On the Book of Judges

It’s been some time since I’ve read through Judges, and the atrocities within it are astonishing. Even the sacred author, writing probably at a much later time, during the Israelite monarchy, apologises in many places for the evils described by saying several times that:

“This was in the days before any king ruled in Israel, when men lived by the best light they had.”

Judges, 21: 24

Obviously coming from a different tradition, and one that sought to glorify the Israelite hero Iosue/Joshua, the book of Joshua had made very quick work of the settlement of the Holy Land, accomplished in Joshua’s own life-time and divided out among the tribes by himself and the high-priest Eleazar. But now, in the book of Judges, we are given a rather different sequence of events. Many of those great bloodbaths of Joshua have not quite occurred and the tribes are often portrayed as either not able to take over the lands that have been assigned to them or are living in some type of peaceful coexistence with the inhabitants of the land. Anyhow, the land is taken, but much more slowly than in the book of Joshua. However, the Chanaanites here are truly a force to reckon with, and in the places where coexistence became necessary, this is noted in a negative manner by the author of the book of Judges and given as a sort-of ongoing temptation and test by God of the Israelites’ fidelity to Him.

“And now the Lord’s angel removed from Galgal to the place that is called Lamentation. And his message was, ‘I have taken you away from Egypt, and brought you to this land in fulfilment of the promise I made to your fathers, an oath irrevocable. But you, too, had your part to play; you were to make no terms with the men who dwelt in it, you were to overthrow every altar of theirs. How is it that you have disobeyed My command? With good reason I have spared them utter destruction, so that there may be enemies at your side, and gods of the enemy, ready to compass your downfall. And all the sons of Israel wept aloud at the angel’s message; that is why the place was called Lamentation.”

Judges, 2: 1-4

And the rest of the book is a narrative of the people repeatedly falling into the trap of idolatry, worked through their association and intermarriage with the enemies at their side, and when they fell in worship before the gods of the enemy, their downfall was certain. And each time they called for assistance and God was able to raise up warrior captains (rulers or judges of the people) that could lead armies composed of men from various combinations of the twelve tribes, to deliver portions of the Israelite people from subjugation to various tribes and princes. So, when the Mesopotamians invaded under Chusan-Rasathaim, Othoniel son of Cenez was the great hero. And when Eglon of Moab attacked with the aid of the Ammonites and the Amelecites, Aod son of Gera (a Benjaminite), rose to the occasion. Other judges quickly followed: Samgar son of Anath, Debbora wife of Lapidoth, Gedeon son of Ioas, Abimelech son of Gedeon, Thola son of Phua, Iair the Galaadite, and Iephte son of Galaad. It seems meaningless to name all these judges, whom we hardly ever hear off at Mass or in Bible study. But we must understand that these were popular heroes of the Hebrew nation, to which our Lord, His Mother and the Holy Apostles belonged. It’s worth recognising at least a few of the names, such as the prophetess Debbora and Gedeon who raided and destroyed a vast camp of Madianites with only three hundred men and a bag of tactics. And then after Abesan of Bethlehem, Ahialon of Zabulon and Abdon son of Illel of Pharathon, we come to the legendary Nazarite, Samson son of Manue the Danite, who judged Israel for twenty years and whom primary school children could tell us about in great detail.

The last part of the book is a type of appendix that tells firstly of the origins of the Danite religion in the north of the Holy Land (a syncretist religion that seems to have included the national religion, with origins in chapters seventeen and eighteen) and the near destruction of the tribe of Benjamin for sexual immorality and murder. Both of these, as mentioned above, are apologised for by the writer of Judges as an unfortunate state of events that existed before there was a king to unite the tribes of Israel, at a time when the people didn’t have a common catechism and acted according to their own local wisdom.

“It was in Rohob their city lay, and the men of Dan rebuilt it to make their home in it, calling it Dan, after their ancestor that was Israel’s son, and Lais no longer. And there they set up the image; the tribe of Dan had its own priests down to the day when it went into exile, descended from Moses’ son Gersam, and his son Jonathan. All the time God’s house was at Silo, there in Dan stood Michas’ image. So it was in the old days, before a king ruled in Israel.”

Judges, 18: 28-31

The tabernacle was at Silo and the priests of Aaron’s family (the only ones permitted by the Law of Moses), but the Danites had acquired an order of priests of Moses’ family, giving worship to an idol. Interesting. The book ends with the terrible civil war that was raised against the tribe of Benjamin by all the others, who had been horrified by the abuse and murder of a woman, who happened to be the wife of a Levite from Bethlehem-Juda (chapters nineteen to twenty-one). Thousands seem to have died in the battle, until only six hundred men of Benjamin remained, every other member of that tribe being ruthlessly destroyed. The end of the book is the ugly search for wives for the six hundred, so that the tribe might have a chance to survive after all. I’d rather pass over that now and get over to the book of Ruth, which tells of the immediate generations before the advent of King David. If this was ‘the best light men had,’ it was an evil time. And yet, I don’t think we’ve come really far from all that, have we? Human nature is a wretched thing.

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