The spiral of decadence, defeat and oppression, repentance and deliverance continues its downward trajectory through the judgeships of Jephthah and Samson, leading again to civil war and the near destruction of an entire tribe, the tribe of Benjamin. In these stories, some of them brutal, graphic and disturbing, the case is being made for a centralized kingship and place of worship. Several times we read, “There was no king, and everyone did whatever seemed right to him.” As we’ll see later, though, the change from a divinely-instituted federation of nearly autonomous tribes, clans and families, to a centralized monarchy will prove to be the proverbial leap from the frying pan into the fire. Out of the dialogue between the advocacy for an anti-imperial, nearly anarchic covenant law of Moses, in which God alone is king, and the divinely conceded monarchy of David, arises the questions: What sort of king will Israel have? Who will he be? How will he rule in such a way that God is still king? The rest of the Old Testament, especially Isaiah, will grapple with such questions. For Christians, the answer is Jesus.
About some of the judges: in the disturbing stories of chapters 10 and 11, Jephtah’s intransigent obedience to his vow is not presented as heroic, but weak, making him a prisoner of his own rashness and his own code of honor. The story is more about his daughter, and the annual women’s celebration in her honor. Whatever her reasons, she insists, at least as much as her father, upon the fulfillment of his vows, making herself as much a party and a factor in Israel’s victory and strength, as her father. But I don’t think its unreasonable to detect a woman’s perspective to the story, one which reminds us of the true costs of warfare to families, wives and daughters, that is, innocent noncombatants. We cannot look down upon this account with an air of superiority; her story, war’s brutality, and the “collateral damages” are current events.
Samson (chapters 13-16) stands as Exhibit A of Martin Luther’s maxim, “God rides lame horses and whittles rotten wood.” A more complex and self-defeating character we would be be hard pressed to find in sacred pages. Like John the Baptist, his birth is foretold by an angel, and he is consecrated to God with Nazirite vows. But unlike John, Samson displays a hell-raising, self-indulgent and self-destructive streak as strong as his physical and military powers. Again, women figure powerfully and prominently in this story, and, like Jephthah’s daughter and Deborah, they are acting on behalf of their own people with the tools and means available to them. As with the story of Jephtah and his daughter, we are not presented with moral and spiritual examples to emulate uncritically, but with the history of how God works with his people, through his people, and often in spite of his people. If we need any directive from the example of Samson, it would be a warning against the ease and speed with which we can misuse the gifts and graces of God, to our own detriment, if we lack humility, self-restraint and reverence for God.
Judges 17 and 18 display how even the Levites were corrupted by Israel’s downward moral and spiritual spiral. A young Levite sells himself to the services of Mica, to preside over an unauthorized shrine, operating in competition with the one at Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle were then resting. He is even ministering to an idol. But then he, the idol and the shrine follow even higher bidders, the Danites in search of another home. After this false priest blessed an unauthorized an attack upon a peaceful colony of Sidon, for whom we hear echoes of sympathy in the text (“a people tranquil and in security,”), the Danites set themselves up in Lais with their counter-shrine.
The Woman With Her Hand Upon the Threshold:” Chapters 19-20
It can’t get any worse than this. From the perspective of its time of composition, its hard to say which part of the story is more disturbing and outrageous, the inhospitable and humiliating actions of the Benjamites in Gibea, the macabre and self-involved response of her man, or the nearly genocidal reaction of the rest of Israel. The Benjamites showed an appalling lack of hospitality, in a time when hospitality was both a matter of safety and survival for travelers, as well as a matter of honor, virtue and divine blessing for the hosts. But the Benjamites not only leave the Levite and his entourage waiting unwelcomed till nightfall in the town plaza, an outsider(from the mountains of Ephraim) is the only one to take them in. And that after they had passed up an earlier chance to seek hospitality in a non-Israelite city! And that after the concubine’s father had gone overboard with his hospitality to the man and his servant (perhaps to atone for any shame he might have felt over his daughter’s departure?). To add insult to injury, the men of Gibeah demand access to the visiting Levite, to sodomize him, thus showing that Israel has declined to moral and spiritual depths at least as low as those of pagan Sodom and Gomorrah. There is nothing in this story that would speak to current debates over sexual orientation; the men’s intent is to humiliate the guest, and they willingly accept a woman in his place.
Our outrage over the treatment of the woman, and, by implication, of women in general, in this passage, is justified and confirmed by the story’s shift of perspective, in her favor, and against her husband. “When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold (v. 27).” Obviously, her consort had not even bothered to stay up during the night, nor to wonder when she came back in, or if at all. He discovers her by accident, almost stumbling over her where she obviously had died from repeated rape, unsuccessfully seeking help and refuge with her last ounce of strength, as indicated by her hand pitifully laid on the threshold. And all the man can think of is that she get up and move according to his schedule! (He wasn’t as concerned about his schedule while her father was plying him with more food and drink). A more damning indictment and revelation of insensitivity, brutality and mysoginy would be hard to find. Again, the text of Judges reveals a sympathetic female perspective with a touch of irony.
That her widely-distributed body parts serve as a call to revenge only adds to the indictment of how dehumanizing and humiliating life had become in only a few generations after the Exodus and the giving of the covenant. Yet it gets worse: Israel nearly loses an entire tribe, in a civil war of revenge and punishment upon Gibeah’s inhospitality and immorality. The war appears as much to be a matter of divine judgment upon all of Israel, not only Benjamin, considering the massive death toll and multiple defeats for the army assembled against Benjamin. As in the case of Jephthah, once again, a rash oath leaves the protagonists in a dilemma: no one can give their daughter in marriage to any of the few surviving Benjamin men, to help resurrect the tribe. The answer will arise in the next section, and again, it has to do with a unique women’s religious contribution. But all this turmoil and decay because “in those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit (21:1).”