Word for the Week
Short reflections on Bible passages, with a frontline focus...
In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.
The end of the book of Judges is the perfect summary of everything that has come before: there was no king in Israel (for which read: not even God was king), and all the people did what was right in their own eyes. Israel had lost its vision for what it meant to be Israel, and any idea of the common good. And as they lose the sense of a common framework of ethics, for right and wrong, and for spirituality, the nation falls apart.
As the people separate and fragment – as they become more and more individualistic and intent on their own ends – individuals are gradually lost. As the book progresses, people slowly lose their names, until the final narrative, in chapters 19-21, where all characters are nameless.
Gradually, Israel moves from a nation where men and women live in safety – where a woman like Achsah can cross the country and challenge her father (Judges 1:11-15) – to a nation where visitors are threatened in Gibeah, a woman is gang raped and dismembered (both in Judges 19), and the nation descends into civil war.
It is the most vulnerable members of society that are affected first: women and children, such as Jephthah’s daughter, or Samson’s love interests. But the circle gradually widens. It touches strangers, whether they are a threat or not. Then men of Israel, as tribe turns against tribe. In a society where everyone chooses their own path and their own definition of morality, there is no social fabric to protect individuals. Radical individualism leads to the radical loss of individuals.
All this makes Judges a curiously contemporary book. In a society where we struggle to articulate a common moral vision, what does it look like to value individual choice, freedom of belief, and tolerance (or even better, valuing) of difference? And can we do this whilst holding onto a vision of who we want to be that does not abdicate our responsibility towards one another?
Israel had previously had such a vision: a vision shaped by God, which Israel was invited to adopt in each generation. We, too, are invited to live out God’s vision for our churches: not as a collection of individuals, who each follow God in their own way, but as a people – interdependent, loving one another, whose vision is set by God, whose life is shaped by the values of the kingdom and the teaching of Jesus.
Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury