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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You've missed key details in the Song of Deborah. In it:
-Dan lives on ships
-Machir is a tribe, Mannasseh is not
-Gilead is a tribe, Gad is not
-Gilead is not Machir
-There's no Judah

Its basically describing a much older version of the tribal confederacy, different from the one with which you are familiar.

If you look at the Yahwist/Elohist parts of the first 5 books, and compare them to the Priestly Source parts, you'll realise that the Yahwist/Elohist passages tend to treat Machir and Gilead as tribes, while the Priestly Source lists Manasseh and Gad instead.

The other thing is that Jabin isn't mentioned, and Barak is a minor aside. The poem is much older than the prose...