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Bible Commentaries
Judges 20

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-48

The Punishment of Benjamin (20:1-48)

This chapter is much more complex than chapter 19. It exaggerates the situation. It is doubtful whether all Israel would be involved in such an incident. It exaggerates the numbers participating and slain. The reference to the "congregation" of Israel is usually regarded as an expression arising later in Israel’s history (see vs. 1). Yet there is certainly a historical core, whatever exaggerations may have been made of it, and we may be sure that Benjamin was attacked and suffered severely and that Gibeah was destroyed.

The Israelites gathered at Mizpah. The phrase "from Dan to Beersheba" indicates that they came from the northern and southern limits of the land; even Gilead across Jordan was included. Apparently, however, Jabesh-gilead refused to participate (Judges 21:8). Mizpah was an ancient holy place situated in Benjamin. The fact that it was in Benjamin might raise doubts as to whether the assembly was made here. In any case, there was soon a move to Bethel as center, as verses 18 and 26 make clear, and Mizpah may be a later insertion. The Levite reported to the assembly the crime against his concubine, implying that he thrust her out because they meant to kill him. That he could say this without apology on his part or condemnation on the part of his hearers is again a reminder that here we are dealing with a different and earlier moral environment. Once more he appealed for counsel. The indignation of the hearers was such that they unanimously committed themselves to an immediate punitive expedition against Gibeah. They devised a method whereby it should be provisioned by those of their number chosen by lot.

Before advancing, the Israelite band sent an ultimatum to the tribe of Benjamin, demanding that the lewd criminals be given to them for execution. The execution of these "base fellows" was declared to be the way of putting away the evil from Israel. Atonement, in other words, demanded the punishment of the criminals. We need to remember the part played in the early Hebrew mind by the sense of social solidarity. The crime of the men of Gibeah had exposed all Israel to punishment, and the guilt resting on all Israel could be removed only when these men were wiped out. We have a similar situation in the story of Achan (Joshua 7:20-26). It appears again in the story of the men of Gibeon (2 Samuel 21). The Benjaminites refused to surrender the culprits, and war was joined.

The Benjaminites were expert archers and slingers (see 1 Chronicles 12:2-7), with the result that the Israelite host had to face two successive defeats before it had the situation in hand. The numbers involved on both sides are evidently exaggerated, and it is probable that verses 37-44 give a more sober estimate of the forces involved.

The center of operations was Bethel. Here, before beginning battle, Israelites went to consult the oracle. If we judge by the questions asked (vss. 23 and 27), which could have a "yes" or "no" answer, the method used must have been that of the sacred lot. Judah led the first attack against Gibeah, under divine instruction. The Israelites were defeated, many being killed by the superior stone-slinging of their foes. Distressed, they once more sought oracular advice and again were directed to attack, only to suffer defeat again. Fasting and making burnt offerings, they yet a third time sought oracular guidance from God. We are told that the Ark was at Bethel at this time, apparently having been moved from Shiloh, and also that the Aaronite priest Phinehas ministered before it. This Phinehas has been identified as the predecessor of Eli. The fact that he supported the punitive expedition probably explains the stubborn persistence of the Israelite hosts despite successive defeats. The third consultation of the divine oracle brought the assurance of triumph. This time the Israelites entrapped the Benjaminites by dissembling flight, drawing their foes away from the city defenses of Gibeah onto the highways, and there ambushing them. A great slaughter of the men of Benjamin ensued. The ruse employed is similar to that used by the Israelites before Ai (Joshua 8:14-17).

In verses 37-44, we come upon evidence of the complex structure of this chapter. Evidently this is a second account of the final defeat of the Benjaminites and the sack of Gibeah. This story is more realistic than the other and may well be nearer to the actual events. The Israelites in ambush, according to this account, fell upon Gibeah and sent it up in flames, once the Benjaminites had been lured out of it. The latter, at the sight of the city going up in smoke behind them, fled in dismay to the eastern hills or wilderness, and were slain in great numbers as they fled. The closing verses of this section probably give, as we have suggested, a more realistic account of the numbers involved. Only six hundred men of Benjamin were left alive, and they took refuge at the rock of Rimmon.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Judges 20". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/judges-20.html.
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