Monday, May 26, 2008

Power Corrupts: Final Reflections on Judges

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

One of my friends has said that Judges was one of the greatest initial challenges to his faith in the Bible (a faith he's since lost, though not because of Judges). Another said the book made him feel sick. It's one of a very few passages in the Bible where conservative interpretations go out of their way to emphasize that the Bible isn't making moral judgements, just reporting the sinful excesses as they happen. It never made me sick when I used to read it, perhaps because I could comfort myself with the latter "interpretation" and also because too many years of political science and military history have thickened my skin when it comes to appalling human suffering.

Even in this reading, I've said some harsh things about the author of Judges. However, I've begun to change my mind. In retrospect, the author of Judges is actually quite skilled, if a bit morbid and gruesome. One of the biggest steps towards appreciating this is realizing that he is not really interested in providing a literal account of supposed history, nor is he all that interested in providing a story of how a powerful God is overseeing everything and making sure it all turns out for the better, complete with immediately obvious theological lessons for our lives today. Judges descends into moral lunacy if we hold the first of those views, and sheer absurdity if we hold the second. More so then any other book so far, we must read more carefully to see what is going on. When we do that, we see that the author of Judges is telling stories, not history - and is doing so to subvert and mock some fairly basic conservative ideas about God and society that have been taken for granted in Joshua, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

It's easy to draw simplistic moral and political lessons from Judges, and if we do that, the book turns out to be pretty conservative. Time and again, the Bible reminds us that "there was no king" in Israel at this time, which at first glance does seem to imply that if there was a king, everything would be ok. Too, when push comes to shove, God always comes to the aid of the Israelites against foreign enemies - so they are sinful people, but God's grace leads him to relent and help them despite their despicable evil.

For conservatives, the implications of this view are very, very convenient. The first leads to an unproblematic assertion that we need a worldly government - i.e. "a king," or the modern-day equivalent - to prevent moral decline. (You can see this today in the Western religious right, which is attempting to establish an authoritarian legal system to "maintain" moral order even while preaching the need for less public charity, lower taxes, and more rights to sinfully accumulate wealth and property.) The second reinforces the self-loathing inherent in evangelical Christianity: we are evil, we always sin, without God we do appalling things - but God is gracious and forgiving, and will be at our side when we repent and turn to him for help. (And indeed, God does seem to bless the Israelites when they go into battle.)

On the other hand, a more careful reading reveals that the author of Judges has no interest in either of these positions. He may say there is no king, but one of the basic premises of Judges is that everyone with power is corrupt and evil. Why a hypothetical king would be beyond this principle is beyond me - "power corrupts, but absolute power doesn't corrupt at all"? Look at the record in Judges: Gideon is given power to fight the Midianites, but then uses it to kill Israelites and build idols; Jepthah is given power to fight the Ammonites, but kills his own daughter and starts a murderous civil war; Samson is given power to fight the Philistines, but usually uses it fighting over women; and the whole of Israel is given power to punish Gibeah for the rape of the Levite's concubine, but they use it in a murderous rampage, and then, to make matters worse, try to paper over their sin by yet more killing and abducting of girls. Priests collaborate with the killers, the military engages in brutally excessive orgies of destruction, and the elders conspire and plot. The lesson of Judges is that authority exists to be abused.

The idea of a simple "us versus them" war in which God eventually comes down on the side of "us" in crushing "them" is also overly simplistic; the author of Judges deliberately and repeatedly subverts that simple dichotomy. In a way, despite his abhorrent subject matter, he's doing something that we still struggle with today: questioning the simple "inside/outside" propaganda strategies that go into justifying war. Again, this is a theme that isn't immediately obvious: the author of Judges deliberately frames the stories in ways that a simple reading permits a crudely moralistic conclusion that justifies military nationalism. But look below the surface, because the moral boundaries turn out to be pretty fluid in Judges:

- Deborah leads the Israelites in a heroic war to liberate themselves from the Canaanites. But, in doing so, she cruelly mocks the mother of an opposing general, whose son will never return from battle - and another "heroine" of the story, Jael, violates ancient sacred custom by failing to protect her houseguest, a refugee from the battle (not only does she not protect him, but she kills him herself with a tent peg through the skull).

- Gideon leads the Israelites in a heroic war against the Midianites. But, after doing so, he slaughters entire towns full of fellow Israelites, who have committed no sin worthy of death.

- Jephthah leads the Israelites in a heroic war against the Ammonites. But after doing so, he uses his forces against the Ephraimites, killing tens of thousands of fellow Israelites.

- Samson could have led the Israelites in a heroic war against the Philistines. But he preferred spending time with the Philistines himself, and when he is violent - usually brutally violent - it is for reasons entirely irrelevant to the well-being of Israel. He only kills Philistines for mistreating his Philistine wives.

- Israel punishes the Benjamites for raping a woman to death. But, regretting the extremism of their actions, they kill more of their own - families who had not sinned as the Benjamites did - and then abduct Israelite women into illegal sex slavery.

Throughout this whole process, the author of Judges plays fast and loose with the role of God. The "spirit" of God descends upon Israelite leaders and lets them win battles, but he spends most of his time lurking in the shadows as his children play. He basically just permits them to do evil. Not only do they repay him by worshiping idols, but they repay him by subverting his festivals to justify the abduction and enslavement of Israelite girls. God is either incredibly careless with his power, or the author of Judges is being deliberately sarcastic.

Today it's not uncommon for religious people to suggest that God's spirt "led" them to do something they were probably going to do anyway - like moving to a new city to take a higher-paying job. Pastors are notorious for this, but that's only because we listen to them at religious events more often: pay attention to the ways people legitimize decisions in religious circles, routinely attributing things to God for no other reason than that if something's happening, God must be behind it. The author of Judges may be deliberately mocking this silliness - or rather, the ancient Israelite equivalent of it - by claiming that the "spirit of God" is inspiring men when they perform even the most ridiculously and cartoonishly outrageous violence. This is most obvious in the story of Samson, in which Samson's God does nothing more than let him fly into a foaming rage and murder large numbers of random people.

Also, despite the extraordinary evil that is perpetrated in this book, often against people who have done nothing obviously wrong, the author displays a surprising ability to highlight, even briefly, both the suffering of those afflicted, and the righteousness of those who are traditionally silenced. Look at the Israelite women in this book: virtually all of them live up to some measure of righteousness. Not all of these measures are very liberating for them - the Levite's concubine, for example, displays her righteousness by returning to the master who let her be raped. Jephthah's daughter willingly submits to her own death to save her father's righteousness - she dies in order to save him from his own sin, and thus plays an early analogue of Christ in that story. Samson's mother recognizes God, but his father does not. At the end of the book, by the time the men of Israel have completely given themselves over into violent moral degeneracy, the women are still worshipping the Lord and keeping his festivals. We know they are, because the men use it to commit sexual violence against them. Here, the book closes on a note that is simultaneously dark and uplifting: the women suffer, but they do so because they have sided with God. The book of Judges is not just about immoral Israelites - there are moral ones, but they usually suffer immensely at the hands of those who are less restrained.

The themes in Judges can be seen more clearly when we realize that there are only a very small number of "story" elements in this book. It seems like we're progressing through a long period of history because the author retells them over and over, combining different elements each time and making each iteration progressively gorier, until the climax in the final chapters, when the Benjamites are slaughtered and there's a mass conspiracy of corrupted men against faithful women. (It's easy to be distracted by the brief and amusing little "judges" interspersed throughout the narrative, the ones with dozens of sons riding dozens of donkeys.)

We begin with a couple of righteous archetypes, ideal types put forward by Jewish militarism - Caleb, who treats his daughter "well" by giving her away to a victorious warrior; and Othniel, who defeats the Aramites - who are righteous men set up in opposition to the other stereotype of earlier books, the faithless and idolatrous masses of the average people. Then the author spins this out into successive retellings, each one more gruesome. Ehud's assasssination of Eglon is an exciting and somewhat amusing story of an Israelite hero leading his people to liberation. But then this becomes Deborah's and Jael's defeat of the Midianites - in which the Israelites still win against the foreigner, but in doing so must be led by women and violate a sacred ethical code. This becomes Gideon's defeat of the Midianites - in which the Israelites still win against the foreigner, but in doing so murder two of their own towns and build some false idols. This becomes Jephthah's defeat of the Ammonites - in which the Israelites still win against the foreigner, but then kill tens of thousands of their own in a limited civil war. Here, the author introduces a second element to the story: the betrayal of righteous women. This time, it's only one such woman: Jephthah's daughter is killed in a human sacrifice.

Now we move on to the story of Samson, where a righteous woman (his mother) is ignored but not sacrificed; Samson has the opportunity to liberate the Israelites from the foreign Philistines but ultimately ends up not doing so, because he actually prefers the company of foreigners, especially their women. The penultimate tragedy begins with the story of the Levite, where again a righteous woman is sacrificed. This time, however, there is no more foreigner: the offenders are Israelites. That doesn't stop the Israelites from killing them anyways, combining the act of fighting the foreigner and fighting oneself. And finally, as they sit among the bloody remains of the Benjamite tribe, the regretful Israelites have no enemy to fight, so they create one by killing Gileadites, and then once again harm the righteous women (in this case, they enslave them rather than kill them, perhaps less morally outrageous but nevertheless blatantly illegal under the law of Moses). With each iteration of the basic story - righteous Israelites rise up against an enemy, but then indulge in sinful excesses - the author of Judges makes their actions a little more outrageous, and simultaneously takes away a few more potential rationalizations for their actions, until by the end of the book, there is nothing left but rigid oppression and pure evil.

Given the interpretation I've provided here, it's rather striking to see Judges at this position in the Bible. It seems like a deliberate rejection of Joshua's militarism and Numbers's and Deuteronomy's priestly elitism: in Judges, those with power are always corrupt, those who are righteous will be oppressed by those who are corrupt, and God will not always leap to the aid of the righteous. The fact that this message has to be concealed somewhat is telling about the politics of Biblical writing, but the fact that it's so clearly there speaks to an interesting measure of balance in the Bible. The Jewish Old Testament provides books which take very different positions on the relationship between Israel and the divine. The Biblical canon is politically and theologically balanced: fair representation for a number of diverse viewpoints. They say you can prove anything with the Bible - and you can, because the books of the Bible are making very different arguments. The book of Judges may contain some particularly bloody and disturbing stories, but to me, its scathing social criticism - of power, of religion, and of gender - makes it far more interesting than any of the preceding books.