Welcome to the next part of my Bible Project, covering the first few chapters of Judges!
This is an odd book so far. It introduces the concept of the judges, features a couple Tarantino-style scenes and brings us lots more appalling behavior on the part of God and the so-called “good” people of the Bible.
The book begins in the aftermath of the genocidal campaign waged by Joshua against the Canaanites. He didn’t finish the job, so it’s up to Judah to lead the charge against the perfectly innocent, blameless civilian populations of Canaan who made the mistake of worshiping the wrong god. I wonder if he’ll show more restraint than Joshua?
And Judah went with his brother Simeon, and they attacked the Canaanites who inhabited Zephath, and utterly destroyed it. So the name of the city was called Hormah. – Judges 1:17
Guh. I wish that surprised me. Also, for those of you who, like me, missed the first time the word “Hormah” was used (Numbers 21:2 – 3), you’ll be pleased to know that it means oh, all sorts of bad things.
Now we come to one of the stranger parts of the Bible so far.
So the Lord was with Judah. And they drove out the mountaineers, but they could not drive out the inhabitants of the lowland, because they had chariots of iron. – Judges 1:19
I wrote an entire blog article about this verse back when I first started this site. It’s a weird verse no matter how you slice it. It says that the army of God was defeated because the enemy had iron chariots. So, what, God can’t overcome iron?
Even now, almost two years after I wrote that article, I still don’t get it. Like I said in my article, it’s clearly a case where the Jews, who were probably using bronze weapons, were outmatched by an enemy who knew how to forge iron. Fine and dandy. They faced someone who had better weapons than they did and lost. That makes sense from a military angle.
But it doesn’t make sense from a theological angle. Is God omnipotent? Then his army should’ve walked past the chariots without any problem. Is God the only god? Then no one should be able to outmatch him or do anything to impede his will, right?
There’s one explanation that makes sense in many ways which is that God isn’t the only god around. That perhaps Baal and some of the other gods mentioned in the Bible were real and not just false gods.
Speaking of other gods…
Then the Angel of the Lord came up from Gigal to Bochm, and said, “I led you up from Egypt and brought you to the land of which I swore your fathers; and I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you.
‘And you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. Why have you done this?
“Therefore I also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; but they shall be thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a snare to you. – Judges 2:1 – 3
Wow, the Israelites have fallen away from God. Again. Water is wet, rocks are hard… yeah.
Anyhow, it sounds as though the Jews have started practicing some form of religious tolerance by not tearing down the altars in the lands they’ve invaded. God doesn’t cotton much to this and so he says, “From now on, you’re on your own when attacking the enemy! Have fun!”
I must say, I really don’t understand why the Jews would be falling away from God so much. He’s not exactly the god of nothing at this point in the story. He’s up and wandering around a lot, showing off actual miracles, dispatching angels, etc. One would think people wouldn’t need to believe, they’d just know he exists because they’d see direct evidence. Once they know that, why would they ever follow any other gods?
But apparently that’s exactly what some of the Jews began to do, converting over to the Canaanite faith and worshiping other gods.
Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served the Baals;
and they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; and they followed other gods from among the gods of the people who were all around them, and they bowed down to them, and they provoked the Lord to anger.
They forsook the Lord and served Baal and the Ashtoreths.
And the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel. So he delivered them into the hands of plunderers who despoiled them; and he sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer stand before their enemies. – Judges 2:11 – 14
Ok, so. Let’s make sure I understand this. Some of the Israelites started to worship other gods. It doesn’t say that they aren’t still worshiping God, but it does make it clear they’ve started to worship Baal (a Canaanite god or various other things, depending) and Ashtoreth (a Canaanite goddess known to many as Astarte). Please note: the Bible doesn’t say at this point that Baal and Ashtoreth aren’t legitimate gods, they just aren’t the God of the Bible.
Which brings us to another point. Which god is God? I’m currently reading The Evolution of God and I’m at a part where the author is talking about El and Yahweh, two Canaanite deities who some believe were later merged together to form what the Bible describes as God, and a god that even features elements of Baal. The author also expresses the notion that, far from being outside invaders, the early Jews were, in fact, Canaanites themselves, but ones from a different group from other Canaanites.
From a historical standpoint, this makes a great deal of sense to me. We know there’s no record of the Jews having been slaves in Egypt. We also know there’s no historical record of the Exodus. So the idea that the early Israelites might’ve just been displaced Canaanites makes quite a bit of sense.
Anyhow, this is an issue worthy of its own blog article, so I’ll have to write up one later. For now, moving on!
Next we come to a bit where God makes it plain that he’s done doing favors for the Israelites.
Then the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel; and he said, “Because this nation has transgressed my covenant which I commanded their fathers, and has not heeded my voice,
“I will also no longer drive out before them any of the nations which Joshua left when he died,
“so that through them I may test Israel, whether they will keep the ways of the Lord to talk in them as their fathers kept them, or not. – Judges 2:20 – 22
Here this seems to be an explanation for why bad things are happening to people. It’s because God got pissy, threw a tantrum and stormed off, leaving the Israelites to their fate. Theodicy, I suppose. Of course it could also just be a retcon by the Jews of the time to explain why suddenly they were having setbacks.
Bad things happen to the Israelites and the next thing you know, they’re under the thumb of Eglon, king of the Moabites. This leads to a great wailing and gnashing of the teeth by the Jews, so God raises up a Judge to go deal with the problem.
Judges, from what I can tell, are not judges in the legal sense, but rather they are more like generals, or the sort of Judges one might’ve seen in Final Fantasy XII. They seem to basically be generals mixed in with priests.
The Judge that God sends to deal with Elgon is a chap named Ehud who is, among other things, left-handed. Go, southpaws!
So God dispatches Ehud and brings the Bible a vaguely Tarantino moment.
So Ehud came to [Elgon] (now he was sitting upstairs in his cool private chamber). Then Ehud said, “I have a message from God for you.” So he arose from his seat.
Then Ehud reached with his left hand, took the dagger from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly.
Even the hilt went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the dagger out of his belly; and his entrails came out. – Judges 3:20 – 22
Well. Uhm. Yeah. Almost like, “Don Corleone has a message for you,” eh? I mean, yipe! The Bible is seldom this gruesome or, it must be said, this interesting, though I notice we’re still torturing grammar. When “he” and “his” are used up there, it is sometimes unclear as to who is being talked about; the king or Ehud.
Anyhow, Ehud makes his escape.
Then Ehud went out through the porch and shut the doors of the upper room behind him and locked them.
When he had gone out, Elgon’s servants came to look, and to their surprise, the doors of the upper room were locked. So they said, “He is probably attending to his needs in the cool chamber.”
So they waited until they were embarrassed and still he had not opened the doors of the upper room. Therefore the took the key and opened them. And there was their master, fallen dead on the floor. – Judges 3:23 – 25
Goodness. Sounds rather like how Catherine the Great had died. She suffered from a stroke while sitting on the toilet and her servants dallied around for quite some time before going in to check on her. Messy.
Now we come to the story of Deborah and Barak. Deborah was one of the Judges, and good on her for accomplishing that! Not too many women rose up to such positions, I am sure.
There’s also a story centering around the hunt for a general named Sisera. He commands the army of Jabin, an enemy of Israel. Deborah sends Barak and some others off to battle with hopes of finding and killing Sisera. This works less-well than they had hoped and Sisera gets away.
Or does he?
However, Sisera had fled away on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Herber the Kenite; for there was peace between Jabin king of Hazor and the house of Herber the Kanite.
And Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; do not fear.” And when he had turned aside with her into the tent, she covered him with a blanket.
Then he said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.” So she opened up a jug of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him.
And he said to her, “Stand at the door of the tent, and if any man comes and inquires of you, and says, ‘Is there any man here?’ you shall say, ‘No.’” – Judges 4:17 – 20
Hmmm. Well, ok, maybe he did get away clean. He found a friendly woman who is hiding him and giving him milk, though he requested water. That seems a little odd. Actually, something about the whole scene seems a bit odd. Let’s push on and see what happens next.
Then Jael, Herber’s wife, took a tent peg and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, and it went down into the ground; for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died.
And then, as Barak perused Sisera, Jael came out to meet him, and said to him, “Come, I will show you the man whom you seek.” And when he went into her tent, there lay Sisera, dead with the peg in his temple. – Judges 4:21 – 22
… holy crap. I mean, wow. That’s even worse than Ehud offing the king. What a gruesome story! We can call her Jael the General Slayer.
Needless to say the Israelites wind up beating the crap out of the enemy and then we have something called the Song of Deborah and Barak and then that’s it for this part of the Bible.
So, thus far Judges is not impressing me. There’s still a lot of evil being carried out by the supposed good guys, and a lot of conquest and nastiness. Still, I gotta admit I like the quotable lines (“I have a message for you from God”, and “Come, I will show you the man whom you seek”). Plus the narrative is at least better than Joshua.
Next time on my Bible Project, we meet Gideon who proves that skepticism is alive and well in the Bronze Age!