May 032010

Eglon, king of the Moabites, from Figures de la Bible (1728) Illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648-1733), and others.

Procrastination has reached biblical proportions this packet round–on the other hand, not all my students got their packets here on time, so I have an excuse.

Over the weekend, I got through Joshua and part-way into Judges before I broke down. Joshua divides (like Caesar’s Gaul) into three parts. The first 12 chapters contain the dramatic crossing of the Jordan and the battles for Jericho and Ai (and various other places), also the stories of Rahab, Achan and the trickery of the Gibeonites. The next section is mostly an administrative  interlude in which the various tribes are assigned their allotments in the conquered land. And in the last section, Joshua dies. The first few chapters of Judges recapitulates Joshua, sometimes repeating chunks of text and story pretty much verbatim. And then we begin a series of cycles of backsliding (whoring after strange gods) by the Israelites (who, really, never seem to learn), punishment by God, and then rescue by a local hero who, for some reason, is called a judge. Some of the judges get a good deal of face time, their stories told in graphic detail (the Jael and Sisera story mentioned in an earlier post is part of the story of a female judge named Deborah).

The first time I read through all this material I came away with the impression that it was a kind of veiled history of the Israelites establishing themselves as a monotheistic community amidst a land teeming with polytheists. From Leviticus on, the emphasis seemed to be on establishing and maintaining cultural purity against contamination from the other regional communities. This seemed like a reasonable anthropological synthesis of what I was reading. Now, however, with my trusty Literary Guide beside me, I see greater complexity (and confusion). God makes a covenant with the patriarchs in Genesis to make their people prosper and bring them to the Promised Land. But as we read through the later books of the Pentateuch, we see God gradually introducing an override condition. At first the Israelites are the Chosen People, but then, it seems, they will be the Chosen People as long as they obey him. If they keep acting up (whoring after strange gods), he promises to obliterate them (and there is prophetic material that predicts just this). One of the conditions for God’s beneficence is that the Israelites completely eliminate (early ethnic cleansing) all the strange peoples who already live across the Jordan. God says specifically that they should not make any treaties or deals. Then Joshua goes across the Jordan and the very first thing that happens is that his scouts make a deal with Rahab the harlot which allows her and her family to live with the Israelites for always, thus breaking the covenant. The story of the Gibeonites involves a similar deal with the pagan Canaanites who are allowed to live among the Israelites–and the list goes on. Rather than expunging the polytheists, as they were meant to do, the Israelites keep them around, using them as labour, and then begin to intermarry with them, and so on.

Mysteries abound. Why does God make an apparent unconditional pact with the patriarchs and then add conditions (in my earlier naivete, I used to think God’s love was unconditional)? Why do the Israelites perversely insist on not-conforming with God’s (albeit gruesome) conditions? I mean they do kill a lot of people anyway; why not go the whole hog (as we say in the heady realms of biblical criticism)? Poor Achan is the only one who gets whacked for breaking the conditions–the lesson there is: don’t confess. These lesser mysteries compound through the cycles of degeneracy and revival in Judges and lead to the final paradox when God allows Jerusalem to be taken and destroyed and the Israelites sent off into exile. What happened to the great unconditional covenant? No doubt I will  figure this out.

Meantime, here’s a graphic little story about the left-handed judge Ehud and how he assassinates the fat king Eglon (warning: disturbing images).

003:015 But when the children of Israel cried unto the LORD, the LORD
raised them up a deliverer, Ehud the son of Gera, a Benjamite,
a man lefthanded: and by him the children of Israel sent a
present unto Eglon the king of Moab.

003:016 But Ehud made him a dagger which had two edges, of a cubit
length; and he did gird it under his raiment upon his right

003:017 And he brought the present unto Eglon king of Moab: and Eglon
was a very fat man.

003:018 And when he had made an end to offer the present, he sent away
the people that bare the present.

003:019 But he himself turned again from the quarries that were by
Gilgal, and said, I have a secret errand unto thee, O king:
who said, Keep silence. And all that stood by him went out
from him.

003:020 And Ehud came unto him; and he was sitting in a summer
parlour, which he had for himself alone. And Ehud said, I have
a message from God unto thee. And he arose out of his seat.

003:021 And Ehud put forth his left hand, and took the dagger from his
right thigh, and thrust it into his belly:

003:022 And the haft also went in after the blade; and the fat closed
upon the blade, so that he could not draw the dagger out of
his belly; and the dirt came out.

003:023 Then Ehud went forth through the porch, and shut the doors of
the parlour upon him, and locked them.

003:024 When he was gone out, his servants came; and when they saw
that, behold, the doors of the parlour were locked, they said,
Surely he covereth his feet in his summer chamber.

003:025 And they tarried till they were ashamed: and, behold, he
opened not the doors of the parlour; therefore they took a
key, and opened them: and, behold, their lord was fallen down
dead on the earth.

003:026 And Ehud escaped while they tarried, and passed beyond the
quarries, and escaped unto Seirath.


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