Judges opens up with a listing of tribal conquests in the Promised Land. There’s evidence of an editor’s hand in trying to place Judges as a continuation from the Book of Joshua (I assume that’s the Deuteronomist editor, given the way it’s done), but it’s sloppy. Even as a translation, it’s quite clear where the older portions are coming through.

For example, Judges begins with “after the death of Joshua” (Judges 1:1), but what follows is totally its own thing. The language is different, the tone is different. It’s abundantly clear that an editor, trying to upcycle old stories to make his theological point, simply glued that fraction of a sentence onto the beginning of the text to situate it in the broader historical narrative. You can still see the seams, however, as the sentence continues with the Israelites asking God “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” If this were really the work of a single historian taking down the narrative as it was, the people would have no cause to ask this as Joshua was the first to go up against the Canaanites. It’s done, that part of the story should be over.

Well, here, the answer is Judah. Which is another interesting detail – for a couple sentences, Judah is not a tribe but a person, as he was back in Genesis. It was a tremendous lightbulb moment for me as I saw these three separate layers shine, like looking at pysanki. You have the oldest portion of the story, where the tribes are personified as people who have personalities, deeds, familial relationships. Then you have the middling portion where tribes act independently, trying to carve little territories out for themselves. Finally, you have the newest portion, the portion from whatever region where Joshua is a folk hero, and you have his narrative made grander, his tribe’s history made into the history of all the tribes.

Judah asks “Simeon his brother” (Judges 1:3) to help him fight for the land he’s been allotted and, in return, he will help Simeon in his own lands. My study Bible notes that “the tribe of Simeon plays no significant role in the later history of Israel. Not mentioned in the Song of Deborah (5.2-31), it was probably entirely absorbed by Judah at an early day” (p.293). In other words, it seems likely that this story of the two brothers helping each other out likely came out of the memory of their intertwined history.

Together, the brothers defeat Adonibezek, who is apparently some sort of leader among the Canaanites and Perizzites. Having defeated him, the brothers then cut off his thumbs and big toes. This is apparently the thing to do with subject kings because Adonibezek, the very opposite of a sore loser, says that he used to have 70 thumbless and big toe-less kings eating his table scraps and that he is now, himself, brought as low. They bring him to Jerusalem and he dies.

Tribal Conquests (sort of)

The personification of the tribes ends, and the story continues by referring to “the men of Judah” (Judges 1:8). These men fight against Jerusalem (where they, curiously, had brought Adonibezek) and, taking it, set it on fire. They then go after the Canaanites living in Hebron. We start to see how this narrative was once independent of the Joshua account, rather than a continuation of it – Hebron was taken by Joshua in Josh. 10:36-37.

Judges 1 - Chariots of IronThen Judah goes off and conquers some other people in other places. One of them is the city of Ekron. This city was allotted to Judah in Josh. 13:3, but was also allotted to Dan in Josh. 19:43. Here, it seems to have reverted back to Judah.

The only place where Judah fails, according to the text, is in the plain. Unfortunately, they are not able to defeat them because “they had chariots of iron” (Judges 1:19). You’ll recall, of course, that Manasseh and Ephraim encountered chariots of iron in Josh. 17:16, and had concerns that they might not be able to beat such superweapons. In that story, Joshua reminds them that they have God on their side and therefore even chariots (though they may be of iron!) pose no threat. Clearly, that was a theological insert by our busy little editor rather than a testament to God’s actual power, because Judah is unable to stand against them though that very same Lord was with him (Judges 1:19).

Over at Daylight Atheism, Adam Lee tries to understand this passage’s significance in understanding the evolution of religious belief:

On the other hand, it may just be that this verse was written when Yahweh was regarded as a local deity, supernaturally powerful but not invincible. In this respect, the biblical authors might have conceived of him as similar to the ancient Greek gods, who according to the Iliad could be wounded by humans. Iron chariots, in the world of the the Ancient Near East, were the most technologically advanced weapon of war in existence. They seem to have played a decisive role in conflicts like the Battle of Qarqar in 850 BCE, when an alliance of smaller kingdoms (including King Ahab of Israel, whom the Bible’s authors reviled) fended off an invasion by the regional superpower of Assyria.

It’s possible that the Bible’s original authors imagined God as not powerful enough to overcome this technology, and that the dogma of his total omnipotence was a later innovation. (By Judges chapter 4, God seems to have acquired the ability to defeat chariots.) If so, this verse might be a fossil of that earlier belief, preserved in the text like a prehistoric insect in amber. As a part of modern Judeo-Christian theology it’s like a puzzle piece that doesn’t fit, but if we take a more rational view of the Bible as a collection of human-written and human-compiled documents, verses like this may provide valuable clues about its origin and evolution.

What follows is something of a change in tone. While Judah gets about half a chapter narrating its various successes (and one failure), the rest of the tribes are not quite so celebrated:

  • Benjamin fails to drive our the Jebusites in Jerusalem so that they must live together “to this day” (Judges 1:21) – apparently Judah’s conquest of the city in Judges 1:8 didn’t help.
  • Manasseh fails to conquer a bunch of places, but at least the Israelites are later able to enslave those natives (Judges 1:27-28).
  • Zebulun likewise fails a bunch, but enslaves the people later (Judges 1:30).
  • The same for Naphtali (Judges 1:33).
  • Ephraim fails, but has to live with the natives without getting to force them into labour (Judges 1:29).
  • Likewise for Asher (Judges 1:31-32).
  • Dan is pushed off the plain and into the hills by the Amorites, but Joseph (that would be the combined tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim) come along to harass and enslave them (Judges 1:34-36).

It’s implied that all the tribes had some successes and some failures, yet for some reason much is made of Judah’s successes while none are mentioned for the others. I found this strange, and it only got stranger when I read my study Bible notes and found out that Judah’s successes may actually be the work of our old friend the editor: “The account of their [Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ekron] capture is almost certainly unhistorical; the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) says specifically that Judah “did not” take them” (p.294).

In light of the theological point being set up by this chapter, it would make far more sense for Judah to receive the same treatment as the other tribes. And yet, they are given many successes (and, possibly, even some of their failures were alter edited into successes). It makes little sense, and it’s hard to imagine why the editor included it at all.

Itty Bitty Stories

The first chapter of Judges includes a few extra stories. The story of Caleb offering up his daughter, Achsah, to any man who takes Debir is taken almost verbatim from Josh. 15:13-19. If you remember, Caleb’s nephew, Othniel son of Kenaz, takes him up on the offer. Once he and Achsah are married, she tells him to petition her father for a field. The granting of the field is skipped over, but having gotten it, Achsah then asks for some springs to go along with it (which she does while dismounting a donkey in both versions, which is a rather random detail to be considered important enough to include in both versions!), and Caleb grants them.

We’re also told that the Kenites, which either includes Moses’s father-in-law or who are descended from Moses’s father-in-law (Judges 1:16 – I’m unclear on how to read the passage), went along with Judah into the Negeb and, there, they settled together. My study Bible notes that “the Kenites were a nomadic tribe closely allied to the Hebrews” (p.294). This is not the first time we’ve heard of them: In Genesis, God tells Abraham that his descendants will be given the land that currently belongs to the Kenites, among others (Gen. 15:18-21). The only other mention I can find of them is in Numbers, where Balak has a weird prophecy that involves a Kenite city being burned and the people taken captive (Num. 24:21-22). This is certainly the first time I’ve ever heard them mentioned in relation to Moses or his father-in-law.

The final story involves the tribe of Joseph (which appears as a whole tribe, not divided into Ephraim and Manasseh) going after a city named Luz. They send out spies who hang around outside the city until they see a man coming out. They accost him, saying that if he shows them how to enter, they will spare him (apparently the gate is cleverly hidden, bear with me). The man agrees, Joseph’s army destroys the city, and somehow it gets renamed Bethel. The man leaves with his family and heads into Hittite territory, where he founds a new city and names it Luz, presumably for good luck. “That is its name to this day” (Judges 1:26).

The moral of the story

If you’re confused as to why we’ve just spent half a chapter hearing about Israelite failures, Judges 2 provides your answer. An “angel of the Lord” (Judges 2:2 – who is also the Lord himself?) appears to someone and says that he brought the Israelites out of Egypt on the condition that they “make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars” (Judges 2:2). Their failure to adequately perform is the reason that so many natives remain among them. Further, the punishment of this is that “their gods shall be a snare to you” (Judges 2:3).

It’s all rather silly. They are supposed to need God to destroy the natives, but they didn’t destroy the natives, so they’ll be punished by being unable to destroy the natives. Further, the punishment for fraternizing with the enemy is having lots of temptations to fraternize with the enemy. It reminds me of the Garden of Eden story. It’s clear that this passage is an editorial insert that seeks to a) explain the continued presence of non-Hebrews in Israel despite all the “promised land” rhetoric, b) provide a moral context for the stories that are to follow, and c) set up a pattern to explain any contemporary social ills, particularly in relation to foreign peoples.

So Joshua – who is suddenly alive again, praise the Lord! – dismisses the people and everything is okay until the generation that had seen God’s works died off. The next generation, however, started serving the Baals and the Ashtaroth (Judges 2:13). This begins a cycle in which God turns against the people, selling them into the hands of the enemy du jour, then cools off a bit and raises up a judge save them, then the judge dies and the people return to their wicked ways, so God throws a fit and sells them into the hands of the next enemy. This is, I am given to understand, the pattern we will see repeated throughout Judges.

The backstory out of the way, I believe we should be seeing our first judge on Monday!