Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Enemy Within

In the quasi-historical rollercoaster ride that is the book of Judges, the Israelites are forever tormented and besieged by their neighbors – the Canaanites (Deborah), Moabites (Ehud), Midianites (Gideon), Ammonites (Jephthah), and Philistines (Samson) take turns subjugating and oppressing the descendents of Israel who, we are told over and over, asked for trouble by deciding to worship the gods of these nations.

The nations that bedevil the Israelites are portrayed as enemies, but in the grand scheme of the Bible they are not outsiders. All of them can claim a heritage of descent from key biblical figures: The Moabites and Ammonites from the incest of Lot and his daughters; the Canaanites and Philistines from Ham, the disrespectful son of Noah; the Midianites from Abraham and the wife he married in his old age, Keturah. While their lineage sometimes strikes me as a set of “yo’ mamma” insults, it is clear they are cousins of the chosen people and might have remained among the chosen themselves except for a wrong turn here and there.
  Looking at the battles of Israel from a distance, one might interpret the history – as I often like to do – as a metaphor for the individual struggles we all face. Who do we battle with the most? Those who are closest to us. Who do we resent the most? Those in whom we see those aspects of our own character what we dislike. I don’t know whether the author of Judges intended for his or her work to be viewed this way, but I don’t doubt it. As I have written before, the author evidently pulled these stories together from oral tradition, and may well have understood their connection to each other and to our psychic battles.

In one of the curiosities of translation with which biblical history abounds, the Septuagint version of the Bible, on which Orthodox Christian churches base their scripture, has a significant addition – as compared to the Mazoretic text of the Hebrew Bible and most western Christian translations -- to the end of the book of Joshua, which precedes Judges. In the Mazoretic text, Joshua ends with the death and burial of the priest Eleazar. But the Septuagint adds the following:
  "On that day the children of Israel took the ark of God and carried it about among themselves, and Phinehas held the office of priest in place of Eleazar his father, until he died and was buried in his own place at Gabaath. But each of the children of Israel departed to his own place and to his own city. Then the children of Israel worshipped Astarte and Astaroth of the gods of the nations round about them. So the Lord gave them over into the hands of Eglon the king of Moab, and he ruled over them for 18 years."

This extra passage links the events of Joshua explicitly to the story of Ehud and Eglon in chapter 3 of Judges, but also turns the ending of Joshua – which in the Mazoretic version is a sequence of closure documenting first the death and burial of Joshua, then the reburial of the bones of Joseph and finally the death and burial of Eleazar – into an ominous foreboding of the future.

Joshua, whose devotion to Yahweh (usually translated as the Lord or the Lord God in modern English Bibles) never wavered, had, in his final speech to the Israelites, warned them to destroy the idols of the nations they had conquered and not be tempted by their gods and temples. But, as the history makes clear, these conquered nations were never annihilated, and in Judges the Israelites are swayed over and over again by their gods and temples and rituals. If we view, again, the stories of Judges as a metaphor for the individual struggle, we see that we are continuously tempted by those stray thoughts that have remained in our heads despite our efforts to ignore them. To a dedicated twelve-stepper like myself, this is a familiar concept. Alcoholics sometimes speak of the “itty bitty shitty committee” in their  minds urging them to relapse; Al-Anons and Nar-Anons speak about battling the urges to “rescue” their addicted loved ones.
It should be no big surprise, then, that the worst of the many villains in the book of Judges – at least the one whose evils are most elaborately documented – is not from one of these enemy kingdoms but is in fact the son of one of the greatest judges, Gideon. Abimelech, whose story of villainy is told in chapter 9 of Judges, is one of seventy sons of Gideon, born from Gideon’s relationship with a concubine rather than by one of his many wives (concubines were a sort of second tier wife). After Gideon’s death, Abimelech conspires with his uncles, his mother’s brothers, to kill Gideon’s other sons so that he can take over the Israelite nation.  When they carry out their plan, all of the other sons are killed except the youngest, Jotham, who manages to hide from the murderers.

And while Gideon had refused an explicit request to become king, Abimelech has no qualms about assuming the trappings of power. His reign is one of terror inflicted upon his own people. He demolishes the cities of those who politic against him, sows them with salt, and burns down a tower filled with people who have taken refuge there.
Meanwhile Jotham, the one escapee from the mass murder of Gideon’s sons, goes to the city of Shechem – part of the land given to the tribe of Manassah and later the first capital of the northern kingdom of Israel -- and addresses its population with what is credited as the first parable in the Bible, the Parable of the Trees. In this tale, the trees go looking for a king to reign over them. They first ask the olive tree, known as the most useful of all trees in the Holy Land for its fruit, oil and wood. The olive tree refuses the request, because it has a more important role in the world, of providing riches that are used in rituals that glorify God. The trees then ask the fig, which also refuses because its proper role is to produce its sweet fruit. Third, the trees nominate the vine, which says it should not cease its job of providing wine, “which cheers both God and man.” Finally the trees turn to the bramble, the thorny bush that was the plague of the region’s farmers. The bramble happily accepts the kingship, but even as he assumes the role, he warns of the danger that he will spawn fire that will “devour the cedars of Lebanon.”

The message is clear: Beware of the person who is anxious to rule over you. In the previous generation, Gideon has been a reluctant leader throughout his life; his son Abimelech, by contrast,  plots to take power and then uses that power against his own people. (It might be interesting to ask some of our current presidential candidates – particularly those who blanket themselves in scripture – to comment on this parable).
It may not be inconsequential that the Abimelech of Judges bears the same name as the Philistine with whom Abraham makes a treaty in chapter 21 of Genesis, and who later provides refuge to Isaac and Rebeccah during a famine (this latter story is one of several accounts in Genesis of a man who misrepresents his wife as his sister while in exile). This earlier Abimelech, though a foreigner, behaves honorably toward two of the Hebrew patriarchs.  The later Abimelech, though born within the tribe, is a thorough dirtbag. Going back to my earlier interpretation of these stories as metaphors for our internal struggles, we see that the closer we get to the center, the worse the baggage we must deal with.

To everyone’s relief, Abimelech doesn’t last long. His reign of three years ends when, besieging another tower, a woman drops a piece of a millstone on his head, breaking his skull (as stated before, women are extremely important figures in the book of Judges). The dying Abimelech asks one of his soldiers to kill him off with his sword, so that he doesn’t bear the shameful legacy of having been killed by a woman. As if he needed more shame than the oppression and murder of his own people.

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