Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Double Trouble: Counting the Cost of Jephthah

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Double Trouble: Counting the Cost of Jephthah

Article excerpt

I. 40 x 2

In a paper published in 1980, J. Alberto Soggin lamented, "Despite forty years of research by leading exegetes, the problem of what the minor judges represent remains unsolved."1 Today, nigh on forty years later, the reality is substantially the same. In those eight decades, consideration of the question has been shaped largely by the perspectives of Albrecht Alt and his student Martin Noth. Alt found in the minor judges an authenticity of historical record that he considered to be lacking in the accounts of the major judges. The chief basis for his conclusion was that their respective periods of office are given not in rounded figures, as in the case of the major judges, but in numbers that possess a "completely unartificial appearance."2 Noth developed Alt's arguments to claim that the key to understanding the role of the minor judges in settlement-era Israel and their relationship with the major judges is furnished in the portrayal of Jephthah, who combines features of both. Alone among the charismatic military leaders, he was also a minor judge.3 Given the influence that Noth's conclusions have exercised on successive generations of scholars,4 it is worth quoting his supporting arguments:

It is very conspicuous that Dtr. finishes his account of Jephthah not as he usually does, by saying that there were 40 years of "rest" after the victory of the hero concerned, but with details which follow the system used in the list of "(minor) judges": a statement concerning his six-year period of office, then the report of his death and place of burial. To this Dtr. attaches statements about three other "judges" who succeeded one another without a break and came immediately after Jephthah. Given Jephthah's presence in both traditions, it is easy to account for the arrangement of material in Judges. The "minor judges" come immediately before and after the Jephthah story: Judges 10-12 is obviously based on the stories of minor judges as Dtr. knew it.5

Noth states that the Jephthah narrative would resemble the descriptions of the minor judges more closely had it not been "excessively swelled" by the material dealing with his heroic feats or, as Hartmut Rösel puts it more graphically, if this material had not "ripped apart" the minor judge sequence.6 Several commentators do not accept the sharp dichotomy that Noth perceived between the major and minor judges. Nevertheless, there has been broad support for his thesis that Jephthah provides the single common denominator between the heroic figures and the standardized list of individuals found in Judg 10:1-5, 12:8-15 and, therefore, uniquely elucidates the role of the judge, major and minor, in the book.7 This assessment, however, is overoptimistic; despite the extensive record of Jephthah's background, attitudes, and behavior supplied in the composition, in reality his story leaves us scarcely the wiser regarding the concrete role of "judge."

In summary, Noth's arguments for Jephthah's membership in the group of minor judges are that the formula "forty years of rest" is absent, the period of his tenure as judge is stated, and his death and place of burial are recorded. All these points, however, apply also to Samson, Jephthah's successor as a judge-deliverer. Moreover, although Jephthah's place of burial is unspecified, in contrast to those of the minor judges ("he was buried in the cities of Gilead" [12:7]), the writer makes a point of being precise in Samson's obituary: "they buried him between Zorah and Eshtaol in the tomb of Manoah his father; and he had judged Israel for twenty years" (16:31). According to Noth's criteria, what distinguishes Samson from the minor judges is that the number of years during which he judged Israel appears to be rounded. Yet there is no reason why twenty should not express as precise a period as the twenty-three years of Tola or, for that matter, the six of Jephthah. But even if one accepts that Samson's period of judging may be a rounded figure, a formidable difficulty besets the Alt-Noth view of the verisimilitudinous quality of the five minor judges' year attributions: taken as a group, they total seventy, one of the most symbolically loaded numbers in the Bible and hardly "unartificial. …

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