Judges 20 War Between the Tribes of Israel

The Levite of Ephraim, A.F.Caminade (1837)

Judges 20

Then all the Israelites came out, from Dan to Beer-sheba, including the land of Gilead, and the congregation assembled in one body before the LORD at Mizpah. 2 The chiefs of all the people, of all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God, four hundred thousand foot-soldiers bearing arms. 3 (Now the Benjaminites heard that the people of Israel had gone up to Mizpah.) And the Israelites said, “Tell us, how did this criminal act come about?” 4 The Levite, the husband of the woman who was murdered, answered, “I came to Gibeah that belongs to Benjamin, I and my concubine, to spend the night. 5 The lords of Gibeah rose up against me, and surrounded the house at night. They intended to kill me, and they raped my concubine until she died. 6 Then I took my concubine and cut her into pieces, and sent her throughout the whole extent of Israel’s territory; for they have committed a vile outrage in Israel. 7 So now, you Israelites, all of you, give your advice and counsel here.”

8 All the people got up as one, saying, “We will not any of us go to our tents, nor will any of us return to our houses. 9 But now this is what we will do to Gibeah: we will go up against it by lot. 10 We will take ten men of a hundred throughout all the tribes of Israel, and a hundred of a thousand, and a thousand of ten thousand, to bring provisions for the troops, who are going to repay Gibeah of Benjamin for all the disgrace that they have done in Israel.” 11 So all the men of Israel gathered against the city, united as one.

12 The tribes of Israel sent men through all the tribe of Benjamin, saying, “What crime is this that has been committed among you? 13 Now then, hand over those scoundrels in Gibeah, so that we may put them to death, and purge the evil from Israel.” But the Benjaminites would not listen to their kinsfolk, the Israelites. 14 The Benjaminites came together out of the towns to Gibeah, to go out to battle against the Israelites. 15 On that day the Benjaminites mustered twenty-six thousand armed men from their towns, besides the inhabitants of Gibeah. 16 Of all this force, there were seven hundred picked men who were left-handed; every one could sling a stone at a hair, and not miss. 17 And the Israelites, apart from Benjamin, mustered four hundred thousand armed men, all of them warriors.

18 The Israelites proceeded to go up to Bethel, where they inquired of God, “Which of us shall go up first to battle against the Benjaminites?” And the LORD answered, “Judah shall go up first.”

19 Then the Israelites got up in the morning, and encamped against Gibeah. 20 The Israelites went out to battle against Benjamin; and the Israelites drew up the battle line against them at Gibeah. 21 The Benjaminites came out of Gibeah, and struck down on that day twenty-two thousand of the Israelites. 22 The Israelites took courage, and again formed the battle line in the same place where they had formed it on the first day. 23 The Israelites went up and wept before the LORD until the evening; and they inquired of the LORD, “Shall we again draw near to battle against our kinsfolk the Benjaminites?” And the LORD said, “Go up against them.”

24 So the Israelites advanced against the Benjaminites the second day. 25 Benjamin moved out against them from Gibeah the second day, and struck down eighteen thousand of the Israelites, all of them armed men. 26 Then all the Israelites, the whole army, went back to Bethel and wept, sitting there before the LORD; they fasted that day until evening. Then they offered burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being before the LORD. 27 And the Israelites inquired of the LORD (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, 28 and Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, ministered before it in those days), saying, “Shall we go out once more to battle against our kinsfolk the Benjaminites, or shall we desist?” The LORD answered, “Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand.”

29 So Israel stationed men in ambush around Gibeah. 30 Then the Israelites went up against the Benjaminites on the third day, and set themselves in array against Gibeah, as before. 31 When the Benjaminites went out against the army, they were drawn away from the city. As before they began to inflict casualties on the troops, along the main roads, one of which goes up to Bethel and the other to Gibeah, as well as in the open country, killing about thirty men of Israel. 32 The Benjaminites thought, “They are being routed before us, as previously.” But the Israelites said, “Let us retreat and draw them away from the city toward the roads.” 33 The main body of the Israelites drew back its battle line to Baal-tamar, while those Israelites who were in ambush rushed out of their place west of Geba. 34 There came against Gibeah ten thousand picked men out of all Israel, and the battle was fierce. But the Benjaminites did not realize that disaster was close upon them.

35 The LORD defeated Benjamin before Israel; and the Israelites destroyed twenty-five thousand one hundred men of Benjamin that day, all of them armed.

36 Then the Benjaminites saw that they were defeated. The Israelites gave ground to Benjamin, because they trusted to the troops in ambush that they had stationed against Gibeah. 37 The troops in ambush rushed quickly upon Gibeah. Then they put the whole city to the sword. 38 Now the agreement between the main body of Israel and the men in ambush was that when they sent up a cloud of smoke out of the city 39 the main body of Israel should turn in battle. But Benjamin had begun to inflict casualties on the Israelites, killing about thirty of them; so they thought, “Surely they are defeated before us, as in the first battle.” 40 But when the cloud, a column of smoke, began to rise out of the city, the Benjaminites looked behind them — and there was the whole city going up in smoke toward the sky! 41 Then the main body of Israel turned, and the Benjaminites were dismayed, for they saw that disaster was close upon them. 42 Therefore they turned away from the Israelites in the direction of the wilderness; but the battle overtook them, and those who came out of the city were slaughtering them in between. 43 Cutting down the Benjaminites, they pursued them from Nohah and trod them down as far as a place east of Gibeah. 44 Eighteen thousand Benjaminites fell, all of them courageous fighters. 45 When they turned and fled toward the wilderness to the rock of Rimmon, five thousand of them were cut down on the main roads, and they were pursued as far as Gidom, and two thousand of them were slain. 46 So all who fell that day of Benjamin were twenty-five thousand arms-bearing men, all of them courageous fighters. 47 But six hundred turned and fled toward the wilderness to the rock of Rimmon, and remained at the rock of Rimmon for four months. 48 Meanwhile, the Israelites turned back against the Benjaminites, and put them to the sword — the city, the people, the animals, and all that remained. Also the remaining towns they set on fire.

The Israelites gather as an assembly to hear an accounting for the gruesome message they have received. The location of Mizpah is significant in the story of the Judges, it is where Jephthah lived and where his daughter’s coming out to meet him results in her sacrifice because of his promise to God. Here the story of the sacrificed daughter and the sacrificed concubine come together in this final tragic tale. The Levite shares his version of the narrative which simplifies the story and lays the blame on the ‘lords of Gibeah.’ This condensed retelling attempts to remove the question that lingered in the previous story about who killed the concubine and to portray the Levite in a more positive manner. The Levites words manage to convince the gathered assembly to act.

The gathered forces of Israel and Benjamin here in this final story of Judges is significantly different than the numbers reported generations earlier in the book of Numbers. As Barry Webb can highlight,

Assuming the ratio between the number of men eligible for call-up and the total population remains relatively constant, these figures indicate a decline of almost 30 percent in Israel’s population in the Joshua-Judges period. Despite the victories under Joshua, Israel has not prospered since its arrival. (Webb, 2012, p. 481)

While I do not want to put too much emphasis on the contrast between Numbers 26 and Judges 20, it is consistent with the narrative of Judges which has shown Israel as a divided and often oppressed community. The generations in the promised land have lost their identity as the people of God by adopting the practices of the Canaanites and other residents of the land and they have diminished as a people. Unlike the Christian demarcation of the Bible which includes Judges as a part of history, the Jewish demarcation views it as a part of the prophets and this narrative becomes an enactment of the cost of disobedience to God’s covenant way. The narration of the time of the Judges is viewed through the theology of the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy (see for example Deuteronomy 28) and the tragedy is a result of the lack of obedience to the way that Moses and Joshua handed on to the people. This final episode was brought about by a portion of Israel being indistinguishable from Sodom. Now the assembly of Israel has to reckon with how they will respond to the violence that has occurred in their midst.

There is an attempt at a peaceful solution when the Israelites ask the tribe of Benjamin to surrender the ‘scoundrels’[1] who have committed this action against the Levite and his concubine. Perhaps there is some skepticism of the Levite’s narrative where the perpetrators are the ‘lords of Gibeah’ but regardless there is an attempt at a solution that does not involve a war between the tribes of Israel. Yet, Benjamin remains defiant and mobilizes to defend Gibeah. Israel inquires of God whether they are to engage in conflict and the bloodletting in Israel begins. The Benjaminites are viewed as equivalent to the Canaanites, a point that is reinforced by the parallel of Judah being called to go first, just like in Judges 1:2 against the Canaanites.

The casualties in the first two days are catastrophic: ten percent of the gathered Israelite forces. The magnitude of slaughter is difficult to comprehend but the loss of 40,000 men is close to the casualties on both sides of the battle of Gettysburg (between 46-51,000) and that does not account for the Benjaminite losses on day three. The cry of the Israelites before the LORD after the two days of devastating losses causes them to ask if they are to continue this conflict, but through Phineas the grandson of Aaron they are instructed to go back for one final day of warfare. In the final day better tactics and God’s ‘handing over’ of the Benjaminites turns the tide and brings the tribe of Benjamin to the brink of collapse. Gibeah now becomes like the Canaanite town of Ai during the time of Joshua (Joshua 8: 19, 24) and is utterly destroyed and then once the fighting men of Benjamin are dispatched the same fate awaits the remaining towns. Benjamin is dedicated to destruction and only a small remnant of escaped soldiers remains of the tribe.

Violence has begat violence and death has called out for more death. The violent rape and murder of one woman has now resulted in the death of the women (and children, animals, and men) of an entire tribe. Israel’s loss of unity and identity has led to the near extinction of one of the tribes. Yet this morally ambiguous tale is not over. More women are impacted by the actions of men in the coming chapter. Unfortunately, at this point in Israel’s story it is not a safe place to be a woman. Israel has proven to be its own worst enemy. The actions of Gibeah demanded a response but one has to wonder if the blood of combatants and innocents also cry for a different way. One can hope that the numbers reflected here are hyperbole and read the narrative as a disconnected observer of a conflict between to military forces. Yet, the pernicious cycle of disobedience has led Israel to the brink. Without a leader to unify the people and reorient them to the ways of God we are left with a dystopian narrative of violent men, rivers of blood, and a story we would rather forget but its inclusion within our cannon demands our telling and reckoning with it. It is, to adopt Phyliss Trible’s term, a text of terror. It serves as a prophetic reminder that a world without leaders where everyone does what is right in their own eyes is the hellish opposite of the covenant vision for the people entering the promised land.

[1] This is again ‘sons of Belial’ as in the previous chapter

2 thoughts on “Judges 20 War Between the Tribes of Israel

  1. Pingback: The Book of Judges | Sign of the Rose

  2. Pingback: 1 Kings 15: 1-31 Kings Abijam and Asa of Judah, King Nadab of Israel and the Unending Conflict Between the Two Nations | Sign of the Rose

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