Here are the three things you need to know about Samson: He hates the Philistines (who are currently oppressing Israel); he’s pretty dense; and he has superhuman strength. The result is that he keeps making hopeless plots to get a pretext for violence against the Philistines, and when the plots inevitably fail he just indiscriminately murders Philistines anyway.
Samson’s first plot is to marry a Philistine woman, and then make her people so angry that they will attack him. To accomplish this, he makes them bet a bunch of expensive clothing on solving a riddle. The “riddle” references a weird event earlier, when he found honey inside the the carcass of a lion that he had killed: “Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet.” He is the only one to have experienced this event, and the riddle is thus basically impossible to solve. I don’t know the etiquette for betting on riddles in the ancient Middle East, but I’m pretty sure the riddles should be solvable.
The Philistines, though, won’t be coaxed into violence that easy; instead, they convince Samson’s bride to coax out the answer to the riddle from him. Samson for some reason tells her, she tells the Philistines, and they present Samson the correct answer. Samson correctly guesses that his wife told them, and is very angry that his plot failed. So he travels to a nearby Philistine city, kills thirty men, steals their expensive clothing, gives them to the Philistines at the wedding, and storms back to his father’s house, leaving his bride and her company behind.
… he said to them,
“If you had not plowed with my heifer,
You would not have found out my riddle.”
The angel of God tells a barren woman that she will have a son (a common theme in Genesis), and gives her a list of instructions. This list includes not shaving his head, “for the boy shall be a nazirite”. The woman has a son, and calls him Samson (I’ve heard of the story of Samson before, but all I can remember is that he was an early version of the Middle East suicide bomber. You’ll understand why at the end of the story.)
… the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why do you ask my name? It is too wonderful.”
The Ephraimites make a rather puzzling accusation against Jephthah: “Why did you cross over [the river Jordan] to fight against the Ammonites, and did not call us to go with you? We will burn your house down over you!” But Jephthah defeats them in battle, and then closes off all routes of escape over the Jordan. He posts guards at every crossing, who ask everyone who wants to cross to pronounce the word “Shibboleth”. This enables Jephthah to single out the Ephraimites, who mispronounce it because of their dialect, and execute all 42,000 of them. I have seen the word “Shibboleth” before, referring to in-group words and concepts; but I didn’t know of its bloody etymology.
After Jephthah dies, Israel is judged by Ibzan, Elon and Abdon.
… they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. (…)
Jephthah is the bastard son of a prostitute who is driven away from his legitimate half-brothers. But he is also a great warrior, so his half-brothers ask him to come back to fight against the Ammonites; in return, he will become the leader of Gilead (a large area shared by the tribes of Gad and Manasseh).
In negotiations with the enemy, the king of Ammon claims that israel stole his lands east of the Jordan. Jephthah points out, quite correctly, that it was not the lands of Ammon that Israel stole, but the lands of the Amorites and Bashan. (He also claims that Israel didn’t even enter Moab’s territory, which I think contradicts Numbers 21, Numbers 35, and a few other places. But his wrongful claim is irrelevant to the present situation.)
Negotiations break down, and Jephthah prepares for military action. To assure his success, he promises God to give a burnt offering of the first person who comes out of his house to meet him after the battle. Jephthah then crushes the Ammonites in battle, and goes home to find his daughter and only child waiting for him outside his house. She accepts her fate, asking only for “two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity”, after which Jephthah dutifully burns her to death in God’s name.
It should be mentioned here that the entire narrative in the Book of Judges is probably written with the aim of legitimizing a centralized Israelite monarchy. Israel starts out with 12 individual tribes with independent political systems and no centralized authority. With no clear leader to show them the way, they keep falling into apostasy and heresy. Time and time again God saves them by sending down a leader (a judge), but each time they fall back into sin. Additionally, each cycle the length of oppression is longer, and the personalities and actions of the judges they get are more and more questionable, eventually leading to the inevitable invention of centralized monarchy.
Since we are halfway through Judges now, the quality of the appointed judges is starting to degenerate rapidly. This is strikingly apparent in Abimalech from chapter 9, but it also means that the human sacrifice in this chapter probably is meant to be interpreted negatively, reflecting Jephthah’s bad qualities as a judge. It probably isn’t a coincidence that he is the daughter of a prostitute, either.
“(…) should we not be the ones to possess everything that the Lord our God has conquered for our benefit? (…)”
Two more judges, Tola and Jair, give Israel a few decades of peace, until they die and the Israelites again start worshipping other gods. God then has the Ammonites attack from the east and oppress the Israelite lands east of the Jordan. This has the desired effect of the Israelites begging God to help them again. But first they need to find another judge.
I will experiment with inserting chapter titles into the blog post title, to make it easier to identify at a glance what any given chapter is about. This chapter is called “Jephthah 1” because it is basically the introduction to the story of Jephthah, although his name has not been mentioned yet.
… “Who will begin the fight against the Ammonites? He shall be head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.”
After Gideon’s death, Abimelech convinces the populace of Shechem that he should be their leader, and goes to kill 68 of his 69 brothers. Jotham, the only survivor, recites a poem about the time the trees went out searching for someone to be their tree-king. It doesn’t really seem to fit the current narrative at all (nobody asked Abimelech to be king; he asked for it himself), so I would guess that it was an already known, independent poem that the author chose to incorporate into this chapter (although the imagery of fire coming out from the final tree, is reflected in fire coming out of Abimelech later).
However, God doesn’t like Abimelech, so he has the populace of Shechem dislike him. When they are about to rebel, Abimelech meets them in battle and defeats them. The next day he slaughters the populace when they are working in the fields, razes Shechem, and sows it with salt.
Apparently not content with just having destroyed his own capital and murdered most of his subjects there, Abimelech then starts travelling around his little kingdom to destroy everything he can find. Luckily, he doesn’t get very far; while setting fire to a tower full of civilians, a woman drops a millstone on his head from above. Since he doesn’t want to be killed by a woman, Abimelech has one of his soldiers finish the job. His death makes his warriors realize the insanity and pointlessness of the civil war they are currently fighting, and…
When the Israelites saw that Abimelech was dead, they all went home.
Gideon pursues the remaining Midianites over the river Jordan, and asks two Israelite towns to help him with supplies. They refuse, and he promises to punish them later. He finds the remaining 15,000 Midianites by himself, routes them, executes their generals, and destroys the two treacherous Israelite cities.
After all this, Israel wants Gideon as their king, but he refuses. Instead, he has a statue of himself made out of gold, which the Israelites start worshipping. He also has 70 sons with various wives, among them one in Shechem who gives birth to a boy named Abimelech.
As soon as Gideon died, the Israelites relapsed and prostituted themselves with the Baals, making Baal-berith their god.