2 Samuel 11: The Golden Boy falls

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I never learned about David and Bathsheba in Sunday School (inappropriate for young ears and all that, better to focus on family-friendly material such as the crucifixion of Christ), but it’s hard to grow to adulthood as a “cultural Christian” without having at least heard the names. What I didn’t know until I started studying the Bible, though, was the context of the story and its aftermath.

It’s clear from the outset that David will not look good in this story: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle” (2 Sam. 11:1), David stays behind in Jerusalem. Instead, he sends Joab out to fight the Ammonites and besiege Rabbah (the Ammonite capital) in his place. No reason is given for the neglect of his duties, but the image of him arising from his couch late one afternoon (2 Sam. 11:2) makes it seem like he’s just lounging around. How far the mighty have fallen!

Bathsheba, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Bathsheba, by Artemisia Gentileschi

So he finally gets up off his couch and takes a walk on his roof. While there, he sees a beautiful woman bathing. We are only told that she is bathing, but there is a note later on that she “was purifying herself from her uncleanness” (2 Sam. 11:4). While the detail is provided later on, it seems that the consensus assumes that it explains her reason for bathing – she would be following laws like the one outlined in Lev. 15:19-24, washing herself after menstruation.

Whatever her reasons for bathing, the reading that she was doing it to seduce men while her husband was away at war requires an awful lot of reading into the story. A woman bathing is bathing, not trying to seduce men. A woman wearing a tanktop in summer is trying to keep cool, not trying to seduce men. This is an idea that my culture seems to have quite a bit of trouble with.

When he sees her, David falls in lust and asks for her identity. Finally, she is revealed to be Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam and wife of Uriah the Hittite. Despite behind a Hittite, Uriah is currently off with Joab fighting the Ammonites on David’s behalf.

David sends messengers to Bathsheba and “took her,” but also “she came to him” (2 Sam. 11:4). I’m not sure what to make of the fact that David’s taking of Bathsheba (clearly a euphemism) occurs first, before Bathsheba comes to him. But even if she did come to him, he is the king and he has made a demand of her. Given what happens later on in the story, it’s easy to see how Bathsheba (again, assuming that she responded to David’s invitation) might have felt like she had little choice.

It is here that we get the note about her purifying herself from her uncleanness, which gives us the possibility that her uncleanness was adultery, which raises the question of why David is not required to perform any similar purification.

After the encounter, Bathsheba learns that she has become pregnant so she sends word to David.

The problem of Uriah

Bathsheba’s pregnancy poses quite the problem for David. With Uriah away, it will be obvious that he did not father his wife’s child, and suspicion might be cast toward Israel’s loafing king whether Bathsheba speaks or not.

David’s first plan to hide his doings is to create another plausible scenario by which Bethsheba may have become pregnant – so he calls Uriah back from battle. His cover story is that he wants Uriah to give a battle report (though it seems a little strange why he thought that asking for Uriah specifically would go unnoticed).

David then instructs Uriah to head home and wash his feet, which I took to mean that David was encouraging Uriah to relax after a long journey (which could include having sex with his wife), but my pervy New Bible Companion goes straight for the most explicit interpretation, calling it an “idiom of the time” (p.307).

There’s also a mention of a present, which I assume was meant to mean that David had sent a gift to Uriah’s home to reward him for the news he brought, but could be a tongue-in-cheek reference to Bathsheba.

Uriah obeys his king and leaves, but doesn’t go farther than David’s front doorstep. Rather, he spends that night at David’s door.

The next morning, David asks Uriah why he hadn’t gone home. Uriah asks David how he can go to his own home and eat, drink, and sleep with his wife while his brothers-in-arms camp in the open field (interestingly using the phrase “Israel and Judah” – 2 Sam. 11:11). The criticism seems rather pointed since, of course, David got himself into trouble doing precisely that.

Uriah also references the ark and people in booths, which may suggest that enough time has passed for it to be the Feast of Tabernacles, and perhaps this provides another reason for Uriah’s abstinence.

A third possibility comes from Exodus 19:15, where soldiers are asked to abstain from sex before battle. It’s possible that Uriah is mindful of this, since he intends to return to the battlefield once David excuses him.

David tries to salvage his plan by making Uriah stay one more day in Jerusalem, channelling Lot’s daughters (Gen. 19:30-38) and trying to get Uriah as drunk as possible. But Uriah is steadfast in his refusal of conjugal visits.

Plan B

Realizing that his first plan isn’t going to work, David goes a little more extreme in his efforts to cover up his infidelity/rape. When he sends Uriah back to the field, he sends him with a letter to Joab. The letter Uriah carries, unbeknownst to him, instructs Joab to send Uriah to the front lines and abandon him there.

Joab proved his willingness to kill for David in 2 Sam. 3, and David’s willingness to use him for the same purpose here casts a suspicious light on the spin in 2 Sam. 3. As Tim Bulkley puts it: “Up to now, David the Death Machine has been a death machine in the service of God. This is his first killing for his own benefit, and it marks a turning point in his story.”

But Joab apparently realizes how obvious David’s plan would be, and he improves on it. Instead of abandoning Uriah at the front lines, he instead assigns Uriah to a group that he knows to be especially “valiant” (2 Sam. 11:16) – read “foolhardy.” As he had planned, the “valiant” men face sallying Ammonites, pushing the enemy back to the city walls but dying to archer fire in the process.

Joab sends a messenger back to report on the battle to David, but anticipates that David may be angry that he had allowed the Israelite army to get so near the city walls. He anticipates that David will cite historical precedent – when Abimelech the son of Jerubbesheth got too close to a wall and was killed by a woman dropping a millstone onto his head, from Judges 9:53. If David raises this objection, the messenger is to drop the ultimate bomb – sure, we lost some guys, but Uriah was among them.

As a side note, it is interesting that Jerubbaal’s (Jg.7:1) name is here given as Jerubbesheth. It seems that the author(s) of 1-2 Samuel are fairly consistently erasing Baal from people’s names, replacing it with “bosheth,” which means “shame.” Given that it suggests that these characters (or, at least, their parents) were not the YHWHist monotheists the narrative would like, the motivation seems rather obvious.

Joab’s concerns are misplaced, however. David seems quite happy with Joab’s aggressive attack on the city, and asks the messenger to encourage him on.

My New Bible Companion raises (but does not agree with) the possibility that Joab’s anticipation of David’s reaction may have actually been David’s reaction, misplaced. This, apparently, has “some LXX support” (p.307).

The widowed

There’s no murder of a married man without leaving a widow. When Bathsheba hears of Uriah’s death, she goes into mourning – as was proper. As soon as the required mourning period was over, however, David swoops in and “brought her to his house” (2 Sam. 11:27). He marries her and she bears a son, but this is no happy ending. The chapter closes by telling us that David’s actions have angered God.

Throughout most of this chapter, Bathsheba is passive. David sends for her, David marries her, David takes her. Nowhere do we hear Bathsheba’s perspective on the relationship. Did she want to sleep with David in the first place? Did she want to marry her husband’s murderer? We never know, because the record doesn’t seem to care. David’s crime is not rape, but rather having sex with another man’s wife and then murdering him.

Certainly, it’s obvious that their relationship is no love affair. When Bathsheba realises that she is pregnant, she sends a messenger to let David know. They are not pursuing a relationship, she needed messengers to communicate with her “lover.” Or, as Tim Bulkley puts it:

This is no great love affair. This is not a case of two lovers who can’t keep their hands off each other. In ancient epics or modern films, somehow or other that kind of love affair would excuse infidelity, somehow, but not here. There’s no love lost here.

Reading between the lines, the impression I get is that David saw Bathsheba, raped her, then hoped to go on as though nothing had happened. Unfortunately, the pregnancy became evidence of his actions, so he went about trying to cover it up. This even explains why he only waited the minimum time required before marrying Bathsheba – her pregnancy imposed a time limit.

If David’s willingness to use Joab to murder his enemies cast suspicion on the spin of 2 Sam. 3, then his behaviour regarding Bathsheba casts suspicion on the circumstances of his marriage to Abigail in 1 Sam. 25.

Judges: What is a judge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Categories

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

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

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

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

Judges 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.

Genesis 26: The Apple Falls Close to the Tree

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In this chapter, Isaac basically just wanders around copying a bunch of stuff his dad did.

He starts off by going into Gerar (because of a famine – which we’re told is a different famine from the one that sent Abraham into Egypt), the land of Abimelech. He does this because God tells him not to go into Egypt (see? Different!).

God then goes into yet another speech about how blessed Abraham’s family is, and how they will have so many lands, multitudes of descendants, and the blessing of nations. Yadda yadda. God, apparently, can’t get enough of telling people this (even though he never did end up giving them that land).

Back to the story, Isaac gets to Gerar and starts telling people that Rebekah is his sister. This is, of course, the same lie Abraham told to both the Pharaoh of Egypt and, more coincidentally, to Abimelech of Gerar. This family apparently has a thing for lying to people and pretending to be siblings with their spouses. It’s kinda weird.

But Abimelech (my favourite biblical character so far) doesn’t fall for it a second time. This time, he catches Isaac fondling Rebekah and puts two and two together.

He says to Isaac: “Behold, she is your wife; how then could you say, ‘She is my sister’?” (Gen. 26:9). When Isaac gives the standard excuse of being afraid because she’s so beautiful and the Philistines are such beasts that he couldn’t trust them not to kill him for her, Abimelech continues: “What is this you have done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us” (Gen. 26:10).

This is why Abimelech is my favourite character – he tells it like it is. It’s too bad he’s suffering from amnesia. Then again, he’s probably rather old at this point.

In any case, he tells his people that anyone who touches Isaac or Rebekah will be put to death. Once again, he proves that he’s an upstanding guy and that Abraham and Isaac’s fears were completely misplaced and irrational.

Isaac gets rich

Abimelech spies on Isaac by Raphael, 1518-1519

Abimelech spies on Isaac by Raphael, 1518-1519

Continuing on with the accounting sub-theme of this book, we’re told that Isaac sowed the land and became very rich (even though he was the sole inheritor of his father, who was also very rich). Like his daddy, he has tons of possessions. In fact, he has so many possessions that the Philistines envy him and, I guess because of their envy, filled up all the wells Abraham had dug.

Abimelech tells Isaac to leave, “for you are much mightier than we” (Gen. 26:16).

I think it’s important to keep in mind, at this point, that Isaac is the stand-in for the Israelites and that this is a book written by Israelites. It makes me think of that weird kid in every High School who keeps writing in his journal that the reason no one likes him is that he’s just so awesome and cool that they’re all jealous.

So yeah, after both Abraham and Isaac lie to Abimelech, the former causing Abimelech’s household to be cursed and the latter nearly so, I’m totally sure that the reason Abimelech tells Isaac to scram is because he’s just so mighty.

Isaac starts re-digging all the wells his dad dug, but the locals keep telling him that they own that water and send him packing. He finally finds an uncontested well, but moves on anyway. At some point, God comes to him and reminds him, again, that he’s blessed and will have many descendants, so Isaac builds an altar.

Another covenant with Abimelech

Mirroring Chapter 21, Isaac gets a visit from Abimelech and his commander, Phicol. This time, he’s also brought Ahuzzath, his adviser. They ask Isaac to form a covenant not to harm them (and, just like when he formed a covenant with Abraham, he reminds Isaac that he hasn’t harmed him).

They swear the oath to each other and, that same day, Isaac finishes digging a well. Since the well was finished on the same day as the pact was made, he calls it Beersheba (even though it was already named Beersheba under the same circumstances by Abraham).

Esau’s genealogy

At 40 years old, Esau marries Judith, the daughter of Beeri the Hittite. He also marries Bashemath, the daughter of Elon the Hittite.

Bit of a weird ending to this chapter. We’re told that this (Esau’s marriages) make life “bitter” for Isaac and Rebekah (Gen. 26:35). We aren’t told why, but I hope we find out!

Genesis 21: Sarah Goes Bonkers on Hagar…Again

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As promised, God visits Sarah and she has a son they name Isaac. The author(s) of this chapter go to great pains to emphasise just how old Abraham and Sarah are and haha, isn’t it hilarious?

“God has made laughter for me; every one who hears will laugh over me” (Gen. 21:6).

We’re also told that Abraham circumcises Isaac, because the Bible’s idea of character development is letting us know the status of the various characters’ penises.

So little circumcised Isaac is hanging out one day, playing with little circumcised Ishmael, when Sarah catches the two of them. She goes to Abraham and demands that he cast out Hagar and Ishmael because she doesn’t want Isaac’s inheritance split with other sons. Just a reminder, Abraham abandoned his nephew because of possessions, and his wife is now asking that he dump his own son for the same reason. Are these the Biblical Family Values the religious right keeps touting?

Abraham, having at least a little humanity, isn’t sure about this. We’re told that it was “very displeasing” to him “on account of his son” (Gen. 21:11). But God comes down and tells him to chill, because it’s through Isaac that “your descendants be named” (Gen. 21:12). And since he likes Abraham so darn much, he’ll make Ishmael a nation too – “because he is your offspring” (Gen. 21:13) and Abraham totally gets God off-sprung.

So Abraham gets some bread and water for Hagar and sends her on her way.

Into the wilderness

Hagar in the desert by Pompeo Batoni

Hagar in the desert by Pompeo Batoni

After having been raped (come on, let’s be honest and call it what it was – Sarah “gave” her to Abraham and she’s a slave. At best, it was coercive) by her master and having a son as a result, poor Hagar is then cast out into the wilderness because Sarah isn’t happy with the fact that Hagar had the son Sarah wanted her to have. What the eff? No wonder the Victorians produced special, heavily edited Bibles for women and children to read…

So Hagar is wondering in the wilderness and she runs out of water. She puts her child under a bush and walks away, saying: “Let me not look upon the death of the child” (Gen. 21:16). This is actually a really poignant scene, and I think it serves to clearly illustrate Sarah’s cruelty. We can forgive Abraham in this one because God did tell him that Ishmael would become a nation, which implies that he gets to grow out of diapers. But Sarah had no such message – she just wanted Hagar and Ishmael gone and, for all she knew, she’d condemned them to death.

Ishmael starts to cry, and the angel of God calls to Hagar, assuring her that he’s heard Ishmael’s cries. He tells her to go back to him and pick him up, “for I will make him a great nation” (Gen. 21:18). Then God opens her eyes (she couldn’t do this herself, apparently) and she sees a well of water.

Ishmael grows up in the wilderness, and he “became and expert with the bow” (Gen. 21:21). At some point, Hagar procures for him an Egyptian for a wife.

How old is Ishmael?

We’re told in Chapter 16 that Abraham was “eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ish’mael” (Gen. 16:16), and in this chapter, we hear that Abraham “was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him” (Gen. 21:5). With a little counting on my fingers, I quickly worked out that Ishmael is at least around 14 (if not older, since he’s playing with Isaac in v.9 and newborns don’t really play).

So imagine my confusion when I read the following:

  • Abraham puts the bread and skin of water on Hagar’s shoulder, “along with the child” (Gen. 21:14);
  • When the water runs out, Hagar “cast the child under one of the bushes” (Gen. 21:15), and then Ishmael “lifted up his voice and wept” (Gen. 21:16);
  • God hears Ishmael’s cries and tells Hagar to “arise, life up the lad, and hold him fast with your hand” (Gen. 21:18).

Now, there’s only one explanation for why a fourteen-year-old would be treated this way that I can think of, and that’s that he has a severe handicap that prevents him from walking and that’s why Hagar must carry him. The poor boy clearly suffers from some form of mental disability as well, since I don’t know many 14-year-olds who would just sit under a bush and cry without first trying to express themselves through some other means. Too bad wheelchairs hadn’t been invented yet. I can’t imagine that Hagar is having much fun carrying a 14-year-old everywhere.

A more likely explanation is that we have yet another contradiction in the inspired word of God.

Final note on the casting out of Hagar

In A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Collins explains that “the story seems to champion ethnocentrism by suggesting that those who do not belong to the chosen people can be sent away” (p.49). He adds that “we shall meet a chilling application of the same principe much later in the book of Ezra,” so we have something to look forward to.

I didn’t quite make the connection on my own, but I can certainly see Collins’ point. Nowhere are Sarah and Abraham condemned for throwing out Hagar. It all works out okay because God has plans for Ishmael, but it could just as easily resulted in the deaths of the woman and her child. God never says “it’s okay to throw Hagar out because I’ll take care of her, but make sure you don’t cast out any other slaves you decide to diddle with.”

Hagar and Ishmael are saved because God has plans for them (and because he lurvs Abraham), but the implication is that they would otherwise have been perfectly expendable. So far, I’m not seeing much evidence that God values humans (or human life) for their own sake. Rather, it seems that those who serve his purposes don’t have much to worry about, but anyone else might as well just die in a flood.

A covenant with Abimelech

Completely unconcerned over the fate of his son and the mother of his child, Abraham meets with Abimelech (and Phicol, the commander of Abimelech’s army). Why Abimelech would want anything at all to do with Abraham after his last experience is beyond me, but there you have it.

In any case, Abimelech says to Abraham: “God is with you in all that you do; now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my offspring or with my posterity, but as I have dealth loyally with you, you will deal with me and with the land where you have sojourned” (Gen. 21:22-23). Oooh, that’s quite a burn! I love how Abimelech (possibly my favourite character so far) goes out of his way to point out that he’s always dealt “loyally” with Abraham.

Well, Abraham swears to this, and then complains that Abimelech’s servants have seized a well of water. Abimelech assures Abraham that he didn’t know about this, so they cool.

I’d just like to point out quickly here that Abraham doesn’t own the land he’s on, and therefore has no real claim to any well of water. He’s staying on Abimelech’s land (as we saw in Genesis 20:15). So if anything, Abimelech’s servants were just making use of their own well. Abraham doesn’t seem to care much.

But he does give sheep and oxen to Abimelech, so that’s nice of him. In exchange, Abimelech has to agree to witness for Abraham (to whom?) that he dug the well. I don’t know if it’s the same well or a second well, though. Abimelech agrees. They call the well Beersheba and then Abimelech and Phicol head home. Abraham gets his horticulture on and plants a tamarisk tree.

There are two mentions of “the land of the Philistines” (v.32, 34) in this chapter. However, according to Matthews, “the appearance of the Philistines in Canaan is traced to a period some eight hundred years after Abraham’s time” (Manners & Customs, p.24) which, was after 1200 BCE. This anachronism tells us that either this story takes place much later than claimed (and the storyteller is inserting details from her/his own world), or that it was edited much later.

Genesis 20: Abraham Lies Again

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Abimelech returns Sarah to Abraham by Caspar Luiken 1712

Abimelech returns Sarah to Abraham by Caspar Luiken 1712

Some people just never learn their lesson. After getting into some trouble by prostituting his wife to the Pharaoh of Egypt while pretending that she was his sister, Abraham then does it again to Abimelech, king of Gerar.

Once again, God is on the right side of the moral question. He comes to Abimelech in a dream and says: “Behold, you are a dead man, because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a man’s wife” (Gen. 20:3). Like Pharaoh, Abimelech is rather taken aback since he was deliberately lied to. But unlike Pharaoh, he has the gumption to say something about it.

“Lord, wilt thou slay an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this” (Gen. 20:4-5). Right on, Abimelech. Right on.

God backtracks like mad and totally tries to play it cool. “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me; therefore I did not let you touch her” (Gen. 20:6). So God, by his own admission, knew that Abimelech is a victim and that Abraham is a liar who is once again selling his wife into prostitution, and yet he threatens to kill Abimelech and “all that are yours” (Gen. 20:7)… Abraham, as usual, doesn’t get so much as a “hey, maybe you, like, shouldn’t do that any more, eh?”

Well, Abimelech wakes up and tells his servants about his dream. He then calls to Abraham and says: “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done” (Gen. 20:9). I’m really liking this guy. He’s a true voice of moral reason in a book that is thus far sorely lacking in that department.

So Abraham responds: “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife” (Gen. 20:11). I see no evidence of this. All I see is a perfectly nice guy nearly getting killed because a douche lied to him and tricked him into offending the big sky-bully.

As Richard Dawkins puts it, Abimelech “expressed his indignation, in almost identical terms to Pharaoh’s, and one can’t help sympathizing with both of them” (The God Delusion, p. 242).

Oh, but Abraham totally wasn’t really lying, though, ’cause Sarah “is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife” (Gen. 20:12). So the lesson I draw from this episode is that it’s a-OK to lie about your marital status so long as you’re also committing incest. Why was I never taught this in Sunday School?

As punishment for lying to him, Abimelech decides to be really wrathful and give Abraham a bunch of sheep, oxen, slaves, and a thousand pieces of silver and invites Abraham to hang out in his country. Yup, Abraham is rewarded once again for prostituting his wife and lying to people. Abimelech’s gifts, by the way, are to buy back Sarah’s honour (Gen. 20:16), which she lost by marrying her douche brother.

Abraham prays to God, so God heals Abimelech and ‘re-opens’ the wombs of the women in his household (which he had ‘closed’ as punishment for having the audacity of being lied to).

And so we come to the close of Chapter 20. See you on Friday!