Saturday, March 29, 2008

Judges 13 - 16: The Adventures of Samson

Judges 13-16 covers the stories of Samson, an extremely strong Israelite. He has a series of amazing adventures, which fits right in with the Book of Judges' emphasis on vivid tales of action. He is also a vaguely defined religious figure, a Nazirite -- remember Nazirites? -- but although he consistently represents the Israelites by takin' it to the Philistines, their current oppressors, his tactics don't seem to represent any kind of consistent moral standard.

Samson: The Early Years

Samson's birth happens in Chapter 13. The backdrop is that the Israelites have offended God again with their evil ways, and so have been subjected to Philistine overlordship. This is not surprising by now; in their relationship with God, the Israelites have the staying power of a 7th-grade boyfriend.

An angel announces the birth of Samson to Menoah and his wife, unknown illustrator, Petrus Comestor's 'Bible Historiale', France, 1372, Museum Meermanno Westreenianum, The Hague. An Israelite woman named "the wife of Manoah," who is infertile, is visited by an angel of God. He tells her that she will conceive a child, that the boy will be a Nazirite, that no razor should ever touch his head, and that he will help bring down the Philistines.

Now, with no disrespect for Mrs. Manoah, an obvious alternative explanation for her sudden fertility springs to mind. And it occurs to me that this same idea must have sprung to the minds of the Israelite audiences of these stories from Judges, which seem designed at least in part to entertain. Is it possible that this story is meant to play both ways, both to establish Samson's cred as a religious figure but also to amuse the free-thinkers around the fire with a little innuendo? Just speculating, here.

The Stormy Marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Samson

When he grows to adulthood, in Judges 14, Samson decides to marry a Philistine woman. His parents respond, as what parents wouldn't, "Isn't there an acceptible woman among your relatives...?" (3), but Samson holds fast. We're told parenthetically that this is according to the plan of God, who is looking for "an occasion to confront the Philistines." (14:4)

At his wedding feast, Samson makes a bet with 30 Philistine guys from his new wife's family that they can't solve his riddle within seven days. Here's the riddle:

Samson and the Lion.  Boucicaut Master. French, Paris, about 1415.  J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Out of the eater, something to eat;
out of the strong, something sweet.

Figured it out yet? No, I didn't think so. That's because it is an essentially impossible riddle, as it is based on Samson's personal experience of eating honey from a hive that bees had built in the body of a lion that he had killed (with his bare hands, no less! Remember, he's a stud!). His wife's kinsmen feel, accurately enough, that they are being robbed, so they encourage her to wheedle the answer out of him. Well, they threaten to burn her and her family to death unless she wheedles the answer out of him, actually. These Philistines know how to play rough, too.

Mrs. Samson cries all week and accuses her husband of not loving her and so on until, finally, he agrees to explain the riddle. She quickly passes the answer on to the guys, and they rush to claim their prize.

Samson, whose flair for metaphor exceeds his chivalry, says that:
If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have solved my riddle. (14:18)
Now when you think about it, this is basically admitting that he had been trying to cheat them, but no matter. They have now cheated him, and he is thoroughly pissed off. He pays the bet, which was thirty suits of linen clothing, by going and killing 30 Philistines from the next town over and giving their clothes to his wife's kinsmen, thus taking a lot of the fun out of the wager. Then, still angry, he stalks home to Mom and Dad's house.

Samson's father-in-law, figuring the marriage is off, gives his daughter to the best man. But Samson comes back at harvest time, and he is not at all pleased with this new arrangement, nor receptive to an offer of the more attractive younger sister. He is enraged, and vows to take vengeance on the Phillistines.

It's an effective revenge. He captures 300 foxes -- sounds exhausting, but again: he's a stud -- and ties them together in pairs by their tails. Don't try this at home. He ties torches to each fox pair, then lets them loose in the ripe grainfields. It's an excellent, creative way of destroying an agricultural community, and when the locals learn that Samson's father-in-law provoked the volatile Israelite into it, they burn the father-in-law and his daughter, Samson's wife, to death. Samson is further enraged by this, and vows to take some more vengeance on the Philistines. Raise your hand if you see a pattern developing.

Further revenge involves killing some guys, then pretending to be captured, then bursting out of the ropes that held him with his superhuman strength, and then killing a thousand more guys with the only weapon at hand, a donkey's jawbone. After that, he was leader of Israel for 20 years, since who wouldn't want such a level-headed guy in charge?

Samson in Love

One night Samson is dallying with a hooker in Gaza. Word gets out, and a crowd of his enemies gather at the city gates, ready for ambush. But Samson arrives earlier than expected, and instead of walking up to the gates and asking for them to be opened, the normal procedure, he just rips them off their hinges, drags them through the night, and dumps them on a hill about forty miles away. So, he gets away.

Rembrandt, The Blinding of Samson, 1636. St├Ądelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt Sometime later, he falls for Delilah. Now Delilah famously does not have his best interests at heart, and she goes about trying to find the secret of his strength so that she can neutralize him for the Philistines. He keeps lying about this -- "Tie me up with seven fresh thongs, and I'll become as weak as any man" (16:7), and so on -- and she keeps running experiments to find out if he's telling the truth. I guess this is why the story is associated with women who make fools out of men, because even though she goes and tries all of the false methods he suggests will destroy his power, including elaborate ones like weaving his hair on a loom, he still eventually tells her the real way to put him out of commission. The trick, of course, is to shave off his hair.

The Philistines capture the shorn and weakened Samson, gouge out his eyes, and toss him in jail. While he languishes, they plan a huge feast at the temple of their god, Dagon, to celebrate his capture. But there's a great Hollywood ending, because while the feast is planned and prepared, nobody thinks to do a touch-up job on Samson's hair. It starts to grow back, a little.

At the big feast, drunk guests call for Samson to be brought out and paraded before them in humiliation. In front of the crowd, he has a servant guide him to a pillar, and then he prays for strength. Between the prayer and the stubbly new hair, he is powerful enough to topple two of the pillars that hold up the temple; the ceiling collapses, killing him but taking hundreds of the best and brightest of the Philistine ruling class with him.

Cinematic stuff! Samson is a strange Bible hero, in that he leads no army and preaches no sermons and, aside from that last prayer, doesn't seem to have a very close relationship with God. He's hot-tempered, chases women, and provokes people to violence because he wants to take revenge on them. All told, he's more like a flawed superhero from one of those dark modern graphic novels than like the other Biblical heroes we've seen to date.

Next Week: Bad doin's among the tribes.

Last Year in Michael Reads the Bible: Jacob wrestled an angel, and the angel was overthrown.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Judges 9 - 12: Abimelech, Jephthah, and Even More Obscure Leaders

I think I've caught on to the Judges concept. I kept waiting for some actual judges to show up -- you know, like it was going to be an episode of "Perry Mason" or something. But the "Judges" are the various strongmen of Israel, the ones who periodically rise up to save the Israelites' butts every time they stray into worshipping other Gods, which is alarmingly often.

In Chapters 9 - 12, there are seven of these guys, two of whom are notable and five of whom are suitable for elite-level Bible SuperTrivia.

Abimelech: a Really Big Jerk

Abimelech is one of the sons of Gideon, probably by an illegitimate pairing. He conspires with his brothers on his mom's side, and the rest of their clan, against Gideon's legitimate sons, of whom there are 71. Families used to be larger, you know.

So Mom's clan, which seems to represent the working class of the town of Shechem, rises up against Gideon's clan, which seems to represent the ruling class. Things get very French-Revolution, and Abimelech ends up murdering 70 of his paternal brothers in the public square. The youngest, Jotham, escapes the slaughter and preaches a fiery parable about how the good and useful trees don't want to be kings of other trees; only the sinister thorn bush wants that kind of power. He then curses the people for appointing Abimelech their ruler, and leaves both Shechem and the Bible for good.

Abimelech rules over Israel for three years (it's unclear how he got from control of Shechem to the control of Israel) before God sends an evil spirit.... but wait a minute. God sends an EVIL spirit? That's kind of shocking, when you think about it. In the Sunday School version of God that I was taught as a child, he wouldn't have any evil spirits lurking around, nor would he associate with them to do his bidding. He would have used a GOOD spirit, no?

But this is a pragmatic God, and he sends an evil spirit to sour the relationship between Abimelech and the people of Shechem. Meanwhile, a blowhard named Gaal has moved to town, and publicly brags about how he would just overthrow Abimelech, if he were them. The situation deteriorates, there is fighting in the fields, and Abimelech prevails. He sacks his own city, sows salt on the land, and burns the surviving citizens alive in the temple, thus fulfilling Jotham's curse from a few years before.

Next, for reasons unexplained, Abimelech lays siege to another town, Thebez. The citizens, who apparently have not heard of the grisly fate of their neighbors, retreat to a tall building, but before Abimelech can set fire to this one, a woman drops a rock off of the tower and hits him right on the head. His skull broken, he asks his servant to run him through so that no one can say he was killed by a woman, which would be TOTALLY embarrassing. And so ends the merry story of Abimelech.


His grandfather was named Dodo, and he was in charge for twenty-three years, but beyond that we learn little of Tola. The take-home lesson is, if you want to be remembered, burn the innocent alive in a temple.


He had thirty sons who rode thirty donkeys. Whether each son had one donkey, or whether they all had thirty apiece, is not clear. He was in charge for twenty-two years, and his family controlled 30 towns (or possibility 900).


The Israelites go back to for the six thousandth time to worshipping Baal and Ashtoreth, as well as the gods of Sidon, Moab, Aram, the Ammonites, and the Phillistines. I swear, these guys will worship anything with an altar. Old rock? No problem. Olive tree? You bet! Rusting Egyptian spearhead? If it's got an altar, they'd probably worship it.

God delivers them up again, handing them over to the Philistines and the Ammonites. These guys oppress everybody east of the Jordan, and cross over into the heartland as well. The Israelites, predictably, cry out, but God chews them out and tells them to leave him alone and bother their new gods, if they are such hot shots. Then the Israelites say "please, please, pretty please help us," and God says "Oh, OK, whatever."

Jephthah is the illegitimate son of somebody named Gilead. He was driven away from the fold by his inheritance-conscious brothers and became a mighty warrior and leader of a kind of paramilitary organization. Now, with the Ammonites oppressing everybody, Gilead's clan comes crawling back to him asking if he will be their general. He is skeptical, but they assure him they will make him their king if he is able to win the battle.

Jephthah exchanges letters with the Ammonite king. "Why are you invading us?" he asks. "This was our territory before you lot came along," responds the Ammonite, reasonably enough. Jephthah responds with a long discourse to the effect that none of this would have happened if the Ammonites hadn't been so damn rude when two million invading Israelites had shown up on their borders. At this point, diplomacy breaks down.

Next, "The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah" (11:29) and he does something profoundly stupid. He vows that if he is successful in battle, he will sacrifice "whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return... as a burnt offering." (31) He rides out with the Israelite army and kicks some Ammonite butt, taking twenty towns and reclaiming all of Israel's lost territory.

But then, in the midst of triumph there is tragedy, for who should come out of his house upon his return, dancing to the sounds of tambourines, than his beloved little girl, his only child. This is supposed to be a surprising and ironic twist of fate, but it's hard not to be a little frustrated with Jephthah, because WHO THE HELL DID HE THINK WOULD COME OUT OF HIS HOUSE WHEN HE GOT HOME? Fred Flintstone the freaking Midianite?!? OF COURSE it's going to be somebody from his family!! What was he THINKING when he made that oath?!?

Well, she asks if she can take a two-month camping trip with her girlfriends first, and he lets her. She has a wonderful time, and then she comes home and her dad trusses her up and butchers her at the altar. In commemoration of this event, the later Israelites apparently had a yearly girl's night out tradition, except for four full days every year.

Meanwhile, the Ephraimites, a group on the other side of the Jordan, start showing Jephthah and the other people of Gilead's clan a lot of attitude, so he has to ride out and do battle with them, as well. Once the dust clears, they don't want anybody from Ephraim sneaking over to the West bank of the river, so if anybody approaches the ford they make him say "Shibboleth." If the person says "Sibboleth," they know it's an Ephraimite -- the Ephraimites don't have the "sh" sound in their language -- and they tease him mercilessly. Also, kill him.

On the whole, although Jephthah has much in common with Abimelech, he does a better job. He negotiates with his half-brothers instead of slaughtering them, remembers to attack enemies instead of his own power base, doesn’t play the class warfare card, and is willing to reach a fair compromise with his daughter. He rules for six years.


He had thirty sons and thirty daughters, and, in an early instance of honoring diversity, made sure every one of them married outside the clan. He was in charge for seven years.


Led Israel for ten years, buried in Aijalon. That's it. That's what we've got on Elon.


He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on 70 (or possibly 4900) donkeys. He was in charge for eight years.

Discussion Questions:

1. If you were a tree, what tree would you want to be king?

2. Would you be able to enjoy a camping trip, if you knew your dad was going to kill you when you got home? Literally, I mean.

3. If someone was going to drop a rock on your head from a tower, would you prefer that it was a man or a woman? Discuss.

4. Imagine you are Elon’s public relations consultant. Describe a plan of action you would recommend to help him raise his profile.

Last Year in Michael Reads the Bible: Jacob, Rachel, and Leah.

Next Week: Samson has a close shave!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Judges 6 - 8: Gideon's Bible

One Year Ago in Michael Reads the Bible: Abraham and Isaac.

Slavery and Redemption. Again.

Well, here we go again. The Israelites piss God off yet again, and are sent into slavery for, by my count, the 6th time. Some people never learn. This time the bad guys are the Midianites.

The "angel of the Lord" -- as with all such occurrences, I am left uncertain whether this phrase denotes a supernatural messenger-being, or an earthly incarnation of God -- makes an appearance to Gideon, the son of Joash the Abiezrite. Gideon is that archetype of comic books and young adult literature, the little underdog (and I believe the first underdog figure we've seen in the Bible, excepting the younger sons Jacob and Joseph). He's the youngest member of the weakest clan in his tribe, but God tells him he is going to be the one to strike down the Midianites.

A pious lad, Gideon asks the angel to wait until he can perform a proper sacrifice. But he also demands a miracle as a token that this really is God he is talking too; the angel comes through with a show of pyrotechnics. He is then given his first mission, which is to tear down the altar to Baal and the monument to Asherah (another oft-mentioned local deity) that his family has set up, performing a proper sacrifice to God over the ruins. Gideon complies that night, and when the community wakes up the general inclination is to string him up. His dad, however, comes to his defense, pointing out that if Baal was such a hot shot he should have been able to defend his own altar. This convinces the crowd, and Gideon starts to get some respect for putting his money where his mouth is, religion-wise.

But before he takes on the larger problem of the Midianites, he demands a little more proof from God, requesting -- and receiving -- highly specific little miracles. Now, just as an aside here, I see this as pretty troubling content in a book about the glories of God. Because, if I'm impressed by how God actually provided the miracles that Gideon requested, what is to stop me from saying, I don't know, "God, show me that you really exist by making sure I get a Canadian dime in my change when I buy my soft drink tomorrow?" I don't know about you, but I have found God either decidedly unresponsive, or nonexistent -- you make the call -- when confronted with that kind of request.


Another Study in Unconventional Tactics.

Generally, "get there the firstest with the mostest" is sound strategy in the military thinking of any era, but Gideon is told not to do this. After the alter-breaking incident, Gideon puts out the word that he is going to lead a holy revolt against the Midianites, and a whopping 32,000 (!) men show up to fight. But God is not happy with this; he wants it to be perfectly clear that it is his own intervention, and not the Israelite strength in arms, that is going to win this contest. (7:2) So, he has Gideon send home anybody who is nervous about fighting. This leaves 10,000 men, but that's still way too many; a highly random screening process ensues, in which a mere 300 men are selected for the fight. Rather than the usual weapons of swords, bows, and so on, these men are issued trumpets, torches, and empty jars. You wonder if, at this point, these guys are wishing they had said that yes, they were nervous, and left with the first 22,000.

What has happened is that God had Gideon sneak down to the Midianite camp, where he learned that their soldiers were on edge, afraid that this Israelite God was going to do them some serious damage. So, he has the men tiptoe up to the Midianite camp at night, and then, at a signal, simultaneously blow their trumpets, smash their jars, and wave their torches around. The Midianites, apparently thinking that they are being overrun, go bonkers, and in the confusion they start attacking each other. As they begin retreating towards the east, Gideon sends messages ahead so that they are continually harassed and chased. Gideon's force pursues them as well, catching and killing the Midianite leaders, and smacking down a few towns along the way for their disrespectful attitudes, as well.

If nominated I will not run; if elected I will not serve.

Most societies seem to assume that there war heroes would logically make great civil administrators, and the Israelites are no exception. They start bugging Gideon to be their king. No way, he says: I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you. (8:23) All he wants for his effort is a modest chunk of the gold looted in the campaign he led.

So, that's pretty good! Gideon did what God asked, resisted any temptation to seize power, and instead encouraged his countrymen to keep their religiously-centered form of government. Except, what does he do with that gold he asked for?

Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his
town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it
became a snare to Gideon and his family.

Isn't that strange? That's all that's said about it, too, in this long story about a guy who personally talks with God, starts his career by tearing down forbidden religious idols, and leads a holy war of redemption. Then he takes his reward and... makes a forbidden religious idol? Dude must have been having a whopper of a mid-life crisis, or something.

Well, despite this, he lives to a ripe old age in peaceful times, and has seventy sons with his many wives (again: mid-life crisis?). It's not until he dies that the Israelites, with their inexplicable regularity, "set up Baal-Berith as their God." (8:33) I'm guessing this will mean yet more trouble.

Next Week: Yet more trouble.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Judges 4-5: Deborah

The Story Thus Far:

The Israelites are enslaved, but Moses leads them to freedom. (136 pages)

The Israelites lapse into sin and are enslaved, but Othniel leads them to freedom. (1 paragraph)

The Israelites lapse into sin and are enslaved, but Ehud leads them to freedom. (7 paragraphs)

The Israelites lapse into sin and are enslaved, but Shamgar leads them to freedom. (1 sentence)

Well, if you guessed that the Israelites might lapse into sin and be enslaved, then you are catching on to one of the themes of this section of the Bible. This time, the baddie is Jabin, along with his sidekick General Sisera, who commands 900 iron chariots. With this kind of military supremacy, they are able to keep Israel down for 20 years before a new hero rises to take them on.

Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time (4:4) says the text, very matter-of-factly. Whoa! Really? I mean, we've seen sidelong glances at wives and sisters and daughters before in the Bible, and the occasional hooker, but we've also seen an entire body of law that implies a full legal standing only for males. We've certainly not seen women yielding political power to date, so this is a pretty big deal.

But Deborah doesn't seem to have control over the Israelite military, and therefore has to enter into something of a power-sharing arrangement with her general, who is named Barak. They work out that he will take troops from two of the tribes, Naphtali and Zebulun, and take the high ground on Mt. Tabor, by the Kishon River. When Sisera leads his chariots up the valley after them -- it's not clear what advantage Barak has that Sisera wouldn't know about, but hey, this isn't a class on iron age tactics -- the Israelites descend on him, the retreat becomes a rout and, typical of Israelite battles, not a man is left alive.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Jael & Sisera.
Not a man, that is, except for Sisera himself, the enemy general, who staggers into the camp of a family of Israelites that he thinks are his pals. He is welcome, fed, and encouraged to nap of the day's discouragements, but once he is asleep, the woman of the house, Jael, puts a tent peg through his temples. Very vaguely, I remember this story from a Sunday school class of long ago. I do wish I can remember what moral lesson I was supposed to draw from it.

In Genesis 5, Barak and Deborah recap the events of the previous chapter in song. Songs in the Bible seem to be a bit like songs in Shakespeare plays, rich with nuance and meaning for the specialist and scholar (and presumably the original audience), but a bit inpenetrable for the casual reader. There is lots of praising of Jael, and Deborah and Barak aren't too hard on themselves either (Fun Bible Verse of the Day: "Arise, O Barak!" Judges 5:12), but the most interesting part is the bashing of all the other tribes besides Naphtali and Zebulun for not participating in the battle. There seems to be a new tone about the tribes lately, a change from the Pentatuech, in which great pains were taken to stress the exact equality of the tribes in all things. In Joshua and now in Judges, the tribes are beginning to seem as separate entities, with different histories and different, perhaps competing, interests. Whether this is a sign of things to come, I don't know.

Next: The section headings say "Gideon" comes next, so maybe we'll find out where all those hotel Bibles came from. If you are in a hotel, grab one and read along!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Judges 1-3: Bible Story Concentrate

Judges, Baby!

It's a whole new chapter, and the further we get into the Bible the less I know about what is going to happen next. The sum total of my prior knowledge about the Book of Judges is: it will continue to be about the Israelites, and it will involve leaders called "Judges." It's basically unknown territory! Let's explore....

Judges 1

1 After the death of Joshua, the Israelites asked the LORD, "Who will be the first to go up and fight for us against the Canaanites?"
OK, see, that's already interesting. Because always before, there has been one key leader (Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua) with the hotline to God. This is the first time in my memory that the Israelites have petitioned God as a group. God's answer, in 1:2, is not to appoint an individual, but to give responsibilities to one of the tribes, Judah. For the first time since we've met them, the Israelites are leaderless in Judges 1 and 2.

Nevertheless, the wars continue; Judah enlists the Simeonites in a quid pro quo arrangement, and they troop of to attack the Canaanites under King Adoni-Bezek. After killing 10,000 men, they capture Adoni-Bezek. In an interesting change of pace from the constant regicide in Joshua, they don't kill him, but merely mutilate him, cutting off his thumbs and big toes. Sounds harsh, but he himself seems to see the justice in it:

7 Then Adoni-Bezek said, "Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off have picked up scraps under my table. Now God has paid me back for what I did to them." They brought him to Jerusalem, and he died there.
Jerusalem is one of the cities that Judah captures in this campaign, actually. That will presumably become important as things progress.

An Echo

Last time, making the point that the action really dies down in the second half of Joshua, I mentioned the story of the woman whose husband tells her to ask her dad for some good farmland. Let's take a look back at that story, as it appears in Joshua 15:15-19.

15 From there he marched against the people living in Debir (formerly called Kiriath Sepher). 16 And Caleb said, "I will give my daughter Acsah in marriage to the man who attacks and captures Kiriath Sepher." 17 Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb's brother, took it; so Caleb gave his daughter Acsah to him in marriage.
18 One day when she came to Othniel, he urged her
to ask her father for a field. When she got off her donkey, Caleb asked her, "What can I do for you?"
19 She replied, "Do me a special favor. Since you have given me land in the Negev, give me also springs of water." So Caleb gave her the upper and lower springs.
I couldn't help but think back to this story when I got to Judges 1:11-15.

11 From there they advanced against the people living in Debir (formerly called Kiriath Sepher). 12 And Caleb said, "I will give my daughter Acsah in marriage to the man who attacks and captures Kiriath Sepher." 13 Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother, took it; so Caleb gave his daughter Acsah to him in marriage.
14 One day when she came to Othniel, he urged her to ask her father for a field. When she got off her donkey, Caleb asked her, "What can I do for you?"
15 She replied, "Do me a special favor. Since you have given me land in the Negev, give me also springs of water." Then Caleb gave her the upper and lower springs.

See, it's the editing problem again. Isn't that interesting? Pay attention to that name "Othniel," by the way. He's going to be important in a few minutes.

The remainder of Judges 1 is a list of various peoples that the Israelites weren't able to boot out of the Promised Land. In some cases, they end up having to just live side by side with the previous inhabitants, and in other cases, although they can't wipe 'em out, they are able to make them submit to heavy labor -- you know, the kind of arrangement that the Israelites used to have with the Egyptians. Except in reverse.

Judges 2

An "angel of the Lord" -- one of these concepts that aren't really explained, even though they seem really important -- appears and gives the Israelites a real tongue-lashing. Here's what it says:

"I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land that I swore to give to your forefathers. I said, 'I will never break my covenant with you, 2 and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.' Yet you have disobeyed me. Why have you done this? 3 Now therefore I tell you that I will not drive them out before you; they will be thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you."
The gist seems to be that God is upset because the Israelites haven't been aggressive enough about claiming the Promised Land. The punishment is kind of quirky though, a little on the line of a parent who says "I told you to clean your room and you didn't; your punishment is that you have to live in a messy bedroom." It's hard not to notice, too, that God reminds the people of his eternal commitment to the Covenant, two verses before he breaks the Covenant. He's difficult to predict, the Old Testament God is.

The years go by, and Joshua dies. This is surprising, when you recall the opening words of the book (see above), but clearly there is some overlapping of narrative going on here. The important thing is, as the next generation grows up, the younger people who don't remember the wandering in the desert or the Battle of Jericho, who don't remember Moses or eventually even Joshua, they start to get interested in the religions of the people around them. They start to worship "Baal" or "the Baals," and other, um, indiginous deities of the Middle East.

Side note: the Israelites are ALWAYS doing this, aren't they? It seems like they can't be left without a miracle for twenty-four hours without suddenly losing heart and rushing off to the nearest Temple of Whoever. What's up with that? By this point, you can imagine God really taking a good hard look at himself in the mirror, trying to figure out why his chosen people won't stop running around on him.

Why, indeed? Well, maybe it's because all of the battles have started to turn against the Israelites, and because there are constant attacks from "raiders" (who likely see themselves as "freedom fighters," I imagine). However, according to the text (14-15), the arrow of causation goes the other way: the bad luck on the field of battle is a punishment for the religious infidelity. But then, if you look carefully at what the angel said (above), the religious infidelity is a punishment for things going wrong on the field of battle. There is more than a hint of double standard here -- when things go well, it's because God made them go well; when things go badly, it's to punish people for being so miserably ungrateful. Nothing ever just happens. There is no concept of luck in the Old Testament.

Here Come the Judge(s)!

To address the declining situation, says Judges 2:16, The Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. Except not really, because the people don't really pay much attention.

17 Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. Unlike their fathers, they quickly turned from the way in which their fathers had walked, the way of obedience to the LORD's commands.
Clearly, whoever wrote the Book of Judges hadn't really read the earlier six books, in which the ancestors of these Israelites disobeyed God at the drop of a hat. Golden Calf, anyone?

Judges 3: The Three Greatest Bible Heros You've Never Heard Of

To teach the Israelites (yet) a(nother) lesson, God determines to use their neighbors against them until they shape up. This history is related in the three mini-epics of Judges 3.

I: Othniel -- Moses Concentrate. See, I told you he would be important. God allows the Israelites to become subject (like they were in Egypt) to Cushan-Rishathaim, king of Aram Naharaim. After eight years of suffering, he raises up Othniel, who leads the Israelites against Cushan Rishathaim; they achieve victory, and are at peace for the next forty years.

The story of Othniel is remarkably similar to the story of Moses, except that whereas Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery for four entire books, Othniel does it in four verses. Seems kind of unfair that Moses gets all the glory.

II: Ehud -- Moses meets the Keystone Kops. The Israelites screw up again, and God haves them over to Eglon, king of Moab. This time, they suffer for 18 years until God sends in the charismatic leader, Ehud. He leads them to freedom, which lasts for eighty years this time.

We are given some details about Ehud, including that he is left handed and has a sword a cubit long. We're also told how he kills Eglon, a fat and presumably pretty dumb king who agrees to meet secretly with Ehud in the royal chapters without even having the boys pat him down. Ehud is packing, of course; he runs that cubit-long sword right through Eglon, exits via the balcony, and runs like hell. The guards, none too sharp themselves, wonder why Eglon is taking so long in his chambers, but figure he must be taking a dump -- I'm not making this up -- and shouldn't be disturbed. This gives Ehud time to make a clean escape.

With all of this excitement, Ehud is on the stage for a full 19 verses. That's better coverage than Othniel got, but still nothing compared to Moses' four books.

III: Shamgar -- Moses Hyper-Concentrate. Same deal:

31 After Ehud came Shamgar son of Anath, who struck down six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad. He too saved Israel.
Except, that's it. That is the Great Bible Story of Shamgar, in its entirety. And after all that work with the oxgoad. Somebody name a kid or something after this guy, for heaven's sake.

Right: An artist named kevissimo painted this vision of "Shamgar and the Oxgoad," which makes me feel better for the guy.

Next Week: Whatever comes next! Looks like it involves someone named "Deborah."