Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Order in Disorder

The book of Judges records some of the most distasteful tales in all of scripture, and does so unflinchingly and without a great deal of unnecessary editorializing. There is much we can learn about human nature from the first few hundred years of Israel’s possession of the land God had promised to Abraham, almost all of it predictably bad. Few would dispute that the book ends on the lowest of low notes, with the oft-repeated declaration that “In those days there was no king in Israel” and the rare editorial conclusion, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

As we might expect, everyone’s “right” turned out to be spectacularly wrong.

Gibeah Recapitulates Sodom

The three-chapter series of events that leads up to these words is exquisitely awful on so many different levels it is hard to keep track. The number of direct commands and moral principles violated in these chapters pales in comparison to Israel’s mind-boggling lack of comprehension of the character of the God they claimed to worship and the spirit of the Law of Moses they purported to obey. Even the “good guys” are often bad guys. Any reader sufficiently naive to imagine that moral, elegantly designed laws will inevitably produce good character in the general population finds himself repeatedly disabused of the notion in these pages.

Judges 19-21 tells the tale of a Levite living in the tribal territory of Ephraim, and his concubine, who has left him to return to her father’s house. He travels to Judah hoping to win her back, and succeeds in convincing her to return to Ephraim with him. However, this requires traveling through the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, and necessitates spending a night in the city of Gibeah, where they find shelter in the home of a fellow Ephraimite. The house is shortly surrounded by depraved Benjamites intent on making sport of the male traveler, who narrowly escapes homosexual gang rape by forcing his understandably reluctant concubine to take his place, rendering moot any further discussion of why the poor woman left him in the first place. She is quite literally ravaged to death by the mob and left on the doorstep.

The Trouble with Normal ...

But this is just the beginning of the body count. Returning home the next day with the corpse of his concubine, the Levite then chops her into pieces, packages up her severed body parts and has them distributed throughout the land. This abomination is sufficient to stir the other tribes to action against Benjamin, who elect to back the men of Gibeah against the armies of the entire nation, plunging Israel into civil war.

Remarkably, the much larger Israelite army is repeatedly repelled by the pugnacious Benjamites until they are finally driven to seek God and humble themselves, taking responsibility for their own moral failings. After doing so, they are finally enabled to conquer Benjamin and burn its cities, indiscriminately annihilating its women and children and leaving a comparative handful of survivors, all male. Phew!

Not done yet. Wishing to avoid the stigma of having wiped an entire tribe of their own relatives off the face of the earth, the conquering Israelite majority acknowledges the pressing need to find new wives for these 600 Benjamite soldiers. For the sake of brevity, let’s just say the means by which they accomplish this is as questionable as most of their other choices. Benjamin then rebuilds its towns and begins to repopulate its territory, hopefully chastened by the experience, while the rest of Israel returns home. On this less-than-uplifting note, Judges closes with the aforementioned terse observation about what happens when men are allowed to define morality for themselves.

Events Out of Order

What is most interesting to me about this episode is that while it gives us both the spiritual nadir and narrative climax for the book of Judges, it is manifestly out of sequence historically. The events retold in Judges are not given to us in chronological order — at least, this one is not.

Rather than coming at the end of the period when Judges governed Israel, the culling of the Benjamites actually occurred over 300 years prior; before Samson, Jephthah, Gideon and many others lived, fought and ruled. We know this because the priest who inquired of the Lord on behalf of the Israelites when they fought against Benjamin was Phinehas “the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron”, apparently the same man commended by God for driving a spear through a rebellious fellow Israelite and his Midianite consort in the book of Numbers, who later went to war against Midian, who is mentioned repeatedly in the book of Joshua, and who for his efforts on behalf of his people was bequeathed an entire town in the hill country of Ephraim.

In short, if Phinehas was still alive during the Benjamite fiasco, it must have occurred within a few years of Israel first taking possession of Canaanite territory.

A Possible Objection

Now, of course, as Bible historians are fond of telling us, many characters have similar names, and the words “son of” often denote a more remote descendant. So perhaps the Phinehas mentioned in the final chapters of Judges is not the Phinehas of Numbers and Joshua. After all, Eli, who lived hundreds of years after the original Phinehas, named one of his sons Phinehas too.

But this suggestion doesn’t help us much. The book of Judges rolls right through Ruth into 1 Samuel without significant interruption or a great many intervening years. Quite early on in 1 Samuel, we find Israel’s first king is, of all things, a Benjamite. Even more surprising, he is specifically said to be a Benjamite from Gibeah.

It is difficult but not impossible to imagine public sentiment in Israel turning on a dime such that they would accept a man from Gibeah as their king only a few decades after the tribe of Benjamin had provoked a civil war and caused the death of tens of thousands of their Israelite brothers. Weirder things have happened. But Saul seems a much more plausible choice if 300 years had passed, wouldn’t you think?

The Repopulation Problem

Moreover, it is quite impossible that Saul’s coronation as king could have occurred only a generation or so after the culling of Benjamin. There simply wasn’t enough time between the two events to allow the tribe to repopulate its territory. It is well established throughout the books of Samuel and Kings that while the tribe of Benjamin was still the smallest in Israel in David’s day, it already had “clans” to speak of, and posed a formidable political presence and vigorous fighting force. More than a few Benjamites were thorns in David’s side both before and during his reign. To become so prominent in only a few years from a starting point of 600 brand new families seems highly unlikely.

Even more tellingly, not a single mention of the office of Judge is made throughout chapters 19-21 of Judges, though it is to a Judge that the aggrieved Levite would have most logically appealed, had one existed to appeal to. Instead, the tribes are seen acting through their chiefs and elders in these chapters, just as they did immediately after Joshua’s death.

Dispensing with Historical Chronology

For all these reasons, then, it appears that the writer of Judges 19-21 dispensed with historical chronology in his last few chapters. It seems reasonable to ask why he might do such a thing. Here are a few suggestions:
  1. The Bible is not primarily a history book.  Scripture is full of history, but it is always history with a definite purpose. The abundance of apocryphal Old Testament-era writings remind us how much of Israel’s history the Bible leaves out: it is literally hundreds of years’ worth. Why? Because the message the Holy Spirit desired to send to the world is most effectively made through the events he has preserved for us. The things he did not preserve are redundant or irrelevant to God’s purposes, though they are certainly of great interest to Jewish scholars. The same principle holds true with respect to the order in which these events in Judges and elsewhere are retold: their arrangement is not strictly linear, but this is a deliberate choice on the part of the writer. It is not a failure of historical accuracy.
  2. When you put like things side by side, their connection becomes more obvious.  A story about the Benjamites and Gibeah placed in chronological order would have been just one of many similarly-themed tales in Judges. But Judges is not organized that way. Because the story of Israel’s first civil war has been placed where it is (right next to the first chapters of Samuel), the attentive reader has difficulty missing the obvious: that God chose Israel’s first king from a tribe well-known for its effectiveness in battle and survival against all odds, but saddled with a well-deserved track record of impetuousness, brutal violence and a tin ear where the voice of God was concerned. Saul came with all the standard Benjamite equipment, both good and bad. (The probability that we are looking at a deliberate juxtaposition of related events increases when we consider the original Hebrew book order, which has the combined books of Samuel immediately following Judges, while Ruth is included in a different grouping.)
  3. The organization of Judges is both thematic and climactic.  If Judges is not linear in its history, and if that reordering of events was deliberate, it follows that the writer organized the book thematically rather than chronologically. In fact, this is the case: the book methodically draws attention to the desperate need for someone to both shepherd and restrain God’s people. The Law of Moses was a great thing, but it required consistent interpretation and enforcement. “There was no king in Israel,” says the writer of Judges, over and over again as the book builds to its climax. In chapter 17, this means the divinely ordained priesthood was in disrepair: Israelites kept idols and anyone could be made a priest. In chapter 18, this means might made right: the tribe of Dan took whatever they pleased, be it property or land, simply because they could. In chapter 19, it means all pretense of civility and morality had been abandoned: the breakdown of Israelite society was well underway. In chapters 20 and 21, it means brother killed brother and the contrivances of clever men replaced the search for God’s will.
Once we observe thematic organization in Judges, we will not be surprised to find that the story which most effectively serves the Holy Spirit’s narrative of decline, debauchery and rampant individualism is also the climax of the book.

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