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Historiography,

"Hazards," and the


Study of Ancient Israel
SUSAN NIDITCH
Professor of Religion
Amherst College

The biblical "historians," perhaps more than their modern day


counterparts, show history to be a messy, complicated affair. For
all its ambivalence about power and human relationships, the
book of Judges functions as a profoundly thoughtful foundation
myth.

I n her 1975 address before the Massachusetts Historical Society entitled "Hazards on
the Way to the Middle Ages," Barbara Tuchman explored some of the many difficul-
ties that challenge the would-be student of any pre-modern culture.1 Her list of
"hazards" applies not only to the Middle Ages but a fortiori to those of us who study
ancient Israel. She noted that "the mental and moral furniture of the period is so different
from ours as to create what seems like a different civilization."2 While Tuchman alluded, for
example, to aspects of medieval belief regarding chivalry, we might well point to a constel-
lation of beliefs concerning animal sacrifice. How do we really comprehend or empathize
with those who were clearly used to blood-splattering as a means of cleansing, the spilling
of blood as a mean of atonement? A second problem raised by Tuchman is "the persistent
medieval gap between ideas and practice." We may point to a similar probable gap between
preserved legal texts in the Hebrew Bible and actual customary law. We may draw contrasts
between priestly presentations or idealizations of Israelite religion and our conjectures
about actual "religion as lived," hinted at by the less theologically self-conscious comments
in narrative texts or by the difficult-to-interpret array of archaeological data pertaining to
ritual practice. Tuchman pointed to the logistical difficulties of interpreting numbers in her
written sources, rounded and inflated as they are, and to the problem of conflicting calen-

!
B. Tuchman, "Hazards on the Way to the Middle Ages," Atlantic Monthly 236/6 (December 1975) 72-78.
2
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B I B L I C A L FAITH A N D HISTORY Interpretation 139

dars when trying to assign dates—what she called "swimming data." She bemoaned the
ubiquity of "empty spaces" in medieval history, of seeming contradictions in the evidence.
She warned us to remember that "built into all recorded history" is "the disproportionate
survival of the negative."3 Were ordinary Israelites oppressed during the monarchy as the
classical prophets suggested, or did life in the largely agricultural communities continue as
before, as John Holladay has argued in light of the archaeological evidence concerning
house size.4 Finally, Tuchman urged scholars to avoid overspecialization and to be wary of
the ways in which our own ideologies lead us to cast history.5

Over the last decade or so, the discussion of Israelite history and historiography has
been particularly lively. Debates continue about Israelite origins and other matters large and
small, while scholars disagree both about our own methods as historians of ancient cultures
and about the presuppositions of the ancient writers of the texts upon which we rely. I will
examine several current scholarly approaches to questions concerning Israelite history with
specific reference the biblical book of Judges.

CURRENT APPROACHES: A SAMPLING

It is important at the outset to mention our teachers of the 1950s and 60s who broke
new ground, for their time, in attempting to unearth Israelite history defined as actual
events—for example, movements of peoples, territorial claims, and particular battles.
Nowadays, we tend to think in terms of worldview or intellectual and social history, as well
as of the historical context of historians, ancient or modern, and of the way such orienta­
tions make and shape the "history." Eminent scholars such as George Ernest Wright and
John Bright really thought they could figure out what happened, for example, in the Late
Bronze Age and match archaeological data with biblical narrative, albeit cautiously and
carefully. In an erudite piece dealing with Joshua 10 and Judges 1, Wright brought to light
archaeological data from Lachish and Debir pertaining to destruction and settlement, and
6
he concluded that Joshua 10 "makes sense, both geographically and archeologically." He
tried to make sense of seeming contradictions between Joshua 10 and Judges 1 by suggest­
ing that initial rapid military successes by Joshua and his forces were followed later by "a
long struggle for possession which continued after Joshua's death."7 Thus, for Wright, the
Bible did contain history as the events of the past, the facts. One must read the text careful­
ly, aware, of course, of Deuteronomistic and other editorial viewpoints, and one must tem­
per and support conclusions by the science of archaeology. I think there is still a great inter-

3
Ibid., 74-76, 78.
4
J. Holladay, "The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah: Political and Economic Centralization in the Iron IIA-B (ca.
1000-750 B.C.E.)," in The Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land, ed. Τ. E. Levy (London: Leicester University Press,
1995) 376-79.
5
Tuchman, "Hazards," 75.
6
G. E. Wright, "The Literary and Historical Problem of Joshua 10 and Judges 1," JNES 5 (1946) 112.
7
Ibid., 114.
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140 Interpretation APRIL 2 0 0 3

est among our students and readers in "history," as shown by the popularity of magazines
such as Biblical Archaeology Review and Bible Review. At the same time, even among histori-
ans who study modern times, rich in documentation and eye-witness accounts, history is
no longer treated as just "the facts." There exists an acute awareness of the historian's point
of view and his or her capacity to create and recreate our perception of events that may or
may not have happened just a certain way. This brings us to our first contemporary scholar
of biblical history and historiography, Baruch Halpern.

Halpern's governing thesis is that some biblical authors "meant to furnish fair and
accurate representations of Israelite antiquity."8 For him, history itself is "the undertaking of
rendering an account of a particular, significant, and coherent sequence of past human
events."9 The rendering need not be accurate, and indeed "historiography" in Halpern's
words virtually "is never accurate," but the intention of the historian is to be accurate.10
Thus, in exploring the complex relationships between Judges 4 and 5, he suggests that the
"historian" of Judges 4 shapes episodes and adds details in order to make sense of certain
ambiguities in the more poetic and terse account.11 He aims to write history even if he is
not good at it. According to Halpern, the author who intends to write history accurately
clothes his narratives in verisimilitude. Halpern's study of the Ehud narrative, thus, includes
a lengthy and imaginative discussion of the specific way Ehud might have escaped from
Eglon's chamber, namely through the primitive plumbing or water closet system.12

Halpern's respect for the ancient historian is commendable as is his suggestion, similar
to that of Claude Lévi-Strauss, that human intellectual capacity among so-called primitive
peoples or historians is not inferior to our own. Nevertheless, Halpern is not always sensi-
tive to the ways in which ethnic genres and ideological and literary "intentions"may differ.
Did the hearers of Ehud's tale necessarily worry about the nuts-and-bolts details of his
escape plan, or were their interests elsewhere? Was their capacity to suspend disbelief
stronger than Halpern allows? His suggestion that the tale of Ehud is meant to be "titillat-
ing" in tone implies that all peoples find the same material funny, whereas humor is fre-
quently so culturally bound that we cannot decode it. His description of "professional story
tellers" is perhaps based on some model from the Brothers Grimm and surely moves
beyond our knowledge as modern historians.13 Equally unsubstantiated is his suggestion
that the tale of Ehud "belonged to a heroic age,"or that its "genre was an oral one."14 In spite
of his respect for the literature and its authors, Halpern tends to superimpose nineteenth-
century, European-based definitions of contexts and texts upon this ancient Israelite tradi-
tional material. His nod to Freud concerning Israelite attitudes about defecation to help jus-

8
B. Halpern, The First Historians: The Hebrew Bible and History (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988) 2.
9
Ibid.,6.
10
Ibid., 7-8.
n
B. Halpern, "The Resourceful Israelite Historian: The Song of Deborah and Israelite Historiography," HTR 76
(1983) 396.
12
B. Halpern, "The Assassination of Eglon: The First Locked-Room Murder Mystery," BR 4 (1988) 32-41.
13
Ibid., 44.
14
Ibid.,41.
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BIBLICAL FAITH A N D H I S T O R Y Interpretation 141

tify the translation of a term that seems to refer to an architectural feature of Eglon's palace
is also unsatisfying.15 Halperrís work leads one to conclude that the modern historian must
tread more carefully in unearthing the supposed intentions of the ancient historian. Similar
problems are found in the work of Marc Brettler.

In Brettler's view, biblical narrative is history simply when "it presents a past," but this
presentation is frequently ideological in motive and message. For example, the tale of Ehud
is anti-Moabite propaganda,16 and the larger book of Judges is above all a pro-monarchic
tract that reveals the limitations of decentralized, charismatic leadership.17 While Brettler's
emphasis on the author's point of view is important and his caution well founded concern-
ing the factuality of historical narration, his approach to Judges and the variety of biblical
narratives oversimplifies. The negative portrayal of Moabites in Judges 3 is a most obvious
feature of the narrative. As to Judges, I will make the case that its authors are genuinely
ambivalent in attitudes to kingship, exhibiting a far more complex and conflicted view of
polity than Brettler's approach allows. Like Halpern, moreover, whom he himself criticizes
for loose usages of terms such as "epic," Brettler superimposes on the biblical material his
own notions of literary form and tone, gleaned from modern Western contexts. He sug-
gests, for example, that the tale of Ehud is "political satire" aimed at Moabite enemies.18 He
then builds on this suggestion. Since political satire exaggerates, the tale of Ehud is "invent-
ed tradition," and "its author did not believe it was a representation of actual historical
events."19 Brettler seeks in this way to counter the gist of Halpern's approach, but he is in no
better position to judge the ancient author's "intent" or "belief" than Halpern.

A different approach is found in a recent article by Ronald Hendel on the exodus tradi-
tions.20 Hendel suggests that elements in the biblical accounts of the exodus may be rooted
in actual historical circumstances and life settings. While some of his suggestions are more
convincing than others, HendePs interest in linking the settings of biblical narrative with
historical settings is refreshing and even daring. Equally compelling is his deep and also
pleasingly old-fashioned engagement with "cultural," "collective memory."21

Hendel is indebted methodologically to Jan Assman's description of "mnemohistory,"


which "is concerned not with the past as such but with the past as it is remembered."22
Hendel writes of "the social context and functions of history" and the ways in which "cul-
tural discourse about the remembered past... serve[s] to inform and influence the cultural
present."23 In contrast to Brettler's attention to the "ideology" of editors who have the last

15
Ibid., 40.
16
M. Brettler, "Never the Twain Shall Meet? The Ehud Story as History and Literature," HUCA 62 (1991)
285-304.
17
M. Brettler, "The Book of Judges: Literature as Politics," JBL 108 ( 1989) 398.
18
Brettler, "Never the Twain," 302.
19
Ibid., 302.
20
R. Hendel, "The Exodus and Biblical Memory," JBL 120 (2001) 601-22.
21
Ibid., 602.
22
Ibid., 602 nn. 7-8.
23
Ibid., 603.
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142 Interpretation APRIL 2 0 0 3

word, Hendel offers a highly nuanced vision of the relationships between events, experi-
ences, memory, and the workings of traditional literature. A similar concern with world-
view and history is found in the work of Peter Machinist.

Machinist seeks to understand the ways in which Israelites perceive themselves and
others in an ongoing process of self-definition. Like Hendel, but with greater precision and
more thorough presentation of evidence, he asks whether biblical accounts also contain
information about the past, the cul-
ture of ancient Near Easterners, that
is, their ritual life, their political situ-
In its received form, Judges is purposefully
ations, their actual contact with one
conflicted about essential political and
another. In the latter category is
social issues and devastatingly honest Machinist's fine study of the
about the comings and goings of power. Philistines in biblical tradition.24 His
examination of the possible connec-
tions between Dan and the Sea
Peoples is a model of erudition and
25
wise caution. Machinist asks why the Philistines are portrayed as "other" and responds
that such portrayals serve purposes of "differentiation" and "identity formation."26 The
Philistines are thus shown to play a key role in constructing Israel's view of itself. Indeed,
much like anthropologist Clifford Geertz, Machinist treats the Bible as holding both "mod-
els of" and "models for" reality.27 Israelite historical narration both reflects and shapes reali-
ty. Machinist's treatment of the biblical motif of Israel as "outsider" is similarly informed.28

Machinist's approach, rooted in the sort of questions raised in history of religions and
worldview studies, also becomes an important tool for redaction criticism. He seeks to
understand how a particular literary tradition with its message about, for example, outsider
status might have functioned meaningfully in various periods in Israelite history.29 Within
such engagement lies potential information about Israelite social and intellectual history
and about the history of biblical traditions.

My overview of scholars is by no means exhaustive. I could have included many works


concerning the relationship between oral tradition, memory, history, and historiography
beginning with Vansina's influential work.30 Also deserving of mention is the work of schol-
ars such as lohn Van Seters and R. Norman Whybray, who find a model for Israelite histori-

24
P. Machinist, "Biblical Traditions: The Philistines and Israelite History," in The Sea Peoples and Their World: A
Reassessment, ed. E. D. Oren (Philadelphia: University Museum, 2000) 53-83.
25
Ibid., 97.
26
Ibid., 64, 69.
27
C. Geertz, "Religion as a Cultural System," in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic,
1974) 87-125.
28
P. Machinist, "Outsiders or Insiders: The Biblical View of Emergent Israel and Its Context," in The Other in
Jewish Thought and History: Constructions of Jewish Culture and Identity, eds. L. J. Silberstein and R. L. Cohn (New
York: New York University Press, 1994) 35-60, esp. 51.
29
Ibid., 51-54.
30
J. Vansina, Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology (Chicago: Aldine, 1965).
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BIBLICAL FAITH A N D H I S T O R Y Interpretation 143

ographers in the Greek Herodotus.31 That being said, I now turn to a specific corpus, the
book of Judges, to explore how the scholarship discussed above might find application and,
thus inspired, to make some suggestions of my own.

THEORIES OF ISRAELITE ORIGINS AND LAYERS OF COMMENTARY

Traditions preserved in Judges figure prominently in modern discussions of Israelite


origins and in deciphering ancient Israel's own views of its foundations in the land. When
reviewing some of the major theories concerning Israelite origins and the connection to
Judges, we encounter right away some of Barbara Tuchman's "hazards." There are, in fact, at
least two contradictory versions of Israel's settlement. The outlying chapters of Joshua sug-
gest that the Israelites swept into the land in an unbeatable military wave in which all ene-
mies fell before Joshua and the Israelites, who are portrayed as a unified commando force
aided by the divine warrior and assorted miracles. The other version, well represented in
the middle chapters of Joshua and throughout Judges, offers a more halting and disjunctive
portrayal of the Israelites' early presence in the land, along with their successes and failures
in establishing themselves. Judges describes alternating periods of subjugation and domina-
tion, and offers a tribal accounting, as various groups of Israelites are seen in this or that
location, north to south, living side by side with non-Israelite groups who have not been
dispossessed and rooted out. What do we make of such pictures?

Scholars have offered a number of models for Israelite origins. They pose theories of
conquest, infiltration, and peasant revolution and try to match aspects of the biblical
accounts with history, while accommodating and harmonizing the tales of the judges with
other accounts so that they "work" within the model. The stories in Judges really do not
seem to suit conquest or infiltration models very well. Indeed, many of the disputes in
Judges involve inter-tribal conflict. George Mendenhall's theory concerning Israelite wars of
liberation, developed by Norman Gottwald, seems to take account of the stories of Judges
more fully.32 Many accounts in Judges describe politically marginal, poorly armed guerrilla
forces of Israelites combating well-equipped, king-led oppressors by means of trickery or
banditry. In this way, Gottwald and Mendenhall read the stories to suggest that the Israelites
of the late Bronze age and early Iron ages fought to free themselves and other beleaguered
Canaanite cohorts from feudal overlords who ruled, at least nominally, as vassals of the
superpower Egypt. Yet here, too, Tuchman's hazards come to mind, for Gottwald, in partic-
ular, relies on a too heavily Marxist ideology to explain the links between the Bible and his-

31
J. Van Seters, Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis (Louisville: Westminster John Knox,
1992); R. N. Whybray, The Making of the Pentateuch. A Methodological Study, JSOTSup 53 (Sheffield: Sheffield
Academic Press, 1987). See also J. Van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press,
1977); idem, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).
32
G. E. Mendenhall, The Tenth Generation: The Origin of the Biblical Tradition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins,
1973); N. Gottwald, The Tribes ofYahweh: A Sociology for the Religion of Liberated Israel 1250-1050 B.C.E.
(Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1979).
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144 Interpretation APRIL 2 0 0 3

tory, and he does not question adequately the ancient writers' reasons for presenting the
past as they do.33

This engagement with history and literature may not simply be a matter of ferreting
out the facts (although, like Machinist and others, I do think that some of the literature
provides information about the past). Nevertheless, the study of Israelite history and litera-
ture does involve the constant recognition that biblical literature was produced by people
set in time and place and shared by audiences in a process of culturally framed communi-
cation. The present book of Judges, like the larger corpus of the Bible, contains layers of
communication.

Despite considerable overlaying and intertwining as would be expected in a traditional


corpus of literature that has been created and recreated many times orally and in writing, I
find three major voices within Judges. One voice, the epic-bardic voice, may be as old as the
stories themselves. In this trajectory, heroes supported by the divine helper YHWH battle
enemies, sometimes on their own, as in the case of the rogue Samson, and sometimes with
the help of a band. Issues of booty distribution arise, leadership is shown to be temporary
and charismatic, polity is decentralized, and the religious orientation is quite different from
that of the book of Deuteronomy. Intriguing themes are preserved of human sacrifice
(Jephthah's daughter in Judg 11:29-40), of an ad hoc priesthood (Judges 17-18), and of
surprising religious paraphernalia (the ephod of Gideon in 8:24-27 and the icon of the
embezzling son in 17:1-4). The tales in Judges, as preserved, are difficult to date on stylistic
and linguistic grounds. I am convinced, however, by arguments based on prosodie style and
various linguistic criteria that at least Judges 5, "The Song of Deborah," may be from the
pre-monarchic era.34

A second voice in Judges is usually recognized among biblicists as that of a


"Deuteronomist." Success and failure in war are viewed strictly in terms of Israel's covenant
faithfulness in contrast with explanations of failure owing to poor weapons or inexperience
found in other threads of Judges. To be sure, all threads in Judges emphasize God's role in
Israel's fate. As elsewhere in the ancient Near East, political and military events depend
upon the favor of deities, but the formulaic refrains in Judges about Israel's cycle of sin,
loss, forgiveness, and success are evocative of this particular voice in the larger biblical tra-
dition, written from the perspective of the late or post-monarchic period and represented
in Deuteronomy and the framework of Joshua-2 Kings. I call this contributor the theolo-
gian of Judges; he is strongly represented in ch. 2 and in the set-pieces that introduce many
of the stories of the Judges (3:7-9,12-15; 4:1-3; 6:1-10; 10:6-16; 13:1).

33
The so-called "pioneer-settlement" model relies only upon archaeological and ethnographic evidence, and
need not concern us here, given our interest in biblical historiography's relation to history. See, e.g., R. B. Coote
and K. W. Whitelam, The Emergence of Early Israel in Historical Perspective (Sheffield: Almond, 1987). Compare,
however, the balanced approach to a * ruralization hypothesis" by L. E. Stager, "Forging an Identity" in The Oxford
History of the Biblical World, ed. M. D. Coogan (New York: Oxford, 1998) 141^42.
34
See, e.g., F. M. Cross's discussion in Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of
Israel (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973) 116 n. 14.
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B I B L I C A L FAITH A N D H I S T O R Y Interpretation 145

A third voice can be detected among those who preserve the ancient stories. While
telling tales of "olden times," this voice is remarkably non-critical about the old heroes and
lets the tales be. Perhaps representatives of this trajectory regarded their compositions as
works of fiction written in a traditional mode designed to put a spin on an unknown or
uncertain early history—so Brettler would probably suggest with his ideological approach,
which seeks to understand only those who "got the last word." Perhaps these writers regard-
ed themselves as historians in some sense, as Halpern might claim about the representatives
of any of my proposed trajectories. Further focus on this third voice uncovers some of the
major purposes and themes of the book of Judges in its current form.

I suspect that many of the stories now framed by the humanist third voice circulated
among Israelites in various forms for centuries before the composition of the book of
Judges. This is not to say that the stories in any form were true representations of the earli-
est Israelite culture or religion.
Rather, they had validity as one way
in which Israel viewed itself even in Power relationships, whether between
early times. Throughout Judges is Israelite political entities, Israelites and
found a self-image of the outsider, of
non-Israelites, or men and women,
being a "have-not" at odds with oth-
complicated and ever changing.
ers inside or outside one's own
group. The life-setting is frequently Only God's power is certain.
framed by war and reminders that
the people of YHWH never fully par-
take of the promise of land possession. Judges projects images of tension, potential disloca-
tion, and uncertainty. Noticing many of these themes of tension and violence, Marc
Brettler, Stuart Lasine, Marvin Sweeney, and Phyllis Trible, among others, have suggested
that the so-called "chaos" of Judges actually points in favor of the Davidic monarchy, and
that whosever voice controls the message of the book as it now stands belongs to a pro-
monarchic or pro-Davidic, and pro-Judean, person or group. Frequently suggested is that
the judges themselves are portrayed as failed leaders.35

I disagree. In attitudes to the monarchy, polity, gender, and warfare, all of which per-
tain ultimately to portrayals of power, the book of Judges in its received form is wonderfully
more complex. Much of this ambivalence in my view can be attributed to the talented final
composer (or composers) of the book. Judges functions not as pro-monarchic propaganda
but as a profoundly thoughtful foundation myth that incorporates some of the essential
contradictions in worldview, the self-critical national worries essential to Israelite identity.
Judges does not neatly harmonize such contradictions away but features them prominently
like Lévi-Straussian oppositions mediated by the very act of telling about them. History is

35
Brettler, "The Book of Judges," 400^402,407; S. Lasine, "Guest and Host in Judges 19: Lot's Hospitality in an
Inverted World/'/SOT 29 (1984) 50; M. Sweeney, "Davidic Polemic in the Book of Judges," VT47 (1997) 524,
526-28; P. Trible, Texts of Terror (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985) 84.
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146 Interpretation APRIL 2 0 0 3

perceived as the dynamic clash between options and possibilities in leadership (temporary
or dynastic), polity (centralized or decentralized), and other matters. In its received form,
Judges is purposefully conflicted about essential political and social issues and devastatingly
honest about the comings and goings of power. Four case studies serve us: 1) attention to
the theme of judges as good and heroic leaders; 2) an analysis of the attitude to kingship
revealed by the book of Judges; 3) a renewed examination of the recurring statement, "In
those days there were no kings"; and 4) a brief examination of Judges 1 and Judges 17-21,
which contain important messages about the vagaries and transience of power.

CASE STUDIES: THE AMBIGUITY OF POWER

It is often suggested that the biblical writers portray Gideon as a heretic of sorts in set-
ting up an iconic ephod, Jephthah as a rash man who sacrifices his own daughter, and
Samson as a boorish and foolish rogue, a poor Nazirite, a weak man easily seduced by
women.36 All are cited as poor excuses for leadership, making the cries for a king in 1
Samuel 8 understandable and necessary. However, closer attention to the larger stories of
these heroes, to the genre to which each belongs in the Israelite and wider Mediterranean
corpus, and to key recurring formulas that frame the narration in each case, produces a
very different conclusion. They are presented as great heroes and saviors, representative of
the role of "judge," and remembered positively in the tradition.

When we write of leadership in the bardic tales of Judges, we need to be careful not to
think in terms of contemporary presidential elections, heeding Tuchman's warning not to
superimpose our culture on others. The trail left by the content and language of the stories
must be followed. Tales of Gideon draw upon traditional Israelite topoi such as the theo-
phany and the miracle account, while suggesting a wider bardic tradition concerning the
exploits of warrior heroes. Like Saul and many other biblical heroes, Gideon's roots are in a
farming community. Like Abraham, Jacob, Manoah's wife and others, he experiences divine
intervention in the form of a human-appearing intermediary. The charge or commissioning
of the hero (6:14-15) and the hero's humble attempt to refuse are also formulaic (cf. Moses
in Exod 3:10,11; Jeremiah in Jer 1:4-6; and Saul in 1 Sam 9:20,21), as are his requests for a
sign of God's favor (Judg 6:17; cf. Gen 15:8; Exod 4:1; 3:11-13). The fiery consummation of
Gideon's offering is further proof of divine backing (cf. Gen 15:17; Exod 3:1-6; Judg 13:20).
His very insecurity throughout the account reveals him to be the ideal hero who recognizes
that the true power resides with YHWH. Comparisons with Moses are most obvious. The
deft way in which Gideon resolves disputes over booty (Judg 8:1-3), his bold encounter
with those who doubt him (8:10-17), and his leadership as a warrior held in esteem by ene-
mies (8:18-21) all mark him as a hero in the style of the "social bandits" explored by Eric

36
See, e.g., the discussion by L. Klein, The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges, JSOTSup 68 (Sheffield:
Almond, 1989) 63,67-68.
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BIBLICAL FAITH A N D H I S T O R Y Interpretation 147

Hobsbawm.37 Such is the nature of the biblical judge. Significantly, Gideon refuses kingship
when it is offered to him (8:23). We will return to this depiction of monarchy in a moment.

The only real negative comment in the rather lengthy cycle of stories about Gideon is
in 8:27. An ephod made by Gideon, which here seems to be not the vestment worn by
Aaron but a more self-standing icon, leads Israel "to play the harlot" and becomes a "snare"
or "lure" for Gideon and his family. As in Exodus 32, which may be an influence here, an
author may have transformed an etiology for a local cultic object into a story about
covenant breaking, akin to the episode of the golden calf. The leader responds to the peo-
ple's lack of faith (in this case the desire to have a human king rather than God) by request-
ing they give him golden earrings out of which he fashions a sacred object. The brief editor-
ial comment at 8:27 is followed by a fully positive formulaic assessment of Gideon's career,
a quick resumption of the supportive tone of the rest of the biography. Midian had been
subdued and because of Gideon the land had rest for forty years. Judges 8:32 continues, in
fact, to point out that Gideon lives to a ripe old age and that he is buried in his father's
tomb, the fitting end of a hero in the literature of the Judges and of the wider biblical cor-
pus. After he dies, of course, the Israelites resume their wicked ways and significantly "do
not perform acts of fealty towards the house of Jerubaal Gideon in accord with all the good
he had performed for Israel" (8:33-35). How to regard the ephod business? Is it the work of
an iconoclastic editor or the not untypical sort of flaw found in most traditional heroes
(including Moses and Aaron)? Whatever one's answer to this question, the stories them-
selves, read in their own literary setting, suggest that the portrayal of Gideon is no argu-
ment in favor of kingship.

The same indeed can be said of the tales of Jephthah, whose sacrifice of a daughter is
not condemned by the biblical writer who knows that Jephthah is engaging in a war vow, a
dangerous and potentially self-punishing sort of offered sacrifice designed to win the favor
of the deity (so the Moabite King in 2 Kings 3). Jephthah rises from obscurity and low
birth, another great bandit hero who engages in diplomacy with the Ammonites with wis-
dom, citing historical precedent (Judg 11). He, too, is granted a good burial in his own
town (12:7). Space precludes a full discussion of the hero Samson, whose exploits I have
explored elsewhere.38 Suffice it to say that he is a tragic hero, a tool in the hands of YHWH,
an Israelite Hercules, whose life follows the pattern of the biblical trickster with unusual
birth, success via deception, counter-trickery, downfall, apotheosis, and death. Each of the
episodes in the life of Samson partakes richly in traditional narrative style and content. The
final word on Samson concerns his great victory for Israel and his burial in the paternal
tomb (16:30-31). To see the colorful stories of Samson as a propagandistic comment on the
need for kings is surely to miss the point. Each of the flaws and tribulations of the hero

37
E. J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries
(New York: W. W. Norton, 1959).
38
S. Niditch, "Samson as Culture Hero, Trickster, and Bandit: The Empowerment of the Weak," CBQ 52 (1990)
608-24.
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148 Interpretation APRIL 2 0 0 3

contributes to his heroic character. Greatness is accompanied by inner conflict, self-doubt,


and missteps.

If the evidence, then, concerning portrayals of leadership does not support the view
that the final voice of the book writes in favor of the establishment of the monarchy, what
of specific statements concerning, or portrayals of, kingship? We have already alluded to the
conclusion of the tale of Gideon, which makes it clear that his rejection of dynastic king-
ship is a mark of his greatness to be
contrasted with his son Abimelech's
rapacious desire for the power and
Judges, however, does not conclude with a
status of a king. He takes power ille-
simple message in favor of one or another gitimately and dies ignobly at the
political model, but rather in its rich presen- hands of a woman. The editorial
tation of tradition allows the alternatives to comment is very negative and overt:
present themselves. "Thus God repaid Abimelech for the
crime... " (9:56-57). The case could
be made of course that Abimelech is
an evil ruler whereas legitimate
kingship can succeed and receive divine blessing. I agree, but the author who shapes Judges
and allows it to stand in its final form deals with the matter of monarchy soberly and criti-
cally, evincing the same sort of conflicted, equivocating point of view found in other
important biblical passages pertaining to kingship (1 Samuel 12, see esp. w. 12-17; Deut
17:14-20). The parable of Jotham in Judg 9:8-15 suggests that only a "bramble" desires
kingship, a useless, unproductive, prickly plant. Nevertheless, bramble though he is, if there
is some kind of legitimacy to the kingship, it may work. The interpretation placed in the
mouth of Jotham, propounder of the parable, sends the message that Abimelech is illegiti-
mate. He and his co-conspirators have not acted justly, literally "in truth and integrity"
(9:19). It is surely significant that the only experiment in kingship in Judges is a failure.
Again, the case could be made that Abimelech exemplifies one of those incompetent, idola-
trous northern kings, another nail in the coffin of northern legitimacy, but the suspicion of
kings is, I would suggest, more pan-biblical than is often admitted. Among biblical histori-
ans, only the Chronicler presents the ideal Davidide, clinically altered for propagandistic
purposes. What, then, is the meaning of "In those days there was no king in Israel and
everyone did what was right in his eyes"?

This refrain is found in full as an inclusio that opens and closes the portion of Judges
that runs from events that introduce a Danite founding myth through the tale of the mur-
der-rape of the Levite's wife and the resulting civil war between Benjamin and the other
tribes (17:6; 21:25). The more abbreviated version, "In those days there was no king in
Israel," serves as a transition to individual parts of the two-story cycles at 18:1 and 19:1. To
be sure, these are stories of violence against the innocent that include non-Deuteronomic
religious practices (e.g., the icons in ch. 17 and the ad hoc shrine in that tale). They are, as

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BIBLICAL F A I T H A N D H I S T O R Y Interpretation 149

Lasine notes, tales of a world turned upside down.39 It is precisely such upside down
worlds, however, that characterize foundation myths, and the last five chapters of Judges are
a foundation myth par excellence. The preserver and teller of these stories differentiates his
own time from early days as described, hence the refrain. His own time is characterized by
the people's awareness of Israelite kingship or the recent presence of kings in Israel. In his
day, iconic worship is frowned upon by the religious establishment. The Danites have long
been in their present location, and their cult center is old and well-established. The refrain
serves to underline the distance between then and now, real or imagined. But these stories,
whether genuinely ancient or new stories that seem old, are relevant and worth including in
Judges not because they support the institution of the monarchy, but because, like the cor-
pus of tales that precede the final five chapters, they grapple with issues as old as Israel's
origins and as contemporary as the author's own time, issues of power, polity, identity, and
community. And just as the judges are complex heroes whose careers are characterized by
great victories and great tragedies, so the final chapters reveal power as transient and shift-
ing. The road to a world turned right side up is rocky at best, and what constitutes the best
mode of governance remains an open question. These chapters indeed share themes with
the opening chapter of the book.

We have already alluded to the halting variety of land possession evidenced in Judges as
a whole and in the introductory first chapter, where successes by Judah and Simeon in w.
1-18 and by "the house of Joseph" in w. 22-26 are followed by less complete victories in
the remainder of the chapter.40 Most interesting in this chapter are the three vignettes that
punctuate the battle annals; indeed, the chapter as a whole is a series of annals somewhat
similar to the agonistic travelogue in Numbers 21. Each of these accounts deals with the
shifting quality of power and can be compared with elements in the final five chapters. The
cameo concerning the defeated Adonibezek in 1:5-7 emphasizes the way power can be
fleeting, how today's victor may be tomorrow's spoils, and perhaps serves as a warning that
what goes around comes around. The vignette of the happy turncoat in w. 22-26 shows
matter-of-factly how territorial control is achieved and lost as one Luz is conquered and the
turncoat who had aided the Israelites goes off to found another city in the land of the
Hittites. Finally, the interaction between Caleb and his plucky daughter Achsah shows the
ambivalence of gender roles and the ways in which'power relationships between immediate
kin are complex. While Achsah serves as her father's war gift, bestowed on Othniel, the best
hero and conqueror of Debir,41 it is she who forces her father to include water rights in his
wedding gift of land. She approaches Caleb with force and determination in the language of
1:14-15. One might translate "She pounded down from her donkey...." Women are under
men's control, be they father, brother, or husband. And yet women alter the course of events
and serve as the critical means by which men relate to one another. How do these vignettes

39
Lasine, "Guest and Host," 37.
40
See also MT v. 19 and LXX v. 18 for defeats.
41
Cf. the story of David, Saul, Merab, and Michal.
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150 Interpretation APRIL 2 0 0 3

and the larger content of ch. 1 relate to chs. 17-21?

The way in which the Danites found a city by wresting it from the peaceful Laishians
relates to the tale of Luz's founder with its theme of shifting political power. Similarly, the
shocking tale of rape, murder, reprisal, and eventual reconciliation relate to the gender
themes of Achsah's story concerning the ambivalent role of women. As Judges 1 offers two
models for polity, one involving a central leader Judah and another picturing individual
tribes fending for themselves, so Judges 19-21 offers two conflicting models, one in which
the tribes unite to root out the evil in their midst and another in which kinship ties trump
any pan-Israelite ideal. Benjamin breaks with the larger group to defend their kin in Gibeah
in spite of the evil wrought there by only some of them. Judges, however, does not conclude
with a simple message in favor of one or another political model, but rather in its rich pre-
sentation of tradition allows the alternatives to present themselves. In the end, significantly,
the Benjaminites are welcomed back into the fold through the gift of women. The opposi-
tion between central authority and kin-based tribal authority remains, however, an ongoing
issue, as the rebellions during David's reign show. Power relationships, whether between
Israelite political entities, Israelites and non-Israelites, or men and women, are complicated
and ever changing. Only God's power is certain. While the Deuteronomistic writers in
Judges try to make that tenet the organizing principle of traditions about the judges, and
while other voices in the book of Judges would not dispute this, they allow for more uncer-
tainty and ambivalence in the stories of how humans relate to one another in God's world.
It is on this level that history is myth and both are true.

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