There is never an easy moment to turn to Judges 20-21. For there we encounter a Levite whose concubine is violated by a group of Benjaminites. Disturbingly, the Levite dismembers the concubine’s corpse to send to the other tribes of Israel as tokens bearing witness to his outrage.
Part of the challenge of reading a passage like this one is staying with the story throughout, as it’s so much easier to head for the exits and prepare a critique or critical explanation of why this is all so objectionable. While those instincts are good—I think that God means for this passage to be objectionable—the longer we are able to stay with the story (and some may not) the more we can understand God’s purposes in our distress.
Beyond the disturbing ambiguities contained in chapter 20—in her classic Texts of Terror Phyllis Trible underscores that the concubine may not be dead when the Levite takes the knife to her body—it is clear that the Lord is displeased, doubtlessly with the actions of the leaders of Gibeah, and with the Benjaminites who refuse to bring them to justice, but also potentially with the Levites and by extension all Israel. For when the Israelites’ thirst for retribution slacks, the Lord commands them—despite their tears—to continue fighting against the people of Benjamin. Thus we conclude that God will not brook such behavior and on account of it will even blot out an entire tribe of his chosen people.
Jesus taught that when one part of the body causes us to sin it must be cut out (Mark 9:43-48). It is a teaching that troubles us, but that does not mean it’s inconsistent with God’s justice. And evidently this feature of God’s justice troubled the Israelites then. They decide the judgment cannot stand, that the Benjaminites must have a future despite their iniquity. Notably, the Lord recedes from view as soon as they decide upon this course. Whereas in the preceding chapter God actively spurs on the people, exercising through them his judgment on them all, in chapter 21 God is exclusively an object of discussion.
The Israelites are unwilling to violate their oaths before God by giving their own daughters to the remaining Benjaminites. Nevertheless they have compassion for the plight of those men, a compassion that is tied up with their own interest in seeing Israel’s prosperity as twelve united tribes.
We know God to be compassionate in what he has done for us in his incarnation, but it is a grave mistake to conclude from this that all feelings of compassion are from the Lord. Indeed, it is not the compassion, but the breach, that is from God (Judges 21:15). And what becomes of this misplaced compassion? Yet more sexual violence, at a feast of the Lord no less, when the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance and the Israelites arrange for the sons of Benjamin to abduct them.
This story should make us disconsolate. We ought to see that our attempts to do what is right in our own eyes will always result in terrible cycles of violence. And so we are left searching for some alternative, for some good news. It is not to be found here; we are left with the chillingly concise conclusion “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
But the story tills the soil of our minds, cutting apart our own plans and priorities about what’s right, and like a sharp plough furrowing through the earth, prepares us to receive the seeds of faith in Christ. We have a king in Jesus. He is not a king who props up his rule with earthly counsel, but one who taught divine things, in word and deed.
The good news is that he reigns now with the Father and the Spirit, one God, in whom we have the promise of mercy and the hope of justice. That same mercy and justice met on the cross and shall be completed at the end of the age, but Jesus has promised to be with us in the midst of our misery until then. God in Christ will judge faithless human folly severely, but for those who take up his easy yoke by faith, his transforming mercies are new every morning.