In studying the narrative from Judges, 19:1 – 21:25, we find a horribly disturbing story of torture, murder, seeming indifference, and revenge. Could civilized people really behave this way? As we analyze the different elements of the story, we find support for the theory that the story has been embellished by the writer. Although this seems strange to modern readers, Carol Meyers helps us to understand the motivation behind such works:
“Like other ancient storytellers, the shapers of biblical narratives were not concerned with getting it factually right; rather, their aim was to make an important point. Their narratives could serve many different purposes, all relevant to their own time periods and the audiences they were addressing. They might take a popular legend and embellish it further—the better the story, the more likely that people would listen and learn. They used a variety of sources plus their own creative imaginations to shape their stories.”
What would you say is the central message or theme of the story? What purposes would the story have served for the people who preserved it and told it in ancient Israel?
The central theme of this story, in my view, is “Israel sticks together.” This means that, as long as you are an Israelite male, you can count on your brothers to defend you, and avenge you when you have been wronged. Judges is one of the Deuteronomistic History books (Stanley, p. 265,) meaning that it was edited as part of the whole narrative concerning the history of Israel. Because we believe this editing to have taken place either during or after the Babylonian exile (Lecture,) the intent of the creator could be surmised as follows:
- National Unity – Especially in the post exile period, I can imagine the remnant of Israel trying to rebuild the country. After a couple of generations in a foreign land, they would need some stories to create a sense of nationalism among the returning exiles. By taking a tribal legend, and expanding it to include the entire nation (Lecture,) the editors could be trying to build a sense of unity among the people. The point being, the entire country rose to the call as one of the members had been wronged. It is reminiscent of the commands of Nehemiah 4:19, “Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there!”They were all being encouraged by the support of their kinsmen. This was a common practice among the biblical writers according to Paula McNutt,
“Particularly in crisis situations such as political subordination or exile, or periods of rapid social change, the biblical writers in various periods would have appealed to and reinterpreted sacred history (myth) to legitimate claims about the present and to encourage others to accept these claims, with such intentions as strengthening national identity, or reaffirming or reinterpreting shared values.”
- Devotion to Yahweh – If this tale was created post exile, then it makes much sense that that the editors would bring great amounts of focus onto ridding the nation of sinful practices. As we see in Deuteronomy 17, wicked acts must be purged from the people if the nation as a whole is to be spared Gods judgment. By taking such extreme measures (wiping out almost an entire tribe,) the editors are sticking closely with the idea that “We must abolish all sin, or face the consequences.” A major theme in Deuteronomy.
List, in detail, the plot elements that would seem strange or even offensive to many modern readers in your social context. How, in detail, might these narrative elements have been perceived by an ancient audience? How might these narrative elements have functioned for that audience and its society? (That is, what good might these strange and offensive elements have served for the original hearers?)
- Levite has a concubine
- This was completely acceptable to the ancient people
- The concubine served as the “property,” by which the Levite was wronged and provided the justification for the acts of revenge.
- Levite allows his concubine to be abused
- This practice of “radical hospitality”might have been familiar to the audience due to a very similar story in Genesis 19:1-11.
- Possibly this would have resonated with the audience as the Levite having been in a “no win,” situation. This was a feeling they could identify with and empathize with his desperation.
- Levite desecrates her body
- By sending the various parts of her body to the tribes, the Levite was issuing a formal request for justice from the nation.
- In receiving these body parts, the tribes were probably incensed and moved to join in the acts of revenge on behalf of their kinsmen.
- The Israelites kill everyone except virgins at Jabesh Gilead
- The destruction of the community came as a consequence for not helping the tribes in a time of need. This says to the nation that, “We all are expected to support and defend each other.”
- By sparing the 400 young women to marry with the Benjaminites, the nation was exercising great compassion on that tribe so that it would not be wiped out. This is a symbol of Gods grace and covenant toward all of Israel.
- The Israelites ordered the abduction of Israelite young women for the Benaminites
- Unfortunately, taking women for their own uses would have been understandable for the ancient audience.
- I think the main point of adding this plot element was to restore or make Benjamin complete again after the Lord’s judgment. Again, a central theme of Deuteronomism, completing the cycle of disobedience, consequences, repentance, and restoration (Stanley, p. 256)
How does the story depict the leadership of Israel during this premonarchical period?
“In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” – Judges 21:25
While there was no king, it appeared in the story that there was decision-making at some level by consensus: evident by the fact that the tribes agreed to send warriors to fight on the Levite’s behalf. But also there was great confusion of the “leaders” at times, such as how to provide wives for the remaining Benjaminites. Almost as if some said, “Hey, lets do this,” and all the others just went along and replied, “Yeah, that’s a great idea!” Those ideas didn’t make a lot of sense to me. It looked almost like a loosely held anarchy with people being willing to follow anyone that seemed like a leader.
There was, however, another reverence for Deuteronomy’s commands. They did seek the Lord on more than one occasion to ask if they should continue in their battles. Even after significant losses, two days in a row, they maintained their obedience to the Lord’s commands and came away victorious (Judges 20:23-28.).
We don’t know the exact reasoning for the addition of this story in the larger narrative of Israel’s history. However, it is clear that the points being made follow the same theme reiterated by the post exilic authors: When we return to God, He is faithful to reconcile, provide for and maintain justice for us.