Adventures in Theology--Making Sense of the Hebrew Scriptures

Catholics have a very specific way of reading the Hebrew Scriptures (a/k/a the Old Testament).  No one really talks about it, but it certainly there, and it is definitely something that I picked up.  The method is this--pick bits and pieces that you can make sense of, and ignore the rest.  The structure of the Catholic Lectionary has one O.T. reading per Sunday (well, plus a Psalm--one narrative reading), selected on the basis of its relevance to the Gospel reading for that Sunday.  The result is that you get bits and pieces of the Hebrew Scriptures that mesh nicely with the themes and concepts from the New Testament, and you can safely leave it at that.

I actually think this is, more or less, the right way to read the Hebrew Scriptures if you are a Christian, so I am not criticizing this method.  But it does have the effect of shielding from view the challenging nature of the O.T.  Many Catholics are simply not aware of some of the stuff that you can find in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Put aside the stories that are presented as feel-good tales that on close inspection are brutal, violent, terrifying stories (Noah's Flood, the slaughter of the First Born of Egypt, etc.) and take a look at stories that cannot be seen in any way except as terrifying, savage tales.

For my money, the strangest and most difficult book of the Bible is the Book of Judges.  Consider, for example, the end of Judges (Judges 19-21), the story of the tribe of Benjamin.  A Levite is travelling through the hill country of Judah (after recovering his concubine, BTW) and ends up staying as a guest in the city of Gibeah, in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin.  The townspeople, in a reenactment of Sodom and Gomorrah, demand that the Levite be turned over to them to be raped.  The Levite throws his concubine to the crowd instead, who dutifully rape her.  In the morning, they let her go, and the Levite heads home.  Upon returning home, he kills the concubine and cuts her into 12 pieces, and send these pieces to each of the 12 tribes.  This message rallies the tribes to gather at Mizpah and demand an accounting from the Benjaminites.  The Benjaminites tell the other tribes to shove it, so there is a series of battles, resulting ultimately in the victory of the 11 other tribes (attributed, of course, to the will of God).

After burning and looting all of the towns of the Benjaminites, and (though unspoken in the text) slaughtering all the women of the tribe, the other tribes announce that they will not allow any of their daughters to marry the Benjaminites.  This would result, of course, in the extinction of the tribe of Benjamin.  The other tribes don't want that to happen, so they get clever.  First, they look for stragglers that did not muster up for the battle against the Benjaminites.  Those stragglers from a place called Jabesh-gilead were all slaughtered, except for the unmarried women, who were handed over to the Benjaminites.

But there weren't enough women for everyone.  So, the 11 tribes  devised a work-around for their oath to not "give" any daughters to the Benjaminites.  A religious festival is held at Shiloh, and the Benjaminites come and abduct women to be their wives.  Everyone wins--the Benjaminites have wives, and no one has "given" a daughter to the Benjaminites.

The only reasonable reaction to this story is horror.  From the rape of concubine, to her brutal death at the hands of the Levite, to the slaughter of the cities of Benjamin, to the slaughter of Jabesh-gilead, to the abduction and rape at Shiloh, it is a story of brutality, violence, misogyny, and cruelty.  If you read this story as a straight-forward accounting of God's will for people's behavior, there is no other conclusion to be drawn but that this God is a monstrous entity that is unfit for any sort of reverence.

And yet, the very last line of the Book of Judges suggests that this story has more to it than meets the eye.  The book ends with a refrain, found in several places in the Book of Judges:

In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.

It's a subtle little line, thrown in almost as an aside.  But it suggests some degree of distance between the writer of the text and the story he is telling.  It is almost as if he is saying "I know the people described in the story believed they were following the will of this God known as Yahweh, and that they were justified in what they did.  But were they really?  Was it really the will of God?  Or where they just doing 'what was right in their eyes'?"

Notice also that Yahweh never explicitly endorses the worst of the atrocities--only the war on the Benjaminites.  Sure, the 11 tribes make sacrifices to ask for God's favor in the Jabesh-gilead affair, but they never get any answer.  They make their sacrifices, and then they do what they want--"what was right in their eyes."  If the author really wanted to drive home the point that these actions were God's will, he had several places to do so.  But the text doesn't say that.

The Hebrew Scriptures, I think, should be seen as a series of texts in conversation with themselves.  There is no getting around the atrocious, pornographic violence and brutality found in the text.  And there is no question that much of violence is directly attributed to the will of God.  If you take those statements at face value, seen through the lens of Girardian theory, you would conclude that this is yet another manifestation of the scapegoat mechanism, another projection of human violence onto the divine.  You can, and indeed should, therefore dismiss it on that basis.  Tutu's Wager would apply with force.

But there is another current in the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures, one that Girard saw as unique in the myths of the ancient world.  It is a contrary voice, one that questions the wisdom of what is happening.  It's that last line in the Book of Judges, the one that introduces skepticism about the whole affair.  But it goes farther than that--there is a voice that speaks, not from the perspective of the community, the ones doing the violence, but the voice of the victim of that violence.

Consider the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4).  Stories of brothers killing brothers are rife throughout ancient mythology.  The best known example is that of Romulus and Remus.  After the twins founded the city of Rome, Remus violated the boundaries of the city, and so Romulus killed him.  All to the good, at least as far as the story goes--Remus deserved it, and Romulus's actions allowed Rome to flourish.  A classic Girardian story of rivalristic violence turned into a founding myth.

Cain and Abel by William Blake
Cain and Abel seem to be the same story.  Cain kills Abel, and Cain goes on to found civilization, "east of Eden."  But there is a crucial difference--Cain is not justified in his actions.  Cain was jealous of his brother because his brother's sacrifices were favored by God.  God sees immediately what happened, and punishes Cain for his actions.  But, more importantly, the blood of the victim is given a voice.  "And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!"  (Genesis 4:10).

The Hebrew Scriptures, unique among the stories of antiquity, have the voice of the victim crying out from the ground.  As one moves further into the Hebrew Scriptures, to the Prophets, that voice grows louder. The excluded ones, the widows, the orphans, the hired laborers--the one's who are the easiest targets of communal violence--these are the ones whom God protects and cares for, says the Prophets.  It is, as Nietzsche saw (and despised) a "revaluation of values," from the values of the strong who seek to cover their violence in the cloak of social order and mythology, to that of the voice and perspective of the weak who are victimized.

It is not simply that the Hebrew Scriptures contain this change in perspective, a sop to the forgotten ones, if you will.  The voice of the victimized corrodes the entire mechanism of using communal violence to maintain community harmony.  The myth only works if everyone believes in it; the moment you start to question it, to deconstruct it, cracks start to appear in the facade.  The spell starts to break.

Part of the spell breaking, in a sense, is the extreme violence.  Mythology, for Girard, works to cover up and mask the violence at the heart of human culture, lest we begin to ask uncomfortable questions about what is going on.  Myths make things seem less violent than they actually are.  Stories like the end of the Book of Judges do no such thing--the violence is present for all to see.  By refusing to place a mask over the violence, the writers of Judges are Keeping It Real, as it were.  After all, it's not like we can't point to examples of similar violence in our own times.  It's not like we can honestly doubt the capacity of human beings--including, even, ourselves--to engage in similar brutalities.

This, to me, is what makes the Hebrew Scriptures so fascinating.  They are both exactly like all of the other mythological stories of their ancient neighbors and a unique deconstruction and repudiation of its own mythology.  It's as if something new and different is breaking through the normal way of the world.

If one is a Christian, that full breakthrough comes with Jesus.  But, before looking at that, a quick trip to another one of those tough books of the Bible--the Book of Job.


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