Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
February 20, 2022
Scripture: Judges 19
The story in Judges 19 is a narrative of nihilism. It swings from extreme to extreme. Radical hospitality gives way in the next turn to extreme violence. People and places thought safe and reliable reveal themselves as sources of torture and dehumanizing abuse. A Levite is a holy man honored for faithfulness and trusted to instruct others on how to keep covenant with God but here reveals himself entitled, vengeful, cruel, and violent. At the beginning of the story, he goes to find his concubine to speak tenderly to her to convince her to return home. By the end of the story, to save himself from a violent mob, he sacrifices her to people so removed from the covenant command to offer radical hospitality that the only way they know how to respond to the stranger in their midst is through rape.
And as the concubine clings to life after the violent attack upon her, the Levite responds even more cruelly than we can imagine. He throws her on his donkey for the return home, takes a knife to dismember her into twelve parts, and sends the parts of her body to all the tribes of Israel to precipitate civil war. The theologian Phyllis Trible describes this chapter as an “extravagance of violence.” It is so terrible and violent that this chapter of Judges is not included in readings in church lectionaries, and rarely do preachers choose it for regular instruction. When I approached the text, I resisted it. I kept looking away. I kept objecting not just to reading it but also to its inclusion in the canon.
How did it come to this? How did God’s gift of the promised land become a place of chaos and disorder? According to the writers and composers of the book of Judges, because of Israel’s unfamiliarity with God and her failure to abide by the covenant God made with Israel, “in those days, there was no king; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6). The consequences of the refusal to be bound by the terms of the covenant with God, to make everything but God their ultimate concern were corrupt, inconsistent leadership; violent self-assertion; and selfish ambition. The whole of Israel, including each of the tribes, descends into anarchy, disorder, violence, and utter breakdown in the social order. There is much fighting, smiting, and infighting, almost all of it committed in the name of God even as Israel continues to lapse into idolatry and disobedience.
By the time we get to Judges 19, there is nothing left. The story of the Levite and his concubine shows in narrative detail how bad it can get when Israel refuses to be bound in covenant with God, how their mode of existence in a loving relationship with God disintegrates when they reject God as their king. And how disappointing it is. There is no leadership. There is no accountability. We can’t rely on anybody’s character because God is no longer of ultimate concern for God’s people. And the fight is not just about God’s people against foreigners. Because there is no leadership and people are determined to do what is right in their own eyes, God’s people fight among themselves. The tribes of Israel refuse to provide radical hospitality among themselves and choose the most extreme means to settle disputes or achieve their goals. Rape, murder, and civil war all become tools of control, exploitation, and domination.
There is no good news here. So I fought this text. I condemned it. I expressed my dislike of it to anybody who would listen. My every intention was to skim over the ugly details. But I kept reading and could not look away. And like a bolt of lightning, I was slammed back with a startling realization: This text breaks through our tendency to romanticize and spiritualize the biblical world. Perhaps this text has to be here for us to read and use for reflection so that we do not delude ourselves that the heroes and good people of the Bible were above reproach. More than that, It is easy for us to condemn behavior that is so removed from us because it sits in the pages of ancient writ. It doesn’t take much to dissociate ourselves from the violence or the trauma. But the truth this text highlights is that this world is violent, and our world, too, is just as violent.
Before we pat ourselves on the back for our enlightened minds, our capacity to look at this story of war, rape and abuse of women, of idolatry and violent self-assertion with righteous judgment and indignation, we must face that our world and culture are not innocent of this type of violence. Throughout history, nations and religions have waged violent war with atrocities so terrible that we do not linger long over the details and too quickly lie and deny what has happened. We also must accept that only recently has the book of Judges and this story, in particular, offended our religious sensibilities. In our nation’s early history, Judges was often cited by our spiritual forebears as justification for the violent repression and conversion of indigenous people and the theft of their land.
We must know the uncomfortable truth that we are no less violent than the world painted in the book of Judges. The lack of religious, political, corporate, and educational leadership in the modern world has resulted in a paroxysm of violence in every nation and culture. We have placed a high value on individualism, self-assertion, and selfish ambition, celebrating the success and abundance these characteristics produce while looking the other way when they result in abuse, cruelty, and exploitation. And the result is a grasping violent world that doesn’t know God or what God has done.
This realization of the truth of violence in our context frustrated my search for the good news in this text. But out of the mouth of the Levite who so disappoints us comes the wisdom the text offers. When he used the dismembered body of his concubine as a potential summons to violence, he invited the tribes to “consider it, take counsel, and speak out” (Judges 19:30). Therein lies a constructive approach to the violence that offends and distorts the world, how we avoid relying on justifications, escape hatches, and ways to avoid both the violence of this text and the violence of our world: We think about it and speak out. Do not let violence be the last word or the only mode of our existence.
And there is so much for us to think about and speak out about. The deaths of Tamir Rice, George Floyd, Daunte Wright, Amir Locke, and so many others call out for thinking and speaking out about violence. For those wondering where the shouts of “Black Lives Matter” or “Me, too” or “No One is Illegal” come from, it is the voices of people who have decided to speak out about violence and injustice. We have a lot to speak about. Vulnerable populations, especially communities of color, suffer community violence at the hands of neighbors and state violence at the hands of law enforcement, and much of it on an endless loop of cell phone and bodycam footage aired on social media. Every year, more than 700,000 people experience threatened, attempted, or completed rape, with 81% of women and 43% of men experiencing some form of sexual harassment and assault in their lifetime. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that “in 2019, firearms were the leading cause of death for American children, teens, and young adults ages 1 to 24.” In the aftermath of the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, a public opinion survey found increasing numbers of respondents endorsing extreme violence as a response to electoral defeat and agreeing that violence was justified if people feared “losing their country.” And there is no looking away from the conclusion of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who describes the 20th century as the most murderous century in recorded history, with its wars causing an estimated 187 million deaths. Think about it.
Think about the suffering this kind of violence causes. Don’t look away. Don’t let the safety and reliability of the people and places that protect us deceive us into thinking that all is well with others, that there is nothing we can do about the violence visited upon others. Think about it, and speak out. Speak up for the nameless, speechless women who are raped and abused. Speak out about the murder of our children with firearms. Speak out about war and terrorism, not just when it affects our nation but all over the world. Let us be the voice of the suffering when our culture, religion, and country ignore, silence, or oppress them.
Statistics, National Sexual Violence Resource Center (accessed March 9, 2022).
“CSGV/EFSGV Analysis of 2019 CDC Firearm Mortality Data,” Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, direct link: https://efsgv.org/wp-content/uploads/2019CDCdata.pdf (accessed March 9, 2022).
Barton Gellman, “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun,” The Atlantic, December 6, 2021 (accessed March 9, 2022).
Eric Hobsbawm, “War and peace,” The Guardian, February 22, 2022 (accessed March 9, 2022).