The Book of Judges:
The Israelite Tribal Federation and Its Discontents
Daniel J. Elazar
The study of the Bible as a political teaching has undergone a considerable revival in the past decades. One need only consult the works of Wildavsky,1 Brams,2 Walzer,3 and the materials published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs group in the Jewish Political Studies Review4 to get a good sense of the scope of this rediscovery of biblical teachings. While the Bible never ceased to be a source of political teaching, after the American Revolution it was pushed out of the mainstream of Western Civilization. Now it is being brought back through the application of contemporary methodologies in political philosophy and political science.
This article analyzing the Book of Judges is another attempt in that direction. It follows on my earlier analyses of the covenant idea in the Bible and its political teaching and the political tradition to which it gave birth,5 my articles on the Books of Deuteronomy and Joshua,6 and my larger analysis of the Jewish political tradition.7 My analysis of Judges is rooted in those earlier efforts which trace out a larger theory of the biblical teaching, provide an overall analysis of politics and government in biblical Israel, and present the biblical political terminology and that of the Jewish political tradition.
The Political Discussion in the Former Prophets
The former prophets include six books: Joshua, Judges, I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings, II Kings. While all are considered prophetic books in that they were composed or redacted by the prophetic school, in fact they deal primarily with civil leadership in the Israelite polity. A close reading suggests that among their other purposes each reflects and analyzes a particular form of regime as understood by the prophets, that is, the keter torah (the domain of God's teachings to humans -- see below) of that time. Taken together, they provide us with a very hard-headed review of the limits and possibilities of political order in light of the teachings of the Torah (Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses) itself.8
The discussion of Judges is set within the framework of the Jewish political tradition as it was first articulated in the Bible and then refined by the post-biblical sages, medieval halakhists, modern statesmen and polemicists, and contemporary analysts. One of the central elements of that tradition is the edah or what we can refer to in general political terminology as Jewish federal republicanism. Another is the system of the separation of domains roughly similar to Western separation of powers in certain respects, but profoundly different in some critical ones because of the comprehensiveness of the Jewish way of life including as it does civil, religious and spiritual dimensions united in one comprehensive system. All of this is derived from a powerful tradition of constitutionalism based upon a variant of the ideas of ancient constitutionalism which embraced far more than the constitution as frame of government, the essence of modern constitutionalism.
In the Jewish political tradition these elements are identified by certain classic terms that continue to be in use including edah, the assembly or congregation of Israelites which embraces within it the principles of both federalism and republicanism, a term of biblical origin roughly defined as the people assembled in its entirety or through its representatives at set times. A second terminological framework is that of the ketarim (literally crowns or wreaths, visible symbols of authority), a terminology that came into use during the Second Commonwealth after the Babylonian exile to describe the authoritative domains into which rule was divided in the edah (by that time known also by a synonym, knesset, a Hebrew translation of the Aramaic kenishta, which in turn is a translation of the biblical edah). In Pirkei Avot (The Chapter of the Fathers) 4:1, three public ketarim are identified: keter torah which refers to the authority of those entrusted with communicating God's message and will to His people: prophets, sages and later rabbis; keter kehunah (lit. priesthood), those authorized to communicate the people's needs and wants to God: namely priests or, in later times, the synagogue officients who replaced the priests after the Temple was destroyed; and keter malkhut (lit. kingship), which does not refer to kingship per se but to civil authority of the kind that inhered in kings, but which also inhered in magistrates (nesiim), elders (zekenim), judges (shofetim), officials (shotrim), and later various other offices of civil authority (e.g., parnassim, community leaders).
Since time immemorial (long before these names came into use), authority and power in the Jewish polity have been divided into these three domains which actually precede the kind of separation of powers into executive, legislative, and judicial that we know as modern and of which the Bible was aware (Isaiah 33:32) as such, but which was treated as a separation secondary to the separation into domains. In other words, domains could combine or separate to exercise executive, legislative and judicial authority or powers depending on the situation.
Third, the term torah (literally teaching) was used to describe the constitution of the Jewish people and to give Jewish constitutionalism a particular "spin." Primarily, torah consisted of God's teaching, though in its constitutional form it came to be referred to as Torat Moshe (the teaching of Moses) embodied in hukim (basic laws), mishpatim (regular laws), and later takkanot (ordinances). The legitimate and required existence of the edah and the ketarim were mandated and constitutionalized by the Torah.
In this article we use the terms ketarim even though they are anachronistic; that is to say, introduced perhaps several hundred years after the compilation of Judges and the other books of the former prophets because they became the most authentic expression of the division into domains already clearly and unmistakably evident in the much earlier biblical times with which the former prophets deal. By the same token I have used such Western political terminology as republicanism in place of the biblical Hebrew terminology of the edah for comparative purposes and to sharpen the connection between the ideas of Judges and those of the Western political tradition.
Let us first review the political purposes of the Former Prophets to provide a context within which Judges must be read.
1) Joshua describes the classic polity envisaged in the Torah, headed by an Eved Adonai (God's prime minister), paralleled by a Kohen Gadol (high priest).9 The Eved Adonai is responsible for the civil rule of the edah (the classic Israelite federal republic -- literally, assembly), what is much later to become known as the function of the keter malkhut (the domain -- literally crown -- of civil rule) and the Kohen Gadol is responsible for linking the people to God, what are later to become known as the function of the keter kehunah (the domain of priesthood). Both share the task of interpreting the Torah-as-constitution, the function of the keter torah (the domain of constitutional interpretation). Both leaders function within the framework of a very active tribal federation in which the tribal leadership plays a vital role. The regime is presented as generally successful and classic in its form.
2) Judges presents the tribal federation in its minimalist state -- what happens when the federation becomes, in fact, a loose confederation and "every man does what is right in his own eyes." Power has reverted to the tribal elders, assisted by regional shofetim (judges, who lead the tribes in battle and administer justice as much as or more than they adjudicate disputes), who share the keter malkhut. The keter kehunah is also handled by local priests and Levites while the keter torah functions through the prophets that appear periodically. While concluding with a negative evaluation, it offers a mixed picture of the era it describes, by no means all negative -- for example, the rejection of monarchy is portrayed as good. On balance, however, confederal anarchism is rejected as a suitable regime.
3) I Samuel presents a picture of a prophet-led regime, or at least an attempt to restore the tribal federation by eliminating confederal anarchy through institution of a prophet-led regime. It paints a very dynamic picture of a confederation whose principal federal office was a hereditary priesthood which is deposed in the period under discussion, the rise of a prophet who was trained within the keter kehunah but shifts to the keter torah and his introduction of a nagid/melekh (high commissioner/king) reluctantly and out of necessity, to head the keter malkhut, but be subordinate to the prophet. The discussion documents the failure of this regime to stand up to foreign military pressure, the limits of the navi as national leader, and the error, both practical and constitutional, of trying to combine the authority and/or powers of all three domains in the hands of one person, even one chosen by God.
4) II Samuel, in describing David's reign, presents the classic regime of kingship. The head of the keter malkhut becomes, in the people's eyes, a king and not just a chief magistrate. He reaffirms the authority of the other two ketarim, but also subordinates them to the keter malkhut by bringing them into his court, and retains the form of a tribal federation while centralizing power through a standing army and bureaucracy. While this regime is portrayed as successful in serving critical public needs, its flaws are clearly pointed out as well.
5) I Kings portrays the regime of kingship in its ordinary or declining phases. In fact, it contrasts two forms of kingship -- dynastic kingship in the regime of Judah and nondynastic kingship in the regime of Israel -- showing the virtues and defects of both.
6) II Kings discusses ordinary dynastic kingship in a political union rather than a federation, its strengths and weaknesses. Here, again, we are following the biblical account which has problems from certain historical perspectives but which can be seen as a continuous whole as a political teaching.
In addition, I and II Chronicles add texture to the historical discussion from the perspective of the keter malkhut of the time. They emphasize political and military affairs, government organization and the problem of balancing powers and interests. In our examination of David and the establishment of kingship in Israel, it will be useful to keep these perspectives in mind.
The Regime of the Judges
If Joshua presents a picture of the classic Mosaic regime in its ideal manifestation, the Book of Judges presents a picture of a far different reality. By that reality, Israel shifts from being a reasonably strong federation to a weak confederation, operationally hardly more than a league at times. Its prolonged problems as a result of that weakness ultimately lead to a change in regime of major proportions, a change that undermined the very character of the covenant in its pristine form.
According to the Bible, Adat Bnei Yisrael (the Assembly of Israelites -- the accepted term for the Jewish commonwealth used in the Bible and subsequently in Jewish halakhic [legal] literature interchangeably with knesset yisrael to the present time) took a new turn after the end of "the polity settled by Moses" (in the words of Josephus) that came with the death of Joshua. Formally, that polity or regime was still in place. God ruled Israel directly, the nation was unified through the Torah and governed through the tribal federation, but Joshua left no successor as Eved Adonai. According to the biblical text, between Joshua and Samuel there was no nationwide federal leader. The conquest had gone as far as it would go except for border adjustments and the conquest of holdout Canaanite cities. The newly settled Israelites became agriculturalists -- both farmers and herders of cattle, sheep and goats -- and artisans (weavers, dyers, tanners, smiths, potters, and other crafts). Class divisions were still insignificant. This was the ideal age in that respect.10
While the tribes were still linked by covenant, the Israelites shifted to less institutionalized national government, rooted more in tribal and local custom, modified only by the emergence of charismatic judges in times of crisis who emerge as civil and military leaders as needed, generally on a regional basis.11 The only standing national institutions were the priestly servants of the Ark of the Covenant at the central sanctuary and the Levites, scattered throughout the land, who are described as both private entrepreneurs and representatives of the cult. The tribal government itself, led by elders, is a constant; its local government based on a system of townships, each with its own township assembly based on all males eligible and obligated to serve in the local militia (in Hebrew: ha'ir) and a court of local elders that meets at the city gates (in Hebrew: shaarei ha'ir).12
The term shofet is not exclusive to ancient Israel. The Phoenicians and their Carthaginian offshoot used the term to describe their civil rulers. For example, in Targum Yonatan to the Bible, shofet is presented as being the equal of nagid or God's high commissioner, the term used for Saul and later kings by the prophets who seem to have an aversion to the term king. In the Pentateuch, the shofetim had been second-level officials combining executive and judicial functions in the tribal federation, responsible to the Eved Adonai.
The Bible is ambivalent about this period and its regime. On one hand, it was seen as an attempt to implement the classic version of the polity in which God alone would be the supreme national ruler with no permanent human leader except for local purposes or in times of national emergency. As a system of government it failed, apparently because it was too weak to meet the challenges which the Israelites faced. Beyond that, it also failed to prevent Israelite lapses into paganism or syncretism ("idolatry") which are of prime concern in the Bible. It is not entirely clear from the text whether these lapses were part of the overall dynamics of Israelite life or preventable sins.
Governmentally, the national political system came close to anarchy.13 This had consequences in internal affairs including problems in the maintenance of the covenant among the tribes as well in external affairs in dealing with "barbarian" invasions, wars with local Canaanites, and, in the end, the Philistine menace. Gideon, Jeptha, and Samson were the most famous military heroes with varying degrees of peacetime authority.
The book mentions twelve judges but there may have been more. Again, the biblical chronicler is not concerned with relating the specifics of the history of the period but in using historical materials to develop moral issues and points. The climax of the period as presented is when Gideon responds to God's call, brilliantly defeats the Midianites through a combination of reliance on men's faith in God and good human tactics and then refuses the kingship. Gideon came closest to being a national leader. He is presented as a faithful servant of God, portrayed as believing in the Mosaic regime and refusing a popular offer to make him king.
Deborah played a civil role in a military situation. She and one other anonymous figure at the time of Gideon are referred to as prophets. The distinction is clearly ketaric. Judges were raised up to lead the people civilly and militarily. Deborah and the anonymous prophet, on the other hand, pass on God's communications to the people and are designated by the appropriate ketaric name. The priests were the custodians of the central shrine, principally located at Shiloh, suggesting that all that is left in the form of national organization is what the Greeks referred to as an amphictyony, a collection of bodies politic united for religious reasons around a central shrine.14
The principal regional divisions were along northern and southern lines. The northern tribes, located in a topographically more open part of the country, were harassed by invaders and marauders during most of the period. They also had more Canaanite enclaves in their midst and were exposed to greater pagan pressure. The material in the book deals mostly with them.
The southern tribes lived relatively undisturbed until the very end of the period when the Philistines on their western border invaded their land. At first the tribe of Dan served as a buffer and absorbed most of the Philistine's blows as indicated in the story of Samson, a Danite whose role in the Divine scheme of things was to fight the Philistines. Then they tired of the responsibility and migrated to the far north of the country, exposing Judah's flank, which changed the history of Israel.
The book before us has the usual problems of authorship. It is rather obviously based on several sources, at the very least a compilation of ancient texts (the Song of Deborah has been recognized as one of the very oldest passages in the Bible, apparently dating from the period claimed). It is generally agreed that these texts and sources were compiled by an editor from the prophetic school who gave the book its tone and direction. It is equally clear that some of the occurrences recounted in the book occurred simultaneously. Because this is not a history, strict chronological sequence is not of the essence to the author.
At the same time, the language and style of the book are consistent with the other books of the former prophets and of the Torah. One source has identified 108 parallelisms with the Pentateuch and running parallelism with Joshua and the other prophetic books.15
The book's major contradiction of previous material is in its suggestion that the Israelite conquest of the land did not take place in one fell swoop as is suggested in Joshua but took place slowly. Without trying to resolve the problem, in fact the two are not that contradictory, since Joshua describes the conquest as a sweep, leaving behind pockets, and Judges refers to the reduction of the pockets. While Joshua emphasizes the Joseph tribes, Judges begins the shift of emphasis to Judah as the book's beginning indicates.
The pattern of the book is the Israelites' lapse into idolatry, their defeat by a foreign enemy, their za'akah (formalized crying out) to God, the raising of a shofet by God, salvation by the Lord's mercy, the Israelites repent temporarily, the shofet dies, again the Israelites relapse, and the cycle starts anew, until by the end of the period covering the book, God is entirely disgusted and refuses to help, leaving the Israelites to the domination of the Philistines. This pattern suggests why the ideal commonwealth failed. The refusal of the Israelites to follow the "way of the Lord" made them more like all other peoples and finally made kingship necessary. The book suggests that kingship was their first punishment (the Prophets as a whole suggests that when this was not enough, the long suffering Lord inflicted a more drastic punishment -- exile).
The Character of the Book
Judges is a difficult book to read alone. It is so much embedded in the context of its predecessor, Joshua, and its successor, I Samuel. It begins as a continuation of Joshua, reflecting the slow but continuing process of the Israelite conquest of Canaan. It continues to deal with the Israelites' religious backsliding after they have settled in. It concludes with what is, in part, a harsh indictment of the Israelite tribal federation under the Judges for its inability to maintain Israel's security and even its internal order without a king. In this respect, as a book Judges is ambivalent about the existing regime.
Kingship is directly and indirectly presented as religiously and constitutionally wrong throughout the book. Gideon specifically turns down the people's offer that he become their king for religious and constitutional reasons. His offspring, Abimelekh, who is portrayed as an improper ruler in every respect, from his ancestry, his seizure of power, and his personality, tries to impose monarchic hierarchy on Israel. This unconstitutional effort is viewed very disapprovingly in the book.
The only references to kingship that could possibly be interpreted positively are the references to "there was no king in Israel" which come after the decline is in full swing. Picked up by later generations of apologists for the monarchy, I would suggest that they need to be read in the context of a major prophetic shift from an anti-monarchic position to one that sees kingship as a necessary evil and is on the way to viewing kingship as a punishment, as in I Samuel 8 and 12 where the king is portrayed by the prophets as someone who is legitimately entitled to usurp the rights of the people.
Thus a sequence is established. The ideal righteous regime is established with a maximally public-spirited citizenry led by republican leadership as presented in the Book of Joshua. The deterioration of this regime is presented in the Book of Judges. The consequences of that deterioration, namely the downfall of the republic, is portrayed in the two Books of Samuel, followed by the downfall of the monarchic regime, first in the north and then in the south in the two Books of Kings.
Nevertheless, at the beginning, the book seems very accepting of the regime. Even the rhythm of backsliding and redemption seems to be part of the regular rhythms of life, i.e., peace and prosperity, religious backsliding, the emergence of a charismatic judge to lead the people to redemption in security matters by returning them to the true ways of God-fearing, thus bringing a generation of peace before the process starts all over again.
(The Bible, while not being strictly a book of history, has an historical sense, in other words, that life is dynamic and not static; therefore no single state of homeostasis is to be expected. Rather, there is to be a rhythm in events. The question is whether that rhythm is within the range of God-fearing or not. Obviously the prophets would have preferred it if the people would have remained God-fearing all the time, but apparently they could live with a degree of human weakness. It was only when that weakness passed an acceptable point that God's punishments became other than limited and generational, to become more extensive and multigenerational. The progressively harsher tone of the Book of Judges as we have it, coupled with the consequences presented in I Samuel, suggest this. The more condemnatory tone develops only in the latter chapters of the book (Chapter 17-21).
If one emphasizes the documentary hypothesis of biblical criticism in its pure form, which does not seek coherence in the Bible and indeed rejects it, then this is easily explained. If, however, one believes that, however formed, the Bible as we have it is a coherent work, then the shift three-quarters of the way through the book must be accounted for in some reasonable way. Michael Walzer has suggested recently that the Bible has to be read as a dialogue between different viewpoints, much as later Jewish sacred literature, e.g., the Talmud. Judges would certainly fit his thesis.
The book is written in the spirit of covenantal religion in the covenantal polity, although the only direct references to covenant are at the beginning. The first is Chapter 2:1-5, where a messenger of the Lord appears to the Israelites to accuse them of breaking God's covenant with them by entering into covenants with the inhabitants of Canaan, which have allowed idolatry to persist in the land. In the end, as a punishment, God will not drive out the rest of the Canaanites. Upon hearing this the Israelites wept and named the site of the visitation "Bochim", which means "They cried." It is this visitation that sets the stage for what happens in the rest of the book. Judges, then, is the first book of the Bible based upon the playing out of the theme of the broken covenant.
At two other points in the book there are special references to what would have been understood by the readers of the time as covenantal: in Chapter 8:22-23, where Gideon defers the kingship proferred him by the Israelites on the grounds that according to the Israelite constitution only the Lord is to rule Israel as king; and then again in Chapter 21, where the Israelites find a way to restore the tribe of Benjamin after its punishment for the gross incident of the murdered concubine. On the other hand, the pattern of backsliding and foreign invasion as punishment, repentence and redemption by a judge who mobilizes the people, is in itself the repetition of a covenantal pattern, but recognizes the reality of human weakness.
An Outline of the Book
Since the Bible is not strictly chronological history and is selective in its use of historical data, we should assume that what it does use is importance. Hence an outline of Judges is in order to enable us to better pursue the point.
Judges begins the biblical shift of focus from the Joseph tribes to Judah, with its sister tribes, Simeon, that seems later to have disappeared within it, and Benjamin. In Chapter 1, Judah, with Simeon, takes the lead in extending the conquest, led by Joshua's co-survivor from the desert, Caleb ben Yefuneh, a Kenite. While the focus is on Judah, the chapter also deals with the conquests of the Joseph tribes, Zebulun, Asher, Naftali, and Dan and their tribal limits, to bring us up to date on the progress of the conquest along the borders of Israel. These provide a setting for the book. All this is presented as happening immediately following the death of Joshua.
In Chapter 2, we have the incident at Bochim where God's messenger conveys to the Israelites the consequences of violating God's covenant. In a sense we are presented with a dilemma. Realistically, there were limits to the Israelites' ability to conquer fortified cities, but equally realistically, by having the Canaanite peoples in their midst they were constantly tempted by pagan local custom with its idolatrous consequences.
The incident is followed (2:6-10) with a description of how the Israelites remained faithful to the Lord "all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that outlived Joshua who have seen all the great work of the Lord" (verse 7); in other words, as long as there was human witness alive that had been present at the great events testifying to God's role on behalf of Israel. Later, after "all that generation were gathered unto their fathers and there arose another generation after them that knew not the Lord nor the work that he had wrought for Israel," the backsliding began (verse 10).
The rest of the chapter is essentially a generalization of the historical pattern to come, thereby strengthening the Lord's resolve not to drive the remaining Canaanites from the land, even if He intervenes from time to time to send a judge to redeem His people, because the people are faithful only so long as that judge is alive. The specifics begin in Chapter 3:7, where intermarriage and idolatry bring God to give the Israelites into the hands of Aram-Naharayim, the Syria of today, for eight years. Following the covenant formula, the Israelites cry out to the Lord, who sends them Othniel ben Kenaz, another Kenite (Kennizite) and Caleb's younger brother, as their judge and savior, to throw out the Arameans and establish a generation of peace until his death.
Next it was the Moabites' turn when again the Israelites lapsed into idolatry. Assisted by Ammon and Amalek, the Moabites imposed tribute on Israel for eighteen years until they again cried unto the Lord in the formulary manner. God responds to them by providing them with Ehud ben Gera, a Benjaminite, who by strategem, while presenting the tribute to Eglon, the king of Moab, also stabbed him to death with his sword. This stimulated an uprising that freed Israel and brought two generations of peace, according to the biblical account. Ehud had a successor, Shamgar ben Anat, who did not have to restore Israelite independence but to preserve it by fighting with the Philistines. From the context, he seems to have been either of the tribe of Judah or Simeon.
Once again, there is a backsliding (Chapter 4). Jabin, the Canaanite king of Hatzor, aided by his military commander, Sisera, subdued the Israelites for twenty years. Once again, the Israelites cried unto the Lord who sent them Deborah, apparently an Ephraimite, a prophetess who judged Israel. She mobilized Barak ben Avinoam from the tribe of Naftali, who mobilized his fellow-tribesmen and the Zebulunites. They destroy Sisera's chariot force by intelligently forcing the enemy to come to them where their infantry had the advantage of the high ground.
Once again, the Kenites play an important role, in this case through Yael, the wife of Heber, who lives in the north. The prominent role of the Kenites in Judges may be another sign pointing to the prophetic view of the importance of maintaining whatever possible of the nomadic life of the desert rather than being corrupted by the sedentary life of the Fertile Crescent.16 The Kenites are portrayed in the Bible as a tribe who have joined the Israelites as God-fearers without merging with them, who have refused to end their nomadic existence after reaching the Promised Land, but rather continue to live in tents in the manner of the original wandering Israelites. The implicit argument is that because they do not live in settled towns, they do not become involved with the Canaanite city-dwellers and are not turned by them into idolators.
Once again, peace came to the land for a generation, but by Chapter 6 the Israelites were backsliding again, so "the Lord delivered them into the hands of Midian for seven years" (6:1). Being subdued in this period meant being forced to pay tribute to the subduing power. The Midianites, however, were nomadic tribes, not settled kingdoms, so they and their Amalekite allies simply raided Israel whenever the harvest was ready, taking not only organized tribute, but worse, taking whatever there was. Thus God had escalated the Israelites' punishment.
This time when the Israelites cried unto the Lord, God sent an anonymous prophet and a messenger who chose Gideon ben Joash to judge and redeem Israel. Gideon was of the tribe of Menasseh. The story of his victory and the subsequent refusal to accept the kingship of Israel in violation of God's commandment is the climax of the Book of Judges. The story is told in much greater detail than in the case of the previous judges.
As is often the case, God is presented as having chosen an unlikely candidate, a man from the poorest household in Menasseh. Gideon goes through a test with the messenger of God which ends with his assault on and destruction of the idolatrous altars. Gideon uses in his defense as to how he could do no such thing, the classic Jewish argument that if the gods could not save themselves, why should anybody else be angry (6:27-32).17
Jewish tradition abounds with such stories. The famous midrash in which Abraham breaks some of his father's idols and places sticks in the hands of the others so that he can accuse them, and then refute his father's idolatrous beliefs, is widely diffused. Less well-known is the first reference to Jews by a European historian Hecateus of Miletus: He told of a Jewish archer who slays a bird of omen that was holding up Alexander the Great's army on its march to Egypt. When set upon by the pagan soldiers for doing so, the archer gives the same reply as Abraham, only about the inability of birds of omen to even forecast their own demise. Moses uses the same argument against pharoah and his priests.
Significantly, the story reveals that Gideon had another name, Jerubaal, one that clearly reflected baal worship or the kind of syncretism that was a product of Israelite assimilationism. We do not know from the story whether his name was Jerubaal before it became Gideon or whether he bore two names as most Jews in the diaspora do today.
There follows the rather complete story of Gideon's successful war against the Midianites, where, once again, it is the Lord's favor combined with good tactics that win the day. Gideon's tactics are portrayed as being dictated by God down to the last detail. Gideon is presented as having all the experiences of a true charismatic leader of the Lord: an encounter with God's angel messenger, divine dreams, God's promises through them; taking a strong and public stand against idolatry, and demonstrating great faith in God's highly unconventional military tactics.
Gideon not only liberated the Israelites at home but, to make his victory complete, he pursued the Midianite enemy across the Jordan and inflicted a major defeat upon them. In the process Gideon is portrayed as having some problems with his fellow Israelites from other tribes. After resolving those problems Gideon is offered the kingship by the Israelites (8:22). In what is clearly presented as his finest hour, he turns down the offer, rejecting the very idea of kingship for Israel.
Gideon remained as Judge for the remainder of his life. While he brought a generation of peace to the land, he also reflected the syncretism of the time by erecting an ephod to the Lord which in due course is turned to idolatrous purposes, to the worship of the baalim, especially baal brit (the lord of the covenant), a baal about which we know little but who has a significantly covenantal name.
Gideon may have turned down the kingship but he lived like a king. He is presented as having many wives and sons. One of his sons by a concubine, Abimelech, settled in Shechem, originally a Canaanite city and city-state where indigenous Canaanite paganism was the state religion, and sought to establish monarchic rule over Shechem and the adjacent Israelites (Chapter 9). Abimelech secures the support of the men of Shechem in the traditional way. First he proves his prowess as a warrior, in this case by killing the other eighty sons of Gideon, all except the youngest, Jotham. After this feat, the Shechemites assembled and proclaimed him king. At the assembly he is challenged by Jotham through the parable of the trees -- one of the great democratic and anti-monarchic parables in Western literature (9:7-15):
When they told it to Jotham, he went and stood at the top of Mount Gerizim and raised his voice and cried out to them, "Hearken unto me, you men of Shechem, that God may hearken unto you. The trees went forth at one time to annoint a king over them and they said unto the olive tree, 'reign over us.' But the olive tree said to them, 'should I leave my fatness, seeing that beyond they honor God and man, and go to hold sway over the trees?' And the trees said to the fig tree, 'Come thou and reign over us.' But the fig tree said to them, 'Should I leave my sweetness and my good fruitage and go to hold sway over the trees?' And the trees said to the vine, 'Come thou and reign over us.' And the vine said unto them, 'Should I leave my wine which cheers God and man, and go to hold sway over the trees?' Then all the trees said to the bramble, 'Come thou and reign over us.' And the bramble said unto the trees, 'If in truth you anoint me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shadow, and if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.'"
Nevertheless, Abimelech held sway over Israel, apparently through Shechem, for three years. Then there was a falling out between him and the Shechemites. Taking advantage of Abimelech's absense, they revolted. While in the process of successfully subduing the Shechemites and those who joined in rebellion against him, Abimelech was mortally wounded in battle, thereby ending the episode of the maverick who claimed to be king.
After Abimelech, Tola ben Pua of Issachar judged Israel (10:1-2). He was followed by Yair the Geriotite, both of whom could function as civil judges since the land was at peace (10:3-5). Then the Israelites backslid again and were conquered by the Philistines from the west and the Ammonites from the east, both. Once again the Israelites cried out and repented.
The Israelites mobilized on the east against Ammon led by the people of Gilead who chose Jephthah as their military leader. His is the interesting story of a social outcast who was a natural leader called upon to save his people. He does so but he destroys himself by a thoughtless vow that leads him to sacrifice his daughter in one of the dramatic and poignant stories of the Bible. For accepting the call of his Gileadite brethren to help them, he insisted on being appointed the head of the Gileadites and made a pact with the Gileadite elders to that effect (11:6-11).
Jephthah is then presented as sending a message to the Ammonite king in which he summarizes the history of Israel's experience with the peoples east of the Jordan on their way to the Promised Land after the Exodus. The account suggests that even a ruffian outcast was expected to know the history of his people (11:12-27). Jephthah wins a great victory, which leads to the horror of his having to sacrifice his daughter to fulfill an ill-considered vow. He then got involved with a brief civil war with Ephraim, judged in Gilead for six years, and died young.
Jephthah was followed by Ibzad of Bethlehem (Judah), Elon the Zebulunite, and Adon of Ephraim. All three were essentially civil rulers who were not confronted with military conflict. Following those three Israel again turned away from God and were oppressed by the Philistines for a generation, bringing us to the story of Samson.
Even more than any of the other judges, Samson is purely a warrior. He is presented as having few if any qualities needed to hold public office other than great strength and courage, good for leading people into battle.
The book portrays a decline in public virtue from Gideon, who not only is faithful to God but to the Mosaic constitutional institutions of the tribal federation, to Jephthah, who is a civil as well as a military leader by virtue of his natural talents but misunderstands the premises of Goid's rule, to Samson, a leader by virtue of his parents' vow that brings him extraordinary strength but now learns how to be a public leader, thereby setting the stage for the need to change the regime from one resting upon the public-spiritedness and diffused talent required in a democratic republic to a system of hereditary kingship where at least one family is chosen because of its founding father and subsequently is expected to be educated into public leadership.
Samson, of the tribe of Dan, is portrayed as having been born through God's intervention and bound to preserve his Nazerite status by letting his hair grow and abstaining from wine. He is portrayed as being clever (e.g., his riddles) and extraordinarily strong. He gets involved with Philistine women who prove to be his downfall. Even his motives for helping his people are personal. He is seeking revenge on the Philistines for taking away his Philistine wife and otherwise slighting him. He is never portrayed as having any public-spirited interest except, perhaps, at the very end of his life where, a prisoner blinded by his Philistine captors, he brings down the Temple of Dagon on their heads and his, utilizing his extraordinary strength and even then the personal motive is strongest. While he is numbered among the judges, he is not like any of his predecessors so labelled in that his public role is a very limited one.
After Samson's death, the book portrays an Israel in decline, beginning in Chapter 17 with the story of Micah and his molten image dedicated to the Lord. Another example of the syncretism of Israelite religion, Micah worships the Lord but he does so through building a graven image and consecrating a Levite as a priest to serve it. It is in this chapter that we first come across the formula: "In those days there was no king in Israel. Every man did that which was right in his own eyes" (17:6). Here we have a story of an entirely private act not associated with governance in any way but reflecting the decline of virtue in Israel.
In Chapter 18 the story is continued and connected with intertribal conflict. The migrating Danites seize Micah's graven image and his Levite to take with them to their new northern home, thereby making Micah's private lapse into a public sin, not only because of the image but because of establishing an alternate shrine when "all the time...the House of God was in Shiloh" (18:31). Chapter 18 includes the "no king in Israel" formula.
So does Chapter 19, which begins the horrible story of the mass rape-murder of the concubine at Gibeah. According to this story, the base men of Benjamin assault an Israelite passing through from Judah to Ephraim and have their way with his concubine until she is dead. The wronged Israelite summons men from the other tribes to punish Benjamin.
Here for the first time since the days of Joshua all of Israel from Dan to Beersheva and from both sides of the Jordan is presented as assembling at Mizpeh to punish the Benjaminites. The processes of federal governance described in Chapters 20 and 21 to close the book are of special interest, giving us a glimpse of the tribal federation in action in that epoch, first to respond to a case of wantonness and wickedness and then to preserve the intertribal dimensions of the edah.
After three days of battle against the obviously powerful Benjaminites, the other tribes prevail against them, winning by strategem, destroying the tribe's settlements, and killing most of the Benjaminite men. Then, realizing that the long-term consequences of this action (Chapter 21) would be to eliminate Benjamin as one of the tribes, they set about to prevent that consequence. Having bound themselves by oath not to give their women in marriage to the Benjaminites because of Benjaminite wantonness in the previous episode, they arrange for the surviving Benjaminites to "kidnap" the womenfolk they need with the implicit consent of the other tribes. The deed is done and Benjamin is restored.
The whole story suggests how the tribal federation could function to maintain the law throughout the land while at the same time assuring that even in the case of civil war no tribe should be eliminated from the federation. The story concludes with the formula: "In those days there was no king in Israel. Every man did that which was right in his own eyes" (21:25).
What Does Judges Teach Us?
While this story is presented at the end of Judges, from the context of the story, where the High Priest is Pinchas ben Elazar, Aaron's grandson, it must have taken place much earlier in the period of the judges when the tribal federation was still constitutionally capable of acting together. The problem of chronology is not an insignificant one in Judges. While the figures presented as "judges" are presented as if they simply follow one another chronologically, there is no certainty that this is the case. Some may have functioned parallel to one another in different parts of the country. First of all, while the matter is not entirely clear, the judges mentioned came from eleven of the twelve tribes, omitting only Asher and of course the Levites, who have an entirely different role. This may mean that judging was rotated among the tribes, or it may describe historically parallel developments.
Representatives of all three of the ketarim are mentioned in the course of the book. The High Priests, Elazar and Pinchas, play their allotted roles as representatives of the keter kehunah, plus two unnamed Levites who are turned to other purposes. There are two prophets from the keter torah. One, Deborah, plays a leading role in delivering her people and is shown to have had influence over a substantial portion of Israel. In addition there were the anonymous prophets who appeared in connection with Gideon, suggesting that there were prophets active throughout this entire period.
The other figures mentioned are all of the keter malkhut, most designated judges. Five -- Tola, Yair, Ibzan, Elon and Abdan -- are presented as civil juges with no military involvement. Three -- Ehud, Shamgar, and Samson, plus Barak who is not designated a judge -- had purely military functions, while three -- Othniel, Gideon and Jephthah -- are presented as combining civil and military functions.
The choosing of the judges is generally presented as an act of God's charisma, as in the case of Gideon and Samson. But Jephthah is made a judge by covenant with the elders of Gilead. Only then does the spirit of the Lord come over him (11:29), while Abimelech, a deviant case, is the only one who seems to have attempted to impose a hierarchical regime and he has his major source of support in Shechem, a very non-Israelite city consistently portrayed as such in the Bible. He, however, is unable to do so, and indeed provokes a successful revolt against him as a result of his trying.
While the term "covenant" is used only twice, at the beginning of the book, covenanting is pervasive throughout. Jephthah makes a pact with the elders of Gilead, the Israelites who assembled against Benjamin take oaths, Gideon and even Abimelech are offered power as rulers by popular assemblies. The spirit of the age is summarized in the fable of the trees told by Gideon's surviving son, Jotham.
Tribal government in Israel is still in the hands of elders, but sarim are also mentioned. Here they seem to be permanent tribal officers. Othniel (and his uncle Caleb before him) are Kenite/Kennezites from a people that has thrown its lot in with Israel, serving the Lord in a way that tries to maintain republican virtue through preserving the nomadic way of life. Yair and Jephthah are from Gilead, that is to say, they are identified with a territorial rather than a tribal division that has come in place of the tribal designation, reflecting another theme in the Book of Judges, namely the transition from ideological to territorial democracy, a theme common to all new societies.18
From Ideological to Territorial Democracy
If Joshua describes the fulfillment of the Mosaic promise that Israel will be rewarded by the Lord with a land flowing with milk and honey, then Judges, inter alia, reflects the transition of a new society from one held together by its ideology to one rooted in a particular territory where its original ideology has to struggle to maintain itself in its pure form. Part of that struggle is, of course, the struggle over periodic Israelite back-sliding into idolatry and its return to the ways of the Lord. The pattern is relatively straight-forward. A new people is formed around some great idea and a way of life attached to it. This motivates them to migrate from their place of origin to a new land where they are able to establish that way of life with relative freedom and with a maximum of detachment from the cultural baggage of their previous lives.
Over the course of time new generations are born whose primary commitment is once again to place, family and neighbors rather than to ideological motivations. They are members of the new society by accident, as it were, not by choice. Ironically, they represent both the success of the new ideology and sow the seeds for its failure to ultimately change the world in the ways it seeks.
Much has been written about how New England was transformed from the Puritan effort to build a city upon a hill into a Yankee society pursuing both higher and lower ends.19 Biblical Israel represents the first such case in recorded history. The process is reflected in the Book of Judges, both in the references shifting away from identifying people purely on tribal lines to also identifying them on territorial ones, as, for example, the people of Gilead, or judges as first and foremost coming from particular townships within tribes.
Increasingly, the security struggles also revolve around protecting particular territories from foreign incursion and the involvements of the various tribes depend upon their geographic positions. Unless the issue is an ideological one, as in the case of the concubine in Gibeah, the military involvement is by tribes or region and is clearly geographically motivated. Then, too, the tribal leaders themselves, judges, and even prophets are leaders in specific geographic areas rather than comprehensive leaders of the entire federation, so much so that while the first figure in the book, Caleb, is still fighting to conquer the land in the name of the Mosaic ideology, the last, Samson, has only personal territorial interests in what he does to advance his interests or to protect his fellow Danites.
The Decline of Republican Virtue
Overall, the book seems to be about the decline of civic virtue and a consequent change in Israelite political culture which leads to a major change in Israelite political institutions. While subsequent generations have read it as if it were presented to describe that the tribal federation without a king could not handle Israelite backsliding, this does not seem to be the major issue in the book. A close reading suggests that, at least at the beginning, the pattern of backsliding, return and deliverance is the predicted normal course of human events which God Himself has forecast and which is entirely compatible with the regime of the twelve tribes, as long as the regime has the capacity to produce virtuous ("righteous") judges. The real problem is that after Gideon, Judges portrays a decline in the republican virtue of the Israelite leadership. Gideon, the climactic character in the book, is the epitome of the virtuous republican leader as portrayed in the Bible. Jephthah is already a step downward and Samson does not even have the minimum requirements of republican virtue, only personal strength and courage.
Under these circumstances the provisions of the classic regime for responding to the ordinary dynamics of life and the realities of human frailty no longer are sufficient, hence a constitutional change must be introduced. The conclusion of the book seems to suggest that republican virtue must first repose in the people (who at least earlier in the period did possess it) if their leaders are to have it. By the time we reach the end of the Book of Judges we have already been given at least a broad hint that the tribal federation can be saved, but only by a proper revival of by-then-degenerated republican virtue. If not, there will be a regime change -- for good or for ill.
This thesis finds a strong measure of internal confirmation in the Bible itself, particularly in the Prophet Samuel's argument against kingship in I Samuel 12, where Samuel argues that the regime does indeed work, except when the Israelites themselves abuse it or refuse to live by its principles.
Civic or republican virtue is not an insignificant theme in the Bible where it is included under the general category of righteousness. Indeed, the Bible tries to present its own understanding of what constitutes republican virtue within the context of yirat shamayim (God-fearingness). God is portrayed in the Bible as trying to make humanity righteous by developing one righteous people that can show the way after his earlier attempts with Adam and Noah to shape all of humanity in one fell swoop have failed. First through covenanting with Abraham and his family and then through leading the Israelites out of Egypt through Moses and covenanting with them at Sinai, his efforts are all pointed in that direction. The Bible is the record of those efforts.
Righteousness, as presented in the Bible, has many dimensions, just as the Bible itself must be read as a prismatic book, what later Jewish sages refer to as the Bible having "seventy faces." Those interested in the Bible's political teachings will be interested in righteousness as civic virtue, especially republican virtue, in contrast, e.g., to those primarily interested in its religious teachings who will seek to understand righteousness in ritual demands and spiritual terms. While certainly not the only books to dwell on this, Joshua and Judges together present us with a fairly comprehensive picture of the biblical understanding of republican virtue:
First of all, republican virtue, like all biblical virtue, begins with fear of the Lord as manifested by hearkening to God's Torah. (Contrast this with the foundation of Classical virtue that involves having the requisite talents for the particular task at hand.) Second, it involves public-spiritedness. Third, it requires a respect for the Israelite constitution and its limitations. Fourth, it emphasizes courage in the pursuit of public purposes. Fifth, it demands faithfulness to the tradition. Sixth, it expects a sense of the equality of all Israelites and public behavior reflecting that sense.
While the biblical discussion and its presentation here to this point have been couched in terms of political thought, what Judges describes is perhaps even more a change in political culture. Like all such changes, it developed slowly over the nine generations (nearly three centuries) during which the regime described existed, from the days of the conquest and settlement of the land to the days of the consolidation of the monarchy under David. In fact it is this change in the political culture that the biblical narrative traces as it shows the decline of public spiritedness and religious ideology and their replacement by private interests and even religious synchretism or outright paganism. The subtle changes from generation to generation and their acceleration as they pass a certain critical point are lessons that the perceptive reader can learn from following the narrative in the book.
Being the kind of book that it is, the Bible does not label these changes for its readers. It presents them embodied in concrete situations with concrete inputs and outcomes. It remains for the politically attuned reader to draw the necessary conclusions.
A generation of political scientists have explored the phenomenon of political culture both in the United States and elsewhere as "the patterned system of political action and as the expectations of the governors and of the governed of government, of the governors, and of themselves,20 definitions which can be easily applied by readers to Judges, even if Judges has not explicitly applied them as generalizations or generalized questions itself. That is not the biblical way. But we who can add that dimension to the Bible to continue the tradition of commentary and textual probing which has kept the Bible the great living teaching that it is.
This republican virtue is grounded in a combination of what Martin Diamond described in connection with the American regime of the low but solid virtues of the middle class and the high and enobling virtues of the Torah as embodied in God's covenant with Israel.21 These virtues are found in abundance in the Book of Joshua and continue to animate the Israelites after they have settled in their land until the prosperity and ease that come with permanent settlement begin to erode those virtues, as portrayed in Judges. These will lead to a civic and constitutional crisis in I Samuel that will bring about a change in regime to one which has less expectations of the broad body of the people but in return limits their freedom and the closeness of their connection to God.
In this respect, Judges can be read as a tragedy. At its beginning the Israelites are living under a regime which can accommodate the perverse tides of human behavior and that can, with God's help, act to set the people aright after they have strayed, following a "normal" course of human success, lapse and return. Suddenly in the middle of the book, precisely at its climax when the greatest of the judges sets the example of being most faithful to the constitution by keeping the Mosaic regime in place, the almost automatic recycling begins to get out of control. The next outstanding judge, while trying to do the right thing, ends up committing the horrible sin of human sacrifice. From then on, each judge is further from the expected model as are the people he is leading.
By the end of the book the rhythm has been shattered, the mechanism seems to be running out of control, and the way is opened for a new regime, considerably less than the model which God and Moses designed for the Israelites because they have become less than what they were or what the model was to have made them. They have acted like all the nations. They are now to receive a king like all the nations, and while that king is to be bound by the Mosaic constitution, the very fact that he is a king will lead him to behave like the kings of the nations in many critical ways, to the ultimate detriment of Israel.
On one hand, Judges can be read as if the transformation comes out of externally generated necessity -- a stronger regime is needed to save the people from its enemies -- but the major thrust of the book is to suggest that it is internal necessity -- the decline of what political science refers to as civic republican virtue and its consequences. Here is the tragedy: a people unable to live as they should as a free people under covenant are inexorably driven to lose their freedom.
1. Aaron Wildavsky, The Nursing Father: Moses as a Political Leader (University, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1984), "Joseph the Administrator: What is Permissible so that a People May Survive?" (unpublished manuscript, 1989), and "The Path Not Taken: Joseph and Moses as Binary Opposites" (unpublished manuscript, 1992).
2. Steven J. Brams, Biblical Games: A Strategic kAnalysis of Stories in the Old Testament (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1980).
3. Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1985).
4. Daniel J. Elazar, "The Book of Joshua as a Political Classic," Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 1, Nos. 1-2 (Spring 1989), and "Deuteronomy as Israel's Ancient Constitution: Some Preliminary Reflections," Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring 1992); Stuart A. Cohen, "The Bible and Intra-Jewish Politics: Early Rabbinic Portraits of King David," Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 3, Nos. 1-2 (Spring 1991), and The Three Crowns: Structures of Communal Discourse in Early Rabbinic Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Harvey Shulman, "The Political and the Sacred: Political Obligation and the Book of Deuteronomy," Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 3, Nos. 3-4 (Fall 1991), and "The Bible and Political Thought: Daniel J. Elazar's Contribution to the Jewish Political Tradition," Judaism 41:1 (Winter 1992):18-30; Avraham Melamed, "Jethro's Advice in Medieval and Early Modern Jewish and Christian Political Thought," Jewish Political Studies Review, Vo. 2, Nos. 1-2 (Spring 1990).
5. Daniel J. Elazar, Covenant and Polity in Biblical Israel -- Biblical Foundations and Jewish Expressions (forthcoming).
6. Daniel J. Elazar, "The Book of Joshua" and "Deuteronomy as Israel's Ancient Constitution."
7. Daniel J. Elazar, ed. Kinship and Consent: The Jewish Political Tradition and Its Contemporary Uses (Lanham, Md.: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and University Press of America, 1983); and Daniel J. Elazar and Stuart A. Cohen, The Jewish Polity: Jewish Political Organization from Biblical Times to the Present(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).
8. For a fuller discussion of the former prophets, see Daniel J. Elazar, Covenant and Polity in Biblical Israel; and Elazar and Cohen, The Jewish Polity.
9. Cf. Daniel J. Elazar, "The Book of Joshua." For terminology, see also Daniel J. Elazar, People and Polity: The Organizational Dynamics of World Jewry (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989).
10. The following offer a range of views of the period: William Foxwell Albright, The Biblical Period from Abraham to Ezra (New York: Harper and Row, 1963); Albrecht Alt, Essays on Old Testament History and Religion (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1989); Martin Noth, The Old Testament World (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960); Harry Orlinsky, Ancient Israel (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981). It should be noted that the German and French scholars in particular do not see the amphictyony as a polity and date the rise of the Israelite "state" from David, while Americans see the earlier regime as serving a polity as well. The difference has to do with differing conceptions of what constitutes a state or a polity of contemporary continental Europeans and contemporary Americans and is itself an interesting footnote to modern intellectual history.
11. Cf. Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1969), p. 171.
12. E.A. Speiser, "The City" and the "Gates of the City" in Oriental and Biblical Studies: Collected Writings of E.A. Speiser, edited with an introduction by J.J. Finkelstein and Moshe Greenberg (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1967).
13. Martin Buber writes of this period and its regime positively in Kingship of God, 3rd ed. (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1990) where he argues for this anarcho-federalism as the best regime. See also Bernard Susser, "The Anarcho-Federalism of Martin Buber," Publius, 9:4 (Fall 1979).
14. Cf. Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth (see note 10).
15. The Book of Judges interpreted by Yehudah Elitzur (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1989) (Hebrew).
16. This argument has been advanced by biblical commentators and critics since ancient times. For more on Yael and the nomadic Kenites, see Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter, 1972), Vol. 10, p. 906.
17. On Gideon, see Encyclopedia Judaica, op. cit., Vol. 7, p. 557.
18. I elaborate on this theme in Daniel J. Elazar, Israel: From Ideological to Territorial Democracy (New York: General Learning Press, 1971).
19. Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century and The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Boston: Beacon Press, 1939, 1953), esp. Vol. 2, Book I; Daniel J. Elazar, Cities of the Prairie (New York: Basic Books, 1970), Chs. 1 and 2, and Israel: Building a New Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), Chs. 1 and 2.
20. For a more complete definition of political culture, see Gabriel A. Almond, "Comparative Political Systems," Journal of Politics 18(1956):391-409.
21. Martin Diamond, As Far as Republican Principles Will Admit, ed. by William Schambra (Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 1992).
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