Priestly Matters

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In 2 Sam. 8:18, we learn that David’s sons are serving as priests. Previously, we’ve read that only the descendants of Levi could serve as priests (as, for example, in Numbers 18). As David is, in fact, from the tribe of Judah, this poses a rather serious continuity problem.

I’ve seen some apologetics claim that this is a translation error, and that it should rather say that David appointed his sons to oversee the priests. Of course, that doesn’t address the other breadcrumbs.

Genesis and Judges seem, to me, to be the most folk books we’ve read so far, showing us glimpses of the popular religious expression. What we see in both books, but that is largely lacking in the more urban/establishment books, is the presence of individuals setting up their own personal shrines. In Genesis, the characters are semi-nomadic, and seem to be dotting the landscape with altars. In Judges, we see the beginning of more settled, permanent installations, such as Micah’s shrine in Judges 17.

High PriestIf we assume a nomadic/semi-nomadic origin for Israel, we could be seeing the process of settlement and the evolution of belief. This is further illustrated when Micah replaces his own sons as priests with a dedicated professional, giving us the term “levite.” This could be a story illustrating the beginnings of the priesthood as a dedicated vocation in Israelite society.

In a nomadic culture, it’s rare to fine specialization. When camp needs moving, everyone needs to help. When sheep need tending, everyone needs to pick up a crook. It’s only as societies settle that agriculture can support a class of people providing services that are not directly related to the acquisition of food.

If we make further assumptions, it could be that, as the priest cast came to hold more power, they consolidated by making the position hereditary. Perhaps even to prevent precisely what David does – rulers setting their own sons in the priesthood, which could lead to the same family controlling both the secular and religious life of the nation. It’s quite possible, then, that the tribe of Levi was formed sometime after David, taking over what had been a more generic term for priest, and constructing a tribal identity that fit with the cultural and cosmological milieu.

It could also be that there was a nomadic tribe of Levi that, when it finally came down to settle, found it more expedient to serve as priests than to fight established communities for patches of land.

There’s also an evolution from regional worship to a more centralized cult, giving us the possibility that the term “levite” (and the definition of the levite’s role) may have originally had more pronounced regional variations, hints of which remain in the stories collected in the Bible. We may see a hint of this in the different uses of the word “ephod” – which is used variously to mean an item of clothing, an object made of metal, or a divination tool. It’s possible that the term had cultic significance, but that what it referred to differed by region. Or perhaps it referred to a whole class of objects and garments associated with ritual.

Certainly, it’s clear from 1-2 Samuel that tribal heredity was not a requirement at the time of the events being described, but we also see that this was a concern for later contributors. For example, Samuel’s father is explicitly an Ephraimite in 1 Sam. 1:1. Given Samuel’s later role, however, it seems that a group of contributors were uncomfortable with him having so much religious authority without being a Levite. So the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 6:22-27 makes him a descendant of Kohath, turning him into a proper Levite.

This may have been the case with Eleazar, as well. In 1 Sam. 7, Abinadab appoints his son, Eleazar, as a priest and caretaker of the ark. In 2 Sam. 6:3-4, however, Eleazar is not listed as one of Abinadab’s sons (who are given as Uzzah and Ahio). It’s quite possible that multiple people have been named Eleazar, and that perhaps he’d died prior to or been absent from the events described in that chapter. Or, it could be that Eleazar was known as an early priest of the ark, and was written into Aaron’s family at a later date.

There’s frustratingly little evidence from which to draw conclusions, and it doesn’t help that the texts have been periodically edited so that clear chronologies are difficult to tease out. I think, however, that it’s reasonably clear that the priesthood evolved over time – from a role assigned to a member of the family, to a mostly hereditary profession.

Judges: Final thoughts

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I really enjoyed most of Judges. Certainly, after the narrative dry spell of Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, it was so refreshing to actually see stories again. Some of them, like Deborah’s, were actually quite cool, too. Then we got to Judges 19 and the stories just started to make me angry. Granted, they seem intended to illustrate why Israel really needs a monarchy, but those final three chapters were still tough to read.

According to Collins, “this history was put together and edited no earlier than the late seventh century B.C.E., several hundred years after the supposed time of the conquest and judges. The final edition is no earlier than the Babylonian exile, possibly later” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.95).

As for purpose, I think that there are a few different things going on in the book.

The first and most obvious is that it argues in favour of a monarchy, and appears to argue against division between the tribes (as in the Israelites’ frequent weeping over having to kill their “brethren,” the Benjaminites). In other words, it may have been intended to serve as a warning against having an Israel that is not under a united monarchy.

There also seems to be some propaganda against certain specific tribes (and in favour of certain others). For example, Dan gets their shrine through theft, clearly an attempt to smear the northern kingdom’s holy sites. There’s also two references to Judah leading the way, in Judges 1:1-2 and Judges 20:18. In both cases, it stands out from the surrounding text, which suggests to me that these two passages were deliberately added for a purpose. This all comes back to the first purpose, except that instead of just promoting a united monarchy, it’s specifically hinting that Israel needs a monarch lead by Judah.

Then there’s the simple repetition of Israel falling into sin and idol worship – a narrative we should be amply familiar with after coming out of Exodus/Numbers.

Many of the stories just seem to be preserved for no particular reason, or at least no propagandistic reason. The listed names of judges for whom little/no details are provided, for example, seem to be simply a preservation of historical records. I also noted in my discussions of Jephthah and Samson that some of the stories seem to hint at pre-YHWH and, certainly, pre-monotheistic origins.

Certainly, I think it’s clear that much of the material comes from local folk stories, which would fit with my perception of Joshua as a similar local folk hero.

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: What is a judge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Categories

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

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

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

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

Judges 19: Sodium-free Sodom

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Judges 19 needs to come with a massive “Trigger Warning” tag. Seriously, I found it very difficult to read, so if you are in any way triggered by descriptions of rape, just skip this one. I mean it.

We begin with a reminder that all this is happening “when there was no king in Israel” (Judges 19:1). As I noted in my discussion of Judges 17-18, it could be that these chapters serve to show why the monarchy is necessary. The Mosaic model of leadership (the people are ruled by prophets and priests) got the Israelites through the wilderness, but doesn’t seem to have been able to stick once they were settled. So God tried appointing judges instead, but their power seems to have diminished – culminating in Samson who, despite his great strength, was unable to deliver Israel from its enemies.

Now, we are through with judges and the impression the author(s)/editor(s) seems to be trying to convey is that Israel descended into something like anarchy: the Danites are stealing idols from their fellow Israelites and, as we shall soon see, the Benjaminites are doing far worse. The frequent reminders that this is happening in a time prior to monarchy seems to reinforce that the monarchy (perhaps even a united monarchy) is needed to hold the people together.

It may also be important that the tribes behaving badly – Dan and Benjamin – both seem to be located in the northern part of the divided kingdom (Israel), while Jerusalem is in the southern part (Judah), if my map-glancing isn’t failing me.

Ephraim, too, actually. You’ll remember Ephraim as the tribe that gave us Micah and his idols, as well as the tribe that gave Gideon (Judges 8:1) and Jephthah (Judges 12:1) so much trouble. Benjamin, Ephraim, and Dan’s original patch of land all lie right on the border between the two kingdoms of the divided monarchy. If we assume a southern editor, it would make sense that they would feature more often in stories due to proximity, and that the impressions of them might be mixed – positive because of similar culture/religion/history, negative because of possible border disputes and the fact that they joined the “wrong” side.

Ephraim, in particular, has featured a great deal in this book. It is the Ephraimites who support Ehud in defeating the Moabites (Judges 3:27), Deborah appears to have been an Ephraimite (Judges 4:5), they kill two of the Midianite leaders for Gideon (Judges 7:24-25), the judge Tola was an Ephraimite (Judges 10:1), and, of course, Micah was an Ephraimite (Judges 17:1).

The tribe crops up again and again, doing naughty things and spawning various folk heroes. If I were to venture a guess, I would say that the author(s)/editor(s) lived near Ephraim and so was exposed both to their stories and to the stories told about them by Uncle Joe who is totally sure that it was one of his Ephraimite neighbours who stole his sheep in the middle of the night because you know how those people are.

The Levite and his concubine

A Levite was “sojourning” (Judges 19:1) in the hill country of Ephraim. This may relate him to the Levite mentioned in Judges 17, who was from Judah but took a job in Micah’s household. He had a concubine (who, in my RSV, is always a concubine in relation to him while he is a husband in relation to her) who was originally from Bethlehem, in Judah.

One day, this nameless concubine gets angry at her Levite “husband” and runs back to her father’s house in Bethlehem – which would have meant passing through Benjaminite territory. It is not explained why she was angry, but the Levite’s behaviour later on in the story gives me a fairly good idea of why she might have run away.

It takes him four months, but finally the Levite decides to go after her, hoping to “speak kindly to her and bring her back” (Judges 19:3).

When he arrives in Bethlehem, the text says that his father-in-law “came out with joy” (Judges 19:3) to meet him and begged him to stay for three days. At the end of those three days, when the Levite tries to leave, the father-in-law convinces him to stay just one more night, then just one more. The text describes it in entirely positive terms as though the father-in-law just really loves playing host, but taken together with all the other details of the story, it seems rather sinister. Like, maybe his daughter had a very good reason to escape and her father is trying to delay her being taken away again. Frankly, I found the father’s almost desperate attempts to delay the Levite’s leaving rather heartbreaking to read.

Days pass and, in the end, the Levite leaves so late in the day that they are caught by nightfall just outside Jebus (which the text tells us is what Jerusalem was called while still in pagan hands – which, according to Judges 1:21, it still is). The Levite’s servant advises that they stop for the night, but the Levite doesn’t want to stay in a “city of foreigners” (Judges 19:12). Rather, he has his household press on to Gibeah, a Benjaminite city.

In Gibeah

When the travellers reach Gibeah, they find no one willing to take them in for the night. Finally, they seat themselves in the city square, presumably prepared to sleep there through the night.

An old man, originally from the hill country of Ephraim, is walking by when he sees the travellers, and he asks the Levite what they are doing there. The Levite explains that they are passing through, and that he has all the provisions the travellers need and extra to share, but that they are in need of a roof. The old man puts on his best horror movie voice and assures them that he will feed the travellers, “only, do not spend the night in the square” (Judges 19:20).

The Levite's Concubine, Morgan Picture Bible, 13th cent.

The Levite’s Concubine, Morgan Picture Bible, 13th cent.

As the guests get comfortable in the old man’s house, however, the men of the city come round asking for them: “Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him” (Judges 19:22). The old man begs them not to violate his guest, instead offering up his own virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine to the crowd, saying “ravish them and do with them what seems good to you; but against this man do not do so vile a thing” (Judges 19:24).

It’s worth noting, with horror, that the concubine – despite being every bit as much a guest in the old man’s home as her “husband” – is not extended the protection of hospitality.

Not that it seems to have bothered the Levite much. When the crowd refuses to listen to the old man’s entreaties, the Levite himself tosses his concubine out to them and shuts the door. Then he apparently goes to sleep while his concubine is raped all night long. When she is finally released in the morning, she can only crawl up to the old man’s door and collapses. The inclusion of details here is horrific, the text describes “her hands on the threshold” (Judges 19:27).

Her “husband,” the Levite, “rose up in the morning” (Judges 19:27) and gets ready to leave, apparently fully intending to just leave without even so much as trying to find out if the woman he threw out to a mob to “ravish” to save his own skin is okay. As it happens, the knowledge comes to him – or, rather, trips him. Yes, he trips over her body on the way out the door.

For all the detail (her hands on the threshold), the text never actually says that she died, only that she collapsed and that she does not respond when the Levite tells her motionless and abused body, “get up, let us be going” (Judges 19:28).

I hope she’s already dead at this point, because what the Levite does when she fails to respond is pack her up on one of his donkeys and head home. When he gets back to Ephraim, he carves her up into twelve pieces and mails one out to each of the tribes (does Benjamin get one?). If the mob didn’t kill her, her “husband” just did.

The fault

The story is clearly meant to be an indictment of Benjamin. This is made all the more clear by the fact that the Levite is apparently afraid to stay the night in Jebus, yet is attacked in Gibeah. The lesson, apparently, being that the Benjaminites are behaving as badly as foreigners.

If the Levite himself is meant to be seen critically, there’s nothing in the text to say so. He behaves with callous disregard for his concubine, a woman who by all rights should be under his protection, and he seems to lose no sleep over tossing her out to the rapacious crowd to save himself.

Yet while the Benjaminites will be punished in the next chapter, the Levite is not. If anything, he is painted as a victim, in that it is his story of what happened in Gibeah that incites the retaliation against Benjamin.

The implications are grotesque.

Judges 17-18: Of opportunistic priests and silver idols

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So there’s this guy, Micah, living in the hill country of Ephraim. This Micah is not such a cool guy. He also has a very strange, meandering story.

You see, he stole 1,100 pieces of silver from his mother. Not knowing who had stolen it, his mother cursed the thief. Micah, presumably getting a little hot under the collar, confesses and returns the money. To withdraw her curse, his mother dedicates 200 of the pieces of silver to God, melting it down into an idol.

The amount of silver stolen is familiar – it is the same amount that each Philistine elder promised to pay Delilah in exchange for the secret of Samson’s strength (Judges 16:5). I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, or if the stories are supposed to be related somehow, or if 1,100 was just a way of saying “a large amount.”

Micah’s mother disappears from the story at this point, and it is Micah’s turn to make idols. He builds a shrine, and he makes “an ephod and teraphim” (Judges 17:5) to go in it. But what’s a shrine without a priest? To fill the void, Micah installs one of his own sons as the priest to his household shrine.

Unfortunately, Micah’s son apparently disappears because there’s another young man, called a Levite despite being from the tribe of Judah, who leaves his home town of Bethlehem to find himself some employment. When he comes upon Micah’s house, Micah offers him a job as his personal household priest, in exchange for ten pieces of silver a year, room and board, and clothes.

When the Levite accepts, Micah is overjoyed, thinking to himself: “Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because I have a Levite as priest” (Judges 17:13).

The key portions of this story are (1) There was a man named Micah, (2) He was from the hill country of Ephraim, (3) He had a shrine, (4) He was directly involved in the shrine’s construction, and (5) He had a priest. It seems that various storytellers embellished these key points in different ways, and our poor editor just didn’t know how to fit them all together.

It seems important, too, that Micah is not seen as a particularly good guy, but more on that later.

Dan’s “migration”

The text doesn’t give a reason for it except that “there was no king in Israel” (Judges 18:1) – and therefore no real order to society – but Dan is on the march to find a place to call home.

Judges 17 - Micah's IdolAccording to Collins, they had to find a new home after they “lost their original territory to the Philistines” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.114). Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain how this is known, so I have no idea if it’s just extrapolation or if there’s some sort of material archeological evidence to suggest this explanation.

My study Bible does agree, though, citing Joshua 19:40-46 and Judges 1:34 to put Dan’s original territory in the southwest, close to Philistine territory. This also helps to explain Samson’s focus on the Philistines, as Samson was a Danite (Judges 13:2).

So the Danites are looking for land, and, like Moses, they send out five scouts to find them a nice spot to settle. These spies set out from Zorah and Eshtaol, where the Danite people are located, which was listed among their inheritance in Joshua 19:40-46, and between which Samson was buried in Judges 16:31.

In their travels, the Danite spies lodge with Micah. While there, they recognize the Levite’s voice (Judges 18:3), asking him what he’s doing there. There’s no reason given for why/where/how they might have encountered the Levite before. It’s a very strange detail.

When the Levite explains that he’s been hired as Micah’s household priest, they ask him to consult with God on their behalf and tell them whether or not they will succeed. It’s implied that the Levite does so (presumably using the ephod and teraphim, which seem to be related to divination in some way), and he gives the Danites God’s blessing, saying that “the journey on which you go is under the eye of the Lord” (Judges 18:6).

Eventually, the spies make it to Laish, where they find the land fertile and the people weak (they are allied with Sidon, but too far away for the Sidonians to protect them). So they return to the Danites and tell them to go after Laish.

Which they do, with an army of 600 soldiers.

When the army passes Micah’s house, the spies mention the lovely shrine there. So the army stops to steal it. They are caught by Micah’s Levite, who asks them what they are doing. The Danites, in response, invite him to come and be their priest instead. After all, they argue, wouldn’t it be better to be the priest of an entire tribe rather than just one man? The Levite is so enthusiastic about the deal that he grabs Micah’s sacred objects and follows the Danites.

Micah gives chase, but realizes that he is outmatched and gives up.

When Dan takes Laish, they rebuild the city and name it Dan, in honour of their founding patriarch. It’s interesting to note that there was already a place named Dan in Genesis 14:14.

In closing, we’re told of a priest named Jonathan, son of Gerson, son of Moses (or Manasseh, my Bible doesn’t seem sure), who served the Danites as priest and was followed in the office by his sons “until the day of the captivity of the land” (Judges 18:30) – presumably the Assyrian conquest. They set up Micah’s idols, suggesting that this Jonathan is the same as the unnamed Levite we’ve been hearing about. Except that our Levite was from the tribe of Judah, not Moses (nor Manasseh). Unless that’s just the name of his grandfather, recycled from the patriarch, and not a tribal designation at all.

The moral of the story

There are a few possible morals that I can see. There’s the repetition that this all happened while there was no monarchy in Israel (Judges 17:6, Judges 18:1), which makes these chapters (and the ones to follow) seem to be a set up to explain just why having a king is such a fantastic idea.

Another possibility is that the story was included to explain the origins of a shrine in Dan. According to Collins, “during the monarchy, Dan was the site of one of the temples set up by King Jeroboam I of the northern kingdom of Israel, in opposition to Jerusalem” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.114).

Certainly, it’s true that no one in the story is presented in a particularly flattering light. From Micah the thief, to the mercenary/thieving Levite, to the aggressive and thieving Danites, all of the characters are, to put it kindly, morally questionable.

It could also be an accurate snapshot of the popular/folk religion, as opposed to the high religion of Jerusalem. As Victor Matthews puts it:

Why did a Levite, a man charged with teaching and maintaining the law, consent to serve a group of sacred images? Why did Micah set them up in the first place, and why did the Danites jump at the chance to steal them for themselves? The answer almost certainly is that popular religion, the religion of the local villages, was not the pure monotheism required by the law at Sinai. Recent excavations at Tell Qiri, a settlement dating to the period of the judges, revealed a similar household shrine with incense burners and a large number of animal bones. A substantial percentage of the bones proved to be the right foreleg of goats. This is reminiscent of the law in Exod 29:22, which calls for the sacrifice of the “right thigh” of the ram. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.76)

You’ve also probably noticed that characters are getting called “Levite” without actually being from the tribe of Levi. It seems that the term originally just meant a priest, and either the office was taken over by one particular line or perhaps they simply unionized, forming a new tribe.

 

Another Old God

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I noted a few weeks ago that Jephthah’s story reminded me of a pantheonic myth anthropomorphised as Israel moved toward monotheism. I got the same feeling from Samson, so imagine my surprise when I read the following in my study Bible notes:

The story that Samson was a Nazirite (ch. 13) seems to be a late attempt to make Samson respectable; none of his exploits show him as a religious enthusiast. The motif of the unshorn hair is probably derived from mythology rather than high religion. The name Samson is connected with the Hebrew word for “sun”; some scholars believe the stories originally go back to pre-Hebrew sources in which the hair represented the sun’s rays, i.e. its strength. (p.316)

So I thought I’d look at the Samson story again with that perspective in mind. What if Samson was originally some sort of sun god, or even perhaps a Herculean demi-god?

Godly Deeds

When Samson is first displeased with the Philistines, he burns down their crops. If he is some sort of sun god, it seems plausible that this would be a reference to a draught fire.

I don’t know why foxes would feature in that story, though. Foxes seem to be related to trickery in many cultures, but any narrative that gives that as the reason for their presence feels like far too much of a stretch. I did find that they were considered sacred to the Sumerian fertility goddess Ninhursag, which seems a little more likely.

Der geblendete Simson, by Lovis Corinth, 1912

Der geblendete Simson, by Lovis Corinth, 1912

I also found a reference to foxes in the Song of Solomon (Song 2:15). I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean or to refer to, except that the Song’s foxes, like Samson’s, come as destroyers of agriculture.

The other interesting detail is the presence of Dagon in Judges 16:23. It’s important to note for this thesis that Dagon was, as my study Bible puts it, “an ancient Semitic deity whose cult had been adopted by the Philistines after their settlement in the land” (p.316). It’s possible, then, that the original story featured some battle or disagreement between Samson and Dagon, since Dagon would have been worshipped in the area for long enough.

According to Claude Mariottini, “some scholars have identified Dagon as a “grain” god while others have identified him as a “fish” god.” So it’s a little ambiguous and, in an agricultural society where most mythologies will have something to do with grain, it might be a bit of a stretch, but what if Samson’s vulpine adventure was originally an attack on the grain god Dagon?

If we’re going to take this angle, a possible moral of the story would be that the sun and the grain must work together, and that society crumbles (much like Dagon’s temple with its 3,000 people) when they get into a tiff.

Hot Faith Injection

At some point, Samson (whether originally a god or just a regular folk hero) was brought into the monotheistic fold. As with most of Judges, Samson gets only a few edits to put him on Team YHWH, but otherwise seems largely left to his own devices.

To start with, there’s the Nazirite thing. There’s really very little in Samson’s story that suggests that he was a Nazirite, as they are described in Numbers 6. He isn’t shown drinking alcohol, but that’s the case for a great many of the characters we’ve seen so far. He’s also dedicated as a Nazirite from (pre-)birth, which contradicts the purpose of the vow outlined in Numbers.

Collins offers one possibility:

[I]t may be that the significance of the nazirite vow evolved over time. Originally, it may have pertained to the status of special warriors, related to their exceptional strength. Later it became a way of expressing a particular type of piety. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.113)

I think it more likely that the Nazirite references were written in, inspired by the hair motif, as a way of easily bringing Samson into the holy fold, so that he would make sense (to an extent) in the context of the editor’s worldview.

It’s notable that Delilah doesn’t seem know what a Nazirite is, or at least that Samson is one. Samson is able to fool her three times because she doesn’t know the rules of Samson’s super powers. This suggests, to me at least, that Samson’s story either pre-dates the Nazirite concept, or that it was originally completely unrelated to the Nazirites.

We see another hint of the editing when Samson is able to pull down Dagon’s temple. The editor tells us that the return of Samson’s strength is the answer to a prayer (Judges 16:28) while still preserving the original reason – his hair has grown back (Judges 16:22).

I think it’s also meaningful that Samson’s parents, way back in Judges 13, seem to alternate between knowing the identity of the god who predicts Samson’s birth and not knowing it – almost as if, perhaps, the story hadn’t originally included YHWH.

I should note, as with my discussion of Jephthah, that this is all pure conjecture. I have no idea how likely any of this might be.

Judges 16: A heart in an egg in a well in a church on an island in a lake…

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Unfortunately for Samson, he failed to get laid in Judges 15. He’s a very goal-oriented sort of man, though, and he doesn’t let one failure get him down. So he makes his way to Gaza – one of the five major cities of the Philistine confederation (according to my study Bible, p.315) – to go “in to” a prostitute (Judges 16:1).

But poor Samson can’t seem to be able to pursue relations of an intimate nature without some sort of disaster. So, of course, the Philistines find out where he’s laying. Presumably afraid of bursting in to some scene of unspeakable horror, they opt to set up an ambush by the city gate, assuming that they would be waiting until morning.

It’s unclear what happens to the ambushers, but at around midnight, Samson wakes, comes out of the brothel, rips out the city gate, plops it up on his shoulders, and drags it up a hill near Hebron.

The fatal flaw

Then, as we all found out in Sunday School, Samson falls in love with Delilah. The Philistine lords approach her and offer her a sum of 1,100 pieces of silver from each of them if she can find out what Samson’s weakness is.

It’s never explicitly stated that Delilah is a Philistine, by the way – as Samson’s other dalliances have been. We know only that he met her in the valley of Sorek – which, according to my study Bible, “led into the north end of the Philistine plain” (p.315). She is also, obviously, in cahoots with the Philistine elders.

Delilah, who is subtle and sly with the feminine wiles of a Biblical Mata Hari, asks: “Please tell me wherein your great strength lies, and how you might be bound, that one could subdue you” (Judges 16:6).

Well, at least she said ‘please.’

Samson somehow figures out that it may be a trick, so he lies to her. He tells her that if he is bound with seven fresh bowstrings that have not been dried, he will become weak. The Philistine lords give Delilah seven bowstrings and lie in ambush while she binds Samson (presumably while he sleeps). To test the bindings, she yells out a warning and Samson easily snaps the bowstrings.

Delilah reproaches Samson: “Behold, you have mocked me, and told me lies; please tell me how you might be bound” (Judges 16:10). This time, Samson says that if he is bound with new ropes that have never been used, he will lose his strength. Of course, this was a lie too and he easily snaps his bindings.

The third time she asks, Samson tells her that she must weave “the seven locks of my head” (Judges 16:13) with a loom to drain his strength. (Rastafari, who try to follow the Nazirite rules of Numbers 6, interpret this reference to “seven locks” as meaning dreadlocks.) Predictably, when Delilah yells her warning, Samson pulls easily away from the loom.

Samson and Delilah, by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1609

Samson and Delilah, by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1609

Finally, she pulls out the big guns: “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me?” (Judges 16:15), just as Samson’s unnamed bride said in Judges 14:16. For all his strength, Samson is a sucker for emotional manipulation, so he finally tells Delilah the secret of his hair.

If you were a child in the ’80s, you might have thought – as I did – of the Heartless Giant story from The Storyteller. In it, a young boy must defeat a giant who cannot be killed because he has hidden his heart. And so every day, the boy asks the giant where his heart is kept until, finally, the giant reveals the location (though in that story, the giant’s motive makes a bit more sense – the boy is clever and tricks the giant into thinking that he’s on his side). The big difference between the two stories is that, here, the giant is the Good Guy.

With his secret finally in her hands, Delilah has Samson fall asleep on her knee, and he does it because he’s Samson and he’s always found thinking hard when it comes to women. In Sunday School, Delilah then cuts Samson’s hair. Here, though, she has some guy come in and do it for some reason. It’s an odd detail – why can’t she do it herself? Would it be too much like Samson is defeated by a woman to have her be the one cutting his hair?

Regardless, when she wakes him, he doesn’t realize that “the Lord had left him” (Judges 16:20) and tries to break himself free, only then to realize just how fickle his God’s affections are. The Philistines rush in and gauge out his eyes, putting him in bronze fetters and then make him grind at the mill in prison. But unbeknownst to them, hair grows back…

The fall

The Philistine lords have gathered to offer a sacrifice to Dagon in thanks for allowing them to capture their arch-nemesis. Dagon, according to my study Bible, “was an ancient Semitic deity whose cult had been adopted by the Philistines after their settlement in the land” (p.316). In their thanks, they describe Samson as “the ravager of our country, who has slain many of us” (Judges 16:24). I wonder if Samson ever had one of Mitchell & Webb’s “Are we the baddies?” moments.

As part of their celebrations, they decide to have Samson “make sport for us” (Judges 16:25). It’s unclear to me what this means. Abbie at Better than Esdras reads it as making him fight in deathmatches. In my own reading, I interpreted it as putting him on display, perhaps with intention of pelting him with rotten vegetables.

In a stunning feat of architecture, the Philistines have managed to construct a building large enough for 3,000 people to be sitting on the roof, yet it is entirely supported by two pillars close enough together that one man can touch both at the same time. Further, a man standing between these two pillars is visible to the 3,000 on the roof. It’s practically an eight wonder of the world for sheer goofiness.

Samson, now blind, is led by a boy holding his hand to his spot between the two pillars. His hair now grown, he prays to God to grant him the strength to avenge one of his two eyes (perhaps he never much liked the other one). It’s very clear that this great final exploit, as all his others have been, is completely personal. He was not raised by God to deliver Israel from the Philistines, no matter what the editor might claim.

Samson has his guide-boy places his hands on the pillars and, his strength now renewed, pushes them apart – knowing that he will die too – to kill the Philistines. “So the dead whom he slew at his death were more than those whom he had slain during his life” (Judges 16:30).

His brothers and other members of his family (once his mother’s womb opened, it was apparently left open) collected his body and buried him in the tomb of his father, between Zorah and Eshtaol.

Samson’s story closes by telling us that “he had judged Israel twenty years” (Judges 16:31), a repetition of Judges 15:20. He did not, as Brant points out on Both Saint and Cynic, get “his people out from under the oppressive thumb of the Philistines.” Throughout, his motivations and exploits have been personal.

Judges 15: A disastrous booty call

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When we last saw Samson, he’d left his own wedding in a huff and his bride, not wanting to waste a good party, married his best man instead. Unfortunately, no one thought to tell Samson that.

As Judges 15 opens, we return to our hero as he’s dragging a kid down to Timnah as a gift for his presumed wife (what happened to flowers or chocolate?), thinking about how he’s totally going to “go in to” her (Judges 15:1).

You might be wondering why Samson thinks that he’s married, considering how the wedding ended. According to my study Bible, Samson may believe himself to be in a marriage “of an ancient type in which the husband comes only from time to time to visit his wife, who continued to live with her parents” (p.314).

As for the goat offering, we’ve seen this before in Gen. 38:17, where Judah offers to pay Tamar, whom he thinks is a prostitute, with a goat in exchange for sexual services. As my study Bible puts it, “A kid was perhaps the usual gift for sexual intimacy” (p.314).

So Samson either knows that he’s not really married and has decided to treat his bride like a prostitute, or he thinks that he’s in a special one-john-only type of contract. There’s no indication that this is what his bride thought she was getting. Quite the opposite, the fact that she assumed Samson had abandoned her and so she decided to marry someone else instead strongly suggests that she believed herself to be in what we would consider a “regular marriage.”

So Samson gets to his father-in-law’s house (so called because it is extremely difficult to find meaningful descriptives for these nameless characters!), goat in hand, and asks to “go in to” the man’s daughter.

Samson and the Foxes, Oktateuch, Vatopedi monastery, 13th century

Samson and the Foxes, Oktateuch, Vatopedi monastery, 13th century

For some reason, the father-in-law is apologetic when he tells Samson that his bride has remarried, but offers him her younger sister instead. This father of the year seems to have no compunctions about giving his daughter to a man who doesn’t even communicate enough to establish what kind of marriage he’s getting into, leaves his own wedding in a huff over the outcome of a riddle that he proposed in the first place, and then returns only for a booty call.

Samson, somehow believing himself to be the wronged part, is so angry that he catches 300 foxes, ties them into pairs by the tail, and sticks a torch between each pair. Having lit the torches, he release the foxes into the Philistine fields, setting them (and their granaries) on fire.

I don’t think I need to explain why this is a mega-douche thing to do.

Unfortunately, the Philistines blame Samson’s father-in-law and his daughter for having “angered” Samson (remember the rule: It’s always a woman’s fault), so they burn the family alive.

To his credit (sort of), this also makes Samson angry. It’s also possible that he’s just always angry and just looking for excuses. He vows to get revenge, which he then does, by smiting the Philistines “hip and thigh” (Judges 15:8).

That done, he goes to a cleft of the rock in Etam, which I take to mean that he goes into hiding.

In the cleft of the rock

The Philistines raid the area of Lehi (which means “jawbone” – remember that) in Judah. The people of Judah, perhaps cowered by superior Philistine material culture, ask them why they are raiding. The Philistines answer that they have come for Samson in revenge for what he’d been doing in Timnah.

Three thousand men of Judah go up to Samson’s rock cleft (they must have heard of his volatility) and ask him why he had to go and antagonize the Philistines. To this, Samson replies: “As they did to me, so have I done to them” (Judges 15:11).

Except, not. All they “did” to him was assume that he no longer wanted a woman he abandoned, and then not take her away from her new family when he changed his mind. For this, he burned down their fields, jeopardizing their lives and livelihoods. After that, the story is just an object lesson on the way that violence begets violence. Samson is not the victim in this story.

But he does at least agree to let the men of Judah bind him and bring him down to the Philistines, so long as the men of Judah never raise their hands against him. Keep him mind, though, that according to Judges 14:19, he’s somewhat recently murdered thirty men of Judah (Judges 1:18).

The men of Judah agree and tie Samson up. But when they get to Lehi and the Philistines rush out to meet them, Samson hulks out, breaking his bindings, picking up the “fresh jawbone of an ass” (Judges 15:15), and killing one thousand people with it.

As Javerbaum puts it, “Whoa, when did my Bible turn into a comic book?” (The Last Testament, p.120).

You’ll probably note that this sounds a little familiar. Shamgar, one of our previous judges, killed a mere 600 Philistines with an oxgoad in Judges 3:31.

When he’s done with the killing, Samson delivers his “hasta la vista” line:

With the jawbone of an ass,
heaps upon heaps,
with the jawbone of an ass
have I slain a thousand men. (Judges 15:16)

My study Bible says that this is a pun, as “the Hebrew words for ass and heap(s) [are] identical” (p.314-315). Essentially, that second line potentially means both “I have heaped up their corpses” and “I’ve made them into donkeys.” At least, that’s my best guess at the joke.

Just to reinforce the point, Lehi (“jawbone”) is renamed Ramath-lehi, which apparently means “jawbone hill.” I’m guessing that this is a geographical Just So story, perhaps in which a hill is said to have grown over the “heap” of corpses.

Thirsty Work

It seems that killing a thousand men at once with the jawbone of a donkey is thirsty work. But this is Samson, so of course he can’t just go get a drink, or even just tell God that he’s thirsty. No, he must be a poor beleaguered victim:

Thou hast granted this great deliverance by the hand of thy servant; and shall I now die of thirst, and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised? (Judges 15:19)

God, displaying far more patience than I do around that whiny sort of tone, creates a spring from which Samson can drink. The area is therefore renamed Enhakkor’e, or “the spring of him who called.”

You’d think this would be the end of Samson because he is claiming to have successfully delivered Israel and the chapter ends by telling us that he was a judge for 20 years. You might also be slightly panicking because, hey, isn’t there supposed to be a whole thing with Delilah cutting his hair? Well, fear not, we still have a whole other chapter of our biblical comic book hero!

Judges 14: For the love of a Philistine

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While visiting Timnah on unspecified business, Samson falls in like-like with a Philistine woman. With no more description than her location and ethnicity, he rushes back to his parents and tells them: “now get her for me as my wife” (Judges 14:2). If that sounds really snotty and entitled to you, gird your loins because that’s apparently a major theme of the Samson story.

The parents are rather aghast that their son would fall for a shiksa and ask him if he couldn’t find some nice Jewish girl instead. But Samson has fallen completely in like-like and he is adamant that she is the one he wants (even though he hasn’t, so far as the text indicates, so much as talked to her by this point).

Samson battling with the lion, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1520-1525

Samson battling with the lion, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1520-1525

If you’re of a mind with Phinehas from Numbers 25, you might be inclined to agree with Samson’s parents here. But what you and Samson’s parents don’t know is that Samson’s predilections have been, in fact, orchestrated by God, who “was seeking an occasion against the Philistines” (Judges 14:4).

The movement in the following passages is a little odd. Best as I can figure, Samson tells his parents to go fetch the woman, but then goes along with them, then somehow meets with the woman alone, and finishes by returning to his parents with the wedding plans settled.

At some point during all this awkward travelling, Samson encounters a lion. The “Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him” (Judges 14:6) and he was able to tear the lion apart with his bare hands.

Later, when passing the same area, he stumbles on the lion’s carcass. Rather than rotting, it appears to have entered a second life as a bee’s hive. Samson shoves right into the rotting lion’s corpse, pulls out fistfuls of honey, and has a sweet snack. In the spirit of sharing, he brings some more home to his parents and feeds it to them, never letting them know that it came from a hive built in rotting meat.

A NOTE TO MY CHILD: If you ever come across an animal’s carcass, assume that it does not contain honey. Do not be fooled by squirming movement under the skin. Just leave it alone and, whatever you do, do not bring me the contents to eat. I hope you learned your lesson with that worm you were very interested in having me eat the other day.

Biblical Red Wedding

Samson prepares a wedding feast to last seven days. This, according to the text, is in keeping with what “the young men used to do” (Judges 14:10). The bride invites thirty fellow Philistines, to whom Samson poses a riddle:

Out of the eater came something to eat
Out of the strong came something sweet (Judges 14:14)

You can probably guess the answer, but keep in mind that Samson has told no one of his honey-containing lion-slaying. There is literally no way that anyone could guess the answer to this awful riddle.

If the Philistines can guess the answer within the seven day feast, Samson must provide each of them with one garment of linen and one festal garment. If they cannot answer, they must give Samson a total of thirty linen garments and thirty festal garments.

Three days pass and, on the fourth day, the Philistines start to realize that they aren’t going to figure this riddle out. So they go to the bride and ask her if she “invited us here to impoverish us?” (Judges 14:15).

I have somewhat mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, there’s nothing in the text to suggest that they were compelled to agree to the terms of the riddle. There’s also no reason to blame the bride for what her groom has chosen to do (other than the apparent fact that it is always a woman’s fault).

On the other hand, Samson knew quite well that his riddle is unanswerable. Not only that but, as we’ll find out shortly, he does not have the clothes to pay up should the Philistines win – showing, clearly, that he never expected them to solve the riddle.

So, yeah, he did intend to impoverish them. Or, at the very least, he had intended to profit from his wedding guests.

His wife, now working with her fellow Philistines, pulls the old “if you really loved me” trick, weeping for seven days (consistency error) until, on the last day of the wedding feast, Samson finally gives in and tells her the answer to the riddle. She immediately tells the Philistine guests.

When the Philistines give him the correct answer, he immediately figures out what happened: “If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle” (Judges 14:18).

But he did promise those garments, so the Spirit of the Lord comes to him and he heads off to Ashkelon. There, he kills thirty people, takes their clothes, and uses them to pay off the Philistines’ winnings.

If you’ll remember, Ashkelon was taken by Judah in Judges 1:18. If the continuity is accurate, that means that he just killed a bunch of Israelites to pay off his gambling debt to the Philistines.

A sore loser, Samson gives the Philistines their garments and then goes back to his parents in a huff. Unbeknownst to him, his bride – assuming herself abandoned – decides to make the best of the wedding and marries Samson’s best man instead.

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