Sunday, February 13, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Judges

The Book of the Judges: An Integrated Reading

Judges is the book of the Old Testament that tells what happened to the Israelites after they got settled down in the promised land. It isn't pretty. I read Judges for the first time when I was 14, and I couldn't believe that this kind of horrible stuff was actually in the Bible.

While the book of Joshua was a catalog of victories, Judges is mostly a catalog of defeats for the Israelites. They keep going astray, and every time they stop obeying God they have trouble with enemies. In general, they just don't seem to do well without central leadership. Moses and Joshua are dead, so ideally the people would be able to rule themselves at this point, but they don't, so God appoints judges as decision makers and rallying points against the enemy forces. Israel grows strong and repents, then the judge dies and the Israelites fall off into idolatry and are defeated by their enemies again, then another judge rises and the cycle goes on.

Most of the judges have really awesome accomplishments to distinguish them. 1. Othniel, the first judge after Joshua's death, is Caleb the scout's nephew and he judges for 40 years. 2. Ehud is a left-handed Benjamite (watch the rest of the Bible--left-handedness seems to run in the tribe of Benjamin) who kills an obese Moabite king by stabbing an entire dagger into his stomach, hilt and all. 3. Deborah is a female judge who leads Israel as they fight against the Canaanites, and she chides a military commander for not being bold enough to fight without her. 4. Gideon's story takes up 3 chapters as he uses a force of 300 men to defeat thousands upon thousands of Midianites. So far, this sounds like the Israelites are stomping their opposition left and right, but the years between judges are nasty and filled with hunger and slavery.

Chapter 13 introduces Samson, the one character most people remember from Judges. Almost everyone knows that Samson was a superhumanly strong man who lost his strength when his girlfriend Delilah cut his hair, but the reason why a haircut damaged his strength isn't always clear. This is why: Samson was a Nazarite, a person set apart to God by a bunch of vows. God gave him strength and he showed his devotion to God by not drinking wine, not touching any dead things, and not cutting his hair. But apart from his feats of physical skill, the story of Samson is one long demonstration of how not to be a Nazarite. He touches a dead lion and actually eats some honey he finds in the lion's carcass--today, that just sounds filthy and disgusting, but was also active vow-breaking for Samson. He does a lot of major things for his people, but Samson's heart never seems too close to God and his end is a sad one.

Chapters 17 and 18 deal with idolatry and dispossession. The entire tribe of Dan steals idols from a guy named Micah, and he protests but then goes on his way when they threaten him. The whole episode is almost comical, because it shows how far everyone has fallen from any understanding of how to live and how to conduct themselves. Chapters 19 through 21 are downright sickening and contain gang rape, corpse mutilation, and partial genocide. I don't even want to discuss the specifics. The point of all the evil depicted in Judges is to show just how ugly things can get when people don't love God or love each other. The book ends on this verse: "In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes." And their idea of "right" happens to be horribly twisted.

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