Amos 1-2: Finger Pointing

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Amos opens with a thesis statement in the third person: “The words of Amos […] which he saw concerning Israel” (Amos 1:1).

This statement is mixed in with some biographical information, telling us that Amos was among the shepherds of Tekoa, and that he saw the words when Uzziah was king in Judah and Jeroboam son of Joash was king in Israel, two years before an earthquake.

With regards to his profession as a shepherd, the particular word used is only used in one other place: 2 Kgs 3:4, in reference to the king of Moab. The king of Moab, of course, would hardly be some lowly peasant. Given that Amos was apparently literate, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to see him as the same category of shepherd – the owner of a large flock that was tended by employees.

Claude Mariottini discusses Amos’s occupation in more detail in a blog post.

God Roared

The section proper begins with a verse that reads almost like an incantation:

The Lord roars from Zion,
and utters his voice from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds mourn,
and the top of Carmel withers.

If the verse is original to Amos, the fact that the geographical markers are all from the southern kingdom seems rather odd. There’s something just so Deuteronomistic about Jerusalem as the place from which God is roaring. According to Collins, that’s one reason why this verse is considered by many to be an addition from after the Babylonian exile (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.159).

The use of the term “Zion” is interesting as well, since it’s not a word that’s come up a whole lot in our readings so far. We saw it a fair bit in Lamentations, which is dated to the Babylonian exile. Other than that, we’ve only seen it used a sprinkling of times in Kings and Chronicles, and once in 2 Sam. 5:7, which Wikipedia gives as the earliest use of the word. This seems to be fairly compelling evidence in support of Collins’s assertion.

The Condemnations

The condemnations themselves follow a pattern:

  1. It begins with the phrase: “Thus says the Lord.” According to Claude Mariottini, this phrase is frequently found in prophetic books, and would have been used by royal messengers speaking on behalf of a king to a designated individual (as in the case with Rabshakeh, envoy from King Sennacherib of Assyria to King Hezekiah of Judah in 2 Kgs 18:19).
  2. “For three transgressions of [transgressor], and for four, I will not revoke punishment.” The phrase likely means something along the lines of “three transgressions would have been bad enough, but you’ve gone and had four of them!” (Except, of course, with the specific numbers being literally figurative.)
  3. This is followed by a surprisingly brief explanation of their crimes…
  4. And a surprisingly brief explanation of the punishment that awaits them. This largely involves a fire that will consume their walls and strongholds (except in the case of Israel).
  5. Closing each condemnation (except for those of Tyre and Edom), Amos concludes with: “says the Lord God.”

Amos 1:3-5
Target: Damascus, Syria
Transgressions: They threshed Gilead, which we read about in 2 Kgs 10:32-33.
Punishment: God will send fire down on the house of Hazael, and it will devour the strongholds of Benhadad (both Hazael and Behadad were kings of Syria). The people of Syria will be forced into exile to Kir. This will indeed happen when the Assyrians take Damascus in 2 Kgs 16:9. Also of interest is that Amos himself seems to believe that the Syrians originated from Kir (Amos 9:7).

Russian icon of the prophet Amos, from the Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church, Kizhi monastery, in Karelia, Russia, 18th cent.

Russian icon of the prophet Amos, from the Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church, Kizhi monastery, in Karelia, Russia, 18th cent.

Amos 1:6-8
Target: Gaza, Philistia
Transgressions: For carrying a whole people into exile, and for selling them to Edom.
Punishment: God will send fire onto the wall of Gaza, destroying her strongholds. The inhabitants will be cut off from Ashdod and the one who holds the scepter of Ashkelon. God will turn his hand against Ekron and the last of the Philistines will die. This all happened when Assyria took over in a series of campaigns (Gaza fell to Tiglath-Pileser in 734BCE, Ashdod to Sargon in 711BCE, and Ashkelon and Ekron to Sennacherib in 701BCE).

Amos 1:9-10
Target: Tyre
Transgressions: For selling people to Edom, and for forgetting the covenant of brotherhood (this latter likely a reference to the close relationship between Tyre and Israel during the reigns of David and Solomon, as per 2 Sam. 5:11 and 1 Kgs 5:1).
Punishment: God will set fire to the wall of Tyre and devour its strongholds. This prophecy also came true, this time when Tyre became a tributary to Assyria and then fell to Nebuchadnezzar 585BCE, after a lengthy siege. It was then destroyed by Alexander the Great in 332BCE.

Amos 1:11-12
Target: Edom
Transgressions: For having pursued his brother with the sword, without pity. Edom was perpetually torn by anger and wrath.
Punishment: God will send fire down on Teman, and it will devour the strongholds of Bozrah. This prophecy also came true, as Edom was destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE.

Amos 1:13-15
Target: The Ammonites
Transgressions: For having ripped up pregnant women in Gilead to enlarge their borders. This war against Gilead doesn’t seem to have been recorded anywhere else.
Punishment: God will send fire down to the wall of Rabbah, devouring its strongholds. This will happen with great shouting in the day of battle, and with a tempest in the day of the whirlwind. The Ammonite king and princes will be taken into exile.

Amos 2:1-3
Target: Moab
Transgressions: For having burned to lime the bones of the Edomite king. This is an interesting complaint. While the crimes of the other foreign nations can be read as offenses against Israel (the big Israel, the one that includes Judah), this is a crime against another foreign nation. As Collins puts it, “this is a crime of one Gentile against another and can only be viewed as a crime against humanity. Amos operates with a concept of universal justice, such as we often find in the wisdom literature” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.156).
Punishment: Fire will rain down upon Moab (though not, at least, it’s walls) and devour the strongholds of Kerioth. Moab will die amid uproar, shouting, and the sound of the trumpet. Its ruler and its princes will be slain.

Amos 2:4-5
Target: Judah
Transgressions: For rejecting the law of God and failing to keep his statutes. For having been led astray by their lies, in the way their fathers walked. This passage is sometimes considered to have been added by a later editor, in large part because of how closely the writing resembles that of the Deuteronomical books.
Punishment: God will bring fire down on Judah devour the strongholds of Jerusalem. Of course, this came to pass in 2 Kgs 24-25.

Turning to Israel

While the authenticity of certain passages is in question, the rhetorical flow works quite well. First, Amos lures his readers/listeners in by raging at the other guy. Then he moves a little closer with the next batch, raging at nations considered ‘cousins’: Edom is mythically descended from Jacob’s brother (Gen. 25:19-34), while the Moabites and Ammonites are descended from Lot (Gen. 19:36-38). Circling ever closer, Amos turns to Judah.

And then Amos pounces, throwing the sins of Israel into their faces.

The sins of Israel are many:

  • They sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes. This is likely a reference to bribery in the justice system, rather than a real buyer’s market in the slave trade.
  • They trampled the heads of the poor into the dust. This seemed fairly self-evident to me, but the New Bible Commentary made it all about real estate, saying that they were begrudging the poor even the small amount of dust that they put on their heads when mourning (p.731). This could be a translation issue, or perhaps I’m just not getting it, but it’s certainly a powerful image.
  • A man and his father have sex with the same woman, thus profaning God’s holy name. This is generally prohibited in Lev. 20:11, but it seems that many commentaries read this as a condemnation of cultic prostitution (which would explain the reference to God’s holy name). The man and the father would therefore not necessarily be literal, but an indication that the whole of the community is involved in this sin. Of course, once interpretation does not exclude the other, and a double meaning may have been intended.
  • They lay down beside every altar (clearly, Israel wasn’t quite monotheistic enough), upon garments taken in pledge (likely a reference to the same string of laws that gave us Deut. 24:17, prohibiting the taking of a widow’s clothing in pledge).
  • They drink the wine of those who have been fined in the house of their God. The idea that enforcement agencies might profit from greater fines for smaller infractions is certainly still a problem.

Amos breaks the pattern by reminding his audience that God destroyed the Amorites for them – even though the Amorites were as tall as cedars and as strong as oaks. God brought them out of Egypt and led them through the wilderness, then gave them the Amorite lands to call their own. He raised prophets and Nazirites (a person who voluntarily makes a vow, as discussed in Num. 6) from among them, and yet… And yet they have made the Nazirites drink wine and commanded the prophets not to prophecy (a sore point for Amos, I’m sure).

Apparently, the authenticity of this passage about prophets and Nazirites (Amos 2:11-12) is in question, and it’s not hard to see why. It does break the pattern of the condemnations.

In punishment for all of this, God will press them down. Flight will perish from the swift, strength will vanish from the strong, even the mightiest won’t be able to save themselves from the coming punishment. It will be so bad that even the stout of heart will flee naked. Harsh times, indeed.

So, did Amos’s prophecies come true? Well, yes, but given a large enough time frame, foreseeing the doom of just about any nation is a sure bet. One possibility I’m seeing is that of a late authorship – if the book was written during the Deuteronomic reforms or into the exile, the events Amos is predicting would already have been known, and perhaps setting them in the mouth of Amos, or setting Amos in the time of Jeroboam, served a different purpose. Sifting through the arguments for either side is well above my pay grade, but the commentaries I tend to trust the most seem unanimous in the idea that Amos is largely authentic with some possible late additions.

2 Samuel 1: A poor play

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Once cobbled together from multiple sources, 1-2 Samuel was presented as a single, continuous narrative, only to be separated when translated into Greek. This is rather clear given that 2 Samuel 1 follows seamlessly from where we left off in the last book.

Three days after David has returned to Ziklag with his rescued wives, an Amalekite with torn clothes and dirt in his hair – signs of mourning. He claims to have just escaped from the Israelite camp and brings word that Saul and his sons are dead.

When David asks the Amalekite knows that Saul is dead, he answers that he found Saul leaning on his spear (presumably injured), and that Saul asked him to kill him. He agreed, then removed Saul’s armlet and crown, which he has brought for David.

David and his men rend their clothes, then weep and fast until evening. When they are done, David asks the Amalekite to give him his identity – he is, he says, the son of an Amalekite sojourner (which, as we see in places like Ex. 20:10 or Deut. 14:29, implies a long term resident rather than someone just passing through).

You’ll notice a few things about this. First, that this does not match the description of Saul’s death in 1 Samuel 31 (where Saul kills himself after his armour-bearer refuses). Second, the fact that the Amalekite just happened to stumble on Saul and that he then took Saul’s stuff suggests that he may not have been a combatant, but rather a battlefield scavenger (it’s perfectly plausible that the Philistines did not find Saul right away, and while it is said that they removed his armour, his crown and armlet are not mentioned in 1 Samuel 31). Thirdly, it’s clear that the Amalekite considers David to be Saul’s successor, and presumably hopes to win favour by being the one to bring him the symbols of kingship.

Death of Saul, Marc Chagall, 1956

Death of Saul, Marc Chagall, 1956

If I’m reading this correctly, it seems that the Amalekite stumbled on Saul’s body, looted it, then invented the story of killing Saul in the hopes of ingratiating himself with Saul’s enemy and competitor for the crown of Israel.

(Another amusing theory is that Saul is being portrayed as so utterly incompetent that he couldn’t even get his suicide right and had to ask a second person after his armour-bearer had already tried to follow his king to the grave.)

You may also notice that the Amalekite is an Amalekite, not an Israelite. So when David asks him, “How is it that you were not afraid to put forth your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” (2 Sam. 1:14) and has him killed, he is – once again – spared from ever having to do violence against an Israelite. He may be a bandit raider, but at least he’s our bandit raider.

On having the Amalekite killed,David either believes the man’s story, or wants to make sure that he sets an example early on. As for why punish him for essentially doing him a favour, I think that there are two things going on.

The first is that David is portrayed fairly consistently through our narrative as Totally Not A Traitor. He is driven out, sure. He even defects to the Philistine side, but that’s only because Saul gives him no choice and he’s got to provide some form of stability for his family. But at no point is he shown to be the antagonist in his relationship with Saul (and, in fact, explicitly refuses to move against Saul on two separate occasions – 1 Sam. 24 and 1 Sam. 26). So we can take his execution of the Amalekite as an extension of his Totally Not A Traitor persona.

The second reason may have something to do with the “we do not kill princes” policy. If we imagine this story to be taking place in a time of flux and social upheaval, in the nascent years of a monarchy in a land that is accustomed to tribal rule, David’s reign stands a fair chance of ending in the same way as Saul’s. The killing of one’s predecessors as a means of gaining the throne is probably the last precedent David would want to set for his budding monarchy. (There’s a really cool parallel in the rule of Elizabeth I, where she refused to kill her would-be successor to avoid reinforcing the precedent of killing princes. In the end, her followers had to stage an elaborate sham plot to trick Mary into semi-open treason – maybe, or just gave up and forged it – to force Elizabeth’s hand. It’s called the Babington Plot, and it is a surreal and fascinatingly convoluted story of court intrigue.)

David’s question – “How is it that you were not afraid to put forth your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” (2 Sam. 1:14) – helps to illustrate the rationale Saul’s armour-bearer might have been using when he refused to follow Saul’s direct command to kill him.

The lament

David has a reputation as a musician. Like most musicians I know, he turns to song to express the pain of his loss, composing a piece that fills up the second half of the chapter. David commands that his lament be written down in the Book of Jashar, and that it be taught to the people of Judah (presumably only Judah because they are David’s people). The Book of Jashar is a now-lost book that seems to have been a source for at least some of 1-2 Samuel, as well as Joshua. In Joshua 10:13, we are told that the episode of the sun stopping in the sky was described in the Book of Jashar. Given that Jashar contains both stories, we can assume that it was composed – at the very earliest – during the reign of David. Since the Book of Joshua cites it, we can therefore assume that Joshua was written sometime even later.

In his lament, David writes glowingly of Saul, calling him “mighty” several times. He wishes that the Philistines not be told of his death lest they rejoice at it. He asks that the mountains of Gilboa (the site of the battle) become barren for having had Saul die upon it. Then he praises Saul and Jonathan’s military prowess in the battle prior to their deaths, and states that they were not divided in life – a strange thing to say given that Jonathan most certainly had sided with David and Saul tried to kill him for it (1 Sam. 20:32-34). Only in the strictest sense that we say that they were not divided, in that Jonathan had remained at Saul’s side rather than going to Ziklag with David.

In the penultimate verse, David writes of Jonathan: “very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam. 1:26). The phrasing resonates with that of Leviticus 18:22, and certainly seems to suggest that their relationship was of a sexual nature. The other possibility is sexism – equating women with the bedroom and reserving friendship for between men. If that’s the case, then David is essentially saying that he valued his friendship with Jonathan even more highly than he values getting laid. Or, to put it into more modern parlance, it could be his way of saying “bros before hoes.”

1 Samuel 6: Of mice and tumours

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Before getting started on the last chapter of our ark-related tangent, I noticed that chapter 5 tends to refer to the ark as “the ark of God” (such as 1 Sam. 5:1), while chapter 6 tends to call it the “ark of the Lord” (such as 1 Sam. 6:1). This and other details that I’ll mention when I get to them leads me to suppose that that the story of the ark’s return was, at one time, independent from the story of its capture. Or, perhaps, the cobbling editor liked the first part of one version and the second part of another.

When we last left the ark, it was being tossed from Philistine city to Philistine city. Though only three were named (Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron), it’s possible to interpret 1 Samuel 6:4 to mean that all five Philistine cities were hit. We’re told that this odd game of Hot Potato lasts seven months (without any apparently attempt at rescue) before the Philistines have had enough. In 1 Sam. 5:11, the Philistines called on their lords to advise them. Here (1 Sam. 6:), they call on their priests and diviners. (If we wish to be charitable, we might read this to mean that they called on their lords first, who then made the executive decision to call on the priests and diviners. More likely, I think that this is more evidence of at least two versions of the story having been stitched together.)

These priests and diviners suggest that the ark be sent back with an appeasement offering of five golden tumours and five golden mice (some translations say ‘rats’), “according to the number of the lords of the Philistines” (1 Sam. 6:4). This is a rather obvious example of sympathetic magic – send away an image of the thing that’s giving you trouble – but I think, as Brant Clements points out, that the juxtaposition of rats and tumours against the lords of the Philistines is another humorous jab at the Philistines. Certainly, these three “adventures of the ark” chapters have been quite comedic!

You may be wondering about the mention of mice/rats here. If the golden tumours are fetishes to send away real tumours, what are the golden mice? Or, depending on the translation you are reading from, you may not see a problem at all. It seems that the Greek Septuagint included the mice in chapter 5, so either they were dropped from the Hebrew text, or they were added to the Greek to harmonize the two chapters.

There’s also some question about the pairing of mice/rats and tumours. I mentioned in my discussion of 1 Sam. 5 that the tumours may refer to the swellings of the bubonic plague. If that’s the case, either the authors understand the connection between rats and the plague, or they don’t (therefore the concern about the mice/rats likely has more to do with the damage they do to food stores).

Abbie, of Better Than Esdras, points out that there’s a language shift within chapter 6 as well:

Something strange happens at v. 11: the word for “tumors” (עפלים) changes to “hemorrhoids” (טחריהם). But! All previous mentions of “tumors” had an interesting quirk. Basically, the Masoretic text has instructions to read “hemorrhoids” instead of the written “tumors”. This is called Qere and Ketiv, the spoken and the written. I did not know this was used to “fix” textual difficulties like this. Very interesting.

The ark goes to Beth-shemesh

In addition to sending it home with a bunch of golden fetishes, the Philistine priests specify that the ark must be transported on a cart pulled by two dairy cows that have never been yoked, and that the cows’ calves cannot accompany them. They are then to send the the cart off and, if it heads toward Beth-shemesh, they will have confirmation that YHWH was the source of the contagion. If it goes in any other direction, however, they will know that “it happened to us by chance” (1 Sam. 6:9).

The Plague at Ashdod, by Nicolas Poussin, 1630

The Plague at Ashdod, by Nicolas Poussin, 1630

The use of a new cart and dairy cows probably has to do with ritual purity – dairy cows would not have been used to pull anything worldly, and same goes for a new cart. The separation from the calves is a little trickier, but may have to do with the divination aspect of this ritual – the cows would naturally want to head back in the direction of their calves, whereas Beth-shemesh lays ahead. Therefore, if the cows pull the ark toward Beth-shemesh, it can be assumed that they are being led by the hand of God.

So the Philistines lead the cart up to the border, then set it loose. Sure enough, it heads toward Beth-shemesh, and comes to a stop by a particular rock, which then becomes a landmark.

When they see the cart approach, the people of Beth-shemesh (who were out for the wheat harvest) approached. In an odd sense of sequence, they first break up the cart and use the wood from it to sacrifice the two cows, then the Levites come over and set the ark down. I imagine that it simply hovered in the air at about cart-height while the Levites got their act together.

Speaking of Levites, their inclusion seems to be an editorial insert. As my study Bible puts it, their presence in the story may be “to make the procedure conform to later requirements” (p.338).

At some point during all of this, 70 (or, perhaps, 50,000) Israelites peek into the ark and are killed. If I understand correctly, it seems that the Hebrew text includes both figures, presumably by accident. My snarky study Bible lets us know that this “shows how easily exaggeration could occur” (p.339).

While this portion of the story has the clunky feel of an addition, it serves to reinforce God’s power and his dominion over the ark. It is not merely a weapon against the Philistines, but rather subject only to the will and whim of God – just as likely to kill Israelites as non-Israelites.

So the people of Beth-shemesh understandably want nothing to do with such a finicky and dangerous object, so they send a message to Kiriath-jearim, asking if they’ll have it.

Why not Shiloh? It seems that, in the seven months since the ark has been away, Shiloh was destroyed. At least, that’s what every source I’m looking at is claiming.

And that’s it for the ark’s little side adventure. Next chapter, we’re back to Samuel!

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 1-2: Introduction to the judge cycle

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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!

Joshua 13-21: Land allotments, oh my!

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Always a bit of a Debbie Downer, God begins by telling Joshua that he’s getting old and that there is still much land to be conquered. He then proceeds to list these lands in Josh. 13:2-6.

The narrator follows up by describing the boundaries of the land under Israelite control on the east side of the Jordan, reminding us once more about how Moses defeated King Og and King Sihon (will he ever stop going on about that?). We are told that the Israelites had failed to drive out the Geshurites and Maacathites, who still live within Israel “to this day” (Josh. 13:13).

The actual allocation sections are a little scattered, so I’ll deal with the content out of order. In Josh. 18, Joshua tells the tribes who still require lands to each send out three men to scout the land and write descriptions of it. When they return, Joshua will use a lottery system to divide it among the tribes. This all takes place at Shiloh.

ChariotsBecause the place names are extremely boring, I will just list verse references plus any detail that happens to attract my interest. Here are the tribal allocations:

Judah: Josh. 15:1-12, 20-63. Though God had promised to Joshua that no one would be able to stand against him (Josh. 1:5), the people of Judah were not able to drive out the Jebusites, who were the people living in Jerusalem. Because of this, “the Jebusites live with the people of Judah in Jerusalem to this day” (Josh. 15:63).

Reuben: Josh. 13:15-23.  Amid the listing of territories, we are reminded that the Israelites killed Balaam, “who practiced divination” (Josh. 13:22). This was, if you remember, a totally awkward twist from Numbers 31

Gad: Josh. 13:24-28. In Josh. 13:27, we are told that Gad gets “the rest of the kingdom of King Sihon. This conflicts with Josh. 13:21, where we are told that Reuben is to receive “all the kingdom of King Sihon.” The biblical penchant for exaggeration is all well and good, but probably a terrible idea when relating tribal land allocations…

Manasseh (eastern half/Machir): Josh. 13:29-31, 17:3-6. In Josh. 17, we are reminded of Zelophehad’s daughters – Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – who are to receive an inheritance in their own right. Here, the women are given their lands.

Manasseh (western half): Josh. 17:7-13. Once more, the Israelites are unable to kill off all the native inhabitants, so that the Manassites have to wait until they strong enough to enslave the Canaanites.

Ephraim: Josh. 16:1-10. Once again, we are told that they were unable to drive some people out – the Canaanites of Gezer remain and, we are told, have been enslaved.

Benjamin: Josh. 18:11-26.

Simeon: Josh. 19:1-9. Though the apportioning of land was supposed to have been fair, for some reason Joseph had given too much to Judah. So when he gets to Simeon, he doesn’t have enough territory to give and has to carve pieces out from Judah and give them over. Mastermind Joshua strikes again. You’d think he’d have planned ahead a little…

Zebulun: Josh. 19:10-16.

Issachar: Josh. 19:17-23. Excavations began on what is believed to be Anaharath, one of Issachar’s towns, somewhat recently!

Asher: Josh. 19:24-31.

Naphtali: Josh. 19:32-39.

Dan: Josh. 19:40-48. We are told that Dan took land from Leshem, renaming it “Dan” after their ancestor. Unfortunately, they are given Zorah and Eshtaol, which had already been given to Judah back in Josh. 15:33. Poor Joshua just cannot wrap his head around how this stuff works…

Levi: Josh. 21:1-45. Though they get no territory per se, the Levites do get cities, as well as a little pasture land. A portion of the Kohathites are given thirteen towns from Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin. The rest of the Kohathites get ten towns from Ephraim, Dan, and Manasseh. The Gershonites get thirteen towns from Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, and Manasseh. The Merarites get twelve towns from Reuben, Gad, and Zebulun. We are told that Caleb had been given the fields and villages of one of the towns now being given to the Levites.

Caleb and Joshua

Caleb: Josh. 14:6-15, 15:13-19. You’ll remember Caleb has the scout who (with or without Joshua) stood against the other scouts in their position that the Israelites should not rush into the Promised Land. I can’t recall if Moses promised him his own land as a reward at the time, but the text here says that he did. And so, while Joshua is drawing all his lots, Caleb approaches and demands his reward. Though he is 85 years old now, he claims that he is still strong enough to fight and, therefore, would like to be granted the hill country where he had initially seen the Anakim (the giants he saw in Numbers 13). Joshua agrees, giving him Hebron – previously named Kiriatharba. The Arba in the name is the “greatest man among the Anakim” (Josh. 14:15). Incidentally, there’s a discussion over at Remnant of Giants about whether “Anakim” here should refer to a specific group of people, or whether it is used more broadly as a term for giants.

We have to wait until the next chapter and half of Judah’s allotment before we find out what happens next. Caleb heads up to Hebron and defeats Anak’s three sons, Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai. Having now a taste for blood, he heads off to fight Debir, offering his daughter, Achsah, as a wife for anyone who conquers it for him. Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s brother, takes him up on the offer and marries his niece. She tells her new husband to ask her father for a field and they are given some land in the Negeb. Later, while dismounting a donkey (presumably not an unflattering nickname for Othniel), she asks her father for water springs as well. Caleb gives her a few.

It’s a cute story, but we were told in Josh. 11:21 that it was Joshua who had defeated the Anakim in Hebron and Debir.

Joshua: Josh. 19:49-51. Now that all the lands are distributed, God tells the Israelites to give Joshua some land, too. I love this little detail – we are specifically told that the Israelites gave Joshua his land (on God’s command), just in case anyone dared to wonder if perhaps Joshua was skimming a little from the top for himself! Of course, we’re also told that he specifically asked for the town they gave him, so it still feels a little like a stacked deck. Either way, he receives Timnathserah, which is in his tribe’s – Ephraim – land.

The Remainder

In Josh. 20, the cities of refuge are appointed. You will remember these cities from Numbers 35. We had been told that there should be six of them in total, and they are:

  1. Kedesh in Naphtali’s territory
  2. Shechem in Ephraim’s territory
  3. Kiriatharba (Hebron) in Judah’s territory
  4. Bezer in Reuben’s territory
  5. Ramoth in Gad’s territory
  6. Golan in Manasseh’s territory

The latter three had already been appointed in Deuteronomy 4.

The tribe of Joseph (composed of Manasseh and Ephraim) complain to Joshua that they are too numerous for the amount of land they were given. Joshua, who sadly lacks a head for numbers, also managed to muck up Judah’s portion (giving them too much) in Josh. 19:9. To solve the problem, Joshua sends them into the forests belonging to the Perizzites and Rephaim to clear some space for themselves.

But, reply Manasseh and Ephraim, those guys have chariots of iron! (Josh. 17:16) Joshua reassures them that they will be fine, and that they will drive out the Canaanites even though they have chariots of iron and are very strong.