Thursday, October 17, 2013

Judges: The First Few Cycles

Welcome back to the Book of Judges. We’re in our second installment, where the Israelites are starting a cycle of turning away from God, getting oppressed, having a heroic judge save them from oppression (usually by killing the oppressors) and turn them back to God, then the judge dies and they turn away again. Over and over and over. This cycle is their punishment for not killing every last non-Israelite in Canaan.

Kicking off, we’re told how the Israelites forgot about Yahweh and served the “Baals and the Asheroth,” so God let the king of Mesopotamia get medieval on them for a bit. The Israelites were forced to serve him for eight years before they got around to asking God for help, at which point he allowed a guy named Othniel to defeat the Mesopotamian king in battle. Then the Israelites were free (in the sense of only being oppressed by Yahweh via Othniel instead of a foreign king) for about forty years until Othniel died, before they went back to worshipping other gods.

That story is barely any longer in the Bible than that paragraph above, by the way, without really any more detail.

Anyway, once the Israelites resume their wicked not-exclusively-kissing-God’s-ass ways, he lets the Moabite king Eglon defeat them with the help of the Ammonites and Amalekites. The Bible only mentions him taking over the “city of palms,” then goes on to say that the Israelites served him for eighteen years – it’s not really clear whether it’s meant that just the Israelites in that one city were subjugated, or whether it was all Israelites.

After those eighteen years the Israelites finally got back around to crying out to God for help, so he “raised up” some guy named Ehud. This Ehud made a short double-edged sword for himself, small enough to be hidden under his robe strapped to his thigh (his right thigh, since he was left-handed). He headed up one of the tribute deliveries to king Eglon, and after all the porters had finished dropping off the tribute he sent them away and told Eglon that he had a secret message for him. Eglon, being the trusting sort that all despotic kings are, sent away all of his guards and attendants so he could hear the secret message. Now, for what happened next to make sense, you need to know that Eglon is described as being very fat.

Judg 3:21 And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly. 22 And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the dung came out.”

Yes, that is the Bible describing a man getting stabbed in the stomach and dying either shitting himself or with shit pouring out of his gut wound (not terribly clear which). I wonder why Ehud’s story wasn’t featured in my Sunday School classes.

So Ehud leaves, locking the doors of the room behind him. And Eglon’s servants concluded the locked door must mean the king was relieving himself in his bath chamber (ha ha… I actually think that was meant to be funny to a certain mindset), so they didn’t go in to check on him. Thus Ehud had time to make good his escape before anyone found the body.

Ehud then went back to Israel and rallied the people to go and seize the fords over the Jordan in a battle in which they killed 10,000 Moabites. This resulted in a peace that lasted for eighty years.

Judg 3:31 After him was Shamgar the son of Anath, who killed 600 of the Philistines with an oxgoad, and he also saved Israel.”

That’s the whole story of Shamgar. That single verse. Why he killed 600 people, and what he saved Israel from and how… who the hell knows?

And then, once again, the Israelites fall back on their wicked ways, and so God allows Jabin the king of Canaan to oppress them for twenty years. But then, Jabin had 900 iron chariots, so maybe there wasn’t anything God could have done to prevent it.

Anyway, this time the judge was a woman named Deborah (holy shit! A woman portrayed as a leader?!), who was a prophetess that the people regularly went to for judgment. And she calls up this guy named Barak (that’s right, Barak is a Biblical name) and tells him that God has commanded him to gather up 10,000 men from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun so that they can go and defeat the Canaanite army (commanded by a general named Sisera). When Barak says he’ll only go if she goes with him, she agrees but also tells him that Sisera will be taken down by a woman and not by him. And off they went to summon up their army. Meanwhile…

Judg 4:11 Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far away as the oak in Zaanannim, which is near Kedesh.”

That is now the third fucking name we’ve been given for Moses’ father-in-law. Jethro, Reuel, and now Hobab. Author, make up your mind!

Also, coming where it does in the story, this was a bit of a non-sequitur. But it becomes important later on.

Sisera hears about Barak and Deborah’s army and set out with his 900 iron chariots and an unspecified number of men to give battle. The 10,000 Israelites win (hey look! They figured out that the way to beat iron chariots is not so much having God on your side as having a ten-to-one advantage in numbers), and when he sees the battle is lost Sisera flees on foot. Barak is busy chasing down and slaughtering the remainder of Sisera’s army, so he doesn’t notice the general slipping away.

This is where the non-sequitur about Heber up there becomes important: Sisera flees to Heber’s encampment, because Heber is supposed to be at peace with his king. There he is taken in by Heber’s wife Jael. She promised him he would be safe, and hid him under a rug. So, thinking himself safely hidden in the care of an ally, Sisera fell asleep.

Judg 4:21 But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died.”

Now that is one hardcore, treacherous bitch. Especially in light of the fact that the text doesn’t really give any particular motivation for this brutal killing. But at when Barak follows along later searching for Sisera, she shows him the body and is roundly praised. Hell, Deborah and Barak even composed a song about the events in which they praised the tribes that came to fight, rebuked those who didn’t, praised Jael as the most blessed of women, and finished off by gloating about how Sisera’s mother must have felt waiting for her son to come home from battle not knowing that he was dead. Classy.

This was the beginning of the end for king Jabin. The armies of the Israelites went on to overthrow him, thus earning themselves another brief period of peace.

So that’s our first set of judges. These aren’t the really famous ones, and the stories are noteworthy more for their brutality than anything else. God doesn’t even perform any overt miracles. All in all it reads like a bunch of savages squabbling back and forth over territory, with the authors throwing in credit to God for whichever outcomes suit the theological narrative they want to support. They must have noticed that trend, though, since in the next story they have God taking a more personal hand in things.

But that’ll be in my next post, starting with the story of Gideon. Until then, be well!

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