Monday, August 10, 2009

Judge Debby (and Ehud, and Samson, ...)

Because Doug and I continue to work in the areas of Christianity, economics, and issues of social justice (see especially his recent post on Havana, Florida) I decided to re-read the book of Judges. Here’s the reason. It seems to me that as we attempt to interpret the Biblical mandate for justice for today’s times, we typically have four touchstones: the Mosaic Law, the response of the prophets to the corruption of the divided kingdoms, Jesus' teachings and parables, and the lives of the Apostles.

In this light, I am interested in the economic regulations of the books of Moses and the Prophets critique of the divided kingdoms. The Law Codes are probably the one place in the Bible where we see economic policy discussed in some specifics. Some of the examples are requirements for leaving crops for the poor to glean, regulations against usury and loan-sharking abuse, requirements for prompt wage payments, prohibitions against unfair scales, fair land title rules, and an elaborate system of what we would today call bankruptcy rules.

We see in reading the prophets that the Law was known, but the extent to which its economics rules and regulations were followed is unclear. The prophets' charges against the kingdoms clearly covered economic abuse of the poor (Ezekial 18:13, Micah 6:11), but often in broad judgments and not law-code-style specifics (see Isaiah 1:17, Amos 2:7, Malachi 3:5). Also, the kingdoms had other specific sins. So, for example, Jeremiah and Hosea are filled with condemnations of worship of pagan gods and goddess and cultic sexual misconduct.

In addition, many of the economic charges against the kingdoms emphasize what economists might call “public choice” or “rent-seeking” issues. That is, the sins are not the sins of private individuals but ways in which the rich and powerful abuse the poor precisely because the rich and powerful pervert the government. (See Jeremiah 5:28, Amos 5:12, Habakkuk 1:4)

But there is a historical bridge between the two periods: the period of the Judges. Separate from the issue at hand, I find the book of Judges to be one of the most overlooked and fascinating books of the Bible. It ought to be at the top of the list for an HBO or Showtime summer series: Ehud uses his left-handedness to skewer a Jabba-the-Hutt look-alike in Moab; Jael seduces a bad guy only so she can drive a tent peg through his skull; Abimelech becomes "warlord" by killing seventy of his brothers, but is killed by an irritated housewife who throws a kitchen-tool at him; and, of course, there were the always famous Samson and Delilah. One story could be an episode from Dexter.

Behind all of this is a condemnation of Israel parallel to those of the prophets. Repeated throughout the book is the phrase “Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” But, there is a twist. Instead of being a kingdom, Israel was more of a tribal society. In some situations Israelite society looks almost libertarian; in other cases the descriptions match more of what we would call today a war-lord society. The final verse of the book is “In those days Israel had no king, everyone did as he saw fit.”

I was hoping that in re-reading this historical narrative of a more decentralized society, I might find out more about the economic sins of the everyday people, and not merely of the rent-seeking sins of the courts of the King. In fact, I was surprised. There is almost no mention of the social justice sins of the Israelites and almost an exclusive emphasis on the worship of idols, Baal, fertility goddesses and all upon kinds of violence and sexual sins (I said HBO and Showtime, not the USA Network). The root sin of the Israelites was that they did not, as the Lord demanded, drive out the various Canaanite tribes from the conquered land. The Lord promised the Israelites that because they did not drive out the pagans, “They will be a thorn in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.”

Indeed they were. I cannot believe that in this society snared by false gods that these people, doing evil in the Lord’s eyes, faithfully carried out the social justice requirements of the Mosaic law. But, unlike in the books of the prophets, this is almost never raised in Judges. Why is there such a difference? I have an idea, but I want to do more reading and will report in Part 2. If any reader has an insight, please feel free to comment.

No comments: