The biblical book of Judges skimps neither in its attribution of blame nor its assessment of the consequences.
The book’s famous historiographical circle elevates both the agency of the ‘judge’ and the responsiveness of YHWH to genuine remorse. In this uncommon biblical moment of history-as-cycle, the Israelites gradually forget the blessed stringency urged upon them by a judge whose oversight brought them peace and some measure or prosperity; they veer into rebellion against YHWH’s exclusive demands; YHWH visits upon them the affliction that is seen to be deserved; the Israelites wake up and call to YHWH out of their affliction; YHWH responds in mercy by sending a new ‘judge’, who sets the nation and its environs to right.
It is a tedious replay of similar courses of events, unless and until one sits at the feet of its instruction and considers the possibility that truth is not to be discerned here in terms of literary sophistication but rather in the stubbornness that drives the conduct of a people whose boundaries are demarcated by their pledge to live with YHWH.
The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of Midian seven years. The hand of Midian prevailed over Israel; and because of Midian the Israelites provided for themselves hiding places in the mountains, caves and strongholds. For whenever the Israelites put in seed, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the East would come up against them. They would encamp against them and destroy the produce of the land, as far as the neighborhood of Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel, and no sheep or ox or donkey. For they and their livestock would come up, and they would even bring their tents, as thick as locusts; neither they nor their camels could be counted; so they wasted the land as they came in. Thus Israel was greatly impoverished because of Midian; and the Israelites cried out to the LORD for help.
The descriptive valley would sprawl less dismally if it did not occupy the lowland between two high peaks: Deborah and Gideon. But it does. It was possible for Israel both to forget her heroine and to fail to anticipate her Gideon.
Her truth, in in this interim—we know it to be an interval though Israel did not—is reduced to plunder.
When one knows only plunder, the obvious next step of calling out to YHWH the deliverer is not longer self-evident. One barely remembers YHWH. One knows not how to ‘call out’. All except plunder seem alien, out of reach, inappropriate, and unimaginable. Devastation seems the fixed, unyielding truth.
Then, in some tent dark and wet with desperation, a lone Israelite beings to wail. Beneath the ragged folds of a neighboring shelter, bitter resignation overhears and turns to clamor. And then another.
In time—perhaps just moments—it becomes possible for the biblical historian who in this book wields the broadest of brushes, to abbreviate the matter via his concise, odd juxtaposition of a singular noun with a plural verb: Then Israel cried out …
Israel cannot bring herself to this when her arguably self-inflicted Midianites are an irritant, a bother, a border incursion.
They must first ‘bring even their tents’, must first trample the land with their damned camels lurching about ‘as thick as locusts’.
Only then can a first tent fill with wailing, then entreaty, then something that at another time would be called prayer, though the delicacy of that word seems hardly to fit the crushed subjection of Israel before its iron-favored oppressor.
Then, in time, Gideon.
The historian, upon further review, may not be too simple a mind.