It would be better not to read the book of Judges than to read it without reading a big chunk of the rest of the Bible too. Read by itself, it is not edifying.
Judges begins with Judah and his brother Simeon cutting off the thumbs and big toes of the defeated Adoni-bezek, just as he had previously done to many he had vanquished. Adoni-bezek agreed that he had it coming. “God has paid me back,” he conceded as they took him to Jerusalem where he died. It ends with men of the tribe of Benjamin, who did not have enough women to go around, abducting as many young ones as they wanted while their victims danced at a yearly religious festival near Shiloh.
In between, this Biblical book tells us about a number of ethically challenged judges. These include Othneil, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Abimelech, Tola, Lair, Jephthtah, Izban, Elon, Abdon and, of course Samson!
Everyone knows about Samson and many have heard about Deborah. We shouldn’t forget Ehud. He plunged the whole of his sword into the very fat belly of Eglon, the King of Moab, who had just stood up from defecating in his cool rooftop chamber. “The dirt came out.”
Jael, the wife of Heber the Kennite, who apparently did not object to all of her extra-curricular activities, must have been a woman of irresistible charm and cunning. She lured Sisera, an enemy warrior who was running on foot from the carnage of defeat, into her tent. She covered him with a rug, gave him some milk to drink and, while he was sleeping, hammered a peg through his head until it “went down into the ground.” The text says that “he died.”
Gideon was heroic but not always. At the outset he quivers with self-doubt and immature faith. He couldn’t move forward until the heavenly messenger had ignited a rock with the tip of his staff and caused there to be a wet fleece on dry ground and a dry fleece on wet ground. But then, with much faith and few men, he became the “mighty warrior” who completely crushed the much stronger plundering and looting Midianites. When the people wanted to make him king, he firmly declared that neither he nor any of his seventy sons from his numerous wives would become their ruler. “The Lord will rule over you.”
Yet Gideon seems not to have been above profiting from his military victories. He made an ephod, an artifact of some sort, out of gold earrings and other precious things that his men had ripped off the dead soldiers and dead animals after their successful battles The text says that, after he set up the ephod in his home town of Ophrah, “all Israel prostituted themselves to it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family.” My best guess is that he charged people for seeing, or even touching, the ephod he had made out of the very things that the hated but defeated Midianites once possessed. It was easy money but it was addicting.
Abimelech, the son of Gideon’s concubine in Schechem, did try to become the ruler by subterfuge and force. Twice he attempted to incinerate people who were hiding in towers from his attacks. He succeeded in burning alive quite a few of them the first time but not the second. On his second attempt, a woman threw an upper millstone at him and crushed his skull. Horrified by the thought that many would know that a woman had killed him, he commanded his young assistant to kill him with a sword first. “So, the young man thrust him through and through, and he died.”
Which part of the story about the Levite and his concubine is most offensive? Is it that her father allowed him to take her away for sex and other things? Is it that, after she had been at home for four months because she was angry at the Levite, her father feasted with him for several days before allowing him to take her away again? Is it that the men of a village where they stayed overnight on their way home demanded to gang rape him? Is it that their elderly host threw both her and his own virgin daughter into the street for them to savage all night long instead? Is it that the next morning the Levite found her dead just outside the door with her lifeless arm stretched toward it? Is it that he draped her torn and bloody body over his donkey’s back and hauled her all the way home like any other cargo? Is it that when the Levite got home he carved her body into twelve pieces and dispersed them throughout the land? Is it that this caused a civil war and many died? You choose!
Yet, despite its repulsiveness, we are fortunate that the book of Judges is a part of Scripture. The stories it tells are among the early chapters in a very long book. These stories, which continue right down to our time, tell us where we as a people have been. They help us see the directions in which God has been leading. This, in turn, helps us to plot the directions in which God is leading us now.
To be a person of faith is not to do in our time what even the best people in Biblical times did in theirs. It is to discern the direction God was leading them and to press even further in the same directions today. We should never go against the Bible as a whole but we should always go beyond it as far as we can in the same direction.
If when reading the book of Judges we focus not on how faithless the people were but how faithful God was, everything changes. Again and again, when the people repented of their evil ways, God forgave them and provided the resources and leaders they needed to make a fresh start. Again and again, God proved to be longsuffering, slow to anger and unwilling that any should perish. Again and again God’s steadfast love endured forever. Again and again we see it was not their faith in God but God’s faithfulness to them that saved and healed.
There are many “great controversies.” The most important of them is about the goodness of God in light of all the painful things we experience and observe. It is about theodicy. Read with a focus on God rather than its people the book of Judges makes a positive contribution; nevertheless, it still is best not to read it apart from the rest of the Bible.
Dr. David Larson is Professor of Ethical Studies at Loma Linda University.
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