Exploring Biblical Divisions as Familial Conflicts in the Old Testament
The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) often refers to God’s people, Israel, using communal, group language. They are depicted as speaking with one voice, moving as one body and possessing a unified will.
Paradoxically, this unity among God’s people is often shown simultaneously alongside a portrayal of Israel as “a house divided,” literally warring among each other. We will examine the narratives of the last two chapters of Judges and passages in 2 Samuel to investigate the questions of if and how the Old Testament instructs God’s people to deal with these kinds of divisions.
Civil War: Judges 20-21
Judges 20 and 21 describe a war between Israel and the rebel tribe of Benjamin. Israel in this story is presented in communal terms: “All the people of Israel…assembled as one man to the LORD” (20:1), then “arose as one man” (20:7) and “sent men through all the tribe of Benjamin” (20:12) to avoid a confrontation between them which the people of Gibeah were attempting to incite.
The tribe of Benjamin ultimately “(did) not listen to their brothers, the people of Israel,” and instead went “out to battle against the people of Israel” (20:13-14).
“The people of Israel” are then described to corporately “inquire of God” (Judges 20:18) as to what to do in regards to Benjamin on two separate occasions, and in both instances they follow God’s commands to go into battle and suffer a defeat at the hands of the Benjaminites, returning to God and weeping (20:23, 26).
Israel then makes a third request which is notable because the narrator specifically notes this time that they are not speaking together “as one man,” but one man is instead speaking on behalf of Israel: A priest, “Phineas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron,” is acting as an intermediary on behalf of Israel (20:28). It is only then that God promises to “give (Benjamin) into (Israel’s) hand” (10:28). Benjamin is subsequently “defeated” (20:36).
After the war, the tribe of Benjamin is on the brink of extinction with only 600 men and no women or children left to them (Judges 20:47-48). Despite the extreme division between them that just occurred, “the people of Israel (felt) compassion for Benjamin their brother,” and they proceed to raid the land of Shiloh and “snatch each man his wife from the daughters of Shiloh” (21:21) to deliver as gifts to the remaining men of Benjamin, so “that a tribe not be blotted out from Israel” (21:17).
Israel: An Example for the Church
If we as Christians are to read Israel as our own “origin story” and as a figure for the Church, what can we take away from this example of Israel in relation to our current contexts?
The first takeaway is that we are to see ourselves as one united entity. There are at least twenty instances in Judges 20 and 21 of Israel acting or speaking in unison.
But how, a Christian in a contemporary context might ask, are we to accomplish this kind of unity in a Church so fractured and divided? Though it almost certainly spawns more questions than answers, the text does seem to give us one example of how to do this: “And the people of Israel had compassion for Benjamin their brother” (21:6). They had just fought a war that Benjamin had largely provoked, yet the people of Israel felt than an assault on Benjamin was an assault on Israel as a whole. The narrator notes: “And the people had compassion on Benjamin because the LORD had made a breach in the tribes of Israel” (21:15).
Therefore, if we are reading Israel as a figure for the Church, we are called to look at our relationships with other factions within the Church, even those whom we may be “at war” with, as familial relationships, which are lifelong bonds that we cannot (or perhaps should not) easily sever without feeling a great degree of lament. We should also emulate Israel’s intentions of seeking reconciliation with these other Christian groups, though we may want to think twice about emulating the means by which they achieved this end.
Israel’s intentions towards their “brothers” may have been well-meant, but the text suggests that the methods by which they achieved this reconciliation are less than desirable, and signs of the depravity which Israel had been falling deeper into throughout the narrative of Judges; after the Benjaminites take their new wives, stolen away from their fathers for them by the rest of Israel, the book of Judges ends by repeating the mantra of its final act: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25).
This seems to be insinuating that this stealing of the wives was an example of a kind of depravity which cannot be avoided without the intercession of a leader figure. God seemingly allowing Israel to defeat Benjamin only after we are shown a priest interceding on behalf of God’s people (20:28) seems likely by narrative design pointing to this conclusion.
Many Flocks, One Shepherd
But when Israel finally does receive a monarch, his reign does not stop these types of division from occurring. God anoints David king and “shepherd of…Israel” (2 Sam. 5:2), and “all the tribes of Israel” came to him and declared themselves to be David’s “bone and flesh” (5:1). Neither this familial relationship nor David’s selection by God prevents Israel from later turning against David in favor of a new king, David’s son Absalom, who “stole the hearts of the men of Israel” (15:6). Here, Israel is once again simultaneously portrayed as unified and divided.
King David is seen in Christian tradition as a “type” for Jesus, a sort of prototype for what Israel’s messiah is to be; much like how the kingship of David could not stop division among God’s people, neither has the Kingship of Christ. In fact, the Church has not stopped dividing since its inception! But if we are reading these biblical texts as Scripture, then it is imperative that we follow the examples they give and continue to see and relate to each other as family through our squabbles and divisions, and not as warring tribes.
And finally, we must not forget to live this ethic out christologically (meaning, with our eyes set on Jesus). We must see our Christian brothers and sisters as brothers and sisters whom Christ suffered for, died for, and calls us to love in the same self-sacrificial way in which he has loved us. It is through the practice of this virtue that the “King of Israel” brings unity among his people.
This post is the first in our four-part series on Christian Unity.
Next Post: When Brothers Dwell in Unity (https://theologyforreallife.home.blog/2019/08/28/when-brothers-dwell-in-unity/