Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn
As I look out here today, I notice that there are no goats in the congregation. When I was growing up my dad always kidded me (pun intended) about buying a goat. He said it would keep him from having to bug me about mowing the lawn, and besides the lawn would probably look better. I encouraged him to do so. It is a tragedy that there are no goats here for St. Francis Sunday. It would have given me a platform to launch into the next installment of our sermon series on the Book of Judges. You are thinking, “He just did that without a goat.” True. I had to, because today we are talking about goats.
You see, the Book Judges is a tragic tale like King Lear. It turns out that the Greek translation for the word tragedy is “goat story.” Weird, huh? A tragedy is the story of a goat’s life according to the Greeks. Here is why: when you let a goat loose, it goes to the top of a hill and then wanders back and forth across the hill as it eats its way to the bottom. It lets gravity be its guide, in a slow, unconscious act of consumption, as it sleepwalks its way down the hill. That is sort of what happens in a tragedy. A person starts at the top and wanders to the bottom, and the path in between weaves back and forth during the descent. When they get to the bottom, they are not sure how they got there, just like the goat.
I wonder what life would be like if we were living the goat’s story and didn’t know it, what life would be like if we always thought we were at the top when in actuality we were wandering toward the bottom, head down, eating, eating, consuming, consuming in an utterly unconscious state of being. This description perfectly fits the people of Israel in the Book of Judges. Even as they consolidate their hold on the Promised Land, winning battles and conquering hills, it turns out they are moving steadily downhill. Just like the goat.
The barometric reading for this unconscious descent can be measured by the manner in which they treat women. So, let’s examine Israel’s path downward by reviewing the role of women in the Book of Judges. We begin with Deborah. She is a Judge of Israel, a wise woman who people look to for leadership. The bad Canaanites cause problems, so she partners with a man named Barak, and they defeat the Canaanites. However, the Canaanite leader, Sisera, escapes. Here another woman enters the story. Her name is Jael, and her role, while influential, is not held in as high esteem as Deborah’s. She is a guerrilla fighter. When Sisera shows up in her village, she woos him, then subdues him, and drives a stake through his temple.
The next woman we meet has no name. The men of that time would probably claim she rules the roost, and that might have been the case. Even today in some parts of the world men claim women rule the roost even though they are not allowed to drive or leave the house unaccompanied. This woman is Samson’s mother, and she is the one that enables him to be a judge.
Which brings us to today’s reading. It lands at the very end of the Book of Judges. The reading begins with, “The people had compassion on the tribe of Benjamin.” It ends with, “The people did more and more what was right in their own sight.” Now to understand what happens between these two sentences, we need some background.
There was a woman, a concubine, who lived with a Levite man in Ephraim. He was a religious man, but it turned out not such a great guy. She ran away to her father’s home. The Levite came and got her. On their way back to Ephraim, they ran afoul of some men from the tribe of Benjamin. It is an ugly story. Needless to say the Levite abandoned the woman. He later found her dead, and he used her corpse to rally the tribes of Israel against the tribe of Benjamin.
Now a careful reading of this story (chapter 19-21), however, should make us wonder if it wasn’t the Levite more than the Benjaminites who marked the descending trajectory of how women were treated in Israel at that time. This theory comes from the scripture itself. Here is what happened. Four-hundred thousand Israelites took on 26,000 Benjaminites. In the first battle the Israelites lost. They were surprised. If, they thought, they were doing what was right in God’s sight, shouldn’t they have won? So they tried again and lost again. So they changed tactics to do what was right in their own sight. Now they beat the Benjaminites and killed all of the men they could—all of the women, all of the children, all of the livestock. They burned all of their fields, tore down all of their cities, and only 600 Benjaminite men survived. This is a horrible story, and even worse in the reading, but not all that different from things we hear in the news today.
Now sadly, if you’re tracking with me how men treated women in the Book of Judges, it gets worse still, which brings us to our reading today. The Israelites had compassion on the Benjaminites, who now had no wives with which to repopulate their tribe. So the Israelites came up with a plan that was right in their own sight. They said to the Benjaminites, “At the yearly festival at Shiloh, when all of the tribes of Israel gather, hide in the woods; and during the time the young women dance to the glory of God, run forward and kidnap them.” And this happens, which tells us the Israelites have reached the bottom, by letting their own daughters be taken as captive brides even as they danced before God. The Book of Judges ends here with the words, “In those days the Israelites did what was right in their own sight.” It is a tragic tale. It is a goat’s story. I wonder if there is any good news here. Is there anything we can learn from this tragic tale? Maybe only that the world doesn’t have to be this way!
Today I’m not calling for men to treat women better. That is a baseline expectation we hold for each other. And today I’m not calling for women to treat men better. That is a baseline expectation we hold for each other. What I’m asking is for us to wonder where we are in the goat’s story. Do we know we’re on a hill? Do we think were at the top? Is our head down eating, eating, consuming, consuming? Are we wandering to and fro? Are we considering God or just doing what we want to do the way we want to do it when the timing is good for us? Or as it says in the Book of Judges, “doing more and more what was right in our own sight.”
The bottom isn’t defined by losing a job, getting a divorce, fighting with your kids, having an accident, or making a bad investment. The bottom is defined by growing more and more certain about what is right in our own sight. The greater our certainty the more likely we are wandering down the hill. It doesn’t have to be that way! The alternative to certainty isn’t more doubt. If you’re like me, you already have piles of that anyway. The countervailing force that pushes back against certainty is trust. Like that pet you are holding in your lap today. It trusts you not based on certainty but on love. It is the same with God. God loves us and for that reason we can put our trust in God.
Jesus brings this love to life, personally and intimately. Jesus meets the people of Israel when they are at the bottom. He comes as the master teacher to lead them back up to the top. An examination of Jesus’ relationship with women shows us the path of ascent. Jesus trusts the Samaritan woman he meets by the well. She had no name. She had no tribe. She had no protection. She met Jesus, and he trusted her to be the first evangelist.
Jesus, by way of parable, trusts the woman with the ten coins. She lost one in a dark room. She lit a torch. She found the coin, and used it to glorify God by throwing a party. He trusts her to do this right thing.
Jesus trusted the woman caught in adultery. It was a low point for the community. A nameless woman accused of adultery. Even though, as we all know, there needs to be two people to conjure up the word “adultery”, she is tried on her own. Jesus said to the crowd: “He with no sin cast the first stone.” They all walked away, and the woman is redeemed. Jesus trusts her. And these stories of a woman’s ascent go on and on with Jesus. Jesus turns things around. He sends the goat back up the hill. He wakes up the people whose heads are down, eating, eating, consuming, consuming.
Jesus punctuates this point by having women near him as he dies on the cross. There is Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Mary his own mother, as well. Jesus dies. He goes to the bottom of the hill, and still further, to the farthest fields of hell. All the way down and all the way back up he cries. “Wake up!” Wake up! Sleepwalker, wake up!” The first to hear this message on this side of the tomb were the women: Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James and Joseph, Salome, Joanna, and others. Women with names, women with purpose, women who we follow as they follow Jesus up the hill.
There are still horrors in the world. There are many who continue to do what is right based on their own certainty of their own sight: head down, eating, eating, consuming, consuming. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The Book of Judges is a goat’s story meant to remind us to look up, and to wake up, wake up.