Thursday, March 27, 2008

The holy women also, who trusted in God (Judges 4)

Chapter 4 presents us with a fair amount of repetition of issues I've already addressed. As I already said (and I guess I'll keep saying "I already said"), the book of Judges largely follows a repetitive pattern, perhaps illustrating humankind's tendency to fail to learn from history. Their previous leader dies, they turn back to sin, they reap the results and end up at the mercy of a foreign--well, non-Israelite--power.

The issue of iron chariots comes up again, and here it's labeled as an absurdity, but labeling it as such highlights something about this issue as a supposed contradiction in itself. Even supposing that it is true that God cannot handle it sometimes when iron chariots are involved, it's not really a contradiction. We're talking about warfare and attitudes towards what are state-of-the-art armaments of the day. Note that historically, hostilities between Japan and the USA ended quickly because the USA had nuclear weapons, but hostilities between the USA and the USSR stretched out for decades due to the same reason. Of course the difference was the fact that in the former case, they were actually deployed, and in the latter case, the power balance was much closer, but the point is that having powerful armaments has a great deal of effect on how a war plays out, but by no means determines the outcome. Here, I think we see a generation of people who, although they had turned away from God, turned back to Him with faith that even iron chariots could not stand up to them, if only God was on their side.

You know, a long time ago, I commented on the fact that the SAB's icons were (with the exception of "Good Stuff") always intended to make negative statements about the issues they were aimed at. If this is not true, then I wonder why verse 4 does not have the "Women" icon attached. Here in the book of Judges, we see for the first time in the Bible an instance of a woman holding a true position of power in Jewish society. Deborah is like Israel's Joan of Arc, but without the burning at the stake thing.

The SAB notes briefly that there seems to be a misnaming of Moses' father-in-law. As I said back the first time I came across this, despite the many examples of this given by the SAB, this particular verse is the only one I'll concede to be in error, apparently a typo of some sort, as Hobab was Moses' brother-in-law. (Actually, it may be a translation error, as the Hebrew word here is also elsewhere translated as "marriages"; perhaps it's an all-purpose term for relative by marriage?)

Anyway, war ensues, violence happens, it's pretty nasty, but such is war. What is rather odd, and clearly the author himself finds it noteworthy, is the fate of the Canaanite general Sisera. Fleeing from the battle, he asks for shelter from a woman named Jael. She lets him in, gives him a drink, put him in bed, and then puts a tent spike through his head. I'm not sure what to make of such an action. Sure, it was wartime, but at the same time, it has been noted by many, including myself, that hospitality to guests in the Middle East is taken pretty seriously; it's often used as part of an explanation of why Lot would offer up his daughters to an angry mob rather than give up his house guests. All's fair in love and war, I suppose.

The SAB asks whether Sisera was awake or asleep when he died. I think it's a pretty minor point to argue, but if it must be addressed, I have two thoughts. First of all, the verse from chapter 5 is part of a song, and it tends to be the case in songs like this for details to be embellished. It seems that often, when Israelites pause to sing a song after securing a military victory, they'll say whatever they feel like saying. Secondly, note that the verse in chapter 5 doesn't say Sisera was awake when he died, only that he bowed to Jael before he died, and the spot where he had bowed was the place he eventually died. I guess this is supposed to be ironic.

Friday, March 21, 2008

I came not to send peace, but a sword (Judges 3)

Judges 3 starts with what seems like a lot of repetition, but there's a bit more to it than that. The SAB says of verse 8 that God sold the Israelites into slavery "again". Actually, while this was mentioned in the previous chapter, this is the first time (unless you might want to count their time in Egypt, which isn't quite the same). As I said in my last post, the second chapter is more like a summary, so while it talks about some things that we see here, it's not talking about specific events, but rather the events of the book as a collective entity, which really start here.

And really, it's an odd turn of phrase that I don't quite parse. God certainly doesn't literally sell them into slavery, but the metaphor is surely implying something along those lines. God has nothing to gain by letting them go into slavery, but they've got a lot to lose, and it's largely their own choice for their disobedience.

So now the story returns to Othniel, Caleb's nephew. Apparently the story earlier about his unusual marriage was probably a setup for this later story, and the reason it was retold in Judges. Most of us have a modern perception of what a "judge" is, but in the context of this book, most of the judges of Israel were something akin to warrior-kings. They're people who have a certain degree of authority in their time, usually because of their ability to fight and protect their own people from enemies.

The deeper meaning of this is all a matter of perspective. The SAB calls the fact that God made Othniel into a great warrior unjust, violent and contradictory to the supposed nature of a God of peace. Well, I won't argue that war is not violent; it is by nature. But consider that the SAB says it's unjust to send the Israelites into slavery, and then immediately claims it to be unjust to redeem them. It seems like there ought to be only one claim of injustice here at most, take your pick. The problem is, when it comes to war, it seems unlikely that God is going to be on both sides at the same time. (I think it's likely in many cases that God is on neither side; I suspect that to be the case in our current war with Iraq, which happens to be in Mesopotamia.) Does a God of love go to war? I think He does if there is a loving reason to. Few people would argue that it was a bad thing to go to war to stop the Holocaust. When a situation deteriorates far enough, I think sometimes war is necessary to achieve peace. (Once again, I think there were good and noble reasons to institute a regime change in Iraq; I just didn't see the administration promoting any of those reasons. Justifying the war with false claims of WMDs is hardly noble. But enough editorializing, I've got to get back to that 3,000 year old Iraq War.) Indeed, the upshot of that war was 40 years of peace.

After that peace, there comes a time when they turn from God and the king of Moab takes them over. Eventually, God sends Ehud, who has a rather nasty scene of stabbing the king. The SAB labels it violent (again, I agree) and "language", which is less clear. The thing is, if you didn't already guess it, the phrase "the dirt came out" is the translators cleaning up a phrase that is unclear in meaning, but probably is referring to feces. Apparently, the king crapped his pants when he was stabbed, although a few other possible translations are out there.

Later, they end up killing 10,000 Moabites. This may seem violent and unjust, but once again, if you read it clearly, this is a squelching of a military invasion. Sure, there are a few times in this book when it seems that the killing is pretty arbitrary, but I don't think this is one of those times. This is a major battle that led to the ending of a war and a foreign occupation of the land of Israel. The SAB's page on Moab here has a couple errors, then, one of which unequivocally should be fixed (and now has been). So long as I'm there, I also think that the verse in Jeremiah is being understood wrongly as well. It's not a command, but an observation that Moab is about to be destroyed.

The chapter ends with a brief note about Shamgar, the third judge. All we know about this guy is that he killed a lot of Philistines, AND that he "delivered Israel". This may have also been an act of war in defense of his homeland, in which case I would not fault him personally. This is the first of several judges that are presented to us with minimal information, so one can only speculate.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Whoring after the gods of the people of the land (Judges 2)

The second chapter opens with a rebuke of Israel from God, and an accompanying rebuke of the text by the SAB. Apparently, this rebuke is absurd, unjust and intolerant. Frankly, the only one I see is the intolerant bit, but as I have said before, absurdity and injustice are in the eye of the beholder, and I see no reason to excuse intolerant behavior on the part of God. They didn't do their job, now they suffer the consequences, and will repeatedly suffer the consequences throughout this book.

Actually, that covers pretty much all of the issues in this chapter. God is indeed intolerant, and it's a common view that it's not so much that God punishes them for turning their back on Him, but that turning their backs is its own punishment. Psalm 121 says "My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth." If you turn away from the source of your help, um, well... you'll be helpless, won't you?

And yes, the phrase "they went a whoring after other gods" is a bit harsh, but that's really part of the point. You might as well make yourself a prostitute as not follow God, or at least that's the metaphor used throughout scripture, most prominently in the book of Hosea.

Chapter 2 serves overall as something like an outline for the rest of the book; a "CliffsNotes" version of the book, if you will. The whole book is a repetition of the following process:
  • God brings peace to Israel
  • Israel gets complacent and turns from God to sin
  • God allows them to be conquered by a foreign power
  • Israel calls out to God for help and repents
  • God delivers them from their situation through the use of a "Judge"
  • ???
  • Prophet!
Sorry, I couldn't resist that last bit; actually the first five essentially repeat over and over throughout the book, and probably one of the saddest things (or inspiring, as I have suggested before) is that even the people God chose to deliver Israel were far from great moral examples.

Thou shalt drive out the Canaanites, though they have iron chariots (Judges 1)

It was the sort of thing that I would have saved for my other blog, but really I don't have so much to say about it. Apparently, the Dalai Lama has threatened to resign in the face of violence being committed by his followers in his homeland of Tibet. The Dalai Lama is just one of these guys you have a hard time not admiring even though his religious views are so disparate from your own. Certainly violence on the part of Buddhists seems ludicrous to me, and while I am personally against violence and a Christian, I recognize that even Christianity at its best ideals can't live up to Buddhism at its best ideals when it comes to peaceful living. And Judaism? The book of Joshua should dispel any idea that that religion is fundamentally non-violent, and here in Judges' beginning, we start with a fight that picks right up where Joshua left off.

The thing about the violence in this era of Israel's history is that, as I think I implied strongly in Joshua, it's mandated by God. There's a sense of higher purpose to it, and a sense of justice on a level that's not always obvious. The shame is (and it's reiterated in this and the following chapters) that the violence in Joshua's time was supposed to serve a purpose that had an end result of the ceasing of violence. All the immoral pagan peoples living in Canaan were to be driven out or destroyed, and once the job was done, the Israelites could live in peace. In their failure, they end up living in war against not only the pagan influences within their borders, but against each other at times.

The first accusation aimed at the book of Judges by the SAB is one of violence and injustice. Let me say here once again that yes, this is a violent book. Let me say for the first time (although I've said similar things elsewhere) that I'm not going to spend much time defending the violence and cruelty of this book, as I'll be largely in agreement with the SAB on such matters.

As for injustice, however, note that at least here, the text explains itself. King Adonibezek gets his thumbs and big toes cut off, an act that leaves a person alive, but greatly hinders the utility of their hands and feet, reducing them to an animal-like existence being not easily able to handle objects or walk anymore. Is it unjust? Adonibezek himself says, " I have done, so God hath requited me." After having extracted such a punishment on 70 other kings in the past, even Adonibezek seems to agree that this is just what he had coming to him. It's hard to argue against that, although I don't blame anyone for trying.

The next thing mentioned (which sounds from the wording as though it may have come before chronologically) is the sacking of Jerusalem. There are a couple things to note there. While the SAB calls this act violent and unjust, my response is the same as it has been throughout Joshua: God told them to do it, and the people of that city had warning that the Israelites were coming; in their case, forty years' more advance warning than the city of Jericho. Also, and fairly important, while the SAB says, "The Israelites killed everyone in Jerusalem..." there is no mention of that in the text. In fact, down in verse 21, we're told that the Israelites were unsuccessful in clearing out the inhabitants of Jerusalem. (More on that verse momentarily, which will give food for thought for the skeptics.)

Following this, we have an odd story that culminates in Caleb giving away his daughter to his nephew as a prize for destroying a city. This story may seem familiar to those who have already read Joshua, as this story is essentially a reprint of the same story in Joshua 15. Actually, a fair portion of the text of Judges 1 is copied from Joshua 15-17 for some reason, with this story being the biggest chunk. While I have commented on this story already, in looking at it during the past week or so, I have found some interesting things in the comparison with this version. The story doesn't change in essential details, but putting them side by side, even in the Hebrew, there are minor differences, such as the specification here that Kenaz was Caleb's younger brother. This might be of interest to those interested in the concept of accuracy of textual copying and/or transcription of oral histories. While as I said, there are no major differences between the stories, a notable difference surfaces in the aforementioned verse 21, which has its parallel in Joshua 15:63, where the SAB gives a very similar note. What is not noted, but I found quite fascinating, is that in Joshua, it's the Judahites who are charged with the responsibility of not driving the Jebusites out of Jerusalem. While Jerusalem lies on the border of Judah and Benjamin, it makes sense that the responsibility might be shared, but I'll admit that this fractured parallelism is odd. Anyway, I'm sure there's a lot of room for skeptics to speculate on the significance of these parallel verses.

In verse 19, we get a case of people failing a battle due to the presence of iron chariots. It's sort of neat to me that the SAB has added an iron chariots page, which I'm pretty sure is new, although I've been wrong more than once before. I like it because this is a favorite argument of Bible skeptics, and in this one case, it's one that they seem to like precisely because of how silly it sounds, or at least that's the impression I get. It seems to some that God is essentially powerless in any situation where iron chariots are involved. The answer to both questions posed there is essentially the same, and was answered way back by me, although I will reiterate here. God has the will and the ability to make the Israelites victorious no matter what the situation, but iron chariots, being the pinnacle of modern warfare technology in the time of this writing, were frightening the Israelites out of even trying to go to war against certain enemies. God can prevail against even iron chariots, as will be seen a few chapters after this, but His people need to trust Him in order do it. The "he" in Judges 1:19 refers not to God, but to Judah.

As for the remaining issues in this chapter, I rest on the explanations I gave in Joshua. Why did the conquest of Canaan fail? See this post. Why does the tribe of Joseph destroy Bethel excepting one family? It's probably a lot like the story of Rahab, discussed here.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us? (Judges, introduction)

I've been hesitating to start up the book of Judges for a number of reasons, one of which has not been that I was unaware of what an ugly book it is. I've known that from the first time I read it; you can't miss it. One thing that was lacking in me was a good idea of the proper way to say the things that needed to be said about it. Somehow, "This book is nasty. Let's go!" seemed a bit lacking.

The nastiness that is Judges needs to be addressed, and more than just admitted, it needs to be explained. Steve Wells points out that the book starts with a story involving the sending of body parts through the mail. The irony he forgets to mention is that, like a set of grisly bookends, the book's final story also involves body parts being sent through the mail. (EDIT: Oh, no, he does mention it. Did he add it, or did I somehow miss it on first read?) I remember the first time I read that particular story I thought, Sheesh, Stephen King's got nothing on the author of Judges! Horrifyingly, these stories are actually true.

Oddly enough, although I've been re-reading the book of Judges again lately to get back into it and get the right feel for it, it's the reading of a couple of other books, one by a more liberal theologian and the other by a more conservative one that have given me direction in this, although neither one mentions this particular book in their writings. Both of them point out the same thing about the Bible, a thing that I realized as a child reading the Bible for myself for the first time. I wasn't even in this book when it dawned on me (I was back in Genesis, probably reading about something like the story of Judah and Tamar) but I realized that in general, the Bible is not a book of heroes. It's not a book of great moral giants that we might look up to and model ourselves after. Adam eats the fruit. Cain kills his brother. Noah gets drunk and exposes himself. Abraham sleeps with his wife's maid. Isaac plays favorites with his children. Jacob lies and cheats his way through life at every turn. Moses commits murder. As I child, a light bulb went on in my head:

The Bible is a book full of screw-ups.

The funny thing about this is that there seem to be many people who come to a realization of this and it yields the opposite reaction in them from the one it did in me and so many people who know this to be true, and yet still use the Bible as a moral compass. People look at a book like Judges and they say, "How the Hell can I believe in a God who puts crap like this in His Holy Scriptures?" In many ways, the question is raised here, but the answer is hidden in the book of Jonah in the form of a question Jeopardy-style.
"And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?" (Jonah 4:11)
Jonah is the only book in the Bible to end with a question, and if God thinks leaving the question hanging out there is good enough, I think He wants us to consider it deeply. These 120,000 people God refers to are probably children; God is pointing out that while Nineveh (and the world at large) is full of evil people, if it were even just for the sake of the children, isn't it best to give a chance for people to do better and try again? Some have pointed out that if God only accepted "good people" who never do the wrong thing, then Jonah wouldn't be there to have the question asked to him.

Actually, Jonah would never have been born, because the nation of Israel would have been destroyed in the time of the Judges. Heck, you might as well suppose that they would have been killed at the whole golden calf incident. Or back when one of the Patriarchs screwed up big. Hmm, or maybe God could have just squished Adam and Eve like bugs when they disobeyed, and then none of us would be here at all.

In the book of Judges, the people of Israel go through a repeating cycle. They turn from God. They get in trouble. They turn back to God. God sends someone to save them. They rejoice, and the cycle repeats.

Some call God the "God of second chances." He's also the God of third, fourth, fifth, and 490th chances. If God could use a guy like Samson, a guy who was a drunk, a womanizer, a "momma's boy", a killer, and just generally all-around unpleasant fellow, then surely God could use a guy like me.

That's the hidden message of the book of Judges, and really of the Bible as a whole. It's a message that Bible detractors and followers alike can tend to miss. God is the God of screw-ups and rejects. "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Luke 5:32) That's good news for all of us. Don't think you're a screw-up? Maybe you're just a liar.