June 15, 2012

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical readings: The Book of Judges

John F. FinkNext week, the biblical readings in the Office of Readings, for the 11th week of Ordinary Time, are taken from the Book of Judges in the Old Testament.

The Israelite “judges” were really military leaders who, through their heroic deeds, rescued the people from persecution. Twelve of them appeared at various times, six “minor” judges, who were apparently actually judicial officials, and six “major” judges, famous for their military exploits. The Book of Judges tells their basically unrelated stories.

The previous book in the Old Testament, the Book of Joshua, gave the impression that the Israelites controlled Canaan by the time of Joshua’s death. Judges corrects that impression.

The fact is that Israel’s conquest of the land wasn’t complete until the time of King David. Until then, the tribes existed in a sort of confederation while the people made their living by farming and raising livestock, especially sheep.

They also were not true to their covenant with God, and that is why, according to Judges, they were ruled by other people—the Philistines, Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (see Jgs 3:5). The Israelites intermarried with these people and worshiped their gods.

Therefore, according to Judges, God punished them by sending oppressors. When they repented and turned back to the true God, he sent a deliverer, a judge, to rescue them. The judge secured peace during his or her lifetime, but then the people returned to idolatry. The cycle continued over and over.

The Office of Readings skips over the stories of some of the judges, including Jephthah, who sacrificed his own daughter because of a vow that he made. It includes mainly the stories of Deborah, Gideon and Samson. It does not include Chapters 17-21.

Deborah was both a judge and a prophet. As a bit of trivia, she is the first prophet named in the Old Testament. The last prophet named is also a woman, Huldah. Deborah organized the Israelites to defeat a Canaanite army commanded by Sisera, who was killed by another woman, Jael, to the humiliation of the Israelite commander, Barak.

In the canticle of Deborah, sung after the victory, she referred to Jael as “blessed among women” (Jgs 5:24). The Gospel of St. Luke uses that expression when Elizabeth greeted Mary at the Visitation (Lk 1:42).

Gideon was called upon to lead the Israelites against the Midianites. An angel appeared to Gideon and said, “The Lord is with you” (Jgs 6:12), just as the Archangel Gabriel did when he appeared to Mary (Lk 1:28).

Samson is a tragic figure, endowed with great strength but lacking in wisdom, as his affair with Delilah showed. The announcement of his conception, by an angel to his mother, is echoed in Luke’s narrative of the announcement of the conception of John the Baptist by an angel to his father. Both men were born to women who had been sterile, and both men take a Nazarite vow to abstain from wine and strong drink.

Samson also seems to prefigure Solomon to some extent. Both men became involved with foreign women, and that became their downfall. †

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