Collective Responsibility: Judges 17 – 21

Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?

Everyone who saw it was saying to one another, “Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Just imagine! We must do something! So speak up!”

Judges 19:30 (NIV)

Here’s an effective tool for any teacher struggling with bad classroom etiquette: Punish everyone for the behavior of one.

Tell your class that no one can go to recess until everyone is perfectly still and quiet. No matter how long it takes, don’t let them go. If one pip keeps squeaking, keep them there. Torture them. Don’t budge. Every time you are about to let them go and that one brat chimes back in, make the all sit down. It will drive everyone crazy.

My Middle School teachers used to do that, and it drove everyone crazy. Because no one wants to be punished (or responsible even) for someone else’s behavior. And that is certainly understandable – it is not “fair” to have the actions of one reflect onto the image of many. We live in an age of individual responsibility. We’re a generation of societal libertarians.

Our forefathers were racist? Don’t blame us.
Our country has committed atrocities? Why should we pay for it?
Hold me accountable for what I do.

This is not the case with ancient Israel. The book of Judges rounds out on the verge of a civil war, which like all great wars, begins with a single death. A Levite man travels through the territories of Dan with his concubine. One night, when staying with a hospitable man, some evil homosexuals (read: gang rapists), demand the visitor to have sex with. Instead, they hand over the female concubine and the host’s virgin daughter. They rape them all night. The concubine woman is ravaged to death. Out of his horror, the Levite man cuts up the corpse into twelve pieces and mails them to the heads of the tribes of Israel.

This action gets quite the visceral reaction from the tribesman. They arm up, determined to bring the entire tribe of Dan to justice. In the end, they kill about 26,000 men as retribution. The civil war ends, and as Judges closes out, we are told there is no king of Israel.

We could talk about the whole gay thing (this story sounds mighty familiar).
We could talk about the whole men > women thing.
We should talk about the whole cutting up a dead woman into twelve pieces thing.

But the lingering question to me is this: Why do 26,000 men need to die for the sins of a few?

This idea is so ancient (and thus, so Bible-esque), but I cannot say that I disagree with. Set aside the violence for a moment, and you will see a long forgotten value – collective responsibility. I think we ought to be held responsible for the actions of those who we call neighbors or associates. That is called accountability.

My parents always felt that I was “too hard” on deceptive Christian pundits. I said that Joel Osteen was irresponsible; Pat Robertson was a liar; Bob Lenz was manipulative; Rick Santorum was homophobic. They wondered why I so often called into view the hypocrisy of these religious leaders while giving “free passes” to the liberal/secular world leaders who, in their view, were just as bad. My response? Because they represent us, and we ought to call them out for their damaging rhetoric. There is no doubt that ISIS is an evil organization or that North Korea ought to be punished. But there are tons – literally millions – of people who are deceived on a nightly basis by the people who get on television and proclaim the “facts” on faith healing, prosperity gospels, and gay terrorists. We as a Christian culture ought to stop them.

But I am not considered a part of the Christian community anymore. Now, my thoughts are not insider criticism, but rather, an attack. I don’t mean it as such. I just want to take some collective responsibility. I do care about the Christian community – because I admire it. I am the first to defend it to the outsiders, who see nothing but the loudest haters. Because it is good. And I say that as the most jaded guy in the room. It is good.

I am really trying my hardest to remember the good.

The Spirit of the Lord Left Him: Judges 13 – 16

A Barren Birth. Strength of Spirit. A Philistine Wife. Revenge. Delilah’s Deception. The Destruction of the Temple.

…But he did not know that the Lord had left him.

Judges 16:20b (NIV)

Samson is the Rambo of the Bible. Born miraculously to a barren woman, Samson begins living his own life at a young age. God destines him to be a strong man, the leader of Israel, and God commands that Samson will retain his power as long as a razor never touches his head. And also, Samson has a strong penchant for violent revenge.

So in other words, he is a bona fide man-crusher with Fabio-esque hair. This has the makings of the best Bible story yet.

First, he marries a Philistine woman against the wishes of his parents – but they do not know it was all part of God’s plan. He makes a bet with the men there. He tells a riddle and demands they answer before the end of the seven-day feast. They employ his new wife to help, and when she betrays Samson’s trust and provides the answer, he replies, “If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have solved my riddle” (Judges 14:18b). Then he passes off his wife to the companions without a thought and collects his prize. Why? Because Samson does what Samson does.

Then, he decides to get revenge on the Philistines. He ties three hundred foxes together in pairs and sets fire to their tails, and as they run away, they effectively burn down all the shocks, grain, vineyards, and groves of their land. Why? Because Samson feels like messing with them.

So the Philistines kill his wife along with her husband – burn them to death. Samson retaliates by slaughtering 1,000 of their men with donkey’s jawbone. Then, he remarks, “With a donkey’s jawbone I have made donkeys of them” (Judges 15:16b). Samson wanted revenge.

Samson sleeps with a whore in Gaza. The people of the town surround the brothel to kill him. So he tears the door of the city and places it at the top of a mountain. Samson don’t listen to nobody.

Finally, he makes a misstep. He confides in a newly beloved woman the secret to his power – the untouched nature of his hair. So she tells the Philistines to cut it and do what they will with him.

They cut his hair (and the spirit of the Lord leaves him). They capture him. They gouge out his eyes. They force him into labor. Samson is now powerless, a new state of being for him.

But one day, the Philistines drag him up from prison into their temple to entertain the masses. They make a massive mistake though. His hair has grown back, and with it, the spirit of the Lord has re-entered him. With his renewed strength, he places himself between two pillars, knocks them apart, and kills everyone inside, including himself. And in death, we are told, he kills more than throughout his entire life.

This is one of those go-to stories in Sunday School, mostly for the image of manhood and strength in its protagonist. When approaching this passage, I thought I might have a new reaction to the tale, perhaps a fresh perspective or some wise thoughts. But after reading and rereading, I realize that I have had the same thought about Samson for the past twenty years.

Why does God leave Samson just because someone cuts his hair?

You may have noticed that my reaction to many of the stories since Exodus have appeared negative – like I just caaaaan’t believe what’s going on here!

And reading this, I have a realization, although slight, as to why my heart hardened over the years.

Because I just can’t believe some of these stories to be true.

Let me be clear – that does not mean that I do not believe in God. But these stories often make God out to be like a petulant teenager with strange rules of engagement. Forgive me if this sounds entirely blasphemous, but I would almost prefer these stories to be just stories rather than presented as historical fact. Because I can glean many lessons from a parable of a strong he-man with magic hair and a penchant for mowing down his enemies. But I cannot relate to the actual man who is cut down by a mysterious and arbitrary rule.

Can one be a Christian and regard these stories as just stories? I know plenty of Christians who take the entire book of Genesis to be stylized myth, and they seem to have no issues in their faith. At what point must we believe every word to be unaltered truth to have a functional relationship with God?

Let me know at GodDoesntChangeBlog@Gmail.com or in the comments!

The Unfortunate Vow: Judges 9 – 12

The Rise of Abimaleck. Three Years of Kingship. A War. A Stone. A Sword. Then, Jephthah – the Illegitimate. Promoted to Commander. A Successful Campaign. An Unfortunate Vow. The Sacrificial Daughter.

And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

Judges 11:30-31 (NIV)

I took the Unfortunate Vow somewhere around birth, but it did not kick in until mid-adolescence. That’s when everyone started to notice something. Now I don’t want to mischaracterize my brother as a flaming faggot – one of those gay guys that no gay guy seems to want to be. I think homosexual men run from the phrase, because it implies a shallowness that permeates an entire personality. There were some warning signs for impending homosexuality, and my brother had a few of them. Interest in theater/arts – loud and aberrant – a touch of flamboyance – and an ever-growing collection of deep-v tees. I loved my brother as he was, even if I kicked in my fair share of jokes about his clothing choices, but his budding sexuality meant devastation to me.

I mentioned in a previous entry that my brother and I engaged in a queer sibling rivalry that lasted up until the moment he came out. He came out as gay, and I was in the closet – so it was a race. A race to disappoint the parents first so that other would be stuck with the responsibility of the Unfortunate Vow. And so on Christmas morning 2009, my mother woke me up with her presence alone. She sat in my room until my eyes opened, and I shot up.

What’s going on, Mom? I asked.

Mark had just come out of the closet. On Christmas morning.

And now he was making brunch, complete with eggs benedict on English muffins and mimosas for the family. I suppose us partaking in the gayest meal ever was appropriate given the circumstance.

That evening, I renewed the Unfortunate Vow.

Judges takes us through a few more of its leaders before arriving at Jephthah. He is the illegitimate son born to his father and a prostitute, and so his half brothers drive him away to claim his part of the inheritance. However, Jephthah is an enormously strong man, and so when foes of Israel arrive, they call upon their forsaken brother to come and lead the army. He reluctantly agrees.

So Jephthah does that job and does it well. We are told that after defeating all the enemies with his military prowess and blunt strength, the spirit of the Lord enters him.

Moved, Jephthah instantaneously makes a vow. The first thing to wander from the doors of his home will be given up on the Altar of God as a sacrifice. He arrives home, happy to fulfill this vow, when his only child, a daughter, runs out into the yard.

Jephthah falls onto his knees for making such an Unfortunate Vow. Now, he must sacrifice his only daughter to God. She takes it well, only requesting a two-month respite to mourn and say goodbye. And when the day comes, the deed is done. Jephthah sacrifices his only daughter to the Lord.

The Unfortunate Vow… I am starting to think that we all have taken one – to fulfill a duty that seems both foreign and unfair, and yet it is demanded for no other reason than those in charge of us demand it. God created us, and now we are indebted to Him – so we must honor laws and vows that have absolutely no logical backbone. We must perform symbolic actions in order to please those above us, for their own personal reasons that are completely unexplained. And that obedience to the Unfortunate Vow makes us holy. I must be straight because the other one is gay and the parents need some son to be straight. Why? For manhood and the image of the family and normalcy. Doesn’t that make sense to you?

I think a father who breaks a vow in order to protect the life of his virginal only daughter is a man I would want to emulate.
I think a child who honestly states their interests and passions is a child headed in the right direction.
I think a God who demands a man to kill his daughter for ritualistic reasons is terrifying.
I think parents who encourage many activities for their kids and find ways to challenge them so that they grow beyond their own intentions are doing a damn good job.
I think a God that values the bond between father and daughter is just.

I am no longer the son that my parents want me to be. I have broken my Unfortunate Vow. Because I never truly made it by my own free will. So why keep it?

The Weak: Judges 6 – 8

“Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”

Judges 6:15 (NIV)

I road the shortbus to school. Even though we went to a private school, our township was required to provide us with bussing, so we took it. But since there were only a few neighborhood kids who attended, they doubled us up with the special needs teens from the high school next door to our elementary. It made us uncomfortable. We called them the retarded kids. (I shutter at the memory today) No one corrected us.

Growing up, I saw no value in these bus-mates. They rocked back and forth and tended not to communicate with the rest of us. We raucously chatted in the back while they scattered loosely up close to the front – last on and first off. We were never mean per se, but we were not nice either. We just ignored them and their difference, and they did the same.

Except one name Maddie. She was particularly tall and rode in the bus with her twin sister, who was normal (or neurotypical, as my adult self would refer to her). Maddie cried almost everyday at the smallest things, sometimes even with unrecognizable origins, and tended to bang her arm against the flimsy paned windows. At that time, I wondered about her, about the nature of her existence. Where was the value – the meaning – in her life? I saw her as a burden, a disruption from my morning routine, perhaps even something to poke fun at if nothing else caught my attention.

I read the story of Gideon and immediately flashed back to this time. His story follows the same pattern of those stories in the book of Judges before it. The Israelities lose there way – blah blah – and then a judge saves them. But there was something different.

Gideon is not a likely candidate for the job. He comes from a weak clan, and he is the “least” (read: youngest – or perhaps weakest) of his family. Yet… God utilizes him. And then later, when God seeks out an army for his attack against the foes, he chooses 300 men who drink water from a source like dogs rather than all the others who cup the liquid in their hands in a civilized fashion. This seems to send a clear message. So what? You seem weak on the outside? Just wait.

I have no clever tie in with my personal anecdote – nothing to bring it together. I do not know Maddie’s significance, if she went on to anything of note. Maybe she just touched those immediate people around her. But I can say one thing for certain:

I never gave her a chance. And that is a damn shame.

A Woman!: Judges 4 – 5 

A WOMAN IN CHARGE. AND THEN ANOTHER WOMAN.

“Certainly I will go with you,” said Deborah. “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.”

Judges 4:9a (NIV)

Moses told us that women are worth about half as much as men. In Leviticus Chapter 27, he recounts the protocol for dedicating a person to another as well as the fair prices for such an arrangement. It runs like one of those “priceless” Visa commercials:

Men: 50 Shekels
Women: 30 Shekels
Boys: 20 Shekels
Girls: 10 Shekels
Young Boys: 5 Shekels
Young Girls: 3 Shekels
Old Men: 15 Shekels
Old Women: 10 Shekels

Some modern apologists might argue that men tend to be physically stronger than women (so perhaps more battlefield/labor value), and also, Old Testament thought tended to follow that men held sole key to future life (hence all the smoting over spilled semen and gay sex). Justify it anyway you want: the religious culture of this time period did not value women. “But those were just the times back then,” I can hear some of you saying. Exactly. Emphasis on back then. Cut to Judges, and you will understand my surprise when God appoints a woman to liberate the Israelites from their own insolence. And a badass woman at that.

Enter Deborah, who gives prophecy to the Jews while lying under a palm tree (badass!). Jabin, the evil king of Canaan, has been antagonizing the people with his commander Sisera. So Deborah sends Barak, one of God’s people, to take them down and destroy them. Barak agrees to this plan, but he will only go if Deborah accompanies him. This seems to annoy Deborah, who then prophesizes that “the honor [of killing the commander] will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.”

And deliver Sisera He does. Barak pursues and destroys all of the Jabin’s people, but Sisera escapes from his clutches. While wandering, Sisera approaches a tent inhabited by a woman named Bael (and her husband whatever-his-name, I don’t really care about him). Sisera, believing he is safe, asks for some water and milk to quench his thirst. Bael obliges and allows him to rest in her tent. Then, while he lay exhausted, she takes a tent spike and drives it through his head (BADASS!).

AND SISERA DIES. END OF STORY.

As awesome as this narrative is for women, I am not sure that I understand it. Deborah is the only female judge (I cheated and looked ahead), and since no fighting women have been mentioned prior, I wonder why God suddenly decided to introduce one now.

The role of women in the Judeo-Christian traditions has been a source of hot debate. I know many modern Christian women in roles of power within churches – my dear friend Briana for one (or should I say – Pastor Dupree). But for every woman who rises to that level, probably a thousand men do the same. And why is that?

Because historically speaking, the Bible does not value women as leaders. And why is that?

I’m eager to see the Bible explain that one. If I hear anything, I’ll let you know.