Week 18 - Read Judges 1-12
Key Concepts: The key concept in this section is that God’s people cannot remain faithful, yet God will still deliver them when they cry out.
Stories:. The stories include the continuing, but incomplete, conquest of the land, the apostacy of the people after the death of Joshua, the stories of the judges, including those of Othniel, Ehud, Deborah and her song, Gideon and the fleece and ephod, Abimelech, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon and Abdon.
Brief Summary: The book of Judges brings the story of God’s people back to reality. At the end of Joshua the reader is left with the understanding that all the land is conquered and that the people have made an irrevocable commitment to God. In a sense the end of Joshua is similar to the end of Genesis where the people of God are in Egypt and everything is fine, only to open Exodus and discover that they have become slaves. Judges brings us back to reality in that we witness that the people of God almost immediately abandon God and go chasing after the Canaanite gods and goddesses. This leads to a couple of recurring phrases.
The first recurring phrase is “And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord…” We will find this language used multiple times. And at each of those times, this phrase basically means that the people quit worshipping the God of their ancestors and started to worship the gods of the new land in which they live. The two most frequently named gods are Baal and Asheroth. Baal was a name given to multiple Canaanite gods, while Asheroth was his female consort. Their worship was focused on fertility. The worship of these deities is possible because much of land was not conquered and remained under the control of those who worshipped “foreign gods.” Though Joshua ends with the declaration that the land was all taken and conquered by Israel, there were multiple cities and territories which were not taken and which continued to be in the hands of non-Israelites.
The second recurring phrase is “Then the people of Israel cried to the Lord for help…” In other words the people of Israel got themselves into trouble and then asked God for help. We might assume that God would very quickly tire of this game, but God does not. Each time the people cried out, God sent a deliverer. These are the judges after whom the book is named.
These were charismatic leaders who were often cruel and unscrupulous. In addition at least a couple of them had less than stellar pedigrees. One was only half Israelite (Abimelech) and another was the son of a prostitute (Jephthah). In some ways this harkens back to the Jacob stories in which we watch God use a lying thief to continue the promise. Here God uses some very unsavory characters to gain Israel’s freedom.
Though it is not a recurring phrase, the theme that emanates from these stories is that God will free the people and give them rest. Even though God uses individuals to carry out God’s plans of liberation, it is always clear that the numerically outnumbered and technologically outgunned Israelites were only victorious because God brought them victory. This appears most clearly in the Gideon story, where God insists on using only a fraction of the troops available.
Finally please take not of the recurring references to God as the one who led the people out of captivity first in Egypt, and then again in the Canaan. These references maintain the unity not only of the story, but of God’s desire to maintain God’s people in order to maintain the promise.
1. Why do you think it was important for the writer of Judges to remind us that the land was not completely conquered?
2. Where do you see people today “doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord?”
3. How do you see God maintaining the promise in the face of human evil?
Week 19 - Read Judges 13-21
Key Concepts: The key concept in this portion of Judges is that God often accomplishes God’s plans through, as well as in spite of, very flawed individuals and communities.
Stories: The stories in this section of Judges include the Samson tales (13-16), the establishment of shrine by a man named Micah (17), the migration of the Dannites (18), the crimes of the people of Benjamin (19-20), and the plan by which wives would be given to the remaining men of Benjamin (21).
Brief Summary: There are several things of which we should take note in this section of Judges.
The first is that the Israelites are on a downward trend in terms of faithfulness which will ultimately lead to chaos. As we have noted before, the liturgy of Judges is that the people do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, God turns them over to their enemies, the people are oppressed, they cry out to God and God sends a judge to deliver them. The result of these deliverances was not, as we might expect, gratitude and hearts reoriented toward God, but less and less faithfulness. In chapter 13 we arrive at a place where the people, even though oppressed, do not cry out to God. In other words they have become so comfortable with their condition as “the oppressed” that they are willing to live with it. They have willingly returned to “Egypt” just like the Israelites in the wilderness wanted to do. We see this both in the moments when the people acknowledge that the Canaanites rule over them and when they turn Samson over to his enemies. What this means as well is that the Israelites have accepted the foreign gods as well as foreign rule.
The second is that God is still going to be faithful even when Israel is not. God has a plan to bless the world through Israel and their willing acceptance of bondage will not change God’s determination. We see this in the story of Samson. Once again God sends an angel with a message to a barren woman about a special child who is coming (think Sarah).
The woman (who remains unnamed) is told to be careful in her pregnancy because her son will be a Nazarite, who will abstain from all manner of loose living. This child is intended to be the deliverer of God’s people even though the people do not want to be delivered. Unfortunately as we will discover, things have deteriorated to the point where even the liberator sent from God will do more harm than good. This child is Samson.
The third piece of this story which needs our attention is that Samson is really not much of a hero or a liberator. He is in fact a dilettante with anger management issues. As many commentators point out, there is little wonder that Samson has proven to be a cinematic favorite. After all, in his story you have sex, violence, intrigue and betrayal. When we encounter Samson we meet someone who is supposed to be a Nazarite (Numbers 6:1-21), meaning he is to abstain from alcohol, from cutting his hair or from contact with the dead. Samson, therefore, is supposed to be a paragon of virtue. Instead Samson becomes the poster-child for illicit behavior. He takes up with foreign women, including prostitutes, parties to the extreme, kills and destroys without cause, brings pain upon his people and ultimately betrays the secret of his hair. As the last of the judges we might expect better, but Samson simply mirrors the fall of the people.
The final piece of this story we should note is that the people have fallen not merely into slavery again (meaning Exodus) but they have fallen to the level of the people of Sodom (early Genesis) in which hospitality is abandoned and replaced with violence and abuse (Genesis 19/Judges 19:16ff).
1. How would you explain the people’s continual falling away from God?
2. What disturbs you most about the stories in this section of Judges? Why?
3. Where can you find some hope in these stories?
Week 20 - Read Ruth
Key Concepts: The key concept in Ruth is the attitude of welcome and compassion God’s people ought to have to strangers and outsiders.
Stories: This book is a single story which includes Ruth’s risky decision (1), Ruth’s work which leads to her encounter with Boaz (2), Ruth’s and Boaz’s engagement (3-4:12) and a list of Ruth and Boaz’s descendants (4:13-18)
Brief Summary: The book of Ruth has long been a subject of debate within the academic community. The issues have centered on its date of authorship and its purpose. The date of authorship was long believed to be around 400 BCE after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon. This date was based on Aramaic influences on the Hebrew used in the story which could only have been possible at a late date. In addition its contents were seen as a story intended to counter the post-return commands to exclude all foreigners from the Jewish community (thus its purpose). More recently there have been arguments that it ought to be dated much earlier (900-750 BCE) and the interactions between Ruth (a foreigner from Moab) and Boaz (an Israelite) are intended to clarify how Israelites should deal with Canaanites. I offer this discussion as a way of saying this book could be placed in at least two different sections of our Two Year Bible Trek. I have chosen to place it here because it makes a nice bridge into the books that follow.
In terms of themes there are a few we should examine. The first is that of an ideal community that adheres to the Law. As we have noted in earlier readings, the Law consists of rules designed to create an ordered society in which people can love God and neighbor. In Ruth we witness people actually doing what they are supposed to according to the Law. Everyone appears to know their place as well as the boundaries of their social/religious obligations and then they stick to them. This adherence gives the story a very calm and peaceful feel.
The second theme is that of caring for the stranger. In both historical periods mentioned in the opening discussion, the Israelite community was struggling with two contradictory commands. The first was that they were to be holy (meaning separated from non-Israelites). The second was that they were to welcome strangers and treat them with respect. The command to be holy/separate even caused Israelite men returning from exile to divorce their non-Israelite wives. Ruth emphasizes the command to care for strangers. Not only will we witness Ruth caring for Naomi and Boaz caring for Ruth, we will discover that Ruth is an ancestor of King David; thus even King David is not a “pure” Israelite.
The third theme is that of God being somewhat absent from the story. In the books we have read up to this point there are significant conversations between God and human beings. This story contains none of those interactions. God never speaks. Instead God is the focus of prayer, is thanked and is referred to. In other words this story is much more like real life where few of us are given direct communication from God. The people know how they are to live (in accordance with the Torah) and they do their best to do so. There is no need for God to directly address the characters
Finally please take note of the male/female interactions. You will see in them an example of the Levirate rules for a childless widow from Deut. 25:5-6 and land redemption from Leviticus 25:25.
1. What lessons do you take for your own life from the way Ruth cares for Naomi?
2. What lessons do you take for your own life from the way Boaz treats Ruth?
3. How do you react to the male-female relationships in this story?