The first thing I’m noticing about the Book of Judges is that there don’t appear to be any judges in it. Sure, they may be called “judges,” but they’re really generals, left-handed assassins, female guerillas, polygamist warriors, fratricidal maniacs, and holy child killers. No judging seems to occur in Judges—unless your idea of justice is Judge Dredd. But if you want good stories—this is the book to read. It’s an adrenaline shot!
To save us all time later, let me summarize Judges in two sentences: The Israelites revert to wicked idolatry and are conquered by neighboring tribes. A great warrior emerges to rout the enemy; the Israelites prosper until he dies, at which point they backtrack to paganism. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Chapter 1 and Chapter 2
Judges begins with a sly tribute to female power. Caleb, the oldest living Israelite now that Joshua’s dead, offers his daughter Achsah in marriage to the warrior who can sack the town of Debir. Caleb’s nephew Othniel takes the challenge and wins Achsah. (She’s Othniel’s first cousin, but let’s not fret about that.) Achsah tells her dad, Caleb, that since he has made her a gift, he has to give her a gift in return. She asks for Gulloth (a region, I guess), and he gives it to her. Her moxie is delightful: She’s a woman who knows what’s she’s worth and knows how to cash in at the moment her market value is at its absolute peak (like Google stock, right … wait a minute … now).
But the news is not so good for the other Israelites. Without Joshua, they have no master strategist. They’re not unified anymore, but split into squabbling tribes. They’ve defeated only their weakest enemies, and now they’re up against tribes that can really fight. The tribe of Judah manages to conquer the hill country but cedes the lowlands to the iron-chariot-armed tribes of the plain. The Benjaminites can’t manage to overcome Jerusalem, so they have to live side by side with the Jebusites. Manasseh similarly has to live with the Canaanites. Asher can’t conquer Sidon or Acco. The Danites get routed into the hills. It’s a sorry story.
Very rapidly, the orderly society established by the end of Joshua dissolves into Hobbesian chaos and idol-worship. An angel visits to denounce the Israelites for making peace deals with the enemy. Such covenants violate God’s direct orders and make the Israelites too susceptible to paganism. Because the Israelites are so disobedient, the angel says, the Lord is withdrawing his endorsement and will no longer help them fight against the Canaanites and Amorites. They’re on their own.
But the Lord will occasionally deliver a fighting judge. Baal-worshiping Israelites fall under the thumb of King—check out this name—Cushanrishathaim. But Othniel—same Othniel as in Chapter 1—arises to defeat King C. and usher in 40 years of peace. Then, King Eglon of Moab smashes the Israelites. Time for another Judge. Left-handed Ehud hides a sword under his clothes while presenting tribute to Eglon and announces that he has a “secret message for you, O king.” The king agrees to see him alone. When they’re closeted together, Ehud says—and I love this line, which was written by a man with a wicked sense of humor, a biblical Tarantino—”I have a message from God for you.” Then he stabs the king in the belly. Ehud escapes and leads the Israelites to victory over the Moabites. As a lefty, I find this story utterly delightful! (Ehud, I should note, appears to be the only left-wing judge in Judges.)
The next Judge performs his magic in just two sentences. Shamgar redeems the Israelites by killing 600 Philistines with “an oxgoad.” What the heck is an oxgoad? And where can I get one?
At every Bar Mitzvah, the birthday boy reads two passages in Hebrew. One passage is taken from the Torah—aka the “Five Books of Moses,” Genesis-Deuteronomy—and one from the Haftorah, which is all the rest of the Jewish Bible—Judges, Prophets, etc. (I note, embarrassingly, that I was about 29 years old before I realized that it was “Haftorah” not “Halftorah.” I thought it was called “Half” to signify that it was less important than the Torah.) Anyway, as I wrote some weeks ago, my Bar Mitzvah Torah portion back in January 1983 was just about the best the Bible has to offer: the crossing of the Red Sea. I had forgotten until now that my Haftorah portion was also pretty glamorous: Chapter 4 of Judges, a story that has inspired assassins and nutjob serial killers for 3,000 years.
The nice thing about Chapter 4 is that it has not one but two heroines: Neither is a prostitute, and both are role models for their courage and their skillful manipulation of weak men. We begin the chapter, of course, with the Israelites groaning under the rule of an enemy tyrant, in this case Jabin and his general Sisera, whose 900 iron chariots were the M1 Abrams tanks of their day. But this doesn’t scare the Israelite prophetess Deborah, who persuades Barak to raise a 10,000-man army to confront Sisera. Fraidy-cat Barak won’t go fight unless Deborah accompanies him. At Deborah’s urging, Barak begins the battle at just the right moment and routs Sisera’s force.
Gen. Sisera flees, arriving at the tent of Heber the Kenite. (The Kenites, while kin to Moses, don’t seem to be Israelites. It’s complicated. Don’t ask me to explain it.) Heber’s wife Jael greets Sisera and offers him hospitality: “My lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.” Sucker that he is, Sisera accepts her invitation and enters the tent. He asks her for a sip of water. She gives him a drink of milk instead. (This is foreshadowing—the first recorded case of lactose intolerance.) Jael covers the exhausted general with a blanket and he falls asleep. Then she picks up a tent peg, softly walks over to him, and hammers it through his skull, “until it went down into the ground.” Barak comes by the tent in pursuit of Sisera, and Jael invites him in: “I will show you the man whom you are seeking.”
The Jael episode is a perfect short story, as heart-stopping as anything Poe ever wrote. First of all, let’s pause to admire how incredibly transgressive it is: Jael rips apart the essential law of hospitality that defines tribal and Middle Eastern societies. She opens her home to Sisera, nourishes him, and puts him to sleep in her tent—all so she can assassinate him in the most brutal way possible. But its literary greatness comes from elsewhere: its slow build, the quiet accretion of details that heightens the tension. There’s Jael’s mysterious, beckoning invitation—is it sexual? There’s that moment of rest and safety when Sisera enters the tent, a sigh of relief that turns out to be a trap. Then there is the story’s turn: He asks for water, and she serves milk. If it were a horror movie, this is when the piano would start plinking ominously in the high register. Why does she give him milk? Is she toying with him? It’s alarming and mysterious. We know it means she’s not exactly the subservient hostess she’s pretending to be; we know that something is wrong but we don’t know what. But this unease passes because she offers such a motherly good night, gently covering him with a blanket. All of these tiny elements make the assassination itself utterly shocking—a quiet, domestic moment suddenly transformed into a Freddy Kreuger gorefest. Let’s read the murderous sentence again and revel in its bloody genius:
“But Jael wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground—he was lying fast asleep from weariness—and he died.”
A hammer to the head—that’s exactly what this story is.
The story of Sisera is so nice they tell it twice. In Chapter 5, Deborah sings a song recapitulating the battlefield defeat of Sisera and the execution by Jael, “the most blessed of women.”
Chapter 6, Chapter 7, and Chapter 8
Midianite subjugation, again. So God calls a new judge. This time the Lord’s angel appears to lowly farmboy Gideon and announces, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” Demonstrating a refreshing skepticism (and clear-headedness), Gideon responds: “But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds?” Good questions, young man! The angel doesn’t really answer but instead tells Gideon to deliver the Israelites from the Midianites. Again, the skeptic pipes up: “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Mannasseh, and I am the least in my family.” The angel, getting impatient, tells him he will succeed. But Gideon refuses to act unless God supplies more proof. The angel ignites Gideon’s offering of meat and cakes, fiery evidence that finally persuades Gideon that he’s dealing with the divine.
Gideon becomes a hellacious warrior for God. He tears down the altars to Baal. He sounds his trumpet, summoning allies to join him (so that’s Gideon’s trumpet!). Before he leads the army into battle, he tests God again. (The test involves sheep wool, and morning dew, and is not worth explaining.) God passes the test, but Gideon still isn’t satisfied. He asks the Lord for yet more proof that He will aid Israel. Again, God performs. Finally Gideon believes. Gideon’s wry doubt seems distinctly modern. Not since Moses has anyone dared to toy with God as Gideon does, and even Moses didn’t have the brazenness of Gideon. He’s the very model of the skeptic—dubious, but rational: If I were a scientist, I might name a son Gideon.
Gideon amasses a 32,000-man army, but the Lord says he doesn’t need that many soldiers to defeat the Midianites. So, Gideon asks anyone who’s fearful to go home. That leaves him with 10,000 men. God, sounding more like pre-invasion Donald Rumsfeld every minute, tells Gideon he still has too many troops. The Lord, bizarrely, has Gideon bring all the men to the river to drink. Gideon sends home any soldier that picks up water with his hands. He keeps only the soldiers who lap up water with their tongues, like dogs. That leaves him with just 300 men.
But, this is the Bible, so 300 is plenty, even against the Midianite horde. That night, Gideon sneaks his men into the Midianite camp, where they all blow trumpets (or is that Gideon’s trumpet?) and shout, “For the Lord and for Gideon.” Then, they turn the Midianites into hamburger.
Gideon is one angry dude. A couple of villages—Israelite villages, no less—refuse to feed Gideon’s army because he hasn’t yet captured two Midianite kings. Gideon vows revenge. In due course he captures the kings—Gideon always gets his men—then schemes a sadistic reprisal. He captures a young man from Succoth, one of the villages that defied him, and interrogates him till he gives up the names of 77 village officials and elders. Gideon sweeps down to Succoth, seizes the 77, and has them trampled to death underneath thorns and briers. Good Lord!
I was about to say that this is the first time Israelites have slaughtered Israelites, but of course that’s not true. Remember the payback following Korah’s rebellion against Moses or the post-Golden Calf blood bath? Still, this is a particularly nasty retaliation—the execution method is fiendishly barbaric, while the selective extermination of the village elders is resonant of Soviet and Nazi tactics.
Gideon is not done shedding blood, oh no. He reveals to his two captive Midianite kings that they killed Gideon’s own brothers. (He then claims that he would have let the kings live had they not killed his brothers. This is preposterous. Can you name one captive king in the entire Bible who hasn’t been executed?) Gideon orders his young son to stab the two kings to death. The boy, who clearly hasn’t inherited Dad’s mad skills, is too afraid, so Gideon cuts them down himself.
The Israelites beg Gideon to be their king, but he refuses, saying the Lord will rule them. This rejection of the crown is a terrible mistake. If there’s any lesson in Judges—besides a how-to for murder—it’s that the people need to be ruled. Israel keeps falling back into idolatry and captivity because it lacks a powerful central authority. The occasional martial hero (Gideon, Ehud, Othniel) can rout the enemy in the field, and create a brief respite between subjugations. But the good times don’t last, because there’s no central government to organize the army, secure borders, and enforce laws. Religions are always leery of government—fearing that governments claim powers that ought to belong to God—but Judges is brutal evidence that the lack of government is much worse than government. This Bible book is, in some sense, a vindication of the George W. Bush worldview. Activist “judges” are the problem. They’ve left the Promised Land a mess. What Israel needs is a strong executive.
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