The Minor Judges: Ring Within a Ring

                One of the more regrettable trends in churches is the tendency to treat Old Testament stories as basic morality stories. We take the stories of Abraham or Joseph or Moses and reduce these carefully crafted sections of literature into Biblical versions of Aesop’s Fables while robbing the passages of their full context, weight, and narrative arrows directed firmly at God rather than men. While this (possibly) is understandable when teaching young children, it is sadly unfortunate how many mature Christians still have very immature views of the characters of the Bible. The Book of Judges is particularly prone to this type of moralizing character study; men like Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson are white-washed of their moral flaws and complexity and reduced to saccharine stories of heroism. While the judges do perform impressive deeds, and on occasion even demonstrate admirable faith, the overall narrative of the Book of Judges is the utter failure of Israel. Some scholars have noted that the book is, in many ways, an “anti-conquest.” After the successes of Joshua and the driving out of Canaan, Judges has the Canaanite influence utterly corrupt Israel to the point that they are indistinguishable from the wicked nations they had previously fought. This narrative spiral is reflected in the six primary stories of Judges 3-16: Othniel, Ehud, and Deborah/Barak are mostly good, successful stories, Gideon is a mixed bag of some success but bad failures, Jephthah is mostly bad with a brief success, and Samson is the nadir of the judges as a womanizing, murderous thug who fails to even rescue Israel from her tormenters. This downward spiral has been coined a “ring structure” by scholar Kenneth Way, and he points out that this spiral is actually duplicated in the stories of the “minor” judges of Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon (a structure he calls a “ring within the ring”). While these six judges do not receive as much text as the “major” judges, they help us to better understand the structure of Judges as well as further evidence the decline in Israelite morality during this terrible time.

                The first “minor” judge (a title that Way argues is inaccurate given the clear structural links between the judge stories) is Shamgar in Judges 3:31, and he bears marked similarity to the first three judges. Like Othniel (who, like Caleb, is likely an Edomite who has been grafted into the Israelite tribes, see Genesis 36:15, Numbers 32:12; Judges 1:13), Shamgar appears to be a non-Israelite based off of the Hittite roots of his name. Once again this would seem to indicate a dearth of good Israelite leadership, particularly amongst Judah. Given that the Philistines were in the South, next to Judah, one would expect that the receivers of the firstborn blessing from Jacob would be the ones to respond to the Philistine threat. Like Othniel, however, it is a foreigner who delivers Israel from danger. Shamgar also connects with the following story of Deborah and Barak, as he utilizes a makeshift weapon similar to how Jael uses a tent peg to deliver Israel from Sisera.

 Interestingly, there is no mention of God raising up Shamgar, which is a common theme in these minor judge passages. In fact, the only deity that is mentioned in the passage is Anath, who is attributed as the patron of Shamgar. Anath was actually the adolescent sister of the storm god Baal in the Ugaritic pantheon, and was associated with warfare and hunting. While Shamgar is explicitly said to have saved Israel, the implications of this pagan god’s name being invoked are disturbing. At best, perhaps Shamgar was an accomplished foreign mercenary or a special class of warrior, but it is also possible he was not even a follower of Yahweh who delivered Israel incidental to his own activities. Regardless of motivations, Shamgar’s defeat of the Philistine is only a temporary reprieve; both Jephthah and Samson fought against them, and they are not fully defeated until the time of King David. Shamgar’s lack of permanence in defeating the Philistines is an early indicator to the reader that the judges’ victories are not to be seen as final deliverance.

                The second cycle of minor judges is in Judges 10:1-5, where we have recorded brief mentions of Tola and Jair. Like Shamgar, they relate to the previous and successive judge stories; Jair’s Gileadite heritage points towards the setting of Jephthah’s narrative, while both Tola and Jair relate to the preceding stories of Gideon and Abimelech through the concept of royal aspirations. Little is said of Tola outside of his heritage as a member of the Issachar tribe, and that he saved Israel from an unknown oppressor (again, note the lack of God raising him up). An interesting note, however, is that the city of Shamir – where Tola lives and is buried – is likely the same hill country that is later purchased by Omri in 1 Kings 16:24 to become the city of Samaria, linking Tola with a kingly city. Jair’s connections to royalty are even more pronounced: his lineage of thirty sons and possession of thirty donkeys and thirty cities characterizes him as a very wealthy man. While modern readers often associate donkeys with humble farming (or Dreamworks movies about ogres, depending on your age!), the donkey was frequently connected with royalty and kingship in the Ancient Near East culture. The image of a king riding a donkey appears multiple times in scripture, as well (Genesis 49:10-11; 1 Samuel 25:20; 2 Samuel 16:1-2; Mark 11:1-10). While Jair apparently had wealth and possible kingly aspirations like Gideon and Abimelech, there is no mention of him actually saving Israel from any foreign oppressor or of God working through him. The cycle of God raising up a deliverer from 2:11-19 appears to be progressively breaking down through this minor judge cycle!

                The third cycle of minor judges is in Judges 15:8-15, and relays the stories of Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon. This cycle also features kingly aspirations and wealth from the preceding narratives, but also connects to the Samson narrative through the introduction of foreign marriages. Ibzan has thirty sons and thirty daughters (note the repetition of that number!), but he goes beyond the aspirations of Jair by making alliances with outsiders. His thirty daughters are married off to non-Israelites, while non-Israelite brides are brought for his thirty sons; now we have a judge outright flaunting the danger of Israel marrying foreigners! Little is said about Elon other than his Zebulunite heritage, but he brings the number of Judges up to a total of twelve (which we’ll return to in a moment). Abdon further intensifies the royal aspirations by now having forty sons and thirty grandsons on seventy donkeys; like Gideon with his seventy heirs, Abdon points towards ANE cultural connotations of the number seventy with the idea of kingship. Note, also, that Abdon is buried in “the hill country of the Amalekites,” a people group that were supposed to be wiped out according to Deuteronomy 25:19. This foreshadows the mention of Shiloh being “in the land of Canaan” in Judges 21:12 – the land doesn’t even truly belong to Israel anymore, despite their supposed conquest and defeat of God’s enemies.

                Like the major judges, the cycle of the minor judges progressively spirals down with the entire nation of Israel. None of these six men are explicitly raised up by God or empowered by His Spirit, several of them are not connected with saving Israel in any capacity, and none of them lead to rest for the land. Israel’s leadership is progressively breaking down, focusing instead on dynastic power and selfish pursuits. As Way writes, “One might go as far as to say that as God’s sovereign role decreases in these narrations, the role of the human leader increases as each one pursues his own agenda. This trajectory of increasing human kingship at the expense of God’s kingship comes to maturity (or degeneracy) in chapters 17-21, where there is no king in Israel and each does what is right in his own eyes (17:6; 21:25).” Another interesting purpose (again suggested by Way) is that the six minor judges and six major judges (not counting Abilemech, who serves as an oppressor rather than a judge) totals twelve individuals, which would reflect on how all twelve tribes of Israel share responsibility for the Canaanization of Israel; none are innocent of the breakdown of society or the forgetting of the Torah. In the minor judges, then, we readers have the theme of Judges reinforced for us: when God is absent as King, the entire nation breaks down and falls to sin, corruption, and death.