Bible stories: Shamgar

Bible stories: Shamgar October 7, 2011

One of my favorite Bible stories is barely a story at all. It’s the story of Shamgar, the parenthetical hero of the book of Judges.

Here, in its entirety, is the story of Shamgar:

After him came Shamgar son of Anath, who killed six hundred of the Philistines with an ox-goad. He too delivered Israel.

That’s Judges 3:31 and that’s it. That’s all we get. One verse with a body count and an unconventional choice of weapon and almost nothing more. A couple of chapters later, Deborah name-checks Shamgar in her litany of heroes — “In the days of Shamgar the son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways were unoccupied, and the travellers walked through byways” — but that’s it.

The matter-of-fact brevity and lack of larger context are tantalizing. Questions arise but are left unanswered. Shamgar slew 600 Philistines — was this all at once? Or was it one at a time over a long time? Were these 600 the combatant soldiers of an invading army, or were they women and children in some ill-fated Philistine settlement?

This is the book of Judges, after all, a bloody, R-rated collection of stories in which little distinction is made between honorable feats of military might and brutal atrocities and terrorism. Samson, probably the most famous of the heroes in Judges, practically invented terrorism. He’s praised in the book for setting fire to the enemy’s crops, employing indiscriminate starvation as a weapon of mass destruction. And he’s praised for being a low-tech suicide bomber, killing himself and hundreds of others by collapsing a building filled with Philistine dignitaries. Then there’s Ehud, the sneaky assassin who smuggled a dagger into the court of the enemy king, gutting him in the royal outhouse.

So in the context of Judges, we can’t be sure that Shamgar’s heroism is really heroic. We can’t know if he was like Daniel Inouye in San Terenzo or if he was like William Calley at My Lai.

My fascination with this hint of an almost-story goes back to my middle school Bible teacher, a man with the delightful name of Kingsley Baehr. Mr. Baehr had a contagious enthusiasm for obscure and forgotten stories in the Bible and he loved the story of Shamgar. He had a great rendition of this story — albeit one that was, he cautioned, purely speculative. Mr. Baehr took that one detail of the ox-goad and wove from it a story of a cattleman turned guerrilla, a deadly ghost who made the occupying enemy army fear the night.

The Philistines — despite the way we’ve come to use their name as an epithet for the uncultured — were culturally and technologically far ahead of the israelites. They had superior metallurgy and thus far superior weaponry. Faced with a more powerful and better-armed foe, the Israelites would have had to rely on what we now refer to as “asymmetrical warfare.” In Mr. Baehr’s rendition, the well-armed occupying army of the Philistines confidently ruled the land of Israel by day, but got frightened when the sun went down, knowing that in the morning they’d awaken to find their numbers reduced by yet another mysterious casualty, slain in the night by what seemed to be a club or a spear. After 600 such nervous nights, perhaps, the invaders decided their occupation wasn’t worth the price.

Total speculation, of course, We can’t even really know that Shamgar’s ox-goad was an ox-goad. The word there is a hapax legomenon — a word that appears nowhere else — and “ox-goad” is just our best guess.

But I like Mr. Baehr’s version of the story, partly because it makes for a good story and partly because it highlights the important moral distinction, sorely needed in Judges, between a guerrilla fighter and a terrorist (You’re Not Allowed to Kill Civilians).

I like to build on Mr. Baehr’s rendition of this story, speculating even further. Maybe this is why the story of Shamgar seems like such a tacked-on afterthought awkwardly inserted into the larger narrative. I imagine the book of Judges being recited in the court of King David, long after the time it chronicles. David fought against the Philistines, so he probably would have liked Judges. He also, for a time before becoming king, fought for the Philistines, and he even had a Philistine in his entourage — a general named Ittai.

I imagine Ittai listening to this recitation of an earlier version of the book of Judges — one in which chapter 3 ends after the 30th verse — and then asking, “What about Shamgar? Don’t tell me you people have forgotten about him. Scary dude with, like, an ox-goad? Ringing any bells? We still tell stories about that guy to spook the new recruits. You can’t leave out Shamgar.”

Serious biblical scholars also can’t seem to help speculating about this enticingly brief and vague almost-story of Shamgar. One theory holds that the verse about Shamgar in Judges is really a misplaced reference to Shammah — one of David’s other “mighty men” who killed hundreds of Philistines in a battle in a lentil field.

Maybe so. But we can’t really know. There’s just not enough to go on, the story is too fragmentary and out of place to know for sure what to make of it.

Oddly, that very fragmentary brevity gives the story of Shamgar a realism that the longer, more detailed tales in Judges lack. In the stories of Samson, Ehud or Gideon — with his folk-tale-ish fleece and his encounter with a mocking, trickster angel — it’s obvious that a storyteller has been at work. That artfulness suggests the possibility of artifice, and one gets the sense one is reading legendary accounts.

But there’s nothing legendary in the single verse that gives us all we have to know of Shamgar. No storyteller seems to have crafted this story. It’s scarcely even a story at all, just a statement, a reminder not to forget about Shamgar because he killed 600 Philistines with an ox-goad, delivered Israel and kept the highways safe.

Yes, but what does it mean? What practical lessons from the text can we apply in our daily lives?

I have no idea. The Bible is a strange book, filled with strange and obscure passages, stories and fragments of stories like this one. I’m pretty sure many of these are not included there just to provide us with practical lessons to apply in our daily lives.

After him came Shamgar son of Anath, who killed six hundred of the Philistines with an ox-goad. He too delivered Israel.

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

(Image is from The Brick Testament’s book of Judges.)

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