(Warning: explicit, violent, sexual content. But it’s biblical.)
One of the seminary classes in my schedule this semester has been Judges. Week by week, we cover a different story or saga, making our way sequentially through the fascinating, albeit violent book.
Judges represents a period of time in the history of Israel, prior to the establishment of the monarchy, when judges–either military leaders or arbiters of justice–ruled the disparate nation. And it is not a pretty time. As the biblical authors write repeatedly throughout the book, “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” And it works out alright for a while. The beginning of the book presents us with some pretty neat heroes, like Deborah, a prophetess and military leader who is a total bastion of female badassery.
But things quickly disintegrate for Israel when, time after time, folks forget the Lord and turn to wickedness, as do their Judges. In fact, the book represents a downward spiral in faith, morality, justice, and order and–SPOILER ALERT–ends with Israel in total anarchy. It is this total anarchy that leads Israel to demand a king to govern them and to restore order and unity in the nation.
The last story in Judges, the depiction of Israel’s utter brokenness, is the story of the rape of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19.
While traveling with his concubine from her home in Bethlehem to his home in Ephraim, the Levite and company stay in the home of an Ephraimite who offers them shelter as they pass through Benjaminite territory. But the Benjaminites of the town approach and demand to rape the Levite. To satiate the men’s sexual appetite, the Levite and his host throw the concubine out of the home, “and they raped her and they tortured her all night until morning.” The Levite goes to sleep while his woman endures this torture, surely screaming the whole time, and she falls to the ground, unresponsive, her hands on the threshold of the house.
When the Levite wakes up the next morning, he finds her there. “Get up.” He says to her limp body. “We’ve got to get on the road.”
But she is lifeless and still.
So he tosses her over his donkey and takes her home. There he takes a knife, dismembers her body and sends servants out with twelve pieces of her corpse to be delivered to the twelves tribes of Israel as an indictment against them.
Of this woman, Phyllis Trible writes, “Of all the characters in scripture, she is the least. She is property, object, tool, and literary device. Without name, speech, or power, she has no friends to aid her in life or mourn her in death. Passing her back and forth among themselves, the men of Israel have obliterated her totally. Captured, betrayed, raped, tortured, murdered, dismembered, and scattered–this woman is the most sinned against.Her body has been broken and given to many. Lesser power has no woman than this, that her life is laid down by a man.”
In hands down the most graphic story in all of Scripture, this daughter of Bethlehem was given as a sacrifice for the lives of the men around her.
There’s a lot of parallelism in this story. The mob of the Benjaminites hearkens back to the story of Lot, protecting his angelic visitors from the lustful mob of Sodomites who wish to rape them. Lot too offers up his daughters as expendable replacements for the men in his care. The point I believe the biblical authors in Judges are trying to make here is that Israel has become Sodom. They have now become the cookie-cutter replica of the pagan foreigners they once held up as an example of utter depravity and a recipient of God’s judgment.
And then when the Levite–of the priestly tribe whose job it was to offer animal sacrifices to God–when he dismembers her body, we see the phrase “He took the knife” which only appears once more in scripture: when Abraham offers up his son Isaac to God as a sacrifice. She is the sacrificial lamb like Isaac was.
Only in this story, there is no God to save the day. There is no ram in the thicket for our nameless concubine. There is no angel like the ones in Lot’s story to sweep the family away from God’s hailstorm of judgment. God is silent. And justice is nowhere to be found.
Israel has been forced to contend with the atrocities of their own actions. And it is this dark, gory confrontation with its own sin that creates enough outrage for Israel to cry out to God. And all of Israel did cry out for a King to come save them from this utter spiritual darkness.
Their prayers were answered. They received their King: a young man named Saul, who does little to heal the pain of a broken, sin-sick nation.
This is the first week of Advent. In Advent we look to the heavens as we eagerly await a word from God.
Do something, God!
Show up, God.
Anytime now, God.
In the past, I’ve thought of Advent as a joyful, hopeful anticipation, like a kid eager to unwrap her presents, put there by loving parents and full of promise. And in some ways, this is also a true facet of our Advent God-longing.
But to the nameless woman who rode her donkey out of Bethlehem with that Levite, never to return, there was no joy, no comfort in knowing that God would show up.
And to another woman who would ride her donkey into Bethlehem 1000 years later, having experienced her own sort of disgrace, there had to be more than a little anxiety, more than a little desperation for God to show up and provide.
In order for us to truly understand the depth of our need for God, we must take a long, hard look at the brokenness of our world, at the atrocities that surround us, some of which we may even implicitly take part in. The last verse of this chapter in Judges concludes: ‘Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day? Consider it, take counsel, and speak out.’”
We are a ruined people, desperately in need of a King, desperately longing for God’s reign of peace. In the spirit of Advent, take a long hard look at the heartache in our world and pray this heartfelt prayer to God:
Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!