Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Abomination and Desolation (Judges 17-21)

Judges ends with one of the most horrible stories in the Bible. A Levite is traveling with his concubine in the territory of Benjamin. It’s getting late, so they decide to take refuge in a town called Gibeah. A kind man (an Ephraimite himself) takes the couple into his house. After dark, a group of thugs gathers outside the house, demanding the Ephraimite bring out his guest so they can rape him. His reply is an almost exact quote of Lot in Sodom:
No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly; since this man has come into my house, do not do this vile thing. Behold, here are my virgin daughter and his concubine. Let me bring them out now. Violate them and do with them what seems good to you, but against this man do not do this outrageous thing.
There is no angel this time to intercede. The concubine (not the daughter) is actually thrown out to the men to be raped and abused all night long, so that the Levite can escape unharmed.

How terrible! It’s hard to say what is more disgusting to me – the ravenous cruelty of the crowd or the cowardly misogyny of the Levite. I guess this is one of the things that continually appalls me about the ancient world - the utter absence of the concept of chivalry. I wonder when people started to consider it a virtue? Could it be that it was lacking until St. Paul talked of the husband loving his wife as Christ does his Church, giving his own life for her? Anyway, the story goes on:
And her master rose up in the morning, and when he opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, behold, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. 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. And when he entered his house, he took a knife, and taking hold of his concubine he divided her, limb by limb, into twelve pieces, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. And all who saw it said, “Such a thing has never happened or been seen from the day that the people of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt until this day; consider it, take counsel, and speak.”
The similarity of this story to that of Sodom is no accident. The implication is clear. A town in Israel has become every bit as wicked as the city that God himself consumed with fire and brimstone. The tribes assemble and vow that the men responsible for this abomination must be destroyed.

Thus begins a war against Benjamin. Gibeah is assaulted twice, but the Israelites are repelled with heavy losses. In anguish, they beg the Lord for help. Assured of eventual victory, they use a strategy identical to Joshua’s attack on Ai. First, they feign retreat, drawing the men of the city after them. Then, a second group runs into the city and sets it ablaze. Once the pursuing Benjaminites realize what is happening, and begin to turn back toward the city, the first army turns and attacks full force. The Benjaminites are surrounded and slaughtered.

In the days that follow, nearly all the tribe of Benjamin is annihilated. And now the men of Israel are upset. Never before has an entire tribe of Israel been lost. They decide to secure wives and provide protection for the few survivors (though not without wholesale slaughter of another tribe’s city to make this possible), so that the Benjamin will eventually recover.

The whole series of events is overwhelming, shocking, and sickening. We are left with a terrible realization. Cities in Israel are now being destroyed in exactly the same manner that the Lord had them destroy those of the former inhabitants. Rather than filling the earth with a people more numerous than the stars in the sky, one of the tribes is now near extinction. The whole project seems to be spinning down into oblivion. If ever Israel needed a savior, it is now.

I've decided that the whole thing, with Judah leading the people against Benjamin is a crypto-endorsement of the Davidic kingship which only came about after the suffering failure by God's true anointed.

Of course, this makes it a thinly veiled allusion to the two days of defeat Jesus seemed to endure at the hands of death before vanquishing that foe on the third fateful day.

Ok, so I haven't actually "decided" that, but it makes for good, Matthean revisionist hermeneutics!

Hah! I love it!

In various classes I took in college that studied the Classics, my professor pointed out to us that hospitality is the foundation of civilization, that without it civilization is impossible. Homer, for example, makes the value of hospitality evident throughout his works.

So in this story and the one of Lot you have these men faced with a huge hospitality dilema, and I think it's important not to brush over it's importance. They were faced with a crisis as the great principle of hospitality was threatened. They had three choices: get killed fighting the mob, surrender the guest under their roof to the mob, or find another sollution. In both stories, the virgin daughter or concubine seemed the most honorable third way.

It seems to me that we have a case of weighing two values--the value of hospitality and the value of the sanctity of women--and choosing the former over the latter. The host may even feel sacrificial in that; he is footing the cost by sacrificing his daughter for the sake of his guest. I don't say that condesendingly; he is paying a great cost for a great ideal.

So it seems that where God differs from Lot and the host in this passage is that he is always valuing the weak, as Judges already echoes in the stories of Gideon and of the woman with a millstone. Chivalry, perhaps, can only be born among a people who value the weak, the followers of the God of the underdog.

That's an important point, Em, but I don't know that I want to let the Levite off the hook that easily. After all, it wasn't the man's daughter that got thrown out to the mob; it was the Levite's concubine. I suppose he's doing his part to be a good guest, but still...

I just find it interesting that to the modern feminist it seems the world before universal suffrage was this monolithic oppressive thing. Against this, it's interesting to contrast the assumptions of antiquity with chivalry (which seems to me to be a distinctly Christian ideal - though I may be wrong).

Anyway, this issue is rather incidental to the story. There's no question that the Levite does indeed love his concubine (after a fashion), and the other tribes are outraged enough to nearly kill off Benjamin for it. It's just one of those winds from the past that our senses are particularly... um... sensitive to.

I actually like the Chivalry comment. Would have to digest it for a while, though.

This passage is far beyond my understanding.
The Levite seems despicable and heartless to his concubine, where do you get that he loved her?
I suppose the greater good that came about was the cleansing of gross sin in Israel. But it's not clear any of the ways things were handled were God's way, and it sure would be nice if God would say what they SHOULD have done. Do you think he wanted the levite to cut up the concubine's body as a nice visual aid to the other tribes?

I said "after a fashion". He loved her enough to pursue her and take her back even when she had been unfaithful, and was so upset by her death that he aroused all the tribes to get revenge. But he obviously didn't love her in the sort of way that would require laying down his life for her. It was a very different time, and I'm glad I don't live back then (certainly as someone's concubine!).

I suppose it was more like a prized precious possession - like a golden painting that your father painted. Say you are on a ship, and the whole thing is sinking, and you throw the painting overboard in an attempt to save your life. No one would accuse you of not loving the painting - because if the ship was lost the painting would be to. Similarly, if the men killed the Levite, his concubine would surely be forfeit as well.

So this is a sort of love, but not the love that Jesus and St. Paul spoke of.

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