OLD TESTAMENT ESSAYS
Significant Religious Ideas in
the Stories of the Judges
(24 December 1983)
by Christopher C. Warren, M.A.(Oxon)
The period of the judges, from the death of Joshua to the birth of Samuel, covers a period of Israelite national apostacy and foreign domination. Until the time of Joshua, assuming that the biblical texts are purely factual and not exaggerated (some scholars suggest religious syncretism commenced early on in the sttlement period), the Yahweh faith was scrfupulously observed by Israel, though the inhabitants of the land had not been driven out as they were supposed to have been. This failure to extirpate the Canaanites and other heathen elements was to have serious consequences for Israelite religious practices.
The first major apostacy took place following Joshua's death. The people had failed to drive out the Canaanites and destroy their religious shrines and were accordingly cursed at Bochim. Not only did the Israelites worship ancient gods but the text declares that they abandoned Yahweh altogether (which means they went beyond religious syncretism). Othniel, the nephew of Caleb, Jopshua's companion on the spying mission and in the invasion of Canaan, was raosed up by Yahweh to purge and reform Israel's apostate religious activities and drive out the Mesopotamian king Cushan-rishathaim. This presumably means that Othniel carried out the letter of the Mosaic Law by pulling down heathen altars and executing cultic leaders.
The period of the judges was a ruthless and merciless time when regard for human life was not high. There was little mercy to be found, many of the judges acting no better than theitr alien counterparts. Ehud treacherously murdered King Eglon of Moab and Jael broke all the laws of hospitality by killing Sisera in her tent. Gideon massacred the inhabitants of Succoth and Penuel for not participating in the war against Midian and for not giving Gideon's army badly needed food. Jephthah slaightered 42,000 Ephraimites because they complained about not being allowed to join in the fight with Ammon.
But the Israelite apostacy wrnt beyonf worshipping foreign gods and forgetting the laws for moral living contained within the Mosaic Covenant. With the death of each judge the apostacy worsened in what appeared to be a vicious circle, as though the years dulled the memories of the Israelites as to what the Yahweh religion really was. (This suggests a paucity of written records, incidentally). Though angels still appeared to select individuals like Gideon and Manoah, and though Yahweh still spoke to people through dreams, there seems to have been a general ignorance of priestly functions, doubtless because of the apostacy of the Levites. We find Gideon making a gold ephod (Judg.8:27) which suggests that Gideon, from the tribe of Manasseh, appropriated priestly functions to himself, contrary to the Law of Moses. Despite apparent national repentance, the Israelites were so inculcated with Canaanite worship, they later began to worship the ephod as an idol, again contrary to the law and reminiscent of the Golden Calf episode in Sinai.
The desire for a king first surfaced in Abimelech's reign at Shechem, one of Gidon's wayward sons through a Shechemite concubine, suggesting that even Gideon flouted the Mosaic Law by marrying a non-covenant woman. As Yahweh was king, monarchy was forbidden until Yahweh Himself authorised Samuel to anoint Saul as Israel's first king. Abimelech's act was a rejection of Yahweh's sovereignty and a major step towards Israel becoming like the other nations. His father had refused the kingship, recognising Yahweh's total sovereignty over the theocracy. It seems that during Abimelech's brief reign Baal worship was reinstituted at the Temple of Baal-berith until Abimelech burned it down following Gaal's insurrection.
Child sacrifice, considered an abomination under the Mosaic Law, and practiced by heathen nations like Moab (to their god Chemosh), was ignorantly practiced by Japhthah on his own daughter, no doubt a cultural legacy of the Moabite occupation of Gilead. Thus we see another example of religious syncretism that occurred over the years.
The 12th judge of Israel, Samson, was raised a Nazirite by his parents that included his growing long hair. Yet despute his gross immorality, it seems that Yahweh honoured the covenants Samson did kee, for it was not until his hair was cut by the Philistines did Samson lose his super-human powers. (Nazirites were forbidden to cut their hair). Samson flouted the law about marrying covenant women only, by seeking a Philistine wife in Timnah and sleeping with prostitutes in Gaza and elsewhere.
The final illustration of religious apostacy in the Book of Judges comes in the story of Micah's hiring of a Levite to care for his idols. This is a clear example of religious syncretism: the Levites were still regarded as the only tribe possessing priestly authority yet their services were being prostituted to serving foreign gods. The tribe of Dan, which subsequently settled at Laish, totally abandoned Yahweh worship, becoming the most degenerate of the 12 tribes, before being led away into captivity by Assyria centuries later. The story of Micah is followed by an account of how the whole tribe of Benjamin condoned and defended an attrocious incident of rape and pretensions to homosexuality. Ironically the Levite and his concubine would have been safer in a non-Israelite town and would have done well to have avoided Gibeah (the later birthplace and capital of Saul).
So the stories of the judges are a sad tale od degenerate religion and national apostacy. The people worshipped the Baals, Ashtoroth, Chemosh, practiced homosexuality, paid Levites to tend their idols, abused visitors, were self-centred, aggressive, brutal and generally ungodly. The picture looked much as it did in ancient Sodom and Gemorah. And yet it is a mistake to think that these conditions prevailed everywhere in Israel. The Bible gives us the Book of Ruth to show us that apostacy was not so rife everywhere. The picture of Ruth's Bethlehem is a place of peace and prosperity and Yahweh-worship although we do not know how much religious syncretism was taken place then. The rural areas were probably truer to the faith than the urban ones though there must have been exceptions to generalisation too.
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