In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes. (Judges 17:6, cf.18:1, 19:1, 12:25)
Those words are like a chorus through this dreadful last section of the book of Judges. It was harrowing to read, and it’s hard to write about. The whole book of Judges has felt like a gradual slide from the days of Moses and Joshua into this anarchy and horror, as the people of Israel forget who they are and who the LORD is, and above all what the LORD has done for them and asks of them.
Religion itself has become domesticated and commercialised – we start this ‘there was no king…’ section with an idol made from stolen (and restored) silver and a priest-for-hire who’s in it for the money and who’ll bless the highest bidder. I don’t doubt that this is deliberate. When even worship becomes part of the chaos, then all hope seems to be lost. But only seems to be.
All around is falling apart. After all, when ‘all…did what was right in their own eyes’ then the ‘right’ of the strongest is bound to win out over the ‘right’ of the weak and vulnerable. So with the blessing of this mercenary priest, a town whose innocence is emphasised is destroyed just because it can be. Women are treated as commodities, raped murdered or forced into marriage. The laws giving rights to women in Deuteronomy now stand out as enlightened and wise compared to the realities of this anarchy. The tribes engage in vendetta against each other and then commit more atrocities to try to avoid the consequences of their own actions.
It is horrific stuff. It’s uncomfortable reading, but it does remind me that the Bible is not from some idyllic world where all is truth and love. Minorities and women are still victims in so many conflicts and areas of ‘might makes right’, and the Bible speaks to their world as much as to mine.
And it’s answering one of the concerns that has grown in my mind as I’ve read Judges so far. Through all the bits about Jepthah and Samson, I’ve been longing for some statement that this was wrong. I can see the complexity of the story, and can mostly value that our Scripture is more about narrative than about being ‘God’s instruction book’ but I know that these stories influence many people and many men in particular. And as the lot of women in the book of Judges has slid from the beginning with Caleb’s honoured daughter Achsah, and with Deborah and Jael down to the women of these chapters, abused without a thought for them as people and with hardly a comment, I want there to be some clear statement that this is not how it should be.
In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.
At last it’s clear, in these chapters, that this is not the way it was meant to be. And while I still wish for more of God’s commentary on events, it strikes me that perhaps we were always meant to read the Bible with sense, humanity and love. If God had intended to give us a clear set of precepts for life and faith he would surely not have done it like this. But by giving us the stormy saga of a people chosen to show him to the world, and leaving us to look for him in the mess of the story, perhaps God has given us something richer – an inspired text which leaves us the freedom to think, to search, to wonder, to reject, to be angered and troubled.
We don’t have to like what we read to say ‘this is the Word of the Lord’. But to hear the Word of the Lord we need to open our minds as well as our ears.
And one of the things that has struck me through these often difficult readings is how consistently the worst episodes in Israel’s history start with losing sight of who God is. Whether it’s Gideon’s idol, Jephthah treating the LORD as just another tribal god, Samson seeing the LORD only as the source of his strength, not the guide of his life, or Micah and the Danites seeing the priesthood and worship as a commodity to be bought and sold, the vision of ‘I AM WHO I AM’, the God of their Fathers, has been lost. So, before long, has their basic decent humanity.
If we want to remember who we are called to be, we do well to remember who the LORD is.
I think I need to come back to this book some time, mainly because I’m still struggling with it so much. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to a couple of days with the book of Ruth!