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Chapter 5: Judges

Moses was not able to enter the Promised Land. After shepherding his people through the wilderness for forty years, he died as they were finally camped just outside of Canaan.[1] The mantle of leadership was passed on to Joshua; under his leadership the land of Canaan was conquered.

An alien group can take over another nation gradually, through a generational process that allows it to become more powerful than the original settlers. Or, in a more violent takeover, foreigners can invade a country and make the inhabitants a subject people. But Joshua did not use either method to conquer the Promised Land. He chose a more violent policy--a policy that came to be known as herem. It was a military tactic that Bible translators euphemistically refer to as "putting under the ban." This policy demanded that every man, woman, child, and animal who lived in an invaded city be put to death. All living creatures were to be destroyed.

The rationale for this extermination was that it was God's Will; a means whereby the Lord was assured that his chosen people would not be corrupted by the unholy people whose land they were invading. In reality, it was a military tactic that insured when a battle had been won there were no native people with whom to contend. There were no survivors who might someday grow in strength and power to overthrow their conquerors.

Joshua decided that Jericho would be the first city to be invaded, but before the conquest could begin the Israelites had to take time out. None of those born during the forty years in the wilderness had been circumcised, and Joshua insisted that this ritual be carried out before they began their invasion of the Promised Land. "After the circumcision was completed, the whole nation stayed in camp until the wounds had healed."[2]

Then all the army went straight up the hill into the city and captured it. With their swords they killed everyone in the city, men and women, young and old. They also killed the cattle, sheep, and donkeys.[3]

The sign of circumcision had been given to mark the nation in which the evolving female principle of wisdom, compassion, and nurturance was to be manifested. But now it was perverted into a religious ritual that was performed to insure God's favor as men prepared to exterminate other human beings.

The battle of Jericho was the beginning of a bloody epoch in the history of the Jewish people as they tenaciously fought to destroy the Canaanite people and establish their own nation. And it was not just the native population with whom they had to contend. At the same time that the Jews were trying to become the dominant power, another nation was determined to conquer the land for themselves. They were the Philistines who would continue to do battle with the Hebrews for hundreds of years. They had invaded Canaan from the coastal shore of the Southwest at about the same time that the Hebrews mounted their attack from the East.

The years during which the Jews fought both the Canaanites and the Philistines are referred to as the period of the Judges. During that time, the Hebrew people were ruled by a series of charismatic leaders. Although were known as judges, their powers were more like those of a minor potentate. And during a period of about 200 years, a dozen judges assumed positions of authority among the sons of Israel. Their leadership was less than inspiring and testifies to the low estate to which the Hebrews had fallen.

Because of their endless warfare, both the people and their leaders became desensitized to brutality. No longer was there any manifestation of the emerging female principle in the affairs of the nation. There was no sign of compassion, concern, or caring among the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, no sign of their spiritual evolution. Scholars have referred to this era as the Dark Age of Israel: "a cruel, barbarous and bloody epoch."[4]

For the first time, even women--symbols of the female principle--are portrayed as demonstrating the kind of brutality and violence that had previously been the province of men. The story of Deborah, recounted in the fourth and fifth chapters of the book of Judges, is a chilling tale of deception and violence that is presented as being as being pleasing to God.

"Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, was a prophet and she was serving as a judge for the Israelites." She was the leader in a battle that was waged against General Sisera, the commander of a Canaanite army. Under her leadership, 10,000 thousand enemy troops were slaughtered--in God's name. Unfortunately, Sisera got away, and in that day and time there was no victory if the enemy leader escaped.

But his escape was short lived. The Bible reports that he was captured and, again, a woman took on the role usually reserved for men. The Scriptures tell how Sisera escaped the field of battle and made his way to the tent of a woman named Jael. She was the wife of a chieftain whose tribe was at peace with the Canaanites, and Sisera thought he was safe in her home.

After she gave him some refreshments, he asked her to watch at the door while he tried to get some rest. It was a fatal mistake. While he slept, "Jael took a tent-peg, picked up a hammer, crept up to him, and drove the peg into his skull as he lay sound asleep. His brains oozed out on the ground, his limbs twitched, and he died....That day God gave victory to the Israelites...."[5]

The Bible goes on to narrate The Song of Deborah. This poetic tribute to the events that occurred is celebrated by scholars as one of the oldest examples of Hebrew poetry. Although acclaimed by Christians and Jews as a song of praise, celebrating the Lord's help in military matters, no one claims that the sentiments expressed in the poem are uplifting.

Blest among women be Jael,
blest among all women in the tents....
She stretched out her hand for the tent-peg,
Her right hand to hammer the weary.
With the hammer she struck Sisera, she crushed his head;
she struck and his brains ebbed out.
At her feet he sank down, he fell, he lay;
Where he sank down, there he fell, done to death.[6]

With great satisfaction, the poem also describes how Sisera's mother waited in vain for her son, refusing to believe that he really was dead. The Song of Deborah ends with a benediction: "So may all your enemies die like that, O Lord."

The story of another leader of Israel, Jephthah, is also recorded in the book of Judges. He, too, is considered a biblical hero and his story begins when he was living in the land of Tob.

He was a renegade who had "attracted a group of worthless men, and they went around with him."[7] Although they lived the life of freewheeling outlaws, they were a cohesive and fearless group and when the sons of Israel needed a commander they went to Jephthah. They wanted him to lead them in battle against the Ammonites. He agreed on condition that he continue to be "leader and ruler" in Israel, even after the war was over.

The people agreed to this condition and as Jephthah was about to go into battle, he made a vow to the Lord: "If you will give me victory over the Ammonites, I will burn as an offering the first person that comes out of my house to meet me, when I come back from the victory. I will offer that person to you as sacrifice."[8]

Jephthah managed to devastate twenty Ammoniate cities "with a very great slaughter" and then went home to Mizpah to rest. As luck would have it, his daughter came out to meet him. He remembered his vow to kill "the first person that comes out of my house" and lamented what he was now going to do.

"Oh, my daughter! You are breaking my heart! Why must it be you that causes me pain? I have made a solemn promise to the Lord and I cannot take it back!"[9] But in spite of his "breaking" heart, Jephthah fulfilled his vow and slaughtered the girl. And although the Hebrew religion never allowed human sacrifice, there is no biblical or extra-biblical condemnation of what he did.

Not only is there no condemnation from those who preserved and passed on the record of his life in the Scriptures, modern religious scholarship continues to cite him as a man of God. A standard bible commentary offers this typical rationalization about Jephthah's sacrifice of his daughter: "The story is tenderly told, with emphasis on the emotions of both parties. It stands as one of the most beautiful expressions of tragedy in the entire Bible."[10]

Another scholarly text lauds Jephthah for fulfilling his vow: "He was faithful to his vow to God, even though it cost him dearly."[11] That observation is preceded by an unqualified endorsement of the man. "He was one of the most illustrious leaders of that period of Hebrew history. A man of energy and conviction who was used by the Spirit of God."

Gideon was another illustrious Judge who lived during that period of Hebrew history. He successfully led a war against the Midianites and ruled for many years. But Gideon was a man who reacted badly when things did not go his way.

On the way to battle the Midianites, his army passed through the town of Peniel. Gideon demanded food for his troops, but the elders of that city refused to provide it. They saw no reason why they should have to give up the food meant for their own people. The army moved on, but not before Gideon delivered a threat: when he had defeated his enemies, he would come back and destroy the tower that was the center of city life. "I am going to come back safe and sound" he promised, "and when I do, I will tear this tower down!"[12] 

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