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Bible Commentaries
Judges 20

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes


B. The Immorality of Gibeah and the Benjamites chs. 19-21

Chapter 19 records an event that provoked civil war in Israel. The account of that war follows in chapter 20. Then the consequences of the war unfold in chapter 21. This section of the book is the climactic and supreme demonstration of the Canaanization of Israel during the pre-monarchic period of her history.

Chapters 19-21 teach us how to survive in a society without spiritual and moral standards. Chapter 19 is a story of love and hate. It is so contemporary that, with a few minor changes, we might read it on the front page of our newspaper any day. Scenes of rape frame this three-chapter section.

The first verse introduces a new story. The events of chapters 19-21 are not a continuation of those in chapters 17-18. "Those days" were the days of the amphictyony. The reference to Phinehas (Judges 20:28) suggests that they took place in the years fairly soon after Joshua’s death. The writer of Chronicles did not record that any other descendant of Aaron bore the name Phinehas except the godly son of Eleazar (1 Chronicles 6:1-15) and the ungodly son of Eli (1 Samuel 4:4). This series of events (chs. 19-21) evidently transpired during the lifetime of Aaron’s grandson, and the previous events (chs. 17-18) may have during the lifetime of Moses’ grandson. The reference to Israel’s lack of a king (Judges 20:1) points to the Israelites’ practical denial of Yahweh’s lordship over them as well as the absence of an Israelite monarch. This refrain occurs four times in chapters 17-21 (Judges 17:6; Judges 18:1; Judges 19:1; Judges 21:25). It brackets the story in chapters 19-21 and provides the key to its interpretation. This incident shows what happens when God’s people fail to acknowledge Yahweh’s sovereign authority over their lives. In chapters 17-18 the result was religious apostasy (idolatry), and in chapters 19-21 it was moral degeneracy (immorality), political disintegration (anarchy), and social chaos (injustice).

Verses 1-11

Preparations to besiege Gibeah 20:1-11

The phrase "from Dan to Beersheba" (Judges 20:1) became a common expression during Israel’s united monarchy and indicated the whole of Israel. Gilead refers to the part of Israel east of the Jordan River. The Mizpah referred to here (Judges 20:1) was the one in Benjamin just five miles north of Gibeah, not Mizpah of Gilead. Three times in this pericope the writer used the phrase "as one man" (Judges 20:1; Judges 20:8; Judges 20:11). This is one of the rare instances of Israelite solidarity during the Judges Period. Here they unanimously chose a plan that lacked divine initiative. At other times they did not cooperate to fulfill the revealed will of God (cf. Judges 5:15-17; Judges 8:1-3; Judges 12:1-6; Judges 15:11).

By casting lots to see how they should proceed against Benjamin (Judges 20:9), the tribes were dealing with Benjamin as they had dealt with the Canaanite towns they had attacked. God did not tell them to deal with their fellow Israelites this way (cf. Deuteronomy 13:12-18). They were now battling their brethren as they had engaged their enemies (Judges 20:18; cf. Leviticus 19:18).

"Some comment must be made regarding the large numbers in this chapter. The discussion centers around the translation of the Hebrew word eleph. This word often is translated thousand but can also mean a family, clan, or military unit of fighting men (such as a squad of ten to twenty soldiers). The twenty-six, twenty-two, eighteen, ten, should not be thought of as so many thousand men but as so many units of men, each unit consisting of somewhere in the neighborhood of ten to twenty fighting men each. (A unit of ten is mentioned specifically in Judges 20:10.) This interpretation does not detract from the authority of the Scriptures in any way. It simply attempts to understand what the Bible actually says. Certainly it places the other numbers in the chapter in a reasonable context." [Note: Monson, p. 119. See also The New Bible Dictionary, 1962 ed., s.v. "Number," by R. A. H. Gunner.]

I see no reason to reject the traditional translation of eleph as "thousand" in this context (cf. Numbers 26:41). [Note: So also Wolf, p. 494; et al.]

Verses 1-48

2. The civil war in Israel ch. 20

This chapter continues the story begun in chapter 19. The emphasis in chapter 19 was on moral degeneracy and that of chapter 20 is Israel’s political disorganization. One man’s sin in chapter 19 resulted in over 65,000 deaths in chapter 20 (cf. Joshua 7).

Verses 12-19

Attempt at a peaceful settlement 20:12-19

The 11 tribes wisely tried to settle this problem with the Benjamites peacefully (Judges 20:12; cf. Joshua 22:13-20). Unfortunately the Benjamites decided to support the residents of Gibeah who were their kinsmen. They should have sided with "their brothers" (Judges 20:13; Judges 20:23; Judges 20:28) who were the other Israelites. The Benjamites decided to support their kinsmen because they were their relatives, rather than standing with God for what was right. The other tribes gathered to "remove this wickedness from Israel" (Judges 20:13), but ironically their gathering resulted in removing their fellow Israelites from wickedness by killing them.

"Though the sin of the guilty impairs the whole community, here of Benjamin, the assembly would have been content with the capital punishment of only the guilty individuals. It was only after identifying themselves with the guilty persons by their refusal to give them up that Benjamin came collectively under the ban. This is a case of corporate responsibility rather than ’corporate personality’." [Note: J. Gray, p. 355.]

"The extent to which people will stand up to defend evil and evildoers is a measure of how deeply rooted is the Canaanizing rot in a culture." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 568.]

The Benjamites were outstanding warriors in Israel. Ehud and Saul, as well as other champions, came from the tribe of Benjamin (cf. Genesis 49:27; 1 Chronicles 8:40; 1 Chronicles 12:2). The 700 left-handed soldiers (Judges 20:16) were evidently an elite force, all of whom were expert in the use of the sling.

"Alone a left-handed person was considered handicapped [e.g., Ehud] and in a contingent of right-handed troops an actual liability, but if enough left-handed men could be assembled to make up an entire contingent, a disadvantage could be transformed into a distinct advantage, physically and psychologically." [Note: Ibid., p. 557.]

"The sling, which was employed with a left-handed motion, must not be confused with the modern schoolboy’s catapult [slingshot]; it was a formidable weapon of war used in the Assyrian, Egyptian, and Babylonian armies as well as in Israel. David’s encounter with the Philistine, Goliath, is a telling example of the power and accuracy of this weapon (1 Samuel 17:49). It has been estimated that stones weighing up to one pound could be projected with uncanny accuracy at speeds up to 90 m.p.h.!" [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 201.]

The Israelites went to Bethel to inquire for God’s strategy in their battle (Judges 20:18). In Judges 1:1 they inquired of Yahweh, but here they inquired of Elohim, the generic name for God. In Judges 1:1 the Lord directed Judah to go up against the Canaanites, but here He told Judah to go up against the Benjamites. These details are still more evidence of Israel’s departure from the Lord.

Bethel was only about four miles north of Mizpah. The ark of the covenant was at Bethel then (Judges 20:27). This is the only mention of the ark in Judges. The people were not seeking the Lord much at this time. Contrast the more numerous references to it in Joshua where the Israelites were more victorious. They apparently had moved the ark and the tabernacle from Shiloh (cf. Joshua 21:2; Joshua 22:9; Joshua 22:12; Judges 18:31; Judges 21:12; Judges 21:19; Judges 21:21; 1 Samuel 1:3). Another possibility is that only the ark was at Bethel and the tabernacle was still at Shiloh. The Israelites viewed the ark as a good luck charm (cf. 1 Samuel 4:3-4). They had a low view of God’s holiness, which explains their disregard for Him as their commander-in-chief in this chapter.

Verses 20-28

The Israelites’ initial defeats 20:20-28

The Lord granted the Benjamites success to discipline the other Israelites for their independence, not because He approved of the Benjamites’ actions. The Benjamites became God’s temporary instrument to discipline the other tribes, as God also used Israel’s foreign foes (the Canaanites, Midianites, Philistines, et al., and later the Assyrians and Babylonians).

"The congregation now discovered, from this repeated defeat, that the Lord had withdrawn His grace, and was punishing them. Their sin, however, did not consist in the fact that they had begun the war itself-for the law in Deut. xxii 22, to which they themselves had referred in Judges 20:13, really required this,-but rather in the state of mind with which they had entered upon the war, their strong self-consciousness, and great confidence in their own might and power. They had indeed inquired of God (Elohim) who should open the conflict; but they had neglected to humble themselves before Jehovah the covenant God, in the consciousness not only of their own weakness and sinfulness, but also of grief at the moral corruption of their brother tribe." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, p. 452.]

The reference to the Israelites weeping (Judges 20:23) is significant. This book opened with a reference to the people weeping because of their unfaithfulness to the covenant, manifested in idolatry (Judges 2:4-5). In the middle chapter of the book there is another reference to weeping by Jephthah’s daughter and her friends as a result of Jephthah’s foolish vow (Judges 11:37-38). So weeping frames the book and lies at its heart showing the unhappy outcome of idolatry and self-assertiveness. [Note: McCann, p. 118.] One writer referred to Judges as "a book of weeping." [Note: Tate, p. 34.]

With each successive defeat the Israelites became more concerned about getting God’s guidance. They had previously just asked Him to bless their plans with success.

". . . by reducing the size of the army, God was showing them that numbers alone did not guarantee victory. They needed to trust God to accomplish the impossible, as he did for Gideon’s three hundred (cf. Judges 7:7)." [Note: Wolf, p. 498.]

"Just as the worship of Baal had brought about a near catastrophe in the plains of Moab (Numbers 25:1-9), so the Baal cult was probably responsible for subverting the Benjamites. This must have been comparatively soon after the earlier incident, for the same priest Phinehas intervened on both occasions (Numbers 25:7-8; Judges 20:28)." [Note: Ibid., p. 493.]

Block claimed that the name Phinehas is Egyptian in origin and derives from a word meaning "the dark-skinned, the Negro." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 561.]

Verses 29-48

The Israelites’ final victory 20:29-48

Judges 20:29-36 a give an overview of the battle, and Judges 20:36-48 provide a more detailed explanation. Israel’s strategy was similar to what God had specified against Ai (Joshua 8:1-29) and what Abimelech used against Shechem (Judges 9:33-44).

The location of Baal-tamar is unknown (Judges 20:33), but Marreh-geba was evidently Geba, which stood a few miles northeast of Gibeah. Rimmon (pomegranate, Judges 20:45) was farther to the north and east of Bethel. The site of Gidom is still unknown. The writer carefully recorded that it was the Lord who struck Benjamin (Judges 20:35).

"The word for ’whole’ (kalil, Judges 20:40) is often used of ’whole burnt offerings’ (Deuteronomy 33:10) and is in fact used of burning a town whose people have become involved in idolatry (Deuteronomy 13:16). The entire town [of Gibeah] literally became a burnt offering!" [Note: Ibid., p. 500.]

The Israelites did to the Benjamites as they had done to the Canaanites who were under the ban (Judges 20:48). This was excessively severe treatment contrary to God’s will (Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 19:18).

This chapter illustrates the far-reaching consequences of a single sexual sin (Judges 19:1). It also reveals the inverted values of people who did not acknowledge God as their king. Unwarranted protection of a neighbor replaced love for God in the warring factions of the nation. Excessive loyalty to brothers replaced loyalty to God. Vengeance and overkill replaced adherence to God’s gracious will. Furthermore we see here that God’s guidance may involve discipline for the independent as well as punishment for the rebellious. However, we should not conclude that one person’s problems always have their roots in his or her personal sins (cf. Job; John 9:2-3).

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Judges 20". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/judges-20.html. 2012.
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