith-filled than we read of, on average.  He initially focuses on his own weakness/stature¹, and he appears to struggle with fear and doubt (6:15, 6:27).  On the other hand, he must have had some courage, or he would not be flouting (albeit surreptitiously) the exploits of the Midianites and Amalekites by threshing the grain that they had a penchant for stealing.  The angel of the Lord approaches Gideon, calling him “brave,” and Gideon’s father later renames his son to commemorate a bold, in-your-face move against Baal.  God continues using Gideon, acknowledging and engaging with his fears (7:10).

After the fleece event, in another famous Gideon story, God shows who’s in charge by reducing an army to 1% of its original size . . . and then he uses an inimitably unconventional battle plan (trumpets and pitchers with torches, not arrows and shields).  I find curious what happens with the battle cry:  “for the LORD and for Gideon” had been prescribed, but the chant gained a foreword:  “a sword for the LORD and for Gideon” . . . yet it appears the sword didn’t have to be used at all in the victory.  Maybe the reader is to notice that, whereas the men wanted to use their own might and swords, God didn’t need those.  Who is king, after all?

Speaking of the locus of power and strength . . . have you assumed that the 300 men were chosen because lapping water like a dog somehow made them more alert for battle, as compared with the men who fully knelt down?  How important would human battle-readiness be, after all, if God was doing this?  Notwithstanding repeated teaching to the contrary through the years, I now figure the posture was more an arbitrary means of selection than a symbol of readiness in God’s mind.

I’m not sure I completely follow the conversation between Gideon and the men of Ephraim in 8:1-3.  “Our hero” seems at least to have some diplomatic abilities.  He’s also relentless and ruthless:  if the men from Succoth and Penuel wouldn’t help his efforts by feeding him and his men, well, forget them.  The narrative, in recording that Gideon made good on his promise to take vengeance, shows him to be a man of action.

Gideon’s military heroism, which seems at least partly God-ordained at this juncture, sounds forte within the overall narrative of Judges, but the man’s character remains mixed, in my estimation.  On the upside, we read that the men of Israel wish to start a dynasty with Gideon.  He refuses.  Then, with great devotion and character, Gideon responds,

I will not rule over you, nor will my son;
The LORD will rule over you.

This cry should ring like chimes in the ears of all Israelites who were to come!  Gideon shows the right focus!  But just as impressively, the next part of the story shows his failure:  he makes a gold ephod (apparently a tribute to himself) that becomes an idol and results in the next downfall of the people.  “All the Israelites went astray by worshipping it, and it also became a snare for Gideon and his household.”  (8:27b)  Despite Gideon’s folly with the gold, Midian was defeated, and Israel lived in peace for 40 years.

Gideon’s concubine gave him a son in Shechem, and that son was to carry on his father’s negative side.  Abimelech boldly went to the people of Shechem and more or less proclaimed himself king.  The tribal people Image result for gideon abimelechweakly allowed this to happen, and Abimelech promptly, brutally murdered 70 half-brothers in a show of self-aggrandizing force.  Jotham, the only brother to survive, seems to manifest at least some faith in the LORD:  he expresses the hope that God will listen to them (9:7), even as he prophesies doom in what amounts to a second piece of literariness in the book.  “Jotham’s diatribe” in chapter 9 is not quite the song of Deborah and Barak from chapter 4 but is nonetheless notable within the narrative—and more listenable, in my estimation.  Jotham’s prediction comes true in the end:  those who once gave Abimelech allegiance became his enemies and ultimately did him in.

Postlude to an episode
It bears mention that the name Abimelech is common and may be more of a title (or blanket designation of kings/would-be-kings?) than a name per se.  The word means “father-king” or “my father is King” or “father of a king.”  One of several biblical Abimelechs also appears in Genesis 20.  Might this name in Judges invite the reader to hark back to Abraham’s fear and folly when he conveniently “forgets” Sarah is his wife as well as his half-sister?²   Abraham wasn’t exactly acting faithfully at the time, whereas that Abimelech seems to fear God.  The ruffian Abimelech in Judges clearly is not a man after God.  At any rate, Israel remembers Saul, not Abimelech, as its first king, and rightly so:

  1. Abimelech is but a provincial, regional leader.
  2. Abimelech is not a man of God, nor is he in any sense chosen by God’s will.

¹ It should not surprise us that God might choose a “little guy” to accomplish a big thing.

² Here, I assume Judges was written later than Genesis.  Even if that is not the case, oral history about Abraham would likely have been a factor.  In other words, stories were told, and the name Abimelech was surely known.

Judging and perceiving (3-Deborah)

I’ve begun to see the book of Judges as a historical theology narrative in which Israel’s stark slide toward ignoring God’s kingship may be perceived.  Faith-wise, the Israelites definitely appear to have plunged in the time of the Judges.  (Find the first two posts in this series here.  I anticipate 3-4 more.)

Having skipped lightly over Shamgar, because the text nearly does the same, we see that Deborah, the 3rd judge, is unique:

  1. She is a prophetess.
  2. She is presented as having had a place for judging.
  3. It is not as a military leader that she earns her role.
  4. She is a woman.

Why, when I was a 9-year-old at Vacation Bible School, had my memorization list included Barak’s name along with Deborah’s as a Judge?  Barak seems to be a non-entity, really.)  In the story, Deborah’s prophecies and courage eclipse Barak’s might.  He is criticized for a lack of courage,.  The horrific story of the enemy Sisera’s death seems to show not only Jael’s (didja catch that name? Jah-El!  Yahweh is God!) fearlessness but also the courageous faith of Deborah.  It’s a victory, but not by traditional male might.  What’s highlighted here is the power of women who were willing to take action.

Then comes the notable “Song of Deborah and Barak,” as the heading sometimes goes.  It takes up an entire chapter of Judges, indicating its historical and theological significance within the narrative.  A general principle of narrative interpretation is that when a portion of the story is notably longer (a conversation, a description, or in this case, a song of victory), the reader should take notice.  And this song takes a whole chapter!

The song itself seems largely inaccessible to the modern ear.  This is no “Wichita Lineman” or “She Loves Me, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.”  I suppose it’s more akin to “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but that’s another story.  Some tribes or portions of tribes are taken to task for not heeding the battle call.  The exploits of other tribes are praised.  The song’s overall impact, I suppose, is clear, but along the way, it speaks things that do not resonate or even make sense to me.  The closing sentiment (5:28-30) about Sisera’s mother looking for her son, the now-dead general, to come home is just mean.  The song’s conclusion seems to be cognizant of the Lord’s role, and Israel, having apparently relied a little on God for a short time, “had rest for 40 years” . . . but then did what was evil.  Again.

And this time, at least in the narrative, God seems resistant to delivering them.

Next:  Strength and weakness . . . Midian and Gideon

 

 

 

Judging and perceiving (2-Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar)

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 a 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