1 Samuel 11: Heavy is the head that wears three crowns

Leave a comment

For this chapter, we return to Jabesh-gilead (or Jabesh for short), the town that, in Judges 21:10-14, was slaughtered because a) they failed to muster when called, and b) the Benjaminites needed wives. At some point between then and here, the town has presumably been repopulated, as it is now under siege. The big baddie of this story is Nahash the Ammonite.

When the people of Jabesh try to negotiate the terms of surrender, Nahash responds with rather steep terms: The siege will end if all the people of Jabesh gauge out their right eyes. Unsurprisingly, the Jabeshites start looking at their options. They ask Nahash if they could have seven days respite from the siege during which they would send out messengers. If no one comes to their rescue, they will agree to Nahash’s terms. The fact that Nahash agrees to the respite suggests that he is really confident that no one will come. Jabesh is in the Transjordan, on the east side of the Jordan River. Throughout our readings, the Transjordan has been considered a semi-other border land. We saw, for example, the suspicion with which the region was regarded in Joshua 22.

It seems that this story is a continuation of the Deuteronomist pro-monarchy narrative, illustrating how badly things had gotten: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). In this case, the argument is that without a king, enemies can do as they please, too.

But no one counted on Saul!

When the messengers arrive in Gibeah, where Saul is living, he is out in the fields. Again, he is associated with the pastoral – first in chasing lost donkeys in 1 Sam. 9, and now following a team of oxen. It reminds me of the way Gideon was connecting to farming life in Judges 6. I’m not sure why it’s done, except perhaps to highlight humble origins.

1 Samuel 11So Saul is returning from the fields with his oxen when he hears wailing. It’s explained to him that the residents of Gibeah are wailing because of the news the messengers from Jabesh have just brought. Then, “the spirit of God came mightily upon Saul” (1 Sam. 11:6), connecting him even further to the judges.

Saul slaughters his team of oxen and cuts them up into pieces. He sends the pieces out to every region of Israel (interestingly, the reference is to geographical territories – tribes are not mentioned), along with a threat: anyone who fails to answer his call will end up like the ox.

The connection to Judges 19, where a slave-woman is cut up into pieces and her body serves as a mustering call, is obvious (though the equating of an ox and a human woman is troubling).

300’000 Israelites muster at Bezek, which either includes or is in addition to 30,000 men of Judah. It’s odd that Judah is specified while no other tribe is, particularly given that the ox pieces were sent to regions rather than tribes. It seems that, at least for this source, tribal affiliations have largely lost their significance.

They send word to Jabesh to let them know that they are coming, and will have delivered the town on the next day. The Jabeshites say (presumably to Nahash): “Tomorrow we will give ourselves up to you, and you may do to us whatever seems good to you” (1 Sam. 11:10). The detail could indicate some trickery, convincing Nahash that he’s already won so that he lets his guard down. It could also be a joke. According to my New Bible Commentary, the more literal translation reads “we will come out unto you.” This may be important, because “the verb is often used for going out to do battle, the real intention of the men of Jabesh” (p.293). In other words, it’s a bit like Hannibal Lecter saying “it is wonderful having friends for dinner.”

Obviously, the Israelites win.

The people are so impressed with Saul’s first victory that they demand the nay-sayers from 1 Sam. 10:27 be put to death. Saul refuses to do this, saying that they won’t soil such a glorious day with (Israelite) bloodshed.

Now that Saul has been imbued with the spirit of God – or perhaps now that we’ve entered a different source – Saul is suddenly seen very positively. There’s the victory, for one thing (remember, this is the guy who couldn’t even find a couple donkeys). Now he’s showing mercy and/or concern for ritual purity.

With everyone now on Team Saul, Samuel calls the people back to Gilgal to renew Saul’s coronation. This is the third time Saul is declared king, and the second time it is done publicly. The obvious explanation is that we have different stories that all made it into the same narrative. I don’t think that’s necessarily a given, though, as there may be a rationale for having Saul first be elected by God, then designated by a prophet, and finally distinguished by the lay population. Further, the two explanations are not mutually exclusive. It’s quite possible that an editor took three separate coronation stories and wove them into a single narrative using his default cosmological hierarchy.

Judges 1-2: Introduction to the judge cycle

8 Comments

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!