Thursday, February 28, 2013

Reading the Bible for Lent: Judges and Ruth

{I'm attempting to read the whole Bible during Lent this year, and blogging my way through it. The Bible is an old friend, but we fight sometimes. Ever hear of quitting something cold turkey? Well, this is my way of starting something cold turkey, if that makes sense. I'm facing it head on, with my eyes open, and a new way of reading. My hope is to read the entire text through the lens of Jesus (I'm figuring out what this means as I go along) and attempt a balance of honesty and charity, both of which I've lacked in the past. See also: The Pentateuch and Joshua.}

Moving right along! Phew.

Judges

Israel's a big mess after Joshua dies. The people are scattered, and the LORD has allowed other tribes to defeat the Israelites in battle because they keep worshipping the Baals and Asherahs (gods and goddesses) of other people.

In chapter four, we learn that "Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, was judging Israel" (v. 4). At this time, Israel has been under the oppression of the Canaanites for twenty years. As far as I can tell, Deborah is the first woman of authority to be mentioned in the Bible. I've got to wonder how the heck she got to a position of power in such a misogynistic culture, but it's nice to see nonetheless. Deborah gives orders to a man named Barak to deploy troops to fight against Jabin's army (the king of Canaan), under a man named Sisera. So, they go out to fight Sisera and his army, and Sisera flees on foot. He comes to the tent of an Israelite woman named Jael, who plays innocent and lures him into her tent for a rest. He falls asleep, and not-so-innocent Jael drives a tent peg through his temple. Barak comes along, pursuing Sisera, and Jael's all like, oh he's here with a tent peg in his head. So the Israelites gain favor with the LORD once again, and eventually defeat King Jabin. In chapter five, Deborah sings a song of victory and praise to the LORD. So it's the same old blood and gore, but refreshing because the women get to represent for a change.

Chapters six through eleven tell the story of Gideon, also known as Jerubbael. Gideon's an unlikely hero. The LORD calls him to defeat the Midianites, who are now ruling over the Israelites since they again "did evil in the sight of the LORD" (v. 1). Gideon says, "O my Lord, how can I save Israel? Indeed my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father's house." But the LORD says, "Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat the Midianites as one man." (v. 15-16)

What follows is the account of Gideon subduing the Midianites with a small army of just 300 men. It's a good story, and reinforces the recurrent idea in the Old Testament that if the Israelites follow the LORD's commands, He will protect them and fight alongside them. The Israelites have a time of peace until Gideon's death, when they again begin to worship Baals. As a side note, Gideon had 70 sons "for he had many wives." One of his sons, Abimelech, rules Israel for three years after Gideon's death, followed by Tola for twenty-three years, and then Jair for twenty-two years. Then, the Israelites again "do evil in the sight of the LORD and fall under the rule of the Ammonites.

After this, one of the most tragic stories in the entire Bible takes place. A man named Jephthah raises up an army against the Ammonites, and makes a vow to the LORD as they prepare to fight:
"If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD's, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering." (v. 30-31)
Jephthah is successful, and upon returning to his home, "there was his daughter, coming out to meet him with timbrels and dancing, and she was his only child....And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he tore his clothes, and said, 'Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low! You are among those who trouble me! For I have given my word to the LORD, and I cannot go back on it." (v. 34-35)

Seems to me that he's troubling her, not the other way around. She's given two months to roam the hills and "bewail her virginity" with her friends, at her request, and then she's put to death by her father. "And it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went four days each year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite." (v. 40) We never learn her name.

If you can recover from that, we move on to learn about Samson, who was a judge over Israel for 20 years (15:20). He has supernatural strength, which comes from the LORD but is also dependent on his hair not being cut. (This has to do with him being called a Nazirite, which I'd like to study more later.) He takes a Philistine wife, but it's not Delilah. She comes later. One day, Samson makes a bet with 30 men concerning a riddle. If they can solve the riddle, he has to give them 30 linen garments and 30 changes of clothing. If they cannot, they have to give Samson those things. They get his wife to find out the answer and tell them, and so they solve the riddle and Samson becomes very angry, saying "If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have solved my riddle!" (ahem). Then, we're told, "the Spirit of the LORD came upon him mightily, and he went down to Ashkerlon and killed thirty of their men, took their apparel, and gave the changes of clothing to those who had explained the riddle." (v. 18-19) I say lack of impulse control, you say Spirit of the LORD. Let's call the whole thing off. Angry, he goes home to his father's house and has a little cooling off period. When he returns to see his wife, she's been given to another man. So, he lights 300 foxes' tails on fire and sends them running through the Philistines' grain fields, vineyards and olive groves. The Philistines respond by burning his wife and her father to death. Samson responds by killing 1000 Philistines with a donkey's jawbone.

The Philistines get revenge when Samson falls in love with the devious Delilah. He discloses to her that if his hair is cut, he will lose his strength, and so she cuts his hair while he's sleeping and the Philistines capture him. They put out his eyes, and bind him, and put him in prison. At the very end of chapter 17, though, Samson has the final revenge. He's brought out to perform for the Philistines, and he's standing between two pillars. He prays for the LORD to strengthen him just one more time, and pushes the pillars, causing the temple to fall on everyone in it. So he dies with the Philistines.

I know this is getting really long, but there's one more story that I'll share, before we move on to Ruth, which thankfully is only four chapters long. Trigger alert: if you've been raped or sexually abused, you may want to skip this part.

In chapters 19 and 20, we learn of a Levite man, un-named, who has a concubine. I'm not sure about the specific events, but the text says that she "played the harlot against him", and then went away to her father's house. Four months pass, and he goes after her, and stays at her father's house for several days. They start their journey home, and stay the night in "Gibeah, which belongs to Benjamin." (v. 14) I'm just going to quote what happens next:
While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him.The owner of the house went outside and said to them, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this disgraceful thing. Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But to this man, don’t do such a disgraceful thing.”But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel. Everyone who saw it said, “Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Think about it! Consider it! Tell us what to do!” (v. 22-30)
Sound familiar? The first part of the story mirrors the experience of Lot and the two angels of the LORD in Sodom, found in Genesis 19. The difference, of course, is that there are no angels here to protect the concubine by blinding the mob, so she's gang-raped and left to die. Her status as an expendable female stands in stark contrast to the authority and position of Deborah the judge. Perhaps the most maddening thing is that the Levite turns her out to the mob, unprotected, and then has the nerve to be upset when he finds her dead.

As the Israelites see the pieces of the concubine that her husband sent out, they are angry and go to war with  the people of Gibeah. I'm guessing the Levite's call for revenge is much more about personal honor than love for her, since his actions show no love or concern whatsoever, even to the point of defiling her corpse by cutting it into pieces. There is usually some moral we can lift from the stories of the Old Testament, but it's hard to find anything here other than my own disgust. If I impose my own morality on the story and ignore a few things, I guess I could say it's about preventing injustice rather than just avenging it. That seems naive, though, within this cultural context.

Judges is a tough book. As I read these stories, I think of what Jesus said: "those who live by the sword will die by the sword." Violence begets violence begets violence. I really have nothing new to say about these texts that I haven't said before. It's just more of the human condition, with a view of God that fits the times.

Ruth

One of the most interesting things about Ruth is that she's a Moabitess. That means the Israelites aren't supposed to have anything to do with her. The backstory: a man named Elimelech, along with his wife Naomi and their two sons travel to Moab because of a famine in Bethlehem, where they're from. They settle there, and Elimelech dies and the two sons marry Moabite women. Then, tragically, the two sons die as well. This leaves Naomi with no male relative to care for her, which in this society is a really big problem. She tells her two daughters in law to return to their families, but Ruth refuses to leave her, and speaks these famous words:

         Entreat me not to leave you, Or to turn back from following after you;
         For wherever you go I will go; And wherever you lodge I will lodge;
         Your people shall be my people, And your God, my God.
         Where you die, I will die, And there I will be buried.
         The LORD do so to me, and more also,
         If anything but death parts you and me. (1:16-17)

So Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem, and Naomi (meaning "sweet") tells the women there to call her Mara (meaning "bitter"). Ruth goes to a field to glean what the harvesters have left behind, hoping to gather enough for herself and Naomi to eat. She meets Boaz, who owns the field, and is also a relative of Naomi's late husband. He is very kind to her, and even commands the harvesters to drop extra for her. So begins the romance.

In chapter three, the story takes an interesting turn. We see how women get things done in a society where they're essentially powerless. One evening, Naomi tells Ruth to go to the threshing floor where Boaz is working. She tells Ruth "then it shall be, when he lies down, that you shall notice the place where he lies; and you shall go in, uncover his feet, and lie down, and he will tell you what you should do." (v. 4). Ruth follows her instructions. Basically, she seduces Boaz. To "uncover one's feet" is a euphemism. When I first learned this I was quite shocked; they didn't teach this part in Sunday School.

Things turn out quite well for Ruth and Naomi (and Boaz). Ruth and Boaz marry and have a son, and the women say to Naomi:

        "Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a close relative; and may his name be     
        famous in Israel! And may he be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your 
        daughter in law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, has borne him." (4:14-15)

What I love about Ruth is that she's an outsider, but she overcomes that with her love and loyalty to Naomi, and they're both blessed because of it (well, that and Naomi's clever little plan.) This story points the way to the things Jesus is going to emphasize when he spends time with people that are "other", like the Samaritan woman and Zaccheus, to name a few. It's not hard at all to find Him in this story.

It's a pretty cool redemption story. Ruth and Boaz' son is Obed, whose son is Jesse, whose son is David, whose story is coming up next.

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