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The Story with no Names

Sermon passage: (Judges 19:16-30) Spoken on: August 31, 2009
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Judges

Tags: Judges, 士师记

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About Rev. Wong Siow Hwee: Rev. Wong is currently serving as a pastor in the children and young family ministries, as well as the LED and worship ministries.

Sermon on Judges 19:16-30

One of the most peculiar aspects of this last story of Judges is that there are no names given in the story. Well technically there is one in 20:28, Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron ministering at the Ark of the Covenant. But he is just a minor figure, and the name is just there so that we can date this event to two generations after Aaron. Otherwise, it is extremely interesting that for the longest story, and the final one of Judges, no names were given. All the major characters, the Levite and his concubine, the father-in-law and the old man, were all anonymous. This is indeed strange given that prior to this, names were given for every minor judge, minor character and even enemies. Yet in this story, no names were provided to account for the major catastrophe that followed. That is highly unusual story-telling. It’s like talking about the Iraq war without mentioning George W Bush, or 9/11 without mentioning Osama. There is hence no doubt that this anonymity is intentional. The question is why.

There are two reasons for the intentional anonymity. We first need to see that the story in Chapter 19 is largely a background to the real issue in Chapters 20-21, which we will cover in subsequent weeks. The issue, known later on as the Benjamite crisis, is triggered by this event of what happened to the Levite and his concubine in Gibeah. Looking at the incident itself, it is natural for us to perceive it as an unusual unfortunate event. After all, it is quite difficult for us to identify with the violence found in today’s story from the comfort of our relatively peaceful lives. We might also think that if this strange bizarre incident had been avoided, the Benjamite crisis that followed would not have happened. This kind of mindset would however be contrary to the intentions of the author in describing the situation then as “everyone did as he saw fit.” What the author wished to express was that even though the events of Chapter 19 were somewhat unusual, the mentality and the practices of the major characters were not unusual at all. They were perfectly consistent with the predominant culture of everyone doing as he saw fit. In short, if you were to substitute the main characters with any other person at that time, you will get the same results of people taking morality into their own hands.

And this is the first reason why the characters were anonymous in our story. It is to express that this is no freak incident. The main problem was Canaanization, which is the assimilation of the Israelites into the culture and morality of the neighboring Canaanites. And this problem was so pervasive throughout Israel at that time that the incident in today’s passage could have happened to anyone. So the anonymity “means that the Levite represents every Levite; the concubine, every woman; the father-in-law, every host; the old man residing in Bethel, every outsider in a Benjamite town. Because everyone did as he saw fit, every host was capable of committing the atrocities of the Benjamites; every guest could be mistreated; and every woman was a potential victim of rape, murder and dismemberment. Anonymity is a deliberate literary device adopted to reflect the universality of Israel’s Canaanization.”[1] Therefore, the first reason why all the characters were made nameless is because the writer wished to express that the problem didn’t just lie with these particular individuals. The triggering event is not a freak accident. We are to assume from the intentional anonymity that the main characters are symbolic of all the other Israelites.

The second reason for the namelessness of the characters is to reflect how individuals during that time have been dehumanized. Dehumanization commonly refers to the deliberate removal of human traits when treating members of an opposing ideology, race, political party or other source of conflict. Adolf Hitler's reference to Jews as 'vermin' or 'rats' is one example of dehumanization in action. Dehumanization often begins with the removal of personal identification. A convicted criminal is issued a prison identification number, for example. This form of dehumanization allows the guards and other authorities to maintain an impersonal relationship with inmates. In this case, the author of Judges has intentionally stripped the characters of their names as a form of removal of personal identification. A name serves as a mark of identity. It signifies a person’s significance in a community because names are used by others to address one another. In becoming nameless in the story, the writer is trying to bring out how all the individuals in the Canaanized Israelite society have become dehumanized. They are not humans anymore; they have become objects, or functional tools. This is the horror that we are left with in the story with no names.

There is one common misconception that I wish to address before I go into greater detail about the horror of dehumanization. The misconception is that the terrifying part of the story is the gang rape of the concubine by the wicked men of Gibeah. That is not the horror the writer is trying to highlight. Of course, I do not deny that that is an extreme act of violence, and morally unacceptable in any society. But if this is just a story about wicked people doing wicked things, and that is not the scariest thing for me. There will always be perverse and lawless people in a society. They do not scare me because they are outliers that can be dealt with by rigorous law enforcement. In the end, the gang rape of the concubine is merely a plot device for us to look into all the reactions that arise from this incident. And upon closer examination, you will discover that the really terrifying part of the story is normal people doing wicked things. Evil is not scary when it is blatant, because I believe good will triumph over evil. Evil is scariest when it is totally inconspicuous, when it is accepted as part of culture.

The evil that I speak of, which is highlighted by the namelessness of all the characters, is the dehumanization that is going on in the story. We first encounter it when the wicked men were pounding on the door asking to have sex with the Levite. To them, the Levite is nothing more than a sex object. We know that the issue here is not homosexuality because these men later raped the concubine. Rather this group here is sexually perverse. Some would also say that rape is not really about sex, but power and control, which is why they first aimed for the head of the household, the Levite. These wicked men have dehumanized strangers in their land into objects of self-satisfaction.

But the dehumanization is not just committed by these wicked men. The old man who had been a good host so far said, "No, my friends, don't be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don't do this disgraceful thing. 24 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." The old man offered his daughter and the concubine in exchange for the safety of the Levite. His statement is shocking to us the modern readers. It is like he is saying, “No, my friends, do not be so disgusting. Don’t eat the biscuit on the dirty toilet floor. Here, I give you some cow dung to eat. Just don’t be so disgusting to eat the dirty biscuit.” We wonder, “What is the sense in that? Isn’t it just as disgusting?” The scary part is the old man doesn’t see it that way. To him, raping the Levite is disgraceful, but it is not if it is the women.

The main difference between the wicked men and the old man is that the former knew they were doing the wrong thing, but the old man genuinely thought that he was doing the right thing in offering his own daughter and the concubine to the wicked men. This to me is the most terrifying thing. The old man has dehumanized women in treating them like things that you can do anything to, but he thinks it is perfectly normal and acceptable. Notice here that he doesn’t offer the young male servant. He sees men as persons, but women as objects. And he is being a good host in offering his own daughter for the Levite.

But the ultimate dehumanization comes from the Levite. To protect himself, and to not trouble his host, he took his own concubine, and sent her to the ravaging wolves outside. The brutal words of rape, abuse and discarded leave us no doubt as to the fate of the concubine. In his very hands, she becomes a dispensable victim and substitute sacrifice. She remained speechless until her death the next morning. She must have screamed. And the silence of all the other inhabitants of Gibeah in not coming to her rescue is yet another horrific reality we have to ponder. But the horror does not end there. We could have excused the Levite for his behavior as self-preservation. But what follows leaves us no room to doubt his guilt.

We are told that he got up the next morning, meaning that he actually went to sleep after throwing his wife out. After almost tripping over her on his way out, his first response to her is “Get up, let’s go.” This isn’t just being insensitive or uncaring. This tells us that he only treats her like an object. It is not enough that he is unremorseful about throwing her out. It is not enough that he didn’t rush out first thing in the morning to search for her. It is not enough that he didn’t treat her tenderly after seeing her fully spent and probably dead. The horrifying reality is that his first concern is to go home, and the woman must pick herself up and not delay him. Her silence in reply speaks volumes. It is the outcry of all the helpless victims treated as mere properties. It is the raging protest against being objects of violence and indifference. This is an answer in deafening utter silence.

At the end of today’s passage she is treated like a piece of flesh, chopped into 12 parts and sent to all the areas of Israel. This is dehumanization in its clearest form. She is not human anymore. She is a piece of meat distributed like a letter. This is the reason why all the characters have no names. Everybody is dehumanized in these times, and made most clearly in the form of the dismembered concubine. On this topic of dehumanization, I wish to conclude with the response of the final verse, “Think about it! Consider it! Tell us what to do!”

Dehumanization occurs even today. It is scariest not when it is blatant like the wicked men, but scariest when we see nothing wrong with it, as if it is normal and part of culture. Dehumanization comes in many forms. “Those who support the rights of women to seek abortions, for example, rarely use the words baby or child in their literature. Using more clinical terms, such as fetus, could be seen as an effort to dehumanize an important element of the issue. Conversely, pro-life supporters may use dehumanization methods to reduce the staff members of a health clinic to uncaring baby killers. ”[2] They are depicted like monsters. Dehumanization as a propaganda tool can work both ways. Governments sometimes present "enemy" civilians or soldiers as less than human so that voters will be more likely to support a war they may otherwise consider mass murder. It is also used in history to support slavery or other forms of racism. Dehumanization can also be subtle. Like thinking about employees only as a manpower, or a human resource. Like thinking of your spouse as a baby-making machine or your maid as a household appliance, like a washing machine or vacuum cleaner. Today’s lesson should be a good reminder for us to see all around us as humans, and not objects of manipulation. Or else, our lives become a story with no names.

[1] Block, Judges Ruth, p. 517-8