Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

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\Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2005). Pp. xiv + 263. Cloth, €89.00, US$127.00. ISBN 9004 143548.

Questions about who should lead and the kind of leadership qualities necessary for effective leadership were key issues in ancient Israel. Elie Assis explores these questions via the narrative portrayal of three leaders in the book of Judges. He utilizes the tools of narrative analysis in order to ascertain the ideology of Judges 6-12. In accord with his synchronic approach, Assis notes that the presence of repetition or contradiction in an account has often been viewed as a sign of redactional or editorial shaping. He suggests that such narrative incongruities can often be explained at a literary level rather than at the level of textual composition (p. 5). The stories of Gideon, Abimelech and Jephthah then comprise subsequent chapters in which Assis explores this hypothesis with varying degrees of success.

In his chapter covering Judges 6-8, Assis challenges the view that the name “Jerubbaal” is secondary to Judges 6-9 and 6:25-32 in particular. Assis suggests that use of the name “Jerubbaal” (“let Baal contend”) signals a Baalistic point of view in the story that doubts the power of Yahweh and here expresses the hope of the Baalists of Ophrah that Gideon would receive retribution for his destruction of Baal’s altar. On the other hand, Assis suggests that the name “Gideon” (from the root meaning “to cut down”) reflects a pro-Yahwistic orientation, expressed in the first part of the passage by Gideon’s cutting down of the altar of Baal. This clash of perspectives leads Assis to conclude, “the name ‘Jerubbaal’ reflects the Baalists’ hope that Gideon will lose his war against the Midianites as revenge for his attack on Baal” (p. 50). However, in the logic of the text, Gideon has not yet accepted the mantle of deliverer nor are the residents of Ophrah even aware of Gideon’s immanent battle against Midian, so it is not clear how “Jerubbaal” could here reflect the people’s viewpoint on the matter. His case could be more convincingly argued if this dialectic were attributed to the narrative’s proleptic perspective rather than the people’s unexplainable foresight.

The strength of Assis’ interpretive model comes to the fore when he addresses a long-standing crux in the interpretation of the Abimelech narrative, i.e., the relationship between Jotham’s fable (Judges 9:7-15) and its application (Judges 9:16-20). Assis effectively shows how the fable’s critique focuses upon Abimelech and his eagerness to be king, while its application targets the Shechemites and their lack of faithfulness to Gideon. This change in “audience,” rarely noted by other interpreters, allows Assis to understand both passages as integral to the account while also acknowledging their differences.

 In line with most interpreters, Assis holds that Judges 9 characterizes Abimelech’s form of leadership in a uniformly negative manner (p. 247). However, the introductory framework of the book of Judges faults Israel for its failure to eliminate the Canaanite population along with their ensnaring deities (Judges 2:6-3:6). When viewed from this perspective, Abimelech’s razing of the temple of El/Baal-Berith and complete destruction of Shechem serves as a positive characterization (cf. Gideon’s destruction of the altar of Baal and the Asherah pole in Judges 6:25-27). Abimelech eradicates the locus of the worship of El and/or Baal-Berith and destroys the (presumably) Canaanite (cf. 9:27) inhabitants of this city. Thus, while Assis rightly shows how both positive and negative depictions function throughout the Gideon and Jephthah narratives, the characterization of Abimelech is much more ambiguous than Assis will admit.

For Assis, these characterizations ultimately illustrate an ideology of leadership that values communal interest and derides self-interested leadership (p. 247). After exploring various monarchic and post-monarchic contexts for such an emphasis, Assis roots this ideology in the historical circumstances of the pro- and anti-monarchic debates of the pre-monarchic period. In support, Assis points out that the motif of the people’s decision in selecting a leader unites the three accounts; Judges 6-12 was therefore written for a public facing such a decision. Assis assumes that the people could only exercise such a choice between leaders in the pre-monarchic period (p. 245-246). However, the ability to choose between different leaders exists well past the advent of the monarchy. Rehoboam’s self-serving emphasis upon heavy taxation results in his rejection by the Northern tribes and in the choice of Jeroboam as king (1 Kings 12:16-20). Moreover, the people remain influential in the making of a king even up to the time of Josiah (2 Kings 21:24; cf. 2 Kings 11:14). Thus, Assis’ attempt to restrict these texts only to the pre-monarchic period based upon the ability to choose between different types of leaders lacks a solid foundation.

Elie Assis reads with great literary sensitivity and attention to detail. His synchronic reading of Judges 6-12 illustrates how an ideology of leadership brings coherence and unity to these often-disparate narratives. Not all will agree, but all will find valuable stimulation.

Gord Oeste
Wycliffe College