The story of the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19) erupted into civil war in chap. 20. Now in chap. 21 we see the war’s aftermath. The majority of the tribes of Israel have been so successful in defeating Benjamin that this tribe risks total obliteration. In order to save it, another group of Israelites is killed, ostensibly for having neglected to participate in the civil war. Their virgins are kidnapped and given to the remnant of the tribe of Benjamin to ensure progeny sufficient for its survival. Then, because that wasn’t quite enough women for them, Israel encourages the remaining Benjaminites to kidnap other young women participating in an annual celebration to God at his shrine in Shiloh. If this seems obscene, that’s because it is. The text never hints that God is involved in these plans. (Note his silence in response to Israel’s persistent prayers, offerings, and weeping as the chapter begins.) On the contrary, the chapter’s concluding verse suggests that the “solutions” Israel comes up with to solve the problem of Benjamin’s near decimation as a result of chap. 20’s civil war is itself a product of godless anarchy. (As mentioned yesterday, God’s involvement in that civil war is a more complicated issue, and this complexity may resurface in 21:15, which perhaps holds God responsible for the breach in Israel’s tribes, though there are different ways to read that verse.)
It seems to me that we Christians sometimes too blithely speak about the universality of sin, in the sense of all sin amounting to an analogous falling short of God’s standards and therefore being equally displeasing to him. I believe a careful reading of the Bible would challenge such claims, unless they are formulated with extreme precision. But leaving that aside, the Bible far more provocatively declares that all of us are capable, under the right (or wrong) circumstances, of sin more outrageous than most of us would dare imagine. If we are too confident in our righteousness and probity apart from reliance on God’s grace and recognition of his authority, we are liable to fall.
Judges 21, completing the narrative section beginning in chap. 19, shows how a community, simply by following leaders (e.g., the Levite) who stir up its basest instincts, comes close to destroying itself and only succeeds in surviving intact by, paradoxically, plundering its most vulnerable citizens. Whatever else Judges 21:25 is getting at, it certainly seems to insist that godly leadership and submission to it is healthier than anarchic independence. Those called to leadership should be prepared to serve by leading, even at the risk of not being followed or of being actively rejected. A vacuum of godly leadership makes space for irreverent leaders who rely on people’s fear and anger (cf. Judges 19:29-30). And when emotions like those are given free reign, chaos results. We all need God and his agents, and we must be responsible to step up and be his agents when invited and called. To reject either that need or that responsibility—and most Christ-followers experience both, according to the context in which they find themselves at any given moment—is to invite the spiritual equivalent of Judges 19-21 in our community and our lives.
Written by Austin Busch - Professor at Brockport and Elder at Browncroft