The Book of Judges, Chapter 20


Chapter 19 certainly had some twists and turns.  Speaking for myself, portions of it are a little difficult for me to relate to.  Chapter 20 picks up the story after the Levite cut up his dead wife into twelve pieces and shipped a piece to each of the tribes of Israel.

However, the story doesn’t really get any less strange.  If the actions of the Levite, one man, seem rather inconsistent, then consider how inconsistent the whole of Israel had become, for that is now where the focus shifts.  We see an internal moral struggle, with one party clearly acting immoral, while the remainder of the nation seems very conflicted.  First, they take one action, and then they regret that action and swing to another extreme.

This, in a nutshell, is relative morality.  That’s what everyone doing what is right in his own eyes gets you.  When no one is guided by an objective code and there is no enforcement for ignoring it, then everyone is deciding what is right and what is wrong for themselves.  They are still participating in the ultimate experiment of knowing good and evil, and it is “knowing” in the experiential sense.  They decide, they act, and they experience the consequences.

So, let’s dive in and see what is the outcome of this grand experiment.

Then all the children of Israel went out, and the congregation was gathered together as one man, from Dan even to Beersheba, with the land of Gilead, unto the LORD in Mizpeh.

~ Jdg 20:1

Hebrew really didn’t have a word for “unity”, so they were “gathered together as one man”.  In other words, they were united in their cause.

This verse is often used to show how God the Father and Jesus are “one”.  They are united in purpose and cause.  Since God is the perfect Father, Jesus can submit completely and without reservation to the Father.  Since Jesus is the perfect Son, He is able to submit completely and without reservation.  They, as the perfect family, are united as one.

So, they were united.  They came before God.  The question remains, though, were they at one with God?

“Mizpeh” or “Mizpah” means “watchtower”.  There is more than one watchtower, and this one is in the territory of Benjamin (Jos 18:21-26).  It is where Samuel gathered together Israel to cry out to God to be delivered from the Philistines (1Sa 7:3-5).  Later, Samuel instructed Israel together at Mizpeh in order to introduce King Saul (1Sa 10:17-24), who was a Benjamite.

400,000 soldiers arrive at Mizpeh to demand an accounting.  It was an obvious show of force.

The Levite told his tale of how he traveled to Gibeah and lodged that night, only to be threatened with his life and how his concubine was raped until she died.  He conveniently leaves out the part where he and the old man thrust the concubine out the door, and no one seems to ask.  It is also important to note that Israel makes a decision before consulting with God.  They seem to consult Him instead as an afterthought, and perhaps that is why things went the way they did.

Israel decides to go up against Gibeah, and they all were “knit together as one man”, once again showing the strength of their unity.

Notice the show of force intended to intimidate Benjamin.  They make a decision already, but now they send people throughout the land of Benjamin to hand over “the children of Belial, which are in Gibeah” after their decision.

Was this a just decision?  In an odd way, it could be justified.  What was Israel to do to “sons of Belial”?

12 If thou shalt hear say in one of thy cities, which the LORD thy God hath given thee to dwell there, saying,

13 Certain men, the children of Belial, are gone out from among you, and have withdrawn the inhabitants of their city, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which ye have not known;

14 Then shalt thou enquire, and make search, and ask diligently; and, behold, if it be truth, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought among you;

15 Thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein, and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword.

~ Dt 13:12-15

This interpretation is not without its problems, though.  First of all, was the entire city involved?  There isn’t any direct evidence of that, although one would question how such a thing could go unpunished if the city elders were doing their job.  Second, while they were obviously wicked men, there are no pronouncements of “let us go and serve other gods”.

There is the matter of intrusion and self-defense as well.  It appears that eleven of the tribes are gathered to try to intimidate Benjamin.  We are specifically told that Benjamin knew about the meeting, and this intimidation subsequently backfires.  Would a more diplomatic approach brought about a better resolution?  Perhaps not, seeing as the general atmosphere in Israel was one of chaos, but the fact that it doesn’t even seem to have been tried first is a very real concern.

Of course, this isn’t really any excuse for Benjamin’s reaction, either.  Evil had been done, and that cried out for justice.  Had they relented and turned over the guilty men, things would have likely settled down quite quickly.  Instead, they chose to defend evil.  They chose the way of pride over justice, and they gathered together to fight their brothers.

Left-handedness seemed to be a trait of the Benjamites.  Remember, Ehud was a left-handed Benjamite, and that served to be to his advantage in hiding a small sword strapped to his thigh.

I’ve seen some who will take this to an extreme, though.  I have met some who assume that because you are left-handed, you must be part Benjamite.  There is nothing that states that only a descendant of Benjamin can be left-handed.  It is no more true than assuming everyone who likes tea must be British.

Benjamin was not the largest tribe in Israel by any means.  Their army was a lot smaller.  However, they were skilled warriors.

15 And the children of Benjamin were numbered at that time out of the cities twenty and six thousand men that drew sword, beside the inhabitants of Gibeah, which were numbered seven hundred chosen men.

16 Among all this people there were seven hundred chosen men lefthanded; every one could sling stones at an hair breadth, and not miss.

~ Jdg 20:15-16

It should not be forgotten that David killed Goliath with a sling.

Benjamin was prophesied to be like a wolf devouring its prey.

27 Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf: in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil.

~ Ge 49:27

Ulam’s sons, Benjamites, were mighty warriors.

40 And the sons of Ulam were mighty men of valour, archers, and had many sons, and sons’ sons, an hundred and fifty. All these are of the sons of Benjamin.

~ 1Ch 8:40

The men of Benjamin were not slackers.

18 And the children of Israel arose, and went up to the house of God, and asked counsel of God, and said, Which of us shall go up first to the battle against the children of Benjamin? And the LORD said, Judah shall go up first.

~ Jdg 20:18

Stop and consider the sequence of events here.  They gathered “unto the LORD in Mizpeh”, but we never see them actually inquiring of God.  They make a decision to punish Gibeah, again without any indication they consulted God.  Benjamin gets insulted and self-protective and gathers an army to fight the rest of Israel.  Now they consult God?

Remember what I wrote about in “Making Godly Decisions”?

That’s why it is important to seek God’s will upfront.  The more important the decision, the earlier we should seek Him out.

From all indications, Israel had it backwards.  What made them think that this would work?

Think about the last story.  Think about Micah and his mother, and how superstitious they acted.  Micah was glad when he got a Levite for a priest.  The tribe of Dan was so superstitious that they thought they could steal away a priest and Micah’s idols and be blessed because they owned them.  When God is pushed out of the picture, superstition is almost inevitable.

Were they not just asking God to bless a decision they had already made?  Looking over the entire Book of Judges, were they faithful to God the entire time?  Or, did they just put Him up on a mental shelf somewhere, pulling Him down like one of their idols, to bless whatever they are doing when they get into trouble?

Could this happen in our day and time?  Could a country founded upon principles that men perceived were based upon the Bible get to the point where God is marginalized in public life?  Taken out of schools, courtrooms and every day life?  But, let a few planes fly into some buildings, and what happens?  Suddenly, people are packing into churches and standing on the Capitol Building steps singing “God bless America”.  How long does it take before it is business as usual and God is placed back upon the virtual shelf gathering dust until the next crisis occurs?

What did such thinking get the Children of Israel?  They lost not just the first battle but the second as well.

Then we see fasting and sacrifices.  Where were these before?  It seems they were trusting in their own righteousness up to this point.

28 And Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, stood before it in those days,) saying, Shall I yet again go out to battle against the children of Benjamin my brother, or shall I cease? And the LORD said, Go up; for to morrow I will deliver them into thine hand.

~ Jdg 20:28

This is a slightly different question, and it had a slightly different answer.  The difference is subtle, I’ll admit, but a difference there is.  It seems to be a much more humble question, and it seems to call into question whether or not they are even doing the right thing.  Before this, they were so convinced they were doing right.  And, in a sense, they may have been.  However, you can do the right thing in the wrong way and/or for the wrong reasons.

And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand;

And he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.

~ Nu 25:7-8

This is the same Phinehas, which means this story must have occurred early in the days of the judges.

This time, Israel set an ambush for Benjamin.  This is similar to the narrative about Ai during the days of Joshua, even to the fire in the city.  They pretended to be retreating, but Israel was really drawing Benjamin into the trap.

Some critics point to the similarities between this story and Sodom and/or this story and Ai with the view that it is just a mashup of previous stories.  However, history is often repetitive in nature, so that’s hardly a valid criticism.  In addition, we should be mindful that “there is no new thing under the sun” (Ecc 1:9).  Human nature is the same as it has been for thousands of years, in spite of whatever technological advances we may have made.  We can kid ourselves that we are different today, but take away all those comforts and what happens?  Do you remember the looting after Hurricane Katrina?  No, I’m afraid that it will take a lot more than technology to truly change the human race.  It will require a change of the human heart.

35 And the LORD smote Benjamin before Israel: and the children of Israel destroyed of the Benjamites that day twenty and five thousand and an hundred men: all these drew the sword.

~ Jdg 20:35

I don’t believe that “the LORD smote Benjamin” is just an expression.  It is not a phrase attributed to anyone.  It is written under the inspiration of God.  It is justice dealt out from God for defending evil.  However, before that could occur, Israel had to confront their own sinfulness in order to be useful to God.  I believe that there is no justification for those who would like to hand wave this sentence away.  I prefer to take it at face value.

The short of it is that only 600 men of Benjamin survived, which made the smallest tribe significantly smaller.  They fled and dwelt in Mt Rimmon.  Apparently, there is a four month gap between here and events of the following chapter.

If it all ended here, it would just be an odd story with a lesson here and there but with a very strange beginning.  However, it does not end here, and the ending is perhaps just as strange as the beginning.

Go on to Chapter 21 here.