Monday, September 14, 2009

Judging Judges 19 -- Part II

See Judging Judges 19 -- Part I (below)

As we push forward with Judges 19, we move into verses 3-5. Four months after she left him, this Levite comes determined to "persuade" his concubine wife to return, or as the Message version puts it: "Then her husband decided to go after her and try to win her back."

Perhaps he was a smooth talker. Perhaps she felt an obligation as his wife, but clearly she is open to prospects of reconciliation. The hows and whys can only be dismissed to speculation. But she brings him into her father's house. The father greets him warmly and an interesting display of hospitality ensues. Consistently, the father urges his son-in-law to stay, day after day. It seems to reach beyond simple hospitality into perhaps a paternal desire for his daughters happiness and perhaps even her protection. But in the end, the girl is this Levite's wife. And when he leaves, she must leave with him. Ironically instead of protecting the girl, the late start proved to be only the first in many events that led to her demise.

So off they go. It's too late to make it all the way home in one day now. The Levite is convinced that they will be safe lodging in a Israelite city and so they push forward to the Gibeah in Benjamanite territory. Inns did not exist in all cities at this time and so travelers had to rely on the hospitality of kinsman or locals for lodging or just camp out.

Things are looking dim as the sun begins to set and no one has offered them a safe place for the night. Perhaps they grew edgy at the thought of sleeping out in the streets unprotected. But what choice did they have?

Finally, a local who was originally from their area of Ephraim stumbled upon them and offered them hospitality at his home. What good fortune! An eleventh hour rescue. Yes, all would be well now.

In the "get to know ya" conversation between the Levite and hospitable local, the Levite explains, "I went to Bethlehem of Judah, but I am [now] going [home] to the house of the Lord [where I serve], and there is no man who receives me into his house."(Amplified)

Where did that come from? This is the first time God has been mentioned in this man's whole story. For some reason he feels the need to put a spiritual spin on his predicament.

Have we ever been guilty of this? We like to pretend that we are "acknowledging the Lord in all of our ways" but in reality, we acknowledge Him only when it serves our purpose, makes us look good. He wants to make sure this guy knows that HE is a LEVITE, a man of the cloth.

The man invites the Levite and his entourage into his home and all is looking good ... until there is a knock at the door. The evil men outside demand the guest. The Levite and his host's response is enough to make us wonder if there were more evil outside that house or inside. The Message records it this way:

A gang of local hell-raisers all, surrounded the house and started pounding on the door. They yelled for the owner of the house, the old man, "Bring out the man who came to your house. We want to have sex with him."
He went out and told them, "No, brothers! Don't be obscene—this man is my guest. Don't commit this outrage. Look, my virgin daughter and his concubine are here. I'll bring them out for you. Abuse them if you must, but don't do anything so senselessly vile to this man."
But the men wouldn't listen to him. Finally, the Levite pushed his concubine out the door to them. They raped her repeatedly all night long. Just before dawn they let her go. The woman came back and fell at the door of the house where her master was sleeping. When the sun rose, there she was.

The world truly becomes an ugly place when " there was no king ... [and] every man [does] what was right in his own eyes."

Here our religious leader of the day, the one who should be helping to establish and hold up the moral fabric of society physically forces his wife out of the house to be raped to death in order to save his own neck. What's worse, he seems to feel no remorse over the whole affair as he still managed to get a good night's sleep that night.

We want our pastors, lay leaders, even Christians in general to be heroes. But they fail us. We all fail each other. While we are repulsed by this story, the fact remains that we are each capable of all kinds of evil when we depose of the King in our lives and chose to do what is right in our own eyes.

And it is ugly. It leaves me cold. But this story from Judges does not end here.

The Message version describes the next scene of this tragedy this way:

It was morning. Her master got up and opened the door to continue his journey. There she was, his concubine, crumpled in a heap at the door, her hands on the threshold.
"Get up," he said. "Let's get going." There was no answer.
He lifted her onto his donkey and set out for home. When he got home he took a knife and dismembered his concubine—cut her into twelve pieces. He sent her, piece by piece, throughout the country of Israel. And he ordered the men he sent out, "Say to every man in Israel: 'Has such a thing as this ever happened from the time the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until now? Think about it! Talk it over. Do something!'"

"Get up"? "Let's get going"? Hello! You just allowed your wife to be raped and abused all night long, you find her collapsed on the doorstep and THIS is how you respond?!?!??!?!?

What's with this "man of God"? It truly makes me sick to my stomach. But the fact remains that evil is capable of infecting even the clergy. And when that happens many innocents suffer on many levels.

And that's exactly what happened here. Never having repented for the role he played in the tragedy, the Levite makes a self-serving call for justice. In violation of Torah law where desecration of the body is forbidden, he cuts up his wife's body and sends it to the tribes, a dramatic, if not grotesque, call to vengence. He was angry, not because they had hurt his beloved wife, but because they had broken his stuff. It was the offense against himself that concerned the Levite most.

The result: War, widespread bloodshed, nearly complete genocide of the tribe of Benjamin, and then in a last ditch effort to save the tribe, widespread kidnapping and rape of countless young women from Shiloh.

The tentacles of evil reach far, wide and deep.

By including this story in Holy Scripture, God acknowledges how the evil of this world reaches out and tears into lives and souls of individuals simply trying to survive this journey we call life. The concubine, the girls of Shiloh, the countless lives slaughtered in this altercation in the name of justice, but motivated only by selfishness and evil -- their blood testifies that when we depose the King and do what is right in our own eyes, evil triumphs.

Very often it is the events of evil in the world that drive people to give up on God. How could a sovereign God of all goodness exist when such tragedies like this occur?

But Evil is not proof that there is no God. If anything it is proof that there is one. If there is no God, then there is no real right or wrong. There is no sin and no real evil. There is just what is. And this story is just a story with no lesson, no bad guy.

But this story IS so unmistakably horrid. There is so much undeniable evil seething from all angles of it that we are forced to recognize that evil exists. And many of us can recall events of evil in our own lives that hurt us very personally and very deeply. It was not just some amoral event of our lives, it was sheer Evil. To explain it away any other way would be to denigrate our suffering.

Since that fateful day Adam and Eve ate from the tree, our world has borne the infection of evil. And it ravages mankind with sorrow and suffering. Perhaps, in light of this, the real question is not "If God exists, why is there so much evil in the world?" But instead, "If there really was a "fall," how do we still manage to "see the goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living"? (Psalm 27:13). How can there be so many glimpses of goodness in such an sin-infected world?

Granted, there are times, when those glimpses all but disappear as they did for that poor concubine on that night in Gibeah as the dark cloud of evil got its chokehold on her through her husband's betrayal and violent men's abuse, dragging her to her own demise.

As Christians we are not immune. We too may face the darkness of tragedy. What then? How shall we respond when God seems so alien and Evil all too intimate?

CS Lewis put it best in Screwtape Letters: "[Satan's] cause is never in more danger than when a human -- no longer desiring but still intending to do [God's] will -- looks round upon the universe from which every trace of [God] seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys."

That is the moment of truth. For it is at that moment that we are forced to truly exercise the faith we claim.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Judging Judges 19

Have you ever read Judges 19? If not, read through it before going on here.

This is a passage that the bible-bashers love -- just because it is so ugly. Rape, murder, mutilation. "Why would God allow such horrors?" one cannot help but ask as they read it. But such questions are not limited to this obscure, unpleasant fraction of scripture. Many realities of life drive us to the same question.

In this light, the very fact that such a horrible event is recorded in holy scripture suggests that God, Himself, is not some "pie-in-the sky-by-and-by-when-we-die" fairy creature. Quite the contrary. He is a realist. Perhaps He is the ultimate realist as he comprehends all dimensions of reality. He knew and knows that we will all face the ugly realities of this sinful world -- some of us more than others. And those are the times simple pious pat answers just won't cut it for us anymore as we cry out, "Where is God in this utter injustice!?!?!?"

With that said, let's take a little look at this sordid story of scripture. Judges 19.

"In those days Israel had no king." This is shortened form of the theme of Judges, repeated throughout: "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit."

They may have been God's chosen people, but they failed to make Him King. They failed to allow Him to regulate their lives. Instead, everyone pretty much decided right and wrong for himself.

Hmmm. So this is the opening concept for this story. Where do we fit in? Can we relate? Can we be called "Christian" and yet never give God the throne of our lives? How often do we fail to allow Him to regulate our concepts of right and wrong and simply come up with our own formulas, paying minimal homage to scripture when it conveniently supports our gut instincts.

The male lead in this drama is a Levite, that is, of the tribe of Levi. You remember, the ones "consecrated to the service of the Lord," as Easton's Bible Dictionary puts it. The guy was supposed to be a religious leader of his day.

The female lead is a concubine. Yeah, the whole concubine thing has a lot of baggage. But back then it was culturally common and accepted. A concubine was not a mistress, but an unendowed wife, or secondary wife. Perhaps a wife that came with no dowry. Being a woman living at this time and a concubine to boot, she starts out the story at a disadvantage and it only gets worse for her from there.

Verse 2 tells us she was unfaithful and left her husband, fleeing back to her father's home in Bethlehem. We are only at verse 2 and we'll find respected Bible commentators clashing and raging in abject disagreement over the proper lesson to draw from the story.

John Wesley and Matthew Henry, likely heavily influenced by the culture of their day, see it all quite simply. And with pious pat answers state almost matter-of-factly that the woman was a whore and got what she deserved. As we read through their commentaries we can almost feel the sting of fire and smell the stench of brimstone as they essentially say: So you women better not go awhoring or you too might well end up like the concubine who was raped to death and cut into pieces.

A convenient and zealous, if not completely compassionate or accurate interpretation. Not all Bible scholars buy it. Dr. Claude Mariottini, Professor of Old Testament at Northern Baptist Seminary, points out while the Hebrew word "zanah" can infer sexual infidelity it can also mean “to be angry, hateful” or to “feel repugnant against.”

He argues if the woman had committed adultery, she would have been stoned to death. Period. End of story. Her jilted husband certainly would not come, hat-in-hand, determined to woo her back. Jewish historian Josephus concurs with this interpretation, and considering the fact that Josephus would be more culturally in tune with what was really going on here, his views should hold the most weight.

Now, we are only at verse 2 and a little investigation has modified our take on the whole story. We do not have a whoring wife flaunting a sin spree in the face of her devout pastor husband. Instead we have a common Jewish woman who became a second class wife (maybe because her father could not afford a dowry) to a "religious" guy who lives in the middle of nowhere.

By what Josephus records, it would appear that this husband did something to offend this wife. We do not know what. But it was bad enough to drive this woman to flee her husband and somehow travel a significant distance through clearly dangerous lands to seek the protection of her father. I find it interesting that I have yet to find a commentary that speculates on how the wife made this journey or even comments on the difficulty of the undertaking, not to mention the risks involved. Women did not travel alone. She had to be taking her life into her own hands.

How bad was life as this guy's wife? Did she fear for her life? (Not an outlandish question considering what ultimately happens to her). Whatever happened in this Levite's household remains shrouded in mystery -- as is the case ultimately with pretty much all marital discord. The full story will likely never be known. Still, we are left with these characters where they are.

A second-class wife has fled. Four months later, the husband comes to win her back. That brings us only to the first part of verse three. But blogs aren't meant to voluminous. So for today I will stop here.

(Judging Judges 19 Part 2 ... coming soon, comments welcome).