Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Judges: This… is… Spar… err… Israel!

Welcome back to my Bible blog, and I hope today’s installment finds you well. We’re in the middle of the Book of Judges, where we’re about to start the story of Gideon. If you’re like me, you’ve heard the name and references to “Gideon’s trumpet,” but may not be familiar with the actual story. Well, today we find out what it’s all about.

True to form, after the days of Deborah and Barak, the Israelites went and backslid again to the worship of other gods. And once again, they get conquered by another people as a result. This time it’s the Midianites, which has to count as one of the greatest comebacks of all time since we were told in Numbers 31 that the Israelites had destroyed all of the Midianite men, women, and male children while keeping only the young virgin girls as slaves & concubines.

We’re told that Midian oppressed the Israelites for seven years, routinely raiding their crops and livestock so that the Israelites had to build caves to hide themselves and their stuff. And once again, after years of this crap, the Israelites cried out to Yahweh to save them. First thing God did was send a prophet to scold them for forgetting God.

Next, we see the angel of Yahweh paying a visit to Gideon. Here again we see an encounter with an angel that seems to switch back and forth between referring to the angel being the actor and God being the actor, which seems to imply that an angel is supposed to be interpreted as an avatar rather than an independent being.

At first they talk as if Gideon doesn’t realize the angel is [from] God. Then the angel starts talking as if he is God and giving Gideon orders to save Israel from the Midianites, but without actually introducing himself or anything. Gideon doesn’t seem to be much surprised by the abrupt change in tone, but asks for a sign that it really is God he’s talking to. So he goes into his house and makes some unleavened cakes (we know how God hates leaven) and prepares some goat meat, which he brings back out. The angel has Gideon put the food on a rock, then touches it with his staff. The food is abruptly consumed in a burst of fire and the angel vanishes. Gideon gets all excited that he was talking to God’s angel, then God (invisible now? Who the fuck knows? The narration is as crappy on details as ever) tells him not to fear because he isn’t going to die from talking to him. So Gideon builds him an altar.

That night God tells Gideon to take his father’s bull and a second bull (never specified who owns the second one) and use them to pull down the altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah (that’s a sacred tree dedicated to Asher, a Semitic mother goddess – data that’s not in the Bible and had to be looked up separately). Then he’s supposed to build God another altar, chop up the Ahserah for firewood, and use it to burn the second bull as an offering to God. So Gideon gathers up some of his servants, and does all that (at night so that nobody will see him).

In the morning the villagers discover the vandalism, and eventually figure out that Gideon had done it. So they march over to his place and demanded that Gideon’s father Joash hand Gideon over to be killed. Joash’s response is… well, pretty damn hypocritical, all things considered. See, he tells the people that they have no business killing Gideon on Baal’s behalf, since if Baal is really a god then he can kill Gideon himself. This from someone whose religious beliefs lay down a metric shitload of pronouncements demanding that Yahweh’s followers kill people on his behalf, rather than leaving him to do it himself.

Not that it’s in any way unusual for people to refuse to apply the same logic to their own religious beliefs that they do to others.

Of course Baal, hindered by a crippling case of nonexistence, totally fails to kill Gideon. So the people give him the nickname Jerubbaal, which means “Let Baal contend against him.”

So anyway, the next time the Midianites and Amelekites get together to pillage Israel, Gideon blows his trumpet to summon his clan to follow him. He also sends messengers to all of Manasseh, Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali, and they send men to follow him as well. Why on earth they would have done so is never explained since, as he had mentioned to God when they first met, Gideon was the youngest son of a member of the weakest clan in the tribe of Manasseh. And his single greatest claim to fame was pissing off his neighbors to the point where they wanted to kill him.

But before he actually goes out to battle, Gideon wants to test God (and even though testing God is specifically forbidden earlier in the Bible, the spook seems happy enough to submit to tests now). What follows is perhaps one of the lamest miraculous signs of all time.

Gideon says to God that if he’s really going to help him defeat the Midianites as he has promised, then when he lays a bit of fleece out overnight God will make sure the dew gathers only on the fleece and not on the ground around it. And God does it. Then Gideon, not sufficiently impressed with God’s ability to wet a piece of sheepskin, asks that the next night when he lays the fleece out, God will make dew gather on the ground but keep the fleece dry. And God does this as well. For some reason, this assures Gideon that God has both the intent and the power to defeat the Midianite army (or perhaps merely reassures him that he’s not going crazy and hearing voices in his head).

So the next day he gathers up the army and heads out to meet the Midianites. But as they get close, God pipes up again. Seems he’s worried that Gideon has too many men, enough that if they win the battle they might get the idea that it was actually them who did the work instead of God. So Gideon tells his army that any of them who are scared can go home, and 22,000 men leave while 10,000 remain (seems odd to me that 2/3rds of an army of volunteers would be perfectly happy to turn around and go home because they’re scared, especially in these sorts of warrior societies where being thought a coward is quite shameful, but whatever). But God is still worried that the Israelites have enough men to think they won the battle through their own efforts, so he wants to whittle it down further.

You know… when someone is doing something for other people, and they go out of their way to make it completely clear that their real priority is making sure that they get the credit… we tend to think of that person as an egotistical douche.

Anyway, God instructs Gideon to take his people down to the water to be tested. The test is this: everyone who drinks by kneeling down by the water is to be sent home, and everyone who cups he water in their hand and laps it up like a dog gets to stay and participate in the battle.

Ummm… sure. Is the message here “The test can be as arbitrary and stupid as I want it to be, since it doesn’t really matter which particular group of assholes come to the fight; we’re gonna win anyway?”

In the end, this test narrows the men down to 300. Leonidas would be so proud.

So finally, Gideon’s contingent is whittled down enough to satisfy God. But now he tells Gideon that if he’s scared to go fight with so few, he should sneak down to the Midianite camp and listen to what they’re saying. So he does, and overhears two guards talking. One tells the other about his dream in which a barley cake rolls into camp and knocks a tent over. The second guard is like “Whoah! That totally means that God will make Gideon beat us like a cheap rug! We’re doomed!”

This is all Gideon needs to convince him. So he returns to his army of 300 and gives every man a trumpet, a jar, and a torch (which he appears to have spontaneously pulled out of his ass), divides them into three groups of a hundred men each, and sneaks back down to the Midianite camp in the middle of the night. Then on his signal, everyone blows their trumpets, smashes their jars, and waves their torches around like madmen. All of this cacophony in the middle of the night throws the Midianites into a panic (and here God steps in with his tremendous miracle of… encouraging the Midianites to panic). They start running away, and in the dark and confusion they’re even so freaked out as to start killing each other.

Now if this were Leonidas’ 300 Spartans, they’d have chased the Midianites down and beat the everloving snot out of them all by themselves. But this is not that 300. Gideon calls back all those dudes he’d sent home earlier and has them help pursue and kill those Midianites who hadn’t already killed each other in the panic.

Notice how the actual fighting is being done by thousands of dudes after all?

Notice also how this primitive society seems to be able to communicate and summon up large armies pretty much instantaneously? Or maybe those armies were never actually sent home. Or maybe this is all the fantasy of a poor storyteller.

Gideon pursues the remnant of the Midianite army across the Jordan, and for the first time we’re given numbers for that army. Supposedly at this point in the story there are 15,000 Midianites remaining, after 120,000 had died in the initial battle. That sounds really impressive: 300 men routed an army of 135,000? Surely God must have performed a miracle!

It’s impressive, that is, if you ignore the absolute absurdity of the idea that any civilization in that time and place could have fielded an army of that size. It’s exceedingly unlikely that the Midianites could have had a total population of that size. Seriously. Take a look at what archeology has to say about populations in that time and place – it’s not that hard to look up. The Midianite army described in the Bible never existed.

Which means this miraculous victory is horseshit.

But anyway, back to the story. On his way to chase down the fleeing Midianites, Gideon stops at the town of Succoth to ask for supplies for his men. The people of Succoth, fearing reprisals from the Midianites, refuse, and so Gideon tells them that when he gets back from killing the Midianites he will strip the flesh from the town leaders with thorns and briars. He gets the same response from the people of Pennuel, so he tells them that when he gets back he’ll tear down their tower.

Eventually Gideon catches up to the Midianite army and attacks, defeating them and capturing the two kings Zebah and Zalmunna. Then he heads back to Succoth and Pennuel to make good on his threats. He beats the town leaders of Succoth with briars and thorns, and tears down the tower at Pennuel. And also, for no stated reason, he goes ahead and kills every man in Pennuel for good measure. True heroes of God slaughter indiscriminately, after all.

After that, Gideon sets about questioning the captured kings.

Judg 8:18 Then he said to Zebah and Zalmunnna, ‘Where are the men whom you killed at Tabor?’ They answered, ‘As you are, so were they. Every one of them resembled the son of a king.’ 19 And he said ‘They were my brothers, the sons of my mother. As Yahweh lives, if you had saved them alive, I would not kill you.’”

I bring this up because it’s an odd exchange in light of the fact that nowhere in the story up until now was there ever any mention of the Midianites having killed Gideon’s brothers. Or killing anyone at Tabor, really. But this exchange kind of raises the question of whether we’re actually reading a tale about God rescuing Israel from oppression, or just a shitty revenge saga with the real motivations hidden behind a bunch of god stuff.

But anyway, Gideon tells his firstborn son Jether to execute the kings for killing the brothers we’d never heard of until a few seconds ago, but Jether is scared and won’t do it. So the kings taunt Gideon into doing it himself.

Afterwards, the Israelites are so thrilled with Gideon that they want to give him and his sons hereditary rulership over them. But he turns them down, asking only that they give him all the gold earrings they’d looted. He takes those, along with the golden ornaments worn by the kings and their camels, and uses them to make an ephod (a sort of ceremonial apron thingy).

Judg 8:29 And Gideon made an ephod of it and put it in his city, in Ophrah. And all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family.”

Given the way the phrases “whored after,” and “became a snare,” have been used up to this point, this suggests that all of Israel, and even Gideon himself, started to worship this article of clothing like it was a god. Which you have to admit is pretty stupid, especially if we’re supposed to believe that Gideon had been having in-person conversations with an actual god. Suddenly he can’t tell the difference between a real god and a fancy piece of gaudy clothing that he made himself?

The Bible then goes on to tell us how Gideon had seventy sons by many wives before he died, and that he also had a concubine who bore him a son named Abimelech. That last part will become important in the next post; I won’t get into it now since this one has run on to well past my usual length.

But I do want to close on one little thought. Notice that, within the context of the story, Gideon didn’t have anything like what we might call “faith” today. He spoke directly to, and was spoken to in turn by, God himself. And he never did anything God told him to do without asking for some sign or evidence that the being asking him to do it was actually a god and actually could follow through on his end of things. And God provided him every sign he asked for, as lame as some of them may have been. This story exhibits pretty much the exact opposite of the faith that priests try to foist on people as being a necessary component of belief in this religion.

Anyhow, that’s it for this post. Until next time, be happy and well!

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