Gift of the Grotesque
What do we do with the book of Judges? No book of the Bible is quite so R-rated. No book is quite so ugly or grotesque. The book of Judges offers its reader not a roster of angelic saints but an astonishing tempest of brutality, feces, slaughter, assassinations, conspiracy, genocide, child sacrifice, rage, betrayal, mass graves, corpse mutilation, kidnapping, and civil war. It tells the story of a time when Israel was plagued by chaos and bloodshed. How could such a graphic account help the reader better understand a patient and merciful God? The book plunges us into a theological Dark Age in which Israel’s chronic idolatry leads to oppression and self-destruction.
Israel's Complicated Saviors
The individuals that God raises up to save Israel from itself only complicate things for the reader. Ehud slays the bloated king while he sits on the proverbial toilet. Salvation through a scat joke?! Deborah and Barak’s song of victory includes a plaintive cry from the mother of Sisera, the enemy’s henchman, wondering why her son is so late in coming. The “villain” has a mother who loves him—no orc or Green Goblin in this story. A few verses after Gideon’s mathematically miraculous victory, he makes an idol out of the plunder. Jephthah, in a disastrous attempt to bribe God, sacrifices his beloved daughter. Bound, blind, and bleeding, Samson is led away to die.
What do we do with saviors such as these? The text will never make sense if we treat the book of Judges as a humanistic fable whose “good” characters we aspire to emulate and whose “bad” characters we disdain. It simply does not offer such moralistic simplicity and readerly control. Indeed, Judges may be one of the most difficult books in the canon to sanitize (some children’s Bibles skip it altogether), but therein also lies its chief theological contribution and a clue to the sort of faithful response it aims to generate. It is not a finger-wagging history lesson, despite what various misreadings of Hebrews 11 have trained us to believe. Rather, it is a prophetic liturgy inviting the reader into deeper and deeper levels of theological contemplation. The book of Judges does not cajole us into better behavior. It aims to break our hearts.
We cannot do better than the “generation after Joshua” because, like every wave of readers since, we are the generation after Joshua. We, too, have failed to receive the gift of Promised Land, rejecting it for something more manageable and graspable—something we can control. We want to level the playing field, to get something back from the act of giving, to reduce God to a shadow rather than Creation’s Illuminating Light. Abject dependence on God is just so insulting, isn’t it?
Dying to Live
Judges does not pretend that its reader can transcend his or her creaturely reality. Instead, it invites the reader to undergo an excruciating ordeal. Horror by horror, the book wrestles us to the ground. Do we recognize ourselves in its pages? Are we willing to be impaled on its double-edged sword? Hope in the book of Judges lies not with the reader’s capacity to outperform the characters it portrays, but with the God to whom its iconographical characters grant access. Like stained glass, the collection of images from which Judges has been built remains vividly translucent to the Light source that pours through them from behind.
And Who is that Light? He hangs on the cross— “bound, blind, and bleeding,” a joke and a scandal, a sacrificed only child. He has descended into hell, trampled its gatekeeper, grabbed humanity by the hand, and charged out again. The hope on Judges’ horizon is a hope that one can realize only by placing oneself amongst the damned, by allowing oneself to be stripped and beaten by the book itself, and then by admitting God’s prerogative to save. The reader dies by the Book of Judges’ hand—to live.
- Listen to an interview with Dr. Stulac about Gift of the Grotesque on The Biblical Mind podcast.
- Check out Dr. Stulac’s book Gift of the Grotesque: A Christological Companion to the Book of Judges [Discloser: Clicking on the link will take you to a site where this book may be purchased. The author may receive royalties.]