JUDGES That Israel Might Know War

A reading from the Book of Judges, the third chapter.

1 Now these are the nations that the Lord left, to test Israel by them, that is, all in Israel who had not experienced all the wars in Canaan. 2 It was only in order that the generations of the people of Israel might know war, to teach war to those who had not known it before. 3 These are the nations: the five lords of the Philistines and all the Canaanites and the Sidonians and the Hivites who lived on Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal-hermon as far as Lebo-hamath. 4 They were for the testing of Israel, to know whether Israel would obey the commandments of the Lord, which he commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses. 5 So the people of Israel lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 6 And their daughters they took to themselves for wives, and their own daughters they gave to their sons, and they served their gods. (Judges 3:1–6 ESV)

Why might Israel need to know war? Why might God need to know whether Israel will do as it is commanded?

God already knows Israel won’t. This is settled. Judges begins with this failure. God knows Israel will fail, will not fight and not separate itself and will, instead, subjugate and copulate with the people of Canaan. (You likely cannot have one without the other.) And worship their gods.

So, is war good for Israel? War is inescapable. As Israel intertwines itself with the people whose land they are settling, they will also be subjugated by those people. The wars Israel will fight will no longer be for conquest, but for survival and liberation. They will need rescuing, redeeming. War will be the instrument of their (all-too-regular) redemption. And so the rest Israel was given briefly at the end of Joshua’s leadership will remain a dream, a distant dream.

In this, I am reminded of the expulsion of Eden, when Adam is expelled from the Garden and the ground cursed. He shall have to sweat and work for his bread from a ground that once gave plenty with little or no work. He shall fight thorns and thistles, and for what? For uncertain daily bread. Fighting a ground for his sustenance he shall be buried in when he dies.

Some days will be good. And some will not.

And so, Israel struggles. Mostly against itself. Mostly against its sin. Against the consequences of its sin. God will continue to fight for Israel — the people of God were no more abandoned than were Adam and Eve. But God does not alter their condition any. War will be their lot, their struggle, their fate. For both subjugation and liberation. We will win, and we will lose.

A day will come when Israel will no longer need to learn war — Isaiah 2:4 promises that day will come — but it is not today. Today, we learn to fight.

Because without our will to fight, God cannot be in our midst.

My Kind of Conservative

Daniel McCarthy over at The American Conservative has a review of Andrew Bacevich’s latest book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, and describes the author and former army officer this way:

Along with these qualifications comes a moral vision. Bacevich is a conservative and a Catholic, though not a “Catholic conservative” in the sense in which that term is usually meant. In drawing upon progressives like Beard and Williams for his critique of a republic that was corroding into empire, Bacevich made the connection between consumerism as a way of life and the foreign policy of liberal hegemony. His is an old American voice, warning not only against going abroad in search of monsters to destroy but also against the loss of civic virtue. He has given his readers cause to reconsider the ethics of accumulation and expansion, as well as to rediscover the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr.

This is worth stressing because of the nature of the war we are in—not this war or that war, in Afghanistan or Syria, but the ongoing war to tame the world for American ideals and markets. The spirit that drives Washington’s post-Cold War foreign policy—and drove much of our earlier foreign policy, too—arises from a view of history and a set of concepts that are compelling, flattering to ourselves, and wrong. To challenge this national orthodoxy, embedded as it is in our elite institutions and popular culture, takes courage and talent of an unusual kind. The task demands a historian with a feel for ethics and history as an organic whole, one who can tell the real story not just accurately but convincingly. That’s what Andrew Bacevich does.

Even his friends may not agree with him on every point. He favors a return to conscription to restore the citizen-soldier ideal—and to raise the cost of war high enough that more citizens will take it seriously. Whether that would be enough to dissuade their leaders from launching more wars like the one in Iraq is open to question. Other admirers of Bacevich are more sanguine than he is about global trade and consumer prosperity enduring—indeed flourishing—absent an imperial foreign policy. But even these optimists stand to learn something from the ethical restraint of Bacevich’s prescription. The lesson he imparts is one of self-discipline, not socialism.

This is the kind of conservative I could be, one that critiques both the market and state in favor of society and community. This is akin to the conservatism I grew up, and it often feels right to me even as it embraces a rhetoric that is frequently contradictory — anti-government and anti-state even as many of those who espouse such views are utterly dependent upon the state for careers and livelihoods. I am drawn to self-discipline, self-sacrifice, restraint, and solidarity — in a European context, I’m probably an old fashioned Christian Democrat. As both a Muslim and a Christian, I was and am drawn to social orders built upon cascading layers of mutual obligation, and that language speaks to me in ways the language of rights does not and never will. A confident assertion that I am responsible for my neighbor, and he is responsible for me. That is a politics build upon solidarity.

Sadly, I don’t see those things on offer much anymore, and have not for some time. All there seems to be is the angry language of rights. And fear. Lots and lots of fear.

Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and War

President Barack Obama has made the first official visit by a US President to the Japanese city of Hiroshima, to lay a wreath at a memorial to those killed in the US nuclear attack of August 6, 1945, and to call for a world free of nuclear weapons.

It is the old liberal dream — that diplomacy and negotiation should replace war forever.

We must change our mind-set about war itself. To prevent conflict through diplomacy and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun. To see our growing interdependence as a cause for peaceful cooperation and not violent competition. To define our nations not by our capacity to destroy but by what we build. And perhaps, above all, we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race.

Perhaps diplomats can gather around a great big table somewhere and outlaw war itself. Perhaps that will make this kind of change possible, allow for the realization of dreams so long dreamt.

Oh, wait, it was tried once. How’d that go again?

Lots of passive voice in Obama’s speech, as if some unnamed generic group of human beings, with no real purpose in mind, concocted the atomic bomb, and then it just happened to fall from the skies over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in early August 1945. He wasn’t going to apologize — the belief that somehow Obama has been wandering the world apologizing for the United States has always been pure crap — but he wasn’t going to take any direct credit for the attacks either.

“The world war that reached its brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fought among the wealthiest and most powerful of nations,” unnamed of course until the war is rhetorically over in Obama’s speech, until the United States and Japan are allies, united in purpose and outlook.

It’s an anodyne way of talking about war, careful and, I suppose, thoughtful. Except that it isn’t.

Because it’s hard to talk about war. Hard, in a society like ours where we are constantly morally judging and justifying, reviewing and condemning, acts of the past, to say much sensible about something as horrific as the American decision to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki with these newly made instruments of terror and death.

But I’m going to try.

One of the terrible truths of war is that when you begin, when you unleash it, you take a terrible risk, make a terrible gamble — that you will unleash events over which you will no longer have any meaningful control.

And that you could lose. And lose very badly.

The Japanese took that risk as they attacked the United States in Hawaii and the Philippines, took that risk when it set war with the United States into motion. Americans committed to war with Japan, and waged that war methodically, systematically, and very, very brutally. No one envisioned a working atomic bomb on December 7, 1941, but the governments of every major belligerent in the Second World War had some idea of what split atoms could do, and were working to one extent or another on a just such a bomb.

Someone would have built it. And someone would have used it.


True enough, Japan was incapable of laying waste to American cities — something the United States was proving exceptionally skilled at by mid–1944. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese died in those air raids, and many more from starvation because of the slow collapse of the country’s infrastructure in the last year of the war.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not irrelevant. These were new kinds of weapons that inflicted a never-before-seen kind of suffering and death. They may or may not have been needed to end the war, depending upon who you believe about the state of mind of Japan’s rulers (or the need to impress Stalin, or simply the desire to see how they worked) in early August, 1945. But they are a piece with the whole war.

Japan dropped the first bomb in anger against the United States. Hoping to win, of course, and defeat the United States. But when the Japanese dropped that first bomb, Japan took the risk that from that point, nothing would go as planned.

I’m not saying Japan deserved to be attacked with atomic bombs. Only that, once the shooting started, each side was going to whatever it took to defeat the other. The first side with these new and terrifying weapons was going to use them. Because they were built to be used. To destroy the enemy, to end resistance, and to secure victory.

I think about the terrible episode of Judges 19–21, Israel’s brutal and most pointless war against Benjamin. I’ve dealt with it in detail elsewhere, so I won’t even rehash it here.

What has always struck me is how this war — and all war, really — is simply reported in scripture. It is not condemned, and not even really praised either. This terrible war against Benjamin is a war instigated to achieve both vengeance and justice (for they are the same thing), but it spirals wildly out of control into genocide and regret and more mass murder, kidnapping, and rape in an attempt to fix the original genocide. It is us at our human worst — lying, self-righteous, violent, faithless, sentimental, regretful, convinced of our own wisdom and our own abilities.

In scripture, war appears to exist simply as an inescapable part of the human condition. What matters is not are we right or are we wrong, are we justified or condemned for waging war — but where is God, and is this war a judgment upon us as the people of God? Because the categories we contrive to morally justify ourselves and our violence — primarily defense, especially of those who cannot defend themselves — don’t fly in scripture. The conquest of Canaan is as aggressive and brutal a war as we can envision (“…[A]nd when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.” Deuteronomy 7:2) and it is perfectly moral, set into motion by God. (Israel is also incapable of waging that war for any sustained period of time.) And during the most defensive and morally justifiable of wars, the siege of Jerusalem, the Prophet Jeremiah encourages the people of Judah to surrender, to defect, to flee to the enemy, because the war is lost.

4 Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I will turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands and with which you are fighting against the king of Babylon and against the Chaldeans who are besieging you outside the walls. And I will bring them together into the midst of this city. 5 I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and strong arm, in anger and in fury and in great wrath. 6 And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both man and beast. (Jeremiah 21:4–6 ESV)

God, “incarnate” in the army of Babylon, at war with Israel.

I’m not saying that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were God’s judgement upon Japan, anymore than the attacks of September 11, 2001, were God’s judgement upon the United States of America. I do not believe, on this side of the Cross, that a meaningful or purposeful presence of God is to be found in the violence we inflict upon each other. God is no longer present in the enemy army, or marching with ours. God no longer judges his people, or the nations, this way.

Violent judgement came to end on the Cross, when we judged and tortured and then murdered our God. When God surrendered to us.

At the Cross, our violence ceases to have meaning. It ceases to judge. We still do it, but now … it really, truly means nothing.

Oh, God is present in war. But as those who suffer. As those who cower in terror, run for cover. As those who perish. As those who struggle to make sense of the horror they find themselves dealing with, living in, surviving, and inflicting. Obama, in his own way, understood this in his speech:

We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war and the wars that came before and the wars that would follow.

We can apologize, or not, for an act that possesses its own horrific logic. The 20th century was a horrible century, in which we fed ourselves fed into Moloch’s fiery hot furnace, shoveled ourselves like so much human coal — and not just in the trenches of France, or the death camps of Poland, or the grassy steppes of Western Russia, or an ancient port city in Japan, or the muddily fields and dusty cities of China, but all across Asia and Africa and Latin America, wherever the Gatling gun and finance capital (or national pride, or revolutionary ideology) imposed an order that saw people as things to be consumed, as mere resources to be dominated and exploited. I’m not even sure we are capable of apologizing for what we’ve done, or how we’d even start.

I do know this — there will be more violence, more horrors, more death, and more destruction. I hope not on the scale and magnitude of the Second World War, but we’ve shown just what kind of devastation we are capable of inflicting when we really set our minds to it, so that is always a possibility. Bombs far worse than those dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki sit, silently waiting, built to be used.

There will be more violence and more war because we are still human. Because we still want justice. Because we still want vengeance. Because we still believe in the work of our own minds and our own hands to make the world right. Because we are frightened it will never be right.

Because we still believe we can silence death … with death.

When God Tells You to Kill Your Neighbor

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the Torah — the five books of Moses — and the early history of Joshua through 2 Kings these last few weeks working on a lengthy piece on biblical sexual ethics. No need to thank me… 😉

Honestly, I love the Hebrew Bible. From top to bottom. It is a bloody, gory, incredibly grace-filled and very human story of a people’s encounter with God, their inability to be faithful to the God that calls them, the consequences they face in their faithlessness, and God’s never-ending pursuit of those same people — to rescue and redeem them in and (sometimes) from their faithlessness. It’s a staggering story, and it has formed me, really reached into my soul and rewritten the entire way I think about my life. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The Lectionary This Week (Part 2): Judging Nineveh

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Epiphany 3, 25 January 2014 (Year B)

  • Jonah 3:1-5, 10
  • Psalm 62:5-12
  • 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
  • Mark 1:14-20

I didn’t plan to do a second lectionary blog this week. But a conversation on the ELCA pastor blog alerted me to something in the Jonah text I hadn’t paid close attention to.

Mostly, when I see passages like the Sunday Jonah text, where some part has been left out, I pay special attention to what has been left out. Too often, the revised common lectionary leaves out passages liberal Christians might find too awkward or difficult to deal with. And I glossed over what was left out as I focused on the Gospel this week.

Besides, Jonah. I’ve spent a lot of time with Jonah, and so I thought: what more was there to deal with?

But let’s spend some time with Jonah. The whole passage:

1 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days ‘journey in breadth. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.

6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles:Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. (Jonah 3:1-10 ESV)

The focus of this tends to be on God and Jonah. After all, God told Jonah, “Go to Nineveh, tell them to repent!” And Jonah said, “I won’t! I won’t! I won’t go where I’m sent!” (That’s from a song I wrote…) Jonah refuses, because he’s afraid of God’s mercy, and that God’s mercy might extend even to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, the nation that conquered Israel and waged war against Judah.

It’s about mercy, we say. Because Jonah is. “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” God asks Jonah in the very last verse of the book? Reminding us that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also the God of Heaven and Earth. The God of Israel is also Nineveh’s God, even if Nineveh doesn’t know it.

But mercy doesn’t come without judgment. And God has judged Nineveh. We’re not given a bill of particulars here — Nineveh’s sin is not laid out. Jonah preaches the shortest sermon ever: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (ע֚וֹד אַרְבָּעִ֣ים י֔וֹם וְנִֽינְוֵ֖ה נֶהְפָּֽכֶת) So, here’s this stranger, a foreigner, one of Assyria’s conquered peoples, delivering a message to the entire city. One that comes from nowhere (no deity is attached, it doesn’t say “says the Lord, the God of Israel!”) and no accusations are made. It’s a little like one of those strange things Dan Rather would occasionally say at the end of a newscast in the 1980s.


What the people of Nineveh are to repent of is anyone’s guess. And yet, apparently they do. They believe this strange little message. They mourn and they fast.

But it’s in the bit left out of the lectionary reading where it gets interesting. As this popular wave of repentance overtakes the city — and how else can you describe it? — the king joins the throng. He issues a decree: mourning clothes for everyone, no eating for any living thing, and constant prayer to God (note: this is prayer to Elohim, אלהים, the word the King uses, the more generic name for God, and not to YHWH יהוה, the proper name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the name used whenever God speaks to Jonah — the people of Nineveh are not on those kinds of terms with God). The king then also says:

8 Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.

Evil and violence. Jonah may not deliver the particulars, but the people of Nineveh know what they are guilty of. They know their sin.

And they repent.

The prophet Nahum delivers a much more detailed indictment of Assyria in his short (though much longer than Jonah’s) warning to Nineveh:

1 Woe to the bloody city,
all full of lies and plunder—
no end to the prey!
2 The crack of the whip, and rumble of the wheel,
galloping horse and bounding chariot!
3 Horsemen charging,
flashing sword and glittering spear,
hosts of slain,
heaps of corpses,
dead bodies without end—
they stumble over the bodies!
(Nahum 3:1-3 ESV)

There’s more, and the fate awaiting Nineveh is brutal (rape, murder, destruction) and cannot be avoided:

2 The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
and keeps wrath for his enemies.
3 The Lord is slow to anger and great in power,
and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.
His way is in whirlwind and storm,
and the clouds are the dust of his feet.
4 He rebukes the sea and makes it dry;
he dries up all the rivers;
Bashan and Carmel wither;
the bloom of Lebanon withers.
5 The mountains quake before him;
the hills melt;
the earth heaves before him,
the world and all who dwell in it.
6 Who can stand before his indignation?
Who can endure the heat of his anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire,
and the rocks are broken into pieces by him.
(Nahum 1:2-6 ESV)

Nineveh’s sin is empire. It is the bloody city full of lies and plunder, built upon the crack of the whip and the strength of the horseman. (God has a special problem with cavalry, and holds standing armies, particularly cavalry armies, in contempt, as in the brief warning in Deuteronomy 17:16 and expanded upon in Isaiah 31.) And Nahum’s warning is a reminder from God that there have been other empires — Egypt in 3:8-10 — that have come and gone. Empires come and go (Daniel 11, for example), but the God who created heaven and earth, who called Abraham to wander, is forever.

To be an empire is to trust in wealth and power. It is plunder and conquest, to do violence not only to those you conquer, but to all who must bear the costs of the glory of empire. Yes, this is a condemnation of an empire which conquered Israel (Assyria is being judged, as Babylon will be judged), but it is also a veiled critique of Solomon’s state, which itself was, for the period of his kingship, an empire, reliant not upon God for protection, but Solomon’s huge (and costly) professional standing army (1 Kings 10:26-29).

Jonah also suggests that an empire can repent. At least for a time. That’s an unsettling thought for me, because I’d rather have my empires damned eternally and burnt down to the ground. But what does a repentant empire look like? How does an empire NOT rely on its wealth and power? Is that repentant empire Christendom? The baptism of the Roman Empire didn’t keep the empire from evil and violence, and did not keep human beings from trusting largely — or exclusively — their own wealth and power.

And the whole history of Israel itself suggests that even repentance on the part of Israel would only stave off, and not cancel, a coming judgment.

ADDITION: As I was driving around this afternoon, it occurred to me that something else was at work here. This message that Jonah preaches to Nineveh is not “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” This isn’t even “change your ways, for the end is nigh!” He simply tells Nineveh, “In forty days y’all are f**ked.” No possibility of repentance, no room for change, is presented in the message, which states simply that Nineveh is finished and its fate sealed.

But all of Nineveh takes a risk and presumes that with this message of impending doom the possibility of repentance exists. “Who knows?” the king asks as he orders all to fast and mourn and pray. “God may see our repentance and relent.” There is no promise here of mercy. Not even a suggestion of it. Yet Nineveh risks that possibility, and for no obvious reason (save maybe to piss Jonah off). Because there is an alternative, to say “we’re doomed, we might as well enjoy ourselves before the end comes.” To drown doubt in an orgy of violence and evil, to grasp all the sensual pleasure the Ninevites can grab before fire and brimstone rain down upon the city. But the people of Nineveh, moved by a message of doom, turn. They take the harder path. And God hears.

This is something to keep in mind when reading Nahum, with it’s fairly bleak and unrelenting judgment of Nineveh. And something to keep about about any pronouncement of judgment itself.

I’m not sure how I’d look at this Christologically. Or how I’d preach this. Perhaps it is enough to say here that God cares even about empire. Or else why judge it? Because without that judgment, no possibility of repentance, redemption, and reconciliation exist. (That itself is an important message the liberal church seems to have largely forgotten.) I don’t have any problem with that individually, but this suggests a collective aspect as well. And I am not sure what to do with that possibility right now. This shakes some fairly solid beliefs for me.

The author of Jonah puts it best: When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

The Last Three Chapters of Judges, Part 2 — Smoke Up To Heaven

Last November, I started writing the first of three (or maybe four) blog entries on the last three chapters of the Old Testament Book of Judges, which tell what is quite possibly the worst tale in all scripture.

Judges 19 begins thus:

In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite was sojourning in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, who took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah…

I meant to continue this long ago, and now I will.

Go back and read the original blog. There will be something of a refresher, because the passage itself does that. Briefly, in Chapter 19, a Levite traveling to the hill country of Ephraim stays overnight in Gibeah in the land allocated to the tribe of Benjamin (in order to avoid Jerusalem, which is still a Canaanite city), where a mob shows incredible inhospitality and demands to “know him.” The Levite and/or his host toss the concubine out, and the mob rapes her to death. The Levite then takes her home, cuts her into twelve equal pieces, and mails a piece to each tribe in Israel, provoking outrage across the country.

And that’s where we are when chapter 20 begins. (All Bible quotes from the ESV unless otherwise noted.)

1 Then all the people of Israel came out, from Dan to Beersheba, including the land of Gilead, and the congregation assembled as one man to the Lord at Mizpah.

Pay attention to this construction, “as one man.” Just as the butchering of the concubine foreshadows what King Saul will later do in 1 Samuel 11:7, so does Israel’s response. “Then the dread of the Lord fell upon the people, and they came out as one man.” This construction, כּאִישׁ אֶחָד, appears several time in the Hebrew Bible, mostly to describe the nature of Israel’s military response to an enemy. And most of this type of reference appears here, as 11 of Israel’s tribes gang up to extract an incredibly violence justice from the tiniest of Israel’s tribes.

In Judges 6, this construction refers to the people Israel will kill (or is killing) in battle. And in Numbers 14, this is part of Moses’ appeal to the Lord not to kill to Israel “as one man” in the wilderness because, if the Lord does so, well, what will the Egyptians think?

So, this phrase, “as one man,” appears most consistently in a passage in which Israel is clearly not united. Because they are getting ready to make war on their own.


2 And the chiefs of all the people, of all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God, 400,000 men on foot that drew the sword. 3 (Now the people of Benjamin heard that the people of Israel had gone up to Mizpah.) And the people of Israel said, “Tell us, how did this evil happen?” 4 And the Levite, the husband of the woman who was murdered, answered and said, “I came to Gibeah that belongs to Benjamin, I and my concubine, to spend the night. 5 And the leaders of Gibeah rose against me and surrounded the house against me by night. They meant to kill me, and they violated my concubine, and she is dead. 6 So I took hold of my concubine and cut her in pieces and sent her throughout all the country of the inheritance of Israel, for they have committed abomination and outrage in Israel. 7 Behold, you people of Israel, all of you, give your advice and counsel here.”

This is clever. The Levite is lying. Or rather, he isn’t telling the entire truth. He’s omitting the whole part about “[s]o the man seized his concubine and made her go out to them.” (19:25) (Though we need to appreciate the construction here is ambiguous. It’s unclear who the he is who seizes the concubine — the Levite or the old man hosting them? Either way, she’s not tossed out by a Benjaminite.) He is deliberately omitting his (or his host’s) culpability, the part he played in tossing a young woman (I’m guessing) he’d sworn, on some level, to protect (he is, after all, described as “husband” — אישׁ האשּׁה, or “man of the woman”) to a mob of rapists.

This is an interesting omission, and one that is probably very deliberate. Because it is clear (more or less) in the previous chapter, the teller of the story (and the editors) have left all the details in. They did not try to square the narrator’s account with that later reported as being related by the Levite as he tells all Israel.

Something similar happens in Exodus 32 with the account of the Golden Calf. Aaron calls for gold, and “he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf” (Ex. 32:4), clearly indicating Aaron takes an active part in making the idol, creating it with his own hands. But later in the chapter, when an incredibly angry Moses comes down off the mountain to inquire of the people (and his brother) what happened, Aaron says “So I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.” (Ex. 32:24)

Meaning: Don’t look at me. I didn’t do it. I don’t know where it came from. It just sorta emerged from the fire. It’s not my fault.

This is an incredibly human desire, to fudge the truth, to avoid responsibility and not be held accountable. And scripture not only shows people doing it, but also getting away with it. Cleanly and completely.

Because this is what comes of the Levite’s story:

8 And all the people arose as one man, saying, “None of us will go to his tent, and none of us will return to his house. 9 But now this is what we will do to Gibeah:we will go up against it by lot, 10 and we will take ten men of a hundred throughout all the tribes of Israel, and a hundred of a thousand, and a thousand of ten thousand, to bring provisions for the people, that when they come they may repay Gibeah of Benjamin, for all the outrage that they have committed in Israel.” 11 So all the men of Israel gathered against the city, united as one man.

12 And the tribes of Israel sent men through all the tribe of Benjamin, saying, “What evil is this that has taken place among you? 13 Now therefore give up the men, the worthless fellows in Gibeah, that we may put them to death and purge evil from Israel.” But the Benjaminites would not listen to the voice of their brothers, the people of Israel. 14 Then the people of Benjamin came together out of the cities to Gibeah to go out to battle against the people of Israel. 15 And the people of Benjamin mustered out of their cities on that day 26,000 men who drew the sword, besides the inhabitants of Gibeah, who mustered 700 chosen men. 16 Among all these were 700 chosen men who were left-handed; every one could sling a stone at a hair and not miss. 17 And the men of Israel, apart from Benjamin, mustered 400,000 men who drew the sword; all these were men of war.

I find myself wondering — if assembled Israel knew the truth, that the concubine wasn’t simply taken, but was actively thrown to the mob, would the response have been different? Would they have been so eager to wage war if they had know how much responsibility non-Benjaminites bore for her rape and murder? We cannot know, but as the readers, we know a truth that Israel assembled does not. And that, in itself, is interesting.

Anyway… Israel has occupied Benjamin and has asked for those responsible — the mob of rapists from Gibeah themselves — to be handed over. For whatever reason, very likely tribal honor, prevents of forbids Benjamin from giving into the rest of Israel’s demands. I cannot help but think, at this point, of the demand by the United States to the Taliban government of Afghanistan after the attacks of September 11, 2001, to hand over Usama bin Laden. And the Taliban’s refusal. And the war the followed.

And so, Benjamin prepares for war. Heavily outnumbered, almost 20-to-1, if the numbers — 400,000 from the rest of Israel and 26,000 from Benjamin — can be believed.

Then the fighting begins:

18 The people of Israel arose and went up to Bethel and inquired of God, “Who shall go up first for us to fight against the people of Benjamin?” And the Lord said, “Judah shall go up first.”

19 Then the people of Israel rose in the morning and encamped against Gibeah. 20 And the men of Israel went out to fight against Benjamin, and the men of Israel drew up the battle line against them at Gibeah. 21 The people of Benjamin came out of Gibeah and destroyed on that day 22,000 men of the Israelites. 22 But the people, the men of Israel, took courage, and again formed the battle line in the same place where they had formed it on the first day. 23 And the people of Israel went up and wept before the Lord until the evening. And they inquired of the Lord, “Shall we again draw near to fight against our brothers, the people of Benjamin?” And the Lord said, “Go up against them.”

So, one tribe at a time. We have no numbers for individual tribal levies for this war, but I suspect it’s probably closer to 30,000 or 40,000 — not much more than that. Maybe 50,000 for Judah, perhaps the largest tribe of Israel. And it may be that it was one tribe at a time on that first day, so that beleaguered little Benjamin faced the whole 400,000-man army.

Whatever it was, Benjamin clearly outfought the entire Israelite army that first day, killing nearly as many in the combined army of Israel as they had men under arms.

Shaken, but not broken, the Israelites regroup, and God for advice. “Fight some more,” God says.

Fight some more. As if God is simply toying with everyone.

24 So the people of Israel came near against the people of Benjamin the second day. 25 And Benjamin went against them out of Gibeah the second day, and destroyed 18,000 men of the people of Israel. All these were men who drew the sword. 26 Then all the people of Israel, the whole army, went up and came to Bethel and wept. They sat there before the Lord and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord. 27 And the people of Israel inquired of the Lord (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, 28 and Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, ministered before it in those days), saying, “Shall we go out once more to battle against our brothers, the people of Benjamin, or shall we cease?” And the Lord said, “Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand.”

Because, in fact, God is toying with everyone. The second day goes badly — though not as bad as the first — for Israel, and the Israelite army is forced to retreat from Benjamin by an army less than a tenth its size. (We are given no figures for Benjaminite casualties on these first two days.) Defeated, and demoralized, Israel is asking what the point of this whole endeavor has been. And they ask God — who seems to be nothing much more than a heavenly spectator, sitting and watching the violence — if the war is worth continuing. Because 40,000 Israelite soldiers have so far been killed in two days of fighting with not so much as a peep from God about the morality or even efficacy of this whole thing.

But God promises Israel victory on the third day. (Sound familiar?) So, the fighting continues.

At this point, Israel decides to use a little strategy. They plant a number of soldiers around Gibeah to ambush the Benjaminites. The army of Benjamin, clearly confident after the last two days of fighting, sallies forth from Gibeah and attacks. Israel then feigns a retreat, in order to draw Benjamin away from the city, and Benjamin follows. With the city of Gibeah abandoned, the Israelite soldiers lying in wait invade the city and set it on fire. Smoke rising over Gibeah distracts the Benjaminites (described in almost sacrificial language, “behold, the whole of the city went up in smoke to heaven” in 20:40), and the army of Benjamin panics and breaks, seeing “that disaster was close upon them” (20:41). While the army is shattered, and some elements of the Benjaminites escape, I suspect most of what comes next is much like the Battle of Cannae, a many-hours-long knife fight in which Israel surrounded the bulk of the Benjaminite army and simply cut that confused and frightened army down one by one.

Another important thing to note. Judges 20:34 says, “And there came against Gibeah 10,000 chosen men out of all Israel, and the battle was hard, but the Benjaminites did not know that disaster was close upon them.” This is not the Powell Doctrine at work. Overwhelming force, and superior numbers, are not the key to victory here. Israel outnumbered Benjamin nearly 20-to-1 on the first day, and probably closer to 15-to-1 on the second day. It hardly mattered, because in those two days of fighting, Israel lost 10 percent of its army. Having superior numbers was of no value.

Benjamin was victorious so long as they were outnumbered. And on the day Israel is victorious, the Israelite army is outnumbered more than 2-to-1.

And this is key to every victory God gives Israel over its enemies when God gives victory (because not all victories come from God), beginning at the Red Sea. “Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand.” God is the author and architect of this victory, not Israelite military might. God has secured victory, not Israelite arms. That’s the clear — but very understated message — in this passage.

But it’s also clear, God was not going to intervene to stop this war. Or what came next.

46 So all who fell that day of Benjamin were 25,000 men who drew the sword, all of them men of valor. 47 But 600 men turned and fled toward the wilderness to the rock of Rimmon and remained at the rock of Rimmon four months. 48 And the men of Israel turned back against the people of Benjamin and struck them with the edge of the sword, the city, men and beasts and all that they found. And all the towns that they found they set on fire.

Scripture isn’t entirely clear how many soldiers are killed. In the above passage, it’s 25,000. Earlier in Judges, it’s 25,100. Quibbling, I know, because there’s a greater horror embedded in that last verse than the death of an army. Israel perpetrates genocide against Benjamin, and after rampaging through the place, strike everything and everyone down. There was blood, and smoke, and death, everywhere. Israel very nearly exterminates the entire tribe of Benjamin.

Except for the 600 who flee to the Rock of Rimmon. They are all that remain. And how Israel deals with them becomes the final horrifc act of the Book of Judges.