1 Kings 13: Battle of the Prophets

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This chapter is a strange one, having much more of the folk mythic feel of Genesis or Judges than much of what we’ve been seeing lately. The main difference is that it’s a funny story (I mean, you know, if you go for wild animal maulings), but makes very little theological sense. Its also a very small story, involving Big Character Jeroboam, but without having any impact on his story arc. This all makes me think that it was likely a folk story local to Bethel, either originally involving Jeroboam or made to include him to situate it historically (and to provide the Deuteronomist with a frame for his propaganda).

The story begins with a prophet from Judah, referred to throughout this chapter as “a man of God.” He comes to Bethel – one of the two sites of Jeroboam’s golden calves – and declares that a Davidic king named Josiah will put an end to all this heresy. The fact that Josiah is named and that the story is recorded of course introduces something of a paradox, so it seems rather obvious that this part of the story, at the very least, was composed during or after Josiah’s reign. Even my New Bible Commentary, which generally rejects any kind of multi-document hypothesis or the idea that the stories might have been written down a very long time after the events they describe, seems unwilling to explicitly support any fudging theory. Still, they do at least list one:

Keil, seeking to get around this problem, suggests that the meaning of the name, ‘he whom Yahweh supports’, was the prophecy, and this was fulfilled afterwards in the name. His argument is less convincing when we apply it to the name Cyrus [the other specific name mentioned in an OT prophecy] (p.338)

As a sign that his prophecy is a true one, the man of God says that the Bethel shrine will shortly be destroyed and its ashes poured out (which I assume is a bad thing because the ashes, having been created through ritual, were sacred and couldn’t just be disposed of so easily).

Jeroboam isn’t much impressed with this party-pooper, he holds out his hand to call for the man of God’s arrest. Suddenly, his hand withers and becomes unusable. The text then tells us that the altar is destroyed, though it doesn’t specify whether Jeroboam, in a panic over his hand, commanded it to be done, or if it was some sort of miracle. The implication is the former.

The shrine destroyed, the ashes poured out, Jeroboam begs the man of God to intercede on his hand’s behalf with God. The man of God does, and the hand is restored. The business concluded, Jeroboam invites the man of God to stay for dinner. The man of God refuses, explaining that he was given specific instructions not to eat or drink on his mission, and not to leave the same way he came.

And so he toddles off into the sunset, going in a different direction.

The Israelite Prophet

Enter the second prophet, this time one of Israel. He hears of what had happened and rushes after the man of God to invite him over for dinner. This motives are never explained – he could be maliciously trying to trick the man of God into breaking his vow, or perhaps the invitation is simply extended to a colleague and fellow prophet. The man of God, of course, refuses, explaining the rules he’s been given by God.

Jeroboam's Sacrifice at Bethel, by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, 1656

Jeroboam’s Sacrifice at Bethel, by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, 1656

There’s no explanation for the rules, and they sound very much like the “makes no sense, sounds easy to follow, yet you just know he’s going to mess it up” rules that are so prevalent in folk mythology. The specific prohibition of eating and drinking is a fairly familiar one, being how Persephone was trapped part of the year in Hades and a well known rule for anyone journeying into Fairyland.

Once again, the man of God refuses. But then the prophet tells him that he’s received a vision himself – an angel told him that he must feed the man of God. This, the text tells us, was a lie, though again we’re given no reason for the prophet’s actions.

Convinced, the man of God eats and, in the middle of the meal, the prophet receives a true vision and berates the man of God for his disobedience. The man of God is then killed by a lion on his way home, and the prophet finds his uneaten corpse beside the lion and donkey. He buries the man of God, and he asks that he be buried in the same spot when he dies.

The prophet’s actions are baffling. The events during dinner show us that he was a true prophet, and giving the man of God a burial and requesting to be buried in the same place shows some measure of respect. Why, then, would he lie in order to entrap the man of God? And what does this story say about prophets and prophecy?

Jeroboam

At the very end of the chapter, we’re told that Jeroboam rebuilt the altar, so the entire chapter has had no bearing on the story whatsoever. We’re also told that these altars are “sin to the house of Jeroboam” (1 Kgs 13:34), and will eventually lead to its downfall. But what is the sin, really? It’s given as idolatry, but then Solomon should be an idolater for his own depictions of animals and cherubim in the Temple. In fact, it seems quite plausible that the golden calves were not meant to be God (or even representations of him), but rather place for God to sit, just like the cherubim on the ark.

The sin seems be only that Jeroboam allowed (and promoted) worship outside of Jerusalem. The reasoning, then, is not religious, but political. It’s about consolidating power, and Jeroboam’s acceptance of rural / popular faith was a threat to the urban, centralized religion Josiah would later promote.

That this story of God’s displeasure with Jeroboam is a late composition (or a late appropriation of a folk tradition) is evident both in the explicit naming of Josiah, and in the use of the word “Samaria” to refer to Israel (1 Kgs 13:32). This name, according to my study Bible, was not used “until after the kingdom fell in 721 B.C.” (p.436).

1 Kings 12: Things Fall Apart

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Unfortunately for Rehoboam, he does not get off to a very good start. We were told in the last chapter that this would happen because of Solomon’s polytheism (or perhaps merely his tolerance of his wives’ faiths), but here we see that Rehoboam’s actions might well have led to the fall of the united monarchy without any divine help.

In the beginning of the chapter, Rehoboam heads to Shechem for his coronation. This is a strong indication that the issues that have plagued the monarchy since its very beginning with Saul have never really gone away. After all, Jerusalem is both the religious and political capital of the monarchy, so why wouldn’t Rehoboam be crowned there? Unless he was, and then needed to a separate coronation in the north, showing us that the two regions had been maintaining their separate identities – never a good sign for a nation that wishes to be united.

Looking at the narrative so far, we see that the north originally formed the monarchy under Saul, possibly encompassing only the northern tribes until the south joined up (we see him chosen by lot in 1 Sam. 10:21, and then later elected in 1 Sam. 11:15). It could be that the monarchy was initially a northern alliance, which the south joined up for defense against the Philistines. Later, of course, David ruled only over Judah for seven years (2 Sam. 2:4) before replacing the Benjaminite monarchy in 2 Sam. 5:3. Later, particularly in 2 Sam. 20, we see David struggling to maintain the united monarchy. Things get much worse under Solomon where he appears to be enslaving and over-taxing the northern tribes to support Jerusalem and Judah, making it clear that he saw Judah as the true nation, and the other tribes as subjects states.

But Solomon was an established king, and therefore difficult to challenge. It’s much easier to resist a newbie. So when Rehoboam comes to Shechem to be crowned, Jeroboam comes up out of Egypt to meet him there and, with the backing of “all the assembly of Israel” (1 Kgs 12:3), he presented Rehoboam with an ultimatum: Either ease up from the way Solomon has been treating the northern tribes, or the north will no longer serve the Judahite king.

Despite the claim in 1 Kgs 9:22 that Israelites were not counted among the forced labourers, but were instead given the cushier jobs, it seems here that the situation was quite a bit worse. In fact, even Rehoboam soon admits that Solomon used a whip against the Israelites, which is not something I imagine would be done to overseers so much as by overseers.

It seems notable that the word used for Solomon’s treatment of the Israelites is “yoke,” which, as my New Bible Commentary points out, is “used elsewhere concerning the subjugation of a foreign nation” (p.337).

Rehoboam takes up the shovel

Rehoboam isn’t sure what to do, so he asks for three days to think it over. In a story that sounds like it’s straight out of a Boomer’s “kids these days” article, he first approaches the old men, who tell him to acquiesce now and get to keep his nation. All well and good, but then he goes to the young men who advice him instead to tell the Israelites that “my little finger is thicker than my father’s loins” (1 Kgs 12:10), and that as hard as they found it under Solomon, Rehoboam will only make it harder. Rehoboam, of course, chooses to listen to his buddies.

Rehoboam, wall painting from the Basel Town Hall Council Chamber, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1530

Rehoboam, wall painting from the Basel Town Hall Council Chamber, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1530

The story is hilarious and awful, but it also rings extremely true. How often have politicians bought their own propaganda and behaved in such atrocious ways? The story also serves to show us that, even though Rehoboam was doomed to see his nation splinter because of his father’s actions, it’s not like he was an innocent party. He’s certainly not Bathsheba’s first son.

The Israelites, of course, are unimpressed. They ask: “What portion have we in David?” (1 Kgs 12:16), the phrasing nearly identical to that used in the last great division in 2 Sam. 20:1, clearly reinforcing that the united monarchy was the abnormality, not the divided one. So all of Israel abandoned Rehoboam, save for the cities in Judah – though the phrasing seems to be indicating that the individuals who remained loyal to Rehoboam were not all Judahites. It seems that there had some migration outside of traditional tribal boundaries, and that perhaps the people from other tribes who were living in Judahite cities chose to remain there rather than migrate back north. None of this is stated explicitly, though, so I may well be reading too much into the narrative.

Rehoboam, being an overconfident jerkwad, decides to send in Adoram as his mediator. It’s hard to imagine that this was anything other than a deliberate insult from a man who still believed that he was too powerful to be challenged, since Adoram is his overseer of forced labour (likely the same as Adoniram, mentioned in 1 Kgs 4:6 and 1 Kgs 5:14). Predictably, the Israelites see the statement for what it is and react by stoning Adoram to death. Apparently only now realizing, yes, he really is about to lose half his nation and, yes, he is currently on the wrong side of the fledgeling border, Rehoboam flees back to Jerusalem.

The narrator tells us that “Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day” (1 Kgs 12:19). Yet despite the use of the word “rebellion,” I’m not feeling much resentment toward Israel. Throughout, the narrative seems clear that Jeroboam was acting with God’s approval, and even under God’s guidance. Further, both Solomon and Rehoboam are described as fully deserving the loss of their united nation. So we’re left with a sort of tug-o-war between the theological idea that the nation only fails when it is deserved, and the political resentment against the rebels. It feels like this was definitely propaganda meant for an internal audience.

Aftermath

When Rehoboam reaches Jerusalem, he raises an army of 180,000 men (an obvious exaggeration) from both Judah and Benjamin – though it seems that the inclusion here of Benjamin is thought to have been an editorial insert to bring the total number of tribes up to twelve. Though in contradiction to 1 Kgs 12:20, my study Bible suggests that perhaps the tribe of Benjamin was “split in the division,” allowing Rehoboam to both remain king only over Judah (as a complete tribe) and for him to be able to raise soldiers from Benjamin, though I can’t imagine those soldiers’ feelings would have been uncomplicated.

Either way, this suppression never seems to go anywhere as Rehoboam is called back by a prophecy, delivered through Shemaiah, instructing him not to bother. Rehoboam packs it in and sends everyone home.

Back in Israel, Jeroboam quickly realizes that he won’t remain king for long if Jerusalem is still the centre of Hebrew worship. Not only is there the influence factor, where his people will be going into Jerusalem and there be exposed to anti-Jeroboam propaganda, there’s also the strong possibility that his peoples’ faith will be held hostage by Rehoboam and the priests loyal to him.

To eliminate this vulnerability, Jeroboam makes two golden calves, one in Bethel and one in Dan. He also makes temples in several high places, and appoints priests of his own – who are explicitly not Levites, as though this were a bad thing and as though we hadn’t seen the Judahites appointing non-Levite priests as well.

The golden calves are obviously important. It’s possible that the golden calf story in Exodus 32:4 was meant as an indictment of Jeroboam’s shrines. However, it’s also possible that the calves were part of a pre-existing exodus/YHWH tradition that Jeroboam was appealing to, and which later authors disparaged in Exodus 32, once that aspect of the cult had fallen out of favour. After all, the bull was also used by the Baal cult.

It may also be important to note that Jeroboam’s words here, “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kgs 12:28), are very similar to Aaron’s words, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4). The use in both of the plural “gods,” which sort of makes sense here given the two calves but is absolutely out of place in Exodus 32, suggests that the two passages are connected.

As Collins explains, “Jeroboam may have drawn a parallel with an older tradition about the exodus to led legitimacy to his revolt, but it is also possible that the celebration of the exodus became central to the cult of YHWH only at this time” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.137).

The choice of Bethel as a site is an obvious one given its cultic significance (mentioned in Genesis 28 and Genesis 35). Dan also seems to have had some religious significance, a hint of which can be found in Judges 18:29-31.

We’re told that Jeroboam initiated a special festival, likely the new year, on the 15th day of the eighth month. According to Victor Matthews, it could be that Jeroboam was “reverting to an old agrarian calendar that was followed in the north before David and Solomon centralized Israel’s worship in Jerusalem. Such a calendar would reflect the difference harvest seasons in the Levant, which varied according to the temperature ranges of specific regions” (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.90).

Between this, the calves, the non-Levite priests, and the multiple shrines, it looks an awful lot like Jeroboam was reinstating the legitimacy of the folk religion – likely still practised by most of his subjects – that Solomon had attempted to turn into a politically-controlled state cult. While the only grievance specifically mentioned in this chapter is of Solomon’s use of forced labour from Israel, it may well be that the Israelites were not happy about the changes he had been making to their faith, either.

Finally, we’re told that Jeroboam build (or, rather, rebuilt, or perhaps expanded) Shechem and Penuel. Building up Shechem makes sense, as a capitol would require better defences and more infrastructure than a regular city. His reasons for construction in Penuel aren’t explained, however its location in the Transjordan offers up a few possibilities. Given its strategic location, it may have been “an attempt to keep the Transjordan areas from Rehoboam.” The New Bible Commentary also suggests that “it may have been connected with the invasion of Sheshonq (Shishak) who mentions Penuel on the inscription telling of his campaign, but there is no OT record of this” (p.337).

This last bit is an intriguing line of thought. So far, Sheshonq has been the only named Pharaoh of Egypt (1 Kgs 11:40). Combined with the connection between Jeroboam and the exodus narrative (as exemplified by the mention of the golden calves above), it could be that the memory of an exodus, or perhaps of an exodus specifically from Egypt, could have begun as a story of refugees fleeing from Sheshonq’s invasion. It seems quite plausible that this became a seminal event in the cultic worship of Israel, or that the details of fleeing from Egypt were simply grafted onto an existing migration narrative. If anyone knows a bit more about the context and how plausible this interpretation might be, I’d love some additional information!

This chapter also gives us a good hint as to why David has been so idealized in recent chapters, despite the far more complicated view of him in 2 Samuel. As Victor Matthews explains:  “Despite his attempts to consolidate power through political and religious reforms, Jeroboam still lacked one thing that his rival Rehoboam possessed. This was the sense of legitimacy that comes from multigenerational dynastic rule. Rehoboam had made mistakes, but loyalty to the Davidic line kept him in power, at least in Judah, and protected his descendants on the throne for the next three centuries. The tradition of an “everlasting covenant” with David’s house (2 Sam 7:18-29; 1 Kgs 11:34-39) grew in importance and influence over the years” (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.92).

1 Samuel 29-30: The Great Rescue

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Before we got sidetracked by Saul’s adventures in Endor, we learned that David was going out to fight with the Philistines against the Israelites. So far, David has managed to avoid the conflict of interest by lying about the victims of his raids (1 Samuel 27), but now his betrayal seems inevitable.

At no point are we given insight into David’s feelings about all of this. He seems perfectly willing to follow Achish into battle in 1 Samuel 28, and he expresses no reservations here. Rather, it is the other Philistines who complain about his presence – worried that David might turn on them during the battle, seeing this as a great strategy if David wants to reconcile himself with Saul.

After all, they say, isn’t this the David from the song?

Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his ten thousands (1 Sam. 29:5)

Achish defends David’s presence, arguing that David has shown himself to be nothing if not loyal. But, in the end, he gives in to the will of the people (and interesting parallel to Saul who, in 1 Sam. 15:22, 24, claimed that he only disobeyed God because he was afraid to go against the popular opinion – just as, here, Achish goes against his conscience for the same reason).

David protests using much the same language as he used when defending himself to Saul in 1 Samuel 24 and 1 Samuel 26, but ultimately gives in and heads back to Ziklag, conveniently spared the faux pas of having to fight against his own people (over whom he will son be king, no less!).

The common argument about this story is that it gives David an out. He was apparently known to have defected to the Philistines, and trying to erase that historical detail would have proved impossible. What was possible, however, was at least keeping him away from the battle in which his chief nemesis dies, exonerating David from any intentional power play.

David versus the Amalekites

When David gets back to Ziklag, he finds that the town has been raided by Amalekites and burned, the women (including David’s two wives, Ahinoam and Abigail) taken captive.

David rescues the captives, Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

David rescues the captives, Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

This apparently has a rather profound effect on morale, because David’s followers start talking about stoning him. Which seems a little extreme, but perhaps the rationale is that they wouldn’t have left their families undefended if David had not taken them out to fight with the Philistines. To defend himself, we are told that David “strengthened himself in the Lord his God” (1 Sam. 30:6). It’s not really clear what this means, but perhaps he invoked their belief in God (and his position as God’s chosen) to dissuade the people from mutiny.

As he’s been doing a lot before making major decisions (even when they seem as clear cut as “shall I rescue my wives?”), David calls for Abiathar to consult God. Should he pursue the bandits, he asks? Of course, God says yes, so David marches out with his 600 fighting men.

Some of them appear to be getting a little on in years, because 200 of them simply can’t go on after they reach Besor. David carries on with his remaining 400 men. This will be important later.

On their way, they encounter a starving Egyptian. They feed him – apparently quite well – and find out that he is the servant of one of the Amalekites, left behind after he had fallen sick. According to the Egyptian, Ziklag was not the only place hit, the Amalekites had also raided the Negeb of the Cherethites, areas belonging to Judah, and the Negeb of Caleb. He agrees to lead David to the raiders.

He does so and David smites all except for 400 who manage to flee.

Everything and everyone taken is recovered from the Amalekites, plus a good deal of spoil. Not a bad run, all told.

When David’s army rejoins with the 200 men they had left behind at Besor, the 400 who had gone on start grumbling that they shouldn’t have to share the spoils with people who didn’t even fight. Heck, they don’t even want to return their property (except for women and children, which is a concession I’m glad they made).

David argues that those who fight in the battle and those who stay behind to guard the baggage are both important, and both deserve a share of the spoils. He makes this an ordinance that is to apply to all Israel henceforth, though it isn’t clear on what authority he does this.

Once he returns to Ziklag, David sends part of the spoils out to various elders of Judah, smoothing any concerns over his allegiance and presumably paving the way for their support when it comes time to select a new king of Israel.

How many times can an Amalekite die?

It’s been pointed out that the Amalekites are utterly killed on several occasions. There are a couple possible explanations for this.

Reconciling Samuel’s slaughter of the Amalekites with Saul’s is rather easy, as it could be that Samuel’s list is not of his personal achievements in battle, but rather of the achievements of Israel/God while under his spiritual leadership.

For Saul and David, it could be that we’re dealing with hyperbole. It’s not like the authors of the Bible are totally unfamiliar with the technique.

It could also be that we’re dealing with a subset of Amalekites, not the entire people. We’ve seen this before, particularly in censuses, where the term “people” is used when only the adult men are meant. So in 1 Samuel 15: 7-8, it could well be that the “all the people” Saul kills refers only to the men currently on that battlefield. This might well exclude the raiding party for David.

1 Samuel 13: The Great Falling Out

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The chapter opens with something of a mystery. According to John Hobbins’s translation, the opening line reads: “Saul was a year old when he became king, and he was king over Israel for two years.”

Clearly, Kish didn’t send his one-year-old out to fetch donkeys, and I think we can assume that a one-year-old can’t have a son out leading armies (we will be meeting his son Jonathan shortly). Even if we accept the possibility of a narrative jumbling – in which case the events in which Samuel is clearly an adult may have taken place after his coronation – it would be too unusual for an infant to be a dynasty founder without it getting a mention.

Far more likely, we have a corruption of the record. It could be that the earliest text had correct figures that were later dropped, or perhaps the original author didn’t know and used these numbers as a place-holder.

Hobbins goes on to mention other variations of the passage that contain more realistic figures:

There are ancient witnesses that supply a plausible age for Saul at the beginning of his reign – the Lucianic recension of the Old Greek has 30 years; the Syriac has 21 – but there are no grounds for thinking that either goes back to an earlier stage of the text in which Saul’s age when he became king was not lacking.

If anything, the presence of different figures suggests, to me, that later scholars were concerned about the absence of realistic figures and included their best guesses – arriving at different conclusions or possibly drawing from different traditions.

If we assume a late composition date, it’s not unreasonable for the author not to have access to the actual figures. Which raises the question of why he would bring up the topic at all. It could be that the point is to indicate that these events aren’t occurring right after the events of 1 Sam. 12. Rather, time has passed, perhaps quite a few years.

Saul at war

Saul selects 3,000 soldiers, sending the remainder home. He keeps 2,000 of them with him at Michmash while his son, Jonathan, leads the remainder in a raid against the Philistine garrison at Geba.

Saul reproved by Samuel for not obeying the commandments of the Lord, by John Singleton Copley, 1798

Saul reproved by Samuel for not obeying the commandments of the Lord, by John Singleton Copley, 1798

For all that the Philistines are the baddies in these stories, Saul is clearly on the offensive. When Jonathan wins, Saul blows a trumpet to signal that the tides have turned, and to call the people to Gilgal (raising the question of why he’d dismissed them in the first place).

When they hear of it, the Philistines muster 30,000 charioteers, 6,000 cavalry, and innumerable footsoldiers. They gather at Michmash, where Saul had so recently been.

The number of Philistines has the Israelites quaking in their boots, and many hide “in caves and in holes and in rocks and in tombs and in cisterns” (1 Sam. 13:6). In apparent reference to 1 Sam. 10:8, Saul waits seven days for Samuel, but Samuel doesn’t show. Saul, seeing his people starting to desert and having no idea where Samuel is or if he’s even coming, takes matters into his own hands. He orders that a sacrifice be performed without Samuel.

When Samuel arrives, he is furious. He declares that, by crossing the church/state barrier, Saul has broken God’s commandments. “But now,” he says, “your kingdom shall not continue” (1 Sam. 13: 14).

There’s the impression that Samuel may not have taken too well to the loss of his secular authority. We see a hint of this in 1 Sam. 8:7, where God tries to reassure Samuel that it is he who is rejected, not Samuel. Now that we see Samuel so furious, I wonder if it’s not because Saul has attempted to erode his last little corner of power.

Or, if we read in some allegory, it could well be that this story presents a conflict between secular and religious authorities at a time when secular authorities were just forming in the region. It seems that Samuel, as a stand-in for religious authority, is attempted to create and preserve a role for his “team” within the context of the new monarchy.

We now learn that the Philistines have, in their attempt to control Israel, forbidden smithing (not an unknown strategy – when she defeated the Oirats, the Mongolian queen Mandukhai forbade the use of knives even for eating). This indicates a power well beyond that suggested so far. Or, perhaps, it is hyperbole intended to ramp up the suspense of the story.

As a practical detail, we learn that the Israelites have had to turn to Philistine smiths to tend their tools, paying a pim (1/2 shekel) for work on ploughshares and mattocks, and 1/3 shekel for sharpening axes and setting goads.

Only Saul and Jonathan are armed with proper weapons. Which all makes it rather impressive that Jonathan was able to defeat the garrison at Gibeah.

 

1 Samuel 10: The making of a king

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1 Sam. 9 was supposedly from the Early Source, the one that still had good things to say about the monarchy. Yet, as I pointed out in that post, the chapter is easily read as a comedy with Saul as the punchline. Here, the first half (1 Sam. 10:1-16) is said to be a continuation of that source, before we switch for the latter portion of the narrative, which is from the Late Source. The first half of the chapter has a very different texture to it from 1 Sam. 9, though, and I have trouble seeing them as a single source (except for one little detail that I think you’ll spot when we get to it).

The chapter picks up on the morning after Saul and Samuel meet. Saul’s servant has been sent off, and Samuel wanted to teach Saul about God. Before doing this, however, he starts oiling up Saul’s head and kissing him. Only then does he finally tell Saul that God wants to make him king of Israel. Despite the late reveal, Saul doesn’t seem to protest the oiling much. Perhaps he thought Samuel was helping him to get rid of nits?

Interestingly, when the people asked for a king, they said that they specifically wanted someone who would lead them into battle (1 Sam. 8:20). Here, Samuel charges Saul with saving “them from the hand of their enemies round about” (1 Sam. 10:1). It seems that everyone is on the same page.

Next, Samuel gives Saul three signs that he will soon see:

  1. As he passes by Rachel’s tomb (near Bethlehem), he will meet two men who will tell him that the donkeys have been found and that his father is worried about him.
  2. At the oak of Tabor, he will meet three men who are heading toward the sanctuary at Bethel. One of them will be carrying three kids (an extremely impressive feat to anyone who has ever seen goats close up – he’ll likely be bald by the end of his journey), one will be carrying three loaves of bread, and the third will be carrying a skin of wine. They will give Saul two of their loaves of bread.
  3. When he arrives at Gibeath-elohim (where, we are told, there is a Philistine garrison), he will meet a band of prophets coming down from the high place (some kind of altar or sanctuary) playing music and prophesying. At this time, “the spirit of the Lord will come mightily upon you, and you shall prophesy with them and be turned into another man” (1 Sam. 10:6).

When all these signs occur, Saul may “do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you” (1 Sam. 10:7).

Samuel anoints Saul, from the Nuremberg Bible of 1483

Samuel anoints Saul, from the Nuremberg Bible of 1483

The purpose of the signs isn’t exactly clear. It could be an acknowledgement that Saul may be struggling to believe that he could leave his house to look for some donkeys and come home the king of Israel. Perhaps these signs are meant to prove to him that God really has chosen him.

It could also be that the signs are meant to be seen symbolically. Just off the top of my head, it could be that #1 is meant to tie up the loose ends of his previous life, #2 is meant to show that he will have the support of the people (or something about taxes), and #3 will align him with God and bind together the office of holy man and king.

In closing, Samuel tells Saul that he will come before him at Gilgal at some unspecified future date, and they will make offerings. Then, Saul will have to wait seven days for further instructions.

The first two signs happen backstage, and we pick up the story again with Saul hanging out with the ecstatics at Gibeath-elohim. The people are amazed to see him prophesying (which, from the context, likely means something like speaking in tongues and was probably quite a spectacle). They can hardly believe that Saul, the guy who can’t even find his donkeys in the morning, is out there with holy men. This generates a new proverb: “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Sam. 10:12), which must have been some sort of analogue to the modern “Does the pope shit in the woods?”

At some point in all of this, Saul meets his uncle and gives him the run-down re: the donkey situation. It’s cool, he says, because Samuel told him that they had been found. Notably, he specifically does not mention all the monarchy business, though we are not told why. It is also unclear why he is debriefing his uncle rather than his father. In fact, it’s an odd passage altogether.

The Lottery

One possible reason for Saul not telling his uncle about the monarchy business is that Samuel is about to conduct a lottery to select Israel’s king, and it might look rather bad if word got out that the thing was rigged.

So Samuel gathers the people together at Mizpah, because of course the people are gathered at Mizpah. Quoting God, he says that the people have rejected him [God] and demanded a king. This, as you can tell, signifies that we’ve officially switched to the Late Source, which isn’t too thrilled with this monarchy business.

To choose the king (or, more likely, to divine the person God has in mind), Samuel sets up a lottery. The tribe of Benjamin wins the tribe round, the Matrites win the family round, and Saul wins the individual round.

All is going well so far except, wait, where’s Saul?

The people can’t find him anywhere, so they finally ask God for help in finding the new king. He has “hidden himself among the baggage” (1 Sam. 10:22), says God. Classic Saul.

At this point, I imagine that the Israelites are probably having second thoughts about the whole monarchy business. Still, he is very tall, and his height impresses most of the people. That’s enough for them and they proclaim him king.

Samuel tells everyone the rights and duties of kingship, writes these in a now-unknown book, then sends everyone home.

The chapter ends by telling us that Saul has lots of supporters, but there are some who haven’t been totally swayed by his height and still doubt his abilities to save them. These people are described as “worthless fellows” and contrasted with the “men of valor” who support Saul (1 Sam. 10:26-27).

We saw something like this – though not quite so pronounced – in Judges, particularly with Gideon in Judges 6. It could be that Saul is described in such an unflattering light to highlight the idea that he was not chosen for his personal qualities. In other words, he did nothing to deserve his appointment to the kingship. Rather, his successes are all God’s.

Certainly, the mention of “the spirit of the Lord [coming] mightily upon [him]” (1 Sam. 10:6) connects him to the judges, many of whom had a similar experience using much the same words (in English, anyway). So I think it’s reasonable to use Judges to better understand what’s going on with Saul.

1 Samuel 7: Getting back in good graces

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We begin chapter 7 with another attack from the crappy chapter break monster! Taking up from the last chapter, the men of Kiriath-jearim (the Levites of 1 Sam. 6:15 have apparently disappeared) bring the ark to Abinadab. While the ark was in his hands, Abinadab consecrated his son, Eleazar (presumably not the same Eleazar who was high priest after Aaron) so that he could have charge of it.

It doesn’t seem that anyone considers either Abinadab or Eleazar to have been a high priest, yet it seems strange that they should have charge of the ark and not be so. Just as it’s strange that the ark should have sat in Philistine hands for seven months without anyone mounting a rescue, and no one seems to know what to do with it now that it’s back. It seems to me that perhaps the ark was a local cultic object, perhaps from the Shiloh region, and that the rest of the Israelites didn’t really care that much about it. At least at that time.

The ark remains in Kiriath-jearim for twenty years while the people do a lot of “lamenting” (1 Sam. 7:2), which, in context, likely means something like praying for help against the Philistines.

Sam’s Career

There are fifty-five chapters in the combined books of Samuel, and chapter 7 already brings us into the titular hero’s dotage.

The ark drops from the story, and there doesn’t seem to be any indication that Samuel misses it, or tries to get it back, or sees himself as Eli’s successor in its care, or even knows that it’s back from Philistia. Rather, we just see Samuel yelling at the people for having adopted Baals and Ashtaroth. If only they’d put them away, he says, God would save them from the Philistines. The people, without mention of complaint or hesitance, do so. According to my study Bible, this mention of foreign gods is likely a Deuteronomist addition. Certainly, the narrative flows perfectly well with 1 Sam. 7:3-4 removed.

He then gathers all (all!) the people at Mizpah. We’ve seen this location a few times before, mostly in Judges. It’s where Laban and Jacob swear an oath in Genesis 31:48-50. In Judges, it seems to have been quite strongly associated with mustering armies: It’s where the Israelites mustered against the Ammonites in Judges 10:17, and where the other tribes mustered against the Benjaminites in Judges 20. It is also associated with Jephthah in Judges 11. Now, it’s where Samuel prays over the people and has them perform a sort of cleansing ritual in which they confess to their sins.

360_ark_covenant_0215Once the people are purified, Samuel turns his attentions to Philistia. Or, rather, the Philistines find out that the Israelites are gathering and assume the (probably accurate) worst. The Israelites are afraid of the approaching Philistines, so they ask Samuel to continually pray for them while they fight. It’s a bit like Moses’s arm waving during the battle against the Amalekites in Exodus 17, except that Samuel makes a “whole burnt offering” (1 Sam. 7:9) – likely meaning that the whole animal is burned up, with no portion saved for human consumption – instead.

It works. When the Philistines advance, God “thundered with a mighty voice” (1 Sam. 7:11), confusing and routing them. Whether intentional or not, this story provides a contrast to the last battle against the Philistines. In both cases, it looks – at least to me – like the sacred is being used fetishistically, in the sense that some object is brought or ritual performed in the belief that it will cause God to grant victory. The only meaningful difference, it seems, is that Samuel is a Good Guy, whereas the last battle had no such leader-hero. Or perhaps there’s some theological nuance that I’m missing.

Having achieved his first victory against the Philistines, Samuel sets up a monument – a stone that he names Ebenezer (or “stone of help”). If that names sounds familiar, it’s because it’s where the Israelites mustered against the Philistines in 1 Samuel 4 – the battle that preceded the one in which the ark was lost. Either we have two separate stories of battles against the Philistines in connection to Ebenezer (at least one of which confused the source of the name), or Samuel is being delightfully snarky.

In 1 Sam. 7:13-14, we are told that the Philistines are permanently subdued, and that all the cities they had taken are returned to the Israelites (including Ekron and Gath – two of the Philistine pentapolis). Not only that, but Samuel also somehow managed to bring peace between Israel and the Amorites.

Of course, there’s a problem with that; if Samuel did indeed achieve all of this, then Saul’s career (coming up shortly) makes no sense. So my New Bible Commentary proposes a different reading, arguing that these verses are a summary of Samuel’s entire career, “not just the part of it that preceded Saul’s becoming king” (p.290). In other words, this chapter may be crediting Samuel with what will later be credited to the monarchy. It may be evidence of that ‘judge vs. monarch’ ideological conflict I mentioned earlier.

Closing up, we’re told that Samuel judged in a circuit, moving between Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah, and his home in Ramah (building an altar in this last location, a detail that evidently made it passed the editors). I checked out these locations on my study Bible map and they seem to be in a fairly small geographical region. Much smaller than would be expected from a prophet known to all of Israel (1 Sam. 3:20).

Judges 20-21: The punishment and redemption of Benjamin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tribal Preservation Society

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

You can see how this might be an issue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judges 4-5: On the dangers of camping equipment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Deborah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there’s Meroz. According to Collins:

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

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

As long as you follow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Jael’s tent

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

Jael and Sisera, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Jael and Sisera, by Artemisia Gentileschi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claude Mariottini takes a different view:

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

[…]

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

Sisera’s mother

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

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

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

Final notes

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

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

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

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

Judges 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.

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