Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Judges 17-21: Danites, Benjaminites, and Disunity

I noticed a couple of entries back that there seems to be some breakdown in the unity of the Israelites happening here in the Book of Judges. This trend continues in today's reading, the two stories that finish up the Book. By the end of Judges, in fact, we've had what amounts to a civil war among the tribes. At the same time, there seems to be a general breakdown of the civil leadership. Instead of the "judges" great and small who have been the subject of the narrative to date, we'll now see several repetitions of the phrase that ends the book:

In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit. (21:25)

The Danites Feel That Nesting Urge

In Judges 17 & 18, we get the story of how the Danites -- the tribe of Dan -- establish their homeland. They have apparently still been living a nomadic, or at least an itinerant, lifestyle, well after the rest of the tribes have settled down into their respective territories.

It's a pretty simple story. When a small scouting party finds a bucolic agricultural valley, well-watered and with good soils, populated by mild-mannered, hard-working people of a peaceful disposition, it seems obvious what God wants them to do. They sack the valley, put all resisters to the sword, and there you have it, that's how the Danites get their homeland.

The most interesting thing about the story is how it's told. The Danites are pretty much bit players in their own legend, with the main character being a guy named Micah who is not a Danite and not even involved with the invasion. He puts the scouting party up for a night during their expedition, and then has his household idols stolen by the Danite army on their way to battle, and that's the extent of his involvement. Most of Judges 17, in fact, is a detailed acount of how and why Micah made the idols that will eventually get stolen by the Danites. The alternative-narrative gambit is surprisingly literary, an extreme "worms-eye view" of Biblical history, and it's unlike anything else we've seen to date.

The Benjaminite Problem

The final story of Judges is also structured in a surprisingly literary fashion. This time, it's the kind of story -- I'm sure there's a technical name for it -- that starts with small, local, personal events in the life of a humble main character, and then builds to a big, dramatic scenario that involves major world events. You know, like "The Hobbit."

Our point-of-view character is a Levite from the sticks who has a concubine from Bethlehem. She fools around on him and then runs home to Dad, so the Levite -- we never learn his name -- trudges off to fetch her back.

After being treated to lavish hospitality by the woman's father, the Levite heads for home. They stop for the night in Gibeah, a city in the domain of the tribe of Benjamin. None of the Benjaminites offer them a place for the night; finally an old man from out of town offers to put them at his place. It is not a restful evening.

While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city
surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who
owned the house, "Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex
with him."
Like Lot's host in Sodom, back in Genesis, the old man knows how to treat a guest. At least, a male guest.

The owner of the house went outside and said to them, "No, my friends, don't be
so vile. Since this man is my guest, don't do this disgraceful thing. Look, here
is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and
you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But to this man, don't do
such a disgraceful thing."
The townsmen brutally rape the concubine until dawn, then leave her to crawl back to the house. Then,

When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house..., there
lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house.... He said to her, "Get
up; let's go." But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and
set out for home.
The Levite is angrier than he sounds. He cuts the concubine's corpse into 12 pieces, and sends a piece to each tribe along with a message about what happened in Gibeah. He means to stir people up, and he succeeds. The concubine scandal becomes a cause celebre, and hundreds of thousands of angry Israelites gather at the Tabernacle to, well, formulate a response. The Benjaminites are sent a message asking them to surrender Gibeah and its citizens for punishment, but they refuse and mount an army for the city's defense. Suddenly, then, it is civil war, with the Benjaminites pitted against the other 11 tribes.

The battle lasts three days. On the evening before each stage of the battle, the Israelites as a whole (minus Benjamin, of course) ask a question of God, who answers them directly (it's kind of hard to visualize how this works). On the first day, the Israelites approach very closely to the walls of Gibeah, and suffer terrible losses when the city's defenders come out to skirmish against them, presumably with support from the fortifications. The same thing happens on Day Two. But on the third day, the attackers take a page from Joshua and have their attacking force fall back in apparent disarray. The Benjaminites allow themselves to be lured to far from the battlements of Gibeah, and fresh Israelite divisions emerge from concealed positions and attack their flanks and the unprotected city. It turns into a slaughter pretty quickly, and the Israelites don't let up; the mopping-up operations go on for quite some time. At the end, there are very few Benjaminite men left alive, and hardly any women at all.

As peace is restored, remorse sets in. Israel realizes that it has brought a twelfth part of itself near to extinction, and there is much weeping and regret. Also, a practical problem: if no wives are produced, there really won't be ~any~ more Benjaminites, and it turns out that back when tempers were running high, everyone had sworn that their daughters would never marry a Benjaminite. So, what's to be done?

Well, those of you who serve on committees know better than to miss meetings, for that is how you get assigned the crap jobs. Similarly, the Israelites now cast about until they come up with a town from which not a single person has been coming to the Tabernacle. Obviously, these folks from Jabesh Gilead must be no damn good, so a squadron is sent up to kill all of the males and the sexually experienced females. The virgin girls are brought back to be Benjaminite wives.

This is only a partial solution, but fortunately there is more than one problem-solver in the crowd. The rest of the Benjaminite men are encouraged, during a major religious festival, to lie in wait for the procession of virgins to go by. Then, they can just leap from the vineyard and grab one that is to their liking. Other Israelites stand by to deal with the upset fathers and brothers:

...we will say to them, 'Do us a kindness by helping them, because we did not
get wives for them during the war, and you are innocent, since you did not give
your daughters to them.'
(21: 22)
In other words, nobody has broken their oath, so it's all good. You can just imagine the opportunities for a therapist in Benjamin country in the coming years, though.

And so Judges comes to a close. Gone is the tight, unified leadership from the days of Moses and Joshua. Now we're in a fracturing, every-clan-for-itself, Wild West kind of scenario. All told, it doesn't make a very strong case for Libertarianism.


gl. said...

yikes. this chapter made me a little sick. :(

Michael5000 said...

Oh, I quite concur. Anytime you have a body being cut up and parceled out to mobilize public opinion, it can't be good.

The process by which the Bible coelesced into its current form is so incredibly complicated that it is probably foolhardy to speculate about why a given tale is included, or especially why it was included. But the location of the story here at the end of Judges, plus the repeated refrain about how there were no kings around, does seem to telegraph a negative argument against running a society without some central source of order. As we get closer to the point where we'll start hearing about the formalized kingdom of Israel (if I'm not mistaken), perhaps we're seeing some historical justification, in all this chaos and bloodshed, for why a unifying king was needed in the first place.

Anthony Dolan Scott said...

I enjoyed the matter-of-fact delivery. The content is horrible (I mean the barbaric actions and events themselves). That story always sickened me, too. I grew up in a fundamentalist home, and for some reason, preachers seldom preached from this portion of scripture. Hmmm...