The Presbyterian Church USA recently assigned a text for an ordination exam that created an uproar. The text in question was the story, “The Levite’s Concubine,” found in Judges 19.
In this story, one that echoes Sodom and Gomorrah, a Levite and his concubine are offered hospitality in Gibeah. The men of the town want to be “intimate” with the Levite, but their host instead offers them the concubine, who is gang raped and dies.
The next morning, the Levite carries her body home, dismembers her and sends her remains “throughout the territory of Israel.”
This is clearly a difficult text and may well deserve to be called a “text of terror,” as it portrays gross human cruelty and/or otherwise challenges our moral sensibilities.
While some texts seem obviously offensive, we should not forget that seemingly innocuous texts may not be as innocent as they seem. I realized this afresh teaching the Gospel of John this semester.
Taken as a whole, the Gospel depicts a world in which the light and darkness oppose each other. This motif is clear from the beginning of the book: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:5, NRSV).
As Alan Culpepper points out in Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, we see how this conflict between light and dark plays out in the ways different characters respond to Jesus.
Some follow in secret (Nicodemus). Some desert the movement (the crowds when the going gets tough). Some oppose (the “Jews”). One betrays (Judas). One is slow to catch on (Peter). And one serves as the paradigmatic disciple, the exemplar of what it means to believe (the so-called “beloved disciple”).
To be sure, a plot where darkness and light vie for dominance makes for a dramatic and emotionally riveting story, but it is also dangerous, as it can subtly encourage us to equate ourselves with the light.
If we are on the side of the light, then it easily follows that those who oppose us must be part of the forces of darkness.
Minimally, this dualism tempts us to demonize those who disagree with us. In the Gospel of John, the vitriol is directed toward “the Jews,” whom Jesus describes as of “the devil” (8:44).
In the epistle we call 1 John (possibly written to the same community as the Gospel of John), the author calls those who disagree with the beliefs of that community antichrists.
The history of Christianity is rife with examples of purges of “heretics” done in the name of discipline or doctrinal uniformity.
At worst, dividing the world into light and dark can lead to physical violence. The history of Christian persecution of the Jews (rationalized by abusive readings of texts in the Christian Testament) is ample evidence of this danger.
And this is not just a religious phenomenon. We have seen in recent years how a group convinced that their political views and leaders represented the light planned to kidnap or kill opponents and stormed buildings.
The choice of Judges 19 for an ordination exam may or may not have been a wise one, but we should not forget to consider that seemingly innocent biblical texts have a shadow side.
The solution is not to avoid such texts, however, but to face them responsibly. We do that by understanding them in historical context.
What questions were the audiences wresting with? What challenges were they facing? What were the customs of the day?
We do that by attending to their literary structures and the likely rhetorical goal of the author. We do that by consulting the history of interpretations.
For texts in the Hebrew Bible, we would be wise to consult Jewish interpretations. Interestingly, in Judaism, Judges 19 is treated not as a literal event, but as a polemic against Saul’s reign.
We face biblical texts responsibly by assessing the ethical outcomes of different interpretations. Does an interpretation dispose us to act more in accord with the rule of God or less?
We do that by keeping the text in the context of the whole book because a book, taken as a whole, may contain counterweights to distorting interpretations.
If we do that with the Gospel of John, we see that Jesus is the light of the world, not us. We see that there is only one paradigmatic disciple: the one Jesus loves. This disciple stays close to Jesus, recognizes Jesus and does what Jesus asks.
The rest of us poor sods would do better imitating him rather than attacking those who disagree with us.
Professor of religion in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He is the author of Wisdom Calls: The Moral Story of the Hebrew Bible (Nurturing Faith Books, 2017) and Faithful Innovation: The Rule of God and a Christian Practical Wisdom.