Old Testament Adventures: Israel’s First Civil War

Before we jump into the next phase of the “Israel With No Judges” story, let’s say a brief word about the standard form of the stories in Judges.  It’s actually pretty simple:

  1. Israel stops worshipping God and worships Canaanite stuff instead.
  2. Israel becomes morally abominable.
  3. Israel is oppressed by enemies until they realize what they have done.
  4. Israel cries out to God for help, and He sends them a judge.

That cycle should seem pretty familiar given the stories we’ve been reading most recently.  Micah and the Levite is a classic case of the first stage, while the Levite and his concubine are a classic case of the second stage.  Whenever I go back and fill in the tales of the Judges, it’ll show up even more clearly.

But here, in Chapters 20-21, the narrator serves up a great twist on the theme, because Israel is not crushed by another tribe this time.  No, this time, they crush themselves.  It’s time for a civil war!

Following immediately upon the horrific Crime at Gibeah, the tribes of Israel decide they must have justice against the wicked men of Gibeah.  So far, so good.  The problem is that the entire tribe of Benjamin rallies against the Israelites and insists that no one will lay a hand on their kin.  The 12 tribes are breaking apart into twelve nations turned against each other.

Adamant that justice must be done (hey, we’re on the right track!) the eleven tribes marshal for war against Benjamin.  Sad, but necessary…except that that don’t just beat Benjamin and then work justice on Gibeah.  After a fairly interesting battle that you can read for yourself, the Israelites get carried away and pursue a campaign of almost total genocide until hardly any Benjaminites are left.

Eventually (meaning, chapter 21) they realize that they’ve done their work a little too well and Benjamin is likely to vanish from the earth.  Well it’s not called the eleven tribes of Israel, people!  So they decide they need to help the Benjaminites repopulate.  There’s just one teensy little problem: before the war, they swore an oath never to allow their daughters to marry a Benjaminite!

Again: DON’T SWEAR STUPID OATHS!

For the remainder of the book of Judges, the Israelites have to find ways around their oath so that Benjamin can be saved as a tribe without making all Israel into oath-breakers.  The first solution is an interesting (?) one: they discover that a town in Gilead, Jabesh-Gilead, sent no soldiers to help in the war against Benjamin.  Unacceptable!  So they kill all the men of that town and give all the women to the Benjaminites for wives (???).  Ok, that makes a certain amount of ancient world sense I guess.

But is it enough wives?  No, and so the men of Israel work up one of the silliest “we’re not really breaking our oath” loopholes you’ll ever see.  Giving daughters away to Benjamin?  No way!  But what if they were kidnapped?

So at the harvest festival of Shiloh, where it is the custom of the daughters of Israel to dance in the fields at night under the watchful care of their families, the men of Israel “accidentally” leave the girls unattended and declare in a loud voice how terrible it would be if anyone should come along and find these girls unguarded.  They all go inside worrying about what terrible things might happen, what sort of kidnappings could, God forbid, go down, and bury themselves in their cups til dawn.

I’m not sure how long it took the men of Benjamin to really believe that they were being given an invitation.  I imagine they waited and argued with each other in anxious whispers for quite some time.  But when the men of Shiloh rise in the morning, crushed by a hangover, their daughters are all gone—kidnapped, no doubt, by stealthy enemies who are long gone and how could we ever find them now.  Oh well.

And so was saved Benjamin.

This is what happens when humans break commandments, swear stupid oaths, and then try to fix bad situations on their own.  There’s something hilarious about how ineptly evil we are…and sad, and outrageous.  And that’s life without YHWH.  It’s not a pretty picture.  The entire lesson of the book of Judges is that the Israelites’ only hope is to follow God and keep the covenant…and that when God sends Judges to bring them back to the narrow path, it only lasts so long before everyone screws it all up.  The cycle of sin and stupidity is not improving; it is, in fact, getting much worse.

The Israelites draw the only reasonable conclusion: they need a king, just like the Canaanites!

Sigh.

There is a post-script silver lining to all this depravity, by the way.  It’s the book of Ruth.  Ruth should almost certainly just be read as a self-contained “Judges 22-25” addendum.  The famine that drives Naomi from Israel is the typical divine punishment for rampant immortality by degenerate Israelites.  More importantly, Judges 17-21 makes the sweet tale of Ruth a tale of divine intervention.

On it’s own, apart from context, it’s remarkable that the virtuous Moabite, Ruth, stumbles upon a virtuous Israelite, Boaz, to care for her.  It’s dangerous being a woman in the ancient world!  But place their story in the context of the cluster…mess of Judges 17-21, and their tale becomes downright miraculous.  We’ve just read tales of what happens to women in that land of abominations…but God provides.  And from that virtuous union of Jew and Gentile?

King David.

Read more Old Testament.

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