The Agora
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28. The Sin of Gibeah (Judges 19 — 21)

A certain Levite and his concubine were traveling through the land of Benjamin, and as night approached they sought and received shelter in the home of an old man of Gibeah. But when the house was beset by certain “sons of Belial”, evoking unpleasant memories of the Sodomites (Gen. 19), they realized how unsafe they were. This Levite allowed his concubine to be abused by the Benjamites — a circumstance which speaks not much better of him than of those who threatened him.

Finding the woman dead in the morning, he took her body and divided it into twelve pieces and sent the pieces into all parts of Israel. Then all the children of Israel were gathered together “as one man” (20:1,8,11) out of revulsion at this hideous crime. By a comparison with 1 Samuel 11:7 we see that the people did not so act again in unison until the days of Samuel, probably 300 years later.

But their unity of action was unfortunately not preceded by consultation with God. The militia of the eleven tribes, minus Benjamin — 400,000 strong — made their plans without prayer. Though they finally asked of God who should go up first to the battle, yet their forces lost 22,000 men at the hands of the men of Benjamin, who defended Gibeah. This certainly implies that guilt in Israel was to be found on both sides, not only with Benjamin.

By various stratagems that need not be detailed now, the tribe of Benjamin was nearly annihilated. Once bloodshed started no one knew when to stop. In cutting off those who were guilty by their association, the rest of Israel used highly unsuitable methods and almost totally destroyed one of the twelve tribes. The punishment, because of haste and probably a measure of self-righteousness, was out of all proportion to the crime. In their zeal the men of Israel imposed by an oath a strict isolation upon those few Benjamites who remained, no matter what their degree of guilt or complicity.

The outcome was a terrible feeling of remorse, and some ironic words:

“O Lord God of Israel, why is this come to pass in Israel, that there should be today one tribe lacking in Israel?” (21:3).

The fault was their own, in going too far in their zeal for purity, and the decimation of Israel, on both sides, was their punishment. Finally the leaders of this bitter civil war realized that they had indeed overstepped the bounds of reason. They now took some distinctly unusual steps, involving reprisals and kidnappings, to remedy, insofar as possible, the problem.

By these events the whole nation was disciplined and humbled and made to remember their essential unity as a nation, a unity that even extreme sins on the part of some should not be allowed to violate. Human nature has not changed from that day to this, and we often act still as though there is “no king in Israel”. We need as a brotherhood to remember that each of us shares in the same inheritance (21:17), and that we must with care and patience remove the defects of the body. Otherwise, the sword we lift up against our brethren may do irreparable harm to the whole house of Israel.

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