Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bible Commentary - Judges 21

In this final chapter of Judges, the Israelites plunder wives for the surviving men of Benjamin.

We've been going through about 5 chapters now of things that happened "when there was no king in Israel", and this chapter is the grim conclusion to all these stories.

Having murdered all the women and children of Benjamin and sworn to not give them their daughters in marriage, Israel is now mourning because Benjamin will disappear as a tribe if they cannot marry and bear children.  At this point, Israel is trying to figure out how to keep Benjamin from dying out, so they begin by wiping out Jabesh-Gilead and taking 400 virgins from that clan to give to Benjamin.

Israel concludes the best way to solve this "problem" is to have the men of Benjamin go and kidnap women who are dancing in a feast to the LORD that year in Shiloh, in the hill country of Ephraim.  This solves the "problem" of getting wives for Benjamin because the women were not given by their fathers voluntarily, so nobody had to break their vow, and then the other tribes protected Benjamin from the (obviously angry) fathers.

Even though I think Israel did the right thing in the last chapter, in this chapter they obviously drift back into sinful behavior.  The author reminds of us of his disapproval in the last verse, saying that in this time "everyone did what was right in his own eyes."

To some extent, the events of this chapter look wrong to us because of cultural differences.  It was common in the ancient world to take surviving women as plunder after defeating other nations.  For instance, Deuteronomy 21:10-13 discusses how Israel should behave when they see "among the captives a beautiful woman" that they want to take for a wife.  Obviously the woman doesn't get a choice in this arrangement.  Israel behaves similarly towards Jabesh-Gilead, slaughtering all the men and married women and taking the virgins as plunder to give to Benjamin.  On the other hand, Israel is once again destroying their own brothers, the men of Manasseh, in order to find women for Benjamin.

They go even further, encouraging Benjamin to kidnap women from Shiloh, and this has no justification, nor does it represent cultural differences. It is a violation of the law. Exodus 21:16 says, "He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death".  Deuteronomy 24:7 repeats this command in a more detailed way: "If a man is caught kidnapping any of his countrymen of the sons of Israel, and he deals with him violently or sells him, then that thief shall die; so you shall purge the evil from among you."  This is a metaphorical extension of the commandment against stealing, because kidnapping is like "stealing people".

This is exactly what happens to the young women of Shiloh, and the entire congregation of Israel explicitly assents to this behavior.  This is what the author is condemning when he says "there was no king in Israel."  Like I called it before, it is a grim conclusion to a period of anarchy, when Israel behaved as they saw fit and did not regard the Law or the covenant.  I can understand why they wanted to preserve Benjamin as a tribe, but the way they went about it seemed so wrong.  We know it and the author knows it, and that's what the author was trying to show us, how Israel behaves when they don't have a king to unite the tribes together and bind them under the Law of Moses.  The situation that they create by killing nearly all of Benjamin they try to "fix" by encouraging the survivors to go kidnap women from Ephraim.  The author concludes, this is why we need a king, to prevent things like this from happening again.

I also hope my readers see the strong tribal divisions that are revealed by this story.  Benjamin stands with their brothers of Gibeah, resulting in the other tribes nearly destroying Benjamin altogether.  This is another reason why they need a king, to help bring unity to the tribes so that they might stop fighting each other.  This is the second time this has happened in Judges, the first being when Jephthah and the Gileadites (men of Manasseh) fight against and slaughter men of Ephraim in Judges 12, but this time is far more severe, nearly destroying an entire tribe.

Back when we were reading through the Pentateuch, I tried to point out multiple times how different expressions and patterns were designed to emphasize the unity and equality of the twelve tribes.  Things like the pattern of precious stones on the high priests garments (Ex 28), amongst many other things.  The book of Judges is a demonstration of why that was necessary.  Even with the encouragement of the law, the tribes of Israel are still fractious and in periodic conflict.  With a king, it is possible that Israel might finally be unified and work together as a nation.  That's certainly what the author of Judges has in mind, I think.

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