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Women in Judges

Kelly J. Murphy
Emory University

Project/Course: Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (as a means to introduce a specific method of interpretation, such as feminist approaches to the biblical texts); or as the first class in a course such as Women and the Bible
Intended Audience: Undergraduates
Syllabus Section: "Women in Judges" or "Introducing Feminist Hermeneutics"

Objectives:

  1. 1. To offer students a brief overview of the book of Judges, including the important role played by the female characters in the book


  2. 2. To provide students with an introduction to feminist approaches to the Hebrew Bible


  3. 3. To provide students with an opportunity to engage critically with the biblical texts in order to develop their skills in textual comprehension, evidentiary reasoning, and argument construction, analysis, and adjudication

Outline of Lesson Plan:

  1. 1. Pre-Class Readings and Assignment


  2. 2. Class Session
    a. Background Lecture on the Book of Judges
    b. Background Lecture on Feminist Hermeneutics
    c. Women in Judges Overview
    d. In-Class Activities: Gender in Judges
    e. Conclusions


  3. 3. Research Ideas/Where to Go From Here

Pre-class Preparation:

Prior to the class session, instructors should assign the following essays from OBSO that present the necessary background material for students. The background material is of two kinds: articles that provide information on the book of Judges in general, and articles that introduce students to feminist hermeneutics as one critical method for studying the biblical texts. In addition to the OBSO readings, students should also read the book of Judges in the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV). Encourage students to search/explore the various links on OBSO to learn more about specific topics/issues/figures that interest them.

Background Readings on the Book of Judges:

  1. 1. NOAB Introduction to Judges


  2. 2. The Oxford Bible Commentary on Judges: Introduction


  3. 3. The Oxford Companion to the Bible on Judges


  4. 4. The Oxford Bible Atlas: The Setting of the Stories of Joshua, the Judges, Samuel, and Saul

Background Readings on Feminist Hermeneutics:

  1. 1. The Modern Study of the Bible


  2. 2. Feminist Criticism and Related Aspects


  3. 3. Feminist Scholarship


  4. 4. Women

Assignment:

  1. 1. Read the Book of Judges in one sitting. Write down the texts in which female characters are present, in addition to the texts that lack female characters.

Class Session:

The following material is presented as possible background information for a lecture. Relevant OBSO links are included so that instructors can flesh out their lectures as needed per individual cases.

A Short Introduction to the Book of Judges


The Story

The narrative found in The Book of Judges tells the story of the premonarchic days of ancient Israel. The book focuses on the period of the "conquest" of the biblical territory, recounting how the Israelites gained control of some of the land from the various non-Israelite peoples living there. Unlike the picture of the conquest painted in the book of Joshua, Judges depicts the attainment of the land as a much more faltering process in which the Israelites never fully take control (see Conquest Hypothesis for more).

The title of the book in English is misleading, with "Judges" stemming from the only occasionally used appellation of the twelve tribal heroes/deliverers whose deeds the book records (Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, Samson; see The Judges for more detail). While in English the word "judge" carries with it a judicial connotation, only Deborah functions as a judge in this sense within the book (giving readers a glimpse of how important women are in the book of Judges!). The Hebrew word translated into English as "judge" has a much broader range of meanings, including to decide, to govern, to vindicate, and to save/deliver. Within the book, the so-called judges rescue the Israelites from the hands of their enemies, and thus function mainly as military leaders during times of trouble (for more on the office of Judge see Who Should Rule? ). For this reason, the title hero/deliverer is a more apt designation.

At first glance, Judges appears to be a book primarily concerned with the men who figured prominently during Israel's premonarchic days: Othniel, Gideon, Shamgar, Samson, and Micah, (to name only a few). Yet the female characters of the book—only one of whom is a "judge"—play an important role in the unfolding narrative. While the book names four of these women (Achsah, Deborah, Jael, and Delilah), it identifies the others—despite their importance to the development of the text—only as daughters, wives, lovers, or mothers of the male characters. Thus, the book is an excellent starting point for introducing feminist hermeneutics and addressing gender issues related to the biblical texts more broadly.

The Genre of the Book:

Scholarship ascribes the book of Judges to the Historical Books (in Judaism, Judges belongs to the Former Prophets). The label "historical," however, belies the fact that determining the intended genre of the book of Judges is no easy task. In part, this is because Judges itself offers readers no clear indication of how to read or understand it.

The book sounds, at times, like a history book. For this reason, Judges is firmly rooted in the ongoing debates on history and historicity in biblical studies (see The Historical Books and Historicity for more on this). Some interpreters read Judges as they might a history book, and when doing so feminist interpreters mine Judges for details on the realities of the lives of women in premonarchic Israel.

Other interpreters see Judges not as a history book proper, but rather as a book depicting an era that is mostly the creation of its authors (even if the authors used various oral or written sources that might contain historical elements). Accordingly, for these interpreters, Judges does not necessarily depict how women lived in the premonarchic period. Nevertheless, the book still provides a glimpse into the ideology, interests, and historical period of its writers.

The Composition of Judges:

The exact compositional process of how the different narratives about the tribal heroes/deliverers now in Judges came together is difficult to unravel with any certainty. In short, Judges is most likely composed of oral and written traditions, by individuals and groups, taken from both very old and more recent periods. What is certain is that scholars regularly discuss Judges as Part of a Larger Whole.

This larger whole is the body of literature stretching from Deuteronomy–2 Kings, dubbed The Deuteronomistic History by biblical scholars. The argument is that the books from Deuteronomy–2 Kings constitute a single literary unit, often understood as ancient Israel's carefully organized and edited historical record extending from foundation, conquest, period of the judges, origins of the monarchy, the history of the two kingdoms, and, finally, the history of Judah until its fall. According to the Deuteronomistic History hypothesis, these biblical books share in both demonstrating nationalistic pride and emphasizing that Yahweh controls history. The author(s) of the Deuteronomistic History, some scholars argue, incorporated the earlier stories about various tribal heroes/leaders into the final work now known as Judges, adding introductions and conclusions to the disparate narratives.

The Outline of the Book:

The book of Judges is divisible into three main sections. It begins with a double introduction that outlines the military/social problem and the religious problem respectively (Judges 1:1–36; 2:1–3:6). This is followed by a main body that includes the stories of the major and minor judges (Judges 3:7–16:31), and then a conclusion in two parts that summarizes again the religious problem and the military/social problem, respectively (Judg 17:1–18:31;19:1–21:25).

The introduction material found in Judges 2 establishes the pattern that the book largely follows throughout the narratives of the individual judges:

  • Israel does evil.
  • Yahweh sends an enemy.
  • Israel cries out to Yahweh.
  • Yahweh sends a hero/deliverer to come to their aid.

After deliverance, the people slip back into their evil ways, and the pattern then repeats. However, the central portion of the work, recounting the stories of the major judges, gradually departs from this stereotyped pattern, mirroring the steady deterioration of the nation. Both the social and religious life of premonarchic Israel becomes more and more deplorable with each major hero/deliverer. The final chapters of the book, which altogether lack heroes/deliverers, repeat the refrain "In those days there was no king in Israel and all the people did what was right in their own eyes" (Judg 17:6; 21:25). The refrain functions to stress the evolving chaos in premonarchic Israelite society as depicted by the authors of Judges, while looking forward to the subsequent phase of Israelite history: the monarchy.

STRUCTURAL OUTLINE OF JUDGES

1. An Introduction in Two Parts

  • i. Introduction: The Military Problem (1:1–36)
  • ii. Introduction: The Religious Problem (2:1–3:6)

2. Major and Minor Figures in the Book (3:7–16:31)

  • i. Othniel of Judah
  • ii. Ehud of Benjamin
  • iii. Shamgar
  • iv. Deborah and Barak
  • v. Gideon of Manasseh
  • vi. Abimelech of Shechem
  • vii. Tola of Issachar
  • viii. Jair of Gilead
  • ix. Reiteration of religious problem (10:6–17)
  • x. Jepthah of Gilead
  • xi. Ibzan of Bethlehem
  • xii. Elon of Zebulun
  • xiii. Abdon of Ephraim
  • xiv. Samson of Dan

3. A Conclusion in Two Parts

  • i. Conclusion: The Sanctuary at Dan (17:1–18:31)
  • ii. Conclusion: Violence and Intertribal Conflict (19:1–21:25)

A Short Introduction to Feminist Hermeneutics

The book of Judges contains many female characters, and their importance in the unfolding plot provides various opportunities for discussing the construction of the role and status of women in ancient Israel. As such, it is also a good text to use when introducing one particular methodological approach to the biblical texts: Feminist Hermeneutics.

To begin, however, it is important to establish that the term feminist hermeneutics does not describe one single method of biblical interpretation. Rather, it is more accurate to discuss the Methods of Feminist Biblical Interpretation. This is because feminist hermeneutics is a way of engaging with the biblical texts that often employs previously existing methodological approaches to the biblical text, drawing on a number of different fields such as archaeology, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, literary criticism, and/or historical criticism (to name only a few). (Read aloud or show students the following quotation from OBSO.) As Yvonne Sherwood explains:

"There are almost as many ways of engaging the Bible and feminism in conversation as there are feminist critics. Though "feminist biblical criticism" may suggest something homogeneous, monolithic, even a kind of bland sisterhood, the voices it encompasses are extremely diverse, as are the feminisms. For some, feminism is a position intricately theorized through the work of French psychoanalytic critics such as Hélène Cixous or Luce Irigaray; for others it is a label acquired simply through arguing for equality ("I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is," wrote Rebecca West, famously. "I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.") For some, feminist biblical criticism is about reclaiming the Bible for women in Jewish or Christian communities; for others, it is about exploring the influence of the Bible on contemporary society."

What then does it mean to do feminist hermeneutics, or to engage in a feminist reading of the book of Judges? (To begin, it helps to delineate the terms. The instructor may want to report the definitions to the class or, alternatively, invite students to suggest definitions for the terms and thereby work together as a class to come up with an appropriate definition).

  • Feminist simply means a critique of masculine supremacy and the recognition that gender roles are socially constructed.
  • The word hermeneutics derives from the Greek hermeneuein, meaning to expound, interpret, translate, or explain. However, the term means more than simply "interpretation," as it also indicates having an awareness of the principles employed in the process of interpretation.
  • In short, feminist hermeneutics is a rereading of the biblical books from a feminist perspective or with a feminist interpretation. Feminist hermeneutics describes the biblical texts as patriarchal and androcentric, but also seek out any positive portrayals of women in the texts, while investigating power dynamics, removing the layers of patriarchal interpretation, and considering the macro-structure and micro-structure of the narratives.
  • The term hermeneutics of suspicion describes one way that feminist readers approach the text; namely, with the awareness that the texts and their interpretation have been (mostly) written by men, for men, and about men, and so (often) serve the interests of patriarchy.

(Return to lecture.)
The practice of feminist hermeneutics on biblical texts directly relates to the feminist movement more broadly. The first wave of feminist biblical scholarship emerged out of the European Enlightenment and the nineteenth-century women's suffrage movement in the United States. The second wave of feminist interpretation occurred concurrently with the second wave of the women's movement. Beginning in the early 1960s and continuing into the late 1970s, feminism attempted to fight for the social rights women lacked.

The second wave of feminist interpreters discovered that even if they stripped the biblical texts of their androcentric interpretations, the texts themselves nevertheless remained androcentric, raising the issue of biblical authority. The following descriptions briefly summarize the three main feminist responses to the question of biblical authority:

  1. 1. REJECTIONISTS: For these readers, the biblical texts were too androcentric and too patriarchal to purge them of their bias against women. Therefore, rejectionists, as the name implies, rejected the notion of biblical authority absolutely.


  2. 2. REFORMISTS: At the opposite end of the continuum stood the reformists. For these readers, the biblical texts remained God's inspired words, and therefore insisted that there must be a way to resolve the tension between women's rights and biblical authority. Reformists argued for the descriptive rather than prescriptive nature of the biblical texts, and looked for positive passages, such as those that described the deity as female or stories that featured prominent female leaders, like Miriam or Deborah.


  3. 3. OTHERS: Beyond the rejectionists and the reformists, feminist readers adopted various other strategies for dealing with the thorny issue of biblical authority. Some feminist readers searched for a canon-within-the-canon, in order to determine a benchmark by which to interpret a number of scriptural texts. For example, liberation theologians often focus on the Exodus.

However, the issue of authority is not always pertinent. This is especially the case because not all readers and interpreters of the biblical texts are religious. Taking this into consideration, another way to look at the history of feminist interpreters of the biblical texts is to discuss some of the major feminist hermeneutical strategies employed (with the caveat that the list by no means encompasses all possible feminist approaches):

  1. 1. Feminist Historical Approaches to the Biblical Texts: One hermeneutical strategy is to focus on the historical realities of women during the various phases of ancient Israelite history. This strategy draws primarily on the broader method of biblical interpretation known as Historical Criticism. The historical approach asks about the tangible lives of women as depicted in the biblical texts, studies the place of women in ancient Israelite society, and examines what the biblical texts teach about women. Even if the texts do not reveal the concrete historical realities of biblical women, the texts nevertheless provide information on the period and positions of its authors, including motives for writing and any hidden (or not so hidden) ideologies. In short, the historical-critical method is concerned with the world behind the texts and the production of biblical texts.

    Example: Using a historical approach, feminist readers of the biblical text might search the legal corpus in an attempt to reconstruct community life as it affected women in ancient Israel. Such a reading of Deuteronomy would therefore note that women were defined as the property of men (Deut 5:21), that a woman was expected to be a virgin when she married (Deut 22:14) and that if she was not, she faced death by stoning (Deut 22:21). Furthermore, a woman had no right to divorce (Deut 24:1–4). From these laws, a feminist reader might conclude that women of the biblical period had very few rights when compared with their male counterparts.


  2. 2. Feminist Literary Approaches to the Biblical Texts: A second feminist hermeneutical strategy employs Literary Criticism. Drawing on one or more of the various branches of literary criticism, feminist readers pose a number of literary questions to the biblical texts, which center on the question of what the text means regardless of what its authors or editors intended the text to mean. There are a number of different interpretive lenses available to a reader employing literary criticism with a feminist angle, including rhetorical criticism, structuralism, deconstructionalism, and narrative criticism.

    Example: A feminist literary reading might examine the story of Jephthah's Daughter from Judges 11, asking how the narrator constructs the female gender therein. When does the narrator allow the daughter to speak? Does she speak in opposition to her own well-being? Does she—or the narrator—challenge Jephthah's paternal authority? What does the narrator prize about the daughter? Is the narrator androcentric? From the narrative in Judges 11, a feminist reader might conclude that the narrator upholds the androcentric culture depicted therein, and prizes the daughter's virginity over her life.


  3. 3. Feminist Approaches to Recover the Biblical Texts: A third example of a feminist hermeneutical strategy is one that grows out of the historical approach discussed above. While this approach recognizes the patriarchal nature of the biblical world and the inherent androcentric characteristic of the biblical texts, it nevertheless finds traditions in the biblical corpus that contain critiques of patriarchy. Examining ignored texts or reexamining familiar texts, feminist readers recover forgotten stories about women or bring important female characters out of the shadows and into the forefront of readings and interpretations. (For more, see Conversation: Speaking With the Biblical Texts).

    Example: A feminist strategy of recovery might reexamine the Moses/Exodus narrative, in which female characters repeatedly counter the patriarchal world of the text. At the beginning of the narrative are two midwives, who oppose the Pharaoh by refusing to kill the newborn Israelite sons. Then, the text features Moses' Hebrew mother and his older sister, who likewise defy the Pharaoh's edict. Finally, even the Pharaoh's own daughter actively resists her father's plan to kill all of the Hebrew newborn males, keeping Moses as her own. By bringing the women of the Moses/Exodus narratives to the forefront of the story—and not ignoring the important role played by these women as the history of interpretation often did—a feminist strategy of recovery highlights the counter-literature present in the biblical corpus.


  4. 4. Feminist (Re)Readings of the Biblical "Texts of Terror": A final example of a feminist strategy is one that retells the narratives that scholar Phyllis Trible deemed "Texts of Terror"; in other words, texts which feature violence against women. This strategy intends to produce not only grief and shock at the exploitation of power and the violence against women demonstrated in the narratives, but also resistance against such exploitation and violence. Such a rhetorical reading is an outgrowth of the literary angle outlined above, and seeks to reread the texts of terror with sympathy for the abused women, and to counter these texts both rhetorically and theologically. (For more, see Critique: Speaking Against the Biblical Texts.)

    Example: A feminist rereading of a text of terror might reexamine the narrative of the Levite's concubine from Judges 19, in which the woman is betrayed, raped, murdered, and dismembered. With this approach, feminist readers might ask how contemporary readers of the narrative should interpret the text. (Trible argues that with this approach, contemporary readers should interpret the narrative on behalf of the unnamed woman in order to remember her suffering and death.)

    The aforementioned feminist hermeneutical strategies are only a partial list and by no means exhaust the manifold ways of approaching the biblical texts from a feminist perspective. As feminist scholarship on the Bible continues to move forward and develop, it does so with greater attention to the intersection of identities: gender, race, class, nationality, and sexuality. With its refinement, feminist hermeneutics now acknowledges that "woman" is not a comprehensive identity category. As such, feminist approaches now often read the biblical texts in the context of both ethnic heritage and gender, including womanist, Latin-American, and Asian feminist approaches, to name only a few Additionally, other feminists employ post-colonial theory, doing biblical interpretation in the context of Western colonization, and analyzing how colonizers sometimes used the Bible oppressively. In short, the four approaches detailed above offer only a hint at the various strategies employed by feminist hermeneutics. (See The Future of Feminist Scholarship for more.)

Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. One way to summarize the various feminist hermeneutical perspectives is to group them as follows: loyalists, revisionists, and rejectionists. For loyalists, the problem is not in the text itself, but rather in the interpretation of the biblical texts. Revisionists acknowledge the patriarchal aspects of the biblical texts, and instead look for the "counter-traditions" within the narratives. Finally, rejectionists simply reject the authority of the texts.

    • What are the strengths and weaknesses of each position?
    • What biblical texts might support each perspective?
    • Are there biblical texts that might be used to argue against each perspective?

  2. 2. What things might one look for when employing feminist hermeneutics on a text? Solicit students to come up with a list, which might include questions such as the following:

    • Are women present or absent in the text?
    • If present, what are the women's roles?
    • What is the legal status of women?
    • Do women have any leadership roles, either social or religious?
    • Is the text liberating or oppressive for women?
    • Does the text use gendered language when discussing the deity?
    • Are there any patriarchal assumptions in the text?
    • How does attention to these and other questions contribute to an understanding of the Bible and the biblical world it portrays?

Activities:

  1. 1. Divide students into four groups, assign each group a biblical text as well as one of the hermeneutical strategies listed above, and invite the students to apply that strategy to the text. Following group work, have each group present their text and findings to the entire class.

Case Study: Gender in the Book of Judges

The following material could be used for a lecture on the major female characters in the book of Judges. Discussion questions for each of the different female characters are included after their description, in addition to more general questions for discussion at the end. Alternatively, students could be divided into groups and asked to explore the texts about each of these women, and to present their findings to the whole class. At that point, a discussion on the depiction of women in the book of Judges could take place.

INTRODUCTION:

Biblical scholars observe that the spiral into chaos and the social and religious decline depicted in the book of Judges directly corresponds to the well-being of its female characters. The book portrays these female characters both as individuals and in collective groups, sometimes naming them but often not, and only occasionally giving them a voice in the narrative. Broadly speaking, when women are named and voiced in Judges, things are at their best for Israel as a whole, while when women are voiceless, they are silent victims of male violence, and things are at their worst for Israel as a whole. The narrative opens with Achsah, a woman who has both a name and a voice and closes with stories about the unnamed, voiceless, and abused women of the concluding chapters of the book. (Articles on both War and Names in Biblical Literature provided helpful summaries on violence and the importance of names in the biblical literature.)

ACHSAH:

The first woman introduced in the book of Judges is Achsah. In contrast with many of her subsequent female counterparts, the book of Judges both names and gives a voice to Achsah. After her father gives her to Othniel as a wife, she returns to him and makes a demand, saying, "Give me a present; since you have set me in the land of the Negeb, give me also Gulloth-mayim" (Judges 1:15). The text reports that her father grants her request.

Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. What might the story of Achsah tell contemporary readers about marriage transactions and property rights in ancient Israel?


  2. 2. Scholars sometimes call Achsah the portrait of an "ideal woman" in the book of Judges. Why might this be the case? Why not? Does Judges present an "ideal" woman? Does Judges present a "less-than-ideal" woman?

DEBORAH:

The second of the named women in the book of Judges is Deborah, whom the text describes both as a female prophet and as either "The Woman of [the town] Lappidoth" or "wife of [the man] Lappidoth" (Judg 4:4; the meaning of the original Hebrew is ambiguous). Out of all of the heroes/deliverers in the book, only Deborah functions as a judge in the judicial sense. In addition to her role as judge, Deborah also functions as a military leader: she summons a man named Barak to be her general and leads him and his soldiers against Israel's enemies. Like Achsah, the text both names Deborah and gives her a voice. (For more on Deborah, see the Oxford Bible Commentary on Judges 4–5).

Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. Deborah is considered one of the major judges in the book of Judges. Compare and contrast with the stories of the male hero/deliverers in the book, and their introductions. How is her story the same? What elements are missing?


  2. 2. What difference does the translation of the description of Deborah in Judges 4:4 make?

JAEL:

The next major female character is Jael, about whom Deborah sings (Song of Deborah). Like Deborah and Achsah, the text both names and gives a voice to Jael. Identified as the wife of Heber the Kenite, Jael invites the commander of the Canaanite army of King Jabin, a man named Sisera, into her tent as he flees from a battle in defeat. She subsequently drives a tent-peg into his temple, killing him, and thereby saving the Israelites from the Canaanite threat. (For more on Jael, see Writing Biblical History: Not Exactly As It Happened and the Oxford Bible Commentary on Judges 4–5).

Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. The book of Judges records the story of Jael twice; first in the prose account of Judges 4 and then again in the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. How do the two accounts differ in their depiction of her? Is one more effective than the other?


  2. 2. What similarities are found in the stories of Jael and the young David (see 1 Sam 17)? How are they different? Is one story better known than the other? If so, why might this be the case?

JEPHTHAH'S DAUGHTER:

Following Jael, the next major female character is the book remains unnamed, and is only known as Jephthah's Daughter. Returning home victorious after defeating the Ammonites, Jephthah swears an oath: he will sacrifice the first thing/person who emerges from his house upon his return. The book then reports that his only child, a daughter, comes out to meet him first. Jephthah appears bound by his vow and does not fight her fate, but only asks for two months time, in which she "may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I" (Judg 11:37). Following this, the text states, "At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man" (Judges 11:39). The book offers no commentary on the act, but simply concludes, "So there arose an Israelite custom that for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite" (Judges 11:40). (For more on Jephthah's Daughter, see the Oxford Bible Commentary on Judges 11.)

Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. Compare and contrast the story of Judges 11 with the Akedah (Gen 22). How are the two narratives similar? How do the two narratives differ?


  2. 2. What role does the deity play in the narrative?


  3. 3. What role does speech play in the story of Jephthah's Daughter?


  4. 4. Has anything been left out of the story of Jephthah's Daughter? Why might this be the case?

SAMSON'S MOTHER:

The stories of Samson feature several key female characters: his unnamed mother, his unnamed Philistine bride, and his paramour Delilah. Samson's Mother is the first woman introduced into the narrative. Unnamed, the text simply refers to her as Manoah's wife (Judg 13:2–25; 14:2–9, 16; 16:17). She is the recipient of two divine birth-announcements, in both of which she interacts one-on-one with a divine messenger. When she announces to her husband Manoah what she has learned, Manoah requests a second visit. The text then reads, "God listened to Manoah, and the angel of God came again to the woman as she sat in the field, but her husband Manoah was not with her" (Judg 13:9). Only after the messenger appeared twice to the woman alone is Manoah granted an audience (and even then he has to follow his wife to meet the messenger), in which he asks "What is to be the boy's rule of life? What is he to do?" (Judg 13:12). The messenger states, "Let the woman give heed to all that I said to her" (Judges 11:13). When Manoah finally understands to whom he speaks, he panics, exclaiming, "We shall surely die, for we have seen God" (Judg 13:22). Ever calm, Samson's mother-to-be responds, "If the lord had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted (our) offering. . . or shown us all these things, or now announced to us such things as these" (Judg 13:23). After Samson is born, it is his mother who names him, and he asks her (in addition to his father) to help him procure his Philistine wife. (For more on Samson's Mother, see the Oxford Bible Commentary on Judg 13-16.)

Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. Compare and contrast the announcement of Samson's birth with other typical birth announcement scenes (for instance, in the stories of Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah, and, in the New Testament, of Elizabeth and Mary in Lk 1). How is it similar? How is it different?


  2. 2. How does the text depict Samson's mother in contrast to Samson's father?


  3. 3. Yahweh, a deity normally portrayed as male, directly interacts with only a few characters in the book of Judges, including Gideon (Judg 6–8), Samson's mother-to-be, and, briefly, Samson's father-to-be. What are the implications of the divine messenger's two-fold appearance only to Samson's mother, and Samson's father's subsequent behavior?

SAMSON'S WIFE:

Samson's Wife is also unnamed, although the text clearly identifies her as a Philistine (Judg 14:1–4). Nevertheless, when Samson sees her he declares that he wants her as his wife, asking his parents to get her for him. Distraught over his choice of a wife from their enemies, his parents are unaware that the deity is fuelling Samson's decision (Judg 14:3). Once she and Samson are married, the Philistine lords threaten to kill the woman by fire if she does not discover the answer to Samson's riddle. She eventually obtains the answer by tears, accusation, and nagging, and tells the Philistine lords. Samson then leaves in anger, and the woman's father subsequently marries her off again. When Samson returns and discovers that his wife is no longer his, he burns the Philistine grain fields. In retaliation, the Philistine lords burn the woman and her father (Judg 15:6). Samson kills many Philistines in reprisal. (For more on Samson's Wife, see the Oxford Bible Commentary on Judg 14:115:8.)

Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. What does this text imply about the value and place of women in ancient Israelite society?


  2. 2. At one point, Samson tells his wife that he has not "yet told my mother or my father" the answer to his riddle. What might this indicate about to Samson's first allegiance?


  3. 3. How does speech play a role in the narrative about Samson and his wife?

DELILAH:

Next is Delilah, the only named woman in the stories about Samson. In this well-known story, Samson falls in love with Delilah, whom the Philistine lords ask to discover the secret of Samson's strength. Delilah asks Samson three times what makes his strength so great and how he might be bound in order to subdue him, and he lies three times to her about the source. After the third time, Delilah says, "How can you say, 'I love you,' when your heart is not with me? You have mocked me three times now and have not told me what makes your strength so great." (Judg 16:15) The text does not report Samson's reply, but merely that "finally, after she had nagged him with her words day and day, he was tired to death. So he told her his whole secret" (Judges 16:16). Delilah then tells the Philistine lords what she has learned, sealing Samson's fate. (For more on Delilah, see the Oxford Bible Commentary on Judges 16.)

Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. What role does speech play in the Samson and Delilah narrative? How is this similar or different from the role of speech in the story about Samson's wife?


  2. 2. Ask students what they initially think of when they hear the name "Delilah," and make a list of their answers on the board. Discuss the history of interpretation of the Samson and Delilah story in response to their answers.


  3. 3. Although the text reports that Samson loves Delilah, it provides very little information about Delilah herself. Does she love Samson in return? Is she an Israelite or a Philistine? Does she willingly agree to learn his secret, or do the Philistine lords coerce her? Discuss the implications of the taciturn nature of the biblical text.

THE LEVITE'S CONCUBINE:

The portrayal of women in the book of Judges culminates in the story of the unnamed woman of Judges 19, who is the "concubine" of an unnamed Levite. Unlike many of the women who precede her, the unnamed woman of Judges 19 has no voice: she never speaks. The text reports that something goes amiss between the Levite and his concubine, and that she returns home to her father. Four months later, the Levite comes looking for her, and after several days of staying in her father's house, he begins the return journey home—with the woman. He stops at a town called Gibeah, having not wanted to stay in a city of foreigners (Judg 19:12). There, in a city of Benjaminites, a man from Ephraim hospitably welcomes them (Judg 19:21). Then, as the Levite and the Ephraimite "were making their hearts merry" some men of the city arrived, demanding "Bring out the man who came into your house, so that we may have intercourse with him" (Judges 19:22). The Ephraimite host intervenes and they seize the concubine and throw her outside, where she is raped "all through the night until the morning" (Judges 19:26). When her attackers let her go, the woman falls down at the door of the house where her husband is inside. The text then reports without comment: "In the morning her master got up, opened the doors of the house, and when he went out to go on his way, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold" (Judges 19:27). He commands her to get up, but the woman does not answer. Upon returning to his home, the Levite dismembers her body, cutting it into twelve pieces, and sends the pieces to the tribes, saying "Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day? Consider it, take counsel, and speak out." (For more on the Levite's Concubine, see the Oxford Bible Commentary on Judges 19.)

Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. The central male figure in Judges 19 is a Levite—in other words, a priest of Yahweh. What does this indicate about Israel's social and religious decline in the final portions of the book? How does the depiction of the religious state of affairs in the book relate to the status of the female characters?


  2. 2. Both the Levite and his concubine remain unnamed in Judges 19. What is the significance of a name? (Hint: Scholar Frymer-Kensky claims that their nameless status is "a sign that they are important not as individuals but as representatives of society.")


  3. 3. Is it significant that the Levite has deliberately forgone a night in a foreign city for one in a city of Israel, and yet it is not a Benjaminite but an Ephraimite who offers welcome to the travelers? What might this indicate about the social unity of the Israelite tribes at this point in the book of Judges?


  4. 4. Are there any similarities between the story of Achsah and the story of the Levite's concubine? What might this indicate about the literary pattern in the book of Judges?

GENERAL DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

  1. 1. How does the book of Judges construct femininity? Does the book present an ideal woman, or are there multiple options for femininity?


  2. 2. Gender is not a category that only belongs to women—men, of course, have gender, too. How does the book of Judges construct masculinity? Does the book present an ideal male, or are there multiple options for masculinity?


  3. 3. In contrast to the assumptions of the first two questions, is it possible to claim that the book of Judges contains more than two options for gender? Why or why not?


  4. 4. What role does speech play in the book of Judges? When do the female characters have a voice? How and why do they use their voice? When do they remain silent? Do they ever speak for males?

In-Class Assignments:

Conclude class with one or more of the following activities, designed to foster group collaboration while engendering critical thinking skills.

  1. 1. Have students rewrite the structural outline of Judges provided at the start of class so that it includes the female characters presented in the book. Provide the class with time to share their outlines, asking students to explain how they included female characters, which characters they included and which they excluded, and why.


  2. 2. Divide students into groups of 3–4, and assign each group a particular passage or story from the book of Judges, which either includes a female character (or a collective group of female characters) or lacks one. Provide students with a handout that poses the following questions, and allow students to work through the questions in their assigned groups. Following the group work, have the students present their findings to the class.
    • Is there a woman or a woman's perspective in the text? Is there a man or a man's perspective? Both? (Remember—the absence of women in a text can be as illuminating as their presence!)
    • How does the text depict the female characters in the text? Do they have a name? Do they speak? How does the text depict the male characters? Do they have a name? Do they speak?
    • Who has the power in the text? What is the legal status of women? Do they have a social or religious status? Do women get what they want in the text? If so, how do they get it? If not, why not? Do the men get what they want? If so, how do they get it? If not, why not?
    • Does the text address any uniquely female experiences, like childbearing? If so, how does the text portray them? Does the text address any uniquely male experiences? If so, how?
    • Are the female characters required to do things against their will in this text? Are they oppressed in any way? Are the male characters required to do things against their will? Are they oppressed in any way?
    • Does the text use gendered language or contain any hidden patriarchal assumptions? Does the text uphold these assumptions, or challenge them in any way?

  3. 3. Have students compare and contrast different representations of the story of Jephthah's daughter. (Possibilities include Doré's "Jephthah's Daughter Coming to Meet Her Father" (1865), Rainer's "Jephthah's Daughter Goes to Greet Her Father" (1995–1998), and Moser's "The Daughter on the Pyre" (2003); Handel's oratorio Jephthah; or Lord Byron's poem, "Jephthah's Daughter.") Divide groups into 3–4, and assign them one of the representations, asking them to identify how the representations adhere to or deviate from the biblical text. Have students present their group work to the entire class at the end, and then facilitate a discussion based on the following questions:
    • How do the different representations depict the story of Jephthah's Daughter? What do they include? What do they exclude? Do they change any factors?
    • Which image do the students think is the best "illustration" of Judges 11?
    • What makes it "the best" (e.g., exact representation? the emotions invoked? other factors?)

  4. 4. In art, music, and literature Delilah is frequently portrayed or interpreted as a femme fatale. Play various musical renditions of the Samson and Delilah narrative for the class. (Such renditions might include Neil Sedaka's "Run Samson Run," The Grateful Dead's "Samson and Delilah," and Regina Spektor's "Samson.") Afterward, discuss how the songs each retell the story. Possible questions might include:
    • From whose perspective is the story told? Samson's? Delilah's? A narrator's?
    • Are there any obvious exclusions or simplifications in the way that the songs retell the narrative? (Hint: Are Samson's lies included? Does the song recount that Delilah was under pressure from the Philistine lords?)
    • Whose point of view is invoked? (This can also serve as a meta-commentary on biblical interpretation—how does the standard point of view reflect about the history of biblical interpretation? Who has done most of the interpreting?)

  5. 5. Some of the texts in the book of Judges are what Phyllis Trible calls "Texts of Terror," including the story of Jephthah's Daughter and the narrative about the Levite's Concubine in Judges 19. Invite students to write out an alternative text, which features the voices and responses of the female characters.


  6. 6. Gender is not just about the construction of femininity, but the construction of masculinity as well. How does the book of Judges construct masculinity? Compare and contrast the stories of some of the men of Judges, such as Gideon, Gideon's son, Jephthah, or Samson.
    • Do the narratives about the male characters depict an ideal male?
    • Do the texts always prize the use of physical prowess? Are any other tactics—like diplomacy—ever used?
    • Is there a consistent depiction of a masculinity of physical aggression?

  7. 7. The book of Judges hosts many unnamed women who play both significant and smaller roles in the unfolding narrative. Ask the students to identify these unnamed women, and then consider their roles in the book.
    • What roles do these women play?
    • Do these women have a voice in the text?
    • Are these women subjected to violence?
    • Does the text portray the enemy women or the non-Israelite women differently than the Israelite women?

Ideas for Research Outside of Class:

  1. 1. Invite students to research and report on other feminist hermeneutical strategies not discussed in the class session, and then to present their findings to the entire class in a future meeting.


  2. 2. Assign students a paper in which they reflect on whether the book of Judges intends for there to be a "lesson" about women and the devolving state of affairs in ancient Israel more broadly. If they think there is an intended lesson, what might this lesson be? If not, why not?


  3. 3. Have students pick one female character from the book of Judges and write a 10–12 page research paper on that character, employing their choice of a feminist hermeneutical strategy.


Further Reference:

  • Ackerman, Susan. Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen: Women in Judges and Biblical Israel. New York: Doubleday, 1998.
  • Brenner, Athalya, ed. Judges: A Feminist Companion to the Bible. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic, 1999.
  • Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories. New York: Schocken, 2002.
  • Hackett, Jo Ann. "Violence and Women's Lives in the Book of Judges" In Interpretation 58:4.
  • Meyers, Carol, Toni Craven, and Ross Shepard Kraemer, eds. Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
  • Newsom, Carol and Sharon Ringe, eds. The Women's Bible Commentary. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1998.
  • Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. London: SCM, 2002.
  • Yee, Gale A. Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.

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