A few months back I went down a rabbit hole studying all the different ways to talk about swords and spears in the Old Testament (in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek). It was a fun research project but it touched upon a much more fundamental problem when talking about the Old Testament. Rather than write a long introduction to an already long survey, I let the draft languish.
This is that long introduction.
(Warning: much of what follows is a gross simplification of a complicated scholarly field. I know no shame and I’m not consulting sources from my old training.) Continue reading Septuagint
Toward the end of Gideon’s tenure as Judge, the Israelites offer him a pretty sweet deal: be our king. Gideon, knowing that God is the king of Israel, declines and that is the end of that.
Just kidding! This is the Bible (AKA Reality), where everything humans do turns to rot and final victories have to wait for, you know, the end. After Gideon dies, his bastard son Abimelech murders all his legitimate brothers in an attempt to claim the throne his father declined.
Well, almost all. Abimelech misses out on one fleet-footed son, Jotham, who runs away from the train wreck he can see coming so clearly. But before he heads for the hills, he delivers a pretty sweet curse-parable to the people of Shechem who are crazy enough to entertain making this deal with Abimelech.
The parable of the trees serves up a healthy dose of insight wrapped in a delightful cover of mockery and condescension: Continue reading Old Testament Adventures: Jotham’s Parable
On the first day of school I give my Form I (7th grade) students a 1-inch binder full of the course materials they will need for the first month or so. One of the first pages of that first packet, right behind the syllabus and class procedures, is the final exam essay question they will have to answer at the end of the year:
What makes a good king of Israel?
Everything we read throughout the year, from Judges 1:1 to II Kings 25:30, plus whatever we can squeeze out of Isaiah, answers this question. This is one of the ultimate set-up questions for reading the New Testament and really understanding what is going on throughout all four gospels (especially St. Luke’s).
So what’s the answer? Continue reading Form I Final: A Good King Is Hard To Find
Before we jump into the next phase of the “Israel With No Judges” story, let’s say a brief word about the standard form of the stories in Judges. It’s actually pretty simple:
- Israel stops worshipping God and worships Canaanite stuff instead.
- Israel becomes morally abominable.
- Israel is oppressed by enemies until they realize what they have done.
- Israel cries out to God for help, and He sends them a judge.
That cycle should seem pretty familiar given the stories we’ve been reading most recently. Micah and the Levite is a classic case of the first stage, while the Levite and his concubine are a classic case of the second stage. Whenever I go back and fill in the tales of the Judges, it’ll show up even more clearly.
But here, in Chapters 20-21, the narrator serves up a great twist on the theme, because Israel is not crushed by another tribe this time. No, this time, they crush themselves. It’s time for a civil war! Continue reading Old Testament Adventures: Israel’s First Civil War
In Judges 19-20 we get the next step in the Not Quite Happy Ending for Israel. Wait, the story doesn’t end when we reach the Promised Land? What a rip-off!
Things start out funny enough, depending on your sense of humor, with a certain anonymous Levite in the hill country of Ephraim. Wait a minute…!
It’s tempting to connect him to Jonathan from the previous chapters, but that does not seem to make any story-telling sense here. As the story unfolds it becomes quite difficult to make the two characters coincide. More likely, the composition of the book is partially influenced by the similarity—two tales of degenerate Levites. But it’s nice to know that the hill country of Ephraim is the land of plus ça change!
This Levite travels south, to Bethlehem of Judah, to acquire a concubine for himself. All sorts of questions arise here. As I teach my students, concubines were something between second-class wives and sex-slaves, depending on time and place. What’s this Levite up to? Why doesn’t his wife-wife show up in the tale? Does he even have one?
We leave that a mystery, although I would say the story seems to run best if the Levite is young and stupid. We’ll let him be unattached and unwise, to say the least, in the ways of women (and, er, justice). At any rate, this Levite brings home a concubine from Bethlehem, and she promptly runs away. Continue reading Old Testament Adventures: Crime of Gibeah
After the death of Samson, Israel has no further Judge to save them for quite some time. The remaining chapters of the book show what happens to Israel under such conditions. Spoilers: it’s not good. It makes for a terrific study in compounding errors, however!
We begin with humor: the story of Micah and the Levite (Judges 17-18). This is a tough one for catching the tone, but I recommend something along the lines of “1970s British sketch comedy.” The verse “so they came to the hill country of Ephraim, to the house of Micah” is a comedic refrain of the highest caliber—imagine a still shot of a lonely country cottage on a hilltop and then add a laugh track. If I were a really dedicated writer I’d pin down a good example and link a YouTube video for you. Perhaps an enterprising commenter will assist me!
Micah is a good fellow, a properly bourgeois Israelite living in the Promised Land without any sort of guidance from past luminaries such as Deborah, Joshua, or best yet, Moses. And like any god-fearing Israelite, Micah’s scene begins with him trying to appease his angry mother. Apparently mom had lost a large quantity of silver in the recent past and, like any god-fearing Israelite matriarch, had called down a curse upon the unknown malefactor. The god in question of course isn’t God-god, otherwise I’d be capitalizing correctly! No, this is a good old-fashioned Canaanite death curse courtesy of Baal. Continue reading Old Testament Adventures: Micah and the Levite (Judges 17-18)
The intercessory theme of the Books of Samuel carries over into I Kings in a surprising place: Solomon and the harlot’s infant.
The famous tale of Solomon determining the identity of the baby’s true mother occurs immediately after his dream encounter with God in I Kings 3. In the dream, reminiscent of Abraham’s dusky covenant encounter with God in Genesis 15, Solomon prays for the divine wisdom necessary to govern the people–and serve as covenant mediator–just as God would. His actions with the two harlots are meant to demonstrate the God-like wisdom he has acquired.
The standard explanation of his plan is, I think, known to all. Solomon puts on a show that he intends to kill the child. The true mother reveals herself by her willingness to give up the child in order that the child might live. Once Solomon sees this, he knows to award the child to her and to send the other harlot away empty.
I’ve always found this explanation to be a little too simple. Continue reading Old Testament Intercession: Solomon
In II Samuel 24 David fires up the bureaucracy and takes a census of the people of Israel. It’s an arduous process of over nine months having your pencil-pushers comb the land to count noses. It’s also a high crime against God’s law that leads to the climactic moment of intercession in II Samuel.
Wait, what? How is counting noses a crime against God? Well, you could glance over to Chronicles, where the parallel version of the story makes Satan the instigator of the census. There’s also the suggestive fact that only God takes a census of Israelites before this, and that His Abrahamic promise explicitly makes the Israelites “innumerable.” There’s a strong rabbinic tradition that grows out of that line of reasoning. And of course there is this very story, and the consequences that follow from the census here. Remember, the Old Testament teaches by consequences.
But say you don’t remember your rabbinic traditions as well as you should. Or, horribile scriptu, you are not up on your covenant history. What then? How can such a handicapped reader tell that David’s action is bad, bad, bad?
Joab, that’s how. When David commands the census it’s his bloodthirsty, hot-headed, solve-with-violence commander-in-chief who tries to stop him. Joab never met a problem he couldn’t solve with cunning, steely resolve, and a stab in the back. When you order Joab to murder someone, he immediately sets about improving on your proposed method because murder ain’t for amateurs. If Joab cautions you to think twice about something, you’re basically two steps from Sodom. Continue reading High Priest David: The Census
I wrote this draft many months ago but wasn’t happy with how it turned out. I left it to rot in my drafts, but a funny thing then happened. When I started trashing drafts to clean up my work space, I remembered that I owed Mrs. Darwin a post on Tamar and that this draft, while imperfect, isn’t so terrible after all. Many birds, one stone:
As I’ve said before, one of the strengths of the books of Samuel is the attention to character motivations and detail. The actors on the stage are far more complex and realized than in any other books of the Old Testament.
There are strengths and weaknesses that go with this approach. Here’s a weakness: the narrator presents characters we can invest in, only to drop them when they no longer serve the goal of the narrative. We are left with loose ends and unanswered questions.
Personally I think this gives the books an added charm or appeal. But it does also mean that we don’t get to find out what happens to, say, Jonadab. Here’s an inscrutably wicked fellow whose two appearances are almost indescribably base…and then he disappears. If anyone deserves to have something awful happen to him, it’s Jonadab. In a novel or a movie, he would need to meet the most grisly fate minds can imagine. But in II Samuel, poof. Gone, just as sadly happens in real life all too often.
The character this most affects is Tamar. Continue reading What Ever Happened to Tamar?
A sixth of the way there. If I’d started at the beginning of Lent I may have finished the whole thing. As it is, I think it’s time for a break after this one.
“Judica me, Domine” (Psalm 25)
1 In finem. Psalmus David. Judica me, Domine, quoniam ego in innocentia mea ingressus sum, et in Domino sperans non infirmabor.
Unto the end. A Psalm of David. Judge me, O Lord, for I in my innocence have I entered, and hoping in the Lord I shall not be infirm.
2 Proba me, Domine, et tenta me; ure renes meos et cor meum.
Test me, O Lord, and try me; burn my kidneys and my heart.
3 Quoniam misericordia tua ante oculos meos est, et complacui in veritate tua.
For Thy mercy is before my eyes, and I have been pleased in Thy truth. Continue reading Translating Psalms (25)