Monday, May 12, 2008

The Youth Today Just Aren't As Self-Controlled As We Were!: Judges 1 - 3:6

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Editorial note: I've finished Judges after writing this entry, but I'm not going to revise it, because it would be dishonest to the purpose of this commentary, which is to think as I go. I will say, however, that a critical reading of Judges can give the book a lot more credit than I gave it when I started out. You'll have to wait until the final reflections, in a week or so, to find out why.

Judges appears to start off in the same militarist vein as Joshua. The Judeans and Simeonites promptly atack some Canaanites and Perizzites, killing 10 000 in a single battle; they capture king Adoni-Bezek and cut off his thumbs and big toes. (They do not, however, execute him; they take him back to the fired ruins of Jerusalem and "he died there.") Incidentally, the Judeans have taken Jerusalem! For such an important moment in continuing politics in the Middle East, it merits only a passing reference - indeed, just two sentences in verse 8.

Without Joshua, however, militarism appears to have lost its luster. He's been replaced as general of the army by Caleb, but Caleb, rather than appealing to the glory of the Lord, starts offering extra incentives for warriors - whoever leads the attack on Kiriath Sepher, for example, is to win the hand of his daughter in marriage. As it turns out, his nephew Kenaz leads the charge; so Kenaz gets Caleb's daughter, Acsah. Acsah and Kenaz also get some nice lands as gifts from Caleb.

It's not clear precisely when God withdraws his blessing from the new military order. They're besieging and killing and massacring very successfully, then all of a sudden, for some reason Manasseh decides not to finish the job by killing the last of the Canaanites in Beth Shan, Taanach, and a few other places. Instead, some of the Canaanites are enslaved, but Israel "never drove them out completely." Several other tribes also leave pockets of Canaanite resistance relatively unharmed. Even the Amorites, surprisingly, are still around after multiple genocidal campaigns against them; these Amorites, it turns out, hold the plains with large and competent forces, so the Israelites in that area, the Danites, are confined to the hilly regions. Eventually these Amorites too are supposedly pressed into slavery, but not killed off.

God is most upset that the genocide was interrupted and sends his angels to deliver a judgement. This represents a shift back towards a very pessimistic view of the people, something that wasn't really central to Joshua (except for his closing speech, I suppose) but certainly was to Numbers, in which faithless Israelites can barely last a week without worshipping one foreign god or another. An angel descends to several places and proclaims that the Israelites have disobeyed God: they have failed to kill the people or smash the altars. Therefore God will no longer assist in driving out the pagans: he will permit them to stay in the promised land, as a thorn in Israel's sides.

The people weep at this terrible news and offer sacrifices, apparently to no effect. Nevertheless, they continue to serve God more or less faithfully for many years; according to chapter 2, the entire generation of those who invaded with Joshua "served the Lord" throughout their lives.

Judges explains the coming degradation of Israelite society by resorting to an argument that has subsequently been used by every single generation up to the present: the youth today, they just aren't as self-controlled, enterprising, or morally upright as we were! The new generation, Judges compains, "knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel." Why this is so is not immediately apparent. Were they not taught? Has God stopped performing miracles for some unstated reason?

Whatever the reason, the people promptly start serving other gods again. The Bible names some of them - Baal and the Ashtoreths, which sounds like a bad cover band. In language resemblent of Numbers, God grows very angry and permits raiders to plunder the Israelite settlements, and causes defeat in battle. Here we have the vestiges of Joshua's militarism: God still makes his will known through the success or failure of the military, but now the military has abandoned God and largely demobilized, so principally God makes his will known by letting the Israelites lose wars. The genocidal mission of the military, however, has vanished. Judges reaches the striking conclusion that God changed his mind about killing off all the natives: he decided to keep them around after all so that they would "teach warfare to the descendants of the Israelites who had not had previous battle experience." The moment at which God reached the momentous decision to reverse his reasoning is unclear.

As a stopgap measure, God begins to "raise up judges." My footnote says the alternative for this translation is "leader," which makes considerably more sense than "judge": the principal role appears to be to "save [the Israelites] to of the hands of these raiders." But the judges, Judges says, don't work: the Israelites ignore them and continue to worship other gods, because (and I'm adding this now) the Israelites are a stupid and stubborn people.

We have a strange situation here. The central role of the Israelite priesthood was abolished by Joshua, and the central role of the military was abandoned by Joshua's successors. What's left is a sort of anarchy - anarchy, but not really anarchism; there's no thoughts (from God or anyone else) as to how the Israelites might continue to live in such a state of affairs, no apparent debate or discussion about how to live peacefully or securely or morally without some sort of centralized hierarchy. Instead the Israelites, and apparently God himself, can think of nothing better than to occasionally raise up temporary military and political leaders, who briefly restore some balance and order, but then die or retire or abdicate or some such, leaving the Israelites back where they started.