Sunday, February 07, 2021

The Ironic Ending

Not all friendships get off on the right foot.

One of my best buddies in high school was a skinny longhair with similar tastes in pop music. But Terry and I met under less than ideal circumstances. Another student had a serious grudge against me and was determined to make my early high school life as miserable as possible; however, he wasn’t quite sure he had it in him to handle a six foot 200 pounder on his own. So, one day after school, he and his hulking sidekick chased me into the nearby woods. On the way, they drafted Terry to help out.

We crashed through the underbrush for what seemed like miles, but was really only hundreds of yards. Tiring quickly, and desperate to avoid having to fight on three sides at once, I found my way into the thickest part of the forest where it was impossible for more than one of them to come at me at any given time.

So who got sent into the bush after me? Terry, of course.

Huffing and Puffing

Out of sight of the others, Terry whispered that he had nothing against me and didn’t really want to fight. So we took turns huffing, puffing, groaning, shouting and hitting the surrounding trees with broken branches for a few minutes, scratched ourselves up a bit, and muddied up my jacket. After a while the whole deception started to get funny, and we were stifling our laughter by the time Terry emerged looking the worse for wear to find that the other two had gotten bored and had decided to go make trouble elsewhere.

Terry and I went back to his place to listen to music, and I went home a few hours later with a bunch of his eight track tapes, which tells you how long ago this was.

But, yeah, not all friendships start off on the right foot.

Israel and Judah

The history of Israel and Judah is a fascinating study. David, Israel’s second king, was from the more dominant, numerous and historically significant tribe of Judah, while Israel’s first king, Saul, had hailed from the comparatively tiny tribe of Benjamin.

What Benjamin lacked in size it certainly made up in pugnacity. “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf”, prophesied the original Benjamin’s dad, and so it came to be. Benjamin the tribe was also inordinately insular and clannish, willing to defend its own even when its own were dead wrong. In the time of the judges all Israel went to war against Benjamin to the point of near-annihilation, a tragedy that could easily have been prevented with a few concessions or some judicious politicking on Benjamin’s part. That wasn’t about to happen. Good fighters, but a truculent bunch.

Grudge-Bearing and Rebellion

Benjamites also had a near-insatiable capacity for grudge-bearing and rebellion. Having once had the headship of the nation, the tribe of Benjamin seemed entirely unable to concede that it was God’s righteous judgment that had stripped not just Saul but Benjamin of the kingdom and all the perks that went with it. And there were perks for the entire tribe: when Saul needed an army commander, he naturally chose a Benjamite and a family member. He probably did the same sort of thing for other relatives.

But it was God who had passed final judgment on the original Benjamite leadership of Israel, not David. And it was the Philistines who killed Saul and most of his sons, not David. David did everything he could to preserve Saul’s family — quite the counterintuitive move in a day when it was de rigueur to consolidate one’s grip on the throne by wiping out the bloodline of every conceivable challenger.

He got no thanks for that. For the tribe of Benjamin, it was a whole lot easier to blame David and to look for every opportunity to undermine him.

Bloodshed and Division

So then, while David was being anointed king in Judah, the Benjamite commander of Saul’s army was proclaiming Saul’s remaining son king over the rest of Israel. Division and bloodshed resulted. Interestingly, though Abner made Ish-bosheth king over “all Israel”, it was primarily Benjamites who fought to establish Ish-bosheth’s kingdom.

This unjustified sense of Benjamite entitlement persisted throughout David’s reign, even after he was finally able to consolidate the kingdom. When opening the unification negotiations with David, Abner boldly asked him, “To whom does the land belong?” Evidently he thought it still belonged to him and to his tribe.

Then, when David fled Jerusalem in Absalom’s insurrection, who was the first to heap fuel on the fire? Of course it was a Benjamite, a fellow named Shimei, the son of Gera. He threw stones at David and cursed, “Get out, get out, you man of blood, you worthless man!” Years of wise and effective leadership from David had not sated Benjamin’s misplaced hatred. At the first opportunity, the Benjamite grudge reared its ugly head.

Rebellion and Recriminations

Immediately Absalom’s rebellion was put down, yet another rebellion arose. And guess who was behind it? Right. That would be “a worthless man, whose name was Sheba, the son of Bichri, a Benjamite”. This particular rebellion was put down near-bloodlessly, but only because a wise woman from the tribe of Naphtali brokered a peace arrangement in which only rebellious Sheba lost his life.

Finally, Psalm 7 records David going through an agony of self-examination before God. At this point it should hardly surprise us to find that it is verbal abuse from “Cush, a Benjamite” that prompts these recriminations. David stands accused of repaying his friends with evil and plundering his enemy without cause, something of which he believes he is not guilty.

So then, when David’s kingdom struggled internally and when David struggled personally, it was almost always Benjamites who were to blame.

Missing the Point

This back-and-forth rivalry between Judah and Benjamin and the bloodshed to which it led are features of the books of Samuel entirely obvious to attentive readers. I was not among their number, having missed the major theme of tribal politics probably the first ten times I read through these great books of history. I was caught up in the more personal elements of the story, and predisposed from years of exposure to Sunday school curriculum and “relevant” youth group studies to look for the application to my own life rather than at the broader messages of the Old Testament. It took repeated readings for some of the books’ more subtle lessons to drop.

All well and good, you say, but where’s the ironic ending?

Well, after eighty years or so under the house of David and the tribe of Judah, ten tribes saw fit to abandon the worthy project of a united Israelite kingdom and reject the rule of the Davidic line. So the people of Israel told David’s grandson, “What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, David.” And Israel went to their tents, says the writer of the book of Kings.

Here Comes the Irony

So now here comes the irony. Guess which tribe it was out of all Israel that stayed aligned with Judah? You’ve got it: Benjamin, who had been a thorn in Judah’s side for more than forty years out of that period. Parts of other tribes, and individuals discontented with Jeroboam’s abandonment of temple worship and the moral values of the Davidic and Solomonic kingdoms would later join them, but Benjamin was the only tribe to stick with Judah from the very start, the only tribe to remain loyal to the house of David. Benjamin would remain part of the kingdom (and later the nation) of Judah right up until the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70.

Isn’t that fascinating? The peculiarities of human nature and group dynamics are endlessly mysterious to me. I am admittedly reading between the lines here, but I can only conclude that David’s repeated acts of generosity, forgiveness and fairness toward the tribe of Benjamin, and his steadfast refusal to return evil for evil, eventually broke down their natural antipathy toward David and Judah, and produced in them an unconditional loyalty to the house of David. Solomon would learn this lesson from his father, writing “A soft tongue will break a bone” and “A soft answer turns away wrath”, both of which thoughts anticipate the teaching of the New Testament writers about personal relations, and that of the Lord himself.

Lessons for the People of God

But it also suggests some other things about our own interpersonal battles with our brothers in Christ today which may be worth remembering:
  • Not all good relationships start well.
  • A bad relationship doesn’t have to be bad forever.
  • Conflict often helps us discover other people’s good points if we are open to seeing them.
  • An enemy truly converted is the most loyal of friends.
Not bad lessons to learn when dealing with the people of God today, who are really not terribly different from the people of God in any other era.

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