Judges 20 – Israel’s War with Benjamin and Gibeah
A. The nation gathers to judge Gibeah.
1. (1-2) The nation gathers at the Levite’s request.
So all the children of Israel came out, from Dan to Beersheba, as well as from the land of Gilead, and the congregation gathered together as one man before the LORD at Mizpah. And the leaders of all the people, all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God, four hundred thousand foot soldiers who drew the sword.
a. So all the children of Israel came out: It was a positive sign to see Israel gather for such a reason. This showed that they were willing to deal with the problem of sin in their midst.
i. “A great moral passion flamed out. Underneath all the degeneracy was a true stratum of religious conviction, which in the presence of the iniquity of the men of Gibeah sprang to life and action.” (Morgan)
ii. It seems that the crime of Gibeah shocked the conscience of Israel. Today it seems that the crime at Gibeah would be material for tabloid news, cable television, daytime talk shows, and talk radio – more than a national call to righteousness and repentance.
b. The leaders of all the people, all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves: Deuteronomy 13:12-18 instructed Israel how to deal with such abominations among them. It said they must first test the truth of the accusations. If the charges were true, they must then utterly destroy those who committed such an abomination.
2. (3-7) The Levite describes the abuse and murder of his concubine.
(Now the children of Benjamin heard that the children of Israel had gone up to Mizpah.) Then the children of Israel said, “Tell us, how did this wicked deed happen?” So the Levite, the husband of the woman who was murdered, answered and said, “My concubine and I went into Gibeah, which belongs to Benjamin, to spend the night. And the men of Gibeah rose against me, and surrounded the house at night because of me. They intended to kill me, but instead they ravished my concubine so that she died. So I took hold of my concubine, cut her in pieces, and sent her throughout all the territory of the inheritance of Israel, because they committed lewdness and outrage in Israel. Look! All of you are children of Israel; give your advice and counsel here and now!”
a. Tell us, how did this wicked deed happen: The children of Israel wanted to know, so they could do something about this outrage.
b. They intended to kill me, but instead ravished my concubine: The Levite spun the story to his own advantage. What he said was true, but he didn’t mention the cruel and callous way he abandoned his concubine to the mob.
3. (8-11) Preparations for war made.
So all the people arose as one man, saying, “None of us will go to his tent, nor will any turn back to his house; but now this is the thing which we will do to Gibeah: We will go up against it by lot. We will take ten men out of every hundred throughout all the tribes of Israel, a hundred out of every thousand, and a thousand out of every ten thousand, to make provisions for the people, that when they come to Gibeah in Benjamin, they may repay all the vileness that they have done in Israel.” So all the men of Israel were gathered against the city, united together as one man.
a. So all the people arose as one man: This was an encouraging response in a very dark time. They came together in unity and decided to bring justice to the people of Gibeah.
b. They may repay all the vileness that they have done in Israel: This was extreme, but a valid and proper fulfillment of God’s command to Israel Deuteronomy 13:12-18.
4. (12-17) Benjamin’s help sought and not given.
Then the tribes of Israel sent men through all the tribe of Benjamin, saying, “What is this wickedness that has occurred among you? Now therefore, deliver up the men, the perverted men who are in Gibeah, that we may put them to death and remove the evil from Israel!” But the children of Benjamin would not listen to the voice of their brethren, the children of Israel. Instead, the children of Benjamin gathered together from their cities to Gibeah, to go to battle against the children of Israel. And from their cities at that time the children of Benjamin numbered twenty-six thousand men who drew the sword, besides the inhabitants of Gibeah, who numbered seven hundred select men. Among all this people were seven hundred select men who were left-handed; every one could sling a stone at a hair’s breadth and not miss. Now besides Benjamin, the men of Israel numbered four hundred thousand men who drew the sword; all of these were men of war.
a. But the children of Benjamin would not listen to the voice of their brethren: The other tribes of Israel did the right thing in asking the tribe of Benjamin to deliver up the men who committed this crime. They sought to justly resolve the crisis without full war. But the tribe of Benjamin committed a great sin by putting loyalty to their tribe before obedience to God’s Law.
i. Modern followers of God can make the same mistake today when they put the interests of their own nation before the interests of the Kingdom of God. It is important for Christians to remember that they are citizens of the Kingdom of God first (Philippians 3:20).
b. Seven hundred select men who were left-handed; every one could sling a stone at a hair’s breadth and not miss: The tribe of Benjamin not only failed to support the just cause of the other tribes, they actively resisted the other tribes with an assembled army. The army included this division of seven hundred select men.
i. And not miss: The Hebrew word translated miss is literally sin. This illustrates the principle that the word “sin” literally means to “miss the mark” – whether you are off by an inch or a yard.
c. Besides Benjamin, the men of Israel numbered four hundred thousand men: The tribes of Israel prepared for a small civil war against the tribe of Benjamin. Israel was right in believing that the greatest good was not unity. Unity apart from justice and truth is unity not worth having.
B. The battle against Benjamin and Gibeah.
1. (18-21) The first day of battle – Israel is defeated before Benjamin.
Then the children of Israel arose and went up to the house of God to inquire of God. They said, “Which of us shall go up first to battle against the children of Benjamin?” The LORD said, “Judah first!” So the children of Israel rose in the morning and encamped against Gibeah. And the men of Israel went out to battle against Benjamin, and the men of Israel put themselves in battle array to fight against them at Gibeah. Then the children of Benjamin came out of Gibeah, and on that day cut down to the ground twenty-two thousand men of the Israelites.
a. Went up to the house of God to inquire of God: In the first battle, Israel sought the LORD – yet they were defeated. We can speculate that though they inquired of God, they still trusted in the might of their army and in the goodness of their cause, but not in the LORD.
b. The children of Benjamin came out of Gibeah, and on that day cut down to the ground twenty-two thousand men of the Israelites: This was a staggering, severe loss in the first battle of this small civil war. After this first day of battle it seemed that single tribe of Benjamin might successfully resist the other tribes of Israel.
i. Perhaps there was something wrong in the way that Israel sought the Lord before this battle; or, it is also just as likely that this was simply part of God’s plan to discipline and correct His disobedient nation.
ii. The American President, Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, spoke on this very theme in relation to the American Civil War:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” (1865)
iii. Perhaps, something of the same dynamic was at work with Israel at this time – God correcting a disobedient nation through the tragic loss of 22,000 soldiers of Israel.
2. (22-23) Israel seeks God after the first defeat.
And the people, that is, the men of Israel, encouraged themselves and again formed the battle line at the place where they had put themselves in array on the first day. Then the children of Israel went up and wept before the LORD until evening, and asked counsel of the LORD, saying, “Shall I again draw near for battle against the children of my brother Benjamin?” And the LORD said, “Go up against him.”
a. The men of Israel, encouraged themselves and again formed the battle line: This was a wonderful reaction in the midst of such a dark event. These soldiers did not lose hope; like David in 1 Samuel 30:6, they strengthened themselves in the LORD and moved forward.
b. Then the children of Israel went up and wept before the LORD until evening: To their credit, the children of Israel did not stop seeking the LORD after the first disaster in battle. They properly humbled themselves before God and sought Him regarding the next battle.
3. (24-25) On the second day of battle Israel is defeated before Benjamin again.
So the children of Israel approached the children of Benjamin on the second day. And Benjamin went out against them from Gibeah on the second day, and cut down to the ground eighteen thousand more of the children of Israel; all these drew the sword.
a. So the children of Israel approached the children of Benjamin on the second day: This would not be an easy or a quick war. After a first day of heavy losses, they children of Israel were willing to keep fighting.
b. Cut down to the ground eighteen thousand more of the children of Israel: The loss on the second day of battle was also severe. This shows that even though the tribes of Israel sought the LORD and fought in a just cause, it was still a very difficult struggle. There was a great cost for them to pay in doing what was right.
4. (26-28) Israel repents before God after the second defeat.
Then all the children of Israel, that is, all the people, went up and came to the house of God and wept. They sat there before the LORD and fasted that day until evening; and they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD. So the children of Israel inquired of the LORD (the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, 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 my brother Benjamin, or shall I cease?” And the LORD said, “Go up, for tomorrow I will deliver them into your hand.”
a. Went up and came to the house of God and wept. They sat there before the LORD and fasted that day until evening: God allowed the two days of defeat for the purpose of bringing Israel low. They needed to be humbled, and these days of defeat compelled them to humble themselves.
i. God used this to humble the whole nation. They had to understand that the horror of the crime at Gibeah was not merely the result of the sin of one group of men, or one city, or even one tribe. The whole nation had to be humbled because they first thought that the sin problem was only in Benjamin. Israel had to see that that nation as a whole had a sin problem.
ii. After the first failure, Israel was sorry and wept. But it was only after the second failure that they put their repentance into action by fasting and made a sacrifice for sins. Sorrow and weeping are not enough if they are not matched by real repentance and taking care of the sin problem through sacrifice – the sacrifice of the cross.
iii. Part of their demonstration of humility was in fasting. In 1827, Adam Clarke wrote about fasting: “At present it is but little used; a strong proof that self-denial is wearing out of fashion.” Clarke thought this was true of his day; he would probably think it all the truer of modern times.
iv. The mention of Phinehas as high priest means that this was fairly early in the days of the Judges (Numbers 25:7, 25:11).
b. Go up, for tomorrow I will deliver them into your hand: God didn’t want the two days of humbling to make Israel think that they could never win. They were encouraged to go out tomorrow and trust God’s promise.
5. (29-48) Third day of battle – victory for Israel over Benjamin and Gibeah.
Then Israel set men in ambush all around Gibeah. And the children of Israel went up against the children of Benjamin on the third day, and put themselves in battle array against Gibeah as at the other times. So the children of Benjamin went out against the people, and were drawn away from the city. They began to strike down and kill some of the people, as at the other times, in the highways (one of which goes up to Bethel and the other to Gibeah) and in the field, about thirty men of Israel. And the children of Benjamin said, “They are defeated before us, as at first.” But the children of Israel said, “Let us flee and draw them away from the city to the highways.” So all the men of Israel rose from their place and put themselves in battle array at Baal Tamar. Then Israel’s men in ambush burst forth from their position in the plain of Geba. And ten thousand select men from all Israel came against Gibeah, and the battle was fierce. But the Benjamites did not know that disaster was upon them. The LORD defeated Benjamin before Israel. And the children of Israel destroyed that day twenty-five thousand one hundred Benjamites; all these drew the sword. So the children of Benjamin saw that they were defeated. The men of Israel had given ground to the Benjamites, because they relied on the men in ambush whom they had set against Gibeah. And the men in ambush quickly rushed upon Gibeah; the men in ambush spread out and struck the whole city with the edge of the sword. Now the appointed signal between the men of Israel and the men in ambush was that they would make a great cloud of smoke rise up from the city, whereupon the men of Israel would turn in battle. Now Benjamin had begun to strike and kill about thirty of the men of Israel. For they said, “Surely 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, the Benjamites looked behind them, and there was the whole city going up in smoke to heaven. And when the men of Israel turned back, the men of Benjamin panicked, for they saw that disaster had come upon them. Therefore they turned their backs before the men of Israel in the direction of the wilderness; but the battle overtook them, and whoever came out of the cities they destroyed in their midst. They surrounded the Benjamites, chased them, and easily trampled them down as far as the front of Gibeah toward the east. And eighteen thousand men of Benjamin fell; all these were men of valor. Then they turned and fled toward the wilderness to the rock of Rimmon; and they cut down five thousand of them on the highways. Then they pursued them relentlessly up to Gidom, and killed two thousand of them. So all who fell of Benjamin that day were twenty-five thousand men who drew the sword; all these were men of valor. But six hundred men turned and fled toward the wilderness to the rock of Rimmon, and they stayed at the rock of Rimmon for four months. And the men of Israel turned back against the children of Benjamin, and struck them down with the edge of the sword; from every city, men and beasts, all who were found. They also set fire to all the cities they came to.
a. Let us flee and draw them away from the city to the highways: The strategy used by the tribes of Israel against Gibeah was remarkably similar to the strategy used at Ai (Joshua 8). Perhaps they got this strategy by reading the writings of Joshua and Moses; this may reflect that they returned to God’s word in the course of their repentance.
b. The LORD defeated Benjamin before Israel: “These words briefly recall the real meaning of the awful judgment that fell upon Benjamin. It was the stroke of God.” (Morgan)
c. Six hundred men turned and fled toward the wilderness: The two days of defeat made the tribes of Israel ruthless towards the tribe of Benjamin, and they killed thousands of men of Benjamin. As a result of the battle, there remained only a 600-man remnant from the tribe of Benjamin.
d. The men of Israel turned back against the children of Benjamin, and struck them down with the edge of the sword; from every city, men and beasts, all who were found: The tribe of Benjamin was undeniably guilty, but there was no need for the complete slaughter as described here. This too-severe judgment against the tribe of Benjamin would soon be regretted by Israel.
i. “Uninstructed zeal, even in the cause of righteousness, often goes beyond its proper limits.” (Morgan)
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