The men of Israel had taken an oath at Mizpah: “Not one of us will give his daughter in marriage to a Benjamite.”
Judges 21:1 (NIV)
There was a period of time in our daughter’s childhood when her favorite series of youth fiction was Lemony Snicket which always carried the tag line: A series of unfortunate events.
That tagline “a series of unfortunate events” popped into my mind as I sat in the quiet this morning pondering not only the tumultuous events that are unpacked by the author of Judges in his three-chapter epilogue but also the tumultuous events that we’ve been living through in the past two years. Looking at the headlines and the horizon, I would say that we’re not out of the woods
Today’s chapter is the final chapter of the book of Judges and the third and final chapter in a saga that began with a single Levite traveler traveling home with his wife and servant. One rather isolated local incident blows up into a national tragedy. Emotions boil over and reason gives way. The people become a mob and violence ensues. Tribal instincts perpetuate the violence. The human desire for justice turns into a cycle of vengeance.
As the teacher of Ecclesiastes famously observed, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
For the ancient Hebrews, the series of unfortunate events are intertwined with a hodge-podge of cultural decisions that only fueled the perpetuation of the unfortunate events. The Hebrew tribes had mingled their worship of Yahweh as prescribed in the Law of Moses with the religious customs of local gods and cultural mores of the region. High on the bloodlust of vengeance, eleven tribes swear an oath not to give any of their daughters into marriage with the tribe of Benjamin.
As often happens with mob violence, it is in the tragic aftermath that “cooler heads prevail” and corporate regret rises. The eleven tribes, however, have placed themselves square in the middle of a cultural dilemma. They can’t give their daughters in marriage to the men of Benjamin without breaking their oath which was an unforgivable act in the culture of that day. Yet, if they don’t find a way for the leftover men of Benjamin to find wives and procreate, the tribe will be wiped out. So, they devise a scheme to help the remnant of men from Benjamin to kidnap Canaanite virgins who were taking part in an annual religious festival. This exemplifies an ancient Near East tradition that holds sway in international relationships to this day:
Me against my brother.
My brother and I against our neighbor.
My neighbor and I against a stranger.
It is quite common for modern readers to balk at the violence and vengeance in this ancient story, but that’s exactly what the author of the book of Judges wanted his readers to feel. In his context, he wanted his contemporary readers to say: “This is awful. Isn’t it so much better to have a king who will provide justice and stability?”
This brings me back to our modern-day series of unfortunate events and a parallel desire for justice and stability. As a follower of Jesus, I am led to a very important and salient contradiction.
Human instinct is for strong human leadership to ensure justice, stability, and safety with top-down authoritarian power.
Jesus taught His followers to change the world with a grass-roots movement in which individual believers transform other individuals with interpersonal Love that changes lives from the bottom up.
Every example from history in which these two paradigms have been confused has ended in its own form of tragic failure.
And so, I enter another day, and another work week, resolved to stick to the plan Jesus gave His followers.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.