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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Relation to Actual History of Israel.


Do the stories of Judges reflect the actual events of early Israelite history of the pre-monarchic, pre-tenth-century BCE era, or at least in general capture the flavour and tone of the times? Who are these leaders called ‘judges’ who rarely serve in a juridical context and act more as military and political liberators (see Judg 4:5 for one exception)? Does the politically decentralized confederation presented in or implied as lying behind many of the narratives reflect the realities of a pre-monarchic form of Israelite self-governance? As is the case with epic traditions of other cultures, it is extremely difficult to match specific events and persons in Judges with detailed facts of Israelite history. It is certainly possible that some elements are rooted in actual experience, now stylized and formulated in the contours of the literary tradition. (For a full discussion of such issues see Boling (1975 ).) To pose such questions is to enter the vexing problem concerning Israelite origins in the land of Israel. Four major theories have been proposed: the conquest model; the infiltration model; the liberation model; and the pioneer settlement model.


The conquest model is closely wedded to the version of Israel's arrival in the land found in the biblical book of Joshua. Archaeological finds of the twentieth century seemed to evidence strafing and burning in various locations mentioned in the Bible, destruction that took place in the second half of the second millennium BCE, the period appropriate to the biblical chronology, and thus encouraged many American scholars to find in the Scriptures the outline of actual historical events. They thought it possible to prove in essentials that land-hungry Israelites making a transition from nomadic life to a more settled pattern of existence violently supplanted the inhabitants of the land (see Albright 1939; Bright 1981 ). In this model, the confederation or league served to organize and rally the conquering army.


Theories about Israelite nomadism have been strongly challenged in recent years and confidence in the conquest model has waned as the matches between biblical accounts of conquest and archaeological evidence have proven far less than perfect (see Hayes and Miller 1977 ). More suited to the stories in Judges is the infiltration model that suggests that Israelites gradually moved into the land and that battles with the natives were largely defensive (Alt 1967; Noth 1960 ). The confederation was a means of unifying various elements of the group that would become Israel for purposes of defensive war. This model too, however, rests upon outmoded notions of Israelite nomadism (Gottwald 1979 ). Scholars have also become increasingly suspicious about the existence of a formal Israelite league, especially about the existence of a single confederation that consisted of twelve tribes (Mayes 1974 ).


The liberation model allows that some of those who would come to constitute the group called Israel came from outside the land of Canaan but that their take-over of the land was aided by large segments of the native population. Marxian in orientation, this view of Israelite formation suggests that a group of immigrants, perhaps people who have escaped from Egyptian slavery, becomes the spearhead of an ideologically based revolution of have-nots against haves. The have-nots consist of the immigrants and the native population of Canaan living in a repressive feudal system common among the many petty tyrannies of the ancient Near East. The new-comers and those who share their political goals are united by their belief in YHWH and eventually defeat their better armed, urban rivals (Mendenhall 1973; Gottwald 1979 ).


The pioneer settlement model does not look beyond the land for origins, but regards Israelites as native to the land of Canaan, elements that leave the more settled and urban lowland areas to deforest and tame the wilds of the highlands. This movement of pioneers is economically motivated by the collapse of trade in the difficult times of the Late Bronze era. The pioneer settlements grow and prosper and their population eventually takes over the lowlands as well (Coote and Whitelam 1987 ). In contrast to the other models, the pioneer model does not rely on biblical traditions at all in an attempt to reconstruct Israelite history. Rather, scholars employ archaeological data and pertinent ethnographic models from other cultures to build their portrait of the origins of ancient Israel.


The world-views and the sorts of situation portrayed in Judges suit the liberation model remarkably well—indeed, better than any other portion of the Israelite literary tradition. Whereas the various enemies are ruled by kings, their armed force equipped with chariots, their deity housed in a temple, and their women awaiting them in fine houses with latticework windows, the Israelites are the underdogs, their leaders charismatic figures many of whom are marginal in some sense even within their own culture. Jephthah, for example, is an illegitimate son born to a prostitute, Deborah is a woman, an unusual qualification for Israelite military and political leadership, while Samson is a wild man caught between the realms of nature and culture and regarded as somewhat dangerous by his own people even while they admire him. Israelite warriors fight in the name of YHWH by means of subterfuge and ambush, practitioners of the military ideology of tricksterism (Niditch 1987; 1993: 106–22). One thinks e.g. of the hero Ehud's assassination of the Moabite king Eglon, who is described literally as a fat calf whose ample girth folds over the assassin's knife, or of the heroine Jael who poses as a friend of the Canaanite general Sisera, luring him to her tent with offers of succour, only to kill him by driving a tent peg through his head as he sleeps. Of course, the portrayal of battles between haves and have-nots could also reflect the sort of world described by Coote and Whitelam (1987 ), as highland pioneers feel themselves threatened by those in control of the lowlands and by various rivals to the territories they have settled.


In Judges, Israelite political motives are completely intertwined with religious motives. The hero Gideon's revolt begins with a night-time act of subversion as he overturns the statue of Baal. Samson's exploits are a means by which YHWH shows his power. Deborah is after all a prophet and Samson a nazirite, one consecrated to God at birth. The national agenda and the Yahwistic agenda are one.

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