When my mom heard what I was preaching about she couldn't pay attention to the pastor in her church that morning. From 334 miles away, she and my sister prayed during their entire 11:00 AM worship service for little, ol' me.
I had mentioned to my sister, via text the previous week, the text on which I was preaching that week. Like many others in the church, she had never read that particular Old Testament passage. I asked her to read it and give me her general thoughts. Her response: "What could you possibly say about that? I'm literally going to vomit. I wish I never read that!"
That was my initial reaction to Judges 19 as well. "What could possibly be said about that passage? Why was it in the Bible at all? Why would God allow this to happen?" But I was determined to preach it. As a matter of fact, from the moment I first encountered this terrible story, I have always wanted to preach it.
In Judges 19, a Levite (an Israelite clergyman) and his concubine find themselves trapped in the city of Gibeah by a group of vile men. Their intent is rape and humiliation. They demand to "know" the Levite is met by Levite. However, rather than handing himself over, he shoves his concubine out the door. WARNING: Here's where it gets graphic. They rape and abuse her all night long. At daybreak, she makes her way back to the house and collapses at the door. (The artwork I have chosen for this blog is based on this particular part of the story. It was created by artist Kevin Rolly.)
After a good night's sleep (seriously, read verse 27), the Levite opens the door and says, "Get up; let's go." But she is unresponsive. He tosses her limp body onto his donkey, they head home, and when they arrive he chops her up into twelve pieces. The body parts are distributed among the 12 tribes of Israel as a declaration of war against the men of Gibeah. Israel is launched into a costly war with the tribe of Benjamin. The tribe is nearly annihilated. Six-hundred more women are abused, kidnapped and raped. And that's how the book of Judges ends.
Now you can see why my mother and sister were praying for me. What could possibly be said about that?
Naturally, I turned to commentator after commentator for help. One said that the best thing to do with this passage is to leave it alone. But I couldn't leave it alone. The passage doesn't allow us to. Once you read it, there's no escaping it. It has you and it won't leave you alone. My sister testifies to as much. Even a week later, she is still texting me about it. "It just keeps running through my head," she said. And it's when she said that, that something significant occurred to me:
Maybe that's why these stranger texts are in the Bible - so that we don't forget.
In an odd way, the stranger texts of the Old Testament address our idolatry. Idolatry is blinding, not only of God, but of others as well. One of the biggest idols for middle-class, Americans is "happiness." We can get so entangled trying to keep our kids happy, our spouse happy, ourselves happy, the dog happy, that we turn a blind-eye to the need, sorrow, and pain all around us.
Anything that distracts us from the idol of happiness automatically goes ignored - the elderly are neglected in nursing homes, the poor are trapped on the other side of the railroad tracks, women who are sexually abused are quickly discounted as liars or promiscuous, refugees on the border are labeled lazy and criminal. We know these things aren't right. We know that these areas (and more) need help. We know there is a biblical mandate to love our neighbor as ourselves.
But loving our neighbor as ourselves interferes with ourselves.
The way of Jesus interferes with our pursuit of happiness. If happiness is our idol, then we will constantly be blind to the need of humanity, the church will constantly be stale and irrelevant, the power of Christ's death and resurrection castrated of the power to change lives. If happiness is our idol, all the unnamed people of Judges 19 go forgotten. The solution is remarkably simple:
Take a stroll through the stranger texts of the Old Testament.
Don't forget Judges 19. Look at it and remember. Dwell on it. Be disturbed by it. Vomit if you must. Contextualize it. Wrestle with it. Read testimonies of other unnamed women who were raped and abused. Weep and cry aloud. Pray. But whatever you do, don't look away. Don't forget it. Remember Judges 19. Join your voice with the Israelites who witnessed the horror: "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)!'"
The week after preaching Judges 19, one of my congregants asked me, "Do you think this story actually happened?" I know why they were asking, because I found myself asking the same question and for a specific reason:
If the unnamed woman doesn't really exist, I can sleep better at night.
If she's only a fabricated metaphor for what was really happening in Israel at the time (which is the way this text has often been taught), then I don't really have to deal with her. I can say, "Whew," wipe the sweat from my brow, smile, and forget about her.
That's the danger of reducing the stranger texts to allegory or metaphor. So, what I told the congregant was, "What does it matter? Whether this unnamed woman existed or not, we know that women were abused and mistreated like this during this time. And furthermore, women are abused and mistreated like this today. Whether this unnamed women existed or not, unnamed women exist all over our world today."
Christian theologian Dr. Daisy L. Machado writes an paper on Judges 19 through the lens of one of these unnamed women. The woman was an illegal immigrant living in Los Fresnos, Texas, a small town deep in the Rio Grande Valley. The woman was fleeing a Central American village where her husband had been killed by a local drug gang. The gang had also repeatedly raped this woman, and then cut off her nose. She had fled to the U.S. seeking refuge for her and her children. You can find Machado's article here.
When I read Machado's article my stomach was a cavern, because I went to elementary school in Los Fresnos, Texas. All around me, these unnamed people were living in fear. I went to school with their children. We worshiped along side some of them at church. My parents worked with them. They were constantly in and out of our lives, and yet I wonder why we didn't see them.
Did this story really happen? Does the unnamed woman from Judges 19 exist? The answer is yes, she exists. You can meet her everyday at H-E-B buying groceries. She exits. You can meet her walking down the sidewalk, holding a toddler by one hand and pushing a stroller in the other. She exists. You can meet her sitting at Orange Christian Services, waiting to see if she can get some help paying the electric bill this month. She exists. You can meet her in the waiting room at the pediatrician with a sick child. The answer to the question is, yes. The woman in Judges 19 exists.
But the real question is, will you see her?
The real question is, will you notice her? Will you acknowledge her existence? Will you join your voice with the other Israelites: "We must do something! So speak up!" Otherwise, she will remain unnamed forever. Yes, I think that's the real purpose behind these stranger texts - to remember the unnamed.
Side note: The way I have blogged about Judges 19 is not the way I preached it. If you would like to hear how I preached it, click here.