Monday of Week 20 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Judges 2:11-19

Immediately after the book of Joshua comes the book of Judges, which we begin reading today. We will just have four readings from the book.

The story of the Judges proper is confined to the main body of the book (chaps 2-16). The term ‘judges’ (in Hebrew, shophetim) does not have our common meaning but indicates war leaders and deliverers of the people. They are very different in character and ability from each other, but what they do share is a divine calling to save their people.

Today’s reading sets the scene for the unfolding of the book. After the death of Joshua, the people – in spite of the solemn promises they made – gradually began to fall away from serving Yahweh and to follow the gods of the surrounding peoples. For their disloyalty they found themselves the victims of their enemies. Yahweh was no longer with them in their struggles.

This passage comes from some general reflections on the whole period of the ‘judges’. We are given the theme or paradigm which will be repeated in the case of each judge:

  • Israel deserts Yahweh for Baal;
  • Yahweh hands Israel over to oppressors;
  • Israel cries to Yahweh;
  • Yahweh sends Israel a saviour.
  • The cycle then begins all over again.

    However, this theological understanding of history, based on the assumption that the judges succeeded one another in the chronological order given in the book, and that each acted for the whole nation (rather than their own tribe), hardly corresponds to historical fact. The book is a compilation of originally independent accounts of local heroes, to whom an arbitrary relationship in time has been given.

    As the Book of Judges opens we are told that the generation that followed Joshua neither knew Yahweh nor the deeds that he had done for Israel. The Israelites were now doing what was evil in Yahweh’s eyes and serving the “Baals”. Baal means ‘lord’. Baal, the god worshipped by the Canaanites and Phoenicians, was variously known to them as the “son of Dagon” and the “son of El”. In Aram (Syria), he was called “Hadad” and in Babylonia, “Adad”. Believed to give fertility to the womb and life-giving rain to the soil, he is pictured as standing on a bull, a popular symbol of fertility and strength.

    The storm cloud was Baal’s chariot, thunder his voice, and lightning his spear and arrows. The worship of Baal involved sacred prostitution and sometimes even child sacrifice. The stories of Elijah and Elisha, as well as many other Old Testament passages, directly or indirectly protest Baalism. Elijah bringing rain down and breaking a drought showed the superior power of Yahweh over Baal, who was supposed to be the god of rain.

    The Israelites had deserted Yahweh, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt and followed other gods, those of the surrounding peoples. They bowed down before these gods; they provoked Yahweh; they deserted Yahweh to serve Baal and Astarte.

    In the Bible the phrase ‘Baal and Astarte’ or, in the plural, ‘the Baals and Astartes’ is the common expression for the Canaanite divinities. Baal, ‘the Lord’, is the male god. Astarte was associated with the evening star and was the beautiful goddess of war and fertility. She was worshipped as Ishtar in Babylonia and as Athtart in Aram. To the Greeks she was Aphrodite, and to the Romans, Venus. Worship of the Astartes involved extremely lascivious practices.

    Every time they indulged in this idolatrous behaviour, Yahweh’s anger would grow hot against Israel. He would hand them over to pillagers who would plunder them. They would be delivered into the hands of the enemies all around them and no longer able to resist them. Whenever they mounted an expedition, Yahweh’s hand would be there to foil them – as he had warned he would – and, as a result, they were in dire distress.

    It was then that the Lord appointed ‘judges’ who would rescue them from the hands of their plunderers. There were 12 judges altogether: six major judges – Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah and Samson, and six minor ones – Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon and Abdon. Notice that one of the judges is a woman, Deborah.

    But the Israelites would refuse to listen even to the judges. They preferred to prostitute themselves before other gods. They moved far from the path their ancestors had followed in obedience to Yahweh.

    Idol worship was always seen as a form of prostitution. Since the Hebrew for ‘Baal’ (‘lord’) was also used by women to refer to their husbands, it is understandable that the metaphor of adultery was commonly used in connection with Israelite worship of Baal (see Hosea 2:2-3,16-17). Yahweh was the true spouse of Israel. The worship of Baal was a kind of adultery or prostitution.

    When Yahweh appointed judges:

    …the Lord was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge, for the Lord would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them.

    The words ‘groan’ and ‘oppressor’ echoes the language of the bondage under the Pharaoh in Egypt.

    But, once the judge was dead, the people fell back into even more corrupt ways than those who had gone before them. They gave themselves completely to other gods, served them, bowed down before them and totally abandoned the practices of their ancestors.

    Although there were undoubtedly natural explanations for the people’s sufferings, the Scripture sees the hands of God in everything they experience. On their own or subject to false gods, they are lost and they experience great suffering. It is less a sign of God’s punishment, still less his vindictiveness, than the fact that to leave truth and goodness is to head for darkness and failure and pain.

    Following the ways of God and Jesus is not just a question of obedience to a higher authority, it is to follow a way of life which is in total harmony with our deepest needs.

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