Last week we took a careful look at a very tragic and horrifying event that occurred between a man and his concubine and a few wicked men in Gibeah. This event involved cowardice, assault, murder, and indifference. News of this relatively isolated episode quickly spread to the twelve tribes of Israel and became a very big deal. This leads us to chapter 20. Here we witness the reaction to the atrocities of chapter 19 and learn how idolatry inevitably leads to division. While in chapter 17 we learned how idolatry can lead one to believe that he can build God or buy him off, and in chapter 18 we learned how idolatry can lend itself to self-importance and entitlement, and in chapter 19 we discovered how idolatry goes hand-in-hand with a reckless pursuit of satisfying fleshly lusts and self-preservation (at the expense of others), in chapter 20 we are going to see how idolatry ultimately breaks people apart and leads to the severing of relationships. Thankfully, we will also learn how to avoid this trend in our lives as God’s people. All of this we will apprehend as we witness two reasons why the tribe of Benjamin fell in Judges 20:1-48.
a. REASON #1: The Call to War-20:1-17
We reenter the story of Judges immediately after the tribes witness the gory evidence of the crimes committed against the concubine in the previous chapter (see 19:29ff). Offended by what they saw, everyone gathers to learn what has happened that could explain this. The text reads, “all the sons of Israel from Dan to Beersheba, including the land of Gilead, came out, and the congregation assembled as one person to the Lord at Mizpah. And the leaders of all the people, all the tribes of Israel, took their stand in the assembly of the people of God, four hundred thousand foot soldiers who drew the sword. (Now the sons of Benjamin heard that the sons of Israel had gone up to Mizpah.) And the sons of Israel said, ‘Tell us, how did this wickedness take place?’ So the Levite, the husband of the woman who was murdered, answered and said, ‘I came with my concubine to spend the night at Gibeah which belongs to Benjamin. But the citizens of Gibeah rose up against me and surrounded the house at night, threatening me. They intended to kill me; instead, they raped my concubine so that she died. And I took hold of my concubine and cut her in pieces, and sent her throughout the land of Israel’s inheritance; for they have committed an outrageous sin and vile act in Israel. Behold, all you sons of Israel, give your response and advice here.’…” (20:1-7). Notice that the Levite totally leaves out the fact that he offered his concubine to these perpetrators. Notice too that he fails to mention that he didn’t go out looking for her later that evening, but instead left her outside to die the next morning. Notice also how casual he is in describing the way that he “cut her into pieces.” This man is not sharing the full story. However, the story he does share is successful at propelling those who have gathered at this central location to action.
“Then all the people rose up as one person, saying, ‘Not one of us will go to his tent, nor will any of us go home. But now this is the thing which we will do to Gibeah; we will go up against it by lot. And we will take ten men out of a hundred throughout the tribes of Israel, and a hundred out of a thousand, and a thousand out of ten thousand to supply provisions for the people, so that when they come to Gibeah of Benjamin, they may punish them for all the vile sin that they have committed in Israel.’ So all the men of Israel were gathered against the city, united as one man…” (20:8-11). This is a rare display of unity for Israel during this period. In the days of the Judges, the tribes behaved more like disjointed factions than a unified family. However, here they rally together to respond to this evil that has befallen one of their own. It is a “you hurt one of us, you hurt all of us” kind of scenario.
United behind their cause of vengeance, they send messengers throughout Benjamin explaining what had happened and demanded that the perpetrators of the crime be handed over for execution— “Then the tribes of Israel sent men through the entire tribe of Benjamin, saying, ‘What is this wickedness that has taken place among you? Now then, turn over the men, the worthless men who are in Gibeah, so that we may put them to death and remove this wickedness from Israel.’ But the sons of Benjamin would not listen to the voice of their brothers, the sons of Israel. Instead, the sons of Benjamin gathered from the cities to Gibeah, to go out to battle against the sons of Israel. From the cities on that day the sons of Benjamin were counted, twenty-six thousand men who drew the sword, besides the inhabitants of Gibeah who were counted, seven hundred choice men. Out of all these people seven hundred choice men were left-handed; each one could sling a stone at a hair and not miss. Then the men of Israel besides Benjamin were counted, four hundred thousand men who drew the sword; all of these were men of war…” (20:12-17). Instead of handing over the guilty parties, the Benjamites respond to the show of force from the other tribes with a show of force of their own. They, like the others, build an army and prepare for battle.
Before we choose sides in this coming war, let us remind ourselves of how difficult it is to decide who root for here. On the one side you have the rapists and abusers who are being protected by a people (the Benjamites) who would rather go to war than hand over these wicked criminals. On the other side you have a man who cowardly gave up his concubine to be assaulted and, eventually, killed. He is joined by those who are offended by his version of the story—the other tribes who, up to this point, have not unified around much of anything. Things are bad all-around, and it will be interesting to see how everything unfolds and who is victorious.
b. REASON #2: The Civil War-20:18-48
The civil war that ensues consists of three battles. The first of these is described in verses 18-21. The morning of that day “the sons of Israel arose, went up to Bethel, and inquired of God and said, ‘Who shall go up first for us to battle against the sons of Benjamin?’ Then the Lord said, ‘Judah shall go up first.’…” (20:18). This is a refreshing change compared to what we have witnessed in the majority of the Book of Judges. Here, rather than “jump the gun” and rush to act, the Israelites seek the Lord’s advice on what they should do and how they should do it. The seek the Lord at “Bethel” which means “house of God.” This is where the ark of the covenant was kept and a man named Phinehas served as priest. The scene is similar to how the Book of Judge began. When Judges started, Israel prepared to unite against the common foe of the Canaanites (an outside pagan nation). However, now, at the end of the book, they have joined together to take action against one of their own brothers! What explains this drastic change? Pervasive evil and moral decay (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 502). This civil war is a sad commentary on Israel’s spiritual, moral, and practical condition. They have descended into evil and now stand to tear each other apart.
In response to the Lord’s instructions “the sons of Israel got up in the morning and camped against Gibeah. The men of Israel went to battle against Benjamin, and the men of Israel lined up for battle against them at Gibeah…” (20:19-20). Here, the Israelites return to the scene of the original crime(s) to enact revenge for what came upon one of their countrymen (the Levite). However, things do not go well for them during this first battle on day 1.
The report is given in verse 21—“Then the sons of Benjamin came out of Gibeah and felled to the ground on that day 22,000 men of Israel,…” (20:21).
After their defeat on day one, “the people, the men of Israel, showed themselves courageous and lined up for battle again in the place where they had lined themselves up on the first day…” (20:22). It takes resilience to line up after being defeated the previous day, and line up these forces do.
In addition to regrouping, the Israelites call upon the Lord…again! (Good for them)—“And the sons of Israel went up and wept before the Lord until evening, and inquired of the Lord, saying, ‘Shall we again advance for battle against the sons of my brother Benjamin?’ And the Lord said, ‘Go up against him’…” (20:23). Perhaps their defeat on day one had shaken their confidence and so they ask the Lord if they should continue the campaign. Perhaps they second guessed their quest given that the tribe of Benjamin consisted of their own countrymen. They want to double-check to see if they are on the right track in their pursuit and God confirms as much when he says “Go up against him” (20:23).
The second day’s fighting is almost as disastrous as the first for the Israelites—“So the sons of Israel came against the sons of Benjamin on the second day. And Benjamin went out against them from Gibeah the second day and struck to the ground again eighteen thousand men of the sons of Israel; all of these drew the sword…” (20:24-25). The total figure from two days of fighting in this civil war has the tribes of Israel down 40,000 men at the hands of the Benjamites. Things do not look too good for Israel here, and yet, God had confirmed their campaign against Benjamin twice. How might one square God’s call with these defeats in battle? The lack of initial victory in this civil war for the Israelites reminds readers that just because God calls you to something does not mean it is going to be a cake walk or that success is immediate. In fact, much to the contrary, many find struggle and delayed results when following God's will.
Perhaps things will be different on day 3 (third time is a charm 😊). The day begins much the same way the others have—“Then all the sons of Israel and all the people went up and came to Bethel, and they wept and remained there before the Lord, and fasted that day until evening. And they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord…” (20:26). This time around, the Israelites accompany their cry to the Lord with weeping and fasting and offerings for the Lord. Such an expression of dependence and humility is especially rare in the Book of Judges. It marks how God’s people ought to pursue the Lord as they accomplish his will amid adversity—brokenness, prayer, and fasting. All of these demonstrate in their own way human frailty against God’s unlimited strength and provision. As a result, God is please to respond. God is pleased to respond to those who know they need him.
The text continues “And the sons of Israel inquired of the Lord (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, and Phinehas the son of Eleazar, Aaron’s son, stood before it to minister in those days), saying, ‘Shall I yet again go out to battle against the sons of my brother Benjamin, or shall I stop?’ And the Lord said, ‘Go up, for tomorrow I will hand them over to you.’…” (20:27-28). Once again, after inquiring of the Lord what they should do, God responds with the affirmative. However, on this occasion he adds a time frame and promises that this time tomorrow they would be successful.
The success this time around occurs in three phases. The first of these is the ambush: “…So Israel set men in ambush around Gibeah. And the sons of Israel went up against the sons of Benjamin on the third day and lined up against Gibeah as at other times. When the sons of Benjamin went out against the people, they were lured away from the city, and they began to strike and kill some of the people as at other times, on the roads (one of which goes up to Bethel, and the other to Gibeah), and in the field, about thirty men of Israel. And the sons of Benjamin said, ‘They are defeated before us, like the first time.’ But the sons of Israel said, ‘Let’s flee, so that we may draw them away from the city to the roads.’ Then all the men of Israel rose from their place and lined up at Baal-tamar; and the men of Israel in ambush charged from their place, from Maareh-geba. When ten thousand choice men from all Israel came against Gibeah, the battle became fierce; but Benjamin did not know that disaster was close to them. And the Lord struck Benjamin before Israel, so that the sons of Israel destroyed 25,100 men of Benjamin that day, all who drew the sword…” (20:29-35). There is at least one detail that is important to highlight in this report. In verse 35 it reads “and the Lord struck Benjamin before Israel…”. God ought to be credited for the success of this last campaign. After all, on day one and two the Israelites appeared helpless against the Benjamites. What makes up for the difference on day three? Easy—the Lord does. More than a change of strategy, more than good cooperation, more than skilled execution—the Lord is what turns another defeat into a great victory.
After drawing many of the Benjamites out of the city in an ambush, Israelite forces rush in the town of Gibeah to destroy it from the inside. The report of phase 2 of this battle is given in verses 36-40: “…So the sons of Benjamin saw that they were defeated. When the men of Israel gave ground to Benjamin because they relied on the men in ambush whom they had set against Gibeah, the men in ambush hurried and rushed against Gibeah; the men in ambush also deployed and struck all the city with the edge of the sword. Now the agreed sign between the men of Israel and the men in ambush was that they would make a great cloud of smoke rise from the city. Then the men of Israel turned in the battle, and Benjamin began to strike and kill about thirty men of Israel, for they said, ‘Undoubtedly they are defeated before us, as in the first battle.’ But when the cloud began to rise from the city in a column of smoke, Benjamin looked behind them; and behold, the entire city was going up in smoke to heaven…” (20:36-40).
After the successful ambush and with the city on fire the Benjamites are in quite a bind (and they know it). The third phase of the battle on day three involves the Israelites chasing after these Benjamites who are in full retreat: “Then the men of Israel turned, and the men of Benjamin were terrified; for they saw that disaster was close to them. Therefore, they turned their backs before the men of Israel to flee in the direction of the wilderness, but the battle overtook them while those who attacked from the cities were annihilating them in the midst of them. They surrounded Benjamin, pursued them without rest, and trampled them down opposite Gibeah toward the east. So eighteen thousand men of Benjamin fell; all of these were valiant men. The rest turned and fled toward the wilderness to the rock of Rimmon, but they caught five thousand of them on the roads and overtook them at Gidom, and killed two thousand of them. So all those of Benjamin who fell that day were twenty-five thousand men who drew the sword; all of these were valiant men. But six hundred men turned and fled toward the wilderness to the rock of Rimmon; and they remained at the rock of Rimmon for four months. The men of Israel then turned back against the sons of Benjamin and struck them with the edge of the sword, both the entire city with the cattle and all that they found; they also set on fire all the cities which they found…” (20:41-48).
On day three, the victory that God promised was assured and Gibeah and the surrounding Benjamite towns were destroyed. While I am sure the Israelites rejoiced and were grateful for their win, let us remember what this victory means on a broader level. This civil war significantly compromised the twelve tribes moving into the future. The seeds of division that had been sown throughout the book due to idolatry and self-indulgence have now yielded their full fruit and the unified people of God are fractured in a profound way. In chapter 17 we learned about idolatry’s connection to money. In chapter 18 we saw the relationship between idolatry and entitlement. In chapter 19 we observed how idolatry also can involve a relentless pursuit of self-indulgence. And in chapter 20 we witness how idolatry inevitably leads to division.
So, what can we do to combat the ugly nemesis of idolatry and other threats of evil in our lives? Interestingly, the Israelites in this chapter help us with an answer. Horribly flawed though these characters may be, in their desperation and tribulation in chapter 20, they reveal how the people of God ought to respond to internal menaces and external threats)—relentlessly seeking the Lord for direction and provision. With the threat of Benjamin starring them in the face, the Israelites call upon the Lord three times, sometimes with weeping and fasting, and after each interaction they line up again to fight another day until the promised victory is given. We ought to respond to the threats we face the same way. With the temptation of idolatry and all of its many expressions starring us down in our world today, we must call up the Lord again and again and again, maybe with weeping and fasting, trusting all the while the promises of God’s Word. Likewise, we must line up every morning to fight another day—regardless of the outcomes the day before and despite what appearance may tell us. This we must do until our day of promised victory is given. You might say, “but I’ve failed too often” or “God has given up on me” or “there is no way God has plans for my life,” etc. However, consider who he grants victory to in this passage. Did the Israelites or this Levite deserve their victory? Did they earn it? Absolutely not! Neither will you. However, God in accordance with his will is pleased to answer those who call upon him in humility and desperation. This does not mean success is immediate or that the path will be easy, but it does mean that God will execute his will on behalf of those who seek him nonetheless in ways that are in keeping with his greater plan.