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Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: Did He or Didn’t He?

Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: Did He or Didn’t He?

Although this is a picture of Samson and Delilah, let's pretend it's Samson and the Gaza Prostitute since such pictures are hard to find!
Although this is a picture of Samson and Delilah, let’s pretend it’s Samson and the Gaza Prostitute since such pictures are hard to find!

Samson’s visit to the prostitute in Gaza has usually been considered as one example, among many, of his misadventures. Recently, several scholars have questioned this interpretation, suggesting that Samson has been misunderstood. How should the brief episode between Samson and the Gaza Prostitute be read? Is Samson a “good guy” whose intentions at the prostitute’s house have been misrepresented, or is this story just another example of his “bad boy” behavior?

Before beginning, I want to acknowledge my indebtedness to two of my colleagues for introducing me to this debate. They have both written about it on their blogs. Lindsay Kennedy has summarized an article written by Gordon P. Hugenberger entitled, “Samson and the Harlot at Gaza (Judges 16:1-3)” contained in the volume From Creation to New Creation. You can read his post at “Why Samson May Have Not Visited a Prostitute” at mydigitalseminary.com. Spencer Robinson has joined in the conversation by noting what Rikk Watts has to say on this topic. You can read his post at “Was Samson a Good Judge?” at spoiledmilks.wordpress.com. Besides Hugenberger and Watts, Miles Van Pelt has also joined the discussion with his post “What was Samson Doing with a Prostitute in Gaza?” at thegospelcoalition.org. Having read Hugenberger’s article and Van Pelt’s post, my purpose is to lay out their arguments for Samson as a “good guy.” However, while many of us would like to believe that Samson’s visit to the prostitute at Gaza has some “redeeming social value,” in the second part of this post I will attempt to explain why I disagree with Hugenberger’s  and Van Pelt’s arguments. Although I’m using the “good guy/bad guy” vocabulary, I must caution that neither I, nor any scholar I am familiar with, thinks that Samson is all bad or all good. Like all of us, he is a mixture of both.

Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: The Argument for a Positive Interpretation

from creationThe following list is a summary of Hugenberger’s arguments regarding a positive reading of the Samson story as a whole, as well as the story of Samson and the Gaza prostitute:

1.”The biblical text nowhere states why Samson went down to Gaza” (p. 63) and, therefore, the reader should not be influenced by speculations that he was lonely or had an “irrepressible libido.”

2. The expression “he came to her,” is ambiguous and, “In the vast majority of cases the expression refers to one entering into the company of another without any sexual implication” (p. 64).

3. 16:1-3 “offers no hint of moral rebuke,” and the feat of removing the doors, doorposts, and bar from the city gates implies, “if anything, divine approbation” (p. 65).

4. The progammatic text of Judges 2:6-23 suggests a “positive view of the judges” (p. 67). Hugenberger argues that, “many of the texts assumed to offer incontrivertible proof of egregious moral failure or infidelity toward God on the part of the judges are often susceptible to less negative interpretations” (p. 67).

Gordon Hugenberger, pictured above, along with Miles Van Pelt and others, argues for a positive interpretation of the Samson and the Gaza prostitute story.
Gordon Hugenberger, pictured above, along with Miles Van Pelt and others, argues for a positive interpretation of the Samson and the Gaza prostitute story.

6&7. Hugenberger’s two main proofs that the Samson and the Gaza prostitute episode should be read positively are based on the parallels between Judges 16:1-3 and Joshua 2, and the contrasts between Judges 16:1-3 and Judges 18. For a more detailed look at the comparisons between these stories, click the link to Kennedy’s post above.

7. Hugenberger also questions why God hears Samson’s prayers after the Delilah episode if he is the bad character that some paint him to be.

Van Pelt shares some similarities with Hugenberger’s arguments for a more positive interpretation of the Samson and Gaza prostitute story. He adds that Samson may have visited a prostitute to mask his true intent. He also notes that the similarities between Judges 16:1-3 and Joshua 2 may be “the author’s way of preparing us for the eventual destruction of that town.” He questions what the author’s point would be in recording that Samson had a one night stand and argues that “Samson goes to Gaza to do what Israel was failing to do.”

Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: The Argument for a Negative Interpretation

In this section I will respond to the arguments cited above made by Hugenberger and Van Pelt and demonstrate why, despite their reasonings, I continue to view the episode in Judges 16:1-3 negatively. The numbers in parenthesis below correspond to the arguments laid out above.

(1) I am in agreement with Hugenberger’s statement that the biblical text does not state why Samson went to Gaza. This is not an argument for a positive or negative interpretation, however. It is simply an assertion that we should remain open-minded as we approach the text.

(2) It is true that the expression “he came in(to) her” is used in various ways in the Hebrew Scriptures and that in a majority of cases it does not have any reference to sexual activity. However, when this expression is accompanied by other sexual references in the text it is certainly suggestive of sexual intimacy. Hugenberger notes that this phrase occurs 15 other times in Judges and, with the possible exception of Judges 15:1, it never refers to sexual intimacy. He also states, “a majority of modern English translations and commentaries do not favor this option” for 15:1. This is a bit of a “straw man” however. If I were to argue that “came (in)to” in a majority of cases throughout the Hebrew Bible does not refer to sexual intimacy (which is true, as noted above), therefore, it probably doesn’t refer to sexual intimacy in Genesis 38:16, I would be wrong. Just because a word doesn’t mean something in a majority of cases, does not rule out that it could carry that meaning in a context that specifically suggests such a meaning. For example, “came (in)to” has the regular meaning of approaching in the context of the Angel of the Lord “coming to” Manoah’s wife (Judg. 13:6, 9, 10). That is its natural meaning and there is nothing in the context to suggest otherwise. However, throw in the word “prostitute,” or other sexually charged words, and “came (in)to” quite naturally carries a sexual connotation. Whether Samson did or didn’t engage in sexual activity with the prostitute may be debated, but the atmosphere of the text is certainly sexually charged by the language used. We will return to this phrase when discussing Joshua 2 below, but for now I note that Hugenberger’s argument regarding “the usual meaning based on number of occurrences makes the less usual meaning doubtful,” as erroneous.

Samson carries the gates of Gaza - Judges 16 3 - Henri Motte The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, vol. 3. edited by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Bewer. 1908
Samson carries the gates of Gaza – Judges 16 3 – Henri Motte
The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, vol. 3. edited by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Bewer. 1908

(3) I agree, as Hugenberger points out, that this episode “offers no hint of moral rebuke.” But this doesn’t mean that we should automatically conclude that it demonstrates “if anything, divine approbation.” One of the characteristics of Hebrew narrative is to tell the story and leave the judgment up to the reader’s perception. For example, there is no moral rebuke for Abram’s action in taking Hagar and conceiving through her (Gen. 16). In fact, God protects Hagar and the child and commands them to return to Abram and Sarai after they had been driven away. Yet every reader knows that Abram’s actions are wrong. Closer to home in the Book of Judges, we could cite numerous examples. Whether one thinks Jephthah offered his daughter as a sacrifice, or simply doomed her to perpetual virginity, it can not be argued that his vow was anything except foolish. However, no moral censure is recorded and God still gives Jephthah victory. To argue that God blesses Jephthah with victory and that this demonstrates “if anything, divine approbation” of his vow, is clearly nonsensical.

(4) There is certainly truth to the contention that Judges 2:6-23 puts the judges in a more positive light than the rest of Israel. However, this does not mean that the judges are shining examples of virtue. The judges exercise faith and they are God’s instruments to deliver his people, but the evidence shows that they were very human and were affected by the environment they were a part of. Most, if not all, commentators will give high marks to the first few judges–Othniel, Ehud, and Barak & Deborah. Even here some raise their eyebrows at Ehud’s methods and Barak’s unwillingness to go to battle without Deborah; but, largely, these judges are positive role models. While there are good qualities in all of the judges, there does seem to be a turning point for the worse with Gideon and those who follow after him in the book. In spite of the good that Gideon accomplishes, are we really expected to cheer him for torturing and slaughtering fellow-Israelites (Judg. 8:13-17), or creating a golden ephod that leads Israel back into idolatry? (Judg. 8:27). We have already noticed the problem of Jephthah’s vow; should we also congratulate him for his civil war against the Ephraimites where he is said to slaughter 42,000? (Judg. 12:1-6). The point is, although the judges are capable of great good, they are also capable of great evil, and this includes Samson.

Is Joshua's sending of the spies in Joshua 2 positive or negative?
Is Joshua’s sending of the spies in Joshua 2 a positive or negative story?

(5&6) Hugenberger, as well as Van Pelt, are quite correct to notice the similarities of Judges 16:1-3 with Joshua 2 and Judges 18. However, how one interprets the relationship between these passages is up for debate. Both Hugenberger and Van Pelt see Joshua 2 comparing favorably with Judges 16, and thus presenting a positive picture of Samson. A number of commentators on Joshua would disagree. For example regarding Joshua 2, J. Gordon Harris states, “Note how the narrator reports that God ordered Joshua to arise and cross the Jordan, but instead Joshua orders spies to go to Jericho and Canaan. By sending spies, Joshua risked the success of the mission” (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, NIBC, p. 27). Robert Polzin is even more direct when he says, “In reponse, Joshua timidly sends out spies to reconnoiter the country, and we are immediately alerted that Joshua may not be as strong and resolute as God and the people had encouraged him to be” (Moses and the Deuteronomist, p. 86). If these commentators are corrrect, the spy story in Joshua 2 is actually a negative comment on the faith of Joshua and the Israelites. The fact of the matter is, it seems that most spy stories in the Hebrew Bible have a negative bent to them (Num. 13; Deut. 1:21-32; Josh. 7:2-5; Judg. 1:22-26.

It is also argued that the sexually charged language of Joshua 2 raises suspicions about the rightness of this mission. Creach states, “Sexual innuendo permeates the story and is a driving force in its plot” (Joshua, Interpretation Commentary, p. 32). Hugenberger argues strenuously that the spies did not engage in sexual promiscuity (pp. 71-73). I agree with him, but this misses the point. The sexually charged language of Joshua 2 is not meant to suggest that the spies had sexual relations with Rahab; it is meant to color the narrative so that the dubious nature of this mission is exposed. In other words, it is one more way that the narrator suggests that Joshua made a mistake in sending out the spies. Based on the assertion that the spies were not guilty of sexual misconduct in Joshua 2, Hugenberger makes a huge leap when he states, “it seems plausible that the same presumption of innocence should obtain for Samson at Gaza” (p. 72). Not only is this a huge jump in the interpretive process, but I would make two observations: 1) Early in his article, Hugenberger states “It is hardly persuasive to build an argument on what an author or editor ‘did not say'” (p. 66). Yet Hugenberger seeks to argue that if the spies didn’t, then Samson didn’t! 2) Hugenberger is also assuming that the spy story of Joshua 2 is positive. If it is negative, however, as noted above, then, using Hugenberger’s logic, the negative qualities of Joshua 2 color the narrative in Judges 16:1-3 making a negative interpretation of Samson’s actions more likely.

There is a further problem with Hugenberger’s application of both Joshua 2 and Judges 18 to the episode in Judges 16:1-3. Because Hugenberger interprets the story in Joshua 2 positively, he sees the similarity in language with Judges 16 as evidence for a positive interpretation of the Samson story. Again, there are two problems: 1) Even if, for the sake of argument, we agree that Joshua 2 is a positive story about the spies, how do we know that the Samson story is not a parody on the spy story of Joshua 2? In other words, in Joshua 2 the spies don’t have sex with Rahab, but in Judges 16 Samson does what the spies didn’t do! It’s all a matter of perspective as to whether the story is a parallel to Joshua 2 or an anti-parallel. 2) If the story in Joshua 2 is a negative story, then the parallel that Hugenberger argues for must be seen as a negative for the Samson and the Gaza prostitute episode. Otherwise, Hugenberger must change his intepretation and say Joshua 2 is an anti-parallel story! My point is this process, although helpful, is also very subjective. The same can be said of the similarities between Judges 16 and 18. Here, Hugenberger sees the story in Judges 18 as a contrast to Judges 16:1-3, whereas, I would argue that it is a parallel. One of the reasons I would argue for it being parallel is that the story in Judges 18 is the second half of a story that begins in chapter 17 with the words “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6). This is a familiar refrain repeated throughout the end of the book (Judg. 21:25). In the Samson narrative (Judg. 13-16), the first words out of his mouth are when he demands his parents to get him the woman from Timnah as a wife for, “she is right in my eyes” (Judg. 14:3). This statement suggests that Samson has a lot in common with the people of Judges 17-21.

In his blindness, Samson was made to see.
In his blindness, Samson was made to see.

(7) I also believe that Hugenberger’s and Van Pelt’s argument for a positive Samson overlooks an important motif in the story. The author is clear that Samson has a “seeing” problem. As just noted, Samson has an eye for the ladies and the first words he utters include, “I have seen a woman” (Judg. 14:2), “Get her for me because she is right in my eyes” (Judg. 14:3). This “seeing” problem is what leads Samson to the house of the Gaza prostitute. Judges 16:1 begins, “Now Samson went to Gaza and saw a harlot there, and went in to her” (NKJV). Ironically, Samson’s eye problem is cured when he is blinded by the Philistines. It is only when he is blind, that he truly begins to see (as the hymn says!). While blind, Samson seeks the Lord and prays for strength to avenge himself for his two eyes (Judg. 16:28). It is Samson’s dependence on the Lord that renews his strength, not his upright character (as Hugenberger suggests) in relation to the prostitute or anyone else. An important mistake made by Van Pelt, along these lines, is that he argues that Samson went to the prostitute’s house so that he would not be detected, and so that he might mask his true intent. This is wrong on two counts: 1) As Hugenberger notes, the house of a prostitute did not guarantee masking your intentions–both Samson and the spies are found out by the people in the city (so much for masking one’s intent!). 2) Hugenberger also notes that Samson’s original destination in Gaza was not the prostitute’s house. This is made clear in 16:1 when it says that Samson only went to the prostitute’s house after he “saw” her. As Barry Webb states, “What the text clearly implies, however, is that he did not go to Gaza with the express intention of visiting a prostitute” (Judges, NICOT, p. 393). Thus, Van Pelt’s supposition that Samson went to the prostitute’s house  to spy out the town (like the spies of Joshua 2) is incorrect. Although Hugenberger’s comments help to undermine Van Pelt’s supposition, he comes to the same conclusion that Samson’s visit to the prostitute, like the spies of Jericho, is an “appropriate step that would enable the divinely approved work of dispossession to begin” (p. 79). From an authorial perspective of the Book of Judges, I can see how the biblical author’s parallels to Jericho might suggest this, but from a historical or practical viewpoint, I find it hard to understand how visiting the house of a prostitute announces the dispossession of a city! Again, from a literary point of view I can understand how Samson’s visit to a prostitute would recall the story of Joshua 2, and thus prepare the reader for Gaza’s destruction. However, to suggest that this was Samson’s motive, not only rings hollow to me, it doesn’t fit reality.

Finally, the Conclusion!

To make a long post, longer, let me conclude by saying that Hugenberger’s article and Van Pelt’s post are well worth reading. Not only should one read it for him/herself to judge whether I have represented them fairly, but also one should read it because, like Samson himself, there is good as well as bad in them (ha!). I also want to say that I greatly look forward to Hugenberger’s forthcoming commentary on Judges in the Apollos series (Judges Commentary in the Apollos series). I’m confident that, not only will this commentary be full of insight, but it will also give Hugenberger more space to develop and defend his thesis about Samson and the rest of the judges. Meanwhile, I remain convinced that the overall structure of Judges consists of a downward spiral where the spiritual life of the people of Israel and the judges themselves continues to deteriorate to the end of the book. For an excellent treatment and defense of this thesis see the commentaries by Daniel Block in the NAC series and Barry Webb in the NICOT (see link above). Since this topic seems to be a lively debate at the moment, I would welcome all comments that any readers might want to share. After all, it is in the give and take of exchanging our understanding of a biblical passage that we sharpen each other and strive to get at the real meaning of the text.

Reconciling Violence and Kingship

Reconciling Violence and Kingship

Reconciling Violence and Kingship is available at Wipf and Stock Publishers
Reconciling Violence and Kingship is available at Wipf and Stock Publishers

Reconciling Violence and Kingship is a study of the beginnings of the Israelite monarchy based on an examination of Judges 9, 17-21, and 1 Samuel 9-11. In this book author, Marty Alan Michelson, proposes that a new understanding of the establishment of Israel’s monarchy is possible when the above texts are viewed through the lens of Renee Girard’s philosophical theory of institutionalized violence. This theory involves the “textual interplay of desire, mimesis, rivalry, and scapegoating” (p. 2–more on this below). Along with Girard, Mickelson contends that institutionalized violence leads to social stability (p. 8). To put it in Mickelson’s words, “In this study we will demonstrate that in the storied movement toward monarchy, the chaotic violence becomes controlled violence that prevents its further escalation. Through the monarch, violence is transformed into an event that, while violent, reconciles conflict that might otherwise lead to chaos, dissolution, or anarchy” (p. 2).

For those of us not familiar with Girard’s theory, Michelson offers a summary. Michelson does not dwell on a definition of desire perhaps because it seems self-explanatory. We have all experienced that inner want that drives us in seeking to obtain an object, goal, status, or even another person. Desire, however, can result in conflict when people seek the same object, goal, or agenda. Girard further argues that people imitate one another in their desires and actions (this is referred to as mimesis). “This imitative rivalry, compounded by a sense of lost self to the other’s goals, creates an irresolvable conflict. One or the other rival must be removed. Girard hypothesizes…that it is at the point of irresolvable conflict that an alternative emerges” (p. 9). This alternative involves redirecting the violence toward a separate victim, the scapegoat. In other words, better that one dies for all, than for all to die.

Saul cuts up his oxen to summon Israel. This account vividly recalls Judges 19.
Saul cuts up his oxen to summon Israel. This account vividly recalls Judges 19.

What does all of this have to do with the chapters in Judges and 1 Samuel that Michelson focuses on? Michelson is more than a philosopher,  he is a biblical scholar, and a major portion of his book is focused on looking at each passage in its context. He notes that each of the texts, are not only connected by containing the theme of kingship, they also speak of desire, and rivalry that leads to uncontrolled violence. For example, Abimelech kills his brothers and destroys several cities (Judg. 9). Members of the tribe of Dan threaten Micah, steal his priest and destroy the town of Laish (Judg. 17-18). A Levite’s concubine is violently raped which leads to her dismemberment and all out war between Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, nearly wiping out the entire tribe (Judg. 19-21). The uncontrolled violence witnessed in the Book of Judges finally finds its solution in Saul’s action in 1 Samuel 11 when Saul cuts up his oxen into 12 pieces, mimicking the action of the Levite with his concubine in Judges 19. This act rallies all Israel to his side bringing unity and resulting in Saul’s coronation as king.

Why All the Fuss About Girard?

Renee Girard
Renee Girard

When I began reading Reconciling Violence and Kingship I must admit that I was concerned about a method which seemed to approach the Bible (or at least these texts) through a certain pair of colored glasses. Michelson addresses this concern. He states, “…it is not our intent here, after having read the narratives, to lay over them a sort of ‘Girardian Grid’ that says, ‘This text is Girardian because we can connect these dots’…these stories share coherence and literary tradition regardless whether Girard helps us read them” (p. 155). Michelson believes that reading these passages with a “Girardian hermeneutic” “helps us read the cultural issues of kingship emerging in Israel’s history” (p. 155). However, he also emphasizes that this approach does not prove how kingship emerged.

Overview of Reconciling Violence and Kingship

The contents of Reconciling Violence and Kingship are as follows:

Chapter 1 Thesis and Scope of the Study–Michelson lays out his purpose and methodology, outlines the basics of Girard’s theory, and presents an overview of each forthcoming chapter.

Chapter 2 Composition and Kingship in the Deuteronomistic History–Michelson presents a brief history of source critical study on Deuteronomy – Kings with attention to the treatment of the claims that these books include both  pro-monarchical and anti-monarchical sources. Michelson’s rationale for this chapter is “…to set the groundwork for viewing the strengths of a literary and anthropologically informed Girardian reading of these texts.

The meat of Michelson’s book is contained in chapters 3-5 where he examines each text of his study using the new literary approach popularized by such scholars as Robert Alter (The Art of Biblical Narrative).

Chapter 3 Abimelech: Judges 8:29-9:56

Chapter 4 Micah, the Levite, and the Concubine: Judges 17-21

Chapter 5 Saul and Kingship: 1 Samuel 9-11

Chapter 6 Assessing a Girardian Hermeneutic within this Study–In this chapter, after a further explanation of Girardian theory, Michelson reviews each text through that lens. In his own words he states, “I will demonstrate that Girard helps us look at and understand the formation of kingship in Israel’s history, without necessarily telling us that this is definitively ‘the way’ that kingship emerged in Israel’s history” (p. 13).

Chapter 7 Summary and Conclusions

Strengths and Weaknesses of Reconciling Violence and Kingship

Marty Alan Michelson, author of Reconciling Violence and Kingship
Marty Alan Michelson, author of Reconciling Violence and Kingship

In my opinion the true strength of Michelson’s book is found in his close reading of the biblical texts he has chosen. As noted above, this discussion occurs in chapters 3-5. The insight that impacted me the most was the positive spin that Michelson puts on the beginning of Saul’s story in 1 Samuel 9-11. Although I was familiar with a number of the parallels between Judges 19-21 and 1 Samuel 11 (e.g., both texts speak of Gibeah, the Benjamites, and the town of Jabesh Gilead, and in both texts a former living entity is carved into 12 pieces). I had always looked at the similarity in these chapters as ominous signs of what was to come in Saul’s kingship. Michelson, however, effectively demonstrates that these common motifs are there to emphasize the positive difference that Saul makes. The horrific dissection of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19 only leads to further bloodshed in Israel. Conversely Saul’s dissection of his oxen rallies all of Israel who “come out as one man” (1 Sam. 11:7)–another expression shared by these stories (cf. Judg. 20:1)– resulting in victory.

Michelson, like Girard, also makes much of the idea of “sacral kingship.” This expression carries both priestly and sacrificial connotations. I was impressed by Michelson’s careful reading of 1 Samuel 9 and 10 and all of the priestly allusions that can be found in Saul’s initial encounter with Samuel. The Bible certainly reflects a close connection between priesthood and kingship beginning with Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18-20), David and Solomon’s offering of sacrifices (2 Sam. 6:17; 1 Kgs. 8:64), and finally Jesus Himself who is both High Priest and King (Heb. 7). Along these lines, allow me to chase a brief rabbit trail that has nothing to do with the book under review. I believe it is incorrect to interpret Saul’s offering of sacrifice in 1 Samuel 13:9 as the sin for which he is rebuked. It not Saul’s offering of the sacrifice per say, but his disobedience to God’s word by not waiting for Samuel to come and offer the sacrifice (1 Sam. 10:8; 13:13).

As regards Michelson’s use of Girard’s theory, the big story of the Bible certainly substantiates this viewpoint. As humans we run after various desires, which lead to conflict. That conflict often escalates into a violence that threatens to consume us. But God has provided a scapegoat, Jesus, the King. And through His sacrifice it is possible to find at-one-ment and peace. Whether the same theory can be applied to Saul’s kingship or not, I’m not sure. I wasn’t completely convinced by Michelson’s argument. I do find it ironic, however, that though Saul brought a measure of peace and unity through the scapegoat process, his later reign reflects once again the violence and chaos of the Judges period as he slaughters the priests of Nob (1 Sam. 22) and relentlessly pursues David.

Samuel anoints Saul.
Samuel anoints Saul.

Most of what I would term “weaknesses” relate to matters of interpretation. This is probably a poor term to use, since my interpretation is also far from infallible. But having noted my reservation of that term, I will point to two examples where I differ with Michelson. In the introduction, Michelson justifies narrowing his study to 1 Samuel 9-11 for the following reason: “…chapters 9-11 exclusively and uniquely treat the introduction and acclamation and inauguration of Saul as king principally apart from the activity of Samuel” (p. 6). I believe this point not only gives too little credit to the part Samuel plays in the overall account, but also, and most importantly, leaves out the important part that God plays in the inauguration of kingship in Israel. Since Michelson is looking at the narrative to ascertain the history behind the story and the philosophical and anthropological elements involved in kingship, perhaps his lack of focus on God in this story is understandable. But it is hard to understand his downplaying of the important part that Samuel plays in the story. After all, it is Samuel who announces to him “And on whom is all the desire of Israel? Is it not on you and on all your father’s house?” (1 Sam. 9:20). It is also Samuel who invites him to the feast (1 Sam. 9:22-24), the kind of feast noted elsewhere when kings were anointed (1 Sam. 16; 1 Kgs. 1). It is Samuel who anoints Saul, and Samuel who gives him 3 signs of confirmation (1 Sam. 10:1-10). Furthermore, it is Samuel who instigates the public casting of lots in choosing Saul (1 Sam. 10:17ff.) and Samuel who calls the people together at Gilgal to publicly acclaim Saul as king (1 Sam. 11:14-15). To be fair to Michelson, his point is that Saul is only acclaimed king in 1 Samuel 11:15 and that prior to that, the narrator uses the term nagid (“prince” is one translation of this significant term). However, it seems difficult to overlook the important part that Samuel plays in 1 Samuel 9-11.

Secondly, I was surprised by Michelson’s understanding of Judges 18:30. This is the concluding comments of the story concerning Micah, the Levite, and the tribe of Dan. The tribe of Dan steals Micah’s idols and his Levite (who has been acting as a priest for Micah’s household). The Danites destroy the inhabitants of Laish (which becomes the city of Dan), and set up their own idolatrous worship. At this point, Michelson states, “…we are introduced to a new priest, Jonathan, son of Gershom of the tribe of Manasseh” (p. 80). My understanding, and that of other commentators (e.g., Daniel Block and Barry Webb in their Judges commentaries), is that Jonathan is none other than the Levite of the story. His name has been withheld to this point because the writer desires to shock the reader with who this unnamed Levite actually is. According to the text Jonathan is the son of Gershom, the son of (not from the tribe of as Michelson translates) Manasseh. But scholars are aware that the name “Manasseh” has been tampered with and should probably read “Moses.” In Hebrew, an extra “n” has been partially inserted into the name. The scandal of the story is that this unnamed Levite who participated over an idolatrous shrine in the house of Micah and who became priest for the Danites, was none other than a descendant of Moses! To interpret the mention of Jonathan in Judges 18:30 as a “new priest” who is being introduced, is not only very anticlimactic, it fails to account for why at this late stage the narrator would introduce a new character. Especially a character with a name, when throughout the narrative most characters (except for Micah) are nameless.

One can judge for oneself whether the above examples are true weaknesses or not, but one definite weakness in Reconciling Violence and Kingship is the editing. It is unfortunate that this wonderful book is so riddled with grammatical and spelling errors. The errors also extend to wrong Scripture notations (e.g., 1 Samuel 7 on p. 127 should read 1 Samuel 8) and the mixing up of names  (twice on p. 79 the name Micah is used when it is the Levite who is being referred to, and on p. 103, “all the men of Jabesh-Gilead,” should read “all the men of Gibeah.”). One has the impression that this book was quickly rushed to press rather than given the editorial attention it deserved.

Conclusion

If you’ve stayed with me this far, you probably recognize that this book is most suited for the scholar and the serious student. It engages with philosophical concepts and is conversant with what is going on within the realm of scholarly studies on the Deuteronomistic History. However, a serious layperson could certainly benefit from the insights found in chapters 3-5. On a final note, I’d like to mention that Marty Alan Michelson has become a cyber-buddy of mine. I deeply appreciate his enthusiasm for the study of Scripture and his warm personal demeanor in all of our correspondence. Marty please feel free to comment on this review. If I have misunderstood or not represented some of your views properly, I would welcome the opportunity to hear from you and set the record straight. Meanwhile for those of you who would be interested in some of Marty’s teachings on the Books of Samuel please click on the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZN47b_SfQZE

Reconciling Violence and Kingship is available at Amazon USA / UK

You can also check out some of Marty’s other materials here at Amazon.com

Temple of Human Sacrifice: Amman Jordan

Temple of Human Sacrifice: Amman Jordan

Jephthah sacrifices his daughter
Jephthah sacrifices his daughter

In a recent post on my series “Violence in the Old Testament” I refer to the story of Jephthah from Judges 11 (The Moral Failure of Biblical Characters Part 7). In this article I noted that the stories of moral failure are not written for us to emulate, but are written as warnings when we stray from God’s Word. Jephthah is famous for sacrificing his daughter due to a foolish vow that he made (Judg. 11:30-40). In the article I suggested that Jephthah imitates his enemy, the Ammonites, (and Moabites as well), by offering a human sacrifice. Confirmation of this view may come in the most recent issue of BAR (Biblical Archaeology Review, vol 40, No. 5, 2014, pp. 6, 57), where editor Hershel Shanks speaks about what is believed by many to be the discovery of a temple of human sacrifice. This temple is situated in the city of Amman, Jordan near the airport. The city of Amman has retained the ancient name of the people that once occupied this area, the Ammonites.

This temple was first excavated in 1955 by Australian archaeologist John Basil Hennessy (a diagram of the temple, drawn by Hennessy, can be found in the BAR article mentioned above). He discovered an altar (stone pile), and most surprisingly, he discovered small bone fragments of which 90% were human! In 1976 Larry G. Herr carried out further excavation at the site and discovered many more human bone fragments. Herr concluded that the stone pile (altar) functioned as a pyre since the bones showed evidence of burning. Scholarly opinion is divided as to whether this site was an ancient crematorium or a temple of human sacrifice. Archaeologist Ami Mazar says that it is difficult to accept the suggestion that it was a crematorium since no such buildings have ever been discovered in the ancient Near East. However it must also be admitted that no temple of human sacrifice has ever been discovered either.

Artist's depiction of offering a child to Molech
Artist’s depiction of offering a child to Molech

Interestingly, the temple dates to roughly the same time as Jephthah (13th century BC–most consider Jephthah to have lived in the 12th century BC). Considering both the biblical evidence (Lev. 18:21; 1 Kgs. 11:7; Jer. 32:35), as well as Phoenician evidence (IVP Bible Background Commentary on the OT, pp. 132-133), there is no doubt that child sacrifice to Milcom (or, Molech), the god of the Ammonites, was practiced. Therefore, in my opinion, if one includes this written evidence, the scale is tipped in favour of this being a temple of human sacrifice. If it is, it would add further weight to the argument that Jephthah was influenced by the Ammonites’ practice of child sacrifice.

The City of Dan: A Legacy of Apostasy

The City of Dan: A Legacy of Apostasy

High place outside the gate of the City of Dan
High place outside the gate of the City of Dan

Did you know that the end of the story of the conquest of the city of Dan holds a very interesting surprise? In my previous article on Tel Dan, we looked at the fascinating archaeological discoveries that have been uncovered, while noting that only about 10% of the site has been excavated. This article will focus on the biblical history of the city of Dan and its sad legacy.

The conquest of the city of Dan (formerly known as Laish), as recorded in Judges 18:27-31, is an inglorious affair from its inception. The story is narrated in two parts: 1) The story of Micah, his house of false worship, and his Levite (Judg. 17); and 2) the story of the conquest of the city of Dan. In short, the Danites, who don’t have the faith to take the territory allotted to them (Judg. 1:34), steal the gods and priest of a fellow-Israelite named Micah and then attack a peaceful, unsuspecting people in the northern part of Canaan (Judg. 18:7-9). A real surprise is saved for the end of the story when the name and genealogy of the previously unnamed Levite is revealed. We are told his name is Jonathan and that he descended from none other than the great lawgiver himself, Moses! (Judg. 18:30).

A Levite, an Embarrassed Scribe, and the City of Dan

At this point you might be saying, “Wait a minute, my version reads ‘Manasseh,’ not ‘Moses'”. In Hebrew the only difference between the names Moses and Manasseh is the letter “n”.

The letter in the middle row raised above the line is the inserted nun
The letter in the middle row (4th from the end) raised above the line is the inserted nun

At some point in the history of the Hebrew text, it appears that some well-meaning scribe was embarrassed by the fact that this unscrupulous Levite could be a descendant of Moses (which is one of the shocking points of the story). As a result, the Hebrew letter nun (pronounced “noon” and equivalent to an “n” in English) was halfway inserted into the name of Moses, turning it into the name Manasseh. Although the scribe was probably embarrassed that the text read “Moses,” his reverence for the text did not permit him to totally change it. Thus, he only inserted the nun part way into the name. This is why the NKJV and other versions read “Manasseh” instead of “Moses.”

It is possible that this Jonathan is a grandson of Moses because he is said to be “the son of Gershom, the son of Moses,” but the word “son” can mean “descendant” and so it is difficult to be certain. Either way, the city of Dan gets off to a very inauspicious start with its first priest being an idol-worshipping pay-for-hire descendant of Moses! The story of the founding of the city of Dan ends with the sad words, “So they set up for themselves Micah’s carved image which he made all the time that the house of God was in Shiloh” (Judg. 18:31). In other words, from the very beginning the Danites set up a false house of worship to compete with the true worship of God. The story only gets worse as we move on to the time of King Jeroboam I.

The City of Dan Under Jeroboam I

Jeroboam was a young man on the rise in Solomon’s administration (1 Kgs. 11:28) when the prophet Ahijah told him that God would give him the ten northern tribes (1 Kgs. 11:29-31). This leads to a text that I find quite intriguing, not to mention surprising. God continues by telling Jeroboam that if he will be faithful, “then I will be with you and build for you an enduring house, as I built for David, and give Israel to you” (1 Kgs. 11:38). An enduring house like David’s? Wow! As king over the northern tribes, Jeroboam has the opportunity to end the idolatrous history of the city of Dan (as well as the rest of the northern tribes), and lead the people in following the Lord. Jeroboam does indeed become king, as Ahijah said he would (1Kgs. 12:15-19), but unfortunately, if you know your Bible history, he does not lead the people in following the Lord. Instead, Jeroboam reasons that if he allows the people to worship in Jerusalem “then the heart of this people will turn back to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and go back to Rehoboam king of Judah” (1 Kgs. 12:27).

Unknown artist
Unknown artist

Even though he had seen the fulfillment of God’s word in making him king, he did not believe that God could fulfill the rest of His promise! Instead, Jeroboam inaugurates a new religion of sorts (Yahweh worship, but with a twist – golden calves!) and establishes temples at Bethel and Dan (1 Kgs. 12:28-30). This act was devastating to the house of Jeroboam, of whom it was said, “And this thing was the sin of the house of Jeroboam, so as to exterminate and destroy it from the face of the earth” (1 Kgs. 13:34). But sin never simply affects one person or household. The sin of Jeroboam was also devastating to the ten northern tribes. It became known as the “sin by which he had made Israel sin” (e.g., 1 Kgs. 15:34; 16:19; 22:52). When Israel is finally carried away into Assyrian captivity more than 200 years later, it is the sin of Jeroboam that is credited with leading them astray (2 Kgs. 17:21-23).

A look at the remains of the temple complex in Tel Dan a reminder of Jeroboam and "the sin by which he made Israel sin."
A look at the remains of the temple complex in Tel Dan a reminder of Jeroboam and “the sin by which he made Israel sin.”

The Legacy of the City of Dan

In both of these stories involving the city of Dan, the word legacy comes to mind. In the first story it is the ruined legacy of Moses by a descendant who cares more about money, power, and prestige than honesty and truth. In the second story the legacy of Jeroboam I sadly continues generation after generation until Israel is destroyed. How ironic that the legacy of Moses, Israel’s greatest prophet and leader is quickly overturned, while the legacy of Jeroboam I continues unbroken eventually leading to the ruin of the nation. Sadly sin has corrupted humankind to the point where it is much easier to follow a bad leader than a good one. That is a truth well worth bearing in mind during these times in which we live.

These stories also prompt us to ask what sort of legacy do we want to leave to future generations? Meditating on the legacy of the city of Dan teaches us that whether we live for good or for ill, our lives not only affect us and those around us, but have a powerful impact on the future. This is a sobering truth and should cause us to pause and ask ourselves about the choices we are making. What kind of world do we want to leave to the next generation and beyond? Our choices today, and for the rest of our lives, will play a major role in molding the future that we bequeath to them.

Violence in the Old Testament Part 1: The Problem

John Martin - 1852
John Martin – 1852

Violence in the Old Testament Part 1: The Problem

What is someone who believes in the Bible to make of all the violence in the Old Testament? Only 6 chapters into the book of Genesis, God is already planning on destroying the world with a flood. A few chapters later, God rains down fire and brimstone on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24). In the next book of the Bible God sends plagues on the Egyptians and kills their firstborn (Exod. 5-12). Furthermore, He leads His people out of Egypt for the purpose of giving them a land that belongs to others (the Canaanite peoples) and He commands Moses and Joshua to “utterly destroy” them (Deut. 7:1-2).
Violence in the Old Testament is also confronted in its characters. A man named Shechem rapes Dinah, Jacob’s daughter. In retaliation, Jacob’s sons deceive Shechem and his father who convince the whole town to be circumcised. While the men are recovering, Jacob’s sons slaughter all the males and plunder the city (Gen. 34). Such stories can be multiplied. For example, the book of Judges is filled with stories of violence. Ehud slays an obese Moabite king with trickery (Judg. 3:21-22), Jael drives a tent peg through the skull of the Canaanite commander Sisera (Judg. 4:21), Jephthah offers up his only daughter as a sacrifice (Judg. 11:39), and a Levite’s concubine is gang raped by the men of Gibeah. The Levite responds by chopping her body into 12 parts and sending them throughout the tribes of Israel (Judg. 19), which precipitates a civil war leading to more atrocities such as the near annihilation of the tribe of Benjamin, and the kidnapping of women to marry the few remaining males of the tribe (Judg. 20-21).
These stories disturb our moral sensibilities (as they should). Frequently the bible-believer is embarrassed by them and would rather act as if they don’t exist. Many Christians simply focus on the New Testament. The Old Testament is like the elephant in the room that we pretend is not there, or we try to find some way to apologize for it, much like we would for an awkward relative.
Old__New_Testament_God11-300x196

The Ghost of Marcion

One historical solution, thankfully rejected by the Church, was to label the Old Testament and its “god” as inferior to the God of the New Testament. The 2nd century heretic Marcion took this view and rejected all of the Old Testament. Writing over 50 years ago Bernhard Anderson recognized a similar problem within the Church that continues to this day when he wrote, “Meanwhile the ghost of Marcion lingers on, appearing more in indifference to or ignorance about the Old Testament than in vehement theological debate” (The Old Testament and the Christian Faith, p. 5) But it is important for the Church to wake up from its indifference to the Old Testament, because the Bible is coming under attack from the so-called “new atheists.” These new atheists, including names which have become familiar to many such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchins, are forcing Christians (and Jews) to take a hard look at their Scriptures. Fortunately, there are voices within the Church who are responding to these criticisms with reasonable, well-argued responses. (See e.g., the debate between Christians and Atheists in: Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham).
My desire in this series of articles on Violence in the Old Testament, is to examine some of the objections raised by the new atheists and unbelievers that you and I might come into contact with. I’m not a philosophical theologian (most of us aren’t!), or a giant intellect. My interest in this topic is motivated by several factors: 1) I believe the Old Testament is the Word of God and as such, I need to have good reasons for believing that; 2) as a student and teacher, the Old Testament has greatly impacted my life for good and I think it’s important to share some of that journey and experience; 3) I hope to kindle a desire among Christians who read these articles to take their study of the Old Testament more seriously, and to not be afraid of its contents; 4) I hope any non-believers who read these articles will approach the subject with an open mind, and I welcome them to offer their comments as long as it is done in a kind, non-combative way which seeks to advance understanding. I promise I will respond with a similar spirit.
At this point I am not sure how long I will extend this series but my desire is to take it in small bite-sized chunks, dealing with different problems and responses in each article. Part of it depends on the interest generated by you the reader and whether you find the discussion helpful. I welcome all comments and questions, as well as any insight that others may wish to contribute, but again I ask that the comments and questions be made in a spirit of goodwill with a view toward advancing knowledge and understanding. I do not pretend that I will be able to answer every difficulty presented by the violence in the Old Testament, nor do I think that there is one answer that will solve every objection. This is a complex and serious issue which requires various responses. Before delving into the problem and various responses, in my next article, I will give a little more personal background as to why this subject is important to me. Following that, we will begin to look at the problems raised by Violence in the Old Testament.