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."


Ruth said...

Yeah...Judges is kind of interesting. I've wondered why certain things
from the book are even in the Bible. But, some of the stories are great. And there are several unsung heroes. I found Ehud interesting. Although the fat guy he killed was disturbing.

chuckdaddy said...

It appears that using fear to motivate, missing the good old days, and blaming downturns on the slacking of morals has been with us time eternal...

Anonymous said...

Given the repetition here: years of enslavement sanctioned by God, then deliverance at the hand of a hero raised up by God at the appropriate time, one can't help but wonder if the Israelites needed to get in touch with the Ancient Greeks for some other grand narrative. After hearing Moses' version of the story at such length, the remaining transgressions, battles, enslavements, deliverances, well, they're all so much yada yada yada, aren't they?

I have to think, though, that of the various versions of the story, the one with the most applicable symbolism for the Israelites is the oxgoad. These tribes are not to be led easily with a mere staff, even if it does turn itself into a snake when tossed to the ground.

sbarose said...

I can find references to all of the first appointed Judges except Issachar, Dan, and Gad. Were they good or bad?

Anonymous said...

Dear Michael:

The reference in Judges about the fathers obeying the Lord was a reference to the generation of fathers that had entered the promised land with Joshua and Caleb. This was not a reference to the generation who died out in the Wilderness. Please read Numbers 26:64-65.

Anonymous said...

Dear Michael:

The reference of the fathers in Judges is not of the fathers who melted the golden calf and wondered in the wilderness.  It was a reference to the most recent generation of fathers who dwelt in the Promised Land with Joshua and Caleb.  For all the adult males besides Joshua and Caleb had died out before God's people had entered the Promised Land (Please see Numbers 26:64-65).

Also, in regards to God in the Old Testament having a different character (or having a knack to surprise you):  Well, if you were to repent and devote your life to Jesus  100% and become a student of God's Word, you would clearly see that the God of the Old Testament is the same in the New Testament.  Both God's are concerned with punishment (i.e. Judgment) and sin.  Both God's are merciful and loving in being long suffering torwards mankind.   In fact, you can research this fact for yourself on the internet (if you were truly open to seeking the truth).  

Well, I say this not to offend you, but out of love and concern (Concerning your standing with God).

With loving kindness to you in Christ: