Monday, 25 December 2017

Preserving Judges

On this, the first day of Christmas, I'm thinking about stories written long before that of Jesus, namely those of the Judges. I am thinking about the fact that the majority of the judges come from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. Only two judges come from the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and neither of them are particularly significant to the overall narrative. Why is this significant? Well, Judah and Benjamin are the tribes that would later constitute the core first of the United Monarchy and then of the southern kingdom of Judah, while the northern tribes are those which would later constitute the core of the northern kingdom of Israel. This poses a significant problem for those who would argue that Judges is primarily royal or even post-exilic propaganda that is intended not to record the Israelite past but rather to advance ideological claims in the authorial present, a hypothesis that we might describe as the "retrojective." On this retrojective hypothesis, if the authorial present was the United Monarchy or the southern kingdom, then it is strange that there isn't greater jingoistic promotion of the southern tribes in which first the Saulide and later the Davidic kings located their power base. On this hypothesis, if the authorial present was the northern kingdom then it is strange that later Judahite and Jewish leaders would so readily incorporate into their emerging canon a text that promotes northern leadership while devoting so little attention to southern leadership. In the post-exilic period, as Jewish exiles returning to the land and seeking to establish the new province of Yehud found themselves competing with Samaria to the north, it is again strange that they would write and embrace a text that so emphasizes northern leadership to the virtually exclusion of southern leadership.

On the retrojective hypothesis, it seems to me that the core of Judges cannot easily be thought to date much later than the rise of Saul, which would barely make it a retrojection at all. (Indeed, if thinking about the book as a work of propaganda, the book's final line, that at that time there was no king in Israel and each man did as was right in his own eyes, perhaps makes most sense during the establishment of the monarchy, as both sides were arguing over whether or not such a political reorganization was for the best or not). Such a non-retrojection fits well with certain other data. For instance, settlement surveys have indicated that the most densely-populated area in the central hill country during Iron Age I generally corresponds with the areas in which Judges situates the majority of its action, i.e. in the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh. In other words, Judges reflects a reality in which most of what was happening in Iron Age I was happening in this territory because that's where more Israelites lived. For another instance, Judges depicts a non-state society lacking in central organization, and indeed the hill country settlements of Iron Age I suggest precisely such a society. This also corresponds with the evidence of the Merneptah stele, which c. 1208 refers to an entity called Israel presence in Canaan, and designates it not as a state but rather as a people group.

Now, the interesting thing is that if the retrospective hypothesis makes it difficult for Judges to date much later than the foundations of the monarchy, an alternative "preservative" hypothesis would allow for a much later date. The preservative hypothesis argues that the primary purpose in writing a text such as Judges was to record the Israelite past, and that it represents the cumulation of an extended process of such preservation. Of course, this process can hardly be thought to have been antiquarian: the reasons for preserving stories of the past are always located in the present. The preservative hypothesis is simply that these always-present reasons combined with the means to fulfill the preservative aim were sufficient to ensure a high degree of transmission "accuracy" from the period of the judges onward. In principle, as long as such reasons and means existed, the temporal duration is infinitely extendable. Of course, this does not mean that the stories contained within Judges actually happened. They in fact could represent what we might call Iron Age I historical fiction. But in that case they would be historical fiction that originated not much later than c. 1030 B.C.E., and which represent the social and cultural conditions of Iron Age I Israel reasonably well. That said, neither do I think that we can rule out that many if not most or all of the judges described within the book actually lived and served as leaders in Israel, even if one might evince some healthy skepticism towards their more super-human acts.

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