Harry Whittaker
Judges And Ruth

24. The Punishment of Benjamin (ch. 20)

The response to the Levite’s appeal was immediate and impressive. “As one man” (the phrase is used three times) the people came together in a formal national assembly at “the Mizpeh”. It is the only time in the entire Book of Judges that the people of Israel are found to be acting as a united nation. This fact is in itself one of the strongest proofs that this incident must be placed chronologically in the generation immediately after Joshua, for such national cohesion did not last long.

According to the maps and commentaries the place of meeting was Mizpeh-of-Benjamin, a few miles northwest of Jerusalem. But the evidence for the existence of such a Mizpeh is marvellously meagre. In a later study, reasons will be supplied for reading The Mizpeh as an alternative title for Shiloh, where the ark of God was, for the people assembled “unto the Lord in Mizpeh”. No place was more central than Shiloh, and there was also the added advantage of proximity to the territory of Benjamin. At Shiloh also the people would be able to ask counsel of the Lord by Urim and Thummim in the way that the narrative goes on to indicate.

First, there was careful investigation of the charge made against Gibeah. The Levite repeated his story. The charge was undefended, for the Benjamites had boycotted the enquiry. So great was the indignation of the rest that certain vigorous decisions were unanimously adopted. It was agreed not to let the matter drop until the criminals had been brought to book. It was also agreed to seek counsel of God by Urim and Thummim as to which tribe should carry out the necessary punitive measures, for it was already evident that the men of Benjamin would not take action against the sinners since it meant punishing their own folk.

This expectation proved to be well-founded, for when it was demanded of Benjamin that the men of Gibeah be handed over to the assembly, far from assisting the course of justice the Benjamites determined to resist what they deemed to be outside interference in their affairs, and armed themselves for war. It was not that they approved of the beastly violence of the lawless men of Gibeah. How, indeed, could they? Rather, their attitude was dictated by a proud unwillingness to admit that there was any wrong in Benjamin.

How like human nature! What man is there who has not at some time or another been perfectly aware of some wrong he has committed but who has bitterly resented the attempt of anyone else to point it out? Not for nothing is Pride included amongst the Seven Deadly Sins. How much better if Benjamin had turned these warlike inclinations against the idolaters of Jebus, the fairest city in Benjamite territory and with some of the holiest associations in the Land of Promise (Gen. 14 and 22) instead of embarking on civil war in Israel. In this they showed themselves more inconsistent than the men of Dan who gave way before the aggressive Philistines and Amorites, and instead fell upon the unwarlike and unsuspecting inhabitants of Laish.

Solemn determination

So intense was the feeling against Benjamin that the tribes bound themselves with a great oath not to intermarry with men so vile. Further, they judged that those Israelites who had refrained from attendance at the conference should be deemed to be in sympathy with wicked Benjamin, and therefore should be put to death (21:1,5). Reformers were ever given to ill-judged excesses such as these.

With Benjamin mobilising for war it was evident that justice could not be administered by peaceful means. It may be that Benjamite intransigence assumed divided counsels among the rest and also a marked reluctance to wage war against fellow-Israelites (v. 23).

It was anticipated that one tenth of the nation would suffice to bring home to the men of Benjamin, and Gibeah especially, the seriousness of their crime. This is the proper meaning of verse 10 which should probably read: ‘And we will take ten men of an hundred....for the pursuit on behalf of the people, they they may do, when they come to Gibeah of Benjamin, according to all the folly that they have wrought in Israel.’

It is worthwhile, here, to observe the close connection between this narrative in Judges 20 and Deuteronomy 13, the chapter which sets out the stringent measures to be taken against any Israelitish city encouraging idolatry. It is true that idolatry was not Gibeah’s sin, but the difference in degree from such apostasy was negligible, for the Gibeathite practices were closely akin to Amorite religious customs (Deut. 23:17,18). There can be little doubt that the leaders of Israel were consciously following the very policy prescribed in these words of Moses:

“If thou shalt hear say in one of thy cities, which the Lord thy God hath given thee to dwell there, saying, Certain men, the children of Belial, are gone out from among you, and have withdrawn the inhabitants of their city, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which ye have not known; then shalt thou enquire, and make search, and ask diligently; and, behold, if it be truth, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought among you; thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein, and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword. And thou shalt gather all the spoil of it into the midst of the street thereof, and shalt burn with fire the city, and all the spoil thereof every whit, for the Lord thy God: and it shall be an heap for ever; it shall not be built again” (Deut. 13:12-16).

It is therefore hardly wise to make sweeping denunciations of the men of Israel here in what was, after all, a sincere attempt to apply the difficult and unpalatable (v. 23) requirements of their divine law. These, at any rate, were scarcely men who were “doing what was right in their own eyes”. And their constant recourse to the sanctuary of the Lord throughout the campaign is further proof of their sincerity.

As commonly understood the number of the assembly at Mizpeh was enormous: “four hundred thousand footmen that drew sword”. Yet it may be doubted whether all of this huge army was actually marshalled at the rendezvous; for verse 2 reads: “And the chiefs of all the people, even of all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God (which were) four hundred thousand footmen that drew sword.” The words seem to be open to the interpretation that only the chiefs met before the Lord. If this be so, then once policy had been decided upon, the men of war in the various tribes would be ‘called up’ as required. But this is not the only difficulty which the numbers of this narrative involve (“Bible Studies”, 10.15).

Bible-guided policy

“And the children of Israel arose, and went up to the house of God, and asked counsel of God, and said, Which of us shall go up first to the battle against the children of Benjamin? And the Lord said, Judah shall go up first” (Jud. 20:18).

The “house of God” referred to here and in verse 31 can scarcely be Shiloh, for it was twenty miles away. Also, “the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days” might well imply that at this particular time the ark was not in its usual resting place. On the other hand, Bethel (the house of God, Gen. 28:17,19) was but a mile or two distant, and the topographical details (v. 31) about highways, which still follow exactly the same route, fit in nicely.

Once again Deuteronomy supplies the key to an understanding of the situation, and once again the leaders of Israel are seen to be following out most earnestly what they understood to be the teaching of the Word of God for the particular problem they were faced with: “And it shall be, when ye are come nigh unto the battle, that the priest shall approach and speak unto the people, and shall say unto them, Hear, O Israel, ye approach this day unto battle against your enemies: let not your hearts faint, fear not, and do not tremble, neither be ye terrified because of them; for the Lord your God is he that goeth with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you” (Deut. 20:2-4).

Accordingly Phinehas the high-priest and the ark of the covenant were now come as close to the field of battle as was reasonable, i.e. to Bethel, a holy place with many ancient patriarchal memories clustering round it, so that there might be opportunity for priestly exhortation and in order that divine counsel by Urim and Thummim might be immediately available for crucial decisions (Num. 27:21; “Samuel, Saul and David”, App. 1).

Failure — why?

Both the first and second attacks on Gibeah were disastrous. The men of Judah were beaten back with heavy loss of life. The slaughter in the first day’s fighting would be made good by the recruitment of others. Doubts as to whether the operation should be continued were set at rest by recourse to the divine oracle once again. Nevertheless in the next trial of strength there was further defeat almost as severe as at first.

Why was it that so well-intentioned a project foundered? Plainly all was not well in the camp of Israel. Where did the fault lie? The Jewish rabbis point to the Danite apostasy which was still recent history, and concerning which no retributive action had been taken. And in this they may be correct. But there is in this narrative itself a less remote reason than that.

Apparently (judging from 20:17; 21:9) in the record this campaign against Benjamin had been made the occasion of a census of Israel’s fighting men. But the Law required that whenever the people were numbered, each man must pay to the sanctuary of the Lord the half-shekel of redemption money, “that there be no plague when thou numberest them” (Exod. 30:12-16).

There is no suggestion in Judges 20 that anything of the kind was attempted on this occasion. So it may be that this disregard of the Law of God was visited with judgment in the successive defeats before Gibeah.

The tables turned

The men of Israel repented before the Lord at Bethel with weeping and fasting and offerings. Once again they were bidden go against the reprobates of Benjamin. What other decision could there be than this? For, if this judicial action were now to be dropped, the men of Gibeah would be confirmed in their vice and their fellows of Benjamin in their stubborn pride.

A further attempt was made, the men of Israel going literally in the strength of the Lord, for they had fasted. This time they tried out Joshua’s stratagem before Ai (Josh. 8), and the ruse succeeded perfectly, the more easily because of the over-weening confidence of the Benjamites in consequence of their previous victories. And after two crushing defeats, the men of Israel were not disposed to be lenient towards these men who, besides being such criminals, had slaughtered their fellows so ruthlessly in battle. Thus Gibeah was destroyed, and with it almost the entire tribe of Benjamin. That day Benjamin became “a son of sorrow” (Gen. 35:18), for there survived some six hundred men only, who fled for refuge to the impregnable natural fortress of the rock Rimmon.


From Dan to Beersheba. This implies that the Danite migration (ch. 18) had already taken place.
Four hundred thousand. Nearly all the numbers in this chapter are difficult. Perhaps one of the suggestions in “Bible Studies”, 10.15, may help.
Tell us. A plural verb, implying that both the Levite and his servant gave evidence.
Thought to have slain me. An exaggeration? or an added detail not included in ch. 19?
Twenty six hundred. Is it possible that in the small territory of Benjamin there were nearly forty other places as big as Gibeah? And out of 26,000 fighting men, only 700 (v. 16) who were expert slingers? The numbers problem again.
An appointed sign. Hebrew: mo’ed usually means a feast of the Lord. Then is the added meaning here: ‘God has blessed us and here we now offer sacrifice (the cherem) ’to Him’.
The flame of the city. The archaeologists have concluded that Gibeah was destroyed by fire somewhere about 1100 B.C. (this date is a bit late by Bible chronology).
Rimmon. Three miles east of Bethel.

Unto Gidom. Or: until they had cut them of:; s.w. 21:6

Next Next Next