The men and women of Judges

The book of Judges describes the downward spiral that the people of God underwent in the time before the monarchy was established. Not only was each generation worse than the one before it (Judges 2:19), but also each judge was more flawed than his predecessor. One way in which the declension in male leadership showed itself was in the change in the role and treatment of the women characters in the book.

The material for this  post comes from a symposium on the book of Judges.

Acsah, Caleb and Othniel

Caleb, wishing to get a worthy husband for his daughter Acsah, set up a challenge: whoever attacked and captured the Canaanite town of Kiriath Sepher would have her in marriage. Othniel, Caleb’s nephew, was the lucky guy. But Acsah was no a dainty damsel—having received land from her father, she dared to ask him for more (Joshua 15:18-19, Judges 1:14-15). Caleb happily complied. Othniel would later become Israel’s first judge (Judges 3:7-11).

In Acsah we have a confident and intelligent woman who inspires acts of courage and bravery. Caleb was concerned that she marry well and gave her a blessing in the form of land and springs of water.

Deborah, Jael and Barak

Jael-and-Sisera, painting by William Brassey Hole
Jael and Sisera

If hesitant Barak was typical of the quality of male leadership in Israel at the time, no wonder Deborah was judge. Translating woodenly, the narrator of Judges introduces her thus: “Deborah, a woman, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she…” This pile of feminine descriptors indicates the unusual nature of the situation.

Because of Barak’s wavering, Deborah predicted that the glory in a decisive battle wouldn’t be his, but a woman’s (Judges 4:9). Enter Jael, a non-Israelite. Like a previous judge, Ehud, she uses deception to kill a foreign oppressor. Like another previous judge, Shamgar, she uses an unconventional weapon.

In Deborah and Jael we see women stepping up to take male roles: leadership and the destruction of enemies

Gideon, Abimelech and the woman on the wall

Gideon let victory go to his head, and married multiple wives who bore him seventy sons. He also had a concubine whose son was Abimelech. Abimelech murdered his seventy brothers (only one escaped) and later massacred the people of his mother’s home town. He met his end when a woman in a tower threw a millstone on his head.

Previously, Jael had delivered Israel from a foreign oppressor by a fatal blow to the head. Here, an unnamed woman delivers Israel from an Israelite oppressor by a fatal blow to the head using an unconventional weapon.

Jephthah and his daughter

Jephthah’s mother was a prostitute, and for this reason his half-brothers exiled him (Judges 11:2). His kin called him back to help them fight the Ammonites. Jephthah made a vow to God that in the case of victory, he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house to greet him. His only daughter had that misfortune.

An Israelite woman became the victim of her own father’s lack of wisdom, in stark contrast with Acsah who received a blessing and a source of agricultural fertility from her father.

Samson and all those women

Rembrandt - Samson and Delilah - WGA19098
Rembrandt - Samson and Delilah - WGA19098 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is probably significant that the angel of Yahweh appeared—twice—to Samson’s mother and not to his father. Anyway, when Samson is grown, he marries a Philistine woman from Timnah. His lack of wisdom and restraint led to the deaths of her and her father.

His weakness for women comes out most clearly in his dealings with Delilah, who was instrumental in his subduing and humiliation. In this instance, Samson plays the part of Sisera to Delilah’s Jael. She is a Philistine ally who lures him to his downfall.

After the Philistines capture him, they blind him and put him to grinding grain—woman’s work.

Micah and his mother

The story in brief: Micah steals silver from his mother, she utters a curse, he panics and returns the goods, she commissions a craftsman to make a carved image covered with some of the silver, he places it in his house along with other religious items and hires a priest. Some spies from the tribe of Dan on other business happen to stop by Micah’s house and see his set-up. When they return, they rob Micah of the idol, the priest and the other items and set up an unauthorised shrine in their main city that lasted for centuries.

The actions of Micah’s mother led to an entire tribe falling away from true worship of Yahweh.

The suffering women of chapters 19-21

In chapter 19, we meet a concubine who was given up by her husband to a group of men who raped her all night. She was from Bethlehem. Her rapists were from the tribe of Benjamin. Her husband was a Levite.

In chapter 20, the other eleven tribes go to war against Benjamin and kill all the men, women and children of Benjamin—except for 600 men who fled into the wilderness. In chapter 21, the Israelites are sorry for having practically exterminated Benjamin and they devise a plan to get wives for the survivors. They attack Jabesh Gilead, an Israelite town, and kill everyone except 400 virgins. To get 200 more wives, they advise the Benjamites to kidnap girls taking part in an annual festival.

Israel’s moral decline is complete: Israelite women are raped, killed and kidnapped by their own countrymen.

In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit (Judges 21:25)

The reversal begins

In 1 Samuel 1 we meet barren Hannah, who is oppressed by a fellow woman. Hannah is like Samson’s mother in that they were both barren. However, unlike Samson, Samuel wouldn’t despise his role as the deliverer of God’s people. Whereas Micah’s mother set off a series of events that led to apostasy, Hannah’s devotion to Yahweh would lead Israel to turn back to true worship (under her son). Hannah’s son would also pave the way for the restoration of quality male leadership in Israel under David.

But David wasn’t perfect either. The people of God needed a leader who wasn’t a coward (like Barak and Gideon). They needed a leader who was pure and holy (unlike Samson). We now know the identity of that leader—Jesus of Nazareth, the King of Kings.

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