I discovered the artfulness of Biblical narratives about twenty years ago. My professor at the time was John Walton (now at Wheaton) who had us read Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. This is a book any lover of the Bible will eagerly soak up. It’s a short read and relatively easy. More importantly, if you’re new to the area of studying Biblical narratives, this is a mind-expanding book.
I did my Master’s work at Emory University in poetics of biblical narrative, with my primary methodology following Meir Sternberg’s book by that name (very difficult book to read, I wish he’d written in a more approachable style). My topic was the Elisha narratives and they remain a favorite part of the Bible to me to this day.
I love discovering new elements (new to me) of the artfulness in the stories of the Hebrew Bible.
Yesterday, working on a freelance assignment, I wrote about Judges, especially the Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson cycles. I consulted Robert Boling (Anchor) and Daniel Block (New American Commentary).
Block introduced me to something that answered long-held questions that have troubled me about Judges. What was up with God appointing Gideon, a faithless judge? And wasn’t Jephthah even worse? Let’s not try to paint a saintly picture of Samson.
Is it that God had no one better in Israel to work with? I want to believe what God said to Elijah in 1 Kings 19:18, that there is a remnant of faithful in Israel at all times, even when the nation looks utterly apostate. So, wasn;t there someone better than Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson?
I don’t have Block’s commentary in front of me as I write this, so I’m going on memory.
He says that the cycle in Judges degrades, from a very clear sin-cry out-repent-be saved pattern is in the beginning and with the early judges of Israel. As the book progresses, the pattern degrades and God becomes less involved.
Gideon is major step down from Deborah. With Jephthah, the people of Gilead choose him and God empowers him anyway, though there is no indication God chose him. With Samson, the people do not even repent. God simply sends Samson as a deliverer.
God’s involvement decreases in the book as the holiness of the nation deteriorates.
And Block really wowed me with his interpretation of Samson. In the narrative, Samson is a figure for Israel as a whole. I see this both as a literary feature and a theological feature. I would say that not only did the editor of Judges craft his account to show Samson as Israel in person, but that God chose him deliberately as a personified Israel. Here are a few points I remember (Block has a more detailed list):
–Samson is called to a higher life (Nazarite), but does not take his calling seriously.
–Samson’s relationship to women degrades from mother, first wife, prostitute, to Delilah the adversary (not a prostitute, by the way), just as Israel degrades from God to Baal to the gods of all the surrounding peoples.
–Samson is oblivious to the source of his power.
–Samson is blinded.
–Samson is in the end taken captive but from captivity calls down one last outpouring of God’s grace.
The progressive theme of deterioration in Judges, then, would seem to indicate God giving the people leaders who are like them (much as is the case with Saul later).
Of course, these narratives spiral downward. Saul brings a sort of false hope, but some improvement. It is David who really brings new life to Israel, the messianic king who truly understands the Deuteronomic covenant and thus the kingship of God.
God never leaves Israel, but his presence is hidden more and more as things deteriorate. It is a fitting tale for our times, in the world, within the Jewish people, and in the Church. God will not leave and grace can always be called up again, but the presence becomes more hidden as fewer people seek holiness and as the holiness of the community as a whole decreases. Yet David will come again, the better Son of David. Judges does not show us the faithful remnant in these hidden times, we have to look to Ruth and the Elijah-Elisha narratives for that sort of example. But Judges does help us not to give up hope, as things deteriorate, since God will not abandon his community.