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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Judges 20

Verse 1

THE CIVIL WAR; THE DESTRUCTION OF GIBEAH AND THE NEAR-EXTERMINATION OF THE ENTIRE TRIBE OF BENJAMIN;

THE GRAND ASSEMBLY OF ALL ISRAEL (Judges 20:1-3)

"Then all the children of Israel went out, and the congregation was assembled as one man, from Dan even to Beersheba, with the land of Gilead, unto Jehovah at Mizpah. And the chiefs of all the people, even of all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God, four hundred thousand footmen that drew sword. Now the children of Benjamin heard that the children of Israel were gone up to Mizpah. And the children of Israel said, Tell us, how was this wickedness brought to pass?"

This paragraph confounds and frustrates the critics, who declare that such unity in Israel is utterly unlike the disunity exhibited in the other episodes of Judges. "This unity of Israel and the greatly exaggerated figures indicate later expansion."[1] "The word `congregation' is a post-exilic term."[2] Such remarks are irresponsible. The word congregation was frequently used throughout the Pentateuch and in the Book of Joshua. What such critics fail to see is that the events of this chapter are closely related to the times of Joshua, perhaps within twenty years of his death. "`Congregation' here is a technical term for the whole community of Israel and is an indication of the early date of these transactions."[3] Myers even branded the expression, "from Dan to Beersheba" as evidence of "late date."[4] Although it is true that the expression "from Dan to Beersheba" resulted from the migration of the Danites after the events of this chapter, the expression was certainly well known in the days of Samuel whom we have received as the author of Judges. Armerding observed that the events of Judges 20-21 are included here at the end of Judges, "For theological reasons; but there is good reason to believe that the events took place much closer to the beginning of Judges."[5] As these chapters stand, they provide a summary explanation of "How Israel developed into the disunited apostate people of the entire era of the Judges." Terrible as the events of these chapters most certainly are, "There is a glimmer of hope for Israel, because they knew that the Law of God had been violated, and that judgment must be rendered."[6] Nevertheless, the bitterness of this disastrous war was directly responsible for the gross disunity, and Israel's subsequent attitude, "everybody on his own," and "doing what was right in his own eyes," which conditions made the institution of the monarchy imperative if Israel as a united people was to survive.

"Assembled ... unto Jehovah at Mizpah" (Judges 20:1,3). The reason for the assembly here was that, "It was in three miles of Gibeah,"[7] in the heart of Benjamite territory.

Verse 4

THE LEVITE'S HALF-TRUE REPORT (Judges 20:4-7)

"And the Levite, the husband of the woman that was murdered, answered and said, I came into Gibeah that belongeth to Benjamin, And the men of Gibeah rose against me, and beset the house round about me by night; me they thought to have slain, and my concubine they forced, and she is dead. And I took my concubine, and cut her in pieces, and sent her throughout all the country of the inheritance of Israel; for they have committed lewdness and folly in Israel. Behold, ye children of Israel, all of you, give your advice and counsel."

Some have referred to this report as a fair account of what happened, but this writer does not see it that way. Seven times the Levite used the pronouns, "I," "me" and "my" along with very slight mention of the concubine. Furthermore, he failed to report that it was his own shameful cowardice that handed the concubine over to her abusers. Also, the text does NOT say that the men of Gibeah attempted to kill him; they wanted to abuse him homosexually. We agree with Boling that the Levite's report aroused all Israel to a state of frenzied wrath, "Persuaded by one man telling half the truth."[8]

Verse 8

THE UNANIMOUS DECISION TO AVENGE THE LEVITE

"And all the people came as one man, saying; We will not any of us go to his tent, neither will any of us turn unto his house. 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 of a hundred throughout all the tribes of Israel, and a hundred of a thousand, and a thousand out of ten thousand, to fetch victuals for the people, that they may do, when they come to Gibeah of Benjamin, according to all the folly which they have wrought in Israel. So all the men of Israel were gathered together against the city, knit together as one man."

"This is the thing which we will do to Gibeah" (Judges 20:9). The unanimous decision was to put to death the guilty men of Gibeah. This intention to put to death the guilty men of Gibeah was fully in accordance with God's will. The law of Moses designated such a crime as the rape of the concubine a capital offense and commanded the execution of the death penalty upon the perpetrators (Deuteronomy 22:22). It is to the credit of Israel, however, that they moved first toward a simple resolution of the matter through negotiations.

"We will go up against it by lot" (Judges 20:9). This mention of "by lot" evidently applied to the whole mobilization for war. The army was assembled by taking "by lot" one man of every ten, and of those chosen, one of ten out of them were evidently allotted to handle the duties of the quartermaster.

"A thousand out of ten thousand to fetch victuals" (Judges 20:10). As we have punctuated this, it indicates that the quartermaster corps was also selected "by lot." And again, in deciding "who should go up to fight first," the same "by lot" system was again used (Judges 20:18).

Verse 12

THE NEGOTIATIONS BREAK DOWN (Judges 20:12,14)

"And the tribes of Israel sent men through all the tribe of Benjamin, saying; What wickedness is this that is come to pass among you? Now therefore deliver up the men, the base fellows that are in Gibeah, that we may put them to death, and put away evil from Israel. But Benjamin would not hearken unto the voice of their brethren the children of Israel. And the children of Benjamin gathered themselves together out of the cities unto Gibeah, to go out to battle against the children of Israel."

"Contrary to the Law of Moses, Benjamin would not consent to the execution of the homosexual rapists who had abused to death the concubine of the Levite, deciding, instead, to go to war against the whole nation of their brethren, rather than to consent to it. As Dehoff noted, `This meant that the entire tribe of Benjamin had departed from God.'"[9]

This response of the Benjamites was deplorable. Rather than surrender a few guilty persons to justice, they suddenly decided on an armed defense of the murderers, thus bringing about a judgment against their whole tribe and the near-extermination of it. It is bad enough to commit a grievous sin, but worse to defend it! Like many today, however, Benjamin was unwilling to accept reproof. They would learn the hard way, that, "A man who hardens his neck after much reproof will suddenly be broken beyond remedy" (Proverbs 29:1)."[10]

Verse 15

THE TRIBE OF BENJAMIN MOBILIZES FOR WAR (Judges 20:15-16)

"And the children of Benjamin were numbered on that day out of the cities twenty and six thousand men that drew the sword, besides the inhabitants of Gibeah, who were numbered seven hundred chosen men. Among all this people, there were seven hundred chosen men left-handed; everyone could sling stones at a hair-breadth, and not miss."

In Joshua 18:21-28, there is a list of the twenty-six cities of the Benjamites, not including all of their villages, and the mobilization of 26,000 men from Benjamin is altogether reasonable. We reject the nonsense about these figures being "exaggerated." Modern commentators, knowing absolutely nothing about the situation, have carved for themselves a very unenviable position in contradicting the plain statements of God's Word.

"Comparing the numbers here with those in Numbers 1, and Numbers 26, both in the case of the Benjamites and that of the Israelites, their total numbers of fighting men had decreased by about one third."[11]

This falling off of the numbers of Israel's fighting men suggests that the conquest had taken its toll, and that the continuing ravages of the Canaanite enemies left unconquered in Palestine was also another factor eroding Israel's strength.

"Everyone could sling stones at a hair-breadth, and not miss" (Judges 20:16). The slings of ancient armies were deadly weapons, and it appears that the Benjamites were unusually skillful in their use. It was with such a weapon that David slew Goliath of Gath. Cundall tells us that, "It has been estimated that stones weighing up to one pound could be projected with uncanny accuracy at speeds up to 90 miles per hour."[12]

Verse 17

THE RELATIVE STRENGTH OF THE OPPOSING ARMIES (Judges 20:17-18)

"And the men of Israel, besides Benjamin, were numbered four hundred thousand men that drew the sword: all these were men of war. And the men of Israel arose, and went up to Bethel, and asked counsel of God; and they said, Who shall go for us first to battle against the children of Benjamin? And Jehovah said, Judah shall go up first."

A number of writers express criticism of Israel for their assumption that the war was justified without their asking Jehovah's approval, inquiring of God, only as to the tribe that should be the first to fight. Armerding, however, expressing disagreement with that view, stated that, "The confidence was justified."[13]

It is true, of course, that God was sorely displeased with Israel, as evidenced by his allowing the Benjamites to defeat them in successive battles. As Keil stated, however, "Their sin was not in the fact that they started the war, for the Law in Deuteronomy 22:22 actually required this. Their sin lay in their state of mind as they began the war."[14] We would call this their vainglorious overconfidence and self-reliance. After all, since the whole nation outnumbered the Benjamites in their available fighting men by 400,000 to 26,000, Israel felt very self-sufficient. With an advantage like that, who needed God's help! However, their tragic experience was another example that, "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong" (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

"And the men of Israel went up to Bethel" (Judges 20:18). At this time, the tabernacle was located at Shiloh, but, "Israel did not go to Shiloh, because that place was too far from the seat of the war. The Ark of the Covenant had been brought to Bethel, and Phinehas the High Priest inquired of the Lord before the Ark of the Covenant by means of the Urim and Thummin (Judges 20:27-28)."[15] From this location, Israel could quite easily consult the will of God. "Bethel was only seven or eight miles from the seat of the war, only about half as far as Shiloh."[16] Having consulted the will of God, Israel proceeded with the war.

Verse 19

THE FIRST BATTLE (Judges 20:19-23)

"And the children of Israel rose up in the morning; and encamped against Gibeah. And the men of Israel went out to battle against Benjamin; and the men of Israel set the battle in array against them at Gibeah. And the children of Benjamin came forth out of Gibeah, and destroyed down to the ground of the Israelites on that day twenty and two thousand men. And the people, the men of Israel, encouraged themselves, and set the battle again in array in the place where they set themselves in array the first day. And the children of Israel went up and wept before Jehovah until even; and they asked of Jehovah, saying; Shall I again draw nigh to battle against the children of Benjamin my brother? And Jehovah said, Go up against him."

"They wept before Jehovah until even" (Judges 20:23). It is a mistake to envision these two battles as being fought on successive days. This mention of the Israelites weeping before Jehovah until evening probably refers to an entire day, during which they again consulted Jehovah through the High Priest Phinehas at Bethel, continuing their mourning until evening.

Their unexpected and disastrous defeat at the hands of the Benjamites was beginning to have its desired effect. "There was a humbling of themselves before God, a brokenness of spirit, and a softening of their feelings toward their `brother' Benjamin."[17] The early 20th century critics lambasted this chapter as, "Neither history, nor legend but the ideal (imagination) of a scribe who had never handled a more dangerous weapon than an imaginative pen."[18] Of course, such bold and atheistic attacks against the Bible are no longer popular among modern writers. Boling, in the Anchor Bible, for example, stated that, "This account of two initial setbacks and the final victory make excellent sense in their sequence with Judges 19."[19] And, as regards the shouts of "exaggeration" regarding the heavy casualties of this war, the same writer declared that, "The figures here are entirely plausible."[20]

Verse 24

ISRAEL DEFEATED IN THE SECOND BATTLE (Judges 20:24-28)

"And the children of Israel came near against the children of Benjamin the second day. And Benjamin went forth against them out of Gibeah the second day, and destroyed down to the ground of the children of Israel again eighteen thousand men; all these drew the sword. Then all the children of Israel, and all the people, went up, and came unto Bethel, and wept, and sat there before Jehovah, and fasted that day until even; and they offered burnt-offerings and peace-offerings before Jehovah. And the children of Israel asked of Jehovah (for the ark of the covenant 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 Benjamin my brother, or shall I cease? And Jehovah said, Go up, for tomorrow I will deliver him into thy hand."

"The second day" (Judges 20:24). This is a reference not to the next day after the first battle, but to the day of the second battle, which probably occurred two or three days later.

"The Benjamites destroyed to the ground eighteen thousand men" (Judges 20:25). The commentators are hard pressed to explain why God allowed this second overwhelming defeat of Israel. "Some have suggested that Israel's failure to suppress the idolatry of the Danites was a major factor in turning the hand of God against them."[21]

"The children of Israel, and all the people, went up to Bethel" (Judges 20:26). This second defeat got Israel's attention. Not only the armed men, but the whole nation, women and children as well, went up to Bethel, where they wept, fasted, and prayed to Jehovah, offering burnt-offerings and peace-offerings. This time, God heard their supplications, reinstated the apostate nation into his favor, and then, on the day following, executed the awful judgment upon Gibeah and the tribe of Benjamin.

"In those days ... in those days" (Judges 20:27). Keil assures us that this terminology, as used here, "Indicates that the presence of the ark at Bethel, and the presence of Phinehas there, were only temporarily at Bethel; they had been brought thither from the tabernacle at Shiloh."[22] The tabernacle was permanently located at Shiloh until its capture by the Philistines (circa 1050 B.C.).

"And Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, stood before it in those days" (Judges 20:28). Some have attempted to identify the Phinehas of Judges 20:28 with some far later generation, but as Boling said, "With so many other indicators of an early date, this genealogy (of Phinehas) is to be taken at its face value."[23] The fact of Phinehas being a grandson of Aaron the high priest, establishes a very early date indeed for the events in this concluding episode of Judges. "The mention of Phinehas here makes it probable that the events mentioned here occurred within twenty years of the death of Joshua."[24] Of course, this distresses some die-hard critics striving to find a "late date"; but as Myers noted, "It is a perilous hyper-criticism to consider the name `Phinehas' itself as a late insertion into the text."[25]

Verse 29

GOD GIVES VICTORY; GIBEAH WAS DESTROYED AND THE BENJAMITES WERE ALMOST EXTERMINATED (Judges 20:29-35)

"And Israel set liers-in-wait against Gibeah round about. And the children of Israel went up against the children of Benjamin on the third day, and set themselves in array against Gibeah, as at other times. And the children of Benjamin went out against the people, and were drawn away from the city; and they began to smite and kill of the people, as at other times, in the highways, of which one goeth up to Bethel, and the other to Gibeah, in the field, about thirty men of Israel. And the children of Benjamin said, They are smitten down before us, as at the first. But the children of Israel said, Let us flee, and draw them away from the city unto the highways. And all the men of Israel rose up out of their place, and set themselves in array at Baal-tamar: and the liers-in-wait of Israel brake forth out of their place, even out of Maareh-geba. And there came over against Gibeah ten thousand chosen men out of all Israel; and the battle was sore; but they knew not that evil was close upon them. And Jehovah smote Benjamin before Israel; and the children of Israel destroyed of Benjamin that day twenty and five thousand men and a hundred men: all these drew the sword."

"Liers-in-wait against Gibeah" (Judges 20:29). This time, the Israelites adopted the same strategy that Joshua had used in the conquest of Ai. Our text indicates that ten thousand men were in the ambush. Josephus tells us that it was half of the total force that was thus deployed.

"On the third day" (Judges 20:30). The meaning here, as in the instance of "the second day" is a reference not to a mere three days the whole campaign had lasted, but to the day of the third battle.

The outcome of the whole battle is outlined in this paragraph, but the following paragraph gives a retrogressive description of just how it occurred.

When the Benjamites, looking for an easy victory like that in the first two battles, thought that the Israelites were fleeing from them, they thoughtlessly pursued them, thus being drawn away from the very city they were trying to protect. As soon as they were a sufficient distance from Gibeah, the liers-in-wait, ten thousand strong, attacked Gibeah and put the entire population to the sword, man, woman and child, as the children of Israel had destroyed Jericho.

These liers-in-wait also set the city on fire, the ascending smoke of which, according to the pre-arranged sign with the other detachment of Israel's army, was the signal for the army of Israel to turn and confront their overconfident enemies, whom they actually surrounded (Judges 20:43), destroying the total number of Benjamin's fighting men, except for the six hundred that managed to escape. The next paragraph will supply certain details that are lacking here.

"Baal-tamar" (Judges 20:33). "This was some place near Gibeah, but otherwise unknown."[26]

This passage indicates that the total population of Gibeah were destroyed, regardless of age, sex or other considerations. Having asked and received God's permission to go against Benjamin, the leaders of Israel concluded that they should consign all of Benjamin to the "ban," meaning that the people would be totally destroyed, just as Israel had been commanded to destroy the Canaanites.

Having won the battle, the Israelites did not stop until they had destroyed all the twenty-six cities of Benjamin, putting even the women and the children to death by the edge of the sword.

Verse 36

A RETROGRESSIVE RECAPITULATION (Judges 20:36-43)

"So the children of Benjamin saw that they were smitten; for the men of Israel gave place to Benjamin, because they trusted unto the liers-in-wait whom they had set against Gibeah. And the liers-in-wait hasted and rushed upon Gibeah; and the liers-in-wait drew themselves along, and smote all the city with the edge of the sword. Now the appointed sign between the men of Israel and the liers-in-wait was, that they should make a great cloud of smoke rise up out of the city. And the men of Israel turned in the battle, and Benjamin began to smite and kill of the men of Israel about thirty persons; for they said, Surely, they are smitten before us, as in the first battle. But when the cloud began to rise up out of the city in a pillar of smoke, the Benjamites looked behind them; and, behold, the whole of the city went up in smoke to heaven. And the men of Israel turned, and the men of Benjamin were dismayed; for they saw that evil was come upon them. Therefore they turned their backs before the children of Israel unto the way of the wilderness; but the battle followed hard after them; and they that came out of the cities destroyed them in the midst thereof. They inclosed the Benjamites round about, and chased them, and trod them down at their resting place, as far as over against Gibeah toward the sunrising."

It is amazing that a scholar like Strahan would complain about this paragraph, asserting that, "In Judges 20:35 the battle is over; and in Judges 20:36 it begins again"![27] One wonders if he ever read Sir Walter Scott who was a master of the art of retrogression, a literary device, in which there is a recapitulation of an event with the addition of many significant details.

"They that came out of the cities, destroyed them in the midst thereof" (Judges 20:42). According to the marginal reading this means that, "All who came out of the cities, the men of Israel destroyed." Barnes identified the "cities" here as the cities of the Benjamites which were also ruthlessly liquidated by Israel.

"They enclosed the Benjamites round about" (Judges 20:43). The slaughter of the inhabitants of Gibeah and the burning of the city provided the pre-arranged smoke-signal for the Israelites to turn and engage the Benjamites. At the same time, the liers-in-wait were free to press the attack from the direction of Gibeah, thus "surrounding" the whole army of the Benjamites and fighting them on all sides (Judges 20:43).

Armerding explains to us that the RSV avoided the Hebrew word here rendered "inclosed," meaning "surrounded," "On the basis that `surrounded' men are not pursued."[28] But if the RSV translators had read Josephus they could have spared themselves from making such a blunder. Josephus tells us that:

"They were all destroyed except six hundred, which formed themselves into a close body of men, and forced their way through the midst of their enemies, and fled to the neighboring mountains, and, seizing upon them, remained there."[29]

All of the men of Benjamin except that six hundred were destroyed. Not only that, the last verses of the chapter indicate that all of the cities of Benjamin, being then without protection, were put to the sword, men, women and children without mercy. There were not even any women left to marry the remaining six hundred Benjamites, because in their anger, the children of Israel had bound themselves with an oath never to give their daughters in marriage to the sons of Benjamin.

Verse 44

THE ESCAPE OF THE SIX HUNDRED (Judges 20:44-48)

"And there fell of Benjamin eighteen thousand men; all these were men of valor. And they turned and fled toward the wilderness unto the rock of Rimmon; and they gleaned of them in the highways five thousand men, and followed hard after them unto Gidom, and smote of them two thousand men. So that all that fell that day of Benjamin were twenty and five thousand men that drew the sword; all these were men of valor. But six hundred men turned and fled toward the wilderness unto the rock of Rimmon, and abode in the rock of Rimmon four months. And the men of Israel turned again upon the children of Benjamin, and smote them with the edge of the sword, both the entire city, and the cattle, and all that they found: moreover, all the cities which they found they set on fire."

"The rock of Rimmon" (Judges 20:45,47). "This is now the modern Rummon, a village, situated on the summit of a chalky, conical hill, visible in all directions. It lies fifteen miles north of Jerusalem and is one of three `Rimmons' in Israel, another being in south Judah, and another in Zebulun."[30] The place was just four miles east of Bethel and was known as "a stronghold."[31]

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Judges 20". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/judges-20.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.