On Bloody Icing and Christmas Truces

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of October 18. Enjoy!

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The latter half of the book of Judges is the bloody icing on a cake of senseless violence baked in the book’s first twelve chapters.  With just a handful of generations’ time having passed since Joshua’s renewal of the covenant at Shechem (Jo 24:1-28), Israelites resort not only to aggression against “other” enemies (Jgs 3:12-25; 11:32-33; 16:25-30), but also to acts of brutality and redemptive violence against one another (Jgs 12:4-6; 21:10-12).  But in both casualties and savagery, standing out distinctively among this history of carnage is the civil war pitting the Benjaminites against the rest of Israel, including its precursor event and aftermath (Jgs 19-21).  This paper features reflections on the cyclical, defeating nature of redemptive violence as attested to by the Levite and his concubine and significant wars of the twentieth century.

A lengthy and repetitive set-up involving an unidentified Levite and his unnamed concubine, who is relentlessly raped by a pack of men, eventually leads to the mobilization of Israel to seize “those wicked men of Gibeah” (Jgs 20:13 NIV).  It is only when the tribe of Benjamin collectively refuses to surrender the offenders that this approach escalates into a major war involving many thousands of men (Jgs 20:13-17).  Recognizing the continuation of a theme present throughout the entire book, and especially in the lives of Deborah (Jgs 4-5) and Delilah (Jgs 16), Jo Ann Hackett surmises that not only is violence “a function of the lawless era [Judges] describes,” but it is also closely connected to the actions of women, or in the case of the Levite’s concubine, the inability to act.[1] Her sacrifice, gang rape, death and gruesome postmortem treatment also serve as a metaphor for the greater savagery and lack of peace among the tribes of Israel, for in the same way that she is divided into pieces by the Levite, so too will the tribes become divided.  Alice A. Keefe writes that the violence perpetrated against the violated woman and the “social body” of Israel becomes increasingly redemptive and senseless, noting, “Judges 19 visually presents a woman’s body, broken and dismembered.  There is an element of dark absurdity in both the horror of the woman’s fate . . . and the horror of a war among the tribes which is to no purpose except mass death and more rape.”[2]

History, as the old adage says, repeats itself.  While not involving rape, June 1914 saw the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, an event that sparked declarations of war among world superpowers, including Germany, Great Britain and Russia. This singular event – minor, though tragic – became a catalyst for the cruel devastation of war, much like the Levite and his concubine.  Years later, the United States joined the fray, but only months into the war, British and German trench soldiers must have recognized that they were already sick of the senseless, redemptive and inhumane violence already triggered by the conflict.  For just a few days, soldiers tossed food – not hand grenades – into their enemy’s trench and exchanged not bullets, but favorite carols.[3] The occasion was Christmas Day 1914, and though this truce only lasted a few days, it is a beautiful portrait of what can happen when humans recognize the humanity of “the other.”  Of course, this Great War continued for three more years, costing the lives of many millions worldwide, and its aftermath ignited the Second World War, repeating the cycle of redemptive violence on an even grander scale.  Unfortunately, society has yet to learn from two recent, major wars – let alone the ancient history of bloodshed in the Bible – but the question begs to be asked: What if this “Christmas Truce” lasted longer than just a few days?


[1] Jo Ann Hackett, “Violence and Women’s Lives in the Book of Judges,” Interpretation 58, no. 4 (2004), 356.

[2] Alice A. Keefe, “Rapes of Women/Wars of Men,” Semeia no. 61 (1993): 92.

[3] Peter Simkins, “The Christmas Truce – A Mutual Curiosity,” PBS, http://www.pbs.org/greatwar/historian/hist_simkins_04_truce.html (accessed October 15, 2010).

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