The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit
Introduction To The Prophets
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Sefer Shoftim– The Book of
Judges– Lesson #1
by Rav Michael
The earlier shiurim of this series are available on the
Welcome to our continuing class on the 'Prophets,' a
project of the Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion. This week, we shall proceed with our
study of Sefer Shoftim, the Book of Judges. Over the course of the last two years,
we completed the first eleven chapters of the book; this year, we hope to
complete its remaining ten chapters (and more). Sefer Shoftim is
the second volume in the section of Tanakh known as 'Nevi'im' or
Prophets, and its contents describe the trials, tribulations, and triumphs
experienced by the Israelite tribes as they struggled to settle the land of
Canaan after the death of Yehoshua and the "elders that succeeded him." 'Tanakh,' of course, is a Hebrew
acronym for 'Torah' (Pentateuch), 'Nevi'im' (Prophets), and
'Ketuvim' (Writings), the three components of the Hebrew Bible.
Shoftim is named after the inspiring regional chieftains, the so-called
"Judges," who led their tribes on the battlefield and also frequently provided
them with spiritual guidance and leadership. Chronologically, while the book
constitutes the natural continuation of Sefer Yehoshua, it
describes events that transpire over a much longer period of Biblical
history. While the events of
Sefer Yehoshua are tightly bound up with the lifetime of its main
protagonist, the course of Sefer Shoftim covers a period of almost
four hundred years, from the preliminary attempts by the tribes to secure their
allotted lands until the eve of the monarchy centuries later. The period of the Shoftim was
perhaps the most turbulent in all of Biblical history, as the People of Israel
struggled mightily to lay the foundations of their state in the shadow of very
powerful, corrosive cultural and moral threats.
Over the last couple of years, during our studies of the
first eleven chapters of the book, we met some of these inspired leaders as we
discussed at length the challenges faced by the people of Israel in their new
land. Canaanite culture, materially
advanced but morally vapid, exerted a powerful draw over the Israelite mind, and
many were those who contentedly adopted syncretism (or worse) in place of
worshipping the one true God and observing His laws. But in contrast to the people that they
selflessly served, the early judges portrayed in the book were singularly
exemplary; the Biblical narrative throughout the first five chapters offers nary
a word of criticism or complaint concerning them. Otniel (Chapter 3), Ehud (Chapter 3),
Shamgar (Chapter 3), and Devorah (Chapters 4 and 5) donned the mantle of
leadership when called upon by necessity to do so. They led the people to victory, inspired
them to spiritual growth, and promptly and humbly faded from the scene when
their missions were accomplished.
Not so the latter judges, who frequently failed to
demonstrate the steadfast trust of their forebears and sometimes hung on to
power long after it was clear that they had exhausted their mandate and/or
exceeded their capacity to govern the people effectively. Thus, while as students of the text we
may have been disappointed by the repeated failure of the People of Israel to
achieve their national mission during the book's critical early chapters, at
least we could find some solace in the caliber of their leaders. But as we embarked upon Chapter 6 of the
book, the story of the judge known as Gidon, we noted that the narratives in
general and the portrayal of the protagonists in particular began to take a
decidedly more nasty turn, introducing a downward trajectory not be corrected
even as the book will be ignominiously concluded some fifteen chapters
later. The story of ambitious
Avimelekh (Chapters 9-10), Gidon's son and successor, provided us with a
striking study in poor leadership that was selfishly motivated. The exploits of Yiftach (Chapter 11),
the heroic brigand and bandit of the Transjordan, and in particular the terrible
consequences of his ill-considered vow, only reinforced the impression that
these latter judges lacked the nobility of character that typified their
forebears. And the small host of
minor judges interspersed among these middle chapters did nothing to relieve us
of this decidedly negative impression.
STUDYING THE BOOK
It will not be possible, of course, to exhaustively
review the events of the first eleven chapters of the book that were covered in
the course of lessons over the last two years. New readers who are so inclined are
therefore encouraged to consult the archives of the Virtual Beit Midrash for the
earlier material. At the same time,
the author will make every effort to minimize the confusion that new students to
the course may experience, by filling in the inevitable narrative gaps where
During the course of our studies, we shall grapple not
only with textual difficulties and the intricacies of exegesis, but will also
encounter many important and thought-provoking issues that are introduced by the
narratives of this book. Included among them: defining the confluence of Divine
intervention and human initiative, understanding the role played by good (or
bad!) leadership in shaping the political contours and underlying value system
of the tribe or state, considering how to effectively address surrounding
cultural values and their related religious practices that are at odds with the
mission of the people of Israel, delineating the oft-stated Biblical link
between fidelity to God and national success, and recognizing the awesome
struggle to forge disparate tribes and their self-interested local leadership
into the united people of Israel.
Before considering the text itself, however, a number of preliminary
remarks and observations are in order.
Many of you will probably be studying the text of
Shoftim in translation.
There are a number of good English translations of the text available,
but it is critical to bear in mind that a translation of any sort cannot take
the place of the original Hebrew text.
Biblical Hebrew is a rich and layered language, full of subtle nuances
and multiple gradations of meaning. A translation cannot but convey one out of a
large number of possible readings of the text, and perhaps not the most
plausible reading at that. A
translation is itself an interpretation that offers the reader a window into the
text, but can never replace a study of the text in its original language. Critical literary and interpretive
elements such as alliteration, word play, and meter are difficult to reproduce
in translation, and most translations can therefore convey only an incomplete
Additionally, the Hebrew Bible chooses its
words with extreme care. Recurring
expressions and phrases, both within a book as well as with reference to the
larger context of the other books of the Tanakh, often carry the
possibility of additional interpretations. This is a possibility that simply
does not exist in translation, where no attempt is made to link remote
references by utilizing a vocabulary of equivalent terms.
To offer a striking example from last week's
Parasha, the ark of Noach is described in the Biblical text by the word
'teiva' (Bereishit 6:14).
The only other usage of this term in the entire Hebrew Scriptures occurs
in the context of Yokheved's poignant attempt to save the life of her infant son
Moshe, by placing him in a box of reeds, a 'teiva,' and allowing him to
pathetically float away from her maternal embrace down the Nile River
(Shemot 2:3). Studying the
text in translation (in this case, that of the 'New JPS Translation,'
Philadelphia, 1988) indicates that Noach built an 'ark,' and that Yokheved
prepared a 'basket,' and suggests that there is absolutely no connection between
the two episodes. Reading the text
in the original Hebrew, however, in which the same word 'teiva' is used
in both passages, raises the possibility that there is in fact a fundamental
link between them.
In Biblical Hebrew, a sea-going vessel is often called
an 'oniya' (see Bereishit 49:13, Devarim 28:68, Yona
1:3, etc.), or rarely a 'sefina' (Yona 1:5), but never, barring
the context of Noach and Yokheved, a 'teiva.' What is the structural difference
between a 'teiva' and the vessels described by these other terms? R. Avraham Ibn Ezra (Spain,
11th century) remarks that with respect to Noach, the Torah uses the
noun "teiva rather than sefina, because this craft does not have
the form of an oniya, and has no oars or rudder" (6:14).
The significance of this unusual deficiency is quite
obvious. The lack of oars or a
rudder for the ark effectively renders it incapable of being steered. The rising floodwaters will bear the
craft, but Noach will play no role in piloting it or in directing it to
land. Only God's merciful
Providence will ensure that the ark successfully weathers the torrential
floodwaters and sets down intact on safe shores. God alone is the guiding power who
drives the ark through the churning deep and steers it clear of
In a similar vein, when Yokheved places her infant son
into his teiva and releases him to the unknown, she is not simply
attempting to save his life by aiding his escape down river. Her seemingly hopeless gesture, after
all other possibilities of concealing Moshe have been exhausted, actually
represents an act of great faith.
By constructing this craft for him and allowing it to pitifully float
away from her outstretched arms, she is actually entrusting the life of her
child to the Merciful God. It is He
who will care for Moshe and lovingly guide him downstream into the unexpectedly
tender arms of Pharaoh's own daughter!
Here again, the teiva represents God's role in shaping human
destiny, and by entering the realm of the teiva we entrust our survival
to a Transcendent Being who cares, preserves, sustains, and
Of course, a reading such as that offered above is not
possible in translation except as a fanciful literary leap of imagination, since
there is no reason to textually link 'arks' with 'baskets.' It is only in the original Hebrew that a
meaningful connection emerges. In
our study of Sefer Shoftim we will come across further examples of
this critically important interpretive tool.
While the author does not endorse any specific
translation, the following list may be helpful in selecting one that is
appropriate: Tanakh – The Holy Scriptures by the Jewish Publication
Society, Philadelphia; The Living Torah/Nakh by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan,
Moznaim Publishing Corporation, Brooklyn; The Jerusalem Bible by Koren
Publishers, Jerusalem; The Stone Edition of the Tanakh by Artscroll
Mesorah Publications, Brooklyn.
CHAPTER AND VERSE
The conventional numbering of the Biblical text into
chapters and verses is not the product of Jewish tradition. In the handwritten Torah scroll, for
example, the content is divided into paragraphs and sections according to visual
breaks in the text. These breaks
consist in the main of two types: a 'minor' division signified by a space
between two paragraphs on the same line, and a 'major' division signified by a
blank space that concludes a line.
Verses may be regarded as separate sentences, but are not numbered.
It was Jerome, a prominent fourth-century Church father
responsible for translating the Hebrew Bible, Apocrypha, and New Testament into
Latin, who first introduced the basis of the now universally accepted system of
chapters. His translation,
undertaken for the benefit of the common people, was known as the Vulgate (from
the Latin 'vulgata' or 'popular'), and became the official Scriptures of
the Roman Catholic Church. Stephen
Langton, a 13th century English cardinal and later the Archbishop of
Canterbury, refined Jerome's work by dividing the Old Testament books of the
Vulgate into the chapters and verses as we now know them. Ironically, the impetus for his work was
the desire to facilitate disputations of the Scriptures with the Jews, by
introducing a more uniform method for citing references. In any case, these
divisions into chapter and verse were accepted by all subsequent translations
and, with the invention of the printing press, eventually found their way into
the printed Hebrew editions as well.
Often, Jerome's divisions are at odds with the
traditional Jewish separations of the Biblical text. Admittedly, this is less of a problem in
Sefer Shoftim than in other Biblical books, since the narratives
of our book tend to be self-contained units that lend themselves well to
division into chapters.
Nevertheless, we do find, for example, that Chapter Eight of
Shoftim begins with the angry outcry of the people of Ephraim, who
condemn Gidon for having failed to include them in his battle plans against the
Midyanites. There is no such
division in the Hebrew text, where the verse describing their complaint is
organically connected to the previous one describing the defeat of the two
Midyanite chieftains, Orev and Ze'ev.
Some of the modern Jewish translations of the Hebrew Bible (such as the
Jerusalem Bible by Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 1992) have
attempted to remedy the situation by incorporating the traditional divisions
into their translated text.
It is important to realize that sometimes, the text's
internal divisions may be critical tools in assisting us to evaluate its
intent. After all, a verse does not
stand only by itself, but must be understood as part of the larger context. The interpretation of a passage may
hinge upon how it is connected to the verses that precede and follow it. Thus, it will be necessary for us to
bear in mind that the chapter/verse divisions are not immutable, and are in fact
sometimes unsubstantiated from the point of view of Jewish tradition. We should therefore also not be
surprised if occasionally, 'chapter' readings are assigned that seem to conflict
with the chapter divisions themselves.
The modern age has witnessed an explosion of knowledge
concerning the ancient world of the Bible.
Archaeology has unearthed and revived ancient, forgotten civilizations
that had been known only from the Biblical text; paleography has deciphered
ancient Near-Eastern languages long ago extinct; stratigraphy has provided the
possibility of correlating far-flung discoveries to provide a more solid
historical framework; and intense study of cognate languages has provided much
assistance (and conjecture!) for interpreting unusual Biblical terms and
references otherwise inexplicable.
All of this information and analysis has shed much light on the Biblical
text, and to ignore it is to overlook an important dimension of Biblical
exegesis that was sadly unavailable to the classic
At the same time, these modern tools have often been
used for quite a different purpose, to bolster arguments both for and against
the authenticity of the Biblical accounts.
Some archaeologists have enthusiastically donned the mantel of
polemicists, using the conclusions of their work to undermine the Biblical
account, and, more significantly for their purposes, to thrust aside the God
silent and steadfast behind the text, with all of His moral, ethical, and
spiritual demands. Proponents of
various critical schools have gleefully deconstructed the apparently cohesive
narratives to reveal a multiplicity of faceless authors and unskilled editors,
often with the agenda of recasting Israel's proud and accurately portrayed
heritage into a bold and twisted lie.
Biblical scholars have often introduced emendations into the text to
ostensibly reconcile what they have perceived to be divergences and
inconsistencies, but their approach frequently hinges upon charging the text
with a superficiality that is ludicrous.
Sadder still, in the process they have often intentionally relegated the
underlying message of the narrative, its profound pith and the very God-content
that is at its center, to the proverbial dustbin.
The Tanakh however, is, at its core, a sacred
document that describes the ongoing interaction between God and humanity, God
and the People of Israel, God and the human being. It is a document that continuously
challenges us to ask penetrating questions that relate to the essence of human
nature and to the purpose and meaning of our existence. Its ancient but timeless words kindle
the spiritual yearning that glows in every human heart, the longing for God, for
goodness, and for a better world.
No assault on the text can ever rob it of this, its transcendent
quality. To approach the
Tanakh as a secular historical account or as a fanciful mythology, only
to then reject its essential message, divests it of its fundamental character
and does a grave disservice to both text and reader.
In our studies, we will not look towards archeology
et al to substantiate the account of the Book of
Shoftim. The Divine element
that animates the text requires no external proof for its confirmation. However, where archeology can shed light
on understanding a Biblical text or event, we shall cautiously embrace its
contributions, bearing in mind the limitations of its analyses. In the end, the veracity of the text and
the 'objective truths' provided by modern scholarship must be reconciled, but
tentative 'facts' based upon inconclusive findings (or lack thereof) can be
calmly ignored. As a general
comment, it should be noted that archeological and philological finds tend to
confirm rather than to refute the outlines, and often the details themselves, of
the accounts contained in the Biblical text.
TERMS AND TRANSLITERATIONS
In general, we will adopt accurate transliterations
rather than translations for place names and personal names. Thus, Joshua will be referred to as
Yehoshua, Moses as Moshe, Judah as Yehuda, Jordan as Yarden, etc. Additionally, Biblical books will be
referred to by their Hebrew names: Bereishit, Shemot,
Vayikra, etc. Readers
unfamiliar with the original Hebrew terms will no doubt require some time to
adjust, but utilizing them provides the advantage of conveying a more authentic
sense of the time and setting of the Biblical narratives. In order to become acclimated, when
referring to other Biblical books for the first few lessons, we will use both
the Hebrew term as well as the standard translation.
With respect to grammatical syntax, however, English
conventions will always be adopted.
Thus, for example, the 'Emorim' (Hebrew plural for 'Emori') will be
referred to as the Emorites, utilizing English language plural endings. Adopting such a convention will be more
comprehensible to most readers.
At the end of each lesson, a reading for the coming week
will be assigned. It is highly
recommended that readers avail themselves of the opportunity to study in advance
the text of the book, whether in translation or in the original Hebrew. It will not be possible to recount at
length every episode occurring in the primary required reading, for the benefit
of those who were not able to prepare ahead of time. No assumptions, however, will be made
concerning readers' familiarity with external sources.
At this time, I would like to again welcome readers and
students to this class. Next time,
we shall begin our studies in earnest, and readers are asked to prepare Chapter
12 of the Book of Shoftim.
We shall first concern ourselves with briefly reviewing the story of
Yiftach (Chapters 10 and 11) before considering the aftermath of his battle
against the Amonites, as some of his own compatriots threaten to do him harm for
his unintentional bruising of their over-inflated egos!