Chapter 2

                                                      The tribes abandon God


Chapter 2 continues what most critical scholars feel is an introduction appended to the original book of Judges. Some[1] contend that there are two introductions, probably by two different editors, with the first introduction ending with 2:5, while the second goes from 2:6 to 3:9. Others say the second introduction starts at 2:1 to 3:9.[2] The first introduction according to the second view reveals that the tribes acted individually after the death of Joshua while the second states pessimistically that during the entire period of judges the people abandoned God, were punished by enemy forces overwhelming them, they cry to God for help, a savior judge arises and helps them, then they repeat the nefarious cycle of events.

While a superficial reading of the chapter may disclose no problems, a carful open-minded reading reveals many problems, such as the following.


An angel appears and critiques the people

Chapter 2 states that an angel appeared to the entire Israelite community and criticized them for failing to obey God’s command to drive out the Canaanites from Canaan.[3] This critique is strange and seemingly inappropriate because we just read that the people didn’t abandon God during the lifetime of Joshua and the elders[4] who led the people after him; so there is no ground for criticism. Therefore some critical scholars such as Ehrlich argue that the episode of the appearance of the angel, 2:1-5, is misplaced. It belongs after the beginning of the period of the judges who emerged because the Israelites abandoned God, but we have no idea where it should be placed.


More errors

Verse 1 has a space in the middle of the verse: “And the angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said ‘…I made you go up out of Egypt.’” Scholars suggest that the space indicates the feeling of an editor or scribe that something is missing. The Greek Septuagint translation adds “and to Bethel and to the house of Israel.” Perhaps this is what is missing.

There is an error in verse 3, again missing words. It reads: “I also said, I will not drive them out from before you.” The Greek Septuagint translation makes the verse clearer: “I will no longer drive out the people whom I said I would dispossess.”[5] While “I also said” is in the past tense and seems to imply that God made the decision not to drive out the Canaanites before the Israelites acted improperly, this is not an error. Scripture very frequently uses the future for the past tense and vice versa.[6] The verse should be understood as “I have now decided.”[7]

Verse 9 states that Joshua was buried in Timnath-heres but Joshua 19:50 and 24:30 calls the place Timnath-serah.

Verse 15 appears to miss the word “place,” which the Aramaic translation Targum Jonathan adds. Judges reads: “In every…that they go out, the hand of God will be against them for evil.” Rashi[8] states that this punishment refers to Elimelech and his two sons for abandoning Judea during a period of draught in Ruth 1. Radak calls this imaginative derash.


Repetitions that conflict

The chapter is filled with repetitions some of which seem to conflict with other statements. This led some scholars, such as Moore in ICC, to suppose that there is a conflation of two divergent traditions.[9] The editor found the two and combined them without bothering to harmonize them. In one, called D, “the sin of Israel is the worship of the Baals and Astartes.”[10] In the other, called E, it is “the adoption of the religion of the surrounding nations.” “In E they are delivered into the hand of plunderers; in D sold into the power of the enemies who surround them. In E they do not obey their judges but persist in apostasy even during the reign of the judges. In contrast, in D, the Israelites do not abandon God during the lifetime of the judge who saves them.

In 3:2, there is an altogether different explanation for the incompleteness of the conquest, different than E, which states that God made the decision because of the people’s apostasy: God let some Canaanite nations remain in the land, “to teach them (the Israelites) war, at least such as beforetime knew nothing thereof.”

In 2:21, a third reason for God’s failure to drive out the Canaanites is given: to test Israel to see whether they “keep the way of the Lord.”

A fourth, totally different reason is found in Exodus 23:29 and Deuteronomy 7:22, God will not drive them out “in one year, lest the land become desolate and the beasts of the field multiply against you.”

Critical commentators insist that these divergences show that there were different authors who offered their own opinions or retold a diverse tradition, and the editor assembled them without harmonizing them.


An insulting critique of Judges’s portrayal of God and Israel

The author of “The Interpreter’s Bible” offers a scathing condemnation of ancient Israel.[11] He sees that in Judges as well as Joshua, “Any compassion, any redemptive overture toward the Canaanites is undreamed of. We are far from a concept of God as the Father of all men; he is here the tribal deity, intent upon establishing his own people and determining to defeat their and his enemies.” He also berates the Israelites, “God has not broken his promise, but Israel has broken hers.” Israel gives no answer “except the answer of tears.”

The second critique is the one made by the “angel” in 2:1-5 and is certainly justified. This was a period, as the book states later, when everyone did what he felt to be right in his own eyes. But this portrayal in Judges should be seen in a positive, not a negative manner, for the book is saying that their actions were wrong. The new nation, recently delivered from slavery, which had repeatedly found fault with their savior Moses, had still not matured. Granted the Pentateuch biblical laws were more humane and prompted human development better than those of surrounding nations, but the Israelites at that time were still suffering even a generation or two after the ending of enslavement from the demeaning and dehumanizing effect upon the psyche of slavery.

But the author’s first censure is overstated. He forgot that the Bible is filled with teachings that people must treat others, even animals, with respect. For example, it repeats the command “Love the stranger,” meaning non-Israelites, thirty-six times.

According to the Bible, the tribes knew that the land of Canaan was theirs and the Canaanites were appropriating land that did not belong to them; the Israelites were taking back what belonged to them. Moses told them in the Pentateuch that before attempting to retake the land they should sue for peace. Deuteronomy 20:10 states: “when you approach a city to wage war against it, you must propose a peaceful settlement.”Maimonides writes[12] that the Israelites were not only allowed to make peace with the Canaanites, they were obligated to do so if at all reasonable.

Maimonides built a remarkable philosophy upon the event mentioned in Exodus 13:17 where the Torah states that instead of taking the Israelites on a direct trip to Canaan, God led the Israelites on a round-about route so that they would not have to fight the Philistines. God knew that when they would be attacked by the Philistines, these erstwhile slaves would become fearful and rush back to their former Egyptian masters.

Maimonides stresses[13] that the Torah recognized that it is “impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to another; it is…impossible for him to suddenly discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed.” Thus the Torah had to deal with the then-existing primitive mindset of the people. For example, Maimonides was opposed to sacrifices. He felt that: “It is for this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue,” not because it is good for people to offer sacrifices or that God needs sacrifices, but the people had become so accustomed to it and saw other nations making sacrifices, so the Torah allowed it. However, as Maimonides goes on to explain, the Torah limited sacrifices dramatically: where they could be brought, when, how, and only certain animals. The Torah allowed sacrifices in a way that encouraged the people to realize it was wrong.

This concept, that many commands in the Torah were only instituted because of the weakness of human nature and were meant to cease as people improved, applies also to the laws of slavery, witchcraft, the evil son, and the captive woman, an eye for an eye, among others. Each of these laws is contrary to basic morality. But the Torah allowed the Israelites to have slaves, kill suspected witches, execute evil sons, permitted soldier to have sex and marry women captured during wars, and retained the ancient retaliatory notion of an eye for an eye, but only under the most restrictive procedures.[14] And the Torah is written in a way that encourages people to act in a better manner than how it is allowed.

The mind-set of the time of Joshua and the Judges was conquest, total extinction of the inhabitants, rape, and enslavement. The Torah had to deal with this world-view. The early parts of the Pentateuch accepted the notion of total extinction, but later Moses changed the command to obligate seeking peace. The Israelites during the period of the Judges went further and allowed the Canaanites to remain in land they felt was theirs. It is possible to read the angel’s critique as, “OK, you permitted the Canaanites to remain, but you did so in a foolish manner. You allowed them to seduce you to worship their idols.”

Thus the author’s critique was unfair. The Torah allowed certain ancient practices but encouraged the people to act in a better manner. The story of the conquest shows a development of a humane treatment of enemy forces, not yet ideal, but moving in the proper direction. Even in this ancient time, the Israelites behaved more humane than the other nations of the time would have behaved.[15]



[1] Such as R. G. Boling.

[2] Y. Kaufman.

[3] An angel also appears to the judge Gideon and Samson’s mother in chapters 6:11 and 13:3, respectively. Moore contends that angel refers to God; this was a divine prophecy. He adds that the theophany at Bethel is a sign from God that a sanctuary with an altar can be built there, along with the one at Shiloh. The idea that the angel appeared at Bethel is based on the Greek Septuagint translation that adds this name. See below, under errors. The Aramaic translation Targum Jonathan, Robert G. Boling, and others identify the angel as an unnamed prophet. Rashi, Radak, Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 1:1, Midrash Numbers Rabbah 16:1, Midrash Tanchuma Shelach 1, and Seder Olam, among others, suppose the “angel” was the priest Pinchas, grandson of Moses’s brother Aaron.

The Pentateuch command not to make peace with the Canaanites is in Exodus 22:32-33, 34:15, and Deuteronomy 7:2. Moses changes the mandate in Deuteronomy 20:10 and required the Israelites to petition for peace before a battle.

[4] While Joshua 24:31 states the Israelites did not abandon God during the lifetime of the elders, it most likely means most of the elders (Gersonides and Abarbanel). As I pointed out frequently, the Bible writes hyperbolically; “all” means many. The length of the period of Joshua and the elders is unknown. In his commentary to the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 105b, Rashi states it was 26 years.

[5] Numbers 33:50-56 states that if the Israelites do not drive out the Canaanites they will harass the Israelites.

[6] Scripture also uses the plural for the singular and vice versa many times.

[7] Abarbanel explains that the verse should be understood as depicting a present decision, as I wrote, but he does not discuss the biblical style here.

[8] Relying on Seder Olam.

[9] An example of conflation in the Pentateuch is the story of the sale of Joseph. The only way that the story of the kidnapping of Joseph, 37:18–30, and his sale into slavery can be understood is that it is a conflation of two versions. In one, Reuben is the brother who tries to save Joseph. In the second, it is Judah. In one, the brothers take Joseph from the pit and sell him to Ishmaelites. In the other, Midianites lifted Joseph from the pit and sold him to Ishmaelites.

[10] Baal means lord, proprietor, and possessor. It is not a name. There were many different Baals worshipped by the nations in the area. The most famous Baal was a storm god. The Ashera is also mentioned in 3:7. It is called Astarte in 10:6; the editor did not attempt to harmonize the texts. This feminine deity was the god of fertility. The biblical Esther was named after Astarte and Mordechai after the god Marduk.

[11] We will see his similar attack on the judge Ehud in chapter 3.

[12] In his Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Malakhim, chapters 5 and 6. See also Jerusalem Talmud Sheviit 6:1.

[13] In his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32.

[14] Countless Orthodox Jews reject Maimonides’ understanding of the purpose of these commands and thinks that every Torah command is proper, moral, and ideal.

[15] Ancient Athens, for example, is considered by many scholars to be the cradle of philosophy and morality. It is the birthplace of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Yet Rebecca Newberger Goldstein portrays fifth century Athens engaging in horrendous murderous unjust acts during war in her “Plato at the Googleplex,” page 298-300.