Book of Judges (2 sessions)


Boling, Robert G.  Judges.  Part of the Anchor Bible series, W.F. Allbright and David Noel Freedman general editors.  (Doubleday, Garden City, 1975).

Niditch, Susan.  Judges.  Part of the Old Testament Library series, editorial advisory board Brown, Newsome, Petersen. (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2008).

Scherman, Rabbi Nosson.  The Prophets: Joshua / Judges: The early prophets with  commentary anthologized from the Rabbinic writings.  (Mesorah Publications, New York, 2000).

Schneider, Tammi J.  Judges.  Part of the Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry series, David W. Cotter editor.  (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 2000).


We are very used to the idea of turning to Scripture for ‘answers’.  A deeper reading my be that we turn to Scripture to confront and meditate upon the big questions.  Not expecting or demanding answers, but guidance in our asking and thinking.

In Rabbinic tradition Samuel is the author of the Book of Judges.


Judges 1 contains substantial amounts of pre-monarchical material but it “reflects a worldview that is critical and wary of monarchic, centralized leadership and is convinced that human power is unstable and shifting.”  p 37 Niditch

Verse one – who should go up in battle?  Judah.  The rabbis say this was done by use of the Ummim and Thumim.

Judah is given some primacy here – last real clan level survivor after Babylon?

Asks his brother Simeon (these two sons of Jacob/Israel with Leah).(there were four sons of Leah – Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah – in that order.)  Leah was “unloved”, Rachel was Jacob/Israel’s real desire.

Two sisters, daughters of Laban.  See Genesis 29 and following.

Cutting off part of hands and feet – rendered “sub-human” or doglike, to gather scraps under the table.  “As I did, so God has repaid me” – much more of a warning or even lament than a real note of triumph here.  What the later kings will do will cause God to punish the nation over and over again.

Achsah – won as a prize for victory speaks up and claims from her father water rights that would have been needed to survive in the area and prosper.  A woman once again struggles and wins (a theme within Judges and scripture).

IRON CHARIOTS – not really, not until after Babylonian captivity.  But chariots did exist much earlier and along with horses induced great fear.  Some had knives etc. attached to the wheels.  Iron age began in about the time of the Judges (1200 BCE) but no archeology supports iron chariots at this time (and possibly the dating of iron age to this time is dependent on the Judges reference).


Baal means lord, refers to the idols and gods of the Canaanites.

The lure of idolatry is consistently cited by the prophets as the sin of the whole people that causes God to be angry and to punish them.


The pattern in Judges: sinfulness leads to troubles and peril, the people call out to God in repentance and need, God raises up a leader to rescue them.

Othniel filled with spirit of God – helps to define the leadership of the judges, becomes the ‘definition’.

Ehud straps weapon on his right leg – to draw with his left hand.  Norm would have been to have the weapon on the left side to draw with the right hand.  Hence he would only have been ‘patted down’ on the left.

Niditch p. 57 “Ehud’s lefty status is symbolically appropriate for judges who are often liminal or marginal, in some cultural sense – of illegitimate birth like Jephthah, female like Deborah, or wild and unsocialized like Samson.  The left-handedness also allows for the particular deception in this pattern of the trickster.”

Ehud tale has strong details and perhaps lots of euphemisms.  Were the people ordered out so that the king could relieve himself?  Did they stay out because of the smell that they thought was gas but came from his mortal wound?  The upper / cool room a bathroom?  The throne a reference to toilet?  If so – Samuel and David story plays against it.    OR, perhaps simply a summer and breezier room.  The Hebrew is ambiguous but Niditch seems to go with the first reading.

Niditch sees a great deal of sexual imagery and undertones to this scene also.  Thrusting, phallic symbol of sword.  Interplay of violence and sexuality …

Rabbi’s note that Eglon the king of Moab stands up when told by Ehud that he has a message from God.  This is interpreted as an act of respect toward God and Eglon, though killed, is rewarded – Ruth , the ancestress of David is descended from him!


Deborah is described as both a judge and prophetess.

“Wife of Lapidoth” in NAB, “a fiery woman” in JPS text.  This is always a problem when names mean something – which did the author intend?

The killing of Sisera by Jael is a complicated tale.  A play on the normal story of “woman hides soldier/male” such as was the case with Rahab in Joshua and Jericho.  Here she seems to take care of him – something to drink, to eat, to cover up with, and to guard.  Then she sneaks in to kill him with a hammer and a stake.  Jael’s husband, Heber the Kenite, was an ally of Sisera’s king – hence he expected that Jael would be bound by her husbands wishes.


Niditch translation at the end of the song is not ‘at her feet, at her feet’ but “between her legs, between her legs”.  Coupled with “coming to him softly there is a strong undertone of sexuality in this song / story.  In stories of conquest of that time and even to today – the victor rapes the conquered women.  Here the woman “rapes” the fallen general / man.

The Song of Deborah may be one of the oldest pieces contained in the bible.  Celebrates both Jael and Deborah and the victory they helped God bring about – from their point of view.

Deborah in Hebrew means ‘bee’ – which stings in defense, but is also associated with honey.

rabbis say – Deborah is blessed by women in the tent – all the women in Israel, ancient and living will bless Jael because without her and her act Israel might have ceased to be.

“The comparison of Jael to the most righteous women in Jewish history provides the perspective in which her act should be understood.  To kill was completely out of character for her; she did only for the sake of Israel.  Greatness is demonstrated not when one acts naturally, but when one musters the strength to overcome one’s inclinations.”  P 149


Niditch p. 89 : “Like Joshua, Moses, and others called by God, he (Gideon) receives a charge and signs as confirmation of his future success, interacting with a divine messenger or intermediary.  Even his attempt to refuse the call marks him as the quintessential biblical hero.”

The text here, as in Genesis, wavers – is the man God or an angel?  Later texts hesitated giving God any human characteristics, earlier ones less reluctant.

Rabbis say that Gideon was right to ask for a sign of whether this was a revelation from God – one’s sins might cause one to imagine these sorts of things.

Gideon, in darkness, is to destroy the altar of Baal (Canaanite / Midianite god) and the sacred pole or Asherah (which represented the goddess).  Uses the wood from the pole to burn his offering – an act of calculated insult added to injury.


Gideon now defeats the Midianites with a force of just 300 men.  Those who lapped like dogs (the lowliest of the soldiers?).  The rabbis say: those who knelt were excluded from the army because their posture indicated that they were in the habit of prostrating themselves to idols.

Even a victory of 32,000 against 135,000 would have been miraculous!  Point is – victory by this force on its own was unthinkable.

In the dream / interpretation in Hebrew the root word for bread also means to make war.

Rabbis say: this took place during Passover, on the second day of which Jews bring the annual offering of barley – the Omer offering in the temple.  This offering symbolizes the recognition that all blessings come from God, even the produce of the fields in which men labor.  It reminded Gideon and his warriors that the field of battle, like the field of grain is under God’s control.




Gideon rejects the idea of becoming Israel’s king but then he (or the boy’s mother) names one of his sons “Abimelech” = My Father the King.  This passage points out that as great as Gideon was – he also had his failings.  What was the ephod?  A priestly vestment?  A statue?  no one seems to know.

At the beginning of the chapter Ephraim’s troops are angry that the others had the major portion of booty while they had captured the kings.  Gideon is able to diffuse their anger by complimenting them.

In the second section Gideon asks the leaders of small towns, in whose behalf he is going into battle to free (along with Israel of course) but they do not help him – not believing that such a small force would win.  They are punished later for not helping despite their hunger.


This is Gideon’s son Abimelech, not some other.

Niditch notes on page 114:  “It has often been suggested that the book of Judges projects an image of a period of national failure and political chaos, making necessary the establishment of the monarchy.  In this commentary I make the case that Judges provides a more complex, ambivalent, and self-critical portrait of the monarchy and of preceding experiments in statehood.”

(My reading had been different – that period of Judges was thought to be superior to kings IF IF IF the people had remained faithful in the interim times)

Abimelech does not really rule a nation – he rules multiple clans, a portion of the whole..  He does not inherit power but seizes it with violence, rules with violence, and dies by violence.  Makes the point that legitimate (later) kingship will require divine selection and recognition of God.  The story of the trees emphasizes that Abimelech is lowly and unworthy – like thornbush.

The rabbis say: the olive tree symbolized Othniel; the fig tree Deborah who was sweet for Israel; the grapevine symbolized Gideon because wine is poured onto an altar and Gideon built an altar.  Abimelech was compared to a thorn – which does no one any good.  In fact does harm by being very flammable and thus endangers all the trees.

Abimelech salted the fields to kill the vineyards and deprive the rebels of a way to live.  Tree parallel here?

Abimelech appears to defeat his enemies in Schechem – only to die in the end from a blow delivered by a woman.


As is typical through the book – Israel falls back into idol worship after a while, falls into oppression, comes to its sense, repents, and will be once again rescued by God.

Niditch notes in general: “The enemies list is necessary to distinguish “us” from “them”.  A comparable process of self definition emerges in the tales of Samson and the Philistines.  The are “the enemy” not because they are so different from Israel, as the writers would have us believe, but because they are regarded as so similar to Israel, sharing many of the same beliefs and aspirations.”

The rabbis note that 7 gods are mentioned.  They say that Israel’s behavior is like a type of bean that is very bitter but after being boiled seven times it turns sweet enough to be served as a dessert.


Then and now – a harkening back to the past to justify enmity!  Ammon is seeking to exploit weakness of Israelites to expand his territory, to which he has no strong claim.  It has been 300 years since those events took place besides.  (today?)

Jepthah is a complicated person – beginning as a ‘social bandit’ and outcast.  The emphasis again – the Lord chooses from the unlikely.

Rivalry between brothers is a biblical theme: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and more.  Often the younger is chosen at the expense of the older (David …)

Niditch notes p. 133: “the tale of Jepthah’s daughter, poignant and troubling, has to do with keeping one’s word in a culture of vow making and covenants.”

hence all the rabbinic cautions against the careless making of vows!

extensive rabbinic commentary on Jepthah’s vow.  Some: he should have set aside the monetary equivalent of his daughter; others- invalid vow, only if it had been an acceptable animal could it have been valid; others – he is to be judged harshly for not seeking Torah advice; still others – he built a house for his daughter where she lived in solitude except for 4 days a year when her friends could visit to mourn with her her fate.  Hence she was a figurative offering only.  Finally – others say he did in fact sacrifice her for which he deserves great punishment, as a non scholar he should have sought input, as a ruler / leader he did what he thought was best without consulting the right people.

God punished him by giving him a disease in which his limbs atrophied and fell from his body, so that he died in stages.


Once again a dispute over booty emerges within Israel.  The Ephraimites and Jepthah have a dispute.

The rabbis say the Ephraimites shared a speech defect – they could not say “sh” sound.


Samson has a miraculous birth – as did Isaac and others before him, as did John the Baptist and Jesus after him.  Pattern emerges.

The name Samson translates to Sun-child.

To be holy is to be set apart – this is what the Nazirite vows accomplish – not drinking, not cutting hair etc.  As he is to be holy – so too is Israel called to be holy.  Yet they find they cannot be …

The rabbis note that if you want your child to be great you begin before they are even conceived to reform and improve yourselves.

The Philistines were the Sea People.  They lived along the coast and were distinctly different from other inhabitants of the region.  They raised and ate pigs.  Apparently they were beardless and less hairy than Semitic peoples.

rabbis say that he did not lead an army, he provoked and fought the Philistines by himself because the people were too weak-willed to help at that point.

note that Samson SAW his Philistine brides as beautiful.  This was the beginning of his downfall, he ended up being blinded!


Niditch p. 154:”Some scholars have treated Samson as a foolish dolt, an antihero, or a poor leader who makes the cries for a king “ that come later seem like a good idea.   “Samson is a complex, epic-style here who would be incomplete without flaws.  His dangerous womanizing and his hubris, like his clever use of sayings and riddles and his Herculean acts of strength, all mark him as an Israelite version of an international character type …”



The Israelites don’t see any way to control or guide Samson – he fights on their behalf but without full support.   They seem to prefer being subject to the  Philistines to being in full and open revolt.

at the end of the chapter the rabbis note that Samson judged 20 years – but while the Philistines still ruled.  “Because the people were not worthy of complete salvation, God permitted Samson to succeed only in loosening the oppressor’s grip, but not ending it.”


Delilah – may have root in ‘night’ (lilah) or the word ‘slight, small’  Rabbis say it is a play on the Hebrew word for ‘depleted’, as in ‘depleted his strength’.

If it was really his hair – why does not everyone under a Nazirite vow have superhuman strength?  Rabbis say – not the hair but his dedication to God.  Due to his sin God departed from him and hence so did his strength.  But afterwards, he repented, at the same time his hair began to re-grow, and his strength came back.

Niditch p 168:”Like Hercules and other great superheroes of tradition, Samson is a complex character, beloved by a deity, capable of grand and clever acts of deception, artful in his use of language , and able to perform superhuman feats.  He is susceptible to women’s attractions and to the elusion that his great power is self-generated.  By succumbing to Delilah, he takes his place with Odysseus and other epic heroes who should keep key aspects of their identities to themselves.  Instead, they boast by word or by action.”

With long hair Samson comes across as wild, as a force of nature.  With cutting it – humbled, almost like being castrated.  Reduced to infancy (bald, asleep in Delilah’s lap).  Erotic undertone of bondage, of Delilah teasing and subduing him.

the remainder of the book:

The rabbis: the people lived up to their Godly mission for the overwhelming majority of its 369 years, the events of these following chapters are moral aberrations that could have happened only because there was no king – no strong central moral authority.  “On the one hand, the bulk of the people, left to its own devices without a monarch, maintained a high level of devotion to the Torah.  On the other hand, the lack of such authority also led to these two isolated instances of truly shocking behavior.”  p 215

CHAPTER 17 & 18

Chapter 17 and 18 are the foundational myth for the tribe of Dan

Apparently Micah stole money from his mother, she cursed him, he repented and returned the money.  This reconciliation led to the mother commissioning 2 icons and giving them to him.  He then founds the ceremonial cult / a house sanctuary.  Chapels of rich Christians in other times?   The rabbis see this, well-intentioned or not, as a terrible outrage and violation of the most basic commandments.

There was no king ….  not necessarily a longing for a king but a way of saying ‘things were different then’.


This story has strong parallels to Sodom and Gomorrah story in Genesis.

story begins with the exaggerated hospitality of the place and time.  This sets up the horror of the lack of hospitality and violence later in the story.  The end result is civil war within Israel.

The concubine woman was a second wife – lower in status than the first wife, higher than a mistress.  Her defiance of her husband may have merely been to have left him and returned to her own family – perhaps out of discontent with her role and status.

The rabbis deal with the question – why did she leave him?  Because he was angry.  Why was he angry?  He found a fly in his soup said some, she had bad personal hygiene said others.  Both said others still – he overlooked the first but exploded on the second matter.  The Talmud means to teach that a person’s overreaction to a trivial problem can result in terrible outcomes!  His anger led to her leaving which then led to civil war.

Niditch p. 192 “The woman has no voice throughout the men’s conversation, a reminder that the tale has to do with relations between the men.”

who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them?”  didn’t stop in Jerusalem because it was ‘them’ / Jebusites.  But then they stop in an Israelite city only to have the horror happen.  There are ample similar Greek tales.

Here, as with Sodom and Gomorrah – the underlying issue is NOT homosexuality as much as it is abuse and bullying of the stranger, of making a man into less than a man (woman).  Rabbinic tradition is that Sodom was so rich that people wanted to move there – so they deliberately mistreated visitors.  Not so with Gibeah who had this elderly foreign resident.  In Sodom the whole population participated while in Gibeah only some did.    The people in Gibeah did not intend to kill her but did badly abuse her and hence were the cause of moral revulsion.


Religious war pattern:

  • mustering for war
  • requesting an oracle
  • response of God
  • going to battle
  • outcome.

Rabbis: why did Benjamin refuse to listen?  Because they considered this a revolting INTERNAL act that they wanted to avenge alone.  The other tribes rejected that idea – saw it as a stain upon the whole nation.

rabbis also note – they did stop to ask God who should lead – but did NOT ask if they should go to war at all.  If they had asked God would have told them to seek reconciliation.


this was a socially sanctioned trafficking in women, part of peace-making process, bringing the clans back together.  Ancient, marrying of foreign wives by kings continued up to 100 years ago!

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