Monthly Archives: March 2022

Judges 4 Deborah, Barak, and Jael

Deborah beneath the Palm Tree, James Tissot or followers (1836-1902)

Judges 4 Deborah, Barak, and Jael

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died. 2 So the LORD sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. 3 Then the Israelites cried out to the LORD for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years.

4 At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. 5 She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. 6 She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. 7 I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.'” 8 Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” 9 And she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand warriors went up behind him; and Deborah went up with him.

11 Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the other Kenites, that is, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had encamped as far away as Elon-bezaanannim, which is near Kedesh.

12 When Sisera was told that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, 13 Sisera called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the troops who were with him, from Harosheth-ha-goiim to the Wadi Kishon. 14 Then Deborah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day on which the LORD has given Sisera into your hand. The LORD is indeed going out before you.” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand warriors following him. 15 And the LORD threw Sisera and all his chariots and all his army into a panic before Barak; Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot, 16 while Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-ha-goiim. All the army of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left.

17 Now Sisera had fled away on foot to the tent of Jael wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between King Jabin of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite. 18 Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.” So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. 19 Then he said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.” So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. 20 He said to her, “Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you, ‘Is anyone here?’ say, ‘No.'” 21 But Jael wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground — he was lying fast asleep from weariness — and he died. 22 Then, as Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went into her tent; and there was Sisera lying dead, with the tent peg in his temple.

23 So on that day God subdued King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelites. 24 Then the hand of the Israelites bore harder and harder on King Jabin of Canaan, until they destroyed King Jabin of Canaan.

In the previous chapter we met the first three judges: a model military leader, a trickster assassin, and a foreigner. In the story of Deborah, Barak, and Jael we have all three elements again with the surprising addition that two of the three main protagonists are women. Early in the book of Judges we have seen that women have names and can act on their own to secure their interests as Achsah, daughter of Caleb and wife of the first judge Othniel, does. (1:11-15) As the book of Judges continues women will have less agency and security and only one other woman is named in the book, even though several individual women and groups of women will be important if tragic parts of the story. We also see for the first time when a male character wants some additional guarantee to do their part in God’s deliverance of the people. This episode, like the crossing of the Red Sea, is captured in both narrative form and a poetic lyrical form in the following chapter. In the memory of the people it is a joyous recollection of God’s deliverance from an oppressive and militarily superior foe at the hands of two women and a man.

We are introduced to the two antagonists of the story that the people of northern Israel are cruelly oppressed by: King Jabin of Canaan who rules from Hazor and his general Sisera who lives in Harosheth-ha-goiim. The name King Jabin and the city of Hazor take us back to an earlier story in the book of Joshua where the northern Canaanite kings are rallied by King Jabin of Hazor roughly a century earlier. In this battle against these northern kings Hazor is burned to the ground and King Jabin is put to the sword. (Joshua 11: 1-15) It is possible that Jabin was a royal title, like Pharaoh or Elimelech, and that while he is from the same line that ruled the former city of Hazor he is exercising his power with his general from Harosheth-ha-goiim. Regardless of how we address the identical titles of King Jabin and the vanquished, according to Joshua, city of Hazor the real locus of power is in the military might of the military commander Sisera and his nine-hundred iron chariots. It is through this mobile and seemingly invincible technological advantage in the early iron age that the northern territory of Israel is subjugated and after twenty years calls they call out to their God once again.

In a patriarchal world, which the vast majority of the ancient world was, it may seem unusual for a woman to be a prophetess as well as one who judges the people. Yet, in a situation of oppression where women have relatively few rights they may initially be viewed by the oppressor as harmless and may be able to use their power of social connectedness to maintain the identity of their family and to work for change. A powerful example of this is the nonviolent movement of women in Liberia which began in 2003 and resulted in the ending of Liberia’s civil war. Deborah becomes a figure that helps the Israelites remember who they are and gives them some sense of their story and their calling. Although the action of Deborah judging the people and providing guidance as a woman is unusual in scripture there is no indication that her role was contrary to God’s intentions. She becomes one of the two women in this story who are instrumental in the deliverance of Israel and as the song will say in the next chapter she will become a ‘mother of Israel.’ She is a married woman, but it is she and not her husband, Lappidoth, who becomes one of the vessels in this story. She is the one who is able to understand the will of God in the situation.

The military leader for the Israelites is Barak who is summoned and charged by Deborah to rally a large number from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun. Israel has no standing army at this time and so these ‘ten thousand,’ while numerically superior to the charioteers of Sisera, are not equipped or trained to stand against this type of force. When Barak requires Deborah to go with him it is possible to read this as either Barak’s failure to trust and because of his failure to trust God will deliver the glory that was originally to be his to a woman.[1] But the Hebrew is more ambivalent. It is equally likely that Barak is not negatively judged for wanting the presence of Deborah and that losing some glory to a woman is an exchange he is glad to make for the presence of a prophetess who can discern the movement and will of God. (NIB II:780) Deborah has summoned Barak and goes with him. Now Barak summons the ten thousand from Naphtali and Zebulun and goes to Mount Tabor.

In the middle of the narrative we have the introduction of the family of Heber the Kenite whose wife, Jael, will play a crucial role in the conclusion of the narrative. The Kenites were introduced earlier Judges 1:16 who had allied themselves with Judah and Simeon in their conquest of Southern Israel. Now we have an individual Kenite family group which has come into Northern Israel’s territory and made peace with the Canaanites in that region. Dennis T. Olson mentions the association of the Kenites with the descendants of Cain who in Genesis 4:22 are skilled in bronze and iron working and conjectures that Heber may be a craftsman responsible for building or helping maintain the iron chariot forces of these Canaanites, (NIB II:780-781) but while this is a plausible conjecture it still only a conjecture. What we can say in in the narrative Heber the Kenite has negotiated a peace for his clan with the military power of the area.

Picture of Mount Tabor in 2011, Attribution צילם: אלי זהבי, כפר תבור shared under creative commons 2.5

Barak and his ten thousand fighters from Naphtali and Zebulun and Sisera and with his 900 chariots and all his troops come together at the Wadi Kishon. The book of Judges narrates the battle of the Wadi Kishon from a theological perspective: the LORD has gone out to fight before the fighters of Israel and delivers this technologically superior force into their hands. The narrative also hints at how the technological advantage of the iron chariots is overcome. Terrain can play a critical role in ground combat and particular for armored forces. In modern warfare tanks which can be nearly invincible in the plains or desert become vulnerable in urban areas, forests, and swampy terrain. In ancient warfare iron chariots would be particularly vulnerable in areas where their wheels become mired in soft mud or uneven terrain. In a wadi, which is a stream bed or ravine which is dry except during rainy seasons, the recent presence of water can make the heavy chariot a liability like Pharoah’s chariots mired in the Red Sea which prevent their escape from the returning waters during the escape of the Israelites from Egypt. The presence of water is explicitly mentioned in the song in the next chapter.  Sisera is explicitly mentioned as abandoning his chariot and retreating on foot away from the Israelite horde descending upon them from Mount Tabor.

Sisera flees toward the tent of Heber the Kenite, presuming that it will be a safe space and he is greeted by Jael, Heber’s wife. Jael provides shelter and hides the fleeing general and the imagery for Jael’s action towards Sisera are initially described in a very maternal manner. Yet the language swiftly turns from maternal to violent once the general has been tucked under the blanket and given milk like a child, now his temple is penetrated in a stealthy strike which drive a stake through his head. Once again deception is involved in the elimination of a threat to Israel, and now Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite is the trickster like Ehud. Jael is definitely not an Israelite like Shamgur son of Anath at the end of the previous chapter. With the expectation of hospitality once you bring someone under your tent her actions are at best morally ambiguous and yet they are critical to a story that is a part of God’s action to end the oppression of God’s people. It is a story of reversals where a seemingly invincible commander is reduced to a child and eventually is killed not in combat but hiding under a rug by a woman. Sisera had instructed Jael to answer the question, “Is a man here”[2] and before Jael reduces him to a corpse he already tells her to claim there is ‘no man’ in here. Jael then goes to Barak and shows him ‘the man’ he is seeking is already a corpse.

Once the leadership of Sisera and the threat of the nine hundred chariots are removed the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun are able to continue their occupation of their territory. King Jabin without Sisera is no longer able to maintain control, these Israelites experience a time of expansion and peace, and God works through a prophetess, a man who can rally the tribes, and a foreign woman. Somehow all three fulfill the role of a judge. Story and morality in the bible can seem complicated, especially when you are looking at the experience of the oppressed. Tricksters often appear in the literature of the oppressed and when they triumph over the powerful they not only defeat them, but they humiliate them. This tale with all its moral ambiguity where Jael violates the expectations of hospitality probably functioned for the Israelites like the Brer Rabbit stories functioned for slaves in America.[3] Perhaps the primary point of the story is the humiliation of the powerful and not the morality of the trickster and perhaps the book of Judges helps us to accept the action of God through people who share different values, beliefs, and morality than we might.

[1] Hence the NIV translation of verse 9 “Very well,” Deborah said, “I will go with you. But because of the way you are going about this, the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will hand Sisera over to a woman.”

[2] The NRSV translates the Hebrew hayes poh ‘is as “is anyone here?” but this reflects the NRSV pattern of using inclusive language. The typical use of the pronoun here is for a man.

[3] See for example the treatment of the trickster in James C. Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance (Scott 1990, 162-166)

Review of All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 2:All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

Robert Penn Warren’s story set in the political culture of an unnamed southern state where an idealistic self-taught lawyer transforms into a charismatic political operative who eventually becomes governor and is looking ahead to a run for the senate. Willie Talos,[1] or the boss as his staff call him, quickly becomes a savvy and forceful political operator wielding both his popularity, but also using pressure, knowledge of indiscretions, and occasionally bribery. Yet, the story is told from the perspective of Jack Burden, a former journalist and historian, who becomes a personal assistant to Willie Talos and the story of Willie Talos is the story of Jack Burden and several others who become intwined in this tale of power, desire, relationships, and perceptions. There are aspects of the story that are incredibly relevant even sixty years after its publication. There are times where the plot meanders along as Jack Burden reflects on the path that led him to this point in his life, but ultimately in the end his past and Willie Talos’ present come together in an ending where secrets are revealed and many lives are shattered (and a few are reborn).

Jack Burden’s childhood in Burden’s Landing with his friends Anne and Adam Stanton, his attractive mother and her string of men, his father who walks out on his mother, and Judge Stanton who acts as a second father to Jack all find their way into the story’s progress. Adam and Anne Stanton are the children of a previous governor and Adam, as a popular surgeon, becomes the boss’ choice to run the new hospital he is building for the state. Anne was Jack Burden’s romantic interest growing up and although both she and her brother initially disapprove of the boss, she eventually becomes entangled in an affair with Governor Talos. The Judge appears at the beginning of the story and is a major part of Jack Burden’s narration. Once the Judge endorses another candidate other than the one Governor Talos is backing Jack is instructed to dig into the Judge’s past for any indiscretion. Through his digging into the past, he does discover a time when the Judge took a bribe and when his friend Governor Stanton had covered for him.

Robert Penn Warren does a masterful job of brining all the strings together in the end. The boss becomes manipulated by a political opponent due to his son’s possible impregnation of a young woman and becomes mired in the type of corruption he campaigned against. The investigation of Judge Irwin now becomes important because the judge has influence on the politician attempting to manipulate the boss. When Jack reveals the secret he learned about Judge Irwin, it causes the judge to commit suicide and Jack’s mother in her grief reveals that the Judge was his father. The revelation of the boss’ affair with Anne Stanton by one of the boss’ staff members and former lovers ultimately results in Adam Stanton shooting the boss and taking his own life. The boss also becomes manipulated by a political opponent due to his son’s possible impregnation of a young woman and becomes mired in the type of corruption he campaigned against. Secrets built upon secrets are ultimately revealed and the survivors have to find a new way with the boss, the judge, and the surgeon no longer there to be paragons in their world. Jack Burden eventually makes peace with the reality that each of these men, though not perfect, were good men and he begins to reassemble his life with Anne and the man who raised him as a father.

All the King’s Men is a well told story. There are times where the prose slows the story down or we spend time caught in Jack Burden’s meandering mind, but ultimately it paints a world where power can corrupt, where good men (and women) do occasionally act in unethical ways, where secrets exercise power, and where the sticky world of politics is populated by people struggling for power, influence, and wealth. It is an uncomfortable read at times because it embodies many of the prejudices of the 1930s and 1940s when it is written but it also feels appropriate for its narration of a brash populism that seems to be resurgent in the United States.

[1] Earlier editions named the Governor Willie Stark based on the editor’s recommendation, but Robert Penn Warren wanted his last name to be Talos and that was used throughout the Restored Edition that I read through.

Judges 3 The First Three Judges

“Othniel” by the French Painter James Tissot (1836-1902)


Judges 3:1-6 The Remaining Nations

Now these are the nations that the LORD left to test all those in Israel who had no experience of any war in Canaan 2 (it was only that successive generations of Israelites might know war, to teach those who had no experience of it before): 3 the five lords of the Philistines, and all the Canaanites, and the Sidonians, and the Hivites who lived on Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal-hermon as far as Lebo-hamath. 4 They were for the testing of Israel, to know whether Israel would obey the commandments of the LORD, which he commanded their ancestors by Moses. 5 So the Israelites lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; 6 and they took their daughters as wives for themselves, and their own daughters they gave to their sons; and they worshiped their gods.

Part of the reason to attempt to write history is to make sense of both the past and the present. Throughout the first two chapters have been setting the scene where the tribes of Israel remain with the various Canaanite and non-Canaanite peoples continuing with their own gods, practices, and in many cases their land and cities. The first two chapters have laid the blame on the Israelites and their unfaithfulness to God’s instructions. Chapter three begins with two explanations for the presence of these people among Israel: that they may learn how to fight and to be a test for the people of Israel. If one assumes that the people have the law as it is outlined in the book of Deuteronomy there is instructions on how to properly conduct war as the covenant people (Deuteronomy 20: 10-18) but that particular portion of Deuteronomy also designates the very people listed in verse five are designate for annihilation (herem). Yet, the very opposite happens here when the daughters and sons of Israel intermarry with these people and worship their gods.

Within this brief passage there are two list of remaining nations. The first list includes the Philistines who are also a people who recently conquered and settled in the land. The Philistines were a sea faring people who came from the Mediterranean (traditionally traced back to Crete) and develop an alliance of five city states (Ashodod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza) along the southwestern edge of the territory that Israel claims. The Canaanites is a general term for the peoples that already existed in the land. The Sidonians were Phoenecians who lived along the Mediterranean on the northwestern edge of Israel’s territory (they are named for the town of Sidon) while the Hivites lived in the mountainous terrain presumably in north Israel and southern Lebanon. The second list is the traditional designation of the seven nations of the Canaanites as listed in Deuteronomy 7:1, although the Girgashites are not present in Judges or Deuteronomy 20.

The situation where the boundaries of Israel are blurred by the presence of people who worship different gods and have different practices of life is compounded when the boundary of tribe and family are blurred by intermarriage. The bible has multiple perspectives on this. In general, the Hebrew people were discouraged from intermarrying with other peoples, especially the Canaanites whose land they were entering. Books like Ezra and Nehemiah blame intermarriage for the state of the nation, while Ruth tells the story of the faithful foreigner who marries a Jewish man and adopts the practices of the covenant people.  We know that intermarriage happened, and was probably a regular occurrence throughout Israel’s history but the danger was that the sons and daughters of Israel would then adopt the practices and worship of the other peoples instead of these new sons and daughters being integrated into the covenant life of the chosen people of God.

Judges 3: 7-11 Othniel the First Judge (from Judah)

7 The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, forgetting the LORD their God, and worshiping the Baals and the Asherahs. 8 Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram-naharaim; and the Israelites served Cushan-rishathaim eight years. 9 But when the Israelites cried out to the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer for the Israelites, who delivered them, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. 10 The spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he judged Israel; he went out to war, and the LORD gave King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram into his hand; and his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim. 11 So the land had rest forty years. Then Othniel son of Kenaz died.

The story of the first judge, Othniel, is short but it sets the pattern for the narration of the judges that come afterwards. Dennis T. Olson points to six elements that give a pattern to evaluate the stories that follow:

(1) the nature of Israel’s evil, (2) the description of the enemy’s oppression, (3) God’s reaction to the Israelite’s cry of distress, (4) the judge’s success in uniting and delivering Israel, (5) a focus on God’s victory or the judge’s personal life, and a desire for vengeance, and (6) the proportion of the number of years the judge ruled in peace (the land had rest for “X” years) (NIB II: 766)

Just as Othniel will set the pattern for the evaluation of future judges, he will also in many ways be the model of what a judge should be. The Israelites at this point are not a nation and the actions of each judge are primarily oriented around individual tribes, and so with Othniel we are primarily looking at the territory of Judah.

The refrain. “The Israelites did what is evil in the sight of the LORD,” serves as a transition between each of the major judge narratives. The evil the Israelites have done is listed as two-fold: they forget the LORD their God, and they turn to other Gods (Baals and the Asherahs). The previous two chapters and the beginning of chapter three have all set the stage for the people integrating with the people who existed in the land, adopting their practices, and intermarrying with them. Now for the first time the people experience oppression under a foreign leader.

King Cushan-rishathaim (Cushan of the double wickedness) who comes from Aram-naharaim (Aram of the two rivers) is an unknown leader in the historical record outside the bible who comes from the area in modern day Syria or Iraq between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This doubly wicked king causes problems for Israel (or at least a portion of Israel) for eight years. The oppression of this ‘wicked’ ruler causes the people of Israel to remember their God and to call out to their God by name.[1] The LORD the God of the Israelites is a God who hears the cry of the oppressed and feels compelled to respond to that cry.

The spirit of the LORD comes upon Othniel to deliver the people. We encountered Othniel in Judges 1: 11-15 and he is the final linkage to the generation that came into the land. In contrast to the Israelites who intermarried, Othniel’s wife is an Israelite and the daughter of the illustrious Caleb, second in respect among the previous generation to only Joshua. There is little narration of the conflict between Othniel and Cushan-rishathaim beyond the spirit of the LORD coming upon Othniel and delivering this foreign king into his hand. Yet, this action of the LORD to deliver the people through Othniel brings forty years of rest in Judah.

Judah in the first chapter of Judges was the most successful in gaining control of its territory and here the judge from the people of Judah is successful in bringing a sustained period of peace after a relatively brief period of oppression (in comparison to the other stories of the judges). Othniel’s narrative is short and compact but it also sets the pattern for all other judges to be evaluated against. Yet, with the death of Othniel the people of Judah, and Israel, lose their connection with the generation that experienced God’s work to bring them into the land. In the absence of a leader to unite them they quickly lapse into the pattern of doing evil in the sight of the LORD again.

Judges 3: 12-30 Ehud the Second Judge (from Benjamin)

12 The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD strengthened King Eglon of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the LORD. 13 In alliance with the Ammonites and the Amalekites, he went and defeated Israel; and they took possession of the city of palms. 14 So the Israelites served King Eglon of Moab eighteen years.

15 But when the Israelites cried out to the LORD, the LORD raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. The Israelites sent tribute by him to King Eglon of Moab. 16 Ehud made for himself a sword with two edges, a cubit in length; and he fastened it on his right thigh under his clothes. 17 Then he presented the tribute to King Eglon of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man. 18 When Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent the people who carried the tribute on their way. 19 But he himself turned back at the sculptured stones near Gilgal, and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” So the king said, “Silence!” and all his attendants went out from his presence. 20 Ehud came to him, while he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber, and said, “I have a message from God for you.” So he rose from his seat. 21 Then Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into Eglon’s belly; 22 the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out. 23 Then Ehud went out into the vestibule, and closed the doors of the roof chamber on him, and locked them. 24 After he had gone, the servants came. When they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “He must be relieving himself in the cool chamber.” 25 So they waited until they were embarrassed. When he still did not open the doors of the roof chamber, they took the key and opened them. There was their lord lying dead on the floor.

26 Ehud escaped while they delayed, and passed beyond the sculptured stones, and escaped to Seirah. 27 When he arrived, he sounded the trumpet in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites went down with him from the hill country, having him at their head. 28 He said to them, “Follow after me; for the LORD has given your enemies the Moabites into your hand.” So they went down after him, and seized the fords of the Jordan against the Moabites, and allowed no one to cross over. 29 At that time they killed about ten thousand of the Moabites, all strong, able-bodied men; no one escaped. 30 So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel. And the land had rest eighty years.

The second judge comes for the tribe of Benjamin which although a southern tribe was not asked to ally itself with Judah and Simeon and remains unable to drive out the Jebusites from Jerusalem. The period of oppression is also longer before the people call on the LORD and so the people are subject to King Eglon of Moab for eighteen years, ten years longer than before they call on the LORD and the LORD provided Othniel. Now instead of an upstanding member of a family with a history of faithfulness and an individual with previous military success God provides this ‘left handed son of the right hand.’[2] This short narrative of Ehud and Eglon is full of satire and humor but it is also the story of God working through a trickster, something that has happened before and continues to happen in the scriptures.

Names often give additional humor to the story. As mentioned above Ehud is a left handed man in the tribe of the ‘son of the right hand.’ King Eglon whose name in Hebrew is related to ‘young bull’ or ‘fatted calf’ in combination with his obesity is portrayed as a sacrificial beast. We often bring our modern ideals of combat into ancient scenes, but King Eglon may have been a powerful warrior in his day. The tactics which relied on spears, shields, and probably chariots were not as reliant on agility as the sword fighting you see in movies or video games. This ‘young bull’ may have been as strong as an ox, even with his massive girth. He also is able to form alliances with the Ammonites and Amalekites and is able to hold territory once secured by Israel, reoccupying the city of palms (presumably Jericho which has not been rebuilt under Israel). It is also important to note that Ehud could not have approached the territory of Benjamin without passing through the territories of Reuben and Gad on the opposite side of the Jordan River. (Hattin 2020, 29)

Ehud makes a short two-sided sword which is a cubit[3] in length. This sword is short enough to be concealed on the right thigh, but the reality of a left handed assassin also plays into the story since most guards would look for a blade on the left side where a right handed fighter would draw it from. Ehud brings a tribute[4] to King Eglon. The Israelites in Judges have been reluctant to worship the LORD and provide their God tribute so now they find themselves providing what should have been used in the worship of their God in the service of a foreign king. Ehud sends the bearers of this tribute away but at the stones/idols[5] of Gilgal he turns back towards the house of King Eglon. Gilgal has already appeared in Judges as a place where a message from God is delivered by a messenger (2:1) that God will no longer deliver the people, but now from Gilgal God’s deliverance comes in this secret word delivered by Ehud. He bears a secret word[6] from a god[7] for the king. The king dismisses his attendants and waits for this secret word.

Much later the book of Hebrews will state,

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. “(Hebrews 4:12)

But here the ‘word’ is a two-edged sword in a non-metaphorical way. This short sword is swallowed up by the obesity of the king and in a bit of ‘scatological humor’[8] and this humor is extended by the followers of Eglon delaying their entry of his chamber assuming he is using the chamber pot. The ‘dirt’ coming out is probably excrement and perhaps the smell also causes the followers of this corpulent king to assume their master is relieving himself in the coolness of the chamber. Their delay allows for Ehud to escape and rally the people of Benjamin and Ephraim to trap the Moabites on the western side of the Jordan River. After a massive military defeat Moab is subdued and the Israelites (at least in this region) enjoy an extended period of peace (eighty years).

This second story of a judge has a much different tone than the first. The story of Ehud and King Eglon is the story of a trickster assassin and bathroom jokes that probably provided entertainment for generations of storytellers and hearers. The morality of the bible is strange to us, but it values the clever trickster. From Jacob the heel grasper (later renamed Israel) to the spies at Bethel who make a deal with a man of the city to bypass the city defenses, (Judges 1:22-25) to the narrative of Samson and many others the bible includes many stories of tricksters who are a part of God’s purpose. The character of the trickster is often valued in ancient stories where people (or animals) find clever ways to thwart a superior opponent and the bible includes several of these stories. The assassination of the King leads to a dramatic change in the ability of the Moabite alliance to continue to oppress the Israelites and is viewed as an extension of God’s action to deliver the people from their oppression. God in Judges may work through strange agents who act in strange ways, but Ehud is viewed in a positive light among the judges of Israel.

Judges 3: 31 Shamgar the Third Judge

31 After him came Shamgar son of Anath, who killed six hundred of the Philistines with an oxgoad. He too delivered Israel.

With Shamgar we encounter the first minor judge and the first conflict with the Philistines. Shamgar is only mentioned here and in the song of Deborah (Judges 5:6) and his mention in that song may be the reason for his inclusion here. Shamgar may not be an Israelite and yet he may be lifted up as one through whom God delivers Israel from the Philistines. Anath is the name of a Canaanite female warrior goddess and there is some evidence from early Iron age Palestine that may point to the existence of a warrior class associated with Anath.[9] The Philistines were technologically advanced having iron chariots and weaponry and so the humiliation of this feared enemy by a warrior bearing a long staff used as a cattle prod makes a mockery of the superior weaponry of their opponent. It is possible that this is the first explorations of a Philistine military unit exploring the territory of the Canaanites and the Israelites and Shamgur’s actions delay the ultimate occupation by force of the Philistines in the region. [10]Yet, the inclusion of a judge who may not be an Israelite and may be the devotee of a Canaanite god is surprising among the twelve judges in this book. Already of the three judges, the God of Israel has worked through a trickster assassin and perhaps through a cattle prod wielding foreign warrior who is devoted to a Canaanite god. Yet, the book of Judges also assumes the God is at work in allowing the various kings and nations to rise up and oppress the tribes of Israel as a punishment for their disobedience, so perhaps including a non-Israelite as a deliverer of Israel is not as strange as it initially appears.

[1] Any time the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures uses LORD in all capital letters it is a reference to ‘YHWH’ the name of God spoken to Moses at the burning bush. Throughout the scriptures the vowels are changed to give the reader the clue to say ‘Adonai’ (Lord) instead of pronouncing the divine name (Yahweh). Yet, each time we encounter this naming of God we are referring to specifically the name of the God of Israel.

[2] Benjamin means ‘son of the right hand’ so the story begins its introduction of irony with indicating that this Benjaminite is left handed.

[3] The term for cubit (gomed) only occurs here in the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures. This may be shorter than the standard cubit (from elbow to fingertip) typically noted by the Hebrew ‘amma and may refer to the length from elbow to knuckles. (Webb 2012, 171)

[4] The term for tribute (minha) is usually used in scripture for an offering presented to God. (Webb 2012, 171)

[5] This word likely refers to carved stones set up for a shrine or idols, and it is likely that Gilgal is considered a ‘holy place’ where a divine message may occur.

[6] In classical Hebrew wordplay the Hebrew dabar typically means ‘word’ but can also refer to a ‘thing’

[7] In speaking to King Eglon Ehud does not speak specifically of the God of Israel but uses the generic term for ‘a god,’ the king likely assumes it is from one of the gods represented at the shrine/idols of Gilgal.

[8] Scatology is the study of feces, and scatological humor is often looked down upon in proper societies, but the Hebrew Scriptures seem to have no problem using excrement to make light of their enemies.

[9] Bronze arrowheads were discovered from this time inscribed with a warrior’s name as the ‘son of Anath’ (Webb 2012, 177)

[10] Barry Webb makes this suggestion based on the number six hundred commonly designating an organized force under a commander and provides numerous examples from first and second Samuel that support this hypothesis. (Webb 2012, 177)

Judges 2 The Pernicious Cycle of Disobedience

Cracked pots, Picture taken by Enric from the Monestary of Sanahin, Armenia shared under creative commons 4.0

Judges 2:1-5 The Messenger of God

1 Now the angel[1] of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said, “I brought you up from Egypt, and brought you into the land that I had promised to your ancestors. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you. 2 For your part, do not make a covenant with the inhabitants of this land; tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my command. See what you have done! 3 So now I say, I will not drive them out before you; but they shall become adversaries  to you, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” 4 When the angel of the LORD spoke these words to all the Israelites, the people lifted up their voices and wept. 5 So they named that place Bochim, and there they sacrificed to the LORD.

The book of Judges begins with Israel inquiring of God, “who will go up?” but in the aftermath of Israel’s failure to expel the inhabitants of the land now a messenger of God “goes up” to confront Israel. The messenger can be read as a prophet or an angelic messenger, but in either case they speak for the God of Israel. This is the first of three times in Judges that the LORD will either send a messenger or directly confront Israel with their unfaithfulness.[2] The location that the ‘messenger’ goes up from is important, even though it is causally dropped into the opening verse. Gilgal is near Jericho. It is where the Israelites celebrate Passover for the first time in the promised land (Joshua 5: 10-12) but it is also where Joshua meets the commander of the army of the LORD. (Joshua 5: 13-15) It is possible that Judges intends us to hear this messenger as the same commander of the army of the LORD who was neither ‘one of us or one of our adversaries’ but who, at the LORD’s command, had come. Previously this ‘man’ was sent by God to go up against the Canaanites, now a ‘messenger’ goes up against the Israelites to confront them with their failure to maintain the covenant their God established with them.

This messenger speaks with the authority and voice of God. God promised to never break the covenant God made with the people, but the people have failed to uphold their side of the covenant by entering into covenants with the people of the land. The LORD their God is faithful but will not be taken for granted and the consequence of their disobedience is the discontinuation of God’s assistance in driving out the remaining inhabitants of the land. Canaan will not become a new Eden: a land of milk and honey free of temptations. Instead, “Canaan will be for Israel a land like any other, with other nations, other cultures, other values, and other gods constantly gnawing at Israel’s heart and allegiances.” (NIB II: 748) The vision of what could have been has been shattered by the broken covenant. Judges accepts this judgment as justified but also a cause for weeping and as the people offer God sacrifices they name the place ‘weepers.’

Judges is a book of weeping. Jephtah’s daughter will weep over the life she will lose to her father’s rash promise. (11: 37-38) Samson’s wife will weep because she is caught in a broken world where she is caught between her people and her husband. (Judges 14: 16-17) But the book ends with the people of Israel weeping to God at Bethel (20:23, 26; 21:2) over the brokenness of the people that ends with the near extermination of the tribe of Benjamin in response to the wickedness they exhibit. It is likely that Bochim is Bethel, and that the place where the Israelites weep at the beginning of the story of Judges becomes the place where the story ends in tears. The people can lament the covenant that they have not fulfilled, but the book of Judges also turns upon the faithfulness of God to this people even in the midst of their unfaithfulness. In this generation still knows the actions of God to bring them out of Egypt and into the land. Future generations will forget their story and their identity, and yet God will continue to hear and respond to their oppression.

Judges 2: 6-23 The Pernicious Cycle

6 When Joshua dismissed the people, the Israelites all went to their own inheritances to take possession of the land. 7 The people worshiped the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the LORD had done for Israel. 8 Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of one hundred ten years. 9 So they buried him within the bounds of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash. 10 Moreover, that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel.

11 Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshiped the Baals; 12 and they abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. 13 They abandoned the LORD, and worshiped Baal and the Astartes. 14 So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them, and he sold them into the power of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. 15 Whenever they marched out, the hand of the LORD was against them to bring misfortune, as the LORD had warned them and sworn to them; and they were in great distress.

16 Then the LORD raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them. 17 Yet they did not listen even to their judges; for they lusted after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their ancestors had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the LORD; they did not follow their example. 18 Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the LORD would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them. 19 But whenever the judge died, they would relapse and behave worse than their ancestors, following other gods, worshiping them and bowing down to them. They would not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways. 20 So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel; and he said, “Because this people have transgressed my covenant that I commanded their ancestors, and have not obeyed my voice, 21 I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died.” 22 In order to test Israel, whether or not they would take care to walk in the way of the LORD as their ancestors did, 23 the LORD had left those nations, not driving them out at once, and had not handed them over to Joshua.

Before beginning the narrative of the judges that would be God’s response to the cries of the people, the book of Judges look at the sweep of time from the ending of Joshua’s leadership in the initial conquest of the promised land through the duration of the book. We are introduced to the pernicious cycle which will play out continually throughout the book of Judges. In the absence of a charismatic leader like Joshua it only takes one generation for the people to adopt the gods and the practices of the nations that surround them. The cycle begins when the generation that occupied the land were unable to hand on a practice of faith to the generation that came after them, and now we have a generation that does not know the LORD the God of Israel or the work that God did for them. In the absence of the worship of the LORD and the practice of the law the people adopt the practices of the nations around them and worship their gods.

This short preparation for the narration of the story of the judges gives us an insight into the character of the LORD the God of Israel. The LORD will not be taken for granted. The expectation of the LORD the God of Israel is that the people is to ‘have no other gods before me.’ This God of Israel is ‘a jealous God’ (Exodus 20: 3-6) who desires to show steadfast love for a thousand generations, but in the absence of fidelity will punish the iniquity of the people for several generations. We see this characteristic of God which is spelled out in the first commandment given narrative form when the people abandon God provoking God to anger and God both removes God’s protection (gave them over to plunders who plundered them and sold them into the power of their enemies) but also actively resists them (whenever they marched out the hand of the LORD was against them). Yet, the LORD is a God who is moved to pity and continues to have compassion on the people. The God of Israel is, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, a God who hears the groaning of the people in their oppression and a God who feels compelled to provide a way that the people can find relief from their oppression. Yet the actions of the judges also fail to provide for a sustainable practice of faith and the book of Judges narrates a pernicious pattern of unfaithfulness and a spiral into a dark period of decline where the identity and continuation of Israel is under threat from external groups like the Canaanites and the Philistines, but also from the tribes failure to adopt the practices that were supposed to distinguish them from the nations around them.

Baal with a Thunderbolt (15th-13th century BC) found in the ancient city of Ugarit Public Domain,

The Baals and the Astartes apparently provided an attractive alternative to the monotheistic  and covenant formed practices demanded by the LORD the God of Israel. Although we do have some archeological evidence that show Baal as a god of storms and Ashtoret as a goddess of fertility, it is important to note that both are denoted as plurals and Baal is often used in conjunction with another name and is used as a common noun like ‘god’ or ‘lord.’ This pluralistic Canaanite culture probably worshipped several local storm and fertility related ‘gods’ which were worshipped in various ways among the Canaanite people. In a community that raised grain, crops, and livestock these local gods were probably associated with local planting and harvesting practices. The practice of a monotheistic worship of an imageless God who not only expected worship but also obedience throughout one’s life was a strong contrast to the manner in which most ancient religions viewed their interactions with their gods. The people of Israel may have viewed the engagement with these practices pragmatically as appealing to multiple gods to attempt to secure a good harvest and good animal husbandry, but the LORD the God of Israel was not willing to be one among a pantheon of gods.

The failure of the tribes and families of Israel to maintain their identity and faithfulness to the God of Israel in the presence of other people who lived and worshipped differently illustrates the fragility of the community without leadership to unite them in their practices. The judges will be able to temporarily end the turmoil of the people under the oppression of the nations or to bridge the conflict between the tribes and people but they are unable to create within the people a way of life that is nurtured and nourished by their worship or the LORD. Instead of the people of Israel being an alternative to the practices of Egypt or Canaan, the book of Judges portrays them quickly conforming to the local practices including adopting the worship of the gods of the land of the people they were supposed to displace.

[1] The Hebrew here is mal’ak-Yahweh which is literally ‘the messenger of The LORD.’ The messenger could be angelic or human. Most English versions assume the messenger is an angel because of the association with Gilgal discussed above.

[2] Judges 6: 7-10 and 10:10-16