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Song of the Vineyard by B. Davie Napier

B. Davie Napier, at the time of this writing was Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Intepretation at Yale Divinity School. He later became President of Pacific School of Religion. He is a minister of the United Church of Christ and an author of several books on the Old Testament. Song of the Vineyard was published in 1962 by Harper & Row, Publishers. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.

Chapter 4: Anarchy



I will not drive them out.
Judg. 2:31

The contents of the book of Judges may be outlined as follows:

1:1-2:5 Introduction. Efforts at occupation and settlement in Canaan by separate and isolated tribes, with emphasis on the successes of Simeon, Judah and the house of Joseph.

2:6-16:31 The work of the judges. A collection of narratives originating for the most part independently of one another among tribal groups in Canaan later embraced in Israelite monarchy — a collection wrought and edited by DH (Deuteronomic historians responsible for the substantial present form of Deuteronomy-Kings).

17:1- 21:25 An appendix of assorted components.

The process by which any record and memory of the past is preserved inevitably involves some screening of the past. This is especially true of history that is predominantly maintained cultically, when past event is the occasion for present praise of God and the celebration of his role in the life of a people. The basic cultic formula, Out of Egypt, into this land, unquestionably rests upon past events, but it is a past marvelously screened and filtered.

Now it is the genius of ancient Israel that she knew this. We have already noted in the stories of her fathers (the patriarchs) and her founder (Moses) the irrepressible quality of realism which frustrates all efforts to describe existence — any existence — in ideal terms. In her joyous cultic celebrations she rehearsed the fundamental theological scheme of Yahweh’s initiating Word, Israel’s response of faith, and the resultant redemption from slavery into freedom; but at the same time she knew (and found herself compelled to record) that the Word is fulfilled always with characteristic imprecision, and in tension and anguish. She insists at once on the truth of the theological scheme and on what she also knows to be the facts of existence. Such is the testimony of the Joshua-Judges record.

The Nature of the Story in Joshua

We could call the theological scheme the cult-myth if the term were not so easily misunderstood. The cult-myth is the true theological essence of the event. It is what faith decrees to be the essential structure and meaning of the event. The myth, then, is historicized, that is, its true essence is clothed with a story which purports to make history of theology. In this case, the account of Canaan’s acquisition as told, for the most part, in Joshua represents the historicizing of the cultic confession. Yahweh gave the land. It was the conquest of the people under Joshua, total, complete, easy, and sometimes, as at Jericho, Josh. 6, wrought not at all by force of arms but hy potent formula revealed by Yahweh.

So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb [the land stretching south of Canaan into the reaches of the desert] and the low-land and the slopes, and all their kings; he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as Yahweh God of Israel commanded. And Joshua defeated them from Kadesh-barnea to Gaza, and all the country of Goshen [an unidentified but obviously Palestinian, not Egyptian Goshen], as far as Gibeon. And Joshua took all these kings and their land at one time, because Yahweh God of Israel fought for Israel. (Josh. 10:40-42)

In another conspicuous feature, the story confesses its adaptation to the two-member theological scheme, Out of Egypt, into this land. The two members of the faith-formula take on a striking parallelism: the Joshua-Canaan epoch is seen as a kind of antiphonal response to Moses-Egypt.

Moses-Egypt Joshua-Canaan

1.Spies dispatched: especially To the Jericho area. Josh. 2.
to the Hebron area in the
south. Num. 13:22 ff.

2.The dry crossing: "Israel "All Israel [crossing the Jordan]
went into the midst of the on dry ground." Josh. 3:14 ff.
sea on dry ground." Ex. 14: 21ff.

3.Circumcision: Ex. 4:24—26; "Circumcise the people of Israel
cf. 12:43 ff. again the second time." Josh. 5:2 ff.

4.Passover: Ex. 12 Josh. 5:10 ff.

5.Commission: "Put off your "Put off your shoes. . ." Josh.
shoes. . ." Ex. 3:lff. 5:13 ff.

6.The potent gesture: "Moses "Stretch out the javelin that is
held up his hand. . ." against in your hand . . ." against Ai.
Amelek. Ex. 17:8 ff. Josh. 818ff.

7.Law-giving: at Mount Sinai At Mount Ebal (Shechem)
"Moses wrote all the words Joshua "wrote upon the stones
of Yahweh." Ex. 24 a copy of the law of Moses,
which he had written." Josh. 8: 30ff.

8.Cities of refuge: anticipated Appointed and named by
by Moses. Num. 35:9 ff. Joshua. Josh. 20.

9.Covenant-making; at Sinai, at Shechem, "all that Yahweh
"Yahweh our God we will has spoken we will do." Josh.
serve, and his voice we will 24.
obey." Ex. 24.

To a considerable extent, the book of Joshua historicizes the first and fundamental proposition of Israel’s faith: Yahweh brought us out of Egypt and gave us this land. It is theology which determines the major theme. But we also observe that etiology has been freely employed, here as in Genesis, to voice and define the theological meaning of names and events which figure prominently in the "history," for example, circumcision and Gilgal, 5:8 f., and Achan and the Valley of Achor, chapter 8. In view of all this, it is impossible to reconstruct any firm, full outlines of the concrete structure of events. Nor is archaeology as helpful here as some of the popularizing archaeologists would have us think. The most recent and competent spade work at the site of ancient Jericho returns the verdict that no trace of Israelite violence in the thirteenth century is to be found. Ancient Gilgal may have been located — the identification is not yet certain — but yields nothing significant on the period of Israel’s early occupation. Excavations at Ai indicate that the city was already in Joshua’s day a long-dead ruin (the attack of the invaders may well have been upon nearby Bethel); Ai, meaning "ruin," may easily have become the object of attack in the story as it circulated in later generations. Shechem is another matter, of course; but here light is cast chiefly on the times both prior and subsequent to the first entrance of the Joshua group.2

The Nature of the Event: Conquest or Occupation?

Of course, it is not impossible that an initial, decisive conquest of Canaan under Joshua was effected and the gains largely lost in the generation following his death.3 But the present book of Joshua warns strongly against its own idealizing tendencies (see, for example, 15:63; 16:10; 17:11-13) and records a notable instance of accommodation (with the Gibeonites, ch. 9). The book of Judges reflects a process of occupation, settlement, and accommodation stretching over a number of generations involving numerous mutually independent tribes and resulting ultimately in the amalgamation of Canaanite and "Israelite" into the people of Israel, under covenant to Yahweh. We do not mean to suggest that the process was always without violence: conquest of sorts there surely was, but it was largely localized, involving skirmishes between older and more recent settlers of the land.

The Joshua group (or the Benjamin-Joseph-Ephraimite tribes;4 and was it also, earlier, the Moses group or have we two originally separate, but now collated, traditions?) occupied a territory in the sparsely settled central hill country of Canaan bounded on the cast by the Jordan, on the west by the coastal plains, and on the north and south by strong Canaanite city-states. In the small scattered settlements of this area the inhabitants were distantly or more closely related to the occupying Israelites. They were descendants of Amorite settlers who had moved into Canaan from the fringes of outlying deserts some six to eight centuries earlier; or indeed, some of these may well have come out of tribes originally closely related to the group which went into Egypt and now, some centuries later, made its return to the land.

There are some suggestions that perhaps Simeon (Judg. 1:1-3; but Gen. 34:25f. sees Simeon and Levi responsible for the defeat of Shechem in central Canaan), with the Kenites (Judg. 1:16), the Calebites (Judg. 1:12-20; Josh. 14:13), and perhaps as a separate but closely related tribe, or clan, the Othnielites (Judg. 1:12-15) occupied the southern hill country of Canaan to the south of the powerful Canaanite fortress-city of Jerusalem earlier and independently of the occupation of central Canaan by Yahweh-worshipers of the tribes of Judah.

This thesis is supported by the narrative of Genesis 38 (the story of Judah and Tamar) which strongly suggests Judah’s early and permanent occupancy in this area, as well as by the presupposition of some of Israel’s earliest beginnings — and even before (Gen. 4:26).

North of the plain of Esdraelon and its defensive chain of strong cities — Megiddo, Taanach, Ibleam, Beth-shan (see Judg. 1:27) — the "conquest" was again an originally separate story involving tribes having no historical association with other tribes ultimately involved in the entity "Israel" until the campaign of Deborah, Judges 4-5. Thus, the entity Israel, formed out of a process of tribal confederation leading to monarchy, has a highly complex, heterogeneous prehistory now understandably simplified and idealized. The ultimate unity of the twelve tribes is imposed upon traditions relating originally to the separate tribes; and most strikingly, the Yahweh-faith which dominates confederation and monarchy appears to have been historically the moving, cohesive quality in the long process.

Deuteronomic History and the Judges

"Judge" is a poor term but since we cannot change it, we must understand that it is not merely an ancient counterpart of our judge. The judge in Israel’s tradition is a charismatic (from Greek charisma meaning gift, endowment) tribal leader usually responsible for the achievement of at least a temporary respite from harassment or subjugation at the hands of a nearby enemy. In the Old Testament the word shpht, "to judge," and its derivatives are not exclusively juridical terms nor do they necessarily connote negative action. Judging is the total task in varied capacities of setting right the wrong and reordering the disordered. As a "history" wrought by the deuteronomic historians, the book of judges is obviously and rigidly under theological control. Israel’s peaceful, ordered existence in the land promised and given by Yahweh is continually frustrated by Israel’s defiance of the giver. The promised life of fulfillment in the land becomes a life of abysmal unfulfillment, an anarchistic existence, because Yahweh is ignored. "You have not given heed to my voice" (Judg. 6:10).

The deuteronomic historians — we will use the symbol DH for them — set all of this in a four-member formula by which the individual stories of the judges are introduced and linked to one another. The formula appears in full for the first time in 3:7 ff. It envisages the long epoch of tribal occupation-settlement-confederation as revolving in the cycle of apostasy, punishment, penitence and finally, through the instrument of the charismatic judge, the restoration of peace. Israel forgot Yahweh who in anger "sold" her into subjection to an alien power; Israel came back in penitence to Yahweh who then effected salvation through the judge. DH has employed tribal stories from all over Canaan without regard for sequence, if, indeed, the sequence was known to DH; and while we do not presume to reconstruct from this a history of Canaan in the twelfth and eleventh centuries, we nevertheless gratefully acknowledge DH’s contribution to our understanding of the character of a period which was, for whatever reasons, predominantly an anarchy. And I, at least, must further acknowledge what appears to me to be beyond dispute; that in an internal sense, DH is right; in the Canaanite setting, the Yahweh-worshiping tribe, whether alone or in confederation, achieved order and fulfillment and maintained meaningful entity and self-respect only in the force of its Yahweh-faith.

DH no doubt aimed to include twelve judges, one for (but not from) each of the tribes, although with Deborah and Abimelech (neither is called a judge) there are fourteen. The most important figures are Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson.

Othniel and Ehud

Judg. 3

The Othniel "judgeship" (3:7-11) has often been regarded as spurious. We doubt the historicity of several figures: Shamgar "who killed six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad" (3:31, and created out of whole cloth from the reference in 5:6); Jair who "had thirty sons who rode on thirty asses; and they had thirty cities" (10:4); Ibzan who "had thirty sons; and thirty daughters he gave in marriage outside his clan, and thirty daughters he brought in from outside for his sons" (broadminded, anyway; 12:8); Abdon who went old Jair one better gifted in the old game of upmanship: he had "forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy asses" (12: 14). Is Othniel no more substantial than these, or Tola (10:1) of whom not even an anecdote is told (except perhaps that he is the son of Puah, the son of Dodo), or Elon, who simply judged, died, and was buried (12:11-12)? In Othniel’s case, the brief narrative consists almost entirely of the DH formula; and we know nothing else of a Syrian (Aram) king named Cushanrishathaim (the name is etymologically suspect). Othniel is a tribal designation, certainly; but is the episode of judges 1:11-15, in which Othniel figures ostensibly as an individual, anything other than a tribal encounter, reduced and idealized in terms of personal relationships? Such skepticism may be justified, yet we find ourselves wondering whether DH has not in fact preserved here the very ancient but real encounter of free-ranging Syrian forces with the Yahweh-tribes (notably the Othnielites) inhabiting southern Canaan in the general area south of Hebron.

The story of Ehud’s dispatch of Eglon, king of Moab, is one of antiquity’s finest examples of graphic, brilliant prose description (3:15-30). Traces of its composite construction still show (vv. 19 and 20, e.g., appear to be duplicates) but its impact on the reader is unified and powerful and its disclosure of the life of Canaan in the twelfth century bold, true, and uninhibited.


Judg. 4-5

The Song of Deborah (Judg. 5) is in every respect the finest treasure preserved in the book of Judges. Without significant dissent scholars have long regarded it not only as the oldest extant poem of any considerable length in the Old Testament, but also as the work of, if not an eye-witness, then one who was nevertheless close to the event and intimately informed about it. It is one of the world’s great literary documents. But it is also of incomparable historical value. From no other single narrative of such antiquity do we learn so much of the tribes of Israel in the twelfth century. The Song records what must have been the first significant effort at a confederation of the tribes of Israel against a Canaanite alliance.

The prose account of the same event (Judg. 4) lacks the vigorous authenticity of the poem and is certainly a considerably later creation. We note certain conspicuous differences in the two accounts:

Prose Poem

The oppressor is Jabin, king of Hazor, whose captain is Sisera.

Deborah seems to belong to the the hills between Ramah and tribe of Issachar in territory Bethel, in Canaan’s central region occupied by Benjamin. later know as the Sea of Galilee.

The coalition under Deborah pose the enemy; and thus embraces all the tribes in central as well as northern Canaan, that Canaan, north of Esdraelon. is Manasseh (Machir in Josh.17:1), Ephraim, and Benjamin, as well as Zebulum, Issachar, and Nephtali.

The battle occurs in the region The Canaanite coalition is routed at Taanach along the southern edge of the plain of Esdraelon, near Megiddo.

Jael murders Sisera while he sleeps.

Estimates of the poem’s age differ but we are surely not far wrong if we take the round number of 1100 B.C. We note several matters of the utmost significance. If the words Yahweh and Israel are not later interpolations (that is, insertions by later editors), which seems hardly tenable, then there already existed a conceptual, ideological (if not a formal political) Yahweh-worshiping entity known as Israel. This entity consists already not only of the six tribes which "offered themselves willingly" (5:2,9) but also — since their failure to join Deborah is implicitly deemed to be a breach of integrity — four tribes which are specifically rebuked (and in such exquisitely poetic language, vv. 15b-17).

Certainly by the turn of the first full century of occupation by the central tribes of Benjamin, Ephraim, and Joseph/Manasseh (whatever the length of occupation of related or subsequently confederated tribes north and south), a confederation of ten tribes at least is already in existence, embracing roughly the full territory of later monarchic Israel on both sides of the Jordan, but exclusive of the area south of Jerusalem (still a Canaanite stronghold) later identified as the land of Judah. We note further the Song’s recollection of Yahweh’s especially potent self-disclosure in the Kadesh area and of Sinai’s location there (vv. 4-5). We commend the poet’s consummately sensitive powers of identification with participating leaders and people; with recalcitrant as well as with responding tribes; with the whole natural environment of the event, poetically clothed with vital purpose and depicted as a glorious participant (vv. 20-21); in some sense with the enemy, Sisera himself; and of course profoundly, if also with conscious irony, with Sisera’s mother.

Most notable is the role of Yahweh in the Song. As emphatically as in the story of the exodus event, or any other comparable Old Testament event, the Song is created in praise of Yahweh, as a confessional recitation on the theme of his living impingement on history. This is another in his series of performances on behalf of a people in quest of a land. It is composed, so it would seem, in the immediate excitement and heat of the encounter between Israelite and Canaanite. In the flush of an astonishing victory, the winner exuberantly calls down a fate like Sisera’s on all Yahweh’s enemies. But it is more than simply a song of victory, for here, as always. it acknowledges the faith that this is Yahweh’s world, history, and people, and that victory is meaningful only in terms of Yahweh’s purpose.

So perish all thine enemies, O Lord!
But thy friends be like the sun as he rises
in his night. (v.31)

Although from Israel’s point of view this was nor a time of unrelieved anarchy, during these years of occupation, settlement, skirmish, and consolidation respite from severe harassment was at best intermittent. In awareness of this and hard-put to rationalize a "gift" of Yahweh so agonizingly achieved, DH finds Israel’s prevailing unfaith (not only now but in the subsequent monarchic period as well) the cause of the persistence of disorder and chaos in an existence which Yahweh would bless with meaning and fulfillment of life if only Israel would appropriately respond.

The DH formula in Judges repeatedly takes the form of what appears to be an almost crude religious superstition: When Israel did what was evil in the sight of Yahweh, he gave them into the hand of Aram or Moab or Sisera or Midian (Gideon: 6-8) or Ammon (Jephthah: 11-12), or the Philistines (Samson: 13-16). But this is nothing more nor less than the faith of DH that Israel is a covenant people, that to violate the covenant is to make chaos of the life of the people and that to keep the covenant is to fulfill Israel’s creation in order and meaning.

The life of faith in any time and in any variety of acknowledged covenant-existence under God finds itself perennially confronted by the essence of DH’s formula. In its unceasing tension with the varied and eminently rational claims of positivism, causality, and aggressive agnosticism. the life of faith must always not merely confront, but confront with decision, the fundamental proposition of the deuteronomic (and on the whole, biblical) faith that human life, the gift of God, is meaningfully fulfilled only in acknowledgment of the reign of God in history and in a relationship of response to him.


You have not given heed to my voice.
Judg. 6:10

Whatever the relationship of the little book of Ruth to the actual life and history of ancient Israel it stands as a superb example of classical Hebrew prose narrative and as an inspired editorial stroke. In the midst of the brutal, violent chaos of premonarchic Canaan, it brings a moment of warm relief.

Ruth is a Moabite woman whose sojourning Israelite husband dies in Moab. She returns with her mother-in-law to Bethlehem in Judah, and there wins love and marriage with Boaz, a kinsman of her deceased husband. With the almost certain exception of 4:18-22 and the possible, even probable, exception of 4:7, the story is a unit, a skillfully and beautifully told tale.

As an artistic creation, Ruth is commonly ranked with the greatest short stories in the literature of the world. Composed around that shamelessly abused theme of they-lived-happily-ever-after, it is the genius of the tale that it successfully avoids what even then must have been the prevailing prostitution of the theme in banal sentimentality. The story of Ruth exploits some of the noblest qualities of human character — tenderness, loyalty, compassion, love — without anywhere sounding noble, without anywhere becoming cloying. And as is true of all classical Hebrew prose, it is a narrative spun with consummately skillful economy and simplicity.

Read aloud now the first seventeen verses of the story. This is as it should be rendered, since it was created (whether originally in oral or written form) for the ear rather than the eye, to be heard rather than read. The familiar lines of verses 16-17 are abused in their appropriation to the category of erotic love in popular song or cheap fiction: these are lines all the more magnificent in conveying the love of a younger for an older woman, a Moabite daughter for an Israelite mother!

The book of Ruth presents two problems. What is the date of its composition and what is its purpose? Not uncommonly a late date, the fifth century, has been argued on the grounds, in part, that in the Hebrew canon, Ruth takes its place in the third and latest collection of writings finally incorporated. The story of the canon cannot be precisely reconstructed, but the three divisions, Law, Prophets, and Writings, did come in that chronological order to the status of canonical, holy scripture between about 400 B.C. and the decisive Council of Jamnia, about A.D. 90.5

The present Hebrew canon looks like this:

I. Law, torah: Genesis-Deuteronomy.

II. Prophets, nebi’im:

A. Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, I and 11 Kings, counted as four books.

B. Latter Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and, reckoned as one book, the Book of the Twelve, Hosea-Malachi in RSV. These four, with the four former prophets, total eight books in the prophetic Canon.

III. Writings, ketubim: I and II Chronicles (one book), Ezra-Nehemiah (one book), Esther, job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, and Ruth — a total of eleven books.

Now, it might be assumed that a relatively late date for the book of Ruth is supported by this division, since, admittedly, the Writings by and large are, in their present form, relatively late. As a matter of fact, however, the original Hebrew Canon comprised not, as above, twenty-four books, but only twenty-two) books (this is the count given by the great Jewish historian, Josephus, in the first century A.D.). Ruth was then a part of Judges, and Lamentations was attached as one book to Jeremiah. And we suspect that the argument from canon to date would in any case be indecisive, since there is late and relatively early material in all three divisions.

We doubt, then, that the story is postexilic. A number of distinguished scholars of the Hebrew language have insisted that on the grounds of style, vocabulary, and the form and syntax of the language, it cannot be dated later than the ninth-seventh centuries. In its present form, of course, it can hardly be dated earlier than the tenth century, since it envisages a measure of order in Canaan as well as cordial Moabite-Israelite relationships which were hardly possible before the time of David. And we suspect, too, that it is more in the nature of fiction than history (observe the typological meaning of the names: Mahlon, "sickness"; Chilion, "wasting"; Orpah "stiff-necked"; Naomi, "my sweetness"; and Ruth, a shortened form of a word meaning "companion").

Indeed (to turn to the second question) it has been proposed that the story of Ruth came into existence chiefly as a genealogical narrative — to preserve or comment upon the ancestry of King David: Ruth is David’s great-grandmother (4:17; it is the fuller genealogical table of 4:18-22 that appears alien and secondary to the original story). The story then is hardly earlier than the tenth century age of David-Solomon.

On the question of date one can say little more than this. The postexilic daters have claimed support in the fact that the ritual of the shoe (4:8) is at odds with the prescription in Deuteronomic law (Deut. 23:3), a fact recognized and commented upon apologetically in the preceding verse 4:7. But that, we suspect, is a postexilic comment added to the story. The custom recounted in the performance of levirate marriage in Ruth 4:8 (by which the brother or the next closest male kin takes the wife of the deceased relative) is, we should judge, considerably earlier than Deuteronomy.

As to the story’s purpose, we are confident that it is not (as some remarkably allege) a subtle piece of fiction describing in fact the practice of a Bethlehem fertility cult. Ruth is a lesson in tolerance, but we doubt that it was first created in response to the crusading spirit of the Israelite Society for Moabite Friendship. Nor could it have been produced simply to make concrete some rumor of David’s more distant Moabite blood. And we even doubt that the early support and elucidation of levirate marriage was its purpose, although if specific motivation must be assigned, this presents perhaps the strongest claim. We tend to concur in the wise comment that "if the author had an ulterior motive, he concealed it more successfully than is common to story-tellers who write with a purpose"; and, from another source, that the writer "set out to tell an interesting tale of long ago, and he carried out his purpose with notable success."

Gideon, Jotham, and Jephthah

Judg. 6-12

Gideon’s activities (6-8) center in Ophrah, a site unknown to us, but evidently near Shechem (see 9:1 ff.). His tribe is Manasseh and his problem is that of the age-old incursions into central Canaan of seminomadic Bedouin raiders (6: 3, "Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East"). The story may well be composite, as witness the two names, Gideon and Jerubaal, and occasional duplicates such as 8:1-3 and 8:4-9. It is nevertheless an exciting and instructive episode in the life of one of the tribes soon to become a part of the nation Israel. Gideon is a charismatic figure, endowed with the spirit of Yahweh. He moves first against the apostate worship of Baal within his own immediate community. By clever stratagem he routs the Midianite enemy with the meager forces of his own clan, Abiezer, and captures and slaughters Midian’s two chiefs, Zebah and Zalmunna, in the conventional act of blood-revenge to compensate and set right the loss of life inflicted by them. He takes bitter, but again no doubt conventional, revenge against the towns Succoth and Penuel for the taunting refusal of aid. He makes out of the spoils of battle an ephod, an object in the paraphernalia of a priest (not an image, as a later editor in verse 27 would have it). The ephod was sometimes an apron, but hardly here since it weighs about 65 pounds, and was employed for divining, that is, determining the will of Yahweh. He rejects the popular response to make of him a monarch in language which no doubt was subsequently put to political use (or perhaps the precise language was only then created in the story?) by the Yahweh loyalists and other dissident members of monarchic Israel who deemed the institution of king to be itself an act of apostasy against Yahweh:

I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you:
Yahweh will rule over you! (8:23)
Judg. 9

Gideon’s son, Abimelech, does not share the sentiment attributed to his father and establishes himself for a brief period as king over the city of Shechem. The story of his aggressive rise preserves the exceedingly choice and ancient Fable of the Trees, or Jotham’s Fable. The Fable is probably a contemporary commentary on one man’s consuming ambition played out perhaps sometime around 1100 B.C. in the central hill country of ancient Palestine.

Judg. 10-12

Although the years prior to Canaan’s consolidation in political monarchy cannot be reconstructed in historical detail, the stories of Judges do afford a remarkably vivid impression of the tone and character of the age, as well as insight into Israel’s later interpretation of the anarchic period. Above all we have the realistic portrayal of a crude and bitter existence, but an existence given persistent light, relief, and meaning by the Yahweh-faith and the (consequent?) redeeming quality of human love. Jephthah is as rough and tough a package of male humanity as one will find anywhere, destined to act out his years in reaction to a human environment with which he always found himself at odds. Yet here he is, remembered and sung for his exploits on behalf of Israel (in Canaan’s tribal confederation, however loose, one tribe’s victory over a common enemy is other tribes’ boon), fighting from the tribe and territory of Gilead east of the Jordan against Ammon. And here the term "shibboleth" (meaning a decisive test or snare) was coined in Jephthah’s interconfederation feud with Ephraim (12:1 ff.). The most memorable and poignant feature of the Jephthah story is his tragic vow (but so thoroughly in character) and its genuinely moving sequence (whether interpreted as literal occurrence or as cult-myth). While we spontaneously react in revulsion to the theology of this kind of vow (by no means in principle a thing of the past), we must understand the character of that epoch: this is Jephthah; this is premonarchic Canaan and preprophetic Yahwism; the victory, dear to Jephthah, is only Yahweh’s to give, and if he gives it, he must receive in return some commensurate sacrifice. It may seem crude and misconceived by our standards, but our standards may not be imposed on that epoch more than three thousand years ago. All of which may (or may not) justify the comment that, at its highest and purest, the sincere sacrifice was (and is, properly conceived) a rite of communion between man and God, and a satisfying means by which the creature pays his debt of gratitude and love to the creator.

The Samson Saga

Judg. 13-16

The Samson stories continue to appeal to the reader who reads the Bible simply as he reads the Iliad and the Odyssey. Samson is not a "judge," since his remarkable exploits are purely personal in character. There may have been a real man back of these stories, but what we have is a well-integrated collection of highly exaggerated hero tales. Samson is ancient Israel’s Hercules or Paul Bunyan. This is not to say that elements of the Samson saga are not old: the riddles especially convey that age of anarchy, reflecting the ancient delight in the riddle, rough ("out of the strong came something sweet" 14:14) and, shall we say, ready ("If you had not plowed with my heifer you would not have found out my riddle" 14:18).

From Ambrose in the fourth century A.D. to Thomas Hayne and John Milton in the seventeenth century, there have been repeated attempts to maintain a proper "biblicity" for Samson by means of allegorical interpretation. Thus, James Calfhill in 1565 made Samson’s victory with the jawbone of an ass an allegorical figure of "how Christ . . . hath overthrown the adversary Power; hath by one death destroyed all the enemies of life." Henoch Clapham, confusing New Testament Galilean Nazareth with the Hebrew term nazir and the dedicated Old Testament order of Nazirite declared in 1596: "A Nazarite he was, and a figure of our Nazaret anointed." Thomas Hayne saw, among other points, the following allegory early in the seventeenth century:

And while Milton made no overt allegory in his Samson Agonistes, 1671, it is probable that he and his readers assumed this kind of allegorical reading and "that this duality was part of — perhaps the center of — the meaning which the poet intended the tragedy to have."6

Such allegorizing is, of course, out of the question for us; and beyond this kind of literary-allegorical pursuit of the Samson saga we are able to find nothing. We cannot even appropriate for ourselves the kind of piety which produced this weak effort at salvage: "The important point [in the Samson stories] is Samson’s radiant certainty that his tremendous strength, and his successes, were due to Jehovah [Yahweh], who filled him with His (Jehovah’s) divine energy."7

We reject the sun-myth theory that Samson (Hebrew shemshon meaning "little sun") represents the survival of an ancient sun-worshiping cult. Whatever Samson is in the stories he is because of Yahweh and not the sun; but we find nothing of a "radiant" faith, nor anything else worthy of even the earliest Yahwism in central Canaan. The stories do have some historical importance in that they betray the expanding power of the Philistines in the eleventh century. And this is surely the editorial justification for Samson’s place as the last of the "judges." It was, in the final analysis, the Philistine harassment which forced upon the tribes of Israel and the rest of Canaan a change from loose tribal confederation to monarchy.

"No King in Israel"

Judg. 17-21

And since there is no king in Israel, it is a time when every man does what is right in his own eyes. This is the theme of these chapters (see 17:6, 18:1, 19:1, and the final verse, 21:25). In a story preserving a sizable nucleus from the purported age (chs. 17-18), the tribe of Dan migrates from the central coastal area (near the Philistines, and beyond a doubt forced out by the Philistines) to north Canaan, demonstrating en route the power of any bully to act as he would (see especially Judg. 18:21-26).

The story of Dan and the story of Gibeah and Benjamin (19-21) remind us of the kind of treasure the Old Testament is. It is the story of a people’s life and no one denies that any such story, told by any people of themselves, will have its fictional aspects, its idealized accretions, its modifications of episodes and persons in the interests of pride, pretense, and piety. And the self-preserved past will always also undergo an unconscious, psychological screening. It remains nevertheless — and we know that this is repetition — one of the Old Testament’s qualities of greatness that the real past is withal preserved, not always in detail, not always in sequence, and certainly not always with any external precision.

We will probably never be able to vouch for any given, specific detail of the marvelous array of stories brought together in the book of Judges. But in reading them all, we can confidently affirm that we are there, that this is the time the color, the smell, the feeling of the age. This is Israel and Yahweh when Israel was still becoming Israel and when Yahweh was not yet "the Holy One in your midst" who brought up Israel and the Philistines and the Syrians (Amos 9:7), who loved and created not only Israel but Egypt and Assyria as well (Isa. 19:25). And this is the land of Canaan before it was the land of Israel. It is the land of Canaan in anarchy, and in the story of its essential nature there is no mincing of words.

We see certain qualities which have been realistically preserved and recreated — this utterly noneuphemized story of the sojourning Levite and his concubine, the degenerate townsmen, the women’s tragic fate and the unhappy mores which dictated the circumstances (cf. Gen. 19), the Levite’s shockingly dramatic response, the attrition of Benjamin, and the episodes of that tribe’s very meager reconstitution [was Benjamin in fact depleted by Philistine massacre over the years?].

On this sorry foundation faith was able to build the emergent prophetic Yahwism of Israel; or better, prophetic Yahwism was able to come intact through this hard moral and political debacle with resurgent power even yet beneficial to human existence.




1. Cf. Ps. 83.

2. For bibliography and a summary of the problems and answers of archaeology in this period, see John Bright, A History of Israel, Philadelphia, 1959, pp. 118ff.

3. See G. E. Wright, Biblical Archaeology, Philadelphia, 1957, pp. 69ff. Cf. B. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1957, pp. 81 ff.

4. M. Noth argues convincingly that the basic account of Joshua 2-9 is the history of the Benjamin tribe, augmented by accounts of the related movements of Joseph and Ephraim. See his History of Israel, trans. S. Godman (from Geschichte Israels, 2nd ed.), New York, 1958, pp. 74 f., 93.

5. The best brief summary of the origin of the Old Testament canon is in German, O. Eissfeldt, Einleitung in das Alte Testament, 2nd ed., Tubingen, 1956, pp. 695-707. See also A. Bentzen, Introduction to the Old Testament 2nd ed., Copenhagen, 1952, vol. I, pp. 20 ff.; N. H. Gottwald. A Light to the Nations, New York, 1959, pp. 29-36; and R. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament, New York, 1958, pp. 50 ff.

6. See further M. Krouse, Milton’s Samson and the Christian Tradition, Princeton, 1949, especially pp. 119ff.

7. W. A. L. Elmslie, How Came Our Faith, New York, 1948, p. 161.

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