Self-Interest or Communal Interest: An Ideology of Leadership in the Gideon, Abimelech and Jephthah Narratives (Judg 6-12)
A review of Elie Assis', "Self-Interest of Communal Interest," by A.J. Culp.
Elie Assis, Self-Interest or Communal Interest: An Ideology of Leadership in the Gideon, Abimelech and Jephthah Narratives (Judg 6-12). Vetus Testamentum Supplements 106. Leiden: Brill, 2005. xiv + 266 pp. Hardcover, $127. ISBN: 9004143548.
In the world of scholarship it has become commonplace to see Judges as selective, not comprehensive, history. What this means is that Judges doesn’t intend to chronicle the fullness of its period, but instead, by telling certain stories in a certain way to portray a theme of that period. Of course, with seeing Judges in this way there also comes a shift in interpretive strategy, and taking center stage are issues of organization and theme. Elie Assis, being of this school of thought, follows in line fairly predictably. However, his study is by no means unoriginal.
The foundation of Assis’ study is in identifying the organizing principles, or ideals, around which Judges is formed, an aim that has become increasingly common in narrative study. By first finding those ideals, it is hoped, there arises a backdrop, a kind of screen against which to understand the various stories. It then becomes clearer as to how the stories are arranged and linked, and consequently, what their message really is. Of course, such an approach is especially attractive to Judges’ readers, since the book itself is a diverse collection of stories, which at times seem more different than similar. Assis’ own conclusion is that Judges is organized to teach a message of leadership-what makes for a good leader and how people should choose one. In particular, its goal is to show that two elements are necessary for a good leader: trust in Yahweh and concern for the community. These ideals, then, are the canvas against which the individual accounts should be read.
Assis’ method is literary. By this he means the holistic studying of accounts with an eye toward structure, plot line, characterization, keywords, foreshadowing, etc. In short, the various elements are studied to understand movement and message in the story. Mostly his techniques yield predictable, though defensible, conclusions. He does, however, venture into somewhat uncharted waters, especially regarding the issue of textual contradiction. Interpreters, he rightly notes, are not usually comfortable with the idea of contradiction in the biblical text. They either see it as evidence of edited sources or they try to explain it away. Assis, however, suggests that contradiction may be a vital part of the text, an intentional poetic both pointing to meaning and offering multiple voices within the text. He bases this on an idea of literary theory, known as dialogism, in which texts are seen not as having one single voice but many, all of which interact and combine to form textual meaning. A specific example of how this might work is discussed in the chapter on Gideon.
The study itself focuses on the Gideon, Abimelech, and Jephthah accounts because they are central to the larger work. In Assis’ thinking, the Book of Judges has seven major cycles, six of which focus on the major judges and one on Abimelech. Gideon’s story is fourth and thus serves as a transition point for the whole book, linking and developing the major themes from first to second half. Abimelech and Jephthah follow on his heels and expand on those themes. Common to these three stories is an emphasis on the question of how well suited the protagonist is for leadership, and the subject of leadership is integral to each plot, which is not the case in the other judge accounts.
Gideon’s story is foundational to Assis’ study and, accordingly, takes up a rather large section in his book. Following much contemporary scholarship, he works from the idea that the Gideon cycle serves as Judges’ pivot point, in which the first half deals with issues common to the first three judges and the second half with ones common to the last three judges. Being in this position, the account also reflects the larger issues of the whole book; that is, it stands as a microcosm of Judges. The upshot is that, in identifying the issues central to the account, one has also found the issues central to the larger book. What then are these issues? The episode addresses the larger issue of leadership, and specifically, the parameters by which a leader is judged: loyalty to God and concern for the people. In each narrative half, respectively, one of these is explored. The turning point is 7:14. From 6:1 to 7:14 the emphasis in on belief versus doubt, and the plot tension centers on Gideon’s struggle to believe Yahweh. At 7:14, however, this issue is resolved and another is introduced, communal versus personal concern, which will take center stage for the rest of the Gideon story. Thus this story demonstrates that a good leader is one who both trusts God and cares for the people above himself.
The way in which Assis sees the rhetoric achieving this message, however, is unique. Long has the presence of Gideon’s character puzzled interpreters, for it seems entirely unstable and ever-changing. But this, says Assis, is precisely the point. The very presence of this inconsistency, which he calls a pendulum motif, is purposeful and points toward a message. That is, as Gideon swings between good and bad-belief and doubt in the first half, and communal and self-interest in the second-the reader sees firsthand the results. Naturally, it becomes obvious that both doubt and self-interest lead to bad consequences, and that belief and communal interest lead to good ones. So the reader sees which qualities should characterize Israel’s leaders.
The Abimelech account follows suit in addressing the issue of leadership. However, unlike with Gideon, Abimelech is portrayed as wholly negative, a man who knows no motive other than selfishness. Such a portrayal is accomplished rhetorically by drawing a strong contrast between Gideon and his son Abimelech, particularly regarding the issue of kingship. Whereas Gideon soundly denounces the request for kingship, Abimelech seeks it whatever the cost. His ambition to be king, then, colors the whole account, which chronicles his rise, reign, and fall. At every stage it is shown that Abimelech’s egoism is ruling his behavior, and consequently, a swath of destruction always follows him. Here for the first time Israel is oppressed, not by a foreign power, but by an Israelite one named Abimelech. With this said, though, Assis wants to make clear that, contra current scholarship, the message of Abimelech is not anti-monarchy, but anti-Abimelech. That is, its concern is to develop the idea of the right kind of person to lead Israel, albeit negatively. Therefore, any message about kingship is secondary to the issue of the right kind of leader for Israel.
Jephthah’s account, the last of three discussed, further addresses the question of what makes for a successful leader. Its aim, says Assis, is to expose the danger of a leader driven by selfish ambition and to show that such a leader will doubtlessly behave at the cost of others. Three events in Jephthah’s life are exemplary of this: the taking of leadership at Gilead, the sacrifice of his daughter, and the war with Ephraim. Ultimately, each event serves to flesh out at least two things: 1) the way in which selfish ambition shapes Jephthah’s decisions; and 2) how exactly that ambition affects the various people surrounding him, whether it be his daughter or all of Israel. At the same time, though, Jephthah cannot be regarded as wholly negative, like Abimelech, for there is some good in him. The way in which this is shown is largely through comparison and contrast with Gideon and Abimelech. Perhaps most significant of these is that Abimelech is shown as one who has no interest whatsoever in Yahweh or his ways, whereas Jephthah is clearly shown to have trusted and relied upon him. In the end, though, the tragedy of Jephthah’s life and leadership is that selfish ambition drove him, and as such, corrupted all of his endeavors.
Assis closes out his study with a brief discussion on the historical context suggested by Judges’ ideology. He follows closely behind Marc Brettler in this, asserting that it is possible to locate a text historically by using its ideology as guide. What largely guides this discussion is the assumption that Judges is a book about leadership, specifically dealing with the monarchy. Thus he finds that such ideology would fit best in one of two periods: before or during the monarchy. Siding strongly with Noth, Assis settles on the pre-monarchic period as the time of Judges’ composition. It would have been a time when change of leadership was immanent, and when discussions on the issue took center stage in social life. That, he says, is exactly what we see in Judges: not a polemic for one side or the other, but a discussion about how to choose a leader. Naturally, character traits would have been central to such a discussion, which is the point of the Gideon, Abimelech, and Jephthah accounts. Thus the composition of the book best fits the pre-monarchic period.
In summary, Elie Assis has composed a study aiming to better understand the message of Judges. He begins by discerning the underlying ideology, and then moves to identify how the individual accounts might be understood in its light. In particular, he focuses on three accounts: Gideon, Abimelech, and Jephthah-all of which he sees as being crucial to the larger message. This message, it turns out, deals with the issue of leadership, namely the qualities necessary to a good leader. Judges, Assis argues, sees a good leader as one who has two pillar attributes: communally concerned and loyal to Yahweh. Thus the message is not so much concerned with Israel’s kind of leadership system, but its kind of leader. What is implied by such a message is that Judges was composed in a time when leadership was a hot topic, a time he ultimately identifies as the pre-monarchic period.
As already mentioned, the value of Assis’ work is not so much that it redefines issues, but nuances them. Perhaps how he deals with Judges ideology is the clearest example. In a time when most scholars follow suit in seeing kingship as the underlying ideology, Assis has suggested something else: leadership. This, of course, does not mean he has erased the idea of kingship, but instead given it a secondary role. Such an approach is certainly refreshing, and the only complaint might come from him not going far enough outside the ideology of kingship! Another strong point is his application of literary theory to the biblical text, especially concerning textual contradiction, an area where middle ground is not often shared. Though not all will agree with his conclusions, all should at least take note of his method. A last point of value, one that is often overlooked, is this book’s clarity. Assis has done a fine job making it readable, yet still scholarly. Most readers with at least some background in Judges will find the book readable. Further, the structure allows for an easy acquisition of its main ideas and conclusions.
A. J. Culp