The Bible in and as History: Judges

Judges is the shortest of the cannon books I have read so far, though soon to be supplanted by Ruth.  It’s relative brevity belies what is the most rapid transition of events we’ve experienced since Genesis.  While the previous books have chronicled Moses’ rise to power, and his successor, Judges is a succession of tales of various Israeli ‘Judges’, agents of the divine will who lead Israel on the short and narrow.

Before I get to specifics I did want to talk for a moment about Historiography, that is the study of history itself, or perhaps more poetically, the History of History.  People have recorded events, tales, stories and events for almost as long as there has been writing.  Even the mundane, tabulations of harvests or tax records, provide historical data for future Historians.  One of the key things of interest in Historiography, and to me personally, is the way in which history has been interpreted and the purposes to which history has been put.  That question ‘What is History for’ has changed over time, but I think it’s underlaying theme has remained relatively constant; to inform people of who they are by relation to why they have been.  

In historical scholarship it is critical to consider some-ones Bias, which is always present.  Each person exists within a historical context that informs the way they interpret everything.  We can try to modify, overcome or reduce our Bias, but it is always present.  There is no ‘unbiased’ opinion.  The very term is oxymoronic.  This doesn’t mean we can’t get as some sort of historical truth, but it is a warning to be cautious in how we examine others claims and in the claims we make.

I bring this up because Judges has a very obvious ‘intent’ in it’s relaying of history.  It’s the same ‘intent’ I’ve touched on several times in previous books, but it’s very naked in Judges.  We are treated to a historical patterns in the narrative; The people of Israel abandon Yahweh and worship gods ‘foreign to their fathers’.  They suffer under the domination of others because of it.  A moral, upright judge appears, leads people onto the straight and narrow and back to the worship of Yahweh and all is well again.  Until the people begin to degenerate again.  This repetition is obviously to demonstrate the historical lesson; That adherence to God, the Priesthood, and the Law brings prosperity and security, deviance brings destruction and enslavement.  As with the last several books archeological and textual evidence suggests Judges was redacted, or formalized during the Babylonian Captivity, and as a work formulated most likely by a priesthood in fear of losing their authority to foreign religious powers it makes a great deal of sense.  

The Stories in Judges are sometimes fanciful, sometimes mundane.  The most well known is probably that of Samson and Deliah, Samson one of the ‘Judges’ who is undefeatable in his conflicts with the Philistines until betrayed by the woman he loves.  Though betrayed here is a bit of a choice in words; She basically badgers him to tell her his one weakness and he lies to her several times basically mocking her for wanting to know until he relents and does tell her.  While the intent I’m sure is a warning against Foreign Women in general and perhaps ‘foreign’ wives in particular, the missive does seem to have a bit of a “Well why do you think she was so insistent to know?” element to it that made me thinking Samson a bit dim.  

A more disturbing tale is that of a Levite who goes to stay in a city.  In certain paralells to the tale of lot he is beseiged by a lustful mob, and surrenders his Concubine to it.  They ‘abuse’ her all night and after she manages to crawl back to the front of the house he cuts up her body and sends it to the twelve tribes.  Now I bring this particular story up here for a couple of reasons; One is clearly demonstrates a vast historical gulf in terms of moral understanding and principal between us and the writers of this passage.  There is suppose to be a moral message in this particular code, one we can recognize, but to us it comes across as a bit of bizarre, extremely bloody savagery.  It’s not the first, and I’m sure it will not be the last time this occurs while reading the bible, but it was of particular note to me for it’s gruesome and misogynistic nature.  That this would be included along with tales of Judges, Wars, conflicts between the various tribes of Israel and such is to have an example of the mindset of the people involved.  It suggests a time when sacrifice and blood are significant daily encounters and where moral value is assigned to people based on a rigid dynamic.  It suggests a rigid patriarchal structure in which women’s value is found within their social relationship with men.  It suggests a society equating moral value as with success and power and coming to terms to develope a nascant morality standing slightly aside those initial ideals.  

In any case Judges sets us up with a consolidation of Israel gains, though the Canaanites are still present as are countless other peoples.  

I think it’s historical significance is pretty apparent.  It does contain several well known stories, and moral messages that reflect in patriarchal thinking(Delilah practically being a watchword for a treacherous woman in much of classic english literature for example).  It’s reading has almost certainly altered over time, though it’s applicability in terms of accepting physical consequences for moral failings has a long historical basis, one that exists today in ‘Wealth Theology’ that justifies wealth on the basis of morality.  That is that the Wealthy are intrinsically more moral because of their wealth and vice-versa.  19th century social thinkers would echo some of these idea’s in juxtaposition to other theological idea’s regarding universal salvation and a debauch world.   


Next time:  A real short one, Ruth!


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