Many people, encountering the book of Judges for the first time, find its violence troubling. A couple of principles help in reading the book for theological and spiritual guidance. First, the “prime directive” in interpreting any literature, especially the Bible, is to respect the cultural sensibilities and genre of the text. As much as possible, we should try to hear the text from the standpoint of those who first produced and heard it. Second, we have to listen to all the voices speaking in a biblical text, not just isolated ones. In Judges, we’ll hear more than one, and often they will speak in counterpoint. I will be posting some thoughts on this issue, with some editing and removal of footnotes and references, from my commentary on Judges in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary series (Tyndale House).
All questions of literary style or genre in Judges focus on the deliverer stories. Whatever drove the development of the book of Judges into its final form crystalized around the role of these remarkable, irascible individuals designated “judges.” It was von Rad (1966) who provided the best lead when he compared the Gideon story with the Succession Narrative (2 Samuel 9-20+1 Kings 1-2) and characterized the former as “hero saga.” Heroic literature is well known from the ancient world and has been studied extensively.
Heroic literature is a recognized type of ancient literature from the Bible to Homer to the Beowulf poet and beyond. Representative of an integrated approach, George Steiner (1962) grasped the heroic in ancient literature as a dynamically emerging sensibility, a vision of existence, and one that was viewed differently at different times in history. His analysis provides vital insights to guide our understanding of the book of Judges.
Research on heroic literature reveals a clear, but flexible set of characteristics that allow us generally to define the material and its popular appeal as “heroic.” More importantly, all of these studies point out that despite their popular appeal, the era of the heroes passed, typically with the end of the liminal era in which they lived and the emergence of a more complex social hierarchy, such as the monarchy in Israel. Heroic literature thus began to become problematic for later, more restrained eras, precipitating a crisis of preservation and interpretation. In short, heroic literature forced later readers to reposition these traditions in order to retain and continue using them. This dialectic of veneration and reservation seems also to have driven the process by which Judges was composed. Each of the successive voices shaping this book received the heroic tradition in some form, and in turn had to echo and reshape that tradition to allow it to be accessible to later generations possessed of vastly changed sensibilities. The alert reader can discern three distinct “voices” in Judges.
The Storyteller. The first voice in the compositional development that culminated in the canonical book of Judges was a voice that simply told the stories of the deliverers, the heroes. Like all heroic literature, these stories celebrate the exploits of an outstanding individual. No eulogizing of the ordinary here, no democracy of the mediocre. Physicality becomes the idiom of excellence. Whether handsome or ugly, heroes are never common. Saul was the tallest of his peer group, David was “ruddy.” Ehud’s left-handedness is expressed in terms suggesting he was a warrior trained in two-handed fighting. Samson’s wild hair also comes to mind. The storyteller relates the deeds of the heroes, invariably violent encounters, with delicious detail. Such gusto, such exaltation of the violent, scandalizes the domestic sensibility of later readers, ancient and modern. The tale master recounts the murder of Eglon by Ehud and of Sisera by Jael with gleeful energy, celebrating the heroes’ craftiness with humor, sometimes scatological or sexual. Likewise, his interest in the weaponry or implements of the heroes—Ehud’s dagger, Jael’s tent- peg, Gideon’s torches—is an element of this savoring of every violent detail. In that context, Deborah’s song takes on new clarity:
Most blessed of women be Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite,
most blessed of tent-dwelling women.
He asked for water and she gave him milk;
in lordly bowl she brought him curds.
Her hand reached for the tent peg,
her right hand for the workman’s hammer.
She smashed Sisera, she cracked his head,
she shattered and pierced his throat.
Between her knees he collapsed, he fell, he lay.
Between her knees he collapsed, he fell;
where he collapsed, there he fell — dead
—Judg 5:24-27 (author’s translation)
The sheer brutal joy of such passages confronts the reader sharply with a vision of life in which honor, valor, and a good death count for more than mere comfort or longevity. The hero functions not from some external “law” but rather from an internalized “code,” more expressive of the clan and its right to vengeance than “the law” and its claims to justice. The hero accepts the wager of battle with grim joy. Indeed, somehow the carnage of battle and the fury of the spirit-endowed berserker serve to establish, not destroy, the rule of Yahweh. The heroic narrator does not flinch from the violence but, in the words of George Steiner, “looks on life with those blank, unswerving eyes which stare out of the helmet slits on early Greek vases. His vision is terrifying in its sobriety, cold as the winter sun.” Deborah would agree that those who love Yahweh will “rise like the [winter?] sun in strength” (5:31).
—To Be Continued