The American Timeline: The Book of Judges, pt. 2

Part 1 here.

[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 chosenAnd 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.

Timotheos

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9 thoughts on “The American Timeline: The Book of Judges, pt. 2

  1. Buddhists don’t have a god, so I don’t know what their response is to catastrophes. I don’t know either whether they think in terms of “cause and effect” with respect to whether there is a relationship between how they live their lives and natural disasters.

    So, assuming that your thesis is correct, i.e., that we are in the same situation now in the U.S. that the Israelites were in, in Judges, what should we do? What’s your prescription?

    • “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.” The only prescription is more Jesus!

  2. I understand that the remedy is more Jesus, but my question was more along the line of what do we as individual Christians do? Pray? Or is there more that we can do?

  3. I think there is a certain answer and an ambiguous one. The certain one is based on the promise that Christ will never forsake His Church (Matthew 28:19-20). As long as there are baptized disciples hearing and learning His Word (and there will be as long as this world endures), Christ will be present among them. The Church should remain the Church and do the things Christ has given her to do (e.g., preaching, Sacraments, and flowing from those things, mercy for body and soul).

    On the other, uncertain hand, individual Christians should do “whatever their hands find to do;” serve their neighbors in their various relationships as family members and citizens, for example. None of the things we do in those various places have the certain promise of God that they will be “successful,” that they will turn the tide in any particular cultural struggle, but we do know that for those who are in Christ, their work is not in vain. Pray, vote, work, serve, and know that Christ is present where He promised to be present. I don’t know if we need to make it more complicated than that. What do you think?

  4. I think you’re right that it depends on what the individual Christian “finds to do.” But I guess I’m also encouraged by President Harrison getting involved to the extent of letting society know that there is such a thing as right and wrong. For sincere Christians, abortion is wrong; homosexual behavior is wrong; using embryonic stem cells for research is wrong. Christians should let others, both fellow believers and nonbelievers, know what God says is right and what He says is wrong, and should not be shy about it.

  5. I like your discussion of Judges, but I’m unsure about the application to US currently. Doesn’t the immorality of the people in Judges accurately describe most of human civilization throughout time? Is it really true that Christian morality “used to undergird the American experiment”? This is an America, after all, that was founded at a time when the sin of slavery was legal.

    Are we really getting worse or are we idealizing the past?

    • I don’t really think that we’ve gotten worse in the U.S., with regard to morality or membership in the Christian Church. I think that what has happened is that the façade of nominalism has collapsed, and we are simply seeing that the cultural restraints binding people to churches are no longer in place. Morality is always external, and there were cultural ties that caused generalized morality to be seen as a good thing (e.g., no divorce, no fornication, etc.). But I also think external morality often hides a far more insidious problem, namely, that we think we’re righteous because everyone looks good, and we’re all “nice Christian people.” That has been exposed now, although most people think it is “Christian morality” itself that has collapsed. Wrt morality and the American experiment, what I was referring to was the way the American fathers seem to assume a higher Power in place for the sake of the good of people in the country. I also think that, regardless of whether they actually believed it, most people were far more Biblically literate 100 years ago than they are today. That may have accounted for much of the civic righteousness. But to answer your question, I think Judges exposes exactly the problem we have: all restraints have now been removed, and we’re reaping the fruit of that sowing.

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