1 Chronicles 1-2: The Never-ending List

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They say it’s important to begin a story in media res, start with a bang, start with something that will grip your audience and leave them salivating for more.

The Chronicler took this advice and decided to do the precise opposite. And so we begin 1 Chronicles with what is little more than an incredibly tedious list of names. This isn’t even like Genesis, where at least “the begats” were interspersed with narrative. No, not here. Our very first paragraph is composed of thirteen names and one conjunction. It certainly does set a tone!

There are, of course, many theories as to why the Chronicler should choose to begin this way. My study Bible argues that the genealogies are provided to “make it clear that he [the Chronicler] was dealing with the true Chosen People.” Personally, I liked James Pate’s thought that:

I Chronicles may have genealogies as a way to affirm a societal structure in post-exilic Israel and to connect it with pre-exilic Israel, to tell Israel who she is, and to convey that God is preserving God’s people, notwithstanding the exile.  There were a lot of people-groups that became lost once they went into exile, but I Chronicles may be trying to demonstrate that Israel did not.

In the beginning…

To being our journey, the Chronicler condenses all of Genesis 5 into these names: “Adam, Seth, Enosh; Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared; Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech; Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth” (1 Chronicles 1:1-4).

Here, Brant Clements notes that this is first mention of Adam that we’ve seen since Genesis 5:5, and that he will not be mentioned again in the Old Testament. “Adam actually featured more strongly in the New Testament. The ancient Hebrews didn’t put much emphasis on him at all.” It’s a very interesting observation, and clearly an indication of theological evolution. I hope that we get to find out some more about that when we finally reach the New Testament (in, oh, about five years).

Up until Noah, this is a list of generational patriarchs, a direct line from father to son to grandson, and so on. But abruptly, without any indication of change, it presents us with three brothers: Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah.

That’s because it’s with Noah’s sons that we see our first ethnic branching.

The sons of Japheth: According to my study Bible, the sons of Japheth represent Indo-European populations. The section is taken from Genesis 10, and the sons are Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras.

In the next generation, the sons of Gomer are Ashkenaz, Diphath (who appears as Riphath in Gen. 10:3), and Togarmah. The sons of Javan are Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Rodanim (who appears as Dodanim in Gen. 10:4).

It’s worth noting that Javan (literally Ionia) represents the Greeks. According to James Pate, the discrepancy between Dodanim (Gen. 10:4) and Rodanim (1 Chron. 1:7) may be due simply to the fact that the “d” and “r” sounds are represented in Hebrew with letters that look similar and may have been confused at some point by some hapless copier. Pate goes on to propose another possibility:

Relying on Mefaresh’s interpretation, which is based on Genesis Rabbah 37:1, the Artscroll says that, when Israel sins, the people-group subjugates Israel and is called the Rodanim, from the Hebrew root r-d-h, which means ruling or oppressing.  If Israel controls the people-group, however, the people-group is called the Dodanim, for it is telling Israel that she is its friend, or dod.

Of course, this presents a number of problems, but it’s certainly an interesting proposition.

The sons of Ham: Ham’s sons are Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. In the next generation, the sons of Cush are Seba, Havilah, Sabta, Raama (here spelled without an ‘h’ at the end, though he has one later in the same verse, as well as in Gen. 10:7), and Sabteca. We are also told that Cush was the father of Nimrod, who “began to be a mighty one in the earth” (1 Chron. 1:10). In the generation after that, we have the sons of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan.

Back up the line to Egypt, his sons were Ludim, Anamim, Lehabim, Naphtuhim, Pathrusim, Casluhim (whom the Chronicler tells us fathered the Philistines), and Caphtorim.

Next comes Canaan, for whom the pretence of personification is dropped. Rather than naming his sons, we are told instead that he was the father of Sidon, Heth, the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites.

The sons of Shem: The final son of Noah is the sire of the Semitic group, the population from which Abraham will emerge. The sons of Shem are Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, Aram, Uz, Hul, Gether, and Meshech (who appears as Mash in Gen. 10:23). This is either an error or deviates quite a bit from the Genesis 10 version, in which Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash are the sons of Aram, and the grandsons of Shem.

In the next generation, Arpachshad was the father of Shelah, who in turn was the father of Eber. Eber had two sons: Peleg and Joktan. Joktan was the father of Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, Ebal (given as Obal in Gen. 10:28), Abimael, Sheba, Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab.

Father of sand, father of stars

We move next to Abraham, who is descended from Shem by way of Arpachshad, Shelah, Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, and Terah. This portion is lifted from Genesis 11:10-26. Abraham had two sons: Isaac and Ishmael.

The sons of Ishmael: This section is lifted from Gen. 25:12-16. I’ve always found it an interesting twist that Ishmael should be the first born, yet did not inherit divine attention. We see this motif a great deal in Genesis, of younger sons usurping their older brothers. It would be nice to have an explanation for this, though I suppose it could be as simple as inversion of expectation making for psychologically satisfying (and entertaining) stories. Ishmael, of course, sired the Arabic people.

Ishmael was the father of Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah.

A painting of Abraham's departure, by József Molnár 1849

A painting of Abraham’s departure, by József Molnár 1849

The sons of Keturah: Though 1 Chron. 1:28 implied that Abraham only had Ishmael and Isaac, we know from Gen. 25:1-4 that Abraham remarried after his wife Sarah’s death, a woman named Keturah. Here (1 Chron. 1:32), she is demoted to the status of concubine.

Through her, Abraham was the father of Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. In the next generation, Jokshan fathered Sheba and Dedan (the same two sons given to Raamah in 1 Chron. 1:9). Jokshan’s brother, Midian, fathered Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida, and Eldaah.

The sons of Isaac: We next move over to Abraham’s son by his first wife, Sarah. Isaac had two sons, Esau and Israel. Esau is the progenitor of the Edomites. Israel was born with the name of Jacob, but received the name Israel after an encounter with the Divine. While Genesis used the two names inconsistently, he is here referred to only as Israel.

Esau’s sons were: Eliphaz, Reuel, Jeush, Jalam, and Korah. In the next generation, Eliphaz fathered Teman, Omar, Zephi (appears as Zepho in Gen. 36:11), Gatam, Kenaz, Timna, and Amalek. Reuel fathered Nahath, Zerah, Shammah, and Mizzah. These are taken from Genesis 36:10-14, where Timna appears as a concubine of Eliphaz, not as his son, and she is the mother of Amalek.

The sons of Seir: We run into a difficulty here, since this is the first mention of a Seir. So where is he meant to fit? My study Bible notes that Seir is “another name for Edom”, referencing Gen. 36:8, and in Gen. 36:20, we learn of a Seir the Horite who lived in Edom. Yet none of this helps to explain how Seir is meant to fit into this genealogy.

In any case, Mystery Seir’s sons are Lotan, Shobal, Zibeon, Anah, Dishon, Ezer, and Dishan. He also had a daughter, named as a full sister of Lotan, by the name of Timna.

In the next generation, Lotan fathered Hori and Homam (appearing as Hemam in Gen. 36:22). Shobal fathered Alian (appearing as Alvan in Gen. 36:23), Manahath, Ebal, Shephi (appearing as Shepho in Gen. 36:23), and Onam. Zibeon fathered Aiah and Anah (he either fathered a daughter by the same name, or there is some confusion – in Gen. 36:2, Zibeon had a daughter named Anah, who married Esau). Anah (Seir’s son, not Zibeon’s) fathered Dishon. And Dishon (again, Seir’s son) fathered Hamran (appearing as Hemdan in Gen. 36:26), Eshban, Ithran, and Cheran. Ezer fathered Bilhan, Zaavan, and Jaakan (appearing as Akan in Gen. 36:27). Dishan fathered Uz and Aran.

The kings of Edom: Before Israel had a king of its own, Edom had plenty. This record may be compared to Gen. 36:31-43. They begin with Bela son of Beor, who ruled from Dinhabah. When he did, Jobab son of Zerah, of Bozrah, took over. After him came Husham, of the lands of the Temanites. Then Hadad son of Bedad, who defeated Midian and ruled from Avith. Then came Samlah of Masrekah. Then Shaul of Rehoboth. Then Baalhanan son of Achbor. Then another Hadad (appearing as Hadar in Gen. 36:39), whose city was Pai (which appears as Pau in Gen. 36:39) and whose wife was Mehetabel daughter of Matred, daughter of Mezahab.

The chiefs of Edom were Timna, Aliah (appearing as Alvah in Gen. 36:40), Jetheth, Oholibamah, Elah, Pinon, Kenaz, Teman, Mibzar, Magdiel, and Iram.

The sons of Israel: These are, of course, our twelve tribes. Israel fathered Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Joseph, Benjamin, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. This is, of course, parallel to Genesis 35:22-26.

Focus on Judah

The next few chapters cover will cover each individual tribe in excruciating detail. But we begin with Judah, who fathered Er, Onan, and Shelah, via Bathshua the Canaanite.

God killed Er for wickedness (and Onan, but not mentioned here), which leads to Judah impregnating Er’s wife, Tamar, himself. This produced two more sons: Perez and Zerah. This rather sordid story can be found in Genesis 38.

In the next generation, Perez fathered Hezron and Hamul (this corresponds to Gen. 46:12). His brother, Zerah, fathered Zimri (appearing as Zabdi in Jos. 7:1), Ethan, Heman, Calcol, and Dara. If several of these names seem familiar, it might be because they appear in 1 Kings 4:31, as the men of great wisdom to which Solomon is favourably compared. Except, of course, that the version in Kings describes them as the sons of Mahol, not Zerah.

We then skip to a Carmi, who fathers Achar. Achar is described as “the troubler of Israel” (1 Chron. 2:7). Carmi’s link to the rest of the genealogy is omitted, and the description of Achar as “the troubler of Israel” suggests a story with which the reader ought to be familiar. One possibility is that Achar is the Achan from Joshua 7, who cursed the Hebrew army by keeping some of the spoils of war. He is identified in Jos. 7:1 as “the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, from the tribe of Judah.” This would explain his inclusion here. Except, of course, that it completely screws up the timeline of the Hebrews’ sojourn in Egypt.

In very next verse, we return to the explicit relations with Ethan, who fathered Azariah.

The sons of Perez: Back over to the line of Perez, we move down through his son, Hezron, who fathered Jerahmeel, Ram, and Chelubai. Much later, we learn that Hezron, at the age of sixty, married the daughter of Machir (the father of Gilead). Through her, he had a final son named Segub, who fathered Jair. Jair controlled 23 cities in Gilead until Geshur and Aram conquered a bunch of them.

In the next generation, Ram fathered Amminadab, who fathered Nahshon (described here as the “prince of the sons of Judah” – 1 Chron. 2:10). Through Nahshon, we get Salma (who appears as Salmon in Ruth 4:18-22), through whom we get Boaz (the love interest of the book of Ruth), and through him Obed. Then, through Obed, we get Jesse.

The sons of Jesse: Jesse fathered Eliab, Abinadab, Shimea, Nethanel, Raddai, Ozem, and David. Though only these seven sons are listed here, 1 Sam. 16:10-11 and 1 Sam. 17:12 both explicitly state that he had eight (of which David was the youngest).

He also had daughters: Zeruiah and Abigail. Zeruiah gave birth to some rather plot critical characters: Abishai, Joab, and Asahel, who play a fairly important part in 2 Samuel and 1 Kings. Abigail married Jether the Ishmaelite (named Ithra the Israelite in 2 Sam. 17:25), and bore Amasa. It’s interesting that the children of David’s sisters should be worth mentioning, but not those of his brothers.

 

The sons of Jerahmeel: The narrative is jumping around quite a bit, making it difficult to follow. We now bounce back to Jerahmeel, Hezron’s eldest. Jerahmeel is a bit difficult, since he is listed specifically as being a member of the tribe of Judah here, yet 1 Sam. 27:10 and 1 Sam. 30:29 refer to the Jerahmeelites as if they were a separate, non-Israelite, group. To smooth this over, my New Bible Commentary argues that “it is much simpler to suppose that the descendants of Jerahmeel, who in any case were settled in the south of Judea, retained their nomadic habits longer, and so in the days of David were reckoned separately from the rest of Judah” (p.372).

Jerahmeel fathered Ram, Bunah, Oren, Ozem, and Ahijah. In the next generation, Ram fathered Maaz, Jamin, and Eker.

Jerahmeel also had a second wife, Atarah, who bore Onam. Onam fathered Shammai and Jada. Shammai fathered Nadab and Abishur. Abishur married a woman named Abihail, and they had Ahban and Molid. Nadab fathered Seled (who died childless) and Apparim, who fathered Ishi. Ishi fathered Sheshan, who fathered Ahlai.

Despite what I said just above, we are told that Sheshan had no sons (this isn’t necessarily a contradiction, as Ahlai might either have died young or been born after the events I am about to relate). To continue his line, he married his daughter to his Egyptian slave, Jarha, and they had Attai.

Brian Shwimmer (of the University of Manitoba’s Department of Anthropology) addresses this in the broader context of inheritance:

Inheritance by daughters imposed a particular difficulty, which is acknowledged in several biblical passages. After Moses first promulgates the rule (Numbers), he is confronted with a problem: if females inherit land from their fathers they will pass it on to their children and therefore into the patrimony of another tribe or lineage. His solution is to institute a parallel cousin marriage regulation. Thus a woman who inherits from her father is to marry her father’s brother’s son so that property will automatically be retained within the wider patriline. A second mechanism for maintaining the continuity of lineage holdings was to marry inheriting daughters to household slaves. Since these dependants had no partilineages of their own, their children were by default incorporated into their mothers’ lineages. The arrangement of marriages to slaves created a number of segments that originated with female rather than male founders (see I Chronicles 2:34-36 for an example.) This institution directly mirrors a solution to the reverse problem of a daughterless family among the Akan, a matrilineal people of West Africa.

The reference to Numbers, of course, relates to the daughters of Zelophehad, whose story can be found in Numbers 27 and Numbers 36.

Attai fathered Nathan, who fathered Zabad, who fathered Ephlal, who fathered Obed, who fathered Jehu, who fathered Azariah, who fathered Helez, who fathered Eleasah, who fathered Sismai, who fathered Shallum, who fathered Jekamiah, who fathered Elishama.

After all that, we move back up the line to Onam’s second son, Jada, who fathered Jether (who died childless) and Jonathan. Jonathan fathered Peleth and Zaza.

A Tale of Two Calebs

I am moving the two sections about Calebs to the bottom for special treatment. The first originally began with 1 Chron. 2:18. The mention of a Caleb is rather odd. It appears to be yet another sui genesis dynasty. In looking for more information, I am finding that the consensus makes Caleb a variant spelling of Chelubai, making him the son of Hezron, grandson of Perez. Except that that Caleb will be mentioned later on, leaving this one still without explanation.

Whoever he is, this Caleb married a woman named Azubah. The verse (1 Chron. 2:18) is rather difficult to parse out, suggesting that Caleb had sons with both Azubah and Jerioth. My interpretation was that this might refer to an arrangement similar to the one used by Abraham in Genesis 16. My New Bible Commentary, however, argues that “either Jerioth was another name of Azubah, or there is a textual corruption” (p.372). The Commentary goes on to suggest that the original wording might have had Azubah give birth to a daughter, Jerioth, who in turn had the sons who will shortly be listed. In any case, Caleb had the following sons: Jesher, Shobab, and Ardon. After Azubah died, Caleb married Ephrath (later listed as Ephrathah, compare 1 Chron. 2:19 to 1 Chron. 2:24), who gave birth to Hur.

Caleb, who apparently lived up to his name (kelev means “dog”), impregnated his father’s wife, Ephrathah – though he at least waited until his father was dead. Through her, he fathered Ashhur, who fathered Tekoa. (There is no mention of either of them being put to death, which would be required by Leviticus 20:11.)

In the next generation, Hur fathered Uri, and Uri fathered Bezalel. This appears to be the same as Bezaleel, named in Exodus 31:2.

Further down (I’m putting it here for convenience), we will get another section headed: “The sons of Caleb the brother of Jerahmeel” (1 Chron. 2:42). The two genealogies are different, though my New Bible Commentary insists that the names here are meant to supplement the ones above. To me, this suggests that either Caleb was a quasi-mythic figure in a few different spots, each with their own traditions that had to be amalgamated, or there were a few different Calebs that somehow became conflated.

In any case, the Caleb specifically identified as the brother of Jerahmeel fathered Mareshah, who fathered Ziph and Hebron. Hebron fathered Korah, Tappuah, Tekem, and Shema. Shema fathered Raham, who fathered Jorekeam. While Rekem fathered Shammai. Shammai fathered Maon, who fathered Bethzur.

This Caleb also had a concubine named Ephah, who bore Haran, Moza, and Gazez. Haran also fathered a Gazez, though hopefully a different one.

There is another sui genesis patriarch listed among the descendants of Caleb: Jahdai. Jahdai fathered Regem, Jotham, Geshan, Pelet, Ephah, and Shaaph.

Caleb had yet another concubine, this one named Maacah. She bore Sheber and Tirhanah. We are told that she was also the mother of Shaaph (if the same as above, the implications are even more headache-inducing). Shaaph fathered Madmannah and Sheva. Sheva fathered Macbenah, and was the father of Gibea.

Finally, Caleb had a daughter, Achsah. It is on this basis this Caleb is identified with Caleb the Kenizzite, who appears, for example, in Joshua 14:6, and who also had a daughter by the same name (Jos. 15:17). The theory, if I understand it correctly, goes that he may have been an honorary Israelite, perhaps adopted into Hezron’s family.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that several of Caleb’s descendants are also the names of towns. So are we to understand that Caleb (and his lineage) founded those towns? Or that these individuals gave their names to the towns that they founded?

The sons of Hur: I am continuing this out of order, just to keep Hur in the same section as Caleb. Hur was the son of Ephrathah (called Ephrath in 1 Chron. 2:19), Caleb’s second wife. He fathered Shobal (who “fathered” Kiriath-jearim), Salma (who “fathered” Bethlehem), and Hareph (who “fathered” Beth-gader).

Shobal’s sons were Haroeh, and half of Manuhoth. Yeah, I’m scratching my head as well.

The families of Kiriath-jearim were the Ithrites, the Puthites, the Shumathites, and the Mishraites. From these came the Zorathites and the Esthaolites. The families of Bethlehem were the Netophathites, Atrothbethjoab, the Zorites, and half of the Manahathites. The families of the scribes who lived in Jabez were the Tirathites, the Shimeathites, and the Sucathites. These, we are told, were the Kenites who came from Hammath, the father of the house of Rechab.

And now I think I need to go detox my brain for a while.

1 Samuel 29-30: The Great Rescue

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Before we got sidetracked by Saul’s adventures in Endor, we learned that David was going out to fight with the Philistines against the Israelites. So far, David has managed to avoid the conflict of interest by lying about the victims of his raids (1 Samuel 27), but now his betrayal seems inevitable.

At no point are we given insight into David’s feelings about all of this. He seems perfectly willing to follow Achish into battle in 1 Samuel 28, and he expresses no reservations here. Rather, it is the other Philistines who complain about his presence – worried that David might turn on them during the battle, seeing this as a great strategy if David wants to reconcile himself with Saul.

After all, they say, isn’t this the David from the song?

Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his ten thousands (1 Sam. 29:5)

Achish defends David’s presence, arguing that David has shown himself to be nothing if not loyal. But, in the end, he gives in to the will of the people (and interesting parallel to Saul who, in 1 Sam. 15:22, 24, claimed that he only disobeyed God because he was afraid to go against the popular opinion – just as, here, Achish goes against his conscience for the same reason).

David protests using much the same language as he used when defending himself to Saul in 1 Samuel 24 and 1 Samuel 26, but ultimately gives in and heads back to Ziklag, conveniently spared the faux pas of having to fight against his own people (over whom he will son be king, no less!).

The common argument about this story is that it gives David an out. He was apparently known to have defected to the Philistines, and trying to erase that historical detail would have proved impossible. What was possible, however, was at least keeping him away from the battle in which his chief nemesis dies, exonerating David from any intentional power play.

David versus the Amalekites

When David gets back to Ziklag, he finds that the town has been raided by Amalekites and burned, the women (including David’s two wives, Ahinoam and Abigail) taken captive.

David rescues the captives, Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

David rescues the captives, Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

This apparently has a rather profound effect on morale, because David’s followers start talking about stoning him. Which seems a little extreme, but perhaps the rationale is that they wouldn’t have left their families undefended if David had not taken them out to fight with the Philistines. To defend himself, we are told that David “strengthened himself in the Lord his God” (1 Sam. 30:6). It’s not really clear what this means, but perhaps he invoked their belief in God (and his position as God’s chosen) to dissuade the people from mutiny.

As he’s been doing a lot before making major decisions (even when they seem as clear cut as “shall I rescue my wives?”), David calls for Abiathar to consult God. Should he pursue the bandits, he asks? Of course, God says yes, so David marches out with his 600 fighting men.

Some of them appear to be getting a little on in years, because 200 of them simply can’t go on after they reach Besor. David carries on with his remaining 400 men. This will be important later.

On their way, they encounter a starving Egyptian. They feed him – apparently quite well – and find out that he is the servant of one of the Amalekites, left behind after he had fallen sick. According to the Egyptian, Ziklag was not the only place hit, the Amalekites had also raided the Negeb of the Cherethites, areas belonging to Judah, and the Negeb of Caleb. He agrees to lead David to the raiders.

He does so and David smites all except for 400 who manage to flee.

Everything and everyone taken is recovered from the Amalekites, plus a good deal of spoil. Not a bad run, all told.

When David’s army rejoins with the 200 men they had left behind at Besor, the 400 who had gone on start grumbling that they shouldn’t have to share the spoils with people who didn’t even fight. Heck, they don’t even want to return their property (except for women and children, which is a concession I’m glad they made).

David argues that those who fight in the battle and those who stay behind to guard the baggage are both important, and both deserve a share of the spoils. He makes this an ordinance that is to apply to all Israel henceforth, though it isn’t clear on what authority he does this.

Once he returns to Ziklag, David sends part of the spoils out to various elders of Judah, smoothing any concerns over his allegiance and presumably paving the way for their support when it comes time to select a new king of Israel.

How many times can an Amalekite die?

It’s been pointed out that the Amalekites are utterly killed on several occasions. There are a couple possible explanations for this.

Reconciling Samuel’s slaughter of the Amalekites with Saul’s is rather easy, as it could be that Samuel’s list is not of his personal achievements in battle, but rather of the achievements of Israel/God while under his spiritual leadership.

For Saul and David, it could be that we’re dealing with hyperbole. It’s not like the authors of the Bible are totally unfamiliar with the technique.

It could also be that we’re dealing with a subset of Amalekites, not the entire people. We’ve seen this before, particularly in censuses, where the term “people” is used when only the adult men are meant. So in 1 Samuel 15: 7-8, it could well be that the “all the people” Saul kills refers only to the men currently on that battlefield. This might well exclude the raiding party for David.

1 Samuel 27: Playing two sides

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Thinking – justifiably – that he may die at Saul’s hand (despite their two reconciliation), David escapes to Gath, to the court of Achish, son of Maoch. The last time he did this was in 1 Sam. 21. At that time, he was still reasonably in Saul’s good graces and feared that Achish might nab him for the political expediency. To get back out of Achish’s court, David lathered up his beard and pretended to be mad.

The move was predicted in 1 Sam. 26:19, where David’s complaint that he is driven out of the assembly of God indicates that he knew that he would be moving to Philistia.

king_davidThis time, he approaches Achish directly. It’s perhaps not surprising that Achish doesn’t remember him, as he didn’t seem to know that David was anything other than just a madman.

David offers himself – and his 600 followers – up as a sort of pirate army. In exchange, he asks for a country town. The text mentions that he brings along Ahinoam and Abigail, so it seems likely that David is trying to settle his (and his soldiers’) family. Living in caves and in wilderness, always having to move as they pursued by their king, can’t have been a very comfortable existence.

Achish agrees and gives David Ziklag. The town had been given to the tribe of Simeon in Joshua 19:5, but had since apparently fallen under Philistine control. Now that it’s given to David, we are told that “Ziklag has belonged to the kings of Judah to this day” (1 Sam. 27:6). David and his followers live there for one year and four months.

During that time, they go on raids for Achish. Sort of.

While they tell Achish that they are raiding Israelites and friends of Israelites (Judah, Jerahmeelites, and Kenites), they are actually raiding Geshurites, Girzites, and Amalekites. To keep his subterfuge under wraps, David has all the people he raids murdered, keeping only the livestock and stuff to bring back to Achish. This way, no survivors can reveal that David isn’t raiding the people he claims to be raiding.

Achish, believing that David is making himself an enemy among the Israelites, thinks that his loyalty is assured. After all, he’d have nowhere else to go.

1 Samuel 15: The Sundering

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The relationship between Samuel and Saul is an interesting one, because it looks an awful lot like a power struggle between the secular and cultic leadership structures.

So we see, for example, Samuel directing political decisions by being God’s mouthpiece: he tells Saul to go after the Amalekites, to punish them for “opposing them [the Israelites] on the way, when they came up out of Egypt” (1 Sam. 15:2). In a sense, he is trying to direct the military aspect of governorship by proxy.

There is, however, a condition; the Israelites must kill all the Amalekites, even women and infants, even their livestock. Samuel is invoking the rules of holy war outlined in Deut. 20.

Interestingly, the incident Samuel is referencing (also outlined in Deut. 25:17-19) is narrated in Exodus 17:8-16. There, Joshua battled the Amalekites while Moses lead the cheers from the sidelines. Though the Israelites won, God promised to destroy them all later. Now he’s going to give it a go.

Saul musters 200,000 soldiers. That number either includes or is in addition to 10,000 soldiers from the tribe of Judah. This is the second time the soldiers of Judah are counted separately (the other time was in 1 Sam. 11:8), and I don’t know why that is. It could be that the source came from Judah, so they recorded their own numbers in the stories as a matter of interest.

When they reach the city of Amalek (probably not an actual city since it seems that the Amalekites were at least partially nomadic – I imagine that this is more likely a fortified base/trading centre), Saul reaches out to the Kenites who are living among the Amalekites, telling them to get out lest they be killed as well. According to the Deuteronomist histories, the Kenites are associated with Moses’ father-in-law (whatever his nom du jour happens to be – Judges 1:16; 4:11). Clearly, they were a group viewed favourably by the Israelites. The Kenites obey.

Saul defeats the Amalekites and (mostly) follows Samuel’s instructions. However, as we saw in the narrative of the battle of Ai, mostly doesn’t cut it. Saul keeps alive the Amalekite king Agag and a selection of the very best livestock, claiming that he wished to sacrifice these at a proper altar. He doesn’t seem to understand that this is disobeying Samuel’s commands, however, presumably figuring that he is going to kill them all anyway, wouldn’t it be better to do it in a ritualistic way rather than just slaughtering everything right away in the field?

When Samuel finds out, he is furious, and God “repents” of his choice of king. Samuel tries to confront Saul about it, but Saul has already left (after building himself a monument at Carmel) for Gilgal. Samuel heads after him.

The Confrontation

When Samuel catches up to Saul, Saul is just beaming like a puppy super proud of himself for defending his owner from the danger of a pair of slippers. He boasts, “I have performed the commandment of the Lord” (1 Sam. 15:13). Samuel gets snarky, answering: “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” (1 Sam. 15:14)

Since Saul did, by all indication, intend to follow out the command and to do so in a pro-God way, his error is not really heresy or disobeying God’s orders. Rather, the issue is that he did not perfectly follow Samuel’s orders – he tried to retain agency and to make his own decisions in the worship of YHWH. So what we are seeing is a prophet who is trying to direct secular matters, and a king who is trying to direct cultic matters.

Of course, since the authors knew that Saul did not establish a dynasty, it would have been easy for them to read in (or even write in) a defense of religious meddling in secular governance.

1 Samuel 15Or, as Samuel puts it, “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam. 15:22).

Saul’s defense is that, “I feared the people and obeyed their voice” (1 Sam. 15:24). If true, it makes him a weak king. If a lie, then he is failing to take ownership of his own actions. This is not a flattering portrait of the king. He begs for a second chance.

Samuel turns to leave and Saul grabs after him, accidentally tearing Samuel’s robe (apparently, some translations are less clear – seeming to indicate that it is Samuel who tears his robe, presumably for dramatic effect). To this, Samuel says: “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day, and has given it to a neighbour of yours, who is better than you” (1 Sam. 15:28).

The obvious interpretation is that this is a second version of Saul’s fall from grace. It’s possible, however, that this is an escalation. It could be that the punishment in 1 Sam. 13:13-14 is the loss of a dynasty only, whereas here God is withdrawing support from Saul’s own rule. It’s the difference between “we won’t be renewing your contract” and “please pack up your stuff.”

Samuel then calls for King Agag to be brought to him and, with a witty one-liner (or two-liner, I suppose, depending on your formatting), hacks the enemy king to pieces. This is yet another example of the secular vs religious authority battle, as it gives Samuel the final deciding military victory. It is the prophet who, in the end, is the one who literally defeats the baddies.

In the end, Samuel and Saul part ways, the former going back to Ramah while the latter goes to Gibeah. The narrative tells us that they will not see each other again until one of them (the language is ambiguous as to which) dies.

Even so, Samuel is said to grieve over Saul. I think that this is meant to show that it isn’t personal, or perhaps to highlight that the butting of heads is between God and Saul, not Samuel and Saul. It is the religious authority throwing their hands up and saying “Oh I‘m not the one who wants power, this is just about what God wants!” Or, more charitably, it points to a complex relationship in which Samuel is bound by the law regardless of his personal feelings, as in the story of Jephthah where he must kill his beloved daughter.

Judges 4-5: On the dangers of camping equipment

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Judges 4 and Judges 5 retell essentially the same story – that of our only female judge, Deborah. The story in Judge 4 is told in prose form, while the story in Judge 5 is a song/poem supposedly sung by two of the principle characters as a summary of the events that have recently transpired. In that sense, it’s quite like Miriam’s song in Exodus 15.

Since the two cover much of the same ground, I will be following the Judges 4 account and only reference Judges 5 as interests me at the relevant points in the story.

The story takes up after Ehud’s death (skipping over poor Shamgar and his ox-goad), when God sells the people into the hands of King Jabin of the Canaanites. King Jabin, as I am certain you recall, was killed by Joshua in Josh. 11:10-11.

But not so fast, contradiction thumpers! Claude Mariottini has an alternative explanation:

In Joshua 11:1-14 Jabin appears as the king of Hazor who formed a confederacy of Canaanite kings to fight against Joshua and the people of Israel. In Judges 4:2, Jabin appears as a king of Canaan whose kingdom was in Hazor. For this reason, scholars believe that Jabin was a throne name for the kings of Hazor.

Or, of course, it’s possible that the author(s) of Joshua simply ascribed to him all the heroic conquest-related deeds that they’d heard of, which included some that had originally been told of local heroes, called ‘judges’ in this book.

This King Jabin has been oppressing the Israelites for 20 years with the help of his commander, Sisera. It is Sisera who plays the part of arch-nemesis to our intrepid heroes in these chapters, and he is certainly a worthy opponent. We are told that Sisera had nine hundred iron chariots! Nine hundred! Iron chariots, if you’ll remember from Judges 1:19, are the super weapon that even an army with God on its side can’t stand against.

The Song of Deborah is a little less clear on the aggressor-victim dichotomy, perhaps having been spared, by virtue of its poetic flow, the editing hand that has been making all these heroic stories conform to the ‘a) the people sin, b) God leaves them, c) God takes pity, d) a judge rises, e) the judge brings peace, f) it all starts again’ narrative pattern.

And so we are told of God marching out, causing the mountains to quake before him. And we’re told of the caravans ceasing in the days of Shamgar (yes, he does get a mention in Judges 5, though the preceding chapter seems never to have heard of him), implying perhaps that it was the Israelites who were raiding caravans.

It’s not clear and, frankly, the language is so awkward that I had trouble following it. It’s Collins who clued me in that there might be a difference between the two accounts:

According to Judges 4, the Lord delivered Israel into the hand of King Jabin of Hazor. One might assume, then, that Jabin was the oppressor. The song in chapter 5, however, gives a different impression, as it boasts that the Israelites were successfully plundering the caravan routes. The battle that ensued was not a war of liberation but simply a clash between two groups that had competing economic interests. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 110)

Enter Deborah

We are told of Deborah, Ephraimite prophetess and the wife of Lappidoth. We are told that she was “judging Israel at that time” (Judges 4:4) from under a palm between Ramah and Bethel, where the people would come to her for judgement.

I noted as I was reading that the situation looks just like a government seating, in which a leader (a king, chief, or elder) would hear petitions and arbitrate. But it struck me that this was being done under a palm tree – not in a courthouse, or a divan, or even at the city gates.

It changed the tone, and the image I got was less “sanctioned official of the law” and more “wise woman in the woods who has popular authority but not legal authority.” Claude Mariottini seems to agree:

Since Deborah would not have fit into the traditional social and legal structures of Israel and since she could not act as a judge at the city gate, she probably performed her role at another place and in another setting: under a palm tree.

It’s strange, both that she is unique as a female judge and that she seems to be operating outside of the normal social structure. In the words of God himself:

Verily, I have never divined what it was about the ancient Jews’ rigidly patriarchal polygamous society that made it so hard for its female chattel to succeed therein; Especially since women were regarded as clean, uncursed, and fit to appear in public nearly three-quarters of the time. (The Last Testament, Javerbaum. p.120)

Deborah summons Barak, a military leader. Whatever her seat under the palm tree may suggest, her ability to muster Israel’s armies certainly does give her an aura of formally recognized authority.

When she summons Barak son of Abinoam, of the tribe of Naphtali, she tells him in the prose version to gather together soldiers from Naphtali and Zebulun.

In the verse, she has him summon Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir (apparently another name for Manasseh), Zebulun, Issachar, and Naphtali. The Transjordan tribes, Reuben and Gilead (apparently another name for Gad), and the coastal tribes of Dan and Asher refused to come. Judah, Simeon, and Levi get no mention at all.

And then there’s Meroz. According to Collins:

The song singles out the otherwise unknown Meroz to be cursed, because its inhabitants did not come to the aid of the Lord. The song suggests that there was an alliance of tribes who worshipped YHWH. There was some obligation of mutual defense, but there are no sanctions against the tribes that did not show up, with the exception of Meroz (which may not have been a tribe at all). The alliance did not extend to all twelve tribes. The omission of Judah is significant. The bond between Judah and the northern tribes was weak, and this eventually led to the separation of the two kingdoms after the death of Solomon.

Judah is included in the Blessing of Moses in Deuteronomy 33, but there Simeon is missing. It would seem that the number twelve was not as stable in the premonarchic period as is often supposed. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.104)

As long as you follow

When given his instructions, Barak is unsure. He says: “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go” (Judges 4:8).

According to Claude Mariottini, all of this has to do with the belief that God is with Deborah:

Barak was so convinced that Deborah was sent by God that he refused to go into battle without her presence, since her presence with the army would insure the presence of God with Israel and victory against the enemies.

In response, Deborah agrees to go, but she tells Barak that “the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9). This, according to Mariottini, is so unthinkable that it would constitute proof that God really was involved in the victory.

It’s strange, because my impression when reading was the tonal opposite of what Mariottini sees. In my mind, Barak’s request that Deborah come along was a challenge – he was essentially challenging her legitimacy as a leader when, as a woman, she would not even be going into battle. She rebukes him, not only agreeing to go into battle, but then also taking away (by virtue of her connections with the Big Office) his glory in the endeavour, putting the victory into female hands.

It was the “the road on which you are going” phrasing that framed it for me, I think. What could that refer to, if not to Barak’s questioning of God/Deborah’s will in the matter, and his imposition of conditions upon his obedience to God/Deborah’s command?

Either way, they head off with their army (whatever its tribal composition), and Sisera takes the bait. In the Judges 5 version, a storm causes the Kishon river to sweep away Sisera’s army (presumably miring those terrifying iron chariots).

Seeing the tide of battle and river turn against him, Sisera jumps down from his chariot and runs off on foot.

In Jael’s tent

We are told of Heber the Kenite. Here, again, we are told that the Kenites are descended from Moses’s father-in-law (here called Hobab, which agrees with Num. 10:29. He is called Reuel in Exod. 2:18-21, and Jethro in Exod. 3:1, 4:18, 18:1, and 18:5). This matches their stated origin in Judges 1:16, though it creates problems in light of their clearly pre-dating Hobab (as they were mentioned in Gen. 15:18-21).

Jael and Sisera, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Jael and Sisera, by Artemisia Gentileschi

This Heber has separated from the rest of the Kenites and settled near Kedesh, where the battle is taking place. We are told, also, that there was peace between Heber and King Jabin, so when Sisera saw their camp, he must have thought that he would find asylum.

Instead of meeting Heber, however, he met Heber’s wife, Jael. She invites him into her tent and, in the Judges 4 version, hides him under a rug.

Before long, Sisera asks her for a drink of water, and she brings him milk instead (in both version of the story). In the poetic version, she also brings him “curds in a lordly bowl” (Judges 5:25). Sisera then asks her to stand guard at the door and to tell anyone who asks that she is alone.

In Judges 4, Sisera is exhausted (presumably from his battle and subsequent flight from such), and he falls asleep. Jael takes the opportunity to jam a tent peg into his skull with a hammer so hard that the peg comes out the other side and is driven into the ground. Even more badass, she apparently does it while he is awake in the Judges 5:27 account.

Having murdered Sisera, Jael goes out to meet Barak and shows him the body. For this, she is the “most blessed of women” (Judges 5:24), and fulfils Deborah’s earlier prophecy.

There are a few difficulties with Jael’s story. For one thing, I’m pretty sure that murdering their military commander qualifies as a violation of a peace agreement. Not only that, but she murdered a guest in her home – something that seems rather clearly to be a huge no-no in her cultural milieu. It seems that she opportunistically chose to back the winners. None of this is addressed in the text, she is simply lauded for her actions. It’s hard to wonder how this could be, except that her actions benefit Israel.

Claude Mariottini takes a different view:

However, Sisera’s action was a violation of Ancient Near Eastern traditions. Sisera’s action was a violation of Heber’s family and dishonored Jael by entering her tent. As a man, Sisera should had approached Heber and not his wife.

[…]

From the perspective of the writer of Judges, Jael’s action was justified. Since Sisera had already violated Jael’s honor, Jael’s act could be seen as a vindication of her honor. The killing of Sisera was one way by which she eliminated the threat to her clan and avenged the violation of her tent.

Sisera’s mother

The final portion of the story is mentioned only in the Judges 5 poetic version: We get Sisera’s mother fretting that her son still hasn’t returned, but comforting herself by imagining that he must be busy dividing the spoils – and, she thinks, “a maiden or two for every man” (Judges 5:30).

It’s rather horrendous that a woman is thinking so callously of the abuse and rape that she imagines others of her gender must presently be subjected to. Of course, in the poem, I suppose it’s meant to be funny – while she imagines her son nailing some captive women, it is in fact a woman who is nailing him.

The poem ends with her thinking about all the lovely spoils that her son will be bringing back for her.

Final notes

Claude Mariottini pointed out something interesting: that the only two women we’ve seen called prophets so far – Deborah and Miriam – both have songs. Deborah’s is, of course, in Judges 5, and Miriam’s is in Exodus 15.

I notice, also, that both songs seem to be quite a bit older than texts surrounding them, and that both appear to be somewhat fragmentary. It’s interesting to consider that perhaps Canaanite culture was once far more female-friendly, and that the strongly patriarchal elements came later. Perhaps.

I should also mention that Claude Mariottini (who has clearly been a huge help to me in my reading of these two chapters!) has a post about the use of the term “judge” in this book – what it does mean, what it doesn’t mean, and what it may mean. If I tried to explain it here, I’d only be quoting the whole thing, so I’ll link to it instead.

Lastly, Jeremy Myers has a post up on Till He Comes that asks whether the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 might not be sexually suggestive. He uses a translation that is quite different from mine, but largely focuses on the juxtaposition between Jael “penetrating” Sisera (with a phallic tent peg) and Sisera’s mother guessing that he must be running late because he’s so busy “penetrating” all those lovely captive ladies.

Judges 1-2: Introduction to the judge cycle

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Judges opens up with a listing of tribal conquests in the Promised Land. There’s evidence of an editor’s hand in trying to place Judges as a continuation from the Book of Joshua (I assume that’s the Deuteronomist editor, given the way it’s done), but it’s sloppy. Even as a translation, it’s quite clear where the older portions are coming through.

For example, Judges begins with “after the death of Joshua” (Judges 1:1), but what follows is totally its own thing. The language is different, the tone is different. It’s abundantly clear that an editor, trying to upcycle old stories to make his theological point, simply glued that fraction of a sentence onto the beginning of the text to situate it in the broader historical narrative. You can still see the seams, however, as the sentence continues with the Israelites asking God “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” If this were really the work of a single historian taking down the narrative as it was, the people would have no cause to ask this as Joshua was the first to go up against the Canaanites. It’s done, that part of the story should be over.

Well, here, the answer is Judah. Which is another interesting detail – for a couple sentences, Judah is not a tribe but a person, as he was back in Genesis. It was a tremendous lightbulb moment for me as I saw these three separate layers shine, like looking at pysanki. You have the oldest portion of the story, where the tribes are personified as people who have personalities, deeds, familial relationships. Then you have the middling portion where tribes act independently, trying to carve little territories out for themselves. Finally, you have the newest portion, the portion from whatever region where Joshua is a folk hero, and you have his narrative made grander, his tribe’s history made into the history of all the tribes.

Judah asks “Simeon his brother” (Judges 1:3) to help him fight for the land he’s been allotted and, in return, he will help Simeon in his own lands. My study Bible notes that “the tribe of Simeon plays no significant role in the later history of Israel. Not mentioned in the Song of Deborah (5.2-31), it was probably entirely absorbed by Judah at an early day” (p.293). In other words, it seems likely that this story of the two brothers helping each other out likely came out of the memory of their intertwined history.

Together, the brothers defeat Adonibezek, who is apparently some sort of leader among the Canaanites and Perizzites. Having defeated him, the brothers then cut off his thumbs and big toes. This is apparently the thing to do with subject kings because Adonibezek, the very opposite of a sore loser, says that he used to have 70 thumbless and big toe-less kings eating his table scraps and that he is now, himself, brought as low. They bring him to Jerusalem and he dies.

Tribal Conquests (sort of)

The personification of the tribes ends, and the story continues by referring to “the men of Judah” (Judges 1:8). These men fight against Jerusalem (where they, curiously, had brought Adonibezek) and, taking it, set it on fire. They then go after the Canaanites living in Hebron. We start to see how this narrative was once independent of the Joshua account, rather than a continuation of it – Hebron was taken by Joshua in Josh. 10:36-37.

Judges 1 - Chariots of IronThen Judah goes off and conquers some other people in other places. One of them is the city of Ekron. This city was allotted to Judah in Josh. 13:3, but was also allotted to Dan in Josh. 19:43. Here, it seems to have reverted back to Judah.

The only place where Judah fails, according to the text, is in the plain. Unfortunately, they are not able to defeat them because “they had chariots of iron” (Judges 1:19). You’ll recall, of course, that Manasseh and Ephraim encountered chariots of iron in Josh. 17:16, and had concerns that they might not be able to beat such superweapons. In that story, Joshua reminds them that they have God on their side and therefore even chariots (though they may be of iron!) pose no threat. Clearly, that was a theological insert by our busy little editor rather than a testament to God’s actual power, because Judah is unable to stand against them though that very same Lord was with him (Judges 1:19).

Over at Daylight Atheism, Adam Lee tries to understand this passage’s significance in understanding the evolution of religious belief:

On the other hand, it may just be that this verse was written when Yahweh was regarded as a local deity, supernaturally powerful but not invincible. In this respect, the biblical authors might have conceived of him as similar to the ancient Greek gods, who according to the Iliad could be wounded by humans. Iron chariots, in the world of the the Ancient Near East, were the most technologically advanced weapon of war in existence. They seem to have played a decisive role in conflicts like the Battle of Qarqar in 850 BCE, when an alliance of smaller kingdoms (including King Ahab of Israel, whom the Bible’s authors reviled) fended off an invasion by the regional superpower of Assyria.

It’s possible that the Bible’s original authors imagined God as not powerful enough to overcome this technology, and that the dogma of his total omnipotence was a later innovation. (By Judges chapter 4, God seems to have acquired the ability to defeat chariots.) If so, this verse might be a fossil of that earlier belief, preserved in the text like a prehistoric insect in amber. As a part of modern Judeo-Christian theology it’s like a puzzle piece that doesn’t fit, but if we take a more rational view of the Bible as a collection of human-written and human-compiled documents, verses like this may provide valuable clues about its origin and evolution.

What follows is something of a change in tone. While Judah gets about half a chapter narrating its various successes (and one failure), the rest of the tribes are not quite so celebrated:

  • Benjamin fails to drive our the Jebusites in Jerusalem so that they must live together “to this day” (Judges 1:21) – apparently Judah’s conquest of the city in Judges 1:8 didn’t help.
  • Manasseh fails to conquer a bunch of places, but at least the Israelites are later able to enslave those natives (Judges 1:27-28).
  • Zebulun likewise fails a bunch, but enslaves the people later (Judges 1:30).
  • The same for Naphtali (Judges 1:33).
  • Ephraim fails, but has to live with the natives without getting to force them into labour (Judges 1:29).
  • Likewise for Asher (Judges 1:31-32).
  • Dan is pushed off the plain and into the hills by the Amorites, but Joseph (that would be the combined tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim) come along to harass and enslave them (Judges 1:34-36).

It’s implied that all the tribes had some successes and some failures, yet for some reason much is made of Judah’s successes while none are mentioned for the others. I found this strange, and it only got stranger when I read my study Bible notes and found out that Judah’s successes may actually be the work of our old friend the editor: “The account of their [Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ekron] capture is almost certainly unhistorical; the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) says specifically that Judah “did not” take them” (p.294).

In light of the theological point being set up by this chapter, it would make far more sense for Judah to receive the same treatment as the other tribes. And yet, they are given many successes (and, possibly, even some of their failures were alter edited into successes). It makes little sense, and it’s hard to imagine why the editor included it at all.

Itty Bitty Stories

The first chapter of Judges includes a few extra stories. The story of Caleb offering up his daughter, Achsah, to any man who takes Debir is taken almost verbatim from Josh. 15:13-19. If you remember, Caleb’s nephew, Othniel son of Kenaz, takes him up on the offer. Once he and Achsah are married, she tells him to petition her father for a field. The granting of the field is skipped over, but having gotten it, Achsah then asks for some springs to go along with it (which she does while dismounting a donkey in both versions, which is a rather random detail to be considered important enough to include in both versions!), and Caleb grants them.

We’re also told that the Kenites, which either includes Moses’s father-in-law or who are descended from Moses’s father-in-law (Judges 1:16 – I’m unclear on how to read the passage), went along with Judah into the Negeb and, there, they settled together. My study Bible notes that “the Kenites were a nomadic tribe closely allied to the Hebrews” (p.294). This is not the first time we’ve heard of them: In Genesis, God tells Abraham that his descendants will be given the land that currently belongs to the Kenites, among others (Gen. 15:18-21). The only other mention I can find of them is in Numbers, where Balak has a weird prophecy that involves a Kenite city being burned and the people taken captive (Num. 24:21-22). This is certainly the first time I’ve ever heard them mentioned in relation to Moses or his father-in-law.

The final story involves the tribe of Joseph (which appears as a whole tribe, not divided into Ephraim and Manasseh) going after a city named Luz. They send out spies who hang around outside the city until they see a man coming out. They accost him, saying that if he shows them how to enter, they will spare him (apparently the gate is cleverly hidden, bear with me). The man agrees, Joseph’s army destroys the city, and somehow it gets renamed Bethel. The man leaves with his family and heads into Hittite territory, where he founds a new city and names it Luz, presumably for good luck. “That is its name to this day” (Judges 1:26).

The moral of the story

If you’re confused as to why we’ve just spent half a chapter hearing about Israelite failures, Judges 2 provides your answer. An “angel of the Lord” (Judges 2:2 – who is also the Lord himself?) appears to someone and says that he brought the Israelites out of Egypt on the condition that they “make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars” (Judges 2:2). Their failure to adequately perform is the reason that so many natives remain among them. Further, the punishment of this is that “their gods shall be a snare to you” (Judges 2:3).

It’s all rather silly. They are supposed to need God to destroy the natives, but they didn’t destroy the natives, so they’ll be punished by being unable to destroy the natives. Further, the punishment for fraternizing with the enemy is having lots of temptations to fraternize with the enemy. It reminds me of the Garden of Eden story. It’s clear that this passage is an editorial insert that seeks to a) explain the continued presence of non-Hebrews in Israel despite all the “promised land” rhetoric, b) provide a moral context for the stories that are to follow, and c) set up a pattern to explain any contemporary social ills, particularly in relation to foreign peoples.

So Joshua – who is suddenly alive again, praise the Lord! – dismisses the people and everything is okay until the generation that had seen God’s works died off. The next generation, however, started serving the Baals and the Ashtaroth (Judges 2:13). This begins a cycle in which God turns against the people, selling them into the hands of the enemy du jour, then cools off a bit and raises up a judge save them, then the judge dies and the people return to their wicked ways, so God throws a fit and sells them into the hands of the next enemy. This is, I am given to understand, the pattern we will see repeated throughout Judges.

The backstory out of the way, I believe we should be seeing our first judge on Monday!

Numbers 23-24: Balak’s rather unsuccessful attempts at cursing

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In these chapters, we continue with the comedic repetition structure that seems to mark Balaam’s narrative.

When we last saw Balaam, God had allowed him to respond to Balak, king of the Moabites. At the very end of Numbers 22, Balak takes Balaam to a place that my RSV calls Bamoth-Baal, but that the KJV has as “the high places of Baal” (Num. 22:41). I’m not finding any confirmation that this is significant, but I find it interesting that Balaam seems so intent on hearing from YHWH, yet Balak is leading him to a place that is named after (and presumably has once been consecrated to) Baal. It’s like, disappointed with Balaam’s previous response, Balak is hoping that a different God will get him a different answer.

Once there, Balaam tells Balak to build seven altars and to provide seven bulls and seven rams. Once each altar had been broken in with a bull and ram each, Balaam wanders off to meet with God.

The First Oracle

God put the words right into Balaam’s mouth for him to take back to Balak. The prophecy begins with a retelling of what’s happened so far – of Balak asking Balaam to curse Israel, and Balaam refusing because he would not – or could not -curse anyone independently of God’s power (and, therefore, of God’s will).

The prophecy describes the Israelites as “a people dwelling alone, and not reckoning itself among the nations!” (v.9). I get the whole “chosen people” thing, but this looks an awful lot like nationalism – something I’ve always been very uncomfortable with.

Balaam then prays that he should “die the death of the righteous” so that his “end be like this” (v.10). It seems that he is defining the Israelites as specially blessed, and envisioning that he, too, could be similarly blessed if he dies righteously.

Balak is understandably upset to get this response. There he was, thinking he’d finally won Balaam over and would be getting that fancy new curse he wanted, and yet here’s Balaam blessing the Israelites instead! Talk about a bait and switch!

The Second Oracle

Thinking that a different vantage point might yield different results, Balak takes Balaam to a new spot – the field of Zophim, at the top of Pisgah. There, he once again builds seven altars and sacrifices a bull and a ram at each. Once again, Balaam tells Balak to wait by the altars while he goes off in search of God.

This time, the prophecy addresses Balak directly, calling him to rise and listen. He tells Balak that God is not human, and therefore does not lie or repent. Of course, we’ve seen him change his mind and repent several times. In fact, despite this present claim, we’ve seen a whole lot of God flying into a violent rage and his prophet du jour having to talk him down. Once again, we see a disconnect between the claimed character of God and his demonstrated character. Were this any other book, I’d call unreliable narrator!

The prophecy then goes on to say that God has blessed the Israelites – being that he is so in-capricious, he’s not about to change his mind about that (you know, until they ask him for quail again).

The Israelites are, therefore, protected. God is so strong – as strong as a wild ox, if you like the RSV, or as strong as a unicorn, if you prefer the whimsy of the KJV – that no curse could work against them.

The strength of a unicorn

The strength of a unicorn

A note on the unicorns: Apparently, this is a Septuagint issue. The Greek translation of the Hebrew word re’em was monokeros – one-horned. According to Wikipedia, this interpretation made sense to the KJV translators since unicorns are legendary for the impossibility of their taming.

According to the JewishEncyclopedia, this translation was later revised to “wild ox” given the etymological and contextual similarity to the Assyrian rimu: “which is often used as a metaphor of strength, and is depicted as a powerful, fierce, wild, or mountain bull with large horns.”

The prophecy continues by saying that God has made Israel so powerful that:

As a lioness it rises up
and as a lion it lifts itself;
it does not lie down till it devours the prey,
and drinks the blood of the slain. (Num. 23:24)

The imagery is certainly gruesome, but it’s also quite poetic.

Balak, of course, isn’t happy with this prophecy either. If the first oracle can be interpreted as blessing the Israelites, this one certainly can! But, of course, the schmuck of our little slapstick has to have a third try. Once again, he tells Balaam to come to yet another spot – to the top of Peor – in the hopes that this new place “will please God that you may curse them for me from there” (Num. 23:27).

The Third Oracle

The song and dance of the seven altars and the seven sacrifices of bulls and rams has to be performed in the new spot. But this time, Balaam doesn’t bother to head off in search of omens, God makes a house-call.

As Brant Clements, of Both Saint and Cynic, points out, this change has literary significance:

In comedy there is a rule of threes. 1. An event is told. 2. The event is repeated, establishing a pattern. 3. The pattern is broken, to comic effect. The pattern being broken can also serve a dramatic effect. In the case of Balaam the third iteration turns a comic tale serious.

This time, God addresses Balaam rather than using him as a mouthpiece. He calls to him, as he called to Balak in the second oracle. There’s a listing of name, ties, and status. In the midst of this, God hints at the prophetic process, describing Balaam’s experience of visions as a “falling down, but having his eyes uncovered” (Num. 24:4). This seems to suggest a sort of ecstatic trance.

During this, Balaam is described as one “who sees the vision of the Almighty” (Num. 24:4). According to J.R. Porter in The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, this may be significant:

Fragmentary Aramaic texts of the ninth century BCE from Deir Alla refer to a Balaam who, as in the Hebrew Scriptures, was the son of Beor. He is said to have a vision of a disaster that befalls his city, at which he weeps. This revelation is received from an assembly of divine beings described as Shaddin, which recalls the title Shaddai, “Almighty,” an archaic name for God in the Hebrew Scriptures. The name Shaddai occurs more than once in the biblical story of Balaam, for example in Numbers 24.4. (p.61)

Then we get some lovely compliments about how nice the Israelite tents are, and there’s a bunch of flowery comparisons. In the middle of all of that, we are told that the Israelite king “shall be higher than Agag” (Num. 24:7). Agag is the name of the Amalekite king featured in 1 Samuel 15:33. This leads to three possibilities that I can see/find:

  1. There are two different kings by the same name.
  2. The text, written long after the events it purports to describe, contains an anachronism.
  3. “Agag” is not the name of a king but, rather, a standing title among Amalekite rulers.

Then we get a bunch of fluff about God being super strong (like a unicorn!), and how he can crush people’s bones and nom on nations, yadda yadda.

To close the prophecy, God says that all who bless Israel will also be blessed, and all who curse it shall likewise be cursed.

This, of course, needles at Balak’s nerves, so much so that “he struck his hands together” (Num.24:10). According to my Study Bible, clapping was “a gesture of anger and reproach” (p.196). Keep that in mind the next time you enjoy (or don’t enjoy) a live performance.

Balak tells Balaam that he had promised to “honor” Balaam for his services, “but the Lord has held you back from honor” (Num. 24:11). That’s quite an interesting perspective. He then tells Balaam to leave.

The Fourth Oracle

Rather than leave, Balaam launches straight into his fourth oracle, introducing it by saying to Balak: “Come, I will let you know what this people will do to your people in the latter days” (Num. 24:14).

Notice that the pattern is broken again here. For his fourth oracle, Balaam no longer requires altars and sacrifices. This one, as they say, is on the house.

It begins, again, with a listing of Balaam’s ties and titles, using language that’s nearly identical to the opening of the third oracle. Then it gets a little kooky.

The language is a little purple, but the essence of it is that, at some time in the future, “a star shall come forth out of Jacob [Israel]” (Num. 24:17) – it’s given a royal slant when the line is repeated but with sceptre in place of star. This star will crush, kill, destroy the following groups/places:

  • Moabites
  • The sons of Sheth
  • Edomites
  • Seir – which, given the text, seems to be an enemy of Edom, yet my Study Bible claims that these are just two names for the same group (p.197)
  • Amalekites
  • Kenites

There’s a weird verse asking how long Asshur would take Kain captive, and another saying that ships will come from Kittim to afflict Asshur and Eber. My Study Bible is entirely useless here, making excuses about how “the meaning of these verses is obscure, owing to the uncertainty of the names” (p.197).

Having finished with the curse, Balak packs up his toys and heads home.

According to Collins in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, this final oracle has been imbued with some messianic significance:

In the Hellenistic and Roman periods, this oracle was taken as a messianic prediction. The leader of the last Jewish revolt against Rome, in 132-135 C.E., Simon Bar Kosiba, was hailed by Rabbi Akiba as the messiah foretold in this oracle. Because of this, he is known in Jewish tradition as Bar Kokhba (literally, “son of the star”). (p.82)

Assuming, for the sake of funsies, that this is a retroactive prophecy – set in the past, yet “foretelling” current/recent events – it sounds a whole lot like political propaganda. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that a king wanted to solidify his claim to the throne, so he commissioned the writing of some prophetic historical fiction to “predict” himself, thereby legitimizing his rule. The author chose Balaam, a seer that people were clearly talking about – given the Deir Alla inscription – in the same way that people today will often write predictions and ascribe them to Nostradamus.