2 Samuel 24: David conducts a sinsus

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This chapter is very confusing in a number of ways: The narrative seems to skip around a bit chronologically, and the underlying theological assumptions are something of a mystery.

The story begins with God angry at Israel and Judah again. Because he’s so angry, he decides to incite David against Israel and Judah by making David take a census. The reason for God’s anger is never stated, the reason for wanting to create a divide between David and the Israelites/Judahites is never stated, the rationale that has a census create that divide is never stated. We’re still on our very first sentence and I’m already totally lost. It’s just that kind of story.

For whatever reason, conducting a census is a Very Bad Thing. The rationale is never explained, though all the guesses I’ve seen run along the same lines as the Got Questions? article: “in those times, a man only had the right to count or number what belonged to him. Israel did not belong to David; Israel belonged to God.”

Of course, that answer isn’t without problems, since God is the one who compelled David to take the census, as he did in Exodus 30 and Numbers 26, where doing so was not a sin.

The only way out would be for us to interpret the idea that God compelled David to conduct a census in the same way that he hardened Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus – that the statement is one of belief in God’s absolute power, that all things happen under his control, rather than that he directly commanded David to hold a census.The purposes seem to be the same as well – directing the leader so that he would have an excuse to kill lots of people. Yet he is quoted as speaking directly to David, which gives a different impression.

My New Bible Companion suggests that the plan was to punish the Israelites and Judahites for “the sin of rebellion (against David)” (p.314). This would explain why it is the people who will be punished and why God’s stated desire is to “incite David against them” (2 Sam. 24:1), but is contradicted by the entire device of making David call for a sinful census to accomplish it.

Still, the taking of a census is apparently so inherently and obviously wrong that Joab – when he and the other army commanders are asked to count up all the battle-worthy men of Israel of Judah – protests. He asks David why he would ask for such a thing, to which David replies something to the effect of “because I said so.”

It’s interesting to note that Joab is again shown to be advising David, trying to steer him toward a better course of action, as he did when David’s plan to get rid of Uriah in 2 Samuel 11 was too hamfisted.

In the end, though, David is king and the king’s word is law, so his commanders conduct a census all through Israel and Judah, including Kadesh, Sidon, and Tyre, which “were not truly in Israel or Judah, even when under the control of David” (RSV, p.411). In all, they find 800,000 men in Israel and 500,000 in Judah, a far greater number than is at all likely.

Attack of conscience

The census in, David suddenly has the eerie feeling that he’s made a terrible mistake.

By morning, Gad the prophet arrives with news – there will be a punishment for the census, however David will be allowed to choose which he would prefer:

  1. Three years of famine;
  2. Three months of fleeing from his enemies;
  3. Or three days of plague.

As a side note, we’ve met Gad before, way back in 1 Samuel 22:5, where he warned David not to stay put. Though he is identified here as David’s seer, these are the only two mentions we get of him.

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez, 1866

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez, 1866

David chooses the third option, claiming that he would rather be in God’s hands than in the hands of a human foe. This does not, however, explain why he did not choose the first option.

The choices themselves are interesting. The first, of course, happened just a few chapters ago, in 2 Samuel 21. The second has happened twice, when David was fleeing from Saul beginning in 1 Samuel 20, and when he was fleeing from Absalom in 2 Samuel 15. That leaves the third option as the only one David hasn’t tried yet.

Seventy thousand people die of the plague, though the text reassures us that God stops his rampage before reaching Jerusalem. He does get quite close, though, stopping at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (which will apparently become the site of the future temple Solomon will build).

The phrasing seems to suggest that God decided to stop, then David begged him to stop, then he actually stopped. However, it makes more sense to take the bit about God stopping at Araunah’s threshing floor as a sort of introduction to the portion of the story that tells us how he was compelled to stop. Or perhaps the muddling of the chronology was an editor/author’s way of letting the audience know that God don’t take no instructions from nobody, by giving his decision to stop primacy in the narrative.

Seeing the mass destruction caused by the plague, David appeals to God. He is upset that God is killing so many innocent people just because he sinned. David is speaking directly to God when he calls him out. It’s a scene very reminiscent of Abraham’s appeal in Genesis 18.

Although his plea is still rather distasteful by modern standards. Rather than kill all these innocent civilians, argues David, why not kill all my innocent family members instead?

To end the plague, Gad instructs David to build an altar at Araunah’s threshing floor – implying that it is David’s action that will end the plague, and not that God had already decided to end it (or that the three days are up).

Araunah offers David the location, some animals to sacrifice, and some stuff to burn, but David refuses. He will not sacrifice what he has not paid for. Instead, he pays fifty shekels of silver for the location and animals, builds the altar, makes the sacrifice, and everyone gets to go home happy.

My study Bible notes that “fifty shekels of silver would be worth about twenty dollars” (p.412). Unfortunately, the note does not elaborate, but that seems like a very small sum to pay for so much. It seems that while David was too proud to pay nothing, paying next to nothing suited his conscience just fine. Perhaps it was an honour thing – allowing David to say that he paid for the location while also allowing Araunah to say that it was a gift.

2 Samuel 19: The Return

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The victory of Absalom’s defeat is marred by David’s anguish over the loss of his son, so the soldiers return home in the same shame as they would have in defeat. Joab, probably correctly, reprimands David for focusing so much on the personal. While he is focused on his own personal pain, the soldiers who fought (and several, presumably, died) to save David and his household are covered in shame for their efforts. Worse yet, argues Joab, the whole situation only arose because “you love those who hate you and hate those who love you” (2 Sam. 19:6).

Further, continues Joab, David’s extreme mourning over his son/enemy (sonemy?) sends the message to his followers that they are worthless to him, since he might well have preferred that they all had been killed and Absalom won the day.

In closing, Joab tells David to speak kindly to his followers, or they will desert him. In response to Joab’s plea, David “took his seat in the gate” (2 Sam. 19:8). The gate, as we’ve already learned, is where governance happens. So while we don’t get to see David’s praise and thanks to his people, we do see him at least putting the personal aside enough to return to his duties as a leader.

Recovering the nation

Of course, there’s still a kingdom to regain. Absalom had deposed David, so if David wishes to return, he must rebuild the federation of tribes.

The text tells us that the Israelites (which, in context, excludes Judah and David’s retinue) had fled back to their homes after the battle. They summarize the situation by saying that David, as king, had subdued their external enemies, but then fled before Absalom. With Absalom now dead, there’s a question of what should happen next. The passage is rather unclear, but the gist seems to be that a not-insubstantial portion of the Israelite population questioned whether a unified king is still needed, now that the external threats are gone. Why not return to the pre-monarchy tribal system? Why should they bring David back?

2 Samuel 19But it seems that Israel wasn’t David’s only problem. He relays a message to the elders of Judah – via the priests Zadok and Abiathar – asking why they haven’t called him back as their leader since the lay Judahites apparently want him. He also a note to Amasa – who was the commander of Absalom’s army (2 Sam. 17:25) – promising to make him his commander instead of Joab. Clearly, he is trying to woo back those who had sided with Absalom.

The predominant explanation for why Joab should be replaced is that David was still sore over the murder of Abner in 2 Samuel 3:27. That assumes, of course, that David wasn’t behind it, or that he didn’t appreciate – privately – the benefits of Abner’s death. Certainly, he seemed to have been in no particular hurry to punish or demote Joab, and was quite happy to use his services more explicitly when he wanted to get rid of Uriah in 2 Samuel 11. If anything, the text shows us a completely loyal Joab whose only fault is to be willing to do rather horrid things on behalf of David (whether at David’s explicit command, or simply because it’s something that needs to be done before David can achieve some goal). As we saw both in 2 Samuel 11 and earlier in this chapter, Joab is more than just brute force, too. He disobeys David’s exact command in the killing of Uriah so that it can be done more subtly, in a way that will minimize – or even eliminate – the repercussions for David. In this chapter, he called David out, giving him a much needed reminder that he needed to act the king if he ever wanted to regain the crown.

It’s possible, then, that David decided to replace Joab simply because he knew, or believed, that Joab was too loyal to be sore about it. He might have believed Joab to be so firmly in Camp David that he wouldn’t mind being replaced by Amasa if it meant regaining support for David. Which leads us back to Joab’s own words: “You love those who hate you and hate those who love you” (2 Sam. 19:6).

Whatever the future repercussions, David’s plan works and the Judahites are swayed. But that still leaves the rest of Israel.

The meeting at Gilgal

Judah heads across the river to Gilgal to meet with David and accompany him back to Jerusalem.

Shimei – who had thrown rocks at the fleeing David in 2 Sam. 16:5-14 – showed up with one thousand Benjaminites, begging forgiveness. It’s hard to think that he suddenly changed his mind that David was the cause of the fall of the house of Saul. Presumably, he simply realized that David was about to be king again and was a little concerned that the rock-throwing incident might be held against him.

Abishai, like Joab, has long been David’s follower, and is the very caricature of bloodthirst. Where Joab always seems quite happy to murder David’s enemies, Abishai argues in favour of it. He tried to convince David to murder Saul in 1 Sam. 26:5-12, and he pushed for the immediate killing of the rock-hurling Shimei in 2 Sam. 16:8-9. Now, once again, he advises David to kill Shimei.

David refuses a second time, however, saying that Shimei’s curses meant nothing since David is returning to Jerusalem and the crown.

Ziba – the servant David had assigned to Mephibosheth who had been granted all of Mephibosheth’s lands after claiming in 2 Sam. 16 that Mephibosheth was refusing to follow David out of Jerusalem – arrives with his fifteen sons and twenty servants. It seems that they help David and his retinue ford the Jordan.

Unfortunately, Mephibosheth comes too, displaying all the signs of mourning and having done so since David fled from Jerusalem. He claims that he had asked Ziba to prepare a donkey for him to ride, needing one due to his disabilities, but that Ziba had simply left instead.

(As a side note, the text introduces Mephibosheth here as the “son of Saul” (2 Sam. 19:24). In context, this presumably means that he is from the house of Saul, rather than being in error.)

Given two contradictory accounts, David takes the easy way out and simply tells the two men to go halfsies on the land. Mephibosheth refuses his half, however, since having David back safely is good enough for him.

The final petitioner is Barzillai, who had fed the fleeing David. David asks him to come along to Jerusalem, but Barzillai refuses. He argues that, at 80, he is too old for the pleasures of court and would rather stay close to home so that he can die near his family tombs. He does, however, give someone named Chimham for David to bring along – presumably his son or some other close relative.

Israel suddenly becomes very angry that Judah “stole” David from them, claiming that they should have ten shares of him. The ten shares reference seems to be about the tribes – each having a share of the king. Of course, if Israel has ten, who has the other two? Judah has, of course, one, but that leaves the twelfth.

Looking at a map of the divided monarchy, it seems that Simeon may have been culturally linked with Judah, or at least separate from Israel. Another possibility is Benjamin, since between Shimei and Ziba, David’s procession would have included a large number of them, perhaps leading the Israelites to refer to them together.

In the end, “the words of the men of Judah were fiercer than the words of the men of Israel” (2 Sam. 19:43), suggesting that they won the argument but that the matter was certainly not settled.

2 Samuel 17: A tale of two counselors

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With the addition of Hushai, Absalom now has two counsellors. Of course, what he doesn’t know is that only one of them is on his side.

Needing to deal with his father, Absalom first turns to Ahithophel. Ahithophel suggests that Absalom give him 12,000 men to pursue David, taking advantage of the fact that David is on the run and hasn’t had a chance to organize. Besides, he’s been on the run, so he’ll be exhausted.

Ahithophel assumes that David’s retinue will scatter once they see the 12,000 men coming, leaving David behind to be killed. The operation would therefore be a precision strike, getting rid of David without giving his retinue a reason to resent Absalom.

This advice pleased Absalom, as well as “all the elders of Israel” (2 Sam. 17:4). Either the Israelites are seriously fickle, or David’s really gone too far. Or perhaps Absalom put all his stat points into Charisma.

2 Samuel 17Absalom may have liked Ahithophel’s advice, but he still wants a second opinion. Hushai’s advice is just about the opposite of Ahithophel’s. He argues first that Ahithophel’s plan is a bad one because David and his men are both very mighty and very mad. Further, David is an expert at war; he wouldn’t be somewhere obvious to be found and assassinated. No, David has surely buried himself in a pit! If he proceeds with this plan, Absalom will lose people, and it will shake the people’s confidence in him.

Rather, says Hushai, Absalom should take his time and gather all of Israel, then lead them himself when they go after David. When they catch up, they will kill David and slaughter his entire retinue. They’ll raze David so hard that, if he hides in a city, they’ll just rope up the whole city and drag it out into the valley until its completely destroyed.

Ahithophel’s plan is to capitalize on the disorganization of David’s fleeing retinue, attacking them fast before they have a chance to entrench and prepare. Hushai’s plan, on the other hand, depends on superior might. His plan is to just throw everything at David and roll right over him.

Absalom chooses Hushai’s advice. There are a few possible reasons for this: Ahithophel proposes to take care of the problem for Absalom, while Hushai’s plan has Absalom emerge as the hero. Hushai’s plan also involves the total slaughter of everyone who sided against Absalom. Or perhaps the text’s explanation is the correct one: God made him choose Hushai because he’s setting Absalom up for failure (though this note is, according to my study Bible, an addition by a later editor.

Down the well

It appears that Absalom doesn’t tell his counsellors whose advice he will follow. Perhaps he suspects that one of them (or someone else around him) is a spy. Which, of course, one of them is.

Hushai wastes no time before he reports to the priests, Zadok and Abiathar. According to what he tells them, it seems that he believes that Absalom has chosen Ahithophel’s plan.

The priests get a message out to their sons, Jonathan and Ahimaaz, via a maidservant. It might have aroused suspicion if they were coming in and out of the city, so they were waiting outside for instructions. Despite their precautions, however, a boy sees them and reports to Absalom, who comes out after them.

Jonathan and Ahimaaz hide in a well, and a woman puts a cover over them and sends Absalom in the wrong direction. After searching for a while, Absalom gives up and heads back home.

Now free of danger, Jonathan and Ahimaaz meet with David and tell him that Ahithophel is on his way. David and his retinue carry onward and cross the Jordan, losing Absalom his advantage. It seems like it didn’t matter which advice Absalom chose, whatever the editorial insert tells us.

Back in Jerusalem, Ahithophel finds out that Absalom has chosen not to follow his advice. Perhaps he now knows that Absalom will ultimately lose and fears the disgrace of having chosen the losing side. Perhaps he feels shamed by having had his advice disregarded. Either way, he goes home and hangs himself.

Back out in the field, Absalom has chosen Amasa to lead his army rather than Joab – implying that Joab was a possibility and therefore had sided with Absalom instead of David (EDIT: In light of 2 Sam. 18, this reading is incorrect. It seems, rather, that Joab had to be replaced as the leader of Israel’s army because he has defected to David’s side). Amasa is the son of Ithra, an Ishmaelite whose wife was Zeruiah’s niece. This would make him Joab’s cousin once removed? The family relationships are getting complicated. In the genealogy, it gives Amasa’s grandfather as Nahash, though it should be Jesse – unless Jesse’s wife remarried at some point. It could also be a transcription error because someone else is the son of a man named Nahash later in the same paragraph.

David reaches Mahanaim, and he’s met by Shobi (son of Nahash the Ammonite), Machine (son of Ammiel from Lodebar), and Barzillai the Gileadite. The three men bring him supplies. This is precisely what Ahithophel’s plan for swift action was trying to avoid.

One thing I noticed in this chapter is just how many of the characters are not Israelites. Israel is looking like a very diverse place!

2 Samuel 2: It’s all fun and games…

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With Saul dead, it’s presumably safe for David to return to Israel. Still, given all the emphasis on David as the heaven-anointed successor to Saul, having him just waltz back into the country after his competitor was conveniently killed might seem a little too forward. So instead of telling us simply that David returned, we have to go through the ol’ “he asked of God” bit again. God sends him to Hebron, in the territory belonging to Judah.

When David arrives, he is anointed as the king of Judah.

I’ve guessed before that the competition between David and Saul could well have been once between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin as the two tribes struggle for supremacy in the Israelite confederacy.

It could also be that Judah’s inclusion in the emerging Israel was by no means a given at this stage. We can see in Judges 5:13-18, for example, that Judah was not always listed among the tribes.

The third option is that the word “king” is used here in the same way that it’s used to refer to the city state leaders (just like Achish is the Philistine king of Gath, the other cities of the Philistine pentapolis each having their own king with no king of Philistia itself). I doubt that this is the case, however, since the bible has so far preferred “elders” to refer to local governments.

David’s (or God’s) choice of Hebron may be significant, as it is associated with several patriarchs.

Once established, David sends his blessings to Jabesh-gilead for their role in recovering Saul’s body. Once again, the point that David absolutely did not participate in Saul’s killing and absolutely grudges the unquestionable benefits he gains through it is reinforced.

The king beyond the river

Meanwhile, despite the insistent repetition that Saul and his sons were killed in 1 Sam. 31, one appears to have survived – Ishbosheth. I’m seeing the argument made that Ishbosheth appears, named Ishvi, in the list of Saul’s sons in 1 Sam. 14:49. However, three names are given in that list and the phrasing implies that it is complete, but 1 Sam. 31:6 tells us that Saul died in battle with his three sons.

So whose hand was I holding?

It’s probably that Ishbosheth is not the person’s real name anyway. According to my study Bible, the name can be translated as “man of shame” (p. 376). Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, a reference in 1 Chronicles 8:33 suggests that his real name might have been Ishbaal, or “man of Baal” (implying that Saul was not quite the monotheist 1 Samuel paints him to be). It seems possible that an industrious editor, either keen to erase evidence of polytheistic worship from the record or perhaps simply poking fun at this character, altered the kid’s name.

Ishbosheth, whom we are told is 40 years old at this time, is taken to Mahanaim by Abner, Saul’s old commander. Despite Ishbosheth’s age, he seems to be a passive agent in this and through most of the rest of his story, with Abner filling a sort of regent role. It’s strange, and I’m not sure what it means.

In Mahanaim, Ishbosheth is crowned king of Gilead, the Ashurites, Jezreel, Ephraim, Benjamin, and all Israel. There are a few notes to make about this list. The first and most obvious is that Israel is mentioned separately from the individual tribes and territories. This suggests that Ishbosheth’s rule over Israel as a whole is more theoretical, a claim he clings to though in reality he has no actual authority. Think of Daenerys Targaryen claiming herself to be the monarch of Westeros despite her exile.

The mention of the Ashurites is an impossibility. According to my New Bible Companion, Ashurite is normally used to refer to the Assyrians, and it’s clearly impossible for Ishbosheth to be king of the Assyrians.

The Hebrew text has probably resulted from a scribal confusion of two names, the men of Geshur (an Aramaean state, N of Gilead) and the men of Asher. The Targum reads ‘men of Asher’, probably correctly, while the Syriac and Vulgate have Geshurites. (p.303)

Having his capitol be in Mahanaim, to the east of the Jordan river, represents a retreat. That area has so far always been a sort of borderlands, a dubious inclusion in the territory assigned to Israel. But with the Philistines pushing from the west, it may have been the only viable location for a capitol.

It seems likely that Ishbosheth is only really ruling Gilead, that Israel belongs to him only in theory, and that the other groups mentioned merely swore fealty to him but likely retain most, if not all, of their own sovereignty.

We are told that Ishbosheth ruled from Mahanaim for only two years, and that David ruled in Hebron for seven and a half years. This complicates the timeline a little. Since we know that David will be king of Israel after Ishbosheth, it leaves five years unaccounted for (either before or after Ishbosheth’s reign). One possible explanation is that David ruled Judah from Hebron for two years, then maintained it as his capitol after being crowned king of Israel for a further five and a half before moving to Jerusalem.

Play gone wrong

For reasons that are never explained, Abner (as Ishbosheth’s representative) meets Joab son of Zeruiah (as David’s representative) at the pool of Gibeon, yelling at each other from either side of the water. They have each brought 12 champions, which they set on each other in a kind of mock battle.

The Contest, by Barbara Griffiths

The Contest, by Barbara Griffiths

Unfortunately, all 24 champions kill each other, leading to the place of their fighting being renamed Helkath-hazzurim, or “the field of the sword edges.”

It could be that this mock battle was intended as a representative battle, like the one that Goliath proposed in 1 Samuel 17:10. Unfortunately, with all the champions dead, it results in a tie. It seems that with no resolution to decide the issue, David and Ishbosheth’s armies all fall on each other.

This is all guesswork because the narrative really isn’t clear about what’s going on, and it’s never indicated what they are even fighting over. Though, I suppose the easiest conclusion we can draw is the house of David and the house of Saul are engaging in open conflict over the Israelite crown (which gives the lie to the idea that David is passively given the crown by God and country).

According to Brant Clements of Both Saint and Cynic, it could be that the use of 12 men on each side could be a symbolic representation of the twelve tribes engaged in a civil war.

Once the conflict devolves into a large-scale battle, the followers of David are victorious and Abner flees. Joab’s brother, Asahel, takes off in pursuit.

Abner first tries to tempt Asahel into letting him escape, telling him to go scavenge some bodies for spoils instead. Asahel is not dissuaded and the chase continues. Next comes the scare tactic, with Abner saying that he has no desire to kill Asahel (and thereby become the enemy of Asahel’s brother), but Asahel doesn’t listen.

Finally, Abner hits him with the butt of his spear, piercing Asahel through and killing him. Abner’s intent isn’t clear, and the Hebrew noun translated “butt” is apparently uncertain. It seems, however, that there’s at least a possibility that Abner merely meant to hit Asahel, perhaps to make him fall or at least stagger him long enough for Abner to get away, and that Asahel’s death was accidental.

Asahel’s brother, Joab, continues the pursuit along with their other brother, Abishai. You remember Abishai as David’s companion when he sneaks into the Israelite camp to steal Saul’s spear in 1 Sam. 26:6-9. In that story, Abishai tried to convince David to kill Saul while he had the chance, but David magnanimously refused. It seems that this bloodlust runs in the family.

So Joab and Abishai are pursuing Abner, intending to kill him and avenge their brother. Finally, Abner is joined by a Benjaminite army and, perhaps feeling a little more confident with the backing, turns to face the two brothers. He calls them out with a fantastic verse that just gives my chills:

Shall the sword devour for ever? Do you not know that the end will be bitter? How long before you bid your people turn from the pursuit of their brethren? (2 Sam. 2:26)

Joab insists that they were only planning to chase him a little longer anyway, but he backs down.

Now free from his pursuers, Abner travels without rest back to Mahanaim. Joab returns to the scene of the battle and does a body count, finding a total of 20 dead on David’s side and 360 dead on Abner’s side. After stopping to bury Asahel at Bethlehem, Joab and Abishai head back to Hebron right quick.

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.

 

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 10-12: Of bastards, bandits, and child sacrifice

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Abimelech is never, as far as I can tell, explicitly called a judge. He is included in the book of Judges, but his narrative could have been intended as a follow-up to Gideon’s story. Here, Judges 10 begins: “After Abimelech there arose to deliver Israel […]” (Judges 10:1). This phrasing is a little ambiguous. Does it mean that the sentence will finish by naming the judge who follows the judge Abimelech, or does it mean that Israel needed saving after Abimelech was through with it?

It’s important because our interpretation informs our idea of what it means to be a judge – is the important point that the individual be a leader appointed by God, or merely a leader?

Following Abimelech, we hear of two judges, called “minor” because they lack the stories of the main judges named in the book:

  1. Tola, son of Puah son of Dodo. Though of Issachar, he lived in Ephraim’s territory. He was judge for 23 years.
  2. Jair of Gilead was judge for 22 years. He had thirty sons who rode thirty asses (*gigglesnort*) and had thirty cities, called Havvothjair.

This isn’t actually our first mention of our friend Jair – in Numbers 32:41, Jair – there listed as a son of Manasseh – attacked and took the villages of Ham, calling them Havvothjair.

Setting the stage

Once again, the people fall into evil, “serving the Baals and the Ashtaroth” (Judges 10:6), as well as the gods of Syria, Sidon, the Ammonites, and the Philistines. As punishment, God sells them into the hands of the Philistines and the Ammonites for 18 years, except they only oppressed the Israelites on the other side of the Jordan. But the Ammonites also cross the Jordan to fight Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim. The narrative is a little confused/confusing.

Whatever God did, it was bad and it involved the Ammonites (and maybe the Philistines?). The people repent and beg God for help.

God, clearly claiming the moral high ground, gives an “I told you so” speech and tells them to go cry to the other gods since they seem to love them so much.

Rags to riches

Meanwhile, we learn about Jephthah. His parentage is a little confused – he is the “son of a harlot” (Judges 11:2), but his father appears to be Gilead himself.

As in Judges 1, it seems that the tribe is appearing in a personified form, here capable of having sons. Yet I’m having trouble finding any information on Gilead as a tribal entity. A quick google search is only telling me that it’s a region – not a tribe. Yet in Judges, it seems that it is used instead of Gad. This is clearly something that I will have to look into more.

Father issues aside, Jephthah, as a bastard, is cast out from his home when his ‘natural born’ brothers reach adulthood. Denied a share of his father’s inheritance, he turns to a life of crime – becoming some sort of bandit king in Tob.

Though the Ammonites make war against Israel (Judges 11:4), only Gilead seems particularly affected. Once again, we see what appears to be a local story clumsily edited to appear national.

So the elders of Gilead come to Jephthah, because for some reason he is the only person capable of defeating the Ammonites. Jephthah jumps at the change to gloat now that his brothers have come grovelling.

It’s a little unclear whose idea it is, but somehow everyone agrees that Jephthah will come to fight the Ammonites and, when he wins, he will become the leader of Gilead (Judges 11:8-10).

With that, he ties on his bandanna and moves out.

Confronting the Ammonites

Interestingly, Jephthah doesn’t just charge into battle as other judges have done. Rather, he first tries talking to the Ammonites, to understand why they are being such meanies. It reminds me of Joshua 22, where the altar-builders are asked why they’ve built the altar and given the chance to explain.

The Ammonites claim that the Israelites, on coming out of Egypt, took their land. Their campaign, then, is merely to reclaim the lands that had previously been theirs. They ask that Jephthah hand it over peaceably.

Jephthah denies their complaint, arguing that Israel hasn’t taken land from either the Moabites or the Ammonites (which would be in keeping with Deut. 2:19, 37). Rather, he explains, they asked for passage through Edom and Moab, were denied, so they went around. They stayed on the other side of the Arnon, which means that they can’t have touched the Moabites. The Israelites then sent word to King Sihon of the Amorites in Heshbon asking for passage. Rather than simply refusing, the Amorites attacked, Israel won, and they took possession of Amorite lands. It is this land, from the Arnon to the Jabbok, that they took – Amorite land, not Ammonite.

If Jephthah’s story sounds familiar, it’s probably because we saw something similar in Numbers 20-22. But not all of those chapters are quoted. In fact, if we subscribe to the Documentary Hypothesis, it seems that the authors of Jephthah had access to only one of the sources that went into Numbers 20-22.

Abbie has a discussion of the sources used up on Better Than Esdras (she even has a chart!).

Jephthah continues: The Israelites own the land that they are on because they were taken in battle and because God says so (Judges 11:23). “Will you not posses what Chemosh your god gives you to posses?” (Judges 11:24), he asks. Perhaps the question means “what would you do in our place? Wouldn’t you hold on to land given to you by your god?” Though I have also seen Jephthah’s argument interpreted to mean that they should go inhabit the land that their god is strong enough to give them rather than bothering the Israelites (in other words, make it a battle between gods rather than between people).

Regardless, it’s a bit of a strange thing to say because, according to my study Bible, “Chemosh was the god of the Moabites, not the Ammonites, whose chief god was called Milcom (or Molech)” (p.310).

Besides, continues Jephthah, do the Ammonites think themselves better than Balak son of Zippor (who, here, is either the king of Moab or the son of a king, though I don’t believe that any mention was made of this in Balak’s story in Numbers 22-24). Balak didn’t go to war against Israel, so why do the Ammorites think that they have the right to?

Jephthah’s final argument is that Israel has now been living in the area for three hundred years, so why have the Ammorites waited so long to lay claim to it? So much time has passed that they can now be considered aggressors, not defenders. I found this argument a little shocking given the relationship between modern Israel and Palestine, and I wonder how this passage is received by those involved in that conflict.

The Ammorites are having nothing of Jephthah’s arguments. So at this point, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” (Judges 11:29), prompting him to go on the attack.

Predictably, he fights the Ammonites and wins “with a very great slaughter” (Judges 11:33).

Jephthah’s daughter

When he is filled with the Spirit of the Lord, Jephthah vows that if he is successful in his campaign, he will offer up as a sacrifice the first person who comes out of his house to green him when he returns (Judges 11:30-31).

Lament of Jephthah's Daughter, by Narcisse Diaz de la Pena, 1846

Lament of Jephthah’s Daughter, by Narcisse Diaz de la Pena, 1846

When he returns, the first person he sees is his daughter – an only child – who emerges dancing with a timbrel to greet him. Jephthah, in his grief, rends his clothes. His daughter reassures him, insisting that he must fulfil his vow. Only, she asks for two months in which to wander the mountains with her companions and bewail her virginity.

At the end of the two months, she returns and Jephthah fulfils his vow. It is in her honour that, says the text, “the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year” (Judges 11:40).

In reading about this chapter, I’ve come across the argument that this story was intended to serve as a warning against making rash vows. However, he makes his vow after he is entered by the Spirit of the Lord.

As Collins puts it:

While the story in Judges certainly appreciates the tragedy of the outcome, there is no hint that Jephthah did wrong either by making the vow (for which he was rewarded with victory) or in fulfilling it. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 112)

It seems to me that the story serves simply to explain the origins of a particular holiday – the four days a year that women in Israel honour Jephthah’s daughter’s virginity (bemoaned because, as a virgin, she has had no children and therefore her death marks the end of Jephthah’s line).

The story also seems to take for granted that human sacrifice is a thing that is done, despite later condemnations of the practice. Abraham and Isaac’s story suggests the same, though in that story the human sacrifice is made unnecessary by replacing the victim with an animal.

That is, of course, if sacrifice is really what is meant here. There are some who argue that the “sacrifice” was that Jephthah’s daughter would be consecrated as a nun, though I don’t know if there is any evidence for virginal/celibate female monastic orders in ancient Palestine. Tim Bulkeley provides an explanation of this argument. Personally, I think it’s a bit of a stretch motivated by a desire to bring this story in line with later theology.

Ephraim at it again

As in Gideon’s story in Judges 8:1, Ephraim is angry that Jephthah fought the Ammonites without them. Unlike Gideon, who had simply attacked, Jephthah claims that he did actually ask for help, but that the Ephraimites had refused to come to Gilead’s aid while they were being harassed. It is because Ephraim hadn’t protected Gilead that Jephthah had had to take care of business himself.

That’s the first we’re hearing of this, of course. Perhaps in the first the Ephraimites are hearing of it too! I suspect that the editor of Jephthah’s story added this detail to justify his later actions.

Because, unlike Gideon who mollified Ephraim, Jephthah just goes ahead and attacks them.

During the attack, the Gileadites guard all the fords on the Jordan, preventing the Ephraimites from escaping. Anyone who attempted to cross the ford would be questioned, asked if they were Ephraimites. If they said no, they were then asked to prove it by saying “Shibboleth” (or “ear of grain”). Since the Ephraimites apparently speak a different dialect, they are unable to pronounce the ‘sh-‘ and instead say “Sibboleth,” betraying their identity. It’s quite a little bit of linguistic detail!

All told, the Gileadites kill 42,000 Ephraimites – or, as Victor Matthews argues, they kill “forty-two eleph of the enemies. Though most translations render this as forty-two “thousand,” an eleph is more likely a designation for a military unit” (Manners & Customs in the Bible, p.59). Either way, quite a high number.

A few more minor judges

Jephthah rules for six years before he dies. He is followed by three more minor judges:

  1. Ibzan of Bethlehem, who is said to have had thirty sons and thirty daughters, all of whom he married to people outside of his own clan. He was judge for seven years.
  2. Elon the Zebulunite was judge for ten years.
  3. Abdon, the son of Hillel the Pirathonite, had forty sons and thirty grandsons who, altogether, rode on seventy asses. He was judge for 8 years.

I don’t know what the significance is of the asses in the record of Abdon and Jair. Does anyone have any ideas?

Judges 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.

Joshua 22: Premature copying

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Satisfied with the conquest and ready to retire, Joshua calls up Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh. He thanks them for sticking around as they had promised to Moses back in Numbers 32 and, with that, sends them home.

It doesn’t take long before there’s trouble, however. Once they get home, the three Transjordan tribes build themselves a nice big altar.

Given the focus of the Deuteronomistic Histories on the centralization of worship, this is obviously a rather big mistake. Or, at least, it seems so. When the rest of the Israelites hear about it, they quickly muster at Shiloh, ready to get back to the holy war-making that had only too recently ended.

JoshuaPhinehas goes on ahead, accompanied by ten chiefs (one from each of the remaining tribes). You may remember Phinehas, by the way, from Numbers 25 where he murdered two lovers for being of different ethnicities. By doing so, he stopped a plague that God had sent to the people and was rewarded with a perpetual priesthood for himself and his descendants. Lovely stuff.

So here he is again, rushing to defend the faith. Only this time, it seems that he’s angered too quickly. The Transjordan tribes defend their altar, saying that it isn’t real, it’s just a replica. They had no intention of ever using it to make sacrifices (knowing that this is only to be done at the tabernacle). Rather, they made it as a “witness.” They were concerned, they explain, that “in time to come your children might say to our children, ‘what have you to do with the Lord, the God of Israel? For the Lord has made the Jordan as a boundary between us and you'” (Deut. 22:24-25).

It’s hard to imagine how building a second altar, explicitly breaking God’s law (even if they never planned to actually use it), would serve this purpose. It’s more likely, I think, that the story is used as justification for the continued existence of an altar that the author grew up near and has fond childhood memories of.

It’s also strange, given the context of a time when God is explicitly speaking to the people, that they would fear that the other tribe might (falsely) read God’s purpose in geographical design. It makes me think of all the instances of people doing precisely this today, like a hateful old man claiming that Haiti’s earthquake was divine punishment, or the idea that pain in childbirth must be a consequence of sin.

The Transjordan tribes’ concern is even stranger because Deuteronomy has, so far, been pretty easy-going as far as who can participate in worship. As long as your testicles are uncrushed, foreigners generally seem to be accepted within the congregation. We see this, for example, in Deut. 23:7-8.

Either way, the inclusion of Phinehas here has me scratching my head a little. In Numbers 25, his jumping in to defend the purity of the faith was seen as an unambiguous good. Here, however, that very same attitude gets him into trouble (sort of – he’s never punished or anything, but it’s clear that he was wrong and it’s implied that he goes home rebuked). I wonder if the author(s) of this passage used him on purpose as a jab at the hard-lining ethics of Numbers. It’s not an open criticism, obviously, since Phinehas isn’t punished or explicitly scolded, but it does feel implied.

Regardless, the explanation is accepted and the Israelites go home satisfied.

There are a few remaining details that I thought I’d mention:

When asking the Transjordan tribes why they have built their altar, Phinehas&co ask them to consider what happened when Achan disobeyed God in Joshua 7. In that chapter, he is referred to as Achan son of Carmi in Josh. 7:1, and then Achan son of Zerah in Josh. 7:24. Here, he is listed once again as Achan son of Zerah (Josh. 22:20).

When Phinehas&co meet with the Transjordan tribes, they do actually talk first rather than just rushing in with their spears. (Good thing, too.) Rather than just kill the tribes for their perceived heresy, they first offer a compromise: “If your land is unclean, pass over into the Lord’s land where the Lord’s tabernale stands, and take for yourselves a possession among us” (Josh. 22:19). It’s an interesting concept – that the land itself might be corruptive (and not, say, the locals, since Phinehas has amply demonstrated what he does to people who allow themselves to be corrupted by locals).

In the King James Version, Josh. 22:22 refers to God as “God of gods.” In my RSV, the line goes: “The Mighty One, God, the Lord!” Does anyone know enough Hebrew to comment on what the original text says?

Lastly, I think that David Plotz made a very interesting point about how portable this passage makes the worship of God:

This is a very important moment for Judaism, and perhaps for all religions. It marks the end of Judaism as a faith bounded by place. From now on, it can go anywhere. […] The moment when a religion creates its first copy is, in some sense, when it starts being a religion. Until now, God has literally been with all the Israelites. He travels with them in the tabernacle, and they are together inside the holy ground of the camp. Now that the tribes are scattering across Israel, they face the problem of how to keep God with them everywhere. On the west side of the Jordan, they will abide near the tabernacle and hold on to  their direct connection to God. But the trans-Jordan tribes needed to create a substitute for that tabernacle (just as all Jews had to create a substitute after the Temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago). So, the altar by the riverside marks the birth of Judaism as a worldwide religion: From now on, the Israelites can travel and stay away from the tabernacle, because they can create a copy. They can take God wherever they go. And so can we.

If we assume an authorship date around the time of King Josiah, we do have some scattering of the Israelites and the Babylonian Exile itself less than half a century later. It seems that this passage shows a softening of the “centralized worship” stance, perhaps an understanding of what distant Israelites felt they needed to do in order to stay connected to their shared god.

It’s nice. I like it.

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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