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By Lynn Japinga
Last Sunday in this space I told the story of the concubine and the Levite in Judges 19. She was brutally raped by a mob of Benjaminites, and the Levite cut her up into twelve pieces and sent them to the twelve tribes of Israel to call them to action. After receiving the body parts in the mail, 400,000 soldiers gathered in support of the Levite (not the concubine!). He gave them an edited version of events which conveniently left out his role in her death.
The angry Israelite soldiers asked the tribe of Benjamin to hand over the “scoundrels” who committed the crime, but the Benjaminites refused and raised up an army of 26,000 men.
The Israelite soldiers asked God which of their tribes should be the first to fight against Benjaminites. They did not ask God whether they should start a civil war but assumed God’s approval. The Israelites were soundly defeated on the first two days of battle, despite outnumbering the Benjaminites by 16:1. Finally on the third day the narrator reported that “The Lord defeated Benjamin.” All the Benjaminite soldiers died except for 600 who escaped. The Israelites destroyed the rest of the tribe, and set the towns on fire.
Then, in a rather bizarre twist, the Israelites realized the magnitude of the damage they had done to their own people. They wept bitterly, and asked God why one tribe was lacking in Israel. The obvious divine answer would have been, “Because you just killed them all in a fit of overzealous rage!” The Israelites were incapable of such self-awareness. It was easier to blame God.
The Israelites’ new-found compassion inspired them to help the remnant rebuild itself. The 600 men needed wives, but the Israelite soldiers had vowed that they would never give their daughters in marriage to any of the Benjaminite men. Creative problem solving was required.
The Israelites had also vowed that anyone who refused to punish the Benjaminites would be killed. The men in the city of Jabesh-Gilead had declined to participate, so the Israelites killed all the inhabitants, except for 400 virgins who were given as wives to the Benjaminites.
Again the narrator reports that the Israelites had compassion for the 200 wifeless men, because “The LORD had made a breach in the tribes of Israel.” (Did the narrator write this with a straight face? Or was he satirizing the Israelites’ pretentious piety?) Their concern was admirable but the rationale was disingenuous. How convenient to blame this murder and mayhem on God!
The Israelites learned of a festival in the town of Shiloh, where young women would be dancing in a public space, and they advised the still-single Benjaminites to kidnap a wife from the party. The women, of course, had no choice. They, and the women from Jabesh-Gilead, were forced into marriages and sexual relationships that they did not choose, all as a result of the rape of the concubine.
This is an ugly story of human evil masquerading as righteous indignation and even compassion. It speaks painful truth about humans behaving badly, seeking revenge, and using brutality to terrorize. This story mirrors some contemporary realities of international relations and warfare. One act of terrorism can lead to massive reprisals. People and nations are edgy and quick to react to any threat. Complete loyalty is demanded and those who question the legitimacy of a violent response are often dismissed as cowardly and unpatriotic.
I think about this story when mass shootings occur. There is always a great public lament about the crumbling of American society. How can God allow such terrible tragedies to occur? And I wonder if God is saying, “Don’t blame me. It’s because of your ridiculous gun laws!”
Consider also the thousands of innocent men, women and children who were killed in this story. Recent “civil” warfare in some countries has actually encouraged the rape and murder of women and children as a way to terrify and dehumanize. Two hundred girls were abducted in Nigeria. A nation is willing to inflict violence upon the least powerful shows a blatant disregard for human life.
At the beginning of the book of Judges, the Israelites were killing their enemies. At the end, they were killing each other. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes, but their moral vision had been completely compromised. This is no way for human beings to live.
Lynn Japinga teaches religion at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.