Redeeming the Nasty 19s

Redeeming the Nasty 19s June 4, 2020

I really don’t care for the Nasty 19s. These two passages — Genesis 19 and Judges 19 — are among the worst, if not the worst, passages in our Bibles. They’re not just “hard passages,” they’re repugnant. Just awful stories. The substance of the stories is awful, the storytelling itself is awful, and the apparent intent of that storytelling is awful.

I’m not sure these passages are salvageable. Saying such a thing about any part of the canon of scripture gives many of my more biblicistic friends a case of the vapors, ensuring they’ll give me an earful of 2 Timothy 3:16. But c’mon, just look at these horrible horror shows. Nothing about them seems “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in justice.”

If we’re gonna get into a Paul-quoting thing about these two infamous texts of terror, how ’bout Philippians 4:8 — “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” That canonical admonition would seem to forbid us from reading or even thinking about Genesis 19 and Judges 19.

But I’m reminded of those Lovecraftian texts this week because of a story — a current, actual, this-really-happened story we watched play out in real time — that shows us what those Bible stories would look like if they had been, instead, about something true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy and profitable for instruction in justice.

Plenty of scholars and rabbis and commentators have worked hard to redeem the story/stories told in these chapter 19s, but none of them has come up with anything as wholly satisfying as the wholly unsettling nature of the story/stories themselves. The main impression one gets from all the work expended trying to redeem these passages is just how much work it takes and how difficult that work proves to be.

Because, again, this story is just a godforsaken hideous mess.

Let’s just settle on the singular here, because these two passages very much give us two variations of the same story, told and retold in two different times and places, but employed both times for the same purpose. And that purpose — spelled out explicitly each time lest anyone fail to notice it — just makes the story even worse. The reason this story of horrible deeds is so deliberately, over-the-top horrible turns out to be even more horrible than the behavior of the Bad Guys in the story. It’s horrible in order to justify and advocate for, well, genocide against said horrible Bad Guys.

The Nasty 19s, in other words, seem to be something like the Bronze Age variation of the urban legend that resurfaces before every American war in which the Bad Guys demonstrate how vile and deserving-of-obliteration they are by ripping newborns out of hospital incubators. In these nauseating biblical tales, we’re probably dealing with an after-the-fact defense of a slaughter that has already occurred — with propaganda written to reassure the reader that the Bad Guys had it coming.

The Bad Guys in these stories being the Ammonites in Genesis 19 and the Benjamites (Benjaminites?) in Judges 19. The story is written with the presumption that the reader will share the writer’s visceral antipathy toward these groups — an antipathy that will strike any reader today, thousands of years later, as simply bewildering and inscrutable. The story cannot, in either case, explain the prior antipathy it was written to support.

I suppose Judges 19 does a slightly better job of this, in that the Benjamites are themselves the perpetrators of the mob violence and gang rape later used to justify the slaughter of said Benjamites. In Genesis 19, the actual perpetrators get wiped out by divine retribution while their would be victims stagger off and commit incest to produce the shameful bloodline of the Ammonites, which further muddles the whole effect of the already hopelessly muddled story. (Also, Zoar. The writers of Genesis 19 want to be very clear about their disapproval of Zoar. It’s bad, OK? Zoar is a bad place full of bad people, apparently. Or something.)

Those victims in Genesis 19 are Lot and his daughters. Lot is not the Good Guy in this story. There are no Good Guys in this story. Lot is, like his nameless Levite counterpart in Judges 19, a despicable coward whose signature choice is to throw someone weaker and more vulnerable than himself to the wolves in the hope that the wolves will eat him last.

In the Lot version of the story, a faceless mob of ravaging evildoers shows up at his house threatening to abuse and kill him, so Lot offers, instead, to allow these men to abuse and kill his two young daughters. When the same thing happens to the Levite in Judges 19, he saves his own skin by providing his girlfriend to sate their brutal appetites. A pair of intervening angels miraculously save Lot’s daughters from the fate assigned them by their father, but the Levite’s girlfriend isn’t so lucky. The next morning, after the mob has left and the cowardly Levite is finally willing to unlock the door he’s fled behind, he finds her dead on the doorstep. At this point, he vows to get revenge and decides to recruit allies for his war on the evil mob by, um, dismembering his girlfriend and sending her body parts to all his neighbors saying “Look what those evil men did! (The killing part, not the dismembering. That was me.)”

This stomach-churning awfulness is in the Bible, folks. Twice.

I really don’t know what to tell you about that beyond just stressing, again, that the Bible is really, really, really old and the past is another country and that maybe, three thousand years ago, this story was meant to mean something we can no longer perceive.

That’s where these stories sat for me, lurking unpleasantly in the background of my scripture-soaked spiritual inheritance.

Until Monday night. That’s when the set-up to this ugly, ancient story started playing out before our very eyes. The faceless mob of evildoers in this case were armed with high-tech modern weapons, but just like in the Bronze Age tale, they were intent on brutal abuse in the name of defending their city against the people who live there.

What happened was about 70 young people were being harried and herded by a squadron of armored police for the crime of trying to walk home after a lawful, constitutionally unimpeachable gathering. They were out after curfew — “curfew” here meaning an arbitrary time set by American officials after which citizens are subject to extrajudicial punishment, beatings, detention and abuse at the hands of lawless police. From “curfew” until sunrise, in our nation’s capital, it’s basically The Purge for cops.

The mob had their victims right where they wanted them, trapped on a side street in a wealthy, residential neighborhood — the kind of place where nobody opens the door to strangers, so the mob would be free to “do to them as you please” (as it says in Genesis 19).

But then someone opened his door to these strangers. His name is Rahul Dubey. He’s the CEO of one of those health insurance companies providing some market-bridging service that’s indecipherable to anyone outside of that realm. It’s the kind of company that only exists in America and that, frankly, shouldn’t exist anywhere, but that’s not the point here. The point is that 70 strangers in fear for their safety knocked on Rahul Dubey’s door and he took them all in under the shelter of his roof.

When Washington, D.C., resident Rahul Dubey realized dozens of protesters were facing pepper spray and arrest for violating curfew Monday night, he did what he says anyone else would do: He invited about 70 people into his home, to spend the night.

The protesters had been herded into Swann Street near Dupont Circle as police forces around the city used helicopters and flash-bang munitions in a crackdown on anyone violating the 7 p.m. curfew.

By the time they reached Dubey’s home, the protesters, many of them young, were desperate to get away. But they were hemmed in by police.

“They unleashed sheer hell on peaceful protesters right outside my stoop,” Dubey tells NPR’s All Things Considered. “I don’t know, I just flung the door open. And I just kept yelling, ‘Come in. Get in the house, get in the house.’ ”

“Literally I can hear skulls being cracked,” he said, describing a scene that he recalls as pandemonium.

“This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” That’s what the mob says in Genesis and it’s exactly what the mob of run amok DC police said to Dubey. Lot was Abraham’s nephew, so he had angels intervening to save him. Dubey is a corporate exec who lives in Dupont Circle, so he has lawyers on speed dial. The parallel there isn’t quite precise, but the point is that — unlike the cowardly antiheroes in the Bible story — Dubey provided hospitality in the face of danger without throwing vulnerable people under the bus.

And so we finally got to see what this story looks like when it has actual Good Guys in it. We finally got to see this story play out as a story worth telling and a story worth hearing — a story that is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in justice.

 

 


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