This article is a Bible study on Judges 20–21.

Source: The Outlook, 2009. 7 pages.

Judges 20–21

We have arrived at the last section in the book of Judges. In chapter 19, we reached an all-time low in Israel’s history with the horrible sins of the Gibeonites, who were of the tribe of Benjamin. These last two chapters, which tell us of one event, candidly show us just how far Israel has fallen, giving us a view of their twisted, sinful minds. The conclusion of the book of Judges is anything but a happy ending. It is a depressing, horribly discouraging book. Throughout the whole book, we have been searching for a deliverer. We have studied some judges who did pretty well, some who messed up, and others who just downright failed. But none of them brought unity to the tribes of Israel, and none of them brought lasting deliverance. At the end of the book, Israel was still in the clutches of Canaanite occupation and in the clutches of their sin. The book leaves us searching for a deliverer, longing for salvation.

We left chapter 19 with various and sundry body pieces circling through Israel via UPS, causing the Israelites to call a meeting. Verses 1–3 set the stage; in fact all three verses say the same thing; nothing happens until the end of verse 3. The narrator went out of his way to tell us that the people were unified. Verse 1 tells us that all the people of Israel, from Dan (the northern boundary) to Beersheba (the southern boundary), including the land of Gilead (the trans-Jordan lands) came. Everyone came. And not only did everyone come, but they came “united as one man.” This was all of the Israelites, from every tribe. Why have they come? What was the focal point of their assembly? The Bible says that they came to the LORD at Mizpah. Not one of the judges in this entire book achieved this kind of response! This was unheard of in the book of Judges. This assembly sets up an expectation that something good is going to happen.

Verse 2 tells us that it is not just the people who assembled, but their chiefs, too. The meeting is referred to as “an assembly of the people of God.” Assembly is a word used in covenant renewal ceremonies, where the people recommitted themselves to the LORD.

Verse 2 also adds the detail that there were four hundred thousand men at this assembly. This was about the size of our current United States army. This was enormous, especially in comparison with other armies of Scripture. It reiterates the fact that all the people were united. It makes us wonder where all these people have been during the rest of the book of Judges. If they had shown up earlier, they could have defeated the Canaanites, and this book would not have had to happen.

Verse 3a adds a parenthetical statement. Benjamin, the offending tribe, was not there. This verse distinguishes Benjamin from Israel and tells us that “all” does not include Benjamin. Benjamin knew what was happening; they would have received one of the twelve pieces of the body, but they did not come.

The first scene of this epic was a question and answer period. The Israelites asked the Levite why he had sent them the body parts. They asked “How did this evil happen?” The true answer was that they had ignored God and His laws; they had done what was right in their own eyes. They had failed to press on in defeating the Canaanites, and they became worse than the Canaanites. Compare that with the answer that the Levite gave.

The Levite is described as the “husband of the murdered woman.” He could better have been described as the man who left this woman to die on the doorstep. This positive description of him prepares us for the way in which he is going to present himself. What was his answer? How did this evil happen? He told the assembly that he came to Gibeah, which belonged to Benjamin; the leaders came out wanting to kill him; they raped his concubine, and she died. This is rather different from the story in Judges 19. He omitted that little bit about him shoving his concubine out of the door to the men. Chapter 19 said that the rapists were the worthless men of Gibeah, but according to the Levite, it was “the leaders,” which made it sound like the whole town was in on the rape. He also said that the men surrounded the house (which was true) with the intent of killing him (which was not true). This was not a complete fabrication; they might have killed him if they had had their way with him and raped him violently as they did his concubine. He also did not mention anything about his loving and caring response to his concubine in the morning (“Hey, get up, let’s go.”). He said that he cut her body up and sent it out “throughout the country of the inheritance of Israel” (which is what it was meant to be, but was not yet). He ended his little speech by calling for advice and counsel. What is wrong with this picture? According to Deuteronomy, for such charges to be laid against anyone, let alone a whole town, there needed to be at least two witnesses to make the accusation. This was a genuine offense, but there was only one witness, they only knew his side of the story, and we have seen that it was not entirely true.

In verses 8–11, the people of Israel came to a decision. Both verse 8 and 11 remind us again that the people were united as one man. They were assembled against Benjamin, especially against Gibeah. They decided to punish Benjamin for their wicked act and sent out a tenth of their forces to take vengeance on Gibeah. What is missing from all of this? The LORD.

In verses 12–13, the tribes of Israel appealed to the Benjamites. They asked them to give up the worthless fellows so that the Israelites could put them to death and “purge the evil from Israel.” It is interesting that the Israelites called the offenders “worthless fellows” instead of the leaders like the Levite had said. The Benjamites would not listen to the voice of “their brothers.” The issue at stake here was Benjamin’s relationship and loyalty. How does Benjamin fit within the relationship of the Israelites tribes? Which of their two loyalties was stronger, their family unit (the people in Gibeah) or the covenantal ties with Israel? Benjamin decided to muster their men and stand beside the inhabitants of Gibeah. The battle lines were drawn. Israel was engaging in civil war.

Benjamin had twenty-six thousand men; Gibeah had seven hundred. Israel had four hundred thousand men of war. Both sides had skilled warriors on their side. This was going to result in many deaths. These soldiers, who should have been fighting together against the Canaanites, were going to be fighting against each other.

In verse 18, the Israelites inquired of the LORD, “who should go up first?” Those words should sound familiar. It was exactly where the book of Judges began in chapter 1. There, Israel also inquired of the LORD who should go first into battle. There is one key and crucial difference, however. Here, they are fighting against Israel instead of against the heathens! What a terrible contrast! How far Israel has fallen! They did not even think to ask “should we go up?” The only time Israel was ever fully unified was to engage in this civil war, instead of uniting to fight the heathen.

The strange thing is, the LORD answered them. If this was such a bad situation, such a bad decision, why did the LORD answer them? Think. When bad things happen in the midst of God’s people, does He refuse to answer them? Not always. The LORD was setting them up for failure. In the same way, an answer to our prayers does not necessarily mean we are following God’s will. We can pray ridiculous things like, “If it is your will that I marry Joel, let there be mint chocolate chip ice cream available in the cafeteria today,” or, “If you want me to take this job, let an acceptance letter be in the mail when I get home.”

Sounds ridiculous, does it not? There are people who do things like that. They set up little tests for God and think that if they are answered, it must be God answering. In Ezekiel 14, the LORD says, “I will not answer them except in terms of their idols.” Sometimes the LORD spoke to Israel through false prophets in order to give them what they wanted to hear, to set them up for failure, to teach them a lesson. He sometimes does the same thing when we set up silly little tests for Him, too. He is able to work His purposes without endorsing the actions used. In one sense, this civil war is right: Gibeah certainly deserves to be destroyed for its crime, and if Benjamin sided with them, they should be punished, too. This whole situation is wrong.

Verses 19–21 describe the first battle. It was an overwhelming victory for the smaller side. This sort of thing happens all the time in the Bible; the smaller side wins because the LORD helps them. But in this battle, we are not sure who to root for; neither side was right; both sides were in sin, and this whole civil war thing is just a horrible situation for God’s covenant people to be in.

In verses 22–23, the Israelites regrouped. This time, they went before the LORD with weeping, asking if they should attack again. As in chapter 2, the Israelites were again going through the motions, trying to get God on their side, but not at all repentant or sorry. And again, the LORD set them up for failure. It is always strange when people say that they are doing something because they claim “the Lord told me to.” Here is an instance where the LORD “told” someone to do something, and eighteen thousand of their own men ended up dead! Here is just one more reason to be scared when people claim that they got a special message from the LORD to do something.

In verses 26–29, the Israelites, the whole army, went up to Bethel and wept. They fasted, offered offerings, and inquired of the LORD. There is even mention of a real priest, descended from Aaron, and the ark of the covenant. Do not be too impressed with their piety, though. Until they have actions and hearts to match their pious religious display, God will hate their offerings and their worship, for He desires obedience more than sacrifice. The other times, they prepared first and then asked. They offered the LORD an option. “Shall we go out once more to battle, or shall we cease?” This time, the LORD responded differently, telling them to go out for He would give Benjamin into their hands.

Verses 30–35 tell the new battle plans. This time, Israel set an ambush instead of drawing battle lines (very similar to Joshua’s plan for Ai). A few soldiers created a ruse, forming battle lines as before. The people of Benjamin went out against them. Once the Benjamites had the Israelites on the run, the rest of the Israelites, who had been hidden away until this point, came out and routed them, destroying their city and destroying many Benjamites. And the LORD defeated Benjamin. Only six hundred Benjamite men remained.

Benjamin was defeated. Chapter 21:1 gives us a flashback to a vow made before the battle at the meeting at Mizpah. The Israelites had vowed “No one of us shall give his daughter in marriage to Benjamin.” There was a biblical basis for punishing Gibeah and those Benjamites who declared covenant solidarity with Gibeah. But this vow was entirely different. Israel was more than happy to give their daughters to Canaanite husbands. This was a vow that they should have made concerning the Canaanites. If only they had been this conscientious about their covenantal commitment to destroy the Canaanites. Judges 21 lays out the moral gymnastics that the Israelites had to go through to keep their vow. They basically said “Heaven forbid that we break a vow, so let us break every other commandment in order to keep it.”

To figure out what to do about this vow, the Israelites again travel to Bethel. Here again we have an assembling before the LORD. They wept bitterly, built an altar and offered many offerings. There was weeping, sacrifice, but what was missing? A response from the LORD. They asked the LORD a question: “Why has this happened in Israel, that today there should be one tribe lacking?” But He did not respond. They should have known the answer. It should have been staring them right in the face. It is their wickedness that has caused this tragedy.

The Israelites did not really notice or care that God did not respond. Instead of saying “and the LORD said,” we are told “the people of Israel said.” They had compassion for Benjamin and tried to figure out how to find them wives, without breaking their vows. There were 600 Benjamites left; where could they find 600 women? They had much zeal for this; they really wanted to find a solution. Why could they not have had this zeal for doing God’s will? So, Benjamin needed wives and they could not give them their daughters. What should they have done?

The only good answer would be to rewind their lives and start over; they should not have done these things in the first place. They could have identified this oath as a bad oath — there were provisions for people who swore foolish oaths in Leviticus. So, they could repent, offer a few sacrifices, and purify themselves, and the problem would be solved. What Israel was doing for Benjamin was exactly what Benjamin did for Gibeah in chapter 20. Gibeah had sinned. Benjamin had placed more importance on Gibeah than on the covenant. Now Benjamin sinned, and Israel placed solidarity with them above obedience to God’s Law.

In verses 10–12, the Israelites figured out that Jabesh-Gilead had not come to the mustering. They decided to destroy it and kidnap their virgins to give to Benjamin. So, they sent twelve thousand of their best men to destroy a peaceful, quiet city. They attacked and killed every man, married woman, and child, and then abducted four hundred virgins. This is the same thing that the old man in Gibeah was willing to do in chapter 19. “Here, take my virgin daughter and do whatever you want with her,” he had said. Now, Israel was fulfilling the same kind of role as that old man, facilitating the same kind of abuse.

The Israelites then took the virgins to Shiloh. Notice in verse 12 that it mentions that “Shiloh was in the land of Canaan.” Shiloh was where the Ark was. It was supposed to be the heartland of Israel, but it is identified as Canaanite.

In verse 13, the whole congregation sent word to what was left of Benjamin, proclaiming peace. On what basis did they declare peace? There was no repentance by Benjamin; they never said that they were wrong to have sided with Gibeah. No change, just peace, peace, when there was no peace. This was not justice; this was not repentance; this was just being tired of fighting.

However, there was a problem. There were six hundred Benjamite men and only four hundred virgins. So, they decided to go get more women. Notice that nobody asked how the women felt about all this. Why did they do this? Verse 15 tells us that they did it out of compassion on Benjamin “because the LORD had caused a breach in the tribes of Israel.” Wait, who caused this breach? Israel certainly was not an innocent bystander.

Israel was obsessed with maintaining the formal order of the twelve tribes. They did not feel that they had to live like a holy nation; they did not have any problem with intermingling with the nations around them; they did not have a problem with Baal and Asherah, but they needed to have all twelve tribes accounted for! They had compassion on Benjamin because they thought it was all the LORD’s fault. They valued their warm fuzzy kinship feelings over God’s will.

This warm fuzzy compassion led them to advise the 200 wife-less Benjamites to go kidnap some virgins from the religious festival at Shiloh. They were committed to not giving them wives from among their daughters because they had vowed not to. They have broken every other commandment, but they had to keep their vow. So, the Benjamites jumped out from behind some bushes, grabbed a wife, and high-tailed it back to their homes. In verse 22, the Israelites anticipated the objections of these girls’ fathers and brothers. The leaders decided that the best thing to tell them would be “at least you did not break your vow.” Because these girls were forcibly taken, not given, the vow was kept. Now everyone can be happy, right? Notice who is not getting consulted here — the virgins. They were probably not too thrilled with the husbands they got, but no one cared. Once more, the elders of the people were acting just like the old man of Gibeah in Judges 19. In order to deal with the problem, they facilitated the rape of 200 more women. In Judges 19, we started with one woman raped and murdered. By the end of the book, we have six hundred women raped and tons of men murdered.

The narrator concluded the book by stating the obvious: everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

Israel is so lost, so reprobate. By the end of this book, it is more of a sinful nation than it is a church, a chosen people of God. In this chapter, they are much more concerned with preserving their nation than about obeying God, so Israel became Canaanized. What happens when the Church become Canaanized, exactly like the culture around us? Just look around you. The divorce rate is the same within and outside of the church. The number of teens having pre-marital sex is the same within and outside of the church. There is no difference in the statistics of how people within and outside of the church behave. Our churches are plagued by an outward appearance of religiosity, when inside, they are rotting. We use all the right words and wear all the right T-shirts and pray all the right prayers, but there is no difference between most people in the church and in the world. We believe that God exists, but He is not a reality to us. He is just out there somewhere, far away. All of the trappings of serving Him are still in place, but His reality has utterly disappeared. This chapter of Judges is shocking because it shows just where the American church is heading. We are not cutting people up into pieces or pushing people outside to get gang raped, but we are being Canaanized just as much as Israel was.

The Israelites were so obsessed with keeping their vows that they forgot true obedience. There are certain little laws that we, like the Pharisees, are careful to keep, but the weightier matters like mercy or justice are ignored. We keep certain rules, but the substance of serving God gets totally lost. What sorts of rules do you obsess over? You can gossip and slander all you want, but you never take a whiff of tobacco. You obsess over abstinence and keeping your virginity, but you have no concern over guarding your heart and keeping yourself free from lust. You would never even think of letting a drop of alcohol meet your tongue, but you succumb to pride daily. You do your daily devotions without fail, but you hold grudges against your fellow Christian. You go to both services every Sunday, but never really keep the Lord’s Day in your heart, never keeping it with love and Christian unity. All these things are just outward structures without any true foundation. The Israelites had compassion for the Benjamites, but not for the women being raped. Those women were just nameless people. We can be very concerned for our friends and the people immediately around us, but not with our brothers and sisters around the world.

The Israelites wanted compassion, peace, and inheritance. They wanted to show compassion to the Benjamites; they wanted peace with their lost brothers, and they used human strategies to achieve it. Human strategies only succeed in multiplying sin. Human efforts to solve these problems of sin do not cut it. There is no real peace at the end of this book, only a return to the status quo of total depravity.

We are where Benjamin was; more than that, we are where Gibeah was. We are sinners, men of unclean lips, and we show solidarity to other sinners; we are quite comfortable in our sin, and it does not trouble us in the least. There are two trajectories that the people of Benjamin were offered. First, they were threatened with judgment from the Israelites. That is what we deserve, to be totally wiped out as most of Benjamin was. Second, Benjamin was offered cheap grace from the elders of Israel. It did not cost the men of Benjamin anything. The result was a return to the status quo of sin. We can find temporary situations to deal with our sin that make us feel comfortable, but really do not solve anything. We merely live in a fake, hypocritical world. What we need is a radical change, a solution that actually deals with our sin.

But sin never just disappears. It can never just be waved away. Sin needs to be dealt with. Simple forgiveness does not wipe away the cost. For instance, if someone totals your car, you can forgive him, but you still expect him to pay for the damages. We need our sin to be totally dealt with. On the cross, Christ paid for our sin in a way that enables us to be really forgiven. We can now receive our inheritance ultimately because of what God has done in bringing the ultimate King. Sinners killed that King, but that ultimate act of rebellion is the way through which our sins were ultimately paid for. Here is the source of hope for Benjamin, hope for us, and hope for Paul, a Benjamite who wrote that now there is therefore no condemnation for us in Christ Jesus. The human strategy of finagling around sin does not work. It only leads to death and destruction. We are completely lost in sin. Our only hope is through what Christ has done on the cross. 

Lesson 20: Points to Ponder

  1. How and why do we often fight against our fellow Christians rather than against the world? When is it proper? When is it improper?
  2. How are we at times guilty of simply going through the acts of worship? Are there times when we listen to what “the people say” instead of what God has said?
  3. Why do you suppose that God gave the victory to Benjamin in the early stages of the battle?
  4. Has the church today become like Canaan?
  5. What is corporate sin? How does this passage illustrate the wickedness of corporate sin?
  6. The author of Judges frequently points out that there was no king in the land. Would the future generations be any better because they had a king? How is sin to be dealt with? What kind of king do we need?

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