The Book of Judges: a collection of short stories about imperfect people
by Carole McDonnell
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The Book of Judges
The book of Judges is like a modern-day story collection. It's a small book, containing only 21 chapters. The stories usually revolve around a particular person, usually a judge or a priest. In the book of Judges, good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. In fact, the book of Judges is one of three books in the Bible that can leave a reader unsettled. The other Books are Ecclesiastes and Job. In these three books, bad things happen to good people. And good people perform cruel acts that leave the reader uncomfortable. We leave the book feeling unsure about life and justice. What kind of world do we live in if good people aren't always good or temperate or protected from evil? All these books make it plain that good genes, good intentions, good moral education, and holy behavior don't mean much in a complicated world where human evil is present.
In Judges, religion, social class, caste, genes or holiness does not make life happy or right. And neither do they make life clear. God's people are rarely perfect and perfect people are rarely God's people. The writer of Judges tells us several times: "Each man did what seemed good in his heart." The Book of Judges is about judgment, judging, and judges. As Judges sees it, justice, love and religion from an unredeemed heart can be just as bad as injustice.
The book of Judges begins at a time in Israel's early history when God ruled the nation through His judges. By this time, the Israelites people have stopped wandering around in the desert and have now settled in the Land that God promised them. However, the Promised land is surrounded by other nations, some of whom are their enemies. Conflicts are everywhere. But Judges is also a spiritual history book; there is more here than mere human warfare.
Many of the incidents in Judges will remind you of stories in the five books of Moses...only with a twist. (Compare the angel's question to Hagar with the Levite's concubine's question. "Where are you going, Hagar?") It's as if the writer is playing themes and variations, checks and balances. Take the notion of "hospitality," for instance. Remember Abraham's hospitality to the Lord and the angels when they visited his tent? Remember how badly those very same angels were treated in inhospitable Sodom? As you read Judges, notice who is (or is not) hospitable in the stories of Samson, Jael, and the Levite's concubine. Some people are murdered (or murder) because of hospitality. Some hospitality is good. Some is downright bad. Other comparisons are also made. The story of the Levite's runaway concubine will remind you of another concubine who fled her master: Hagar. With the exception that Hagar was rescued and the Levite's concubine wasn't. That story will also remind you of the attempted rape in Sodom --the angels were saved in that one too. The Levite's decision not to stay among "bad" foreigners but instead to continue his journey towards his homeland where presumably people would treat them better will remind you of the assumption Dinah's brothers made about the people of Shechem. Look around. You will find many more stories that are like bookends to Moses' stories.
Another of the writer's interests is balancing the ideas of the haves and the have-nots, the spiritually special versus the outcast. For instance, the Levites, members of the special tribe, do a great deal of damage in the book of Judges. The writer of Judges pays special attention to women and to outcasts. You will notice that many of the judges are "imperfect." By "imperfect" I mean that they were not the kind of judge that would "seem good" in the typical person's eyes. In these stories, God goes out of His way to use people who do not fulfill the Law or the nation's standard. Ehud is a left-handed man who is used to destroy a great enemy. The writer even goes out of his way to tell us that Ehud was left-handed.) Samson has an uncontrollable temper and a penchant for women outside his race. And once again, the writer makes a point of saying that this "thing" was sent from God. The law forbade marital or sexual relationships between the Israelites and the people of this nation. And here is God putting Samson in this position. Another of the judges is a woman, Deborah. Another woman, not a judge but nevertheless a great "deliverer" was Jael. She uses hospitality as a tool to murder. Women warriors abound. Women are shown as strong, abused, brutalized, and shrewd. Fathers are often unable to protect them from male cruelty. Husbands, lovers and male friends are often abusive, disrespectful or weak. One of the judges is an illegitimate son, a child of a concubine. In the Law of Moses, illegitimate children are specifically mentioned as not being part of the covenant until a few generations had passed. Yet God uses this concubine's son. Yet in another story, the writer shows another illegitimate son as ruthless.
Victims can be doubly victimized. A concubine may leave her cold somewhat abusive husband but this will not prevent her from being gang-raped in another town. In the end, no tradition, social custom, kindness, common sense, family history, genetic luck, or legal requirement can save the good person or help him to reach holiness.
Many of the judges in the book of Judges are larger-than-life characters. The writer of Judges doesn't go to great lengths to describe how good these deliverer judges were. With the rare exception of Gideon, We don't see them praying or making long prayers or speeches. The writer takes it for granted that God's Holy Spirit rests with these very imperfect people and are using them to deliver His people. Therefore, if God's Holy Spirit is with these chosen people, then these judges must have some kind of spiritual life. Everyone will have their favorite --or least favorite-- character. I will discuss only a few.
Samson is a Strongman. Generally, physical strength is not a quality that Bible writers are interested in. Goodness and holiness, yes. Brute strength, no. Ask the typical church-going Bible person about Jael and you'll get a blank stare. But ask about Samson and everyone will have something to say. For better or worse, most people like a good love story. They often will read a Bible story simple because it contains a passionate love affair. This is why Samson is so well-known. Samson is "good," too, of course. But he is also a man of passions, murderous anger and brute strength. He's a lot like the Greek strongman, Hercules: he reaches a kind of godhood by accomplishing great labors.
The writer of Judges tells us that Samson's parents were old and loving but they could not have children. One day, an angel of the Lord appeared to Samson's mother and told her that she would have a son who would begin to free the Israelites from the Philistines. We don't know why God chose this particular couple. But, we can guess: this follows the Bible tradition in which God chooses people who can not boast of anything. Abraham and Isaac had children only after they realized they could not. Jacob is named "Israel" (Prince) only after he loses a fight with an angel and admits that his name (Jacob) means "Cheater." Once again, God shows that blessings come because He wills it not because any particular person wills it or deserves it.
Nine months later, the prophesied baby was born and was named Samson, "Little Sunshine." As Samson grows up, he comes up against, the long-standing oppression caused by the Philistines. If you've read the Bible from the beginning, you will have some idea of who the Philistines are and why God was so against them. But here we have Samson, a warrior with a major problem with anger. Samson's anger boiled over at every slight, especially if that slight was personal. For instance, when Samson's fiancÚ was taken from him, Samson went out and killed a thousand men. He had a jealousy, a weakness for women and an insecurity that God was pleased to use. (An interesting thought: A reader of the story might be tempted to ask if God made Samson unstable to begin with.)In the end, Samson decided he didn't want to live. Yes, he was blind, but he didn't consider God healing his blindness. He was simply tired of life. Delilah, the woman he loved--who probably loved him-- was gone. Life on earth was not worth living anymore.
I won't tell you too much about Samson since you will be reading it yourself but I do want to make a small comment on Delilah. Delilah is yet another of those Bible women who tend to be scape-goated by religious teachers. We think we know her but we don't. Depending on our background, we can see Delilah as a victim of a male-dominated culture, a Mata Hari spy working for the wrong side, or an evil temptress-harlot-castrator-foreign woman who destroys good men who have the bad luck to fall in love with her. Because of his love for the wrong woman, Samson ended up losing his eyes and being mocked and humiliated by his enemies. Like Jael, Delilah also uses hospitality and feminine wiles to destroy the enemy of her people. But because she is employed by the other side, she is considered evil. Common knowledge tells us that Delilah was a harlot. But read the sixteenth chapter of Judges, carefully. The Bible, however, does not say this. Delilah's name appears in the verse immediately following one in which a harlot is mentioned. This quick reading has pegged Delilah as harlot. We don't know what Delilah was or did. She may have been a farmer's daughter. She may have been a shop-keeper. She may have been rich or poor. She seems only to have been someone who had a romance with the wrong man. This romance brought her to the attention of the powers that be and --like it or not-- she had to turn traitor to her lover. We may never see a movie --or hear a sermon-- in which the true story of Delilah is actually shown, however. The minds of pastors and Hollywood producers are so full of mis-readings.
Christian perspective of Samson
Christians believe that Samson is a symbol of Jesus because in his death, he also triumphed over his enemies. Like Jesus, Samson's birth was also foretold. Like Jesus, Samson was created to be sacrificed. But whereas God used Jesus' love and meekness, God created Samson with a jealous, murderous temper. Like Jesus, Samson destroyed the spiritual enemies of God and man. Unlike Jesus, Samson's enemies were mere human beings. And unlike Jesus, the zeal Samson had for God and against God's enemies overwhelmed him. Like Moses, Samson is a murderer whom God uses to help His people.
There is another woman in the book of judges who also suffers at the hand of translations. As I have said before, different translations can cause differing interpretations. Sometimes the wrong Bible choice, yanked together with ignorance of Biblical Culture, can cause a world of differing interpretations.
We are told that Jephthah, one of Israel's Deliver-Judges, had a daughter whom he loved dearly. Having a particularly bad time in a battle, he told God that if God allowed him to win the battle, he would sacrifice to God the first living thing that came out of the door to meet him. He won the battle. But unfortunately, when he returned home, the first living thing to run out to meet him was his beloved daughter. (We are never told this daughter's name.) Of course, Jephthah was distraught. But he had made a vow to God and keep it he must. He sacrifices his daughter.
Jephthah's daughter duly cries for her lost virginity and for her childlessness then goes to her fate. The story ends by saying that once a year the women of Jerusalem went up to mourn Jephthah's daughter. This is what most English translations say. Remember our discussion of the story of Joseph and Potiphar? Remember that I pointed out how different the English and French translations are? In the English Bibles, Potiphar is a "chamberlain." In the Bibles of other cultures, he is a "eunuch."
So, where does the problem come in? In Jephthah's story, the problem surrounds the word "mourn." Many English translations will also have a note in the margin of the Bible to the effect that the word "mourn for" also means "speak with" and "comfort." The translator could have chosen either translation but chose "mourn." The is: Which translation is the better one? What exactly does "sacrifice" mean? Did he actually kill his daughter? Is the reader to believe that Jephthah would have sacrificed any other person but was truly grieved because the victim turned out to be his daughter? Would a God-fearing man at that time practice child-sacrifice? The Hebrews at that time did not practice human sacrifice. The evil neighboring nations did. If he did sacrifice his daughter's life by killing her, what does it mean for the reader? It's up to you to decide. An interesting to notice is that Jephthah's daughter doesn't mourn for her life: she mourns for her virginity. If a woman died childless, she was considered cursed. So, was she grieving for her life? Or was she a kind of living sacrifice --St Paul uses the phrase, "a living sacrifice"-- whom the daughters of Jerusalem went up to visit every year? The thing to remember is that the translators could have simply chosen to use another word and the meaning of the entire story would have changed. Either way, Jephthah did what was right in his heart.
The Levite's concubine
There is another unsettling story in Judges: the story of the Levite's concubine. The Levites and rabbinical scholars don't comment much on this story. Why not? They make so many comments on almost every other story found in the Jewish Bible. Why is this story so universally panned?
As you know by now, a concubine is a second-class wife. In the story, a concubine (like Hagar) runs away (like Hagar) from her husband, a Levite, a member of the special priestly tribe. The husband (unlike Abraham) goes after her to bring her back. The concubine (unlike Hagar) runs to the protection of her father. The Levite finds her and speaks soft sweet words to her begging her to return. Her father seems reluctant to let her go. We aren't quite sure why. Perhaps he is a wary protective father who doesn't quite trust that the Levite will treat his daughter well..once they're out of sight of dad's house. Perhaps the old man is being selfish and is lonely and likes having his daughter around. Perhaps, the old man senses some danger. At last, however, the Levite and his concubine leaves the girl's father's house.
As they journey along, the sun begins to set while the travelers are in a foreign town. The Levite, however, doesn't like the idea of being in the Jebusites' territory. They are foreigners after all. He wants to be among his own people. The travelers continue on their way until they arrive in a region of their own people. They stand in the square waiting for someone to be hospitable, the custom of the middle east at that time. But no one takes them in (Like Sodom.) An old man, not a native of the town, is more hospitable than the rest of the town. He asks them who they are and where they are going (As the angel asked Hagar) and the Levite tells the old man about plans to worship. This is the first the reader has heard about these plans, by the way. He might be lying through his teeth. Or, even worse, he might really be on a religious pilgrimage. Soon a bunch of homosexual men start banging on the old man's house. They want to have sex with the Levite (in the story of Lot, they lusted after the angels.) The old man (like Lot) is offended that these men want to rape a man in his house. He suggests the men take his virgin daughter (like Lot.) He even suggests the Levite's concubine! Then, the Levite --in a spirit of self-sacrifice-- has pushed his concubine out the door. The men of the city rape and murder her (unlike Lots daughters, there are no angels are around to help this time.)
The next morning, the Levite goes outside and sees his concubine sprawled out on the ground. He shouts over to her: "Get up, we're going." He doesn't ask how she is doing. We get a feeling of such disdain for this Levite that we immediately understand why the concubine ran away to begin with. But even worse, the Levite is so offended that his property has been killed, he cuts up her body and sends parts of her all across the region. The land is cursed for a while because of her blood. But then matters are rectified.
The story challenges the holy person's idea of his own holiness. It challenges our idea of our spiritual goodness and safety. It challenges the idea of high-mindedness and Levitical blessedness. But most of all it is quite unsettling. Would the concubine have been safer if her father hadn't delayed them? Would the concubine had been spared her suffering if the Levite had stayed in unfamiliar territory?
One of the recurring questions in the Bible is uttered in one of its many forms by Gideon. The verse is found in Judges 6:13. "And Gideon said to Him: "Oh my Lord, if the Lord be for us, why then is all this befallen us? And where be all the miracles which our fathers told us of, saying, "Did not the Lord bring us out of Israel?" (People in the Bible are always asking God why He is not helping."
God's response to Gideon is: to rise up because God would use Gideon to conquer the enemy. (Another common occurrence in the Bible.)
Gideon is one of my favorite Bible characters. Here is a case of fullness and emptiness, bitterness and sweetness, holiness and self-doubt. Gideon remembers the sweetness, the specialness of God's people. He sees the emptiness and bitterness around him. Then God tells him something sweet...or is it something bitter?.... Gideon is chosen to fight the enemy of God. The soul is chosen and therefore blessed. Yet it is humble. Gideon has no trust in himself, his army, his talent, his heritage, his holiness, or even in his calling. In short, he is a perfect judge.
Throughout the book of Judges, the writer wants the people of Israel to learn not to rely on human standards or appearance. The land is given to Jacob's descendants because of God's kindness and grace. It is not theirs because they are holier than the people living in it. Nor are the Israelites better than all other countries because they happen to have God's Law. Nor is the holy tribe of Levi better by virtue of an accident of birth that places them in a tribe that is considered holy. Nor does proper behavior and noble intentions make for holiness. Holiness is not easy. It does not protect the good man or his descendants. It is as if the writer of Judges wants to shake self-reliance and smugness out of the "blessed."
Why does the writer choose to shake every foundation a good person might stand on? We see the answer in the story of Gideon. Gideon specifically tells God that he is a lowly person and that God should not use him. God's answer: "That's why I chose you." Then God proceeds to strip Gideon's belief in human might and reasoning even more.
The phrase, "what seems good in your eyes" is used in many places in the Bible. In Genesis, the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil is eaten because it seemed good to the eyes and mind of Eve. Abraham told Sarah to do with Hagar what seemed good. Lot offers his unmarried daughters over to the men of Sodom and tells them to do what seems good in their eyes. The prophet, Zechariah, prophesies about the thirty pieces of silver: "Do (with them) as seemeth good." Hosea marries a prostitute, because it seemed to him good. The people in the book of Judges are constantly trying to do what seems good in their eyes. Judges makes us doubt our knowledge of what "seems" good. Read the book of the Judges and be challenged.
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Thanks again Carole for this introduction to Judges.