1 Chronicles 8: False Start

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For this penultimate genealogical chapter, we turn back to Benjamin. The tribe has already been covered in 1 Chron. 7:6-12, and there seems to be considerable discussion as to why it should then be repeated here (one theory being that the chapter 7 version was originally intended to be about Zebulun and Dan, but was made to be about Benjamin through corruption).

Assuming that the chapter 7 version really is meant to be about Benjamin, the first thing that stands out is that the construction is different here. In chapter 7, the lineage followed a “the sons of A were…” formula, whereas here, we get a “A fathered B” formula. There’s no reason for the Chronicler to switch back and forth between these formulas, unless the Chronicler is simply copying whatever is being used by his source materials. This, alone, strongly suggests that two separate sources are being used for each of these lineages. (I mean, the fact that that the two contain rather extreme variants makes this rather conclusive, but I thought the note about formulas was rather interesting.)

Another detail worth noting is that the chapter 7 version had more commonalities with Gen. 46:21, whereas the version we get here seems more similar to Num. 26:38-41. Even so, there are more differences than common points. It seems that the Benjaminites were either terrible record keepers, or perhaps a certain usurping dynasty did a little expunging when it came into power.

We begin with Benjamin’s sons: Bela, Ashbel, Aharah, Nohah, and Rapha. Bela and Ashbel both appear in Num. 26:38, but the rest of the names, from either list, don’t match. My New Bible Commentary makes an interesting observation here: The construction in this passage names “Bela his first-born” (1 Chron. 8:1), whereas in 1 Chron. 7:6, we got “Bela, Becher, and Jediael.” According to the Commentary, “In Hebrew, ‘Becher’ and ‘firstborn’ have the same consonants” (p.375). It’s possible, therefore, that the source the Chronicler used in chapter 7 (evidently the same source as was used in Genesis 46:21) incorrectly interpreted the title of “first-born” as a proper name, the same of a second son.

We next move down through Bela (the only son of Benjamin who is named in all four of our lineages!), whose sons were: Addar, Gera, Abihud, Abishua, Naaman, Ahoah, Gera, Shephuphan, and Huram.

It’s perhaps getting redundant to point out that the sons of Bela bear no resemblance whatsoever to the sons listed in 1 Chron. 7:7. We do a little better in Num. 26:40, where his sons are named Ard and Naaman (Ard might be a corruption, or vice versa, of Addar, and Naaman is present in both lists).

The inclusion of two sons named Gera is likely yet another scribal error.


We next come to the sons of Ehud. This, of course, poses a problem since no Ehud has been mentioned so far. According to my New Bible Commentary, this might be caused by a mistake similar to the one that birthed Becher. Abihud, named in 1 Chron. 8:3, may have originally been two separate words, which would replace “Abihud” with “[Gera] the father of Ehud” (p.375).

Some commentaries identify him as the left-handed Ehud the Benjaminite, who was the son of Gera, named in Judges 3:15. This would, of course, require that Ehud be Gera’s son, which would in turn require the assumption I mentioned above regarding Abihud.

The descendants of Ehud lived in Geba, and were taken into exile to Manahath. His sons were: Naaman, Ahijah, and Gera (of which the text says “Gera, that is, Heglam” – 1 Chron. 8:7). Gera fathered Uzza and Ahihud.


From Ehud, we move on to someone named Shaharaim, whose connection to Benjamin’s lineage is not stated. We are told that he had sons in Moab, after he had sent away his wives, Hushim and Baara.

Benjamin and Joseph

Benjamin and Joseph

We might wonder what Shaharaim was doing raising a family in Moab, rather than in the Benjaminite tribal lands. The obvious answer was that he was escaping a famine, just like Elimelech in Ruth 1:1. We see the same famine-driven movements a few times in Genesis, as well.

More perplexing is the phrase “after he had sent away Hushim and Baara his wives” (1 Chron. 8:8). James Pate provides a few possible explanations, but I think that the most compelling is that he divorced Hushim and Baara, then later took a new wife (perhaps a Moabite) with whom he had children in Moab.

We then learn that he had sons with Hodesh, his wife (presumably the one he married after divorcing Hushim and Baara). These sons were: Jobab, Zibia, Mesha, Malcam, Jeuz, Sachia, and Mirmah. The name ‘Mesha’ stood out at me, since it’s the name of the king recorded in the Mesha Stele. It seems that Shaharaim was giving his sons good Moabite names.

He also had some sons by his earlier wife, Hushim: Abitub and Elpaal. Elpaal fathered Eber, Misham, and Shemed. Shemed is said to have built Ono and Lod.

Other Expat Benjaminites

Beriah and Shema are named, though disconnected from the previous lineage. I initially thought them further sons of Elpaal, but the grammar is rather tricky. Of them, we learn that they lived in Aijalon, and that they (or their descendants) fought against the people of Gath, which would mean Philistines.

The list continues, shifting to a different formula. In this one, we get a list of names first, then we are told whose sons they are. It’s a rather annoying way of presenting information, I must say! In any case, the sons of Beriah are: Ahio, Shashak, Jeremoth, Zebadiah, Arad, Eder, Michael, Ishpah, and Joha.

We then move back up to the sons of Elpaal, perhaps further sons or perhaps we are dealing with a different Elpaal: Zebadiah, Meshullam, Hizki, Heber, Ishmerai, Izliah, and Jobab.

Disconnected from Shaharaim’s lineage, we get the sons of Shimei: Jakim, Zichri, Zabdi, Elienai, Zillethai, Eliel, Adaiah, Beraiah, and Shimrah.

Then the sons of Shashak: Ishpan, Eber, Eliel, ABdon, Zichri, Hanan, Hananiah, Elam, Anthothijah, Iphdeiah, and Penuel.

Jeroham’s sons were: Shamsherai, Shehariah, Athaliah, Jaareshiah, Elijah, and Zichri. These, we are told, lived in Jerusalem.  (Perhaps along with the Jebusites, as per Judges 1:21, or perhaps during the Davidic dynasty, or perhaps even in post-exilic times – it’s rather impossible to situation the lineage in time.)

Living in Gibeon, we get Jeiel – named the father of Gibeon – and his wife Maacah. Their sons are: Abdon, Zur, Kish, Baal, Nadab, Gedor, Ahio, Zecher, and Mikloth. Mikloth fathered Shimeah.

There’s an odd verse here: “Now these also dwelt opposite their kinsmen in Jerusalem, with their kinsmen” (1 Chron. 8:33). It seems odd that this should refer to Jeiel’s family, right after we are told that they were living in Gibeon. One possibility is that the sons moved to Jerusalem from Gibeon. Another is that Gibeon is geographically quite close to Jerusalem, and perhaps either fell under Jerusalem’s authority, or there was at least a good deal of traffic between the two towns. Yet another is that this verse is meant to apply to the next lineage, and not to Jeiel’s.

The Genealogy of Saul

In the final section of the chapter, we learn the lineage of Saul, beginning with Ner, who fathered Kish, who fathered Saul (1 Chron. 8:33). This contradicts 1 Sam. 9:1, where Kish is the son of Abiel. Further, if we look to 1 Sam. 14:51, we find Kish and Ner listed as brothers, both the sons of Abiel.

Another detail worth pointing out is that 1 Sam. 9:1 goes further back. It begins with Aphiah, who fathers Becorath, who fathers Zeror, who fathers Abiel, and only then do we get to Kish. Did the Chronicler not have access to those additional generations? Or did he choose not to include them?

The sons of Saul are listed as: Jonathan, Malchishua, Abinadab, and Eshbaal. In 1 Sam. 14:49, Saul’s sons are listed as: Jonathan, Ishvi, and Malchishua. This could be an error, or perhaps Ishvi was another of Eshbaal’s names; a nickname, for example. It could also be an error that Abinadab is omitted, or perhaps he died young and the author didn’t find him worth listing. This latter view is supported by 1 Samuel 31:6, where we learn that Saul and his “three” sons died on the battlefield. Either Abinadab was added to 1 Chron. 8:33 by error, or he was dead prior to the events of 1 Sam. 31:6 (or otherwise out of the picture, but I feel like David’s account would require an explanation for bypassing Abinadab in the succession).

Jonathan fathered Meribbaal, who fathered Micah. Micah fathered Pithon, Melech, Tarea, and Ahaz. Ahaz fathered Jehoaddah, who fathered Alemeth Azmaveth, and Zimri. Zimri fathered Moza, and Moza fathered Binea. Binea fathered Raphah, who fathered Eleasah, who fathered Azel. Azel’s sons are: Azrikam, Bocheru, Ishmael, Sheariah, Obadiah, and Hanan.

Azel also had a brother, Eshek, who fathered Ulam, Jeush, and Eliphelet. Ulam fathered (directly or indirectly, sons and grandsons) 150 mighty warriors).

It’s worth noting that there is a son of Saul named Ishbosheth in 2 Sam. 2:8 and elsewhere. Ishbosheth would be translated as “man of shame”, as opposed to Eshbaal, which would be “man of Baal.” The son of Jonathan named Meribbaal (“Baal contends”) here is apparently the same person as Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth (“From the mouth of shame”), appearing in 2 Sam. 4:4 and elsewhere.

The reason for the author of 2 Samuel to altar these names is theological, concealing the honouring of Baal in the names of the sons of Israel’s first anointed king, and the beloved of the second. It seems clear that Saul and Jonathan worshipped Baal, instead of or as well as YHWH, and that the author of Samuel wanted to fudge that over.

That much is obvious, but the more interesting question is why the Chronicler would keep the original names intact. He could be working with a different source, one that hadn’t bowdlerized the names.

Another possibility is that the Chronicler views David as the true first king of Israel, the perfect monarch to which all others must be compared. It’s “Golden Age” thinking, where there was a perfect time when everything was set up the way God wanted it, and that we fell from that state of grace. The existence of prior YHWH-approved king complicates that narrative, especially if our archetypal king overthrew that original dynasty in a coup.

This provides the motivation to disparage Saul and his dynasty, to deny its legitimacy and therefore to argue that David was actually the first true YHWH-approved king. Keeping hints that the Saulide dynasty worshipped Baal certainly achieves that purpose, if subtly.

1 Chronicles 7: The Northern Tribes

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We continue our tour of Israel’s genealogical history with the northern tribes: Issachar, Benjamin, Naphtali, Ephraim, and Asher. These get much more of a cursory treatment than we’ve seen previously, likely because of the Chronicler’s dismissive attitude toward the tribes who rebelled against David’s dynasty to form what would eventually become Samaria.


The first part of Issachar’s portion corresponds to Genesis 46:13 and Numbers 26:23-25, with some variations. The sons of Issachar are listed as:

  1. Tola
  2. Puah, who is listed as Puvah in both Genesis and Numbers
  3. Jashub, whom the Masoretic Text calls Iob in Genesis
  4. Shimron

In the next generation, Tola’s sons are: Uzzi, Rephaiah, Jeriel, Jahmai, Ibsam, and Shemuel. They are identified as mighty warriors, with 22,600 of them in David’s time.

The line then goes through Tola’s son Uzzi, to Izrahiah. Izrahiah’s sons are: Michael, Obadiah, Jowl, and Isshiah, which the text claims are five, rather than the four we see (1 Chron. 7:3). Along with them (presumably meaning down through their descendants) were 36,000 men ready to fight, “for they had many wives and sons” (1 Chron. 7:4).

Issachar as a whole produced 87,000 mighty warriors.


Benjamin’s inclusion here is a bit weird, since the tribe’s genealogy will be revisited in more detail – getting a whole chapter to itself – in 1 Chron. 8. Some commentaries argue that the Chronicler was simply continuing the source that was used for Issachar, then moved on to a different source later for Benjamin, which would explain why the two version differ so greatly.

Other commentaries argue that a textual corruption or initial error led to this section being misnamed, and that it was originally meant to be Zebulun. This theory is reinforced by the fact that Zebulun is otherwise not represented, and because this coverage of Benjamin occurs where Zebulun “might be expected from the geographical point of view” (New Bible Commentary, p.374).

The problem with the Zebulun theory is , of course, that there are no similarities between the lineage listed here and the ones attributed to Zebulun in Gen. 46:14 and Num. 26:26-27. There are quite a few discrepancies with what we’ve seen so far as Benjamin, but at least there are some points of similarity.

We begin with the sons of Benjamin: Bela, Becher, and Jediael. Jediael is missing from the Gen. 46:21 version, and eight of Benjamin’s sons listed there are missing here. Only Bela is listed in the Num. 26:38-41 version, with the other four sons listed there being absent here.

Bela’s sons: Ezbon, Uzzi, Uzziel, Jerimoth, and Iri, who became the heads of their houses and who are described as mighty warriors. Their number was 22,034. In support of the theory that the Chronicler simply kept copying from whatever source he was using for Issachar, I noticed that the formula is clearly the same between these two sections.

Becher’s sons: Zemirah, Joash, Eliezer, Elioenai, Omri, Jeremoth, Abijah, Anathoth, and Alemeth. They were also mighty warriors, and they numbered 20,200.

Jediael’s sons: Bilhan. Tracing down through Bilhan, we get Jeush, Benjamin, Ehud, Chenaanah, Zethan, Tarshish, and Ahishahar. These, too, were mighty warriors, and their number was 17,200.

At the very end of the section, we get a single verse identifying Shuppim and Huppim as the sons of Ir, and Hushim as the son of Aher. I think. The phrasing is very awkward and likely a corruption. My New Bible Commentary proposes that these may have been intended as a genealogy of Dan, since that tribe doesn’t appear here either (p.374).

Arguing against, we have the fact that the names are rather similar to ones previously connected to Benjamin: Shuppim could be related to Muppim and Huppim appears directly in Gen. 46:21. Then, in Numbers 26:38-41, we get Shephupham and Hupham.

Arguing in favour, we have Hashum listed as the son of Dan in Gen. 46:23, and Shuham in Num. 26:42. On a phonetic basis alone, it seems like a toss up.


If it really is the case that 1 Chron. 7:12 was meant to be a summary of Dan, it wouldn’t have gotten any less of a treatment than Naphtali. Of this tribe, we are told only that the sons of Naphtali are named Jahziel, Guni, Jezer, and Shallum, and that Bilhah (Jacob’s concubine, a slave belonging to his wife Rachel) is their tribal matriarch.

This is notable only because it is the first time the tribal mother is named. Though it is likely just because it was in the Chronicler’s source, rather than for any particular intentional reason. (It is perhaps worth noting that Gen. 46:24-25 specifically mentions Bilhah.)

The names are the same as those found in Gen. 46:24-25 and Num. 26:48-49, with only a spelling variation for Jahziel (Jahzeel) and Shallum (Shillem).


Manasseh’s records are split in half, with the Transjordan portion of the tribe having been covered in 1 Chron. 5:23-26. Here, we get the half from the western bank of the Jordan. Manasseh’s lineage is also discussed in Num. 26:29-33 and Jos. 17:1-13, but there are only passing similarities to this one.

Jacob Blessing His Sons, by Harry Anderson

Jacob Blessing His Sons, by Harry Anderson

Manasseh seems to have found himself an Aramean concubine, which is rather strange. According to James Pate, Manasseh should have spent his whole life in Egypt. “Egypt is far away from Aram: Egypt is to the south of Palestine, whereas Aram (Syria) is to Palestine’s north.” The obvious solution, which Pate points to, is that she came to Egypt through a trade route.

When we get to the genealogy, it’s rather convoluted, and I suspect that we have another instance of corruption. Manasseh, apparently via his Aramean concubine, had two sons: Asriel and Machir. Machir went on to become the father of Gilead, and he seems to have taken a wife from Huppim and one from Shuppim. I think. The phrasing is very odd, and it’s doubly odd to encounter that pair of names again.

Of the mention of Gilead, we can either take that as the literal son of Machir, or as an indication that it is through the descendants of Machir that the location of Gilead would be founded (even though Gilead is named as a literal son who fathers literal children in Num. 26:29-33).

Machir had a sister named Maacah, who was also his wife, or perhaps there are two women named Maacah. It wouldn’t be implausible for him to have married his sister (or half-sister), though. Abraham did it (Gen. 20:12), and Moses hasn’t delivered the laws prohibiting it yet. In any case, Machir and his wife Maacah bore Peresh, and Peresh had a brother by the name of Sheresh (who may or may not have been Maacah’s).

In the middle of this, there is a fragment of a sentence identifying a “second” by the name of Zelophehad who had daughters (1 Chron. 7:15).One possibility that I can see is that Manasseh had one son with a woman who was not Aramean (Asriel), and two sons with woman who was Aramean (Machir and Zelophehad). Zelophehad had only daughters, whereas we shall continue on down Machir’s lineage. Except, of course, that there is a Zelophehad in Num. 26:29-33 who also has only daughters, but he is the son of Hepher, who is the son of Gilead, who is the son of Machir (it is Zelophehad’s daughters who prompt Moses to include women in his inheritance laws in Numbers 27, with an amendment in Numbers 36). That’s the best sense I can make of this passage. 

Back to Machir’s sons, Peresh and Sheresh. One of them – it’s unclear which – fathered Ulam and Rakem. Ulam then fathered Bedan.

Machir also had another sister, by the name of Hammolecheth. She bore Ishhod, Abiezer, and Mahlah.

Someone named Shemida apparently had four sons: Ahian, Shechem, Likhi, and Aniam. This doesn’t jive particularly well with Num. 26:29-33, where Machir is the father of Gilead, and both Shechem and Shemida are the sons of Gilead.


Ephraim’s genealogy appears to be a vertical genealogy, from father to son to grandson and so on, but there are hints that this may not be the case. That, instead, all the names are intended to be Ephraim’s direct sons. For now, I’ll proceed with the assumption that we are dealing with a vertical lineage, beginning with Ephraim:

  1. Shuthelah, who is the only of Ephraim’s descendants to make the list in Num. 26:35-37.
  2. Bered
  3. Tahath
  4. Eleadah
  5. Tahath
  6. Zabad
  7. Shuthelah

From Shuthelah, we get Ezer and Elead. These two were killed by the native Gathites in a failed cattle raid. Here is where things get complicated, as we are told that “Ephraim their father mourned many days” (1 Chron. 7:22).

If Ezer and Elead are meant to be Ephraim’s direct sons, then we have a couple problems. Firstly, it would suggest that all the other names I have listed so far are also Ephraim’s sons. Second, we might ask ourselves what sons of Ephraim were doing in Gath. It’s rather far to go for a cattle raid! James Pate discusses the issue in more detail.

After Ezer and Elead, we move on to another of Ephraim’s sons (this time, the formulation of how he “went in to” his wife makes it quite clear that we are dealing with a literal son), Beriah. Beriah was so named “because evil had befallen his house” (1 Chron. 7:23). Apparently, Beriah can either mean “a gift” or “in evil,” which seems rather ambiguous to me.

Beriah had a daughter, named Sheerah (no, not that one), who built both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, as well as Uzzen-sheerah. If she is historical, it sounds like she might have been a Deborah-like figure, perhaps a local leader or judge.

Down through Beriah’s sons, we get the same problem as above where the grammar lends itself to both vertical and horizontal interpretations. However, since we end with Joshua, it seems likely that this is a vertical lineage. From Beriah, we get:

  1. Rephah
  2. Resheph
  3. Telah
  4. Tahan
  5. Ladan
  6. Ammihud
  7. Elishama
  8. Nun
  9. Joshua

The Joshua who served Moses was also identified as a son of Nun (e.g. Num. 11:28), indicating that this is a lineage of that figure.

We finish up the section with a list of settlements belonging to Ephraim and Manasseh.

Ephraim’s list bears little resemblance, as far as I can tell, to the one found in Jos. 16:5-10. My sources, however, claim that the two lists are generally in agreement. I’m assuming that the territory described must be similar, even if the markers named are different:

  • Bethel
  • Naaran (a Naarah appears in Jos. 16:7)
  • Gezer (Gezer appears in Jos. 16:10)
  • Shechem
  • Ayyah

Manasseh’s list corresponds to Jos. 17:11, and the match is much more comfortable:

  • Beth-shean
  • Taanach
  • Megiddo
  • Dor


Asher’s genealogy mostly corresponds to those found in Gen. 46:17 and Num. 26:44-46. The sons of Asher are listed as: Imnah, Ishvah, Ishvi, Beriah, and their sister Serah. The only variation here is that Ishvah does not appear in Numbers (though I think it plausible that Ishvah is a duplication of Ishvi that became canon).

In the next generation, we get the sons of Beriah: Heber and Malchiel. Again, this is in agreement.

After that, 1 Chron. 7 gives us new material. Malchiel fathered Birzaith, and Heber fathered Japhlet, Shomer, Hotham, and a daughter, Shua.

Japhlet, in turn, fathered Pasach, Bimhal, and Ashvath, while his brother Shomer (here named Shemer – 1 Chron. 7:32-34) fathered Rohgah, Jehubbah, and Aram.

Another man, here called “his brother” (1 Chron. 35) Helem fathered Zophah, Imna, Shelesh, and Amal. It’s possible that Japhlet and Shemer had another brother who was not listed above, but given the corruption of Shomer/Shemer in the space of just two verses, I think it probable that Helem is a corruption of Hotham (or vice versa).

From there, we get the sons of Zophah: Suah, Harnepher, Shual, Beri, Imrah, Bezer, Hod, Shamma, Shilshah, Ithran, and Beera.

After that, we skip over to someone named Jether, whose sons are Jephunneh, Pispa, and Ara. Then someone named Ulla fathered Arah, Hanniel, and Rizia.

We return to the formula of Issachar and Benjamin to learn that the men of of Asher were mighty warriors, and that they had 26,000 men enrolled by genealogies as ready to fight.

Judges: What is a judge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Categories

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

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

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

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

Judges 4-5: On the dangers of camping equipment


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 3: Wherein we find lots of “dirt”

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God is very concerned that the new generations of Israelites aren’t paying the iron price for their stuff, so he sends some people over to “test” them (Judges 3:1):

  • 5 Philistine lords
  • The Canaanites
  • The Sidonians
  • And a bunch of Hivites

Unfortunately, this testing backfires a little and the Israelites start bedding down with their antagonisers – living with the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, intermarrying and “serving the Baals and the Asheroth” (Judges 3:7). This mirrors, with a slight difference, the formula we saw earlier, when the Israelites “served the Baals and the Ashtaroth” (Judges 2:13).

Othniel, son of Kenaz

The first judge is our old friend, Othniel, the circumstances of whose marriage we saw in Joshua 13:17 and Judges 1:13.

God sells the Israelites into the hands of King Chushanrishathaim of Aram-naharaim, which my RSV renders as Mesopotamia. The people are oppressed for eight years before God takes pity on them and raises up Othniel, Caleb’s nephew. Under his leadership, Israel finds peace for forty years, until Othniel’s death.

It’s quite interesting to see these two little snippets of stories. It suggests a much larger story that didn’t make it in.

Ehud, son of Gera

After Othniel dies, the people go right back to their wicked ways, so God sells them to King Eglon of the Moabites (who defeats Israel with the help of the Ammonites and the Amalekites). Israel is oppressed for eighteen years.

This King Eglon, we are told, was rather on the corpulent side. According to Jack Collins, Eglon’s name is something of a joke:

Eglon’s name (Heb. עֶגְלוֹן), it’s worth noting, bears a striking resemblance to the Hebrew words ‘egel (עֵגֶל), meaning “fatted calf,” and ‘agol (עָגֹל), “round,” so the non-Hebrew reader has already missed that the villain of the piece is essentially named “King Swolencalf.”

When God enters the reconciliation phase of his relationship with Israel, he brings up Ehud, son of Gera, of the tribe of Benjamin. Ehud, by the way, is left-handed. This is important to the story, but it is also something of a joke. As Jack Collins explains, “Benjamin” means “son of the right hand.”

Ehud rescues Israel, by Ford Madox Brown

Ehud rescues Israel, by Ford Madox Brown

His left-handedness gives him the advantage he needs. When he is selected to bring a tribute to the Moabites, he straps a sword to his right side, under his clothes. The text doesn’t spell this out, but it seems that any weapons-checking would have assumed that he would have been armed on the left side (a right-handed fighter would cross his arm over to his left side to draw), so they would have missed a weapon hidden on the wrong side.

Once the Israelites make their tribute, they make to leave but Ehud hangs back, telling King Eglon that he has a secret message. King Eglon dismisses his staff and takes Ehud up to “cool roof chamber” (Judges 3:20), which is apparently a bathroom (I’m assuming that the coolness refers to a draft, which would tame the smell?). I didn’t pick up on this when reading, but Brant Clements suggests that perhaps the idea is to give Ehud his private audience while sitting on the toilet as a sort “see what I think of you Israelites” message.

Once Ehud and King Eglon are alone, Ehud – badass that he is – says “I have a message from God for you” (Judges 3:20) and stabs the king through the belly with his sword. He thrusts the sword in so deep that the hilt goes in. He stabs so hard that “the dirt came out” (Judges 3:22). I think that means either that he punctured the king’s intestines, or perhaps that the king defecated. Either way, it’s quite clear from the context that “dirt” is a euphemism.

His job done, Ehud locks the door and escapes (or escapes and then locks the door, depending on your reading).

The servants come to check on their master but determine that he must just be focusing really hard on his business, so they delay in unlocking the door and discovering the body. It seems possible that the smell of the “dirt” makes them think that their master is live and well and happily voiding his bowels in the company of that Israelite guest.

His business done, Ehud runs to Seirah, sounds a trumpet to gather the Israelites, and marches on the Moabites while they are leaderless. Ten thousand Moabites are killed, “all strong, able-bodied men” (Judges 3:29), and Israel gets to rest for the next 80 years.

I really enjoyed Jack Collins’s two posts on this story, which go into quite a bit of detail on the many puns used. The story was funny on first reading, but absolutely hilarious with the commentary Collins provides. Go read Part 1 and Part 2.

And since it’s obligatory, I’ll close off this section with a mention of Deut. 2:9, where God tells Moses: “Distress not the Moabites, neither content with them in battle.”

Shamgar, son of Anath

Shamgar is hardly worth a mention – or, at least, that’s what the author(s) thought. We are told merely that he killed 600 Philistines with an oxgoad (a ‘goad’ being a spiked stick used for driving cattle, according to freedictionary).

His section ends with what is clearly an editor insert: “he too delivered Israel” (Judges 3:31). Ah, so that’s what he was doing with that oxgoad!