Category Archive: Bible – OT – Judges
How does the story of Samson’s conception and birth fit into the forty-year Philistine oppression?
The Angel of Yahweh tells Samson’s mother that Samson will begin to deliver Israel. When she reports to her husband, she interprets the Angel’s message as meaning that Samson will die without completing the task of delivering Israel: he will be a Nazirite, she says, until his death. So the forty-year Philistine oppression ends sometime after Samson’s death.
But it cannot end “well beyond” it, as Barry Webb (350) mysteriously says. After all, Samson’s death comes after twenty years of judging Israel, and Samson begins judging Israel at a time when he is ready to get married. Those twenty years as judge didn’t begin when he was a child, but rather when he was a man. He was probably twenty years old, the age of manhood in the book of Numbers, though my point here still stands even if he was a year or two younger.
Putting twenty years of judgeship together with twenty years of growing up prior to judging Israel gives us a total lifespan for Samson of (about) forty years, which roughly coincides with the entire length of the Philistine oppression. Samson begins to deliver Israel and accomplishes the greatest part of his work at his death, and then the full deliverance comes.
But not in the time of David, as K. Lawson Younger suggests (287n11: “Samson will only begin the process of deliverance. The delivering activities of Samuel, Saul, Jonathan, and David are yet future”). There is simply no way to fit Samson’s youth, Samson’s judgeship, Saul’s reign, and David’s rule until his victory over the Philistines into the space of forty years. Instead, the most obvious answer is that this particular Philistine oppression ended at the battle of Mizpah (1 Sam 7), when Samuel led Israel to victory. That, in turn, means that Samuel and Samson were contemporaries and that the battle of Mizpah took place only shortly after Samson’s death.
The battle of Mizpah itself comes twenty years after the fateful battle of Aphek, when the Ark was captured by the Philistines and the high priest, Eli, died (1 Sam 4). The removal and capture of the Ark is the tearing apart of the Tabernacle of Moses, and the Tabernacle was never put together again. When the Philistines removed the Ark, it was not returned to the Tabernacle but was kept in Kiriath Jearim for those twenty years (1 Sam 7:2). As James Jordan points out, this chronology suggests that Samson’s actions in Judges 14-15 may take place just after Aphek, perhaps even during the time when the Ark was in captivity in Philistia.
These calculations are significant also for the beginning of the Samson narrative. Barry Webb writes about Judges 13: “By the time Samson is born the Philistine domination over Israel is so complete, and the morale of Israel so low, that even the hope that Yahweh might save them has been extinguished. There is no strength even to cry out” (350). And certainly Israel doesn’t cry out in Judges 13, and by Judges 15 Judah is even willing to hand over its savior to the Philistines.
But if we count backwards from the end of Samson’s life to the beginning, those forty years, we discover God’s grace. Normally, in Judges, Israel cries out to Yahweh after several years of oppression, and only then does Yahweh raise up a judge. But Judges 13 doesn’t take place (as Webb may imply) after a long time of Philistine oppression. It takes place at the beginning of it. At the very time the Philistine oppression starts and without any mention of Israel crying out for help, Yahweh is already preparing the judge, sending his Angel to announce to a barren woman the conception of the one who will begin to deliver Israel.
As with Jephthah, so with Samson. Commentators seem to vie with one another in finding terms with which to vilify him. Robert O’Connell (The Rhetoric of the Book of Judges), for instance, calls Samson a “self-gratifying brute” and “a prankish womanizer,” and says that his “acts of deliverance are rarely better than by-products of his spiteful nature.”
Contrast these descriptions with that of Hebrews 11, where Samson is one of the great examples of a faithful man, one of those “who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.”
These two approaches have implications for what we do with the details of the Samson narrative. If you view Samson’s actions in Judges 14-15 as “pranks,” then you are spared the trouble of having to interpret them, of trying to see what meaning they might have. Instead, they’re just a bunch of dumb, destructive, pointless things that a “self-gratifying brute” driven by his “spiteful nature” did instead of actually saving Israel.
But if Samson was, as Judges 13 tells us, “impelled” by the Spirit of God, then his actions are worth thinking about. In fact, we discover in Judges 14 that Samson tells riddles, which leads us to consider his actions also as riddles, puzzling parables full of wisdom. Judges 14-15, then, invites us to wrack our brains to figure out what the Spirit — and Samson! — had in mind so that we can grow in wisdom ourselves.
Adam grabs for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and in the Bible the knowledge of good and evil is especially associated with the sort of wisdom that kings need. David has it and Solomon asks for it. Adam is grabbing for kingship and ends up expelled from the Garden so that he doesn’t enter into God’s rest.
At the center of Judges, Israel asks Gideon to be their king, thereby rejecting Yahweh as king. They’re grabbing for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And even though Gideon himself rejects their request and calls them to acknowledge only Yahweh as their king, he adopts the trappings of (pagan) kingship and even names his son Abimelech (“My father is king”). He touches the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but the land still has rest.
But what Gideon is tempted by and dabbles in, Abimelech adopts, killing his brothers to become king of Israel. He eats the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And from then on, we never hear again in Judges “the land had rest for X years.” God continues to raise up judges and they “rule” for X years, but Israel, like Adam, having rejected Yahweh as king, is expelled from God’s rest.
One way to view the book of Judges is as a series of relationships between the head and the body:
Othniel: The head wins the victory. The body is not mentioned.
Ehud: The head (Ehud) crushes the enemy’s head (Eglon). Then the head summons the body (Israel, and specifically Ephraim) and the body follows the head to conquer the enemy’s body.
Deborah & Barak: The head (Barak) is somewhat weak and loses glory but, when the head leads, the body willingly follows to win the victory. The glory goes to a woman (instead of to the woman’s seed), because she crushes the serpent’s head.
Gideon: The head (Gideon) is quite weak and the body still in rebellion at the outset of the story. But when the head grows in faith, the body is converted and follows the head, except at the end of the story, the body (Ephraim) responds negatively to the head until the head successfully resolves the tension. But then the head leads the body into sin.
Abimelech: A bramble becomes the head because that’s what the body wants. This head is crushed, again by a woman.
Jephthah: The body is in sin and there is no head. In fact, they’ve cast out the one who was qualified to be head. But then they decide to make him head and he wins the victory. But again, as with Gideon, there is tension with the body (Ephraim again) — so much so that Jephthah the head has to fight against part of the body and conquer them.
Samson: The body doesn’t want the head and even hands the head over to the enemy. But the head fights solo anyway. Toward the end of the story, the head replicates the body’s sin and ends up bearing (solo) the punishment the body deserves. At the very end, the head (solo) defeats the enemy.
That’s certainly the impression you’d get from many commentaries. Barry Webb and K. Lawson Younger both say as much. In fact, in commentary after commentary, I hear that Jephthah’s vow in Judges 11 was manipulative, an attempt to bribe God into giving him victory.
But what’s the evidence for that claim? How is Jephthah’s vow any different from the similar vows (“If you do X, I will do Y”) we find elsewhere in Scripture (e.g., Gen 28:20-22; Num 21:2; 1 Sam 1:11)? Are all such vows manipulative? Are they all bribes?
Take just the last example. I’m 99% sure that there isn’t a single commentary out there that claims that Hannah was being manipulative and trying to bribe God when she said that if God gave her a son, she would give him to Yahweh. But if her vow isn’t manipulative — and it isn’t — then why say that Jephthah’s is?
I suspect that it’s because commentaries already think they know that Jephthah is a bad man. K. Lawson Younger, for instance, describes Jephthah this way:
Jephthah came from a dysfunctional background. He was an illegitimate son, born of a prostitute, rejected and disinherited by his family, leader of a gang. He became a man who was hurt, angry, bitter, ambition-driven, ready to fight, manipulative, ignorant of God’s Law, abusive of his daughter, lacking boundaries, contentious, emotionally reactionary, revengeful, and doing what is right in his own eyes for his own gain. He made his daughter responsible, blaming her for the disaster that he would inflict on her and making himself the victim of his rash vow.
It’s hard to see how Hebrews 11 could call such a man faithful, isn’t it? And yet it does. So how about starting with Hebrews 11 — starting with the conviction that Jephthah was, on the whole, a faithful man — and then reading the Jephthah story again in that light? If we think of Jephthah as faithful, just as we think of Hannah as faithful, then there’s no reason to think that his vow was any more manipulative than hers was. Unless, of course, you think that all vows are manipulative, all vows are lies. But that’s not what Scripture teaches.
Judges 11 tells us that the Spirit of YHWH came upon Jephthah (11:29). In his commentary on Judges, Barry Webb says (rightly), that this statement “implies that Jephthah’s activity that immediately follows is a consequence of the Spirit coming upon him.”
But what is that activity? For Webb, it’s all the movement from place to place in v. 29: “And the Spirit of YHWH was upon Jephthah and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and he passed through Mizpah of Gilead and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed through to the sons of Ammon.”
But notice that that string of ands continues, unbroken, into verse 30: “And Jephthah vowed a vow to YHWH, and he said….” and on into verse 32, “And Jephthah passed through to the sons of Ammon to fight against them….”
From the fact that verse 32 resumes what was said at the end of verse 29, Webb argues that Jephthah’s vow (vv. 30-31) is an “interruption to Jephthah’s progress from his endowment with the Spirit to his victory in battle.” Well, it’s certainly an interruption in the account of Jephthah’s movements. But it’s still part of the chain of “and this and that” that follows from the coming of the Spirit.
If the passing through this place and that place in verse 29 and the advancing to fight the Ammonites in verse 32 are “a consequence of the Spirit coming upon him,” then the vow sandwiched in between is too.
According to Barry Webb (Judges) Jephthah’s vow was “an irrelevancy; he would have been victorious anyway.”
But then couldn’t you say that about any vow (at least, once you know the outcome)? Should we tell Hannah in 1 Samuel 1 that her vow (i.e., if you give me a male child, I will dedicate him to you) was irrelevant because God was going to give her a male child anyway?
In fact, couldn’t we say this about prayer of any kind (“You prayed for Bob’s healing, but your prayer was irrelevant because, as it turns out, God was going to heal Bob anyway”)? But that’s a dangerous form of unbelief. God tells us to pray and assures us that he responds to our prayers, and we aren’t allowed to think that they are irrelevant because “he was going to do it (or not) anyway.”
But if there’s nothing irrelevant about praying for Bob’s healing or for Hannah to make a vow in her prayer for a son — and there isn’t! — then there’s no basis for saying that Jephthah’s vow was irrelevant either. Jephthah prayed and God heard his prayer and granted his request.
K. Lawson Younger (Judges, Ruth) compares the results of Jephthah’s three “negotiations” in Judges 11: “With the Gileadites he achieved all he wanted (11:4-11); with the Ammonites he received a verbal if negative response (11:12-28); with Yahweh there is only silence, indicating that God disregards Jephthah’s vow.”
Well, it’s true that Yahweh doesn’t speak here. But then he doesn’t speak to you out loud either when he answers your prayers. Jephthah says, “If you give the sons of Ammon into my hand,” and then we’re told “Yahweh gave them into his hand.”
Far from disregarding Jephthah’s vow, Yahweh actually responds to it word for word.
Jotham’s curse in Judges 9 is that fire will go out from Abimelech to Shechem and from Shechem to Abimelech. Both are brambles; both are fire-hazards.
It’s pretty easy to see how fire goes out from Abimelech to consume Shechem, given that Abimelech burns down the stronghold of El-Berith in Shechem. Not only that, but he sows Shechem with salt, and in the Bible salt is crystal fire.
But how does fire come forth from Shechem and consume Abimelech? It doesn’t in any literal sense, though one can point to various metaphorical fires. But maybe there’s something more going on too.
Jan Fokkelman raises the question and suggests an answer: “How about the fire in v. 20de that is to consume Abimelech? The answer given by the narrator is a pun.”
In v. 49, we have ish (man), esh (fire), and ishah (woman). Then in v. 51b, we hear about man and woman again and we’re told that Abimelech is going to destroy the stronghold of Thebez with fire (esh). But then a woman (ishah) drops a millstone on him.
Fighting fire with fire: What overcomes Abimelech’s fire (esh) is a woman (ishah). Abimelech’s flame destroys Shechem, but Thebez’s Flamette destroys Abimelech.
In Jotham’s fable in Judges 9, he presents Abimelech as a bramble, who, when asked to be king, tells the other trees to “take refuge in my shadow” (tsl). Elsewhere in the Bible, kings provide shade for their people, the shade being a symbol of protection, but of course brambles don’t have a lot of shade to offer to, say, oak trees.
In fact, being the fire hazard that he is, Abimelech the Bramble King’s shadow isn’t a great refuge at all. The next time we hear about shadows is in verse 36. Gaal sees Abimelech and his army coming down the mountain to attack him. But when he cries out to Zebul, who is secretly still loyal to Abimelech, and says, “People coming down from the heads of the mountains!” Zebul responds by saying, “The shadow (tsl) of the mountains you are seeing like men.”
Then, when Abimelech is preparing to destroy the men of Shechem utterly, even though they’ve holed up in Baal’s stronghold, he goes to Shadow Mountain, Mount Tsalmon (English translations have Zalmon). There’s no other record of a mountain with that name, and commentators suggest that this might be another name for Mount Gerizim or Mount Ebal, the mountains near Shechem. If so, then the link with Abimelech’s bramble-shadow is even stronger. This is the mountain from which Abimelech gets the brush with which to burn the men of Shechem and destroy Baal’s temple.
That’s what comes of being under the bramble’s shadow. Having the bramble’s shadow come down upon you isn’t a good thing.
When Abimelech goes up the mountain and gets a branch, he puts it on his shoulder (shikmo). That’s one of those little details that we wonder about sometimes (“Why did the Spirit think it was important to mention that he carried it on his shoulder? Why ‘waste’ the space to tell us that?”).
But it strikes me that the consonants are the same as those of the city he’s about to burn: Shechem (Hebrew: Shekem). I don’t quite know what to make of that. Is there some sort of parallel between the branch on his shoulder and the branches piled up at the stronghold of Shechem? Do the branches parallel Abimelech, while the shoulder parallels Shechem under Abimelech’s “shade” (cf. 9:15)? Or is it just a coincidence?
I don’t know. But it’s worth pondering.
In Judges 9, the lords of Shechem want Abimelech to be their king (Hebrew: melek). But in the end, Abimelech sows Shechem with salt (melach … the last letter is like the “ch” in the Scottish “loch”).
I suspect that’s a play on words: they wanted a king and they got a king, but the result was … a word that sounds like “king” but means “salt”: utter barrenness.