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).


Tanya said...


As is always the case with your writings, this is meaty and offers another perspective. I look forward to reading part 2.

Lidia said...

Looking forward to Part 2 ... you really inspire me to do a study on it myself :)