The End of the Gunfighter

The End of the Gunfighter

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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. If you haven’t read the first post, Too Much Fun to Be in the Bible and the second, Cold as the Winter Sun, it would be helpful to read them before this one. I have eliminated references to the scholarly literature in these blog posts, but they are, of course, very important. Consult the commentary itself for the specific citations, of which there are many!


Alongside and sprinkled amidst the hero stories in Judges, discerning readers have noticed a second kind of material, another “voice” that speaks: a set of introductory and concluding formulas employing expressions and ideas also found in 2:11-23. These prologues and epilogues create a framework for the narratives in which the crisis of the story is the result of God’s “selling” or “giving” Israel over to an enemy because “the Israelites did what was evil in Yahweh’s eyes.” The oppression drives Israel to “cry out to Yahweh,” who then prompts a leader to arise and defeat the enemy. At the end of the story, the epilogues indicate the defeat of the enemy, the duration of the hero’s career, and the hero’s death in most cases.

Together with the conceptual introduction in 2:6–3:6 the frameworks summarized the entire era depicted in the hero-stories. Interpreters generally agree that a compiler gathered these diverse hero stories, 2:6-3:6 (all or parts), and created the prologues and epilogues to mesh the stories with the conception of the introduction. As a result, the hero stories functioned like slides in a slide show, the introduction and framework like the narration over the slides. Scholars almost universally characterize this voice as derived from and imitative of Deuteronomy. Ironically, analysis normally stops there without probing farther into the moral and theological dialectic sparking between the hero stories and this framework. We need to do that. What is the texture, the horizon, of this second “voice?”

From “The Cartoon History of the Universe”

The voice of the frameworks is the voice of a Moralist. “Heroic Ages” typically occur in liminal periods when one social model has collapsed and another is emerging, such as actually happened in the era of the judges (Iron I, 1200-1000 B.C.) and which we see depicted precisely in the book of Judges. The heroic individual cannot “work and play well with others,” and societies must decide what to do with their triumphant warriors, the value system they embody and the enormously—and embarrassingly—popular stories of their exploits. And yet, notwithstanding their restless, decentering energy, can a society simply dispose of its heroes? Can a society long endure without inspiring models of courage and valor? Judges laments the rise of a generation of Israelites who did not know war, and as a result, did not know how Yahweh could act on their behalf (2:10; 3:1-2).

So the voice of the mere storyteller, the voice of remembrance and celebration, could not speak definitively for Israel, but evidently Israel felt the need to preserve the memory of these persons and their achievements. They would not simply jettison these stories. The second voice in Judges speaks for a higher level of social organization, a morally reflective writer who appreciates the dynamism of the heroes but hopes to channel and direct the impact of the stories celebrating them to serve the needs of a different kind of society.

This voice is easily spotted by a hand-full of well-known features. First, the “moralist” voice identifies an underlying regularity in an otherwise diverse, even motley assemblage of leaders. The unruliness of the individual is subordinated to a pattern, an “office.” Second, this voice speaks with a theological inflection, grounding Israel’s need for the heroes in their abandonment of Yahweh, the only source of their security. Third, and perhaps at times, most distant from the stories themselves,  the moralist voice expects the heroes to exercise a religious influence. The description in 2:16-19 is ambivalent since several of the leaders in Judges exercised poor religious leadership or none at all. Fourth, their chronological notices serialize the hero stories, placing events that likely transpired contemporaneously into a linear series. The effect here is to dole out the heroes one at a time, one per generation, rather than characterize the era as one dominated by randomly appearing berserkers or Nazirite wild-men.

But has familiarity bred blindness? This “voice” in Judges has been buried under convention and easy cliché, most notably, that the book presents an unaltering, cyclical pattern, and secondly, that the book is consistently derivative from, and imitative of, Deuteronomy (i.e. deuteronomistic). Both are actually imprecise to the point of being mistaken. Contrary to most interpretations, Judges does not present the reader with an unaltering “cycle” or pattern. First of all, elements appear in the stories that do not appear in the introduction, and vice versa. Thus, the introduction tells us that Yahweh “raised up” deliverers, but only Othniel and Ehud are explicitly said to be “raised up” by Yahweh. Other means of manifestation appear for subsequent judges, raising the intriguing question of how directly they express the saving action of God. Likewise, the semantics of the verb za‘aq  (to cry out) orient more toward an intense, emotion-laden cry of anguish or even accusation, but with no inherent connotations of repentance. The pattern in Judges (if there is one) is not “sin-punishment/ repentance-deliverance” but simply punishment followed by mercy. Yahweh, it seems, delivers his people out of his compassion and grace, to show his power and to claim Israel’s allegiance. Only in 10:6-16 does the outcry

From “The Cartoon History of the Universe”

find expression in confession and remorse, and that passage is fraught with conflict and ambivalence. The omission of the outcry from the programmatic introduction of 2:6–3:6 and from the Samson story reinforces the fact that Yahweh’s action derives not from Israel’s meeting some condition (repentance), but from Yahweh’s simple compassion for them. Additionally, the Spirit of Yahweh—and, less frequently, the angel of Yahweh—plays a role in the stories that has no place in the introduction or the frameworks, and ironically, the Spirit plays no role in the Ehud story or the Deborah story, the two judges with the most unreserved praise from the author. By contrast, the Spirit’s involvement with Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson raises more questions than it answers. So we do not have a pattern that is mechanically repeated but rather a collection of features and formulas that are deployed variously to direct our attention to other factors in the stories.

Another common axiom among interpreters is that that our “moralist” color-commentator was an adherent of what is called “the deuteronomistic school,” a hypothetical group of thinkers and writers in ancient Israel who wrote history as an illustration and vindication of the theology of Deuteronomy. The Judges writer is simply assumed to be a “deuteronomist” with all the baggage that goes with that identification. But serious problems attend this identification. We don’t find the classic markers of Deuteronomistic theology. We find no urge toward the centralization of worship at a single sanctuary as the result of the land “resting,” a central theme of Deuteronomistic theology. My friend and colleague Sandra Richter has documented a Deuteronomic distinctive in which Yahweh, like a conqueror of old, sets up his memorial “name” in the form of a monument erected in a specific, elect place within the conquered territory. This theme is notably absent from Judges, which expresses little interest at all in any theologically laden emphasis on Yahweh’s name. Nor do we find in Judges much concern for the “book of the Law,” a crucial theme in Deuteronomy. Similarly, the term “covenant” appears only seven times in Judges. Three appear in proper names (8:33; 9:4, 46), once the “Ark of the Covenant” is mentioned (20:27), and once covenants with non- Israelites are noted (2:2). Only twice (2:1, 20) does the word appear denoting Yahweh’s bond with Israel, and these are not distinctively Deuteronomistic uses unless one restricts all religious covenantal language to Deuteronomistic rhetoric. And Judges displays no sustained interest in prophecy on the model of Deuteronomy. An unknown prophet speaks in 6:7-10, and Deborah is said simply to be a prophet, but otherwise we miss the prophetism described in Deuteronomy and so evident in Samuel—Kings. Furthermore, Deuteronomy strongly identifies Levites with priests and limits presiding over sacred functions to Levites-Priests. While Judges 17:13 reports an assumed advantage in having a Levite as a priest, Judges as a whole shows little interest in the exclusive legitimacy of the Levite in priestly service, and chapters 19–21 feature a Levite without implying any ritual or liturgical functions for him other than reference to a “house of Yahweh” which is his destination, and this reference is texually uncertain. Again, we find no talk of that supremely distinctive demand of Deuteronomy and its derivatives, to “love” Yahweh. Lastly, while 18:30 possibly hints at the destruction of the north in 721 BC or even the earlier Assyrian depredations of 732, we find no sign in Judges of the Babylonian exile, the body blow to Hebrew faith around which Deuteronomy-derived theological “schools” are thought to have crystallized. Alien to Deuteronomy, but prominent in Judges, is the role of possession by the Spirit of Yahweh. Deuteronomy has all the appearances of a constitutional document. It envisions an ordered community in which leaders occupy “offices” as extensions of the authority of Moses and signs of the moral government of Yahweh. One would expect that if the author of Judges sought to match the narrative to Deuteronomy, some connection between the heroes and Deuteronomy would appear. But nothing in Deuteronomy prepares the reader for the charismatic heroes of Judges.

That said, some features of Judges do prompt an over-the-shoulder look at Deuteronomy.

From “The Cartoon History of the Universe”

The notion of moral causality found in the frameworks is not exclusive Deuteronomic property, but it is certainly comfortably so. Again, the militant hostility of Deuteronomy toward non-Israelite culture and religion is clearly expressed in the frameworks and introduction. In contrast to Judges, however, Deuteronomy envisions Israel not as one nation of twelve tribes, but more as one large tribe. All Israelites are “kinsmen,” and Deuteronomy ignores the tribal divisions except for its provisions concerning the Levites and the blessing of Moses. Here, we note that one of the primary emphases of the moralist voice in Judges is its desire to recontextualize the local heroes so that each now serves the whole nation for a generation. Lastly, both Deuteronomy and Judges have a programmatic concern for leadership. Again, this theme is not the private property of Deuteronomy.

So what may we say about this color-commentator “voice,” this voice-over accompanying the slides of the mighty heroes of Israel’s past, the writer responsible for the most distinctive features of the book of Judges? His seems to be the voice of a more highly developed clan or tribal order, perhaps as would be found in a “complex chiefdom” though not speaking on behalf of an established State. Somewhat like the conquest or ḥerem traditions in Joshua, the heroic tradition was becoming an “unusable” past that had to somehow be transposed into another key in order to serve an audience looking for more in leadership than episodic ecstatics. He is like a director seeking to remake a classic 1950’s western, with its celebration of courage, initiative, daring-do and individual heroism, but who must do so aware of a greatly changed sensibility about the American West and its characters. He can’t make Stagecoach or Red River, but he can make The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, putting the old-west gunfighter and the emerging State senator into a narrative that asks what the truth really is, and leave us wondering even as we find it. This is the task of the “moralist” voice. The hero is acknowledged, even celebrated, but within boundaries. The wild, spontaneous energies of the heroic are channeled into the values of a newly emerging, and for the moment, uncertain, insecure religious and social order.


2 Responses

  1. I’m not sure this message will be read, as it has been 2 years since the last post. Nevertheless, I have recently begun studying the books of Kings and Chronicles. The most relevant message for me in these books is how it pertains to the purpose of the Messiah Himself. Yahshua sent his 12 apostles (Matt 10:1-5) to the Lost Sheep of the House of Israel. Peter wrote to the “Pilgrims of the Dispersion”, and he identified their location, above Assyria who captured them. James wrote “to the 12 tribes, scattered abroad”, so he must have written to the same people as Peter … as well as the House of Judah still in Babylon. John, in Revelation, wrote to the 7 assemblies – again the same people, though farther west than Peter. Paul wrote and WENT to them as well as to cities in Greece, understanding that “Israel was blinded in part … until the ‘fulness of the Gentiles’ has come in” (“Malo haGoyim” in Hebrew, found in Genesis 48:19 in the words, “Multitude of Nations”. Paul was referring to the House of Israel (‘Joseph’ & ‘Ephraim’) returning to Yahweh and to the House of Judah. Kings and Chronicles describe the tearing apart of the whole house of Israel; and the Prophets during those days spoke of the “Stick of Judah and the Stick of Israel in the hand of Ephraim” being “One in the hand of Yahweh” some day. Yahshua set in motion the restoration of the Whole House of Israel, and when He returns, He will gather those who follow Him AND keep the commandments of His Father and Elohim, Almighty Yahweh. I was used to reading the Prophets in light of the New Testament; however, reading them in the context of the historical division of Israel, a civil war, provided me assurity that the prophecies concerning the restoration of Israel have not yet been fulfilled, and the theology of Dispensationalism (Replacement, etc.), is in fact a vain attempt at prejudice against the House of Judah. The battle continues, but peace belongs to those who understand and seek to reconcile the People of the Book with the People of the Messiah.

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