Shamgar the Mysterious (Biblicist’s Holiday)

Today I’m going to take a look at one of the mysterious minor characters in the Bible — Shamgar ben Anat.

We first meet him in the last verse of Judges 3. That chapter begins by explaining that the non-Israelites who remained in Canaan had deliberately been left there by God, who wanted to keep the Jews on their toes militarily (and also wanted to have some enemies of theirs around when it became necessary to punish them).

The first part of Judges 3 tells how Israel was rescued from King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram-naharaim (you could call him King Shame-on-ya from Mesopotamia) by Othniel the Kenizzite, the first “judge.”

Time out here for a word or two about the “judges” (שופטים, shoftim) that the book of Judges is named after. Do not think of someone wearing a wig or holding a gavel. The word might better be translated as “magistrates” — that is, people who were not in any sense “royal” but who ruled whatever area of the country they could control and who issued “rulings” (משפטים, mishpatim) as a way of governing. NJPS calls them “chieftains,” which is more anthropological but otherwise pretty much the same thing.

Othniel was the first of these chieftains, and his story is followed in Judges 3 by that of Ehud, who because he was left-handed was able to surprise King Eglon of Moab, the oppressor of Israel in those days, and kill him. He became the next chieftain of Israel. Judges 4 and 5 tell at great length of Deborah, who was both a prophet and also a chieftain of Israel. But after Ehud’s story and before Deborah’s comes this one verse:

Judg. 3:31
  After him came Shamgar son of Anath, who slew six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad. He too was a champion of Israel.

Shamgar is not specifically described here as a “judge,” but two things tell us that he was one. First, he came “after” Ehud — that is, ruled after him. Second, he “was a champion of Israel” (in the NJPS translation); more precisely, he “saved” or “delivered” Israel: ויושע גם הוא את ישראל. This is the verb that the “judges” of the book of Judges do:

Judg. 2:16
  Then the LORD raised up judges, who delivered [ויושיעום] them out of the power of those who plundered them.

To “deliver” (hoshia) makes you a מושיע, a moshia or “savior.”

But who was this Shamgar? His name is not Semitic (too many consonants, for one thing), and he is described as “son of Anat” — a Canaanite goddess! Walter Maier, in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, explains:

Shamgar, a mighty fighter in Judges (3:31; 5:6), is designated ben anat, “the son of Anath.” The name “Shamgar” is non-Israelite (best seen as Hurrian in origin). Scholarly opinion varies as to understanding “the son of Anath.” For example, this designation is seen as indicating Shamgar’s community; Shamgar was from Beth-anath (IDB 4: 306). Another interpretation, seeing in the designation mention of the war divinity Anath, is that it is a military title or epithet (Craigie 1972: 239–40). However, Cross (1980: 7) thinks that ben anat may be a simple personal name. After comparing inscriptions on two arrowheads dating to the late 12th and late 11th centuries B.C., he suggests that the designation be understood as “the (son of) Son of Anath.” Ben Anath (“Son of Anath”) was Shamgar’s father, who was named after the goddess. Extrabiblical onomastic data indicate that personal names often consisted of “Son of” plus the name of a deity. Since Ben Anath was named after the warrior goddess Anath it is quite possible that he came from a military family.

My question is, what’s he doing here? I can understand that someone with a non-Israelite name, even someone (Israelite or otherwise) who was a worshipper of Anat, might have established himself as a champion of the Israelites and ruler of the land in this period. But if you are going to go so far as to tell me that he “slew six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad,” why not tell me the whole story?

My suspicion is that the writer who assembled the book of Judges from earlier sources (written and legendary) actually knew nothing about Shamgar except for this, from the Song of Deborah:

Judg. 5:6
In the days of Shamgar son of Anath,
In the days of Jael,
Caravans ceased,
And wayfarers went
By roundabout paths.

This song is probably the most ancient text in the Bible (see my earlier post on it here). Some scholars think that Judges 4 is simply a prose retelling based on the well-known poem in Judges 5; if that’s true, it would be natural to add a note leading up to the story of Deborah implying that Shamgar had ruled just before her. (Jael, of course, has a featured role in the poem, so she can have one in the story too.) As for the 600 Philistines, either that was also somehow an attribution of Shamgar’s that was floating around (like George Washington and the cherry tree), or our author made it up to give him something to do.

The two verses I quote in this post are the only biblical mentions of Shamgar. His name, and the two “facts” we know about him — that marauders were plentiful in his days, and that he killed 600 Philistines with an oxgoad — open a tantalizing window on an early moment in the history of the Israelites. The only biblical heroes who killed more Philistines than that are Samson, Saul, and David. Pretty good company.

But unless one day we dig up an inscription that tells us more about his story, we will never know anything else about this once famous ruler of the Israelites.

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