Document: Letter 6
Date: 380
Addressee: Syagrius, Bishop of Verona
English Translation: FC 26.163-172
Summary of Contents: On false charges against a virgin named Indicia

After you found out what transpired in our court, you kept to yourself; therefore, I now summon, as it were, a part of my own soul, for I have a friendly yet sorrowful complaint against you for the outrage done to chastity. Was it necessary for an unsurpassed, unheard-of case of virginity to be subjected to a sentence? Could it not have been dismissed? In other words, unless with injury to herself she had been handed over from honored modesty to an indecent surrender of her body, though she offered strong proof regarding herself, she would be exposed to ridicule and marked out as a wanton individual! You have tendered this privilege to virginity, honor of a sort, to which they are pleased to be summoned and invited who plan to recover this boon! Thus, they lose the liberty of a common reputation, nor do they protect themselves by the statutes of sacred or public law; they may not ask their accuser, or oppose an informer, but may only put on shamelessness and expose themselves to harm.

Our ancestors did not think chastity so to be despised; rather, they showed it such reverence that they would wage war on violators of modesty. In fact, so great was their desire for revenge that all the tribe of Benjamin would have been destroyed unless the 600 who remained out of the war had been protected by a natural hill. This is the expression found in the account of the sacred lesson whose tenor it is profitable to consider.

A Levite, more courageous than wealthy, lived in the region of Mount Ephrem, for to this tribe was allotted a landed possession far removed, in place of the right of inheritance. He took a wife for himself from the tribe of Bethlehem of Juda. And as they felt deeply the first attraction of their love, he burned with unbounded love for his wife. But her ways were different, and he was more and more desirous of having her, and inwardly seethed with desire. Yet, because there was a difference in their ages, and because he felt, either through the lightness or her love or the violence of his pain, that she did not consider him of equal worth with herself, he used to chide her. Frequent quarreling followed, and the offended wife gave back the keys of the house and went home.

Her husband, overwhelmed with love and having nothing else to hope for, when he saw the fourth month slip by, went to her, trusting that the young girl’s heart would be softened on the advice of her parents. His father-in-law met him at the door and brought him into the house. He reconciled his daughter and, in order that he might send them away more joyous, kept them three days while he prepared a sort of nuptial banquet. Although the man wanted to depart, he kept him also a fourth day, offering him excuses of civility, devising delays. In his desire to add a fifth day as well, he found new reasons for delaying them, while the husband, unwilling to thwart the father’s affection of its desire to keep his daughter, though he was at last promised an opportunity for setting forth, postponed it to midday so that they would start out well fortified with food. Even after dinner, the father wished to find some delay, saying that evening was now approaching. At last he acquiesced, though reluctantly, to the entreaties of his son-in-law.

He set out on his journey in happy spirits because he had recovered his dearly beloved wife. One servant was with him, and as day was already declining they sped on their way with swift steps. The woman rode on an ass; her husband felt no weariness, taking joy in his desire and lightening his journey with talk at times with the woman, at times with the slave. When at length they neared Jerusalem, about thirty stades away, a place inhabited then by Jebusites, the servant boy suggested that they turn into the city, especially since night makes even safe places suspect and one must guard against the uncertainties of darkness, and particularly since the inhabitants of this locality were not of the children of Israel. They should beware lest treachery be done with hostile design, for the night’s darkness is opportune enough for any tricksters to perpetrate evil. But his master did not care for the servant’s idea of seeking lodging among foreigners, since Gaba and Rama, cities of Benjamin, were not far distant. His strong will overrode the servant’s suggestion, as though advice takes its value from one’s condition [of birth] rather than that through advice a lowly condition may be raised. The sun was now setting and he agreed reluctantly to go into the city [Gaba], for he was overtaken by evening.

The Gabanites lived there, unfriendly, harsh, unbearable people, who could stand anything but to receive people hospitably. Indeed, it would have been much more suitable had the Levite not sought hospitality in Gaba. That his treatment be utterly offensive, he found on entering the city that there was no inn. And when he sat on the road imploring the mercy of these strangers, an old man from the fields happened to stumble on him, for evening had compelled him to leave his work in the fields at night. Seeing him, he asked where he was from and where he was going. He answered: “I came from Bethlehem of Judah, I am going to Mount Ephrem, and my wife is here with me. But I have learned that there is no one here to give hospitality and provide us a chance to rest.” He needed no food or drink for himself nor food for his flock, but the hospitality of shelter was refused them. They had everything; only a bare lodging was needed. To this the old man kindly and calmly said: “Peace to you! Come in as my guest and fellow citizen, for I am also from the region of Mount Ephrem and here is a lodging place; someone who lived here a long time laid its foundations.” Having received them into his home, he attentively and carefully provided for his guests and entertained them.

The old man kept urging them to be glad and kept inviting them to drink more wine so that they would forget their cares, when all of a sudden they were surrounded by young men of Gaba, given to lust, all lacking esteem for moderation. The woman’s beauty had bewitched them and thrown them into utter folly. They were captivated by her beauty and because of the old man’s age and lack of help, with high hope of getting her, they demanded the woman and kept pounding at the door.

The old man, going out, begged them not to defile his guest’s stay with a base crime, contemplating violation of a privilege reverenced even by savage nations of barbarous peoples; they could not insultingly mistreat a fellow tribesman of his, legitimately born, a married man, without causing wrath in their heavenly judge. When he saw that he was making little headway, he added that he had a maiden daughter and he offered her to them, with great sorrow, since he was her parent, but with less damage to the favor he owed his guest. He considered a public crime more tolerable than private disgrace. Driven by a wave of fury and inflamed by the incentive of lust, they desired the more the beauty of the young woman the more she was denied them. Deprived of all righteousness, they mocked his fair words, considering the old man’s daughter an object of contempt in that she was offered with less feeling of ill will toward the crime.

Then, when pious entreaties availed nothing and the aged hands were hopelessly extended in vain, the woman was seized and all that night was subjected to violence. When day brought an end to the outrage, she went back to the door of their lodging, where she would not ask to see her husband, whom she thought she must now forego, ashamed at her pitiable condition. Yet, to show her love for her husband, she who had lost her chastity lay down at the door of the lodging, and there in pitiable circumstance came an end to her disgrace. The Levite, coming out, found her lying there and thought that she dared not lift her head for shame. He began comforting her, since she had succumbed to such injury not willingly but unwillingly. He bade her rise and go home with him. Then, as no answer came, he called her loudly as though to rouse her from sleep.

When he realized that she was dead, he lifted her onto the mule and brought her home; then, dividing her limbs into twelve parts, he sent one to each of the tribes of Israel. In great distress over this, all the people met at Maspha, and there, learning of the abominable deed from the Levite, desired to go to war, deciding that it was unlawful for anyone to go to his tent until vengeance was taken on the authors of this deed. With courage they rushed into battle, but the advice of wiser men changed their purpose not to engage the citizens in war, but to put the charge to the test first with words and to determine the conditions for the guilty. Nor did it seem fair that the cost of a few men’s crimes should fall on all, and that the private sins of young men should make the safety of the citizenry fall. So they sent men to demand that the Gabanites give up those guilty of this crime, and, if they did not do so, let them know that to have defended such a crime was not less than to have committed it.

A proud retort was made and plans for peace were changed to war. In the first and second encounters, when many were harmed by a few, the Israelites considered yielding, since the battles were so unfavorable. There were 400,000 men warring against 25,000 of the tribe of Benjamin, and they strove with 700 Gabanites experienced in war. When two battles were unfavorable, Israel with eager spirit did not lose hope of victory nor of vengeance for the hope they had built up.

Superior in cause and number they yet fell back worsted in the battle’s outcome, and, feeling that God was offended, they tried with fasting and much weeping to gain a reconciliation of heaven’s favor. Begging the Lord’s peace, they returned more boldly to war and they to whom prayer had given courage and who had entertained much hope were now able to do what they planned. On a pretext of withdrawing their front lines, setting ambushes at night in the rear of the city, where a segment of the enemy was located, they followed as some retired and thus were provided with an opportunity for invading the unprotected city. Fires were quickly set and flared up while raging flames and waves of heat revealed the sight of the taken city. Their spirits broken, they faced the enemy. The men of Benjamin who thought they were shut in and surrounded, even before they were invaded from the rear, began scattering and fleeing to the desert, while Israel pressed after with doubled force and pursued them as they wandered in rout.

About 25,000 were slain, therefore, that is, almost all the men of Benjamin except 600 who seized a fortification on a rough cliff and by virtue of its situation and with the help of nature and partly through fear were a terror to their victors. Success advises caution; in adversity, revenge is esteemed rather than victory. Not even a minority of the women stayed clear of that struggle, but all the women of the tribe of Benjamin, along with boys and girls of every age, were wiped out by sword or fire, and an oath was taken that no one would give his daughter to a man of that tribe in marriage, so that all chance of repairing the name was abolished.

The end of the war was also the end of their wrath, and anger turned to sorrow. Then, putting off their armor, the men of Israel met together and wept much and celebrated a fast, grieving that one tribe of their brethren had perished and a strong band of people had been wiped out. Rightly had they warred against the authors of the crime because of the cost of the sin, but unhappily had the people turned against their own flesh and each was afflicted with civil war. The outpouring of tears moved their minds to compassion and stirred their feelings; the plan conceived in anger was gone. Sending legates to the 600 men of Benjamin, who for four months guarded themselves on the top of sheer rocks and by the desert’s barrenness, which was dangerous for a mass of attackers, they lamented their common hardship in losing their fellow tribesmen, relatives, and allies. Yet the hope of renewing the tribe was not utterly destroyed and they consulted together how they might agree on a pledge of faith and one tribe not perish, severed from the body.

After setting up an altar they offered a sacrifice of reconcilation and peace. But, since the men of Jabes Galaad were obliged to the penalty and oath (for all Israel had bound herself with an oath that, if anyone did not join her in punishing the crime, he should die the death), 12,000 warriors had been sent, but that all the men and women be destroyed by the sword they spared only young maidens who had not known the bed of a man. Thus, all Jabes Galaad was killed and only 400 maidens remained. Israel took them and decided that the men of Benjamin should put away fear of war and wed the innocent girls close to them in age and honor. The men had a stronger reason, in that none of them had warred against them and they owed them the favor of charity, since through them they had been snatched from death. In this way was a marriage union sought for the 400 youths.

Yet, because 200 remained without wives, we learn that they also took counsel for them without violating their oaths. Yearly, a festival was held in Silo. There maidens used to dance or lead choruses for the honor of religion. Some went ahead of the matrons, and filled the whole road with their traveling troop. One of the elders said: “lf the two hundred men of the tribe of Benjamin would keep watch from the vineyard until the troop of women comes out, and coming from the vineyard each one would claim as wife whom he chances upon, there would be no treachery, for the people favor remedying the continuation of the tribe, but because of their oath they are unable to ask for marriage for their daughters. Nor would it seem a violation of their oath if they did not think to stop them, for by the oath no need of forcing or stopping seems imposed: they ought to look to their advantage without fear. But if the girls’ parents demand punishment, by entreaty and by reminding them of the fault of unwilling custody of them, they will gainsay them, and when they know that the men of Benjamin are unmarried they will themselves come forth with their daughters. The tribe is now worthy not of penalty but of mercy. Harsh enough has been their treatment and part of the body has been vanquished. Too immoderately did the people desire to wipe out the continuation of the family, to kill some of theirs. God is not pleased that a tribe of people perish, nor that they act so bitterly over one woman.”

The Israelites approved the plan; the men of Benjamin went out and hid in the vineyard at a favorable spot and at a favorable moment swooped down upon the roads filled with crowds of women. The solemnizing of their religion furnished them a nuptial festival. Daughters were torn from the embrace of fathers, as though being given to the band of youths by their parents, and you would think each had agreed not to be drawn from her mother’s arms but to leave them. Thus did the tribe of Benjamin, which had almost been annihilated and destroyed, shortly flourish, proving how the punishment of shamelessness and revenge for injured chastity mean great harm to the proud.

Scripture proves this not only here, but in many places. In Genesis, too, we read that Pharaoh, king of Egypt, was scourged with many torments for having loved Sara, although he did not know she was another’s wife.

It is the Lord’s will to guard chastity; how much more, to defend purity! Hence, no harm ought to be inflicted upon holy virgins, for those who do not marry and men who do not take to wife are accounted as the angels of God in heaven. So, let us not bring bodily insult to heavenly grace, since God is powerful whom no transgression escapes, who is moved by a harsh and heavy insult to consecrated virginity, a gift reserved to Him.

Farewell, brother, and love us, because we love you.

Translation from FC 26.163-172, adapted by SMT

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Last updated: 4-27-2011

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