The Last Three Chapters of Judges, Part 3 — We Are So Very, Very, Very Sorry, and Let Us Show You How Sorry We Are

Last time my exploration of the last three chapters of the Bible’s book of Judges — which I’m convinced is the most horrific story in all scripture — ended with the massacre of nearly every Israelite in Benjamin. In the process, Israel put most of the “province” — the land allocated to Benjamin when the conquest of Canaan began — to the sword and burnt most of its cities and villages down.

All that remains is Jebus (eventually to become Jerusalem), the redoubt of the unconquered Jebusites. And 600 soldiers of Benjamin who fled the slaughter deep into the wilderness somewhere.

The war is now done. The blood spilled, the fires died down and the looting done. Now, with the injustice of the gang rape and murder of the Levite’s concubine avenged, some cooler, and possibly clearer, heads can prevail.

1 Now the men of Israel had sworn at Mizpah, “No one of us shall give his daughter in marriage to Benjamin.”

It’s nice we’re given this detail here. So, in addition to war, Israel sanctioned Benjamin. Isolated them. And near as I can tell, this is never rescinded.

2 And the people came to Bethel and sat there till evening before God, and they lifted up their voices and wept bitterly. 3 And they said, “O Lord, the God of Israel, why has this happened in Israel, that today there should be one tribe lacking in Israel?” 4 And the next day the people rose early and built there an altar and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings.

Now, here is Israel, missing the whole notion of agency. Why is there a tribe lacking in Israel today? Well, yesterday you killed them all. This didn’t just happen, anymore than the somehow the young woman found her way into a mob of rapacious Benjaminites (see last commentary). This didn’t just happen. Israel did it.

I also cannot emphasize here enough that, even as Israel struggles with agency, that in this war of righteous vengeance — and I think we can call it that — the Israelite response is regret and worship. And not praises to God for a job well done or “mission accomplished,” but burnt offerings and peace offerings. Even a good war has its moral costs on the victors.

All this regret is very human. Israel has just done something horrific. In the service of justice, yes, but still horrific. The violation of one woman (whatever the circumstances, and they were awful and misrepresented — probably deliberately — after the fact) led directly to a genocidal war in which nearly everyone in the tribe of Benjamin was killed. With the passion of vengeance having passed, the blood no longer pumping furiously, Israel now has the time to consider what exactly has happened.

And Israel regrets what has happened. As a people, they have looked upon the consequences of their acts and immediately come to regret what they have done.

Two things about this. First, note that the people Benjamin are not portrayed as showing any regret. All Israel assembled at Mizpah, in the midst of Benjamin, gave the Benjaminites the opportunity to do just that, show some contrition and do some penance, for the gang rape and murder by handing the perpetrators over to Israel.

Instead, Benjamin mobilizes for war. That’s not an act of contrition.

This is not to say Israel here is morally superior to Benjamin in any way. Or that the response is proportional (or even correct). But Israel and Benjamin, at that point, were engaged in a relationship in which the honor of both sides was likely at stake, and that made peace, or at least any alternative to war, impossible.

Second, note how Israel expresses its regret. They do not say, “we wish we hadn’t done that” or even “why did we do that?” but rather they ask a kind-of existential question of the the God who has been simply sitting back and watching all this: “O Lord, the God of Israel, why has this happened in Israel, that today there should be one tribe lacking in Israel?” (Note: They don’t get an answer.) The lack of agency here is also important. It’s as if they are confessing how beyond their control all this was. Even as it was completely in their control.

Because both things are absolutely true. This reflects a complexity to human actions that I’ll spend a little more time reflecting upon in my conclusion next time. Right now, I’d like to continue with the passage.

5 And the people of Israel said, “Which of all the tribes of Israel did not come up in the assembly to the Lord?” For they had taken a great oath concerning him who did not come up to the Lord to Mizpah, saying, “He shall surely be put to death.” 6 And the people of Israel had compassion for Benjamin their brother and said, “One tribe is cut off from Israel this day. 7 What shall we do for wives for those who are left, since we have sworn by the Lord that we will not give them any of our daughters for wives.”

The oath Israel swore to itself — and therefore to God — forbade any intercourse (in every possible meaning of that word) with Benjamin. Yet there were no Benjaminite women left. Those 600 men were the last of their tribe, and Israel had just committed itself to saving the smallest of the tribes. Without all of the twelve, there was no Israel, and so this tiny tribe must be preserved. We are not whole, we are not us, if one of us is missing.

This is conundrum. You need wives to carry on, Israel said, but we swore not to give you any. So, we aren’t. A problem created by oath and promise, and sustained by honor. Again, a very human problem — I want X, but in order to have it, I must do Y, and I can’t do that. I promised NEVER to do that. A very human situation.

And, so Israel seeks to square this circle. In the worst way possible.

8 And they said, “What one is there of the tribes of Israel that did not come up to the Lord to Mizpah?” And behold, no one had come to the camp from Jabesh-gilead, to the assembly. 9 For when the people were mustered, behold, not one of the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead was there. 10 So the congregation sent 12,000 of their bravest men there and commanded them, “Go and strike the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead with the edge of the sword; also the women and the little ones. 11 This is what you shall do: every male and every woman that has lain with a male you shall devote to destruction.” 12 And they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead 400 young virgins who had not known a man by lying with him, and they brought them to the camp at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan.

13 Then the whole congregation sent word to the people of Benjamin who were at the rock of Rimmon and proclaimed peace to them. 14 And Benjamin returned at that time. And they gave them the women whom they had saved alive of the women of Jabesh- gilead, but they were not enough for them. 15 And the people had compassion on Benjamin because the Lord had made a breach in the tribes of Israel.

So … Israel apparently did not rise “as one man” to avenge the death of the Levite’s concubine. (And it suddenly occurred to me this may be an issue for the whole nation because the Levites are not assigned to their own land, but rather live everywhere, in the midst of all Israel.) The city/village of Jabesh-gilead, across the Jordan in the land assigned to Dan, either didn’t hear the summons, ignored it by saying “this doesn’t concern us” or said “Hell no, we won’t go!” Their failure to participate in the war of vengeance has put them at risk.

An Israelite army of 12,000 descends upon the place (we aren’t told how big is) and slaughters all but the young, unmarried but nubile, women. Which adds up to 400.

Do the math. There are 600 Benjaminite survivors. And 400 young women of Gad. That means there are 200 men of Benjamin without wives.

It also means that here, the solution to a problem created by a genocide is … more genocide. An entire city is wiped out, save for the young women. This again is another example of very human decision making. One war is over, but another is needed in order to clean up the mess of the last one. And so on. Conflicting promises are made, and a good faith effort is made to try and keep to all of those promises. On that front, Israel manages to actually keep ALL of its promises (which is pretty good, given the mess Israel makes in keeping those promises). The Levite’s girlfriend is avenged, and all of the men of Benjamin get wives, so a tribe is preserved.

Yes, a lot of people get hurt in the process. This is messy, ugly, unpleasant, brutal, and not very precise. But it is very, very human. The reasoning, insofar as we can understand the conflicting promises made and oaths sworn, all makes sense.

And yet, the survivors of Benjamin are still short 200 wives.

16 Then the elders of the congregation said, “What shall we do for wives for those who are left, since the women are destroyed out of Benjamin?” 17 And they said, “There must be an inheritance for the survivors of Benjamin, that a tribe not be blotted out from Israel. 18 Yet we cannot give them wives from our daughters.” For the people of Israel had sworn, “Cursed be he who gives a wife to Benjamin.” 19 So they said, “Behold, there is the yearly feast of the Lord at Shiloh, which is north of Bethel, on the east of the highway that goes up from Bethel to Shechem, and south of Lebonah.” 20 And they commanded the people of Benjamin, saying, “Go and lie in ambush in the vineyards 21 and watch. If the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances, then come out of the vineyards and snatch each man his wife from the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin.

Oh what fun we’re going to have, stealing young girls from the festival at Shiloh! At least Israel isn’t putting the place to the sword and killing nearly everyone who lives in it. Kidnapping is small beer at this point.

22 And when their fathers or their brothers come to complain to us, we will say to them, ‘Grant them graciously to us, because we did not take for each man of them his wife in battle, neither did you give them to them, else you would now be guilty. ’”

Now THIS is clever. Israel is telling the male relatives of the kidnapped young women when they complain — and it’s interesting to note here that men will actually complain about this — that while we swore we wouldn’t give women in marriage, we didn’t say anything about not letting them take young women as wives. So, no oath is violated here, no promise rescinded.

And that answer suggests a question. Not, “our daughters/sisters were taken,” but “The Benjaminites took our daughters/sisters as wives, and didn’t we swear an oath not to let them happen?” This is the honor at stake here, and not the lives and wellbeing of mere women.

23 And the people of Benjamin did so and took their wives, according to their number, from the dancers whom they carried off. Then they went and returned to their inheritance and rebuilt the towns and lived in them. 24 And the people of Israel departed from there at that time, every man to his tribe and family, and they went out from there every man to his inheritance.

I cannot get the vision of Benjaminites “carrying off” young dancers out of my head, like something off the cover of a Max Schulman novel. With this, this awful episode is at an end. Benjamin has been restored, and Israel is “whole.” And, as far as scripture is concerned, Benjamin appears to learn its lesson. No one is ever this inhospitable ever again.

Oh, and it ends the same way this miserable story began:

25 In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

In my next blog on this, my last in this series, I’d like to deal a bit with how we might think about and even use this gory, horrific and nearly God-less story. Because I think it’s an important, very valuable, and very underused, bit of scripture.

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