November 1, 2009 Volume 23, Number 16
How (and why) to read the book of Judges
By Rob Alloway | ChristianWeek Columnist
"In those days Israel had no king; everyone did what was right in his own eyes."
Do not read this book to your children, and be careful using it in Church curriculum. Think of a bad horror movie showing at a fringe festival for alternative films and you won't be far off its content. For totally bizarre Bible stories with both X and R ratings, Judges wins first prize.
A woman's dead body dismembered into 12 pieces and delivered around the countryside like so much mail. One tribe almost pushed to extinction by the unrestrained butchery of their kinsmen. Tent-pegs driven through the heads of sleeping generals. Two hundred virgins dancing in a vineyard. A wicked king so corpulent that his assassin's foot-long dagger disappears into the folds of his fat like a sadistic circus stunt. A child sacrifice offered up to the Hebrew God by her father whose name, incidentally, is included by the writer of Hebrews as a great man of faith. Forty-two thousand men killed simply because of a speech impediment. And for a stellar example of caustic wit, you simply must read the fable of the talking trees.
Some of the stories are more familiar, but they are no less disturbing. Samson's epic tragedy is found in this book, as is poor Gideon's obsession with confirming the will of God by insisting on specific signs and wonders. The victory song of Deborah is good inspiration for empowering women leaders. But even the details of these stories are bleak. Deliverance, even when it comes, is transient. The whiff of feculence perfumes every page.
Judges is meant to be read on two levels. First, within the greater history of Israel, it intentionally justifies Israel's subsequent political development. The judgesprovisional and charismatic leaderswere an inherently unstable form of governance. Only as long as a judge lived did the people flourish (Judges 2:10). It was a stop-gap political system at best.
Kings were what the people neededjust like the other nations (I Samuel 8:5). The secular proof for this is provided by the writer of Judges. God gave them what they asked for. The first king, Saul, wasn't very satisfactory. But again, Judges explains why. Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin, a tribe guilty of gang rape. Men from Judah made for better kingsmen like David. And thus the next 450 years of new governance is legitimized.
As it turned out, the monarchy didn't work very well either. What the people really needed was a Messiah who would bring with him an entirely new kind of social order. What the prophetic writings look to is a theocracy. Christians understand this to be fulfilled in Jesus, and we petition for it with every recitation of the Lord's Prayer. While current Islamic regimes may give us pause, we must at least admit that their general view of political governance echoes our Judeo-Christian hope.
But how might we approach Judges in a personal context? The perpetual cycle of Israel's disobedience, defeat, despair, remorse and temporary deliverance is a motif that is easily recognized. Each gruesome repetition forges the book into one powerful and unified narrative. About 400 years of the same things happening over and over again. It's the bondage of Egypt revisited, but this time it is self-imposed. For everyone was doing what was right in his or her own eyes. And the results were disastrous.
The grotesque, gothic-like, literary style is meant to get our attention. It alerts the reader that the harsh revelations about our human condition will be equally offensive. The book of Judgesall 25 chapterssuggests two things about ourselves:
1) Self-rule is illusionary. We need someone to rule over us.
2) We need to be told right from wrong. We don't see very well.
In an age where personal autonomy is sacrosanct, and ethics has become a self-referential exercise, neither of these propositions are palatable. Submitting to a higher authority. Obeying an external code of conduct. However these are packaged, we resist swallowing the medicine.
Perhaps Judges is more current than we want to admit.
Rob Alloway has written three award winning collections of Old Testament stories: Balaam's Revenge (1999), Babylon Post (2005) and The Left Hand of God (2008).