Justice League Part 10: Why, why, why Samson?

Let me say this first:

Samson is a horrible example of a human being.

He’s petty, vengeful, abusive, and he doesn’t keep his promises.

What he has going for him as traits that are admirable in some way, kind of, I guess are: he’s strong.

So why, in the name of all that’s good and holy, do we promote him as a hero of the Bible?

Delila schert Simson die Haare L.6

Delila schert Simson die Haare L.6 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story of Samson begins by explaining that Samson’s father Manoah and his wife (unnamed) are childless, and an angel appears to them, promising that they’re going to have a son who will do great things for God, and be dedicated as a Nazirite.

For anyone who’s not familiar with this part of the Law, a Nazirite was a person who made a special vow to God to set themselves apart by not coming in contact with dead things, consuming grape products or anything fermented, or cutting their hair for the duration of their vow (dedication as a Nazirite was typically a temporary thing done as an act of exceptional piety).  In Samson’s case, his parents are told that he’s to be a Nazirite for his entire life.

That kind of sucks for Samson, because he clearly has the heart of a party animal, and while maintaining a perpetual mullet might be pretty cool, not being allowed to drink is a major buzz kill.

So Samson just kind of ignores all of his vows except for the hair cutting one.  On his way to get himself a wife from the nearby Philistine city of Timnah, Samson kills a lion.  After that incident, he arrives in Timnah and arranges his marriage to a poor Philistine girl, then on his way back home to tell his parents about the good news, he finds honey in the carcass of the lion he killed (which he eats).  That’s violation of the vow not to have contact with dead things.

After he returns to Timnah for his wedding, since he’s from out of town and doesn’t have any friends, his wife’s parents hire a bunch of local guys to be his bridal party.  Samson, because he’s a massive jerk, decides it’d be fun to have a bet with these guys that they can’t answer a riddle of Samson’s devising.  The fact that the only way to know the answer to the riddle is to be Samson (since he never told anyone about finding the honey in the lion’s carcass) doesn’t strike him as an unfair part of the game.  The locals are furious with the riddle, and as the time limit to figure it out draws to a close, they physically threaten his wife so that she’ll tell them the answer.  Trapped between a rock and a hard place, she complies, which makes Samson angry because he can’t afford to pay the bet either.  Since the prize is thirty sets of garments, Samson travels to another nearby town, Ashkelon, and murders thirty Philistines so he can take their clothes.  After paying his debt, Samson leaves Timnah in a huff without his new wife, whom her father marries to one of the other wedding guests.

The women in Samson’s story all get royally screwed over by him, by the way.

This affront to the Philistines (which Samson started with his idiotic riddle) escalates into a feud that seems to exist exclusively between the entire Philistine nation and Samson.  The text says that Israel’s oppressed by the Philistines at this time, but as far as this story goes, Samson seems to be the only one actually making trouble between these nations (it should be noted that the tribe of Judah try to turn Samson over to the Philistines for punishment, but then he breaks free and kills a thousand men by himself, instigating an Israelite rebellion).  He sets fire to their wheat fields, kills several hundred Philistines with an ass’s jawbone (I didn’t realize he could talk people to death, but, you know) and is just all around vengeful towards them because of an insult that could have been avoided if he hadn’t been such a jerk.

The story of Samson’s downfall is pretty famous with the betrayal by Delilah and all (though I think Delilah gets a bad wrap, because seriously, Samson’s pretty much the single biggest threat to the Philistines ever).

Of course, up to this point in Samson’s story, the only vow he hasn’t broken is cutting his hair, so God still honors his Nazirite dedication with superhuman strength, but once Delilah takes care of that Samson becomes as weak as a kitten.

Now, I think the significance of the story of Samson is supposed to be how God is willing to take you back, even after you’ve done a lot of crap.  A major part of the Nazirite vow was that if it was accidentally violated, the person could start over again, and God would still be pleased with the act of worship.  Even Samson, who by all intents seems to be a Nazirite against his will, receives God’s favor again after he’s gone through a symbolic atonement in the form of regrowing his hair and suffering as a slave to the Philistines.  The fact that Samson doesn’t seem to learn anything from this experience probably isn’t the point.  His story is an extreme example of the acts of sin and contrition that people carry out all the time.

I think it’s that core idea that got him included in the Book of Judges, or at least it’s the best reading available to us for understanding what’s going on here through the lens of Christ.

I still think he’s a horrible role model though.

Bonus thought: The best pop culture portrayal of Samson that I’ve ever seen is in Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman.  In one issue, Superman gives Lois Lane a serum that grants her superpowers for her birthday, and they go on a super date that gets crashed by the time traveling super cads Samson and Atlas.  Samson’s portrayed as a gigantic, beautiful man with long flowing locks who wants to compete with Superman over Lois’s affections.  Lois entertains the idiocy (and Superman completely shames Samson and Atlas in a contest of strength by beating them both in arm wrestling at the same time), though she does accept a fancy necklace (made of some super deadly radioactive material that would kill her if she didn’t have temporary superpowers) Samson apparently stole from a guy named the Ultrasphinx.  He was just trying to get rid of the thing so he wouldn’t be in trouble, and true to character he screws over a woman so he can get away.

Justice League Part 9: Conquering Faith?

Last time I mentioned that Jephthah is included in Hebrews 11’s list of exemplars of faith.  I think it’s an odd inclusion, but then, the whole section regarding the figures from Judges is odd.  Here it is:

32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. […]

39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

I skipped over verses 35-38 because the Hebrews author seems to be discussing saints and martyrs from the early Church period there.  Verses 39 and 40 seem to be addressing all of the paragons that are listed in this chapter, including the judges.

Here we get the list of paragons from the Book of Judges, and it’s a strange list for sure.  As I’ve mentioned before, it includes Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah.  Clearly this is an abridged list, since the writer says that there’s not enough time to extort the acts of faith from every significant figure in Israel’s history, but I still find it odd who made the cut.  Gideon makes sense, and so does Barak, but why are Samson and Jephthah included when Deborah was left out?  I haven’t discussed Samson yet, but he’s basically the ancient version of an irresponsible fratboy, and Jephthah’s a cutthroat who murdered his daughter.  In both of their stories they do accomplish some things that help Israel out, but they are rather terrible human beings.

I know the standard argument that faith is not dependent upon a person’s character, and the fact that Samson and Jephthah are awful should emphasize how God can redeem anyone for his purposes.  I’ll even give that Samson has a redemptive moment at his death when he asks God to give him one last burst of strength (so he can get his revenge on the Philistines, I might add).  I just don’t know what’s commendable about the faith of these two though.  In a sense it’s childlike, because they trust that God can give them what they want, but what they want is still petty and destructive.  I don’t see them hoping for something beyond what’s in front of them, and I don’t know what to do with that.

Perhaps more problematic for me (and this may simply be a personal problem) is the suggestion that faith is what enabled these men’s conquests.  I’m currently enamored with the concept of love as a weak force that overcomes forces of power through patience and kindness.  God is not interested in conquest, but reconciliation.  I can understand how the writer of the Book of Judges might have seen military conquest as demonstrating exemplary faith, but moving forward into the letter to the Hebrews, when the writer had the context of Christ’s ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection to incorporate, it doesn’t jive so well.  I don’t know how to resolve that problem, but I suspect it lies somewhere in the realm of understanding what the writer of Hebrews was trying to communicate to their audience, while contending with all of their cultural presuppositions as well.

Anyway, next week we’ll move on to Samson so we can talk about why he’s such a popular figure to turn into a Sunday school hero for children.

Justice League Part 8: Two Monsters

I’m of the opinion that Deborah was pretty much the highpoint of Judges, and Gideon was a pretty good follow-up, but after that everything just goes downhill.

“Quick! Stab me so they can’t say I was killed by a woman!” “Alas! He’s been dealt a fatal blow by the millstone that woman in the tower dropped on his head. Better put him out of his misery…” The Death of Abimelech by Gustav Dore (Image credit: http://poetry.rapgenius.com/Holy-bible-kjv-genesis-20-lyrics#note-1522939)

We get a break in the stream of judges following Gideon’s death to learn a little about one of his seventy sons, Abimelech (or Abimelek if you’re using the most recent translation of the NIV).  Abimelech has a very impressive resume with accomplishments including the murder of all his brothers, ruling over Israel as its king for three years, and getting killed in battle when a woman drops a millstone on his head (he tried to get that last one removed with the help of his armor bearer, whom he instructed to run him through so no one could say he was killed by a woman–the Judges author isn’t fooled though; death by impalement doesn’t override the fact that Abimelech was going to die of his other injuries anyway, and now we can also add “thought it was humiliating to be killed by a woman” to his list of accomplishments).

Abimelech’s a real charming person, right?

His whole episode sets up an interesting scenario, because it seems that the root problem with Abimelech (besides all the kin slaying) is that he wants to set himself up as king of Israel (something his father expressly refused to do).  Chronologically following the Book of Judges is the Book of Samuel, which gives an account of how Israel established its first legitimate king (who also turned out to be kind of crazy) and warns that Israel’s desire for a mundane ruler in place of God will only cause them trouble (you can see the echoes of the theme of broken covenant as theodicy that run throughout the Deuteronomistic texts).  Nonetheless, Abimelech comes across as more of an odd blip in Israel’s history, though he’s a monstrous one.

The next judge that we’re introduced to is Jephthah.  He’s interesting because he fits into the mold of the successful underdog that’s a common thread connecting most of the judges we read about here.  Of course, Jephthah’s classification as an underdog comes from the fact that he’s an outcast son of his father’s house because his mother was a prostitute (this unfortunate situation inclines me to sympathize with Jephthah, because it seems wrong to punish him for an accident of birth; shortly we’ll see why that sympathy doesn’t last long).

Because Jephthah is outcast, he apparently leads a very difficult life where he gathers a “gang of scoundrels” around him and earns a reputation as a mighty warrior.  His reputation as a warrior is so good, in fact, that his brothers actually come to him and ask him to lead their military campaign against the oppressors of the decade, the Ammonites.  In exchange for Jephthah’s expertise at killing people who are trying to kill him back, the Gileadite leaders offer to let Jephthah rule over them if he’s successful in defeating the Ammonites.

This deal’s just too good for Jephthah to pass up, so he agrees to it and sends a letter to the king of the Ammonites requesting that they stop attacking.  The Ammonites claim that Israel’s taken land that rightfully belongs to them, and they’re just trying to take it back, but Jephthah doesn’t buy that argument.  So the two sides go to war.

Because this is a history from Israel’s perspective, we can already guess that Jephthah’s campaign is successful.  What’s interesting here is the promise that Jephthah makes to God in order to guarantee his victory: he promises to sacrifice as a burnt offering the first thing that greets him when he returns home.

Of course, that turns out to be Jephthah’s only (unnamed) daughter, and being the violent, live-by-the-sword kind of guy that he is, Jephthah carries out his promise.

This incident’s always been kind of troubling, because we have someone making a vow to God, then finding that in order to fulfill it, he has to make a human sacrifice, which God doesn’t stop (it’s an interesting contrast with the story of Abraham and Isaac, although in that case Abraham didn’t promise to sacrifice his son so much as he was carrying out God’s instructions up to the point where God stopped him by providing a wild ram).

Jephthah's sacrifice - Maciejowski Bible

Jephthah’s sacrifice – Maciejowski Bible (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my study Bible, which I began using less and less throughout the Justice League study, there’s a footnote about Jephthah’s oath that says something to the effect of “God will not be mocked!”  The point of the footnote is to suggest that Jephthah is at fault for making the vow in the first place, and that God was punishing him for being so rash.  That’s problematic because the Law doesn’t condone human sacrifice (even animal sacrifice had very strict regulations surrounding it), and it seems monstrous of God to use a person’s death as a way of teaching someone else a lesson about swearing oaths.  It’s a cruel and unusual punishment, and on top of that it involves hurting an innocent in the process.

I don’t much care for that reading of God’s character here.

Conversely, a viable reading of this passage that doesn’t suggest God’s no better than George Bluth, Sr. examines the fact that Jephthah was an outcast from his clan.  He lived separately from his family, and made his life on the foundation of being a conqueror.  It’s entirely possible that Jephthah was just poorly educated in his faith, and had no idea that God wouldn’t be pleased with a human sacrifice (keep in mind that while this reading promotes Jephthah’s ignorance as an explanation of his actions, it doesn’t excuse them; he still murdered his daughter).

That’s a less troublesome reading all around, I think.

Of course, we still have to contend with Jephthah’s inclusion in Hebrews 11 (I told you Gideon was the least problematic judge listed there), but that’s a topic for another time.

Justice League Part 7: Gideon the Faithful Questioner

I realize I’m spending a lot of time dealing with Gideon in comparison to the other judges, but he’s a really interesting figure, and I’m trying to work out what it is that makes him so compelling.

Gideon’s listed in Hebrews 11 as a paragon of faith alongside several other men from the Judges account including Barak, Jephthah (whom we haven’t yet met, although he’s a doozy of a judge), and Samson.  I should probably say now that I’m trying to figure this passage out in relation to Gideon because he’s the least problematic of the paragons from Judges (Barak might be a simpler case, but there’s very little about him besides his military conquest, which Hebrews 11 seems to explain as the evidence for his faith).  Jephthah and Samson are unsympathetic figures in their own accounts, but we’ll deal with them when we get to where we’re going.

So after bashing the Baal altar and burning a bull, Gideon questions God about his plans for Gideon.  This leads to the famous miracles of the fleece, where Gideon asks God to first make only a sheep’s fleece collect dew on the threshing floor overnight, and then asks God to make it so everything except the fleece collects dew on the second night.

Now, this pair of miracles is interesting because Gideon knows that he’s being demanding.  He asks for one sign to prove that God really wants him to liberate Israel from the Midianites, and God gives it to him, but then Gideon goes back and says, “don’t be angry, but I want another sign.”  One interpretation of this story suggests that Gideon really was asking for more than he should have.  I mean, imagine you’ve asked God for a sign that you’re supposed to do something, and the sign you request is very specific and unlikely to happen by coincidence (asking God to do nothing if you’re supposed to go out and buy a fancy new whatever doesn’t count).  God obliges your request and gives you the clear sign.  Now, instead of doing what you’ve been told to do by God, you decide to say, “Y’know, I’m still not quite convinced this is the right course of action.  God, could you give me another sign exactly the opposite of the last one, but still extremely specific and unlikely to happen by coincidence?”

Some people might read that kind of attitude as willfully disobedient (disobedience to God is a big no-no in Christianity, although different branches of the Church interpret what constitutes disobedience very differently).  God made your job clear with the first sign, so why did you need a second one?

This is the attitude I had when I was a less experienced believer.  Obedience is something that was highly valued in the branch of the Church where I first received my spiritual education as an adult, and I had a lot of trouble trying to parse out why Gideon was listed as an example of faithfulness when he stops and questions God’s instructions every step of the way.

As I’ve gotten older (and, I hope, wiser), I’ve started to realize that Gideon really does demonstrate faithfulness in his reluctance to do everything that God tells him.  Gideon’s defining personality trait is caution.  He’s introduced to us while hiding in a winepress so he doesn’t get attacked and robbed, he questions the angel that appears to him (who he thinks is just a man at first) about God’s presence with the Israelites in light of the Midianite oppression, and then he questions whether he’s really hearing God’s voice when the angel tries to explain to him what Gideon’s purpose is going to be.  It’s not fear of disobeying God that seems to motivate Gideon, but fear of attributing to God a course of action that he knows is imminently risky.

In a lot of ways I’d say that Gideon’s an excellent example of conservative faith, because he doesn’t want to proceed in any course of action that he isn’t absolutely certain is honoring to God.  Unlike Christians today, who may rush to attribute a plan they have to God’s guidance in order to put that plan above criticism (Rachel Held Evans recently wrote a good post exploring ways that we put God’s stamp on things we don’t want others to criticize), Gideon prefers to be cautious to the point of possibly offending God by his insolence so as not to bring a greater offense in claiming God’s guidance on something that turns out to be foolhardy.

Of course, after the thing with the fleece, Gideon apparently gets with the program because we aren’t told about any more instances where he questions what God tells him to do for the military campaign (although I think we’re supposed to infer that Gideon’s still very cautious about everything he’s doing, since God gives Gideon one more reassurance in the form of instructions to spy on the Midianite camp before the attack just to see how spooked the enemy troops are by his 300 man army).  Beyond that, I think it’s telling that Gideon’s biggest missteps come when his confidence gets built up to the point that he stops consulting God for advice.  After routing the Midianite army, there are a couple towns where Gideon and his men stop for rest during their pursuit of the fleeing enemy.  In these towns the leaders refuse to offer food to the Israelites for fear of Midianite reprisal (a sensible thing, considering the small size of the Israelite force and the fact that they are essentially rebels against a much more powerful nation), and as a consequence, Gideon swears to ransack the towns once he’s finished with the Midianites.

It’s probably the worst part of Gideon’s story, and I think it points to Gideon losing sight of his earlier wisdom about undertaking tasks in God’s name.

Of course, even after pillaging a couple of towns and killing all their men, Gideon’s not the most troubling judge.  I’ll move on to a strong contender for that title next time.

Justice League Part 7: Sons Doing Stupid Things

In my last post, I forgot to mention that there’s something kind of funny that Gideon does between the first test he gives God and the later, more famous tests with the fleece.

After Gideon finally gets that he’s been talking with an angel, God gives him a homework assignment before he can go on to greater things like driving away the Midianites: Gideon has to destroy his father’s altar to Baal and use the accompanying Asherah pole for kindling for a burnt sacrifice made using his father’s second best bull.

Gédéon (vers 1550), huiles sur bois de Martin ...

Gideon praising God over the miraculous fleece. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yeah, Gideon’s dad is probably kind of peeved about that.

Of course, the kicker for this story is that Gideon does his desecration in the middle of the night (because he doesn’t want anyone to know what he’s doing) with the help of some of his family’s servants (because it’s too big a job for one person), so the next day when the townsfolk see the altar’s been desecrated, they ask around and someone points to Gideon.

The moral of that story is don’t involve anyone in your midnight pranks, because other people will always crack.

More seriously, the townspeople are upset that Gideon’s destroyed their Baal altar (it’s interesting that they’re taking such an interest in something that God said belonged to Gideon’s father, especially after Gideon said that his clan was the weakest in the tribe of Manasseh) and they go to his father to demand immediate retribution of the lethal kind.

Now let’s imagine for a moment that we’re in Gideon’s dad’s shoes.  You wake up to find that your altar has been destroyed, and the second best bull of your herd has been sacrificed and is smoldering on top of a new altar that’s been built from the remains of the old one.  Your neighbors are really upset about this, because that was the altar that everyone used to appease your local god.  You don’t know what’s going on, but you’re pretty upset too since you’ve just lost both a very valuable asset (bulls are expensive!), and one of your signs of social status in the community (everyone comes to your altar).  Then, after searching around, someone probably threatens and beats one of your servants into naming your son as the culprit.

At this point, we find that Gideon’s father has to make a choice about what’s more important.  He’s lost both social and economic clout because of his son, but the townspeople are asking that Gideon be put to death for defiling an altar.  Though not much time is spent dwelling on this incident, I imagine it was a rather agonizing one for Gideon’s dad.  Of course, the solution that he comes up with shows that Gideon isn’t the only shrewd one in his family.

See, Gideon’s dad decides that killing his son for doing something stupid is probably too harsh a punishment, so he pretty much just laughs in the faces of the townspeople.  “He destroyed our altar to Baal?  Then let Baal punish him, if it’s that serious.  We’re just puny mortals, so why should we try to defend the honor of a god?”

I’m sure that Gideon’s father also had a sizable number of loyal servants who were willing to stand behind him, since he also promises that anyone who tries to defend Baal’s honor by killing Gideon will be dead before the next morning.

And that ploy works.  The locals all back off, and Gideon gets a new nickname, Jerub-Baal.

This is an interesting anecdote in Gideon’s life because it has elements that tie him with earlier tricksters like Ehud (his destruction of the altar at night and attempts to hide what he’s done from more powerful people), and also because it demonstrates a very human capacity for love between Gideon and his father.  Gideon does something that’s reckless and could have very serious social consequences for his family, and his father chooses to stand by him, even though he’s probably furious at the same time.

I suppose I would be too if my son were such a troublemaker.

Justice League Part 6: Mighty Warriors Hide From Their Enemies… Or Something

So following the fantastic story of Deborah and Jael (and Barak), we come to the narrative centerpiece of Judges’ arc involving the judges: Gideon.

Gideon’s narrative is the second longest in the Book of Judges, and it tells pretty much his entire life story from his calling to save Israel through his exploits to the end of his life when he lives peacefully in the liberated Israel where he doesn’t want to be king because he thinks God should rule over them (then he takes his spoils of war to make a priestly garment that people begin to worship, so whatever).

English: Gideon is a judge appearing in the Bo...

English: Gideon is a judge appearing in the Book of Judges, in the Bible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We first meet Gideon when he’s hiding inside a wine press while threshing his wheat.  The reason he’s doing this is that the Israelites are currently being oppressed by the Midianites, who like to come along and take all their stuff.  It’s quite a sensible thing to do if you’re constantly being harassed by raiders who steal your crops and livestock.  It’s also a wonderful setup for when an angel appears to Gideon in the wine press and calls him a “mighty warrior.”

Because, you know, I imagine Beowulf hiding in a wine press when Grendel comes knocking at Heorot’s doors.

Like a lot of stuff that happens in Judges, I think we’re supposed to find this incident funny since “mighty warrior” is a translation of Gideon’s name, and he’s literally hiding from his enemy.  It’s also a fine piece of foreshadowing, since Gideon later proves to be a very successful military leader despite his inauspicious beginning.

Besides the humorous tone, this introduction also serves to tell us a little about Gideon’s character.  He’s a shrewd man, seeing as he knows it’s better to hide his wheat rather than threshing out in the open, and when he talks with the angel (whom he doesn’t yet realize is an angel) he asks the pointed question of how God can be with the Israelites (which the angel exclaims right off the bat) if they’re currently suffering under the Midianites and all the wonders that they’ve heard about from the period of Exodus are no longer present.

As an aside, I think this passage raises an important question that the writer of Judges and their contemporaries would have been asking in the days of the Babylonian Exile.  The whole book’s looking for an explanation of foreign suffering when God says that he’s with his people, but Gideon gets right in there and says what everyone’s actually thinking about these cycles of oppression.  Of course, the answer that God gives him (and the answer that the entire book seems to be pushing towards) is that he should just trust God to do what he does.  Also, apparently, that if you find yourself in a bad situation and God tells you to do something about it, then you better get to it (I like that last bit, though I’m sure there’s endless discussion to be had about what constitutes God telling you to get to work).

Gideon, being the shrewd hider of wheat that he is, decides it’s probably best to make sure he’s actually getting a command from God, so he proceeds with a series of tests.  First there’s the test where Gideon asks the angel to wait for him to get together materials for an offering, so he can receive a sign that he’s definitely getting instructions from God.  The angel does this whole rigamarole where it sets the food for the offering on fire with its staff before disappearing into the flames, and Gideon freaks out because he realizes he’s just been face to face with an angel of God.  God, being the chill Deity that he is, reassures Gideon that he’s not going to die.

The second and third tests are slightly more famous.  Gideon puts a fleece out and asks God to perform two miracles two nights in a row that are exactly the opposite of each other.  God does both miracles, and then Gideon’s convinced that he’s received a divine visitation.

And for all this testing of God, Gideon is named a paragon of faith in the Letter to the Hebrews from the New Testament.  I’m formulating some ideas on why that is, which I’ll get into next time.

Justice League Part 5: The Original Slayer

Okay, so last time I wrote a little bit about why Deborah is, objectively, the best judge.  That sentiment still stands, but the cool thing about Deborah’s story is that she’s not the only woman who plays an important part in it.  We have another hero of Israel in the person of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite (I have this weird image of a tribe of plastic Ken dolls that’s totally not appropriate to anything I’m going to discuss in this post) and the slayer of Sisera, the leader of King Jabin’s army.

Jael is an interesting figure because she emerges in the midst of a very bad situation.  Her husband Heber has allied himself with Jabin after taking his clan and deserting the rest of the Kenite tribe (we’re told they’re descendants of Moses’ brother-in-law Hobab, so they’re effectively Israelites, though not descended from one of the twelve tribes).  Sisera has fled the battle after his army’s been soundly beaten by Barak’s forces, and he’s seeking refuge in the camp of friendly neighbors, where he encounters Jael.

English: Jael Shows to Barak, Sisera Lying Dea...

English: Jael Shows to Barak, Sisera Lying Dead, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902) or followers, gouache on board, 5 1/2 x 9 7/16 in. (14 x 24 cm), at the Jewish Museum, New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jael’s clearly a smart woman, because she recognizes who Sisera is (or at least can tell that he’s someone important) and invites him to hide in her tent, where she gives him milk and a blanket for resting.

I know milk and a cozy blanket help me sleep.

Of course, then Sisera, who’s quite exhausted from all the fighting, dozes right off after this excellent treatment.

And then Jael takes a tent peg and hammers it through his skull.

Clearly, she was not happy with her husband’s choice of associates.

The structure of this part of the story is fascinating, because Jael fills the role of our disempowered underdog who has to resort to trickery in order to beat a much stronger opponent.  She’s Abraham and Jacob and, yes, Ehud all over again.  Sisera’s our familiar oppressor figure who meets an ignominious end because he fails to be wary of the meek and the weak.

This is not an especially original observation, but God seems to love stories of reversal.

Jael’s story hits this point particularly hard (maybe even with a hammer) because this isn’t just her fighting back against just Sisera, but against her own clan.  Heber deserted the Israelites to ally himself with Jabin.  I imagine that Jael didn’t care much for this situation, but being Heber’s wife, she wasn’t allowed to argue (in contrast to Deborah, who’s shown to be a respected authority in her community) so she had to relocate along with the rest of his clan.  Recognizing Sisera as someone associated with Jabin, and gathering that he’s on the run from someone who might be friendly to Israel, she invites him in and tricks him as a method of rebellion.

You know, there’s another version of this narrative in contemporary popular culture with similar features: a woman defeating a male opponent with the use of a wooden stake that has overtones of the weak being empowered to take on the strong.

I know that Joss Whedon’s gone on record to say that Kitty Pryde was his inspiration for Buffy, but I wonder if indirectly he was taking his cues from a much earlier Jewish heroine.

Anyhow, Jael’s the one who gets to be the hero in this story, and that’s a fantastic thing.  Really, she’s probably the high point for strong female figures in Judges, because from here on out things are going to get progressively worse for the Israelites and especially bad for the remaining women discussed in this book.

Justice League Part 4: That One Really Good Judge

So last time we were discussing Ehud and his regicidal tendencies, which (like pretty much everything in Judges) is both problematic and a little bit funny (or a lot in this case; I think only Samson’s story is more humorous).  On the one hand, we have the story of a clever and resourceful underdog who uses trickery to achieve his goals and help liberate his people.  On the other hand, we have an untrustworthy cutthroat who runs a man through when he’s defenseless and unsuspecting.

I feel like I can’t stress that last part enough.  Ehud is a hero in Judges, but it’s only because he’s fighting for the side that the author, and by extension we, sympathize with.  An objective third party might read these events and conclude that it’s pretty scummy to assassinate someone, even if they are an oppressive foreign ruler.

But I’m beating a dead horse.

English: Deborah was a prophetess and the four...

English: Deborah was a prophetess and the fourth, and the only female, Judge of pre-monarchic Israel in the Old Testament (Tanakh). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The next major judge in the cycle is Deborah, who’s pretty much an unqualified awesome person.  Unlike all the others judges, we’re told that Deborah actually spends her time settling disputes and that she’s well respected for her wisdom.  Also, her introductory description is fantastic because the author uses a phrase that translates as either “the wife of Lappidoth” or “the woman from the town of Lappidoth.”  We’re not sure which is the correct translation, but I think either interpretation has awesome feminist implications.

If Deborah is married, what’s interesting here is that she is an important figure in her community independent of her husband (many of the other women featured in Judges go unnamed except as “the wife of so-and-so”), which implies that their relationship model, which is accepted and endorsed by the larger community, is one of equal partnership and independence.  At the same time, if Deborah’s marital status is left ambiguous with her introduction only describing where she’s from, then that carries the implication that she’s a full participant in the community, and considering her position as a judge, someone who holds significant authority regardless of whether she has a husband from whom that authority might be derived (I doubt Deborah would hold that kind of position based on her husband’s status).

Connected with Deborah is the military leader Barak, whom she advises as he prepares to go to war against King Jabin, the oppressor of the decade.  Barak asks Deborah to accompany him into battle because she’s acting as God’s prophet, and Deborah tells him how things will go down.  In the NIV, the phrase is translated “because of the course you are taking” a woman will have the final victory over Sisera, the leader of Jabin’s army.  Of course, like the earlier phrase in Deborah’s introduction, this one’s ambiguous, and may be translated instead as simply “on the expedition you are undertaking” a woman will have the final victory over Sisera.  The interpretation of this phrase is a big deal, because the translation preferred by the NIV suggests that because of Barak’s cowardice (he was afraid to go to battle without Deborah) he won’t have the final glory.  That’s problematic because it suggests that letting a woman defeat Sisera is somehow intended to shame Barak, which I think implies that women are seen as inferior to men.

It should be noted that that’s not necessarily the only way to interpret that translation, as it may simply be a case of Barak being scolded personally, and the fact that a woman will kill Sisera is only incidental to the larger point about his lack of faith resulting in his own diminished glory.  I think that’s a perfectly acceptable interpretation, but I’m always a little wary of scenarios like this one, because they can so easily be boiled down to “you got beat by a girl!”

If, instead of implying Barak’s cowardice causes him to lose his rightful glory to a woman, we interpret this passage as Deborah just telling him how it’s going to be, then that problematic reading goes away entirely, because instead of this being a punishment for Barak not “fulfilling his role” it’s about God dictating the terms for his own glorification through the victory of a disempowered individual over a mighty military leader (which actually fits very well thematically with the positive reading of Ehud).

Either way, Deborah’s a fantastic figure in Judges, because unlike all the other judges, she’s just a highly competent leader who does what needs to be done (and isn’t sneaky about it).

Next time we’ll talk more about Deborah and the woman who does get the victory over Sisera, Jael.


Justice League Part 3: Narrative Cycles and Left-Handed King Killers

Last time I discussed a little bit the concept of cherem as a way to understand the framework that the author of Judges was working within.  As part of the Deuteronomistic history, the Judges author was looking to provide a historical explanation for Israel’s then-current suffering under Babylonian rule.

To crystalize this premise, the Judges author sets up with the first major judge, Othniel, the narrative cycle that we see repeated throughout the book:

  1. Israel falls away from God.
  2. Absent their obedience to God, Israel experiences hardship at the hands of foreign oppressors.
  3. Israel realizes they’re in deep trouble and calls on God to help them.
  4. God sends a deliverer who leads Israel to victory against the foreign menace and restores them to their proper faith.

Othniel’s really not that important other than setting up this cycle.  The first few times I read the book, I thought that he fit better with the minor judges since he only gets about a paragraph dedicated to his story (it’s also mentioned that Othniel is kin to Caleb, Joshua’s partner in scouting out Canaan, which I suspect serves to highlight the connection between the judges and Israel’s previous divinely appointed leaders).

Following Othniel, things start to get more interesting with the major judges.  Next up we get Ehud, who I feel a certain affinity for, seeing as the author takes great care to mention that he’s left-handed (I am left-handed, and feel a great deal of affection for my sinister siblings).

English: Illustration to The Holy Bile, Judges...

English: Illustration to The Holy Bile, Judges, chapter 3. Eglon assassinated by Ehud. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, Ehud’s also a regicide, so I think of him like a distant, left-handed cousin (who’s several times removed).

The way the story goes, Ehud gets an audience with the Moabite king Eglon and sneaks a sword in strapped to his right thigh (because no one thought to check the side that 90% of the human population doesn’t wear a weapon on).  Then, after getting all the servants to leave because Ehud has a “private message” for Eglon, he stabs the king in the gut with the contraband sword, running him completely through and spilling Eglon’s bowels (we’re told that the servants, when they go to check on Eglon, think that he must be indisposed on the royal throne because of the bad smell coming from his chambers).  Ehud then jumps out the window and escapes to the rebel Israelite army, which he leads to victory over the Moabites.

Yeah, it’s supposed to be funny.

It also sets up one significant thematic element of each of the major judges’ narratives: most of them are highly flawed people who do questionable things in their missions to deliver Israel.

In Ehud’s case, the big problem is not that he’s left-handed (really that detail is used more as a tribal signifier to associate Ehud with the Benjamites, who were known for being left-handed), although my Western education makes me sensitive to this detail because left-handedness is traditionally associated with being untrustworthy.  I don’t have enough background in ancient Middle Eastern history to know if there was a similar pattern going on there, although the features of the story seem to support this reading.

The big problem is that Ehud kills Eglon in an underhanded way.  This isn’t some proud military death where they meet on the field of battle and Ehud emerges as the victor.  Ehud’s military victory is more of an afterthought in the narrative; all the focus is on him assassinating Eglon.

Of course, I’m probably reading these details backwards, because while killing a king in his own chambers strikes me as unseemly, this is also a narrative that highlights an underdog using every advantage he has to overcome a much stronger opponent (kind of like all the trickster patriarchs in Genesis).  I don’t think we should forget that Ehud’s tactics are unsavory, but at its core, this story’s about how God used what was available at the time to help Israel.  Like many other stories, it emphasizes the weak overcoming the strong.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, it’s good comedy.  If nothing else, Ehud definitely punches up (and through).

Justice League Part 2: Dealing with Cherem

In my first entry of this series, I explained a little bit about the difficulties that come along with reading Judges for theological instruction (primarily the dissonance between the modern Christian exhortation to embrace grace in all situations as a demonstration of faith and the author’s opinion that the Israelites’ faith failed because they chose not to exterminate their neighbors when they moved into Canaan).  In the second, I want to explore briefly an idea that I originally came across while reading Richard Beck a few months ago (here’s the relevant article from him).

Israelites Carried Captive, illustration from ...

Israelites Carried Captive, illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his original post, Beck examines the Book of Joshua and considers an interpretation that might allow him to read the book about the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan in a nonviolent way.  There’s a lot of good stuff there, and it’s definitely worth your time to read the whole post, but what I primarily got out of it was an understanding of the Hebrew concept of cherem.

Cherem, to be brief, is a dedication of everything within a city that the Israelites conquered to God, typically through burning.  This included all living things in the city.  It was supposed to be a kind of purification where the city was made habitable for the Israelites after everything that was considered unclean had been destroyed.

This is an idea that first appears in Leviticus (cf. 27:28) but what we find reading through the Old Testament is that it didn’t remain something that was considered an essential practice of faith.  Perhaps most famously we have the passage from Hosea where God tells Israel, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”  Over time, the Israelites’ understanding of God’s character changed to recognize this preference for inclusion over othering (a sentiment that actually is laid out rather clearly in Leviticus 19:33-34), and in later parts of the Old Testament (like Hosea) cherem receives some harsh criticism.

Despite this, we still have to contend with the author’s insistence that the Israelites were unfaithful in allowing their neighbors to live.  Judges does not reference cherem explicitly, but I read this book’s connection with Joshua, where it is a practice the Israelites engage in as part of their military campaign, as a suggestion that the author would have preferred if Israel had maintained this practice in settling Canaan.  Consequently, I think the only gracious way to read the author’s intent in Judges is through the lens of a theodicy; the author wanted to explain why Israel was currently suffering under foreign rulers, and the best explanation they could find when looking back through the nation’s history was that Israel had failed to maintain its cultural purity, which they expressed through a narrative that shows Israel repeatedly falling away from its faith.

Going back to what I mentioned in my last post, this is why I think it’s important to try to separate human and divine intent when studying the Bible.  I believe that God’s character is unchanging and eternally good, while human attitudes do evolve with time and context.  Confusing the writer’s anguish over being trapped in an oppressive situation (which they try to explain by casting blame on their ancestors’ decision not to commit genocide every time they met new tribes) and God’s desire for his people to flourish is hazardous, and I think it can lead to a warped understanding of God’s character that legitimizes the maintenance of in- and out-groups.

Next time I’ll get into the actual narratives of the judges and talk a little bit about the cycle that the book employs in making its theological point about faithfulness.