Will Bill Kill the Bible?

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So the figures in the book of Judges have been blurred out of focus by tradition, VBS programs, and perhaps also our inability to see biblical characters as real people. In short, the main characters in the book of Judges were beserkers and warlords. They lived in a period of social meltdown. The year 1200 BC, nominally the year of transition into the “period of the judges,” saw a level of political, social and economic collapse in the eastern Mediterranean world so severe that Vanderbilt historian Robert Drews justly terms it “the catastrophe,” commenting that “the of the eastern Mediterranean Bronze Age, in the twelfth century B.C., was one of history’s most frightful turning points.…the end of the Bronze Age was arguably the worst disaster in ancient history, even more calamitous than the collapse of the western Roman Empire.”[1] Another recent scholar, using the somewhat later year 1177 BC as his vantage point, characterized it as “The Year Civilization Collapsed.”[2] The land of Canaan, the intersection of every major trade and military campaign route of the ancient world, a no-man’s land claimed by all, owned by none, had already witnessed centuries of harsh rule under Egypt, through the petty tyrants who ruled its cities and towns in Pharaoh’s interests. An Israel that thought itself free from Egyptian tyranny when it left Egypt in the 1270’s BC entered Canaan 40 years later only to find it gripped in the fist of…Pharaoh. The battles reported in Joshua center on destroying Egypt’s command structure and breaking its strangle-hold on Canaan, allowing Israel to settle the highlands in small, unfortified villages devoted to a mixture of farming and herding. Israel had just begun to expand down the slopes of the central highlands when, about 1207 BC, Egypt… the empire… struck back. The son of Rameses II, the pharaoh Merneptah, ravaged the land of Canaan and provided us with the first certain reference to Israel outside the Bible. In a famous monumental inscription, Merneptah declares, “Israel is laid waste, his seed is not.” This would have been a devastating blow to the newly planted, eagerly expanding Israelite communities. Merneptah’s strike probably accounts for the unexpected, catastrophic decline reported in Judges 1:1-3:6. The resulting loss of cultural and social momentum seen in the book of Judges could well mirror the repercussions of Merneptah’s near-fatal blow.[3]

So the book of Judges takes us into a dark, almost post-apocalyptic world of comprehensive, wide-spread cultural collapse with the accompanying social chaos. Lacking any centralized government, its faith shattered and its solidarity fragmented, Israel found itself shipwrecked in a sea teeming with sharks: Moabites, Canaanites, Ammonites, Midianites, and ultimately, the Philistines, the most dangerous expeditionary military force the ancient Near East had ever seen—camped in view of the ridges occupied by the Israelites. The book of Judges immerses the reader in this epoch of with tyrants, freedom fighters, criminals, heroes, assassins, gangsters, thugs, whores, and tricksters.

In short, exactly the kind of folks who populate Quentin Tarantino’s movies.

—To Be Continued

[1] Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age, p. 3.

[2] Eric Cline, 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Princeton, 2014).

[3] See Stone, “Judges”204-206; For a review of the entire historical era, cf. “Israel’s Appearance in Canaan,”in Bill T. Arnold, Richard S. Hess, eds. Ancient Israels History: An Introduction to Issues and Sources (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014) 127-164.

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I’m 60 years old, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. I love my wife of 36 years, my three adult children and children-in-law. I love our three horses, two cats, and whatever other creatures decide to call our place home. I hate mowing grass, hanging pictures or shelves, or anything involving punching or drilling holes in walls. I love my job of studying and teaching the Old Testament. I’ve recently contracted a fierce interest in archaeology. I also enjoy guitars, jazz, vintage firearms, airplanes, photography, drystone masonry and, visiting the lands of the Bible.

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