[This would have been here yesterday, but apparently WordPress doesn’t like it when you let your computer sleep, finish a post, and then try to publish it]
So: the Book of Judges is not prescriptive for how people should act; it is descriptive of what happens when God’s saving action is forgotten and what happens when parents do not tell their children what God has done for their salvation. If the book were made into a television show, it would have to be on HBO and I’m not sure if the movie version would make the cut for an ‘R’ rating, either. Even so, the Book of Judges is not a godless book. God is everywhere. The book is full of people who are religious, but not Spiritual. They have the Name of Yahweh (or Adonai) on their lips constantly; they are invoking Him throughout the entire book. Sometimes it takes eight years of oppression (3:8), sometimes eighteen (3:14), sometimes twenty (4:3). It’s not that they never talk about God, or mention Him, or pray or sacrifice to Him. The book is full of Him; some people even have their own household altars and priests (chs. 17-18). But they are running on fumes. These very religious people include a Levite who cuts up his concubine and sends her body parts to the tribes of Israel, as well as the son of a prostitute who makes a burnt sacrifice of his daughter because of a rash vow (yes, I do think Jephthah actually killed his daughter). It is the opposite of Leonard Cohen’s “You say I took the name in vain/I don’t even know the name”; no, they definitely know the Name. They just don’t think they’re taking it in vain. They have the appearance of godliness, but deny its power.
The more I read the Book of Judges, the more I am convinced that it almost perfectly describes the situation in the United States, and probably also in the West as a whole. We are in the position that Alaisdair MacIntyre describes in the Introduction to his book After Virtue: a civilization that has destroyed the entire ethical system that used to undergird the American experiment (informed, though not necessarily controlled, by a Judaic-Christian moralism), and now we are trying to collect the scraps of that old ethics and recreate an entire system from the scraps. So we make our ethical arguments and state our case for this or that ethical position, all without realizing that we have already completely destroyed the foundation on which the old ethics and virtues were based. God, even Jesus, are everywhere; we probably talk more about religion today than at any time in our history; but all of it is an altar to an unknown god. Politicians and policy-makers can’t seem to keep themselves from making religious statements. Tragedy, especially, brings out everyone’s inner theologian. (Incidentally, I wonder if the same sorts of theodicies were invoked in Japan after the tsunami. Do Buddhists have the same desire to defend and explain God’s actions as we do?) We don’t need more morality. We have morality oozing out of every social pore. We may not like the morality spouted by politicians and pundits, but it is morality nonetheless. The problem is that we have already removed ourselves from the body of doctrine that gave any meaning to the Christianly formed words we use, yet we think they still have meaning. Even atheists make the case for their morality, but they seem unable to realize that this morality came out of a Western civilization that, at least since Constantine, was nearly uniformly Christian (whether Roman, Lutheran, or Reformed–they shared essentially the same ethical positions).
All of this stems from a single poisoned root: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6). The first part of the verse is repeated in 18:1 and 19:1, and the whole verse is repeated for the last verse in the book. The point is, everyone did what he thought was right. They make up their own rules. They decide, as individuals, what God wants, and they take it all very seriously (see, again, Jephthah). Presumably, if God said one thing, but it didn’t fit with what they thought was right, the Word of God must be wrong. Not even God can tell me I’m wrong. In fact, I can’t be wrong. Everyone does what is right in his own eyes. This situation continues into the Book of 1 Samuel, where Eli’s sons use God’s sacrifices for their own benefit and “lie with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (2:12-17, 22). Further, “the word of [Yahweh] was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision…and Samuel was lying down in the temple of [Yahweh], where the ark of God was [! where only the high priest was supposed to go once a year]” (3:1, 3). If this whole saga is not the perfect description of American religiosity, even (especially?) within the Church, I don’t know what is. We have exchanged the Christian Faith as a whole for bits and pieces that we have chosen. And the god that is nearly universally worshiped in the United States is a moralistic, therapeutic, deistic one. All this god wants from you is that you try your best and do what is in you. He (/she/it) only wants you to feel good about yourself; and this god will only intervene if you really want it to, when you are at your last wit, and you’ve tried every other option.
A pretty bleak vision. Almost hopeless. Almost. Where MacIntyre hoped (or hopes; he became Roman Catholic after the publication of After Virtue) for a new St. Benedict to renew the culture, I hope for a new David to restore His people. This is, in fact, what the rest of the Old Testament story gives us: the promise of a New David to shepherd His people Israel, a New David who is revealed as Jesus in the New Testament. This God is not a moralistic one, trying to help you do your best; do we really think we can give enough reasons and excuses for our moral failures that He will accept our best? He is the end of all moralism and human virtue. He is not a therapeutic God, trying to help you feel better about yourself; He wants to kill that self and resurrect a new self in Christ. He does not govern from afar, intervening when we have put in enough prayer coins that He will vend out what we need; He sends His eternal Son into this world and this flesh to remake it from the inside out. He is the antithesis of the god of the deists.
So good luck with trying to construct your own moralistic, therapeutic, deistic god. Judges shows us the futility of that enterprise. It is a description of exactly what happens when we try to construct better and better moralities. Anything good that happens is because God is not willing to completely let His people moralize themselves into hell. He graciously preserves them, even in their rebellious madness. It is not a morally prescriptive book; we are not supposed to emulate Barak, Othniel, Samson–even Gideon. It is a warning about what happens when the King is dead and buried and everyone does what is right in his own eyes.
Dawkins attacked the right problem, but he proposed the wrong solution. The Bible is not a book of morality; it is the Book of Christ, and if we see anything but Christ, or what happens to people without Christ, then we are reading the wrong Bible.