When we celebrate Father's Day, we think of fathers in their role as parents—usually as the parents of young children. Throughout most of my life it has been the focus of public discussions of fatherhood. Indeed, there has been a concerted effort to depict fathers in "child care" situations and emphasize their involvement in the domestic and organizational aspects of child-rearing.
What has faded, however, is cultural acknowledgment of the role fathers play in shaping the civilization their children will inherit. Fathers play this role whether they intend to or not—and the results of fatherly passivity in the culture tend to be undesirable.
Today's news, so often sad and grotesque, can leave us wondering what a father is to do. From corruption among our public officials to societal disorder, disregard for property, irresponsibility, and even ghastly violence among children, we are faced daily with evil reports from the world around us. Many Americans compare the state of our civilization to that of the late Roman Empire. But the Old Testament has an older and in some ways more interesting record of a corrupt and tempestuous time. The book of Judges, in particular, is worth reading from beginning to end (it doesn't take long) for its spare, powerful evocation of a society functioning much as ours does today.
The thematic refrain of Judges appears as a coda in the final verse: "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit" (Judg. 21:25, NIV). The vice and anarchy among the Israelites was marked. They were under regular assault from the surrounding tribes, but they did at least as much damage to themselves, worshiping false gods and dealing falsely—sometimes to a brutal and disgusting degree—with each other.
In the drama of Judges, most fathers fall somewhere between foolish, careless, and irrelevant. (Mothers fare no better.) There are no patriarchs dispensing blessings in the book of Judges, no men of depth and flawed, compelling humanity interceding with God on behalf of their posterity. Instead, we are unsurprised, in the nineteenth chapter, to see a father offer his own daughter to a band of local thugs when they surround his house, demanding that he hand over a traveler whom he is sheltering for the night so they can have sex with the man (19:22-24).
The traveler has a concubine with him, and she is ultimately the one delivered to the thugs. After she dies of their assault on her, her husband cuts her into twelve pieces and sends them, as an indignant rebuke, to the tribes of Israel. The Benjamite fathers, whose sons are responsible for the gang-rape, refuse to turn the miscreants over for punishment; the other tribes rise against them, and a series of bloody battles ensues in which thousands are killed on all sides (Ch. 20). After defeating the Benjamites, the other tribes take an oath to give no wives to them from among their daughters.
But they quickly realize that the Benjamites will need wives if their line is not to die out. So, in a move worthy of the most ingenious "barracks lawyer," they arrange for their daughters to be in a vulnerable position at a festival, so that the Benjamites can swoop down and abduct the girls. That way, the fathers of the other tribes can say they didn't violate their oath (Ch. 21).
"Where are the real fathers?" our hearts cry out as we read Judges. Sadly, Judges is a near-relentless assault on our sense of order and decency. Another father, Jephthah, is the principal in one of the most poignant episodes of hasty oath-taking in all scripture. Dispatched to fight the Ammonites, he makes this vow to the Lord: "If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering" (11:30-31).
When he returns victorious to his house, what comes out of the door is his only child, a daughter. Jephthah rends his garment and cries out in anguish, but he cannot violate his oath. His daughter asks him for two months to mourn, but accepts that he must keep his vow to the Lord. "My father," she [says], "you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites" (11:36).
Jephthah's tragedy is a reminder that everything fathers do, even things seemingly unrelated to parenthood, affects the lives and prospects of their children. But just when it seems that every lesson in Judges is a negative one, we come across a small, unassuming episode in which a father stands in the gap, for his child and his people, and changes the course of events.