Sunday, August 10, 2008

Am not I a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel? (Judges 21)

Ah, doesn't this story keep getting better? No, not really. Apparently all of a sudden, the Israelites start realizing that--especially to the extent that they have butchered an entire tribe of Israel--two wrongs don't make a right. So naturally, they do what anyone would, and decide to see if maybe three wrongs will do the trick.

Since they had made a vow that they would never allow their own daughters to marry one of the Benjamites, they're in a quandary. They want to help the remnant of this tribe rebuild, but they can't do it without breaking their vows. The remaining Benjamites might have women of their own actually, but since there are such a small number of survivors of this genocidal rage we saw in the previous chapter, it seems to me that those women would probably be the daughters and sisters of the surviving men. Or it may be that they truly did destroy every city, and all inhabitants, which would have been all the women, the only survivors being a handful of fleeing Benjamite soldiers. Whatever the particulars of the situation, the Israelites show their moral fiber when they have to choose: On the one hand, they can break their rashly-made and morally-pointless vows, or they can kidnap, murder and pillage in the town of Jabeshgilead, the inhabitants of which are not bound by such a stupid vow and, apparently alone in all Israel in that day, had no blood on their hands. They of course choose the latter; you can't expect them to break their word, can you?

So they kill every man and every non-virgin woman in the city. I have no idea why this was supposedly necessary rather than simply kidnapping the virgins, but I don't understand much that these people do. (You almost imagine, what with the way they've conducted themselves in the previous chapter, that they got together and said, "But what if someone from the town complains?" Think...think...think. "I've got it! We'll just kill everyone, then they can't complain!") They bring the women back to the survivors of Benjamin, but there are only 400 virgins for what I assume is about a thousand soldiers. So, not nearly enough. What to do?

Solution? More kidnapping! (At least they didn't kill anybody else, I guess.) The people assembled, who I assume were not from the region of Shiloh, suggest that during an upcoming festival in Shiloh, the remaining unmarried Benjamites lie in wait for some young women who will come out to dance in the vineyards as part of the festival. If they simply drag these women off and marry them, then it's reasoned that their fathers will not be breaking their vows, since they didn't willingly allow their daughters to go. So they do it.

Summing up, kidnapping, lying, scheming, rape (of female virgins), arson, stealing, and mass murder are all considered to be preferable to breaking one's vow to the Israelites during this time, for "every man did that which was right in his own eyes."

Why am I summing up rather than explaining or excusing? I don't think there's much one can explain, and pretty much no excuse for this behavior. You can't blame it on God, though; you can't blame it on the Mosaic Law. These aren't people acting in the name of God; this is essentially random, bloodthirsty mass insanity.

Why is it here in the Bible? The SAB labels this passage in various places as essentially violent, unjust, misogynistic, and displaying a warped sense of family values. I'd be curious as to whether there is anyone alive today who professes belief in the Bible who disagrees with such an assessment; I certainly don't disagree. On the one hand, the simple fact is that this is supposed to be history. If this event actually happened--and indeed, who would want to make up such an event and put it into their own country's history?--then I think it would be immoral to simply sweep the whole thing under the rug. In the same fashion, Christian believers in the Bible need to deal with this story, and not pretend it doesn't matter. It's from this very nation, this very group of barbaric, bloodthirsty warriors, that the people we consider heroes of the faith arise. King David, the prophet Daniel, John the Baptist, even Jesus himself comes from these people.

The thing to realize from this, and so many other stories in the Bible, is that the Jews are God's chosen people. Not the best people in the world, and despite what you might think from this story, not the worst people either, just the chosen people. As such, they are simply people. What does the Bible tell us about people? "[T]he imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth", God says in Genesis 8. "[T]he heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live", King Solomon observes in Ecclesiastes 9. Jesus himself tells us in Mark 7 that, "For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly." And yet, it was this very same Jesus who gave up his life for the salvation of all of mankind. Why did God choose the Jews? Deuteronomy 7:7-8 says, "The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt." Why did Jesus decide to die for sinful people? Romans 5:6-8 tells us, "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." It's in the stories of the very worst that humanity has to offer that we see the depth of the love of God: that despite our best efforts to be as evil and reprobate as possible, God still insists on reaching out to us in love. This horrible chapter in Israel's history is not the final chapter; it's only the beginning.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Ye will take Benjamin away: all these things are against me (Judges 20)

Now, while I don't think that chapter 20 is quite as shocking in a simple sense (I mean after all, this isn't so personal; it's war, and this is just the way war is.) there is something more troubling about it from the point of view of an apologist: While God is completely absent from the previous chapter, it appears that the civil war that unfolds in response to the events of chapter 19 is undertaken with the express blessing of God. This is pretty much genocide we're about to see here, and what's more, genocide against the Israelites' own brothers.

I will, of course, offer a possible explanation of the apparent actions of God in this chapter, but I honestly have to admit that I'm grasping at straws here, and even my stretching of the interpretation of this chapter doesn't come across very pleasant at all. The easiest way out would be to say that when "the LORD said" in this chapter, it's not God, but the priests speaking falsely as though on behalf of God or some such thing. (Note that in verse 9, they say they "will go up by lot", raising the possibility that they essentially drew straws and considered the result to be the will of God.) Such an interpretation may create more problems than it solves for the apologist. I mention it only as a temptation, not as something I consider to be a reasonable response.

So here's the recap: Fighting men from all the tribes of Israel except for Benjamin (and probably Levi) gather together in Mizpeh to meet the Levite from chapter 19 and hear his story. Now the story he tells is technically true, but he leaves out the parts about his concubine being unfaithful to him and how he and his host actually gave the concubine to the crowd willingly. It's possible that the actual words of his story supply more detail than we read here, but it does sound like he's leaving out any details that paint him in bad light, which one would expect. The men of Israel vow that they will not return home until the rapists are brought to justice, and so they go to war.

The whole text of the battle that ensues is marked repeatedly by the SAB as absurd, violent and unjust. While I and any rational person would agree that this is a violent story, I don't see anything absurd about it, other than the fact that it's blown way out of proportion, which leads me to somewhat agree with the injustice label. I say "somewhat" because I suspect if this had not been an all-out war and only the men of Gibeah had been slaughtered, the label would still be there in the SAB, but I think I and many others would feel it was quite just. That being said, the fact that their fellow Benjamites are protecting them from justice may make them fair game, but that's more of a grey area in my mind.

The men of Benjamin fight exceptionally well, killing somewhere around 40,000 Israelites before finally losing. A note of accuracy that does little to soften the atrocity of the moment should be inserted here in response to the notes of the SAB. Verse 44 notes "Another 25,000 Benjamites are killed..." Actually, these are the same ones. If you read the story carefully, you'll note that the Benjamites started out with 26,000 soldiers (v. 15), so killing 50,000 of them would have to be an error. It isn't though; verse 35 is a summary of the battle while the following verses are a telling of the details of that battle, and a breakdown of how and where the Benjamites were defeated. In addition to the killing of soldiers, at the beginning of the final battle, they burn down the city of Gibeah, and after the battle, they pretty much just go nuts and destroy every city in the tribe of Benjamin.

Okay, so let me get down to it: this is horrible. It's a horrific, shameful moment in the history of Israel, and in addition to that, it appears that God is actually involved this time. What can you say? There are actually a few possibilities. One, which I've already hinted at, is that God approves. That is to say--and the distinction is important--that God approves of taking justice against Benjamin for allowing such an evil thing to happen in their midst. It does not necessarily mean that God approves of the all-out genocide and large-scale destruction that ensues after the battle. I can just barely believe of God that He might want not just the men of Gibeah destroyed, but the soldiers who fought to protect them. I don't believe that God intended the entire tribe to be decimated, no matter what, and I don't think the text supports that.

Another possibility that makes perhaps a bit more sense (although doesn't make things look much better) is that God led the men of Israel to do this thing as a form of punishment on them as well as on Benjamin. It hearkens back to Egypt and how once Pharaoh decided he would not let the Israelites go no matter what, God caused him to be hardened in his heart and stick to his guns even to the point of his own ruin. The men of Israel were so dead set on exacting revenge, and were so deeply steeped in sin themselves (if the rest of the book of Judges is any indication) that God said, "Sure! Go ahead and attack! Everyone is going to get exactly what they deserve..." Some people refuse to have faith in the God of the Bible because they pray, and do not get what they ask for, but Psalm 106:15 talks of what may be at times the worst curse that God can ever give someone: "He gave them their request".

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Now will we deal worse with thee, than with them (Judges 19)

Okay, time to get back to it; I've got to finish this book. As some might know, I've been out of work for a while, and it's been hard to focus at times when I feel that every waking moment should be spent in job searching. As it happens, I've also been involved in a Bible study with my church that's been taking up a fair amount of my time, being a bit more involved than the usual sort. This week, the topic of study is "work", which I've volunteered to lead the group on, out of my own love of irony. Of course, as is so often the case, in attempting to be ironic, I've also given myself a wonderful chance to be inspired by the subject matter. Work, wages, and money are big topics in the Bible, but here in Judges 19, we see some far less inspiring subjects touched on.

Now, while the SAB is virtually forced by the horror of this story to finally come back to commenting on the book, I might generously guess here that the shocking events in the latter portion of this chapter distract from legitimate concerns in the early portion of this chapter, and that's why no comments are given until verse 22. In the very first verse, we're introduced to the central characters of this story, a Levite and his concubine. Whatever the technical definition of a "concubine" is--which might be a useful topic of discussion in itself--it's certainly not a wholesome relationship by our modern understanding of the nature of marriage and sexuality, and there seems to be little to support the morality of concubinage anywhere in the Bible either, other than the fact that it is mentioned, which I repeatedly stress is no indication of condoning. Actually, for this story, it is of paramount importance to note that fact; there's pretty much nothing good happening in this story whatsoever.

If there is any lingering suspicion that this might be a wholesome family tale, the very next verse hammers the last nail in that coffin, as we read that "his concubine played the whore against him". Both of these verses should be rightly marked with the topic of "sex", and the SAB, which in other places seems eager to jump on such things, might as well have marked the second with "language", as "played the whore" hardly sounds like Sunday school terminology. (Everyone remember the episode of the Simpsons in which Marge asks the kids what they learned about in Sunday school? Bart replies, "Hell!" Homer chastises Bart for using improper language, but is assured by Lisa that it truly was the subject of the morning. Bart says, "I sure as HELL can't tell you we learned about HELL unless I say HELL, can't I?" Okay, enough Simpsons; the name "Jebus" appears enough in this chapter for any Simpsons fan, anyway...)

So after the Levite goes to get the woman back, and his father in law (His what? The Levite is also referred to as her "husband". I guess there's no alternate terminology for this relationship.) tries to keep the guy from going for several days, but eventually, he sets off. It gets late, and they need to seek shelter for the night, but the Levite insists that seeking shelter in a non-Israelite city is unacceptable. Perhaps this could be tagged with intolerance; he doesn't give his reasons for wanting to avoid the Jebusites, but in the end it he may regret his choice. The Bible doesn't give us insight into the inner workings of this guy's mind at all.

Interestingly, the Bible points out that he enters the city and sits down in the street because nobody offers him hospitality. As I noted in the earlier story in Genesis that bears a great similarity to this chapter, in the Middle East, hospitality is taken very seriously. The fact that he couldn't find a place to stay almost right away is culturally significant. "An old man" coming back from work sees him in the street and asks him what's up, to which he replies (probably in false humility, but once again, I'm only guessing) that although nobody has offered him a place to stay, he has everything he needs, and he's fine with sleeping in the street. The old man insists that sleeping in the street is not a good idea, and urges them to come into his house.

Now the story gets really familiar. A group of local men come to the house and insist to be allowed access to the Levite, "that we may know him." This is pretty clearly understood to mean that they're looking to gang rape this man for whatever reason, and I won't go into the issues that have already been addressed in the similar Genesis story, other than to note that it may be odd that the SAB tags this passage with a lot of topics, but does not include "homosexuality" as in the Genesis passage; as I think I said in the first story, homosexuality in itself is not really the issue here, but this is one of many stories in the Bible that is commonly linked to justification for homophobia, and for that reason alone, it might be worth labeling accordingly. The differing nature of this story lies in various notable details. This guy only has one virgin daughter to offer, and he offers her along with the Levite's concubine! I'm not sure whether we're to take it that this guy is a lousy host, or that the sacred protection of hospitality does not extend to female guests, or that the Levite was fine with this offer. The last of these possibilities seems least likely in many ways, but I actually wouldn't rule out anything. Despite what the note in the SAB says seeming to simply recap the story, there are at least two assumptions in there that need commenting on. First of all, the story does not say that "The mob refuses the daughter, but accepts the concubine..." It actually says that they refuse to listen, so the concubine is brought out to them. I've always imagined that this was a bit of a desperation move on the part of the men in the house to save themselves, hoping that once they actually have one of the women, they'll change their mind. This seems to work, and they have their way with her until the sun comes up.

Now comes what, to some, is the more shocking part of the story (although not to all; I've heard many women say that they'd rather be murdered than gang-raped, and I think I feel the same way), the guy takes the woman back home, chops up her body into twelve pieces and somehow mails these body parts to all the tribes of Israel, apparently with an explanation of what a horrible thing had happened. And here's the second assumption that I have a shocking comment concerning: nowhere in the story does it say "she crawls back to the doorstep and dies." I think people reading this story assume that, in hopes of retaining what few scraps of decency they can from an intrinsically indecent story. Remember how above I said I wouldn't rule out anything? That includes the possibility that the Levite butchered his concubine while she was still alive.

Yes, in reality, I have to say that this story is very likely far more shocking and disgusting than the SAB gives it credit. It's my own personal assumption on this, but consider: why the heck does the first half of this story have such a long telling of the tale of the father in law who is so reluctant to let his daughter go? Why is he trying so hard to keep this guy entertained and in his house rather than allowing him to go home? So many times in the past, I have read this story and wondered, is it an act of great grace that this Levite would take back his concubine after she "played the whore against him"? Are we perhaps to question his morality in being willing to take back a woman who was unfaithful to him, which might not be acceptable in the Mosaic Law? (Sure, there are a lot of Laws being broken in this story, but selective use of the Mosaic Law is common throughout history, even to this day of course.) I'm starting to think that it's much more likely that the Levite went to get his concubine back because he intended to take her home and punish her severely. Note that in the morning he talks to her (indicating to me that she's probably not dead), but shows no sympathy whatsoever for her ordeal (indicating to me that he doesn't care about her well-being).

To quote the SAB:
The story, which must be one of the most disgusting stories ever told, ends with: "consider of it, take advice, and speak your mind."
The SAB feels that anyone reading the story "will immediately reject the idea that it was inspired by God." Well, surprise! I don't. This story, while in God's book, has nothing to do with God, and in many ways, that's the point. The author of Judges is once again trying to imply, whether one agrees or not, that this is exactly the sort of thing one should tend to expect if a nation is given completely over to its own arbitrary morality and turns its back on God. To show the goodness of God's way, the book of Judges gives us this story along with so many others to give us something to contrast with it. Whether you personally agree with this view and/or believe in the God of the Bible, I hope you will agree that this story does show something worthwhile: that morality is not just an arbitrary and relative thing, but a real concern that should grip society. I don't care whether you are a Jew or a Gentile, Christian or atheist, gay or straight, Bible-believer or skeptic; some things are just plain wrong.