Each Monday I try to maintain a series on this blog called "Digging Deeper." The purpose of these posts will be to "dig deeper" into the text that I preached the previous Sunday. It is almost always the case that there is more that could be said on every text that I preach at Riverview, and sometimes time constraints don't allow me to say everything that could be said about a particular text we are studying together. Invariably, some things get left on the cutting room floor. For this reason I thought it might be helpful to pick up some of those scraps on Monday and try to learn from them.
Some commentators have described Judges 19 as the "toilet bowl of the Bible." While that may seem to you to be a rather crass description, it is accurate in the sense that the events described therein are utterly disgusting and vile: gang rape, murder, and mutilation are only the tip of the iceberg of depravity described in Judges 19.
So then, why is it in the Bible at all? As you can probably guess, many critics of the Bible believe that Judges 19 essentially disqualifies the entire Bible from believability. Why does God allow these horrible actions to transpire? Does he approve of this? Why didn't he stop it? Why should we believe and follow him if he allows something like this to happen? How are we to understand Judges 19 and the brutality it describes?
Over the years there have been several attempts to answer these questions and to either justify God or the characters in the story. This has been particularly evident in more modern biblical scholarship, as some have interpreted this text from a feminist point of view, and also from a pro-homosexual viewpoint. For instance, the feminist readings of Judges 19 have focused on the plight of the women in the story, and condemned the patriarchal society in which the events unfolded (and by implication and even explicit statement, God himself). Homosexual readings of Judges 19 have determined that the primary sin of the men of Gibeah was not homosexuality, per se, but was instead a lack of hospitality towards strangers. Each of these readings, however, force modern (and subjective and personal) sensibilities onto the text. Instead, as interpreters, it is our job to remove as much of ourselves as possible when we interpret the text, and let it speak for itself. We should not feel it necessary to attempt to justify God or anyone else as we read the Bible, and we should be very hesitant to force our own personal, cultural, or societal sensibilities onto the text - even when our sensibilities are righteous and good.
One of the most important things we need to remember when reading scripture - and especially hard parts like Judges 19 - is the genre of the literature we are reading. The book of Judges is an historical narrative, and so the author of the book writes as a dutiful historian: just the facts, with very little - if any - personal commentary. This is particularly true of the book of Judges. Throughout its pages, you will find very few moral judgments made by the author. That is, the author very rarely ever pauses to interject his own feelings about the morality of a given scenario. For instance, when Samson marries a Philistine woman, the author does not say that it was the wrong thing to do - even though it was. Later, when Samson visits a prostitute, he is not condemned by the author - even though he could have been. The reason for this is that the author's primary purpose is to relay historical facts, and not necessarily to comment on the morality of a given situation. We know, however, that the morality of the book of Judges is in the gutter because we know God. We allow our knowledge of scripture and the character and nature of God interpret the events of the book of Judges. Not what we think is right or wrong, but what God thinks is right and wrong.
This is also true of Judges 19, and more generally, of Judges 17-21. These chapters are filled with historical events of a dubious moral nature and, for the most part, the author remains silent about the morality of the events he describes. For instance, there are only two moral judgments made by the author (that I can find, at least). First, he calls the men of the town of Gibeah "worthless fellows." Second, he says that the moral and spiritual climate of Israel at the time was one that could be characterized by the reality that "there was no king in Israel..." Both earlier and later in this book, the moral and spiritual climate of Israel is more succinctly described as "everyone did what was right in their own eyes." Aside from these somewhat abstract moral judgments, the author's main purpose is to record and communicate historical facts. Most moral judgments that we make regarding the events described in this book come from outside of the actual text. And as we've seen, we need to be careful about forcing our own sensibilities onto the text.
Since the author is writing an historical account, we also need to remember that neither the human author - nor the spiritual author - necessarily condone what is being described. We often make the mistake of thinking that God approves of the history that is recorded in the Bible. In many cases, he does not. Although the events are recorded for us to read, that doesn't mean that God approves of what unfolded. We also should remember that just because the Bible records historical events, that doesn't mean that we should seek to duplicate or recreate those historical events. History is history - not a direct command for us to obey. Think of reading a history text book when you were in high school: you didn't interpret your history text book as being a direct command for your to follow or an event for you to recreate for yourself. History describes things that have happened in the past - it doesn't prescribe things that should happen in the present or future. The same is true of the Bible: it records history, and sometimes that history is brutal, unforgiving, and even barbaric.
Then how should we read difficult texts like Judges 19? We should read it for what it is: an historical narrative about a group of people at the depths of their depravity, doing wicked, vile, and evil things. And we can make those judgments because we the rest of the testimony of scripture: we know that the character and nature of God is contrary to the events described in Judges 19. God did not approve of it, nor desire for it to happen.
But also, we know from the rest of scripture that even though mankind is at his most depraved in Judges 19, he has not moved so far away from God as to be unredeemable. Yes, the events of this chapter are horrific and demand our condemnation and swift justice and punishment. Indeed, God will see that justice is done for the nameless concubine who is horrifically raped, murdered, and mutilated. Justice will be served for those responsible, either through an eternity of punishment in hell, or through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. Judges 19 is a picture of just how sinful we all truly are. No, you may have never committed acts like those described in this chapter, but you certainly have fallen - and far - from God's grace, perhaps through murder of the heart by hating your brothers, or perhaps through sexually violating someone in the secret thoughts of your heart and mind. Nevertheless, you are not too far away to be redeemed. The scandal of grace - and the message of the book of Judges - is that God can even redeem rapists and murderers - even you.