1 Samuel 12: The Evil Request

Leave a comment

According to my study Bible, chapter 12 brings us back into the Late Source, and it is clearly suspicious of the monarchy. Even so, there’s no indication in the chapter that Israel has the option of going back to the loose tribal arrangement it had under the judges. Rather, when Samuel addresses the people, he makes it fairly clear that the fate of Israel is now intertwined with the king.

We’ve seen in the Deuteronomical books that speeches are used to signal important transitions. We saw it, for example in Joshua 1 and Joshua 23, framing the conquest. Now, it marks the beginning of the monarchy.

1 Samuel 12So presumably right after Saul’s affirmation at Gilgal (though it’s not specified and reads an awful lot like an editorial insert), Samuel gives a speech, often referred to as Samuel’s Final Address. Despite coming only 1/4 of the way through the books named after him, it certainly reads like a ceding of the reins.

Samuel begins by asking for anyone who has cause to complain about his tenure as Israel’s judge. Has he stolen any oxen? Accepted any bribes? The people affirm that no complaint can rightfully be made.

He then announces that he will list “all the saving deeds of the Lord” (1 Sam. 12:7). These begin when God sends Moses and Aaron to deliver the people from Egypt. The list includes all those times God sold the Israelites into the hands of their enemies (1 Sam. 12:9) which, presumably, is meant to preface the judges who delivered them and not to be taken as saving deeds themselves. The delivering judges named are Jerubbaal, Barak, Jephthah, and Samuel.

It’s interesting that Barak is named, not Deborah, even though his role in the narrative of Judges 4-5 is that of a subordinate. Other than that and the minor judges of Judges 3, Judges 10, and Judges 12, the list follows the narrative of the Book of Judges fairly well. Except, of course, that Samuel mentions himself rather than Samson – a very odd detail coming from Samuel’s own mouth. According to my New Bible Commentary, it seems that some manuscripts to have Samson’s name in Samuel’s place here (p.293).

The Warning

Having prefaced his speech by a listing of God’s mighty deeds – as Deuteronomist prophets are wont to do – Samuel moves on to his warning. It’s the same general stuff we’ve been getting since the Book of Deuteronomy; obey God’s law and things will be okay, but disaster will strike if/when the people stray.

This time, however, the king is included. Israel will prosper so long as both the people and the king obey the law.

To prove that he means business, Samuel calls a thunder storm. This appears to mirror the storm from Exodus 19:16. In this case, the miracle is made impressive because the storm occurs during the wheat harvest, which my study Bible says would be the equivalent of “snow in summer” (p.346).

This thunder storm will somehow show the people that they were wicked for demanding a king (1 Sam. 12:17), and they should pray for themselves because their request was so evil (1 Sam. 12:19). I just wish Sam would tell us how he really feels.

It seems that whatever reassurances God tried to give Samuel in 1 Sam. 8:7, he’s still rather sore about his office being replaced.

Judges: What is a judge?

Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Categories

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

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

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

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

Old Gods

2 Comments

In Irish mythological history, the Tuatha Dé Danann are described as a tribe of people with certain supernatural powers. It is believed that, prior to Christian contact, the Tuatha Dé were actually gods, but they were demoted to historical people, predecessors, when the theological climate of Ireland changed.

The story of Jephthah and his daughter reminded me, in a way, of the Tuatha Dé – in that I saw in them some vestiges of gods made human, perhaps as the Israelites moved toward monotheism and the area around Mizpah was assimilated.

It starts with Jephthah being a son of Gilead. This isn’t presented as some nationalist descriptor, in the sense that a U.S. citizen might be described as a “son of America.” Rather, it seems that he is seen as an actual literal son. It’s not uncommon in polytheistic tribal societies personify the tribe as a whole as a single figure or god. Perhaps there was originally a cult of Gilead in the region, of whom Jephthah was a son and lesser god.

Jephthah's Sacrifice, Maciejowski Bible, ca. 1250

Jephthah’s Sacrifice, Maciejowski Bible, ca. 1250

We see this in Genesis where nearly all of the characters appear to be tribal archetypes, and the twelve tribes of Israel are shown to be actual, literal, brothers. I think that there is evidence to suggest to that Judges may be sourced from an older tradition where this personification was still practised, namely the slip in Judges 1:3 where Judah is, for a few sentences, a single character.

There is also often a process of borrowing and trading in religion, where stories might be, over time, attributed to new gods as they spread from place to place. It’s a bit of a stretch, but Jephthah’s refusal to help the Gileadites against the Ammonites without a promise that, if successful, he would be made their leader reminds me of Marduk’s own similar deal when asked to defeat Tiamat, told in the Enuma Elish. Parallels between Genesis and the Enuma Elish have been fairly thoroughly discussed, so I don’t think it’s taking too much of a liberty to say that, at the very least, there was a good deal of sharing between the two cultures.

Then there is Jephthah’s daughter. It seems that Jephthah’s story was included in Judges to explain the origins of a festival in which the women of Israel would spend four days in mourning over his daughter – both her life and, tellingly, her virginity. The tragedy of the story appears to be that she will not bear children – not that she is barren, but that she has not been “ploughed.”

This makes sense if, as J.R. Porter argues, her festival “marked the death of the spirit of fertility during the dry season” (The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p. 69). The fact that she is a virgin, rather than barren, leaves open the possibility of fertility and future pregnancy.

In this sense, Jephthah’s daughter might be a Persephone-like character. Unlike Jephthah’s daughter, Persephone is kidnapped by death (Hades), leading to her mother, Demeter – a harvest goddess – to stop nurturing the land, bringing winter. Through an elaborate story, a deal is eventually struck allowing Persephone to return home for some parts of the year (Spring and Summer) so long as she returns to the Underworld the rest of the year (Autumn and Winter).

In this case, it is her parent himself who sends her to death, though the motif of honouring a vow/deal is still present.

I want to make clear that this is pure on-the-fly conjecture on my part, but I find it interesting to think that Jephthah’s story may have originally been a regional mythic cycle in which a seasonal, civilizing deity conquers the forces of evil but, in exchange, must give up fertility (as his only child, Jephthah’s daughter is the vehicle for Jephthah’s family line’s continuance), bringing in the lean months of winter.

As the cult of YHWH spread and, over time, became monotheistic, local deities were preserved as historical heroes, Jephthah and his daughter among them.

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

2 Comments

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?