Saturday, May 24, 2008

Sex and War, Part 2: Judges 20

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

The Levite has had his property violated, and it's time for revenge. The Israelites, in response to his rather provocative decision to cut up her body and send it around Israel on a grand tour, mobilize the largest army ever assembled in the Bible (at least the largest actually counted in a single show of force): four hundred thousand men-at-arms. The Levites denounces the Benjamites' rape of his woman as "lewd and disgraceful," conveniently omitting from his story that he was the one who gave her to the mob to begin with. The assembled force agrees to march on Gibeah and demand that the Benjamites surrender the rapists.

The Benjamites mobilize their own force, though at 26 000 swordsmen it's only a fraction of the size of the Israelites'. The Bible makes the effort to say that 700 of these men were left-handed, which apparently made them excellent stone-slingers. They refuse to surrender the guilty men.

The Israelites respond by attacking, though apparently they really suck in battle. They get trounced twice, then retreat to Bethel for much prayer, fasting, and sacrifices to God in front of the Ark of the Covenant. Aaron's grandson Phinehas, who must be very old by now but apparently is considerably more righteous than Moses's grandson, the professional priest-for-hire described a couple chapters ago. Phinehas preaches holy war against the Benjamites in God's name, and this time God tells them to try again, and promises to "give over" the Benjamites.

This time, God answes their prayers in full. The Israelites then besiege Gibeah, and after losing an initial skirmish, they lure the Benjamite army into an ambush and kill almost the entire force. The Benjamite army thus disposed of, the Israelites storm Gibeah and murder everyone in the city. Six hundred Benjamites flee into the desert and survive as a sort of guerrilla force, but while they hide, the Israelite army sweeps back and forth through Benjamite territory, killing everyone they can find and destroying every city.

Here, after the cynicism about the priesthood in the previous story, we have some counterbalancing praise of the priesthood. The Israelite army actually asks God for advice twice before going to Bethel, and on both occasions the Benjamites defeat them handily. Forty thousand Israelites - ten percent of their army - is killed in these fights. God responded, and sent Israelites to their deaths. It is only when the priesthood intervenes that the divine will can be realized.

It would be easy to draw a simplistic moral lesson about the importance of truly turning our hearts to God - and in fact that is what is done by commentaries like this one, to cite one chosen just by my quick Google search just now, which proves that many Christians are in desperate need of a moral compass.

On the one hand, it's a thrilling tale of Israelite solidarity. A woman is raped in an appalling act of violence - and so the entire nation rises up in vengeance. On the other hand, that vengeance is based on a Levite's testimony, and he actively deceives them about what has happened. Even if he didn't deceive them, execution in capital punishment (according to the laws way back in Numbers and Deuteronomy) requires the testimony of multiple witnesses. Only the Levite testifies. Therefore according to the laws, this campaign would be illegal even if the slaughter was limited to the guilty parties.

And the slaughter isn't limited to the guilty parties. The Israelites respond by destroying every single person in the Benjamite tribe, except for those who escape into the desert as armed refugees. The nation of Israel is falling apart, and even though most of Judges is concerned with foreign invasions, the real damage is being done to themselves. The Gileadites kill 42 000 Ephraimites, and the other Israelites kill almost all the Benjamites. That makes two tribes down now.

Tellingly, God is silent when it comes to the slaughter of the civilian Benjamites. This is in some ways an exaggerated repetition of the story of Gideon, where God appeared to bless the military to begin with, but then let it rampage through Israelite towns without offering either guidance or protest; or the story of Jephthah, where much the same thing happened when the army raised to kill Ammonites ended up killing Ephraimites. The military is a dangerous weapon. God blesses the army, but it still cannot be trusted not to lose control and engage in unnecessary bloodbaths.