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!


Anonymous said...

1. If you were a tree, what tree would you want to be king?
The ginkgo. Think of the effects for reproductive rights legislation.

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.
It would certainly make the trip longer and more linear. I believe it was the Americans who proved that at some point you can turn a camping trip into a lifetime of expansionism without any intention of coming home. (of course, as Dorothy's story instructs us, we carried "home" with us all along. Even the murderous father, in ways both literal and metaphoric.)

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.
I would prefer it was a man. Even if she tossed it downward with malice aforethought, I don't think the woman would get credit for the kill in the historic record. Women are always getting criticized for thoughtless action.

4. Imagine you are Elon’s public relations consultant. Describe a plan of action you would recommend to help him raise his profile.
Gruesome victory ritual! Have we had babies on spikes yet? Oh, wait. Yes we have.

I can't help remembering that it was the Midianites (wasn't it?) who were ruthlessly slaughtered so many books ago. And now they're rising up and enslaving the Israelites. Maybe this is the source of the Israelites' shaky faith. All around them they see the regeneration of previously vanquished people and they start to wonder, "Hey, if we're the chosen people, why can't we eradicate these other folks?" The indigenous population, rather, exhibits a weedlike tenacity to survive while the Israelites make cumbersome and wasteful travel of their time in these promised lands. Perhaps like all colonial cultures they are beginning to see themselves as poor environmentalists, a squanderous, top-of-the-food chain dominance that doesn't bring all that much real happiness. Thus, they start deifying the vanquished cultures and the "exotic" and "primitive" truths they offer. Or perhaps the indigenous people just have better religious iconography. This woe and smiting narrative offers its excitement, but the images it offers for art are rather dull in comparison to an earth- or animal-centered religion, no?

Anonymous said...

Question #5: If one were to provide seven brides for the seven judges, what would be their names and what would they add to the stories? For example:
* Abimelech
* Tola & Zola
* Jair & Cher (she is much younger than he when they marry. They have a successful career leading the Israelites' popular culture until she leaves him for a guy closer to her own age who sings with a rhythmic lute-and- strings outfit in the south.)
* Jephthah & Judy (they argue back and forth and punch each other in the head for the amusement of children.)
* Ibzan & Edna (with her help and support he eventually writes the Great Israelite novel, but he is never able to overcome his sense of self-loathing which he mediates with significant doses of distilled grain. When his liver quits on him, it is determined to be an act of God. A golden book is erected at the site of his death. His body is buried in an anonymous location.)
* Elon & Eloise (they spend several books living in the Ritz Carlton Hotel, to which fortune Eloise is heir apparent.)
* Abdon & Abdul (Paula that is. They open a dance studio for which un-talented Israelites audition only to be rejected ruthlessly by Abdon, despite Abdul's attempts not to hurt these losers' feelings too badly.)

The Calico Cat said...

Not part of the discussion questions, but the "evil Spirit" is more likely to be "A spirit of hatred." according to Rashi.