Judges 9: On power plays and death curses

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For this chapter, Gideon has fully transformed into his Jerubbaal form. While Gideon refused kingship in Judges 8:23, Jerubbaal, it seems, took it. Or, perhaps we misunderstood Gideon’s words in Judges 8:23, and he was actually making a theological point rather than a refusal. Sort of a “yes, I’ll wear the crown, but God will be your true king” sort of thing.

Abimelech, one of Jerubbaal’s bastard sons – born of a concubine (Judges 8:31) or slave/servant (Judges 9:18) – decides that perhaps he should inherit his father’s title after Jerubbaal’s passing. But first, he needs supporters.

Abimelech travels to Shechem, where his mother’s family is from.

I find it rather curious that Shechem has had so many mentions both in Joshua and Judges – far more than a site I would have assumed would have had more importance, like Jerusalem. I found it especially surprising because, prior to this project, I’d never heard of it.

My study Bible says of the city that it was “the most important city and sanctuary in north central Palestine. It guarded the important east and west highway which passed between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim” (p.305). Baalberith, the god the people began worshipping in Judges 8:33 and who will make an appearance in a couple verses, is, according to my study Bible, named “the lord of the covenant” and was “the god of Shechem.” It’s significant that this is also, if you’ll recall, where Joshua’s covenant ceremony took place in Joshua 24.

It’s also worth noting that Abimelech’s name  means “my father, the king,” and is the perfect name for someone “claiming the inherited right to rule (wiki). It was also, according to the same source, a common name among Philistine kings. You will probably remember another Abimelech who slept with both Sarah (Abraham’s wife) and Rebekah (Isaac’s wife).

Back to the story, Abimelech asks his mother’s family to sow dissent, telling them to go out and ask everyone “What is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal rule over you, or that one rule over you?” (Judges 9:2). He compels them to work on his campaign by reminding them of their blood tie.

The campaign works and Abimelech soon has Shechem on his side. They even fund his efforts, giving him seventy pieces of silver from the temple of Baalberith (one for each of Jerubbaal’s sons?), which he uses to hire “worthless and reckless fellows” (Judges 9:4).

The Rise of Abimelech, by Kevin Rolly

The Rise of Abimelech, by Kevin Rolly

Abimelech then travels to Ophrah (Gideon’s home-base in Judges 6) and kills all seventy of his brothers. Well, except that Jerubbaal had seventy sons of which Abimelech himself was one, so that would leave only 69 brothers. Also, he missed one. Jotham, Jerubbaal’s youngest, hides like the son of Gideon that he is, and thereby escapes death.

The people of Shechem, now joined by the people of Bethmillo who are never mentioned again, gather by the oak pillar at Shechem to name Abimelech their king. It was under this same oak that Joshua set up a large stone after composing his book of law (Josh. 24:26).

Jotham returns one last time, standing atop Mount Gerizim and yelling some weird parable about Ents choosing a king. The olive tree, fig tree, and vine all refuse the title, but the bramble accepts it on condition that the offer is sincerely made. If not, warns the bramble, “let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon” (Judges 9:15).

If that’s too trippy for you, Jotham helpfully spells it out – Abimelech, as a bastard, is as lowly and useless as a bramble, and if the offer of kingship is not sincerely made, then Abimelech and Shechem will both be destroyed.

With this, Jotham drops his mic and goes back into hiding. Clearly, his parentage is beyond doubt.

Big Trouble In Little Shechem

Abimelech rules Israel for three years. Notice that the text specifically says Israel in Judges 9:22, even though the story is very clearly focused on the Shechem region.

Indeed, when trouble begins to brew, it is the “men of Shechem” (Judges 9:23) who are divided from Abimelech, not the men of Israel.

Though God is otherwise quite absent from this story, he does get the credit for Shechem’s dissent, having sent “an evil spirit” (Judges 9:23) between Abimelech and the city. This is explained as punishment for the murder of Abimelech’s brothers (Abimelech for doing it, Shechem for giving him the means). Interestingly, it is not punishment for, say, being associated with Baalberith (Judges 9:4).

After this, the narrative gets a little hectic. As best as I can figure, the Shechemites take to banditry, but it’s also a covert attack on Abimelech himself (Judges 9:25).

Then Gaal, son of Ebed, moves to Shechem. He and the Shechemites harvest their grapes, tread on them, celebrate, go to the house of their god (unspecified), and “reviled Abimelech” (Judges 9:27). I can’t figure out what the significance is of the pastoral backdrop, except perhaps that we’re supposed to understand that Gaal is winning over the Shechemites by working with them, or perhaps that the Shechemites are drunken to the point of suggestibility by their post-harvest revelry.

Gaal incites the Shechemites by asking why they should serve Abimelech. Didn’t Abimelech’s father Jerubbaal and his officer Zebul both “serve the men of Hamor the father of Shechem?” (Judges 9:28) I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. The only other reference I can find to Hamor is way back in Genesis 34, when Jacob is staying near Shechem and Hamor’s son rapes/has sex with Jacob’s daughter Dinah. I’m assuming that the mention here refers to some story that has not been included in the text.

At least we find out who Zebul is fairly quickly – he is “the ruler of the city” (Judges 9:30). Presumably, Abimelech is ruling the region (or all of Israel), and Zebul is his officer appointed to Shechem. Indeed, we will soon find out that Abimelech’s court is in Arumah.

So Zebul finds out about Gaal’s grumblings, and he sends word to Abimelech. He tells Abimelech to hide in the fields around Shechem at night and, in the morning, rush the city. If all goes according to plan, Gaal and his supporters will rush out to meet him and then Abimelech “may do to them as occasion offers” (Judges 9:33).

Abimelech follows his officer’s instructions. When Gaal spots his army, he tells Zebul, but Zebul insists that he must just be seeing things. But when Gaal insists, Zebul says “I thought you said Abimelech was just a nobody. If he’s just a nobody, go out and face him!”

Goaded, Gaal rushes out, is defeated, flees, and many die. His work done, Abimelech goes back to Arumah and Zebul casts Gaal’s family out of Shechem.

The next day, people go out into the fields, so Abimelech slays them. He then takes Shechem, razes it, and sows it with salt. None of this is really explained, except insofar as it was predicted by Jotham’s parable.

The survivors of Shechem hide in the temple of Elberith (Judges 9:46). It’s worth noting that no one in this story appears to be especially concerned with YHWH. Abimelech turned to Baalberith for support, and the Shechemites turn to Elberith for protection. Jotham and Gaal’s faiths are never mentioned. The only mention we really get of YHWH is the note that he is the one who turns Shechem and Abimelech against each other as punishment for the slaying of Gideon’s other sons.

Abimelech, once compared to brambles, goes to Mount Zalmon and collects a bunch of brushwood, which he then uses to set the temple of Elberith on fire, killing the thousand men and women inside.

For no particular reason, he then heads out to Thebez and makes to burn them down as well, but a woman throws a millstone down from the battlements of the tower and it lands on Abimelech’s head, crushing his skull. Dying, he begs his amour-bearer to kill him so that no one can say that he was killed by a woman (an interesting mirroring of Jael’s work in Judges 4).

As the chapter concludes, we are told that this was all part of Jotham’s curse. The end.

Joshua 23-24: Promises are made and people die

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I mentioned in my post about Joshua 1 that, according to Collins, “key points in this [Deuteronomistic History] are marked by speeches. A speech by Joshua in Joshua 1 marks the beginning of the conquest, and another in Joshua 23 marks its conclusion” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.94-95).

That’s pretty much the ground covered in Joshua 23.

Years have passed in peace and, now old, Joshua calls together all the elders. Strangely, he tells them that he has “allotted to you as an inheritance for your tribes those nations that remain, along with all the nations that I have already cut off” (Josh. 23:4). Strange because for all the talk of peace for many years and the end of the conquest, it’s quite clear that there’s plenty of warring left to do if the Israelites are to accomplish their stated goals.

But at least he promises God’s support in the remaining conqueration.

Was Joshua’s task not to take the whole of the land promised to the Israelites? Why did he not finish? It seems like the author(s) was dealing with a conflict between the rhetoric of the story being set down and the reality they lived in.

I also think that the idea of ‘work left to do’ might serve another purpose. In the context of a land half-occupied by Assyrians and soon-to-be overtaken by Babylonians, I can well imagine that the people may have wanted to read: “The Lord your God will push them back before you, and drive them out of your sight; and you shall possess their land, as the Lord your God promised you” (Josh. 23:5).

Assuming that the authors are writing with purpose, Collins writes:

The need for fidelity to “all that is written in the law of Moses” is also emphasized in Joshua 23, the farewell speech of Joshua. Joshua concedes that the Canaanites have not been wiped out and warns against intermarriage with them (23:12-13). The prohibition of intermarriage is found already in Deuteronomy 7 with reference to the seven peoples of the land. It did not necessarily apply to all peoples. Some distinctions between Gentiles were possible. Deuteronomy 23 distinguishes between the Ammonites and Moabites, who may not be admitted to the assemble of the Lord “even to the tenth generation,” and the Edomites and Egyptians, who may be admitted after the third. The thrust of Deuteronomy, however, is to maintain a distinct identity, and this could be threatened by intermarriage with any Gentiles. After the Babylonian exile, moreover, a significant part of the Jewish people lived outside the land of Israel, and the need for boundaries over against the Gentiles became more urgent. In this context, distinctions between Ammonites and Edomites lost its significance and all intermarriage was discouraged. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.106)

Joshua then passes on to a summary of the story so far, starting with Abraham’s entry into Canaan, through Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Jacob going into Egypt, Moses and Aaron leading the people back out, and then fighting loads of people. There’s even a mention of Balaam (though his donkey is, sadly, absent).

The new covenant

As Brant Clements points out, Joshua speaks directly on God’s behalf, tripping only once in Josh. 24:7, where he reverts to the third person.

Joshua 2Mostly, the speech serves to reinforce that all the Israelite victories have been God’s, and that it was God’s hand who guided them through the last couple hundred years of their history. At the end of this, Joshua asks the people not to serve other gods, even if their fathers did. The people agree.

Joshua then reminds them that if they serve other gods, God will “consume you” (Josh. 24:20). The people promise a second time.

Finally, Joshua reminds them that by giving their word they serve as a witness against themselves if they ever backtrack. The people promise a third time.

The implication is that the people had the choice, at this point, between following God or not doing so, that it is this promise that binds them (and not the promises made earlier to Moses). This is reinforced when Joshua finishes my making “a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem” (Josh. 24:25).

I’ve been theorizing throughout this book that Joshua may have once been a prophet/founder figure competing with the Moses-based cult. I don’t think it gets any clearer than it does here, where Joshua appears to go through all the same motions as Moses with no real acknowledgement that it’s been done before (despite the mention of Moses in the historical summary).

He even, after giving the statutes and ordinances, write his own “book of the law of God” (Josh. 24:26).

To memorialise this new covenant, Joshua places a great stone under the oak in the sanctuary at Shechem (Josh. 24:26). The reference to anything being “in the sanctuary” feels rather anachronistic. Apologists online seem mostly to argue that the oak is in the same field as the ark, but it sounds an awful lot like there is an actual sanctuary at Shechem at this point, one where Joshua was known as the covenant-bringer, not Moses.

My study Bible does corroborate that Shechem had some covenant-related importance: “The Canaanite god worshiped at Shechem was called Baal-, or El-Berith, “god of the covenant” (Jg. 9.4,46). The city thus had covenant associations for the Canaanites as well as the Israelites” (p.292).

According to Victor Matthews, this story became important for the later Samaritans:

Instead, they [the Samaritans] declared Mount Gerizim near Shechem to be their place of worship (see Gen 12:6-7 and Josh 24 for events justifying their position). The Samaritans took advantage of Alexander’s political goodwill to construct an alternative temple on Mount Gerizim around 330 B.C. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.165).

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time that the oak at Shechem is mentioned. In Genesis 35:4, it is where Jacob buries all his household idols at God’s command.

Many deaths

At 110, Joshua dies and is buried on his land at Timnathserah.

Joseph’s bones – which had been brought up out of Egypt – are finally buried at Shechem, on the land that Jacob bought in Gen. 33:18-19.

Eleazar dies and is buried at Gibeah.

Genesis 34: On the use of circumcision as an instrument of war

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This is the story of what happens to Jacob and family during their stay in Shechem, which is both a city in the land of Canaan and the name of a prince of that area.

Strange Love

Dinah avenged by Gérard Jollain 1670

Dinah avenged by Gérard Jollain 1670

Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob’s only female child, goes out to visit with some Canaanite women. While she’s out, Shechem sees her and “he seized her, and lay with her and humbled her” (Gen. 34:2). But, we’re told, he totally loves her and “spoke tenderly to her” (Gen. 34:3), which is just ridiculously creepy.

But not unheard of. Matthews writes that “a schoolboy’s exercise tablet, written inexpertly in Sumerian and dating to the period of the eighteenth century B.C., provides a parallel to this case. According to this set of legal statements, an unbetrothed virgin could be obtained as a wife through forcible sexual relations” (Manners & Customs, p.31).

So he and his father, Hamor the Hivite, go to Jacob and beg to be able to keep Dinah as a wife. Now, I didn’t realize this when I first read the chapter, but she’s still a prisoner. In other words, Shechem is trying to do this legitly, while at the same time keeping her chained up in the basement, so to speak. Sooo creepy…

Now, I will say this for Genesis 34, it does come down on the right side of a moral question for once. We’re told, plainly, that “lying with Jacob’s daughter” is a thing that “ought not to be done” (Gen. 34:7). Now, if we want to get picky, we might say that lying with anyone’s daughter against her will ought not to be done, and kidnapping isn’t so great either, but I’ll take what I can get.

Not content with just one daughter, Hamor & Sons want a full exchange of daughters, a sort of “I’ll marry yours if you’ll marry mine” kind of deal. This, according to my study bible, would make them “a kindred-group in which the Shechemites would have the leadership.”

To sweeten the deal, Hamor & Sons offer to give Jacob anything he asks for as a “marriage present” (which the King James perhaps more accurately calls a “dowry”) (Gen. 34:12).

Ouch!

Jacob’s sons answer “deceitfully” (Gen. 34:13) that they agree to the marriage and, for a bride price, that all the Shechemites must circumcise themselves – because they cannot “give our sister to one who is uncircumcised, for that would be a disgrace to us” (Gen. 34:14). Shechem is overjoyed because he gets to marry Dinah (a woman he loves enough to rape…), and he circumcises himself right away.

All goes according to plan when Shechem and his father go back to the city and convince all the other men to get themselves circumcised. It’s a small price to pay, they say, to form a kindred-group which will allow the Shechemites to own “their cattle, their property and all their beasts” (Gen. 34:23).

Now that all the Shechemite men’s crotches are sore, Levi and Simeon (Jacob’s sons by Leah) pull a surprise attack on the helpless men and slaughter all the males. I’m assuming that either Levi and Simeon had some help or the Shechemite were really penis-sore, because it’s hard to imagine two men being able to kill a whole city fully of men, “unawares” (Gen. 34:25) as they may be. Heck, even with a sore penis, you’d think that after the first couple are killed, the rest would tough it out long enough to fight back…

Plunder!

With all the Shechemites dead, Levi and Simeon rescue Dinah and, just to make the whole adventure worthwhile, plunder the city. They do this “because their sister had been defiled” (Gen. 34:27), and not because, say, they want the stuff.

In any case, they make off with the flocks, the herds, the asses, and “whatever was in the city and in the field” (Gen. 34:28).

In addition to Levi’s daisies, they also took all the Shechemite women and children, who I am sure were most happy that their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons had all just been slaughtered and that they were now going to be forced to live with the killers.

Jacob is angry with his sons. In typical Biblical fashion, he isn’t angry because slaughtering an entire city of men after causing them to mutilate their own penises is a bad thing to do, but because now the Canaanites (and the Perizzites, whoever they are) might not be too happy with them.

A different reading?

Before moving on, I just want to bring up a possibility brought to my attention by the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible. We never actually hear from Dinah. All we’re told is that she left home, there was some kind of sexual act between her and Shechem, and that Shechem loved her so much that he was willing to cut off a piece of his penis, without hesitation, so that he could marry her.

Is it possible that he and Dinah were actually in love? Is it possible that they eloped, but that Shechem decided to do the “honourable thing” and petition her family?

There doesn’t seem to be anything in the story that contradicts this reading. And since the authors didn’t feel that giving Dinah’s perspective was a worthy use of time, we may never know. But re-reading the story as a sort of Romeo & Juliet tale of star-crossed lovers makes Levi and Simeon’s actions so very sad. Especially since now, Dinah can never get her life back together. She can never marry, and has been condemned to be a dependant in her father’s household for the rest of her life.

Genesis 33: Jacob and Esau make peace

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genesis-33-jacob-meets-esau-unknown-illustratorJacob (who is supposed to be called Israel now, but it appears that the authors have forgotten about that) sees Esau coming towards him. He organizes his household so that his “maids” and their children form a meat shield in front of his real family, and then the whole lot forms a meat shield in front of Rachel and Joseph. Just in case anyone had any doubts as to their place in the hierarchy of his filial affections.

All this was for naught, however, as Esau greets him with an embrace. There’s a bunch of “here, take these gifts” and “oh no, I couldn’t possibly!” and “but you must!” before Esau proposes that they journey on together. Jacob refuses because his children and cattle require a slower pace, so they head out behind Esau.

In the end, Jacob makes it to Shechem and sets up an altar that he names EleloheIsrael.

Bit of a short chapter this time, and thank goodness! See you all on Tuesday!