Shoftim Fourteen: Samson and the Lion

Samson was born in the last chapter, and now he’s already grown up and exploring on his own. “And Samson went down to Timnath; and he saw a woman in Timnath of the daughters of the Philistines (Judges 14:1).” Samson likes this Philistine woman, and he goes home to tell his parents that he wants to marry her. In a tradition that continues among Jewish families until today, Samson’s parents are less than thrilled at the idea of his proposed intermarriage. “And his father and mother said to him, ‘Is there no woman among the daughters of your brothers and among all my people, that you go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?’ But Samson said to his father, ‘Take her for me, because she is pleasing in my eyes (Judges 14:3).'” Clearly, this is an age old problem. The same debates happen today regularly, with parents not wanting their children to marry outside of the community, but children being attracted to people who might not fall in line with expectations. In the case of Samson, his parents give in.

“And Samson and his father and mother went down to Timnath, and they came to the vineyards of Timnath, and behold, a young lion roared towards him (Judges 14:5).” On the way to claim his bride, Samson casually kills a lion with his bare hands, and in secret. He doesn’t tell his parents, and instead continues the journey. When he passes the same way a few days later to take his new wife, he passes the lion carcass once again. A phenomenon has happened: inside the body of the lion, there’s a swarm of bees, and honey. “And he separated it into his hands, and he went on, eating as he went, and he went to hi father and mother and gave them, and they ate; but he did not tell them that he had separated the honey from the body of the lion (Judges 14:9).” This interlude is left aside for the moment, and Samson goes to his wedding. As part of the celebration, he shares a riddle with his companions. “And he said to them, ‘From the eater came out food, and out of the strong came out sweetness,’ but they could not tell the riddle for three days (Judges 14:14).” None of his companions can figure out the answer, and apparently this is such a big deal that they threaten his wife with the destruction of her family if he doesn’t tell them. This seems like an unnecessary escalation, but she freaks out to Samson and he finally shares the answer.

The marriage is short lived and horrible. Samson is upset with his wife, so he kills thirty Philistine men and goes to his father’s house, while his wife is given to his companion instead. All bizarre, to say the least. I’ve heard about Samson’s strength, and Samson and Delilah, all of which is presumably coming up, but this story is totally new to me. It’s strange, and the imagery requires a lot of analysis and understanding of the symbolism that it represents. Thus far though, Samson seems like a spoiled kid, not a hero.

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Shoftim Thirteen: The Birth of Samson

The people continue to screw up, and now they’re given over to the Philistines for forty years. “And there was one man from Zorah, from the family of the Danites, whose name was Manoah; and his wife was barren, and had not borne (Judges 13:2).” It’s an ongoing theme in Tanakh that beloved wives tend to be barren, but when they finally do have babies their children are amazing game changers. This carries through with Sarah and Rachel, and will come up again multiple times, so I’m thinking this one will be a big deal as well.

An angel comes to Manoah’s wife and tells her that she’s finally going to have a son. But she also gets some special instructions. “Consequently, beware now, and do not drink wine or strong drink, and do not eat any unclean thing (Judges 13:4).” The baby will be a Nazarite, and eventually will grow up to save the people from the Philistines. Nazirites have a huge list of laws that are specific to them, one of which is not cutting their hair, which she is told about. After receiving the prophecy, Manoah’s wife goes to tell her husband the news. “And Manoah entreated the Lord, and said, ‘Please, O Lord, the man of God whom You sent, let him come now again to us, and teach us what we shall do to the lad that will be born (Judges 13:8).'” I guess parenting a savior is scary business, so they need a coach in order to make sure they do it correctly. The angel comes back to give Nazarite parenting lessons. Eventually, Samson is born, and tomorrow, his story will continue.

S”And the woman bore a son and called his name Samson, and the lad grew, and the Lord blessed him (Judges 13:24).” The stories of Samson as an adult are iconic, so in excited for tomorrow to see how much is from the text and how much is midrash.

Shoftim Twelve: Civil War

I’m going to assume that Jephthah is completely traumatized over his daughter (mostly to give him the benefit of the doubt), but he seems to be moving on and going back to his role as a military leader. The tribe of Ephraim is going on a conquest, and apparently they’re annoyed that they weren’t included in Jephthah’s war. They choose to threaten him, which seems weird. He won – is it really that big of a deal that they weren’t included? Jephthah turns their argument around, and admonishes them for not coming to his aid when he needed help. There’s clear tension between the parties, and it quickly spills over.

“And Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim; and the men of Gilead struck Ephraim, because the lowest of Ephraim said, ‘You Gileadites, in the midst of Ephraim and in the midst of Menashe (Judges 12:4).'” A civil war has broken out amongst the tribes, with pride and territorial domains being the key triggers. It’s a bloody war, with the Gileadites killing 42,000 men from the tribe of Ephraim. That staggering number, and the seemingly juvenile, prideful reasons that lead to the slaughter, are shocking. The people are supposed to be family, extended family when it comes to inter-tribal relations, but people with an inherent bond and connection nonetheless. In the book of Judges, there’s a lot of killing of other peoples for a variety of reasons, but now it’s within the family. It’s hard to stomach this amount of bloodshed and then still think of the people as wonderful and worthy of miracles. Bluntly, this book is not making me feel particularly positively towards Jewish history and the origins of the people. They seem incredibly weak and prone to anarchy, with intermediate strongmen coming forward to move things along, but ultimately the cycle continues.

Shoftim Eleven: Jephthah’s Daughter

“Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valor, and he was the son of a woman harlot, and Gilead begot Jephthah (Judges 11:1).” In Judges, more than I’ve seen in any other book thus far, it’s noted, but almost irrelevant, if someone is the son of a wife or a harlot. They are judged according to their merits and capabilities far more than by their origins. By this, of course, I mean judged by God, not necessarily by their own families. Jephthah, for example, is hated by his half-brothers, and they drive him out of his father’s house because he is from a different mother. He’s exiled from his family, but he develops a following of his own in his exile (another trend) and is eventually asked to lead the people of his tribe as they do battle with Ammon. Jephthah is understandably bitter about how he was treated by his family, and questions their motives in seeking him out now.

“And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, ‘Therefore we returned to you now, and you shall go with us, and you will fight with the children of Ammon, and you shall become our head, over all the inhabitants of Gilead (Judges 11:8).'” He’s being offered the chance to come back and rule those who abused him in the past, a tempting offer for anyone. Jephthah agrees, and he begins to negotiate with the Ammonites via messenger. “And the king of the children of Ammon said to the messengers of Jephthah, ‘Because Israel took away my land, when they came out of Egypt, from Arnon and up to the Jabbok, and up to the Jordan; and now restore them peacefully (Judges 11:13).'” This is all very familiar sounding. It sounds eerily like the arguments between Israelis and Palestinians today, with each party claiming injury and possession of the same territory. In the Middle East, nations have long memories, and things that happened generations ago still bring up deeply emotional reactions in modern people. This back and forth that we see in Shoftim continues today, with each side firmly believing in the legitimacy of their position. Each one has been wronged, and has done wrong. But messengers between the parties aren’t enough, and the two sides prepare for battle.

“And Jephthah vowed a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘If You will indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, And it will be, whatever comes forth, that shall come forth from the doors of my house towards me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall be to the Lord, and I will offer him up for a burnt-offering (Judges 11:30-31).'” This is an extremely specific promise, and it’ll come back to haunt him almost immediately. Jephthah does win against Ammon, and then he returns home. The first thing he sees isn’t a sheep or a goat, or even a stranger, but rather his only child, his beloved daughter, who comes to greet him in his triumph. Jephthah cries, and tells her what he has done. His daughter responds in grace and maturity. “And she said to her father, ‘Let this thing be done for me, refrain from me two months, and I shall go, and wail upon the mountains, and I shall cry over my virginity, I and my companions (Judges 11:37).'”

The last time a father was compelled to sacrifice his child, in the Akedah, God saved Isaac from Abraham. Abraham didn’t tell his son what was happening, or why, but in the end it was all ok and Isaac lived to grow up and have his own family. Jephthah’s daughter, who doesn’t even get her own name, is mature enough to accept her fate, even though for her, there will be no intervention. Jephthah sacrifices his daughter, and she is mourned annually for her sacrifice. This is a tragic story, and I can’t understand why it had to happen this way. Why couldn’t a merciful God intervene to save this innocent girl?

Shoftim Ten: Backslide

After Abimelech, more saviors come to Israel. There’s Tola son of Puah from Issachar and Jair the Gileadite, but both of their roles end and the people go back to screwing around. “And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and He delivered them over into the hand of the Philistines, and into the hand of the children of Ammon (Judges 10:7).” For eighteen years, the people were beaten and subjugated. It’s horrible, but I can’t even feel bad for them because they repeatedly get themselves into this situation over and over again. They’re almost like fair weather friends to God, because as soon as they’re sad enough, they try to come back and get in his good graces. But God doesn’t give in that easily this time. “And the Lord said to the children of Israel, ‘Did I not save you from the Egyptians, and from the Amorites, from the children of Ammon, and from the Philistines (Judges 10:11)?'” He reminds them of all of the times that he’s come through and they haven’t deserved it. “And you have forsaken Me, and have served other gods; therefore I will not continue to save you. Go and cry to the gods which you have chosen; let the save you in the time of your distress (Judges 10:13-14).”

Obviously the pagan gods can’t do anything, so the people remove them from among them and begin to make penitence to God. They begin to prepare for yet another battle.

Shoftim Nine: Abimelech and Jotham

As we learned yesterday, Abimelech is Gideon/Jerubbaal’s son by his concubine. As I predicted, he quickly becomes important to the story. He goes to his uncles, his mother’s brothers, in Shechem. “Speak now, in the ears of all the men of Shechem; What is better for you, that there rule over you seventy men, all the sons of Jerubbaal, or that one man rule over you? Now remember that I am your bone and flesh (Judges 9:2).'” Essentially, Abimelech is proposing that instead of his brothers, leadership be concentrated in him. and that he rules over Shechem. His relatives seem to like this plan, so they promote it to the city residents. They give him allegiance and tribute, and with that backing, Abimelech goes and kills his brothers. That’s a pretty dramatic action, and I’m sure that if a therapist was reading this story they’d have plenty of opinions on how rejected Abimelech must have felt throughout his life and the jealousy that probably pushed him to this act. I’m just thinking he’s a nutcase – and not a very thorough one, because Jotham, the youngest son, manages to survive.

So Abimelech becomes the king of Shechem, and Jotham offers a lesson to the men of Shechem. “The trees went forth to anoint a king over them. And they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’ But the olive tree said to them, ‘Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honor God and men, and go to wave over the trees (Judges 9:8-9)?'” More parables are given, with the fig tree and the vine rejecting kingship. “Then all the trees said to the thorn, ‘Come you and reign over us (Judges 9:14).'” The thorn accepts the crown over the trees, and Jotham says to Shechem that if they were just in their dealings with Abimelech and the house of Gideon, then great. “But if not, let fire come out of Abimelech and consume the inhabitants of Shechem, and Beth-millo. And let fire come out from the inhabitants of Shechem, and from Beth-millo, and consume Abimelech (Judges 9:20).” With this, Jotham runs away, and Abimelech continues to rule for three years.

But the story doesn’t end, because Abimelech hadn’t done well by his family and his house. So the people of Shechem wound up betraying him, and a long, complex battle sequence follows. Eventually, he dies, in a dramatic way. A woman winds up hitting him with a stone and crushing his skull. However, while he’s dying, he asks his assistant to stab him, so that way people won’t be able to say that a woman killed him. Feminism for the win. Abimlech is dead, but the saga isn’t over. “And all the wickedness of the men of Shechem, God requited upon their heads; and there came upon them the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal (Judges 9:57).”

Shoftim Eight: Gideon Continued

Gideon has been successful, but apparently even in biblical times FOMO was a thing, and the tribe of Ephraim is annoyed that they weren’t included in the battle. “And the men of Ephraim said to him ‘What is this thing that you have done to us; not to call us, when you went to fight with Midian?’ And they quarreled with him vehemently (Judges 8:1).” Luckily, Gideon knows how to schmooze, and he makes them feel better by complimenting them, so it all works out. Gideon and his 300 men cross the Jordan and come to Succoth in their continued pursuit of the Midianite kings. Gideon asks the people of Succoth for bread for his followers, because they’re starving at this point. “And the officials of Succoth said, ‘Is the palm of Zebah and Zalmunna now in your hand that we should give your army bread (Judges 8:6)?'” This goes against all of the standards of hospitality that were so prevalent in the Middle EAst at the time, and will surely come back to haunt them for their stinginess.

The process repeats, and the people of Penuel also refuse to feed Gideon. He threatens both cities, and moves on. “Now Zebah and Zalmunna were in Karkor, and their camps with them, about fifteen thousand, all that were left of all the camp of the children of the east, for they that fell were a hundred and twenty thousand men that drew the sword (Judges 8:10).” Gideon destroys the camp, but the kings escape again, and only after a final chase does he capture them. On his victorious return from this battle, he stops by Succoth. “And he took the elders of the city, and thorns of the wilderness and the briers, and with them he broke the men of Succoth. And he broke down the tower of Penuel, and slew the men of the city (Judges 8:16-17).” This seems like hardcore revenge, which I guess was pretty typical back in the day. Today, though, Gideon would probably be accused of excessive force.

Gideon kills Zebah and Zalmunna, and the Israelites are so happy that they ask him to become their king. “And Gideon said to them, ‘I shall not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you (Judges 8:23).” Kingship is an interesting theme in Tanakh. The people seem to want a king, but the whole establishment of a monarchy is viewed through a very negative lens. Regardless of not wanting that title, Gideon does ask for tribute from the people, and it’s willingly given. “And Gideon made it into an Ephod, and he set it up in his city, in Ophrah; and all Israel went astray after it there; and it became a snare to Gideon and to his house (Judges 8:27).”

For forty years, there is peace for Israel. Gideon is able to grow old, and apparently has a lot of time on his hands, because he has 70 sons. One in particular, the son of his concubine, is named Abimelech, which means ‘my father is king.’ He’s the only son mentioned by name, so I assume he’ll become important as the story progresses. Gideon eventually dies, meanwhile, and the people go back to idolatry. In all honesty, it’s really hard to like the people in these books. They really suck, and they don’t take their lessons seriously. It seems to me that when Jewish texts were canonized, there wasn’t a particular concern about painting us in a positive light. Is that honest? Or is there a deeper meaning that I’m missing?

Shoftim Seven: Fighting the Midianites

Gideon now also has the name Jerubaal because of his actions in destroying Baal’s altar. He wakes up early in the morning, together with his followers, and they camp near Ein harod, the spring of harod. Personal sidenote, that’s almost exactly where my fiance’s family lives in Israel. It’s kind of mind blowing to think that if you believe that all of this really happened, these people walked the same steps that I walk all the time.

Anyway, Gideon has the problem that for most people would be a dream come true: he has too many followers. “And the Lord said to Gideon, ‘The people that are with you are too numerous for Me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel vaunt themselves against Me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me (Judges 7:2).'” This is an interesting problem. Gideon has attracted a huge following, but God is worried that the people will be too prideful, because on a numbers basis, they conceivably could achieve this victory on their own. However, it’s important that the people recognize the hand of God, so they need to do some weeding out. First, anyone who is scared has to leave. The Israelites must have been really brave back in the day, because that still leaves 10,000 men. That’s still too much, so a really weird tactic is designed. Everyone goes to a stream, and anyone who drinks by lapping like a dog is in, while anyone who gets down on his knees has to go. This leaves only 300 men, which is an acceptable number for fighting the Midianites. However, I’m left wondering what kind of weird test this was, and what it was supposed to prove about the men who stayed?

Gideon and his reduced crew are close to the Midian camp. At night, he goes down, along with his assistant, Purah, to the camp. “And Gideon came, and behold, a man was telling his fellow a dream. And he said, ‘Behold I dreamed a dream and behold, a roasted cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian, and it came to the tent, and smote it, and it fell; and it turned it upside down, and the tent fell (Judges 7:13).'” Gideon understands this dream to be prophetic, and knows that it’s time to attack the camp. He divides his 300 men into three troops, and gives each one trumpets, torches, and pitchers.

The men are instructed to play what amounts to high-stakes follow the leader. “And he said to them, ‘You shall look at me and do likewise. Now behold, when I come to the edge of the camp, then it shall be that as I do, so shall you do (Judges 7:17).” First, Gideon blows the trumpet, and then the men blow theirs and say ‘For the Lord and for Gideon.’ Then, they all break their pitchers, revealing their torches. They surround the Midianite camp, and the Midianites flee. They kill the Midianite princes, and it’s a victorious moment.

Shoftim Six: Gideon

The pattern repeats itself. The people do something to piss God off, so He punishes them by giving them to another nation – this time Midian, for seven years. “And it was, when Israel had sown, that Midian came up, and Amalek, and those of the east; and they came up upon it (Judges 6:3).” We haven’t heard about Amalek in a while, but they’re the ultimate enemy, so things must be really bad at this point. Amalek is destroying the land, and Israel is subject to Midian – all in all, not a good situation. So they cry to God, and He sends them a new prophet. “That the Lord sent a prophet to the children of Israel, and he said to them, ‘Thus says the Lord, God of Israel; I brought you up from Egypt, and I brought you out of the house of bondage (Judges 6:8).'” God made promises to the people, but they were conditional promises, and the people failed to keep up their end of the bargain.

God sends an angel to Gideon, who God sees as a man of valor. Gideon asks why all of the tragedy that the people are currently suffering has come to pass, saying that God has forsaken the people. “And the Lord turned toward him and said, ‘Go, with this your strength, and save Israel from the hand of Midian. Have I not sent you (Judges 6:14)?'” Just as Moses, the ultimate prophet, protested his mission, Gideon also shows hesitation. His worry is that he is the youngest member of the poorest house in his tribe, and will not be able to save Israel. Also just as with Moses, God reassures him that He will be with him. Gideon asks for a sign that all of this is real, and his request is granted. He recognizes the angel of God, and commits to his mission.

God tells Gideon to destroy the altar of Baal. But not just any altar. He is to destroy the altar that his own father has created, and to put an altar to God in its place. “And Gideon took ten men of his servants, and did as the Lord had spoken to him. Now it was, because he feared his father’s household and the men of the city, to do it by day, that he did it by night (Judges 6:27).” This reminds me of the midrash about Abraham smashing his father’s idols once he encountered God. I wonder if this is the story that midrash is based on, because I don’t recall any similar text from the Abraham saga. This seems to be the ultimate show of obedience to God, while rejecting the sinful culture surrounding the people at that time.

The locals freak out, and tell Joash, Gideon’s father, that he must die. However, Joash tells them that Baal, not the people, should contend with Gideon if he sees fit. The people back off, and Gideon begins to gather troops. God provides signs, and Gideon prepares for battle.

Shoftim Five: Song of Deborah

Deborah and Barak have defeated Sisera, and now they sing victoriously. “When breaches are made in Israel, when the people offer themselves willingly, bless the Lord (Judges 5:2).” They attribute their victory to God, thanking Him for their accomplishment, knowing that without Him they would not have been able to achieve it. They place their victory in the context of the history of the Israelites. “The mountains melted at the presence of the Lord, this (was at) Sinai, because of the presence of the Lord, the God of Israel (Judges 5:5).”

They continue, blessing the different tribes that contributed to the victory. They also bless Jael. “Blessed above women shall Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, be; above women in the tent shall she be blessed. Water he requested, milk she gave him: in a lordly bowl she brought him cream (Judges 5:24-25).” Jael is credited for her role in destroying Sisera, an accomplishment that men and armies couldn’t claim, but instead a woman in her tent.

“‘So may perish all Your enemies, O Lord; but they that love Him as the sun when he goes forth in his might.’ And the land rested forty years (Judges 5:31).” The words of this song are beautiful, but hard to understand on a straightforward level. It’s chapters like this that need commentaries in order for me to fully comprehend them. For now, all I can say is that it’s a beautiful concept that when a person experiences a transformative victory, they feel compelled to sing to God. Too often, we only turn to God in times of sadness, and forget to thank Him in times of joy. Deborah remembers God at the peak, which is something admirable to aspire to.