Tuesday, May 22, 2012

YHWH versus Ba'al

In his article "Yahweh versus Baal: a narrative-critical reading of the Gideon/Abimelech narrative" Vince Endris seeks to show foremost that the narrative within the book of Judges covering the stories of Gideon and his son Abimelech are really one narrative showing the power-struggle between Yahweh and Baal in which Yahweh eventually emerges victorious. Endris suggests that looking at these stories that are placed in the middle of Judges will provide better insight into the rest of the overall story of Judges, in which the Israelites struggle severely will fidelity, constantly returning the gods which Yahweh has consistently defeated. Eventually, Yahweh begins to become less active in the lives of his people as they continue to betray him. Endris seeks to apply a narrative critical approach to the book of Judges. I believe that Endris does an excellent job with his article in showing the conflict between Yahweh and Baal, as well in the way he shows the downward spiral in the book of Judges as a whole, especially after Israel rejects Yahweh in the midst of his victory over Baal in the story of Gideon. I believe the connections he makes between Gideon and Abimelech as one narrative are convincing as well. He has obviously done very serious and legitimate research on this subject, and he provides numerous scriptural and scholarly references to support his claims.

Endris writes that in the narrative Yahweh appears to be defeated but “returns to bring about Baal's ultimate demise” (174). Gideon serves as a human representative of Yahweh and Abimelech serves as a human representative of Baal. As the Gideon story progresses, Gideon becomes less and less faithful to Yahweh and appears to bring about Yahweh’s defeat. However, Yahweh show himself ultimately victorious as the story continues when Abimelech who is Baal’s representative is destroyed, thus defeating Baal. Endris comes up with three main points in for the progression of this narrative. These are that the Gideon/Abimelech story gives reason for why God deals so harshly with the Israelites, saying that he will no longer defend them because they have turned to Baal because Baal and Yahweh are at war with each other; also, this explains why in the second half of the book of Judges there is a significant decrease in the acts of God and an increase in the activities of humans; also, in the last few chapters of Judges is presented four separate times the idea that during the days of the judges there was no king in Israel. Kingship is portrayed in a positive light in the book of Judges. The narrative believes that once Yahweh is represented in the human office of king, only then will the chaos Israel has brought upon herself be done away with.

There are parallels between the Gideon/Abimelech narrative and the book of Judges as a whole. Both stories begin with a period of rest. When Gideon comes on the scene it has been forty years since Deborah defeated Sisera. This is similar to what is found in Numbers. There is a new generation on the scene when Gideon comes along. At the beginning of the Gideon story is seen the prophet who reminds Israel of all God did for them in Egypt and warns them to flee from idolatry, just as at the beginning of Judges.

The conflict between Baal and Yahweh emerges when Yahweh commands Gideon to tear down the altar which his father had built to Baal. Gideon does as he is instructed and his father renames him “Jerubbaal.” In this is seen the beginning of the conflict. Jerubbaal can mean “one who contends with Baal” or “Baal will contend” or “Let Baal contend against him.” Also, the Midianite and Amalekite armies are seen as representatives of Baal. They are Israel’s human oppressors, just as Baal is Israel’s divine oppressor. It would seem that Baal is directly connected to these armies because immediately after Gideon destroys Baal’s altar and the judgment of Baal is pronounced upon him these armies begin to invade. It is apparently understood that the enemies are Baal worshipers. Gideon’s side in the war is that of Yahweh. Gideon tests Yahweh’s power several times. Yahweh proves to him that he is master over the elements. He provides dew for Gideon when Gideon asks for it. Baal was thought to be in control of the weather but Yahweh proves himself to be in charge. Yahweh takes control of the dew, so the reader expects that ultimately Yahweh will be victorious over Baal.

When the battle begins, Yahweh, or Elohim, brings Gideon’s numbers down to a few. He tests Gideon just as Gideon tested him. Also, this shows that the victory is not that of Gideon, but of Yahweh himself. It is Yahweh who is fighting for Israel. After the defeat of the enemies, the end of the story seems to be in sight. The people ask Gideon to be their ruler and Gideon responds that he will not and that only Yahweh shall rule over them. However, Gideon continues speaking and asks the people for jewelry so that he can make an ephod for them. This is a surprising turn of events for the reader. Gideon places the ephod in Ophrah, which is significant because this is the same location in which Gideon built an altar to Yahweh at the beginning of the narrative. Israel then proceeds to prostitute herself before the ephod. The narrative records that the ephod became a snare for all Israel and Gideon’s household. Immediately after Yahweh’s defeat of their enemies Israel returns to worshiping other gods. This scene with the ephod is reminiscent of the story of Aaron in the desert who took gold from the people in order to provide them with golden calf to worship. It seems to be implied that Gideon has replaced the shrine he built for Yahweh with an object of worship for Baal. This is in contrast to the beginning of the story in which Gideon pulls down Baal’s altar and sets up a shrine for Yahweh. It would seem that through Gideon’s unfaithfulness Baal has defeated Yahweh. Gideon’s story ends with infidelity. The Israelites even rename Baal as “Baal of the Covenant,” replacing Yahweh completely.

The next section focuses mostly upon Abimelech, the son of Jerubbaal. At this point in the story Gideon is no longer referred to as Gideon but as Jerubbaal, indicating that Baal has indeed contended for himself. The word “baal” is used throughout the story of Abimelech to show which side Abimelech is on. Abimelech becomes “a brother of the baals of Shechem” and he is “paid with money from the house of Baal of the Covenant” (179). His association with Baal is seen in his rejection of his own family. He eventually kills all but one of the sons of Jerubbaal. He does so by killing them on a rock at Ophrah one by one. This indicates that he is making human sacrifices to Baal. After this, the baals of Shechem and the house of Milloh pronounce Abimelech king. Jurubbaal’s remaining son Jotham shows up and pronounces judgment upon Abimelech for his actions. The author says that “before running away, Jotham utters a curse on Abimelech and the baals of Shechem that they be destroyed by fire” (180). This foreshadows that Yahweh will soon defeat Baal. Jotham mentions Elohim in his curse, and it would seem that Elohim, or Yahweh, will soon make an appearance after his long silence since the time of Jerubbaal. The story says that God sent an evil spirit to confuse the baals of Shechem so that they would betray Abimelech.

At this point in the story, yet another house is introduced, the house of Gaal, who worship a completely different god. Gaal boasts against Abimelech and Abimelech seeks revenge by attacking him at night. This is reminiscent of Gideon’s night attack on the Baal idol at Ophrah. That scene set up the narrative, and the night attack of Abimelech begins to bring the narrative to a close. Abimelech destroys the house of Gaal and burns down the temple of “God of the Covenant,” which is no longer considered to be Yahweh at this point. Abimelech then goes to the tower at Thebez to inflict more destruction, but suddenly a woman throws a millstone over the wall at random and it lands on his head. He instructs a young man to kill him and he does. This is contrasted with the Gideon story, where Gideon instructs his son to kill one of the enemy but he does not do it for he just a boy and was afraid. The number one is significant in this story. Abimelech kills the sons of Jerubbaal on one stone and acts as the single representative of Baal. In the end it is a single woman, acting as the representative of Yahweh who kills him.

At the end of the story, Elohim is revealed to have defeated Baal, but the Israelites immediately begin to do evil again, and Yahweh lets their enemies defeat them. They cry out to him again, but this time his response to them is a rebuke.

The article goes on to discuss other elements of the narrative. Gideon is originally portrayed as a good character resembling Moses. The call of Gideon is similar to God’s appearance to Moses in Exodus 3. Both leaders encounter the messenger of God, raise questions and objections, are visited by Yahweh, and are given signs. Also, Moses’ father-in-law is a priest of Midian, and Gideon’s father has an altar to Baal indicating that he is also a pagan priest. However, Gideon’s character spirals down within the story until he winds up betraying Yahweh. Up until this point Gideon is the only judge to be specifically raised up by Yahweh himself. As the narrative progresses Gideon is seen to be working more so on his own as well becoming much more aggressive and assertive. He kills those who had killed his own brothers in retribution. This is in contrast with Abimelech who later kills all of his own brothers.

Abimelech is seen as an evil character. He kills his brothers on a single stone and at the end of the story he is killed by a single stone. The end of the narrative concludes with a chiasm. It says, “God returned/Abimelech’s evil/and all the men of Shechem’s evil/God caused to return” (188). The conclusion here is significant because it shows how it was God who acted against the wickedness of these people, and it was God who ultimately defeated Baal by acting against them. After the Gideon narrative Baal ceases to act anymore. Yahweh acts a few times, but because of Israel’s refusal to worship him alone as they turn to gods Yahweh has already defeated he does not act very often. Human activity, rather than divine, is emphasized in the rest of the book.

The decrease of the activity of Yahweh in the rest of the book makes it look as though Yahweh has lost control of his people. Since the time of Othniel, every time the Israelites were saved from their enemies the land had rest for many years after the deliverance. Gideon is the last judge to bring rest to the land. He is also the last judge portrayed as having Yahweh “with him.” Jephtah and Samson act mostly on their own, sometimes doing the will of God and sometimes not. The book of Judges even says that the spirit of the Lord had left Samson.

There are also similarities in the last half of Judges with Genesis. However, whereas God acts in Genesis, he does not intervene in Judges. Jephtah’s sacrifice of his daughter parallels Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, except that God stops Abraham from killing his son and he does nothing about Jephtah’s acts. Also, the story of the Levite and his concubine parallels the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Both stories have men of the cities desiring to rape the male guests of one within the city. Both stories show the host offering the men his own virgin daughter or daughters to do with as they please. The difference is that in Genesis God strikes the Sodomites with blindness and destroys the city, and in Gibeah God does nothing to prevent the Levite’s concubine from being brutally raped all night and killed. Also, the overall story structure becomes more chaotic in the second half of Judges. Samson’s story is filled with a bunch of random things that he does, and the last few chapters do not give the reader the typical story of the judge saving the people, but rather several stories about seemingly random people doing horrible things.

The stories in the last half of Judges focus more on personal stories about individuals, such as Abimelech, Samson, and Micah. There is little activity by any god at all. The focus becomes on what seems right in the eyes of the individual rather than what is right in the eyes of God. This is seen when Samson wants to marry the Philistine woman because “she is right in my eyes,” as well as at the close of Judges when it is recorded that everyone did what was right in their own eyes and that at that time there was no king in Israel. Intertribal war also arises several times – Jephtah and the Ephraimites, Samson is handed over to the Philistines by his own people, the Danites attack Laish, and of course the war against Benjamin in which the entire tribe is almost made extinct.

The article concludes by pointing out how the narrative seems to indicate that once Yahweh’s reign is established through a human monarch, then the chaos will end and rest will return to the land. The Israelites have abandoned Yahweh even in the midst of his victory over their enemies and Baal. The reason that he does not come to their aid again by raising up a successful representative of himself is because Yahweh has in turn abandoned them. The reason there is no representative of Yahweh in Israel anymore is because Yahweh is not in Israel anymore.

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