Unlike its predecessor Joshua, the book of Judges gets almost full coverage in the 2019 Prayer Book’s Daily Office Lectionary. Only the last five chapters are omitted. If you want to “fill in the blanks” and read those skipped chapters, this Customary’s Midday Prayer Lectionary starts in on that material today.
So let’s take a look at what’s going on here.
The book of Judges is, mostly, a history of twelve judges (six major, six minor) who ruled the tribes of Israel in the period of history before the rise of the monarchy under Saul and David. The last five chapters, however, are kind of like two appendixes, stuck on as additional stories that take place somewhere in line with the centuries outlined in the majority of the book.
Chapters 17 & 18 tell the story of Micah and his Levite priest, providing a sort of origin story for the rife idolatry that took hold over the tribe of Dan from early times.
Chapters 19-21 tell the story of a Levite and his concubine (legally, his actual wife, but called a concubine because Levites don’t have tribal land allotments to pass down or inherit) and of a holy war against Benjamin that results when she is brutally raped and killed.
Why are these chapters omitted from our lectionary (apart from the generic reason that you’ve got to squeeze the Bible into one year somehow)? This time we don’t have an easy out: the original Prayer Book lectionary of the 16th-18th centuries included the entire book of Judges, so ours is a reduction of coverage, not an expansion, as is usually the case. Ours is an improvement over what’s in the 1928 and 1979 lectionaries, but it’s not a full restoration back to the 1662 standard. Why?
Without insight from the Liturgy Task Force, I can only guess.
The story of Micah & his Levite “priest” is a wicked story, telling of the descent of a whole tribe toward notorious apostasy. It is a “bad example” story, with very little good in it for a Christian to seek to imitate. Perhaps it was thought that there are enough examples of sin in the biblical literature already, that this episode was ruled expendable to make room for more immediately edifying readings elsewhere.
The story of the Levite and his concubine, the crimes against her, the resulting war and subsequent insanely sinful plans to rescue the tribe of Benjamin from extinction, is also quite low in “good examples.” It’s a brutal story, perhaps the most vivid account of rape in the Bible – it may be that the current cultural climate would benefit from careful study of a story like this, rather than public reading. There are also a number of concepts and events in this story that are difficult to understand without particular instruction and explanation: what it means for the Levite to have a concubine, why he chopped her dead body into twelves pieces and mailed them around the country, why genocide seemed like a good idea, and why more rape and abduction seemed like a good solution to prevent the genocide.
There may be something I’m missing here; terrible as they are, these are stories I would not have chosen to drop from the daily lectionary. Still, every Bible-in-a-year plan or daily lectionary is going to have its shortcomings somewhere; I’m not going to say this one’s absolutely perfect. So if you want to read those skipped stories, consider picking them up in Midday Prayer over the coming week or so.