Saturday, September 15, 2012

Opening Oddities

Now that my wife is home with our newborn son, our family schedule has changed a bit. Just a tiny bit though. Certainly nothing to get flustered about. One way in which it has changed is with the amount of time my wife now has to study God's Word, the history of the Church, and other related subjects she didn't have a whole lot of time to study before (working full-time).

When I got home from a long day of work three days ago, my wife told me that she picked up the book of Judges and started reading it carefully. This was a bit surprising because we've been studying John's gospel as a family for months, and also Matthew's gospel every week with a small-group of friends (for almost a full year), while at the same time attending another bible study (for months) on the book of Job; and now, all-of-a-sudden I come home to find that my wife is starting a new book: Judges. And of course, she wrote down questions to discuss with me when I got home from my busy day of work. Needless to say, my initial response to her question was probably not what she expected. "Seriously? The book of Judges?", I said with a somewhat-wearied, somewhat curious look on my face. "Couldn't you have picked an easier book to study right now?" Apparently she thought the book of Judges would have been one of my first picks, had I chosen a fourth book to study right now; and I suppose it would be if I wasn't currently so busy studying three other books simultaneously. And so, wondering what to do, we discussed what we could, shared our thoughts on the subject matter of the first chapter, and continued on with the remainder of that's days tasks. But there were a couple things that did strike us both as a bit odd at first glance -- certainly something worth looking into with more detail.

Here are the two things that struck us both as odd:

1)  Joseph is mentioned in the first chapter, but so are both of his sons who received his birthright. What was the author's purpose in mentioning all three, especially since Joseph's inheritance was technically replaced by his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim (Gen. 48)?

2)  Was the author intending to write a strict chronology throughout the book of Judges? The reason for asking this is because Judges 1:1-2 begins with the death of Joshua, but chapter two (2:6-10) also begins with Joshua's reign and another mention of his death.

After a bit of studying, I not only have answers to scratch both itching-spots of our curiosity, but I definitely feel like I have a better grasp on the book of Judges as a whole. And so, I'm pretty excited about starting book number four, and writing about it from time to time.

In order to answer question number one (above) -- why the author of Judges mentions Joseph and his two sons -- it's best to first recognize that something positive is only mentioned under Joseph's name. In 1:22-26, it is "the House of Joseph" that conquers Bethel (in the land of Canaan), which the reader is supposed to acknowledge as a positive event. But in the following verses -- the verses where Joseph's two sons are mentioned -- only negative comments are listed. In fact, after the only single, positive event mentioned about "the House of Joseph", there are six consecutive negative events listed (listing seven events total):

  1. "The House of Joseph" conquers Beth-el  (1:22-26)
  2. Manasseh fails to conquer Beth-shean  (1:27)
  3. Manasseh fails to conquer Taanach  (1:27)
  4. Manasseh fails to conquer Dor  (1:27)
  5. Manasseh fails to conquer Ibleam  (1:27)
  6. Manasseh fails to conquer Megiddo  (1:27-28)
  7. Ephraim fails to conquer Gezer  (1:29)1

According to this list, two things are emphatic: There is a victory by "the House of Joseph" worth mentioning and there is a definite decline within that "house" thereafter.

Because the tribe of Joseph was legally split into two tribes (Gen. 48), the description of victory for the "House of Joseph" describes both Manasseh and Ephraim together in an attempt to conquer Beth-el. When the house of Joseph is faithful, the Lord is with them (v. 22) and they are victorious. But when the house of Joseph is shown as unfaithful, the Lord removes His presence away from them. It is in these descriptions of unfaithfulness that the author describes the house of Joseph by the adopted tribal names of his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.2

In order to answer question number two (above) -- whether the author intended to write a strict chronology of events -- it's important to recognize that the book of Judges opens up with two sections. The first section is chapter 1:1-2:5, and the second section is 2:6-3:6. The first opening section describes the rise and fall of Israel (after Joshua's death) in all their attempts to conquer the promised land of Canaan. The second opening section is a description of the rise and fall of Israel in their worship (after Joshua's death). So, in other words, the second section is a behind-the-scenes look at the sins which provoked the Lord greatly, the consequence of which was the Lord turning away from them in battle as they attempted to conquer the promised land. Each of the two opening sections begin by mentioning Joshua's death because both sections are mutually interpretive. The second section clarifies why the Lord removed His presence from certain tribes of Israel as they attempted to enter the promised land of Canaan.

1.  David A. Dorsey, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi [Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, MI; 2005] p. 106
2.  I am grateful for the many helpful insights of James Jordan concerning this section of Judges. See James B. Jordan, Judges: God's War Against Humanism [Geneva Ministries: Tyler, TX; 1985] pp. 15-18

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