Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Judges: If Killing Broke it, Killing Will Fix it.

Welcome once again to my Bible blog. I hope that you’ve all been well, and are ready to go with the continuation of Judges. When last I posted, I discussed the story of Samson, who made life difficult (and in many cases, short) for the Philistines before inventing the suicide terror attack. Today we press on with some less famous episodes.

So we are told about a man named Micah, who lived in the lands of the tribe of Ephraim. And Micah stole 1,100 pieces of silver from his mother, but then in a fit of guilt he gave it back to her and confessed to taking it. His mother is so unreasonably grateful to get the money back that she forgets to be mad at Micah for taking it, and instead blesses him in the name of God and sets 200 pieces of silver aside to be cast into an idol dedicated to God (which, of course, is an explicitly forbidden practice, but I’m fairly sure these next few stories are only meant to illustrate how bad the Israelites became at following the law during the time of the judges). She gave the idol to Micah for his own household.

Micah set up a shrine in his house, with the idol and his own household gods, and ordained his son to be his household priest. But one day a traveling Levite from Bethlehem stopped in seeking shelter, and Micah hired him to be the household priest instead. He figured having a Levite priest would be an upgrade, and thus God would bless him more.

Now, you may recall a very brief mention earlier about the tribe of Dan having had a bit of trouble establishing themselves in the promised land. Well, in the time of Micah, we’re told that they still haven’t established their own tribal lands, and they’re looking for a place to call their own. So they send out five men to scout about and find a likely place. These men happen to come by Micah’s house, and they recognize the Levite. They ask him to tell them whether their mission will be a success, and the Levite assures them that God is looking out for them.

So the Danite scouts continue on their way and come to the land of Laish. The inhabitants are peaceful, prosperous, isolated, and unsuspecting. In other words, perfect victims for a band of marauding barbarians. So the Danites rush back home to inform the rest of their tribe of this great opportunity. The Danites muster up 600 fighting men to invade Laish.

On the way to Laish, the army stops at the house of Micah. Where they just march right in and steal Micah’s silver idol, household gods, and ceremonial garb. When the Levite confronts them, they just invite him to come along and be their priest, since it would be much cooler to be priest to an entire tribe than to just one guy. The Levite buys this reasoning, and “his heart was glad,” so he joined in the theft and happily abandoned the man we’re told thought of him as a son.

When Micah discovers the theft and chases after the Danites, they basically tell him to shut the fuck up and go home, or they’ll kill him and all his household.

After that, the Danites went to Laish, killed all the inhabitants, and took up residence in their city which they renamed Dan.

The Bible then moves on to a separate story featuring a different Levite and his concubine. This is very much like the story of Lot, except without any angels involved and told as justification for Israelite-on-Israelite genocide rather than God smiting a city.

See, the Levite was from the hill country in Ephraim, but his concubine was from Bethlehem in Judah. And one day she got so pissed at him that she moved out and went back home to her father’s house in Bethlehem. After a couple months, he went to find her and beg her to take him back. His sweet-talking ways woo her back, and after a brief interlude where her father keeps trying to entice the Levite to stay longer, they start back to the Levite’s home in Ephraim.

As an aside, throughout this story the Bible refers to the Levite as being, variously, the woman’s master and her husband. It also refers to his relationship with her father as son-in-law. But the woman is consistently called only his concubine, never his wife. And this isn’t the first time such vagaries have occurred. So I’m just going to throw my hands up and declare that I have no idea what the fuck the Bible considers to be a marriage. You would think that, for all the hoopla people make about “Biblical marriage,” the actual fucking Bible would have actually fucking defined it somewhere.

But anyway, on the way home to Ephraim, it starts to get late. The Levite’s servant suggests they stop at Jerusalem, but the Levite refuses because it’s still controlled by Jubusites (who are not Israelites). Instead they move on to a town called Gibeah, which belongs to the tribe of Benjamin. Since nobody offers them hospitality, they start to set up camp in the town square.

Here’s where the similarity to Lot starts. A man coming in from his work in the fields spots the Levite and strikes up a conversation. Turns out he was originally from Ephraim too, and he offers to let the Levite and his people stay the night at his place. They accept his offer, but soon the men of Gibeah start gathering around the house, beating on the door and demanding that the man send out the Levite so they can have sex with him. And much like Lot, the host bravely offers up his virgin daughters to be raped instead. He’s even willing to throw his guest’s concubine into the deal. But here’s where things get hairy, because unlike in the story of Lot, the man’s guest isn’t an angel who can divinely intervene to keep everyone safe.

Jdg 19:25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine and made her go out to them. And they knew her and abused her all night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go.”

So the Levite gets up in the morning and gets ready to leave, and it’s kind of hard to tell whether he was unaware of the ruckus the night before, or simply uncaring. But as he goes to depart, he discovers his concubine collapsed in the doorway at the front of the house.

Jdg 19:28 He said to her, ‘Get up, let us be going.’ But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey, and the man rose up and went away to his home.”

Sounds terribly broken up. And in case it wasn’t clear, she died. Or at least, I hope so, since the first thing he did when he got home was cut her up into twelve pieces and send bits of her to every corner of Israel.

And that got some people riled up, let me tell you! So much so that they put together an army of 400,000 people to come punish the inhabitants of Gilead. But the Benjaminites weren’t having any of it, and insisted on defending their own people from the horde by mustering their own army of 26,000. For some odd reason, the Israelites decided to start out the battle piecemeal by sending one tribe at a time to fight the Benjaminites, and God chose the tribe of Judah to go first. They marched out and got their asses roundly kicked, losing 22,000 men in a single day’s fighing (yes, I know these numbers are absurd, but I didn't write it). They asked God if they really ought to try again the next day, he told them yes, and then they lost a further 18,000. So they asked God if they should try again, and he told them yes, but promised that this time he’d let them win.

So the next day they rolled out and, using the exact same strategy Joshua used to defeat the city of Ai (See the Book of Joshua), they defeated the Benjaminites. And in their customary show of graciousness in victory, they proceeded to kill every man, woman, and child in the tribe of Benjamin, except for about 600 men who fled the fighting.

Then, suddenly, it dawned on them that perhaps they shouldn’t completely wipe out one of their own tribes. But now they had a new problem: there were only 600 Benjaminites left alive, all men, and somewhere along the line the Israelites had sworn that they wouldn’t give any of their own daughters as wives to any Banjaminites.

So they took a quick census of themselves and realized that nobody from the city of Jabesh-gilead had come to join their massive vengeance horde. And they said “Ah-ha! These people didn’t take our stupid oath! Perhaps we can persuade them to provide wives for the surviving Benjaminites!”

And when I say “They said ‘Perhaps they can be persuaded to provide wives for the surviving Benjaminites,’” what I really mean is “Without any preamble or negotiation whatsoever, they sent a large force of men to attack Jabesh-gilead, kill every man, woman, and child, and steal the virgin girls so they could force them to marry the Benjaminites.” Because in the Bible, any problem created by combining stupidity with mass killings can also be solved by combining stupidity with mass killings.

Though, as it turns out, a little bit of kidnapping would be required as well. Because slaughtering the people of Jabesh-gilead (who, I feel it should be pointed out, were fellow Israelites) only netted them 400 virgin brides, so there was still a shortage of breeding stock for the 600 Benjaminites. The leftover men had to find brides somewhere else.

Then someone remembered that the city of Shiloh had an annual festival dedicated to God during which the unmarried women would go out dancing in the fields. So they suggested just having the unmarried Benjaminites kidnap all the girls who went out dancing. And if the people of Shiloh should happen to object then everyone else could just tell them to shut the hell up, because the kidnappings get them around their oath not to give their daughters to Benjaminites since, technically, they will have been stolen. So that’s just what they did.

And that brings us to the end of Judges. The last line is:

Jdg 21:25 In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

Which could be read as a lamentation at the behavior displayed in the book. And actually, it’s a repetition of a line that appeared right at the start of the story of Micah, so perhaps it’s meant to be critical of the behaviors bracketed by the two appearances of the line (i.e. pretty much everything in this post). It would be easier to buy that if there weren’t lines where God is seen to expressly, or by implication, approve some of the worst behavior. But no matter.

Next time we’ll be starting the Book of Ruth. And probably finishing it as well – it’s only four chapters long, and seems to exist only to establish the origins of the family from which King David would descend. Until then, you be well!

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