June 13, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: Stories from the Book of Judges

John F. Fink(Twenty-third in a series of columns)

The ending of the Book of Joshua, which we discussed last week, gave the impression that the Israelites conquered Canaan when they defeated 31 kings. The Book of Judges quickly corrects that impression. The Israelites not only didn’t destroy the Philistines, Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, they lived among them, intermarried with them and served their gods.

This angered God, the book says. Since they were not true to their covenant with God, God punished them by sending oppressors. When they repented and turned back to the true God, he sent a deliverer, known at the time as a judge, to rescue them. The judge secured peace during his or her lifetime, but then the people returned to idolatry. The cycle continued over and over.

The Israelite “judges” were really military leaders who, through their heroic deeds, rescued the people from persecution. Twelve of them appeared at various times, six “minor” judges who were apparently actually judicial officials, and six “major” judges, famous for their military exploits.

The Book of Judges tells their basically unrelated stories. The stories illustrate the Israelite theology that sin brings punishment, and repentance brings deliverance. But some of the stories also include crude humor and guile on the part of the judges.

Othniel is the first judge mentioned. We’re told that the people sinned enough that God allowed them to fall into the power of Cushan-rishathaim, king of Aram, for eight years. The people repented, Othniel defeated Cushan-rishathaim, and there was peace for 40 years.

Then the Israelites offended God again and he allowed Eglon, king of Moab, to defeat Israel and rule them for 18 years. This time it was Ehud who came to the rescue. He managed to get a private audience with King Eglon, during which he killed him by thrusting a foot-long dagger into his belly. Eglon was so fat that the hilt went in, too, and disappeared in the fat.

Ehud left, but Eglon’s attendants didn’t find the king until later because they thought he was just taking a long time in the bathroom—“easing himself in the cool chamber” (Jgs 3:24). Ehud made his escape, and the Israelites attacked the Moabites, slewing 10,000 of them. The country had rest for 80 years.

The next time the Israelites offended the Lord, he allowed them to fall into the hands of the Canaanite king Jabin, who oppressed the Israelites for 20 years. This time it was women who came to the rescue.

Deborah was both a judge and a prophet. She organized the Israelites to defeat a Canaanite army commanded by Sisera, who was killed by another woman, Jael, to the humiliation of the Israelite commander, Barak. Sisera escaped when the Israelites defeated his army and made it to Jael’s tent. While he slept, she drove a tent peg through his temple.

In the canticle of Deborah, sung after the victory, she referred to Jael as “blessed among women” (Jgs 5:24). The Gospel of Luke uses that expression when Elizabeth greets Mary at the Visitation (Lk 1:42).

More judges next week. †

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