Reflections on Judges

In reading through Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew book of Judges, it is nauseatingly apparent how “stiff-necked” and disobedient the Israelites are.

Joshua dies at the end of the book of Joshua, however his death is again re-described in Chapter II of Judges, and thus the people of Israel are without a leader with a direct chain to Moses, the lawgiver. They become continually disobedient, by intermingling with the Canaanites and worshipping their gods, like the Baalim and the Asheroth. Therefore, the Lord raises up a series of “Judges” (Shofet in Hebrew meaning something like “champion or chieftain who passes judgement”). The Judges act as warrior kings and they do battle against other tribal kingdoms in the region, leading the Israelites out of bondage and into freedom and peace repeatedly.

The ongoing plot of the book can be summarized as follows: The Israelites betray their promise to God and worship other gods or make images, then the Lord becomes angry and sends them into the hands of their enemies until the people of Israel cry out and God sends up a Warrior-Deliverer who becomes a Judge of Israel. Peace is kept until his or her death.

In Chapter 3 Othniel and then Ehud lead the Israelites through a period of peace. In Chapter 4, Deborah, the Judge of Israel, is called up to raise the Israelites out of oppression. In Chapter 5 she sings the famous Song of Deborah, a victory hymn that some have suggested is one of the oldest fragments in the bible, alluding to various archaic references that are now lost in mystery, not unlike the archaic and older books referenced in the book of Joshua that are now lost and not included in the modern biblical corpus.

In Chapter 6, Gideon is raised by God and then an evil judge is brought up by God to raise the Israelite by the Mideonites. Then the process repeats and Abimelech, an evil judge, is raised up as son of Gideon and he is an evil judge who causes war and infighting. Then Jephthah becomes judge and leads the Israelites out of oppression from the Ammonites.

The final chapters of the book tell the great story of Samson (“Shimshon” in Hebrew meaning something like “man of potency”) as he is raised up to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines. He is the final major judge whose story is detailed in Judges. He is not unlike a Hebrew version of Heracles and his story is bookended by the word “woman.” A messenger of god comes to a barren woman and gives her instructions for bearing a son, and her skeptical husband, Manoah, wants to meet the messenger in person. When he returns he refuses to say his name claiming that Manoah will not understand it. Manoah prepares a sacrifice to God and the messenger touches it with his staff and it becomes engulfed in flames and he ascends into the sky in a large fire.

Samson is born and falls in love with Timnah, a Philistine woman, and goes to marry her, despite his parents objections, and on his way he is attacked by a lion and becomes possessed by divine power from the Lord and simply rips apart the lion with his strength. Later, a hive of bees was nesting in the lion carcass and he took the carcass with honey and brought it to his parents. At the wedding he tells a riddle to the thirty groomsmen about the lion, and when they cannot solve it they threaten his wife, so she gets Samson to reveal it to her and she reveals it to the groomsmen. In losing the bet he travels to go kill thirty men and brings their garments to the groomsmen, but he arrives to find Timnah has already married one of the groomsmen. In a rage he gathered 300 foxes and lit their tails on fire and set them loose in the Philistines crops. He is enslaved but breaks free and slaughters 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey.

Samson goes to Gaza and falls in love with Delilah. She is approached by the Philistines to find Samson’s weakness, but he tells her three false stories. Eventually he capitulates and tells about the story of how no razor should touch his hair as a Nazirite. However she and her slave cut his hair making him lose his power. Samson is routinely betrayed by women. The Philistines take him and gauge out his eyes and put him on display. Samson prays to God for strength and bows low bringing the temple crashing down, killing himself and all those inside it.

At the close of Judges, the Israelites are in a bad place – infighting, constant war with neighboring tribes and kingdoms, and no single leader. “In those days there was no king in Israel. Every man did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25).

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s masterful translation as well as the King James Version.

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