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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Judges 20

XX

Judges 20:1-7. The tribes meet at Mizpeh, and the Levite tells the story of the crime at Gibeah. Judges 20:8-11. The people rise like one man, and determine to punish Gibeah. Judges 20:12-14. The Benjamites espouse the cause of the guilty city. Judges 20:15-17. The forces on both sides. Judges 20:18-25. The Israelites twice defeated by Benjamin. Judges 20:26-28. Victory promised them after a day of fast at Bethel. Judges 20:29-41. Their stratagem and its success. Judges 20:42-46. Destruction of the Benjamites. Judges 20:47-48. The tribe extirpated except six hundred men.

Verse 1

(1) The congregation was gathered together.—This phrase is one which was familiar to the Israelites in the desert. It disappears after the days of Solomon (1 Kings 12:20).

From Dan even to Beer-sheba.—This expression would be like from John o’ Groat’s house to Land’s End “for England and Scotland (1 Samuel 3:18; 1 Samuel 17:11, &c.). Unless it be added by an anachronism, because it had become familiar when the Book of Judges was written, we should certainly infer from it that, early as were these events, they were subsequent to the migratory raid of the tribe of Dan to Laish.

With the land of Gilead.—The Trans-Jordanic tribes obeyed the summons, with the exception of the town of Jabesh-Gilead.

Unto the Lord.—See Note on Judges 11:11. There is not, however, the same difficulty in supposing that the ark and Urim was taken to this Mizpeh, for we see in Judges 20:27 that it was taken to Bethel.

In Mizpeh.—See Note on Judges 11:11. This Mizpeh is not the same as the one there mentioned, but is probably the bold hill and watch-tower now known as Neby Samwil, and called Mountjoie by the Crusaders, from which the traveller gains his first glimpse of Jerusalem. In the Hebrew the name has the article, “the watch-tower.” It was the scene of great gatherings of the tribes in the days of Samuel (1 Samuel 7:2; 1 Samuel 10:17) and of Solomon (2 Chronicles 1:3, probably), and even after the captivity (2 Kings 25:23).

Verse 2

(2) The chief.—The Hebrew word is pinnoth, “corner-stones,” as in 1 Samuel 14:38; Isaiah 19:13.

Four hundred thousand.—Hence we learn the interesting fact that in their struggles against the Canaanites the number of the people had been diminished one-third—i.e., to a far greater extent than they had been diminished by the wanderings in the wilderness. For at the census in the first year of the wanderings their numbers were (including 35,400 of Benjamin) 603,550 (Numbers 1:46); and in the census in the last year they were 601,730, excluding the Benjamites, who, unlike the other tribes, had increased in numbers, for they were then 45,600 in number.

Footmen.—The Israelites were forbidden to use either chariots or cavalry. (See Notes on Judges 1:19; Judges 4:3.)

That drew sword.Judges 8:10.

Verse 3

(3) Heard.—Probably the Benjamites had received the same summons as the other tribes (see Judges 19:29), but insolently refused to notice the summons.

Tell us.—Literally, Tell ye us. The request is addressed to any who could give the necessary information.

Verse 5

(5) The men of Gibeah.—Literally, the lords of Gibeah, as in Judges 9:2. We cannot infer that they were heathen inhabitants of the town, though they behaved as if they were. If the phrase implies that they were men in positions of authority, it perhaps shows why there was no rescue and little resistance. This is also probable, because there could not have been the same unwillingness to give up to justice a few lawless and insignificant offenders.

Thought to have slain me.—Obviously some circumstances of the assault have been omitted in Judges 19:22-25. The Levite colours the whole story in the way most favourable to himself.

Verse 7

(7) Ye are all children of Israel.—There would not be much point in this remark. Rather, ye are all here, children of Israel.

Your advice and counsel.Judges 19:30. “In the multitude of counsellors there is wisdom.”

Verse 8

(8) Arose as one man.—The same words are rendered “with one consent” in 1 Samuel 11:7.

To his tent . . . . into his house.—Possibly many of the Trans-jordanic Israelites, who were chiefly graziers, were obliged by the necessities of nomadic life to live in tents, not in villages or cities.

Verse 9

(9) We will go up by lot against it.—The English Version follows the LXX. and other versions in supplying “we will go up.” This is like the decision of the Amphictyonic counsel against the guilty city of Crissa (Grote, iv. 85). But perhaps it should be rendered “we will cast the lot upon it,” to divide its territory when conquered.

Verse 10

(10) Ten men of an hundred.—A tenth of the nation, chosen probably by lot, is to be responsible for the commissariat. They do not anticipate any other difficulty.

Verse 11

(11) Knit together as one man.—The Hebrew word for “knit together” (marg., fellows) is chabeerim. It means that they were all as united as if they belonged to one cheber, or club. It is the spirit of clubbism (Greek, Tcupcfa), displayed in this instance in a good cause.

Verse 12

(12) Through all the tribe of Benjamin.

—It was equitable to send this embassy, although the Benjamites had not come to the sacred gathering at Mizpeh. The word for “tribe” is in the plural, so that it is, “the tribes of Israel sent men through all the tribes of Benjamin.” Clearly, in the latter instance shebet means a family. (See Note on Judges 18:19, and Numbers 4:18 : “the tribe of the families of Kohath.) There were ten families in the tribe of Benjamin (Genesis 46:21).

Verse 13

(13) The children of Benjamin would not hearken.—They were actuated by the same bad spirit of solidarity which has often made Highland clans defend a member of their body who has committed some grave outrage. That they should have preferred an internecine civil war to the giving up their criminals illustrates the peculiarly fierce character of the tribe (Genesis 49:27). Their determination to hold out against united Israel is analogous to the courage in a bad cause of the Phocians in the sacred wars of Greece (Grote, iv. 85).

Verse 15

(15) Out of the cities.—They could only live in cities, because the Jebusites still held Jerusalem, and the Canaanites around them were very incompletely subdued.

Twenty and six thousand.—This seems to be the correct number, and is found in the Chaldee, Syriac, and Arabic. Josephus, however (Antt. v. 2, § 10), has 25,000, as also has Codex A of theLXX., and Codex B has 23,000 (see Note on Judges 20:46). We see generally that the Benjamites, like the rest of the Israelites, in spite of their exceptional increase in the wilderness, had been now diminished by about a third since the last census (Numbers 26:41). (See Note on Judges 20:2.)

Seven hundred chosen men.—There seems to be some uncertainty or confusion in the text here. It is difficult to imagine that, as the text stands, the single city of Gibeah furnished to the Benjamites their one choice contingent of seven hundred slingers, and it would be a curious coincidence that the force of Gibeah and the slingers should each be exactly seven hundred.

Verse 16

(16) Seven hundred chosen men.—These words are omitted in the LXX. and Vulg.

Left handed.—The same phrase as that employed in Judges 3:15.

Could sling stones at an hair breadth, and not miss.—The expression is perfectly simple, and merely implies extreme accuracy of aim. Bochart’s attempt (Hieroz. Ii. 162) to explain it by a passage in Quintus Smyrnœus, which says that archers used to contend which should be able to shoot off the horsehair crest of a helmet, is a mere specimen of learning fantastically misapplied. Skill with the sling was not confined to the Benjamites, as we see from the case of David (1 Samuel 17:49). The sling is the natural weapon of a people which is poor and imperfectly armed. Cyrus valued his force of 400 slingers (Xen. Anab. iii. 3-6). The inhabitants of the Balearic Isles were as skilful as the Benjamites, and children were trained to sling their breakfasts down from the top of high poles. They once prevented the Carthaginian fleet from coming to anchor by showers of stones (liv. xxviii. 37, solo eo telo utebantur). Practice made them so expert that the stones they slung came with as much force as though hurled by a catapult, and pierced shields and helmets (Diod. Sic. Bibl. v. 18). Exactly similar tales are told of the trained skill of our English archers. The advantage of slinging with the left hand was very obvious, for it enabled the slinger to strike his enemy on the right, i.e., the undefended side.

Verse 18

(18) To the house of God.—Rather, to Bethel (as in the LXX., Syriac, Arabic, and Chaldee). The reason why our translators adopted their translation is shown by the Vulgate, which renders it “to the house of God that is in Shiloh.” But Beth El cannot mean “house of God,” which is always either Beth ha-Elohim or Beth Adonai (house of the Lord). Why they did not meet at the more central Shiloh we cannot say.

Asked counsel of God.—Namely, by the Urim and Thummim. Apparently the high priest was not prevented by any scruple from taking the ephod, with its jewelled breastplate and Urim and Thummim, to any place where its use was needed. The ark was similarly carried from place to place, and had been brought (Judges 20:27) to the venerable sanctuary of Bethel with the high priest. It is not necessary to suppose that the tabernacle was itself removed. It may have been—for Shiloh was never understood to be more than its temporary resting-place. Bethel—as being a sacred place and near Gibeah—would be a convenient place of rendezvous.

Which of us . . .?Judges 1:1-2.

Judah . . . first.—This is remarkable as indicating that the Urim and Thummim were something more than a pair of lots, and that the questions with which God was consulted by its means were other than those which admitted a mere positive or negative answer.

Verse 21

(21) Came forth out of Gibeah.—The whole armed force of the tribe had therefore assembled to save the wicked town from assault. Like many of the towns of Palestine (as their names indicate), it was on a hill, and therefore easily defensible against the very imperfect siege operations of the ancients.

Destroyed down to the groundi.e., laid them dead on the ground, as in Judges 6:25.

Twenty and two thousand men.—This immense slaughter shows the extraordinary fierceness of the battle. The Benjamite force must have nearly killed a man apiece.

Verse 22

(22) Encouraged themselves.—Trusting, as the Vulgate adds, in their courage and numbers.

Verse 23

(23) And the children of Israel.—This verse is parenthetical and retrospective. The whole narrative is arranged in a very simple manner, and shows an unformed archaic style.

Against the children of Benjamin my brother.—The words “my brother” show a sort of compunction, an uneasy sense that possibly, in spite of the first answer by Urim, God did not approve of a fratricidal war.

Verse 24

(24) The second day.—This does not mean the day after the first battle. One full day at least—the day of supplication—must have intervened between the two battles.

Verse 25

(25) Destroyed . . . eighteen thousand men.—This second defeat seems to have been due, like the first, to overweening confidence and carelessness. Thus in two battles the eleven tribes lost 40,000 men—i.e., 13,300 more than the entire Benjamite army, which was only 26,700. Such a hideous massacre can only be accounted for by the supposition that the Benjamite slings did deadly execution from some vantage-ground. Similarly at Crecy 1,200 knights and 30,000 footmen—a number equal to the whole English force—lay dead upon the ground” (Green, 1:419).

Verse 26

(26) And all the people—i.e., the non-combatants as well as the fighting men.

Unto the house of God.—Rather, to Bethel, as in Judges 20:18.

And wept.—These two battles must have caused an almost universal bereavement. (Comp. Lamentations 2:10; Psalms 137:1; Joel 1:8-14; Joel 2:12-17, &c.)

Fasted . . . until even.—As is still common in the East. (Comp. 1 Samuel 14:24, &c.)

Burnt offerings and peace offerings.—The former were burnt entire, and therefore could not be used for food; of the latter, only a part was consumed, and the rest might be eaten by the worshippers. The distinction between the two was that the burnt offerings typified absolute self-dedication, whereas the peace offerings were mainly eucharistic.

Verse 27

(27) Enquired of the Lord—i.e., of Jehovah, as in Judges 20:23. On the occasion of their first general inquiry (Judges 20:18) it is said that they “enquired of Elohim,” but it is impossible to draw any certain inferences from this change of expression. It is clear, however, that the nation had been thoroughly and beneficially humiliated by these two terrible reverses, and that their approach to Jehovah on this occasion was far more solemn and devout than it had been at first.

Was there—i.e., at Bethel, though Bethel has not been mentioned in the English Version, owing to the erroneous rendering of the name by “House of God” in Judges 20:18-26.

Verse 28

(28) Phinehas.—The fact that the high priest is. still the grandson of Aaron, who had shown such noble zeal in the desert (Numbers 25:8; Psalms 106:30), is. an important note of time, and proves decisively that this narrative, like the last, is anterior to much that has been recorded in the earlier chapters. It is remarkable that the chief personages in these two wild scenes are the grandson of Moses and the grandson of Aaron, and it is a strange illustration of the disorder of the times that while the latter fulfils the supreme functions of the high priest, the former, who has sunk to the condition of a poor wandering Levite, does not go to his powerful cousin, but serves an unknown and schismatic image for a most paltry pittance.

Tomorrow.—Comp. Judges 4:14; Joshua 8:1. This is the first promise of success. The people needed to be taught that even in a religious war they could by no means rely on their own strength. How often has history laughed to scorn the cynical remark of Napoleon that “Providence usually favours the strongest battalion !”

Verse 29

(29) Set liers in wait.—This exceedingly simple and primitive stratagem had also been successful against Ai (Joshua 8:4) and against Shechem (Judges 9:43). Here, as in Judges 20:22-23, the narrative follows a loose-order, the general fact being sometimes stated by anticipation, and the details subsequently filled in.

Verse 31

(31) To smite of the people, and kill.—Rather, to smite the wounded or beaten of the people. It means, apparently, that when some of the Israelites had been wounded with slings, the Benjamites began to rush on them, for the purpose of killing them, and they feigned flight along two highways, of which one led to Bethel, and the other to a place which, to distinguish it from Gibeah, seems to have been called “Gibeah in the field.” In this feigned flight thirty Israelites were killed. “Gibeah in the field” seems to be Jeba, and the main road from Gibeah (Tuleil el Fûl), at about a mile’s distance from the hill, branches off into two, of which one leads to Beitin (Bethel), and the other to Jeba (“Gibeah in the field”).

The highways.—(Mesilloth.) Roads like the Roman viae regiae, regularly built.

Verse 32

(32) Said, Let us flee.—In a later historical style the plan of the feigned flight would have been mentioned earlier.

Unto the highways.—This would have the double effect of allowing the ambuscade to cut off their retreat, and of dividing their forces at the point where the roads branched off.

Verse 33

(33) Put themselves in array at Baal-tamar.—This is either a detail added out of place (so that we might almost suppose that there has been some accidental transposition of clauses), or it means that when the Israelites in their pretended rout had got as far as Baal-tamar (“Lord of the Palm”) they saw the appointed smoke-signal of the ambuscade, and at that point rallied against their pursuers. What makes this probable is that Baal-tamar can only have derived its name from some famous, and therefore isolated, palm-tree. Now there was exactly such a palm tree—the well known “Palm of Deborah” (see Note on Judges 4:5)—“between Ramah and Bethel,” and therefore at a little distance from the spot where the roads branch. The place was still called Bathamar in the days of Eusebius and Jerome. The Chaldee rendering, “in the plains of Jericho” (“the palm city,” Judges 1:16), is singularly erroneous.

Out of the meadows of Gibeah.—The word maareh, rendered “meadows,” occurs nowhere else. Some derive it from arah, “to strip.” The LXX., not understanding it, render it as a name, Maraagabe, and in Cod. A (following a different reading), “from the west of Gibeah,” as also does the Vulg. Rashi renders it, “because of the stripping of Gibeah,” and Buxtorf, “after the stripping of Gibeah.” It is, however, clear that the words are in apposition to and in explanation of “out of their places:” The Syriac and Arabic understand maareh to mean “a cave” or “caves,” printing it maarah instead of maareh. Similarly the reading “from the west” only involves the change of a single letter (maarab). If the text be left unaltered, the “meadows” may have been concealed from the town by intervening rocks. In Isaiah 19:7 aroth mean “pastures.”

Verse 34

(34) Ten thousand chosen men.—Though the verse is obscurely expressed, the meaning probably is that this was the number of the ambuscade of picked warriors. If it means that this was the Israelite force left after the slaughter of 40,000, we are not told the number of the ambush.

The battle was sore.—It would be a battle in which the Benjamites were now attacked both in front and rear.

But.—Rather, and.

They knew not that evil was near themi.e., as we should say, “that the hour of their ruin had come,” or, as the Vulg. has it, quod ex omni parte illis instaret interitus, “that destruction was threatening them on every side.” (Comp. Isaiah 47:10.)

Verse 35

(35) Destroyed of the Benjamites . . .—Here again we have a summary of the final result, followed by details, in a manner which proves either that the narrative was compiled from various sources (one of which seems to have been a poem), or that it was penned before the “periodic style” of history (lexis katestrammene) had been invented. If written consecutively, and not compiled, the writer must have been one whose method bore the same resemblance to that of later writers, as the style of Hellanicus did to that of Herodotus and Thucydides. It is the style to which Roman writers would have applied the epithet inconditus—the style of the oldest annals. Judges 20:36-46 are not, as has been conjectured by some writers, necessarily a different account of the battle, but contain a loose assemblage of details, which has been added to explain the general result.

Verse 36

(36) That they were smitten.—The “they” refers to the Israelites. The rest of the verse gives the reason for the feigned flight.

Verse 37

(37) Results of the ambuscade. (Comp. Joshua 8:15; Joshua 8:19-20.)

Drew themselves along.—The marginal suggestion, made a long sound with the trumpet, is untenable (See Judges 4:6.)

With The edge of the sword.—See Judges 1:8; Joshua 8:24.

Verse 38

(38) signal which had been agreed upon.

That they should make.—Literally, multiply to cause to ascend. The actual words of the agreed on signal are quoted. For the word hereb (which is an imperative) some MSS. read chereb, “a sword,” and this is adopted by the LXX. (Cod. A). But the flash of a sword would not be seen at such a distance, and the word gives no good sense. Otherwise it would remind us of the shield, which was seen to flash in the sun as a traitorous signal from Athens to the Persians, just before the battle of Marathon.

A great flame with smoke.—The margin gives elevation for flame.” It means a column of smoke, or “beacon.” (Comp.Jeremiah 6:1; Jeremiah 6:1 : “Set up a sign of fire in Beth-haccerem.”)

Verse 39

(39) And when the men of Israel retired.—This merely repeats with more graphic details the fact already mentioned in Judges 20:31. The “when” should be omitted, and from “Benjamin began” to the end of the next verse is parenthetic.

Verse 40

(40) When the flame began to arise up.—Rather, when the column (of smoke), as in Judges 20:38.

The flame of the city.—Literally, the whole of the city—i.e., the universal conflagration—a very powerful expression. (LXX., συντέλεια τῆς πόλεως.)

Verse 41

(41) And when the men of Israel turned again.—Another detail of the rally described in Judges 20:33, and its effect (Judges 20:34).

Verse 42

(42) Unto the way of the wilderness.—The wilderness is that known as “the wilderness of Bethaven” ( Joshua 18:12). It is described in Joshua 16:0 as “the wilderness that goeth up from Jericho throughout Mount Bethel.” (See Robinson, Bibl. Res. 1:572.) The first thought of fugitives in Eastern Palestine was to get to one of the fords of the Jordan (2 Samuel 15:23; 2 Kings 25:4-5).

Them which came out of the cities they destroyed in the midst of them.—This obscure clause is rendered differently in different versions. If the English Version be correct, as it probably is, the meaning must be that the Benjamites fled to their own cities, and were pursued thither and slain by the Israelites.

Verse 43

(43) A strong and poetic description of the total rout and massacre which ensued.

With ease.—There is no “with” in the Hebrew, but perhaps it may be understood. The LXX. and Luther make it mean “from Noria.” Others render it “in their rest,” i.e., in the places to which they fled for refuge. The Vulg. paraphrases it: “Nor was there any repose of the dying.” But the whole verse is obscure.

Verse 45

(45) Unto the rock of Rimmon—i.e., of the pomegranate. As the tree is common in Palestine (Numbers 20:25; Deuteronomy 8:8. &c.), the name is naturally common. There was one Rimmon in Zebulon (Joshua 19:13), another in Judah (Joshua 15:32), south of Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:10; and see Joshua 21:25; Nehemiah 11:29). This Rimmon is a steep conical hill of white limestone (Robinson, 1:440), not far from Gibeah, and fifteen miles north of Jerusalem, six miles east of Bethel (“towards the sun-rising”). It is still called Rimmon.

They gleaned.—A metaphor from the vintage, like the “trode down” of Judges 20:43. (See Jeremiah 6:9 : “They shall glean the remnant of Israel as a vine.”)

Unto Gidom.—A place entirely unknown, and hence omitted in the Vulg.

Verse 46

(46) Twenty and five thousand men.—Eighteen thousand killed in battle, ┼ 5,000 on the paved roads (mesilloth), ┼ 2,000 near Rimmon, ┼ 600 survivors, makes 25,600. But as the Benjamites were 26,700 (see Judges 20:15), either the total in Judges 20:15 is wrong, or we must make the much more natural supposition that 1,000 Benjamites, as against 40,000 Israelites (which would only be 1 to 36), had fallen in the two first battles.

Verse 47

(47) In the rock Rimmon.—This may be quite literally taken, for there are four large caverns in the hill.

Verse 48

(48) As well the men of every city, as the beast.—The phrase is literally, from the city, men down to beast, reading methim, “men,” for methom, “entire.” The dreadful meaning which lies beyond these short and simple words is the absolute extermination of a whole tribe of Israel, MEN, WOMEN, AND CHILDREN, CITIES AND CATTLE, with the exception of 600 fugitives. There is something almost inconceivably horrible and appalling in the thought of thousands of poor women and innocent children ruthlessly butchered in cold blood in this internecine war between brother Israelites. The whole tribe were placed under the ban of extirpation, as though they had been Canaanites, just as mercilessly as Sihon and his people had been extirpated (Deuteronomy 2:34; Deuteronomy 13:15-16), or Jericho (Joshua 6:17; Joshua 6:21), or Ai (Joshua 8:25-26). Their feelings were doubtless exasperated by the fearful destruction which Benjamin had inflicted upon them, as well as by religious horror at the conduct of the tribe; and for the rest, we can only say that the times of this ignorance God winked at.” The good side of the deed lies in its motive: it expressed an intense horror against moral pollution. The evil side lay in its ruthless savagery. In both aspects it agrees both with the recorded and the traditional character of Phinehas (Numbers 25:8; Numbers 31:6). (See Note on Judges 11:39.)

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Judges 20". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/judges-20.html. 1905.