Study Guide

Book of Judges Violence

Violence

But when the Israelites cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. The Israelites sent tribute by him to King Eglon of Moab. Ehud came to him, while he was sitting alone in his cool roof-chamber, and said, "I have a message from God for you." So he rose from his seat. Then Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into Eglon's belly […]. (NRSV 3:15, 20-21)

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. 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. And Ehud put forth his left hand, and took the dagger from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly […]. (KJV 3:15, 20-21)

This is the first instance of non-military violence in Judges. Is it a good start? Does it strike you as odd that the assassination of a physically disadvantaged victim is so celebrated? How could this be symbolic of God triumphing over his enemies?

But Jael wife of Heber took a tent-peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground—he was lying fast asleep from weariness—and he died. (NRSV 4:21)

Then Jael Heber's wife took a nail of the tent, and took an hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote the nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground: for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died. (KJV 4:21)

The fact that she doesn't just kill Sisera, but pounds the nail all the way into the ground, is interesting. We know that Jael is justified by God, but what were her motivations? How about her emotions? Is she a cold-blooded killer, or was this terrifying for her?

He went to his father's house at Ophrah, and killed his brothers the sons of Jerubbaal, seventy men, on one stone; but Jotham, the youngest son of Jerubbaal, survived, for he hid himself. (NRSV 9:5)

And he went unto his father's house at Ophrah, and slew his brethren the sons of Jerubbaal, being threescore and ten persons, upon one stone: notwithstanding yet Jotham the youngest son of Jerubbaal was left; for he hid himself. (KJV 9:5)

What symbolism can you find in Abimelech's murder of Gideon's (Jerubbaal is another name for Gideon) other sons? What about the escape of the youngest son?

She said to him, "My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites." And she said to her father, "Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander* on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I." "Go," he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man. (NRSV 11:36-39)

And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the LORD, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the LORD hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon. And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows. And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. (KJV 11:36-39)

Was Jephthah's sacrifice of his daughter really necessary? It wouldn't be the first time God required someone's death, of course, but this seems like such a fluke. Could this be saying something about the nature of violence and death?

On the fourth* day they said to Samson's wife, "Coax your husband to explain the riddle to us, or we will burn you and your father's house with fire. Have you invited us here to impoverish us?" (NRSV 14:15)

And it came to pass on the seventh day, that they said unto Samson's wife, Entice thy husband, that he may declare unto us the riddle, lest we burn thee and thy father's house with fire: have ye called us to take that we have? is it not so? (KJV 14:15)

This is one of the most meaning-laden moves in Judges. She obviously believes their blatant threat to kill her if they don't get what they want. It seems like she must be feeling terrified, and yet she hides it from Samson somehow. Or was he too insensitive to notice? Did she try to tell him?

Then the spirit of the Lord rushed on him, and he went down to Ashkelon. He killed thirty men of the town, took their spoil, and gave the festal garments to those who had explained the riddle. In hot anger he went back to his father's house. (NRSV 14:19)

And the Spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon, and slew thirty men of them, and took their spoil, and gave change of garments unto them which expounded the riddle. And his anger was kindled, and he went up to his father's house. (KJV 14:19)

Whereas in other parts of the Bible, God's spirit is characterized as peaceful, quiet, and soft, in Judges it's almost always linked to anger and violence. Does God's spirit change depending on the circumstances? Why would the circumstances of Judges require it to be violent?

And Samson said, "With the jawbone of a donkey,
heaps upon heaps,
with the jawbone of a donkey I have slain a thousand men." (NRSV 15:16)

And Samson said, With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps, with the jaw of an ass have I slain a thousand men. (KJV 15:16)

He doesn't seem like a reluctant warrior in the least. Indeed, he talks about his feats in poetic, almost sing-song language, as if he enjoys the slaughter. Notice that Samson says that he—not God—killed these men. He was surely aware that his strength came from God. What does it say about him that he never really mentions this until his death?

So the Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes. They brought him down to Gaza and bound him with bronze shackles; and he ground at the mill in the prison. (NRSV 16:21)

But the Philistines took him, and put out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with fetters of brass; and he did grind in the prison house. (KJV 16:21)

Why did the Philistines just maim Samson instead of killing him outright? It seems like they kept him alive in order to use him as an example of their dominance. Sometimes violence finds its fullest expression in merely incapacitating enemies rather than killing them.

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