Monday, March 13, 2017

Bible in a Year: Judges

I’m reading through the Bible this year at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks) and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week, I'm studying Judges. We're moving along through biblical history and are now about seven or eight hundred years after Abraham, in the time between the conquests of Joshua and the rise of David. It's worth noting that Jerusalem, first mentioned by name in Joshua 10, is mentioned in Judges as a city where Jebusites live along with Benjaminites; Jerusalem is not yet completely claimed by the Israelites (Joshua 15:63, Judges 1:8, 1:21), and neither government nor cult is centered there.

The Hebrew word translated "judge" is shofet, plural shofetim. These leaders were non-hereditary chieftains who led Israelite tribes in the years between the Conquest and the beginning of the Monarchy, a span probably of a century and a half or so, although a literal reading of the book implies 400 years (note 1 below). Such a long period of time is unlikely if we date David’s reign as beginning about 1000 BCE and the Exodus in about the 1300s BCE.

The shofetim were champions whom the Lord raised up to help God's people, following periods when the people forgot the Lord, worshiped Canaanite deities, and then suffered God's punishment in the form of foreign domination and military oppression. Twelve such champions are named: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson. The last two judges, whom we meet in 1 Samuel, are Eli and Samuel; it is the unsuitability of Samuel’s sons, Joel and Abiah, to function as judges that precipitate calls for an Israelite king. The biblical text does not generally describe these leaders as "a judge" but uses the verb form: they "judged Israel”.

The Jewish Study Bible's introduction to Judges makes note of differences between this biblical book and other Deutereonomistic literature. The book was edited at some point, probably after the Assyrian conquest of the North in 722 BCE, and now is part of the Deuteronomic narrative (pp. 509-510). But although Judges fits into that overall worldview, Deuteronomy calls for a centralized worship for Israel and is critical of human monarchy for a people properly ruled by God--but Judges has no similar interest in a centralized cult and expresses regret, over and over, that the people had no earthly king to guide them.

The author of Judges perhaps had a point of view about who should be Israel's king. Gordon J. Wenham (Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000) sees evidence of “anti-Saul” and “pro-David” attitudes in Judges. For instance, chapters 19-21 are sharply critical of the Benjaminites, in particular the towns of Gibeah and Jabesh-Gilead. But according to 1 Sam. 11:4, 31:11-13, these are Saul’s hometown and burial place, respectively. Wenham notes that other places in Judges could be “anti-Saul polemic,” and the more praising depiction of the tribe of Judah as well as the story of Othniel seem more pro-David, since of course Judah is David's tribe (p. 70). And the horrifying brutality and with which Judges ends can be read as an illustration of why Israel needs a new kind of leadership and a new way of life in Canaan--exactly what David provided (p. 69).

Judges begins with a dual introduction. The first (1:1-2:5), recounting the conquests by the tribes of Judah and Simeon and the incomplete conquests of Benjamin, Joseph, Manasseh, Ephraim, Zebulun, Asher, Naphtali, and Dan. It is a different picture of the conquest, one of tense cohabitation with the non-Israelites peoples, than we get in Joshua which implies a swift and decisive occupation of the land. In Judges, it is the southern tribe of Judah that has the most success against their enemies.

The second introduction (2:5-3:6) tells of the death of Joshua and the death of his generation. But the new generation “did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and worshipped the Baals” (2:10-11). Thus begins the cycles of apostasy, attacks from the non-Israelite peoples against then, the Lord’s deliverance through the shofetim, and the years of peace that followed. These narratives comprise Judges 3:5-16:31, and refer to the leaders of particular tribes and locales. (Hebrews 11:32 mentions Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah as heroes of faith: why didn't that author include Deborah???)

1. Othniel (3:7-3:11). He was the only judge from the tribe of Judah.

2. Ehud, a Benjaminite (3:12-3:30. He was able to assassinate the fat Moabite king Eglon by sinking a sword into Eglon’s enormous stomach.

3. Shamgar (3:31), who killed 600 philistines with an oxgoad (cattle prod).

4. Deborah, a prophetess, who judged Israelite form the Ephraim hill country, and who along with Barak of the Naphtali tribe subdued several Canaanite groups (chapters 4-5). Rabbi Telushkin (see note 2) calls Deborah a kind of Joan of Arc for Israel, although Deborah survived her own conflict and made possible forty years of peace. She is certainly one of the notable women of the Bible!

5. Gideon, of the Manasseh tribe who lived at Ophrah. His stories of faith are certainly ones that I learned in childhood Sunday school, and much later I was surprised to learn how “dark” the other Judges stories are (chapters 6-8).

Chapter 9 concerns Abimelech, Gideon’s son, who killed his seventy brothers (with the exception of Jothan, who fled in time), so that he (Abimelech) could set himself up as king of the Manasseh tribe at Shechem. He was not a judge in the sense that God's Spirit raised him to lead the people, but rather he took over through murder and intrigue. His ambitions ended in battle and his death. Rabbi Telushkin notes that Jothan is the author of the Bible's first parable, his story of the bramble.

Back to the legitimate judges:

6. Tola, of Ephraim (10:1-2)

7. Jair, a Gileadite (10:3-5)

8. Jephthah, another Gileadite (10:6-12:7). We perhaps remember him best because of the awful story of his daughter---and Rabbi Telushkin notes that, under Torah law, his vow was actually invalid. From the Jephthah stories, we also get the famous story of shibboleth, during the armed conflict between his forces and the Ephraim tribe.

9. Ibzan of Bethlehem (12:8-10)

10. Elon, a Zebulunite (12:11-12)

11. Abdon (12:13-15). “He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys” (12:14).

12. Samson, of the tribe of Dan (chapters 13-16). His stories are so well known!

After the stories of Samson, the judges are no longer mentioned, and the book ends with a dual conclusion. First, the story of Micah the Ephraimite, who made his own idols, who also had a Levite as his priest, all of which the Danites took from him (chapters 17-18).

The second conclusion is surely the darkest section in the whole Bible, with the gang-rape of the Levite’s concubine by men of the Benjamite tribe, and the Levite’s subsequent dismemberment of the woman. War among the Israelite tribes ended with the slaughter of many Benjaminites. The book concludes with surviving Benjaminites abducting women from a festival at Shiloh, so that they could have wives.

If we continue reading into 1 Samuel, the story keeps going, because Eli (1 Samuel 1) is both the high priest at Shiloh and the next-to-last judge of Israel—and then Samuel becomes the final judge of Israel and makes possible the transition of Israelite rulership from judges to kings.

Fortunately, we get an interlude: the book of Ruth, which I’ll study next week. At this place in the canon, Ruth provides both a happy story from the era of the judges, and provides a genealogical bridge to the upcoming stories of David.

But the stories of Samuel are also great sources of hope---because the Israelites needed help in turning things around. "Never has the Israelite religion so clearly been in danger of dying. Something radical, it is clear, must occur if this fate is to be avoided. And something radical does occur. God sends a prophet, a man named Samuel. It is he who is charged with ensuring that Abraham and Moses' vision not be extinguished (note 3).

Judges also has an overall message that is a source of hope for any age. J. Clinton McCann, who teaches at Eden Seminary where I'm an adjunct, writes, "The people reap what they sow. But just as in Judges God repeatedly delivers the people, so beyond Judges God continues to try. God never fails to be with his people, and God continues to will for them and for all humanity a with-God life. Hence, by demonstrating the destructive consequences of disobedience, Judges calls the People of God in all times and places to the worship and submission that promise life" (note 3).


1.  1 Kings 6:1 refers to 480 years between the Exodus and the fourth year of Solomon’s reign. See "Judges: Introduction from the NIV Study Bible", The Jewish Study Bible notes that this chronology disagrees with a tabulation of years expressed in Judges: about 299 years of judgeship and 111 years of foreign subjugation. As with Joshua, archeological evidence has so far not agreed with either chronology.

2. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, events, and Israels of the Hebrew Bible (William Morrow, 1997), the chapter on the Judges.

3. Telushkin, p. 187.

4.  Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), p. 344.

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