• Paul Rutherford


Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr in 'Samson and Delilah' (1949)
1000 BCE - Cecil B. DeMille-style

If the Torah is the set up for the people of Israel - the Creation of the world, the selection of Abraham's lineage, the capture and escape from Egypt, the rules of being the Chosen People - the second collection is the history of the next millenium.

Scholars say that the twelve 'Historical' books cover 1300 to 300 BCE, give or take. Identifying which Wednesday something happened isn't really the point; it's the why and the who as context that are more important to the narrative.

Context is everything.

Imagine the groundlings paying their pennies to stand and watch at C16th Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Between 1591 and 1599, they could have caught up on almost three centuries of English monarchy, from 1199 - ascension of King John - to 1485 - death of Richard III.

Nine plays, not written in chronological order, omitting Henry III and most of the Edwards. "But at least I know where we've come from," said a Shoreditch peddlar. "And did you know that my father's-father's-father's-father's-father fought for the Duke of York against the Lancastrians..?"

The first three 'Historical' books in the Old Testament (at least as this gentile knows it) are JOSHUA, JUDGES, and RUTH. While they carry important stories in their own right, structurally they act as a bridge between the death of Moses (at the end of Deuteronomy) and the rise of the House of David.

They start with the occupation of the land taken by the Israelite tribes. It might be Promised Land, but it still must be taken.

Moses' successor, JOSHUA, takes the Ark of the Covenant across the River Jordan, then leads years of successful conquest. There are campaigns in the south and the north, generating a list of defeated cities, of which perhaps best-known today is trumpeted tumble-down Jericho:

At his peak, Joshua divides the Promised Land (east and west) between the twelve tribes identified in the Book of Exodus, and identifies cities of refuge for those without land. Especially the Levites, who have the kudos of being the channel to Yahweh.

At then end of the book though, there are signals of the Israel people's failure (again). That's the thread that runs throughout the Torah, the Histories, and beyond; the thread of promise and disappointment, of generosity and unfaithfulness.

Whether you think that's the problem of living up to a deity's standard, or just a cover story to the eternal human condition, that's up to you and your beliefs. Suffice to say that it all gets a lot darker in JUDGES.

After Joshua's death, the Chosen People are left without a religious leader, marked by their failing faith. The only role available are those in the office of judge. The title doesn't align with our legal meaning; instead it's more a 'tribal' post. Regional and political, like city mayors being given the task of leading an entire nation.

(Think Rudy Giuliana becoming US President. Or try not to.)

The book of Judges gives pictures of 12 leaders - twelve is an important number throughout Old and New Testaments - ranging from the alright (Gideon), through the bad (Jephthah), to the one you have heard about (Samson) who was the worst.

Let's pause to consider how Samson is presented in popular culture compared with his story in the book.

In song, it's hard to escape the link between Samson and Delilah. From middle-of-the-road pop...

through poetic soft-rock (second verse)...

to high opera...

From the beginning, Samson in Judges is blessed, a special one. He never drinks alcohol, never touches or eats anything unclean - and never cuts his hair. But he is also a man of passions and self-indulgence, who regularly goes with prostitutes, and falls for women who he knows will be his downfall. For example, his marriage to a Philistine woman ends in disaster, his wife and father-in-law being burned to death.

Despite all this, as a judge he brings relative peace to Israel. Until...

"Why, why, why - Delilah?" (Different song but hard to resist, appropriately). Three times she asks Samson the secret of his strength and tries to betray him; three times he resists and escapes. Finally she drags the hairy truth from him. Then blinded and chained, he is brought before the Philistines for entertainment...

When his superman strength brings the destruction of the Dagon Temple, an optimist might see this as an upbeat finish; the Chosen People to start afresh. But the book of Judges doesn't end here. The low point - on a par with previous events at Sodom - is an abandoned wife of a Levite, raped, murdered, and cut into twelve pieces (that number again), one sent to each of the Israel tribes.

This punchline reinforces the theme of the book, warning of self-destruction brought by moral decay. This may be a more overt political tract after all.

The third book in this trio works on an altogether smaller scale. but sowing seeds for greater impact. There a only four chapters in RUTH, opening with exiled 'God's People' who are in the land of Moab during famine. Two widows - Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth - decide to try their luck in Israel.

Because it's harvest time, Ruth meets a farmer called Boaz, who acts as her redeemer (I'm cutting a short story even shorter), they marry, and they have a child, Obed. The fourth chapter closes with a geneology that shows Obed as grandfather to David. The David, he of the first four words of Christmas 'Nine Lessons and Carols':

(But I am rather leaping ahead in the narrative.)

For such a short book, Ruth generates multiple interpretations - from a celebration of mixed marriage (Ruth, a Moabite, qualifies as an immigrant into Israel), through the dignity of work and female self-sufficiency, to condemnation that it reinforces the patriachy only valuing women through marriage and child-bearing.

Diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks. At different times.

What I find most surprising is that, as the eighth title in a biblical collection that has been through multiple versions over many millenia, the book of Ruth doesn't actually mention God.

To paraphrase another short story, 'Silver Blaze'

"Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?" asked Watson.

"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

"The dog did nothing in the night-time."

"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

#reading #bible #KJV #joshua #judges #ruth #jerico #samson #delilah #moab

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