A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces

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This post continues a series adapted from my commentary on the book of Judges in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary series (Tyndale) working out the framework needed to interpret and apply stories of violence in the book of Judges, and indeed, the whole OT in our lives. It would be helpful to read the previous posts (category: “Book of Judges”) before coming to this one. I have eliminated all references to the scholarly literature in these blog posts, but they are, of course, very important since little that I say here is original with me. Consult the commentary itself for the specific citations and bibliography.


The previous posts have suggested we should hear in the book of Judges distinct “voices” that, together, convey the full meaning of the book. By analogy to sportscasters, I have suggested we have a “play by play announcer” who is the storyteller, who simply narrates and celebrates the action. A second voice is more of a “color commentator” who puts the action in the larger context of the game. This voice in Judges organizes and thematizes the wild, diverse narratives of Israel’s ancient heroes. Now we come to the third voice…

The third voice appears in an apparently disconnected set of passages in the book which scholars often dismiss as “miscellaneous additions” to the book, i.e. scribal supplements, worthwhile for the content, but not coordinated with any of the book’s main themes. They don’t fit smoothly into the framed deliverer story pattern, they hang out awkwardly at the end of the book, they crowd the beginning of the book with additional introductory matter.

Gibeah, scene of the horrible rape and murder of the concubine in Judges 19. Later the citadel of Saul, now the home of an unfinished palace.

Here’s the basic list: Judges 1:1-2:6 narrate of the uncoordinated efforts of individual tribes to gain control over their allotted territories. Chapters 17–18 depict a shrine for worshiping Yahweh, but which uses an idol! It then tells of the migration of the Danites, and their subsequent brutal slaughter of the inhabitants of Laish, who were not part of the

Standing stones at the gate of Dan remind the visitor of the town’s checkered religious and spiritual history, testified to by Judges 17-18.

Danites’ divinely assigned—and divinely limited—mission! The story culminates in the establishment of a sanctuary for Yahweh, again, with an odd collection of idols making the town of Dan kind of a “used god-lot.” Chapters 19–21 depict the brutal rape of a Levite’s concubine in the town of Gibeah in Benjamin, chosen by the traveller because it was Israelite, rather than Jerusalem, which was Jebusite. The crime triggers a war of tribal retribution. Most scholars see these last five chapters as “appendices” with no organic connection to the book’s “main body.” In addition, several other passages seem to interrupt the regular sequence of the framed hero stories and are taken by scholars to have been introduced into the text somewhat later, though the material itself is

Abmelech, Israel’s self-proclaimed usurper king, met his doom at the hand of a woman with serious millstone-chucking skills, who just happened to have one when she was fleeing Abimelech’s violence.

ancient and valuable. First, the Abimelech story (8:33–9:57) involves no deliverance from a foreign foe by a charismatic hero. Second, the so-called minor judge lists in 10:1-5 and 12:8-15 do not present spontaneously arising leaders, but a more orderly succession of tribal chieftains. Third, chapter 16 turns the rollicking story of Samson in 14-15 into a personal catastrophe.  Fourth, three passages (2:1-5; 6:7-10; 10:10-16) offer theological commentary that seems to diverge from both the frameworks and the narratives.  In addition to “spoiling” the symmetry of the anthology of hero stories, these “miscellaneous” tend to balance out the whole narrative. I agree that these passages likely were introduced into the book later, but not that they are uncoordinated interruptions. No, our third “voice” in the text could be compared, in theworld of sportscasting, to the “post game analyst.” Not one to retell the stories for all their drama, nor one simply to note the action’s place in the game, the post-game analyst relates the game to the who sport, the season, the current state of the sport, etc. A more analytical voice, and often a more critical one. In Judges, our post-game analyst speaks with the voice of the Monarchist, and his is a voice of nostalgic doubt. Far from being disorganized interruptions into the book, all these “extra” materials established the present flow of the book and reshaped yet again the heroic tradition. First, the addition of 1:1–2:5 provides the book with a new introduction. This passage starts with the death of Joshua and then lists the tribes from Judah in the south to Dan (ultimately) in the far north, and the order of presentation is from success through qualified success through substantial failure to abject failure, culminating in Yahweh’s word of judgment, essentially canceling the conquest (2:1-5). We become aware that the story is almost over before it starts.

Next, the Othniel story (3:7-11) is assembled from elements from all the stories, suggesting it was composed by to serve as a kind of scorecard, the Alpha-Judge, for assessing the rest of the heroes.

Such a comparison demonstrates a trend of decline, though each judge still has redeeming qualities and is used by God to help his people. First, the expression, “doing evil in Yahweh’s eyes” (e.g., 3:7) becomes steadily more detailed as the book progresses.

Students try drinking from the Spring of Harod, where Gideon sifted his army by how they drank. I don’t know if this guy wants in or out!

Second, the oppressions become more severe, as witnessed either in more detailed descriptions (Deborah, Gideon) or in historical severity (Philistines). Third, Israel’s outcry becomes problematic. In the Othniel and Ehud stories, the outcry of Israel immediately brings the reader to the appearance of a savior. With Gideon, however, the outcry leads not to the rise of a savior, but to a lacerating prophetic rebuke. Turning to the Jephthah story, Israel’s outcry leads to Yahweh’s refusal to deliver them and his referral of them to the gods they had chosen. In the Samson story, we find no outcry at all: Israel falls silent before its offended Lord. Fourth, the hero stories grow in biographical complexity through the book. Little is said of Ehud or Deborah, but with Gideon a call narrative and a series of preparatory episodes precede the deliverance story. The Jephthah narrative features a biography of Jephthah and a report not of his divine election, but rather a hard-nosed negotiation with his tribesmen. With Samson we encounter a full cradle-to-grave biography. This increasing biographical complexity runs apace with the decline through the series of heroes, generating a pervasive critique of the underlying individualism of the heroic tradition. The more we hear, the less we like. More disturbingly, the Spirit of Yahweh becomes more prominent toward the end of the series, suggesting reservations about this particular manifestation of divine power. Fifth, the outcome of the heroes’ activityis less obviously positive. The text notes that (lit.,) “the land had rest” after Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, and Gideon (3:11, 30; 5:31; 8:28). But with Jephthah and Samson a change appears: the text only reports “[he] judged . . .” (12:7; 16:31). Taking the Othniel account as the standard, the absence of the land’s resting constitutes a negative judgment on Jephthah and Samson. In addition, the chronological material reinforces this impression.

From Beth Shemesh, it’s possible to see almost every important point in the Samson story. I’ve enjoyed the chance to teach on Samson standing at the top of Tel Beth Shemesh. Goose bumps (at least for me!)

Othniel nets Israel 40 years of rest. Ehud’s murder of Eglon is followed by 80 years of rest, and the narrator almost neglects to state that Ehud died—an important point since the death of the hero is supposed to trigger a fresh outbreak of evil. The Deborah and Gideon narrative likewise note 40 years. In all these cases, the time of rest is at least a multiple of the years of oppression. Jephthah’s career of six years is but a third of the length of the time of oppression, and Samson’s 20 years of “judging” do not end the Philistine oppression, since Samson will only “begin” to save Israel (13:5). The chronological material clearly reinforces the sense of deterioration as one moves through the series of heroes. The effect of these literary moves is to segment the hero stories into three downward steps: “Triumphant” Leaders (Ehud and Deborah), Transitional Leaders (Gideon and Abimelech), and Tragic Leaders (Jephthah and Samson). The latter two are also linked in that the destiny of each is shaped by a vow, one tragically kept, the other tragically ignored.

The sense of decline is confirmed also by comparing the end of the dual introduction, 3:5-6, with the end of the series of heroes. Judges 3:5-6 states that as a result of Israel’s apostasy and decline, they intermarried with non-Israelites and served their gods. This is precisely what the reader encounters in the story of Samson, who lived for his liaisons with non-Israelite women and who died in a pagan festival. Samson is Israel, and Israel is Samson.

—To Be Continued



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