All summer and fall, in our Old Testament readings, we have been hearing an outline of the beginnings of the people of God, a whistle-stop tour through the first books of the Bible, starting with Genesis back in June on Trinity Sunday with the creation story and racing through the highlights of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, until at last we come to Judges.
You probably haven’t heard too many sermons on Judges. In fact, you may never have read Judges. Until I started to read through the Bible for the first time, the only thing I knew about Judges was the story of Samson, the strong man who was tricked by the seductive Delilah into revealing the secret of his strength, received an unexpected haircut, and pulled down the pillars of the temple on himself. Exciting stuff. But there is a lot more to this seventh book of our Bible: there are other heroes including Ehud, Gideon, Jephtha, Jael, and of course Deborah, each of whom acted to rescue Israel from her enemies and from her own waywardness. And today offers the only opportunity in our lectionary for us to pause and reflect on this book.
Our Collect for the day addresses God who “caused ALL holy Scriptures to be written for our learning.” So let’s take a look at what the book of Judges can offer us: how might we hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this obscure portion of Scripture?
The time of the Judges was a chaotic time in Israel’s early days. It was a time of transition from a nation in exile to a nation of settled rule. Israel went through repeated cycles of sin and redemption. The nation would do what was evil in the sight of the Lord, adopting the false gods of their neighbors, God would punish them by sending an enemy to conquer and subjugate them, a hero or judge would rise up and restore the nation, but after that person was gone the cycle would resume again. Times of cultural transition are messy. You take two steps forward and then a step back. We know something about cultural transition. You pass marriage equality and then anti-LGBT laws start popping up. You make real strides in recognizing the equal worth of women and minorities, and the next thing you know, white male privilege reasserts itself. Each step towards a more just society seems to trigger a backlash of violence and toxic fear. The story of Judges mirrors our own time in more than one respect.
The world of Judges is a world hostile to women. We read today of the judge and strategist Deborah, who leads the defeat of the enemy army, heroically assisted by the woman Jael who gruesomely assassinates the enemy general; but later in the book we read two stories of dreadful abuse against women, women who never receive the dignity of a name.
Jephthah is another of the judges. He has risen from humble, illegitimate beginnings and become a guerilla leader against the enemy of the moment. He vows that, if he triumphs, he will sacrifice to God the first living thing that greets him on his return home. That living thing is his virgin daughter, and yet he goes through with the terrible burnt sacrifice. The moral climate of the land is so damaged that Jephthah is regarded as a national hero in spite of this crime.
The second story, of the Levite clergyman and his concubine is frankly horrific. The woman is a trafficked person with no agency and no voice. When her master is threatened with violence, he agrees with his host that it makes sense to offer the woman up to a murderous mob, whereupon she is horribly violated and left to die. Her master now decides to be outraged, and with a symbolic act too revolting to repeat, he calls Israel to vengeance. Intertribal war ensues, and at the end, because all the women of the tribe of Benjamin have been slaughtered in the war, the elders of the nation take 600 virgins by force and hand them over to the remnant of the Benjaminite army, to rebuild the population.
Can you discern any parallels with our time? Human trafficking is globally the third largest illegal industry, and San Diego is a center of that industry. Conspiracy among powerful men to silence and possess vulnerable women is just now being recognized as a major, national sin. The begetting of violence by violence, leading to genocide and the letting go of any pretence of decency is the story of multiple nations in our time.
Women are still overlooked, silenced, trafficked, and undervalued. An article this week about the gunman in the northern California rampage described the murder of his wife and the hiding of her body under the floorboards. It was a long article but it never gave his wife the dignity of a name. And just a couple of days ago I read a first-person account written last year by a Belgian woman describing how, starting at age six, she was sold and used by a ring of pedophiles which included some of the most prominent men in Europe.
The very last sentence of Judges comments on the utter lack of moral compass in the land and suggests that the fundamental issue is the lack of a king, the Biblical editor taking advantage of the violence to justify the introduction of the absolute rule of monarchy. The manipulation of chaotic times of transition in order to grasp absolute power is an all-too-familiar story of our time.
It seems hopeless, both for ancient Israel and for us.
And yet, when we read on into 1 Samuel (with a detour through the book of Ruth, a story of three virtuous women) we read of an episode in the time of the judges where a woman – Hannah – was cared for by husband, priest, and God, and given a much-loved child who became one of the greatest prophets of Israel. So, in the broad scheme of things, the message of Scripture is that no time is beyond redemption; God’s promises hold through the worst that humans can do; and the prophetic word is ultimately never silenced.
Returning to Deborah’s story, we now understand that God’s gifts can be put to good use under the most unlikely circumstances, as a woman rules and triumphs in the midst of the misogynistic mayhem.
Deborah is entrusted with much, just as the two good slaves are in the parable that Jesus tells in the Gospel. The contrast between those two and the third slave reminds us that we get to choose what we do with our gifts. Israel was blessed with the land of promise, but the story of Judges is a story of repeated cycles of misusing that gift and being brought back to faithfulness by unlikely people raised up to use their gifts. God gives us the freedom to get it right or to get it terribly wrong, to live in joy instead of fear, to espouse peace and justice rather than violence and oppression.
We are blessed with many resources at St Paul’s. No matter how chaotic and uncertain the times, we are called to stretch ourselves, to take calculated risks, to emulate the wise stewards who dared to invest and grew their master’s treasure. We are to grow the Kingdom, to cultivate community so that the culture of violence is defeated, all voices are heard, and there is no longer any threat of outer darkness.
Scripture itself is our treasure, given to us to use or misuse. We could read Judges and conclude that it’s OK for clergy to have and to murder concubines, that mass rape is reasonable, and that a powerful man is obliged to kill his only child rather than break a promise to God. Or we could read it as part of the messy, mixed-up story of the people of God, a reminder that
humanity can sin horrendously, accepting outrageous behavior as the norm, if we don’t remain faithful to the essential nature of the God who calls us into freedom and life.
In two weeks we will start a new church year with the season of Advent. As a sort of new year’s resolution, I invite you to consider taking today’s collect seriously and starting to read the Bible in a new way, absorbing the whole story of the people of God, warts and all, and allowing yourself to fully digest the essential message of the God who made us for love, and who longs, who aches, for us to embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.
November 19, 2017
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges