Posts Tagged ‘theological interpretation’

"And her master rose up in the morning, and when he opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, behold, there was his concubine lying at the door..." (Judges 19:27)

"And her master rose up in the morning, and when he opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, behold, there was his concubine lying at the door..." (Judges 19:27)

Several months ago I was asked to teach a Sunday school on the last three chapters of the Book of Judges.  The Sunday school series for the most part had been standard evangelical, moralistic fare, looking to Gideon as an example for doubters and Samson as some sort of hero.  But Judges 19-21 is, to say the least, not particularly amenable to such moralistic readings.  Not many of us struggle with turning out our concubines to be gang-raped to death by angry mobs, or with dismembering their corpses and then FedExing their limbs to our relatives (chap 19).  At least we don’t on a regular basis.  And I may be wrong, but I doubt that many of us would endorse the “ambush, kidnap and force into marriage” approach to courtship (chap 21).  In short, it is probably unwise to treat Judges as a trove of tales about virtue and role models.

How, then, should we read Judges?  I would suggest that the Book of Judges should be read Messianically.  That is to say, the Book of Judges, as we now have it, points forward to the Messiah as the hope of Israel.

The Book of Judges is comprised of a bunch of stories that probably circulated orally and independently in Israelite society for quite some time before being put to writing and combined into a single narrative.  While the Book itself probably underwent many editions over the years, two editions of the Book of Judges are both easily identified and very important for understanding the book.

The first clue as to the existence and date of an earlier edition of the Book is provided by the phrase, “so the Jebusites have dwelt with the Benjaminites in Jerusalem to this day (hZ<)h; ~AYðh; d[;Þ)” (1:21b).  David routed the Jebusites from Jerusalem in 1003 BCE (see 2 Sam 5:6-9) and so, naturally, Judges 1:21b must have been written before that event.

This first edition is clearly a piece of Davidic propaganda that dates to the period when David was King only of the South and Ish-Bosheth, the son of Saul, ruled over the northern tribes in Ephraim (1010-1003 BCE) and when both kings had ambitions of controlling all of Israel.  Judges repeatedly evinces a pro-Judah (David’s tribe), anti-Benjamin (Saul and Ish-Bosheth’s tribe) polemic that ony makes sense within a context wherein both of these two houses were vying for control of Israel.  Some highlights of the Book’s pro-Judah/David and anti-Benjamin/Saul/Ish-Bosheth bias are as follows:

  • 1:1-2, The Lord specifically chooses Judah to lead the Israelite conquest of the land.
  • 1:1-34, Of the Twelve tribes, Judah alone succeeds in routing the people of the land (with the exception of the plain, for which the Book of Judges gives them an excuse!).
  • 1:21, The tribe of Benjamin’s failure to drive out the land’s inhabitants, namely the Jebusites (whom David would succeed in conquering.  Benjamin fails to take Jerusalem, a city which Judah had already (!?) captured, struck with the sword and put to the torch (1:8).
  • 3:7-11, The first judge treated in the Book is Othniel, a man from the tribe of Judah, and the report concerning him is completely benign.  His story is immediately followed by one of Ehud, 3:12-30, a left-handed Benjaminite. “Benjamin” means “son of the right hand.”  In the Ancient Near East being left-handed was highly stigmatized.  Benjamin assassinates the morbidly-obese king Eglon of Moab (whose name means “calf” or “heifer”) in the bathroom, spilling his excrement everywhere, and then apparently makes his getaway via the toilet.
  • 19:22-30, The Book of Judges narrates the decline of Israel the climax of which is the crime of the Benjaminite city of Gibeah (Saul’s hometown, 1 Sam 10:26).  The implication of the grotesque narrative is that the Gibeanites have turned out to be worse than foreigners (see 19:12).  In fact, Gibeah is portrayed as a new Sodom (compare with Gen 19).
  • 20:18, When the other eleven Israelite tribes go to war against errant Benjamin the Lord specifically chooses Judah to lead them just as He chose Judah to lead the conquest of the land in 1:1-2.
  • 20:48; 21:10-12, The force used against the Benjaminites resembles that which was normally reserved for the peoples that Israel was disinheriting (see Deut 7:1-2; Josh 6:15-21; 10:40, etc.).

The weight of this evidence makes it almost certain that the earliest edition of the Book of Judges was a piece of Davidic propaganda from the time when the Saul’s Benjaminite dynasty still constituted a threat.  That leaves us with a date somewhere between 1010-1003 BCE.

KingDavidWithin the context of this first edition, the Book’s four-fold refrain, “In those days there was no king in Israel,” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25) should be understood as initially pointing to a specifically Judahite king,  namely David, as the solution to Israel’s plight.  The Book of Judges is structured by a cyclical narrative pattern: Israel apostasizes -> Israel is punished by YHWH with a military defeat and subjugation -> Israel is distressed -> YHWH raises up a judge who rescues Israel -> The judge dies -> Israel apostasizes again….  With each cycle the judges become less respectable and the narrative becomes increasingly grotesque, such that we should read the Book as depicting Israel as being in a downward spiral that hits rock bottom in deplorable behavior of the Benjaminites relayed in chapters 19-21.  Within this schema, Israel’s problem is that “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 21:25).  The unsubtle implication of the Book is that Benjamin is very much a part of that problem and that a Judahite king, David is the answer.

The existence of a second (or, at any rate, later) edition of the Book of Judges becomes apparent in chapter 18, verse 30 which reads, “The Danites set up the sculptured image for themselves; and Jonathan son of Gershom son of Manasseh, and his descendants, served as priests to the Danite tribe until the land went into exile.”  This text refers to the capture of the land and expulsion of the people of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, nearly three centuries after the time of David (see 2 Kings 17:6).  The second edition of the Book of Judges must have been written after that event and in all probability post-dates the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and the beginning of the Babylonian exile.

In the Exile the unthinkable had happened: the Davidic dynasty was more or less dethroned.  It seemed as though YHWH’s promises to David had failed (2 Sam 7).  During this period the Book of Judges was incorporated into a larger narrative stretching from Deuteronomy through 2Kings that scholars call, naturally enough, the Deuteronomistic History.  In this larger narrative the downward spiral of Israel resumes with the sin of Solomon, David’s heir, leading to the splitting of the Kingdom into two, the general apostasy of Israel’s kings (with some notable exceptions, such as Hezekiah and Josiah) and finally to the manifestation of YHWH’s wrath towards His people in the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles.

pantokrator3Despite the abysmal failure of the dynasty, exiled Israel, or, more specifically, the Judeans, still looked to members of the Davidic line as providing glimmers of hope for a brighter future (see 2Kings 25:27-30; Isa 9:1-7; Zech 4, etc.).  It is, I suggest, in this context of messianic hope that the second edition of the Book of Judges, now incorporated into the grand narrative of the Deuteronomistic History, should be read.  In this context the phrase “In those days there was no king in Israel” takes on deep and profound notes of messianic hope, pointing still to David but pointing also through  and beyond David to his long-awaited heir who would one day rescue captive Israel.

Thus, Christians need not try to find a moral in the disturbing stories of Judges 19-21.  Rather, with the aid of eschatological hindsight, Christians can find there something far better: their Savior.


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Anna Ruth Henriques,  Song of Songs- Verse III, 1993-94 on wood

Anna Ruth Henriques, Song of Songs- Verse III, 1993-94 on wood

When I was in college we worked through Tommy Nelson’s notoriously eisegetical series on the Song of Solomon (or better, ‘Song of Songs,’ ~yrIßyVih; ryviî).  The series construes the Song of Songs as being a poetic manual for “courtship” and takes some rather breathtaking liberties with the text.  It has always struck me as odd that evangelical ministers who are deeply concerned about chastity would recommend a book as risqué as the Song of Songs to single college students to guide their romantic lives.  The Rabbis forbade the young and immature to read it precisely because of the book’s intense prima facie eroticism. 

Leaving aside questions of whether the Song should be read as a unified story or as an anthology, as genuine erotic poetry or as an allegory, there is one verse in particular that has always stuck out to me when I think about my old college Bible-study: chapter 6, verse 8.  In Hebrew the verse reads,


 rP”)s.mi !yaeî tAmßl'[]w: ~yvi_g>l;yPi( ~ynIßmov.W tAkêl’M. ‘hM’he’ ~yViîvi

 Now, a word of caution: if you do not read Hebrew and have looked the verse up in an English translation, there is one word that is consistently ignored in translations: the plural third person pronoun, ‘hM’he’, which is usually translated “they,” “these.”  English translations typically mute the pronoun, rendering the first phrase of the verse, “There are sixty queens…” (e.g., ESV, KJV, NRSV, TNK).  But, if one gives the pronoun it’s due weight, the verse reads, “There are these sixty queens…” or even “These are sixty queens….”  Read this way, it would seem that the verse has a specific group of women in view.  Because this particular group of women is composed of queens, concubines and damsels (tAmßl'[]w:, not “virgins”!) most likely what we have here is a harem.

One of the odd things about the pronoun in this verse is that it is masculine, making its fit with its feminine referents a bit awkward.  But the reason for this, I would suggest, becomes clear when one reads the next verse:


 ayhiÞ hr”îB’ HM’êail. ‘ayhi tx;îa; ytiêM’t; ytiän”Ay ‘ayhi tx;îa;

`h’Wl)l.h;y>w:) ~yviÞg>l;ypi(W tAkïl’m. h’WrêV.a;y>w:) ‘tAnb’ h’WaÜr” HT’_d>l;Ay*l..     

Only one is my dove, My perfect one, The only one of her mother, The delight of her who bore her. Maidens see and acclaim her; Queens and concubines, and praise her. (JPS Tanakh)


 Here the pronouns become the singular feminine ‘ayhi and they all refer to the speaker’s beloved.  More strikingly the verbs describing the actions of the maidens, queens and concubines are all given masculine conjugations.  The pattern of the pronouns and conjugations paint a pretty clear picture.  The speaker is striking a stark contrast between his harem and his beloved.  So great is her perfection, her ideal beauty that the very femininity of other women is diminished.  In her presence, other women seem a bit mannish, as it were.

 In short, the speaker uses his harem as a foil for the ideal femininity of his beloved (not a particularly flattering role).  But, the fact remains: he has a harem!  Of course, this observation should come as no surprise to readers who identify the male voice in the Song with that of Solomon, who famously had 700 wives and 300 concubines from various and sundry countries (1 Kings 11:1-3; cf. 2 Chr 9:7).  Even if the speaker is not identified with Solomon, he does seem to be royalty (6:12) and in the Ancient Near East with royalty comes polygamy.
Whether this observation surprises you or not, the point is that it seriously problematizes any attempt to straightforwardly use the Song as a handbook for Christian dating or marriage.  Again, we run up against a massive divide between the context of the text, where polygamy, especially amongst kings, was a given, and our own context, where polygamy is anathema.  All too often readers, especially evangelical readers, make a quantum hermeneutical leap over this gap without ever realizing what exactly it is that they are doing.
To clarify the matter, we have in the male protaganist of the Song, not a single young man on the prowl, but rather a multiply-married man with many mistresses on the side who has fallen head over heels for another woman.  Of course, in an Ancient Near Eastern context, this situation poses no problem at all.  But in modern America any attempt to straightforwardly model one’s love life on the Song is likely to get one thrown in jail or worse.   So what then are we to do with the Song?  If the Song is not for providing plain and simple dating advice, what in the world is it for?
To begin answering that question we must first pose another, namely, What is any song for?  In my humble opinion, songs are for inspiring.  They may do any number of other things as well, but inspiration, I think, is their base function.  The quality of a song is judged not by whether it is true or false, whether it is authoritative or whether it alters social reality, but, rather, by whether or not it inspires.  Songs, unlike paintings and sculpture, achieve this function by means of evocative language and music.
What, then, does the language of the Song of Songs evoke?  The Song of Songs evokes the sort of intense, unbearable, irrational, hormonal, heart-palpitating, palm-perspiring, gastro-intestinal-butterfly-stirring puppy love that afflicts every adolescent sooner or later.  And it does so splendidly.  But why, we must ask, was this saccharine paean to eros considered sacred writ?  At this point, we can only guess.  Perhaps it is because it lays bare the aching beauty of one of the deep elements of the created order that God declared to be “very good.”  Perhaps in the Song we hear the sentiment only whispered by Adam, “This one at last Is bone of my bones And flesh of my flesh!,” set to music and blared at 1,000,000 decibals.  Perhaps, in a sense, the Song of Songs represents the canonization of passion.
However one slices it, the Song of Songs, like Virginia, is for lovers, whether, as ancient interpreters held, lovers of God or, as modern interpreters suggest, lovers in thrall to earthly romance.  But to woo this ancient, exotic Song into our lives now, I would suggest, requires a more supple, sensitive, rapturous and, dare I say, poetic hermeneutic than the wooden would-be literalism to which we evangelicals have become accustomed.

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