Judges 11

I knew this chapter would have a lot to talk about because of Jephthah’s daughter, but wow there was even more in this than I’d thought.

First of all, the opening of this chapter contradicts the depiction of events at the end of the last one; there, the Ammonites had an eighteen-year long occupation (10:8), while here their attack is a very recent phenomenon (v 4).

But I’m used to that kind of contradiction. What becomes more interesting is the exchange between Jephthah and the King of Ammon. When Jephthah, newly appointed commander of the armies of Gilead, demands to know why Ammon is attacking Israel, the king replies, “Because Israel, on coming from Egypt, took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok and to the Jordan; now therefore restore it peaceably.” (v 13) Jephthah goes on to school the king in history, referencing the narratives in Numbers 20-21 about how they detoured around any nation that wouldn’t give them passage until meeting the Amorites head on. The land the Israelites are occupying in Gilead belonged to the Amorites, not the Ammonites, so they don’t have a right to it.

This sort of ignores how the land they were going to occupy was already, you know, occupied. If Canaanites came back demanding for their land, or Amorites, would Jephthah be willing to step aside? Or would he shift gears and say God gave it to them, so it’s theirs? Probably the latter, since he tells the king to be satisfied with the land that Chemosh gave him, and let Israelites have what YHWH gave them. But that’s interesting too, not just because Chemosh is actually the god of the Moabites while Molech is the god of the Ammonites (mistakes get made), but because in Deuteronomy 2:19 it was YHWH who gave everyone their own land. This indicates that Jephthah believed in multiple gods the way that later editors didn’t. He was a henotheist, not a monotheist.

And then there’s his final rebuttal to Ammon’s claim: “While Israel lived in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages, and in all the towns that are along the Arnon, for three hundred years, why did you not recover them within that time?” (v 26) I mean, seriously, who would lay claim to a land that they haven’t inhabited for centuries, violently driving out the people who lived there in the meantime?

….yeah, sorry for the black humor. What’s happening in Gaza right now is pretty bleak. I try to be sympathetic to Israel and the hostile environment they live in as a nation, but when you’re killing your enemies at a 25:1 ratio to what they kill you, including hundreds of civilians, it’s hard to stay an ally, at least to the people in charge.

What Jephthah is known more for, however, is his sacrifice of his daughter. He makes a vow to sacrifice “whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites” (v 31). The NOAB claims there’s some debate over whether the word should be translated as “whoever” or “whatever;” maybe Jephthah expected to run into some of his flocks first. The NCT leaves no question, using the kanji for mono that signifies a person. Ironically the Ammonite god Molech is the one most often accused of human sacrifice, and here Jephthah is the one doing it in the name of YHWH.

The Slacktivist made a good post a few years ago noting the difference between how Christians and Jews read this passage. Christians tend to read it as a warning against making rash vows that you won’t want to keep. Jewish thinkers, knowing their scriptures better than we do, point out the big flaw in this argument: Jephthah could have gotten out of his vow. The Torah makes provisions if you make a vow you later have to recant. You confess your wrong and make a sacrifice.

So writers of Jewish commentaries and midrashim could only conclude that Jephthah was an arrogant man who refused to admit he was wrong and followed through with his vow because he didn’t want to lose face. The moral there is a warning against being unwilling to admit your flaws. Follow the link through for more information.

Of course, as my NOAB notes, the fact that the spirit of the LORD was on him in the first place (v 29) guaranteed his victory already. His vow was completely unnecessary. It comes across as him showing off.

What to make of all this? I was wondering to myself whether the reason Gideon was a cautious cynic, might be a result of his brothers’ murders (the ones we don’t hear about until the end). I think Jephthah is a man with a chip on his shoulder. His mother was a prostitute, he was illegitimate, he was cast out and lived as a bandit for a while. He only agrees to come back to help in exchange not just for the command of their troops, but to be their chief (v 8-9). He feels he has to prove himself, to show up the people who unfairly rejected him because of his parentage. His humiliation has made his pride all the more important to him.

It’s his daughter who suffers for it, but that’s not how Jephthah sees it. “You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me,” he wails (v 35). Yes, in the next sentence he admits it’s because of what he said, but his first instinct is to blame her. And she willingly goes along with his vow to help him save face (v 36). There’s a reason Medieval trees of vices list “pride” as the root of all evil.

The Japanese: yoso “another place, strange parts” (v 2), narazumono “ruffian, hooligan” (v 3), shikikan “commander” (v 6), nokemono, “outcast, pariah” (v 7), ichimon ittou “answering question by question” (v 10), henkan suru “to return, to restore” (v 13), ukai suru “to detour, to circumvent,” okasu “to invade” (v 18), kunrin suru “to reign, to control” (v 19), shinogu,”to surpass, to excel,” senka “wartime fire, wartime destruction, the horror of war,” majieru “to cross swords” (v 25), futou “unreasonably, invalid,” shinbansha “judge” (v 27), tetteiteki “thorough, complete,” kuppuku suru “to surrender” (v 33), shikitari “custom, conventional practice” (v 39), itamu “to mourn, to lament” (v 40).

Judges 10

This much shorter chapter lists two minor judges named Tola and Jair whose tenures lasted several decades but were apparently uneventful enough that they only merit five verses together.

Then everything goes to pot again because, according to the redactors, the Israelites begin worshiping foreign gods again. God then “sells” them to the Ammonites, a people across the Jordan – and actually, it seems like most of the action here actually does take place among the Transjordan tribes, only occasionally crossing the river to harass their neighbors. So was this all of Israel going wrong or just those tribes?

It takes eighteen years, but the Israelites finally turn to God and ask for deliverance. They correctly diagnose that this is because of their religious infidelity. Rather than giving them points for recognizing the error right away, God snarks at them about how they can go ask their new gods for deliverance if they like them so much. Seriously, God’s lines drip sarcasm. It presents the image of God pouting, and it’s not that appealing. But the Israelites don’t relent in their pleas, and they throw away their other gods, and YHWH “could no longer bear to see Israel suffer. ” (v 16) And we’re right back in that cycle I wrote about months ago, where God has set up a system of punishment that even causes him unhappiness.

The chapter ends on a cliffhanger as the commanders of Gilead try to figure out who will lead them. The answer is Jephthah, who is an interesting fellow and the subject of the next two chapters.

The Japanese: uchinomesu “to beat down, to overwhelm” (v 8), shikakeru “to begin (a fight, an attack),” kugyou “penance, austerities” (v 9), onme ni kanau “to suit your view” (v 15), taeru “to bear, to withstand” (v 16).

Judges 9

If Gideon’s story could be a tentpole blockbuster, then Abimelech would be the darker, gritter sequel. He’s of Gideon’s many sons, apparently from a concubine from Shechem. While Gideon turned down the possibility of kingship and retired to his hometown, apparently giving up the position of judge-ship, his son seeks out the crown, murdering all of his siblings save the youngest, who lays a curse of vengeance on Abimelech. From then on, his control falters as he faces revolts and betrayal. Abilmelech puts each one of them down without mercy, until during one assault a nameless woman drops a millstone onto his head from a tower. Realizing he’s dying of a cracked skull, Abimelech begs a young soldier to kill him so that he doesn’t have to have the “indignity” of dying by the hand of a woman. But of course the writers report what really happened, because they hate Abimelech’s guts.

For a modern reader (or viewer, if this was really made into a movie) Abimelech’s actions are atrocious simply because they’re mass slaughter. But the Bible is full of mass slaughter, much of it given a divine stamp of approval by the editors. Abimelech’s sins come from how he commit unjustified fratricide and appoints himself king. This last part in particular is damning. The Hebrew Bible doesn’t like kings. It tolerates them only when it deems God to have appointed them. Not surprising, given how the book was compiled by priests and scribes – they consider themselves much more suitable candidates for running things.

Ultimately, Israel is ideally supposed to be a theocracy. God is the literal ruler, as mediated through the Torah. Secular leadership, when necessary, is held by temporary “judges,” not permanent kings. Gideon and all the other judges “judge” Israel, while Abimelech “rules.” Mind you, his kingdom seems to have been entirely located in the Shechem region and no further, but petty kings are often the worst.

I do kind of love that Abimelech is done in by a woman at the end. I know that in the narrative it’s supposed to be a particularly bad way to die because she was a woman, but any civilian doing it would work, really. He doesn’t get to die in battle, a woman just spots him from above and drops her mortar on his head. In the movie version, of course, she’d have to be a bigger character. Maybe her husband was one of the people killed in the raids mentioned in v 25. She’d spend most of the movie harrowed and on the run, finally taking refuge in Thebez, only to have the tower surrounded. Then, as things look desperate, she finally gets a chance to end it all; she takes out Abimelech, and the rest of his troops – only fighting because of him, out of fear or charisma – flee into the night.

Okay, fine, I’m not a screenwriter. It’s just that they’re making yet another version of Moses’ life this year, but still no Gideon? No Abimelech? There are other stories in the Bible, moveimakers, give them a try.

The Japanese: kotogotoku “all together,” miuchi “one’s family, members of the same organization,” katamuku “to be disposed to” (v 3), suumei “several people,” yatoiireru “to employ” (v 4), sue “youngest child” (v 5), omomuku “to proceed to” (v 6), homare “honor” (v 9), ichijiku “fig” (v 10), seitou “right, justifiable, proper,” guusu “to treat, to entertain,” tegara “achievement, meritorious deed” (v 16), ken’aku “threatening, perilous” (v 23), houfuku, “revenge, retribution” (v 24), haichi suru “to deploy” (v 25), moyoosu “to give (a dinner),” azakeru “to ridicule, to jeer at” (v 27), takusu “to entrust,” nentou “mind,” zoukyou suru “to increase, reinforce” (v 29), keshikakeru “to instigate, to spur on” (v 31), myouchou “tomorrow morning,” ashirau “to deal with” (v 33), keibetsu suru “to scorn, to disdain” (v 38), shiki suru “to command” (v 43), chikagou “underground shelter” (v 46), tomonau “to bring with,” ninau “to carry on one’s shoulders” (v 48), kengo “solid, strong,” tatekomoru “to barricade oneself in” (v 51), zugaikotsu “skull” (v 53).

Judges 8

I’ve noted in the past how the NCT tends to follow the Hebrew more closely than the NRSV, and there are two instances of that in this chapter.

The first is in verse 4, when the NRSV reads “Gideon came to the Jordan and crossed over, he and the three hundred who were with him, exhausted and famished,” which follows the Septuagint. The Japanese reads (translated) “Gideon came to the Jordan river, and together with the three hundred under him he crossed the river. They were exhausted, but they still pursued them.” This is an attempt to account for the fact that, in Hebrew, rather than “famished” the word is “pursuing.” Those two phrases don’t make much sense when united by an “and,” so the Japanese substitutes a “but.” I don’t know if this is a greater liberty than opting for an alternatively preserved version of the ancient text, but it reflects the NCT’s philosophy of trying to always go with the Masoretic text.

The second is in verse 16, as Gideon is getting revenge on two cities who didn’t send him support. The NRSV has “with the he trampled the people of Succoth,” with a note that this matched the earlier verse 7 and the Greek. The NCT, meanwhile, follows the Hebrew and uses “taught” instead of “trampled,” only they cheat slightly. They use the Japanese phrase omoishiraseru, which literally means “to make (someone) know one’s thoughts or feelings,” but has the same implication as the English phrase “to teach someone a lesson.” It means to get back at someone, to get revenge, make them feel what you felt. I don’t know if Hebrew has a similar idiom to its use of the word “teach” here, however, so again, the NCT may be taking some liberties to make the (possibly corrupted) text make sense.

Speaking of Gideon going around getting revenge on people, God doesn’t actually command him to do any of this. God is barely mentioned in this chapter. Their capture of Zebah and Zalmunna (pejorative names) is attributed to the Midianite army being off their guard, and the capture of the kings sends the army into panic. God certainly didn’t tell him to destroy Succoth and Penuel. When Gideon executes the kings, he doesn’t cite passages about God commanding them to wipe out other tribes or to even free them from the Israelites; he attributes his action to vengeance against the deaths of his (heretofore unmentioned) brothers.

I add this because, as with Moses, I like to see when characters go beyond what God commanded them. And my point is that, for all that Gideons International selected him as their mascot, he’s a deeply flawed “hero.” Yes, he turns down the offer of kingship (something his son has no problem with in the next chapter), but he also sets up an “ephod” in Ophrah to which the Israelites “prostitute themselves” (v 27). What the ephod was exactly isn’t clear. Elsewhere it’s the breastplate of the high priest, so maybe in the original version this wasn’t a big deal, this was just him setting up a new shrine to YHWH, and the later editors, who believed the only legitimate shrine was the Temple in Jerusalem, inserted a commentary to make it negative. But there’s also a possibility that, like Aaron before him, Gideon made an ephod as an object for them to worship as a representative of God rather than God himself.

Hmm, actually, that might make Gideon not a bad mascot at all for an organization that equates God with the Bible…

There’s also the issue of how inconsistently Gideon is referred to in the text. Is he Gideon or is Jerubbaal? Chapter 6 contained the account of how Jerubbaal is a nickname, but the way the rest of the text alternates back and forth between using either name sort of screams “we were merging two different versions of the same story here.” That might also account for why his brothers go unmentioned until this chapter.

Whatever his historical origins, Gideon is an interesting character, one with enough information and also enough gaps that I’m not sure why he hasn’t been adapted into a big blockbuster movie yet.

The Japanese: semeru “to criticize, to reproach, to accuse” (v 1), yawaragu “to calm down, to be mitigated” (v 3), uchinomesu “to know down, to beat so badly they cannot recover” (v 7), youkyuu suru “to demand” (v 8), haizanhei “remnants of a defeated army” (v 10), otoshiierru “to drop someone/something into” (v 12), jinmon suru “to interrogate” (v 14), azawarau “to sneer at, to ridicule” (v 15), omoishiraseru “to get even with, to get revenge on, to teach someone a lesson” (v 16), fuubou “looks, appearance” (v 18), mikadzukigata “crescent-shaped” (v 21), kakuji senrihin “each spoil of war” (v 24), tarekazari “pendant,” matou “to be clad in” (v 26), fukeru “to be absorbed in, to be lost in” (v 27), atama wo motageru “to raise one’s head, to rise in importance” (v 28), sobame “concubine” (v 31), mattou suru “to accomplish, to fulfill” (v 32), kouseki “achievements, meritorious deeds,” fusawashii “appropriate, suitable,” seii “sincerity, good faith” (v 35).

Judges 7

Okay, so if we’ve established that Gideon is a cautious, cynical guy who doesn’t like taking big leaps up faith without proof first, then I have to conclude that God is messing with him here. He gets 32,000 men from Manasseh, Asher, Zebulon, and Naphtali, which is obviously either an exaggerated number or a misunderstanding of “32 platoons,” and what is the first thing God does? He tells him to start whittling down the number of men. Basically God wants all the credit here, so he has to stack the odds against them so that it’s an obvious miracle.

(By the way, with only four tribes mentioned here, I wonder: are these stories not really a cycle but a collection of different heroic legends from different tribes that got put together in a false chronological order? It seems like a possibility to me.)

First God tells him to send anyone home who is “fearful and trembling,” which weeds out about two thirds of his men. Gideon is probably getting anxious at this point, but hey, ten thousand men is enough, right? God goes nope, and has him send them down to drink, and whoever gets down on their hands and knees to lap it up like dogs (does anyone really do that? was that a common thing three thousand years ago?) gets sent home. Why they go seems arbitrary, but maybe it has to do with battle-readiness? If you stay in a crouch, it’s easier to pick up your sword and run.

Anyway, Gideon is now left with only three hundred men, and he was probably about ready to lose it and run himself. God more or less acknowledges this, telling him ” if you fear to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah; and you shall hear what they say, and afterwards your hands shall be strengthened to attack the camp” (v 10-11). Gideon immediately runs down to camp, of course, and learns that one of the men had a dream, and another interpreted as a sign that Gideon would win in the upcoming battle.

Why does Gideon put immediate stock in this dream? Is it because he believes all dreams are sent by God? How can he know that the other Midianite’s interpretation is valid? But maybe that’s the point – it’s not that one Midianite had a dream, it’s that another would immediately assume they were in trouble. Gideon realizes he has a psychological advantage. The Midianites don’t know that he just sent home 99% of his troops. And so his scheme, which has them spread out, each holding a lantern and blowing a horn in the pitch darkness, makes them believe he still has a large army, and they go into a panic, killing each other as they try to flee.

One thing that’s weird here is that the Gideons International, the one that leaves all those Bibles in hotel rooms, uses a torch in a jar as a symbol for its organization. The only reason their website gives for the name is this incredibly vague history:

Much thought was given to what the name of the association should be, and after special prayer that God might lead them to select the proper name, Mr. Knights arose from his knees and said, “We shall be called Gideons.” He read the sixth and seventh chapters of Judges and showed the reason for adopting that name.

See? Not helpful. I get a kind of spiritual warfare vibe off of it – they’re a small army against a vast tide of evil, carrying beacons of light (the little Bibles they leave). But that doesn’t really work in the actual narrative, where the entire point is how Gideon is using torches as a form of intimidation, not a “light in the darkness,” and where God intentionally whittled their numbers down to make a point. It just… I don’t get it. It’s an odd choice for an organization’s name.

The Japanese: jin wo shiku “to encamp” (v 1), mizube “waterside, waterfront,” eriwakeru “to sort out, to sift through,” tsugeru “to tell, to inform, to signal” (v 4), hiza wo tsuku “to fall to one’s knees” (v 5), sukuu “to scoop,” susuru “to sip, to slurp,” kagamu “to stoop, to bend down, to crouch” (v 6), hikitomeru “to detain” (v 8), korogarikomu “to tumble into, to come live with, to fall in one’s lap” (v 13), kaishaku “interpretation” (v 15), mizugame “water jug,” taimatsu “pine torch, flambeau” (v 16), houi suru “to encircle” (v 18), kou “nighttime subdivision approx. 2 hours long,” hoshou “sentry” (v 19), sorou “to gather, to be present” (v 20), soudachi “standing up in unison” (v 21), doushiuchi “killing each other by mistake” (v 22), sakabune “sake cask/tun” (v 25).

I’d actually guess the meaning of kou since I know from reading period-piece manga that in the past Japan followed the Chinese pattern of having 12 “hours” in a day, corresponding to the 12 animals of the zodiac. The English is “the beginning of the middle watch,” but in Japanese it’s more like “the beginning of the hour of deepest night,” i.e. right around midnight.

Judges 6

Aaaaand I’m back.

Maybe it’s because this chapter is longer, but Gideon feels like an actual real character. Much of the earlier books in the Bible are so focused on their theological and theonomic messages that they don’t focus as much on individual characters. Dialogue and descriptions are limited. But here Gideon gets to talk, a lot, and mostly he talks back. People who say that you aren’t allowed to question God are apparently unfamiliar with Gideon. From the start, any time he’s told something by God’s messengers, he immediately and somewhat sarcastically questions it. God is with us? Couldn’t guess that from how we’ve been harassed by Midian for seven years. Go deliver Israel? I’m a nobody. I’ve found favor with God? Prove it! Even after he witnesses a miracle (fire plus the disappearance of the messenger), he still doubts whether God is telling him the truth. He may ask more humbly now, but he stills demands two separate signs from God.

And while we’re at it, he’s also not all that brave in this chapter. Yes, he destroys the altars to Baal and Asherah, but he does it at night, with servants, and lets his father defend him rather than standing up for himself.

So here’s an image of Gideon: cynical, cautious, self-protecting but self-doubting, a man who doesn’t want to move until he’s absolutely sure, but he’s never really absolutely sure. We get two more long chapters with him before moving on to the next Judge, so we’ll see how he develops.

The Japanese: kyoui “threat, menace,” sakeru “to avoid, to escape,” doukutsu “cave, cavern,” horaana “cave, cavern,” yousai “fortress” (v 2), jin wo shiku “to encamp, to take up a position,” kate “food” (v 4), hanahadashiku “excessively, widely,” otoroeru “to decline, to lose” (v 6), yokuatsusha “oppressor,” omomuku “to proceed, to go” (v 9), uyamau “to respect, to honor, to worship” (v 10), manukareru “to escape, to evade” (v 11), furikakaru “to happen, to befall” (v 13), hinjaku “poor, meager” (v 15), atakamo “as if it were, as though” (v 16), sonaemono “offering” (v 18), meshitsukai “servant” (v 27), semetateru “to reproach,” kabau “to protect, to shelter” (v 31), kessoku suru “to band together” (v 33), sumizumi “length and breadth of,” gouryuu suru “to join, to meet, to merge” (v 35).

Judges 5

The Song of Deborah is almost universally considered the oldest part of the Bible, though scholars disagree on just how old. It makes sense; verse and poetry are easier to memorize and transmit and last longer. It’s why the Rig Vedas managed to last as long they did. It’s also considered an independent tradition from chapter 4, since it differs on the number of tribes involved, mentions an otherwise unnamed city of Meroz that didn’t help Barak, and has a slightly different story version of Jael killing Sisera.

My NOAB notes that the NRSV’s translation of “fell at her feet” in verse 27 overlooks how euphemistic “feet” are in Hebrew. This version of the story, in other words, is a little more explicit in the sexual aspect of Jael managing to kill Sisera.

Another translation note is the NCT again follows the Hebrew more closely than the NRSV. In verses 13-14a, the NRSV has:

“Then down marched the remnant of the noble;
the people of the Lord marched down for him against the mighty.
 From Ephraim they set out into the valley,”

with footnotes that these are based on other translations, because the Hebrew here, being very old, is difficult to decipher. The NCT tries another route, deciphering the Hebrew like this:

“Then the remnant went down magnificently;
the people of the Lord bravely went down with me.
 From Ephraim, the people at the root of Amalek went down.”

What’s interesting is that in the NRSV translation, they march down “for him,” i.e. God, while in the Hebrew and the NCT they march “with me,” i.e. Deborah or Barak. I’m not sure why the NRSV goes with the Greek here, since both versions work. Or were the translators uncomfortable implying that Deborah herself may have gone into battle?

The song concludes on a sad note, imagining Sisera’s mother waiting for his return, trying to convince herself that he’s delayed because he’s gathering plunder. There’s a sort of smugness here, that the former plunderers are now dead. The text doesn’t seem that sympathetic, what with how it makes sure to note she has a lattice, and serving ladies. But I feel a bit of compassion for her. Even bad men love their mothers.

The Japanese: kami wo nobasu “to wear your hair long,” susunde “willingly, readily (v 2), idetatsu “to leave, to set out,” shitataru “to drop” (v 4), tokesaru “to melt away” (v 5), taishou “caravan,” wakimichi “side road, byway” (v 6), semaru “to threaten” (v 8), shiki suru “to lead” (v 9), kurige “chestnut (color),” shikimono “rug, carpet” (v 10), noseru “to send out” (v 11), furuu “to screw up one’s courage” (v 12), doudou to “magnificently” (v 13), sashizu “direction, order” (v 14), hohei “infantryman, foot solider,” shizoku “family branch,” ki suru “to expect, to anticipate” (v 15), kurabukuro “saddlebag,” kiwameru “to go to extremes, to thoroughly master” (v 16), yadoru “to inhabit” (v 17), itowanu “willing,” jindoru “to take up one’s position” (v 18), kuwawaru “to join, to participate,” kidou “orbit, path” (v 20), taiko “ancient” (v 21), hidzume “hoof,” shunme “swift horse” (v 22), kijin “nobleman,” fusawashii “suitable, appropriate,” gyounyuu “curds, curdled milk” (v 25), nigiru “to grip” (v 26), kagamikomu “to lean over” (v 27), koushi “lattice” (v 28), jokan “court lady” (v 29), senrihin “booty, pillage” (v 30), ikioi “momentum, force” (v 31).

It never fails that when the Bible gets poetic, I start having to look up a lot of words and phrases. The Psalms, whenever I get to them, are going to be a pain and a half to read through.

Judges 4

I have another writing project going on that’s been taking up a lot of my time. Until it’s completed, my updates may be a bit spotty. But not too much, hopefully, because Judges is actually fun to read.

This is a chapter with two major female characters who lead and defeat male characters. Deborah is the only female Judge, but not the only female prophet. She rules over the Israelites, and command Barak to go defeat Sisera’s army. Barak asks Deborah to go with him. Why? Does he feel that she’ll be a good luck charm, her divine mandate a help to him? Does Deborah have a reputation for military strategy as well as judgment and prophecy? Is Barak reluctant to go, and feels he can get out of it by demanding Deborah to go with him, assuming that as a woman she wouldn’t go into battle?

Regardless of the reason, Deborah pronounces that Barak won’t get credit for defeating Sisera, but rather a woman. Barak probably assumed she meant herself, but she means Jael, a foreign woman from the Kenites, descendents of Moses’ in-laws. Her husband welcomes Sisera into his tent, their peoples being allies. Then Jael murders him as he sleeps.

There’s no explanation given as to why Jael does this, nor does it say that her husband approves of it. In fact, her husband seems the perfect, gracious host, and by killing their guest Jael is violating a major taboo on the treatment of guests.

So of course I went and looked up some midrash on this, because those are always fun. There’s a word used in verse 18 that only appears once in the Bible, semikhah, and a lot of interpretation hinges on it – what did she cover him with? Add to this the idea that Sisera “entered her tent,” and a common interpretation is that she had sex with Sisera and that’s what left him worn out. She’s considered to have not sinned because she did it for a good reason, but I’d add to this that we don’t even know if she was willing. Maybe Sisera demanded her as part of his right as a guest, and perhaps that’s what prompted Jael to kill him, and her husband to not object.

I really don’t see how people can read this chapter and then turn around and tell women to not take leadership positions or to stay out of the military or what have you. Deborah’s depicted unambiguously as being in charge, and Jael gets all the credit for having defeated Sisera, a decision she made without consulting her husband. They are definitely not “submissive” women, and they’re treated as heroes.

The Japanese: oui ni tsuku “to take the throne” (v 2), ryou “counter for wheeled vehicles,” chikarazuku “force, with all one’s might,” osaetsukeru “to suppress” (v 3), douin suru “to mobilize” (v 6), eiyo “glory, honor, distinction,” tadachi “at once, right away” (v 9), haru “to pitch a tent” (v 11), yuukouteki “friendly, amicable” (v 17), oou “to cover with” (v 18), komekami “temple (of the head),” tsukarekitta “exhausted, worn-out,” shukusui suru “to sleep soundly” (v 21), kuppuku suru “to submit, to bow before” (v 23), assuru “to overwhelm” (v 24).

It’s worth noting the word for “prophet” uses different characters depending on whether it’s a regular prognosticator or one in the Bible. The difference is the yo in yogensha. The usual characters mean something like “one who speaks beforehand. The one used in the Bible would mean something like “one entrusted with words.” I’m not sure which is older or if this was a conscious choice by Japanese translators, but it’s an interesting variation.

Judges 3

The chapter continues the “it was all planned!” line of thought from the previous chapter, but now suddenly instead of “testing” their loyalty to God, these nations now exist so “that successive generations of Israelites might know war, to teach those who had no experience of it before” (v 2). So basically the Philistines, the Canaanites, the Sidonians, and the Hibites are like the mooks you take out on low-levels of video games, just there to help you get the XP you might need later. Lovely. Look, Deuteronomist, just admit that your “ideal” never happened and stop trying to justify why the Israelites weren’t the only people in Israel.

Three Judges are introduced in this chapter. The first is Othniel, who we met back in Joshua when he married Caleb’s daughter. I love the name of the king he defeats: Cushan-rishathaim. I know it’s horribly ethnocentric to say this, but that sounds like the kind of fake names fantasy RPGs come up with for their characters. The third Judge is Shamgar, who gets all of one verse noting that he killed six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad. Technically he’s not called a “Judge,” but it’s implied.

On the Philistines: while not everybody agrees, it’s generally believed by archeologists and Egyptologists that the Philistines and the Pelesets (mentioned in Egyptian texts) are the same thing. They, in turn, are linked to the Minoans, who came from Crete, called Caphtor in the Bible, where the Bible also says they initially came from. The Philistines haven’t appeared much in the Bible so far (not at all since Exodus), but they’re the Big Bad in a lot of upcoming stories.

The second Judge, Ehud, gets a much longer passage that actually details how he killed a Moabite king named Eglon. It involved him being left-handed, which made me think of how people in Japan think of left-handedness. Up until very recently, it was discouraged, and people were forced to write with their right hands, a practice which used to happen in America but ended like 50+ years ago. Some of my older students refused to believe that 10% of the population is naturally left-handed. One of the little boys in my class turned out to be left-handed, which explained why he would hold his utensils perfectly in his right but still eat with his left. Once we determined that, his parents bought him left-handed scissors and training chopsticks, and we started encouraging him to write and draw with his left. So things can change over time, even in a place as conservative as Japan.

What was I talking about? Oh, right, Ehud. Setting aside any moral questions about whether assassination is a good thing, a bad thing, or a bad thing that sometimes has to be done anyway, this is just a well-told story, with a large dab of toilet humor right in the middle. It was a fun read.

The Japanese: kokoromiru “to try, to attempt” (v 1; kind of sad that I forgot that), osaeru “to squash, to suppress, to contain” (v 10), heion “calm, tranquil” (v 11), obiyakasu “to threaten, to menace” (v 12), hidarikiki “left-handed person,” mitsugimono “tribute” (v 15), hawatari “length of a blade,” moroha “double-edged” (v 16), naimitsu “confidential,” juushin “chief retainer” (the kanji used here are irregular), seki wo hazusu “to withdraw from someone’s presence, to leave the room” (v 19), okujou “roof,” shitsuraeru “to place, to set up” (v 20), tsuka “hilt,” obutsu “dirt, filth” (v 22), rouka “corridor, hallway” (didn’t know the kanji for this one), jou “lock” (v 23), shukun “one’s lord” (v 25), temadoru “to delay, to linger” (v 26), shuchuu ni osameru “to gain control of” (v 28), takumashii “strong, tough, sturdy” (v 29), kuppuku suru “to submit, to yield” (v 30), ushioi “cattle droving” (v 31).

Judges 2

I had a bad doctor’s appointment yesterday, and wound up spending the night at my mom’s because I wanted someone to talk to. It was a stressful week in general, which is why I got so spotty with updating after such a long stretch of being really good about it.

This chapter is so contradictory it hurts. It begins in one place and winds up in the exact opposite. Layers of editorial content play a large part in this, I’m sure, and it all comes back to the conflicting threads of whether God is letting events run their natural course or whether he’s the Grand Puppetmaster controlling everything.

It begins with God reprimanding Israel for having left people remaining in the promised land. (This whole chapter uses the “drive out” terminology rather than killing, and the primary focus initially is on making alliances and keeping altars that were left behind. We’re at least beginning to be distanced from the herem slaughter of Joshua.) God warns them that he won’t protect them any longer, and that they will “become adversaries to you, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” (v 3) This is more the natural consequences side of things. You didn’t drive them out as told, so I won’t do it for you, and as a result there will be the constant danger of them rising in revolt (remember that most of the tribes are keeping them as slaves) or of you breaking your covenant with me because they keep practicing their religions.

But as it goes on, more and more of this is directly attributed to God. Rather than just lifting his veil of protection, he actively aids their enemies (v 17) because he’s mad at them. And finally, the last verses seem to imply that he let the nations remain their in the first place just to test them (v 21-23).

There’s an overtone of relationship drama involved here, particularly in verse 17, where it describes their turning to other deities as “lusting” after other gods. The NCT more explicitly says “longed for and committed adultery with” other gods. The metaphor of God being “married” to Israel is one that I know from reading the prophets pops up frequently in the Hebrew Bible. And if this were a real marriage, it would be seriously messed up.

First you have Israel, which, in spite of the nice things God did for them, cheats on him constantly. God, having a bad temper, throws them out or, worse, has other people hurt them (depends on which verses your reading). Then, when Israel feels bad, even before repenting, God regrets everything and takes them back (v 18). But then the whole cycle starts over again as Israel immediately cheats on him.

So we have the spouse who’s a serial adulterer, and the spouse who gets abusive when angry. In real life, we’d tell them to get a divorce, or at least some marriage counseling.

And I actually think that the writer is setting it up that way – the idea that this is a bad cycle that needs to be broken. The writer’s idea is likely that Israel needs to learn to remain faithful; God is only abusive when Israel cheats.

But there’s another way of seeing this, which is that God needs to change his strategy and figure out a way to keep Israel faithful to him. That also may be the writer’s intention. Going with the idea that Judges is partly Deuteronomistic, the long-term ineffectiveness of Judges might be pointing to for a need a main temple and priesthood to unite them… and perhaps a king? A top-down, centralized system to keep everyone in line?

Well, as a Christian, I believe God eventually came up with an even better strategy, but I don’t want to impose that on the text. Still, I think the underlying unhealthy codependency of God and Israel’s relationship is very definitely intentional, a set up for the overall themes of Deuteronomist history.

Of course, that assumes that God is “learning” rather than manipulating the whole thing from the beginning, the way the end of this chapter implies (and the beginning doesn’t). If you go to the Bible trying to get clear-cut answers on free will versus predestination, you won’t come away happy.

The Japanese: kawasu “to exchange,” haki suru “to breach, to nullify” (v 1), tonariawase “adjoining each other” (v 3), motoyori “from the beginning” (v 7), sedai “generation,” okoru “to rise, to flourish” (v 10), ryakudatsusha “looter, plunderer,” mama ni suru “to do as they like” (v 14), kukyou “predicament, plight” (v 15), koishitau “to miss, to yearn for” (v 17), appaku suru “to oppress,” hakugai suru “to persecute,” umeku “to groan” (v 18), daraku suru “to lapse, to go astray,” katakuna na “obstinate, stubborn,” tatsu “to break away” (v 19).

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