by Pastor Mark Hudson
Judges 20 is descriptive not normative or prescriptive, as if I needed to mention that. In other words, these chapters are describing not prescribing these actions as normal. In fact, what we witness is the opposite of what God intended for the conquest, taking, and living in the land of Israel. Rather than kicking the Canaanites out of God’s promised land so holiness, justice, and righteousness would reign, Israel allowed not only the Canaanites to live in the land, but the Canaanites also dwelt within the hearts and minds of Israel. As Darrell Block calls this apostasy it is the “Canaanization of Israelite society” (https://www.preceptaustin.org/judges_commentaries see first article under miscellaneous resources, judges, conservative, evangelical).
The two refrains we read often is “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes” ( 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25. “ And the people of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord” (3:7, 3:12, 4:1, 6:1, 10:6, 13:1). This does not mean; God was teaching them a King would solve all their problems. There are a few angles to consider about this first phrase. First, the author is pleading for an objective standard. Clearly the absence of that standard hurt Israel. We find that now in the inerrant Scripture that is breathed out from God. The Bible is our final authority. Second, the author rightly thought a king would help. He was both right and wrong. He was right because a king was coming in Saul, then David, Solomon and the divided kingdom occurred during Solomon’s reign. After these kings, the kings who followed ushered in more chaos. Yet, the author was right because God would provide a king, but He would also provide The King, our Lord Jesus. But he was wrong in the sense that kings did not really help curtail the sin of Israel. Theoretically, they could and should have. But the kings all sinned and both helped and hurt Israel. Third, his refrain, ‘in those days there was no king in Israel’ suggests an earlier date for the composition of the book, maybe even before David’s reign. If the author wrote after the divided kingdom, the author may not have longed for a king after seeing the mess the kings made.
For our chapter, this one horrendous act, was made into a national crisis by the heinous act of 19:29, when the Levite butchered his concubine and sent pieces of her body throughout Israel. There are just so very many things wrong in this chapter. Yet, it keeps getting worse. All Israel meets at Mizpah. Notice the Levite’s description in v. 4-7 which holds back information to make the Levite look better. The treatment of women in this chapter is stomach turning. Can you imagine the woman’s face when she saw the Levite look at her to grab her and throw her out to this wild mob (19:25). How horrified she must have felt. This is one of the worst acts of abuse in the Bible done by the ‘Levite’ and all the men involved.
This begins a series of rash, hurried, poorly-thought-out plans. As you read these events, you are reading how the leaders of Israel are not serving others, they are abusing them. Unfortunately for the tribe of Benjamin, they look worse (if that could be possible) than Israel. For some reason, 400,000 men, ready to fight, come together to Mizpah to get vengeance. They ask for a report which is tailored to make the Levite look better than he is. He leaves our significant details like how she died. The reader does not know, nor will the Levite tell us. All he says is, “and she is dead” v. 5. As horrific as it was, an angry group of men ready to fight is not the best first step. But that is what is happening at Mizpah.
In vs. 8-12, the group decide that they will choose by lot who goes to war and who will send provisions. They are united in this plan. After the decide to go to war, they ask God who should go up first and Judah is named (v. 18). In vs. 12ff, after traveling to Benjamin, they ask Benjamin to hand over the men of Gibeah so these scoundrels may be killed. Sadly, Benjamin defends the sin of Gibeah. So, war commences in v. 20. A war begins with 400,00 men of Israel vs. 26,700 men of Benjamin. The first day of battle, according to v. 21, 22,000 men of Israel die (because of v. 16?). They cry out to God after this deep loss but are told to go up again. This time Israel loses 18,000. They make more urgent pleas to God at Bethel. God tells them the battle will end tomorrow in victory for Israel.
The third day, 18,000 men of Benjamin die (v. 44), then 7,000 when Israel pursues the fleeing Benjamites. There are 600 that are hidden in caves staying for four months. On their return home, Israel kills everyone living in the towns of Benjamin as well as destroying the towns with fire. They are out of control.
One could not predict the conclusion of this incident and the book in chapter 21. As Daniel Block suggests, this is the ‘canaanization of Israel.’ Rather than destroy the inhabitants of Canaan, they let them live. Rather than be just, cautious, wise, and prudent in discipline, Israel (almost completely) destroys one tribe. This all happened because the Levite did not want to spend a night in a non-Israelite city. Gibeah acted worse than Jebus probably would have.
Our dear heavenly, loving Father. We are rightfully strong in our condemnation of this cruel Levite, the wicked men of Gibeah, and the number of bad actors in this story. But we do not have this same sense of condemnation for the way we worship a suffering Savior yet rarely suffer ourselves. We can be American Christians first rather than Christians who live in America. Our dreams are molded by personal peace and affluence. Lord, keep us from such scandalous sin. Give us leaders that strive for personal holiness, know Your Word, and love the flock. Finally, help us to look at the ways we buy into the American dream and bring us to repentance. Help us to always believe in the grace of our Lord Jesus. In Christ’s glorious name. Amen.