March 31, 2008

Attention Montreal-based readers!

Would you be interested in talking with me about the Bible face-to-face, in addition to reading about it on Daily Breadcrumbs? I'm thinking of starting up a monthly Montreal-area meet-up. We'll focus on the same texts I'm writing about for Daily Breadcrumbs, and we'll take a similar approach: literary, historical, philosophical, and (sometimes) religious. Everyone will be welcome, regardless of religious belief or non-belief. Meetings will take place once a month on Saturday afternoons.

If you want to participate, leave a comment so I can gauge the level of interest!

(The girl behind the Breadcrumbs)

Ruth 1-4: A welcome interlude

(Today's passage covers the story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz.)

If you read yesterday's gripe about the book of Judges, and then read the book of Ruth, you'll understand why I love it so much. I've never read it before, but it has suddenly become one of my favourite books.

In a nutshell, for those who haven't had the time to read it yourselves (though I highly recommend that you do), the book of Ruth centres around three main characters: Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. Naomi, a married woman from Bethlehem in Judah, leaves to Moab with her husband and two sons in order to escape a famine in Israel. There, her husband dies, her sons marry Moabite women, and then they too die, leaving only Naomi and her daughters-in-law.

After ten years, Naomi sees the famine has ended and returns to her hometown of Bethlehem. She tries to dissuade her daughters-in-law from following her, and eventually convinces one of them -- Orpah -- to turn back. But Ruth, the other daughter-in-law, holds fast, with one of the most touching speeches in the Bible to date: "Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me." (Ruth 1:16, NIV) Don't you wish someone would talk to you that way?

Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem in time for the barley harvest, dead broke. So Ruth goes out into the fields to collect gleanings from behind the harvesters. (In ancient Israel, it was considered an act of charity to leave the gleanings in your field for the poor to collect.) Unbeknownst to her, she winds up gleaning in the field of a near-kinsman of Naomi's, a man named Boaz.

In a series of touching and beautiful encounters, Ruth and Boaz develop a deep affection. Naomi finally convinces Ruth that it's time to find another husband, so Ruth dresses up and perfumes herself and lies at Boaz's feet on the threshing floor. Boaz realizes what has happened, expresses gratitude that Ruth has continued to pursue him (and not younger men), and promises to do his "duty as a kinsman" if the one living closer kinsman will not. (As we recall from Gen. 38, if a woman's husband died, she was supposed to marry his brother, and the children from that union would continue the inheritance of the dead, first husband.)

Boaz finds the close kinsman, determines that he doesn't want Naomi's late husband's inheritance if it means also marrying Ruth, and marries her himself. Ruth and Boaz have a son, and Naomi is like a second mother to him. This son, Obed, is King David's grandfather.

And there you have it: no divine intervention, no murders, no wars. Just a simple, domestic love story with a happy ending. What a welcome change after the book of Judges.

A note to my Jewish readers: if you have been following along in the Hebrew Bible, you may be wondering what the heck the book of Ruth is doing here. In the Hebrew Bible, Ruth comes much later, as part of the Ketuvim, after all the prophets. The reason Ruth is here is that I am following the book order in Back to the Bible, which follows the Protestant arrangement of books, so the order may be slightly different from what you are used to. Never fear! The next readings will be back on track with 1 Samuel, so we'll all be on the same proverbial page again.

March 30, 2008

Final Reflections on Judges

Judges has been quite the emotional roller-coaster. Every time you think it can't get more depraved and bloody, it just keeps getting worse.

The first thing we have to realize is despite the title, the "judges" are not in fact judges but war-leaders. Every one of the judges in the text has daring, bloody exploits, and not one of them is shown leading the country in peace-time. In fact, the judges in the book are mostly not the sort of people you'd want ruling you in peace-time: most of them seem to have some pretty deep psychological problems.

The book of Judges is covers 400 years of wars, both foreign and civil. For every hero who charges off and defeats the massed hordes of Midianites with a force of only 300 men (Gideon, Judg. 7), there's another depraved soul who kills his 70 half-brothers and slaughters Israelite villages (Abimelech, his son, Judg. 8). For every cunning, who-would-have-seen-it-coming underdog who takes down a fat, self-righteous king (Eglon, Judg. 3; Jael, Judg. 4-5), there's a tribe who decides to use force of arms to take down their fellow Israelites and conquer their land (Dan, Judg. 18). It's not a pretty picture.

Judges also shows us how some Genesis stories might have turned out if God didn't step in at the last minute to save the day. We know that God tested Abraham's faith by telling him to kill his son, Isaac. (Gen. 22) But every Bible-school-child knows that God stayed Abraham's hand at the land minute and had Abraham sacrifice a ram instead. Jephthah, in Judg. 11, doesn't get that lucky. He promises to sacrifice the first thing that greets him after his victorious conquest against the Ammonites. When that "thing" turns out to be his only daughter, his only child, God doesn't tell Jephthah to stop. He is forced to complete the sacrifice so that all Israel will mourn his daughter until the end of time.

Similarly, God saves Lot from sodomy in Gen. 19. He even saves Lot's two virgin daughters from being deflowered by the mob. For their crimes, God strikes the men of Sodom blind, and then destroys their city. In Judg. 19, a Levite in the same situation doesn't have that deus ex machina. Instead, the mob rapes his concubine all night, and God does nothing to stop it. The Levite eventually goes home, kills his wife, and sparks the biggest civil war in the whole book, nearly wiping out the entire tribe of Benjaminites.

As the text is constantly reminding us, there were no kings at this time, and every man did as he wished. The author seems to be blaming these horrid episodes on the lack of a monarch: if only there were a king, this wouldn't have happened. But, as we'll see starting in the next book big (Samuel), Israel doesn't become much better once they do have a king. It's enough to make you start questioning human nature... or at least what makes compelling literature.

March 29, 2008

Breadcrumb: This time, we'll be ready

There's nothing worse for a besieging, 400,000-man army than to run out of food just as the battles are about to start. This is why Israel prepares for their war by sending 10% of their army as scouts to gather food for their comrades at Gibeah. (Judg. 20:9-10) This also saves the bulk of the army from gathering up crops themselves. In the end, it probably didn't make much of a difference, as the battle only lasted three days. Still, it's good to know that if things had gone on longer, at least the army wouldn't die of starvation.

March 28, 2008

Breadcrumb: Who's the priest?

In Judg. 20:28, we're right in the middle of the civil war between Israel and Benjamin. The Israelites ask for counsel from God via his priest, Phinehas. Wait a minute, here! This is the same Phinehas who's Aaron's grandson, who was alive during the desert wanderings and the conquest of Israel. But we've read in the book of Judges that whole generations (perhaps as much as 400 years) have passed since the conquest of Canaan. This means either the civil war takes place much earlier, and out of sequence, or that Phineas is a throw-back to the early Genesis genealogies, where people lived hundreds of years. Myself, I think the former is more likely.

March 27, 2008

Judges 19-21: And you thought Sodom and Gomorrah was bad

(Today's passage covers the story of a Levite and his concubine, and how his actions sparked a civil war in Israel that nearly wiped out the entire Benjaminite tribe.)

You remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, don't you? (Gen. 19) Lot (Abraham's nephew) was staying with some strangers in Sodom, when the men of the village wanted to rape him. Lot's host offered his two virgin daughters, but before he gave them to the mob, God struck the men of Sodom blind and then destroyed the city.

Things didn't work out so well for a certain Levite who had the same experience in Judg. 19.

The set-up is the same: the Levite is staying in Gibeah, a city in Benjamin. Again, the mob assembles and demands his host, an old man from Ephraim, bring out the guest so that they can sleep with him. The host offers his own virgin daughter and the Levite's concubine. The mob doesn't listen, but they take the concubine anyway and rape her all night. (Judg. 19:18-25)

In the morning, the Levite finds his concubine prone on his doorstep, unable even to get up onto his donkey; he has to put her on himself. He takes her home and promptly kills her, chops her up into twelve pieces, and sends a piece to each of the twelve tribes of Israel. (Judg. 19:26-30)

You'd think this would be brutality enough. We're just getting started.

The Israelites are incensed at the Benjaminites. They mass an army of 400,000 warriors. They give Benjamin a chance to give up the men of Gibeah; Benjamin instead masses an army of 26,700 warriors to fight against them. Thus ensues one of the bloodiest civil wars in the Bible to date. (Judg. 20:1-17)

In brief, the battles are short and bloody. The first two days, the Benjaminites hold their own against vastly superior numbers and kill 40,000 Israelites. The Israelites grieve and pray to God, who tells them to continue the attack. On the third day, the Israelites set an ambush, lure the Benjaminites out of the city, slaughter 25,000 of them, and burn Gibeah to the ground. The only remaining Benjaminites -- 600 of them -- take refuge in a cave for four months. (Judg. 20:18-47)

You'd think this would be the end of it. It isn't.

The Israelites eventually repent their slaughter and are worried for their Benjaminite brethren living in the cave at Rimmon. They wonder how the Benjaminites will continue as a tribe, since the Israelites killed all their women. There's one further complication: the entire assembled congregation of Israel swore an oath at Mizpah that none of them would give their daughters in marriage to a Benjaminite. (Judg. 21:1-7)

The easy answer--go back on their oath and give their daughters as wives to Benjamin--is unthinkable. Instead, the Israelites realize that no one from Jabesh Gilead was at the assembly. There's your answer! Send 12,000 crack Israelite troops to Jabesh Gilead, slaughter the men and married women, and bring back the 400 virgins to be Benjaminte brides. (Judg. 21:8-14)

One more problem: there aren't enough virgins in Jabesh Gilead. So the Israelites tell Benjamin to go to Shiloh, wait in the vineyards, and capture the girls out dancing for their annual festival. In an episode reminiscent of the rape of the Sabines, Benjamin does just that, and everyone's happy... except for the girls' brothers and fathers, we assume. (Judg. 21:15-23)

It almost makes you wish for the simple days of Sodom and Gomorrah.

March 26, 2008

Breadcrumb: Home, by hook or by crook

In Judg. 18, we find out that the tribe of Dan still hasn't come into their inheritance. We can only assume it's still in the hands of non-Israelite heathens. It's been several generations since the conquest of Canaan, and everyone seems to have settled down into complacency. So what's a hard-working-but-homeless tribe to do? The obvious answer is to conquer land from your decadent Israelite brethren. Dan scouts out the land, finds a juicy plum of a city at Laish--careless, quiet, secure, and alone--and sends out 600 men to conquer it. They burn the city to the ground, kill the inhabitants, and rename it "Dan," just to show who's really in charge. And while they're killing their countrymen anyway, they decide to set up a cult to graven images, using the idols they stole from Micah (see yesterday's breadcrumb). Because if you're going to be ostracized from the rest of your kinsmen, you might as well go all out.

March 25, 2008

Breadcrumb: If I had an idol

In Judg. 17-18, we read about Micah and his idols. Micah is just a normal guy, a man from Ephraim, who wanted to have some household gods. So he does. His mother pays a founder to make him some graven images, he gets himself an ephod and teraphim (consecrated garments), and has his son act as priest. But what you really need to close the deal is an honest-to-God, descended from the holy tribe priest. So Micah hires a young, wandering Levite to be his priest for 10 shekels a year. And all is well until 600 warriors from Dan steal away his idols, ephod, and priest, and leave Micah with nothing. Graven images are fickle that way, I suppose.

March 24, 2008

Judges 16-18: Please... with a cherry on top?

(Today's passage covers the story of Samson and Delilah, and the story of Micah's idols.)

The story of Samson and Delilah is one of the best-known Old Testament stories outside the Pentateuch. Everyone likes to feel bad for Samson, which is strange, because he had all the chances in the world to save himself.

The story is told in Judg. 16, and it goes something like this: having escaped death many times already, and with an ever-increasing death-count, Samson falls in love with yet another Philistine woman, Delilah. When Samson married his first wife in Judg. 14, the wedding guests used her to get Samson to reveal the answer to his riddle. With Delilah, we have a repeat performance with higher stakes: the Philistine leaders ask Delilah to discover the secret of Samson's strength, and promise her 1,100 pieces of silver each if she figures it out. (For the curious, that's about $7,660 each in today's dollars at today's silver prices.) (Judg. 16:3-5)

Delilah tries. She asks Samson for the secret to his strength, and he tells her that if someone binds him with seven new bow-strings, he'll lose his strength. So Delilah ties him up with seven bow-strings and shouts, "the Philistines are here!" Samson promptly breaks the bow-strings and reveals the deception. (Judg. 16:6-9)

Delilah tries again. And again. Samson tells her his strength will be lost if he's bound with new ropes, if his hair is braided into a tapestry, and probably a whole lot of other lies. Each time, Delilah tries the ploy, shouts out that the Philistines are here, and Samson breaks free of the bonds. Delilah keeps asking until Samson "was vexed unto death." (Judg. 16:10-16, KJV)

Finally, the grand reveal: Samson finally tells Delilah that his strength comes from his hair, and that if his hair is cut, he'll lose his strength. Delilah, predictably, cuts Samson's hair and yells out "the Philistines are here!" Samson doesn't realize God has left his, tries to fight back, and utterly fails to do anything. The Philistines gouge out his eyes, bind him with brass chains, and take him away. (Judg. 16:17-22)

Here we must ask ourselves one very obvious question: how dumb was Samson, really? Delilah asked him again and again for the secret to his strength, and she kept doing the things he told her and calling in the Philistines to capture him. Sooner or later, a man's bound to catch on that something isn't quite right here. But not Samson, who keeps stringing Delilah along with ever-more lies. It's not like Samson has any qualms about leaving his women, either. We say in Judg. 14 that he left his first wife, and earlier in Judg. 16, he leaves a prostitute he was staying with for a while. He could certainly have left Delilah if he wanted.

Maybe the answer is simply that Samson didn't know where his own strength came from. In Judg. 16:20, the text says that Samson didn't know God had left him. Maybe he thought he was just giving Delilah another lie ("sure, hon, cut my hair, and watch me slaughter your Philistine friends!"), never knowing that he was actually revealing the secret of his strength. It's a compelling explanation for people who want to believe Samson was at least trying to be cunning, instead of simply being dumb as a brick.

March 23, 2008

Breadcrumb: What kind of a riddle is that?

I mentioned in the main essay for these readings that the whole cycle of bloodshed got started when Samson asked his wedding guests a riddle. But what was this impossible riddle? It turns out, it came from events that happened earlier in the chapter. Specifically, on the way to visit his bride-to-be, Samson killed a lion barehanded. Later, he walked by the carcass to find a beehive nested in it, rich with honey. So the question Samson asked his wedding guests was, "out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet." (NIV) Which just goes to show that, along with a single-minded bloodlust, Samson also wasn't particularly creative. (Judg. 14:5-14)

March 22, 2008

Breadcrumb: I don't believe you

Samson's mother, much like other important women in the Bible (Sarah and Mary, to name a few), encounters an angel who announces her impending birth. The angel tells her that the child will be a Nazarite, that no one should ever cut his hair, and that the mother shouldn't consume wine, alcohol, or unclean food while pregnant. When she tells her husband, he prays that the angel will return. Which he does. The husband asks what to do in relation to the child, and the angel simply repeats everything he told the wife. You have to wonder about the trust levels in a relationship like that. You also have to wonder whether angels ever get exasperated repeating themselves all the time. (Judg. 13:2-14)

March 21, 2008

Judges 13-15: Something borrowed, something... red?

(Today's passage covers Samson's birth, his marriage, and his early conflicts against the Philistines.)

I remember stories about Samson: strong, brave, mighty. What I don't remember from the stories is that Samson was a blood-thirsty nutcase.

In Judg. 14-15, we read about Samson's early conflicts with the Philistines. A brief recap, for those who missed it:

The Philistines have conquered Israel because they were misbehaving (again). Samson, a Nazarite, decides to take a Philistine wife from Timnath, despite the protests of his parents. (Judg. 14:2-4) At the wedding, Samson poses the thirty guests a riddle, with the prize being thirty sets of clothing. He gives them one week. At the end of the week, the thirty guests still haven't figured out the solution to the riddle, so they get Samson's new wife to get it for them. (Judg. 14:11-17)

Samson accuses them of sleeping with his wife, but a deal's a deal. He goes down to Ashkelon, another Philistine city, kills thirty of them, takes their clothes, and gives it to his wedding guests. Then he leaves. (Judg. 14:18-20)

Given that Samson accused his thirty wedding guests of sleeping with his wife and left, his father-in-law gives the bride to someone else (one of the wedding guests, actually). So when Samson comes back in Judg. 15 with a nice goat for his wife, his father-in-law tells him the situation. In fairness, he offers his prettier, younger daughter to be Samson's wife, but Samson will have none of it. This is his wife, even if he doesn't like her, and he is outraged that she's been given to someone else. (Judg. 15:1-2)

In revenge, Samson gets three hundred foxes, ties brands to their tails, and lets them loose in the cornfields, vineyards, and olive orchards, effectively destroying all the Philistines' crops. (Judg. 15:3-5)

The Philistines are understandably worried. When they find out that Samson was the perpetrator, and it was because his wife was unfaithful, they took the reasonable precaution of burning the wife and father-in-law to death. (Judg. 15:6) Problem solved, right? No more adulterous wife.

No. Samson, the very same man who hated his wife, left her, and burned down cornfields for her sake, suddenly decides that maybe he wanted her around after all, and kills all the Philistines who murdered her. (Judg. 15:7)

He runs away, hides for a while, and is eventually turned over to the Philistines. Whereupon he takes a donkey's jaw-bone and kills 1,000 men with it, just for good measure. (Judg. 15:8-15)

I'm having trouble figuring out Samson's motivation here. It seems like all he wants to do is kill people. It doesn't matter what they did to him, or even if they did anything at all; he just likes bloodshed. Though we haven't read about Delilah yet, I almost wonder whether Samson had it coming.

March 18, 2008

An apology

Sorry for the unintended hiatus. Life has been unexpectedly hectic this last week, and I just haven't had time to write up the next Daily Breadcrumbs essay. I'm hoping to have things back on track by the weekend. Thanks for bearing with me.

March 13, 2008

Breadcrumb: Tongue twisters

After Jephthah defeats the Ammonites, he has to face a civil war with the Ephraimites, who are insulted that Jephthah didn't call them when he faced the oppressors. Ephraim decides to take out their aggression on Gilead, so Jephtah fights them and kills many. Ephram says that the men of Gilead are no longer welcome within its borders, so Jephtah blocks the passages across the Jordan and kills any Ephraimite who tries to cross it, to the tune of 42,000 people. (Ephraim's lands were west of the Jordan, Gilead's east.) How did Jephthah identify the Ephraimites? By making them say the word "Shibboleth," which apparently the Ephraimites couldn't pronounce properly due to local dialect. This might be the first recorded case in the Bible where people die for their accents.

March 12, 2008

Breadcrumb: We had it first!

Judges 11:13-28 gives us a dialogue about possession of the Middle East so modern in theme that might have been written in the last few years. The Ammonites have come to claim their ancestral homeland of Gilead. Jephthah counters by saying that the Israelites didn't "take" the Ammonites' land, but that God gave it to them, so it's rightly theirs. Besides, the Israelites have been living in Gilead for 300 years; why had the Ammonites waited so long? The Ammonites don't counter this, but they may very well have said that the Israelites gave up their rights to the land during their 400-year sojourn into Egypt, so it's really theirs. Change the name from "Ammonite" to "Muslim," and you could practically read this exchange in the papers.

March 11, 2008

Judges 8-9: Child Sacrifice

(Today's passage covers a few minor judges and the story of Jephthah, who defeats the Ammonites, sacrifices his own daughter, and murder 42,000 Ephraimites.)

Everyone knows the story of Abraham's "sacrifice" of Isaac. (Gen. 22) That time, God stepped in at the last minute to save Isaac, Abraham's only son by his wife Sarah. In that story, we have an example of God's mercy, his reward to a faithful parent.

Things turn out differently in Judges 11.

A bit of backstory: the Israelites have fallen to corruption (yes, again), and the Gileadites east of the Jordan have been conquered by the children of Ammon. (Judg. 10) They turn to Jephthah, the exiled son of a prostitute, and his band of adventurers (NIV, "vain men"in the KJV) to rid them of their latest oppressors. Jephthah milks this deal for all its worth, getting a promise from the Gilead elders that he will be their ruler if he rids them of the Ammonites. (Judg. 11:1-11)

Jephtah then has a long parley with the king of the Ammonites, trying to establish who has rightful claim to the land. (Judg. 11:12-28) In the end, the issue is undecided and Jephthah's forces go to war with the Ammonites.

Just before the battle, Jephtah makes his big mistake. He makes a solemn vow with God that if he defeats the Ammonites, he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his doors to greet him when he goes home. (Judg. 11:29-31)

I'm sure we can all see where this is going.

Jephtah conquers the 20 Ammonite cities, ousts them from Gilead, and goes home to find his daughter, his only child, coming out to greet him. (Judg. 11:32-34) Though his daughter is dancing and singing, Jephthah tears his clothes and bewails his oath. But, in the end, an oath to God is unbreakable, and he can't retract it.

Jephthah's daughter -- who remains unnamed -- understands her father's position and agrees to be a sacrifice for her father. She asks only for two months to go into the mountains and mourn, because she will die a virgin. This accomplished, she comes home and is sacrificed for God. (Judg. 11:36-39) God does not step in at the last minute to say, "Jephthah, don't do it!" as he did for Abraham. Here, the sacrifice is given and (we assume) accepted at face value.

This is especially horrid because in the Pentateuch, God expressly forbid child sacrifice. (See, for example, Lev. 18:21, Deut. 12:31, and Deut. 18:10) It may be that even though Jephthah judged Israel for six years (Judg. 12:7), even he had become corrupted by the surrounding pagan tribes. True, he had not intended to sacrifice his daughter, but when he found out it was required, he didn't shirk from his duties. This whole incident forces us to ask, "where is the God that stopped Abraham from doing this, and why didn't he stop Jephthah?"

March 10, 2008

Breadcrumb: Bible ninjas

In Judg. 9:30-38, we are in the middle of political intrigues with at least four different factions. To simplify things, Zebul, the leader of Shechem, has called Abimelech and his army to fight the usurper Gaal. Abimelech arrives by night and sets up his men in an ambush around the city, ready for an early-morning slaughter. Unfortunately, Gaal chooses this moment to go for a midnight stroll beyond the city walls and sees the massed army lying in wait. Zebul, in what might be a classic Japanese ninja movie image, looks out and says, "There's no army. That's just the shadows of the mountains." Gaal looks again, "No, no... those are definitely men." So Abimelech's men rise up and oust his Gaal's army. Which just goes to show that we should always listen to the wise ninja masters.

March 09, 2008

Breadcrumb: Never send a boy to do a man's job

When Gideon finally has the Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunna, in his grasp, he declares he's going to kill them for murdering his brothers. However, in a fit of delegation, he commands his eldest son, Jether, to do it for him instead. Jether, being pretty young and not used to all this drop-of-the-hat killing, hesitates. Zebah and Zalmunna taunt Gideon for not doing the deed himself, which was obviously the wrong tactic, because Gideon gets up and kills them. To add insult to injury, he also takes their camels' jewellery, presumably to put on his own camels. No doubt Gideon also gave Jether a long talking-to when they got home. (Judg. 8:18-21)

March 08, 2008

Judges 8-9: Like father, like son

(Today's passage covers Gideon's interactions with some unhelpful Israelite cities, and his son Abimelech's intrigues with Gaal and the rulers of Shechem.)

While last essay we read about Gideon as a conquering hero, Judges 8 shows us his dark side. Gideon follows the fleeing Midian army across the Jordan and asks the cities of Succoth and Penuel for food to feed his 300 soldiers. They refuse, giving the weak excuse that Gideon hasn't yet captured the Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunna. (Judg. 8:1-9)

As the chapter progresses, Gideon captures the kings and kills their armies. Then he remembers Succoth and Penuel and decides its time to repay them for their lack of hospitality. (Judg. 8:10-12) First, he goes to Succoth and whips her leaders with thorns and brambles, as a way of "teaching" them. Then he goes to Penuel and kills everyone. (Judg. 8:13-17) It might not seem like the punishment fitting the crime, but you can be certain that the men of Succoth will never been foolish enough to refuse food to a conquering army again. And the men of Penuel, well, they won't be doing much of anything.

Gideon eventually has 70 sons, dies, and the land has peace for 40 years. (Judg. 8:28-35) And then, as we all expected, Israel falls back into corruption.

In yet another case of Biblical succession battles, we now turn our eyes on Abimelech, Gideon's son by one of his concubines. Following in his father's footsteps of brutality, he convinces the men of Shechem -- his mother's home-town -- to give him money to buy a mercenary army and wipe out his 70 half-brothers. (Judg. 9:1-6) He's thorough, but not thorough enough, because his youngest half-brother, Jotham, plants the seeds of dissension in the rulers of Shechem before running for cover. (Judge. 9:7-20)

The rest of the chapter is a long and complicated plot of intrigues between Abimelech, the leaders of Shechem, and a man named Gaal, a newcomer who wants to oust Abimelech as Shechem's king and take control for himself. It culminates with Abimelech routing Gaal's army and following it up with a slaughter of the men of Schehem. In fact, Abimelech isn't content to simply kill them, but when the 1,000 men and women of Shechem flee to a temple, Abimelech and his men set it on fire and kill them all. (Judg. 9:42-49)

Figuring that one city isn't enough, Abimelech also conquers Thebez and tries his "burn the tower to the ground" trick again. This time, however, a woman drops a mill-stone on his head and cracks it open. Just before he dies, Abimelech tells his armour-bearer to kill him, so no one can say a woman finished him off. The armour-bearer runs him through, and Abimelech dies by the sword. (Judg. 9:50-55)

It seems that, like his father Gideon, Abimelech had a taste for blood but not much wisdom to temper it. We can only assume that the surviving cities in the region were happy to see them both dead, so that they could get on with their business of corruption and idol-worship... at least until the next judge.

A change in format: my astute readers will notice that today's essay is much shorter than normal. That's because I'm experimenting with the format of Daily Breadcrumbs. For the next month or so, I'm going to do 500-word essays instead of the usual thousand-word ones. The intervening "Breadcrumbs" will be short and pithy, about 100 words, like always. Let me know what you think!

March 07, 2008

Breadcrumb: When you don't have strength in numbers...

Having sent away fully 98% of his army so that he is left with only 300 soldiers, Gideon faces a much larger Midianite force. Instead of attacking head-on, which would be foolishness unless you're Shamgar and you've got an oxgoad, Gideon divides his men into three companies and surrounds the camp. At night, he has his men blow trumpets, break pots, and generally make such a huge amount of noise that the Midianites wake up in a panic and start killing each other. Gideon and his men waltz in, kill as many Midianites as they please, and rout the army. So much for outnumbering the foe. (Judg. 7:16-25)

March 06, 2008

Breadcrumb: What kind of a god are you?

As part of Gideon's initial selection process, God has him destroy his father's altar to Baal. Gideon does this by night, but his neighbours still realize it was him. They come after him with proverbial pitchforks, intending to kill him. Ironically, it is Gideon's father who rescues his son, by saying that Baal is a god and can fend for himself. (Judg. 6:25-32) Of course, Gideon survives and Baal's power against him is suspect, but this episode highlights the ancient world's belief in the practical power of their gods. The closest we get to that sentiment today is people telling their gods -- jokingly, we assume -- to strike them with lightening if they're lying.

March 05, 2008

Judges 6-7: Prove it!

Today's reading is Judges 6-7 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers Gideon's selection as God's chosen warrior; his mobilization of the northern Israelite army; and his defeat of Midian.

It happened again. The Israelites fell back into corruption and God sent a conquering army to, well, conquer them. In this case, the enemy was Midian, and they reigned over Israel for seven years. Their rule was so oppressive that the Israelites were forced to hid in caves while the Midianites destroyed all their crops and cattle. (Judg. 6:1-6)

Of course, the Israelites called to God. And, of course, God answered.

This time, God chose Gideon to lead his army. However, unlike the previous judges we've encountered, Gideon isn't so quick to accept God's word at face value.

In the initial encounter between Gideon and God's angel, Gideon is downright skeptical. In fact, we haven't seen a man this skeptical of God's message since Moses faced the burning bush. (Ex. 3-4) The exchange, from Judg. 6:11-23, goes something like this (and I paraphrase):
God: The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.
Gideon: If the Lord is with us, why did He let Midian conquer us?
God: I'm sending you to oust them. Can't you see that?
Gideon: But I'm a nobody. I'm the least son of the weakest family in Manasseh.
God: I'll be with you, and you will kill the Midianites. Don't worry.
Gideon: Wait, don't leave! Show me a sign first.
God: Fine, I'll wait.
Gideon: [runs home, slaughters a goat, bakes a cake, and brings them back to God.]
God: Put the offering on this rock.
[Gideon does so; God lights the whole thing on fire and disappears.]
Gideon: Oh no, I've seen the face of God! Now I'm going to die!]
God: (somehow reappearing) You're not going to die. Don't worry.

Admittedly, my rendition is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but through it we can see the extent of Gideon's skepticism. He asks what we might consider normal questions: "If God is with us, why did He let us get conquered?" Please note that God never actually answers the question.

Even after God's repeated reassurances, Gideon refuses to agree unless God shows him a sign. He refuses to accept God's word at face value, but only trusts in signs. To an extent, this is quite practical: the ancient Mediterranean was full of false prophets and, as Gideon mentioned, he's not a particularly likely candidate. It's possible that someone was playing a practical joke on him.

However, even after receiving this first sign, Gideon continually asks for more.

Gideon assembles a 30,000-man army from Manasseh, Asher, Zebulun, Naphtali, and the Abiezerites (in other words, the northern tribes west of the Jordan). However, before leading them into battle, he asks God for not one, but two more signs. He puts a fleece on the floor and asks that the first night the fleece be full of dew while the surrounding ground is dry, and the second night he asks for the opposite. In both cases, God delivers and Gideon is, for the moment, satisfied. (Judg. 6:36-40)

God requests that Gideon winnow down his army, lest the Israelites think that they repulsed the Midianites on their own. Gideon cuts his army to 10,000 and then finally to 300 before God is happy. On the other hand, this is the Bible, so extreme inferiority of numbers isn't a hindrance if God is on your side. (Judg. 7:1-8)

The time is ripe for attack. God gives the order to Gideon to lead his men in victory. But first, it's time for another sign! God tells Gideon that if he's afraid, he should take his servant and sneak down to the Midianite camp and listen to what they say. Gideon dutifully agrees, and hears a Midianite talking about his dream, in which a barley cake tumbled into the camp and destroyed a tent. His fellow soldier interprets this dream (for truly obscure reasons) to mean that the barley cake is in fact Gideon. Gideon hears the interpretation, breathes a sigh of relief, walks back up the hill, and routs the Midianites in a night-time sneak attack. (Judg. 7:8-21)

What strikes me about this entire story is the number of times Gideon asks for proof of God's intentions. The first time, it's understandable; one needs to know one's associates. After that first time, though, the skepticism is somewhat overbearing, especially by Biblical standards. It's a wonder that God doesn't get exasperated with Gideon and smite him just for the sake of it.

True, Gideon is perhaps more modern than Ehud or Barak, who both took their nomination as God's messenger at face value. On the other hand, his skepticism seems at odds with other Biblical values, namely unwavering faith in God. Perhaps this is just another example of the Book of Judges putting twists on previously unified themes.

March 03, 2008

Breadcrumb: I want an oxgoad

In Judg. 3:31, we read about Shamgar. He makes a huge impact for his one-verse cameo: he kills 600 Philistines with an oxgoad. What, I asked myself, is an oxgoad? Apparently an oxgoad is a long, pointed stick used to drive oxen. (A picture can be found in the Wikipedia article about it.) In other words, Shamgar speared 600 men to death. To me, that's pretty impressive, even more than Phineas spearing two people through at the same time. (Num. 25) On the other hand, perhaps a more conventional sword might be a more reliable weapon.

March 02, 2008

Breadcrumb: Foreseen it...

In the story of Deborah, Barak, Jael, and Sisera (Judg. 4), we are shown Deborah's gift for prophecy. When Barak asks her to accompany him to the front lines, Deborah agrees. But, she says, because of the way he's going about it, God will hand Captain Sisera over to a woman. At the beginning of this chapter, it seems the woman will be Deborah, since she's the only woman mentioned in the story so far. The one-verse insert about Heber (Judg. 4:11) doesn't make much sense. It's only when we realize that Sisera flees to Jael, Heber's wife, that begin to realize what Deborah meant. Indeed. Sisera was delivered, not to Barak, but to Jael, a woman.

March 01, 2008

Judges 3-5: You can always trust a dishonest man...

Today's reading is Judges 3-5 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers Othniels' fight against Mesopotamia; Ehud's cunning murder of King Eglon of Moab; Deborah and Barak's defeat of Sisera of Canaan's army; Jael's cunning murder of Sisera; and the Song of Deborah.

Today we are gifted with two wonderful short stories of deceit and cunning. In fact, it has been quite some time since we last had trickster stories. With the exception of the Gibeonite deception in Josh. 9, we haven't really had any stories of cunning since Genesis, which was full of them.

For the benefit of my readers who are not following along in the text, I will summarize these stories, because they're worth it.

Story one: Ehud and Eglon (Judg. 3:12-30)
The Israelites fell back into corruption, and God raised up Eglon, king of Moab, to conquer them and possess Jericho, making Israel a tribute nation. This situation persisted for 18 years, until God finally listened to the Israelites' cries and decided to help them. He chose Ehud, a left-handed Benjaminite judge, to bring the tribute-money to King Eglon. But along with the gifts, Ehud strapped a double-bladed dagger to his thigh under his tunic.

After Ehud presented the tribute-money to Eglon, he told the king that he had a secret message for him. The king sent away his servants, brought Ehud to a private parlour, and asked for the message. Ehud said, "I have a message from God for you," and promptly stabbed him through his very fat belly. The blade came out Eglon's back, but his stomach fat closed up over the hilt. Ehud left, locked the door behind him, and fled before anyone was the wiser.

After a short while, two of Eglon's servants came to tend to their king. Seeing the door was locked, they assumed he was "covering his feet" (KJV) or "relieving himself" (NIV). So they waited. They waited until the point of embarrassment, finally opened the door, and realized their king was dead.

Meanwhile, Ehud fled to the mountain to his waiting army, led them down the hill, killed 10,000 Moabites, and re-conquered Jericho.

The second story is just as wonderful, and even more unexpected. (Judg. 4:1-24)
After Ehud died, the Israelites fell back into corruption and were conquered by Jabin, king of the Canaanites, whose army was led by a man named Sisera. Deborah, a prophetess, was judging in Israel at the time. She called to Barak of Naphtali and told him to raise a 10,000-man army to fight Sisera at the river Kishon. He agreed, on the condition that Deborah go with him.

In short, Sisera's army, including his 900 iron chariots, was routed at Kishon. Barak's army followed and killed all of them, except for Sisera himself, who fled to the nearby tent of Jael. Jael's husband, Heber the Kenite, had good relations with Canaan, so Sisera figured he could get sanctuary with her.

Jael beckoned Sisera into her tent. He asked for water; she gave him milk. He asked that she deny he was there; she hid him. He fell asleep. And then, when Sisera was asleep, Jael took a tent-stake, crept up to the sleeping captain, and stabbed him through the temple. When Barak came seeking Sisera, Jael told him, "I will show you the man you seek," and presented Sisera's corpse. Barak went on to oust King Jabin, and the Israelites once again had peace.

One of the most interesting things about these stories isn't that Ehud and Jael were cunning, but that they were able to play so well off of their targets' base emotions. Ehud used Eglon's greed against him: he knew that Eglon would want to hear a secret message, even though he was already master of the Israelites. He also took advantage of King Eglon's obesity, knowing that the king would not be fast enough to stop the murder. It was not so much Ehud's cunning but Eglon's own faults that doomed him.

Jael's case is even more complex. She may have been playing to Sisera's lust; the text doesn't tell us precisely how she "beckoned" him into her tent, but it's certainly possible that there were overtones of sexuality. She certainly used Sisera's fear against him. Moreover, she relied on his assumption of hospitality, which was the norm in the ancient Middle East. When Sisera was awake, Jael went above and beyond the call of hospitality: she gave him milk when all he asked for was water. Because she played her role so well, Sisera never suspected anything was amiss until he woke up to find himself dead.

It seems, then, that trickery was not necessarily a negative trait in the Israelite culture. As I mentioned earlier, the book of Genesis is full of cunning: Abraham tricks kings into thinking Sarah is his sister, not his wife (Isaac does this as well with Rebekah); Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright and his blessing; Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachel; Tamar tricks Judah into sleeping with her; and Joseph tricks his brothers when they visit him in Egypt. Now that the wars of conquest are mostly over and Israel often finds itself subject to foreign kings, they fall back on their patriarchs' characteristic trait. For the Israelites, trickery is not evil but useful, a means to an end.

Whether the rest of the Judges continue this deceitful trend remains to be seen. What's important for now is that they're using all their resources to conquer their enemies while keeping themselves alive.