Priestly Matters

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In 2 Sam. 8:18, we learn that David’s sons are serving as priests. Previously, we’ve read that only the descendants of Levi could serve as priests (as, for example, in Numbers 18). As David is, in fact, from the tribe of Judah, this poses a rather serious continuity problem.

I’ve seen some apologetics claim that this is a translation error, and that it should rather say that David appointed his sons to oversee the priests. Of course, that doesn’t address the other breadcrumbs.

Genesis and Judges seem, to me, to be the most folk books we’ve read so far, showing us glimpses of the popular religious expression. What we see in both books, but that is largely lacking in the more urban/establishment books, is the presence of individuals setting up their own personal shrines. In Genesis, the characters are semi-nomadic, and seem to be dotting the landscape with altars. In Judges, we see the beginning of more settled, permanent installations, such as Micah’s shrine in Judges 17.

High PriestIf we assume a nomadic/semi-nomadic origin for Israel, we could be seeing the process of settlement and the evolution of belief. This is further illustrated when Micah replaces his own sons as priests with a dedicated professional, giving us the term “levite.” This could be a story illustrating the beginnings of the priesthood as a dedicated vocation in Israelite society.

In a nomadic culture, it’s rare to fine specialization. When camp needs moving, everyone needs to help. When sheep need tending, everyone needs to pick up a crook. It’s only as societies settle that agriculture can support a class of people providing services that are not directly related to the acquisition of food.

If we make further assumptions, it could be that, as the priest cast came to hold more power, they consolidated by making the position hereditary. Perhaps even to prevent precisely what David does – rulers setting their own sons in the priesthood, which could lead to the same family controlling both the secular and religious life of the nation. It’s quite possible, then, that the tribe of Levi was formed sometime after David, taking over what had been a more generic term for priest, and constructing a tribal identity that fit with the cultural and cosmological milieu.

It could also be that there was a nomadic tribe of Levi that, when it finally came down to settle, found it more expedient to serve as priests than to fight established communities for patches of land.

There’s also an evolution from regional worship to a more centralized cult, giving us the possibility that the term “levite” (and the definition of the levite’s role) may have originally had more pronounced regional variations, hints of which remain in the stories collected in the Bible. We may see a hint of this in the different uses of the word “ephod” – which is used variously to mean an item of clothing, an object made of metal, or a divination tool. It’s possible that the term had cultic significance, but that what it referred to differed by region. Or perhaps it referred to a whole class of objects and garments associated with ritual.

Certainly, it’s clear from 1-2 Samuel that tribal heredity was not a requirement at the time of the events being described, but we also see that this was a concern for later contributors. For example, Samuel’s father is explicitly an Ephraimite in 1 Sam. 1:1. Given Samuel’s later role, however, it seems that a group of contributors were uncomfortable with him having so much religious authority without being a Levite. So the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 6:22-27 makes him a descendant of Kohath, turning him into a proper Levite.

This may have been the case with Eleazar, as well. In 1 Sam. 7, Abinadab appoints his son, Eleazar, as a priest and caretaker of the ark. In 2 Sam. 6:3-4, however, Eleazar is not listed as one of Abinadab’s sons (who are given as Uzzah and Ahio). It’s quite possible that multiple people have been named Eleazar, and that perhaps he’d died prior to or been absent from the events described in that chapter. Or, it could be that Eleazar was known as an early priest of the ark, and was written into Aaron’s family at a later date.

There’s frustratingly little evidence from which to draw conclusions, and it doesn’t help that the texts have been periodically edited so that clear chronologies are difficult to tease out. I think, however, that it’s reasonably clear that the priesthood evolved over time – from a role assigned to a member of the family, to a mostly hereditary profession.

History Channel’s The Bible: Episode 3, “Homeland”

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Forty years after the events of the last episode (in narrative time, it hasn’t actually been that long since I wrote that post!), we open with Joshua praying in a deep, melodious voice that I am sure gets that actor oodles of gigs as a movie trailer narrator. The prayer serves to establish Joshua’s character – both his identity and goal.

His prayers over, we then zoom up Joshua’s nostril has he tells his spies to sneak into Jericho, and then into the spies’ nostrils as they agree.

We really get right up there.

We really get right up there.

I pointed out in my review of episodes 1 & 2 that the series tends to make up details to make the baddies seem like actual baddies, rather than just guys who happen to have settled in the wrong area (or, in Lot’s wife’s case, had complex feelings about leaving her home forever). So, of course, the figures of authority – apparently something like police officers – in Jericho are complete jerks. Right off the bat, one of them calls Rahab a “whore” and acts like a complete creepster.

The spies are fairly incompetent, and have perhaps forgotten to wear britches because everyone in town recognizes them immediately. They spend their time in Jericho running from alley to alley, recognized by more people at each turn, pursued by an ever-growing mob. Finally, they settle on the winning strategy of holding a knife to Rahab’s son’s throat and threatening to kill him unless Rahab protects them. Which, for some reason, doesn’t make them baddies. Rahab, like everyone else in town, immediately recognizes the Israelites, to which they reply, “you’ve heard of us?” As if they haven’t just spent the better part of the evening running from an entire town full of people who’ve heard of them and recognize them. At least the show managed to stay true to the text in making these the worst spies in the history of espionage.

Rahab agrees to delay the guards while the spies escape, either because she’s wowed by their super powerful deity or because they’ve just been holding a knife to her son’s throat. With a big third wall-breaking smirk, one of the spies gives her a red cord and tells her to tie it to her doorpost so that “you’ll be passed over.” Get it? Like the Israelites in Egypt? Get it??

When they get back to camp, they tell Joshua that the battle’s already half won because the citizens of Jericho believe that God is on the Israelite side. Joshua snaps at then, “God is on our side!” Yeah, dude, they know. That wasn’t the point. In fact, this happens several times during the episode. Some character will use “they think” language, and a Holy character will pause for a moment to shout, full froth, that God really really is with them, and then everyone resumes the scene as if nothing happened. I can just imagine some guy in the screenwriter circle with serious anger issues demanding that the line be added, in full caps, at regular intervals throughout the script. Perhaps he even brought a Bible along so that he could thump it to accentuate every second word.

The hapless spies failed to find a way into the city, but the angel of the Lord comes to Joshua and gives him the “Walls of Jericho” choreography. It’s the black one this time. We’ll see the white one later. The Asian band of our rainbow was apparently benched for this episode.

Bible_03_02_The Angel of the Lord

When the walls of Jericho fall, Joshua yells something that sounded something like “he truly is the saviour of the world” – or, perhaps, “this truly is the centre of the world.” Either way, it makes little sense in this context. Unless, of course, our True Believer scriptwriter wanted to remind everyone that Jesus is what it’s all about, even in the Old Testament.

Must more fitting with the tone of the Deuteronomic history is Joshua’s other shout: “If we obey the Lord, anything is possible!”

Samson

A hundred years pass and the Philistines are being jerks. The show introduces the concept of judges (plural), but completely skips most of them over to get to Samson – a strong black man with dreadlocks. In Judges 16:19, a reference is made to Samson’s “seven locks.” Some – particularly those in the Rastafari faith system – believe that this indicates that Samson may have worn dreadlocks. I found it interesting to see that theme taken up here.

Choosing to make Samson black is interesting, too, especially given the direction in which they decided to take the story. Rather than being the personal revenge story we get in the text, here it’s depicted as a sort of defence of interracial marriage – further, it’s one where our sympathetic character is the person of colour. Samson and his mother are black, whereas the Philistines are all portrayed as white.

Samson with Delilah

Samson with Delilah

To make it work, they’ve written out the lion and the riddle and the first wife’s betrayal. Instead, the Philistines murder Samson’s wife (by setting her on fire, no less) because “our people should never mix.”

Except that it isn’t quite that simple. The Philistines (you can tell they are baddies because they all wear Jack Sparrow eyeliner) are shown to be against Samson’s marriage to a Philistine woman from the start, but so is Samson’s mother. At her own son’s wedding, she is shown pursing her lips judgementally, prompting Samson to ask her what she wants from him. “What would you have me do? Reject the woman I fell in love with just because she’s a Philistine?”

Bible_03_Wedding

Because it’s a lot harder to CGI burning foxes than just to have a couple of stunt doubles wail on each other, Samson’s revenge involves the latter as he shouts, “for my wife!”

JAWBOWNED!

JAWBOWNED!

As in the text, Samson escapes and hides in a cave for a bit.

Also like the text, the Philistines start harassing nearby Israelites (in this case, Samson’s mother is included in the group). The History Channel couldn’t help but to add a little Hollywood flair, however, as the Philistines pull the old “for every arbitrary unit of time you make us wait for Samson, we will kill one of you! Starting NOW!” canard. The Israelites find Samson and convince him to submit.

The Philistines have Samson in chains, there’s a baddie/goodie exchange, Samson breaks free, then comes the jawbone.

It’s on his escape from his fight that Samson meets Delilah, violently grabbing a water jug out of her hands and then, inexplicably, thanking her as though he’d asked for it like a normal human being. This apparently sets Delilah swooning.

The Philistines approach Delilah and try to convince her to betray Samson. At first, they argue that he’s been going around butchering Philistines – entirely the impression of the text, but a lie in the context of the History Channel’s spin on the story. Delilah is unconvinced, “He’s changed, he’s a different man since he’s met me.” I mean, sure, he was covered in Philistine blood when she met him, but he hasn’t even tried to commit genocide since!

What finally convinces her is the offer of money. That meshes with the text, but it feels worse here, somehow. Delilah is portrayed as having genuine affection for Samson, defending him and even crying when he is captured. Yet her greed overrides her affection to the point that she methodically sheers his hair while he sleeps, with no indication of internal conflict.

As in the text, Samson is blinded. Where the adaptation deviates, however, is that it has him brought to Dagon’s temple immediately. When Samson regains his strength, it is through prayer only. There has been no time for his hair to grow, so the History Channel has chosen to just skip over the possible pagan elements that, I suppose might have been theologically troubling to their resident Bible thumper – the one who peppers his speech with shouts of “God is with us!” – even when simply discussing the weather or how to conquer nearby cities.

Finally, we get the Hollywood trick of having Samson’s mother pulling rubble away to reveal her son, and Samson’s chapter ends with her crying over his corpse.

Samson’s mother features quite prominently in the adaptation. In the text, she’s unnamed – clearly important, and it’s notable that God speaks to her rather than her husband, but still rather effaced. Here, however, the reverse is the case. Samson’s mother is written into a number of scenes, while her husband is entirely absent. Anyone who didn’t already know the story might well get the impression that her pregnancy was, like Mary’s, one that needed no human help getting started.

Of course, she receives the news of her pregnancy from the creepiest angel ever. Seriously, the guy is as bad as a Jerichoite. God’s HR department needs to have a sensitivity course with its angels to talk about personal space, I think.

Bible_03_03_Creeper Angel

Samuel

Micah’s idol, the concubine’s rape, and the ark’s adventures are all skipped over, and we move straight into Samuel’s old age. The voice over tells us that poor Samuel tried his best to unite the Israelites to fight against the Philistines, but he has failed.

Unlike his text self, he assumes that his sons will succeed him, and defends him from the Israelite accusations that they are corrupt and have been accepting bribes. He is clearly meant to be a goodie, but his resistance to the monarchy is not explained. Given the lack of eyeliner on the Israelites asking for a king, they seem to be sympathetic characters too. Rather than coming across like a legitimate question that is up in the air, it ends up just looking like Samuel is a horrible guy and a bad leader who the show really really wants to convince us is on the good side. The whole scene feels awkward and rushed.

Samuel explicitly personalizes the rejection of his sons and the judge system, crying out that the people “have rejected me” and adding “and you, God” as though it were an afterthought.

When God shows Samuel the king he’s chosen, Samuel says, “that could never be me. But I will still be your prophet!” I don’t know what impression I was supposed to draw from Samuel’s scene, but it struck me like a corrupt old man scrambling to keep hold of power. Like I said, it was awkwardly done.

In a nice touch of framing, we return into a nostril as the episode comes to a close.

Bible_03_08_Saul 2

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Singing Women

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So far, I’ve seen little hints scattered through the text of women who seem to have once been far more important than the credit they are given in the book that has survived down to me. I summarized what I’ve noticed in my post on Judges 13, in the discussion of Samson’s unnamed mother:

There have been several times that I’ve sensed hints of older stories, stories that seem to have been about priestesses or perhaps even goddesses. God telling Sarah about Isaac, Sarah bedding with the kings of two nations (Pharaoh and Abimelech), Rebekah bedding with a third kingMiriam’s song of praiseZipporah’s circumcision of her sonDeborah’s song, etc. Here, we have another that I would put in the same category – though she is given no name, it is clear that it is through her that God wishes to communicate with Manoah’s family. I suspect that the latter portion of the chapter, where he switches to speaking directly to Manoah, may have been a later edit, because coming the second time to Manoah’s wife while she is alone just seems far too deliberate to me.

The Duet, by Sir Frank Dicksee

The Duet, by Sir Frank Dicksee

Most interesting of all – at least to me – is that we have had three “songs” so far in the text, and that all three have been sung by women. I’ve already mentioned Miriam’s song in Exodus 15 and Deborah’s in Judges 5, and now we can add Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2. And though our sample size is still quite small, I’ve been drumming up a few ideas about these songs that I’d like to throw out into the void of the internet.

Deborah’s song, though ostensibly sung by her, is clearly more about her. In Miriam and Hannah’s case, however, the two women seem to be given the voice of the nation – it falls to them to praise God and to express the people’s hope for the future. In Miriam’s case, she expresses the people’s (ideal) trust that God was leading them toward a land in which they could be planted (Exodus 15:16-18), a concern for obvious reasons at the time. Hannah also uses her look to the future to address present concerns; all through Judges, we were reminded that “there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). So Hannah’s pressing concern is that rule be established, and that those who succeeded in a time of such higgeldy-piggeldy morals would soon find themselves at a disadvantage, and that there should be a king (1 Sam. 2:10).

So as we saw with Sarah and Rebekah, it seems that women are seen to be performing the roles of high priestess, in the later cases legitimizing monarchies, and in these cases interceding with God.

Which leaves us with three possibilities, that I can see. (1) My pattern-finding brain is finding patterns where they don’t exist, (2) these songs serve a literary purpose that was, at least at one time, seen to be feminine, or (3) these stories are remnants from cultic tradition in which women played a more central role.

Judges: Final thoughts

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I really enjoyed most of Judges. Certainly, after the narrative dry spell of Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, it was so refreshing to actually see stories again. Some of them, like Deborah’s, were actually quite cool, too. Then we got to Judges 19 and the stories just started to make me angry. Granted, they seem intended to illustrate why Israel really needs a monarchy, but those final three chapters were still tough to read.

According to Collins, “this history was put together and edited no earlier than the late seventh century B.C.E., several hundred years after the supposed time of the conquest and judges. The final edition is no earlier than the Babylonian exile, possibly later” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.95).

As for purpose, I think that there are a few different things going on in the book.

The first and most obvious is that it argues in favour of a monarchy, and appears to argue against division between the tribes (as in the Israelites’ frequent weeping over having to kill their “brethren,” the Benjaminites). In other words, it may have been intended to serve as a warning against having an Israel that is not under a united monarchy.

There also seems to be some propaganda against certain specific tribes (and in favour of certain others). For example, Dan gets their shrine through theft, clearly an attempt to smear the northern kingdom’s holy sites. There’s also two references to Judah leading the way, in Judges 1:1-2 and Judges 20:18. In both cases, it stands out from the surrounding text, which suggests to me that these two passages were deliberately added for a purpose. This all comes back to the first purpose, except that instead of just promoting a united monarchy, it’s specifically hinting that Israel needs a monarch lead by Judah.

Then there’s the simple repetition of Israel falling into sin and idol worship – a narrative we should be amply familiar with after coming out of Exodus/Numbers.

Many of the stories just seem to be preserved for no particular reason, or at least no propagandistic reason. The listed names of judges for whom little/no details are provided, for example, seem to be simply a preservation of historical records. I also noted in my discussions of Jephthah and Samson that some of the stories seem to hint at pre-YHWH and, certainly, pre-monotheistic origins.

Certainly, I think it’s clear that much of the material comes from local folk stories, which would fit with my perception of Joshua as a similar local folk hero.

Judges 20-21: The punishment and redemption of Benjamin

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Brant Clements, of Both Saint and Cynic, reminds me that, way back in Genesis, we learned something about how Benjamin would come to be viewed. On his deathbed, Jacob “blessed” each of his sons, though his blessings seemed more to foretell the perceived character of their descendent tribes. Of Benjamin, he said:

Benjamin is a ravenous wolf
In the morning devouring the prey
And at evening dividing the plunder. (Genesis 49:27)

All the Israelites responded to the body parts they received in the mail. From Dan (far north) to Beersheba (far south), even Gilead on the eastern shore of the Jordan, they all gathered at Mizpah. We don’t seem to know quite where that is, but somewhere close to Jerusalem, which would put it in or near Benjaminite territory.

They ask the Levite to explain what happened, and the Levite answers:

I came to Gibeah that belongs to Benjamin, I and my concubine, to spend the night. And the men of Gibeah rose against me, and beset the house round about me by night; they meant to kill me, and they ravished my concubine, and she is dead. (Judges 20:4-5)

All true, but isn’t it interesting that he leaves out the part where where he threw her out to the mob and closed the door behind her?

When they hear of what happened, the Israelites vow not to return to their homes until they Benjamin is defeated. They will go up against Gibeah while ten men out of ever hundred (selected by lottery) keep the army provisioned.

The Battle

While the Israelites are gathered presumably in siege, they also sent men throughout the tribe of Benjamin to ask, “What wickedness is this that has taken place among you?” (Judges 20:12), and to ask them to give up the criminal Gibeah. Unfortunately, the Benjaminites decide to stand with Gibeah, and they march out to face the other Israelites.

Altogether, Israel came with 400,000 soldiers, while Benjamin managed 26,000 in addition to the 700 soldiers of Gibeah. Among the Benjaminites were 700 southpaws who were extremely good with a sling (I do not know what left-handedness has to do with sling-throwing, but this is apparently important).

Echoing Judges 1:1-2, the people ask God which tribe should go up against Benjamin first, and God replies, “Judah shall go up first” (Judges 20:18). This is apparently quickly forgotten, because the next day it is just generic “Isrealites” who go out to battle.

They also lose the day. The Benjaminites slaughter 22,000 Israelites.

The Israelites figure that went so well that they would repeat it on the second day, and they “again formed the battle line in the same place where they had formed it on the first day” (Judges 20:22). Courage they might have, but their feelings about going against fellow Israelites seem mixed. They begin to weep and they ask of God “Shall we again draw near to battle against our brethren the Benjaminites?” (Judges 20:23). God stands firm, they must go.

Perhaps it was God’s will, or perhaps it was because they did not modify their terrible battle strategy, but 18,000 Israelite soldiers are killed on the second day.

Benjamites take women of Shiloh as wives, from the Morgan Bible, 1240-1250

Benjamites take women of Shiloh as wives, from the Morgan Bible, 1240-1250

Once again, they weep. Both times they weep and call on God, they do it at Bethel. Bethel, by the way, seems to have featured rather important in the stories of the patriarchs. It is where Abram/Abraham builds an altar in Gen. 12:8, and it is where Jacob had a prophetic dream (and then built an altar of sorts) in Gen. 28:18:19. According to my study Bible, it was “later one of the two principal sanctuaries of the northern kingdom” (p.321). And now, we’re told that it is where the ark of the covenant is being kept, still ministered by an apparently extremely old Phinehas (Judges 20:28).

Just in case you were wondering why the Israelites were leaving their post to go over to Bethel every time they started getting teary-eyed.

The people seem rather broken up, and they ask God once again if they really have to go up against Benjamin. God says yes, but reassures them that, on the third day, they will win.

The third day is a bit more complicated and seems to weave together two different versions of events. But the essential gist is that they pretend to go out the same as before, but secretly plant a few people in ambush around Gibeah. When the Benjaminites go after them, the Israelites pretend to flee, drawing them away from the city. With the soldiers too far to help, 10,000 Israelite soldiers took Gibeah behind them, killing everyone.

When the fleeing Israelites see the signal from the ambushers – smoke rising from the burning Gibeah – they turn around and face the Benjaminites. 18,000 Benjaminites were killed right away, with another 7,000 killed while trying to flee.

Only 600 Benjaminite soldiers were left, hiding for four months at the rock of Rimmon while the Israelites went around slaughtering every single Benjaminite they could find.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because Joshua used the same strategy in Josh. 8 after his initial attack on Ai failed.

The Tribal Preservation Society

At this point, all the Benjaminites are dead save for the 600 men hiding in Rimmon. Unfortunately for the tribe’s survival, the Israelites have vowed never to allow any of their daughters to marry a Benjaminite (Judges 21:1).

You can see how this might be an issue.

So the Israelites go to Bethel and start weeping again, this time building an altar and making offerings (in Judges 21:4, God is apparently cool with this). They are very concerned that, without any lady-folk, the tribe of Benjamin will die out.

Their first strategy is to find any Israelites who might not have made the vow. Helpfully, they also made a vow to kill anyone who did not respond to the mustering call at Mizpah (Judges 21:5).

They settle on Jabeshgilead, who had failed to answer the call. So they sent 12,000 men to slaughter all its inhabitants, including the women and child, sparing only 400 young virgins.

They then send word to the surviving Benjaminites letting them know that it’s all over and that they are out of danger and, hey, look, we got ladies for you!

And Creationists say that the “survival of the fittest” concept of evolution is cold…

But that’s only 400 girls and there are 600 surviving Benjaminites. Unwilling to give polyandry a try, this apparently poses a problem.

So they come up with a totally awesome solution that is definitely not rape-y at all! They tell the Benjaminites that they can go up to Shiloh during a yearly feast to God, set up an ambush in the vineyards, and kidnap any women who come out to dance the festival dances. This is a “solution” because it skirts around the vow not to “give” the Benjaminites any wives (see, because they weren’t given, they were taken! Har har, very clever).

And if this story sounds familiar, you’re probably a mythology buff. When the first Romans wanted wives for themselves, they abducted women from neighbouring groups during a festival.

God is apparently cool with just feeding women into the hands of Benjaminite rapists, because there’s no punishment for anyone – from the Levite to the Israelite nation – who does it. Even so, the book closes with a reminder that, “in those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

Judges: What is a judge?

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It couldn’t be clearer from the text that “judge” is not being used in the ‘arbitration of law’ sense, at least not purely. Certainly, it’s more Judge Dredd than Judge McLachlin. Since the use of the term is far from clear, I thought I’d take a little time to talk about what the word actually means in the context of this book.

I found it helpful to think of the judges as falling into three separate categories:

Legal Judges lack detail, their function is not explained. The only hint we get is a reference to Deborah doing her judging thing while seated under a palm tree (Judges 4:4-5). This sounds very much like a “keeper of the law” sort of role, where an individual is arbitrating for a community. Deborah (Judges 4-5) certainly fits this model. Tola (Judges 10:1-2), Jair (Judges 10:3-5), Ibzan (Judges 12:8-10), Elon (Judges 12:11-12), and Abdon (Judges 12:13-15) may as well – if only because no details of heroic feats are listed. This leads me to guess that perhaps these names are actual records of judges, keepers of the law. Their names could be a fragment of an actual historical record of real people.

Military Leaders perform great deeds of nationalistic importance. These “judges” lead armies to kill Israel’s enemies. I include Othniel (Judges 3:7-11) and Jephthah (Judges 10-12) in this category.

Folk Heroes also perform great deeds, but theirs are more personal. Rather than commanding an army to achieve victory, these guys personally take up arms (or, rather, oxgoads or donkey jawbones) to beat the ever-loving-crap out of their enemies. While they may be said to deliver Israel, where their motives are recorded, they are generally very personal. Samson (Judges 13-16) is the perfect example – not only does he never deliver Israel from its oppressors, his motives throughout his narrative all come down to 1) get laid, and 2) get revenge. Abimelech (Judges 9) is an implied judge who is motivated by little more than gaining power. Ehud (Judges 3:12-30) delivers Israel, but does so by personally stabbing the Baddie head honcho and then escaping through a toilet chute. Shamgar (Judges 3:31) just kills a bunch of Philistines with an oxgoad, his motives unspecified. I’d also include Gideon (Judges 6-8) in this category; he may lead an army, but it’s a very small one and his victory comes through trickery rather than military might. His story also hints that his motive is personal revenge.

So, as my study Bible puts it, the term may have began as a title of keepers of the law, but “would then later have been extended loosely to military heroes of the same period” (p.308).

Claude Mariottini goes into a bit more detail on his blog, speaking about the term in relation specifically to Deborah and how she fits in with the other characters of the book.

Further Categories

And just because I’m a categorizer, I tried sorting the judges a few different ways:

Gideon and Jephthah’s stories both come with lengthy lectures about how the Israelites are terrible and God is just so mad. Deborah, Othniel, Ehud, and Samson get shorter references to how bad the Israelites are. Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Shamgar get little or no mention of the “falling into sin” narrative. (Neither does Abimelech, but his story seems to be a continuation of Gideon’s.)

The following judges are entered by the Spirit of the Lord: Othniel (Judges 3:10), Jephthah (Judges 11:29), Gideon (Judges 6:34), and Samson (Judges 13:25, 14:6, 14:19, 15:14).

It may be worth noting that none of the characters I sorted as Legal Judges are entered by the Spirit of the Lord, and only Deborah’s story includes the “Israelites are terrible” formula. The notion of holy possession seems tied entirely with feats of military/personal strength, not with wisdom (if anything, the opposite is true since Jephthah makes is awful vow while possessed and Samson gets possessed more than anyone).

Judges 19: Sodium-free Sodom

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Judges 19 needs to come with a massive “Trigger Warning” tag. Seriously, I found it very difficult to read, so if you are in any way triggered by descriptions of rape, just skip this one. I mean it.

We begin with a reminder that all this is happening “when there was no king in Israel” (Judges 19:1). As I noted in my discussion of Judges 17-18, it could be that these chapters serve to show why the monarchy is necessary. The Mosaic model of leadership (the people are ruled by prophets and priests) got the Israelites through the wilderness, but doesn’t seem to have been able to stick once they were settled. So God tried appointing judges instead, but their power seems to have diminished – culminating in Samson who, despite his great strength, was unable to deliver Israel from its enemies.

Now, we are through with judges and the impression the author(s)/editor(s) seems to be trying to convey is that Israel descended into something like anarchy: the Danites are stealing idols from their fellow Israelites and, as we shall soon see, the Benjaminites are doing far worse. The frequent reminders that this is happening in a time prior to monarchy seems to reinforce that the monarchy (perhaps even a united monarchy) is needed to hold the people together.

It may also be important that the tribes behaving badly – Dan and Benjamin – both seem to be located in the northern part of the divided kingdom (Israel), while Jerusalem is in the southern part (Judah), if my map-glancing isn’t failing me.

Ephraim, too, actually. You’ll remember Ephraim as the tribe that gave us Micah and his idols, as well as the tribe that gave Gideon (Judges 8:1) and Jephthah (Judges 12:1) so much trouble. Benjamin, Ephraim, and Dan’s original patch of land all lie right on the border between the two kingdoms of the divided monarchy. If we assume a southern editor, it would make sense that they would feature more often in stories due to proximity, and that the impressions of them might be mixed – positive because of similar culture/religion/history, negative because of possible border disputes and the fact that they joined the “wrong” side.

Ephraim, in particular, has featured a great deal in this book. It is the Ephraimites who support Ehud in defeating the Moabites (Judges 3:27), Deborah appears to have been an Ephraimite (Judges 4:5), they kill two of the Midianite leaders for Gideon (Judges 7:24-25), the judge Tola was an Ephraimite (Judges 10:1), and, of course, Micah was an Ephraimite (Judges 17:1).

The tribe crops up again and again, doing naughty things and spawning various folk heroes. If I were to venture a guess, I would say that the author(s)/editor(s) lived near Ephraim and so was exposed both to their stories and to the stories told about them by Uncle Joe who is totally sure that it was one of his Ephraimite neighbours who stole his sheep in the middle of the night because you know how those people are.

The Levite and his concubine

A Levite was “sojourning” (Judges 19:1) in the hill country of Ephraim. This may relate him to the Levite mentioned in Judges 17, who was from Judah but took a job in Micah’s household. He had a concubine (who, in my RSV, is always a concubine in relation to him while he is a husband in relation to her) who was originally from Bethlehem, in Judah.

One day, this nameless concubine gets angry at her Levite “husband” and runs back to her father’s house in Bethlehem – which would have meant passing through Benjaminite territory. It is not explained why she was angry, but the Levite’s behaviour later on in the story gives me a fairly good idea of why she might have run away.

It takes him four months, but finally the Levite decides to go after her, hoping to “speak kindly to her and bring her back” (Judges 19:3).

When he arrives in Bethlehem, the text says that his father-in-law “came out with joy” (Judges 19:3) to meet him and begged him to stay for three days. At the end of those three days, when the Levite tries to leave, the father-in-law convinces him to stay just one more night, then just one more. The text describes it in entirely positive terms as though the father-in-law just really loves playing host, but taken together with all the other details of the story, it seems rather sinister. Like, maybe his daughter had a very good reason to escape and her father is trying to delay her being taken away again. Frankly, I found the father’s almost desperate attempts to delay the Levite’s leaving rather heartbreaking to read.

Days pass and, in the end, the Levite leaves so late in the day that they are caught by nightfall just outside Jebus (which the text tells us is what Jerusalem was called while still in pagan hands – which, according to Judges 1:21, it still is). The Levite’s servant advises that they stop for the night, but the Levite doesn’t want to stay in a “city of foreigners” (Judges 19:12). Rather, he has his household press on to Gibeah, a Benjaminite city.

In Gibeah

When the travellers reach Gibeah, they find no one willing to take them in for the night. Finally, they seat themselves in the city square, presumably prepared to sleep there through the night.

An old man, originally from the hill country of Ephraim, is walking by when he sees the travellers, and he asks the Levite what they are doing there. The Levite explains that they are passing through, and that he has all the provisions the travellers need and extra to share, but that they are in need of a roof. The old man puts on his best horror movie voice and assures them that he will feed the travellers, “only, do not spend the night in the square” (Judges 19:20).

The Levite's Concubine, Morgan Picture Bible, 13th cent.

The Levite’s Concubine, Morgan Picture Bible, 13th cent.

As the guests get comfortable in the old man’s house, however, the men of the city come round asking for them: “Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him” (Judges 19:22). The old man begs them not to violate his guest, instead offering up his own virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine to the crowd, saying “ravish them and do with them what seems good to you; but against this man do not do so vile a thing” (Judges 19:24).

It’s worth noting, with horror, that the concubine – despite being every bit as much a guest in the old man’s home as her “husband” – is not extended the protection of hospitality.

Not that it seems to have bothered the Levite much. When the crowd refuses to listen to the old man’s entreaties, the Levite himself tosses his concubine out to them and shuts the door. Then he apparently goes to sleep while his concubine is raped all night long. When she is finally released in the morning, she can only crawl up to the old man’s door and collapses. The inclusion of details here is horrific, the text describes “her hands on the threshold” (Judges 19:27).

Her “husband,” the Levite, “rose up in the morning” (Judges 19:27) and gets ready to leave, apparently fully intending to just leave without even so much as trying to find out if the woman he threw out to a mob to “ravish” to save his own skin is okay. As it happens, the knowledge comes to him – or, rather, trips him. Yes, he trips over her body on the way out the door.

For all the detail (her hands on the threshold), the text never actually says that she died, only that she collapsed and that she does not respond when the Levite tells her motionless and abused body, “get up, let us be going” (Judges 19:28).

I hope she’s already dead at this point, because what the Levite does when she fails to respond is pack her up on one of his donkeys and head home. When he gets back to Ephraim, he carves her up into twelve pieces and mails one out to each of the tribes (does Benjamin get one?). If the mob didn’t kill her, her “husband” just did.

The fault

The story is clearly meant to be an indictment of Benjamin. This is made all the more clear by the fact that the Levite is apparently afraid to stay the night in Jebus, yet is attacked in Gibeah. The lesson, apparently, being that the Benjaminites are behaving as badly as foreigners.

If the Levite himself is meant to be seen critically, there’s nothing in the text to say so. He behaves with callous disregard for his concubine, a woman who by all rights should be under his protection, and he seems to lose no sleep over tossing her out to the rapacious crowd to save himself.

Yet while the Benjaminites will be punished in the next chapter, the Levite is not. If anything, he is painted as a victim, in that it is his story of what happened in Gibeah that incites the retaliation against Benjamin.

The implications are grotesque.

The Ephod and Teraphim

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In Judges, Micah has a shrine that includes an ephod and a teraphim – clearly cultic objects of some sort – that the Danites later steal. But what are they, exactly?

Many translations render the word “teraphim” in Judges 18:17 as “household gods,” and it is apparently the word used when Rachel steals the household gods from her father in Genesis 31. According to Wikipedia, the “-im” ending does not necessarily mean that the word refers to plural objects. Wikipedia goes on to say:

According to Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Teraphim were made from the heads of slaughtered first born male adult humans, shaved, salted, spiced, with a golden plate placed under the tongue, and magic words engraved upon the plate; it was believed that the Teraphim, mounted on the wall, would talk to people. During the excavation of Jericho by Kathleen Kenyon, evidence of the use of human skulls as cult objects was uncovered, lending credence to the Rabbinical conjecture. The implied size and the fact that Michal could pretend that one was David, has led to the Rabbinical conjecture that they were heads, possibly mummified human heads.

Which is just totally metal!

So the teraphim remains something of a mystery, but what about the ephod? Well, we know from Judges 8:26-27 that it is a thing which can me made with recycled gold earrings. Both ephod and teraphim, then, seem to refer to idol-like cultic objects which, my study Bible writes, were “perhaps used for divination” (p.317). This is detail is supported by Judges 18:5, where the Danites ask Micah’s priest, who is in charge of the ephod and teraphim, is asked to “inquire of God” (something that would almost certainly be done through divination).

All our previous mentions of the ephod say that it is something a priest is supposed to wear. In Exodus 28:6-14, the ephod is to be made out of variously coloured yarns. It is to have shoulder pieces (onto which should be attached two onyx stones inscribed with the names of the tribes), and it is to be worn under the priestly breastplate (which contains the Urim and Thummim, which are almost certainly involved in divination). In Exodus 29:5, we are told that the high priest must wear “the tunic and the robe of the ephod, and the ephod, and the breastpiece, and [be girded] with the decorated band of the ephod.”

Similarly, in Leviticus 8:6-7, Moses places the ephod on Aaron, then binds it to him with the decorated band of the ephod.

What I get from this is that the ephod is an object that the Levitical high priest is supposed to wear strapped onto his body. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it was worn by folk priests in the time of Judges, though. It could just as easily have been an object that was originally placed on a shrine and only incorporated into the priestly vestments at a later date. This is suggested by Judges 8:26-27, in which Gideon’s ephod is worshipped.

Judges 17-18: Of opportunistic priests and silver idols

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So there’s this guy, Micah, living in the hill country of Ephraim. This Micah is not such a cool guy. He also has a very strange, meandering story.

You see, he stole 1,100 pieces of silver from his mother. Not knowing who had stolen it, his mother cursed the thief. Micah, presumably getting a little hot under the collar, confesses and returns the money. To withdraw her curse, his mother dedicates 200 of the pieces of silver to God, melting it down into an idol.

The amount of silver stolen is familiar – it is the same amount that each Philistine elder promised to pay Delilah in exchange for the secret of Samson’s strength (Judges 16:5). I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, or if the stories are supposed to be related somehow, or if 1,100 was just a way of saying “a large amount.”

Micah’s mother disappears from the story at this point, and it is Micah’s turn to make idols. He builds a shrine, and he makes “an ephod and teraphim” (Judges 17:5) to go in it. But what’s a shrine without a priest? To fill the void, Micah installs one of his own sons as the priest to his household shrine.

Unfortunately, Micah’s son apparently disappears because there’s another young man, called a Levite despite being from the tribe of Judah, who leaves his home town of Bethlehem to find himself some employment. When he comes upon Micah’s house, Micah offers him a job as his personal household priest, in exchange for ten pieces of silver a year, room and board, and clothes.

When the Levite accepts, Micah is overjoyed, thinking to himself: “Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because I have a Levite as priest” (Judges 17:13).

The key portions of this story are (1) There was a man named Micah, (2) He was from the hill country of Ephraim, (3) He had a shrine, (4) He was directly involved in the shrine’s construction, and (5) He had a priest. It seems that various storytellers embellished these key points in different ways, and our poor editor just didn’t know how to fit them all together.

It seems important, too, that Micah is not seen as a particularly good guy, but more on that later.

Dan’s “migration”

The text doesn’t give a reason for it except that “there was no king in Israel” (Judges 18:1) – and therefore no real order to society – but Dan is on the march to find a place to call home.

Judges 17 - Micah's IdolAccording to Collins, they had to find a new home after they “lost their original territory to the Philistines” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.114). Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain how this is known, so I have no idea if it’s just extrapolation or if there’s some sort of material archeological evidence to suggest this explanation.

My study Bible does agree, though, citing Joshua 19:40-46 and Judges 1:34 to put Dan’s original territory in the southwest, close to Philistine territory. This also helps to explain Samson’s focus on the Philistines, as Samson was a Danite (Judges 13:2).

So the Danites are looking for land, and, like Moses, they send out five scouts to find them a nice spot to settle. These spies set out from Zorah and Eshtaol, where the Danite people are located, which was listed among their inheritance in Joshua 19:40-46, and between which Samson was buried in Judges 16:31.

In their travels, the Danite spies lodge with Micah. While there, they recognize the Levite’s voice (Judges 18:3), asking him what he’s doing there. There’s no reason given for why/where/how they might have encountered the Levite before. It’s a very strange detail.

When the Levite explains that he’s been hired as Micah’s household priest, they ask him to consult with God on their behalf and tell them whether or not they will succeed. It’s implied that the Levite does so (presumably using the ephod and teraphim, which seem to be related to divination in some way), and he gives the Danites God’s blessing, saying that “the journey on which you go is under the eye of the Lord” (Judges 18:6).

Eventually, the spies make it to Laish, where they find the land fertile and the people weak (they are allied with Sidon, but too far away for the Sidonians to protect them). So they return to the Danites and tell them to go after Laish.

Which they do, with an army of 600 soldiers.

When the army passes Micah’s house, the spies mention the lovely shrine there. So the army stops to steal it. They are caught by Micah’s Levite, who asks them what they are doing. The Danites, in response, invite him to come and be their priest instead. After all, they argue, wouldn’t it be better to be the priest of an entire tribe rather than just one man? The Levite is so enthusiastic about the deal that he grabs Micah’s sacred objects and follows the Danites.

Micah gives chase, but realizes that he is outmatched and gives up.

When Dan takes Laish, they rebuild the city and name it Dan, in honour of their founding patriarch. It’s interesting to note that there was already a place named Dan in Genesis 14:14.

In closing, we’re told of a priest named Jonathan, son of Gerson, son of Moses (or Manasseh, my Bible doesn’t seem sure), who served the Danites as priest and was followed in the office by his sons “until the day of the captivity of the land” (Judges 18:30) – presumably the Assyrian conquest. They set up Micah’s idols, suggesting that this Jonathan is the same as the unnamed Levite we’ve been hearing about. Except that our Levite was from the tribe of Judah, not Moses (nor Manasseh). Unless that’s just the name of his grandfather, recycled from the patriarch, and not a tribal designation at all.

The moral of the story

There are a few possible morals that I can see. There’s the repetition that this all happened while there was no monarchy in Israel (Judges 17:6, Judges 18:1), which makes these chapters (and the ones to follow) seem to be a set up to explain just why having a king is such a fantastic idea.

Another possibility is that the story was included to explain the origins of a shrine in Dan. According to Collins, “during the monarchy, Dan was the site of one of the temples set up by King Jeroboam I of the northern kingdom of Israel, in opposition to Jerusalem” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.114).

Certainly, it’s true that no one in the story is presented in a particularly flattering light. From Micah the thief, to the mercenary/thieving Levite, to the aggressive and thieving Danites, all of the characters are, to put it kindly, morally questionable.

It could also be an accurate snapshot of the popular/folk religion, as opposed to the high religion of Jerusalem. As Victor Matthews puts it:

Why did a Levite, a man charged with teaching and maintaining the law, consent to serve a group of sacred images? Why did Micah set them up in the first place, and why did the Danites jump at the chance to steal them for themselves? The answer almost certainly is that popular religion, the religion of the local villages, was not the pure monotheism required by the law at Sinai. Recent excavations at Tell Qiri, a settlement dating to the period of the judges, revealed a similar household shrine with incense burners and a large number of animal bones. A substantial percentage of the bones proved to be the right foreleg of goats. This is reminiscent of the law in Exod 29:22, which calls for the sacrifice of the “right thigh” of the ram. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.76)

You’ve also probably noticed that characters are getting called “Levite” without actually being from the tribe of Levi. It seems that the term originally just meant a priest, and either the office was taken over by one particular line or perhaps they simply unionized, forming a new tribe.

 

Another Old God

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I noted a few weeks ago that Jephthah’s story reminded me of a pantheonic myth anthropomorphised as Israel moved toward monotheism. I got the same feeling from Samson, so imagine my surprise when I read the following in my study Bible notes:

The story that Samson was a Nazirite (ch. 13) seems to be a late attempt to make Samson respectable; none of his exploits show him as a religious enthusiast. The motif of the unshorn hair is probably derived from mythology rather than high religion. The name Samson is connected with the Hebrew word for “sun”; some scholars believe the stories originally go back to pre-Hebrew sources in which the hair represented the sun’s rays, i.e. its strength. (p.316)

So I thought I’d look at the Samson story again with that perspective in mind. What if Samson was originally some sort of sun god, or even perhaps a Herculean demi-god?

Godly Deeds

When Samson is first displeased with the Philistines, he burns down their crops. If he is some sort of sun god, it seems plausible that this would be a reference to a draught fire.

I don’t know why foxes would feature in that story, though. Foxes seem to be related to trickery in many cultures, but any narrative that gives that as the reason for their presence feels like far too much of a stretch. I did find that they were considered sacred to the Sumerian fertility goddess Ninhursag, which seems a little more likely.

Der geblendete Simson, by Lovis Corinth, 1912

Der geblendete Simson, by Lovis Corinth, 1912

I also found a reference to foxes in the Song of Solomon (Song 2:15). I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean or to refer to, except that the Song’s foxes, like Samson’s, come as destroyers of agriculture.

The other interesting detail is the presence of Dagon in Judges 16:23. It’s important to note for this thesis that Dagon was, as my study Bible puts it, “an ancient Semitic deity whose cult had been adopted by the Philistines after their settlement in the land” (p.316). It’s possible, then, that the original story featured some battle or disagreement between Samson and Dagon, since Dagon would have been worshipped in the area for long enough.

According to Claude Mariottini, “some scholars have identified Dagon as a “grain” god while others have identified him as a “fish” god.” So it’s a little ambiguous and, in an agricultural society where most mythologies will have something to do with grain, it might be a bit of a stretch, but what if Samson’s vulpine adventure was originally an attack on the grain god Dagon?

If we’re going to take this angle, a possible moral of the story would be that the sun and the grain must work together, and that society crumbles (much like Dagon’s temple with its 3,000 people) when they get into a tiff.

Hot Faith Injection

At some point, Samson (whether originally a god or just a regular folk hero) was brought into the monotheistic fold. As with most of Judges, Samson gets only a few edits to put him on Team YHWH, but otherwise seems largely left to his own devices.

To start with, there’s the Nazirite thing. There’s really very little in Samson’s story that suggests that he was a Nazirite, as they are described in Numbers 6. He isn’t shown drinking alcohol, but that’s the case for a great many of the characters we’ve seen so far. He’s also dedicated as a Nazirite from (pre-)birth, which contradicts the purpose of the vow outlined in Numbers.

Collins offers one possibility:

[I]t may be that the significance of the nazirite vow evolved over time. Originally, it may have pertained to the status of special warriors, related to their exceptional strength. Later it became a way of expressing a particular type of piety. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.113)

I think it more likely that the Nazirite references were written in, inspired by the hair motif, as a way of easily bringing Samson into the holy fold, so that he would make sense (to an extent) in the context of the editor’s worldview.

It’s notable that Delilah doesn’t seem know what a Nazirite is, or at least that Samson is one. Samson is able to fool her three times because she doesn’t know the rules of Samson’s super powers. This suggests, to me at least, that Samson’s story either pre-dates the Nazirite concept, or that it was originally completely unrelated to the Nazirites.

We see another hint of the editing when Samson is able to pull down Dagon’s temple. The editor tells us that the return of Samson’s strength is the answer to a prayer (Judges 16:28) while still preserving the original reason – his hair has grown back (Judges 16:22).

I think it’s also meaningful that Samson’s parents, way back in Judges 13, seem to alternate between knowing the identity of the god who predicts Samson’s birth and not knowing it – almost as if, perhaps, the story hadn’t originally included YHWH.

I should note, as with my discussion of Jephthah, that this is all pure conjecture. I have no idea how likely any of this might be.

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