March 27, 2008

Judges 19-21: And you thought Sodom and Gomorrah was bad

(Today's passage covers the story of a Levite and his concubine, and how his actions sparked a civil war in Israel that nearly wiped out the entire Benjaminite tribe.)

You remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, don't you? (Gen. 19) Lot (Abraham's nephew) was staying with some strangers in Sodom, when the men of the village wanted to rape him. Lot's host offered his two virgin daughters, but before he gave them to the mob, God struck the men of Sodom blind and then destroyed the city.

Things didn't work out so well for a certain Levite who had the same experience in Judg. 19.

The set-up is the same: the Levite is staying in Gibeah, a city in Benjamin. Again, the mob assembles and demands his host, an old man from Ephraim, bring out the guest so that they can sleep with him. The host offers his own virgin daughter and the Levite's concubine. The mob doesn't listen, but they take the concubine anyway and rape her all night. (Judg. 19:18-25)

In the morning, the Levite finds his concubine prone on his doorstep, unable even to get up onto his donkey; he has to put her on himself. He takes her home and promptly kills her, chops her up into twelve pieces, and sends a piece to each of the twelve tribes of Israel. (Judg. 19:26-30)

You'd think this would be brutality enough. We're just getting started.

The Israelites are incensed at the Benjaminites. They mass an army of 400,000 warriors. They give Benjamin a chance to give up the men of Gibeah; Benjamin instead masses an army of 26,700 warriors to fight against them. Thus ensues one of the bloodiest civil wars in the Bible to date. (Judg. 20:1-17)

In brief, the battles are short and bloody. The first two days, the Benjaminites hold their own against vastly superior numbers and kill 40,000 Israelites. The Israelites grieve and pray to God, who tells them to continue the attack. On the third day, the Israelites set an ambush, lure the Benjaminites out of the city, slaughter 25,000 of them, and burn Gibeah to the ground. The only remaining Benjaminites -- 600 of them -- take refuge in a cave for four months. (Judg. 20:18-47)

You'd think this would be the end of it. It isn't.

The Israelites eventually repent their slaughter and are worried for their Benjaminite brethren living in the cave at Rimmon. They wonder how the Benjaminites will continue as a tribe, since the Israelites killed all their women. There's one further complication: the entire assembled congregation of Israel swore an oath at Mizpah that none of them would give their daughters in marriage to a Benjaminite. (Judg. 21:1-7)

The easy answer--go back on their oath and give their daughters as wives to Benjamin--is unthinkable. Instead, the Israelites realize that no one from Jabesh Gilead was at the assembly. There's your answer! Send 12,000 crack Israelite troops to Jabesh Gilead, slaughter the men and married women, and bring back the 400 virgins to be Benjaminte brides. (Judg. 21:8-14)

One more problem: there aren't enough virgins in Jabesh Gilead. So the Israelites tell Benjamin to go to Shiloh, wait in the vineyards, and capture the girls out dancing for their annual festival. In an episode reminiscent of the rape of the Sabines, Benjamin does just that, and everyone's happy... except for the girls' brothers and fathers, we assume. (Judg. 21:15-23)

It almost makes you wish for the simple days of Sodom and Gomorrah.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For a secular humanist, you've read and interpreted the passage well. The point is that people who do what is right in their own eyes invariably do wrong. They should have stuck too the covenant G-d has given to them.

These Jews are just like us today. We act and react without much thought of the given law and consequences. Though what we do in our thoughtlessness is not as grave as these Israelites, we are as guilty of sin when we act as they do, in disregard to the Law.