(Below is part 1 of my review on David Beldman’s 2020 commentary on Judges in the Two Horizons Commentary series, a series I have long come to greatly appreciate and respect.)
Judges is a rather dark and gloomy narrative about how God’s people simply cannot get it right: stuck in the vicious cycle of “doing evil in the sight of Yahweh,” God sending nations to oppress the Israelites, and then God’s people crying out to God. This is usually followed by God sending aid, usually in the form of a judge or would-be deliverer. The one thing God’s people lack through the whole ordeal is “undivided allegiance to King Yahweh” (p. 67), the only thing that can actually bring them peace and stability. Unfortunately, their tendency is to gravitate to human leaders and political structures for security, brushing past God more often than not.
I will go through a series of questions which David Beldman seeks to answer in his Judges commentary.
How Are the Israelite Conquests Relevant for Today?
Firstly, it is to be understood that conquests in no way defend militant Christianity or forms of Christianity which advocate for Christians taking up arms. One needs to go through exegetical gymnastics to arrive at such conclusions.
That does not mean that the conquests do not have any theological implications for believers today.
The conquest speaks volumes into the heart of God about believers and our avoiding cultural assimilation. Judges makes clear that It is far too easy to be swallowed up by culture rather than shine a light. To assimilate with the shifting values of a given culture is akin to idolatry and avoids the hard cost of submission to God (and the New Testament concept of discipleship).
What is Idolatry?
We generally associate idolatry with literal idols. The reality is that idol worship is never to be reduced to only literal idols. We in the West have our own subtle idols. We also engage in the often subtle behavior of loving created things more than or rather than the Creator himself.
The account of Gideon especially highlights this, as Israel demands that Gideon and his offspring become kings over Israel (Judges 8:22). Gideon refuses and says that Yahweh alone is to rule over his people, implying that God alone is the rightful king (8:23).
This narrative expresses the human tendency to run into the arms of human leaders as if they were God, and our unwillingness to seek refuge in God. Idolatry can be loosely defined as not trusting in God.
In the Gideon account, God intentionally uses a weak man to fulfill God’s own purposes, which showcases that it is God who is undeniably working for his own people. God’s people, however, fixate on the tool that God chooses to use—Gideon–and not on God himself.
Beldman borrows from another author, Andy Crouch in his book Playing God. Crouch holds that idols are things which “offer transcendent benefits” while “demand[ing] ultimate allegiance” (p. 289).
Is Samson a Hero?
Samson is a bizarre and paradoxical figure, “a complex character—perhaps one of the most complex human characters in the whole of Judges” (p. 171).
The author speaks about all the judges as being “unlikely deliverers [who] led the Israelite armies into battle against their foreign enemies and delivered the Israelites from oppression” (p. 158). At the same time, what sets Samson apart is his special birth and calling from before he was even born. On the surface, it appears that Samson is a much more likely candidate to be Israel’s deliver.
Samson is fearless and bold, “and displays none of the hesitancy that some of the other deliverers manifest” (p. 159).
The author notes that although Samson is such a huge force to reckon with in his delivering “significant damage to Israel’s enemies, he is ultimately a failure, and in some ways provides a kind of mirror image of the Israelites collectively” (p. 159).
Throughout his life, Samson blatantly disregards the moral standards set out by God. Samson’s clear self-interest is reflective of Israel’s own self-interest and tendency to disregard God and God’s ways: “again They did evil in the sight of Yahweh” is repeated throughout Judges multiple times.
Though Israel longs for true rest, Samson’s leadership and “amazing feats of strength are in retrospect inadequate” (p. 180).
Samson does what is good for Samson, which “runs counter to the biblical notion of wisdom” which is rooted in and informed by “the fear of Yahweh” (180-181). Samson, like God’s people in Judges, lacks a high regard of what God thinks and seems motivated by sheer self-interest, with little to no regard for the consequences. Even the way that Samson fights the Philistines is full of self-interest; rather than leading God’s people into battle, like the other judges, his battles “amount to no more than personal clashes with the Philistines” (p. 181) and again “Samson fights when it seems right in his own eyes” (p. 181).
Samson’s clashes in no way serve the interest of God’s people but rather that of his own. Beldman borrows a quote from Edward L. Greenstein: “Each of his battles take the form of a personal vendetta” (p. 181).
Is Samson a hero? By no means. We have long since watered down the story of Samson and in the process romanticized Samson and his memory. Though Samson was surely used by God, he is never painted as hero.
God’s people, like Samson, were plagued by self-interest and a general disinterest in God: “they did what was good in their sight.”
Stay tuned for Part II where I will provide my overall impressions of this new commentary.
Thank you, Eerdmans, for the copy!