Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Now will we deal worse with thee, than with them (Judges 19)

Okay, time to get back to it; I've got to finish this book. As some might know, I've been out of work for a while, and it's been hard to focus at times when I feel that every waking moment should be spent in job searching. As it happens, I've also been involved in a Bible study with my church that's been taking up a fair amount of my time, being a bit more involved than the usual sort. This week, the topic of study is "work", which I've volunteered to lead the group on, out of my own love of irony. Of course, as is so often the case, in attempting to be ironic, I've also given myself a wonderful chance to be inspired by the subject matter. Work, wages, and money are big topics in the Bible, but here in Judges 19, we see some far less inspiring subjects touched on.

Now, while the SAB is virtually forced by the horror of this story to finally come back to commenting on the book, I might generously guess here that the shocking events in the latter portion of this chapter distract from legitimate concerns in the early portion of this chapter, and that's why no comments are given until verse 22. In the very first verse, we're introduced to the central characters of this story, a Levite and his concubine. Whatever the technical definition of a "concubine" is--which might be a useful topic of discussion in itself--it's certainly not a wholesome relationship by our modern understanding of the nature of marriage and sexuality, and there seems to be little to support the morality of concubinage anywhere in the Bible either, other than the fact that it is mentioned, which I repeatedly stress is no indication of condoning. Actually, for this story, it is of paramount importance to note that fact; there's pretty much nothing good happening in this story whatsoever.

If there is any lingering suspicion that this might be a wholesome family tale, the very next verse hammers the last nail in that coffin, as we read that "his concubine played the whore against him". Both of these verses should be rightly marked with the topic of "sex", and the SAB, which in other places seems eager to jump on such things, might as well have marked the second with "language", as "played the whore" hardly sounds like Sunday school terminology. (Everyone remember the episode of the Simpsons in which Marge asks the kids what they learned about in Sunday school? Bart replies, "Hell!" Homer chastises Bart for using improper language, but is assured by Lisa that it truly was the subject of the morning. Bart says, "I sure as HELL can't tell you we learned about HELL unless I say HELL, can't I?" Okay, enough Simpsons; the name "Jebus" appears enough in this chapter for any Simpsons fan, anyway...)

So after the Levite goes to get the woman back, and his father in law (His what? The Levite is also referred to as her "husband". I guess there's no alternate terminology for this relationship.) tries to keep the guy from going for several days, but eventually, he sets off. It gets late, and they need to seek shelter for the night, but the Levite insists that seeking shelter in a non-Israelite city is unacceptable. Perhaps this could be tagged with intolerance; he doesn't give his reasons for wanting to avoid the Jebusites, but in the end it he may regret his choice. The Bible doesn't give us insight into the inner workings of this guy's mind at all.

Interestingly, the Bible points out that he enters the city and sits down in the street because nobody offers him hospitality. As I noted in the earlier story in Genesis that bears a great similarity to this chapter, in the Middle East, hospitality is taken very seriously. The fact that he couldn't find a place to stay almost right away is culturally significant. "An old man" coming back from work sees him in the street and asks him what's up, to which he replies (probably in false humility, but once again, I'm only guessing) that although nobody has offered him a place to stay, he has everything he needs, and he's fine with sleeping in the street. The old man insists that sleeping in the street is not a good idea, and urges them to come into his house.

Now the story gets really familiar. A group of local men come to the house and insist to be allowed access to the Levite, "that we may know him." This is pretty clearly understood to mean that they're looking to gang rape this man for whatever reason, and I won't go into the issues that have already been addressed in the similar Genesis story, other than to note that it may be odd that the SAB tags this passage with a lot of topics, but does not include "homosexuality" as in the Genesis passage; as I think I said in the first story, homosexuality in itself is not really the issue here, but this is one of many stories in the Bible that is commonly linked to justification for homophobia, and for that reason alone, it might be worth labeling accordingly. The differing nature of this story lies in various notable details. This guy only has one virgin daughter to offer, and he offers her along with the Levite's concubine! I'm not sure whether we're to take it that this guy is a lousy host, or that the sacred protection of hospitality does not extend to female guests, or that the Levite was fine with this offer. The last of these possibilities seems least likely in many ways, but I actually wouldn't rule out anything. Despite what the note in the SAB says seeming to simply recap the story, there are at least two assumptions in there that need commenting on. First of all, the story does not say that "The mob refuses the daughter, but accepts the concubine..." It actually says that they refuse to listen, so the concubine is brought out to them. I've always imagined that this was a bit of a desperation move on the part of the men in the house to save themselves, hoping that once they actually have one of the women, they'll change their mind. This seems to work, and they have their way with her until the sun comes up.

Now comes what, to some, is the more shocking part of the story (although not to all; I've heard many women say that they'd rather be murdered than gang-raped, and I think I feel the same way), the guy takes the woman back home, chops up her body into twelve pieces and somehow mails these body parts to all the tribes of Israel, apparently with an explanation of what a horrible thing had happened. And here's the second assumption that I have a shocking comment concerning: nowhere in the story does it say "she crawls back to the doorstep and dies." I think people reading this story assume that, in hopes of retaining what few scraps of decency they can from an intrinsically indecent story. Remember how above I said I wouldn't rule out anything? That includes the possibility that the Levite butchered his concubine while she was still alive.

Yes, in reality, I have to say that this story is very likely far more shocking and disgusting than the SAB gives it credit. It's my own personal assumption on this, but consider: why the heck does the first half of this story have such a long telling of the tale of the father in law who is so reluctant to let his daughter go? Why is he trying so hard to keep this guy entertained and in his house rather than allowing him to go home? So many times in the past, I have read this story and wondered, is it an act of great grace that this Levite would take back his concubine after she "played the whore against him"? Are we perhaps to question his morality in being willing to take back a woman who was unfaithful to him, which might not be acceptable in the Mosaic Law? (Sure, there are a lot of Laws being broken in this story, but selective use of the Mosaic Law is common throughout history, even to this day of course.) I'm starting to think that it's much more likely that the Levite went to get his concubine back because he intended to take her home and punish her severely. Note that in the morning he talks to her (indicating to me that she's probably not dead), but shows no sympathy whatsoever for her ordeal (indicating to me that he doesn't care about her well-being).

To quote the SAB:
The story, which must be one of the most disgusting stories ever told, ends with: "consider of it, take advice, and speak your mind."
The SAB feels that anyone reading the story "will immediately reject the idea that it was inspired by God." Well, surprise! I don't. This story, while in God's book, has nothing to do with God, and in many ways, that's the point. The author of Judges is once again trying to imply, whether one agrees or not, that this is exactly the sort of thing one should tend to expect if a nation is given completely over to its own arbitrary morality and turns its back on God. To show the goodness of God's way, the book of Judges gives us this story along with so many others to give us something to contrast with it. Whether you personally agree with this view and/or believe in the God of the Bible, I hope you will agree that this story does show something worthwhile: that morality is not just an arbitrary and relative thing, but a real concern that should grip society. I don't care whether you are a Jew or a Gentile, Christian or atheist, gay or straight, Bible-believer or skeptic; some things are just plain wrong.


Anonymous said...

Very good critique of this. Anyone would be shocked to read about this in, for example, the Toronto Star. God's word? It isn't something that you'd want the little children in Sunday School to hear. Compassionate God. A good point that God lets things happen sometimes to prove just how bad we can be when left to our own devices(No King in Israel). Anyway, thank you for your thoughts.

sakkarin said...

In the next chapter the bloke says "And the men of Gibeah rose against me, and beset the house round about upon me by night, and thought to have slain me: and my concubine have they forced, that she is dead." So she WAS dead when he dismembered her.

Brucker said...

Well, he seems to be claiming this, but I don't see him as being completely honest. After all, he doesn't explain how they got their hands on the concubine. The possibility remains open in my mind.

Anonymous said...

There's a reason why "apologist" is a dirty word. This story is disgusting, your god is disgusting, and so are you for pretending it would be a good thing if he/she/it actually existed.

Brucker said...

Well, think you for your honest (if not completely unrelated to what I wrote) opinion.

Unknown said...

While God may not be as present in this story, that doesn't take away from the fact that he's present in a hell of a lot of other gruesome stories.
The OT makes it obvious that 'God' is merely a reflection of the authors attempting to make sense of a vile part of our 'history'. That, or God is as corrupt and 'jealous' as he's made out to be.
If your God is as brutal as he appears in the OT, do you really think you'll get into heaven? Perhaps it's true that God took prozac and is now a more loving/forgiving entity.