Judges 16: A heart in an egg in a well in a church on an island in a lake…

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Unfortunately for Samson, he failed to get laid in Judges 15. He’s a very goal-oriented sort of man, though, and he doesn’t let one failure get him down. So he makes his way to Gaza – one of the five major cities of the Philistine confederation (according to my study Bible, p.315) – to go “in to” a prostitute (Judges 16:1).

But poor Samson can’t seem to be able to pursue relations of an intimate nature without some sort of disaster. So, of course, the Philistines find out where he’s laying. Presumably afraid of bursting in to some scene of unspeakable horror, they opt to set up an ambush by the city gate, assuming that they would be waiting until morning.

It’s unclear what happens to the ambushers, but at around midnight, Samson wakes, comes out of the brothel, rips out the city gate, plops it up on his shoulders, and drags it up a hill near Hebron.

The fatal flaw

Then, as we all found out in Sunday School, Samson falls in love with Delilah. The Philistine lords approach her and offer her a sum of 1,100 pieces of silver from each of them if she can find out what Samson’s weakness is.

It’s never explicitly stated that Delilah is a Philistine, by the way – as Samson’s other dalliances have been. We know only that he met her in the valley of Sorek – which, according to my study Bible, “led into the north end of the Philistine plain” (p.315). She is also, obviously, in cahoots with the Philistine elders.

Delilah, who is subtle and sly with the feminine wiles of a Biblical Mata Hari, asks: “Please tell me wherein your great strength lies, and how you might be bound, that one could subdue you” (Judges 16:6).

Well, at least she said ‘please.’

Samson somehow figures out that it may be a trick, so he lies to her. He tells her that if he is bound with seven fresh bowstrings that have not been dried, he will become weak. The Philistine lords give Delilah seven bowstrings and lie in ambush while she binds Samson (presumably while he sleeps). To test the bindings, she yells out a warning and Samson easily snaps the bowstrings.

Delilah reproaches Samson: “Behold, you have mocked me, and told me lies; please tell me how you might be bound” (Judges 16:10). This time, Samson says that if he is bound with new ropes that have never been used, he will lose his strength. Of course, this was a lie too and he easily snaps his bindings.

The third time she asks, Samson tells her that she must weave “the seven locks of my head” (Judges 16:13) with a loom to drain his strength. (Rastafari, who try to follow the Nazirite rules of Numbers 6, interpret this reference to “seven locks” as meaning dreadlocks.) Predictably, when Delilah yells her warning, Samson pulls easily away from the loom.

Samson and Delilah, by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1609

Samson and Delilah, by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1609

Finally, she pulls out the big guns: “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me?” (Judges 16:15), just as Samson’s unnamed bride said in Judges 14:16. For all his strength, Samson is a sucker for emotional manipulation, so he finally tells Delilah the secret of his hair.

If you were a child in the ’80s, you might have thought – as I did – of the Heartless Giant story from The Storyteller. In it, a young boy must defeat a giant who cannot be killed because he has hidden his heart. And so every day, the boy asks the giant where his heart is kept until, finally, the giant reveals the location (though in that story, the giant’s motive makes a bit more sense – the boy is clever and tricks the giant into thinking that he’s on his side). The big difference between the two stories is that, here, the giant is the Good Guy.

With his secret finally in her hands, Delilah has Samson fall asleep on her knee, and he does it because he’s Samson and he’s always found thinking hard when it comes to women. In Sunday School, Delilah then cuts Samson’s hair. Here, though, she has some guy come in and do it for some reason. It’s an odd detail – why can’t she do it herself? Would it be too much like Samson is defeated by a woman to have her be the one cutting his hair?

Regardless, when she wakes him, he doesn’t realize that “the Lord had left him” (Judges 16:20) and tries to break himself free, only then to realize just how fickle his God’s affections are. The Philistines rush in and gauge out his eyes, putting him in bronze fetters and then make him grind at the mill in prison. But unbeknownst to them, hair grows back…

The fall

The Philistine lords have gathered to offer a sacrifice to Dagon in thanks for allowing them to capture their arch-nemesis. Dagon, according to my study Bible, “was an ancient Semitic deity whose cult had been adopted by the Philistines after their settlement in the land” (p.316). In their thanks, they describe Samson as “the ravager of our country, who has slain many of us” (Judges 16:24). I wonder if Samson ever had one of Mitchell & Webb’s “Are we the baddies?” moments.

As part of their celebrations, they decide to have Samson “make sport for us” (Judges 16:25). It’s unclear to me what this means. Abbie at Better than Esdras reads it as making him fight in deathmatches. In my own reading, I interpreted it as putting him on display, perhaps with intention of pelting him with rotten vegetables.

In a stunning feat of architecture, the Philistines have managed to construct a building large enough for 3,000 people to be sitting on the roof, yet it is entirely supported by two pillars close enough together that one man can touch both at the same time. Further, a man standing between these two pillars is visible to the 3,000 on the roof. It’s practically an eight wonder of the world for sheer goofiness.

Samson, now blind, is led by a boy holding his hand to his spot between the two pillars. His hair now grown, he prays to God to grant him the strength to avenge one of his two eyes (perhaps he never much liked the other one). It’s very clear that this great final exploit, as all his others have been, is completely personal. He was not raised by God to deliver Israel from the Philistines, no matter what the editor might claim.

Samson has his guide-boy places his hands on the pillars and, his strength now renewed, pushes them apart – knowing that he will die too – to kill the Philistines. “So the dead whom he slew at his death were more than those whom he had slain during his life” (Judges 16:30).

His brothers and other members of his family (once his mother’s womb opened, it was apparently left open) collected his body and buried him in the tomb of his father, between Zorah and Eshtaol.

Samson’s story closes by telling us that “he had judged Israel twenty years” (Judges 16:31), a repetition of Judges 15:20. He did not, as Brant points out on Both Saint and Cynic, get “his people out from under the oppressive thumb of the Philistines.” Throughout, his motivations and exploits have been personal.

Judges 15: A disastrous booty call

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When we last saw Samson, he’d left his own wedding in a huff and his bride, not wanting to waste a good party, married his best man instead. Unfortunately, no one thought to tell Samson that.

As Judges 15 opens, we return to our hero as he’s dragging a kid down to Timnah as a gift for his presumed wife (what happened to flowers or chocolate?), thinking about how he’s totally going to “go in to” her (Judges 15:1).

You might be wondering why Samson thinks that he’s married, considering how the wedding ended. According to my study Bible, Samson may believe himself to be in a marriage “of an ancient type in which the husband comes only from time to time to visit his wife, who continued to live with her parents” (p.314).

As for the goat offering, we’ve seen this before in Gen. 38:17, where Judah offers to pay Tamar, whom he thinks is a prostitute, with a goat in exchange for sexual services. As my study Bible puts it, “A kid was perhaps the usual gift for sexual intimacy” (p.314).

So Samson either knows that he’s not really married and has decided to treat his bride like a prostitute, or he thinks that he’s in a special one-john-only type of contract. There’s no indication that this is what his bride thought she was getting. Quite the opposite, the fact that she assumed Samson had abandoned her and so she decided to marry someone else instead strongly suggests that she believed herself to be in what we would consider a “regular marriage.”

So Samson gets to his father-in-law’s house (so called because it is extremely difficult to find meaningful descriptives for these nameless characters!), goat in hand, and asks to “go in to” the man’s daughter.

Samson and the Foxes, Oktateuch, Vatopedi monastery, 13th century

Samson and the Foxes, Oktateuch, Vatopedi monastery, 13th century

For some reason, the father-in-law is apologetic when he tells Samson that his bride has remarried, but offers him her younger sister instead. This father of the year seems to have no compunctions about giving his daughter to a man who doesn’t even communicate enough to establish what kind of marriage he’s getting into, leaves his own wedding in a huff over the outcome of a riddle that he proposed in the first place, and then returns only for a booty call.

Samson, somehow believing himself to be the wronged part, is so angry that he catches 300 foxes, ties them into pairs by the tail, and sticks a torch between each pair. Having lit the torches, he release the foxes into the Philistine fields, setting them (and their granaries) on fire.

I don’t think I need to explain why this is a mega-douche thing to do.

Unfortunately, the Philistines blame Samson’s father-in-law and his daughter for having “angered” Samson (remember the rule: It’s always a woman’s fault), so they burn the family alive.

To his credit (sort of), this also makes Samson angry. It’s also possible that he’s just always angry and just looking for excuses. He vows to get revenge, which he then does, by smiting the Philistines “hip and thigh” (Judges 15:8).

That done, he goes to a cleft of the rock in Etam, which I take to mean that he goes into hiding.

In the cleft of the rock

The Philistines raid the area of Lehi (which means “jawbone” – remember that) in Judah. The people of Judah, perhaps cowered by superior Philistine material culture, ask them why they are raiding. The Philistines answer that they have come for Samson in revenge for what he’d been doing in Timnah.

Three thousand men of Judah go up to Samson’s rock cleft (they must have heard of his volatility) and ask him why he had to go and antagonize the Philistines. To this, Samson replies: “As they did to me, so have I done to them” (Judges 15:11).

Except, not. All they “did” to him was assume that he no longer wanted a woman he abandoned, and then not take her away from her new family when he changed his mind. For this, he burned down their fields, jeopardizing their lives and livelihoods. After that, the story is just an object lesson on the way that violence begets violence. Samson is not the victim in this story.

But he does at least agree to let the men of Judah bind him and bring him down to the Philistines, so long as the men of Judah never raise their hands against him. Keep him mind, though, that according to Judges 14:19, he’s somewhat recently murdered thirty men of Judah (Judges 1:18).

The men of Judah agree and tie Samson up. But when they get to Lehi and the Philistines rush out to meet them, Samson hulks out, breaking his bindings, picking up the “fresh jawbone of an ass” (Judges 15:15), and killing one thousand people with it.

As Javerbaum puts it, “Whoa, when did my Bible turn into a comic book?” (The Last Testament, p.120).

You’ll probably note that this sounds a little familiar. Shamgar, one of our previous judges, killed a mere 600 Philistines with an oxgoad in Judges 3:31.

When he’s done with the killing, Samson delivers his “hasta la vista” line:

With the jawbone of an ass,
heaps upon heaps,
with the jawbone of an ass
have I slain a thousand men. (Judges 15:16)

My study Bible says that this is a pun, as “the Hebrew words for ass and heap(s) [are] identical” (p.314-315). Essentially, that second line potentially means both “I have heaped up their corpses” and “I’ve made them into donkeys.” At least, that’s my best guess at the joke.

Just to reinforce the point, Lehi (“jawbone”) is renamed Ramath-lehi, which apparently means “jawbone hill.” I’m guessing that this is a geographical Just So story, perhaps in which a hill is said to have grown over the “heap” of corpses.

Thirsty Work

It seems that killing a thousand men at once with the jawbone of a donkey is thirsty work. But this is Samson, so of course he can’t just go get a drink, or even just tell God that he’s thirsty. No, he must be a poor beleaguered victim:

Thou hast granted this great deliverance by the hand of thy servant; and shall I now die of thirst, and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised? (Judges 15:19)

God, displaying far more patience than I do around that whiny sort of tone, creates a spring from which Samson can drink. The area is therefore renamed Enhakkor’e, or “the spring of him who called.”

You’d think this would be the end of Samson because he is claiming to have successfully delivered Israel and the chapter ends by telling us that he was a judge for 20 years. You might also be slightly panicking because, hey, isn’t there supposed to be a whole thing with Delilah cutting his hair? Well, fear not, we still have a whole other chapter of our biblical comic book hero!

Judges 14: For the love of a Philistine

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While visiting Timnah on unspecified business, Samson falls in like-like with a Philistine woman. With no more description than her location and ethnicity, he rushes back to his parents and tells them: “now get her for me as my wife” (Judges 14:2). If that sounds really snotty and entitled to you, gird your loins because that’s apparently a major theme of the Samson story.

The parents are rather aghast that their son would fall for a shiksa and ask him if he couldn’t find some nice Jewish girl instead. But Samson has fallen completely in like-like and he is adamant that she is the one he wants (even though he hasn’t, so far as the text indicates, so much as talked to her by this point).

Samson battling with the lion, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1520-1525

Samson battling with the lion, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1520-1525

If you’re of a mind with Phinehas from Numbers 25, you might be inclined to agree with Samson’s parents here. But what you and Samson’s parents don’t know is that Samson’s predilections have been, in fact, orchestrated by God, who “was seeking an occasion against the Philistines” (Judges 14:4).

The movement in the following passages is a little odd. Best as I can figure, Samson tells his parents to go fetch the woman, but then goes along with them, then somehow meets with the woman alone, and finishes by returning to his parents with the wedding plans settled.

At some point during all this awkward travelling, Samson encounters a lion. The “Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him” (Judges 14:6) and he was able to tear the lion apart with his bare hands.

Later, when passing the same area, he stumbles on the lion’s carcass. Rather than rotting, it appears to have entered a second life as a bee’s hive. Samson shoves right into the rotting lion’s corpse, pulls out fistfuls of honey, and has a sweet snack. In the spirit of sharing, he brings some more home to his parents and feeds it to them, never letting them know that it came from a hive built in rotting meat.

A NOTE TO MY CHILD: If you ever come across an animal’s carcass, assume that it does not contain honey. Do not be fooled by squirming movement under the skin. Just leave it alone and, whatever you do, do not bring me the contents to eat. I hope you learned your lesson with that worm you were very interested in having me eat the other day.

Biblical Red Wedding

Samson prepares a wedding feast to last seven days. This, according to the text, is in keeping with what “the young men used to do” (Judges 14:10). The bride invites thirty fellow Philistines, to whom Samson poses a riddle:

Out of the eater came something to eat
Out of the strong came something sweet (Judges 14:14)

You can probably guess the answer, but keep in mind that Samson has told no one of his honey-containing lion-slaying. There is literally no way that anyone could guess the answer to this awful riddle.

If the Philistines can guess the answer within the seven day feast, Samson must provide each of them with one garment of linen and one festal garment. If they cannot answer, they must give Samson a total of thirty linen garments and thirty festal garments.

Three days pass and, on the fourth day, the Philistines start to realize that they aren’t going to figure this riddle out. So they go to the bride and ask her if she “invited us here to impoverish us?” (Judges 14:15).

I have somewhat mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, there’s nothing in the text to suggest that they were compelled to agree to the terms of the riddle. There’s also no reason to blame the bride for what her groom has chosen to do (other than the apparent fact that it is always a woman’s fault).

On the other hand, Samson knew quite well that his riddle is unanswerable. Not only that but, as we’ll find out shortly, he does not have the clothes to pay up should the Philistines win – showing, clearly, that he never expected them to solve the riddle.

So, yeah, he did intend to impoverish them. Or, at the very least, he had intended to profit from his wedding guests.

His wife, now working with her fellow Philistines, pulls the old “if you really loved me” trick, weeping for seven days (consistency error) until, on the last day of the wedding feast, Samson finally gives in and tells her the answer to the riddle. She immediately tells the Philistine guests.

When the Philistines give him the correct answer, he immediately figures out what happened: “If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle” (Judges 14:18).

But he did promise those garments, so the Spirit of the Lord comes to him and he heads off to Ashkelon. There, he kills thirty people, takes their clothes, and uses them to pay off the Philistines’ winnings.

If you’ll remember, Ashkelon was taken by Judah in Judges 1:18. If the continuity is accurate, that means that he just killed a bunch of Israelites to pay off his gambling debt to the Philistines.

A sore loser, Samson gives the Philistines their garments and then goes back to his parents in a huff. Unbeknownst to him, his bride – assuming herself abandoned – decides to make the best of the wedding and marries Samson’s best man instead.

Judges 13: Stirrings of the Lord

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Once again, the people mess up so God gives them over to an enemy – this time choosing the Philistines. On this new enemy, Collins explains:

The people with whom Samson interacts are the Philistines, who were emerging as a power at the same time as Israel. It is unlikely that they had dominion over all the Israelite tribes, but they controlled the coastal plain and came into conflict with the neighboring tribe of Judah. The story of Samson implies that there was considerable coming and going between Judah and Philistia, and a major feature of Samson’s career is his involvement with Philistine women. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 112)

Israel is annoyed by the Philistines for forty years before God, in his angel form, appears to the wife of a man named Manoah – a Danite from Zorah who has no children. God tells this unnamed woman that she will have a son, but that she mustn’t drink wine or any other strong drink, nor eat anything unclean. Once her son is born, she is never to shave his head because he will be a “Nazirite to God from birth” (Judges 13:5).

While the rules given to Manoah’s wife bear some resemblance to the rules regarding Nazirites in Numbers 6, the differences are quite significant. For one thing, the Nazirite vow in Numbers is explicitly a temporary and voluntary condition – taken on, for example, by Manoah’s wife or even Manoah himself, as a way to conceive the child they have so far been unable to have. It would not be a condition imposed upon the child produced by the vow. Nor would its restrictions apply to anyone other than the Nazirite, though Manoah’s wife is the one told that she may not drink alcohol.

Nor – *spoilers* – does the Numbers 6 version have anything to do with strength, though Samson’s superhuman strength is said to have something to do with his uncut hair.

In trying to understand the discrepancy, Collins suggests two possibilities:

It may well be that Samson’s long hair was a folkloric motif related to his strength, and that he was called a nazirite to bring him within the categories of biblical law. Or it 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. Samson does not seem to be concerned with holiness, but he does seem to channel divine power, which is somewhow associated with his hair.  (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 113)

Back to the story, Manoah’s wife tells her husband about her encounter with the angel of God who, at this point, she doesn’t seem to know is god.

Manoah and his wife give a sacrifice, from the Maciejowski Bible, ca. 1250

Manoah and his wife give a sacrifice, from the Maciejowski Bible, ca. 1250

Manoah’s motives aren’t explicitly stated, but he seems rather disconcerted by the fact that God has spoken to his wife and not to him. Apparently in an attempt to establish primacy in the relationship between his family and God, he prays for another visitation, using as an excuse that he needs more instruction regarding what to do with his son-to-be. But God bypasses him yet again, appearing to wife while she is sitting alone in a field.

Dutifully, she rushes to fetch her husband, who comes out to meet with God. Only now is he able to interact with God without his wife’s mediation.

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 king, Miriam’s song of praise, Zipporah’s circumcision of her son, Deborah’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.

In the field, God confirms all that he has told Manoah’s wife, adding only that she can’t even eat anything from a vine (the prohibition extended from just being against consuming wine).

Manoah, apparently pleased with the news, wishes to thank his visitor by offering him a kid. God, however, says that he will not eat the offering in the ordinary way, but that it should instead be offered as a burnt offering instead. Manoah seems confused, and asks for God’s name. On the one hand, it seems that Manoah does not yet realize that he is speaking to a god, though he summoned the second visitation through prayer. Another interpretation is that he doesn’t know which god he is speaking to and wants to know which god to thank once the prophecy is fulfilled.

To this, God rebukes him for asking, saying that his name is either too wonderful or too secret for him to know (depending on the translation). Abbie at Better than Esdras claims that the word used here “actually appears nowhere else in the Bible. So I’m pretty sure they’re just guessing at the meaning.” The episode mirrors Moses’s question in Exodus 3:14, except that God chooses here not to reveal his name.

As per God’s instructions, Manoah prepares a kid for a burnt offering. When he sets the meat aflame, the angel steps onto the altar and ascends with the flame. Predictably, Manoah and his wife fall on their faces.

Seeing that their visitor really is God, Manoah grows very anxious. As per Exod. 33:20, he believes that he must die now that he has seen God’s face. His wife comforts him, arguing that if God had wanted them to die, they’d be dead already. He wouldn’t have accepted their offering. And though she doesn’t say so, it wouldn’t make much sense. If they were to be stricken dead by seeing God, how could they bear the son he predicted?

Closing off the chapter, their son, Samson, is born and we are told that the “Spirit of the Lord began to stir in him” (Judges 13:25) in Mahanehdan.

Old Gods

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In Irish mythological history, the Tuatha Dé Danann are described as a tribe of people with certain supernatural powers. It is believed that, prior to Christian contact, the Tuatha Dé were actually gods, but they were demoted to historical people, predecessors, when the theological climate of Ireland changed.

The story of Jephthah and his daughter reminded me, in a way, of the Tuatha Dé – in that I saw in them some vestiges of gods made human, perhaps as the Israelites moved toward monotheism and the area around Mizpah was assimilated.

It starts with Jephthah being a son of Gilead. This isn’t presented as some nationalist descriptor, in the sense that a U.S. citizen might be described as a “son of America.” Rather, it seems that he is seen as an actual literal son. It’s not uncommon in polytheistic tribal societies personify the tribe as a whole as a single figure or god. Perhaps there was originally a cult of Gilead in the region, of whom Jephthah was a son and lesser god.

Jephthah's Sacrifice, Maciejowski Bible, ca. 1250

Jephthah’s Sacrifice, Maciejowski Bible, ca. 1250

We see this in Genesis where nearly all of the characters appear to be tribal archetypes, and the twelve tribes of Israel are shown to be actual, literal, brothers. I think that there is evidence to suggest to that Judges may be sourced from an older tradition where this personification was still practised, namely the slip in Judges 1:3 where Judah is, for a few sentences, a single character.

There is also often a process of borrowing and trading in religion, where stories might be, over time, attributed to new gods as they spread from place to place. It’s a bit of a stretch, but Jephthah’s refusal to help the Gileadites against the Ammonites without a promise that, if successful, he would be made their leader reminds me of Marduk’s own similar deal when asked to defeat Tiamat, told in the Enuma Elish. Parallels between Genesis and the Enuma Elish have been fairly thoroughly discussed, so I don’t think it’s taking too much of a liberty to say that, at the very least, there was a good deal of sharing between the two cultures.

Then there is Jephthah’s daughter. It seems that Jephthah’s story was included in Judges to explain the origins of a festival in which the women of Israel would spend four days in mourning over his daughter – both her life and, tellingly, her virginity. The tragedy of the story appears to be that she will not bear children – not that she is barren, but that she has not been “ploughed.”

This makes sense if, as J.R. Porter argues, her festival “marked the death of the spirit of fertility during the dry season” (The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p. 69). The fact that she is a virgin, rather than barren, leaves open the possibility of fertility and future pregnancy.

In this sense, Jephthah’s daughter might be a Persephone-like character. Unlike Jephthah’s daughter, Persephone is kidnapped by death (Hades), leading to her mother, Demeter – a harvest goddess – to stop nurturing the land, bringing winter. Through an elaborate story, a deal is eventually struck allowing Persephone to return home for some parts of the year (Spring and Summer) so long as she returns to the Underworld the rest of the year (Autumn and Winter).

In this case, it is her parent himself who sends her to death, though the motif of honouring a vow/deal is still present.

I want to make clear that this is pure on-the-fly conjecture on my part, but I find it interesting to think that Jephthah’s story may have originally been a regional mythic cycle in which a seasonal, civilizing deity conquers the forces of evil but, in exchange, must give up fertility (as his only child, Jephthah’s daughter is the vehicle for Jephthah’s family line’s continuance), bringing in the lean months of winter.

As the cult of YHWH spread and, over time, became monotheistic, local deities were preserved as historical heroes, Jephthah and his daughter among them.

Judges 10-12: Of bastards, bandits, and child sacrifice

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Abimelech is never, as far as I can tell, explicitly called a judge. He is included in the book of Judges, but his narrative could have been intended as a follow-up to Gideon’s story. Here, Judges 10 begins: “After Abimelech there arose to deliver Israel […]” (Judges 10:1). This phrasing is a little ambiguous. Does it mean that the sentence will finish by naming the judge who follows the judge Abimelech, or does it mean that Israel needed saving after Abimelech was through with it?

It’s important because our interpretation informs our idea of what it means to be a judge – is the important point that the individual be a leader appointed by God, or merely a leader?

Following Abimelech, we hear of two judges, called “minor” because they lack the stories of the main judges named in the book:

  1. Tola, son of Puah son of Dodo. Though of Issachar, he lived in Ephraim’s territory. He was judge for 23 years.
  2. Jair of Gilead was judge for 22 years. He had thirty sons who rode thirty asses (*gigglesnort*) and had thirty cities, called Havvothjair.

This isn’t actually our first mention of our friend Jair – in Numbers 32:41, Jair – there listed as a son of Manasseh – attacked and took the villages of Ham, calling them Havvothjair.

Setting the stage

Once again, the people fall into evil, “serving the Baals and the Ashtaroth” (Judges 10:6), as well as the gods of Syria, Sidon, the Ammonites, and the Philistines. As punishment, God sells them into the hands of the Philistines and the Ammonites for 18 years, except they only oppressed the Israelites on the other side of the Jordan. But the Ammonites also cross the Jordan to fight Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim. The narrative is a little confused/confusing.

Whatever God did, it was bad and it involved the Ammonites (and maybe the Philistines?). The people repent and beg God for help.

God, clearly claiming the moral high ground, gives an “I told you so” speech and tells them to go cry to the other gods since they seem to love them so much.

Rags to riches

Meanwhile, we learn about Jephthah. His parentage is a little confused – he is the “son of a harlot” (Judges 11:2), but his father appears to be Gilead himself.

As in Judges 1, it seems that the tribe is appearing in a personified form, here capable of having sons. Yet I’m having trouble finding any information on Gilead as a tribal entity. A quick google search is only telling me that it’s a region – not a tribe. Yet in Judges, it seems that it is used instead of Gad. This is clearly something that I will have to look into more.

Father issues aside, Jephthah, as a bastard, is cast out from his home when his ‘natural born’ brothers reach adulthood. Denied a share of his father’s inheritance, he turns to a life of crime – becoming some sort of bandit king in Tob.

Though the Ammonites make war against Israel (Judges 11:4), only Gilead seems particularly affected. Once again, we see what appears to be a local story clumsily edited to appear national.

So the elders of Gilead come to Jephthah, because for some reason he is the only person capable of defeating the Ammonites. Jephthah jumps at the change to gloat now that his brothers have come grovelling.

It’s a little unclear whose idea it is, but somehow everyone agrees that Jephthah will come to fight the Ammonites and, when he wins, he will become the leader of Gilead (Judges 11:8-10).

With that, he ties on his bandanna and moves out.

Confronting the Ammonites

Interestingly, Jephthah doesn’t just charge into battle as other judges have done. Rather, he first tries talking to the Ammonites, to understand why they are being such meanies. It reminds me of Joshua 22, where the altar-builders are asked why they’ve built the altar and given the chance to explain.

The Ammonites claim that the Israelites, on coming out of Egypt, took their land. Their campaign, then, is merely to reclaim the lands that had previously been theirs. They ask that Jephthah hand it over peaceably.

Jephthah denies their complaint, arguing that Israel hasn’t taken land from either the Moabites or the Ammonites (which would be in keeping with Deut. 2:19, 37). Rather, he explains, they asked for passage through Edom and Moab, were denied, so they went around. They stayed on the other side of the Arnon, which means that they can’t have touched the Moabites. The Israelites then sent word to King Sihon of the Amorites in Heshbon asking for passage. Rather than simply refusing, the Amorites attacked, Israel won, and they took possession of Amorite lands. It is this land, from the Arnon to the Jabbok, that they took – Amorite land, not Ammonite.

If Jephthah’s story sounds familiar, it’s probably because we saw something similar in Numbers 20-22. But not all of those chapters are quoted. In fact, if we subscribe to the Documentary Hypothesis, it seems that the authors of Jephthah had access to only one of the sources that went into Numbers 20-22.

Abbie has a discussion of the sources used up on Better Than Esdras (she even has a chart!).

Jephthah continues: The Israelites own the land that they are on because they were taken in battle and because God says so (Judges 11:23). “Will you not posses what Chemosh your god gives you to posses?” (Judges 11:24), he asks. Perhaps the question means “what would you do in our place? Wouldn’t you hold on to land given to you by your god?” Though I have also seen Jephthah’s argument interpreted to mean that they should go inhabit the land that their god is strong enough to give them rather than bothering the Israelites (in other words, make it a battle between gods rather than between people).

Regardless, it’s a bit of a strange thing to say because, according to my study Bible, “Chemosh was the god of the Moabites, not the Ammonites, whose chief god was called Milcom (or Molech)” (p.310).

Besides, continues Jephthah, do the Ammonites think themselves better than Balak son of Zippor (who, here, is either the king of Moab or the son of a king, though I don’t believe that any mention was made of this in Balak’s story in Numbers 22-24). Balak didn’t go to war against Israel, so why do the Ammorites think that they have the right to?

Jephthah’s final argument is that Israel has now been living in the area for three hundred years, so why have the Ammorites waited so long to lay claim to it? So much time has passed that they can now be considered aggressors, not defenders. I found this argument a little shocking given the relationship between modern Israel and Palestine, and I wonder how this passage is received by those involved in that conflict.

The Ammorites are having nothing of Jephthah’s arguments. So at this point, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” (Judges 11:29), prompting him to go on the attack.

Predictably, he fights the Ammonites and wins “with a very great slaughter” (Judges 11:33).

Jephthah’s daughter

When he is filled with the Spirit of the Lord, Jephthah vows that if he is successful in his campaign, he will offer up as a sacrifice the first person who comes out of his house to green him when he returns (Judges 11:30-31).

Lament of Jephthah's Daughter, by Narcisse Diaz de la Pena, 1846

Lament of Jephthah’s Daughter, by Narcisse Diaz de la Pena, 1846

When he returns, the first person he sees is his daughter – an only child – who emerges dancing with a timbrel to greet him. Jephthah, in his grief, rends his clothes. His daughter reassures him, insisting that he must fulfil his vow. Only, she asks for two months in which to wander the mountains with her companions and bewail her virginity.

At the end of the two months, she returns and Jephthah fulfils his vow. It is in her honour that, says the text, “the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year” (Judges 11:40).

In reading about this chapter, I’ve come across the argument that this story was intended to serve as a warning against making rash vows. However, he makes his vow after he is entered by the Spirit of the Lord.

As Collins puts it:

While the story in Judges certainly appreciates the tragedy of the outcome, there is no hint that Jephthah did wrong either by making the vow (for which he was rewarded with victory) or in fulfilling it. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 112)

It seems to me that the story serves simply to explain the origins of a particular holiday – the four days a year that women in Israel honour Jephthah’s daughter’s virginity (bemoaned because, as a virgin, she has had no children and therefore her death marks the end of Jephthah’s line).

The story also seems to take for granted that human sacrifice is a thing that is done, despite later condemnations of the practice. Abraham and Isaac’s story suggests the same, though in that story the human sacrifice is made unnecessary by replacing the victim with an animal.

That is, of course, if sacrifice is really what is meant here. There are some who argue that the “sacrifice” was that Jephthah’s daughter would be consecrated as a nun, though I don’t know if there is any evidence for virginal/celibate female monastic orders in ancient Palestine. Tim Bulkeley provides an explanation of this argument. Personally, I think it’s a bit of a stretch motivated by a desire to bring this story in line with later theology.

Ephraim at it again

As in Gideon’s story in Judges 8:1, Ephraim is angry that Jephthah fought the Ammonites without them. Unlike Gideon, who had simply attacked, Jephthah claims that he did actually ask for help, but that the Ephraimites had refused to come to Gilead’s aid while they were being harassed. It is because Ephraim hadn’t protected Gilead that Jephthah had had to take care of business himself.

That’s the first we’re hearing of this, of course. Perhaps in the first the Ephraimites are hearing of it too! I suspect that the editor of Jephthah’s story added this detail to justify his later actions.

Because, unlike Gideon who mollified Ephraim, Jephthah just goes ahead and attacks them.

During the attack, the Gileadites guard all the fords on the Jordan, preventing the Ephraimites from escaping. Anyone who attempted to cross the ford would be questioned, asked if they were Ephraimites. If they said no, they were then asked to prove it by saying “Shibboleth” (or “ear of grain”). Since the Ephraimites apparently speak a different dialect, they are unable to pronounce the ‘sh-‘ and instead say “Sibboleth,” betraying their identity. It’s quite a little bit of linguistic detail!

All told, the Gileadites kill 42,000 Ephraimites – or, as Victor Matthews argues, they kill “forty-two eleph of the enemies. Though most translations render this as forty-two “thousand,” an eleph is more likely a designation for a military unit” (Manners & Customs in the Bible, p.59). Either way, quite a high number.

A few more minor judges

Jephthah rules for six years before he dies. He is followed by three more minor judges:

  1. Ibzan of Bethlehem, who is said to have had thirty sons and thirty daughters, all of whom he married to people outside of his own clan. He was judge for seven years.
  2. Elon the Zebulunite was judge for ten years.
  3. Abdon, the son of Hillel the Pirathonite, had forty sons and thirty grandsons who, altogether, rode on seventy asses. He was judge for 8 years.

I don’t know what the significance is of the asses in the record of Abdon and Jair. Does anyone have any ideas?

Judges 9: On power plays and death curses

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For this chapter, Gideon has fully transformed into his Jerubbaal form. While Gideon refused kingship in Judges 8:23, Jerubbaal, it seems, took it. Or, perhaps we misunderstood Gideon’s words in Judges 8:23, and he was actually making a theological point rather than a refusal. Sort of a “yes, I’ll wear the crown, but God will be your true king” sort of thing.

Abimelech, one of Jerubbaal’s bastard sons – born of a concubine (Judges 8:31) or slave/servant (Judges 9:18) – decides that perhaps he should inherit his father’s title after Jerubbaal’s passing. But first, he needs supporters.

Abimelech travels to Shechem, where his mother’s family is from.

I find it rather curious that Shechem has had so many mentions both in Joshua and Judges – far more than a site I would have assumed would have had more importance, like Jerusalem. I found it especially surprising because, prior to this project, I’d never heard of it.

My study Bible says of the city that it was “the most important city and sanctuary in north central Palestine. It guarded the important east and west highway which passed between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim” (p.305). Baalberith, the god the people began worshipping in Judges 8:33 and who will make an appearance in a couple verses, is, according to my study Bible, named “the lord of the covenant” and was “the god of Shechem.” It’s significant that this is also, if you’ll recall, where Joshua’s covenant ceremony took place in Joshua 24.

It’s also worth noting that Abimelech’s name  means “my father, the king,” and is the perfect name for someone “claiming the inherited right to rule (wiki). It was also, according to the same source, a common name among Philistine kings. You will probably remember another Abimelech who slept with both Sarah (Abraham’s wife) and Rebekah (Isaac’s wife).

Back to the story, Abimelech asks his mother’s family to sow dissent, telling them to go out and ask everyone “What is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal rule over you, or that one rule over you?” (Judges 9:2). He compels them to work on his campaign by reminding them of their blood tie.

The campaign works and Abimelech soon has Shechem on his side. They even fund his efforts, giving him seventy pieces of silver from the temple of Baalberith (one for each of Jerubbaal’s sons?), which he uses to hire “worthless and reckless fellows” (Judges 9:4).

The Rise of Abimelech, by Kevin Rolly

The Rise of Abimelech, by Kevin Rolly

Abimelech then travels to Ophrah (Gideon’s home-base in Judges 6) and kills all seventy of his brothers. Well, except that Jerubbaal had seventy sons of which Abimelech himself was one, so that would leave only 69 brothers. Also, he missed one. Jotham, Jerubbaal’s youngest, hides like the son of Gideon that he is, and thereby escapes death.

The people of Shechem, now joined by the people of Bethmillo who are never mentioned again, gather by the oak pillar at Shechem to name Abimelech their king. It was under this same oak that Joshua set up a large stone after composing his book of law (Josh. 24:26).

Jotham returns one last time, standing atop Mount Gerizim and yelling some weird parable about Ents choosing a king. The olive tree, fig tree, and vine all refuse the title, but the bramble accepts it on condition that the offer is sincerely made. If not, warns the bramble, “let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon” (Judges 9:15).

If that’s too trippy for you, Jotham helpfully spells it out – Abimelech, as a bastard, is as lowly and useless as a bramble, and if the offer of kingship is not sincerely made, then Abimelech and Shechem will both be destroyed.

With this, Jotham drops his mic and goes back into hiding. Clearly, his parentage is beyond doubt.

Big Trouble In Little Shechem

Abimelech rules Israel for three years. Notice that the text specifically says Israel in Judges 9:22, even though the story is very clearly focused on the Shechem region.

Indeed, when trouble begins to brew, it is the “men of Shechem” (Judges 9:23) who are divided from Abimelech, not the men of Israel.

Though God is otherwise quite absent from this story, he does get the credit for Shechem’s dissent, having sent “an evil spirit” (Judges 9:23) between Abimelech and the city. This is explained as punishment for the murder of Abimelech’s brothers (Abimelech for doing it, Shechem for giving him the means). Interestingly, it is not punishment for, say, being associated with Baalberith (Judges 9:4).

After this, the narrative gets a little hectic. As best as I can figure, the Shechemites take to banditry, but it’s also a covert attack on Abimelech himself (Judges 9:25).

Then Gaal, son of Ebed, moves to Shechem. He and the Shechemites harvest their grapes, tread on them, celebrate, go to the house of their god (unspecified), and “reviled Abimelech” (Judges 9:27). I can’t figure out what the significance is of the pastoral backdrop, except perhaps that we’re supposed to understand that Gaal is winning over the Shechemites by working with them, or perhaps that the Shechemites are drunken to the point of suggestibility by their post-harvest revelry.

Gaal incites the Shechemites by asking why they should serve Abimelech. Didn’t Abimelech’s father Jerubbaal and his officer Zebul both “serve the men of Hamor the father of Shechem?” (Judges 9:28) I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. The only other reference I can find to Hamor is way back in Genesis 34, when Jacob is staying near Shechem and Hamor’s son rapes/has sex with Jacob’s daughter Dinah. I’m assuming that the mention here refers to some story that has not been included in the text.

At least we find out who Zebul is fairly quickly – he is “the ruler of the city” (Judges 9:30). Presumably, Abimelech is ruling the region (or all of Israel), and Zebul is his officer appointed to Shechem. Indeed, we will soon find out that Abimelech’s court is in Arumah.

So Zebul finds out about Gaal’s grumblings, and he sends word to Abimelech. He tells Abimelech to hide in the fields around Shechem at night and, in the morning, rush the city. If all goes according to plan, Gaal and his supporters will rush out to meet him and then Abimelech “may do to them as occasion offers” (Judges 9:33).

Abimelech follows his officer’s instructions. When Gaal spots his army, he tells Zebul, but Zebul insists that he must just be seeing things. But when Gaal insists, Zebul says “I thought you said Abimelech was just a nobody. If he’s just a nobody, go out and face him!”

Goaded, Gaal rushes out, is defeated, flees, and many die. His work done, Abimelech goes back to Arumah and Zebul casts Gaal’s family out of Shechem.

The next day, people go out into the fields, so Abimelech slays them. He then takes Shechem, razes it, and sows it with salt. None of this is really explained, except insofar as it was predicted by Jotham’s parable.

The survivors of Shechem hide in the temple of Elberith (Judges 9:46). It’s worth noting that no one in this story appears to be especially concerned with YHWH. Abimelech turned to Baalberith for support, and the Shechemites turn to Elberith for protection. Jotham and Gaal’s faiths are never mentioned. The only mention we really get of YHWH is the note that he is the one who turns Shechem and Abimelech against each other as punishment for the slaying of Gideon’s other sons.

Abimelech, once compared to brambles, goes to Mount Zalmon and collects a bunch of brushwood, which he then uses to set the temple of Elberith on fire, killing the thousand men and women inside.

For no particular reason, he then heads out to Thebez and makes to burn them down as well, but a woman throws a millstone down from the battlements of the tower and it lands on Abimelech’s head, crushing his skull. Dying, he begs his amour-bearer to kill him so that no one can say that he was killed by a woman (an interesting mirroring of Jael’s work in Judges 4).

As the chapter concludes, we are told that this was all part of Jotham’s curse. The end.

Judges 6-8: Gideon’s 300

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Israel was at rest for forty years, presumably under Deborah as judge. At the end of that time, the cycle resets and God gives the Israelites over to Midian for seven years. The Midianites, who are suddenly joined by the Amalekites and miscellaneous eastern peoples, harass the Israelites so much that they build “dens” (Judges 6:2) in the mountains – defensible caves and strongholds. They harass the Israelites, and come through with so many people and cattle that they are “like locusts” (Judges 6:5), both in number and in the effect they have on the land. They’ve apparently bounced back quite admirably from the culling they received Num. 31:7, 16-17.

The situation is so terrible that it prompts God to give a big lecture and then he appoints his new judge, Gideon.

Gideon’s appointment story reminded me a lot of Moses’s call from Exodus 3. First, there’s the presence of Midianites (though in Moses’s case, of course, he was rather friendly with them). But the real connection is that Gideon is the first “hero” called since Moses who goes through the refusal stage of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. The idea behind the refusal is that only a narcissist would accept becoming God’s Special BFF without protest. An initial refusal of the position demonstrates humility, therefore signifying to the audience that the hero is worthy of the position.

Gideon is visited by a figure who is alternately God and an angel of God – something we saw a bit of in Genesis, such as Gen. 16:10-11 and Gen. 22:11, then again in Balaam’s story in Numbers 22, and then not again until Judges.

This angel sits under an oak at Ophrah, on land belonging to Joash the Abiezrite. Gideon, his son, was beating out wheat in the wine press instead of out in the open “to hide it from the Midianites” (Judges 6:11).

Right from the start, Gideon challenges God. When the angel tells him that “the Lord is with you” (Judges 6:12), Gideon asks how that can be when the situation is so terrible. What happened, he asks, to the great deeds of the exodus? To which God replies, “do not I send you?” (Judges 6:14). That got a good chuckle out!

Gideon proceeds to make various excuses for why he can’t possibly be the deliverer of the Israelites – the Abiezrites are the weakest clan in Manasseh, and he has the lowest status within it. It reminded me of all the excuses Moses made when faced with a similar situation. God, however, still maintains that Gideon will do fine because he will have God at his side.

Still unsure, Gideon (who clearly never read Deut. 6:16) proposes a test and asks the angel/God to hang around for a bit. He runs off and prepares a meal, then brings it back to the where the angel/God is still waiting under the tree, offering the meal. God tells him to put the meal on a rock and to pour broth over it. That done, God touches it with the tip of his staff and it bursts into flame. The miraculous fire at the time of the call is another connection to the Moses story – and I wonder if the pouring of the broth over the food is intended to give the miracle a little more oomph, since it would pre-emptively shoot down any objections that perhaps Gideon’s meatloaf is just so dry that it spontaneously combusts like underbrush in a drought. Though the parameters of the test were never stated, this seems to satisfy Gideon – for now.

Unfortunately, it satisfies him too well, and Gideon freaks out as it dawns on him that he has seen God face-to-face (this being a death sentence, as per Exod. 33:20). God reassures him – “Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die” (Judges 6:23).

Altar Real Estate

Like the patriarchs of Genesis, Gideon builds an altar that “to this day still stands at Ophrah” (Judges 6:24) on the spot where he communed with God. Details like this and the references to the “angel of the Lord” make me wonder if this story may not have originated from the same tradition that later birthed Genesis. Certainly, it seems that the bulk of the story comes from a very different set of traditions than the other books we’ve read so far.

Now that God has his altar at Ophrah, he asks Gideon to pull down his father’s altar to Ball and cut down his father’s Asherah – two separate monuments to two separate gods located on the same real estate.

The wording is a little confusing, but it seems that Gideon uses one of his father’s bulls to do this work, then builds (another?) altar to God, then sacrifices a second of his father’s bulls using the wood from the Asherah. I’m not sure whether these are two separate bulls, or if Joash’s second best bull is being used to both purposes.

I was somewhat shocked that God would ask Gideon to use the wood from the Asherah to build the sacrificial pyre since it would have been consecrated to another God. There’s no mention of, for example, reusing the materials from Baal’s altar in the building of the new one. I haven’t looked into it, but I’ve heard whispers that Asherah may have been proto-God’s consort before Judaism got all monotheistic. I’m just using a little wild conjecture but, if that’s the case, is it possible that using wood from an Asherah was at one time part of how sacrifices were supposed to be made to God, at least in a particular region?

Gideon, who seems to be depicted truly as the “least” (Judges 6:15). When we first see him, he is working in hiding, then demurs from God’s call, and now is willing destroy his father’s altars only under the cover at night for fear of his family and the townsfolk.

In the morning, the townsfolk see what happen and tell Joash to bring out his son. Despite the fact that Gideon had worked at night for fear of his family and the fact that the altars were his fathers, Joash seems quite firmly on Team Gideon.

He faces the mob, and he says: “If he [Baal] is a god, let him content for himself” (Judges 6:31) – a message that I truly wish were preached from the pulpit a bit more often. It seems to work because the townsfolk are not mentioned again.

Even though Joash is the one who says this, we are told that this is how Gideon earns his new name – Jerubbaal, which means “Let Baal content against him” (Judges 6:32).

On this name, my study Bible says:

The explanation given of the name Jerubbaal is not the natural one; the bearer of such a name was certainly a worshiper of Baal, not an antagonist.

This leads me to wonder if perhaps this portion of the story wasn’t invented to explain away a name that was associated with Gideon.

Abbie from Better Than Esdras asks, in a similar vein, if perhaps Gideon might not have originated as a Canaanite folk hero.

The Battle

With enemies amassing, “the Spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon” (Judges 6:34), which I assume is just another way of saying that he girded his loins.

Gideon calls out to Asher, Zebulun, Naphtali, and the rest of Manassehfor help. Before moving out, however, Gideon wants to make absolutely sure that God will be with him. Rather than simply asking for confirmation, he instead sets up a new test.

First, Gideon sets out a fleece of wool and tells God that, in the morning, the fleece should be wet with dew but not the ground around it. On the second morning, the fleece should be dry while the ground is wet. God abides.

Convinced, Gideon/Jerubbaal assembles his army and gets ready to head out. This time, it’s God’s turn to have reservations. He’s concerned that the gathered army of 32,000 men is too impressive – when they win, they will surely think that it was their number that won the battle and not God.

God would like the defeat of the Midianites (who are sporadically accompanied by Amalekites and assorted eastern peoples) to be an obvious miracle, so he proposes tests to reduce the number of soldiers in Gideon’s army.

  1. Anyone who is fearful is told to head home. This leaves only 10,000 soldiers, but the number is still too high for God’s liking.
  2. God has Gideon send the soldiers down to the river and take a drink. Those who lap at the water with their tongues like a dog may remain, while those who kneel to drink must go home. This leaves the 300 most savage and uncivilized Israelites – Gideon’s very own 300.

Timid Gideon who prefers hiding in wine presses and in the dark of night is woken in the wee hours and told to attack. Anticipating that he’ll object, God pre-empts any further testing and just tells Gideon to take his servant, Purah, and eavesdrop on the Midianite camp.

There, Gideon overhears two men talking. One of them has had a dream wherein a cake of barley bread tumbled into camp and crushed a tent. His friend interprets the dream, seeing the barley bread as a stand-in for Joshua’s sword. Because nothing says “sword” like a loaf of bread shaped to tumble.

My study Bible helpfully supplements this interpretation – the barley bread is a symbol of a settled, agrarian society (the Israelites), while the tent symbolises a nomadic culture (which the Midianites apparently are).

What follows is a bit of trickery – or, at least, I read it as such. I get the sense from both Better Than Esdras (where it is described as “SO WEIRD”) and Both Saint and Cynic (who refers to the Israelite army being “armed with pottery jars” but makes no reference to their purpose) that perhaps this is not the obvious interpretation I thought it was.

The Israelites position themselves in companies on different sides of the Midianite encampment perimeter. They all carry trumpets and torches, but the torches are kept inside jars. Once they are in position, they smash the jars and blow the trumpets. In my interpretation, the strategy here is to use the jars to hide the light from the torches during the approach (depending on the shape of these jars, it could allow for a focused beam of light so that the soldiers can see where they are going without being seen by the Midianites). When they smash the jars, the torches are revealed. Combined with their positions and the blowing of the trumpets, they would give the illusion that their number is far greater, which is what scares the Midianites, prompting them to flee.

The text implies that all the Midianites flee and that there is no actual battle at this point.

Ephraim’s Victory

With the Midianites fleeing, Gideon sends word to Ephraim to kill off the deserters coming their way. The Ephraimites manage to capture two Midianite chieftains, Oreb and Zeeb. They kill Oreb at a rock of the same name, and Zeeb at a winepress of the same name.

But all of this happens after something of a river-hopping chase. Being unfamiliar with the geography, I noticed nothing strange about the description of the movements. Abbie, from Better Than Esdras, however, did a little more research than I:

The Midianites flee. The average reader wouldn’t realize it, but the OSE [Oxford Study Bible] editors note that the places they flee to are all east of the Jordan (outside of Canaan). If you’ve been paying ANY attention you’ll know all the action has taken place in Ephraim, west of the Jordan. So, logically, the Midianites have crossed the Jordan. TAKE NOTE OF THIS.

[She then quotes Judges 7:24-25]

See any problems? The Ephraimites are trying to prevent the Midianites from crossing the Jordan… and apparently they succeed (the fords are held, right?) But the Midianites, we know from their locations, just crossed the river. Major, major contradictions here. And then what is up with the king’s heads? Which side of the river are they even headed towards? HAHAHA.

How to solve these contradictions? Sift out the sources. After a lot of puzzlement, here is my FINAL ANSWER. I believe that the main text of chapter 7 ends abruptly partway through verse 22. Then, 7:22b-7:24 is a short bridge, drawn from several fragments. Finally, 7:25-8:3 is a cohesive insert. The text beginning 8:4 apparently continues the main story from Chapter 7.

The chieftains dispatched, the Ephraimites turn on Gideon, angry that they were not called in to the war efforts earlier. Gideon mollifies them by arguing that the capture of Oreb and Zeeb was a greater victory than the ruse at the Midianite camp.

Zebah and Zalmunna

Gideon and his 300 men pursue two more chieftains, Zebah and Zalmunna (or, more likely, origin stories for locations known as Oreb and Zeeb got associated with the story of Gideon’s triumph over Midian and something to do with two kings, and we’re seeing two very different versions of the same story).

Bataille de Gédéon contre les Madianites, by Nicolas Poussin, 1625-1626

Bataille de Gédéon contre les Madianites, by Nicolas Poussin, 1625-1626

The soldiers are exhausted, so they stop at Succoth and ask for bread. The residents of Succoth refuse, saying that Gideon hasn’t yet caught Zebah and Zalmunna (which I see some people interpret as a taunt, though I saw it as choosing the side they anticipate will be the winner, having seen how much smaller Gideon’s army is). Furious, Gideon tells them that he’s busy right now, but when the chieftains are caught, he’ll come back and flay the people of Succoth with thorns and briars.

Still hungry, the Israelites stop in Penuel and the same thing happens, only this time Gideon says that he will return and break down their tower.

Eventually, the 301 Israelites catch up to Zebah, Zalmunna, and their 15,000 men in Karkor. Gideon’s army attacks and wins. This is clearly not the timid Gideon we’ve seen so far who hides in the shadows. Rather, the Gideon of this portion of the story resembles more the Israelite-hero-who-kills-everything archetype we’ve seen so much of.

He returns to Succoth with his two prisoners and confronts a young man they find from the city. The young man – under what conditions it is not described – gives up the names of Succoth’s 77 elders. Gideon confronts the elders, presenting his captive chieftains, and then “taught the men of Succoth” (Judges 8:16) by flaying them, as promised, with his thorns and briars. He then moves on to Penuel and takes down their tower, slaying their men too, for good measure.

I think it’s rather clear that there was a story in which Gideon asked for help from a town, was rejected, and then got revenge, though different areas had attributed it to different towns. These two divergent threads were then stitched back into the same narrative by the Judges editor.

Having shown off Zebah and Zalmunna to his enemies, Gideon then questions them about men they killed at Tabor. To chieftains confess to having killed them, and Gideon reveals that “they were my brothers, the sons of my mother” (Judges 8:19). Wait, what??

According to J.R. Porter:

[Gideon] seems to have been originally a simple folk-hero of a small clan group, who was remembered as one who upheld the fundamental social institution of the blood-feud by slaughtering the two kings of Midian who had killed his brothers (Judg. 8.18-21). (The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p. 68)

In other words, there seems to have been a story where, instead of being called by God to liberate the Israelites, Gideon was instead on a personal quest for revenge. I wonder if Gideon and Jerubbaal might not have originally been separate figures who were combined at some point, and then given an origin story that better fit with the Judges pattern of judges being elected to free Israel from the hands of some enemy.

That the story had originally been of revenge rather that freedom is the only way that I can see to explain his reaction when the chieftains confess to the killing: “if you had saved them alive, I would not slay you” (Judges 8:19). I don’t think we have any example of the hero from a freedom narrative sparing the enemy leaders, but in the context of a blood feud, Gideon would have no basis for killing them if his brothers still lived.

At first, Gideon tells his eldest son, Jether, to kill the chieftains (wait, if he was the “least” in his family back in Judges 6, does that mean that his status was lower, even, than his own son? How on earth did literalphilia ever become a thing?). Jether, taking after his dad, refuses, and the text tells us that it’s because he was so young. Surprisingly, he is not stricken down or killed for his refusal, and Gideon simply does the job himself.

Monarchy and Heresy

Having seen him in action, the Israelites ask Gideon to become their king, and for his position to be hereditary. Gideon refuses (Judges 8:23).

He does, however, ask a favour of his soldiers – he asks them all to give him the gold earrings they had taken from their enemies, who have suddenly transformed from Midianites to Ishmaelites. These, he melts down with the crescent jewellery he’d taken from the Midianite kings, and uses the gold to build an ephod. This he sets up in Ophrah, presumably near the (two) altar(s) he made for God.

The Ishmaelites, if you’ll remember, are the descendants of Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, whom he abandoned in the wilderness. He is considered by Muslims to be the father of Arabs. It struck me that the text should associate these Ishmaelites with crescents twice, that symbol being today associated with Islam.

Wikipedia confounds any conclusions I might draw from this, however, as it seems to have been a symbol in use around the Ancient Near East.

The building of the ephod turns out to be a rather bad idea because “all Israel played the harlot after it, there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family” (Judges 8:27).

Thing is, we have no idea what an ephod is.

Brant Clements discusses the object:

Previously we encountered the word in reference to a priestly garment (Exodus 25:7). That doesn’t seem to be what Gideon made.No, Gideon made some kind of object of worship (an idol). I suspect that, like the priestly garment, it may have been used for divination, but that’s just speculation on my part. Whatever it was, Gideon’s ephod was problematic because people worshiped it.

The Israelites have forty years of rest under Gideon, during which time he has seventy sons via many wives. One, Abimelech, was born of a concubine. We’ll hear more about him later.

When Gideon dies, the Israelites turn to Baalberith as their god.

Judges 4-5: On the dangers of camping equipment

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Judges 4 and Judges 5 retell essentially the same story – that of our only female judge, Deborah. The story in Judge 4 is told in prose form, while the story in Judge 5 is a song/poem supposedly sung by two of the principle characters as a summary of the events that have recently transpired. In that sense, it’s quite like Miriam’s song in Exodus 15.

Since the two cover much of the same ground, I will be following the Judges 4 account and only reference Judges 5 as interests me at the relevant points in the story.

The story takes up after Ehud’s death (skipping over poor Shamgar and his ox-goad), when God sells the people into the hands of King Jabin of the Canaanites. King Jabin, as I am certain you recall, was killed by Joshua in Josh. 11:10-11.

But not so fast, contradiction thumpers! Claude Mariottini has an alternative explanation:

In Joshua 11:1-14 Jabin appears as the king of Hazor who formed a confederacy of Canaanite kings to fight against Joshua and the people of Israel. In Judges 4:2, Jabin appears as a king of Canaan whose kingdom was in Hazor. For this reason, scholars believe that Jabin was a throne name for the kings of Hazor.

Or, of course, it’s possible that the author(s) of Joshua simply ascribed to him all the heroic conquest-related deeds that they’d heard of, which included some that had originally been told of local heroes, called ‘judges’ in this book.

This King Jabin has been oppressing the Israelites for 20 years with the help of his commander, Sisera. It is Sisera who plays the part of arch-nemesis to our intrepid heroes in these chapters, and he is certainly a worthy opponent. We are told that Sisera had nine hundred iron chariots! Nine hundred! Iron chariots, if you’ll remember from Judges 1:19, are the super weapon that even an army with God on its side can’t stand against.

The Song of Deborah is a little less clear on the aggressor-victim dichotomy, perhaps having been spared, by virtue of its poetic flow, the editing hand that has been making all these heroic stories conform to the ‘a) the people sin, b) God leaves them, c) God takes pity, d) a judge rises, e) the judge brings peace, f) it all starts again’ narrative pattern.

And so we are told of God marching out, causing the mountains to quake before him. And we’re told of the caravans ceasing in the days of Shamgar (yes, he does get a mention in Judges 5, though the preceding chapter seems never to have heard of him), implying perhaps that it was the Israelites who were raiding caravans.

It’s not clear and, frankly, the language is so awkward that I had trouble following it. It’s Collins who clued me in that there might be a difference between the two accounts:

According to Judges 4, the Lord delivered Israel into the hand of King Jabin of Hazor. One might assume, then, that Jabin was the oppressor. The song in chapter 5, however, gives a different impression, as it boasts that the Israelites were successfully plundering the caravan routes. The battle that ensued was not a war of liberation but simply a clash between two groups that had competing economic interests. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 110)

Enter Deborah

We are told of Deborah, Ephraimite prophetess and the wife of Lappidoth. We are told that she was “judging Israel at that time” (Judges 4:4) from under a palm between Ramah and Bethel, where the people would come to her for judgement.

I noted as I was reading that the situation looks just like a government seating, in which a leader (a king, chief, or elder) would hear petitions and arbitrate. But it struck me that this was being done under a palm tree – not in a courthouse, or a divan, or even at the city gates.

It changed the tone, and the image I got was less “sanctioned official of the law” and more “wise woman in the woods who has popular authority but not legal authority.” Claude Mariottini seems to agree:

Since Deborah would not have fit into the traditional social and legal structures of Israel and since she could not act as a judge at the city gate, she probably performed her role at another place and in another setting: under a palm tree.

It’s strange, both that she is unique as a female judge and that she seems to be operating outside of the normal social structure. In the words of God himself:

Verily, I have never divined what it was about the ancient Jews’ rigidly patriarchal polygamous society that made it so hard for its female chattel to succeed therein; Especially since women were regarded as clean, uncursed, and fit to appear in public nearly three-quarters of the time. (The Last Testament, Javerbaum. p.120)

Deborah summons Barak, a military leader. Whatever her seat under the palm tree may suggest, her ability to muster Israel’s armies certainly does give her an aura of formally recognized authority.

When she summons Barak son of Abinoam, of the tribe of Naphtali, she tells him in the prose version to gather together soldiers from Naphtali and Zebulun.

In the verse, she has him summon Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir (apparently another name for Manasseh), Zebulun, Issachar, and Naphtali. The Transjordan tribes, Reuben and Gilead (apparently another name for Gad), and the coastal tribes of Dan and Asher refused to come. Judah, Simeon, and Levi get no mention at all.

And then there’s Meroz. According to Collins:

The song singles out the otherwise unknown Meroz to be cursed, because its inhabitants did not come to the aid of the Lord. The song suggests that there was an alliance of tribes who worshipped YHWH. There was some obligation of mutual defense, but there are no sanctions against the tribes that did not show up, with the exception of Meroz (which may not have been a tribe at all). The alliance did not extend to all twelve tribes. The omission of Judah is significant. The bond between Judah and the northern tribes was weak, and this eventually led to the separation of the two kingdoms after the death of Solomon.

Judah is included in the Blessing of Moses in Deuteronomy 33, but there Simeon is missing. It would seem that the number twelve was not as stable in the premonarchic period as is often supposed. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.104)

As long as you follow

When given his instructions, Barak is unsure. He says: “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go” (Judges 4:8).

According to Claude Mariottini, all of this has to do with the belief that God is with Deborah:

Barak was so convinced that Deborah was sent by God that he refused to go into battle without her presence, since her presence with the army would insure the presence of God with Israel and victory against the enemies.

In response, Deborah agrees to go, but she tells Barak that “the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9). This, according to Mariottini, is so unthinkable that it would constitute proof that God really was involved in the victory.

It’s strange, because my impression when reading was the tonal opposite of what Mariottini sees. In my mind, Barak’s request that Deborah come along was a challenge – he was essentially challenging her legitimacy as a leader when, as a woman, she would not even be going into battle. She rebukes him, not only agreeing to go into battle, but then also taking away (by virtue of her connections with the Big Office) his glory in the endeavour, putting the victory into female hands.

It was the “the road on which you are going” phrasing that framed it for me, I think. What could that refer to, if not to Barak’s questioning of God/Deborah’s will in the matter, and his imposition of conditions upon his obedience to God/Deborah’s command?

Either way, they head off with their army (whatever its tribal composition), and Sisera takes the bait. In the Judges 5 version, a storm causes the Kishon river to sweep away Sisera’s army (presumably miring those terrifying iron chariots).

Seeing the tide of battle and river turn against him, Sisera jumps down from his chariot and runs off on foot.

In Jael’s tent

We are told of Heber the Kenite. Here, again, we are told that the Kenites are descended from Moses’s father-in-law (here called Hobab, which agrees with Num. 10:29. He is called Reuel in Exod. 2:18-21, and Jethro in Exod. 3:1, 4:18, 18:1, and 18:5). This matches their stated origin in Judges 1:16, though it creates problems in light of their clearly pre-dating Hobab (as they were mentioned in Gen. 15:18-21).

Jael and Sisera, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Jael and Sisera, by Artemisia Gentileschi

This Heber has separated from the rest of the Kenites and settled near Kedesh, where the battle is taking place. We are told, also, that there was peace between Heber and King Jabin, so when Sisera saw their camp, he must have thought that he would find asylum.

Instead of meeting Heber, however, he met Heber’s wife, Jael. She invites him into her tent and, in the Judges 4 version, hides him under a rug.

Before long, Sisera asks her for a drink of water, and she brings him milk instead (in both version of the story). In the poetic version, she also brings him “curds in a lordly bowl” (Judges 5:25). Sisera then asks her to stand guard at the door and to tell anyone who asks that she is alone.

In Judges 4, Sisera is exhausted (presumably from his battle and subsequent flight from such), and he falls asleep. Jael takes the opportunity to jam a tent peg into his skull with a hammer so hard that the peg comes out the other side and is driven into the ground. Even more badass, she apparently does it while he is awake in the Judges 5:27 account.

Having murdered Sisera, Jael goes out to meet Barak and shows him the body. For this, she is the “most blessed of women” (Judges 5:24), and fulfils Deborah’s earlier prophecy.

There are a few difficulties with Jael’s story. For one thing, I’m pretty sure that murdering their military commander qualifies as a violation of a peace agreement. Not only that, but she murdered a guest in her home – something that seems rather clearly to be a huge no-no in her cultural milieu. It seems that she opportunistically chose to back the winners. None of this is addressed in the text, she is simply lauded for her actions. It’s hard to wonder how this could be, except that her actions benefit Israel.

Claude Mariottini takes a different view:

However, Sisera’s action was a violation of Ancient Near Eastern traditions. Sisera’s action was a violation of Heber’s family and dishonored Jael by entering her tent. As a man, Sisera should had approached Heber and not his wife.

[…]

From the perspective of the writer of Judges, Jael’s action was justified. Since Sisera had already violated Jael’s honor, Jael’s act could be seen as a vindication of her honor. The killing of Sisera was one way by which she eliminated the threat to her clan and avenged the violation of her tent.

Sisera’s mother

The final portion of the story is mentioned only in the Judges 5 poetic version: We get Sisera’s mother fretting that her son still hasn’t returned, but comforting herself by imagining that he must be busy dividing the spoils – and, she thinks, “a maiden or two for every man” (Judges 5:30).

It’s rather horrendous that a woman is thinking so callously of the abuse and rape that she imagines others of her gender must presently be subjected to. Of course, in the poem, I suppose it’s meant to be funny – while she imagines her son nailing some captive women, it is in fact a woman who is nailing him.

The poem ends with her thinking about all the lovely spoils that her son will be bringing back for her.

Final notes

Claude Mariottini pointed out something interesting: that the only two women we’ve seen called prophets so far – Deborah and Miriam – both have songs. Deborah’s is, of course, in Judges 5, and Miriam’s is in Exodus 15.

I notice, also, that both songs seem to be quite a bit older than texts surrounding them, and that both appear to be somewhat fragmentary. It’s interesting to consider that perhaps Canaanite culture was once far more female-friendly, and that the strongly patriarchal elements came later. Perhaps.

I should also mention that Claude Mariottini (who has clearly been a huge help to me in my reading of these two chapters!) has a post about the use of the term “judge” in this book – what it does mean, what it doesn’t mean, and what it may mean. If I tried to explain it here, I’d only be quoting the whole thing, so I’ll link to it instead.

Lastly, Jeremy Myers has a post up on Till He Comes that asks whether the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 might not be sexually suggestive. He uses a translation that is quite different from mine, but largely focuses on the juxtaposition between Jael “penetrating” Sisera (with a phallic tent peg) and Sisera’s mother guessing that he must be running late because he’s so busy “penetrating” all those lovely captive ladies.

Judges 3: Wherein we find lots of “dirt”

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God is very concerned that the new generations of Israelites aren’t paying the iron price for their stuff, so he sends some people over to “test” them (Judges 3:1):

  • 5 Philistine lords
  • The Canaanites
  • The Sidonians
  • And a bunch of Hivites

Unfortunately, this testing backfires a little and the Israelites start bedding down with their antagonisers – living with the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, intermarrying and “serving the Baals and the Asheroth” (Judges 3:7). This mirrors, with a slight difference, the formula we saw earlier, when the Israelites “served the Baals and the Ashtaroth” (Judges 2:13).

Othniel, son of Kenaz

The first judge is our old friend, Othniel, the circumstances of whose marriage we saw in Joshua 13:17 and Judges 1:13.

God sells the Israelites into the hands of King Chushanrishathaim of Aram-naharaim, which my RSV renders as Mesopotamia. The people are oppressed for eight years before God takes pity on them and raises up Othniel, Caleb’s nephew. Under his leadership, Israel finds peace for forty years, until Othniel’s death.

It’s quite interesting to see these two little snippets of stories. It suggests a much larger story that didn’t make it in.

Ehud, son of Gera

After Othniel dies, the people go right back to their wicked ways, so God sells them to King Eglon of the Moabites (who defeats Israel with the help of the Ammonites and the Amalekites). Israel is oppressed for eighteen years.

This King Eglon, we are told, was rather on the corpulent side. According to Jack Collins, Eglon’s name is something of a joke:

Eglon’s name (Heb. עֶגְלוֹן), it’s worth noting, bears a striking resemblance to the Hebrew words ‘egel (עֵגֶל), meaning “fatted calf,” and ‘agol (עָגֹל), “round,” so the non-Hebrew reader has already missed that the villain of the piece is essentially named “King Swolencalf.”

When God enters the reconciliation phase of his relationship with Israel, he brings up Ehud, son of Gera, of the tribe of Benjamin. Ehud, by the way, is left-handed. This is important to the story, but it is also something of a joke. As Jack Collins explains, “Benjamin” means “son of the right hand.”

Ehud rescues Israel, by Ford Madox Brown

Ehud rescues Israel, by Ford Madox Brown

His left-handedness gives him the advantage he needs. When he is selected to bring a tribute to the Moabites, he straps a sword to his right side, under his clothes. The text doesn’t spell this out, but it seems that any weapons-checking would have assumed that he would have been armed on the left side (a right-handed fighter would cross his arm over to his left side to draw), so they would have missed a weapon hidden on the wrong side.

Once the Israelites make their tribute, they make to leave but Ehud hangs back, telling King Eglon that he has a secret message. King Eglon dismisses his staff and takes Ehud up to “cool roof chamber” (Judges 3:20), which is apparently a bathroom (I’m assuming that the coolness refers to a draft, which would tame the smell?). I didn’t pick up on this when reading, but Brant Clements suggests that perhaps the idea is to give Ehud his private audience while sitting on the toilet as a sort “see what I think of you Israelites” message.

Once Ehud and King Eglon are alone, Ehud – badass that he is – says “I have a message from God for you” (Judges 3:20) and stabs the king through the belly with his sword. He thrusts the sword in so deep that the hilt goes in. He stabs so hard that “the dirt came out” (Judges 3:22). I think that means either that he punctured the king’s intestines, or perhaps that the king defecated. Either way, it’s quite clear from the context that “dirt” is a euphemism.

His job done, Ehud locks the door and escapes (or escapes and then locks the door, depending on your reading).

The servants come to check on their master but determine that he must just be focusing really hard on his business, so they delay in unlocking the door and discovering the body. It seems possible that the smell of the “dirt” makes them think that their master is live and well and happily voiding his bowels in the company of that Israelite guest.

His business done, Ehud runs to Seirah, sounds a trumpet to gather the Israelites, and marches on the Moabites while they are leaderless. Ten thousand Moabites are killed, “all strong, able-bodied men” (Judges 3:29), and Israel gets to rest for the next 80 years.

I really enjoyed Jack Collins’s two posts on this story, which go into quite a bit of detail on the many puns used. The story was funny on first reading, but absolutely hilarious with the commentary Collins provides. Go read Part 1 and Part 2.

And since it’s obligatory, I’ll close off this section with a mention of Deut. 2:9, where God tells Moses: “Distress not the Moabites, neither content with them in battle.”

Shamgar, son of Anath

Shamgar is hardly worth a mention – or, at least, that’s what the author(s) thought. We are told merely that he killed 600 Philistines with an oxgoad (a ‘goad’ being a spiked stick used for driving cattle, according to freedictionary).

His section ends with what is clearly an editor insert: “he too delivered Israel” (Judges 3:31). Ah, so that’s what he was doing with that oxgoad!

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