Friday, May 30, 2008

There shall no razor come upon his head (Judges 13)

So, with Judges 13, we begin the wade into the deep end of the book of Judges. The story of Samson is an ugly one that takes up a very large portion of the book, and unfortunately, there's not much to commend in the stories afterwards.

Well, comparatively, this portion of the story, our introduction to Samson's parents, is pretty good. There's not much indication (yet) that there's anything really bad about these folks, other than the fact that they seem to be rather helpless and confused most of the time.

The story opens with yet another time of trouble for Israel, and this time, they're in the hands of the Philistines, who seem to be Israel's major enemies through all of this time on into the time of David. I don't think you can deny that whatever else is going on in the life of Samson, this story has a lot of political undertones that end up almost overshadowing the spiritual issues; of course, they're all intertwined.

In the midst of this difficult time, we are introduced to yet another couple with a barren wife. The SAB comments once again on the issue of barren women in the Bible, not so directly as before, but I'm assuming that's the point being made. Another thought I had as I was reading this chapter yesterday in addition to what I said about barrenness earlier is that in those ancient times, they knew a little bit about how babies were made, and it might be fair to assume, with the limited knowledge they had, that so long as a man appeared to have "seed", lack of children must be a problem with the woman. Scientifically questionable by modern standards, yes, but the ancients didn't have microscopes. Actually, it might additionally be said that the term "barren" may simply mean that a married woman had not yet borne any children; that's a speculation just now off the top of my head, someone who knew Hebrew far better than I might know if there's any truth to that. (I note that in looking up the Hebrew, that the word for "barren" does not appear in 1Sam. 1, although clearly that's what's being talked about there.)

Anyway, an angel appears to this woman and tells her she is going to have a son. (Despite the innuendo on the part of the SAB that there was something of a sexual relationship that happened between the "angel" and the woman, the language doesn't really suggest that at all.) Some interesting commands are given to her concerning her pregnancy and raising of the child. There are to interesting points about this, one of which is that the commands the angel gives her for her pregnancy are actually good advice for any pregnant woman. Don't drink wine or eat "unclean" food during your pregnancy? Hey, that's just sound prenatal care!

The other point is one that I touched on briefly in talking about John the Baptist. Although I skipped ahead from the middle of Genesis and therefore never hit Numbers 6, this would probably be a very good place to delve into the issues of that chapter. As the angel says, Samson is supposed to be a "Nazarite...from the womb" (as is suggested, but not expressly stated in the cases of John the Baptist and the prophet Samuel). Two questions come up in the Numbers 6 and here as well that are worth exploring. Is it okay to drink? Generally, the Bible does not seem to be against it, in moderation. Wine is an important part of many Jewish and Christian ceremonies. Is it okay for men to have long hair? Clearly Paul did not think highly of it, and it was not the cultural norm of the times. (I myself, up until about half a year ago had a nice long ponytail I'd been letting grow for about 15 years. I cut it off because my wife wanted my hair short, not because of a moral or social issue.) So why are these demands made of Nazarites? Well, the Nazarite was setting himself apart from society to be dedicated to the Lord. (Nazarite literally means "separated", and when context calls for it, it's translated that way.) When everyone else had a party and sat down to drink, he would stay sober. When all other men were walking around looking neat and clean-cut, he would look like a hippie, with a shaggy long head of hair and beard. A Nazarite was supposed to look and act in a way that was acceptable to God, but generally socially unacceptable, so that people would notice him standing out. If you know the story of Samson, you have to realize that Samson was actually a pretty bad Nazarite, since long hair was the only requirement he kept, and even that ends up being a problem in the end.

So Samson's parents end up having a bit of drama with this angel, and yeah, a lot of it is rather strange, although the part about the angel ascending to heaven in the fire of the altar is something serves to clarify the supernatural aspect of the event. In fact, it seems that Samson's father wasn't quite 100% convinced until this happened, at which point he says that they "have seen God." While the question of whether not God can be seen is a tricky question that I have examined elsewhere, I don't think it's an issue here, as I think he's just being dramatic. It wasn't God, it was just a heavenly messenger, and his wife essentially says, "Get over yourself; if we were going to die, we'd already be dead instead of standing here by this altar."

The final note of this chapter is really the big question of this whole story. I'm tempted to say that verse 24 is really talking about how Samson was blessed by God as a child, and later he turned bad; indeed, it might be the case. On the other hand, there seems to be little room for denial that Samson led a charmed life up until the very end; why is God blessing a guy who seems to hold none of the moral values that the Bible stands for? It's a very good question, but I intend to answer it at the end of the story rather than here.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Thy speech bewrayeth thee (Judges 12)

Judges 12 is a short chapter with few comments from the SAB. It's funny, but I was reading this on my own over the weekend, and I anticipated what the comments would be; that's not always easy to do, as the SAB can be full of surprises.

Anyway, as yet another sad footnote on the time of Jephthah's rule, we see a bizarre and bloody fallout of this war that shows itself in some sort of intertribal warfare. I think this is the first time we see such a thing in Israel, but unfortunately it won't be the last. Men from Ephraim come to Jephthah and complain that they didn't get to take part in the battle. (Most likely, they wanted a share of the spoils of war.) Jephthah points out to them that the trouble had been going on a long time before the fighting broke out, and they had been asked for help before, a request that was ignored. Fighting breaks out, and a lot of slaughter ensues. In the midst of this, the infamous "shibboleth" event happens. Apparently, in those days it wasn't so easy to tell who was an ally or enemy. In this case, however, a known difference between these two tribes was that the Ephraimites apparently don't use the "sh" sound in their speech. So when a soldier came to the river to cross, he might pretend to be whoever he wanted to be, but the soldiers on Jephthah's side would ask the person trying to cross to say the Hebrew word for "stream". Ephraimites would give themselves away by pronouncing it "sibboleth". The guards would know they were an enemy and pluck them out of the water and kill them. Violent? Most definitely. Unjust? Well, the Ephraimites were waging a completely unprovoked war against the men of Gilead, so what can you say?

By the way, I expected it might be said that 42,000 were killed in this manner, but I also realized upon reading the passage that such a guess was probably a misunderstanding of the text, for what it's worth. I think the intended meaning is that 42,000 Ephraimites were killed in total on the whole battlefield; the thought of killing them one by one as they crossed the river seems unlikely, and the text does not expressly say that.

The chapter closes with short and quick notes on three judges that follow Jephthah. Abdon in particular is apparently funny to Steve Wells for another mention of donkeys. It might be worth noting that while the KJV says "forty sons and thirty nephews", I'm not sure where that translation comes from. The Hebrew says literally "sons' sons", which surely ought to be "grandsons" as other translations render it.

And next time, we come to Samson, one of the oddest characters the Bible has to offer.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead (Judges 11)

Judges 11 gives us the very odd tale of Jephthah the Gileadite, a man whose life carries a few oddities that those like the SAB who like to find problems with the Bible are hardly going to overlook. Perhaps oddly, the SAB does not draw attention to the very first item of interest about Jephthah, the fact that apparently, he's a bastard. The fact that he is mentioned first and the following fact that apparently his half-brothers are afraid he will inherit from Gilead suggests that Jephthah is the eldest son, and may have some claim in being the rightful heir of Gilead. However, there is certainly a history (especially among the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) of firstborns not inheriting. Anyway, his family gets into some hot water with the Ammonites, and they come to him for help for some reason. He agrees to help in return for being made their leader.

The first thing he does as leader is send a message to the Ammonites looking for peace. I'm always looking for a hopeful suggestion where I can find it of a place where the SAB might add a "Good Stuff" icon; might there be one here? Certainly this is a much nicer approach than most guys in this book take. They argue back and forth a bit about whose land it is. Apparently, according to Jephthah, the land was won in battle from the Amorites (the SAB marks this fact as being bad for various reasons, but really, this is old news from back in Numbers 21, where Moses also tried to settle things peaceably, asking permission to pass through, and getting attacked in return, as we see briefly reviewed here in Judges. Sure, it's not all that nice that Sihon was destroyed by the Israelites, but this is largely a clear case of destroying a city in self-defense, oddly enough. Later in Jephthah's remarks, he points out that if indeed they think this particular part of the land belonged to them, it's odd they let the Israelites live there for 300 years without ever rectifying the situation. The SAB itself points out (although it calls it a contradiction) that the Israelites were ordered by God not to attack the Ammonites. Actually, they were ordered not to attack the land of the Ammonites, but this is the Ammonites attacking them.

Jephthah makes a remark that is much more thought-provoking to the SAB than it is to me, giving an apprent nod to the Ammonite god Chemosh. Does this statement imply that Chemosh exists, or that at least Jephthah thinks he does? I don't think so. I think this is an ironic statement on the part of Jephthah, although it certainly may have been stated in a manner that was meant to sound more polite, as in you serve your god in your land, we'll serve our god in ours, okay? As for the issue of the Bible containing statements that other gods might exist, I have formerly addressed that here. (Steve, if you don't mind, can you add a link on that page? I keep meaning to help you clean up the links between us, but I'm a terrible procrastinator.)

And now with all the pleasantries finished up, the battle begins, and the big issue of this story comes up. The "spirit of the Lord" comes upon Jephthah, (I was reading recently that this expression is often used in contexts such as this meaning not that the person becomes closer to God or anything like that, but that God gives them the power and wisdom to be a great military leader) and he goes to war. Early into the battle, he makes a rash and foolish gesture: he vows to kill the first thing that comes out his front door as a sacrifice to God when he returns victorious. When he wins, and he does return, the first thing out the door is his young daughter. Ouch.

The first thing to note is that nowhere does it say that God asked for this, so it is not proper to say that God approves. This was stupidity on the part of Jephthah to make the vow, and also to carry it out. There is more to say, though, in an odd musing that I myself have had with this passage. What was Jephthah really expecting? Does he often come home from work and find himself greeted at the door by...I don't know...a pair of turtledoves? What kind of stupid vow was that? I find myself wondering if he was expecting not so much a more proper sacrifice, but if he expected someone else to be at the door. I've never heard anyone else suggest this as a possibility, but the implications seem pretty staggering. Perhaps Jephthah was having domestic problems and hoped for an easy divorce?

Anyway, he comes home, and out comes his daughter, dancing with joy. He's not happy, of course, but feels he has to keep his vow. He gives her time to mourn her situation, and then sacrifices her. (Some have suggested that verse 39 is implying that rather than dying, she remained a virgin all of her life. This is definitely a possibility, but the verse is far from clear on the matter.)