(TW: sexual assault)
I was a writer of fiction before I was a blogger (you can buy one of my books here!) and I can’t begin to describe the rapture I felt while reading Judges. After several books of laws and censuses and descriptions of drawing lots and walking through deserts, finally we’re presented with actual narratives, and interesting characters to populate them!
Judges purports to tell the history of the Israelites before the advent of the monarchy, from about the 14th century BCE to the 11th. I highly doubt very much (if any) is actually historical, as the book was composed many hundreds of years after the events it describes and seems more than anything else like a collection of folk tales, but it certainly contains very early traditions and even entire compositional units, most famously the Song of Deborah.
Of the twelve judges, only five are actually given narratives and characterization. These are, chronologically, Ehud (who dickishly murders an oppressive Moabite king in his private bathroom); the aforementioned Deborah (of Song of Deborah fame); Gideon, with whom Yahweh got positively braggadocious; Jephthah, the most bad-ass of all judges who was doomed to face a tragic and ironic fate; and finally Samson, the stupidest person on the continent (fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, fool me a third and fourth and fifth time…just go ahead and gouge my eyes out).
The sense I got, which Kugler and Hartin concur with, is that Judges is a collection of folk tales from ancient Israel that were redacted by the Deuteronomist (who of course framed everything around his trademark “if you’re suffering you must’ve done something to deserve it” theology) sometime during or after the Exile in the 6th century.
The stories themselves are much older and don’t seem to have been heavily altered; they have elements which point to Judaism’s polytheistic and monolatristic origins, and many of them imply Brothers-Grimm-esque moral lessons (Jephthah’s unnecessary pledge to sacrifice his daughter, for example, could be a lesson against swearing oaths; Samson’s betrayal by Delilah is an obvious lesson against being a complete moron).
There are also a couple parallels to famous stories in the Torah; Manoah’s wife being told by an angel of Yahweh that she would conceive and bear a son despite her advanced age is clearly meant to recall Sarah in Genesis, just as the horrific rape of the Levite’s wife in 19:22-25 is clearly derived from the story of Lot’s visit to Sodom, with the obvious subversion that instead of being determined to rape the man (Lot or the Levite), this time the rape-mob is perfectly content to rape the offered female substitute (literally to death) instead.
This story, and that of the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter, are blatantly misogynistic in a very literal sense, for they deal with a society’s general and internalized hatred of women and women’s bodies, but they are not necessarily sexist, if that makes sense. Indeed, Judges also contains the most positive portrayals of women thus far in the Hebrew Bible, with the judge Deborah, “a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth,” delivering the Israelites from King Jabin of Canaan, with the help of another woman, “Jael wife of Heber.”
Both of these women, especially Jael, are identified at times by their husbands, but in both cases their husbands never feature in the story or as any factor in their actions. Here we have two women with real agency, portrayed positively, that play crucial roles in Yahweh’s plans to deliver the Israelites from their enemies.
Building on this, Judges also seems to defend (or at least portray neutrally, and in one case positively) sex workers. Samson “went in to” a prostitute in Gaza (hope he used protection), which is treated completely neutrally. More importantly, the mother of Jephthah, one of the important judges, is said to be a prostitute, and Jephthah is ostracized from his family and his tribe for this reason, turning to banditry and raiding as a career path. Jephthah is the hero and is never portrayed any way other than positively.
Jephthah makes a promise to sacrifice the first person to cross the threshold of his home to Yahweh, if Yahweh will only help him to defeat the Ammonites. Interestingly, God was already helping Jephthah before he made that vow, which means that it ended up being completely pointless (which accounts for the story’s function as a “warning” or “lesson” about swearing vows).
The first person who leaves the house to greet Jephthah is his only child, his daughter. Jephthah is heartbroken that this happens, although logically it really could only have been either her or his wife (perhaps a servant or slave, I guess?) and he really should’ve known better.
In any case, it is refreshing that Jephthah shows great emotion at the prospect of losing his daughter (read this letter from a man to his wife from around the turn of the era to understand why), but the story is given a dark twist by modern standards when his daughter asks for the sacrifice to be delayed two months so she can “bewail [her] virginity.”
There is a tendency among some conservative exegetes to explain away this horrible story by claiming that a “burnt offering” could metaphorically refer to somebody devoting themselves to the Temple, because it translates to something more like “what is presented to” the Lord. As is usually the case with these types of linguistic disputes, the confusion results from Christians using translations based on the Septuagint instead of the actual Hebrew scriptures. Regardless, the Talmud states unequivocally that the sacrifice was a literal human sacrifice, which should settle the matter.
I am going to attribute very little of the pro-woman OR anti-woman tendencies of the book of Judges to the Deuteronomist himself. Rather, as a collection of ancient Jewish folk tales, and like much of the Bible itself, Judges presents us with two differing attitudes and makes no effort to reconcile them: women are at once of lesser importance than men (the Levite’s wife), their value tied to their sexual history with men (Jephthah’s daughter), as well as capable of leading Israel (Deborah) and killing wicked kings (Jael and the unnamed woman who kills Abimelech).
This is only a contradiction in our modern eyes. To ancient eyes this dualism presented no issues, because they were uninterested in the way women were presented entirely. In that respect, at least, we’ve come a long way.