When Latter-day Saints hear the phrase “the reign of the judges” we think of the Book of Mormon version, or the time period that takes up the bulk of the narrative, a time of unity for the Nephites under an ostensibly democratic form of government. There are profitable comparisons between that and the Old Testament reign of judges, where the heirs of Moses and Joshua ruled over an Israel at least as prone to pride cycles as the Nephites.1Pride cycles are better than just being wicked all the time. The unknown compilers of Judges were, like Mormon, interested in showing that Israel prospers when it obeys the Lord. I’m sure Mormon based some of his style in compiling Mosiah and Alma and Helaman from the version of Judges he had access to.
We don’t have much from the book of Judges, though by all accounts it seems to have some of the oldest, least-changed bits of the Old Testament. Nobody really had a reason to alter it. It is what it is. And what it is is stories. I’m normally against mining stories for basic one-sentence moral lessons, and I’m especially against that here. The Gospel Doctrine manual focuses on the stories of Gideon, Deborah, and Samson, and those stories do have some of the easiest morals to mine, but we shouldn’t let that mar our appreciation of them as stories. Gideon tests the Lord in a very suspenseful passage, we know people have died for this sort of thing, but when he’s been satisfied he’s completely true and faithful, and the winnowing of his army and his victory in the night are just good literature. Samson is prideful and haughty and a bit of a bully, so in a way we’re glad to see him fall, at the same time he manages to pull off a heroic comeback right at the end.
And even the stories in Judges that we don’t talk about, those frighteningly violent stories of Ehud and Eglon or the war with the Benjamites, what sort of value do you think those had for the Israelites? Sure, you could try to make Ehud into some sort of moral lesson, but his 80s action hero one-liner “I’ve got a message from God” before he blows away the Moabite king is a sure crowd-pleaser, along with his hapless servants so terrified of their king’s wrath they don’t even know he’s dead. The awful story of the Levite and his concubine and what happened after has enough sex and violence to satisfy today’s HBO crowd, and I’m sure some of that sentiment was around back then.
And Jephthah? I really don’t know. What were the Israelites thinking when they heard this? It’s the worst story in the Bible. What sort of lesson can you even take from it? Maybe it’s just been left in as a reminder that history is weird and vague and murky and we don’t know how these stories got here.
In any case, Samson, Gideon, and Deborah are good stories. I’m glad we get to focus on them at least once every four years.