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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Judges 20

 

 

Introduction

Chapter 20. The Response.

In this chapter the Levite’s appeal to the tribal confederacy of Israel is answered. The case is heard and the children of Benjamin are commanded to deliver the wrongdoers for punishment in accordance with the law and the covenant. Their refusal to do so is a breach of covenant which the others see as bringing God’s wrath on themselves unless they do something about it. Thus they seek to put pressure on them to do so.

When this also is rejected they go in to do it themselves. In order, in their view, to avoid the wrath of God, the tribal confederacy seek to enforce their decree. This results in a tribal war which is evidence of a serious breach of covenant on behalf of ‘Benjamin’, and eventually, after two setbacks, they defeat the children of Benjamin with God’s backing, and exact the vengeance which tradition required, the near extermination of Benjamin.


Verse 1

Chapter 20. The Response.

In this chapter the Levite’s appeal to the tribal confederacy of Israel is answered. The case is heard and the children of Benjamin are commanded to deliver the wrongdoers for punishment in accordance with the law and the covenant. Their refusal to do so is a breach of covenant which the others see as bringing God’s wrath on themselves unless they do something about it. Thus they seek to put pressure on them to do so.

When this also is rejected they go in to do it themselves. In order, in their view, to avoid the wrath of God, the tribal confederacy seek to enforce their decree. This results in a tribal war which is evidence of a serious breach of covenant on behalf of ‘Benjamin’, and eventually, after two setbacks, they defeat the children of Benjamin with God’s backing, and exact the vengeance which tradition required, the near extermination of Benjamin.

Judges 20:1

Then all the children of Israel went out, and the congregation was assembled as one man, from Dan even to Beersheba, along with the land of Gilead, to Yahweh at Mizpah.’

After messengers had been sent between the tribes the whole of Israel gathered at Mizpah. This may have resulted from a call from the central sanctuary at Bethel, or possibly on the initiative of the leaders of the tribe of Ephraim where the Levite lived.

“All.” This probably means that all the tribes were represented, apart from Benjamin, rather than that literally all the people came. This view is confirmed in Judges 20:3.

“From Dan to Beersheba”, a rough description of the land possessed west of Jordan, a description regularly used in the Old Testament. Dan was the furthest north of the towns of Israel, and Beersheba the furthest south. ‘Along with the land of Gilead’. Those east of Jordan were also included in the call up, ‘Gilead’ being used in its widest sense as representing the whole. All Israel were involved. The Levite had achieved his purpose. He had shocked them into action and united the tribes.

“The congregation.” A technical term for the people of God seen as one before God, regularly found in the Pentateuch.

“As one man.” The tribal confederation were gathered in unity, which was not always true of them, and all were agreed that the matter should be dealt with.

“To Yahweh.” This was a recognition that they had gathered to see to the implementing of the covenant of Yahweh, which He had made with them and to which He demanded obedience as their Overlord. It was seen as matter for the whole confederation. They were gathered before God.

“At Mizpah.” Meaning ‘a place of watching’. It was a town of Benjamin, eleven kilometres (seven miles) north of Jerusalem, to the left of the main road, and in the neighbourhood of Gibeah and Ramah (1 Kings 15:22). It would be a regular gathering place for Israel under Samuel (1 Samuel 7:5; 1 Samuel 7:16; 1 Samuel 10:17), presumably because of its suitability. It was one of the three places where he sat to judge the people (1 Samuel 7:16).


Verse 2

And the chiefs (literally ‘corner-tower’) of all the people, even of all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God. Four hundred eleph of footmen that drew sword.’

The leading men (those who were the ‘corner-tower’, the strong point) of all the tribes of Israel now gathered together to consider what had happened. This may be a smaller group than Judges 20:1, a gathering of the most important men to hear the case. ‘The assembly’ is a word regularly used of Israel in Deuteronomy.

“Four hundred eleph of footmen that drew sword.” The word eleph came to mean a thousand, but prior to that was probably a smaller number representing a clan, a sub-tribe, a family, a fighting unit, or in some cases a captain. This probably represents the number gathered as a whole (those in Judges 20:1) rather than the number of chiefs. There were four hundred units of fighting men, which may suggest roughly four hundred chiefs, ‘leaders of thousands’ (Exodus 18:21; Exodus 18:25), each with his supporting unit.

Comparison with Judges 20:17 demonstrates that they excluded Benjaminites. They had not responded to the call. It would seem then that the leaders had gathered together, with supporting fighting men, from all the tribes of Israel, excluding Benjamin. Possibly they were excluded because the trial involved some of their people, and therefore them, but more likely it was because they refused to come.

When considering such numbers in the Old Testament we must always remember, 1). That the meaning of ‘number words’ changed over the centuries. 2). That they were not numerically minded and what they wanted to do was convey impressions rather than being concerned with numerical accuracy. 3). That it would be extremely unlikely that anyone would count gatherings even if they could. There were not many specialists in numbering among the tribes. Any assessment would be a very rough approximation, rather aimed at giving an impression than intending to be accurate. On the other hand counting the number of family or military units was a lot easier. 4). That the numbers probably had a significance other than the numerical one. To them numbers conveyed information rather than quantity.


Verse 3

Judges 20:3 a

‘Now the children of Benjamin heard that the children of Israel were gone up to Mizpah.’

This is a parenthesis. It would hardly seem surprising as they met on Benjaminite territory. But the statement ‘had heard’ probably means that they had received the call and had refused it. It was in fact a grave mistake not to have made more effort to ensure the Benjaminite leaders were there, for had they been there and agreed the verdict the problems that resulted may not have occurred. Trying to force an opinion on people without their participation is a recipe for disaster. Of course if the call to the assembly went with the parts of the concubine’s body that may explain why they did not come. They were offended.

Judges 20:3 b

‘And the children of Israel, said, ‘Tell us, how did this wickedness happen?’

The leaders who had gathered together now commenced the case, and asked for details of what had occurred. There would presumably be present as witnesses the Levite, his servant and the old man from Gibeah.


Verse 4

Judges 20:4 a

‘And the Levite, the husband of the woman who was murdered, answered and said.’

He stood up before the judges in order to testify to the hearing the facts of the case.

Judges 20:4-5 (4b-5)

“I came into Gibeah, which belongs to Benjamin, I and my concubine to lodge. And the men of Gibeah rose against me, and beset the house round about against me by night. Me they thought to have slain, and my concubine they forced, and she is dead.”

The testimony was clear and straightforward, although protecting his honour. The main motive of the men is not mentioned, possibly because he did not want to be associated with such an idea, or possibly as being something he was ashamed to mention in public, but he had had no doubt as to what would have been the end result, especially when he resisted. All present would understand what he meant by the humbling or forcing of his concubine, multiple rape. And it had been so vicious that she had died as a result.


Verse 6

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.”

He then explained his unusual action in cutting up her body and sending it round to the tribes. But what he had done emphasises that he was asking for the death penalty. That was the significance of the cutting up and sending round of the dead body.

“Of the inheritance of Israel.” This was his description of the country that Israel had inherited from God. This reminded them that the country was God’s, and that they were responsible to Him for maintaining justice in His name. They had inherited it from the God of the covenant, and therefore must fulfil the covenant requirements. In this case the land was stained with blood.

“Lewdness and folly in Israel.” ‘Folly in Israel’ was a technical term for the most obscene of behaviour (Genesis 34:7; Deuteronomy 22:21; Joshua 7:15). It signified that the culprit had broken the covenant in a way that deserved the ultimate penalty. ‘Lewdness’ defined the particular type of folly that had been committed. They were guilty of attempted sodomy, multiple rape, lack of hospitality to a stranger, intended desecration of a Levite, and murder. Details of this may well have been privately passed to the main judges. It could not be mentioned in public.


Verse 7

Behold, you children of Israel, all of you, give here your advice and counsel.’

This was probably an official way of ending testimony. He requested the court to consider the facts and give their verdict on behalf of the whole confederation, in the light of the covenant of God made with Israel through Moses.


Verse 8

And all the people arose as one man, saying, “We will not any of us go to his tent, neither will we any of us turn into his house.” ’

The verdict was unanimous. All were agreed, as indeed they had no option but to be in the light of the evidence, no doubt backed up by that of the servant and the old man. This refers, of course, to the leaders assembled together.

“Saying, 'We will not any of us go to his tent, neither will we any of us turn into his house.' ” The verdict having been reached justice would immediately be done, and they would not return to normal life or rest until this had been put into action.


Verse 9-10

“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 provisions for the people, that they may do, when they come to Gibeah of Benjamin, what they deserve, for all the folly that they have wrought in Israel.”

They now described what in their discussions they had unanimously decided on.

“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 provisions for the people, that they may do, when they come to Gibeah of Benjamin, what they deserve, for all the folly that they have wrought in Israel.” One tenth of the men of Israel would be conscripted for the task, chosen by lot. They would arm and provision themselves on behalf of the people with the aim of punishing the men of Gibeah as they deserved. This would certainly be the death penalty in view of their crimes.

Many, however, see this as meaning that the tenth would provision the whole army. But that would be difficult as there was no central store of weapons. Each would expect to provide his own. Nor does it explain “go up against it by lot”, which surely refers to the selection of the tenth. It is questionable whether this phrase is to be equated with ‘asking counsel of God’ in Judges 20:18. They would then rather have said, ‘we will go up after enquiring of Yahweh’. Thus it suggests that they were only going to use one tenth of their forces, chosen by lot.


Verse 11

So all the men of Israel were gathered against the city, knit together as one man.’

“All the men of Israel.” That is all who had gathered. The army was gathered as agreed, and they were all one in their aims. This was probably most unusual for the tribal confederation, and this incident and its result may well have acted to give the confederation a unity that it had previously lacked.


Verse 12-13

Judges 20:12 a

‘And the tribes of Israel sent men through all the tribes of Benjamin.’

The plural for tribes is used indicating sub-tribes (as in Numbers 4:18; 1 Samuel 9:21). The emphasis is on the fact that all heard.

Judges 20:12-13 a (12b-13a)

‘Saying, “What wickedness is this that was done among you? Now, therefore, deliver up the men, the sons of Belial, who are in Gibeah, that we might put them to death and put away evil from Israel.” ’

The first phrase was intended to make them consider the position and was presumably accompanied by the details of the case. The second was a demand that the guilty men be handed over to be put to death.

How insensitive people are. When outsiders seek to impose their will without proper consultation it can only cause resentment within. What they should have done was ensured that the children of Benjamin were included in the deliberations, then things might have turned out differently. But men are naturally arrogant, especially when they think they have the truth, and their anger was aroused. What they wanted was right. It was the way they went about it that was wrong. It is not wise to make important decisions in anger. Many a church has been divided by such heavy-handed tactics.

On the other hand Benjamin was part of the tribal confederation. They should have been present, and they had a responsibility to cooperate in the fulfilling of the covenant which the men of Gibeah had broken. And they knew the consequences of refusal.

“And put away evil from Israel.” Israel was made up of God’s people. It was therefore necessary to remove sin from among them, especially a gross sin like this one. It reflected on all. Both fornication and murder were capital offences under Mosaic law. And to misuse a Levite was sacrilege. Indeed if they did not deal with it rightly they knew that they themselves would come under the judgment of God.

Judges 20:13 b

‘But the children of Benjamin would not listen to the voice of their brothers, the children of Israel.’

The use of the term ‘brothers’ signified their place as members of the tribal confederation. But the Benjaminites, and especially their leaders, were annoyed. This had been done over their heads and was being enforced from outside. Naturally they bridled at the idea. Thus, instead of giving the case a fair examination, they refused to give up the men of Gibeah, who had been guilty of such a great sin.

Both sides were in the wrong, the one for treating the sin lightly because of their pride, the other for their presumption because of their arrogance. But in the eyes of the law the latter were in the right, for God’s law was being ignored and they rightly saw it as a heinous thing. The action of the Levite had brought home to them just how heinous. They felt that if they did not eradicate the sin God might eradicate them. Thus their obstinacy.


Verse 14

And the children of Benjamin gathered themselves together out of the cities, to Gibeah, to go out to battle against the children of Israel.’

Recognising that the next move would be for the tribal confederacy to attack Gibeah, the Benjaminites gathered their fighting men together there in order to fight off any attack. They were determined to protect it and defend it against the other tribes. It was their city and no one else had a right to interfere. But this was not only a breach of the covenant, it an act of civil war.

Of course, had they been more conciliatory and agreed to try the men themselves things would have taken a different turn. But now it was prestige that was at stake, and in order to defend that they were prepared to overlook gross sin. So do men behave in their folly. The case was not well thought out. In the end, although they were powerful fighters, they had no hope against such superior numbers. Perhaps they hoped that the tribal confederation would back down, but they had not counted on the effect on the confederate leaders of receiving a part of a woman’s torso with its consequent realisation of how great the sin had been against God.


Verse 15

And the children of Benjamin were numbered on that day out of the cities, twenty six eleph men who drew sword, besides the inhabitants of Gibeah who were numbered seven hundred chosen men.’

The children of Benjamin were numbered for battle and their numbers came to twenty six military units, compared with the four hundred military units of the tribal confederacy. They also had the men of Gibeah who would fight to the death for their city. There were seven hundred of them and they were ‘chosen men’, powerful fighters. But what were they against so many? (These numbers vary in the Septuagint and the versions between 23 and 25 military units, the latter being also cited by Josephus. But they are all fairly close).


Verse 16

Among all this people there were seven hundred chosen men, left-handed, every one could sling stones at a hair breadth and not miss.’

Each unit would have a number of slingers and in all they numbered seven hundred. They slung left-handed and were deadly accurate (compare 1 Chronicles 12:2 where they were also Benjaminites, but ambidextrous). The sling was composed of a piece of cloth or leather, a cord going from each side. The stone was put in the piece of cloth and the two cords held by the end and whirled round the head. Then one cord was released at the right moment and the stone sped to its target at deadly speed. The Benjaminites had perfected slinging into an art of war. Having men with such expertise may have boosted the confidence of the Benjaminites, and is mentioned to explain their later victories.


Verse 17

And the men of Israel, excluding Benjamin, were numbered four hundred eleph men who drew sword. All these were men of war.’

The opposing tribal confederacy had four hundred fighting units (see Judges 20:2). But as verse 10 may be telling us, they were at first only committing forty. Again they were recognised warriors.


Verse 18

And the children of Israel arose, and went up to Bethel, and sought counsel of God, and they said, “Who should first go up to battle for us against the children of Benjamin?” And the Yahweh said, “Judah shall go up first.”

The forty units moved from Mizpeh to Bethel, a recognised holy place, where the Ark of the Covenant (Judges 20:27) had been brought. Usually it was at Shiloh, in the Tabernacle, but it had been brought to Bethel, probably in preparation for war. (The Tabernacle may have been brought as well, but for fighting it was the Ark that was important.).

Probably it had been brought here because it was the nearest holy place to Gibeah in readiness for the needs of the tribal confederacy during the war. For the Ark was often used to lead into battle (compare Numbers 10:35; Joshua 6:4; Joshua 6:11; 1 Samuel 3:4-7; 1 Samuel 14:18). But it proved not to be efficacious when God was displeased with Israel. It was not intended to be a Talisman but a reminder of the presence of God with them. Thus it was only effective when God was with them.

Bethel was where God had revealed Himself to Jacob/Israel their ancestor (Genesis 28:19-22; Genesis 35:1). And there they sought God’s guidance. They were on a sacred mission and looked to God to guide them. This may have been through the Urim and Thummim or by casting lots (see Joshua 18:8-10), the answer to which would be taken as indicating Yahweh’s will (Proverbs 16:33). This prevented any feeling of resentment with regard to the matter, otherwise each might have argued for the privilege of leading into battle. And the decision was that the units of Judah should lead into battle.

“Sought counsel of God.” Probably a technical, widely used phrase which would explain why it says ‘God’ and not Yahweh.


Verse 19

And the children of Israel rose up in the morning and encamped against Gibeah.’

The forty units of the tribal confederacy, with Judah to the fore, marched to Gibeah and encamped near the city. (Notice that it is ‘the children of Israel’ who go forward, not just the men of Judah. Thus Judah are just the leading units into battle).


Verse 20

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.’

Then at the appropriate time they left their camp and set themselves in battle array ready for action, forty units against twenty six units.


Verse 21

And the children of Benjamin came forth out of Gibeah, and destroyed down to the ground of the Israelites on that day twenty two eleph of men.’

The phrase ‘destroyed down to the ground’ is unusual. They were not necessarily all killed, but many knocked to the ground as though dead. This may have been partly through the slingstones. But they lost in this way twenty two of their units, a shattering defeat.

The question may be asked why they were defeated when they were in a righteous cause. The answer may lie in a similar complaint to that when Joshua failed against Ai. Instead of taking their whole army they had sent only a tenth (Judges 20:10 see Joshua 7:3). They had, like Joshua, been presumptuous and had gone forward confident in their own strength and ability. Others have attributed it to the fact that idolatry was still rife in the land as illustrated in Judges 18. The men of Dan, who had set up their own graven image and established their own priesthood, were in the confederacy. But a third possibility lies in the fact that God does not always give success immediately. Sometimes failure is a test to see whether His people will persevere in what is right even when things go wrong. What He promises is final success, and this they would achieve.


Verse 22

Judges 20:22 a

‘And the people, the men of Israel, made themselves strong.’

This may indicate that they brought up further reinforcements as a result of messengers going back to the main force with an indication of what had happened. It may also indicate that many men who had seemed fatally struck down had not been so, and had been brought back to camp ready for further battle.

Judges 20:22 b

‘And set the battle again in array in the place where they set themselves in array the first day.’

They still considered that their tactics of the first day had been right. So they once again set their forces in array ready for a further battle. But first they wanted confirmation from Yahweh.


Verse 23

Judges 21:23 a

‘And the children of Benjamin did so, and took wives for themselves according to their number, of those who danced, whom they carried off.’

The plan was carried out and worked successfully. The girls were legally kidnapped, each man choosing a wife for himself out of those available. Then they escaped into the territory of the tribe of Benjamin.

Judges 21:23 b

‘And they went and returned to their inheritance, and rebuilt the cities and dwelt in them.’

Benjamin was still their inheritance so that these men had much land to choose between them. They would now be wealthy and leaders of their people.

But some have cavilled at the idea of a strong tribe of Benjamin arising so speedily from so few. However, that is to misunderstand the situation. Refugees who had fled would return in droves, families in which someone had married a Benjaminite women in the past and who lived elsewhere would come to claim their wives’, or mothers’, or grandmothers’ family inheritance, and become Benjaminite in return. Others would see the large tracts of land still available and they too would be willing to be adopted into Benjamin, or claim descent, in return for grants of land, for many records had been destroyed in the destruction that had taken place, and if the men were suitable not too many questions would be asked. Good fighting men would be welcomed and would soon be absorbed into Benjamin. Every man of ambition who had little wealth would see it as a great opportunity. So until the lands and cities were reoccupied people would flood in. And their families would all soon proudly claim their descent from Benjamin.

From the beginning the tribes had always been fluid, especially since the absorption of the mixed multitude under Moses (Exodus 12:38). That process would now go on. Their problem would not be finding sufficient applicants, but deciding between them. An almost ‘empty’ land was a huge attraction.

The weakness of Benjamin for a time might explain why they continually could not expel the Jebusites from Jerusalem, and such a civil war might explain the weakness of Israel in the face of the enemies described in the first part of the book. It may also partially explain why Benjaminites ceased to be so predominantly left-handed (Judges 3:15; Judges 20:16 contrast 1 Chronicles 12:2).


Verse 24

And the children of Israel came near against the children of Benjamin the second day.’

Once again the children of Israel advanced against the Benjaminites. The ‘second day’ may refer to a second day of battle rather than literally the next day following the first day.


Verse 25

And Benjamin went out against them from Gibeah the second day, and destroyed down to the ground of the children of Israel again eighteen eleph men, all these drew the sword.’

How many units went forward we are not told, but eighteen of them were again thoroughly defeated. It is very probable that again it was largely due to the slingers. The children of Israel were swordsmen and could not cope with this weapon that knocked them down to the ground before they had even reached the enemy.

The eighteen eleph felled here, together with the previous twenty two eleph of the first battle, may make up the forty eleph mentioned by Deborah in her song (Judges 5:8). If so the choosing of ‘new gods’, as Dan had done, may well be part of the reason for their two defeats. But they had also still not committed their full forces against their enemy.

Again we are not to think of forty units all killed. The wording is declaring that they were thoroughly defeated, not that all were killed.


Verse 26

Then all the children of Israel and all the people went up, and came to the house of God, and wept and sat there before Yahweh, and fasted that day until evening.’

The second defeat brought them to their senses. The whole army of Israel, together with others who were concerned (the people), went to the central sanctuary at Bethel. And there they wept, and waited before God, and fasted. There would be great searching of heart and it may be that on this day the people repented for their arrogance in only taking a part of their army against the enemy, and for many other sins they were aware of including tendencies towards idolatry.

“And they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before Yahweh.” This confirms their new awareness of their sinfulness and unworthiness They were seeking forgiveness and dedicating themselves wholly to Yahweh. Yahweh was the God of the covenant and they were aware of covenant violations which had to be righted. ‘Burnt offerings’ were the whole offerings which were offered wholly up to God. They were a sign of total dedication. Part of the peace offerings could be eaten by the soldiers once the fat and blood had been offered to Yahweh.


Verse 27

And the children of Israel enquired of Yahweh, for the Ark of the Covenant was there in those days.’

This confirms that at this time for some reason the Ark was at Bethel, and probably the Tabernacle, although it was mostly at this time at Shiloh (Joshua 18:1; Joshua 18:8-10; Joshua 19:51; Judges 18:31; 1 Samuel 1:3; 1 Samuel 1:24; 1 Samuel 2:14; 1 Samuel 3:21; 1 Samuel 4:3-4; 1 Samuel 14:3). (Although ‘Beth-el’ can translate as ‘the house of God (or El)’ it was not the usual expression for ‘the house of God’ when spoken of as such, which was Beth ha-elohim - Genesis 28:17; Judges 18:31; 1 Chronicles 6:48 (33); 1 Chronicles 9:11 etc. Beth-el naturally means Bethel).

There they ‘enquired of Yahweh’, again through the Urim and Thummim or by lot. The mention of the Ark of the Covenant, in which were the ten commandments against which the men of Gibeah were judged, stresses the fact that they saw their activity as very much involved with the covenant.


Verse 28

Judges 20:28 a

‘(And Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, stood before it in those days).’

Assuming this to be the Phinehas, son of Eleazar mentioned in Numbers 25:7; Joshua 24:33, who was known as a young man to Moses, and whose father died not long after Joshua (Joshua 24:33) this incident took place within forty or fifty years of the death of Moses and therefore very early in the Judges period before most of the incidents in Judges. But it may have been a later Phinehas, ‘son of’ meaning ‘descendant of’. It was clearly a priestly family name (compare 1 Samuel 2:34).

“Stood before it.” That is, before the Ark when ministering in the Holy Place. To ‘stand before the Ark’ may well have been a technical phrase referring to the current Priest. But it may also refer to his posture when using the Urim and the Thummim.

Judges 20:28 b

‘Saying, shall I yet again go out to battle against the children of Benjamin my brother, or shall I cease?’

The question not only reflects their concern about their defeat, but also their concern about whether they should be fighting against this wayward member of the tribal confederacy. It was probably put in two parts. ‘Should we go up?’ and ‘Will You deliver them into our hand.’ It is possible that the Urim and Thummim could only give the answers ‘yes’ (compare 1 Samuel 23:9-12) or ‘no reply’ (1 Samuel 28:6). No example of a ‘no’ reply is known. Alternatively it has been suggested that each had a yes side and a no side. When tossed down, two yeses meant yes, two noes meant no and a yes and a no meant no reply.

Judges 20:28 c

‘And Yahweh said, ‘Go up, for tomorrow I will deliver him into your hand.’

These were the answers of the Urim and the Thummim. God not only told them to go forward, but also promised victory on the morrow.


Verse 29

And Israel set liers in wait round about Gibeah.’

There was now a change of tactics. Their previous tactics had not worked, probably because of the slingers. Now they decided that they must draw the children of Benjamin out of the city allowing the liers in wait to come in from behind and capture the city. These may well have been put in place at night. The tactics followed those of Joshua at Ai (Joshua 8). They had probably been reminded of them on recognising that their behaviour had been similar to Israel’s then, with the same arrogance, a similar need to deal with sin, and now the promise of final victory.

But the use of ‘Israel’ and not ‘the children of Israel’ as the subject of an active verb is rare in Judges (see Introduction). Thus it may indicate that the writer did not approve of the tactics so that they were not seen as covenant behaviour. Possibly he considered that it lacked faith in the promise of Yahweh.


Verse 30

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.’

This was the third day of battle not the third day in succession. (Alternatively it might be seen as the third day following the previous battle). There were three memorable days of battle. This was the third of them. The number three is the number of completeness and this indicated to them that God’s perfect plan was coming to completion.

“And set themselves in array against Gibeah, as at other times.” They appeared to be following the same plan as previously. But this time with their full force (Judges 20:26). The children of Benjamin no doubt thought that their luck was in. These foolish children of Israel would never learn. While the numbers of their opponents had considerably increased (although they may not have been aware of this. Not all the units were openly deployed. See Judges 20:33), they could not all advance together, and they were probably confident that their slingers would again cause havoc.


Verse 31

And the children of Benjamin went out against the people, and were drawn away from the city. And they began to smite and to kill some of the people as at other times, in the high ways, of which one goes up to Bethel and the other to Gibeah, in the country, about thirty men of Israel.’

The children of Israel went into retreat drawing the Benjaminites after them into the highways in the open country going towards Bethel. The Benjaminites, exulting in this further success, followed them leaving Gibeah relatively undefended. And they killed thirty men of Israel. But this time the rapid retreat had prevented maximum use of the slingers.

“Thirty men.” A round number signifying the complete number of the killed with an indication that it was not too many. This puts the previous figures in context. We have not previously been told the number of actual deaths, only the number of units disabled and crushed, but going by this it was seemingly not huge. And the Benjaminites saw this as similar to the previous actions, ‘as at first’.

“Gibeah in the country” may possibly identify another Gibeah, which would signify that the children of Israel divided their forces (and thus the enemy), or the description may be of the main highway (going between Bethel and Jerusalem) and the highway that led off towards Gibeah.


Verse 32

And the children of Benjamin said, “They are smitten down before us, as at first.” ’

This was their view of the position. They were overconfident and became careless, forgetting that their previous victories had been due to the slingers and the massed ranks of their enemies coming towards them.

Judges 20:32 b

‘But the children of Israel said, “Let us flee, and draw them from the city into the highways.” ’

This was the strategy of the children of Israel, to draw the Benjaminites away from the city by pretending to be afraid of them and not able to face them. So they fled along the highways which enabled them to move at speed without becoming too disorganised, followed by the hotly pursuing Benjaminites.


Verse 33

Judges 20:33 a

‘And all the men of Israel rose up out of their place, and put themselves in array at Baaltamar.’

These men who ‘rose up out of their place’ were probably a large force lying in ambush. As the fleeing Israelites came towards them, followed by the exultant Benjaminites, they rose up and drew up in battle formation at Baaltamar, a place on the route. (Tamar means ‘palm tree’). Possibly it was a grove of palm trees where Baal worship had been prominent.

Judges 20:33 b

‘And the liers in wait of Israel broke out from their place, even from Maareh-geba (‘the meadow of Gibeah’ - see Judges 20:10 for Gibeah as Geba).’

Totally unknown to the Benjaminites a hidden force began to advance on Gibeah from the rear. The writer is building up the picture of the battle as it progressed.


Verse 34

Judges 20:34 a

‘And there came over against Gibeah ten eleph chosen men out of all Israel.’

These ten units may have been the liers in wait, or they may have been the forces in ambush that suddenly appeared in front of the horrified Benjaminites, joining forces with the fleeing children of Israel. Or they may have been a third force which had been waiting for this moment. (As often with descriptions, ‘over against’ is rather vague although no doubt clear to the writer).

Thus we may read ‘All the men of Israel rose up out of their place --- the liers in wait of Israel broke forth --- and there came over against Gibeah ten units of chosen men’, seeing three aspects of the strategy.

Judges 20:34 b

‘And the battle was sore, but they knew not that evil was close on them.’

The new strategy had rendered the slingers relatively ineffective for they worked best against massed troops before battle was actually joined, not against rapidly moving fleeing targets, and the retreat had probably disorganised them. The cutting down of fleeing troops was not work for slingers, and the Benjaminites had not been expecting the extra reinforcements.

So now their swordsmen and spearmen found themselves sorely pressed (the slingers may even have joined in the ‘victorious’ chase as swordsmen). And they were unaware that worse was to come. They did not know about the liers in wait, and the ten units.


Verse 35

And Yahweh smote Benjamin before Israel, and the children of Israel destroyed of Benjamin that day twenty five eleph and one hundred men. All these drew the sword.’

Twenty five out of twenty six Benjaminite units were destroyed. One unit had probably remained to protect Gibeah. The ‘hundred’ men were probably specifically a unit of the men of Gibeah (see Judges 20:15).

The mention of the one hundred confirms that we must look at the numbers carefully. It would hardly be true that they were able to count all the dead or that they should come to such an odd number if they did, a round number and yet not a round number (compare the ‘fifty eleph and seventy’, a similar odd round number, slain at Bethshemesh for looking into the Ark. The size of Bethshemesh forbids taking eleph as a thousand, as does the odd round number. It probably meant there fifty captains (or family heads) and seventy other men).

But the destruction of twenty five units was easily assessable and the number of men from Gibeah was counted to ensure that they had all been dealt with (a hundred having been sent, the remainder being in the unit left to defend Gibeah).

“All these drew the sword”, that is, were fighting men.


Verse 36

Judges 20:36 a

‘So the children of Benjamin saw that they were smitten.’

A summary of the situation. Benjamin now became aware that their end was near. It conveyed to the listeners, who were hearing the account read, the turning point in the battle. This will now be followed by a further description of the action from a slightly different perspective, including more detailed description of other parts of the action.

Judges 20:36 b

‘For the men of Israel gave place to Benjamin, because they trusted to the liers in wait whom they had set against Gibeah.’

This was part of the explanation for the pretended flight. It also nullified the slingers and drew the Benjaminites into an ambush. But this was introductory to the actions of the liers in wait and therefore concentrated on their part.


Verse 37

And the liers in wait acted speedily, and rushed on Gibeah, and the liers in wait drew (or ‘extended’) themselves along and smote all the city with the edge of the sword.’

“Drew themselves along” may describe some tactic used. It may mean extended themselves along so as to attack over a wide range. This would make it more difficult for slingers. Or it may refer to what they did on entering the city, spreading out to slay all the inhabitants they could find. Whatever it was their tactics were successful.

The weakly defended city, with only one fighting unit available, was unable to stem the onset and succumbed, and all were put to the sword for they were seen as sharing the guilt of Gibeah. They were subject to The Ban, total extermination, for working folly in Israel, as with Achan and his family (Joshua 7:15).


Verse 38

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.’

The smoke would alert their fellow soldiers that the city had been taken and would bring alarm and despondency to the enemy. For the Benjaminites, if Gibeah was taken, the enemy were behind them, and they had nowhere to retreat, and their whole reason for fighting had gone.


Verse 39

And the men of Israel retired (‘turned’) in the battle, and Benjamin began to smite and to kill of the men of Israel about thirty men, for they said, ‘surely they are smitten down before us as in the first battle’.’ Compare Judges 20:31. That working out of the strategy is repeated again here together with its consequence. This time the children of Israel only lost thirty men. But it encouraged the Benjaminites who had got used to victory and had grown careless. Repetition like this was common in ancient writings, which had listeners in mind.


Verse 40

But when the cloud began to rise up out of the city in a pillar of smoke, the Benjaminites looked behind them, and behold the whole of the city went up in smoke to heaven.’

A huge pillar of smoke ascended from the city and one of their number first noticed it and yelled, and others then turned and saw it, and soon the word spread until all saw it. They knew exactly what it meant. What they were fighting for had been destroyed, and they had nowhere to go back to, only avenging forces whose number they did not know. Nothing produces more panic than uncertainty.

“The whole of the city went up in smoke.” It was like a ‘whole’ burnt offering to the God of the covenant (see Deuteronomy 13:12-16).


Verse 41

And the men of Israel turned back again, and the men of Benjamin were aghast for they saw that evil had come on them.’

Their city destroyed behind them in an appalling way by a force of unknown strength, the sudden resolute turning of what they had thought was a defeated army, and the appearance of extra troops (Judges 20:33) could only cause them to panic, and seeming victory was turned into defeat.


Verse 42

Judges 20:42 a ‘Therefore they turned their backs before the men of Israel, into the way of the wilderness, but the battle followed hard after them.’

The Benjaminites saw no alternative but to flee for their lives into the rough country, for the highways would just lead them into enemy forces, but it did them no good for their pursuers were relentless. They chased them hard and slew them one by one.

Judges 20:42 b ‘And those who came out of the cities they destroyed them in its midst.’

This may refer to the other Israelite forces coming out of Gibeah, and who, having captured other ‘cities’ as well, now attacked the fleeing Benjaminites, or it may refer to other Israelites who left their cities to join in the fight, or it may refer to remnants of Benjaminites (most had been with the main force) who came from their cities to join in and were destroyed in the midst of the wilderness. For all Benjamin knew that, having rebelled against the tribal covenant and the tribal federation in defence of those specifically sentenced to death by the confederacy, they were liable to The Ban. They could expect no mercy. They were brothers who had betrayed the brotherhood, and feelings were running high.


Verse 43

They enclosed the Benjaminites round about, and pursued them, and overtook (‘or ‘trod down’) them at their resting place as far as over against Gibeah towards the sunrising.’

This describes a typical pursuit in such a situation. The Benjaminites were surrounded on all sides, for the confederation dwelt in lands all round, and men would come from all sides to wreak vengeance on Benjamin. Pursuit was so fierce that as soon as Benjaminites stopped exhausted for a rest they would be overtaken and trodden down, that is, slaughtered. As far as they fled to the east so were they pursued. But some would inevitably slip through the net and disappear, hiding in the mountains or wandering disguised through confederate lands as travellers.


Verse 44

And there fell of Benjamin eighteen eleph men. All these were men of valour.’

Eighteen military units were destroyed in the initial battle and pursuit, the same number as they themselves had destroyed in the second battle. And all brave fighting men. This latter was probably a boast of the writer as he considered the glorious victory. It was not just nobodies that they had defeated, as was evident by the fact that twice they had defeated armies larger than their own.


Verse 45

Judges 20:45 a

‘And they turned and fled toward the wilderness towards the rock of Rimmon.’

This would be a rocky cliff with caves, possibly modern Rammon, eight miles east of Bethel. They knew that if they reached that rocky fortress they would be able to hide and defend themselves against any who tried to encroach. Rimmon means ‘pomegranate’. Perhaps that was what it looked like.

Judges 20:45 b

‘And they gleaned of them in the highways five eleph men, and pursued hard after them to Gidom, and smote two eleph men of them.’

The picture is dreadful, but vivid. One by one the men of Benjamin were picked off as they used the highways to try to reach Rimmon, a whole five units of men. The gleanings were the bits that were left over when the harvest was reaped, to be picked up a little at a time, and they were the gleanings.

“And pursued hard after them to Gidom, and smote two eleph men of them.” Two units managed to reach Gidom, but there they had to make a stand and were defeated. The name means ‘a cutting down, a breaking in pieces’.


Verse 46

So that all who fell that day of Benjamin were twenty five eleph men that drew the sword. All these were men of valour.’

Compare Judges 20:35. Twenty five of the twenty six military units were destroyed in battle and pursuit. The remaining unit was presumably destroyed defending Gibeah, or possibly in the previous battles.

The twenty five eleph is made up of eighteen eleph destroyed in the battle and the initial flight, the five eleph who were gleaned in the highways and the two eleph destroyed at Gidom. The remaining unit and the seven hundred men from Gibeah were destroyed in the first two battles or the defence of Gibeah, or were partly among the six hundred who reached Rimmon. None of the figures are literally exact, they are all round numbers intended to indicate scale rather than exact quantity. And if eleph means military unit or clan or family this is even more sure.


Verse 47

But six hundred men turned and fled towards the wilderness, to the Rock of Rimmon, and they lived in the Rock of Rimmon for four months.’

Of the army that started out only six hundred identifiable men remained, although we can be sure that here and there stragglers escaped and found refuge somewhere. There are almost always some who escape even the worst massacres, to later describe what happened. The Rock of Rimmon was clearly inaccessible except individually and thus could easily be defended by a small force while they had supplies. The confederacy knew that they were there but could seemingly do little about it.


Verse 48

And the men of Israel turned again on 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 that they found they burned with fire.’

Now began that most dreadful of events, the carrying out of The Ban. This was partly based on Deuteronomy 8:19-20 (compare Joshua 23:15) although there it was God Who would bring it about. It was what God had declared on the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 7:2; Deuteronomy 20:16-18), and these Benjaminites turned Canaanite were seen as deserving it too. Everything was to be destroyed, every living Benjaminite exterminated. They had wrought folly in Israel.

From city to city they went, killing with their swords every living person, old men, women and children, and then destroying all domestic beasts and every possession. The cities were burned to the ground. Nothing was to be left. Seemingly it took about four months (Judges 20:47). This was the punishment for betrayal of the covenant and rejection of the authority of the tribal confederacy to which by oath they belonged (compare Judges 21:8-10). It was an object lesson to all the members of the confederacy as to what would happen to them if they betrayed their brothers. And the six hundred men were cooped up in the Rock of Rimmon knowing what was happening to their wives and children. But in the end this was the consequence of the behaviour of the men of Gibeah and the unwillingness of God’s people in Benjamin to do anything about it.

What lessons do we learn from this passage of Scripture?

Firstly, that God is holy and requires full payment for sin. The men of Gibeah had committed crimes which required the death penalty, for there were no reliable prisons where they could be given life imprisonment. It was necessary that those penalties be exacted.

Secondly that breach of a covenant with God is a serious matter. God will act to preserve its integrity. If we treat sin lightly then we must expect God’s judgment, whether now or delayed. It was not God Who chose the manner of punishment. This was decided by man on the basis of custom. But they had God’s general support because their aims were in the right.

Thirdly that if we are faithless in our behaviour we cannot expect God to act on our behalf. God is not mocked.

Fourthly that if we repent of our sins then He will forgive us and begin to act for us.

With regard to the final consequences (which no one today would try to exact) we must remember the world in which these people lived. The covenant was the basis of their security. It was also in their eyes the guarantee of the graciousness of their God towards them. The whole safety of their families and the nation depended on everyone being faithful to their commitment to it. If one member failed it could bring disaster on all. Thus the penalty for such unfaithfulness was total.

And they all accepted the fact, otherwise no one would be able to rely on a covenant. And then they would be on their own in a very hostile world. And in this case the Benjaminites had not only failed to maintain the covenant, they had actually fought others who had tried to preserve it. They were doubly guilty.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Judges 20:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/judges-20.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, October 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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