Bible: The Old Testament

Judges

Again, Samson falls in love with a Philistine woman, Delilah. The Philistine officials urge Delilah to discover the secret of Samson’s strength. Three times, Delilah asks Samson the source of his power, and Samson lies to her each time, duping the officials in their attempts to subdue him. After a while, Samson tells her the truth, informing her that his long hair is the source of his strength. While Samson is asleep, Delilah has his hair cut and alerts the officials, who capture him and gouge out his eyes. In prison, Samson’s hair begins to grow again, and, during a Philistine religious festival, the blind Samson is brought out to entertain the crowds. Samson asks his servant to guide him to the pillars of the arena, and—crying out to God—Samson knocks down the pillars of the temple, killing the Philistine rulers.

Without a judge, Israel becomes even more corrupt. One day, a man and his concubine are accosted while spending the night in the Israelite tribe of Benjamin. When a gang of Benjamite men demand to have sex with the man, he offers them his concubine instead, and the men rape her repeatedly throughout the night until she dies. Enraged, the man brings the concubine home and cuts her into twelve pieces, sending a piece to each of the twelve tribes of Israel as a symbol of Israel’s corruption. The rest of Israel rallies together in opposition to the tribe of Benjamin, and, with God’s help, the united tribes kill more than 25,000 Benjamites. Israel grieves for its lost tribe and helps the remaining Benjamites repopulate their land.

Analysis

Biblical scholars typically group the books of Joshua and Judges together, noting how well the two works complement each other. On the one hand, Joshua purports to tell a chronological history of the Hebrew conquest of Canaan, but the account and the conquest itself seem too perfect to be accurate. In contrast, Judges is a compilation of myths about the early years of the Israelite settlement. While the stories are indeed fanciful, they suggest a gradual and disjointed occupation of the promised land that is probably more true to history than the Book of Joshua. While Joshua provides a methodical description of the various battles and an explanation of the distribution of land, Judges reveals the stories that the Israelite conquerors told as they gradually took over.

These individual accounts of Israel’s judges are myths in the true sense of the word—not because they are false but because they are important to early Hebrew culture. The central theme of these myths is heroic struggle, chiefly of marginalized or oppressed people. The Israelites in the Book of Judges are strangers in a land they have recently conquered, and they are pressured from all sides by powerful regimes. Israel’s judges manifest the virtues of this marginalized status. Jephthah is the son of a prostitute. The narrator takes pains to note that Ehud is left-handed, and it is this characteristic that enables Ehud to draw his sword and kill the Moabite king by surprise. Even more important than Deborah as a female hero is Jael, who uses the pretense of feminine warmth to draw a great commander into her tent, comforting him before she kills him.

The myth of Samson may be more appropriately described as an epic, because it is a relatively long story concerning the development of a single, extraordinary hero who, it might be said, is a metaphor for ancient Israel itself. Samson epitomizes some interesting dualities—brute nature versus civilized culture, strength versus weakness, Hebrew versus Philistine. What is unique to this story and to Judges as a whole, is that, unlike earlier books, the struggle between these opposing forces does not serve to develop irony or reversal. For Samson, the line between these distinctions is blurred. Samson—defined more by his identity as a Nazirite—is a displaced man, roaming back and forth between his home and Philistine, falling in love with Philistine women yet terrorizing the Philistines, and eventually suffering betrayal by the Israelites in return. It is only when Samson destroys the temple, crying out, “Let me die with the Philistines!” that Israel is saved through Samson’s service (16:30). The epic of Samson shows that Israel’s struggle—and its salvation—consists less of cleansing foreign influences from the land than of grappling with those influences while remaining faithful to God.

The stories in Judges are filled with extreme violence. This violence may cause us to question how God can be good if the greater part of the tribe of Benjamin is killed to make a religious point, or if Jephthah must keep his promise to God by killing his daughter. One answer is that the abundant violence in Israel is not due to God’s wrath but to Israel’s wickedness. Israel promiscuously worships other gods and insists on returning to evil despite God’s help. Another, more subtle answer, is that death in Judges is not always an absolute evil but is, at times, a thing of beauty. The tales in Judges begin to develop the notion of sacrifice—the idea that one person’s death can be meaningful to another person, for religious or ethical reasons. Samson’s death saves Israel from Philistine persecution, and Sisera’s death at Jael’s hands is a poignant symbol of Israel’s victory to be celebrated in song (5:24–30). The writer tells us that the sacrifice of Jephthah’s virgin daughter becomes a tradition among the Israelites, an annual celebration of the story by adolescent girls to symbolize passage from innocence into womanhood (11:39–40).