Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Posts Tagged ‘motifs from the book of Judges

Gideon, Jephthah and connected themes


Repetitions in the book of Judges are by no means editorial oversights; the repeated phrases and themes serve a polemical purpose, to let the reader know that the children of Israel are drawn to the idolatry of their neighbours, that this results in domination by the neighbours, but that God elects a righteous military leader to deliver Israel from the hands of the enemy.

The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD

This expression is repeated in the book of Judges, each time as an opening to an episode where Israel is rescued from an oppressor by the actions of a judge, who is more like an army general than an adjudicator. Every tribe of Israel is represented by a judge. The oppressor varies – the Midianites for Gideon, Canaanites for Deborah, Moabites for Ehud, and so on.

Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the LORD, and they did not do so.
Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them.

Israel is delivered from Cushan-rishathaim, king of Mesopotamia, by Othniel, nephew of Caleb.

Ehud delivers Israel from the Moabites and their king Eglon.

And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD after Ehud died.

Deborah and Barak, with help from Jael deliver Israel from the Canaanites.

Jephthah delivers Israel from the Ammonites and Philistines.

Samson saves Israel from the Philistines.

The fact that the judges each represent a tribe of Israel, including the two half tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, gives the impression that Judges is a political and diplomatic document, designed to strengthen the ties between tribes and territories.

Although the stories in Judges are introduced by the same formula and have a similar structure, they do not duplicate each other. It is rather more the book of Genesis that is duplicated in Judges. We have already seen how Judges 19, where the guest’s concubine is given up to be raped by local Benjamites, mirrors the way Lot’s visitors are menaced by the local men of Sodom. In both stories, women are offered to the aggressors to protect the male guests from assault. In both cases, transgressive sex occurs, incest in Genesis 19 , rape in Judges.

The circumstances in which an angel visits Gideon are similar to those in which Abraham and Sarah are visited by angels.

Now the angel of the LORD came and sat under the terebinth (אלה)at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites.

Then the Lord appeared to him by the terebinth trees of Mamre, as he was sitting in the tent door in the heat of the day.

Like Abraham, Gideon makes haste to prepare a meal for his heavenly guests.

So Gideon went in and prepared a young goat, and unleavened bread from an ephah of flour. The meat he put in a basket, and he put the broth in a pot; and he brought them out to Him under the terebinth tree and presented them.

And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

Terebinth trees appear at other significant moments in Genesis and 1 Samuel.

Now Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried below Bethel under the terebinth tree.

As this is the only mention of Rebecca’s nurse Deborah, it may be worth mentioning that the more famous Deborah, who appears in Judges 4 and 5, also has a tree:

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, was judging Israel at that time.
And she would sit under the palm tree (תמר) of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the mountains of Ephraim.

The author Gary Greenberg writes:

The bible makes reference to two separate women named Deborah. One was the nurse to Abraham’s son Isaac and the other was, in the much later period of the Judges, a military leader referred to as “a mother in Israel”. Both seem to have mythic images and both are identified with a particular Tree of Weeping.

The Egyptian goddess Neith has a reputation as both a military figure and as a mother goddess and nurse, characteristics that caused the Greeks to identify her with the goddess Athena. In Hebrew, Deborah means “Bee” and that symbol is closely identified with Neith. A Temple to Neith was called “House of the Bee”, and the Bee was the symbol of kingship in Lower Egypt.

There is also a terebinth association for Samuel and Saul, at the beginning of their ill-fated relationship. After Samuel has anointed Saul, he gives him these directions for his journey home:

Then you shall go on forward from there and come to the terebinth tree of Tabor. There three men going up to God at Bethel will meet you, one carrying three young goats, another carrying three loaves of bread, and another carrying a skin of wine.

Saul’s response to Samuel the seer is similar to Gideon’s response to the angel:

Saul answered, “Am I not a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel? And is not my clan the humblest of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin? Why then have you spoken to me in this way?”

And he said to him, ‘Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.’

A fire consumes the meal Gideon has prepared, responding to his request for a sign that he is in the presence of God. Abraham’s visitors eat and then announce the miracle that Sarah will have a child.

With both Abraham and Gideon, a conversation with an angel or angels becomes a conversation with God. When Gideon realizes that his visitor is an angel, his words resemble those of Jacob, after wrestling with an angel:

Then Gideon perceived that he was the angel of the LORD. And Gideon said, ‘Alas, O Lord GOD! For now I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face.’

So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.’

It is interesting that Deuteronomy tells us: There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, bearing in mind that the Patriarch Jacob and the Judge Gideon experienced a face to face encounter with a celestial being.

Local altars
The sacrificial altar was centralised from the time of the First Temple, with Jeroboam’s rival altar at Bethel regarded as transgressive, and local shrines as idolatrous. Building altars is acceptable, even commendable, in the books prior to Kings.

Then Noah built an altar to the LORD.

Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.

Then Abram moved his tent, and went and dwelt by the terebinth trees of Mamre, which are in Hebron, and built an altar there to the Lord.

Then Gideon built an altar there to the LORD and called it, The LORD Is Peace.

And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel.

Joshua built an altar to the LORD, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal.

Then [Samuel] would return to Ramah, for his home was there, and there also he judged Israel. And he built there an altar to the LORD.

And Saul built an altar to the LORD; it was the first altar that he built to the LORD.

And David built there [the threshing floor of Araunah] an altar to the LORD and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. So the LORD responded to the plea for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel.

Three times a year Solomon used to offer up burnt offerings and peace offerings on the altar that he built to the LORD, making offerings with it before the LORD. So he finished the house.

It is of course Solomon who centralizes the altar, but this is anticipated by David’s altar on the threshing floor of Araunah, the site of the Temple.

Call the Midwife: prophetic midwives in the bible.

Then they journeyed from Bethel. When they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel went into labor, and she had hard labor. And when her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Do not fear, for you have another son.”


When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb. And when she was in labour, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez. Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.


Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?”  The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.


Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. And when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth, for her pains came upon her.  And about the time of her death the women attending her said to her, “Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or pay attention.  And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband.

Now gods, stand up for bastards! King Lear, I. ii.

The term mamzer occurs only twice in the bible (the other usage, in Zechariah 9:6, is the prophet’s anti-Philistine rhetoric) firstly in the stringent legislation of Deuteronomy:

No one born of a forbidden union may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD. No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD, even to the tenth generation.

The union of a man with his concubine was considered legitimate. Therefore one would not consider the following to be bastards: Ishmael, Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher. Abraham’s sons by Keturah – Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah – also were legitimate as Abraham married Keturah.

Both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father.

The firstborn bore a son, and named him Moab; he is the ancestor of the Moabites to this day. The younger also bore a son and named him Ben-ammi; he is the ancestor of the Ammonites to this day.

Deuteronomy 23:3 therefore alludes to the mamzerut of Ammonites and Moabites.

Timna was a concubine of Eliphaz, Esau’s son; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz

Amalek, while not a bastard, has the status of being a concubine’s child, perhaps of lower rank than the child of a wife.

In the case of Gideon, particular attention is drawn to the son of his Shechemite concubine:

Now Gideon had seventy sons, his own offspring, for he had many wives.
And his concubine who was in Shechem also bore him a son, and he called his name Abimelech.

Like Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester in King Lear, Abimelech is no good. Consider also who, of the Karamazov brothers, goes so far as to kill his despicable father.

With the connivance of his Shechemite relations, Abimelech kills all of his seventy brothers but one, Jotham, who survives. The Shechemites then turn on Abimelech, who suppresses them with great ruthlessness, setting fire to their stronghold, the Tower of Shechem.

However retribution comes quickly:

And a certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head and crushed his skull.Then he called quickly to the young man his armor-bearer and said to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, lest they say of me, ‘A woman killed him.'” And his young man thrust him through, and he died.

Like Sisera and Holofernes, Abimelech dies of a head injury inflicted by a woman.

Now Jephthah the Gileadite, the son of a prostitute, was a mighty warrior.

Jephthah was cast out and disinherited by his legitimate brothers, and acquired a retinue of ‘worthless men’. When the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead called him back to be their leader. Jephthah prays to God for victory, but makes a foolish vow:

And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the LORD gave them into his hand.

In one of his many discreditable acts as king, David appeases the troublesome Gibeonites by handing over the sons and grandsons of Saul, to certain death. Rizpah was Saul’s concubine, her name linked also to Abner’s.

But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Saul’s son Jonathan, because of the oath of the Lord that was between them, between David and Jonathan son of Saul. The king took the two sons of Rizpah daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Merab daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite; he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they impaled them on the mountain before the Lord. The seven of them perished together.

It would seem that there is no reason to doubt the legitimacy of Merab’s sons, unless we remember that Merab was originally betrothed to David and then given to another man. As a betrothal was legally binding, there is some doubt about the legitimacy of Merab’s children.

In the case of Hosea, who is commanded to have yaldei zenunim, children of whoredom, the paradox is that, if they are his offspring by his wife Gomer, then they are children of the marriage and not of whoredom. Gomer was a prostitute and the children are given names at God’s command with the meaning that God will abandon them.

The book of Hosea concludes on a note of reconciliation and forgiveness, as God tells Hosea:

I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them.

There is no such reconciliation between the Duke of Gloucester and his bastard son, but King Lear, unlike the bible, is all about unforgiving fathers.

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