17 June 2015

Strange chronology in the book of Judges

Although I've learned that the stories in Old Testament prophetic books aren't necessarily chronological, I remain a little surprised when things in the historical books seem out of order. Two incidents in the book of Judges jumped out at me.

The book begins with saying “after Joshua died, such and such happened.” Seeing as the book of Joshua ends with his death, this fits chronologically. The only problem is that Joshua appears in the book of Judges in chapter 2, alive and well enough to send out the tribes to their inheritance. He then dies and is buried. You can explain this by saying that chapter 2 is simply telling what had happened previously, but if that's true, why don't Bibles put the part about Joshua in chapter 2 in the past perfect, the verbal tense used for talking about things that had happened previously?

At the end of the book, amidst the horrible story about the concubine and murdering of all the Benjaminites, Phinehas the priest shows up. Phinehas is famous for stabbing the man who was flaunting the fact that he was with a Moabite woman, while all of Israel was weeping on account of God's punishment for their being led astray by the women (and gods) of Moab. The story is in Numbers 25, indicating that Phinehas was alive while the Israelites were wandering in the dessert. Even if Phinehas was a teenager in the dessert, he should have been long dead after all of the judges had ruled their respective 20 or so years. There are two explanations for this – either the book is not in chronological order or this is a different Phinehas, who is not the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, but is instead a descendant of these men.

As both the first chapter and the last chapter seem to be out of chronological order, this makes an interesting pattern. It suggests that even might be intentionality to things being out of order. When I was trying to solve the mystery of Phinehas, I checked out the Anchor commentary, and it suggested that the first and last chapters present a theological argument for the book. I found that a helpful way of looking at the text, especially because it's effective: I find the last story in the book to be shocking and disturbing. The reader is pushed to the conclusion that this is a people in desperate need of being saved – and the system of the judges obviously didn't really work.  

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