Yesterday I was preaching on Judges 19, the story of the dismembered concubine, as the final sermon in our series on the Book of Judges. Because of its challenges, it is a text that has been long debated in scholarship, but (unsurprisingly) it is seldom preached on or referred to in church worship. (A member of our congregation commented to me that, in more than 30 years of attending church as an adult he had never heard it mentioned; another said they had never read the story.)
Along with the stories of Tamar, Hagar and Jephthah’s daughter (on which I had preached two weeks previously), it forms one of Phyllis Trible’s ‘Texts of Terror‘. Although Trible is writing from a feminist point of view, her work was pioneering in using rhetorical criticism to listen carefully to the text, rather than imposing a particular point of view on the text. Trible comments on this passage:
To hear this story is to inhabit a world of unrelenting terror that refuses to let us pass by on the other side.
The challenge to the local church is whether we will, indeed, ‘inhabit’ this world, even for a short time, rather than ‘passing by’.
At first reading, the text feels quite ‘neutral’ and matter-of-fact (why does the levite wait four months before going to retrieve his concubine? Perhaps just because that is what happened) but this sense of ‘neutrality’ and starkness is what gives the text its power. As a reader, it seems to me that the text stands in judgment over three things.
First, it stand in judgement over a nation that has cast off restraint. The story opens with the apparently factual observation that ‘In those days Israel had no king’, and the extended story (which continues to the end of the book in chapter 21) reiterates and amplifies this statement: ‘In those days Israel had no king, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes’ (Judges 21.25). This functions not only as a conclusion to this story, but also as a conclusion to the whole book, and so makes this episode illustrative of the whole book as well.
Within the narrative context, this observation has a particular function. Judges forms part of the ‘Deuteronomistic history’, stretching from Deuteronomy, through Joshua and Judges to 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, which forms a continuous narrative. Judges then sits between Joshua, with its mixed story of courageous leadership but failure to fulfil God’s command to drive out the inhabitants of the land (who become a ‘thorn in the flesh’ to Israel), and 1 Samuel with the people’s ambiguous request to have a king ‘to be like the other nations’. Kingship is seen both as the people’s rejection of God as king and as the way in which God can exercise his rule, and the absence of kingship is seen as a failure of human organisation and the rejection of the rule of God.
But the phrase also functions as an observation about human life. The historical novelist Bernard Cornwell has written a volume The Empty Throne about the conflicts in Saxon Britain arising from the power vacuum caused by having an empty or contested throne, and of course the immensely popular series Game of Thrones hinges around the same idea. Is the random unpredictability of which lead character is next for the chop (often literally) a reflection of contemporary belief that life really is random and chaotic? It is striking that, in both Iraq and Libya, Western governments did not like the person ‘on the throne’ and so intervened to effect ‘regime change’—but the resultant ’empty throne’ has unleashed chaos and death in both countries, with implications that have come to the heart of Europe. It is, then, less surprising than we had previously thought that Paul can talk of the ‘powers that be’ being ordained by God (Romans 13.1) to reward the good and punish the wicked; even an apparently wicked ruler like Caesar (or Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi) brings some kind of order.
And for our own culture, we might ask: What happens when there is rampant individualism and no share set of values which constrain and order human behaviour?
In her excellent article in the Tyndale Bulletin of May 2015, Isabelle Hamley comments:
In a text riddled with ambiguities and impossible judgements, readers are forced to ask, ‘how do you make just and compassionate moral judgements in a world where everyone does “what is right in their own eyes”?’
As we read our newspapers from day to day, we ask ‘How indeed?’
Secondly, the text stands in judgement over the people of God. This nation that has cast off restraint is not any old nation—it is the people to whom God has revealed himself and his purposes. None of the characters in the story come out looking good. The central figure is a Levite, one who, as a member of the priestly caste, should surely have known better. He takes this woman as a concubine, someone to sleep with, but without giving her the proper status of a wife even though no other woman is mentioned. He appears to do the right thing in seeking her out after she has left, yet he demonstrates a callous disregard for her welfare.
The woman herself is not depicted as an ‘innocent’ victim. The NIV says in Judges 19.2 that ‘she was unfaithful to him’, though other translators and commentators have struggled with this phrase in the Hebrew text, and have often preferred the Greek OT text with says ‘she was angry with him’. It is a human trait to want to characterise victims as ‘innocent’ (as we see in news reporting every day), and yet it suggests that being human alone (including being a guilty human) is not enough to merit sympathy and be deserving of justice.
The woman’s father appears to be in an odd power struggle with the Levite in the exercise of hospitality, perhaps hinging around the idea of ‘patrilocality’, that in line with Gen 2.24 the Levite should have come to join with his father-in-law’s household, rather than take the woman away to his family. The ‘old man’ in Gibeah does offer hospitality, but only after he realises that the Levite is a fellow countryman, and in offering his daughter to the mob he appears more concerned about his own honour as host than with doing the right thing.
And the worst people in the narrative are the ‘wicked men’ (actually ‘sons of Beliar’ or ‘sons of emptiness’) in Gibeah, supposedly the people of God rather than the original inhabitants of the land, who were to be expelled because of their wickedness. As Daniel Block highlights in his commentary, the author of Judges wants us to hear the echoes of Gen 19—the episode uses the same number of words, and a quarter of them match exactly. God’s own people are no better than Sodom and Gomorrah. (The reference to same-sex sexual relations doesn’t add anything to our discussion of this issue, except to note that it was symbolic in that culture of depravity.)
But central to these first two judgements is the third: the judgement of sexual violence. Hamley notes that the idea that Israel is here standing on the threshold of disaster is embodied by the presence of the concubine (and her reaching for the threshold as her final act in Judges 19.27.
These stories [that include concubines], taken together, reveal a picture of women whose lives were marked by sexual violence and coercion, precariousness and liminality, yet women whose legitimate position made them highly vulnerable within the political conflicts of their time.
The scene described in vv. 22–26 is among the most grotesque and sickening in the book, if not in the entire Scripture.
In Johannine style, even the world around testifies to the reality of the moment; in Judges 19.14, ‘the day withers’ as the travellers leave the light to enter the darkness of the life of Gibeah. But this is the moment when we realise that this ancient text provides a sharp reflection of our own culture.
Sexual violence is widespread in UK society, with 31 per cent of young women aged 18-24 reporting having experienced sexual abuse in childhood (NSPCC, 2011) and one in five women aged 16 – 59 experiencing some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. Violence against women is happening in Christian relationships too – 30% of young, Christian women surveyed by Soul Action agreed or strongly agreed that they had experienced fear of their partner in a relationship and 42% had been forced to perform sexual acts they didn’t want to by a partner.
The case of Ched Evans, the Sheffield United footballer cleared on appeal this week of his conviction of rape, brings these issues into sharp focus.
On that night in Rhuddlan five years ago, he slipped into the hotel room where his friend Clayton McDonald was already having sex with the girl. ‘Is it alright if my mate joins in?’ McDonald asked. Evans attests that she agreed – and on this crucial point the retrial jury found in his favour. Before, during and after the sex act Evans did not speak a word to the girl, and left via a fire escape.
If their collective, sordid intention was to treat a teenage girl like a piece of meat, then humiliate and denigrate her further for a cheap laugh, then congratulations boys, you achieved your goals.
No one comes out of this well, but my sympathy still lies with the waitress, who has had to take on a new identity for fear of reprisals from Evans’ fans. She is regularly abused on social media, described as a ‘slag’, ‘a money-grabbing slut’ and worse – despite the fact she did not bring this case to trial and she has never sold her story, nor sought ways to profit from her involvement. Instead, she was used and she was wronged – but as chirpy Ched would say, that is not illegal. Now he can walk back into his career and his comfortable life, whilst hers is in ruins – and her nightmare continues.
This is why we cannot leave these stories at the door of the church when we meet together—this is why we cannot pass by on the other side.
In those days, Israel had no king—but we do have a king. We have a king who (we read in John 19) took the violence that humanity inflicts on others on himself. He absorbed their murderous intents in his own death—he swallowed this whole, and won the victory by rising again. If we read Judges 19 through the lens of John 19, Jesus stands in the place of the dismembered concubine.
We have a king who invites us to lament over a nation that has thrown off restraint, to lament when the people of God fail to live in the holiness he has called them to, to lament with those who are victims of sexual violence. And we have a king who invites us to pray ‘Your kingdom come’.
(You can listen to how I turned this into a sermon at the St Nic’s website)
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