What does the Bible think about our current cultural fascination with finding our own voices, setting our own agenda, doing things according to our own lights? Is the Bible for or against this ego-dramatic approach to life? Might I suggest we look at the close of the book of Judges, a text marked by enough murder, mayhem and miscreancy to put Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino to shame.
After the death of Samson, the last of the judges of Israel, the tribes, we are told, drifted into disunity and commenced to manifest shocking violence upon one another. The most remarkable and frankly sickening story, again in a book filled with such stories, concerns the outrage at Gibeah. We hear of a man from Ephraim in the north who had taken a concubine from Bethlehem in the south. When the woman escaped and returned home, the man came after her and took her back into his possession. He then set out with her and came to the town of Gibeah. We are told that “scoundrels” from the city that night surrounded the house. Exactly duplicating the infamous tale from the book of Genesis, the mob shouted to the owner of the place: “Bring out the man who has come into your house, so that we may get intimate with him.” With astonishing moral turpitude, the owner of the abode replied, “Do not commit this terrible crime. Instead, let me bring out my virgin daughter and this man’s concubine. Humiliate them or do whatever you want; but against him do not commit such a terrible crime.” At that, they shoved the concubine outside, and the men, we are blithely informed, “raped her and abused her all night until morning.”
Utterly indifferent to her suffering and humiliation, the man placed her, next morning, on his beast of burden and commenced the journey to Ephraim. When he arrived home, “he got a knife and took hold of the body of the woman, cut her up into twelve pieces, which he then sent throughout the territory of Israel.” Was she dead when he found her that morning? Did she die on the way? Did he kill her? We’re not told, which only adds to the horror of the narrative. When the gruesome message was received across the nation of Israel, the elders assembled an army and attacked the city of Gibeah, effecting a general slaughter of the people.
Now, why do I rehearse this awful tale? Though there is a good deal of competition for the distinction, I believe that this gruesome and cruel episode represents the low point of human behavior described in the Bible. We have cruelty, crude physical violence, utter disregard of human dignity, sexual immorality, rape, cooperation with sexual abuse of the worst kind, murder, mutilation and genocide. As an aside, I am always slightly amused when some Christians primly criticize me for watching, and in some cases recommending, films in which violence and immorality are on vivid display. I wonder, “Have they ever even read the Bible?” If the Bible were depicted honestly in film, the movie would receive at least an “R” rating. One of the great virtues of the Scriptures is that they are brutally honest about human beings and the myriad ways that we go wrong, the thousands of bad paths down which we walk.
Another virtue of the Bible is that its authors know precisely where all this dysfunction comes from. The book of Judges clearly indicates that the moral chaos it describes is a function of the disappearance of anything like moral leadership among the people. When the judges faded away, the law was no longer taught and enforced, hence the people wandered into appalling behavior. Rudderless and without a captain, the ship simply smashes into the rocks. The final line of the book of Judges sums up the spiritual situation: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in their own sight.”
I would not interpret this necessarily as an endorsement of kings in the political sense, but rather of leadership in the moral sense. A healthy society needs leaders — political, economic, cultural, religious — who are animated by a keen sense of objective moral value, who have risen above mere subjective self-interest.
The scriptural authors knew that the strident assertion of one’s own private prerogatives, so on display today, is fundamentally adolescent and morally catastrophic for any human community. This is why the heroes of the Bible are never those who “find themselves,” but rather those who heed the voice of God and remain obedient to the mission that God has given them.
Mind you, as is often the case, the Bible trades in exaggeration and overstatement in order to get our attention, similar to the method employed by Flannery O’Connor in her macabre stories. So, the almost cartoonish violence displayed in Judges is meant as a warning to a society such as ours that is increasingly losing its moral bearings: You might not be there yet, but this is where the road that you have embarked upon is leading you.
Next time you find yourself wondering why the world is in such a precarious state, call to mind the final lines of the book of Judges: “Everyone did what was right in their own sight.”
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