Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Judges: If Killing Broke it, Killing Will Fix it.

Welcome once again to my Bible blog. I hope that you’ve all been well, and are ready to go with the continuation of Judges. When last I posted, I discussed the story of Samson, who made life difficult (and in many cases, short) for the Philistines before inventing the suicide terror attack. Today we press on with some less famous episodes.

So we are told about a man named Micah, who lived in the lands of the tribe of Ephraim. And Micah stole 1,100 pieces of silver from his mother, but then in a fit of guilt he gave it back to her and confessed to taking it. His mother is so unreasonably grateful to get the money back that she forgets to be mad at Micah for taking it, and instead blesses him in the name of God and sets 200 pieces of silver aside to be cast into an idol dedicated to God (which, of course, is an explicitly forbidden practice, but I’m fairly sure these next few stories are only meant to illustrate how bad the Israelites became at following the law during the time of the judges). She gave the idol to Micah for his own household.

Micah set up a shrine in his house, with the idol and his own household gods, and ordained his son to be his household priest. But one day a traveling Levite from Bethlehem stopped in seeking shelter, and Micah hired him to be the household priest instead. He figured having a Levite priest would be an upgrade, and thus God would bless him more.

Now, you may recall a very brief mention earlier about the tribe of Dan having had a bit of trouble establishing themselves in the promised land. Well, in the time of Micah, we’re told that they still haven’t established their own tribal lands, and they’re looking for a place to call their own. So they send out five men to scout about and find a likely place. These men happen to come by Micah’s house, and they recognize the Levite. They ask him to tell them whether their mission will be a success, and the Levite assures them that God is looking out for them.

So the Danite scouts continue on their way and come to the land of Laish. The inhabitants are peaceful, prosperous, isolated, and unsuspecting. In other words, perfect victims for a band of marauding barbarians. So the Danites rush back home to inform the rest of their tribe of this great opportunity. The Danites muster up 600 fighting men to invade Laish.

On the way to Laish, the army stops at the house of Micah. Where they just march right in and steal Micah’s silver idol, household gods, and ceremonial garb. When the Levite confronts them, they just invite him to come along and be their priest, since it would be much cooler to be priest to an entire tribe than to just one guy. The Levite buys this reasoning, and “his heart was glad,” so he joined in the theft and happily abandoned the man we’re told thought of him as a son.

When Micah discovers the theft and chases after the Danites, they basically tell him to shut the fuck up and go home, or they’ll kill him and all his household.

After that, the Danites went to Laish, killed all the inhabitants, and took up residence in their city which they renamed Dan.

The Bible then moves on to a separate story featuring a different Levite and his concubine. This is very much like the story of Lot, except without any angels involved and told as justification for Israelite-on-Israelite genocide rather than God smiting a city.

See, the Levite was from the hill country in Ephraim, but his concubine was from Bethlehem in Judah. And one day she got so pissed at him that she moved out and went back home to her father’s house in Bethlehem. After a couple months, he went to find her and beg her to take him back. His sweet-talking ways woo her back, and after a brief interlude where her father keeps trying to entice the Levite to stay longer, they start back to the Levite’s home in Ephraim.

As an aside, throughout this story the Bible refers to the Levite as being, variously, the woman’s master and her husband. It also refers to his relationship with her father as son-in-law. But the woman is consistently called only his concubine, never his wife. And this isn’t the first time such vagaries have occurred. So I’m just going to throw my hands up and declare that I have no idea what the fuck the Bible considers to be a marriage. You would think that, for all the hoopla people make about “Biblical marriage,” the actual fucking Bible would have actually fucking defined it somewhere.

But anyway, on the way home to Ephraim, it starts to get late. The Levite’s servant suggests they stop at Jerusalem, but the Levite refuses because it’s still controlled by Jubusites (who are not Israelites). Instead they move on to a town called Gibeah, which belongs to the tribe of Benjamin. Since nobody offers them hospitality, they start to set up camp in the town square.

Here’s where the similarity to Lot starts. A man coming in from his work in the fields spots the Levite and strikes up a conversation. Turns out he was originally from Ephraim too, and he offers to let the Levite and his people stay the night at his place. They accept his offer, but soon the men of Gibeah start gathering around the house, beating on the door and demanding that the man send out the Levite so they can have sex with him. And much like Lot, the host bravely offers up his virgin daughters to be raped instead. He’s even willing to throw his guest’s concubine into the deal. But here’s where things get hairy, because unlike in the story of Lot, the man’s guest isn’t an angel who can divinely intervene to keep everyone safe.

Jdg 19:25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine and made her go out to them. And they knew her and abused her all night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go.”

So the Levite gets up in the morning and gets ready to leave, and it’s kind of hard to tell whether he was unaware of the ruckus the night before, or simply uncaring. But as he goes to depart, he discovers his concubine collapsed in the doorway at the front of the house.

Jdg 19:28 He said to her, ‘Get up, let us be going.’ But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey, and the man rose up and went away to his home.”

Sounds terribly broken up. And in case it wasn’t clear, she died. Or at least, I hope so, since the first thing he did when he got home was cut her up into twelve pieces and send bits of her to every corner of Israel.

And that got some people riled up, let me tell you! So much so that they put together an army of 400,000 people to come punish the inhabitants of Gilead. But the Benjaminites weren’t having any of it, and insisted on defending their own people from the horde by mustering their own army of 26,000. For some odd reason, the Israelites decided to start out the battle piecemeal by sending one tribe at a time to fight the Benjaminites, and God chose the tribe of Judah to go first. They marched out and got their asses roundly kicked, losing 22,000 men in a single day’s fighing (yes, I know these numbers are absurd, but I didn't write it). They asked God if they really ought to try again the next day, he told them yes, and then they lost a further 18,000. So they asked God if they should try again, and he told them yes, but promised that this time he’d let them win.

So the next day they rolled out and, using the exact same strategy Joshua used to defeat the city of Ai (See the Book of Joshua), they defeated the Benjaminites. And in their customary show of graciousness in victory, they proceeded to kill every man, woman, and child in the tribe of Benjamin, except for about 600 men who fled the fighting.

Then, suddenly, it dawned on them that perhaps they shouldn’t completely wipe out one of their own tribes. But now they had a new problem: there were only 600 Benjaminites left alive, all men, and somewhere along the line the Israelites had sworn that they wouldn’t give any of their own daughters as wives to any Banjaminites.

So they took a quick census of themselves and realized that nobody from the city of Jabesh-gilead had come to join their massive vengeance horde. And they said “Ah-ha! These people didn’t take our stupid oath! Perhaps we can persuade them to provide wives for the surviving Benjaminites!”

And when I say “They said ‘Perhaps they can be persuaded to provide wives for the surviving Benjaminites,’” what I really mean is “Without any preamble or negotiation whatsoever, they sent a large force of men to attack Jabesh-gilead, kill every man, woman, and child, and steal the virgin girls so they could force them to marry the Benjaminites.” Because in the Bible, any problem created by combining stupidity with mass killings can also be solved by combining stupidity with mass killings.

Though, as it turns out, a little bit of kidnapping would be required as well. Because slaughtering the people of Jabesh-gilead (who, I feel it should be pointed out, were fellow Israelites) only netted them 400 virgin brides, so there was still a shortage of breeding stock for the 600 Benjaminites. The leftover men had to find brides somewhere else.

Then someone remembered that the city of Shiloh had an annual festival dedicated to God during which the unmarried women would go out dancing in the fields. So they suggested just having the unmarried Benjaminites kidnap all the girls who went out dancing. And if the people of Shiloh should happen to object then everyone else could just tell them to shut the hell up, because the kidnappings get them around their oath not to give their daughters to Benjaminites since, technically, they will have been stolen. So that’s just what they did.

And that brings us to the end of Judges. The last line is:

Jdg 21:25 In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

Which could be read as a lamentation at the behavior displayed in the book. And actually, it’s a repetition of a line that appeared right at the start of the story of Micah, so perhaps it’s meant to be critical of the behaviors bracketed by the two appearances of the line (i.e. pretty much everything in this post). It would be easier to buy that if there weren’t lines where God is seen to expressly, or by implication, approve some of the worst behavior. But no matter.

Next time we’ll be starting the Book of Ruth. And probably finishing it as well – it’s only four chapters long, and seems to exist only to establish the origins of the family from which King David would descend. Until then, you be well!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Judges: Samsonuvabitch

Well, hello again and welcome back to my Bible blog. We’ve been chugging along through the parade of rat bastards titled the Book of Judges. So far I’ve had little good to say about them, but today we tell the story of Samson. Here’s a guy we all know, a Biblical hero that, unlike Jephthah, our Sunday school teachers were never ashamed to tell us about. Known for his long hair and tremendous strength, betrayed by the woman he loved, surely here, at last, is a Biblical hero to be proud of!

Umm… nope.

Seems our Sunday school teachers tended to leave out a few details. Such as the ones that actually describe Samson’s personality, which turns out to be brutish, temperamental, short-sighted, and cruel.

Let’s start at the beginning. The Israelites are once again being punished for “doing what is evil in the sight of God,” by being oppressed by the Philistines. This is an extra-long oppression, lasting forty years. And in this time there was a man named Manoah of the tribe of Dan whose nameless wife was barren. The angel of God appeared to the woman and told her that even though she was barren, God was going to give her a son who would be a Nazirite from birth (See Numbers Chapter 6 for a discussion of what Nazirites are), so she must refrain from strong drink and must never let a razor touch his head. Then the angel left.

The woman went and told her husband Manoah about the angel, and then he prayed to god for the angel to visit again. So the angel appears to the woman again, and she brings him to her husband. There’s a repetition of pretty much the same conversation as before, then they offer the angel a goat. They place it on their altar stone, and when they set it alight the flame went up toward heaven and the angel went up with it. That pretty much sealed the deal, convincing them that they had indeed been visited by God. When the baby was born, they named him Samson.

The Bible skips ahead then to when Samson had grown into a young man. He comes across a Philistine woman and falls for her, so he goes to his father and asks him to get the woman for his wife. His parents are reluctant, because racism was in at the time, but Samson was insistent. Also…

Jdg 14:4 His father and mother did not know that it was from Yahweh, for he was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines. At the time the Philistines ruled over Israel.”

So… God makes Samson fall for a girl he otherwise wouldn’t have in order to manufacture an excuse to fuck with the Philistines? And as you’re about to see, the “opportunity” thus created is so dependent on Samson behaving like a monumental douchebag that he couldn’t have come off any worse if he’d just randomly started attacking Philistines without bothering to fabricate an excuse. Observe.

Samson and his parents are on the road to Timnah where the Philistine girl lived to talk with the woman about setting up the marriage. When they were passing among the vineyards, a roaring lion attacked Samson. But "the Spirit of the Lord” came upon him and he tore the lion apart with his bare hands. Somehow, though, this escaped his parents’ notice, and he didn’t tell them about it either.

A few days later they returned to have the wedding feast. Samson separated from his parents for a bit to go check out the lion corpse, and found that a swarm of bees had set up a nest in the body, and made honey. So he scraped up the honey and continued on his way eating it. He even shared some with his parents when he caught up to them, but didn’t tell them where it came from.

At the wedding feast, Samson decided to make a bet with thirty of the local men. He’d tell them a riddle. If they couldn’t answer it within seven days, they would pay him thirty linen garments and thirty changes of clothes, but if they could answer it then he would pay them the same. The riddle was “Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet.”

Which is kind of a stupid riddle, since obviously it couldn’t be answered correctly if you didn’t already know about the lion and the honey.

Anyway, after a few days the men couldn’t figure out the answer, so they went to Samson’s new wife and told her that she’d better get Samson to tell her the answer or they’d burn down her father’s house. I guess everybody back then was kind of a dick.

So Samson’s wife pleads with him to get the answer, and eventually he gave in and told her. She passed the answer to the men, and they came back and told it to Samson. He was angry, feeling that they’d cheated by getting his wife to give them the answer. Plus he had the slight problem of not having the clothes he’d need to pay them off. But no matter!

Jdg 4:19 And the Spirit of Yahweh rushed upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon and struck down thirty men of the town and took their spoil and gave the garments to those who had told the riddle. In hot anger he went back to his father’s house.”

That’s right. Samson just murdered thirty men and stole their clothes to cover his gambling debts. Still think he’s a hero?

And he did it explicitly with the help of the “Spirit of Yahweh,” so you can’t even argue that the Bible (and/or God) regards this as an example of a flaw in a man otherwise used for God’s good purpose. No, this act is pretty explicitly condoned.

Oh, incidentally… Samson is supposed to be a Nazirite. By law, Nazirites are forbidden contact with the dead (like might happen when you kill a dude and loot his corpse), and are required to atone for such contact by shaving their heads and undergoing a cleansing ritual. Samson didn’t do any of that shit – not that hypocrisy is unexpected by this point. But back to the story.

When Samson stormed off in a huff, the wife’s father figured she’d been rejected and gave her to Samson’s best man instead (who you’d think would have known better).

So a few days later Samson comes back for his wife, and declares to her father his intention to enter her chamber and nail her (seriously… who the fuck says things like this to a woman’s father, even if she is your wife?). But the father puts the breaks on it, telling Samson that he thought he’d rejected the girl so he’d given her to his companion instead. He offers to make it up to Samson by giving him his younger daughter (who he claims is more attractive).

Samson’s reaction is completely rational and in no way the behavior of a temperamental sociopath. He goes out and captures a bunch of foxes (300 are claimed, though I have a hard time seeing how that could be done in any reasonable timeframe), sets their tails on fire, and drives them through the grain fields and olive orchards of the town so that they burn down the crops. Not just his father-in-law’s crops, mind you, but fucking everybody’s. ‘Cause that’s just how he rolls.

But, y’know, they’re Philistines, so I imagine that in the eyes of the Bible they deserve whatever gets done to them for that fact alone.

Obviously, the townspeople are kind of pissed at the outright destruction of their livelihoods. So they put together a mob and kill Samson’s wife and father-in-law with fire. Samson fought his way free and fled to hide out in a cave at a place called Etam in the lands of the tribe of Judah.

The Philistines put together a posse to go chase him down, and they take off into Judah in hot pursuit. The people of Judah are a bit nonplussed by this party of Philistines tromping through their land, and ask them what the deal is. When informed that they are looking for Samson because of his crimes, the people of Judah decide to hand him over.

Jdg 15:11 Then 3,000 men of Judah went down to the cleft of the rock of Etam, and said to Samson ‘Do you not know that the Philistines are rulers over us? What then is this that you have done to us?’ And he said to them ‘What they have done to me, I have done to them.’”

So that raises the question: is Samson lying to his own people to make himself look better, or is he so lacking in any sense of proportion that he actually believes what he’s saying?

After some back and forth, Samson agrees to let them tie him up and deliver him to the Philistines so long as they promise not to attack him themselves. So they do, and take him to a place called Lehi to meet the Philistines. But when they hand him over, the “Spirit of Yahweh” comes over him again. He bursts his bonds, picks up a handy donkey’s jawbone that happened to by lying nearby, and proceeds to beat 1,000 Philistines to death with it.

Samson worked up a powerful thirst distributing all that death and mayhem, so he called out to God for something to drink. God responds by opening a crack in the ground from which water spills out so Samson can sate himself.

I guess this got the “Don’t fuck with Samson,” message across to the Philistines, since we don’t hear much about his life for a little while except that he “judged Israel” for twenty years.

Then one day Samson traveled down to the town of Gaza where, in his heroic way, he did a prostitute. And when the people of Gaza found out that Samson was in town, they decided to set an ambush for him at the city gates so that they could kill him when he went to leave in the morning. But he woke up in the middle of the night, picked up the city gates, and carried them to the top of the hill at Hebron. Somehow, this prevented him from being ambushed, though the text never actually explains why. Maybe we’re supposed to assume that the Gazites were so gobsmacked by the monumental strength combined with monumental pointlessness embodied in the act that they didn’t get around to attacking him.

But now we finally get to Delilah. She was a woman from the valley of Sorek that Samson fell in love with after the scene at Gaza, though apparently she didn’t really return the affection. The Philistines found out about his infatuation, and offered Delilah 1,100 pieces of silver if she could seduce from Samson the secret of his great strength and how to defeat him.

Jdg 15:6 So Delilah said to Samson, ‘Please tell me where your great strength lies, and how you might be bound, that one could subdue you.’”

Which doesn’t sound suspicious at all.

So Samson tells her that if he’s bound with seven fresh bowstrings that haven’t been dried, then he’ll be as weak as any other man. Delilah sends to the lords of the Philistines, who provide her with the bowstrings and some men whom she hides in her house. She ties up Samson with the bowstrings, and tests him by shouting "The Philistines are upon you!” At the alarm, Samson easily snaps the bowstrings, thus demonstrating that the ruse had failed.

This goes on a couple more times, with Delilah begging to know how to make him weak, and Samson giving her different lies about how to do it, followed by Delilah testing him by tying him up and giving alarm, and Samson breaking his bonds. Finally, though, Samson gives in and tells her the truth: that he can be defeated by shaving his head.

You know… for someone who is supposed to be a judge, Samson demonstrates a remarkable lack of… well… judgment.

So Delilah waits until Samson falls asleep in her lap, and has a guy come in and shave his head while he sleeps. And when she yelled “The Philistines are upon you!” he woke as usual, but his strength had left him and the Philistines were able to overcome him. They bound him and gouged out his eyes, then took him to a prison where he was forced to labor at a mill.

So now we’re coming to the climax of the Samson story. The Philistines hold a big party to celebrate their defeat of Samson and to praise their own god, Dagon, for giving it to them. Because Yahweh’s followers aren’t the only ones who suffer from the delusion that their own accomplishments are really the work of an invisible helper. They have Samson brought out to be put on display for their amusement, making him stand between the two pillars that are the main support for the roof. Somehow, the Philistines had managed to pack 3,000 people into a building small enough to be supported by two pillars that were within arm’s reach of one another. So Samson puts his hands on the pillars and prays to God to give him the strength to kill himself and take shitloads of Philistines with him.

Jdg 16:30 And Samson said ‘Let me die with the Philistines.’ Then he bowed with all his strength, and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he had killed during his life.”

Hmmm… we have people today who pray to their gods while using their own deaths to kill thousands of other people. Only we don’t call them “judges.”

 Afterwards, Samson’s family buries him, and we’re done with his story.

Gotta tell you, reading the Samson story was kind of depressing. After all, he was one of the heroes of my childhood. It may have been years since I actually believed the supernatural stuff in the Bible was real, but I still had recollections of the Samson story I’d been taught in Sunday school and remembered it fondly. So sitting down and reading it as an adult… well, it was a bit like I imagine it might be if I went back and watched old Transformers episodes only to discover that Optimus Prime was really a relatively dim mass-murdering psychopath and the Decepticons actually had some reasonable justifications for having it in for him.

Ah well, such is life. I’ll see you back next time, when we continue making our way through the remainder of Judges. Until then, be well!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Judges: Barbeque!

Hello again! Or not “again,” if for some reason this is the first post in my series that you happen to be reading. This is my little blog about reading the Bible – I’m trying to go cover-to-cover, and document the stories it tells and my impressions of them. Right now we’re in the middle of Judges, and have just finished telling the story of Abimelech, who’s a villain because he slaughtered people without God telling him to (as opposed to the multitude of other characters who are heroes because they slaughtered people when God told them to).

In the years after the death of Jair (a judge of Israel whose apparently genocide-free life only rated three verses), the Israelites have once again turned into the sort of horrible people who worship gods other than Yahweh. So, according to the now-established pattern, God allows the Philistines and Ammonites to oppress them for eighteen years. And, true to past form, the Israelites eventually get around to begging Yahweh for help. At first he refuses, but they eventually talk him into it by promising to remove their lips from the posteriors of other gods and apply them only to his. Then, suddenly, the oppression that he’d previously been explicitly supporting against the Israelites starts making him impatient and angry.

The next time an Ammonite army comes crossing into their territory, the Israelites gather up an army of their own to oppose them. But even though they somehow put an army together, they can’t seem to find anyone to lead it. Then the elders remember this guy named Jephthah, who’s supposed to be a mighty warrior.

Now Jephthah isn’t really in the best of circumstances. He was the illegitimate son of a prostitute, so when his father’s legitimate sons grew up the drove him out of the house and disinherited him. So the elders find Jephthah living in a place called Tob hanging around in the company of various unsavory types. When they catch up to him and beg him to come lead their army, he’s understandably bitter about the idea of going to help the people who’d let him get driven out and disinherited. But they promise that if he helps them now, they’ll make him their ruler, and so he agrees.

There’s an exchange of letters back and forth between Jephthah and the king of the Ammonites trying to convince the invader to turn his army around, but it doesn’t work. So Jephthah sets out for war.

Jud 11:30 And Jephthah made a vow to Yahweh and said ,’If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31 then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be Yahweh’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.’”

Now you just know this can’t end well.

So Jephthah heads off to war and, lo and behold, he defeats the Ammonites. And when the war is done, he goes home.

Jdg 11:34 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter.”

Well, fuck.

 Jdg 11:35 And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said ,’Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to Yahweh, and I cannot take back my vow.’”

There you go, douchebag. Blame the girl. It’s totally her fault you promised to sacrifice her to your bloodthirsty war spook.

Now, far from having a rational response to the situation (like “Fuck you, dad! Find your own solution to your problem!”), his daughter tells him it’s OK, he can kill her, just please let her go off with her friends for a couple months to “mourn her virginity.” He agrees, and off she goes for two months, supposedly roaming the mountains weeping for (as opposed to losing) her virginity. But hey… we’ve seen this before with Abraham and Isaac. God’s totally gonna step in and put a stop to it at the last second, right? Sure he is. Everything is right with the…

Jdg 11:39 And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. She had never known a man, and in became a custom in Israel 40 that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.”

Holy Fuck! He totally fucking went through with it!

I love the way the author tries to soft-peddle it, too, by avoiding coming right out and saying the words “he sacrificed her as a burnt offering.” But Jephthah did according to his vow, and his vow was to do just that. Oh, and just in case you’re managing to avoid thinking about what that means, here’s what Leviticus had to say about how burnt offerings were supposed to be conducted.

Lev 1:4 He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. 5 Then he shall kill the [offering]l before Yahweh, and Aaron’s son the priests shall bring the blood and throw the blood against the sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 6 Then he shall flay the burnt offering and cut it into pieces, 7 and the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. 8 And Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the pieces, the head, and the fat, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar; 9 but its entrails and its legs he shall wash with water. And the priest shall burn all of it on the altar, as a burnt offering, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to Yahweh.”

So, according to the Bible, that is what Jephthah did to his daughter. TO HIS DAUGHTER!!!

Are you picturing your daughter’s face on that severed head sitting atop a pile of organs getting ready to be set on fire to create a pleasing aroma for the fucking monstrosity this book tells you to worship?

Oh, I can hear the excuses now. “God didn’t tell him to sacrifice his daughter,” “God didn’t want a human sacrifice,” “God couldn’t interfere with her free will choice to go out that door at that time,” “Jephthah shouldn’t have made such a foolish promise!”

Horseshit! All of it.

Firstly, I’ll point out that the version of the Bible I’m reading includes some handy footnotes on words that have ambiguous translations, which include alternate ways to translate them. And in that passage where Jephthah promises to sacrifice “whatever comes out from the doors of my house,” those footnotes inform me that it can be legitimately translated as “whoever comes out from the doors of my house.” Meaning there’s a good chance that our hero intended to sacrifice a human being the whole fucking time. After all, as we’ve gone over in earlier installments, the Bible does condone human sacrifice elsewhere.

Secondly, Jephthah specifically says to God that he will make this sacrifice “if you will give the Ammonites into my hand.” When he goes to war against the Ammonites, the Bible specifically uses the phrase “the Lord gave them into his hand.” The language describing God’s assistance to Jephthah specifically links to the language of the vow. God accepted the fucking deal.

Lastly, we’re often asked to accept that this God is both omniscient and omnipotent. Plus, the Bible has already described several instances where this God has controlled the actions of people and of animals, so the free will bullshit is not an issue. Nobody and nothing was coming out that damn door that God didn’t want to come out of it. With the God described in this book, Jephthah’s vow functionally meant “You, God, choose what of mine you want me to sacrifice, and I will.”

God wanted the girl. He wanted her killed, filleted, and barbequed on his fucking altar. There is no way around that. Furthermore, both God and Jephthah (and, tragically, the daughter herself) clearly regarded the daughter as property that the barbaric warlord had the right to sacrifice if he so chose.

To say nothing of the fact that, according to the Bible, that roasted human being was payment to God for helping Jephthah kill a metric shitload of other people whom he was only in conflict with because God made them attack the Israelites for not kissing his ass enough!

Now let me make one thing perfectly clear before anyone starts accusing me of being mad at God. I do not believe for a second that the God described here actually exists. I do not believe that any invisible supernatural thing ever, ever helped anyone win a war in exchange for human sacrifices and/or worship. The sick appetites of the delusion called Yahweh are not at issue here, because ultimately they are fiction.

But what is not fiction is that large swaths of the human race have twisted their minds up so badly as to believe that this monstrous fictional behavior somehow represents the absolute embodiment of good. That people are willing to accept that violent, debased acts we would never accept from people under ordinary circumstances somehow become the ultimate in beauty and love if they are commanded by God. There is no way that training yourself to think like that cannot be damaging to the mind.

Even if this being existed, that would be sick. That there’s even the possibility that he doesn’t exist, and people do this shit anyway, is nothing short of enraging.

OK… rant over. Let’s finished the deranged story of Jephthah so we can move on.

After all this goes down, some of the tribe of Ephraim show up on Jephthah’s doorstep. They’re all pissed off that he went and killed the Ammonites without inviting them to come join in the slaughter, and consequently they threaten to burn his house down. Jephthah replies that since they’d never come to help when the Ammonites raided in the past, he just assumed that he couldn’t rely on the Ephraimites and decided he’d kill the Ammonites himself. This didn’t sit well with the Ephraimites, and touched off a war between them and Jephthah’s people.

So now we have two different groups of God’s followers killing each other over who denied who the opportunity to kill another group of people. Tell me that’s not insane.

Jephthah wins this conflict as well, and his troops seize the fords between their land and that of the Ephraimites. And rather than just letting the Ephraimites flee back home (remember, they are just another tribe of Israelites after all), they kill every poor sonuvabitch who tries to cross the river. Some of the Ephraimites try to pass themselves off as Jephthah’s people in order to be allowed to cross, but the guards test them by making them say the word “Shibboleth.” Apparently the Ephraimites spoke with a different accent and weren’t able to pronounce that word correctly, so the guards killed anyone who couldn’t say it right.

All in all, we’re told that Jephthah’s army killed 40,000 Ephraimites.

Jephthah would go on to live and “judge Israel” a further six years before dying.

We’ll jump real quick through a few names, since the Bible doesn’t rate the next few judges as having any real stories to tell. Ibzan judged for seven years, and had thirty sons and thirty daughters. After him, Elon judged for ten years, and was otherwise so inconsequential that the Bible doesn’t mention anything about even his sons or daughters. Then Abdon had his eight years, and he had forty sons and thirty grandsons who rode seventy donkeys between them (why the fuck do the donkeys keep getting a mention?).

And that’s it for today. Hope y’all are well until next time and beyond, and that nobody has nightmares about their dismembered daughters being sacrificed on altars.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Judges: How to Tell Villains from Heroes

Everybody was Bible bloggin’… those cats were really sloggin’…

Yeah, a little bit of silliness. Try it to the tune of “Kung Fu Fighting.”

Hey! I was at work until 2 am last night! I’m entitled to be a little loopy!

OK… where were we? Oh yeah… Judges. Just finished the story of Gideon. Well, sort of. His story doesn’t exactly end with his death, since the next generation of his family has some exploits of their own. This post will tell you their story.

If you recall, Gideon had seventy sons by his many wives, plus he had a concubine who bore him a son named Abimelech. You may also remember that the Israelites had asked Gideon and his sons to rule over them, but Gideon said no. Apparently, not everyone was willing to let Gideon’s refusal be the last word on the matter.

Jdg 9:1 Now Abimelech went to Shechem to his mother’s relatives and said to them and to the whole clan of his mother’s family, 2 ‘Say in the ears of all the leaders of Shechem, “Which is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal rule over you, or that one rule over you?” Remember also that I am your bone and tour flesh’”

Kind of implicit in this whole setup is that this whole idea of the sons of Jerubbaal (Gideon) ruling over Israel is still a going thing even after Gideon’s death, though the text doesn’t provide any explanation of that. You just kind of have to infer it.

The leaders of Shechem are swayed by the idea that it’d be best for them if there were one guy running the show and that one guy were from their city since he’d be likely to show them some favoritism. So they take up a collection to contribute to Abimelech’s campaign fund. Abimelech takes this money and uses it to hire some assassins to go with him to his father’s house in Ophrah and kill his brothers (Seriously? 70 brothers all living in the same house?). They get all of them except the youngest, Jotham, who hid when the slaughter started.

Apparently impressed by this display of colossal douchebaggery, the people of Shechem then declare Abimelech king. The Bible tells us that Abimelech “ruled over Israel” for three years, so I guess we’re supposed to believe that Shechem’s say-so was good enough for everyone.

When Jotham hears that Abimelech was made king, he goes to the elders of Shechem and tells them a lame parable about trees trying to pick a ruler. Afterwards, he tells them that, in case they missed the meaning, the parable means that if they acted in good faith by making Abimelech king then he hopes they have a wonderful time, but if they betrayed and murdered his brothers to make it happen then he hopes they and Abimelech will turn on each other and destroy each other. Then he flees to Beer to hide from Abimelech.

Jdg 9:23 And God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem, and the leaders of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech.”

God sent a what-kind-of spirit? Does that say “evil?” I do believe it does. Interesting.

So under the supernatural influence of an evil spirit sent by God, the people of Shechem start acting out against Abimelech, doing things like putting bandits up in the hills to rob people trying to use the passes. Meanwhile, this guy named Gaal had moved to Shechem and was getting all cozy with the leaders. One night at a party, the city leaders were sitting around bitching about Abimelech and Gaal piped up all “Why do we need to serve this Abimelech dude anyway? If you guys put me in charge of your men, I’d totally kick his ass!”

Zebul, who was Abimelech’s officer in Shechem, heard about Gaal’s boasting about rebellion and sent a message to the king advising him to come put Gaal in his place. So Abimelech gathers up some fighting men and marches to Shechem, arriving at night so that Gaal won’t see him approaching. The next morning Gaal and Zebul are both down at the gate, and Gaal is like “Holy shit! There’s an army out there!’

To which Zebul responds “Well, you were boasting you could kick Abimelech’s ass. There he is, so go put your money where your mouth is.”

So Gaal gathers up the men of Shechem and heads out to fight Abimelech, whereupon he gets his ass handed to him and tries to flee back to the city. But Zebul gives him the boot. The Bible says of Gaal and his family only that “they could not dwell at Shechem,” and doesn’t actually tell us what happened to them. I’d say this is odd, but the authors leaving out details that you’d expect any competent narrator to have included is kind of par for the course by this point.

Anyway, Abimelech camps overnight, and when the people of Shechem venture out to tend their fields in the morning he slaughters them all and then lays siege to the survivors still in the city. When he eventually takes the city he kills everyone inside, razes it to the ground, and salts the earth. Then he burned down the fortified tower where the leaders had taken refuge from the fighting. This guy apparently did not fuck around when it came to putting down rebellions.

Next, and for no particular reason given in the text (evil spirits, maybe?), Abimelech went and attacked the city of Thebez. He captured the city, but a whole bunch of people took shelter in the stronghold at the center. When Abimelech tried to set fire to the tower, a woman rolled a millstone off the roof and it landed on him. Mortally wounded and dying, he instructed one of his soldiers to stab him with his sword so that people couldn’t say that he’d been killed by a woman.

Dude, Abimelech, you were killed by a woman.

So that’s it for the story of Gideon’s kids. And it’s worth noting that Abimelech was not presented as being a hero. The text (well, and me) has a pretty condemnatory tone towards him throughout. I wanted to point this out because it’s very difficult to tell that he’s a villain by comparing his behavior to that of a host of other characters who are presented as heroes. But here’s the difference: when Abimelech slaughtered cartloads of people, he didn’t bother to preface it with the phrase “God told me to...” Hence, villain.

I’ll close out today’s post with Tola and Jair. Granted a total of five verses of story between them, first Tola saved Israel (from what, is never said) and judged them for 23 years, then Jair judged for 22 years while posting the singular accomplishment of having thirty sons who rode thirty donkeys. I’m sure there was great theological value in knowing that.

So that’s it for today, and I can’t tell you how excited I am about the next story. It’s about Jephthah. Unless you’ve actually read the Bible yourself, odds are pretty good that you’ve never heard of this particular hero of God’s people. For some reason, he’s not a popular subject at Sunday services. Tune in next time to find out why!

Until then, be well!

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!

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… get it? He died crapping himself, and they thought he was just taking a dump... 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!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Judges: I Find Your Murder-Fu… Lacking

Hello again, my fine friends, and welcome back to my Bible blog. We just finished whipping through the Book of Joshua, which now brings us to the Book of Judges. We find the Israelites in the promised land, riding high on the wave of bloodshed that allowed them to claim the land as their own.

Judges starts out after the death of Joshua, and the first thing we discover is that there’s still some conquering to do. Which is kind of confusing, since the Book of Joshua pretty clearly states that the conquest was complete before Joshua died. It gets even more confusing when you read further and realize that some of the conquests related in Judges are some of the exact same conflicts that were described in Joshua. At least one story (in which Caleb rewards his nephew for conquering a city by giving him his daughter as a wife) is an exact, word-for-word retelling of the same event from Joshua. Except that the event in Judges is explicitly said to be after Joshua’s death, and the one in Joshua is explicitly before Joshua’s death.

Yeah… inerrant and perfect. Totally self-consistent.

But to get to the text, Judges starts off with the following lines:

Judg 1:1 After the death of Joshua, the people of Israel inquired after Yahweh ‘Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” 2 Yahweh said ‘Judah shall go up; behold I have given the land into his hand.’ 3 And Judah said to Simeon his brother ‘Come up with me into the territory allotted to me, that we may fight against the Canaanites. And I likewise will go with you into the territory allotted to you.’ So Simeon went with him.”

So just out of curiosity… with their prophet dead and no one in particular set up to replace him, just how did the people inquire of God? Supposedly nobody but his chosen guy can hear his voice and live. Back in Numbers 12, God said that other than when speaking to Moses, he only spoke to prophets in dreams and riddles. And back when Moses died, the Bible stated that there was never anyone since that was like him in that God spoke to him plainly face-to-face (although when Joshua got put in charge, God promised to be with him in exactly the same way he was with Moses, so who the fuck really knows who God spoke to and who he didn’t?). And if God could have talked to “the people” directly at any time, why did he need prophets in the first place? The whole thing is confusing as hell.

Also, in that passage it’s kind of unclear whether God chose some actual guy named Judah to lead the fight and Judah literally spoke to his brother named Simeon, or whether the passage is speaking of the tribes of Judah and Simeon metaphorically as if they were singular persons. But as you read further, in context it comes a bit clearer that it’s speaking of the tribes.

Moving on, what follows is basically a repeat of the info from Joshua about Judah claiming its inheritance. Some is word-for-word repetition, but there’s some elaboration. Like this little gem:

Judg 1:19 And Yahweh was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron.”

So there you go. If for any reason you need to go to war against God, iron chariots are your weapon of choice. He can’t defeat them. I wonder if it has to be literal horse-drawn battlewagons, or if tanks will do.

We’re actually treated to a list of places where the Israelites either failed to or chose not to completely destroy or drive out the inhabitants. In many of these places, they made the Canaanites perform forced labor for them instead. This kind of displeased God, so we get:

Judg 2:1 Now the angel of Yahweh went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said ‘I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give your fathers. I said “I will never break my covenant with you, 2 and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.” But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? 3 So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.”

Now, I went ahead a quoted that because it illustrates another little thing that’s been nagging at me from time to time. See how we’re told it’s an angel that is doing the speaking, but his words are written as if God is speaking first-person? This isn’t the first time that sort of thing has happened. We saw it with Moses and the burning bush, for instance, and from having read ahead a little I know we’ll see another instance shortly. Which leads me to wonder if the idea we have of angels these days isn’t what the original writers actually had in mind. We tend to think of them as these individual beings who run around heaven (and occasionally on earth) acting on God’s orders. But in these instances it seems more like the angel is meant as some sort of manifestation or vessel that God projects on earth in order to interact with people – a sort of avatar, if you will.

That might also explain why it is that “the commander of God’s army” showed up for the incredibly idiotic purpose of telling Joshua to remove his shoes, and then two verses later Joshua seems to be talking to God in person. If the commander was just some God avatar, that passage makes a little more sense (although still not exactly free of nonsense). Perhaps that commander and the angel in this passage are one and the same.

Perhaps this is a lot of fucking conjecture to try to string together some sense from this stuff.

Incidentally, the punishment God is levying against the Israelites (some of the people you just invaded and dispossessed are going to do their best to be a pain in your ass, and others you might get along with well enough to start adopting their religious practices) is exactly what one might expect to see happen if there were no divine influence going on as well. It’s called assimilation, and it happens every damn time one people conquers another. So what, exactly, is God actually contributing to this situation?

And remember, we’re to understand that God is intending to punish them for not committing enough genocide.

As a fun aside… anyone they drove out of their land would, presumably, have gone to live in the neighboring nations. Israelites are explicitly told that they can buy slaves from neighboring nations. One could argue that by enslaving the conquered people rather than driving them out, they’re just kind of cutting out that middle step and the associated expense of actually buying the slaves.

But anyway, moving on we’re told that after about a generation past Joshua’s death the Israelites enter a cycle where they become wicked and start worshipping other gods, then Yahweh gets angry and punishes them by letting other peoples dominate them militarily for a bit, followed by the Israelites turning back to Yahweh and he raises up a hero (called a judge, from which this book gets its name) who leads them to defeat their enemies. Then the Israelites obey the judge until he dies, at which point they become wicked again and the cycle repeats.

The bulk of the Book of Judges is dedicated to telling the stories of a bunch of these individual judges, who are some of the more famous “heroes” of the Bible. We’ll start getting into those stories in my next post.

So I’ll take my leave for today. Take care and be well!