Every other Fall at Florida College, I get the chance to teach a one-credit hour class covering Judges and Ruth. It’s a blast. It’s usually populated with Juniors and Seniors, most of whom I’ve had for other (sometimes numerous other) courses, so I know most of them and they know me. Because it’s a one-hour class, the workload is meant to be particularly light. But, because it’s a junior-senior level course, the content is able to be more focused and heavier. It makes for a fun mix.
But another reason that I love teaching Judges is because it’s awful. Oh, it’s incredibly well written. But the stories and the unified narrative that the book itself tells are truly horrific. It’s also extraordinarily relevant in today’s world where people are asking questions about power, gender, sexual assault, and the failure of leadership. Everyone, of course, knows that about the end, but it’s really fun showing how this all starts at a very good place to start: the beginning.
In chapter one, the narrator introduces us to several themes using events that seem relatively innocuous: Judah requesting Simeon to help him capture his land; Achsah requesting a water source from Caleb for Othniel; Othniel leading Judah. And several that–if not innocuous–seem to be warranted or neutral: Judah cutting off Adoni-Bezek’s thumbs and big toes. Even if we just look at the “successful” and “best” tribe of Judah, we realize it’s all bad.
But each of these episodes is meant to highlight a catastrophic failure whose full dangers are just unrealized.
Judah requesting Simeon’s help to capture the land even though God told him he would place everything into his hands because a theme of people refusing to do God’s commands unless someone–who should be and is weaker!–accompanies them (e.g., Barak and Deborah).
Achsah’s request from Caleb for a well seems at first glance to be like the Daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers (a story of a strong minded woman concerned for her inheritance), but upon closer inspection we realize that Othniel does not ask and this failure of male leadership that begins in weakness (see again, Barak and Deborah) soon turns to predation (the rest of the book).
Even Othniel’s leadership is a carefully crafted slight against Judah! Because Othniel isn’t a Judahite, or even an Israelite, but is (most likely) an Edomite (cf. Num 32.12; Jos 14.6, 14; Gen 36.11, 15, 42). Judah cannot field a leader for herself, instead the non-Israelites are more righteous than they (Jebusites vs. Gibeonites; Jael; etc).
But it just gets worse. Although Judah’s decision to cut off Adoni-Bezek’s thumbs and big toes may seem far retribution for what he has done to others, the Law is clear about dismemberment. Judah has abandoned God’s laws in order to–and this is the theme of Judges–become just like the Canaanites.
Already, the best Israel can manage is a failure. And that failure will only grow. What one does to ones enemies and what begins with the dismemberment of the evil Adoni-Bezek ends with the dismemberment of the innocent Concubine.