Do you ever read the bits of scripture that are excluded from our Sunday School lesson manuals?
This week in Lesson 19 on the book of Judges, if you only read the assigned chapters, you would have missed the story of Gideon’s 69 of his 70 legitimate sons (he had many wives) being killed by his 71st son Abimelech, that son of a concubine (Judges 8:30-31, 9: 1-5). Abimelech reigned for 3 years (Judges 9:22), but came to his end in battle. Funny story that: while Abimelech was besieging a walled city, a woman dropped a millstone on his head. Rather than let his legacy be that he was killed by a woman, Abimelech had his armor bearer drive him though with a sword (Judges 9:51-54).
You would have missed the story of Jephthah making a rash promise that resulted in him sacrificing his daughter (Judges 11:31-39), yes, that is human sacrifice, apparently sanctioned because it represents an oath kept. You would have missed the story of the Levite priest for hire and all sorts of idolatry (Judges 17-18).
But mostly, if you only read the assigned chapters, you would have missed what I consider to be one of the most disturbing stories in the Old Testament, a dubious honor in this betrayal and blood drenched book. It is a tale of the gang rape, death, and subsequent dismemberment of an old man’s daughter (pretty much at his urging), the concubine (Judges 19:24) or wife (Judges 20:4) of a Levite. That graphic story ends with the injunction to “consider of it, take advice, and speak” (Judges 19:30). That episode led to intertribal warfare between the children of Israel and the children of Benjamin (Judges 20). After it was all over, none of the children of Israel would give their daughters to the children of Benjamin to marry, so they killed the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead, men, women, and children, and took their 400 virgin daughters for the men of Benjamin to marry. That wasn’t quite enough, so they stole the daughters of Shiloh as well (Judges 21).
These are complicated, problematic stories. As histories, they are bare outlines, with references to practices, peoples and cultures that foreign to us. But we can see cause and effect, we can even see the same stories playing out today. But it is so much easier to skip over them than it is to attempt to understand or justify them. So we skip over these strange and hard parts.
This worries me for two reasons. One is that members of our church, after going through seminary in high school and revisiting each of the standard works every four years in Sunday School, will assume that they know the scriptures, when in reality, they are most familiar with the correlated reading of some of the scriptures. We don’t read most of the Bible.
The second fear I have is that, if by chance they happen to read beyond the chapters assigned by the student manual, they will automatically dismiss anything disturbing or confusing in the Bible as “translator error,” and thus never make the effort to engage with difficult texts, never receive that edification that comes of struggling through these accounts of God’s dealings with man that are foreign to our own cultural standards and experience. We live in a world that is messy and complicated, where right and wrong are not always apparent, where people choose to do good or foolish or horrible things, and all of those actions have repercussions for generations to come. We have a text that reflects this world and continues to influence it. How can we not study it?
I’m frankly surprised that some enterprising soul has not yet offered for sale a slim volume called “The Best of the Quad” that only contains those scriptures necessary for the Sunday School curriculum and the scriptures most quoted in General Conference. It would be so much lighter, it would fit so conveniently with the Preach My Gospel and True to the Faith and For the Strength of Youth pamphlets we’re supposed to carry around with our scriptures. And you could read the entire thing so easily! And it would certainly be much more family friendly; no R-rated scripture here.
But the increasing reliance on digital versions of the scriptures makes such a book unnecessary. After all, if you are only looking up certain passages on your smartphone, it is as though the rest of the text doesn’t exist. Those crisp, clean pages of scripture that cling together, untouched and unread, will never taunt you or tempt you or teach you anything.