2 Samuel 21: The Giants of Gath

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The remaining chapters of 2 Samuel are considered a sort of Appendix, relaying various bits and bobs that fit, thematically and chronologically, with the preceding book before the narrative continues in 1 Kings 1.

This chapter in particular appears to take place prior to 2 Sam. 9. The theory goes that Samuel initially ended with 2 Sam. 8, with the material of chapters 9-20 “having been suppressed for a time, though finally restored,” according to my study Bible (p.385). Thus, when 2 Sam. 21 was added, it came from different sources and did not fit chronologically with the rest of the book. We’ll notice, for example, that at least one story is a repeat (albeit with a surprising change), and a few details seem to come from a different source than what we’ve been mostly been reading so far.

While the last four chapters of 2 Samuel clearly come from different sources, they do seem to have been arranged with care. My New Bible Commentary notes that “the six sections contained in these four chapters are arranged chiastically: natural disaster, military exploits, poem, poem, military exploits, natural disaster” (p.312).

Famine

There was a famine in Israel for three years in a row. The people are suffering and, finally, David calls on God. One might wonder why he let the famine get into its third year before doing this, but I suppose it just takes that long before a palace starts to feel the pinch.

Of course, God shows a bit of his own weird sense of time, because he claims to have sent the famine as punishment for Saul killing the Gibeonites (a story not recorded in our text). Israel had sworn not to kill them (Jos. 9:3-27, albeit through trickery), but Saul had done so anyway “in his zeal” (2 Sam. 21:2). We’ve had hints of this zeal in, for example, the story of the witch of Endor (1 Sam. 28:9). This paints a picture of a Saul who was very concerned with establishing a Yawehist Israelite homogeneity, compared to David’s liberal use of Philistines and other non-Israelites in his personal guard.

Why Israel should be punished now for Saul’s actions is left unexplained. A cynic might wonder if perhaps David wanted to find a reason for the famine that he could bring back to his people, but didn’t want it to be anything that was his fault (particularly if we’re placing this story fairly early on in his rule). In fact, isn’t it convenient that the famine is a punishment against his deposed predecessor? Doesn’t that just every so nicely discourage any lingering support for Saul?

Revenge

David goes to the Gibeonites and asks them what can be done to appease them. It seems that God’s retributive justice was not initiated by himself, but rather by a Gibeonite curse that either took this long to come into effect, or they’ve been biding their time until the responsible party is dead and his dynasty collapsed.

The Gibeonites claim that they do not want to be repaid in blood or gold, except that they do actually want seven of Saul’s sons to be hanged on the mountain of God at Gibeon – which sounds an awful lot like the blood vengeance they claimed not to be asking for. This only avoids being a contradiction if a) the number seven is a symbolic one, replacing the one-to-one killing of a blood vengeance, or b) the nature of the killing is ritually/legally different from a blood vengeance. In other words, if this is meant to be a human sacrifice to God rather than a tribal justice matter.

David agrees to their terms, though we get a clunky, clearly added later note that he spares Mephibosheth because of his oath to Jonathan. Instead of Mephibosheth, he chooses Armoni and Mephibosheth (a case of name recycling, at one end or another) – the sons of Saul and his concubine Rizpah. It seems that some of Saul’s survived him, though 1 Sam. 31 implied that they all died with him at the battle of Gilboa.

For the other five, he got the five sons of Michal, Saul’s daughter, and Adriel, son of Barzillai the Meholathite. Obviously an issue because it is Merab who married Adriel in 1 Sam. 18:19. Also a problem because we were told in 2 Sam. 6:23 that Michal died childless.

Some theories have been proposed to fix the discrepancy; for example, that Merab’s sons were given to Michal to bring up. Others, such as my RSV, simply change the name to Michal to “fix” the error. According to Paul Davidson of Is That In The Bible?, there are some problems with this bandaid:

(1) We have already shown that the mention of Merab marrying Adriel in 1Sam 18 is a separate tradition and a later addition to 1 Samuel. It is difficult to assume “Merab” is the correct reading once we realize that the earlier reference to Merab’s marriage – the very passage scholars would like to harmonize 2Sam 21 with – is a later insertion. (2) The LXX confirms the reading of “Michal” in 2Sam 21:8, which means that if there was such an error, it was very widespread, and it happened before the LXX was produced. (3) Josephus, Pseudo-Jerome, and rabbinic sources confirm the reading of “Michal” and propose harmonizations. (4) Targum Jonathan appears to have been based on a vorlage that reads “Michal”, and it solves the problem by asserting that Michal simply raised the children on behalf of Merab.

The record is clearly a bit dodgy, however you cut it.

These seven sons and grandsons of Saul are hanged and God is appeased (despite the excuse that God is appeased because the Gibeonites withdraw their curse, this still smells rather strongly of human sacrifice).

Funerals

So the Gibeonites are happy, but poor Rizpah isn’t. She camps out at the spot where her two sons are left hanging and keeps all the carrion eaters away until the rain comes (it being the sign that the drought-induced famine would soon be over). From context cues, it seems that the bodies were left hanging the entire summer, from late April or May until the Autumn.

Rizpah, by Peter Graham, c.1850

Rizpah, by Peter Graham, c.1850

When David hears of Rizpah’s vigil, we’re told that he fetched Saul and Jonathan’s bones from Jabesh Gilead and buries them along with the bones of the men sacrificed by the Gibeonites in Zela, the tomb of Saul’s father. It is after the funeral that God finally relented and the famine was over.

The text seems to want to tell us that Rizpah’s grief convinced David to bury Saul and Jonathan’s bones, yet he expressed more than enough grief himself to do it way back in 2 Sam. 1. It makes it rather difficult to believe that it had never occurred to David before now to give them a proper burial – particularly Jonathan, whom he claimed to love so much.

It’s difficult not to see the political motivations behind David’s decision to bury them now. It could be that he needed this big show of love for Saul and Saul’s dynasty to avoid repercussions from Saul’s remaining supporters. Or perhaps it was an attempt to show that he didn’t give in to the Gibeonites’ demands too readily.

It could also be to smooth over the fact that David had allowed the men’s bodies to hang, exposed to the elements, for what could be as long as six months – a huge insult, as well as a clear violation of the law (Deut. 21:23).

In fact, the entire Gibeonite desire for revenge (particularly its timing) looks awfully suspicious. A cynic might wonder if David used a natural disaster as an excuse to get rid of a bunch of Saul’s descendents and thereby solidify his own hold to power.

Philistine Aggression

The Philistines are at it again! In this chapter, we hear of four Philistine champions, all descended from giants, and the Israelite heroes who defeated them.

There’s Ishbibenob, whose spear weighed as much as three hundred shekels of bronze. With a new sword in hand, he comes after David, but Abishai steps in (again) and kills the threat. After this, David’s men forbid him from coming out to fight with them, “lest you quench the lamp of Israel” (2 Sam. 21:17). If I were to venture a guess, I’d say it was known that David did not participate in his own military campaigns. Some people, like the author of this passage, tried to excuse his absence. Others, like the author of 2 Samuel 11, clearly did not approve.

The next champion is Saph, dispatched by Sibbecai the Hushathite.

The third might be a little familiar: Goliath the Gittite, once again armed with a spear like a weaver’s beam (2 Sam. 21:19; 1 Sam. 17:7). This time, however, he is defeated by Elhanan, son of Jaareoregim. According to Kenneth C. Davis, “the King James translators of 1611 tried to cover up the discrepancy by inserting the words “brother of” before the second mention of Goliath, but older texts don’t bear that version out” (Don’t Know Much About the Bible, p.177).

Paul Davidson has a discussion of the episode on Is That In The Bible? that I recommend, but here’s an excerpt:

It is commonly thought by scholars that this was the original Goliath legend, for various reasons. In the earliest folktales, it was the champion Elhanan who slew Goliath when Israel was threatened by an ancient race of giants. Elhanan, Abishai, and Jonathan were all members of the Shalishim (the “Thirty”), a group of elite warriors who are listed in 2Sam 23. (Sibbecai is also included in the parallel list in 1 Chr 11:10–47.) Later on, as the figure of David the warrior king became more important to Jews and the other characters more obscure, the story of Goliath was retold with David as the hero instead.

The last Philistine champion is unnamed, but we’re told that he had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot, and was slain by Jonathan, the son of Shimei and David’s nephew.

2 Samuel 2: It’s all fun and games…

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With Saul dead, it’s presumably safe for David to return to Israel. Still, given all the emphasis on David as the heaven-anointed successor to Saul, having him just waltz back into the country after his competitor was conveniently killed might seem a little too forward. So instead of telling us simply that David returned, we have to go through the ol’ “he asked of God” bit again. God sends him to Hebron, in the territory belonging to Judah.

When David arrives, he is anointed as the king of Judah.

I’ve guessed before that the competition between David and Saul could well have been once between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin as the two tribes struggle for supremacy in the Israelite confederacy.

It could also be that Judah’s inclusion in the emerging Israel was by no means a given at this stage. We can see in Judges 5:13-18, for example, that Judah was not always listed among the tribes.

The third option is that the word “king” is used here in the same way that it’s used to refer to the city state leaders (just like Achish is the Philistine king of Gath, the other cities of the Philistine pentapolis each having their own king with no king of Philistia itself). I doubt that this is the case, however, since the bible has so far preferred “elders” to refer to local governments.

David’s (or God’s) choice of Hebron may be significant, as it is associated with several patriarchs.

Once established, David sends his blessings to Jabesh-gilead for their role in recovering Saul’s body. Once again, the point that David absolutely did not participate in Saul’s killing and absolutely grudges the unquestionable benefits he gains through it is reinforced.

The king beyond the river

Meanwhile, despite the insistent repetition that Saul and his sons were killed in 1 Sam. 31, one appears to have survived – Ishbosheth. I’m seeing the argument made that Ishbosheth appears, named Ishvi, in the list of Saul’s sons in 1 Sam. 14:49. However, three names are given in that list and the phrasing implies that it is complete, but 1 Sam. 31:6 tells us that Saul died in battle with his three sons.

So whose hand was I holding?

It’s probably that Ishbosheth is not the person’s real name anyway. According to my study Bible, the name can be translated as “man of shame” (p. 376). Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, a reference in 1 Chronicles 8:33 suggests that his real name might have been Ishbaal, or “man of Baal” (implying that Saul was not quite the monotheist 1 Samuel paints him to be). It seems possible that an industrious editor, either keen to erase evidence of polytheistic worship from the record or perhaps simply poking fun at this character, altered the kid’s name.

Ishbosheth, whom we are told is 40 years old at this time, is taken to Mahanaim by Abner, Saul’s old commander. Despite Ishbosheth’s age, he seems to be a passive agent in this and through most of the rest of his story, with Abner filling a sort of regent role. It’s strange, and I’m not sure what it means.

In Mahanaim, Ishbosheth is crowned king of Gilead, the Ashurites, Jezreel, Ephraim, Benjamin, and all Israel. There are a few notes to make about this list. The first and most obvious is that Israel is mentioned separately from the individual tribes and territories. This suggests that Ishbosheth’s rule over Israel as a whole is more theoretical, a claim he clings to though in reality he has no actual authority. Think of Daenerys Targaryen claiming herself to be the monarch of Westeros despite her exile.

The mention of the Ashurites is an impossibility. According to my New Bible Companion, Ashurite is normally used to refer to the Assyrians, and it’s clearly impossible for Ishbosheth to be king of the Assyrians.

The Hebrew text has probably resulted from a scribal confusion of two names, the men of Geshur (an Aramaean state, N of Gilead) and the men of Asher. The Targum reads ‘men of Asher’, probably correctly, while the Syriac and Vulgate have Geshurites. (p.303)

Having his capitol be in Mahanaim, to the east of the Jordan river, represents a retreat. That area has so far always been a sort of borderlands, a dubious inclusion in the territory assigned to Israel. But with the Philistines pushing from the west, it may have been the only viable location for a capitol.

It seems likely that Ishbosheth is only really ruling Gilead, that Israel belongs to him only in theory, and that the other groups mentioned merely swore fealty to him but likely retain most, if not all, of their own sovereignty.

We are told that Ishbosheth ruled from Mahanaim for only two years, and that David ruled in Hebron for seven and a half years. This complicates the timeline a little. Since we know that David will be king of Israel after Ishbosheth, it leaves five years unaccounted for (either before or after Ishbosheth’s reign). One possible explanation is that David ruled Judah from Hebron for two years, then maintained it as his capitol after being crowned king of Israel for a further five and a half before moving to Jerusalem.

Play gone wrong

For reasons that are never explained, Abner (as Ishbosheth’s representative) meets Joab son of Zeruiah (as David’s representative) at the pool of Gibeon, yelling at each other from either side of the water. They have each brought 12 champions, which they set on each other in a kind of mock battle.

The Contest, by Barbara Griffiths

The Contest, by Barbara Griffiths

Unfortunately, all 24 champions kill each other, leading to the place of their fighting being renamed Helkath-hazzurim, or “the field of the sword edges.”

It could be that this mock battle was intended as a representative battle, like the one that Goliath proposed in 1 Samuel 17:10. Unfortunately, with all the champions dead, it results in a tie. It seems that with no resolution to decide the issue, David and Ishbosheth’s armies all fall on each other.

This is all guesswork because the narrative really isn’t clear about what’s going on, and it’s never indicated what they are even fighting over. Though, I suppose the easiest conclusion we can draw is the house of David and the house of Saul are engaging in open conflict over the Israelite crown (which gives the lie to the idea that David is passively given the crown by God and country).

According to Brant Clements of Both Saint and Cynic, it could be that the use of 12 men on each side could be a symbolic representation of the twelve tribes engaged in a civil war.

Once the conflict devolves into a large-scale battle, the followers of David are victorious and Abner flees. Joab’s brother, Asahel, takes off in pursuit.

Abner first tries to tempt Asahel into letting him escape, telling him to go scavenge some bodies for spoils instead. Asahel is not dissuaded and the chase continues. Next comes the scare tactic, with Abner saying that he has no desire to kill Asahel (and thereby become the enemy of Asahel’s brother), but Asahel doesn’t listen.

Finally, Abner hits him with the butt of his spear, piercing Asahel through and killing him. Abner’s intent isn’t clear, and the Hebrew noun translated “butt” is apparently uncertain. It seems, however, that there’s at least a possibility that Abner merely meant to hit Asahel, perhaps to make him fall or at least stagger him long enough for Abner to get away, and that Asahel’s death was accidental.

Asahel’s brother, Joab, continues the pursuit along with their other brother, Abishai. You remember Abishai as David’s companion when he sneaks into the Israelite camp to steal Saul’s spear in 1 Sam. 26:6-9. In that story, Abishai tried to convince David to kill Saul while he had the chance, but David magnanimously refused. It seems that this bloodlust runs in the family.

So Joab and Abishai are pursuing Abner, intending to kill him and avenge their brother. Finally, Abner is joined by a Benjaminite army and, perhaps feeling a little more confident with the backing, turns to face the two brothers. He calls them out with a fantastic verse that just gives my chills:

Shall the sword devour for ever? Do you not know that the end will be bitter? How long before you bid your people turn from the pursuit of their brethren? (2 Sam. 2:26)

Joab insists that they were only planning to chase him a little longer anyway, but he backs down.

Now free from his pursuers, Abner travels without rest back to Mahanaim. Joab returns to the scene of the battle and does a body count, finding a total of 20 dead on David’s side and 360 dead on Abner’s side. After stopping to bury Asahel at Bethlehem, Joab and Abishai head back to Hebron right quick.

1 Samuel 31: The king is dead, long live the king!

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With David safely back at home with his family and far, far away from the battle (lest anything be said about his ambitions), we return to the battlefield where, as we know, Saul is soon to die. Given the locations, it seems probable that the scene with the witch of Endor should have been placed just before this chapter, and not all the way back in 1 Samuel 28 (it’s current location requires some geographical skipping).

the narrative jumps right in, telling us that the Philistines win the day. Saul’s sons (Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua) are killed and Saul is badly wounded by archers. Unwilling to be slain by those “uncircumcised” Philistines who might make sport of him (1 Sam. 31:4), Saul asks his armour-bearer to kill him instead. The armour-bearer refuses.

Saul falls on his sword, from the Worms Bible, c.1148

Saul falls on his sword, from the Worms Bible, c.1148

It’s unclear why the armour-bearer refused. It could be that killing his king – even if commanded to do so – is just too great a sin for him, or it could be a final dig at Saul, a reminder that he really has no control over his subjects (as we saw in 1 Sam. 22:17, where his followers refused his command to kill the the priests at Nob).

Saul takes matters into his own hands and falls on his sword. The armour-bearer follows suite and kills himself as well. When the Israelites in the area hear that the royal family is dead, they flee the cities, leaving them empty for the Philistines to occupy.

The next morning, the Philistines return to the battlefield to scavenge the dead. They find Saul and his sons, strip Saul of his armour, and cut off his head. The armour they send to the temple of Ashtaroth and fasten his corpse to the wall of Beth-shan (and, apparently, the corpses of his sons, too, though they aren’t mentioned here).

The mention of a temple of Ashtaroth here is a little confusing. So far, the term has been used as the plural of the shrines/idols/poles used in the worship of Asherah (maybe?), not as the name of the goddess herself (though a variation of the old semitic mother-goddess, Ashtoreth, is very similar sounding). So it could be that the temple of Ashtaroth is a typo, or perhaps we’re to understand that the temple contains several idols to the goddess.

Another possibility, though I don’t know how plausible it is, is that the name of the temple refers to its location. We saw in, for example, Deut. 1:4 and Jos. 9:10 that King Og of the Amorites ruled from a town called Ashtaroth. Either way, it seems that the phrasing causes some confusion.

When the people of Jabesh-gilead hear that Saul’s body has been fastened to a wall, they sneak out at night to retrieve the bodies of Saul and his sons. Note the identity of the corpse-rescuers here – one of Saul’s first acts as leader/king was to rescue Jabesh-gilead from Ammonite raiders.

The people of Jabesh-gilead burn the bodies of Saul and his sons, then bury their bones under a tree. They finish up by fasting for seven days. It’s not clear why they choose to burn the bodies rather than simply bury them. It could be that the fire is intended as a sort of purification after the bodies were left hanging too long (if they rescue the bodies on the night of the same day that they were hung, this would still violate Deut. 21:23). It could also be that there was some variation in burial practices at this time.

With Saul’s death, 1 Samuel comes to a close.

 

1 Samuel 11: Heavy is the head that wears three crowns

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For this chapter, we return to Jabesh-gilead (or Jabesh for short), the town that, in Judges 21:10-14, was slaughtered because a) they failed to muster when called, and b) the Benjaminites needed wives. At some point between then and here, the town has presumably been repopulated, as it is now under siege. The big baddie of this story is Nahash the Ammonite.

When the people of Jabesh try to negotiate the terms of surrender, Nahash responds with rather steep terms: The siege will end if all the people of Jabesh gauge out their right eyes. Unsurprisingly, the Jabeshites start looking at their options. They ask Nahash if they could have seven days respite from the siege during which they would send out messengers. If no one comes to their rescue, they will agree to Nahash’s terms. The fact that Nahash agrees to the respite suggests that he is really confident that no one will come. Jabesh is in the Transjordan, on the east side of the Jordan River. Throughout our readings, the Transjordan has been considered a semi-other border land. We saw, for example, the suspicion with which the region was regarded in Joshua 22.

It seems that this story is a continuation of the Deuteronomist pro-monarchy narrative, illustrating how badly things had gotten: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). In this case, the argument is that without a king, enemies can do as they please, too.

But no one counted on Saul!

When the messengers arrive in Gibeah, where Saul is living, he is out in the fields. Again, he is associated with the pastoral – first in chasing lost donkeys in 1 Sam. 9, and now following a team of oxen. It reminds me of the way Gideon was connecting to farming life in Judges 6. I’m not sure why it’s done, except perhaps to highlight humble origins.

1 Samuel 11So Saul is returning from the fields with his oxen when he hears wailing. It’s explained to him that the residents of Gibeah are wailing because of the news the messengers from Jabesh have just brought. Then, “the spirit of God came mightily upon Saul” (1 Sam. 11:6), connecting him even further to the judges.

Saul slaughters his team of oxen and cuts them up into pieces. He sends the pieces out to every region of Israel (interestingly, the reference is to geographical territories – tribes are not mentioned), along with a threat: anyone who fails to answer his call will end up like the ox.

The connection to Judges 19, where a slave-woman is cut up into pieces and her body serves as a mustering call, is obvious (though the equating of an ox and a human woman is troubling).

300’000 Israelites muster at Bezek, which either includes or is in addition to 30,000 men of Judah. It’s odd that Judah is specified while no other tribe is, particularly given that the ox pieces were sent to regions rather than tribes. It seems that, at least for this source, tribal affiliations have largely lost their significance.

They send word to Jabesh to let them know that they are coming, and will have delivered the town on the next day. The Jabeshites say (presumably to Nahash): “Tomorrow we will give ourselves up to you, and you may do to us whatever seems good to you” (1 Sam. 11:10). The detail could indicate some trickery, convincing Nahash that he’s already won so that he lets his guard down. It could also be a joke. According to my New Bible Commentary, the more literal translation reads “we will come out unto you.” This may be important, because “the verb is often used for going out to do battle, the real intention of the men of Jabesh” (p.293). In other words, it’s a bit like Hannibal Lecter saying “it is wonderful having friends for dinner.”

Obviously, the Israelites win.

The people are so impressed with Saul’s first victory that they demand the nay-sayers from 1 Sam. 10:27 be put to death. Saul refuses to do this, saying that they won’t soil such a glorious day with (Israelite) bloodshed.

Now that Saul has been imbued with the spirit of God – or perhaps now that we’ve entered a different source – Saul is suddenly seen very positively. There’s the victory, for one thing (remember, this is the guy who couldn’t even find a couple donkeys). Now he’s showing mercy and/or concern for ritual purity.

With everyone now on Team Saul, Samuel calls the people back to Gilgal to renew Saul’s coronation. This is the third time Saul is declared king, and the second time it is done publicly. The obvious explanation is that we have different stories that all made it into the same narrative. I don’t think that’s necessarily a given, though, as there may be a rationale for having Saul first be elected by God, then designated by a prophet, and finally distinguished by the lay population. Further, the two explanations are not mutually exclusive. It’s quite possible that an editor took three separate coronation stories and wove them into a single narrative using his default cosmological hierarchy.

Judges 20-21: The punishment and redemption of Benjamin

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Brant Clements, of Both Saint and Cynic, reminds me that, way back in Genesis, we learned something about how Benjamin would come to be viewed. On his deathbed, Jacob “blessed” each of his sons, though his blessings seemed more to foretell the perceived character of their descendent tribes. Of Benjamin, he said:

Benjamin is a ravenous wolf
In the morning devouring the prey
And at evening dividing the plunder. (Genesis 49:27)

All the Israelites responded to the body parts they received in the mail. From Dan (far north) to Beersheba (far south), even Gilead on the eastern shore of the Jordan, they all gathered at Mizpah. We don’t seem to know quite where that is, but somewhere close to Jerusalem, which would put it in or near Benjaminite territory.

They ask the Levite to explain what happened, and the Levite answers:

I came to Gibeah that belongs to Benjamin, I and my concubine, to spend the night. And the men of Gibeah rose against me, and beset the house round about me by night; they meant to kill me, and they ravished my concubine, and she is dead. (Judges 20:4-5)

All true, but isn’t it interesting that he leaves out the part where where he threw her out to the mob and closed the door behind her?

When they hear of what happened, the Israelites vow not to return to their homes until they Benjamin is defeated. They will go up against Gibeah while ten men out of ever hundred (selected by lottery) keep the army provisioned.

The Battle

While the Israelites are gathered presumably in siege, they also sent men throughout the tribe of Benjamin to ask, “What wickedness is this that has taken place among you?” (Judges 20:12), and to ask them to give up the criminal Gibeah. Unfortunately, the Benjaminites decide to stand with Gibeah, and they march out to face the other Israelites.

Altogether, Israel came with 400,000 soldiers, while Benjamin managed 26,000 in addition to the 700 soldiers of Gibeah. Among the Benjaminites were 700 southpaws who were extremely good with a sling (I do not know what left-handedness has to do with sling-throwing, but this is apparently important).

Echoing Judges 1:1-2, the people ask God which tribe should go up against Benjamin first, and God replies, “Judah shall go up first” (Judges 20:18). This is apparently quickly forgotten, because the next day it is just generic “Isrealites” who go out to battle.

They also lose the day. The Benjaminites slaughter 22,000 Israelites.

The Israelites figure that went so well that they would repeat it on the second day, and they “again formed the battle line in the same place where they had formed it on the first day” (Judges 20:22). Courage they might have, but their feelings about going against fellow Israelites seem mixed. They begin to weep and they ask of God “Shall we again draw near to battle against our brethren the Benjaminites?” (Judges 20:23). God stands firm, they must go.

Perhaps it was God’s will, or perhaps it was because they did not modify their terrible battle strategy, but 18,000 Israelite soldiers are killed on the second day.

Benjamites take women of Shiloh as wives, from the Morgan Bible, 1240-1250

Benjamites take women of Shiloh as wives, from the Morgan Bible, 1240-1250

Once again, they weep. Both times they weep and call on God, they do it at Bethel. Bethel, by the way, seems to have featured rather important in the stories of the patriarchs. It is where Abram/Abraham builds an altar in Gen. 12:8, and it is where Jacob had a prophetic dream (and then built an altar of sorts) in Gen. 28:18:19. According to my study Bible, it was “later one of the two principal sanctuaries of the northern kingdom” (p.321). And now, we’re told that it is where the ark of the covenant is being kept, still ministered by an apparently extremely old Phinehas (Judges 20:28).

Just in case you were wondering why the Israelites were leaving their post to go over to Bethel every time they started getting teary-eyed.

The people seem rather broken up, and they ask God once again if they really have to go up against Benjamin. God says yes, but reassures them that, on the third day, they will win.

The third day is a bit more complicated and seems to weave together two different versions of events. But the essential gist is that they pretend to go out the same as before, but secretly plant a few people in ambush around Gibeah. When the Benjaminites go after them, the Israelites pretend to flee, drawing them away from the city. With the soldiers too far to help, 10,000 Israelite soldiers took Gibeah behind them, killing everyone.

When the fleeing Israelites see the signal from the ambushers – smoke rising from the burning Gibeah – they turn around and face the Benjaminites. 18,000 Benjaminites were killed right away, with another 7,000 killed while trying to flee.

Only 600 Benjaminite soldiers were left, hiding for four months at the rock of Rimmon while the Israelites went around slaughtering every single Benjaminite they could find.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because Joshua used the same strategy in Josh. 8 after his initial attack on Ai failed.

The Tribal Preservation Society

At this point, all the Benjaminites are dead save for the 600 men hiding in Rimmon. Unfortunately for the tribe’s survival, the Israelites have vowed never to allow any of their daughters to marry a Benjaminite (Judges 21:1).

You can see how this might be an issue.

So the Israelites go to Bethel and start weeping again, this time building an altar and making offerings (in Judges 21:4, God is apparently cool with this). They are very concerned that, without any lady-folk, the tribe of Benjamin will die out.

Their first strategy is to find any Israelites who might not have made the vow. Helpfully, they also made a vow to kill anyone who did not respond to the mustering call at Mizpah (Judges 21:5).

They settle on Jabeshgilead, who had failed to answer the call. So they sent 12,000 men to slaughter all its inhabitants, including the women and child, sparing only 400 young virgins.

They then send word to the surviving Benjaminites letting them know that it’s all over and that they are out of danger and, hey, look, we got ladies for you!

And Creationists say that the “survival of the fittest” concept of evolution is cold…

But that’s only 400 girls and there are 600 surviving Benjaminites. Unwilling to give polyandry a try, this apparently poses a problem.

So they come up with a totally awesome solution that is definitely not rape-y at all! They tell the Benjaminites that they can go up to Shiloh during a yearly feast to God, set up an ambush in the vineyards, and kidnap any women who come out to dance the festival dances. This is a “solution” because it skirts around the vow not to “give” the Benjaminites any wives (see, because they weren’t given, they were taken! Har har, very clever).

And if this story sounds familiar, you’re probably a mythology buff. When the first Romans wanted wives for themselves, they abducted women from neighbouring groups during a festival.

God is apparently cool with just feeding women into the hands of Benjaminite rapists, because there’s no punishment for anyone – from the Levite to the Israelite nation – who does it. Even so, the book closes with a reminder that, “in those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).