The book of Judges is full of odd and graphic vignettes of violence, not unlike what one might see in a medieval action movie. Shamgar killed 600 Philistines with an oxgoad; Jael drove a tent peg through the temple of the sleeping Sisera. How should we interpret these stories of violence? Should we admire these heroic Hebrews for their courage or should we consider how even Hebrew violence may have generated more violence?
One thing is clear. By the time one reads the final three chapters of Judges, where massive violence and sexual degradation have become solutions for previous acts of violence and sexual violation, most will say, “Enough is enough. I’m ready for something different.” And fortunately, that is precisely what the Book of Ruth gives us: a replacement of cycles of violence with a cycle of virtue. Ruth presents a beautiful picture of kindness resulting in more kindness until all losses at the start of the story have been transformed into positive outcomes.
As violence begets more violence, so virtue begets more virtue. This repetition has a way of socializing a community into either a culture of violence or a culture of kindness. I will unpack these cycles with the help of biblical narratives, then reflect on how we can overcome entrenched cycles of violence by setting cycles of virtue in motion.
Before exploring the biblical accounts, I want to offer a macro-micro continuum to show how these cycles operate at all levels. A macro-level example would be regional conflicts between two ethnic groups. Last year, in a peace-builders workshop for international students, a man from India’s Kashmir district said, “For the past 25 years in my part of the world, vengeance reigns supreme.” He described how concepts of forgiveness and compassion for the enemy are simply unheard of in both Muslim and Hindu communities. The only solution is to get rid of “the problem,” namely, the enemy group.
I once participated in a restorative justice circle for male offenders of domestic violence. The model involves a year-long process of a support group leading offenders into realms of greater empathy and accountability. This is slow work; it is not easy to rewire minds that were hardwired over time to sustain verbal and physical abuse. Reflecting on his past patterns, one offender recalled how he justified abusively putting down his partner whenever she said something belittling to him.
Active in both examples are simplistic narratives that legitimize violence.
Harming behaviors need some sort of justification or they could not be sustained. One way to understand this is to identify reprisal language. “They’ve got it coming to them.” As we turn to the stories in Judges, this language can help us interpret texts not only through the lens of God fulfilling sacred purposes through historical events but through the lens of how human violence promotes more violence.
Christians commonly interpret Judges according to historical cycles where the Israelites go from being subjugated to being the subjugator. At the right time God sends a deliverer or “judge” who brings a new victory. Gideon, for example, is known for demobilizing thousands of troops and employing a mere 300 soldiers to show God’s miraculous hand against the Midianites. Such victory stories are well known, but not so the aftermath stories that show how human violence is endemic to societies operating within a culture of violence.
In the wake of victory, Gideon captures two kings and returns through two Israelite communities that had refused to feed his troops (Judges 8). “Just for that,” Gideon had said earlier, “I will tear your flesh with desert thorns and briars.” To a second community he had said, “I will tear down your tower.” Out of emotion and a narrative of reprisal, he was ready to “teach them a lesson,” which simply meant punishment. In the first case, 77 town officials were scourged, as Gideon announced; in the second case, the tower was leveled, and all townsmen were killed.
At some level, this “just-for-that” mentality shows how the Israelites operated within the same culture of violence as their non-Israelite counterparts. Maybe it was a matter of survival, but it was also a matter of enculturation. The next scene makes this clear. To ensure that his oldest son is properly socialized in the ethos of violence, Gideon asks him to slay two captured kings. The boy, afraid, does not draw his sword; he had not been desensitized (yet) to acts of violence. His father then finished the job.
The story of Abimelech, Gideon’s bastard son, shows how cycles of violence ultimately lead to widespread destruction (Judges 9). With hired thugs, Abimelech manages to murder Gideon’s 70 prince-sons, then becomes Shechem’s king. But one son, Jotham, escapes death and prophetically announces how both leader and followers, living dishonorably by codes of violence, will consume each other. While the text unfolds a story of intrigue and mistrust where sacred prophesy is fulfilled, it also shows how human violence leads to greater violence. On a rampage, Abimelech obliterates the entire city of Shechem (killing those who crowned him), only to meet his own death by a millstone thrown from a tower.
The final three chapters of Judges reinforce how violence can escalate to such a degree that it can even defy a clear framing of sacred history, where God is in control. Hence, the echoing refrain of Judges: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” Violence can get out of hand, the writer suggests, and there is no justification for it. When a traveler’s concubine, in a Benjamite town, is brutally raped to the point of death and every tribe receives a portion of her corpse, the unspeakable crime unites the other 11 tribes “as one man” with intense emotion. They can only imagine a military response.
One would think the Benjamites would turn over the vile offenders; instead, they muster every able-handed soldier to meet the threat. Though stronger in numbers, the united tribal army suffers two major defeats, in the tens of thousands, but in a third battle, it gets the upper hand. As if to balance their losses, the Israelites burn every Benjamite town, killing men, women, children, even the animals. Only 600 Benjamite soldiers survive the ethnic cleansing in a fortified cave.
To solve a problem created by escalating violence, they use unprecedented violence to wipe out the entire Israelite population of Jabesh Gilead, sparing only 400 virgins for the Benjamite men holding out in the cave. This is to ensure the continuation of new generations. But that left them 200 wives shy. Sanction is then given for the abduction of more unmarried daughters who danced at a harvest festival at Shiloh. And thus the book of Judges ends.
In this vacuum of no resolution or healing for such senseless mass-violence, the story of Ruth provides a much-needed reframing of two biblical themes: human responsibility and human kindness. One act of kindness leads to another, until a cycle of virtue brings about blessing to a family that was once “empty” (1:21). This spread of loving kindness (“hesed” in Hebrew) is traceable from Naomi to Ruth to Boaz, and finally back to Naomi, the proud grandmother of Obed, king David’s grandfather. Significantly, it all hinges on Ruth’s initiatives to promote a cycle of virtue.
A harvest festival also plays into this narrative, though this time women are not “seized …and carried off,” as in Judges. The Ruth account carefully emphasizes a woman’s protection from sexual molestation (2:9, 15, 22). This is an important feature within a culture of kindness; indeed, it is a form of kindness. With her dignity protected, Ruth is empowered to take responsibility to make things happen. This, in turn, empowers Boaz to take further responsibility to stabilize their relationship and Naomi’s precarious life.
Such responsibility amounts to one’s “response-ability” to another’s kindness. Kindness engenders more kindness because in between both acts, the receiver is inspired to mimic the giver. Conversely, violence is perpetuated when a recipient mimics the giver of violence. As both repay evil for evil over time, each side avoids responsibility by blaming the other. How then can such cycles ever be broken?
As Christians, we first see that God, in Jesus, broke all cycles of violence and pain on the cross, unleashing the power of divine forgiveness to heal us and help us mature. In the language of Romans 12:21, God overcame evil with good, overcoming violence with virtue, absorbing and disarming every power with love. By embracing us as both wounding and wounded people, God’s enemy-love gives us a new capacity to extend enemy-love in our wounding-wounded entanglements.
In Romans 12:21 we are first challenged to not be overcome by evil in the internal realm. We have to first win the battle over negative narratives and negative emotions. Next, we are challenged to overcome evil with good in the external or behavioral realm. With empathy for others, we do acts of kindness, giving food or drink when our enemy is hungry or thirsty. This overcoming shifts a cycle of violence into a cycle of virtue.
Decades of Muslim-Christian violence in northern Nigeria are being dramatically reversed by the bold partnership of Pastor James Wuye and Imam Ashafa, former enemies of opposing militias, who now travel together to spread peace-building strategies.
In Minnesota, a domestic violence offender, after six months of group work, shared how he was bothered by the way another man had belittled a woman. “I never recognized that kind of thing before. Now I have more empathy for her.”
A reversal of cycles, from violence to virtue, can happen because everyone is able to respond to kindness with kindness. While reading Judges can seem like watching medieval movies with plots of vengeance, biblical stories also help us understand how humans are truly responsible for the negative or positive cycles they set in motion. With God’s help and with the inspiration of moral heroes, we all can promote cycles of virtue that can overcome evil with good at any level—international, communal, even interpersonal.
Ted Lewis is a restorative justice trainer, teacher and consultant, and also provides mediation services and workshop services for church communities.
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