Judges for us is a book of beautiful stories: Deborah, Gideon, Samson and Delilah, Jephthah and his daughter, and towards the end the woman cut into pieces and the priest who sets his own business with the idols of his patron. These narratives that were passed on as popular stories serve as imaged history of an epoch which, although important, is not well known. How were the nomadic Hebrews, who entered Palestine after Moses, able to settle down as simple tillers of the land? And how were they to maintain their identity as a people chosen by God?
The land of Canaan with its fertile plains was most attractive; as was its religion—close to nature where sexual liberty was calmly accepted. Foreign entrants to the country were quickly at home in their new environment. What would become of the intransigent religion of an invisible God? These were dark ages from every point of view, when one might conclude that the fire of Mt. Sinai was truly extinguished.
What was to save the future for the tribes of Israel, was first of all, the aggressiveness of several among them (we have in mind the tribe of Ephraim whose feats are related in the book of Joshua); another factor was their being oftentimes at the mercy of plunderers and other nomads from the desert hoping to take their place. They remained faithful to Yahweh, having experienced on many occasions his saving intervention.
In their difficulties, the Israelites, unorganized and divided into rival camps, were to group themselves around the judges of tribes or around emerging born-leaders of the people, sometimes simple peasants but capable of achieving remarkable victories (see chapters 4 and 5).
These men are known in history as the “Shofetim,” a word that means both “chiefs” and “judges.” We must remember that in Hebrew culture and even in the Gospel, the word “to judge” also means “to govern” (Mt 19:28). For that reason those who may have never been members of a tribunal are called “judges.” Perhaps we should understand the word “judges” in another way: these persons were the instruments of God’s justice. The judges were not saints in the meaning we ordinarily give this word. Nevertheless Israel saw in them the saviors that God in his mercy was sending. To slay an enemy chief or kill the Philistines is no longer a religious act for us. If we keep in mind their time and their milieu, these persons had faith and were courageous amidst much cowardice. In awakening the passivity of their companions, they were preparing for a new phase of their history.
The coals under the ashes
In reading the Book we will not get an exalted idea of the moral and religious level of Israel at this time when traditional structures of family and nomadic tribe were rapidly losing value. Yet a deep renewal had begun. Two words enter the religious vocabulary: heritage and sanctuary.
Heritage: the nomad now has a land. He must see it as a gift from God, cultivate it, pass it on to his children. All religion will be linked to the land that God has given and he will conserve it inasmuch as he remains faithful.
Sanctuary: the Israelites who never had a Temple in the desert discover the places of worship of the Canaanites. They, too, will gradually group themselves for worship where Levites and priests will keep alive the sacred traditions and teaching of Moses. The example of a period when all is to be rediscovered is full of interest for us who now live at a time when all the moral and religious structures lived by our parents are collapsing. It is quite possible that behind the triumphant materialism many things are sprouting, preparing the renaissance of a Christianity more conscious of itself in an urbane, planetary, post-industrial and post-modern society.