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A Little More Love for Judges?

This month’s “special study” was the book of Judges. The curriculum consisted of Marc Zvi Brettler’s short, interesting non-commentary on the book of Judges.

I say “non-commentary,” because Brettler announces explicitly in his preface that the work, a volume in the Old Testament Readings series, is “not intended as a commentary; instead its focus, following the series’ name, is on ‘reading’ – how are we to read both the individual stories and the book as a whole?” (x)

This question is more complicated than it sounds, as Brettler points out. Its answer turns importantly on what we think we are reading, because as readers, we ask different questions of different kinds of texts. If we are expecting Judges to be a book of “history,” then we will probably ask “is it an accurate depiction of the past?” (1). But if, on the other hand, we think we are dealing with a different kind of text, we will ask different questions: “Is the real past of the pre-monarchic period reflected at all in these texts? To what extent do they only reflect the period of their authors? … What was the author of each story (and the book as a whole) trying to accomplish?” (1).

Commentators for much of the text’s history have taken the book of Judges more or less on face value as a work that re-presented the real historical past of “the time of the Judges.” More recently, however, this view of Judges as a source-text for modern-style historical investigation has given way to the observation articulated by Niels Peter Lemche, who points out that the episode involving Ehud and Eglon …

… might just as easily be pre-Israelite, but assimilated into Israelite tradition. It might just as easily derive from the period of the monarchy, although the oral tradition has assigned it to the period of the Judges. In short, we have no way whatsoever, to determine whether any historical tradition at all underlies the narrative in Jdg 3.12-30, as long as we lack other sources. Precisely the same judgment applies to most of the other traditions in the Book of Judges (quoted in Brettler 7)

Brettler agrees with this assessment in the case of the book of Judges, but doesn’t simply conclude that we should replace the historical assumption about the book of Judges with study of the book as “literature” – especially if by “literature” we have in mind something like a novel or a work of epic poetry or something else developed primarily for its aesthetic value. He particularly laments the failure of “literary” approaches to ask such basic literary-analytical questions as “Who wrote the text? Why? When and where did he live? What were his religious and political views? What other texts and ideas might he have been polemicizing against?” (16). Even if, as is frequently the case with Judges, we can’t answer these questions very well. Brettler’s main methodological point here is that our reading of the Biblical texts needs to take seriously the fact that these texts were written by human beings, for reasons, and that those people and their reasons and the stylistic techniques they used to achieve their purposes have something to do with what is in the texts, and with what they can possibly mean.

Thus, Brettler’s own examination of the text of the book of Judges incorporates a fair amount of what might be called “form criticism” – that is, close reading of the texts, looking for specific textual features, and asking questions about why they are there, why that particular form or those particular textual features are showing up at this point in the text. It also takes seriously the idea that “ideology does play a very extensive role in biblical historical texts” (17), so that the techniques of “ideological” or “rhetorical” criticism, “used with moderation” add to the depth of analysis and understanding of the text.

This method of reading leads him to concentrate his attention on several significant focal points: the “short story” form, that pertains to some of the major judges (e.g., Shamgar, Ehud); the “story cycle,” in particular the Samson cycle; the strange case of Judges 4 & 5; and the horror story in chapter 19. By carefully examining the elements of these texts, asking how they came to be arranged the way they are, and who might have wanted to arrange them in just that way, he arrives at a number of interesting observations.

For instance, he devotes a couple of pages to analyzing the very very short (Judges 3:31) narrative featuring Shamgar, reconstructing some of the likely sources for its various elements, using them to demonstrate the way material in Judges likely came together. It’s clear from this single verse that “at least some of the Shamgar material clearly originates as interpretation of earlier texts” and that “one of the factors responsible for material that eventually became part of the book of Judges was the interpretation of texts already in the book” (25).

In looking at the Samson cycle of stories, for instance, he points out several pieces of internal evidence that speak to the composite nature of the Samson stories. One noticeable piece is that the basis for Samson’s strength shifts from story to story; first it depends on the spirit of YHWH “rushing” upon him, then it comes from his innate nature, then from his hair and his Nazirite identity – which, by the way, is repeatedly undermined, without any obvious repercussions, by his various activities throughout the cycle. It is fairly clear to Brettler that the compiler-redactor of Judges was working with considerations other than the formation of a well-integrated, coherent narrative. Instead, they seem to have done just enough editorial work to pull several diverse narratives into a reasonable chronological order (60).

Women are particularly prominent in the book of Judges, something all commentators notice. Brettler, however, argues that the way women appear in the book is not consistent, does not tell a single story, and certainly doesn’t form the principle of coherence of the book. Instead, the women characters in Judges, in Brettler’s view, are there for fundamentally opportunistic reasons: they are useful, to characterize the other [male] characters, to deprecate them, or to demonstrate the deteriorating state of affairs in Israel during “the time of the Judges.”

Overall, Brettler concludes that the book of Judges “is a highly political work, which echoes the following sentiment, found elsewhere in the Bible (1 Kgs 1:31): ‘May my lord King David live forever!’” (116). The arrangement of the material, beginning with a model judge – Othniel, a Judaite – shows deteriorating values as the narratives move from south to north geographically and from earlier to later chronologically (111). The narratives featuring Benjamin, in particular, cast a lot of shade on that tribe – the ancestral tribe of Saul, first king of Israel, displaced by David, the “great king,” from the tribe of Judah. The book of Judges is, in Brettler’s readings, a decidedly anti-Saul, pro-David propaganda piece.

Brettler’s case is convincing. The main question that remains in my mind, then, is a theological one: say this is so, as I’m inclined to agree with Brettler it is. What does the reader do with it, on the assumption that the text is in the Bible for a reason that goes beyond the human-all-too-human reasons its human authors and editors might have had for hanging on to and officializing that particular piece of historical spin? That is – what are we to make of it as scripture?

Brettler poses the question at the outset of how we ought to read the book of Judges. If we believe that part of the answer to that question will involve listening for what God wants us to hear in this text, then knowing (or perhaps suspecting) that there is a human political agenda at work in the text will lead us to ask some perplexing questions about how that agenda coincides with, or relates to, or even at times obstructs, the divine purpose, and what we can learn from the disparate stories told along the way to that political purpose.

However we ultimately answer those questions, reading Brettler’s reading of the book of Judges has forced me to reconsider my long-standing opinion that, if I have a least favorite book of the Bible, Judges is it. It turns out the book of Judges is way more interesting than that.


Brettler, Marc Zvi. The Book of Judges. Routledge, 2002.

“Jael & Sisera” Artemisia Gentileschi

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