In this essay we conclude our study of the book of Judges. To begin, I would like to make some preliminary remarks on the date of the events in these chapters. The evidence is mixed. For example, scholars point out that chapter 20, verse one, says that the Israelites came out to fight “from Dan to Beer-sheba,” which implies that the events took place after the migration of the Danites to the north. But chapter 20, verses 26-28, tell us that Israel wept before the ark of the covenant at Bethel, where “Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, ministered . . .” Phinehas was a contemporary of Joshua, so that would suggest that these events took place shortly after the death of Joshua and before the events of chapters 17 and 18. There is no way to establish which implication is correct. Therefore for our purposes, we will leave the matter as an open question.
In 19:1-4 we are introduced to a Levite who took a concubine. But she was unfaithful to him, and then she left him to return to her father’s house. He decided to go there to sweet talk her back, which he succeeded in doing.
As we read on in verses 5-9, the woman’s father sought to keep them there by friendly persuasion; and he succeeded for a few days. But on the fifth day, the Levite insisted on leaving (v. 10). As they passed by Jebus, the forerunner of Jerusalem, which at that time was occupied by Jebusites, the Levite’s servant suggested that they seek hospitality there; but the Levite refused. He wanted to go on to an Israelite town (vv. 11-12). So they came to the Benjaminite town of Gibeah; but no one offered him hospitality (v. 15). Finally, in verses 16-21, an old man who was living in Gibeah, but who was not a Benjaminite, took them in for the night.
In verses 22-30 we see a gruesome story. You will immediately recognize some similarities between this narrative and the story about Lot in the city of Sodom in Gen. 19:1-11. Certain perverse men of the city came to the host’s house and demanded that his guests be given to them for sexual purposes. He refused, offering instead his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine. The men refused that offer; but when the host and the Levite put the concubine outside, they decided to settle for her; and they abused her all night long. She fell dead on the threshold at dawn.
The Levite took her dead body home; and then he cut it into twelve pieces. Next, he sent one piece to each of the twelve tribes of Israel with a message of outrage at what had been done. This was a well-known symbolic act. It placed the crime before the eyes of the entire nation, and summoned them to punish the crime. Saul later did a very similar thing with an ox, as recorded in 1 Sam. 11:7.
The Levite’s action received an overwhelming response. In chapter 20 we are told that all of the tribes, even those on the eastern side of the Jordan, gathered at Mizpah, 400,000 armed men altogether, to deal with the issue, verses 1-2. Mizpah is located on the northern border of what later was the kingdom of Judah. It was west of Jericho, and somewhat northwest of Jerusalem. Bethel is a few miles to the north of it, and Gibeah is a few miles to the south. The tribes of Israel reviewed the situation, and decided not to rest until the crime had been punished. Then they decided to choose 10 percent of their force by lot for the purpose of providing provisions for the rest of the army (vv. 3-11).
Next, in verses 12-17, we see an incredible blunder on the part of the tribe of Benjamin. The massed army of Israel sent messengers throughout Benjamin asking them to turn over the Gibeanites for punishment. But the Benjaminites, who apparently were feeling their oats, refused to do it, taking the side of the Gibeanites instead. The Benjaminites raised an army of 26,000 in addition to 700 left-handed sling specialists who could sling a stone at a hair and not miss.
I must insert here something I learned on a trip to Israel. The reference to 700 men who could hit a hair with a sling stone was significant. Those men were serious warriors. When I was in Israel, I saw a display of sling stones at the National Museum. They were quite round and the size of baseballs. That really made the account of David and Goliath and this story come alive for me. I could finally understand how David killed Goliath with a single stone. This passage confirms that. I have since learned that these skilled sling men, and David was one, could hurl stones up to a pound in weight with uncanny accuracy at upwards of 90 mph. They were a serious threat in battle.
But in this situation, even with 700 sling specialists, the Benjaminites were greatly outnumbered. According to the account they numbered 26,700 against 400,000. That is not the best of odds. However one has to be wary of the numbers in this story. The numbers throughout the account are confusing and do not add up no matter what one does with them. First, the text can be read that there were 700 Gibeanites in addition to the 700 sling specialists. Then verse 35 says 25,100 were killed, whereas the numbers given in verses 44-46 add up to 25,000. And then verse 47 says that 600 survived. There is no way to make all of those figures harmonize. It is easy enough to suppose that the 25,000 killed number in verse 46 was a round number and the 25,100 total of verse 35 was a specific number. But there still are numerical problems that cannot be resolved.
Before opening the campaign, the Israelites went to Bethel to consult the Lord about which tribe should take the lead at the beginning of the war (v. 18). Verses 26-28 tell us that the Ark of the Covenant was at Bethel, and that Phinehas was ministering before it there. The Lord told Israel, through Phinehas, that the tribe of Judah should lead.
The next day the forces of Israel attacked Gibeah. But for whatever reason, despite their great numerical advantage, they suffered a terrible defeat. It may have been that they were overconfident because of their vastly superior numbers. The fact that they were on the Benjaminites’ home turf may have been a factor. The Benjaminites would have been more familiar with the lay of the land. Moreover, the specific location of the battle may have not been suitable for the effective use of superior numbers. In any case, Israel lost 22,000 men early in the day and withdrew to Bethel to weep before the Lord, from whom they received instructions to attack again, which they did the next day (vv. 19-23).
But the second day’s engagement went just as badly for Israel. They suffered a second humiliating defeat, this time losing 18,000 men early in the day. Thus they went back to Bethel with deep humility, to implore before the Lord again. This time they added to their tears fasting and the offering of sacrifices. When they inquired of the Lord, he told them to attack a third time, but this time he gave them an assurance of victory (vv. 24-28).
The next day Israel attacked, but this time they used different tactics. The story is in verses 29-48. As Israel began the attack, they gave the appearance of fighting the same way as on the first two days (v. 30). But they had 10,000 specially chosen men lying in ambush near Gibeah (v. 34). And when the Benjaminites came out to fight, the Israelites fell back as though they were fleeing (v. 31).
This drew the Benjaminites away from the city. That gave the ambush force the space needed to attack the city (vv. 33-34). They quickly “put the whole city to the sword” and set it on fire (v. 37). When the main force saw the smoke rising from the city, they stopped retreating and turned on the Benjaminites. The Benjaminites also saw the smoke, and that appears to have taken the fight out of them (v. 40-41). They were slaughtered by the Israelites. Only 600 survived (v. 44-47). Following that, Israel attacked the other towns of Benjamin (v. 48).
The last chapter, chapter 21, is an account of the preservation of the Benjaminites as a tribe in Israel. The Benjaminite tribe was nearly wiped out in the war; and the other tribes began to mourn, because they did not want to have Israel as a nation reduced by a tribe. But there was a problem to be solved, because as the tribes had prepared for war with Benjamin, they had sworn never to give any of their daughters in marriage to Benjamin (v. 1).
However a partial solution presented itself when the assembly began to deal with one group in Israel that had not answered the call to arms against Benjamin. All the tribes had sworn an oath, on penalty of death for non-compliance, to support the war against Benjamin (v. 5). Now that the war was over, it was discovered that no one had come from the city of Jabesh-gilead (vv. 8-9). That city was located just across the Jordan about 20 miles north of the Jabbok River. The transgression of not sending troops had to be punished, so 12,000 men were sent to Jabesh-gilead to kill the inhabitants (vv. 10-11), which they did. Everyone was killed except 400 young virgins (v. 12).
Those virgins then became part of the solution to the problem of the surviving Benjaminites. The rest of Israel made peace with the remaining 600 Benjaminites and gave them the 400 virgins from Jabesh-gilead as wives so that they could re-populate their tribe (vv. 13-14). But since the Benjaminites needed more wives than the 400 virgins, Israel resorted to a kind of subterfuge. They still would not give the Benjaminites any of their daughters in marriage because of their vow. But they told the Benjaminites they would look the other way if the Benjaminites came and stole some of their daughters (vv. 15-22). And that is what happened (v. 23). Then the Israelites returned to their homes (v. 24).
The chapter, and thus the book, ends with an appropriate refrain: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”