Patriarchal protocols and terrible teraphim
Hidden gems in some familiar fields
Matthew’s opening chapter points us back to Gen 3:15, with its implicit guarantee that mankind would never lack a priest who enjoyed God’s mercy, regardless of the conditions in which they ministered. To which promise we owe the divine salvation enjoyed by Noah and Abraham, a salvation that became the hallmark of the Seed and those who served his interests. Yet, as we have already seen, following the whereabouts of the Seed is far from easy.
Through the patriarchal histories, we find various protocols for the transmission of rights became significant. Foremost was the heritage of the Seed, passed by faith to Abraham, en route to David and his eternal house. It’s transmission, subject to Edenic precedents, led to the expectation that God’s favour was conferred upon the youngest son. By contrast, secular power and the double portion that assured it, usually fell to the eldest son. These normal patters of heritage could also be distorted because individuals forsook their birthright, as with Esau (Gen 25:34), offended their father, as with Levi and Simeon (Gen 34:30, 49:5-7), or if families needed to submit to gain a spiritual covering (as with Jacob and Joseph). Little wonder then, that it can be hard to see the legacy of the Seed at work amidst the biblical histories. But, look hard enough for this hidden gem and it can be found. Indeed, it provides the driving force behind many of the twists and turns in the lives of the patriarchs, even after, with Rachel’s theft of teraphim, the influence of the serpent begins to take its toll. The influence of teraphim is another hidden strand worth teasing out, for they influenced the course of Jacob’s life and set the scene for Joseph’s testing of his sons.
Through its four women preserving a heritage and four leaders squandering theirs, Matthew’s genealogy brings the history of the Seed back to the fore. However, this approach was not entirely novel, for Judges earlier chapters (Judg 1:1-16:31) establish thematic links with Gen 3:15 by turning the spotlight on the female role in bringing low four foolish leaders who squandered their glory. Moreover, hidden within that book lie clues that its heroes were not quite as randomly selected as one might think. In the book’s final chapters (Judg 17:1-21:25) the influence of teraphim is felt again before Benjamin is brought to its knees by a woman.
Much is happening in Genesis and Judges, but our familiarity with their stories means that much of goes unseen.
Lessons from Lamech and Noah
Let me recap briefly on the situation in Gen 3:1-4:16 (as explored in Chapter 5). After Adam sinned, the divine authority to act as priest over their family passed to his wife, so the couple’s sins could continue to be covered. However, her desire for Adam allowed him to overrule her, so she too fell, leaving the family condemned to lose Eden and enter a life of painful toil. After Eden was destroyed, salvation lay in childbirth and the production of a seed acceptable before God. After Cain’s failed sacrifice disqualifies him, Abel’s successful offering showed him to be the heir of Gen 3:15’s promise. Cain then murdered his brother, but found salvation and a continued place within the family through the role of bond-servant. Following which, Eve bore another seed fit to adopt the mantel of Abel, Seth.
We find echoes of Gen 3:1-4:16 when Lamech murdered a young man for striking him. Looking to the precedent of Cain, he came under his wives’ spiritual authority and, confessing his bloodshed before them (Gen 4:23-24, cf. Gen 4:15), anticipates that by becoming God’s bond-servant he too will share Cain’s experience of forgiveness and protection (cf. Matt 18:21). Later, when his land is again accursed to the point of requiring painful toil (Gen 5:29, cf. Gen 3:17), we may assume his wives’ covering has ceased to be effective, for he then anticipates that the birth of a seed will bring relief (Gen 5:29) and only those bound to that seed survive the ensuing Noahic cataclysm.
After the flood Noah is presented as a new Adam and his drunkenness as his fall (see Chapter 6). It left him vulnerable and his priestly role in the balance. Ham saw this opportunity to expose his father’s weakness as an opportunity to be grasped. Noah’s other sons proved more faithful, and refusing to see the nakedness, provided a covering. Once recovered, Noah recognised that for Ham, this recognition of nakedness was a sign that he had chosen to follow in Adam’s footsteps, a choice that would leave his son Canaan destined, like Cain, to servanthood.
New authority, new covenant
Evidence of the legacy of the Seed next surfaces with Abraham. Yet, whilst he may have provided an exemplary model of faith (e.g. as suggested by Rom 4:9-16, Gal 3:9, Heb 11:8-19), he still had to exercise that faith within the constraints of God’s already-revealed judgements. Therefore, it is reasonable to interpret the events of his life in terms of the promise of Gen 3:15. Indeed, when looked at from this perspective, each re-statement of the covenant accompanies a corresponding shift in the authority responsible for its up-keep.
Abraham came to Moreh already assured that through him all nations would be blessed (Gen 12:1-3), i.e. that he was to carry the authority of the Seed. Once there, he received the further assurance of the land for his offspring (Gen 12:7). Yet it was not long before he faced a famine (Gen 12:10). This signalled that Abraham’s land was unclean and therefore that his priestly credentials no longer sure. Mid-flight to Egypt, he released Sarah to act as his sister rather than his wife (Gen 12:13), in the hope that she could secure a better reception for the couple. Maintaining such a subterfuge would have required Abraham to released her to act in her own right, just as when Eve became the mother of all the living (Gen 3:20)1. Abraham returned to Canaan still under Sarah’s authority. That meant that he was once again able to find favour with God, defeating kings and rescuing Lot, entering the priesthood of Melchizedek, and establishing a new covenant (Gen 15:1-19). Thanks to Sarah’s covering, God would be Abraham’s shield, an heir would come from the patriarch’s own body and his descendants would be like the stars. Moreover, even though they would be landless wanderers, enslaved in other nations for four hundred years, God would still remain faithful to the promise that they would inherit the land of Canaan.
Some traditions within Judaism envisage Melchizedek to be the elderly Shem, , nearing death and handing over the legacy of Noah (see Chapter 7). It is an interesting idea, for it has echoes in the assurance given concerning Abraham’s descendants. With Shem, four hundred years after the flood (Gen 11:10-11), handing over the lands of his servant Canaan (Gen 9:26) to the wanderer God calls from amidst the nations.
Following Melchizedek’s fleeting appearance, Abraham continued to be answerable to Sarah, though she began to show a less-favourable side. Abraham obediently took Sarah’s Egyptian maid, Hagar, as his wife (Gen 16:2). Then, when Hagar began to act as if mere conception gave her authority, Sarah held Abraham accountable for the wrong done to her by his wife (Gen 16:5). His repost reminded Sarah that her claim to Hagar’s obedience over-rode his own (Gen 16:6), so Sarah was free to metre out the harsh treatment that drove Hagar’s flight into the wilderness. Earlier, Abraham had remind God (Gen 15:2-3), a childless individual’s heritage would pass to one born in their house, which would usually be their servant’s child. Now, God met with Hagar, urging her to return to service, for although there was nothing to stop Ishmael inheriting the blessings promised to Abraham, it was Sarah’s seed which would count (Gen 16:9-10). The point being that, should Sarah remained childless, Hagar’s return would leave Ishmael first in line for the promise to the Seed. However, Hagar was also warned that this wild donkey of a son will not accept discipline easily and will be prone to antagonism against his brothers (Gen 16:12).
Sarah’s harsh ways necessitated another transfer of authority, but that would have to wait until Ishmael reach the age of responsibility. Moreover, this time it would involve submission to the son of an Egyptian (Gen 16:3). The traditional Jewish age of responsibility is thirteen for a boy and as Ishmael reached that age (Gen 17:25)2, we find God visiting Abraham and making another covenant (Gen 17:1-14). The absolute necessity for this transfer is confirmed by the faithless laughter that surrounds it, first from Abraham, then from Sarah (Gen 17:17, 18:12). This time some extra specifications are made, Abraham had to introduce a variant on the Egyptian practice of circumcision. He also had to accept renaming, just as if he were coming under a foreign ruler (cf. Gen 41:45, Dan 1:7). Authority over the family had transferred again, this time to Ishmael. Yet, despite the angel’s warning (Gen 16:12), Ishmael had turned out more like Cain than Abel. Thus, despite Abraham’s protestations, God is already clear that Ishmael cannot come before him and live, so Sarah will bear another son (Gen 17:18-19).
Once the legalities of the circumcision were finished, the Lord appeared again, but this time he had come to judge. The cry from Sodom was reaching heaven, from which we may assume Ishmael had failed to attend to it. So the Lord’s focus now returns to Sarah and it was time to announce Isaac’s birth. As the judge moves on to consider the corrupted Eden amidst which Abraham’s family lives (cf. Gen 13:7), Abraham’s intercessions included an incidental confession that he, like fallen Adam, had become no more than dust and ashes (Gen 18:27, cf. Gen 3:19, Job 30:19).
With the land unclean and, to judge by its attitude to Lot, now intolerant of Abraham’s family, God moved the promise-bearer into the comparative sanctuary of voluntary exile in Gerar. Abraham again sheltered behind Sarah, but this time God intervened to ensure that Sarah could only bear Abraham’s son (Gen 20:3-7). From the point of Isaac’s birth the family’s salvation depended upon the couple faithfully bringing of this seed to germination. So, when Sarah heard Ishmael laughing at the celebration of his brother’s weaning (his first step toward independence), she instructed Abraham to send him away and God told Abraham to obey her (Gen 21:1-8).
Isaac’s birth marked a new beginning, but one thing still stood in the way of him inheriting the land. By laughing at the judgements of God his family has brought a sentence of death upon themselves and a curse upon the land. So, as in the time of Noah, a new creation was needed; a jubilee that cleansed the land and after which only those territorial agreements made with God remained in force (Lev 27:16, 20-21); a cataclysm, in the midst of which God could remember the seed and act to preserve him; a dying through which all Abraham’s hopes and aspirations became formless and void, so God could resurrect them in a new Eden. Thus, God called Abraham to offer up his son (Gen 22:2) and Isaac, by laying down his life in obedience to his father, restored the cleanliness of the land and the blessing of God that went with it (Gen 22:15-18).
After Moriah, Isaac’s life followed a similar trajectory to that of his father. A famine like the one Abraham experienced (Gen 26:1) marks the point at which he ceases to be able to cleanse his land. Adopting the same wife/sister strategy as his father suggests he has comes under Rebekah’s authority, for he ends up blessed (Gen 26:7, 12). After that, Rebekah is hardly mentioned until we find Esau’s wives are able to make life bitter for the couple, indicating that she has lost control of her son and with it spiritual authority over the family (Gen 26:34-35). However, as Esau had already despised his birthright and ceded it to Jacob (Gen 25:34), she then acts to ensure that Jacob received his father’s blessing (Gen 27:8-10).
A wife for Jacob
There is a sense that, by tricking Esau of his birthright Jacob is already in need of covering, , for faced with Esau’s hostility it is time for Jacob to flee into exile under the authority of Laban. Then Isaac advised him of a better solution; get a wife from his own people instead. En-route to Mesopotamia, God met with Isaac and offered the same covenant terms under which his ancestors continued to enjoy provision and security in return for their service (Gen 28:13, cf. Gen 15:13-14). Laban, being a bone of Isaac’s bone and flesh of his flesh (Gen 29:13), provided the needed covering until Joseph could earn his wife3, whilst through Laban’s scheming God ensured that Jacob came to appreciate the impact of his deceit. The man who took advantage of his weak eyed father to avoid serving his brother, is take advantage of by a weak eyed woman and ends up rendering double service to his ‘brother’4. Once he finally becomes one flesh with Rachel5, she was presumably already compromised by the idolatry that would prove her downfall, for it was not until she bore a seed () that God instructed Jacob to return to Canaan and Jacob sought release from Laban to do so (Gen 30:25). Although Laban, still thinking of him as a servant, refused, Jacob’s request provided the opportunity to divide the camp. Thus allowing differentiation between those who serve the interests of the seed and those who don’t (cf 1 Cor 11:20). Jacob’s life then begins to establish precedents for the later Exodus. In time the people amongst whom he lived came to resent Jacob’s increasing power (Gen 31:1-2, 15, cf. Ex 1:9), so God called him back to Canaan. Then, Jacob stole away like a fugitive slave (Gen 31:20), fleeing through the waters of the Euphrates, to find safety in the wilderness hill country of Gilead. Once there, he was no longer under Laban’s authority, so God intervened to prevent the Aramean harming him (Gen 31:24). However, the return to Canaan did not play out quite as Jacob might have expected, for here we first pick up the tale of the teraphim (‘household idols’6), a story that would weaves its way throughout the remainder of Jacob’s life.
The ‘gods’ that went missing
Quite what teraphim were is unknown, but they were part of the paraphernalia of idolatrous harlotry (cf. Hosea 3:4, Zech 10:20) which were used for an occult technique (Ezek 21:21), which is usually translated as ‘divination’, but shared the root of its Hebrew name, nachash, with the serpent of Eden (Gen 30:27). We first meet with teraphim during Jabob’s flight, after Rachel stole her father’s. As Laban overtook Jacob and accused him of the crime, the patriarch responded with his oath that the culprit would die (Gen 31:30-32). Rachel then thwarted Laban’s search by hiding the teraphim in her saddle’s luggage compartment and feigning a menstrual period (Gen 31:34-35)7. The existence of this account of Rachel’s subterfuge presupposes that it was eventually discovered. So, from thst point onward, the teraphim’s whereabouts, who knew about them, and the potential impact of their discovery create an ongoing tension within the text.
Prompted by the search’s failure, Jacob reminded Laban how trustworthy he had always been. Then, as the two men forged a covenant of peace, Jacob involved God by calling upon him to judge between them in the matter of the theft. Thereafter, Rachel presumably kept the teraphim hidden in her personal tent (Gen 31:33), for the text remains frustratingly silent concerning them until God called Jacob to an audience at Bethel (Gen 35:1-4). In the mean time the blessing, that Laban had discerned (Gen 30:27) and had seen the substantial increase of Jacob’s flocks, was notably absent. Jacob finds himself fearful (Gen 32:7-8), God touches him with infirmity (Gen 32:24-288) and he is humbled before his brother (Gen 33:3, 8). The rape of Dinah incident then leaves him odious to his neighbours (Gen 34:30). His experiences anticipate the later covenantal curses and are, as the incident of Achan would later testify (Josh 7:1-26), in keeping with the presence of illicit booty hidden in the camp. Little wonder then that God summoned Jacob to a meeting at Bethel.
As the family prepared to leave Shechem, the issue of the hidden idols surfaced again. Jacob, by attempting to purge his camp of such objects (Gen 35:2-4), provided the culprit with a second witness to their folly and another opportunity to confess. However, as there is no mention of a moral predicament for Jacob (i.e. honour his oath or spare his wife), the contraband teraphim appear to have remained concealed. Nobody was prepared to accept that their illicit idolatry had consequences and confesses their sin, so the tension mounts. Then it comes - the death of Deborah and the death of Rachel, placed like parentheses either side of Jacob’s meeting with God (Gen 35:8, Gen 35:16). Rachel’s death we could have anticipated, but why Deborah? Deborah was an elderly servant, former wet nurse to Rachel’s mother-in-law Rebekah, whom we discover to have been travelling with the patriarch. Whilst a ‘female matter’ might have deceived Laban, such an experienced woman, with her intimate interest in Rachel, should certainly have seen through the ruse (Gen 25:20)9. By introducing us to her only as the issue of the teraphim reaches its climax, the writer allows us to infer that Deborah indeed knew Rachel’s secret and yet kept silent. Thus the deaths of Deborah and Rachel come as no coincidence10, for as Jacob approached God, God rendered the judgement that he called for in his covenant with Laban. The deaths provide closure for the issue of the missing teraphim. For, with Rachel already dead, their discovery amongst her effects lacked the disruptive power it once enjoyed whilst she was still alive.
The source of Rachel’s grief was the idolatry to which she secretly clung and yet, even in the midst of her demise there was hope. God spared her unborn child until it came to term and the reward for Rachel’s grim work of giving birth was a son released from the corrupting influence of her idolatry11.
The significance of Benjamin
After Joseph had come of age (Gen 37:2) the lad had taken centre stage in his father’s emotions (Gen 37:3). From that period, come Joseph’s dreams that portray him as the spiritual head of the family (Gen 37:7, 9); A dual witness that was noted by Jacob, but not acted upon. Jacob continued committed to serving the interests of Joseph until his apparent death necessitated a further switch of allegiance. By the time famine again vexed the family Benjamin was presumably of age as this was at least nine after Joseph was taken down to Egypt (Gen 41:1, 25). As far as Jacob was concerned, Benjamin was now the only one left and he was the difference between life and death (Gen 42:58). Moreover, as Joseph went on to force his brothers to acknowledge, it was Benjamin who deserved the greater honour (Gen 45:22) and they would get no mercy without him in their midst (Gen 42:20),
Later, as a famine began to bite, the theme of teraphim fleetingly re-surface in Joseph’s elaborate test (Gen 44:1-12), reminding the family of the role idolatry had played in their troubles. The hidden object amidst the luggage of Rachel’s son, the pursuit, the claimed theft of a diviner’s tool12, the repetition by Jacob’s sons of their father’s vow (that the one who has it will die), all reek of the earlier incident.
A case for mistaken identities
Benjamin’s story would continue to be intertwined with teraphim, but we must first visit Judges to find out how. During Israel’s wilderness wanderings, the descendants of Benjamin, together with the precious legacy that men believed they carried, lay at the heart of an authority structure. The transition from Exodus to Judges provides a final glimpse of this as a Levite (Moses) hands over to an Ephraimite (Joshua), who is followed by judges from first Judah (Othniel) and then Benjamin (Ehud). Then, like some conjurer’s assistant, the structure vanishes amongst the textual smoke, only to reappear just as suddenly in 1 Samuel, where Ephraimite (Samuel) replaces Levite (Eli) and appoints a Benjamite (Saul) then replaces him with a man of Judah (David). One may too hastily rule out the possibility that established structures undergird the authority of the judges. For there are hints that their family affiliations remained, like those of most comic-book super-heroes, well hidden behind their operational masks.
Tribal designations can be deceptive, especially when adopting tribal membership offers the only way to hold land13 and people takes names from, or bequeath then upon, the places where they live. That this was the case in Judges is particularly apparent with Jair, the judge from Gilead listed in a genealogy of Judah (Judg 10:3-4, 1 Chr 2:22, Deut 3:14). However, he is not the only judge to show the potential for affiliations with another tribe (as summarised below, see Appendix R for the details).
Links with the tribes of Benjamin, Ephraim, Levi or Judah, , recur amongst the judges surprisingly often, e.g. through the reused of names in other contexts or the places with which they associated. Othniel, Tola, Jair and Jephthah all appear to have links with Hezron’s Edomite influenced clan, whilst the name of Ibzan’s village, Bethlehem, may suggest a similar link, and Samson shows affinities with Caleb’s folk. Ahud was a Benjamite, as were the citizens of Ophrah, in whose city we find Gideon. It is possible to view Deborah as a Benjimite leader operating from the nearby Ephramite hill-country, Elon may have had connections with either Benjamites or the descendants of Joseph and Abdon was from the Ephraimite hill-country. The failed judge Barak came from a Levitical city of refuge in Zebulun and it is just possibly that Shamgar had links with a similar city in Benjamin.
Deborah the Benjamite
As Israel settled the land there was no king and, with everyone doing what was right in his or her own eyes (Judg 17:6, 21:25), the extended family networks created by inter-tribal marriages would have been key to maintain national coherence and that of the judge Ibzan (Judg 12:8-10) is noted for its size. A similar implication may lie behind the reference to the number of Abdon’s family who rode donkeys (Judg 12:14). Moreover, in the ancestry of both Jair and Elon, marriage had bridged the borders of Manasseh and Judah (1 Chr 2:21-22, cf. Deut 3:13-15).
The Song of Deborah (Judg 5:1-31) provides a snapshot of her inter-tribal alliance network. It is especially interesting as each tribe is accounted for and those who respond tend to be the groups from which judges arise. The people of Benjamin (rather than a subset of them) turned out to accompany Deborah, rather as if she were their leader. Joining them were authority figures from various other areas: from Ephraim, those whose root was in Amalek (as was Abdon’s, Judg 12:15, see Appendix R); from Machir, commanders representing Judah14 (from whom Jair descended, 1 Chr 2:21-22); from Zebulun, scribes (as did Elon, Judg 12:11); from Issachar, princes (as did Tola, Judg 10:1). The men of both Naphtali and Zebulun joined her under the leadership of Barak (a would-be judge who failed to heed God’s call). The other tribes, Ruben, Gilead (i.e. Manasseh), Dan and Asher (5:15-17), all stayed at home. Ignore for a moment the tribes involved and the event sounds suspiciously like the leader of Benjamin calling upon the far-flung representatives of our hidden hierarchy of authorities.
Whilst the text of Judges leaves subtle clues that the pre-exodus authority structure was still at work, it also, like Matthew’s genealogy, harks back to the promise of Gen 3:15. Amidst its characteristic cycles of rebellion and repentance (Judg 2:18-19), it exhibits four units, each portraying a steady decline in the behaviour of its judges. Each unit starts with an upright leader and then traces degeneration in the quality of leadership until a leader is so foolish that he is humiliated at the hands of a woman15. The pattern of decline is emphasised by two contrasting incidents, both at the fords of the Jordan. The first, involving Ehud, is near the start of the first cycle, and the second, involving Jephthah, is near the end of the third (Judg 3:28-29, 12:5-60). Whilst Ehud acted wisely, to rid Israel of the oppressive Moabites, Jephthah acted foolishly, executing true spoken Ephraimites in favour of those with an Ammonite influenced Gileadite inflection16.
The first unit begins as Othniel delivers Israel and establishes peace for a generation (40 years). Eighteen-years of subjection to Moab follow, but are ended through the rise of Ehud. Shamgar’s term in office was less successful as a poor state of affairs prevailed (Judg 5:6-7), indeed Josephus’ claims that he died the year after his election to replace Ehud (A.J. 5.197). After Shamgar we find Barak called by God, then rebuked by Deborah for his lack of faith (Judg 4:5-9). Barak, the foolish judge who failed to arise at God’s command, then forfeited his place in the role of judges, robbed of his glory by the wife of a Kenite, who crushing the head of Israel’s enemy with a tent peg (Judg 4:21).
A second unit opens with the rise of Gideon as a virtuous judge. However, his family soon fell into sin concerning an Ephod. Then, when Gideon’s son Abimelech unrepentantly murdered his brothers, it was time for some more feminine head crushing, with a well-aimed millstone robbing Abimelech of his glory (Judg 9:53).
The third unit, with its focus east of the Jordan, starts with Tola and Jair. Though barely mentioned, their virtue is implicit in the conclusion that Israel subsequently rebelled (Judg 10:4). However, then Jephthah, like Abimelech, rose to power through the support of worthless men (Judg 11:3), only for a careless vow to ensure that his daughter’s welcome deprived him of the glory of his victory (Judg 11:30-35)17.
The final unit again starts with judges who are barely mentioned beyond reference to their marriages and numbers of sons, Ibzan (Judg 12:8-10), Elon (Judges 12:11-12) then Abdon (Judg 12:13-15). The unit concludes with Samson, the judge notorious for using his gifts to settle scores and for setting aside a Nazirite vow in favour of food, drink and the favours of women. Delilah’s assault upon his locks leaves him shorn of his glory and destined to crush his own head beneath the rubble of a Philistine temple.
The serpent strikes back
God’s pledge to Abraham, that his Seed would enjoy mercy and would bless the nations18, embodied the guarantee already given to Eve, of a Seed whose acceptability to God brought the authority to crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15). Hence, whenever the descendants of Adam found themselves incapacitated by uncleanliness, then the true heirs of Abraham’s promise, and their servants, came to the fore. Yet, all too often pride led these men astray and God used a woman to remind them of the cost of switching camps.
In all four of Judges’ units, we find foolish man-centred judgement undone by a woman’s actions and, in three this involved a direct attack upon the head. I suspect that Matthew appreciated this when he made his additions and omissions. Yet he would also have realised that the authority to crush the serpent’s head was only half the picture, for it came with a warning.
Although Gen 3:15 introduced the promise to the Seed, it also predicted that the Serpent would strike their heel. Moses reprised that theme when he foresaw the tribe of Dan lying like a serpent by the wayside, striking at the horse’s heels and causing their riders to fall (Gen 49:17). In Judges final flourish the focus shifts to the actions of Dan and to the serpentine counter attack.
Thematic links between the accounts of Samson (Judges 13:1-16:31), Micah (Judg 17:1-18:31) and Gibeah (19:1-20:48) emphasize how seeds of idolatry were sown, flourished and bore their tragic fruit. However, to appreciate the full force of this passage’s fleeting reference to teraphim, one must first take a step back into the life of Jacob and to the Hebrew Bible’s first reference to them, then follow their story forward, past Benjamin’s untimely birth to Joseph’s testing of his brothers.
Back on the trail of the teraphim
The same sum that purchased the harlot Delilah’s betrayal (Judg 16:5) subsequently established Micah’s shrine (Judges 17:1) for which he later construction of an Ephod, idols and teraphim (Jjudg 17:4). An army of six hundred men then set out from Samson’s home region of Zorah and Eshtaol (Judg 18:11). When spies for the six hundred discovered Micah’s teraphim, they reported this idolatry and challenged the six hundred to consider their response (Judg 18:14). They chose to embrace idolatry and, as they steal the teraphim, Micah’s pursuit reminds us of Laban’s response and Joseph’s test (Judg 18:17-24). Once again, the influence of hidden idolatry was on the move and the episode of the Levite and his concubine finds it at the heart of Benjamin, and the telltale six hundred warriors who escape the destruction of that tribe (Judg 20:47), whilst not necessarily the same individuals, still provide a thematic link suggesting how it got there. I shall return to events at Gibeah in a chapter 15, for they loomed large in Israel’s racial memory.
The telling of Judges two accounts of anonymous Levites (Judg 17:1-18:31, 19:1-20:48) emphasises the contrast between them. First a Levite travels from Bethlehem searching for a place to stay, espouses idolatry and a peaceful foreign city gets destroyed, then a Levite travels from Bethlehem searching for a place to stay, exposes idolatry and a wicked Israelite city gets destroyed. Thus the mess Samson saw initiated by an unrepentant harlot, an un-named Levite sees corrects by a repentant harlot (I shall address this in more detail in Chapter 15). Thus, the three accounts, of Samson, Micah’s Levite and the Levite’s concubine, once again reprise the theme of judgement gone astray and corrected by the actions of a woman.
If I had to try and pin down the un-named Levites, I would suspect Samuel of being the second, hidden for stylistic reasons, and possibly political ones as well19. Micah’s Levite provides evidence of a failing priesthood, as in the days of Eli’s unfaithful sons (1 Sam 2:12, 22), and Samuel is credited with finishing the Philistine rout that Samson started (1 Sam 7:3-14). Moreover, in Samuel’s day there is still a Benjamite from Gibeah, accompanied by six hundred men and showing a liking for the shelter of Rimmon (1 Samuel 14:2)20.
I shall return to events at Gibeah in a chapter 15, for they loomed large in Israel’s racial memory. However, despite them, the serpent’s influence clearly regained a hold on Benjamin, for Saul’s downfall provides two ironic references to teraphim. As Samuel announced the end of Saul’s sovereignty, he reminded the king that his stubbornness was like the iniquity of teraphim (1 Sam 15:23)21. Then, when David escaped from Saul’s murderous attentions, Michal ensured that a hidden teraphim was found, combining it with the a deception inspired by Laban’s sister, Rebekah, the substitution of goatskin for hair (Gen 27:15-16). It was as if to say “here is your real problem Saul, this is why you need to accept David’s authority.”
Seed and serpent
As Matthew sets before us his genealogical rallying call to recognise a once hidden king, he echoes the technique of the ancient author of Judges who set before us four failed leaders, each loosing their glory to a women. In Judges we are reminded that this is an outworking of the promise of Gen 3:15 as heads are crushed and men from Dan take on the role of heel striking serpent.
In the exploits of those same judges, we seem to glimpse again the authority structures of the Exodus. But, just as the influence of teraphim is woven into Jacob’s life, so it is inextricably linked with that of Benjamin and the authority structure around him, working its way back into Israel through six hundred soldiers. The tribe of Benjamin then falls as their idolatry is revealed at the hand of a woman, whilst the teraphim’s influence rattles on into Saul’s life.
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1The appearance that Sarah was his sister would also have conveniently saved Abraham loosing face whenever she acted independently of his authority.
2This significant point is doubly attested, for Ishmael was born when Abraham was 86 (Gen 16:16) and the covenant preceded Isaac’s birth, when Abraham was 100 (Gen 21:5) by about a year (Gen 17:21).
3 Note how Laban assumes Jacob has to serve like a slave (Gen 29:15), but graciously offers a reward. At Genesis 30:26 Jacob describes his service with the same word used
4 See Strong, “251 אָח ,” Concordence
5 Rachel was first wife by contract (Gen 29:18-25), even if not by order of union.
6 Precisely what these were is still unclear, household gods is as good a guess as any
7 In antiquity, camel saddles were often equipped with substantial luggage spaces.
8 See Appendix H for a more detailed analysis of this incident.
9 Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, was Laban’s sister and therefore Rachel’s aunt.
10 This finds support in Saul’s preparatory journey in which he visits Rachel’s tomb and then passes the tree by which Deborah was buried (1 Sam 10:2-4), before seeing the Philistines in God’s presence.
11 A newborn was too innocent to know right and wrong (Isa 7:15-16).
12 Joseph (Gen 44:5), Laban (Gen 30:27) and Moses’ ban (Deut 18:10) share the word for this technique. Although Zechariah 10:2 suggests that Teraphim were diviners’ tools. This does not mean that Joseph’s cup was a divination tool; merely that he needed the brothers to think it was.
13 As a result of an inter-tribal marriage the husband left his family and joined with his wife (Gen 2:24). However, as land was not to move between tribes (cf. Num 36:3-4), that meant the husband’ natural ancestry made it difficult to hold land.
14 As Gilead is deliberately stated to have stayed east of the Jordan, these were presumably the common descendants of Machir and Hezron (cf. 1 Chr 2:21).
15 The chronology of Judges leaves insufficient room for the periods involved (see Appendix E), and these cycles may have overlapped temporally, though not spatially.
16 Matthews et al., IVP Bible Background Commentary, Judg 12:6.
17 The Hebrew uses the same base letters (מְחלָה) for both dancing and the first named daughter of Zelophehad, Mahlah, a subtle reminder that the dancer’s death represented an end to Jephthah’s line.
18 God’s guarantee of mercy left the Seed unaffected by uncleanliness and therefore able to bless not only an unclean Israel but also to the gentile nations (which Judaism considered, by definition, unclean).
19 Leaving the Levite nameless facilitates the parallel. Moreover, the pattern in the earlier units, if assumed here, serves to casts this second individual in an undeservedly harsh light. Nor, during Saul’s reign, would it have been good to be seen as the one responsible for wiping out most of his tribe.
20 The name Rimmon means pomegranate (see Chapter 15).
21 ‘Teraphim’ is frequently translated ‘idolatry’ or ‘witchcraft’ in this verse.