Evidence #302 | January 24, 2022

Three Battles and the Book of Judges

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Mormon’s subtle allusions to the Benjaminite war from the book of Judges in his account of the Nephite defeat at Desolation is consistent with the Israelite background of the Book of Mormon.

In recent years, biblical scholars have increasingly viewed intertextual connections within Hebrew Bible as a significant characteristic of the literature of ancient Israel.1 Biblical writers often wrote about events, groups, and individuals in ways that would invite the reader to view them in light of earlier events from the biblical past. Such literary allusion has also been found extensively in the Book of Mormon.

In his account of the events leading to the destruction of the people of Nephi, Mormon recounts a series of battles which resulted in the loss of the fortified city of Desolation (Mormon 3:4–16; 4:1–5). Once driven from this strategic location, the Nephites never fully recovered. Mormon’s description of this pivotal battle evokes the disastrous account in the book of Judges of a catastrophic civil war in which the children of Israel suffered great loss and one tribe, Benjamin, was nearly annihilated (Judges 20:1–48; 21:1–25).

Moral Depravity in the Book of Judges and the Final Years of the Nephites

The final chapters of the book of Judges describe a time of wickedness when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” rather than what was right in the eyes of God (Judges 21:25). As biblical scholar Barry Webb explains, the narrative “shows how Israel’s hospitality, warfare, justice, and politics were all debased because of the moral blindness and/or perversity of its citizens (including Levites and elders) and the consequent malfunctioning of its institutions. Yahweh’s displeasure, and his sovereignty, find expression in the chastisement he brings to bear on the whole community.”2

By the time we get to the final chapters of Judges, the Israelite descent into chaos is nearly complete. “Israel is without direction. Individuals behave as they please; ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’”3

"The Victory of the Benjamites on the Eleven Tribes Before Gibeah,” from an 18th century book entitled Dictionnaire historique, critique, chronologique, geographique et litteral de la Bible by A. Calmet, published in Paris, 1730.

This moral low point from Israelite history would have been a particularly apt backdrop to which Mormon could compare the disastrous events of his own day, a time in which the Nephites had similarly descended into a state of gross wickedness. Several key words and themes in Mormon’s account point to earlier events from the book of Judges.

Three battles (Two Victories and One Devastating Defeat)

Both Judges and Mormon describe three serious battles which led to disaster for the smaller group. The Benjaminites and Nephites each successfully repelled two separate assaults from a larger attacking army, the other tribes of Israel (Judges 20:20–21, 24–25) and the Lamanites (Mormon 3:7–8). In the third battle, however, the Benjaminite force was decoyed out of its fortified position (Judges 20:29–35) just as the Nephites were persuaded to leave the city of Desolation to pursue the Lamanites (Mormon 4:1–2).

They Gather Themselves Together

In Judges the children of Bejamin “gathered themselves together out of the cities unto Gibeah” to battle against the other tribes (Judges 20:14). Similarly, Mormon wrote that the Nephites did “gather themselves together at the land Desolation to a city which was in the borders” (Mormon 3:5). Mormon indicates that they concentrated all their forces at that city (Mormon 3:6).

They Went “Out”

During the third battle, the army of Benjamin “went out” of their fortress to fight (Judges 20:31). Similarly, the Nephites in their third battle went “out” from the city of Desolation to fight the Lamanites (Mormon 4:1).

 

Image via fromreformationtoreformation.com.

A Sore Battle

During the third battle between the Israelites and Benjamin’s army, “the battle was sore” (Judges 20:34). Similarly, during the third engagement between the Nephites and the Lamanites, Mormon says “they had a sore battle” (Mormon 4:2).

“Sworn” / “Swear”

Before going to battle with the tribe of Benjamin, the forces of Israel had unwisely “sworn” an oath that those who did not join the fight against Benjamin would be put to death (Judges 21:5) and that none of the Israelites would be allowed to intermarry with Benjamin (Judges 21:1, 7). This oath, however, resulted in disaster for both the Israelites and tribe of Benjamin, as there were not enough Benjaminite women to marry the surviving men, only 600 of which had survived (Judges 20:47).4

Mormon says that after the second battle, the Nephites “began to swear by the heavens” that they would avenge themselves against the Lamanites and destroy them. Yet when Mormon heard that “they had sworn” this oath, he refused to lead them (Mormon 3:14). This oath resulted in the disastrous third battle in which the Nephite forces were nearly destroyed.

Cut Off

After the battles in Judges, the Israelites lamented that “there is one tribe cut off from Israel this day” (Judges 21:6). Mormon says that when the Nephites made their oath, they swore that they would “cut off” the Lamanites from the face of the land (Mormon 3:10). The Lord then told Mormon that because the Nephites had done this and refused to repent, “they shall be cut off from the face of the earth” (Mormon 3:15).5

The Wicked Punish the Wicked

In Judges, after the forces of Benjamin were decoyed out of their fortifications, the Israelite armies who lay in wait rose up and took the town, while others sprung the trap on their enemies.

And all the men of Israel rose up out of their place and put themselves in array ... and the liers in wait of Israel came forth out of their places, even out of the meadows of Gibeah. And there came against Gibeah ten thousand chosen men out of all Israel, and the battle was sore: but they knew not that the evil was near them. And the Lord smote Benjamin before Israel (Judges 20:33–35).

Mormon writes that after the Nephite army went out to battle against the Lamanites, “the armies were driven back into the land of Desolation. And while they were yet weary, a fresh army of the Lamanites did come upon them; and they had a sore battle, insomuch that the Lamanites did take possession of the city Desolation, and did slay many of the Nephites, and did take many prisoners” (Mormon 4:2).

The Final Nephite Battle, by Jody Livingston. 

Lillian Klein in her commentary on the Book of Judges noted the ambiguity of the phrase “the evil” in Judges 20:34. “The ‘evil’ may be understood as abstract ‘evil’ has struck. It may also be taken to suggest that the forces of Israel, which are striking the Benjaminites down, are themselves evil, that Yahweh uses the reprehensible forces of Israel to conquer iniquitous forces of Benjamin. The ‘evil’ (ra’ah) which is striking will purge the evil in Benjamin.”6

Significantly, this is the very point that Mormon makes about the Nephites’ destruction: “But behold, the judgments of God will overtake the wicked; and it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished; for it is the wicked which stir up the hearts of the children of men unto bloodshed” (Mormon 4:5). 

Conclusion

Without going into horrible detail (Mormon 4:10–12; 5:8–9), Mormon skillfully underscores the moral depravity of his own people by drawing upon the language from a similar story in Judges. Although some readers may view such narrative similarities as akin to plagiarism,7 biblical scholars now recognize intertextuality as a key element of ancient biblical literature.8 Instead of a stumbling block, Mormon’s apparent allusions to the Benjaminite disaster present yet another example of the Book of Mormon’s literary sophistication and often subtle complexity.

Alan Goff, “The Stealing of the Daughters of the Lamanites,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon: Insights You May Have Missed Before, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1991), 67–74.

BibleJudges 20:1–48Judges 20:14Judges 20:20–21Judges 20:24–25Judges 20:31Judges 20:34Judges 20:29–35Judges 20:33-35Judges 20:47Judges 21:1–25Judges 21:1Judges 21:5Judges 21:6Judges 21:7Judges 21:25Book of MormonMormon 3:4–16Mormon 3:5Mormon 3:6Mormon 3:7–8Mormon 3:10Mormon 3:14Mormon 3:15Mormon 4:1 Mormon 4:2Mormon 4:5Mormon 4:1–2Mormon 4:1–5Mormon 4:10–12Mormon 5:8–9

Bible

Judges 20:1–48

Judges 20:14

Judges 20:20–21

Judges 20:24–25

Judges 20:31

Judges 20:34

Judges 20:29–35

Judges 20:33-35

Judges 20:47

Judges 21:1–25

Judges 21:1

Judges 21:5

Judges 21:6

Judges 21:7

Judges 21:25

Book of Mormon

Mormon 3:4–16

Mormon 3:5

Mormon 3:6

Mormon 3:7–8

Mormon 3:10

Mormon 3:14

Mormon 3:15

Mormon 4:1

Mormon 4:2

Mormon 4:5

Mormon 4:1–2

Mormon 4:1–5

Mormon 4:10–12

Mormon 5:8–9

Footnotes
  • 1 See Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 350–378.
  • 2 Barry G. Webb, The Book of Judges: An Integrated Reading (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1987), 197.
  • 3 J. Cheryl Exum, “The Centre Cannot Hold: Thematic and Textual Instabilities in Judges,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52 (1990): 431.
  • 4 For a related evidence, see Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: The Abduction of Dancing Maidens,” Evidence# 0166, March 15, 2021, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 5 The Lord’s statement invokes the legal principle known as talionic justice, which is found pervasively in Bible and throughout the Book of Mormon. See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Talionic Justice,” Evidence# 0198, May 28, 2021, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 6 Lillian R. Klein, The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges (Sheffield, England: Almond Press, 1988), 185.
  • 7 See Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 2nd edition (New York, NY: Alfred A Knopf, 1971), 62–63.
  • 8 For a useful discussion and additional examples of intertextuality between Judges and the book of Mosiah, see Alan Goff, “A Hermeneutic of Sacred Texts: Historicism, Revisionism, Positivism, and the Bible and the Book of Mormon” (Masters Thesis: Brigham Young University, 1989), 57–91; Alan Goff, “The Stealing of the Daughters of the Lamanites,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon: Insights You May Have Missed Before, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1991), 67–74.
Complexity
Intertextuality (External)
Battles in Judges
Book of Mormon

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