Sunday, June 15, 2014

Barry Webb on the life of Gideon via his commentary on the Book of Judges, a synopsis

There's a great deal that Barry Webb discusses in the life of Gideon as it is presented in the Book of Judges in Webb's fantastic commentary on the book in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament.  The book of Judges has rarely gotten much discussion among evangelicals in the United States among the average churchgoer and even among Christian scholars it's arguable that the Book of Judges only gets on the radar for those who pay attention to it just long enough to deal with it for the sake of apologetics.  The idea that there is a great deal of material in the book of Judges that is helpful or even necessary to study may just not occur to many Christians who would otherwise profess a love of the scriptures.  And yet if we cast about for what book, quote for quote, is mentioned by Jesus more than many others from the Old Testament Deuteronomy sure looks like a winner.

It would be difficult to summarize all of the content Webb shares in the book (particularly since WtH has lent the book to someone!) but several things are fresh in the memory.  The foremost thought is Webb make a compelling case from the biblical text that Gideon started off well and ended badly and all this in spite of a divine commission.  WHile most people who have read the Book of Judges know how the book ends what is noteworthy about Gideon's tenure as a judge was simply that Israel's slide into apostasy began within Gideon's own lifetime.  Gideon (aka Jerubaal) actually facilitated the slide into apostasy when he refused kingship and also requested the materials from which he made an ephod.  The act of making the ephod in itself might not have seemed too bad but how it came to be viewed was bad, at least certainly from the perspective of the author of the Book of Judges.

And another unavoidable detail about the end of Gideon's time as judge was that though he formally refused the kingship he named the son of his concubine (not one of his various wives) Abimelech, which means "my father is king".  The formality of the time was that there was no king and yet informally Gideon/Jerubaal recognized himself as enough of a king to name the son he had through his concubine "My father is king".  One can get a sense from the narrative that Gideon felt he had paid his dues in the battles of his early career and his late career was the time to reap the benefits in the form of wives and wealth and an informal kingship.  He appeared to take the high road in refusing kingship when it was directly offered to him and yet the private reality in the naming of one of his descendants suggests that in his heart Gideon saw himself as truly kingly. 

And in Gideon's later career, as Webb takes quite a bit of time to demonstrate, he began to transform the original division commission he was given to deliver Israelites from bondage into an opportunity to settle old grudge matches and family blood feuds.  Webb unpacks in a lot more detail than seems reasonable to explain in a blog post that Gideon was willing to invoke the language of Mosaic law about a brother being an avenger of blood against foreign soldiers who had killed Gideon's brothers in the course of war.  That Gideon was eager to avenge the death of his brothers in a previous battle is understandable but Barry Webb's case that Gideon began a dangerous slip into conflating his early divine commission with a divine sanction to exact vengeance on others seems compelling.  That Gideon goes so far as to punish and even torture fellow Israelites who don't just roll out the red carpet for him is another aspect of Gideon's moral decline that Webb discusses.  The whole book is a fantastic read but it has been Webb's observations about Gideon as a judge whose moral decline charts the decline of Israel is fascinating.

While Judges as a whole may not be grist for meditation and reflection by Christians this would be a serious mistake.  Judges is often colloquially thought of as the book that showed that Israel needed a king.  That's not exactly what the book is about, it's more about the Israelite decline into corruption and brutality as the Israelites became more and more like the Canaanites around them.  This would at times be reflected in the people but it could often be exemplified in its leadership.  A few scholars think of Israel as not even being a meaningfully united national identity until "maybe" the time of David and that the period of the judges was more a case of regional tribal chieftains and mercenaries successfully keeping local cohesion long enough for a united Israelite king to eventually form.

There's that ... but a point Webb highlights through his commentary on Judges is that the judges began to act more and more like kings, appointing heirs to rule in their stead and appropriating for themselves wealth, power and privileges that suggested the office of the judge was becoming progressively corrupt. 

So by the time of Samuel even Samuel has appointed his corrupt and wicked sons to run things in his stead and this prompts Israel to ask Samuel to appoint a king.  Though described in the Samuel narrative as a sign of Israelite faithlessness the narrative is ambiguous because Samuel, having rebuked Eli for the nepotism and corruption of his priestly household, ends up demonstrating essentially the same character flaws in his own late tenure as a judge with priestly training! By the time we get to the life of Samson we have a man who seeks out Phillistine woman and whose wedding ceremony may have been a Phillistine one.  Samson ends up doing nothing more than beginning to deliver the Israelites from the Phillistines and this in spite of his apparently ongoing wish to simply be a Phillistine. Samson was also surely the worst-behaved Nazirite described in the Bible.  For someone who was never supposed to touch carcasses ... .But let's get back to Gideon.

The felt-board Gideon has been popular enough to share with both children and adults but it's the overall arc of Gideon's life that is both more instructive and more sobering.  Webb points out a blunt humor in the fact that Judges tells us that as soon as Gideon was "clothed in the spirit" he began to immediately put out fleeces!  This suggests (as does the later comment about how when Samson's hair was cut he didn't realize the spirit of the Lord had departed from him) that even those who may get an explicit divine commission never stop having their all-too-real human moral failures. 

Judges can be read as a book in which the judges became so progressively corrupt and self-serving to the point of becoming kings that in some sense Israel was right to ask for a king, the king might be corrupt but at least it would be official. But those who have read the books of Samuel may already know that making it official did not necessarily make things better.

And those familiar with the postlude to the reign of Gideon as judge will already know about Abimelech appointing himself king of the Shechemites and killing nearly all of his siblings but we can save that for some other time.

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