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Bible Commentaries
Judges 19

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-30

; Judges 20:1-48; Judges 21:1-25


Judges 19:1-30; Judges 20:1-48; Judges 21:1-25

THESE last chapters describe a general and vehement outburst of moral indignation throughout Israel, recorded for various reasons. A vile thing is done in one of the towns of Benjamin and the fact is published in all the tribes. The doers of it are defended by their clan and fearful punishment is wrought upon them, not without suffering to the entire people. Like the incidents narrated in the chapters immediately preceding, these must have occurred at an early stage in the period of the judges, and they afford another illustration of the peril of imperfect government, the need for a vigorous administration of justice over the land. The crime and the volcanic vengeance belong to a time when there was "no king in Israel" and, despite occasional appeals to the oracle, "every man did that which was right in his own eyes." In this we have one clue to the purpose of the history.

The crime of Gibeah brought under our notice here connects itself with that of Sodom and represents a phase of immorality which, indigenous to Canaan, mixed its putrid current with Hebrew life. There are traces of the same horrible impurity in the Judah of Rehoboam and Asa; and in the story of Josiah’s reign we are horrified to read of "houses of Sodomites that were in the house of the Lord, where the women, wove hangings for the Asherah." With such lurid historical light on the subject we can easily understand the revival of this warning lesson from the past of Israel and the fulness of detail with which the incidents are recorded. A crime originally that of the off-scourings of Gibeah became practically the sin of a whole tribe, and the war that ensued sets in a clear light the zeal for domestic purity which was a feature in every religious revival and, at length, in the life of the Hebrew people.

It may be asked how, while polygamy was practised among the Israelites, the sin of Gibeah could rouse such indignation and awaken the signal vengeance of the united tribes. The answer is to be found partly in the singular and dreadful device which the indignant husband used in making the deed known. The ghastly symbols of outrage told the tale in a way that was fitted to stir the blood of the whole country. Everywhere the hideous thing was made vivid and a sense of utmost atrocity was kindled as the dissevered members were borne from town to town. It is easy to see that womanhood must have been stirred to the fieriest indignation, and manhood was bound to follow. What woman could be safe in Gibeah where such things were done? And was Gibeah to go unpunished? If so, every Hebrew city might become the haunt of miscreants. Further there is the fact that the woman so foully murdered, though a concubine, was the concubine of a Levite. The measure of sacredness with which the Levites were invested gave to this crime, frightful enough in any view, the colour of sacrilege. How degenerate were the people of Gibeah when a servant of the altar could be treated with such foul indignity and driven to so extraordinary an appeal for justice? There could be no blessing on the tribes if they allowed the doers or condoners of this thing to go unpunished. Every Levite throughout the land must have taken up the cry. From Bethel and other sanctuaries the call for vengeance would spread and echo till the nation was roused. Thus, in part at least, we can explain the vehemence of feeling which drew together the whole fighting force of the tribes.

The doubt will yet remain whether there could have been so much purity of life or respect for purity as to sustain the public indignation. Some may say, Is there not here a sufficient reason for questioning the veracity of the narrative? First, however, let it be remembered that often where morals are far from reaching the level of pure monogamic life distinctions between right and wrong are sharply drawn. Acquaintance with phases of modern life that are most painful to the mind sensitively pure reveals a fixed code which none may infringe without bringing upon themselves reprobation, perhaps more vehement than in a higher social grade visits the breach of a higher law. It is the fact that concubinage has its unwritten acknowledgment and protecting customs. There is marriage that is only a name; there is concubinage that gives the woman more rights than one who is married. Against the immorality and the gross evils of cohabitation is to be set this unwritten law. And arguing from popular feeling in our great cities we reach the conclusion that in ancient Israel where concubinage prevailed there was a wide and keen feeling as to the rights of concubines and the necessity of upholding them. Many women must have been in this relation, below those who could count themselves legally married, and all the more that the concubine occupied a place inferior to that of the lawful wife would popular opinion take up her cause and demand the punishment of those who did her wrong.

And here we are led to a point which demands clear statement and recognition. It has been too readily supposed that polygamy is always a result of moral decline and indicates a low state of domestic purity. It may, in truth, be a rude step of progress. Has it been sufficiently noted that in those countries in which the name of the mother, not of the father, descended to the children the reason may be found in universal or almost universal unchastity? In Egypt at one time the law gave to women, especially to mothers, peculiar rights; but to praise Egyptian civilisation for this reason and hold up its treatment of women as an example to the nineteenth century is an extraordinary venture. The Israelites, however lax, were doubtless in advance of the society of Thebes. Among the Canaanites the moral degradation of women, whatever freedom may have gone with it, was so terrible that the Hebrew with his two or three wives and concubines but with a morality otherwise severe, must have represented a new and holier social order as well as a new and holier religion. It is therefore not incredible, but appears simply in accordance with the instincts and customs proper to the Hebrew people, that the sin of Gibeah should provoke overwhelming indignation. There is no pretence of purity, no hypocritical anger. The feeling is sound and real. Perhaps in no other matter of a moral kind would there have been such intense and unanimous exasperation. A point of justice or of belief would not have so moved the tribes. The better self of Israel appears, asserting its claim and power. And the miscreants of Gibeah representing the lower self, verily an unclean spirit, are detested and denounced on every hand.

The time was that of fresh feeling, unwarped by those customs which in the guise of civilisation and refinement afterwards corrupted the nation. And we may see the prophetic or hortatory use of the narrative for an after age in which doings as vile as those at Gibeah were sanctioned by the court and protected even by religious leaders. It would be hoped by the sacred historian that this tale of the fierce indignation of the tribes might rouse afresh the same moral feeling. He would fain stir a careless people and their priests by the exhibition of this tumultuous vengeance. Nor can we say that the necessity for the impressive lesson has ceased. In the heart of our large cities vices as vile as those of Gibeah are heard muttering in the nightfall, life as abandoned lurks and festers, creating a social gangrene.

Recognise, then, in these chapters a truth for all time boldly drawn out-the great truth as to moral reform and national purity. Law will not cure moral evils; a statute book the purest and noblest will not save. Those who by the impulse of the Spirit gathered the various traditions of Israel’s life knew well that on a living conscience in men everything depended, and they at least indicate the further truth which many of ourselves have not grasped, that the early and rude workings of conscience, producing stormy and terrible results, are a necessary stage of development. As there must be energy before there can be noble energy, so there must be moral vigour, it may be rude, violent, ignorant, a stream rushing out of barbarian hills, sweeping with most appalling vehemence, before there can be spiritual life patient, calm, and holy. Law is a product, not a cause; it is not the code we make that will perserve us but the God-given conscience that informs the code and ever goes before it a pillar of fire, at times flashing vivid lightning. Even Christian law cannot save a people if it be merely a series of injunctions. Nothing will do but the mind of Christ in every man and woman continually inspiring and directing life. The reformer who thinks that a statute or regulation will end some sin or evil custom is in sad error. Say the decree he contends for is enacted; but have the consciences of those against whom it is made been quickened? If not, the law merely expresses a popular mood, and the life of the whole community will not be permanently raised in tone.

The church finds here a perpetual mission of influence. Her doctrine is but half her message. From the doctrine as from an eternal fount must go life-giving moral heat in every range, and the Spirit is ever with her to make the world like a fire. Her duty is wide as righteousness, great as man’s destiny; it is never ended, for each generation comes in a new hour with new needs. The church, say some, is finishing its work; it is doomed to be one of the broken moulds of life. But the church that is the instructor of conscience and kindles the flame of righteousness has a mission to the ages. We are far yet from that day of the Lord when all the people shall be prophets; and until then how can the world live without the church? It would be a body without a soul.

Conscience the oracle of life, conscience working badly rather than held in chains of mere rule without spontaneity and inspiration, moral energy widespread, personal, and keen, however rude-here is one of the notes of the sacred writer; and another note, no less distinct, is the assertion of moral intolerance. It has not occurred to this prophetic annalist that endurance of evil has any curative power. He is a Hebrew, full of indignation against the vile and false, and he demands a heat of moral force in his people. Foul things are done at the court and even in the temple; there is a depraving indifference to purity, a loose notion (very similar to the idea of our day), that all the sides of life should have free play and that the heathen had much to teach Israel. The whole of the narrative before us is infused with a righteous protest against evil, a holy plea for intolerance of sin. Will men refuse instruction and persist in making themselves one with bestiality and outrage? Then judgment must deal with them on the ground they have chosen to occupy, and until they repent the conscience of the race must repudiate them together with their sin. Along with a keenly burning conscience there goes this necessity of moral intolerance. Charity is good, but not always in place; and brotherhood itself demands at times strong uncompromising judgment of the evildoer. How else among men of weak wills and wavering hearts can righteousness vindicate and enforce itself as the eternal reality of life? Compassion is strong only when it is linked to unfaltering declarations; mercy is divine only when it turns a front of mail to wickedness and flashes lightning at proud wrong, Any other kind of charity is but a new offence-the sinner pardoning sin.

Now the people of Gibeah were not all vile. The wretches whose crime called for judgment were but the rabble of the town. And we can see that the tribes when they gathered in indignation were made serious by the thought that the righteous might be punished with the wicked. We are told that they went up to the sanctuary and asked counsel of the Lord whether they should attack the convicted city. There was a full muster of the fighting men, their blood at fever heat, yet they would not advance without an oracle. It was an appeal to heavenly justice and demands notice as a striking feature of the whole terrible series of events. For an hour there is silence in the camp till a higher voice shall speak.

But what is the issue? The oracle decrees an immediate attack on Gibeah in the face of all Benjamin, which has shown the temper of heathenism by refusing to give up the criminals. Once and again there is trial of battle which ends in defeat of the allied tribes. The wrong triumphs; the people have to return humbled and weeping to the Sacred Presence and sit fasting and disconsolate before the Lord.

Not without the suffering of the entire community is a great evil to be purged from a land. It is easy to execute a murderer, to imprison a felon. But the spirit of the murderer, of the felon, is widely diffused, and that has to be cast out. In the great moral struggle year after year the better have not only the openly vile but all who are tainted, all who are weak in soul, loose in habit, secretly sympathetic with the vile, arrayed against them. There is a sacrifice of the good before the evil are overcome. In vicarious suffering many must pay the penalty of crimes not their own ere the wide-reaching wickedness can be seen in its demonic power and struck down as the cruel enemy of the people.

When an assault is made on some vile custom the sardonic laugh is heard of those who find their profit and their pleasure in it. They feel their power. They know the wide sympathy with them spread secretly through the land. Once and again the feeble attempt of the good is repelled. With sad hearts, with impoverished means, those who led the crusade retire baffled and weary. Has their method been unintelligent? There very possibly lies the cause of its failure. Or, perhaps, it has been, though nominally inspired by an oracle, all too human, weak through human pride. Not till they gain with new and deeper devotion to the glory of God, with more humility and faith, a clearer view of the battleground and a better ordering of the war shall defeat be changed into victory. And may it not be that the assault on moral evils of our day, in which multitudes are professedly engaged, in which also many have spent substance and life, shall fail till there is a true humiliation of the armies of God before Him, a new consecration to higher and more spiritual ends? Human virtue has ever to be jealous of itself, the reformer may so easily become a Pharisee.

The tide turned and there came another danger, that which waits on ebullitions of popular feeling. A crowd roused to anger is hard to control, and the tribes having once tasted vengeance did not cease till Benjamin was almost exterminated. The slaughter extended not only to the fighting men, but to women and children. The six hundred who fled to the rock fort of Rimmon appear as the only survivors of the clan. Justice overshot its mark and for one evil made another. Those who had most fiercely used the sword viewed the result with horror and amazement, for a tribe was lacking in Israel. Nor was this the end of slaughter. Next for the sake of Benjamin the sword was drawn and the men of Jabesh-gilead were butchered. It has to be noticed that the oracle is not made responsible for this horrible process of evil. The people came of their own accord to the decision which annihilated Jabesh-gilead. But they gave it a pious colour; religion and cruelty went together, sacrifices to Jehovah and this frightful outbreak of demonism. It is one of the dark chapters of human history. For the sake of an oath and an idea death was dealt remorselessly. No voice suggested that the people of Jabesh may have been more cautious than the rest, not less faithful to the law of God. The others were resolved to appear to themselves to have been right in almost annihilating Benjamin; and the town which had not joined in the work of destruction must be punished.

The warning conveyed here is intensely keen. It is that men, made doubtful by the issue of their actions whether they have done wisely, may fly to the resolution to justify themselves and may do so even at the expense of justice; that a nation may pass from the right way to the wrong and then, having sunk to extraordinary baseness and malignity, may turn writhing and self-condemned to add cruelty to cruelty in the attempt to still the upbraidings of conscience. It is that men in the heat of passion which began with resentment against evil may strike at those who have not joined in their errors as well as those who truly deserve reprobation. We stand, nations and individuals, in constant danger of dreadful extremes, a kind of insanity hurrying us on when the blood is heated by strong emotion. Blindly attempting to do right we do evil, and again having done the evil, we blindly strive to remedy it by doing more. In times of moral darkness and chaotic social conditions, when men are guided by a few rude principles, things are done that afterwards appal themselves, and yet may become an example for future outbreaks. During the fury of their Revolution the French people, with some watchwords of the true ring as liberty, fraternity, turned hither and thither, now in terror, now panting after dimly seen justice or hope, and it was always from blood to blood. We understand the juncture in ancient Israel and realise the excitement and the rage of a self-jealous people, when we read the modern tales of surging ferocity in which men appear now hounding the shouting crowd to vengeance, then shuddering on the scaffold.

In private life the story has an application against wild and violent methods of self-vindication. Many a man, hurried on by a just anger against one who has done him wrong, sees to his horror after a sharp blow is struck that he has broken a life and thrown a brother bleeding to the dust. One wrong thing has been done perhaps more in haste than vileness of purpose, and retribution, hasty, ill-considered, leaves the moral question tenfold more confused. When all is reckoned we find it impossible to say where the right is, where the wrong.

Passing to the final expedient adopted by the chiefs of Israel to rectify their error-the rape of the women at Shiloh-we see only to how pitiful a pass moral blundering brings those who fall into it: other moral teaching there is none. We might at first be disposed to say that there was extraordinary want of reverence for religious order and engagements when the men of Benjamin were invited to make a sacred festival the occasion of taking what the other tribes had solemnly vowed not to give. But the festival at Shiloh must have been far more of a merry making than of a sacred assembly. It needs to be recognised that many gatherings even in honour of Jehovah were mainly, like those of Canaanite worship, for hilarity and feasting. There was probably no great incongruity between the occasion and the plot.

But the scenes certainly change in the course of this narrative with extraordinary swiftness. Fierce indignation is followed by pity, weeping for defeat by tears for too complete a victory. Horrible bloodshed wastes the cities and in a month there is dancing in the plain of Shiloh not ten miles from the field of battle. Chaotic indeed are the morality and the history; but it is the disorder of social life in its early stages, with the vehemence and tenderness, the ferocity and laughter of a nation’s youth. And, all along, the Book of Judges bears the stamp of veracity as a series of records because these very features are to be seen-this tumult, this undisciplined vehemence in feeling and act. Were we told here of decorous solemn progress at slow march, every army going forth with some stereotyped invocation of the Lord of Hosts, every leader a man of conventional piety supported by a blameless priesthood and orderly sacrifices, we should have had no evidence of truth. The traditions preserved here, whoever collected them, are singularly free from that idyllic colour which an imaginative writer would have endeavoured to give.

At the last, accordingly, the book we have been reading stands a real piece of history, proving itself over every kind of suspicion a true record of a people chosen and guided to a destiny greater than any other race of man has known. A people understanding its call and responding with eagerness at every point? Nay. The worm is in the heart of Israel as of every other nation, The carnal attracts, and malignant cries overbear the divine still voice; the air of Canaan breathes in every page, and we need to recollect that we are viewing the turbulent upper waters of the nation and the faith. But the working of God is plain; the divine thoughts we believed Israel to have in trust for the world are truly with it from the first, though darkened by altars of Baal and of Ashtoreth. The Word and Covenant of Jehovah are vital facts of the supernatural which surrounds that poor struggling erring Hebrew flock. Theocracy is a divine fact in a larger sense than has ever been attached to the word. Inspiration too is no dream, for the history is charged with intimations of the spiritual order. The light of the unrealised end flashes on spear and altar, and in the frequent roll of the storm the voice of the Eternal is heard declaring righteousness and truth. No story this to praise a dynasty or magnify a conquering nation or support a priesthood. Nothing so faithful, so true to heaven and to human nature could be done from that motive. We have here an imperishable chapter in the Book of God.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Judges 19". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/judges-19.html.
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