Chapters 17 through 21 of the Book of Judges record the depths of social depravity in possibly Scripture’s clearest depiction of the flaws of a patriarchal society. These chapters truly show the ultimate in degradation: idolatry, pride, selfishness, moral perversion, and insensitivity to human life. Chapters 19-21 also reveal the most awful violations of the human rights of a nameless woman. This frank reporting removes any vestige of courtesy or civility from patriarchy, revealing male dominance at its very worst.
One key to the passage is that phrase “…everyone did as he saw fit,” which occurs in Judges 17:6 and finally in 21:25, bracketing the story. Another key to this section is patriarchal preoccupation with clan, because that idea also brackets the story. Chapters 17 and 18 put clan loyalty over pure worship of God; chapter 21 puts clan survival over human rights. Thus preservation of both the male-dominated group (clan) and the individual male became the guide for action.
The dreadful “centerpiece” of these appalling chapters is found in chapter 19, where we learn that a Levite, his servant, and his concubine spent the night in Gibeah. Verses 22-26 read:
While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him.”
The owner of the house went outside and said to them, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this disgraceful thing. Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But to this man, don’t do such a disgraceful thing.”
But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight. (NIV)
As a result of this horrible treatment the concubine died.
What a perversion of the custom of hospitality! Not only was this custom considered more important than the rights of women, but it is questionable whether it even applied to women. Following a pattern already set in Genesis 19:8, there was no attempt to defend the house and its occupants. No, the men who cast out the nameless concubine thought: Here is an object that will satisfy the lust of the attackers. Abuse of a man must be prevented, but gang rape of a woman is inconsequential, because she is only a bargaining chip. Remember that the host in this story would willingly have thrown away his virgin daughter, not only denying her human rights but also doing so in direct violation of Leviticus 19:29: “Do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute….” Such a father would have no compunction in sacrificing another man’s woman (read “possession”) on the altar of male pride and perversion. The heartless offer of the nameless daughter and the bestial abuse of the nameless concubine represent the potential treatment of every woman in a society that places man’s lust over God’s law.
How does the ghastly case history conclude? Intertribal warfare, decimation of the tribe of Benjamin (to which the man of Gibeah belonged), and the kidnapping of women to provide new wives to keep that clan viable. Judges 21:17 gives the reasoning of the elders of Israel in encouraging such kidnapping: “The Benjaminite survivors must have heirs,” they said, “so that a tribe of Israel will not be wiped out.” The rights of every woman were subordinated to the preservation of the clan, although in Matthew 18:8, 9 Jesus said that it would be better to be maimed by cutting off a member of the body that offends than to go to perdition whole.
Yes, when patriarchy ruled, every man did as he saw fit — and treated every woman as he wished.
“Texts of Terror”?
Although today most of us do not live in a rigidly patriarchal society, we must still come to terms with our patriarchal past and how it influences contemporary thinking. As Americans have done in the civil rights movement, we must face the injustices of the past and must begin to apply the lessons of the past to the future.
In so doing, it will be obvious that not all men are tyrannical oppressors of women! Except for the deliberate wife beater, very few American men arise each day with the thought Now I will act as a male supremist, anymore than before the days of desegregation most whites arose with the thought Now we will oppress blacks. But to the extent that whites failed to recognize that they were part of a system of discrimination, they perpetuated that system, and in the same way those who ignore the abuses of patriarchy will help perpetuate its injustices.
The Bible tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:11 that God inspired the many scriptural case histories to be written down for our instruction. We must closely study these lessons from the past, to see which are the good examples to follow and which are the bad examples to avoid. We must be alert to discern the difference between truth and falsehood in the human history recorded in the Bible. This is why it is important to look at case histories relevant to questions about patriarchalism.
Theologian Phyllis Trible has written a book entitled Texts of Terror, a critical examination of four Bible women: Hagar, Tamar, “Everywoman” in Judges 19, and Jephthah’s daughter. One does not have to agree with Professor Trible’s every conclusion to be sympathetic to her title. These frightening texts are indeed “tales of terror, with women as victims.”1
However, these texts only remain texts of terror today if we uphold patriarchy as God’s ideal for human society. They only remain texts of terror for women if we consider male supremacy the norm for human social structure. But if we see patriarchy for what it is, institutionalized discrimination, and if we reject male supremacy for what it is, a false human philosophy, then these do not continue as texts of terror, but rather become bad examples of terrible behavior that is to be despised and of terrible attitudes that need to be redeemed. There was nothing admirable in the murder of “Everywoman.”
Judges chapters 17-21 records bad examples where men did not respect the human rights of women, or heed God’s call to moral purity. In addition, these men also overlooked one salient feature of God’s law: the redemptive theme. All through the Old Testament God reminded His people in words to this effect: “You were slaves, and I brought you out of the land of Egypt. You were oppressed, and I freed you. Now you act compassionately toward those around you and toward anyone in your power” (see Deuteronomy 24:17-22). The Old Testament contains the promise of God as Redeemer, and in recognition of this promise, Israel was to live for Him. His people were not to copy the oppressive and discriminatory practices of the surrounding nations, but to witness to God’s redemptive power by acting fairly and compassionately.
It is one measure of the trustworthiness of Scripture that it faithfully records Israel’s failure to live as God commanded. We have the true record of Israel’s false actions when, in her prosperity, she sought the gods and the value systems of pagan societies. Therefore we do have that sad record of a male-dominated society that failed to act redemptively towards women, although the Bible also records God’s repeated commands that His people protect the rights of the widow, the alien, and the orphan.
Recognizing that patriarchalism falls in the category of the true record of the false idea will give us a fresh perspective on our social history. We will see that the misogynist acts set forth in the Bible are only texts of terror if we consider them worthy examples to be copied, or proclaim them as representing innate behavioral patterns and unchangeable character traits. But when we hold up these texts to the light of redemptive truth, as found in 2 Corinthians 5:14-21, we can celebrate the fact that God’s ideal is “The old has gone, the new has come!” (v. 17).
The Business We’re In
Years ago my minister and I discussed how best to deal with a Sunday-school teacher who refused to take time to prepare the lesson adequately. I can recall saying with a sigh, “Well, I guess you just can’t change human nature.” My minister smiled and said, “I thought that was the business we’re in.” I have never forgotten that pointed reminder. Yes, God is indeed in the business of complete change and of total renewal—that conversion experience of the new birth — and we Christians are to be His ambassadors in proclaiming this good news.
We must never forget that God has the power to offer re-creation and that He does not need to offer makeshift solutions to our problems. Therefore as we contemplate the social system of patriarchalism, the real question is not how best to patch up a system that legitimizes discrimination and abuses of human rights, but whether we should patch it up at all.
It has been said that in time of war truth is the first casualty. The Bible tells us a spiritual warfare exists between good and evil, and quite obviously evil will use any trick possible to hide God’s truth. In this warfare the truth of the mutuality and complementarity of men and women has been a tragic casualty.
In one of its tricks evil has gotten people to buy the line “You can’t change human nature.”
This trick has led some people to believe that because patriarchy is so entrenched, we cannot change it and therefore must patch it up. These persons think that at best we can try to “Christianize” patriarchy by urging men to exercise their power over women in a virtuous and not a tyrannical way (in a kind of loving domination). They fail to see that we Christians are not in the business of making a false philosophy palatable. Why would we even want to try to patch up a flawed system, when God’s Word offers us all re-creation, afresh start, a new beginning?
All manner of sinful acts have existed since the beginning of time, but we do not seek to “Christianize” sin! We do not say of someone who tends to lie or cheat or steal, “That’s how it is,” but we do say, “By God’s grace that person can become a new creature in Christ Jesus.” Remember Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:20, 21: “…We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” With that offer, who would ever want to accept a patch-up job? So to those who say, “You can’t change the system,” I offer the rebuttal, “That is just what Jesus Christ came to do!”
Christ gives those who are His new creatures a new nature with new virtues, and the Christ-like virtues of humility and self-sacrifice are inimical to any notion of retaining domination either in theory or in practice. Therefore the truly “Christianized person (a new creature in Christ Jesus) will shrink from any philosophy that says, “One person must always be dominant” and will see that to “Christianize” such a philosophy is to end it.
The nameless woman whose murder was recorded in Judges 19 is “Everywoman” because she represents the potential fate of every woman in a society where might makes right, where male domination controls the fate of women. By the time of Judges 19, the thinking of men in a patriarchal society had degenerated into, “It is all right to kill you, as long as I can stay alive.”
Contrast that false human reasoning with Jesus’ words in John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” Listen to Paul’s insight in Romans 5:7, 8: “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” This was in fulfillment of Jesus’ own words in John 10:11: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” With such an example, is there any question but that we need a Christ-like society instead of a patriarchal society?
Patriarchy is as an unjust and sinful system. The scriptural record of a patriarchal society is an example of the paradox of the true record of the false idea. Clearly the Bible itself chronicles male supremacy as a bad example, and the case histories of male domination of women are all variations of that false notion, “This is how men are.”
In contrast, the Good News of the Gospel is that men need not remain this way, and women need not suffer such treatment. As God’s ambassadors we Christians must proclaim this good news and offer hope to those who think, You can ‘t change human nature. The wonder of the Gospel message is: “No, you can’t change human nature, but God can, and that’s the business God is in!”
- Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984).