Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us? (Judges, introduction)

I've been hesitating to start up the book of Judges for a number of reasons, one of which has not been that I was unaware of what an ugly book it is. I've known that from the first time I read it; you can't miss it. One thing that was lacking in me was a good idea of the proper way to say the things that needed to be said about it. Somehow, "This book is nasty. Let's go!" seemed a bit lacking.

The nastiness that is Judges needs to be addressed, and more than just admitted, it needs to be explained. Steve Wells points out that the book starts with a story involving the sending of body parts through the mail. The irony he forgets to mention is that, like a set of grisly bookends, the book's final story also involves body parts being sent through the mail. (EDIT: Oh, no, he does mention it. Did he add it, or did I somehow miss it on first read?) I remember the first time I read that particular story I thought, Sheesh, Stephen King's got nothing on the author of Judges! Horrifyingly, these stories are actually true.

Oddly enough, although I've been re-reading the book of Judges again lately to get back into it and get the right feel for it, it's the reading of a couple of other books, one by a more liberal theologian and the other by a more conservative one that have given me direction in this, although neither one mentions this particular book in their writings. Both of them point out the same thing about the Bible, a thing that I realized as a child reading the Bible for myself for the first time. I wasn't even in this book when it dawned on me (I was back in Genesis, probably reading about something like the story of Judah and Tamar) but I realized that in general, the Bible is not a book of heroes. It's not a book of great moral giants that we might look up to and model ourselves after. Adam eats the fruit. Cain kills his brother. Noah gets drunk and exposes himself. Abraham sleeps with his wife's maid. Isaac plays favorites with his children. Jacob lies and cheats his way through life at every turn. Moses commits murder. As I child, a light bulb went on in my head:

The Bible is a book full of screw-ups.

The funny thing about this is that there seem to be many people who come to a realization of this and it yields the opposite reaction in them from the one it did in me and so many people who know this to be true, and yet still use the Bible as a moral compass. People look at a book like Judges and they say, "How the Hell can I believe in a God who puts crap like this in His Holy Scriptures?" In many ways, the question is raised here, but the answer is hidden in the book of Jonah in the form of a question Jeopardy-style.
"And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?" (Jonah 4:11)
Jonah is the only book in the Bible to end with a question, and if God thinks leaving the question hanging out there is good enough, I think He wants us to consider it deeply. These 120,000 people God refers to are probably children; God is pointing out that while Nineveh (and the world at large) is full of evil people, if it were even just for the sake of the children, isn't it best to give a chance for people to do better and try again? Some have pointed out that if God only accepted "good people" who never do the wrong thing, then Jonah wouldn't be there to have the question asked to him.

Actually, Jonah would never have been born, because the nation of Israel would have been destroyed in the time of the Judges. Heck, you might as well suppose that they would have been killed at the whole golden calf incident. Or back when one of the Patriarchs screwed up big. Hmm, or maybe God could have just squished Adam and Eve like bugs when they disobeyed, and then none of us would be here at all.

In the book of Judges, the people of Israel go through a repeating cycle. They turn from God. They get in trouble. They turn back to God. God sends someone to save them. They rejoice, and the cycle repeats.

Some call God the "God of second chances." He's also the God of third, fourth, fifth, and 490th chances. If God could use a guy like Samson, a guy who was a drunk, a womanizer, a "momma's boy", a killer, and just generally all-around unpleasant fellow, then surely God could use a guy like me.

That's the hidden message of the book of Judges, and really of the Bible as a whole. It's a message that Bible detractors and followers alike can tend to miss. God is the God of screw-ups and rejects. "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Luke 5:32) That's good news for all of us. Don't think you're a screw-up? Maybe you're just a liar.

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