The Complete Book of Judges
As I wrote a few days ago, the central message of Judges is that the absence of a strong ruler produces barbarous anarchy. But this chapter's lesson? Kings aren't always so hotsy-totsy either. Abimelech, one of Gideon's 70 sons, decides he alone should rule his family, and persuades his mother's clan to fund his coup. Like some ancient gangbanger, he hires a militia of riffraff—"worthless and reckless fellows"—and massacres all his brothers but one. The people of Shechem—yes, the same star-crossed town as in the Dinah massacre—declare Abimelech king.
The lone surviving brother, Jotham, warns them not to let his fratricidal brother rule. Jotham's warning comes in the form of a lovely fable about how the trees chose a king. As far as I can remember, and please correct me if I'm wrong, Jotham's tale is the first parable in the Bible. Until now, the Good Book has been pretty literal-minded: When someone acts wrongly, God calls out his misbehavior, then smites him. When God has a law, he delivers the law, not a metaphor or story representing that law. Jotham's parable is a preview of what's to come with the prophets and Jesus.
I guess the Israelites found parables as hard to understand as we do today, because they ignore Jotham's caution. Abimelech remains king—probably the worst monarch ever born. His capital, Shechem, eventually turns against him, so he slaughters the soldiers who rebel against him, sows the land with salt, razes the city, and finally incinerates the 1,000 Shechemites who took refuge in the temple tower. But he gets his just deserts. As he besieges the next town, a woman drops a millstone on his head. Abimelech begs his servant to stab him to death: "Finish me off, that they may not say of me, 'A woman killed him!' " But of course, that's what we remember: that a woman killed him. There's a great finishing touch to this Abimelech saga: "When the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, everyone went home." Everyone went home—what a sublime, casual farewell to a horrifying story.
The chapter concludes, "Thus God repaid Abimelech for the evil he had done to his father by slaying his 70 brothers." This is revealing—and troubling—about Biblical morality. According to Judges, Abimelech's sin was against his (already dead) father, not against his murdered brothers or his Shechemite victims. (In other words, the one person who was actually unharmed by Abimelech is the only one the book notices.) Judges values the clan more than the man. Though he's dead, Gideon was harmed most because it's his line that was all but wiped out. The individual deaths matter much less than the genealogical eradication.
A couple more forgettable Judges, Tola and Jair. Jair has 30 sons who rode on 30 "burros" and owned 30 "boroughs"—a stilted English rendering of a Hebrew pun. For all its depravity, Judges is easily the funniest Bible book so far, full of potty humor (a la Ehud) and sharp wit.
The Israelites revert to idol worship (again). A furious Lord tells them: no more help. You've forsaken Me, so "I will not deliver you again." The Israelites apologize and tear down their idols. And God changes His mind, because He "could not bear" their suffering. His softening is the first reminder in a long time of the indulgent-father God who dominated early Genesis.
I probably said this before about another chapter, so maybe I've lost my credibility, but this is the worst Bible story so far. In fact, if you have children, you might want to skip it. Jephthah, the son of a prostitute (yes, another one), flees from his brutal brothers, becomes a highwayman and a crime boss (the first Jewish mobster—the original Bugsy Siegel!). But when the Ammonites invade Israel, the elders beg Jephthah to return home to repel the enemy. Jephthah agrees, on the condition that they make him their commander. Jephthah soon finds himself in a fascinating debate with the Ammonite king. The Ammonite demands the return of land conquered by the Israelites. Jephthah counters that the Israelites won the land fair and square in battle, have occupied it for 300 years, and have been ordered by the Lord Himself to keep it. Jephthah tells the king, "Do you not hold what Chemosh your God gives you to possess? So we will hold on to everything that the Lord our God has given us to possess."
And there, my friends, you have practically the entire history of Israel, of the Middle East, of planet Earth, in two short sentences. Your God says it's yours. Our God says it's ours. Meet you at 9 a.m. on the battlefield.
OK, here comes the bad part. Jephthah makes a vow to God—a foolish vow, a pointless vow, but a vow nonetheless—that if God helps him defeat the Ammonites, he will offer as a burnt offering whatever awaits at his door when he returns home from battle. The Israelites rout the enemy (of course), Jephthah returns home, and … you know how this ends. In a moment so ghastly it must have been ripped off by the Greek tragedians (and Hollywood):
When Jephthah arrived at his home in Mizpah, there was his daughter coming out to meet him, with timbrel and dance. She was an only child; he had no other son or daughter. On seeing her, he rent his clothes and said, "Alas daughter! You have brought me low; you have become my troubler! For I have uttered a vow to the Lord and I cannot retract."
It gets worse: The daughter agrees! With perfect filial piety and faith, she volunteers for sacrifice. In the most excruciating passage, she asks only that she be allowed to go off into the hills with her friends to mourn her virginity. "She and her companions went and bewailed her maidenhood upon the hills. After two months' time, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. She had never known a man."
Argh. It's clear that Judges' author recognizes the horror of the story, because the final verse of the chapter notes that Israelite maidens spend four days every year "chant[ing] dirges" for Jephthah's daughter. But make no mistake: Jephthah is heroic for honoring his commitment to God. He's practically the only man in Judges who does what he promises to do, who doesn't complain or doubt. His holy rigidity is glorious.
But this leaves us with a dreadful question: What kind of God is so inflexible that he demands child sacrifice rather than cancel a foolish oath? When Abraham brought Isaac to the mountain, God sent the ram and stopped the murder. This time, He sends no ram. He condemns the child to the pyre instead. God tested Abraham's fidelity, and then spared the innocent boy. In Judges, God tests Jephthah's fidelity, but lets the innocent girl die. Why? What's changed, my Lord? Remember, in Deuteronomy and Numbers, the greatest crime of the Israelites' enemies—and the key reason they must be driven from the Promised Land—is that they sacrifice their own children to their gods. Yet here God's greatest warrior does the same, and the Lord seems pleased.
I want to be finished with this accursed Jephthah, but his story continues for another chapter. The Ephraimites complain to Jephthah that he didn't include them in his army. This leads to a civil war between Jephthah's Gileadites and the Ephraimites. Bear with this next couple of sentences—they are all set up for a very curious Bible-dictionary moment. The Gileadites hold the Jordan River, and whenever anyone comes to cross, they ask them to say the word "shibboleth"—a Hebrew word whose meaning is uncertain, according to my translation. Ephraimites, for some unexplained reason, can't pronounce the "sh" in "shibboleth," and say "sibboleth" instead. "Thereupon [the Gileadites] would seize him and slay him." (More than 40,000 Ephraimites fall into this language trap and are killed, suggesting, perhaps, that they weren't the brightest of the 12 Tribes.) "Shibboleth" is a word I have seen many times without knowing its meaning: How satisfying to discover its exciting origin!
The story of Samson is coming up next, but before I get to it, I want to stop and dwell on the profound awfulness of Judges. I don't mean that it's boring to read: On the contrary, it's a pounding drama. But it's morally repellent—even worse than Joshua because it's much more gleefully graphic. In fact, it is so disturbing to read that you have to wonder what the point of it is. Why are we asked to churn through this blood-carnival of gore and immorality, of fratricide, infanticide, and regicide? Especially since God's redemptive love and mercy is mostly absent?
Perhaps the key difficulty is what I would call the Cheerleading Problem. Who are we supposed to root for? Judges is morally confusing. Are we supposed to rejoice that left-handed assassin Ehud has gutted fat King Eglon, or to spare a moment to mourn the degrading circumstances of Eglon's death? What to make of another ugly incident? When Deborah sings triumphantly of the death of Sisera, she also makes fun of Sisera's mother, waiting vainly for her son to return from war. Sure, Sisera's mom is the enemy, but isn't it grotesque to mock her suffering? And then there's Jephthah's daughter!
Have no fear, dear readers! Michael McKeever is here to help. Reader McKeever refers us to a book that offers a compelling explanation for Judges' moral ambiguity. The book is Before Abraham Was, by University of California, Berkeley, professors Arthur Quinn and Isaac Kikawada. Before Abraham Was argues that readers should be energized by the confusion of Judges, because the book's incomprehensible violence forces us to give it a morally complex reading. McKeever sent me this quote from Before Abraham Was:
God might well have been saving the sinful Israelites, but he was sending them exactly the kind of judges they deserved, judges who embodied the Hebrews' own weakness and perversity.
The Book of Judges, therefore, can be seen as a moral test for its readers. Those who are like the sinning Israelites will simply enjoy the story of Deborah as a victory of "us" over "them"—and will be indifferent to the truth or to the sentiments of common humanity, as long as this indifference is to "our" advantage. Those, in contrast, who do see the ironies, see the parallel between the mother of Sisera and the daughter of Jephthah, the treachery of Jael and that of Delilah, will find Judges an excruciating experience, a wrenching call to humility and repentance.
A "wrenching call to humility and repentance"! Not a Tarantino movie! (By the way, I haven't been able to confirm this quote, because I couldn't find a copy of the book quickly enough. I am sure astute readers will inform me if it's wrong.)
Tune in next time for … Samson and Delilah!
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.