A brief update to my most recent post:
I am taking Old Testament this semester, so a lot of my thoughts have been directed toward those books and stories. After the fire and the evacuation and everything else, I found myself thinking about the Israelites after being given the law, and specifically about holy war as described in Deuteronomy 20. It gives an outline for how to conduct war – ostensibly if Israel followed God’s battle plan, he would win the battle for them.
I started thinking about the actual battle procedure though; even though God often won battles for the Israelites, is that to say that he did it without allowing Israel to incur loss? It’s difficult to imagine that throughout all the fighting not a single Israelite died. Then I read the following passage from Judges 20. It concerns a series of battles between Israel and the tribe of Benjamin:
Judges 20:15 – 36
At once the Benjamites mobilized twenty-six thousand swordsmen from their towns, in addition to seven hundred chosen men from those living in Gibeah. Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred chosen men who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss.
Israel, apart from Benjamin, mustered four hundred thousand swordsmen, all of them fighting men.
The Israelites went up to Bethel and inquired of God. They said, “Who of us shall go first to fight against the Benjamites?”
The LORD replied, “Judah shall go first.”
The next morning the Israelites got up and pitched camp near Gibeah. The men of Israel went out to fight the Benjamites and took up battle positions against them at Gibeah. The Benjamites came out of Gibeah and cut down twenty-two thousand Israelites on the battlefield that day. But the men of Israel encouraged one another and again took up their positions where they had stationed themselves the first day. The Israelites went up and wept before the LORD until evening, and they inquired of the LORD. They said, “Shall we go up again to battle against the Benjamites, our brothers?”
The LORD answered, “Go up against them.”
Then the Israelites drew near to Benjamin the second day. This time, when the Benjamites came out from Gibeah to oppose them, they cut down another eighteen thousand Israelites, all of them armed with swords.
Then the Israelites, all the people, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the LORD. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the LORD. And the Israelites inquired of the LORD. (In those days the ark of the covenant of God was there, with Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, ministering before it.) They asked, “Shall we go up again to battle with Benjamin our brother, or not?”
The LORD responded, “Go, for tomorrow I will give them into your hands.”
Then Israel set an ambush around Gibeah. They went up against the Benjamites on the third day and took up positions against Gibeah as they had done before. The Benjamites came out to meet them and were drawn away from the city. They began to inflict casualties on the Israelites as before, so that about thirty men fell in the open field and on the roads—the one leading to Bethel and the other to Gibeah
While the Benjamites were saying, “We are defeating them as before,” the Israelites were saying, “Let’s retreat and draw them away from the city to the roads.”
All the men of Israel moved from their places and took up positions at Baal Tamar, and the Israelite ambush charged out of its place on the west of Gibeah. Then ten thousand of Israel’s finest men made a frontal attack on Gibeah. The fighting was so heavy that the Benjamites did not realize how near disaster was. The LORD defeated Benjamin before Israel, and on that day the Israelites struck down 25,100 Benjamites, all armed with swords. Then the Benjamites saw that they were beaten.
What’s interesting to me is that the Lord clearly says “go fight Benjamin”. It’s not like Israel is acting against God’s wishes (as far as I know – they could always be neglecting some important facet of holy war that I can’t remember. Consult your local OT professor.). But even though they ultimately win the battle, even though God himself gives them victory against the Benjamites, it doesn’t come without a few losses of their own on the first two days. Even on the third day, the day of deliverance, the Benjamites inflict a few casualties that God allows to draw them out.
I can imagine the wives of the men that were killed being in a position similar to (probably more intense and complaint-worthy than) mine last week: “Man it’s great that God gave Israel the battle /prevented a majority of my campus from burning / saved every student life, but he let my husband die / let the physics building burn / took fourteen of our faculty members’ homes. Why?”
Maybe this passage doesn’t answer that question, and I can see a somewhat large discussion arising from the notion that God intended Israel to suffer casualties in the above passage, but it’s at least comforting to know that despite suffering loss, Israel still trusted that God was in control of the outcome, and kept pressing on even in the face of injury.