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Dark Passages: The Principle of Voice

09/13/2012 Comments (10)

Jael prepares to do in General Sisera

NOTE: This post is part of a series. Click here to see all of the posts in the series.

Recently I was reading an atheist web site which presented the following passage from the book of Judges as proof of the idea that God endorses rape:

They must be dividing the spoils they took: there must be a damsel or two for each man, Spoils of dyed cloth as Sisera's spoil, an ornate shawl or two for me in the spoil.   (Judges 5:30 NAB)

Is this what the passage means?

Not even close!

And the reason it's not gives us an illustration of an important principle when interpreting the Bible . . .

The "Dark Passages" of Scripture

This is another in our series of occasional posts on the "dark passages" of Scripture--those that modern readers can find shocking or disturbing. For the general principles we are applying in this series, read Pope Benedict on the "Dark Passages" of Scripture.

Here we're going to look at a specific principle that we could refer to as "the principle of voice."

Put concisely, implementing the principle of voice means identifying who is speaking and what relationship that has to God's voice.

  • In some cases, the Bible presents God as speaking directly--e.g., "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17).
  • In other cases, the human author may be speaking in his own voice, but it may nevertheless represent God's meaning as the inspiring Author, even though God isn't speaking directly in the first sense--e.g., "And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry" (Matt. 4:2).
  • But then there are cases in which the Bible records words that don't represent God's viewpoint at all--e.g., "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me" (Matt. 4:9).

The last is a particularly clear case in which the words quoted do not represent God's point of view, for it is the devil speaking during the testing of Jesus as God's Son.

So you can't just pluck words out of the Bible and represent them as God's will. You have to be sensitive to the voice with which the text is speaking.

How does the passage from Judges fare when we look at it in that light?

"There Must Be a Damsel or Two for Each Man"

Focus for a moment on the first part of the passage: "They must be dividing the spoils they took: there must be a damsel or two for each man."

If you just note the phrase "dividing the spoils" and then lock in on the statement "there must be a damsel or two for each man" then it could sound like some kind of command being given in God's voice.

"Must" can be taken as a directive from God, requiring that whenever the Israelites have conquered a people, each man must be allowed to take--and rape--a young woman or two.

But if we look at the first statement more closely--"They must be dividing the spoils they took"--something seems odd. That doesn't sound like an imperative to do something. It sounds like a report of something that is happening--or even a conjecture about what is happening, not a representation of actual knowledge.

If we read the second part of the passage, things get even odder . . .

God Wants a Shawl?

What is all this about there needing to be a shawl or two? The basic statement about shawls is this: "there must be . . . an ornate shawl or two for me in the spoil."

When has God ever asked for shawls from the spoils of battle? And what would he want with a shawl, anyway?

God doesn't need shawls! (n.b., or starships.)

This is a Big Clue that the text is not speaking with God's voice. This is not a command from God on high to the Israelites. It's something else entirely.

To find out what, we need to read the context . . .

The Song of Deborah

Judges 5 is the famous "Song of Deborah." Deborah was a prophetess and judge of Israel. In chapter 4 of the book, God used her and a man named Barak to defeat the Canaanite general Sisera.

A key role in the action was played by Jael, a woman to whom Sisera turned for refuge. Although she initially took him in, she waited until he was asleep and then killed him.

After the victory, Deborah and Barak sing a song of victory in chapter 5.

All of this is in keeping with ancient warfare--including the victory song.

Patriotic Songs

In fact, war-related songs are common in all of human history. It's a way to keep up morale and to reinforce group solidarity before, during, or after a military action.

We've got a lot of them in our own day. Just to name a few from American history, there's "The Battle Cry of Freedom," General Albert Pike's version of "Dixie," Spike Jones's "Der Fuhrer's Face," Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" (language warning), etc.

Or, y'know, the American National Anthem--which has its roots in the War of 1812.

Other countries have their own, equivalent martial and patriotic songs.

All that's normal. People in the ancient world did that, too, and Judges 5 records an example of it.

Right there we have to be careful based on the principle of voice.

Partly this is because we are dealing with the recounting of a historical incident, not a direct oracle from God. While God may work through history, you can't take an example of something that the Bible records and read it as a direct expression of the divine will.

But there's also another reason . . .

The Nature of Songs

Lyrics are poetry set to music. As a result, they often contain literary expression and stylization that is non-literal in nature.

Hyperbole (overstatement to make a point), litotes (understatement to make a point), irony, symbolism, and all kinds of literary devices are common in poetry and in song lyrics (even modern ones).

We thus should be doubly on our guard against taking something said in passing in the Song of Deborah as a direct expression of God's will.

But there's also a third reason . . .

The Taunt

Military-related songs in particular are known for having taunts in them. That is, the people singing the song taunt their enemies. Spike Jones's "Der Fuhrer's Face" is basically one big long series of taunts against Hitler and the Nazis.

Taunt songs, and songs with taunt elements, are common in military contexts, including ones found in the Bible, and including the Song of Deborah.

That's what's going on in the passage at hand. Immediately after describing the death of Sisera at Jael's hands, the Song of Deborah continues:

[28] "Out of the window she peered,
the mother of Sis'era gazed through the lattice:
`Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?'

[29] Her wisest ladies make answer,
nay, she gives answer to herself,

[30] `Are they not finding and dividing the spoil? --
A maiden or two for every man;
spoil of dyed stuffs for Sis'era,
spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered,
two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil?'

This is a taunt directed against the Canaanites. Sisera's mother is depicted as being worried about why he's so long coming home from battle. Not wishing to face the fact that he's likely dead (as he is), she tries to comfort herself, with help from her ladies, by entertaining another idea--that Sisera is late coming home from the battle because he and his men are dividing up the spoil they've gotten from defeating the Israelites.

The Canaanite men are grabbing an Israelite maiden or two for themselves--that being the kind of thing Canaanite warriors are depicted as interested in.

Momma Sisera and Her Boy

Momma Sisera appears to have a higher opinion of her own son, though, because she imagines him going after dyed and embroidered goods and perhaps bringing a piece or two of it back for her.

This may contain further taunts depicting Sisera as a momma's boy, or even as effeminate (interested in embroidery rather than women, the way his men are), but at a minimum, it's a taunt directed at the Canaanites: Those they have left behind are imagined as vainly trying to comfort themselves by explaining away the fact that they are late coming home from battle by entertaining a set of foolish and self-aggrandizing expectations that will be dashed when reality sets in.

So, we don't have a command from God to the Israelites at all.

We have Deborah and Barak imagining how Sisera's mother must be trying to rationalize away his absence with a comforting fantasy in which Israelite women are being raped by Canaanites.

The Principle of Voice

We thus see the importance of employing the principle of voice when confronted with an allegedly problematic passage of Scripture.

The first thing to do is read the passage, in context, and figure out who is talking. Then we must proceed to the question of what relationship the words have to God's voice.

The words may, in fact, not represent God's will at all. They may represent a historical event that the inspired author is recounting. They may even recount something that was or would be against God's will.

And we need to be specially on our guard when reading a poetic text, especially one containing taunts.

In coming posts we'll look at additional principles that need to be used when reading these texts.

About This Series

In case you haven't read the first post in the series, I decided to do this series because a young mother who is who is a member of the Secret Information Club wrote and said that she was experiencing a crisis of faith after having encountered an atheist group's presentation of some of these passages.

If you're not familiar with it, the Secret Information Club is a free service that I operate by email.

I send out information on a variety of fascinating topics connected with the Catholic faith.

The very first thing you’ll get if you sign up is an “interview” I did with Pope Benedict on the book of Revelation. What I did was compose questions about the book of Revelation and take the answers from his writings.

He has a lot of interesting things to say!

If you’d like to find out what they are, just sign up at www.SecretInfoClub.com or use this handy sign-up form:

Just email me at jimmy@secretinfoclub.com if you have any difficulty.

Filed under bible, dark passages, rape, scripture, violence

About Jimmy Akin

Jimmy Akin
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Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, "A Triumph and a Tragedy," is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is a Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to This Rock magazine, and a weekly guest on "Catholic Answers Live."