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Commentary on The Book of Judges 7.

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

The Levite and His Concubine and the Decimation of the Tribe of Benjamin (19-21).

Judges 19. The Levite and His Concubine.

This chapter describes the sad story of a Levite and his concubine, and of the evil consequences which followed from it.. It describes how she played the whore, and went away from him to her father's house. And the consequence was that he followed her. And there he was welcomed and hospitably entertained by her father for several days. After this he set out on his journey, with his concubine, back to his own area. He passed by Jebus (Jerusalem), and came to Gibeah, where he thought that he would be properly treated. But he could get no lodging, until at length was taken in by an old man, an Ephraimite.

However, the house where he was enjoying hospitality was beset by some evil men in Gibeah, who had the same intent as the men of Sodom when they beset the house of Lot (Genesis 19.1-11). And after some argument between the old man and them, as a desperate measure, the concubine was brought out to them. But she was abused by them until she died. On this the Levite her husband decided to cut her body into twelve pieces, and he then sent the pieces into all the borders of Israel, as a shocking message to Israel of what had been done in their midst.

Why should such a story have been included in the sacred record?

  • The first reason was because it demonstrated how far the people of Israel had fallen from what they once were. It showed how they had been contaminated by the former inhabitants of the land, with their sexually perverted ways. As a consequence they no longer obeyed the commandments in the covenant, especially ‘you shall not commit adultery’ and ‘you shall not kill’.
  • Secondly it demonstrated that the leadership of Israel were failing, and that their attitudes of heart were wrong, because every man did what was right in his own eyes (17.6; 21.25). It showed that the tribes were not as tightly bound in the covenant as they should have been. However, this incident greatly contributed to the cementing of that unity.
  • Thirdly it demonstrated that when the right occasion came along the tribes did act together as Yahweh had intended.
  • And fourthly it stressed the sanctity of Levites. We note that the man’s name is never mentioned, and that was probably because in a sense he represented all Levites. It demonstrated that they were holy and not to be treated lightly.

19.1a ‘And it came to pass in those days, when there was no king in Israel.’

The idea is that there was no central authority to ensure the administration of justice, and the Kingship of Yahweh was being ignored. Thus there is reference to the fact that they no longer saw God as their king, and by failing to do so had reached this parlous position. It would appear that no strong central figures had replaced Joshua. So they looked to no one, and expected judgment from no one, especially God.

The system arranged by God had failed because of the slackness of the people of Israel and their failure to fully augment it. People were free to behave as they wished, in general only observing their local customs, and only accountable for their behaviour locally. This meant that someone from outside often had relatively little protection. So sins such as adultery, sodomy, murder, and so on were committed with impunity against them.

It is true that there was a central sanctuary which acted as a unifying force for the tribes, and that there were those at the central sanctuary who could theoretically be appealed to, but they clearly had little influence in practise. They were dependent on the support of the tribes. And the tribal unity was spasmodic, and often casual, as the book of Judges has demonstrated. This was by no means the central living force that God had intended.

19.1b ‘That there was a certain Levite sojourning on the farther side of the hill country of Ephraim.’

This Levite lived in a city that was on the side of those mountains of Ephraim furthest from Bethlehem-judah. As all Levites were, he was a ‘sojourner’, one who lived there but was not looked on as of permanent residence, because his portion was in Yahweh. Thus he was to be treated differently under the law (Deuteronomy 12.19; 14.27). There were also special laws protecting sojourners, and they applied to Levites as well, but they were often set aside in local situations when there was no central authority to exact them. Perhaps he chose to reside there as being near to the tabernacle of Shiloh, which was in that tribal area.

The Levites were spread throughout the tribes of Israel. Originally their responsibility had been the maintenance and protection of the Tabernacle, a responsibility they no doubt still fulfilled, and they were entitled to be maintained by tithes from the people (Numbers 18.21) which it was their responsibility to gather. The gathering and policing of tithes was itself a huge operation and the Levites no doubt worked with the priests in this, and had their part in ensuring that religious and sacrificial requirements generally were fulfilled. Certain cities had been set apart for them to live in (Numbers 35; Joshua 21), but they were not necessarily required to live there, and if tithes were not forthcoming they would need to find methods of survival. They enjoyed special protection under the law (Deuteronomy 12.19; 14.27-29). So this man should have enjoyed double protection both as a Levite and a sojourner.

The Levites were also special in another way. As a result of the deliverance of the firstborn in Egypt the firstborn were seen as Yahweh’s. But the Levites took on this responsibility instead of the firstborn so that the firstborn were no longer bound. Thus they were owed a debt of gratitude by all Israelites for they stood in the place of their firstborn sons (Numbers 8.10, 16-19), and they were holy to Yahweh.

‘A concubine.’ A secondary wife, usually a slave, taken without the payment of a dowry. She did not enjoy the full privileges of a full wife, but was clearly seen here as a genuine wife under the law. The man is called her husband and her father is called his ‘father-in-law’. She may well have been his only wife. But she was of a different class, for had she not been she would have been a full wife. Or it may be that she was a Canaanite. This would explain her ‘whoredom’, which to her would simply be the fulfilling of the requirements of her religion. And it would indicate that the Levite had blatantly disobeyed God.

‘Out of Bethlehem-judah.’ This was the same area as that from which the wicked Levite, spoken of in the preceding chapters (17.8), came, who was the means of spreading ‘idolatry’ in Israel, something which tended to go along with sexual misbehaviour in prostitution and homosexual activity. It is apparent that the people had come to look to the Levites in religious matters, for, as mentioned above, it was partly for this that they were spread among the tribes. And Levites were therefore often required, and willing, to act beyond their position. The behaviour of that particular Levite, acting as a priest, had led to the lowering of morals in the area and there may be the hint that Bethlehem-judah was tainted with idolatry. Certainly this woman was eventually to be the cause of a great shedding of blood in Israel, and almost of the destruction of the tribe of Benjamin.

These two instances may be seen as reflecting dishonour and disgrace on Bethlehem-judah. Yet from here would come such men as Boaz, Jesse, David, and eventually the Messiah Himself. The woman the Levite took is called in the Hebrew "a woman, a concubine".

19.2a ‘And his concubine played the harlot against him.’

That is, she was unfaithful to him (compare Deuteronomy Genesis 38.24; 22.21; Hosea 2.5 etc). This may well have been connected with her religious ideas and she may have offered herself as a cult prostitute to Baal. But whatever it was she broke the covenant and agreement between them by unfaithfulness. In those days a woman would often be cast off and sent back to her family home in disgrace for such behaviour.

Some see it as simply referring to her desertion of him, as the versions (translations) suggest, translating, ‘because she was angry with him’. But this is unlikely, as the story may be seen as, among other things, a hint that her end was related to her beginning, and ‘play the harlot’ was a regular phrase for infidelity. Indeed to ‘play the harlot’ was a regular prophetic picture of those whose following after Baal and after idolatry brought them into extreme sexual misbehaviour (Hosea 4.15; Jeremiah 3.1, 8; Ezekiel 16.41; 23.44). The emendation probably arose because the translators could not believe that if she were an adulteress she had been allowed to live.

That the Levite did not demand that she face the penalty of the law may demonstrate that there had been a slackening of obedience to the law and to the covenant, although it may be that he loved her deeply and was willing, somewhat reluctantly, to forgive her. It would have been up to him to charge her. That she was very desirable comes out later in that the would be sodomites forgot their plans when they saw her.

But the Levite did not forget what she had done, and his behaviour in later letting the men have their way with her, and then assuming that she would cope with it, suggests something of this background. It fashioned his view of her. Had he seen her as a godly, good living woman he might have behaved differently.

19.2b ‘And went away from him to her father's house to Bethlehem-judah, and was there the space of four months.’

The Levite’s wife left him and returned to her parental home. There she was clearly received, in spite of the fact that she had broken a contractual relationship. Strictly some attempt should have been made to restore her to her husband, but they may have feared that she might be put to death for what she had done, and if she had become a cult prostitute they may have felt that her Levite husband would not want her back.

‘And was there the space of four months.’ Time enough for some action to have been taken if she were to be sent back.

19.3a ‘And her husband arose, and went after her to speak to her heart, to bring her again, having his servant with him, and a couple of asses.’

Her husband went after her, and thus it was not the husband who was directly responsible for her leaving. He wanted her back. Perhaps he was finding living on his own a little tedious, and wanted someone to look after the household. He certainly took his time over following her, but this may have been because he did not know where she had gone and was waiting to hear from her father. Perhaps it was such a message that sent him on his errand.

‘To speak to her heart’ This suggests that he loved her and wanted to convince her that he was willing to forgive her, so that she would return and be his wife. But the phrase strictly may only mean that he wanted to remind her that she was contracted to him.

‘To bring her again.’ To restore her to his own house and bed, as before.

‘Having his servant with him, and a couple of asses.’ One of the asses would be for her (or him) to ride on, and the other to carry provisions. He was clearly not a poor man. But it seems he was not fulfilling his Levitical responsibilities, or alternatively that the tithes were not being supplied as they should have been, leaving him and other Levites to have to find a living some other way.

19.3b ‘And she brought him into her father's house, and when the father of the damsel saw him, he rejoiced to meet him.’

When she saw him she received him. It may be that she met him at the door, or that they providentially met while he was approaching the house. But at least she did not turn him away, although that may be because she knew her contractual obligations and was aware that her father would wish to see him.

‘And when the father of the damsel saw him, he rejoiced to meet him.’ Whatever his inward feelings the father put on a show of rejoicing. Perhaps he was pleased, hoping it would save his daughter from disgrace. He must have recognised that his daughter was at fault, and perhaps he hoped that the Levite would rescue his daughter from the consequences of her wild behaviour

19.4 ‘And his father in law, the damsel's father, retained him, and he abode with him three days. So they did eat and drink, and lodged there ’

The welcome was a clear sign of friendship and willingness to maintain the contract. He prevailed on him to stay with him for some time.

‘And he abode with him three days.’ Three days (a complete period, for three is the number of completeness) was probably the length of time required for such a welcome if it was to indicate genuine acceptance, and for the Levite to also indicate friendship. Things like this were never done in a hurry. (‘Three days’ could mean he stayed the night, accepted one day’s hospitality as a gesture of friendship and was ready to go on the third day).

‘So they did eat and drink, and lodged there.’ That is the Levite and his servant. They were very hospitably entertained, and had everything provided for them for their convenience.

19.5a ‘And it happened on the fourth day that they arose early in the morning, and he rose up to depart.’

The necessary time for fulfilling all the formalities had now passed. Seemingly it was agreed that his wife should return with him. There was nothing to keep them further.

‘That they arose early in the morning, and he rose up to depart.’ They had a long journey ahead, so the Levite and his servant rose early to make final preparations for the journey. Then when the time came he stood up ready to depart.

19.5b ‘And the damsel's father said to his son in law, “Comfort your heart with a morsel of bread, and afterwards you shall go your way.” ’

‘Comfort your heart with a morsel of bread.’ This was not intended literally. The father was using delaying tactics. He intended him to settle down for a good meal. The meal clearly took some time. Thus the father hoped that the delay might cause the Levite to delay his departure. It may have been because he was genuinely pleased to have their company, or it may have been because he knew that his daughter was not too keen on setting out. But he was clearly reluctant to see them go. It may be that he hoped that the atmosphere in the home might re-cement the relationship between man and wife.

19.6-7. ‘So they sat down, and did eat and drink, both of them together. And the damsel's father said to the man, “Be content, I pray you, and stay all night, and let your heart be merry.” ’ And the man rose up to depart. But his father-in-law urged him and he lodged there again ’

There was no friction between them. Both were satisfied with the situation, although possibly the Levite was wishing he could go on his way with his wife. But courtesy demanded that he not be seen to be in a hurry to leave.

‘And the damsel's father said to the man, “Be content, I pray you, and stay all night, and let your heart be merry.” And the man rose up to depart.’ During the meal his father-in-law pressed him to stay a further night, to enjoy further feasting, but the Levite did not want to delay his journey any longer and made as if to depart.

‘But his father in law urged him.’ There was great entreaty, and firm pleas, that he would stay a further night.

‘And he lodged there again.’ So he stayed another night. The giving and receiving of hospitality was an important part of life in those days, and the Levite did not want to offend his father-in-law.

19.8 ‘And he rose early in the morning on the fifth day to depart. And the damsel's father said, “Comfort your heart, I pray you, stay until the day declines.” And they did eat, both of them ’

This time he definitely intended to take leave of his father-in-law. But the father-in-law wanted to keep him as long as possible, perhaps still at his daughter’s urging.

The father-in-law knew that it was not possible to indicate that he wanted to delay him another day, so instead he pressed him to stay until after the evening meal, which was eaten in mid afternoon. And the Levite, probably unwillingly, agreed. And they ate the meal together. But the continued delay was to cost him dearly.

In all this there is no mention of the wife, for she was not considered to be important in the situation, although she no doubt ate with them. This was a matter between man and man. She had to fall in with their wishes.

19.9a ‘And when the man rose up to depart, he and his concubine, and his servant.’

Interestingly this is the first indication that we know that the concubine had agreed to go back with him, although the hospitality shown did suggest it. Night was now approaching and he wanted to be on his way as quickly as possible.

19.9b ‘His father-in-law, the damsel’s father, said to him, “See, the day now draws (literally ‘weakens’) towards evening, I pray you stay all night. Look, the day grows to an end. Lodge here that your heart may be merry. And tomorrow get you early on your way, that you may go home (literally ‘to your tents’, a colloquialism).” ’

‘The day weakens.’ The sun’s heat and light were abating. ‘The day grows to an end.’ Literally the day was ‘making its encampment’ for the night. Once again his father in law suggested he stay the night. This had no doubt been his intention all along. And he tried to play on the fact of how much more attractive it would be to eat and drink the night away, rather than start on a journey as darkness approached, and find lodgings which would be far less comfortable. The day was ‘camping down’ for the night, why did he not do the same?

“And tomorrow get you early on your way, that you may go to your tents.” His father-in-law realised that the Levite’s patience was now strained. There comes a time when too much hospitality can become an embarrassment. So he promised that he would let him go first thing the next day. ‘Go to your tents’ is probably not to be taken literally, unless he is hinting at the fact that for the next night or so they will have to tent out. It was probably an ancient phrase which meant ‘your home’, coming from a time when their tents were their homes (it occurs in this sense many times).

19.10a ‘ But the man would not linger that night. But he rose up and departed ’

This time the Levite was determined on his journey. He saw that this could go on for ever, and realised that his father-in-law would continue to seek to keep him there. It definitely seemed as though his wife was very reluctant to go with him. So, come what may, he was determined to go.

‘But he rose up and departed.’ The decision was made and they finally did leave. There was still some light left before night fell.

19.10b ‘And came over against Jebus, which is Jerusalem. And there were with him two asses, saddled. And his concubine also was with him ’

They arrived just outside Jebus. This was Jerusalem, then popularly known as Jebus, because inhabited by the Jebusites. This was about 9.5 kilometres (six miles) from Bethlehem.

‘And there were with him two asses, saddled. And his concubine also was with him.’ ‘Saddled’ may simply mean ‘laden’. Thus his concubine might ride one and the other would be laden with goods, food, wine, provender, and possibly gifts from the family, a very obvious temptation for unpleasant people. Or it may well be that he rode and the concubine walked. She was of a lower class.

‘And his concubine also was with him.’ Matters had now satisfactorily been settled (at least outwardly) and his concubine wife had agreed to go with him.

19.11 ‘And when they were by Jebus the day was far spent. And the servant said to his master, “Come, I pray you, and let us turn in to this city of the Jebusites, and lodge in it.’

‘Was far spent.’ Literally ‘was gone down very much.’ The sun was low in the sky and night was almost on them.

The servant suggested that as night was approaching it might be wise to find lodging for the night. This could be in an inn or it may have been through seeking hospitality at the gate of the city (Genesis 19.1), from some worthy citizen. In those days inns were few and hospitality was regularly offered to travellers at the gate of the city. It was looked on by the worthy as a sacred responsibility, and once a man was under your roof you were looked on as having sacred obligations towards him.

‘This city of the Jebusites.’ It is stressed that the city was not one that belonged to the confederation of Israel. It is ironic. There in that city of strangers he may well have found the safety among strangers that he would not find among his own people. The city had once been captured by the Israelites (Judges 1.8) but was retaken when they moved on to more victories. And from then on the fortress had proved invulnerable (Joshua 15.63; Judges 1.21). The Jebusites continued to live among the people of Judah and Benjamin, safe in their fortified city, although the three lived together in the lower city. Gradually things had become more relaxed and at this time it would seem that peace prevailed.

There can be little doubt that the writer records this incident precisely because it demonstrated that Israel had sunk lower than the Canaanites in many respects, at least in Gibeah.

19.12 ‘And his master said to him, we will not turn aside into the city of a stranger, who are not of the children of Israel, but we will pass over to Gibeah.’

The Levite was a patriotic and religious man and preferred not to depend on or trust foreigners if he could help it. The Jebusites were one of the seven nations of the land of Canaan, who were to be dispossessed and destroyed, and were idolaters and worshippers of Baal, with their sexually abandoned beliefs, and he knew that his wife had already been led astray by similar religious beliefs. Thus as a Levite responsible for the maintenance of the religion of Israel he preferred to trust to his own people. He was not aware how debased many of them too had become, permeated as they had been by Canaanite practises, the result of their not having been faithful to God’s demands to totally destroy the Canaanites and their religion.

‘The children of Israel.’ Usually in the predicate the writer uses ‘Israel’. But here the stress is on covenant relationship so that he uses the longer phrase (see Introduction).

‘But we will pass over to Gibeah.’ Gibeah was in the portion of the tribe of Benjamin, and was inhabited by men of that tribe, and so was more agreeable to this Levite, who thought that it would not have been deeply affected by depraved religion. He thought that they would know how to treat a Levite. It was around 6.5 kilometres (four miles) from Jebus or Jerusalem, and, although it was near sun setting, he chose rather to proceed on to this place than to lodge at Jebus. It was a relatively ‘new’ town, having no natural water supply, and therefore dependent on lime plastered cisterns. It was probably built on a hill (Gibeah means ‘hill’). It was later famous as the birthplace of Saul. It is probably not connected with the Gibeon or Geba which were levitical cities (Joshua 21.17).

19.13 ‘And he said to his servant, ‘come, and let us draw near to one of these places, and we will lodge in Gibeah or in Ramah.’

So he decided to set off to one of the nearby Israelite towns, either Gibeah or Ramah, which were close to each other, about two miles apart. Fatally Gibeah was the nearest.

19.14 ‘So they passed on, and went their way, and the sun went down on them when they were by Gibeah, which belongs to Benjamin.’

The choice was made for them by the time of day when they reached Gibeah, for the sun set, and night came on. It was a Benjamite city.

19.15 ‘And they turned aside there to go in to lodge in Gibeah. And he went in and sat himself down in the square of the city, for there was no man who took them into his house to lodge.’ ’

Instead of going forward, and passing by Gibeah to make for Ramah, they turned off the road, and went into the city to seek a lodging there.

‘And he went in and sat himself down in the square of the city, for there was no man who took them into his house to lodge.’ Normally someone would welcome strangers at the gate of the city. Inns were mainly on the roads between towns and hospitality in towns was dependent on the inhabitants. But here there was no welcome. In a way this was ominous. Not only did it demonstrate that the people were unusually inhospitable, it raised the question as to why. For hospitality was considered extremely important. But all knew that once hospitality was given there was a sacred responsibility to the person in question. If they wished to do harm to strangers they would not offer hospitality. And others may have been put off being hospitable by what happened to guests in view of the evil propensities of many of the townsfolk.

19.16a ‘And behold, there came an old man from his work, from the country in the evening. Now the man was of the hill country of Ephraim, and he sojourned in Gibeah.’

As it happened an old man was returning from his fields out in the country. He was coming back late from working in them, possibly because the fields he rented were some distance from the town. Not being a native of the town, for he was a sojourner, he had not been quite so contaminated by their attitudes towards strangers. And as it happened he came from the same area as the Levite.

19.16b ‘But the men of the place were Benjaminites.’

The tribes should have been united and friendly towards each other, but it is clear here that there was some discord between the tribes. The aim is to contrast the goodness and hospitality of the Ephraimite with the rank sinfulness and evil of the Benjamites.

19.17 ‘And he lifted up his eyes, and saw the wayfaring man in the city square, and the old man said, ‘Where are you going to, and where have you come from?’

Lifting up the eyes is merely a phrase indicating ‘turning the attention on’. On doing this he saw the wayfaring man in the street of the city, whom he realised to be a traveller by the fact of his two asses and his companions, and by their general behaviour. So he asked where they had come from and what their destination was.

19.18 ‘And he said to him, “We are passing from Bethlehem-judah to the far side of the hill country of Ephraim. I am from there. And I went to Bethleham-judah , and I am now going to the house of Yahweh. And there is no man who takes me into his house.” ’

The Levite answered his last question first, giving the starting point of the journey, so as to make clear what he was doing passing Gibeah. In troublesome times it was necessary to make clear that there was nothing suspicious about his circumstance.

Then he explained his destination, and explained that that was where he lived. He did not realise that the old man also came from the same area which would warm his heart towards him. Finally he pointed out that, prior to returning home, he was bound for ‘the house of Yahweh’, the tabernacle of God, possibly at this time at Bethel (20.26-28), but more probably at Shiloh, presumably to give thanks for his wife’s return and offer appropriate sacrifices.

Thus he was on a kind of pilgrimage which meant that his treatment should, in a godly town, have been of the best. The fact that he was going to the central sanctuary of the covenant emphasises the breach of the covenant by the men of the town.

At no stage does he mention any town from which he came. Thus it may be that he actually dwelt in a house away from the towns. Or it may be that the reason for the non-mention is the same as the reason for the non-mention of his name. He was seen as standing in some way for all Levites, a reminder that they were holy to the Lord and to be protected and cared for.

“And there is no man who takes me into his house.” In most places hospitality was seen as a bounden duty, and he was clearly surprised, especially as a Levite, that he had not been welcomed. But it did explain why they were settling down in the square for the night. It was not that they had refused hospitality but that they had not been asked.

There are certain similarities with the story of Lot, but the event was not one that was so unusual that it was limited to these two incidents. The sexual mistreatment, and even murder, of strangers was probably no uncommon thing. What brought this case to the fore was that the Levite was a man of action, and was a Levite, a holy man.

19.19 “Yet there is both straw and provender for our asses, and there is bread and wine also for me, and for your handmaid, and for the young man who is with your servants. There is no lack of anything.”

There was no reason for the lack of hospitality for they had all their provisions with them. All they needed was a bed for the night. This was said mainly to persuade the old man to help them. It would be at no cost to him. For the laws of hospitality would usually mean provision for a guest.

‘With your servants.’ That is, with me and my handmaid. ‘Your servants’ and ‘your handmaid’ are polite expressions, a submission which he would not expect would be acted on.

19.20 ‘And the old man said, “peace be to you. However, let all your wants lie on me. Only do not lodge in the square ”

‘Peace be to you.’ A regular polite greeting between two people, denoting acceptance, still regularly offered today (Genesis 43.23; Judges 6.23; 1 Samuel 25.6; Daniel 10.19).

“However, let all your wants lie on me. Only do not lodge in the square.” He offered the kind of hospitality that would be expected, except from the very poor who possibly would not be able to provide it. It was a matter of honour. ‘All your wants.’ Food, shelter, provender for the asses, and washing for the feet, things which a traveller would need. The washing of the feet was in order to remove the sweat and dust of the journey. ‘Only do not lodge in the street.’ It was not seemly that a traveller should be left in the street. And he probably feared what would happen to them if they did so. He no doubt knew his fellow-townsfolk and about their propensities.

19.21 ‘So he brought him into his house, and gave the asses fodder, and they washed their feet, and ate and drank.’

With some relief and gratitude they accepted the old man’s offer and he led them to his house, where every provision was made for them. Note that the animals’ needs were met first as befitted a careful and considerate owner, and an equally careful and considerate host.

‘They washed their feet.’ This was the second thing they did, for they would be wearing sandals and the roads would be dusty, and their feet sweaty. Then they settled down to eat. Everything was seemingly going well after all, and they no doubt felt greatly relieved.

19.22a ‘And as they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, certain sons of Belial, beset the house round about, beating at the door --.’

‘Making -- merry.’ With food and wine and good conversation. A traveller was often especially welcome because he could bring news of events from afar.

‘Behold, the men of the city, certain sons of Belial, beset the house round about, beating at the door.’ What a sudden change in atmosphere. While all was content inside, the creatures of the night gathered to the house outside. They were the men of the city, men of darkness, come to do what they had been planning ever since the travellers had arrived. They are seen as representing the whole city.

‘Sons of Belial.’ See Deuteronomy 13.13; 1 Samuel 2.12; 10.27; 25.17, 25 etc. The ‘sons of Belial’ led Israel astray into idolatry and the sexual perversions associated with it. The sons of Eli were sons of Belial because they kept for themselves what belonged to the Lord. Nabal was a son of Belial denoting that he was a most unpleasant person. It indicated people of the very basest kind. ‘Belial’ means worthlessness, thus here ‘worthless men’. Alternately, repointed (changing the vowels), it could mean ‘swallow up’. Thus the sons of Belial would then be those who do harm, they swallow men up.

‘Beset the house round about.’ They surrounded it, a crowd slavering with lust and evil desire, intent on perversion and murder, and this to one who was holy before God. There was no way he would escape their lusts. ‘Beat at the door.’ In order to gain entrance. They were almost out of control in their perverted lust. Their behaviour was intended to demonstrate that no one could say them nay.

19.22b ‘And they spoke to the master of the house, the old man, saying, “Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him.”’

As a result of the noise and clamour that was made, the old man went to the door, to enquire what the meaning of all the noise was, although he probably in his heart knew. They replied, making their full intentions clear. They were not even ashamed of the actions and activities they had in mind.

“Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him.” There was no evasion. They wanted to engage in gang rape on the man. To ‘know’ meant ‘to have sexual relations with’. So low had these people of Israel fallen as a result of being influenced by the Canaanites, probably the Jebusites, that they openly declared their intended sin. Indeed in their hearts they had sinned already. If only Israel had previously heeded Yahweh’s commands this would not have happened (Joshua 17.13).

19.23 ‘And the man, the master of the house, went out to them. And he said to them, “No, my brothers, I pray you, do not behave so wickedly, seeing that this man has come to my house. Do not do this folly.” ’

Bravely the old man opened the door and went out to speak with the men. He hoped to appeal to them by reason.

‘And he said to them, “No, my brothers, I pray you, do not behave so wickedly, seeing that this man has come to my house. Do not do this folly.” He made the strongest plea he could think of, that the man was enjoying his hospitality. Once a man had received hospitality the host had a sacred duty to protect him, and the crowd knew that. But he also made clear to them that their actions were wicked. They were ‘folly’. The word indicated action of the basest kind which was seen as a slight on God Himself. It is regularly used of sexual misbehaviour. He also possibly had in mind that the man was a Levite. Not to have welcomed such a man with hospitality was a breach of their sacred duty towards God’s own (Deuteronomy 23.4).

19.24 “Look, here is my daughter, a maiden, and his concubine. I will bring them out now and you may humble them and do with them what seems good to you. But do not any such folly to this man.”

It may seem incomprehensible to us that he should offer his own daughter, presumably a virgin, to their evil lusts, but in his eyes the man he was defending was holy to the Lord and enjoying his hospitality. For him to be assaulted would be an attack on Yahweh Himself. Beside that the women came a very poor second.

It is significant that the concubine was also his guest, and as a wife would surely be seen as more important than the male servant. Yet he offered both women to them, even his own daughter.

This may suggest that the laws of hospitality in Israel were primarily applicable to men, and only to women as companions of the men. But he also probably had in mind that at least with the women what occurred would be natural sex, thus he would not be guilty of encouraging homosexual sex (we note he did not offer the male servant), and he would not therefore share their guilt for sodomy. The hope was no doubt that the women would hopefully survive it as the man probably would not. That Lot offered to do the same with his daughters demonstrates the general attitude of people then in such matters (Genesis 19.8). This was a recognised solution in such circumstances. The men must be protected at all costs under the sacred laws of hospitality, and homosexual acts must be abhorred.

It is difficult for us in these days to appreciate their situation. To us it would be the duty of the men to protect the women. But women were seen differently then. Furthermore the man whom he was defending was a Levite, a man holy to Yahweh. He could not be allowed to be defiled under any circumstances.

19.25a ‘But the men would not listen to him, so the man laid hold on his concubine, and brought her out to them.’

Nothing would at this point divert them from their purpose. They continued beating at the door in their dreadful lust.

‘So the man laid hold on his concubine, and brought her out to them.’ The Levite presumably thrust her through the doorway, for had he gone out to them they would have achieved their purpose. The concubine was handed over. We must not judge this by our own standards. They were following the standards of their day. We must remember that she may well have been a cult prostitute and if so may have been used to multiple sex. It may therefore be that she volunteered to go out to them, not aware of quite how bestial they would be, otherwise the old man would surely have given his daughter first. Yet the force of ‘laid hold’ may be against this. It may suggest that she was unwilling.

Thus it seems that the Levite acted to save the man’s daughter, and he may certainly have had in mind that his wife was a concubine, and was also used to multiple sex. But he certainly expected her to be alive in the morning. In their eyes she would after all only be doing what she was used to doing, engaging in multiple sex. All through the emphasis has been on the fact that she was his concubine. Sadly he no doubt considered his own worth, and the worth of the daughter, as being superior, and that the concubine, though beautiful, was more expendable. That she was beautiful comes out in that once the men had seen her they forgot about their chief prey.

It is easy to criticise the Levite (and in modern terms rightly). But he was a man who believed he knew his own worth as one who was ‘sacred’, and whom others respected and looked up to. He was also conscious of his social class, and the thought of being sodomised would to such a man have been unbearable. Nor would the householder have allowed him to go out. Under the laws of hospitality his whole honour was at stake. On the other hand the Levite would have reminded himself that his wife was ‘only a concubine’, had already revealed her sexual propensities and was still under the shadow of guilt. And he had the example of Lot to go by. In those days when ‘class’ was such a feature of life he would have seen himself as having no alternative so as to protect his host’s daughter.

19.25b ‘And they knew her, and abused her all night until the morning, and when the day began to spring they let her go.’

What followed demonstrated the bestiality of the men. They lined up to have sex with her, passing her from one to the other, and no doubt treated her roughly as such men will. And this went on all night. And when day came they let her go, a spent wreck, and disappeared to their homes.

19.26 ‘Then came the woman in the dawning of the day, and fell down at the door of the man's house, where her lord was, until it was light.’

The woman struggled back to the house but it would seem that she had been so maltreated that she collapsed there and had no strength to knock. And there she lay for the remainder of the night until it was light. ‘Her lord.’ That is her husband who was called her ‘lord’, not because she had been his servant, but because she was his wife.

19.27a ‘And her lord rose up in the morning, and opened the doors of the house, and went out to go his way.’

Once he was satisfied that the crowd had gone, and unaware of what had happened to his wife, but realising that her non-return probably meant that he would never see her again, the Levite decided to make his escape as quickly as he could. He had presumably been up all night wondering what was happening and hoping to hear his wife’s knock on the door. He may well have thought that, in view of her past behaviour, she had chosen to go off with the men.

The affair does not reflect well on him at all, but he was at least glad to be alive and knew that he had to make his escape before the men came back. The reference to him as ‘her lord’ may reflect the writer’s disapproval of his behaviour. As her lord he should have watched over her interests. Alternately it may mean that the writer agreed with the behaviour that had made ‘her lord’, the important one, escape maltreatment.

19.27b ‘And behold, the woman his concubine was fallen down at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold.’

Her posture suggests that she had almost made it. Her hands were on the very threshold. When he found her there he clearly thought she was asleep, and his heart was probably lightened. He was a good enough man not to believe that men could be so evil as these men had been.

‘With her hands on the threshold’ may indicate that she had almost made it, or that as she collapsed she had vainly reached out for help. She had almost reached shelter, but had not had the strength for the final attempt. It had been too late.

19.28a ‘And he said to her, “Up, and let us be going.” But there was no answer.’

He thought that she was sleeping and spoke to her to wake her and let her know that they were leaving this dreadful place. This brings out that he had not really expected her to come to any real harm. The callousness of his words are probably intended to remind us of her position. Or possibly they were said gently and with compassion.

However, when there was no answer, the Levite realised with unbelievable bitterness in his heart what had happened. She was dead. They had killed her. What she had suffered had been too much for her and her heart had given way. And the beasts who had raped her had gone back to their houses, also unaware of what they had finally done, and unaware too of the vengeance they had brought on themselves.

Had she lived that might have been the end of the affair. A lesson learned, an experience endured which was no doubt experienced by many travellers, but life going on. But she died, and her death would have awful consequences.

19.28b ‘Then he took her up on the ass, and the man rose up and took himself to his place.’

There was no visit to the house of Yahweh. He had nothing now to give thanks for. So he carried off her dead body, without making any remonstrance to the inhabitants, from whom he could not expect any justice. But the demands for justice and vengeance were in his heart.

19.29 ‘And when he was come into his house he took a knife and laid hold on his concubine, and divided her according to her bones, into twelve pieces, and sent her throughout all the borders of Israel.’

Determined to have justice the Levite decided on a dreadful thing. No doubt his mind was temporarily a little deranged from what had happened, although we must remember that as a Levite he was used to seeing carcasses carved up. And he divided up her body with a carving knife, using the lay out of the bones to determine the pieces, until he had produced twelve pieces. These were one for every tribe, including Benjamin. He could not believe that the tribal leaders of Benjamin could possibly justify what had been done.

Why did he do such a thing? It was so that the most gruesome indication of what had been done should be brought home to the tribes. He wanted to shock them into action. He was only an obscure Levite and he knew from his connections with the central sanctuary how easily such things could be forgotten. But he wanted to make sure that this case would not be forgotten. And coming from a Levite, a servant of the sanctuary, and one set apart as God’s, such a ‘present’ would have even more impact.

The message would be clear. The woman had met a violent death of a most obscene kind in breach of the covenant of Yahweh. He may also have intended to convey the message that it was the equivalent of human sacrifice, that she had been, as it were, sacrificed to Baal. For the behaviour of the men may well have resulted from their contact with the religion of Baal and with sacred prostitutes, and have been excused by them as in accordance with such practises. This, if anything would, should spur the confederate tribes into action.

We can, however, compare how Saul, when he wanted to stress the seriousness of the call to the tribes, took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces, and sent them throughout Israel as a sign that those who failed to respond would be put to death (1 Samuel 11.7). Saul may have got the idea from the Levite, or Saul’s may have been a regular method of calling the tribes around that time, with the Levite taking it further due to the circumstances and for the sake of impact.

Thus the Levite may also have been stressing that God would require at their hands, by death, a failure to respond to his plea. But instead of the usual sacrifice of an animal he used the body of the human being who had been involved. Certainly he achieved what none of the judges were able to achieve, the uniting of the whole confederacy in action.

‘And sent her throughout all the borders of Israel.’ The ‘twelve’ would appear to be intended to include Benjamin. The point is that the message was sent to every tribe in the confederation These, or at least a faithful proportion of them, would regularly meet to renew covenant at the central sanctuary. They were responsible to uphold the rights of Levites, and to uphold the law of Moses, and they would know that a most foul murder had been committed. The parts of his concubine’s body were a call to the tribes to come together and observe the covenant by exacting justice for what had been done and dealing with this evil that was in their midst.

19.30a ‘And it was so, that all who saw it, said, ‘there was no such deed done nor seen, from the day that the children of Israel came out of the land of Egypt, to this day.’

The pieces would be delivered by messenger. The Levite may indeed have gone to the central sanctuary and arranged for them to go from there. It was from there that the call to action ought to go. And the messengers would take a report of what had happened and what the pieces meant. They were a call for justice on the terms of the covenant, on penalty of death for failure to give it.

The comment about ‘such a deed’ probably refers to the actions of the men of Gibeah (as the Septuagint makes clear). Certainly they became a byword for sinfulness (Hosea 9.9; 10.9). But it may have been a reaction to the horror of what they saw.

19.30b ‘Weigh it up, take counsel, and declare what you think.’

It was a call for action and judgment in legal jargon. They were to weigh up the situation, discuss the matter together and then come to a decision.

The whole episode demonstrates how low morals in Israel had fallen. The Levite’s attitude to his concubine wife, his failure to protect her, the lack of hospitality from anyone except the old man, the behaviour of the men of Gibeah, all reflected the level to which society had fallen.

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. That they refused to do so was a breach of covenant which the others saw as bringing God’s wrath on themselves unless they did something about it. Thus they sought to put pressure on them to do so.

When this appeal also is rejected they make the decision to act themselves. In order, in their view, to avoid the wrath of God, it is necessary for the tribal confederacy to 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. Thus they exact the vengeance which tradition required, the near extermination of Benjamin.

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 it may possibly have been 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 verse 3.

‘From Dan to Beersheba’, a rough description by the writer of the land possessed west of Jordan, a description regularly used in the Old Testament (it does not mean that the Danites had taken Laish by the time of the incident itself, only that thy had done so by the time the record was written). Once established 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, the covenant 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, 16; 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).

20.2 ‘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 verse 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, as repointed, a captain. This probably represents the number gathered as a whole (those in verse 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, 25), each with his supporting unit.

Comparison with 20.17 demonstrates that they excluded Benjamites. 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 that 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.

20.3a ‘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 Benjamite 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 Benjamite 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.

20.3b ‘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.

20.4a ‘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.

20.4b-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.

20.6 “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.

20.7 ‘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.

20.8 ‘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.

20.9-10 “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 verse 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.

20.11 ‘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.

20.12a ‘And the tribes of Israel sent men through all the tribes of Benjamin.’

In its second use 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.

20.12b-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.

20.13b ‘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.

20.14 ‘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 Benjamites 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 was an act of civil war.

Of course, had they been more conciliatory and agreed to try the men themselves things might 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.

20.15 ‘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).

20.16 ‘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 Benjamites, 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 Benjamites had perfected slinging into an art of war. Having men with such expertise may have boosted the confidence of the Benjamites, and is mentioned to explain their later victories.

20.17 ‘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 verse 2). But as verse 10 may be telling us, they were at first only committing forty fighting units. Again they were recognised warriors.

20.18 ‘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 (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, 11; 1 Samuel 3.4-7; 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; 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.

10.19 ‘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).

10.20 ‘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.

10.21 ‘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 (verse 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 chapter 18. The men of Dan, who had set up their own graven image and established their own priesthood (if it had occurred at this stage), 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.

10.22a ‘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. Or it may simply mean that they encouraged themselves by bold talk.

10.22b ‘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.

10.23a ‘And the children of Israel went up and wept before Yahweh until even, and asked counsel of Yahweh, saying, “shall I again draw near to battle against the children of Benjamin my brother?” ’

Their confidence had been dented, so as well as bringing up reinforcements they again sought God. ‘Went up’ suggests that some of their number went again to the central sanctuary at Bethel on their behalf. Or it may be that the Priest was there wearing the ephod and they gathered to the Priest. ‘They wept before Yahweh until evening’. This was partly because of their disastrous defeat, and in mourning for their fallen comrades, but no doubt with great heart searching as to the reasons. Maybe there was also a great searching of their hearts for sins that may have been responsible, including their lack of brotherhood towards Benjamin.

But then they again sought His counsel by Urim and Thummim or by lot (both indicated a similar method) and their question was whether they should again go up against Benjamin, their ‘brother’. The singular pronouns (compare ‘man of Israel’ with a singular verb in verse 20, hidden in translation) demonstrate that they saw themselves as one corporate unit, as ‘Israel’, and Benjamin as one unit as well, as their brother. He was a part of them. They, as it were, carried themselves back to their original ancestors, emphasising the family responsibility.

10.23b ‘And Yahweh said, “Go up against him.”

The lot fell for a further attack on Benjamin. This confirmed for them that Benjamin now shared in the guilt of Gibeah, as well as also being seen as traitors against the covenant and the tribal confederacy. They were thus guilty of sodomy, fornication, murder, and breach of the sacred covenant. Indeed the feeling was so strong that when defeated they would be put to The Ban (20.48; 21.16), with every man, woman and child being destroyed, as well as cattle. Breach of the covenant was seen as a very serious affair.

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

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

10.25 ‘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 (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.

10.26 ‘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.

20.27 ‘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, 8-10; 19.51; Judges 18.31; 1 Samuel 1.3, 24; 2.14; 3.21, 4.3-4; 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); 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.

20.28a ‘(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 (Judges 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.

20.28b ‘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.

20.28c ‘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.

20.29 ‘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.

20.30 ‘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 (verse 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 verse 33), they could not all advance together, and they were probably confident that their slingers would again cause havoc.

20.31 ‘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 Benjamites after them into the highways in the open country going towards Bethel. The Benjamites, 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 Benjamites 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.

20.32 ‘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.

20.32b ‘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 Benjamites 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 Benjamites.

20.33a ‘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 Benjamites, 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.

20.33b ‘And the liers in wait of Israel broke out from their place, even from Maareh-geba (‘the meadow of Gibeah’ - see verse 10 for Gibeah as Geba).’

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

20.34a ‘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 Benjamites, 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.

20.34b ‘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 Benjamites 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.

20.35 ‘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 Benjamite units were destroyed. One unit had probably remained to protect Gibeah. The ‘hundred’ (a smaller unit) men were probably specifically a unit of the men of Gibeah (see 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.

20.36a ‘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.

20.36b ‘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 Benjamites into an ambush. But this was introductory to the actions of the liers in wait and therefore concentrated on their part.

20.37 ‘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).

20.38 ‘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 Benjamites, if Gibeah was taken, the enemy were behind them, and they had nowhere to retreat, and their whole reason for fighting had gone.

20.39 ‘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 verse 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 Benjamites who had got used to victory and had grown careless. Repetition like this was common in ancient writings, which had listeners in mind.

20.40 ‘But when the cloud began to rise up out of the city in a pillar of smoke, the Benjamites 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).

20.41 ‘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 (20.33) could only cause them to panic, and seeming victory was turned into defeat.

20.42a ‘Therefore they turned their backs before the men of Israel, into the way of the wilderness, but the battle followed hard after them.’

The Benjamites 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.

20.42b ‘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 Benjamites, or it may refer to other Israelites who left their cities to join in the fight, or it may refer to remnants of Benjamites (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.

20.43 ‘They enclosed the Benjamites 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 Benjamites 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 Benjamites 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.

20.44 ‘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.

20.45a ‘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.

20.45b ‘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’.

20.46 ‘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 verse 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.

20.47 ‘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.

20.48 ‘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; 20.16-18), and these Benjamites turned Canaanite were seen as deserving it too. Everything was to be destroyed, every living Benjamite 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 (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 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 Benjamites had not only failed to maintain the covenant, they had actually fought others who had tried to preserve it. They were doubly guilty.

Chapter 21. Preservation of the Remnant of Benjamin.

21.1 ‘Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mizpah, saying, ‘There shall not any of us give his daughter to Benjamin to wife.’

This interesting snippet reminds us that a serious covenant had been made at Mizpah once action had been determined. Any who did not respond to the call to arms would be put to death. Any who married their daughter to a Benjamite would be punished, probably again by death. Death was very much on their minds.

In the circumstances this latter provision about marriage was sensible. Benjamin had become sexually depraved through their contact with the Canaanites and they did not want their daughters to be caught up in such a situation (compare Deuteronomy 7.3-4). But in the present situation they regretted it. On the other hand it was part of their oath of allegiance to the tribal confederacy so that they had to observe it.

21.2 ‘And the people came to Bethel and sat there until the evening before God, and lifted up their voices and wept grievously.’

Having carried out their dreadful massacre the people suddenly realised the consequences of what they had done, they had destroyed a tribe in Israel. This struck them so vividly that they went to Bethel to seek God’s guidance on the matter. This fact would again confirm that the Tabernacle had been moved temporarily to Bethel.

‘Sat there until the evening before God.’ Compare 20.26. This seems to be the custom for seeking God when some disaster has struck. And as they sat there they wept. They realised what they had done. To lose a tribe was like losing a near relative, indeed a brother. The use of ‘God’ indicates how dreadfully they felt this hole in the Confederacy. A tribe was missing from the covenant. It was breached. It was as though Yahweh was far away.

21.3 ‘And they said, “Oh Yahweh, the God of Israel, why has this happened in Israel that there should be today one tribe lacking?”

What they were asking was what had been the causes that had brought this about. What had led Benjamin to become caught up in the Canaanite religion and ways? So do men behave when they are unaware of their own weaknesses. Some of them were in danger of the same thing. The answer, of course, was that they had fraternised with the Canaanites in spite of God’s prohibition. They had disobeyed God.

21.4 ‘And so it was that on the next day the people rose early and built there an altar, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings.’

The ‘building’ of an altar refers to refurbishing it since its last use and preparing it for the offering of sacrifices. The ‘rising early’ demonstrates that they were in earnest. Then again they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. The burnt offerings were offered wholly to God. The peace offerings they could partake of themselves. The one represented total dedication, the other their fellowship with God through the shedding of blood.

Bethel was one of the places where God had revealed His name in the past, and He had done so again in 20.28. This last was presumably the grounds on which they had rebuilt the altar. Thus they were proceeding in their view in accordance with Exodus 20.24.

Then they began the serious business of dealing with those of their own who had failed to observe the covenant.

21.5 ‘And the children of Israel said, “Who is there among all the tribes of Israel who did not come up in the assembly in Yahweh?” For they had made a great oath concerning such a one as did not come up to Yahweh, to Mizpah, saying, “He shall surely be put to death.” ’

Included in the oath made at Mizpah was that any who did not respond to the call of the tribal confederacy would be put to death. (These solemn oaths remind us how seriously they took their tribal covenant). Now was the time for giving account.

‘In Yahweh.’ Bound in covenant relationship with Yahweh.

‘A great oath.’ Literally ‘the great oath.’ As often in Hebrew the definite article need not be seen as referring back. The great oath? Which one? The one now spoken of as having been made.

Notice the repetitiveness of the narrative. The writer has in mind that the account will be heard rather than read, and the repetitiveness ensures that the audience go along with the story. This kind of repetition is paralleled in stories among other nations, sometimes tediously.

21.6 ‘And the children of Israel repented because of what they had done to Benjamin their brother, and said, ‘There is one tribe cut off from Israel this day.’

Their musings from one subject to another was to indicate that they were thinking through a solution to the problem of the Benjamites. ‘Benjamin’ had nearly been destroyed and they were thinking how they could restore them.

In the circumstances in which they found themselves they were convinced that they had destroyed all of Benjamin apart from the six hundred holed up in the Rock of Rimmon (20.47). They were almost certainly overlooking the realities of the situation. Quite a number of Benjamites would have been travelling and would not have been present in the area when the battles and massacre took place. A good number would have escaped in the flight from the massacre, however fierce pursuit was, and would now be in hiding in the mountains, with some possibly in Jerusalem under the protection of the Jebusites. And some would have escaped from the cities before the avenging armies arrived there, as fugitives passed through with news of the defeat. But as armies will they had convinced themselves that they had left none alive.

21.7 ‘How shall we do for wives for those who remain, seeing we have sworn by Yahweh that we will not give of our daughters to be their wives.?’

They had decided on mercy for the six hundred holed up in the Rock, but the problem now was how to find wives for them without breaking their solemn oath to Yahweh. It is a reminder that we do well to consider carefully before we make promises and take oaths. They are not easily undone. But as such men will they had a solution. Men are always good at wriggling out of inconvenient promises.

21. 8-9 ‘And they said, “What one is there of the tribes of Israel who did not come up to Yahweh, to Mizpah?” And lo, there came none to the camp from Jabesh-gilead to the assembly. For when the people were numbered, behold, there were none of the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead there.’

A check was made of the tribes and sub-tribes and it was discovered that the people of Jabesh-gilead had failed to respond (Gilead had a reputation for failing to respond to the call to arms (5.17)). And it was not a failure involving only the confederacy. They were seen as having directly refused to obey Yahweh. Such a failure rendered them liable to The Ban in accordance with the oath taken at the assembly. It was always a risk to refuse to respond to the call to arms (compare 5.23).

21.10-11 ‘And the people sent there twelve eleph men of the most valiant, and commanded them saying, “Go and smite the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead with the edge of the sword, with the women and the little ones. And this is the thing you will do. You will utterly destroy every male, and every woman who has lain with a man.” ’

Twelve picked units of fighting men were despatched to Jabesh-gilead with a view to carrying out The Ban. All there were to be slain except for young virgins. The hypocrisy of the situation is clear. Why should the children die and the virgins be spared? Simply for man’s convenience to get him out of a tight corner. We note that they did not seek Yahweh’s guidance on this. They knew He would not approve.

But the carrying out of the same procedure on Jabesh-gilead as on the Benjamites demonstrates how seriously this campaign and the stain of the actions of the men of Gibeah were taken. It was seen as a sacred crusade to eradicate deep sin in the tribal confederacy. And those who would not partake were considered to be tainted with the sin of the men of Gibeah. They were traitors to the covenant, and the penalty for that was death, for they had failed to recognise and bow down to the holiness of Yahweh. (This was in this case their view, not God’s. But it was genuine nonetheless.).

21.12 ‘And they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead four hundred young virgins who had not known man by lying with him. And they brought them to the camp, to Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan.’

The Ban was carried out and four hundred virgins spared who ‘had not lain with a man’. Or so it was presumably said by their loved ones before they died, to save their lives. And these were brought to the camp at Shiloh where The Tabernacle usually was. The Ark would now also have returned there, for Shiloh was the regular central sanctuary. A sacred ceremony would soon follow with the six hundred men of Benjamin in renewal of the covenant.

21.13-14. ‘And the whole congregation sent and spoke to the children of Benjamin who were in the Rock of Rimmon, and proclaimed peace to them. And Benjamin returned at that time, and they gave them the women whom they had saved alive of the women of Jabesh-gilead. And yet so there were not sufficient for them.’

We note the lack of mention of the names of central leaders throughout the whole narrative. It may have been in order to stress that the whole of Israel was involved, or it may have been because there was no man prominent enough to be so mentioned. The period of the Judges was one in the main lacking in leadership, although at times there were local exceptions.

‘Proclaimed peace to them.’ The war was over. No further reparation would be required. They could come out safely and rejoin the tribal confederacy.

‘And Benjamin returned at that time.’ Not just returned to their camp but returned to the confederacy. They became once more a brother. And the four hundred virgins were supplied to them for the producing of children to rebuild the tribe. But four hundred was not enough for there were six hundred men.

21.15 ‘And the people repented themselves for Benjamin, because Yahweh had made a breach in the tribes of Israel.’

All that was done was in the end thought of as done by Yahweh, for He was the God of the covenant and of the tribal confederacy. Thus He was seen as over all that they did, even when He might not have approved of it. It was His law and His holiness that had caused the actions that had brought the breach. But it was the people who had to repent and change their minds so as to allow Benjamin back into the confederacy. It was not God Who had banned them.

21.16 ‘Then the elders of the congregation said, ‘How shall we do for wives for those who remain seeing the women are destroyed out of Benjamin?’

Compare verse 7. The Ban had (in their view, but some must have survived) resulted in the killing off of all Benjamite women. Thus the problem was how to obtain wives for the two hundred still without them. This is the first mention of the elders, as rulers of the tribes as opposed to military chiefs (20.2), although they must have been present at all major decisions made. Things were returning to normal.

21.17 ‘And they said, ‘There must be an inheritance for those who have escaped of Benjamin, so that a tribe is not blotted out of Israel.’

The feeling was strong. To lose a tribe would be like losing a limb. The inheritance here was children not land. There was now plenty of free land in Benjamite territory.

21.18 ‘However, we may not give them wives of our daughters.’ For the children of Israel had sworn saying, ‘Cursed is he who gives a wife to Benjamin.’

The latter phrase was probably literally part of the wording of the covenant made at Mizpah. Blessings and cursings regularly accompanied covenants. The repetition of the former (verses 1, 7) was to remind the hearers of the narrative when it was read, and may also indicate their continual repetition to themselves because of the headache they had caused themselves.

21.19 ‘And they said, ‘Look there is a feast of Yahweh from year to year in Shiloh’, which is on the north of Bethel, on the east side of the highway that goes up from Bethel to Shechem, and on the South of Lebonah .’

They expressed their awareness of a coming feast of Yahweh. The connection with vineyards suggests that this was the feast of Tabernacles. All Israel would gather to the central sanctuary for the feast to celebrate the harvest and it would provide opportunity for their plan to work. The position of Shiloh was carefully described. It was an important site to Israel, and it would seem that the Tabernacle had again returned there.

21.20-21 ‘And they commanded the children of Benjamin, saying, ‘Go and lie in wait in the vineyards. And watch, and behold if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances, then you come out of the vineyards and you catch every man his wife of the daughters of Shiloh and go to the land of Benjamin.’

There is no mention of God’s approval to this plan which would no doubt have been sadly lacking. It demonstrates that leaders of peoples do not change over millenniums. They consider that in times of emergency they can behave in ways that decent men would decry. It is difficult to think of words to describe leaders who recommend abduction by force of innocent girls. But they had forced themselves into a corner and now they were trying to find a way out of it.

The problem was that it had to be done in such a way as to be evident that no one had given his daughter to the Benjamites. But if the elders were not doing that, what were they doing? They were fathers of their tribes. It was a legal fiddle.

The plan was simple. The Benjamites were now present at the feast having been restored to the covenant and the tribal confederacy. And every year at the feast of Tabernacles the girls of Shiloh would go out for the celebrations in the vineyards where they would dance in the dances. There they would be only partially protected. What could happen with all the tribes of Israel gathered there at a feast of Yahweh? And no one would take much notice of ‘lovers’ seizing their girlfriends and carrying them off. But once the Benjamites had succeeded they had to immediately leave the feast and make for Benjamite territory just over the border. It was abduction by force without any regard for the girls or their families.

21.22 ‘And it shall be, when their fathers and their brothers come to complain angrily to us, that we will say to them, ‘Grant them to us as a gift. For we did not take for each man his wife in battle, nor did you give them to them. Or else you would now be guilty’.’

Clearly once news of the kidnappings got out the fathers and brothers of the girls would come to the elders for them to deal with the situation. Then the elders would put in their plea, speaking on behalf of the Benjamites. They would point out that the girls had not been taken in battle (that would have rendered the Benjamites guilty again of fighting the confederacy). Nor had they been given freely (that would have put the blame on the fathers who gave their daughters.) Thus no covenant had been broken. And they would ask that the relatives give their daughters, as a gift to them, the elders, for the sake of preserving the tribe of Benjamin in the tribal confederacy. (The language may be typical Eastern understating. The ‘gift’ might have included some form of recompense).

21.23a ‘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.

21.23b ‘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 Benjamite women in the past and who lived elsewhere would come to claim their wives’, or mothers’, or grandmothers’ family inheritance, and become Benjamite 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 Benjamites ceased to be so predominantly left-handed (Judges 3.15; 20.16 contrast 1 Chronicles 12.2).

21.24 ‘And the children of Israel left there at that time, every man to his tribe and every man to his family, and they went out from there every man to his inheritance.’

The repetition is typical of ancient literature and Hebrew parallelism. Their task finished, and Benjamin on the way to restoration, they could return to their homes (see 20.8). They went to their tribe, to whom their loyalty was due, and through whom God’s future blessings would come on them as promised to Abraham; to their family (clan) to whom they owed specific allegiance and from whom they too would be ministered justice; and to their inheritance in Israel, which was their reward for being in the covenant. Having fulfilled God’s work in their own way they were able to proceed with life in a covenant relationship with God, satisfied that the stain of the folly had been removed from them.

21.25 ‘In those days there was no king in Israel. Every man did what was right in his own eyes.’

The writer was clearly disillusioned. Even in this matter of Benjamin the people had stooped to subterfuge and hypocrisy, not seeking Yahweh’s voice when they had the final difficult decisions to make. From 21.4 onwards there had been no consultation of Yahweh. They had done what was right in their own eyes without looking to Yahweh as King. What they had done as a confederacy had been on His behalf, and yet when it came to the crunch they had ignored Him. Once again it was apparent that there was no King in Israel, neither divine nor human.

And that was the continual problem. They just would not give Yahweh His true place. Central government was loose, the central sanctuary was marginalised, justice was left to the clan, who tended to favour their own, God’s law was only applied as seemed fit to them (19.1 on). And individuals went their own way in matters of religion (17.5-6). That was not how God had intended it to be.

There are, however, those who claim that the writer is writing in order to recommend kingship in Israel. But can that really be so? Could the man who demonstrated the final failure of Gideon through multiplying wives as a result of his princeship (8.30), who described the rule of kings as being like a tree waving its branches aimlessly over other trees (9.9, 11, 13), be finishing off with a panegyric to kingship? Was he not rather longing for the true application of the kingly rule of God, for his people to turn to Yahweh and really treat Him as king?

We can contrast with all this the change that took place when Samuel became priest at the central sanctuary. Then Yahweh was acknowledged as King and Israel prospered. There was a King in Israel and men did what was right in His eyes. And all the problems slipped away. It was not the system that was at fault but those who ran it. So what was he trying to do? He was trying to wake Israel up to its need to respond to the Kingly Rule of God. He was preaching a message that would not be preached again for a thousand years when another would come proclaiming the Kingly Rule of God.

So it may well be that this book was written by Samuel, for he too protested against earthly kingship. He too warned of the dangers of appointing an earthly king who would simply prove to be like Gideon and Abimelech (1 Samuel 8.10-18). He too recommended trust in the Kingly Rule of God. And when the people sought a king like the nations no one was more against it than Samuel, except perhaps for Yahweh.

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