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Judging the Judges: Searching for Value in these Problematic Characters

 

When leaders fail, we do not know what to do.

A more positive role for the judges is their participation in the second movement of the cycle—cry and salvation. In Judges the Israelites violate their covenant with Yahweh by pursuing other gods, thereby provoking the wrath of Yahweh, who gives his people over to an enemy power. These enemies are the Canaanite city-states, small kingdoms that are ruled by autocratic monarchs, who dispense tyranny from within fortified cities. Many of these kings and their city-states are listed among the conquests of Joshua (Josh. 12). Like the Egyptians, the Canaanites represent oppressive forces that undermine the liberating nature of the Mosaic covenant. In the Canaanite system, the gods are an integral part of the royal power structure, bound to the king and his ruling elite. In the Mosaic covenant, however, God is free and stands as judge over the political structure. In the Canaanite system, human rights are afforded only to the wealthy landowners; but in the Mosaic covenant, even the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien are given human rights. McCann argues that the Canaanites symbolize the ‘ways of organizing social life that perpetuate injustice and ultimately produce oppressive inequalities that threaten human life’.47

The suffering of the oppressed Israelites is portrayed vividly in the accounts of Judges. King Jabin of Hazor, the enemy in the Barak story, ‘mightily oppressed’ the Israelites for twenty years (Judg. 4.3). The Philistines and the Ammonites, the foes of Jephthah, ‘vexed and oppressed the Israelites eighteen years’ and the Israelites were ‘sore distressed’ (10.8-9). It is said that the Philistines, against whom Samson struggled, ruled over the Israelites forty years (13.1). The most extensive description of Israel’s suffering is found in ch. 6, where the violence of the Midianites is described:

The hand of Midian prevailed over Israel; and because of Midian the Israelites provided for themselves hiding places in the mountains, caves and strongholds. For whenever the Israelites put in seed, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the east would come up against them. They would encamp against them and destroy the produce of the land, as far as the neighborhood of Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel, and no sheep or ox or donkey. For they and their livestock would come up, and they would even bring their tents, as thick as locusts; neither they nor their camels could be counted; so they wasted the land as they came in. Thus Israel was greatly impoverished because of Midian; and the Israelites cried out to the LORD for help (Judg. 6.2-5; NRSV).

Once in bondage to these oppressive forces, the Israelites ‘cannot evade the superior power, and their powers of resistance are inadequate. The force that is oppressing or threatening the people, the attacking enemy, is simply stronger’.48 Jabin, for example, has iron chariots (4.3), and the Midianites have a vast army riding on camels (6.5).

God’s promise their only assurance.

Under the burden of tyranny and in the face of hopelessness, Gideon laments, ‘where are the wonders that our ancestors recounted to us?’ (6.13). The Israelites cry out to Yahweh, and he hears their cries and is moved with compassion. Yahweh’s response belongs to the paradigm of the exodus in which Yahweh reveals himself as Israel’s savior, and to the Mosaic covenant in which he reveals himself as Israel’s king, her suzerain, who guarantees freedom from the human structures of authority that seek to dominate and enslave.49 Yahweh, therefore, is a new kind of Ancient Near Eastern God who is not bound to human political systems and, therefore, is not beholden to human centers of power. Yahweh is the God who is free to bestow his saving power upon whomsoever he will, who is faithful to his covenant people, who passionately embraces those who suffer, and who suffers with them. Because of his covenant loyalty, Yahweh determines to deliver Israel from the oppressive powers of the Canaanites.

 

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2010

About the Author: Lee Roy Martin, D.Th. (University of South Africa), is Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland, TN; and editor of the Journal of Pentecostal Theology. He has served as a Church of God pastor for 27 years and is the author of a number of books and articles, including The Unheard Voice of God: A Pentecostal Hearing of the Book of Judges (Deo Publishing, 2008). www.pentecostaltheology.org/LeeRoyMartin.html

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