Sunday School with Judges: Part 1, Judges is Hard on Judges

A few months ago, the adult Bible classes at our church did a series on the book of Judges. As regular readers know, I teach an adult Bible class every Sunday at my church. The name of the class is Sojourners, and I've been teaching it for about fifteen years.

When I first heard we'd be doing a series on Judges I groaned. Along with the book of Joshua, Judges is one of the hardest books to teach. For three reasons.

First, following after Joshua Judges continues the conquest narrative of Israel, the command to remove and displace the Canaanites in the land.

Second, Judges is filled with violence. To be sure, the violence makes for great story telling. From Ehud stabbing the obese Moabite king Eglon to Jael driving a tent peg through the temple of the Canaanite general Sisera. These stories are great stories, but they are hard to turn into Sunday School material.

And third, there are many "texts of terror" in the book of Judges, some of the darkest and most tragic stories in all of the Bible. From Jephthah's daughter (Judges 11) to the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19).

So, yeah, Judges presents the Sunday School teacher with a bit of a challenge. Especially for an adult Bible class like mine, filled with liberal, progressive Christians. For many, the book of Judges is an obstacle to faith. For the reasons stated above. Every Sunday with Judges was going to be triggering a faith crisis.

Still, I wanted to be a dutiful Sunday School teacher, so our class did a series on the book of Judges. And I'd like to use a few posts to share what that sounded like.

I started by naming the elephant in the room, our problems and issues with the book of Judges. What I discussed above.

At that point I could have gone into a big hermeneutical spiel showing how progressive, liberal Christians read these problematic Old Testament texts. There's tons of great material out there on how do read the Bible this way, from Rachel Held Evan's Inspired, to Peter Enns's The Bible Tells Me So, to Rob Bell's What Is the Bible?

But I didn't launch into a big hermeneutical discussion. For three reasons.

First, the study was supposed to be a study about the book of Judges, not a class on how to read the Bible. There is a time and place for a class on how to read the Bible, but such a class is a whole multi-week and multi-month study of its own. And I just didn't have the time. I had eight weeks to cover the book of Judges.

Second, I think sometimes we just need to let the Bible be weird and unsettling. I understand the impulse to smooth out all the rough, dark, violent edges. But I also worry about doing that all the time.

Let me state it this way, if I already know what the Bible should and ought to say, why read it at all? If I already know what the Bible is supposed to say before I read it, the Bible can't teach me anything or challenge me. The Bible is always and only going to preach to me an enlightened, humanistic worldview that helps elect Democrats to political office.

All that to say, I think there's some value it just allowing the Bible to be strange and unsettling, without always quickly rushing to explain it all away.

And finally, there's the Jews. These stories of military victory and conquest were not written by the Empire. These are the stories of one of the most oppressed and persecuted people in history. Yes, it's highly problematic when the Empire adopts theses stories as it own. Social location is everything.

Let me put it this way. I get the issues we have with the Old Testament, but there's something obscene about tone policing and concern trolling the Jews.

So that's how I started off the class. Yes, I said, we have lots of problems with the book of Judges. And yes, I could spend a lot time deploying a sophisticated progressive hermeneutic that would protect us from the text before we waded in. But why don't we, I suggested, just let the stories stand as they are and see what we can see?

And here's the first thing I see when I read the book of Judges.

Yes, as progressive, modern readers we're hard on the book of Judges. But guess what? Judges is hard on Judges. No Hebrews would read the book and say, "Those were the best of times." No, the message of Judges is exact opposite. As the book slowly descends into chaos, terror, and darkness we reach the take home point of the book: "These were the worst of times."

Judges is deeply aware that something is profoundly broken. Judges is not a triumphalistic book. It is a story of moral and political collapse.

And if that's true, it might be a really interesting book for us to read today.  

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