The Book of Judges

Introduction

   After the Covenant between Yahweh and the Israelites at Sinai, the tribes marched into Canaan (modern Israel). At that point there began an extraordinarily long a difficult process of settling the land; the Israelites found the area already occupied by the Canaanites and the Amorites, other Semitic peoples. The Canaanites had lived securely in the area for several centuries, and, through contacts with the more urbanized peoples to the west, the Hittites and Babylonians, they had built for themselves a fairly sophisticated culture. They were an agricultural, civilized and literate people; they had not only had adopted writing from the west but had also adopted the Code of Hammurabi (see your textbook). The Israelites really never fought the Canaanites in a unified way; fighting was sporadic and divided; after almost two centuries of fighting, the Israelites only managed to occupy the limestone hills and a few, not very fertile valleys. At times, the Israelites mixed in with the Canaanites, marrying into their families and sometimes adopting their ways and their religion. Into this picture of sporadic fighting and intermingling between Canaanites and Israelites came the Philistines, who rushed into Palestine from Asia Minor. These were a more formidable and terrifying people, stronger than both the Canaanites and the Israelites, for they had iron rather than bronze weapons, and rushed into battle in chariots. In only a couple generations, the Philistines manage to turn back almost all the geographical gains the Israelites had achieved in a couple centuries. It is from the Philistines that the region takes one of its names: Palestine.

   Joshua and Judges recount the generations of fighting, conquest, and defeat that defines the first couple centuries of the nation of Israel; these are epics of heroism, cowardice, strategy, hubris, and battle. Judges, in particular, may be said to be the Hebrew Iliad ; its central concern is the nature of the gibbor (the plural is gibborim ), which can be translated "hero," "chief," "man of might," and is sometimes synonymous with the word "ones who judge," or "ones who lead" (i.e., "judges"). Gibbor is both a martial and a political designation and refers to any person, including women (for instance, Deborah and Jael), in whom the spirit of Yahweh has been breathed. The gibborim are stronger, braver, more bloodthirsty, more wise, and more clever than the ordinary run of human being. They are, unlike the Greek hero, utterly dependent on their status as gibborim on Yahweh, so self-determination is a vice rather than a virtue in these heroes. Although you are probably more familiar with the story of Samson, a failed gibbor , the story of Gideon in Judges 6-8 displays much more prominently the Hebrew idea of the hero and the potential and limitations of human action.

   After about two hundred years of fighting and internal upheavals under the Judges a monarchy over the united tribes was established by David (c. 1020 B.C.) and continued by Solomon. Later the kingdom split into two parts, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. In 586 B.C., Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, was captured by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, and the Hebrews endured years of exile in Babylonia. In 539, the Persian king Cyrus overcame the Babylonians and allowed the Hebrews to return home. Judah remained under the dominance of Persia, but began a period of religious reform and canonization of the Hebrew scriptures. After Alexander the Great conquered the Near East, from 332 onwards Judah was governed by the Greek rulers of Egypt (the Ptolemies), the Greek rulers of Syria (the Seleucids), and finally the Romans.

   The following translation of the story of Gideon is my translation ( 1994, Richard Hooker)

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-17-97