Judges and Westerns

“But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand.  Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness.  So he died.” (Judges 4:21)



Wow.  That is really something.

Last month I read through the Biblical book of Judges for the first time in a year or so.  As I re-encountered these tragic, bloody, graphic stories I kept coming back to the thought that the book of Judges is the Bible’s answer to the Western.  Like a good Western the land is wild, untended, dangerous and filled with savage peoples.  Death lurks around each bend in the road.  The tribes of Israel are struggling to form an identity.  Who are they?  What will they become?  Will there be justice?  Each family casts an untrusting eye on their neighbors.   Powerful villains form roving bands of bandits.  And, just when things can’t get any worse, a powerful figure emerges from the shadows to restore balance through violent justice.

There wasn’t any specific reason for me to read Judges when I did, other than I am continually drawn back to the historical narrative books of the Old Testament.  Coincidentally, I happened to be completing the final two classes of my undergraduate degree during this same time.  One of these two classes was Theology of Film.  As I was reading about Jael driving tent pegs through a dude’s skull I was also reading the book Reel Spirituality by Robert K. Johnston.

Though I’m not sure of what specifically initiated the connection in my mind between Judges and Westerns, I’m fairly certain it was this book.  Reel Spirituality is a book within a growing genre of literature that attempts to take seriously the conversation between film criticism and theology.  It’s worth the read.

In a chapter entitled “Becoming a Critic,” Johnston uses Westerns as a case study for genre criticism.  He chooses to use Westerns as his example because the Western is easily recognizable as a genre and because it has proven to be remarkably adaptable in its ability to retain its relevance in speaking on and to American culture.   Decade by decade, Johnston reveals the evolution of the Western, showing how the genre has been able to co-evolve with culture.

Most recently the development of the Western has resulted in the anti-Western.  3:10 to Yuma (2007) is a great example of the anti-Western.  3:10 to Yuma attempts to demythologize the lone hero who rides off into the sunset concept.  As Americans have become increasingly disenchanted with the American Dream, Westerns like this have become voice pieces of modern angst.  3:10 to Yuma does a fantastic job of exploring the moral complexities of life and surveying the difficulties of family and manhood.3-10-to-Yuma-Movie-Cover-Poster

Another Western that spoke deeply to me was the recent True Grit (2010).  Jeff Bridges plays a washed up, alcoholic gunslinger who’s lost any semblance of the self-righteous heroics he probably had as a younger man.  Though the story takes place in the distant past, and in the wild, the film speaks deeply to humanity’s undeniable need for justice.  The film’s true hero is a little girl who loves her dad.

I give these two recent examples of Westerns to simply make the point that the book of Judges is the Word of God, is alive, and is most definitely relevant today.  Each major theme of both the Western and the anti-Western is revealed within the stories of the Judges.

On one hand, the nation of Israel is young, restless and excitedly conquering new lands.  On the other hand, injustice and crime are rampant.  Violent vengeance is explored.  Revenge is prevalent.  And the recurring theme is summed up repeatedly with the writer lamenting, “And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals” (2:11). And, again, the writer mourns, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25). What could be more Western than that?  No authority, no law, no justice.

I believe that the book of Judges comes down to two very simple themes: listening and service.  Even more simply put, people serve what they listen to.

Just a page or so before the beginning of the book of Judges is found one of the better known (and most decorated with) quotes in the Bible.  Joshua, the leader of Israel, exhorts the Jewish people with the famous words, “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).13H

Joshua, through both the lessons of his own failures and his love of God, understood that what man chooses to be led by will dictate what he serves.  Men and women are created to worship.  We can’t help it!  Whether it’s Ikea catalogs, NFL drafts, Facebook or God, we are all choosing to worship something.  The book of Judges reveals this truth brutally.  The people can’t help themselves; they worship.  But, most often, they aren’t listening to the Words of God and so, most often, they are worshiping something other than Him.

The classic Western often has very messianic figures.  John Wayne rides into town, sees some injustice, kills some bad guys, and rides off.  Actually, I would hypothesize that every Western is, at heart, about the need for a Messiah, or the frustration in man’s inability to be a savior (which still means the story is about a Messiah).

In case you didn’t know, God is also fascinated by the Messiah concept.

Check out these words from Isaiah 59.

Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter.  Truth is lacking, and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.  The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice.  He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him.  He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.  According to their deeds, so will he repay, wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies. (Isaiah 59:14-18)

These themes sound familiar.  There is no justice or truth.  People who choose to “be good” get screwed.  Nobody does the right thing.  No one establishes the justice that is so blatantly missing.

But then there’s this crazy twist.  Instead of God raising up or hiring someone to act for Him, He takes things into His own hands.  God Himself gets down and dirty and takes care of business.  God is violently merciful as He lays down His own life.  God is brutally gracious as He takes injustice upon Himself.  God is ruthlessly humble as He refuses to come off the cross.

This wonderful picture of Christ painted by the prophet Isaiah continues with one of the most hopeful and profound promises from God to His people.  Isaiah records the Words of God, writing, “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring…from this time forth and forevermore” (Isaiah 59:21).

Jesus is this promised Word.  He must be listened to.  We worship what we listen to.  What directs us, directs our worship.

So check out the book of Judges.  Let God speak to you through the crazy stories.  They are (un)surprisingly appropriate for today.

Also, if your interested, check out a song and post I wrote from Judges 9 last year.

2 thoughts on “Judges and Westerns

  1. I dig this. I’m intrigued by what it says about American culture that the Western motif continues to speak to us so strongly. Also, I want to watch “3:10 to Yuma” again.

    Tangential thought: I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a novel ‘based’ on the Bible (in other words, one narrative that follows & mirrors the progression of the multi-narrative/multi-genre arc of the Bible). This post has me thinking that the Biblical narrative could mirror that of American history, with Judges represented in the West. Or I wonder what the whole Bible might look like as a Western. Anyway, rambling now. Good post.

  2. I love the contrast of “Then she went *softly* to him and *drove* the peg into his temple”.

    I’ve never really like westerns… but more post modern westerns like No Country for Old Men and Django have cracked that door more. Might need to revisit some oldies on netflix.

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