Reading the Bible as Literature
Week Twelve: Judges 3-21
This week, we read through to the end of the Book of Judges (3-21), which means we leave off just before the Book of Ruth begins. Judges is where things get juicy again, thank goodness, as the last few books are frankly downright dull. All that changes, though, with the appearance of Samson. What a guy! Long hair, rippling muscles, and blessed by god him/herself to be the champion of Israel. Of course, it is not all easy wins, or fun and games. There are many “judges” (or leaders) that rise and fall throughout the time period represented in this book, and after Samson dies, Israel enters a period without leadership or kings at all. The Israelites also revert back to their old habits of embracing god when it is convenient and then reverting to paganism when they think they’ve worshipped mono-theistically long enough (memories are short, aren’t they?) Of course, god is always watching, and when the Israelites abandon him, he sends in another people to crush them.
Rise and Fall: The book of Judges tells the tales, sometimes very briefly and sometimes in great detail, of the twelve judges, or military leaders, of this period in Israel’s history. Much of the “rise and fall” of Israelite tribes over this period is connected (by the priestly writers who are here, many years later, editing and revising multiple historical tales into some kind of sensible timeline) to the Israelite’s turning away from, and re-acceptance of, the Abrahamic monotheistic god. It was not uncommon for the Israelite tribes, who were settling into their lands, to adopt some of the customs of the locals. There were also many minor and major skirmishes over these years. Later priests, who were both anti-pagan and anti-monarchy, took the opportunity to retell this period of their history from this perspective, essentially warning off their contemporaries from both polytheism and from adopting kingships and hereditary monarchies (which often came with polygamy, too).
Samson: The reason Judges is one of the most “fun” books in the Old Testament is because of the mighty Samson. It is likely that the story of Samson is adapted from mythological sun worship (solar myths) and, only later, in the priestly writings, is Samson given the title of “first Nazarite.” The Hebrew word for Samson is “Shimshon,” which is very close to “shemesh,” or “sun.” And Samson was born in Zorah, just two miles from “Beth-shemesh,” which means “house of the sun” and which was probably the center of sun worship in this region. His life and powers, too, follow the patterns of solar myths. He gets his power from his hair (sun rays) which, when removed (snuffed out) causes him to become weak. His nemesis, Delilah, also fits in, as “lilah” is the Hebrew word for “night.” In other words, following the cycle of the sun, night comes to extinguish the sun. When Samson is blinded, we might think of the stars being darkened in the sky. And when Samson’s hair begins to grow (the sun’s rays rising again), Samson’s power begins to return. It’s a really rather fascinating tale, even without the many other miraculous accomplishments, such as his slaying the lion, his killing a thousand men with an ass’s skull, or his escaping prison by pulling up and carrying the walls of a city over his shoulders. It’s also no coincidence that Samson is listed as the 12th and final judge – in the solar calendar, the 12th month is the last.
The Women: We learn about three interesting and important women in this part of the bible: Deborah, Jael, and Delilah. The first, Deborah, was a rarity indeed. She was the leader, or “judge” of Tribe Ephraim, one of the most powerful Israelite tribes of that age. Indeed, Ephraim of this era is similar to what Sparta was for much of ancient Greek times, an unofficial military leader that is called on to head any unified campaign against common enemies. It is Deborah, with help from Barak, who leads a unified six tribes to war and defeats the Canaanites (King Jabin, specifically). Not long after, Jael, a woman, kills Sisera, another enemy king. In the first two cases, then, we see two women delivering Israel from danger. In the third, however, we get the opposite. The hero Samson falls in love with a Philistine woman named Delilah. Despite all of Samson’s many conquests and heroic feats, it is Delilah who eventually brings him down by seducing him, learning his weakness (after much pestering), and sharing that information with her people.
OTHER INTERESTING BITS
Gideon: In addition to Samson, this part of the bible introduces us to Gideon, one of the most famous names in biblical history. Today, most Americans, certainly, are familiar with the Gideon Bible. In his time, Gideon was probably a king (though the writers indicated he rejected the title; that’s probably not really the case, however, and it is more likely that the priests, who were strictly anti-monarchy, re-wrote this bit of history to suit their contemporary politics). He was the smallest member of his family, which was the weakest clan in the tribe, and yet he was chosen by god to rise up and lead the people of Israel. He does so successfully and leaves a legacy of children, from many wives, behind. His story in many ways reflects that of King David’s, and in both cases the priests would have been troubled by their polygamy and their monarchies. Abimelech later kills all of Gideon’s descendants, except for Jotham, who went into hiding, likely alluding to the peoples’ distaste for the messy process of monarchical lineage.
Anarchy: Judges ends by describing, or summarizing, the rather lawless period recounted in this book: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (21:25). In an ironic way, the priests who were compiling this book and who were so vehemently anti-monarchy are here indicating that, well, being entirely without rulers might also be kind of an issue. That said, when “god’s leadership” is required, the people are still encouraged to trust the word of the high priests, who continued to divine god’s will by referring to the Urim and Thummim, or the game of “yes/no” stones described earlier in the bible.
So long, Reuben: It’s probably important to note that Judges 5 is the last mention of the tribe of Reuben. Historically, it seems, the tribe is now dead or has been entirely integrated into one of the larger tribes.