Judges, as described in the Bible, are more like heroes who rescue Israel from oppression. “Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders,” (Judges 2:16). This book alternates between times of peace and captivity for the Israelites, with peacetime being overseen by a judge. Israel has no king during these years and often acts against the will of God, causing him to become angry, which leads to him allowing Israel to be taken over, then a judge will save them and the cycle begins again. There are about a dozen named judges, but I want to focus on three: Deborah, Gideon and Samson.
Deborah, a prophet and Israel’s leader at the time, is the first real heroine of the Bible. She asks a man to lead the Israelite army against the Canaanites and assures God will deliver the enemy into his hands, despite the Canaanites having “900 chariots.” However, the man refuses to go without Deborah, prompting her to respond, “‘Certainly I will go with you… But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman’” (Judges 4:9). Deborah defeats Sisera’s force in battle, but Sisera himself escapes the battle to a nearby tribe. He enters the tent of a woman named Jael, who gives him milk and allows him to sleep. While Sisera sleeps, Jael hammers a tent spike through his temple.
“The Song of Deborah” glorifies her victory in battle and gives due credit to Jael. A warrior woman hasn’t appeared in the Bible yet, and praising another woman for killing a man seems almost ludicrous when I look back at the earlier books. When the Old Testament has been so against women having any sort of standing equal to men, it was interesting to read about a woman leading God’s chosen people, if only for two chapters.
Some decades after Deborah the Israelites again fall to a rival nation, this time the Midianites. Gideon then rises up to save his people. In a situation similar to the story of Jericho, Gideon faces a force that vastly outnumbers his own. Instead of trumpets and shouts to bring down a wall, Gideon surrounds an enemy camp with 300 men armed with torches and jars. On his command they light the torches, smash the jars and watch as the entire enemy encampment plunges into chaos. The Midianites begin killing each other, then run away. Gideon pursues and kills them.
Samson is the hero of heroes in Judges. He reminds me of Hercules, or Achilles. Samson is born to a barren mother after an angel visits her; he kills a lion with his bare hands; he murders 30 Philistines over the answer to a riddle; he uses torches tied to 300 foxes to burn Philistine lands; he kills 1000 more with a donkey’s jawbone; and he ripped a city’s gates from their foundation. His incredible strength is given to him by God through his hair, which must never be cut. His lover Delilah eventually betrays him (shades of Hercules) by telling this secret to the Philistine leaders. They cut his hair and weaken him (shades of Achilles’ heel), then tie him up and gouge out his eyes. After his hair grows back a bit, Samson dies by pulling a Philistine temple on himself, killing thousands more who had come to see Samson chained.
The stories are fantastically entertaining. A king so fat an assassin kills him with a knife that gets stuck in the king’s belly. Gideon’s bastard kills his 70 legitimate brothers to take power. The tribes of Israel nearly eradicate their fellow tribe of Benjamin. These stories echo other cultures’ mythology but focus on Jehovah as opposed to Zeus or Odin. The themes set forth in the earlier books are strengthened: God is terrifying and should be feared; Israel will falter if they associate with other peoples; power comes through violence. They were entertaining to read in the same way as the Iliad or Gilgamesh are.
But then one of the last stories of the book brings us back to the brutal barbarism of the culture. A man and his concubine enter a town for the night and an old man takes them into his home.
While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him.”
The owner of the house went outside and said to them, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this outrageous thing. Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But as for this man, don’t do such an outrageous thing.”
But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.
When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold.28 He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home. (Judges 19:22-28)
To avoid the “outrageous” act of sodomy, the man offers his virgin daughter to be gang-raped. His guest throws his concubine outside to them, where she is raped to death. He then throws her on his donkey and, later, sends her body parts to the tribes of Israel as some sort of call to arms. The Israelites take offense to her being raped to death, but had she lived what would happen? Nothing? That is outrageous.
Stories like this, or of a man sacrificing his daughter to God for a victory against his enemies (Judges 11:34-40), make me view the stories of the Bible as mythology of an ancient people far more than a relevant religious text. The Bible has undeniable social and societal worth, and should be studied as a look into the Hebrew culture just as we do the Greeks of Romans. But the stories within the Bible chip away at the idea, for me, of a perfect and just God.
Thank you for reading,