Judges 20

The Word Made Fresh

1Israelites came from all over, from Dan to Beersheba and including Gilead, and gathered together before the LORD at Mizpah. 2The leaders took their places at the head of God’s people, four hundred thousand men armed with swords. 3The Benjaminites heard that the other Israelites had gone up to Mizpah. The Israelites wanted to know how this awful thing had happened.

4The Levite, whose concubine was the woman that was murdered, said, “I came to Gibeah, a town of Benjamin, along with my concubine, to stay overnight. 5The leaders of Gibeah surrounded the house, intending to kill me. They took my concubine and raped her until she died. 6I brought her body to my house and cut her into parts and sent them throughout the land of Israel, because they have done something that cannot be countenanced in Israel. 7So, here we are. What do you think should be done?”

8As with one voice the people said, “We will not sleep, and we will not go back to our homes. 9We will draw lots to see who will attack Gibeah. 10Ten percent of us will be assigned to gather the provisions the rest of us will need. Gibeah of Benjamin will be repaid for what they have done in Israel.” All the Israelites were joined together as one against the city of Gibeah.

12Then they sent men to the other Benjaminites to say, “What is this awful thing that some of your own tribe has done? 13Give us the wicked men of Gibeah so we can execute them and get rid of this wickedness from Israel.”

But the other Benjaminites would not listen to their Israelite relatives. 14Instead, they joined together and came from their towns to Gibeah to defend them against the other tribes. 15On that occasion the tribe of Benjamin mustered twenty-six thousand armed men from their towns, plus the men of Gibeah. 16Seven hundred of them were left-handed and could sling a stone at a hair without missing.

17The other Israelites had gathered four hundred thousand men trained for battle. 18They went up to Bethel to ask God, “Which of us should go against Benjamin?” The LORD answered that Judah should go first.

19They arose the next morning and moved to set a camp against Gibeah. 20They went to battle against the Benjaminites, with Gibeah as the battleground. 21But the Benjaminites charged out of Gibeah and struck down twenty-two thousand of them that very day.

22The Israelites took courage and took up their positions once again against Gibeah. 23They had wept before the LORD all the evening to ask the LORD if they were to attack their relatives the Benjaminites again, and the LORD had told them, “Go!” 24So, they attacked the Benjaminites the next day.

25The troops of Benjamin charged them from Gibeah and killed eighteen thousand of the Israelite soldiers. 26Then Israel’s entire army returned to Bethel and wept. They sat before the LORD and fasted until evening. They offered burnt sacrifices and peace offerings to the LORD. 27Then they sought the LORD’s guidance. 28The covenant chest of God was there in those days, and Phinehas the son of Eleazar, Aaron’s son, was the priest who attended it. The Israelites asked, “Should we go once more against our Benjaminite relatives, or should we cease?” And the LORD answered, “Attack. I will give them over to you tomorrow.”

29This time the Israelites hid some of their men in ambush near Gibeah, 30and they attacked again on the third day, aligned as they had been before. 31When the Benjaminites charged out against them they retreated to draw them away from the town. The Benjaminites attacked them along the main roads, one that goes up to Bethel and the other out of Gibeah into the open country. They killed about thirty of the Israelites, 32and they thought they were being victorious as before. But the Israelites were drawing them away from the city on purpose. 33They retreated back to Baal-Tamar. Then the Israelites who were hiding in ambush charged out of their hiding places. 34Ten thousand men chosen out of all the troops of Israel charged into Gibeah. The attack was fierce, but the Benjaminites didn’t realize that disaster was imminent. 36The LORD defeated the Benjaminites for Israel. The Israelites killed twenty-five thousand one hundred armed men of Benjamin that day, 36and the Benjaminites realized they had been beaten.

The Israelites had retreated only to unleash the troops they had hidden in ambush. 37The ambush closed swiftly around Gibeah, and they put the whole town to the sword. 38They carried out the plan that when the men in hiding took the city, they would set it on fire and the smoke would rise up 39and the men who had retreated would turn on their attackers. The Benjaminites had killed about thirty of them, and thought they were winning as they had before. 40But when the smoke began to rise out of the city they looked back and saw that Gibeah was burning. 41Then the main Israelite forces turned on them, and the Benjaminites knew disaster had befallen them.

42They ran toward the wilderness to escape, but were overtaken by the main Israelite force as well as those who were now coming out of the city. 43The Israelites cut them down, chasing them from their position away from Gibeah to the east. 44Eighteen thousand courageous Benjaminite soldiers fell that day. 45Another five thousand were killed when they turned and fled toward the rock of Rimmon, and the Israelites chased them as far as Gidom where two thousand more were slain. 46In all, twenty-five thousand men, all of them courageous soldiers of Benjamin, fell on that day. 47But six hundred of them ran toward the wilderness to the rock of Rimmon, and there they stayed for four months.

48The Israelites continued to press the battle against all the other Benjaminites and put them to the sword – everyone who lived in the towns, including the animals. And they burned down all the towns and settlements.

Commentary

1-7: The tribes are outraged and gather at Mizpah. The Levite tells his story, but not exactly as it happened. As he tells it, it was the lords of Gibeah who committed the atrocity, not the commoners. This makes the deed seem even more terrible, if that is possible. He says that they intended to kill him – it is a crime against him, now! He says that they raped the girl until she died, but do we know that she was dead at that point?  He demands retribution, for he has been offended!

8-11: The tribes arm for battle and gather outside Gibeah.

12-17: They send for more soldiers until they have four hundred thousand. The Benjaminites muster also to defend their kinfolk at Gibeah. They have twenty-six thousand men, seven hundred of them left-handed sharpshooters. There seems to have been some superstition surrounding left-handedness, that left-handed people were uncommonly agile and physically adept. The judge Ehud (Judges 3:15) was left-handed.

18-28: The tribes go up to Bethel to inquire of God and are told that the tribe of Judah should go up first (the concubine was from Judah), but no promise of success is given and they are defeated by the Benjaminites fighting for Gibeah. They return to Bethel for instructions and are told to attack again, again with no promise of success, and again they attack and are repulsed by the Benjaminites. They return to Bethel (now we are told that the ark/chest of the Covenant is there) to seek direction, and are once again told to attack, but this time they are assured of success. Many scholars think the two failures represent God’s determination that all the tribes should receive some punishment for what has happened.

29-35: There are two accounts of the battle. In this first account, the Israelites hide troops around Gibeah, then proceed toward the town as before. When the Benjaminites come out of the town to engage them they retreat, and the Benjaminites pursue, lured into the ambush by their success the previous two times. Now the hidden troops close in behind them and kill 25,100 of them, and Gibeah falls.

36-47: The second account of the battle adds some details. Here we are told that the Israelites hiding in ambush rush into the town and set it afire when the Benjaminites begin to pursue the main army. (See the similar battle plan in Joshua 8.) The Benjaminites see the smoke rising, realize their mistake, and flee toward the uninhabited country to the northeast. When they try to make a stand, 18,000 of them are killed. The narrative says that all of them are courageous men, making us wonder about the source of this version of the battle. They flee further, losing another 5000 on the way, and still another 2000 before the battle is finished. That makes 25,000 in all. 600 survive and flee to the “rock of Rimmon,” an unknown promontory.

48: When the battle is over, the Israelites proceed to kill every remaining member of the tribe of Benjamin (except the 600 at Rimmon), including women and children and animals, and burn all the cities and towns of that tribe.

Takeaway

There is nothing positive to take away from this, except the lesson that violence begets violence. The men of Gibeah who raped the concubine of the Levite from Ephraim set off a chain of events that destroyed many lives. The wages of sin are seldom individual or even local.