Old Testament 101: Judging Judges (Wenham)

For my next trick, I’ll tackle the question of how the structure of Judges impacts interpretation. I’ll be interacting with two texts on the subject – Wenham’s superb “Story as Torah” and Webb’s “Judges: An integrated reading”.

Wenham seeks to extract ethical principles from Old Testament narrative. Ethics have traditionally been ignored in interpreting these narratives because the narrator often passes no explicit judgment on the acts reported, he simply reports and the events speak for themselves.

Wenham applies historical, literary, and rhetorical criticism to these narratives. He recognises that ethics ultimately don’t rely on the historicity of the text but the literary approach. If only I’d read this when writing my violence essay… that would have been another footnote. Essentially I agree with him. Though I didn’t know it at the time…

Wenham notes that the narrator of the Old Testament is omniscient – aware of the thoughts and feelings of characters in the story. Some use this as justification for seeing the narrative as fiction, others as part of the case for divine inspiration.

Wenham suggests the first readers of the text read them as though they were historical, which legitimises the approach of extracting ethical principles from the stories as though they are indeed historical…

Wenham on the structure of Judges

Judges opens with Israel’s inability to conquer the land (and thus their inability to meet God’s requirements), and closes with the gloomy “in those days there was no king in the land, and everybody did what was right in their own eyes.” These ideas bookend (and perhaps technically bookbegin) the book.

The stories within the book are intended to shock the reader, and beg the question “what should this character have done” (which I think is one of the best ways to understand the spiraling despair of Judges – 2 Kings, and probably any narrative, it’s one of the first questions I ask – the second is the hypothetical “what would things have looked like if they had” because I like speculative ideas).

The stories in Judges follow a pattern of conquest by foreigners, an agent of delivery acting in Israel’s interest, followed by a period of stability, followed by their deaths, followed by Israel “doing evil in the eyes of the Lord.” Wenham argues this idea is tied to Deuteronomic principles (I reckon Deuteronomy 30 is a pretty key interpretive rubric for these passages – Israel’s national autonomy is linked to their obedience to God).

Wenham identifies three sections in Judges:

  1. The prologue: 1:1-3:6
  2. The Core “Book of Deliverers”: 3:7-16:31
  3. The Epilogue: 17:1-21:25

The epilogue and prologue are split into two parts. The prologue contains a summary of the conquest (failed) of the land (1:1-2:5) and a commentary on the constant apostasy of Israel in the Judges period (2:6-3:6). The epilogue deals with a disturbing civil war and essentially a chaistic repetition of chapter 1 with the repetition of “who shall go up? Judah shall go up” (1:1-2, 20:18).

The six major judges in the middle of the book arise in a formulaic manner – the people do what is evil, they are sold into enemy hands, they pray for deliverance, and the Lord raises up a judge.

These judges follow a downward spiral from Othniel who escapes uncriticised to Samson who is the ultimate flawed hero.

The narrative represents the narrators dismay with the state of Israel’s faith, but delight in the actions and methods of deliverance. Within Judges we see people killing enemies with ox goads and jaw bones, stealth (and toilet humour) and after setting fire to fields using foxes tied together by their tails.

Judges 2:2-3 provides a useful interpretive schema for the whole book: “I [God] said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of the land… But you have not obeyed my command… So now I say I will not drive them out before you but they shall become adversaries to you, and their gods shall be a snare for you”

This becomes a key theme in the book.

Judges 1 contrasts Joshua 1 while dealing with the same circumstances. Wenham says Joshua is celebrating the success of the conquest while Judges paradoxically declares it a failure. This represents the different literary/rhetorical purposes of the narratives.

Critical wisdom suggested that the epilogue came from a different hand, but it seems more valuable to read it as a commentary on the preceding chapters using the closing refrain as a literary marker (first in 17:6). Wenham argues that it is entirely consistent with the rest of the content. He suggests “doing right in their own eyes” mirrors “doing evil in the eyes of the Lord” but represents an evolution (or devolution) from that position.

Wenham sums up his commentary on the structure as: “Judges portrays Israel becoming progressively more lax in its religious practice, and ever more prone to disunity between the tribes, it reaches a climax with outright idolatory amongst the Danites and a civil war that could have destroyed the nation (nb. which also incidently foreshadows the ten tribes semi-rebellion under David in 2 Samuel and the eventual split of the kingdoms). The reader is driven to conclude that this must not continue, if the new nation is to enjoy harmony at home and peace abroad. A new way of life under new leadership is required…”

Wenham on the date of Judges

A variety of theories – most plausible seems to be for a composition under David prior to his capture of Jerusalem and shoring up of authority (due to a repudiation of Benjamin and Gibeah – Saul’s tribe and birth place), while a post Assyrian editing under Hezekiah (because 18:30 refers to the “capturing of the land” – this editing possibly took place to explain why the southern kingdom survived while the north didn’t) is also plausible if 19-21 are downplayed. The first view almost relies on the capturing of the land being a mistranslation of “the capturing of the ark”…