Sunday, May 25, 2008

Sex and War, Part 3: Judges 21

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

Whether or not going to war to honour the principle of women's sexual purity is probably debatable, but even so, the following story pretty much proves to me that the issue is once again one of protecting men's sexual and property rights, not one of protecting women, or even avenging them.

The Israelites assemble again at Bethel (the leaders go separately to Mizpah) and some people notice, as they "weep bitterly" about the battle, that one tribe is missing. They ask God why the tragedy has happened. Have they forgotten? They also vow not to give any of their daughters in marriage to the surviving Benjamites (as you may recall, there were a few hundred who managed to survive the fratricidal carnage in the previous chapter).

On the one hand, they want to punish the surviving Benjamites. On the other hand, at least some of those present, by the general crying and moaning, seem to regret indulging in mass murder. They feel sorry and want to somehow make up for their military excesses - today we'd call it ethnic cleansing - by taking care of the survivors. They want the Benjamite tribe to survive, even if in drastically reduced form, as a salve to their own consciences. So they decide on a novel and morally dubious solution.

The Gileadites, a quick count reveals, haven't sent anyone to either the memorial at Bethel or the summit at Mizpah. Therefore, the assembly rules, the Gileadites are no longer Israelites! They mobilize a new army of twelve thousand men and order them into Jabesh Gilead to kill everyone living there - "including the women and children," the Bible specifies helpfully. Only one group is permitted to survive: virgin girls. The army attacks, captures 400 girls, and brings them to the surviving Benjamites as wives.

It's a testament to the creativity of the author of Judges that this episode is not the most morally shocking moment in the chapter. The Israelites have killed the Benjamites, so they want to take care of the survivors. The way to do this is to give them females to have sex with - an incredibly ironic gift given that the war also started when someone gave the Benjamites a woman to have sex with. But they've taken an oath not to give their own daughters to the brothers of rapists. So the solution is to literally vote the Gileadites out of the tribe, thus making them legal foreigners, and thus subject to summary execution. Once they've been executed, there are some sex slaves freed up, which the Israelites can then give to the Benjamites. The morally twisted logic that allows the ritual banishment and complete slaughter of yet another clan simply to free up some unattached women is almost impossible to follow. This chatper doesn't mention the will of God, perhaps because even the author of Judges isn't willing to go so far as to suggest that "the spirit of the Lord" is descending on anyone in this fight.

But it's not enough! Only 400 girls survived the murder of the Gileadites, but there are 600 Benjamite men. So the Israelites need to find another 200 girls.

The elders therefore meet and decide on what can only be described as a covert black op. They note that there's an annual "festival of the Lord" which will be held in Shiloh in a few weeks, in which large numbers of girls are expected to come out and dance in the fields.

Now, the Israelites have agreed not to give their daughters in marriage to the Benjamites - but, the elders reason, abduction followed by marriage doesn't count as breaking the oath. So they secretly tell the Benjamites to wait in the fields and then, when the girls come out to dance and celebrate, rush in and carry off one girl each. In the meantime, the elders will pointedly look the other way. They fully expect other Israelites to be irate when their daughters are kidnapped, but they have an explanation ready: fathers and brothers will be "innocent" because they didn't "give" their daughters to the Israelites, they simply looked the other way while they were abducted and carried off into sex slavery.

Just as the slaughter of the Benjamites is a retelling of Jephthah's slaughter of the Ephraimites, so the abduction of the Israelite virgins is a retelling of Jephthah's sacrifice of his daughter: the author of Judges is spinning out his story once again, trying to make it even more disturbing than the last time. This time, the entire leadership of Israel is complicit. It is quite literally a conspiracy of men against women.

There's no human sacrifice, but in a way, I think he's succeeded anyways. Every moral principle is subverted in this story except for the principle of men's ownership of women: the Israelites claim the non-existent right to banish clans from the nation for the dubious sin of failure to assemble in court (which isn't listed in the detailed commandments of the Torah, and certainly doesn't seem like a valid reason to engage in mass murder against an entire clan). They capture Israelites - women, granted, but still Israelites - as sex slaves, something that in theory can only be done to foreign women. They subvert the festivals of the Lord by using them as a means to engage in mass banditry, kidnapping innocent girls and carting them off into forced marriage. No one seems to care that the women are having their lives ruined in the process. The only things that remain intact in this sad story are men's ownership rights over women's bodies - and men's holy oaths.

When a man makes an oath, it is a sacred and holy thing. Much like in the Jephthah story, everything here can be explained by the Israelites' decision to swear an oath that they would not give their daughters to the surviving Benjamites. After making this foolish oath, they realize they don't want to let the Benjamite tribe die - so the Benjamites need wives. But they can't get wives because of the oath! So, the Israelite elders come up with a variety of creative ways to sneak girls to the Benjamites under the table, so to speak. First, they kill the men of Gilead - and with the men dead, no one is alive to "give" the women in marriage. They are captured, not given, and therefore no one has broken their promise. The price of the oath in this case is the lives of every man and almost every woman in Gilead.

That's not enough, so they plot a mass kidnapping of girls from Shiloh. Once again, the girls are abducted - their taken to marriage, not given by their fathers, and so therefore no one has broken their promise. In this case, however, the price of the oath is even higher: the men of Israel have conspired against the women of Israel and abused God's sacred festivals in order to do it. It is perhaps the most extreme and explicit example of the patriarchy using the divine to legitimize the oppression of women that we have yet come across in the Bible. By making that link the author of Judges also suggests that the men have, in the act of setting themselves against the women, also set themselves against God. On the other hand, God doesn't seem all that interested in coming to the women's defence.