Sunday, April 20, 2014

Judges

With Joshua, we enter the phase of heroic figures who “judge,” in the sense of living, encouraging or defending the virtue of justice. Biblically, this means the “righteousness” of the people of Israel when they obey divine ordinances, in particular our running theme, faithfulness.

Joshua is best known for the battle of Jericho. Archeologists have found the actual Jericho of the Bible and evidence of the city's destruction. The question that has been widely debated is when. The archeologist Kathleen Kenyon notably placed it about 100 years before the Hebrews' migration from Egypt, yet argued that this did not show the biblical narrative was “false.”

Yet the story of Joshua and most of the judges is not so much about particular battles as it is about the conflictive relationship between the Hebrews and the people already settled there.

Philistia or Palestine?

However, Joshua’s conquest story has a contemporary resonance that is often taken out of context.

Among the Canaanites were folks such as the people of the region eventually called Philistia, the Philistines, whence we get our terms Palestine and Palestinian. Although the biblical Hebrews were returning to land they claim as ancestral and divinely given to their first patriarch, the Canaanites saw them as invaders—much the way pre-1948 inhabitants of roughly the same territory, Palestinians, see modern-day Israelis.

However, there are many problems with attempting to draw modern geopolitical lessons from the biblical narrative.

Not the least of these is that Abraham, to whom the land is given by God, was almost certainly born in what today is Iraq. Also, Palestine and Palestinian are terms that do not apply to quite the same land or people as Philistia and Philistine. Thirdly, the descendants who might claim due inheritance would literally include the heirs of Abraham's first born, Ishmael, by the handmaiden Hagar; these people, called “Ishmaelites,” are today’s Arabs.

Luckily, the Bible is not about who is right or wrong in the modern wrangle between ethnic and religious cousins in the land called Israel or Palestine. Instead, the tales are the recalled collective memory of the troubled relationship—in the poetic wisdom books of the Bible it is called a courtship and a marriage—between the Abrahamic God and the people of Israel.

Epic Cycles

Besides Joshua, are 15 other judges appear in the Bible: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Barak, Gideon, Abimelech, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, Samson and Eli. Each of the judge narratives has a similar epic cycle.

The people of Israel start off in obedience to the Lord. They fall into disobedience and idolatry (to understand what is meant by this, consider our own modern idolatry of the dollar and its moral effects). This straying from God leads to the defeat and enslavement of Israel. Then the people cry out to the Lord for help. God calls a judge to bring about deliverance. Finally, Israel repents and returns to faithfulness to the Lord.

Note that there is a woman among the judges: Deborah, a prophetess, counselor, warrior and wife (of Lapidoth) in Judges 4 and 5. She leads a successful counterattack against the forces of Jabin, king of Canaan. The story ends with a triumphal song to Deborah well worth reading; think of a troubadour recounting a great tale of a recent heroine.

The sequence of judges ends with Samuel, which begins with the beautiful and prophetic-style story of his calling (1 Samuel 3). (I recommend that you read 1 Samuel chapters 1 and 2 as well. You see here a perfect example of portentous birth narratives, very useful to keep in mind for when we come to a certain baby born in Bethlehem.)

At the end of Samuel’s ministry, comes a crucial political transformation among the Hebrews concerning how they understand authority and earthly power. Up to Samuel, the people have relied on God to send leaders, lawgivers and rescuers; they were God's people, the Lord was their God and ruler.

Now they want to be more like their neighbors, as we shall see.

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