The Downward Spiral: 6 Quick Catholic Lessons on the Book of Judges

Listers, the Historical Books are paramount in understanding salvation history. The Historical Books of the Old Testament are Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, I & II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, and I & II Maccabees. The Historical Books capture the story of how Israel gains the Promise Land through obedience to the covenant but also how they eventually lose the Promise Land through their disobedience. There are seven major dates within the narrative of the Historical Books.

  • c. 1200 BC – Conquest, then Judge’s Period
  • c. 1030 BC – The United Kingdom: Saul, David, & Solomon
  • 931 BC – Divided Kingdom: Northern Kingdom of Israel & Southern Kingdom of Judah
  • 722 BC – Assyrian Exile of the Northern Kingdom
  • 586 BC – First Temple Destroyed as Babylon Conquers the Southern Kingdom
  • 516 BC – The Dedication of the Second Temple
  • 165 BC – The Rededication of the Second Template under the Maccabees

The theological significance of the Historical Books is exemplified by their alternative title: theFormer Prophets. While the Latter Prophets represent the minor and major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, etc.), the Former Prophets mark the beginning of the prophets appearing in the history of Israel. Furthermore, they record a prophetic history insofar as they point toward the coming of Jesus Christ. The internal text of the Historical Books or Former Prophets testifies to the distinction between prophetic history and general history when it utilizes the phrase are not the other works of the King written in the books of… and similar statements denoting that certain historical narratives belong in the records of prophetic history and some do not. A foundational understanding of the theological significance of the Former Prophets as a whole is found in the book of Deuteronomy. The seminal chapter is chapter twenty-eight, which records the blessings of following the covenant and the curses of breaking the covenant. Arguably the entire theme of the Historical Books is the unfolding of Deuteronomy twenty-eight: whether or not Israel is faithful to the covenant.

For a discussion of the first Historical Book, please visit The Conquest: 9 Catholic Lessons from the Book of Joshua. The list contains short discussions on the morality of the military conquest of the Promise Land, the Hexateuch, typological scenes of Mary, and much more.

 

The Book of Judges

 

1. Judges as a Downward Spiral

The Book of Judges should have been a continuation of the success of Joshua. Instead, Israel suffered a series of cycles from fidelity to failure.1

1. Sin—People did what was evil in the sight of the Lord
2. Suffering—God sends suffering, e.g., defeated by enemies, etc.
3. Supplication to God—apologies
4. Salvation—God sends a savior
5. Shalom—a period of peace
6. Repeat (repeated a cycle of seven times)

The cycles actually represent a downward spiral – each cycle being progressively worse than the one before. Note also that the text echoes a threefold repetition: at that time, there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was good in his or her own eyes, i.e., massive confusion and evil; note that it is connected to there being no king. The author or editor wants it to be known that they need a king to keep them faithful to the covenant.2

 

2. The Prophecy of Eve & the Serpent

In Genesis, our first parents suffered a curse due to their fall into sin. One condition of the Fall was that God would place enmity between the woman and the serpent – but the phrase explaining the enmity and what will happen due to that enmity has been a matter of much debate. To wit, should it read he shall crush thy head or she shall crush thy head or even they shall crush thy head? Notice older translation below from the Douay-Rheims Bible:

And the Lord God said to the woman: Why hast thou done this? And she answered: The serpent deceived me, and I did eat. And the Lord God said to the serpent: Because thou hast done this thing, thou art cursed among all cattle, and beasts of the earth: upon thy breast shalt thou go, and earth shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel. Douay-Rheims Bible3

Modern Catholic texts read he shall crush your head:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. RSV-CE

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel. NAB4

Proponents of the prophecy reading and she shall crush often cite the strong biblical typology of women killing men by “crushing” their head. The debate is pertinent to the Book of Judges due to the story of Jael as a type cast of the woman “crushing” the head:

Sisera, in the meantime, had fled on foot to the tent of Jael, wife of the Kenite Heber, since Jabin, king of Hazor, and the family of the Kenite Heber were at peace with one another. Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come in, my lord, come in with me; do not be afraid.” So he went into her tent, and she covered him with a rug.

He said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink. I am thirsty.” But she opened a jug of milk for him to drink, and then covered him over. “Stand at the entrance of the tent,” he said to her. “If anyone comes and asks, ‘Is there someone here?’ say, ‘No!'”

Instead Jael, wife of Heber, got a tent peg and took a mallet in her hand. While Sisera was sound asleep, she stealthily approached him and drove the peg through his temple down into the ground, so that he perished in death. Then when Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to meet him and said to him, “Come, I will show you the man you seek.” So he went in with her, and there lay Sisera dead, with the tent peg through his temple.5

The typological pattern of a woman killing a man via “crushing” their head occurs three times in the Historical Books and five times overall in the Old Testament. The fulfillment of the prophecy comes with Mother Mary standing on Golgotha – the mount Christ was crucified upon named the skull.6 Thus, you have a woman crushing the head of the serpent through the victory of Christ.7

 

3. The Story of Gideon

Chapter seven contains the famous narrative of Gideon leading the army of the Lord. First, Gideon is commanded to tell all the soldiers in the army that if they are afraid they can go home. As a result, twenty-two thousand left and ten thousand remained. Second, the army is led to water and some drank by lapping up the water like dogs and others knelt and drank by cupping the water in their hand. The Lord commands Gideon to only keep those men who lapped the water – 300 soldiers. Third, the army of three hundred win a military victory by holding trumpets in one hand and lamps in the other (no weapons in hand). The principle here is that the victory belonged to the Lord. The victory came through obedience and liturgy.8

In chapter eight, Gideon is asked to rule as King and he declines and says the Lord should rule; however, Gideon uses his clout to ask for the spoils of war – especially gold. He then makes a golden ephod – a priestly garment – and leads the people of God into idolatry. Once again, Israel plays the harlot and there is liturgical confusion.

 

4. Jephthah’s Vow

During the sixth cycle, Jephthah makes a vow to sacrifice to God the first thing that exits his house. His vow is the first of two brash and ill fated vows in the Book of Judges. As the story goes, Jepthah’s daughter is the first thing to exit the house. Holy Scripture does not record whether or not the sacrifice was ever carried out; however, scripture does record his daughter taking a time to mourn she will die a virgin. The pericope of Jephthah’s vow serves as another example of liturgical confusion during the Judges period.9

 

5. Samson & Sight

In chapter thirteen the seventh cycle in Judges contains the Samson narrative. The story of Samson has a subtle motif of “sight.” In chapter fourteen, Samson desires a Philistine woman over any woman in Israel. He tells his parents, “Get her for me, for she pleases me” or literally, “she is good in my eyes.”10 The attitude of Samson serves as a microcosm of the current idolatrous disposition of Israel. The motif of sight characterizes the entire Judges narrative: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.”11 The motif continues with Samson’s demise as Samson’s eyes are plucked out after he submits to Delilah the secret to his strength.

 

6. The Concubine Raped, Cut Up, & Mailed

The Israelite discovers his concubine, dead on his doorstep - by Gustave Doré, Circa 1880. Wiki.
The Israelite discovers his concubine, dead on his doorstep – by Gustave Doré, Circa 1880. Wiki.

Judges ends with a narrative that shows exactly how deep Israel has spiraled. In chapter nineteen, a Levite and his concubine (the first clue something is wrong) go to a town within the tribe of Benjamin. Despite being among his kin, no one in the town is hospitable save one old man. The man takes the Levite and the concubine into his home for the night. During the night, the men of the city demand that the Levite priest come out so they can rape him. Instead, the old man offers his virgin daughters and the priest’s concubine. Ultimately, the concubine is thrown out to the men and she is raped throughout the night and dies.

Upon finding her dead outside, the Levite priest cuts the concubine into pieces and sends one piece to each tribe to show the wickedness that has manifested in the tribe of Benjamin. The other tribes turn against the Benjaminites and war against them. The other tribes then make the second ill fated vow of the Book of Judges – they make a covenant not to give their daughters to Benjaminite men in marriage. The error here is that this means the tribe of Benjamin will either die out or have to seek pagan wives. The narrative shows the depravity and confusion found at the bottom of the spiral.

The most telling sign of how far the tribes have fallen is comparing how the book begins to how the book ends. The first verse of the book states, “After the death of Joshua the Israelites consulted the LORD, asking, “Who shall be first among us to attack the Canaanites and to do battle with them?”12 Yet, at the end of the book the tribes of Israel are asking, “who will go with us against the tribe of Benjamin?” The People of God have gone from warring for the Promise Land to civil war – the bottom of the downward spiral of the Book of Judges.

  1. Cycle: See 2:11-17 as an example. []
  2. King David and the Jebusites: Notice in 1:19 the Jebusites are still present in the Promise Land. The Jebusites occupy what will later become Jerusalem. It is King David that will conquer the Jebusites and raise Jerusalem to the center of political and spiritual power in the Kingdom. Interestingly, after a young David slew Goliath, he places Goliath’s head outside of the Jebusite controlled Jerusalem – a foreshadowing of the coming conquest. []
  3. Note on v. 15 from DRB commentary – [15] She shall crush: Ipsa, the woman; so divers of the fathers read this place, conformably to the Latin: others read it ipsum, viz., the seed. The sense is the same: for it is by her seed, Jesus Christ, that the woman crushes the serpent’s head. []
  4. Notes on v. 15 NAB – “He will strike . . . at his heel: since the antecedent for he and his is the collective noun offspring, i.e., all the descendants of the woman, a more exact rendering of the sacred writer’s words would be, “They will strike . . . at their heels.” However, later theology saw in this passage more than unending hostility between snakes and men. The serpent was regarded as the devil (⇒ Wisdom 2:24; ⇒ John 8:44; ⇒ Rev 12:9; ⇒ 20:2), whose eventual defeat seems implied in the contrast between head and heel. Because “the Son of God appeared that he might destroy the works of the devil” (⇒ 1 John 3:8), the passage can be understood as the first promise of a Redeemer for fallen mankind. The woman’s offspring then is primarily Jesus Christ.” []
  5. 4:17-22 []
  6. Golgotha: ORIGIN from late Latin, via Greek from an Aramaic form of Hebrew gulgoleth ‘skull’ (see Matt. 27:33). []
  7. Women of the Gen. 3:15 Prophecy: in Judges you have Jael and the woman who drops the millstone on Abimelech in chapter nine; the head of Seba in II Samuel 20:16; it occurs again with Judith and in the book of Esther. []
  8. Gideon: Gideon’s victory shows that victory belongs to the Lord and the glory belongs to him, which will later serve as a comparison to King Saul. It also adds to a motif of proper liturgy. []
  9. Jephthah’s Vow see chapter eleven. []
  10. 14:2-3. []
  11. 21:25. []
  12. NAB. []

The Conquest: 9 Catholic Lessons from the Book of Joshua

Listers, the Historical Books are paramount in understanding salvation history. The Historical Books of the Old Testament are Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, I & II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, and I & II Maccabees. The Historical Books capture the story of how Israel gains the Promise Land through obedience to the covenant but also how they eventually lose the Promise Land through their disobedience. There are seven major dates within the narrative of the Historical Books.

  • c. 1200 BC – Conquest, then Judge’s Period
  • c. 1030 BC – The United Kingdom: Saul, David, & Solomon
  • 931 BC – Divided Kingdom: Northern Kingdom of Israel & Southern Kingdom of Judah
  • 722 BC – Assyrian Exile of the Northern Kingdom
  • 586 BC – First Temple Destroyed as Babylon Conquers the Southern Kingdom
  • 516 BC – The Dedication of the Second Temple
  • 165 BC – The Rededication of the Second Template under the Maccabees

The theological significance of the Historical Books is exemplified by their alternative title: the Former Prophets. While the Latter Prophets represent the minor and major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, etc.), the Former Prophets mark the beginning of the prophets appearing in the history of Israel. Furthermore, they record a prophetic history insofar as they point toward the coming of Jesus Christ. The internal text of the Historical Books or Former Prophets testifies to the distinction between prophetic history and general history when it utilizes the phrase are not the other works of the King written in the books of… and similar statements denoting that certain historical narratives belong in the records of prophetic history and some do not. A foundational understanding of the theological significance of the Former Prophets as a whole is found in the book of Deuteronomy. The seminal chapter is chapter twenty-eight, which records the blessings of following the covenant and the curses of breaking the covenant. Arguably the entire theme of the Historical Books is the unfolding of Deuteronomy twenty-eight: whether or not Israel is faithful to the covenant.

 

 

The Book of Joshua

The Book of Joshua is the story of the conquest of the Promise Land by the Israelites. The following is a basic chapter outline of the book.1

1-12 – The Conquest
13-21 – The Division
22 – The Test (or the Real Victory)
23-24 – A Covenant Renewal

 

1. Early Church Significance

The Early Church Fathers saw a twofold significance in the Book of Joshua. In subject matter, the book records the people of God entering into the Promised Land, which serves as a type of heaven. In leadership, though Moses led them to the Promised Land, it was Joshua who served as the Christ-figure ushering in salvation. In Hebrew, Joshua means the LORD is salvation, which is also exactly what Jesus means.2 To wit, you have Joshua leading the People of God into the Promised Land as a type scene of Jesus leading the Church into heaven.

 

2. The Hexateuch

The first five books of Holy Scripture are referred to as the Pentateuch meaning five books in Greek; however, some biblical commentators saw Joshua as a necessary addition to the first five books as it finishes the story of Exodus. Adding Joshua makes it the Hexateuch. Proponents of the Hexateuch model focused on narrative of the books more than the authorship of the books. The basic literary outline of the Hexateuch is as follows:

Adam – Mankind
Moses – Drawn out
Joshua – Saved

Adding Joshua to the Pentateuch allows for the first six books of the Bible to serve as type of salvation narrative. It takes the strong typological connections between Joshua and Christ mentioned above and places it at the end of the Exodus narrative to create a small typological story of salvation.

 

3. The Jordan River & Mary Immaculate

The journey through the desert has brought Israel to the eastern bank of the Jordan River, and Jericho is located past the western shore. The Jordan River ran straight south from the fresh water sea of Galilee in the north to the Dead Sea in the south. The Jordan River serves a typological significance in studying sin and holiness. The river was seen as the washing away sin into the sea of death, the Dead Sea. In chapter three of Joshua, as the Ark of the Covenant approaches the river, God causes the river to back up all the way to the city of Adam. It calls to mind the person of Adam and original sin. Therefore, if Mary is the New Ark of the New Covenant, the fact the Jordan dried up and backed up all the way to Adam to let the Ark pass into the Promised Land may be seen as a type scene of the Immaculate Conception.

 

4. Understanding the “Cherem”

Few things in Holy Scripture elicit more debates than the military conquest of the Promised Land. Though it certainly merits a longer conversation, there are a few quick lessons to be learned using the victory over Jericho as an example. First, Rahab’s testimony reveals that Jericho knew of Israel’s military victories and they feared the Israelites. The implication being that they could have abandoned the city or surrendered – as other cities later did. Second, the first victory of the Promise land belonged exclusively to the Lord. The battle was won supernaturally and liturgically-not militarily. It is the beginning of a liturgical theme of “right worship” throughout the Historical Books.

After the liturgical destruction of the walls of Jericho comes the Cherem or Herem:

Then the people cried aloud, and still the trumpets blew, till every ear was deafened by the shouting and the clangour; and all at once the walls fell down flat. Thereupon each man went to the assault where he was posted, and they took the city. All that was in it they slew, sparing neither man nor woman, neither youth nor age; even cattle and sheep and asses were put to the sword.3

The Cherem is the curse or the ban meaning to be devoted to destruction. Quite literally, these people are devoted to God via their destruction. They are given to God. They are handed to God due to their hardened hearts which carry the virus of idolatry. Is the cherem genocide? Not necessarily. Notice that Rahab is spared due to her profession of faith. It is a distinction of religious identity not national or ethnic identity. Is the cherem jihad? No, unlike the Islamic jihad there is no military mandate to take over the whole world. Salvation will come to the world through the wisdom of Israel not through military conquest. The concept of cherem is discussed further in the lessons below.

 

5. No Such Thing as Private Sin

In the book of Joshua, the major theological theme of convent faithfulness is demonstrated in the principle that there is no private sin. The armies of Ai rout Joshua and the Israelites, and in response Joshua cries out before the Ark of the Covenant.4 The Lord responds, “Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant which I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, and lied, and put them among their own stuff.”5 Note that the Lord’s response is communal—Israel has sinned; however, only one man, A’chan, had sinned by hiding spoils of war in his tent.6 Though it was a private sin, the entire community was guilty of breaking the covenant and has lost favor with God.

Notice that the narrative of Achan almost ruins an entire people. Archan and his family are stoned to death and his possessions are burned. The story of Archan is arguably a flip side of the Cherem. The whole nation suffers until the infidelity to offered to God via destruction. It is an issue of covenant faithfulness not race or nationality.

 

6. The Sun Stands Still

What happened to Rahab in Jericho now happens to an entire community. Upon hearing what had happened to Jericho, the people of Gabaon devised a way to make peace with Israel. They dressed themselves in worn clothes and presented themselves as having traveled from far away to make an alliance. Israel was deceived and the people of Gabaon entered into a covenant with Israel. Once the deceit is discovered, Joshua curses them and they become laborers – but Israel remains in covenant with them and Gabaon becomes a pagan people ordered toward the true God. Note again that the cherem is not about race or nationality but about religious devotion to the true God of Israel. In chapter ten, the Gibeonites come under attack and Israel – in fidelity to their covenantal relationship – come to their defense. During the battle, the Lord makes the sun stand still in order that Israel may finish the battle and secure victory.

 

7. The Division of the Land

The division of the Promise Land amongst the tribes sets the stage for the rest of the history of Israel. The tribes will be a loose collection of entities during the Judges period, they will be united under Saul, David, and Solomon, and then they will fragment and will be conquered and exiled by the Assyrians and then the Babylonians. It is these section of Joshua that sets the geographic stage for the rest of Historical Books. The most important tribe in the north becomes Ephraim and in the south Judah. Typologically, the Early Church commented on this section as showing the different levels of glory in heaven, because the Promise Land is not dividing equally among the tribes. Finally, note that the Jebusities who control what will later become Jerusalem still remain unconquered in the Promise Land.7

 

8. The Test

In the twenty-second chapter, a few tribes of Israel still remain on the east side of the Jordan. The question of the narrative of “the test” is whether the physical barrier of the Jordan will also become a spiritual barrier. Those on the east side decide to set up a huge altar next to river to show they are part of the body of Israel and that the God of Israel is their God; however, those on the west side misread their actions and believe those on the east bank have erected a false altar. The idea of cherem re-enters the story as the Israelites on the west bank believe they must now destroy those on the east bank due to their unfaithfulness to the covenant. They are willing to war with their own kinsmen in order that Israel may remain pure and faithful to their covenant with the Lord. Fortunately, before the war begins the true purpose of the altar on the east bank is discovered and all ends well.

 

9. Covenant Renewal

The Book of Joshua ends with a renewal of the covenant.8 Joshua demands that Israel chose who they will serve, which has become a famous passage in Holy Scripture:

“And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve… but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”9

“And if you be unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve… but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”10

“But if it seem evil to you to serve the Lord, you have your choice: choose this day that which pleaseth you, whom you would rather serve… but as for me and my house we will serve the Lord.”11

“If the Lord’s service mislikes you, choose some other way… I and mine will worship the Lord.”12

The larger passage denotes that either the Israelites still have foreign gods among them or rather the spirit of idolatry is still dwelling in their hearts. What they need is a cherem of the heart. Israel chooses to follow the Lord and does so as long as Joshua is alive; however, the Promise Land is not completely conquered. The Jebusites still remain in what will become Jerusalem.

  1. Resources: These lessons on Joshua were drawn primarily from a lecture by a professor at a FSSP seminary. []
  2. “The word Jesus is the Latin form of the Greek ‘Ina-00s, which in turn is the transliteration of the Hebrew Jeshua, or Joshua, or again Jehoshua, meaning “Jehovah is salvation”.” – Catholic Answers. []
  3. 6:20-21, Knox. []
  4. 7:4-9 []
  5. v. 11 []
  6. vv. 19-21 []
  7. Jebusites remain, 15:63; it is not until King David that they are conquered and Jerusalem becomes the central political and spiritual point for the People of God. []
  8. 24:24-15 []
  9. 24:14, KJV. []
  10. RSVCE []
  11. Douay-Rheims []
  12. Knox Bible []