March 25 Reading: Judges 19-21 Commentary
“In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)
Judges 19 – A Levite and His Concubine
What is going on in Ephraim? First, the idolatry started by Micah in Judges 17. Now we have a gruesome story about a Levite from Ephraim who took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah as his wife (v. 1).
The relationship seems to be a rocky one. We are told the concubine “played the harlot against him” (v. 2), which sounds like she slept with another man. Presumably disgraced by her actions, she returned to her father in Bethlehem.
Four months went by and the Levite goes to Bethlehem “to speak kindly to her and bring her back” (v. 3). Relations between the Levite and the father-in-law goes so well that the Levite ends up staying for a total of five days (vv. 4-9).
Having left late on the fifth day, the Levite and concubine have difficulty finding lodging. They forego staying in Jebus (aka Jerusalem), opting to go a few miles west to the town of Gibeah (vv. 12-13). When they arrive though, “no one would take them into his house to spend the night” (v. 15).
One old man though, coming in from the fields, invited the Levite and the concubine into his house. He provided for their donkeys and gave them food and water to drink. He even washed their feet (v. 16-21).
Is This Sodom and Gomorrah?
Judges 19:22-25 reads almost exactly like Genesis 19:1-8. In Genesis, angels had gone to Sodom to see the depth of wickedness in the city. During their time with their host, men from the city beat on the door of the house, asking for the host to bring the men [angels] out so they could know them sexually. The host refused, offering his daughters up to the men instead.
A similar scenario unfolds here in Judges. Perverted men of the Gibeah beat on the door of the house and say, “Bring out the man who came to your house, that we may know him carnally!” (v. 22)
The master of the house refused saying, “No, my brethren! I beg you, do not act so wickedly! Seeing this man has come into my house, do not commit this outrage. Look, here is my virgin daughter and the man’s concubine; let me bring them out now. Humble them, and do with them as you please; but to this man do not do such a vile thing!” (vv. 23-24)
The men of the city wouldn’t listen. So instead, the Levite took his concubine and let the men abuse her all night (v. 25).
An Unheard of Conclusion
In the morning, the concubine was found dead at the door of the man’s house where the Levite was staying. (v. 28). The Levite left, taking the woman with him to his place.
And this is where the story gets really gruesome. At his home, the Levite took a knife and cut the dead woman into 12 pieces. He then proceeded to send one piece to each of the 12 tribes. Who received each piece we do not know. But the incident garnered national attention.
Why would he do something like this? Perhaps it was a call to arms, to fight for what is right. Maybe he was trying to demonstrate the depth of depravity Israel had reached. Either way, it was a shock-factor move.
Indeed, the people who knew about it said, “No such deed has been done or seen from the day that the children of Israel came up from the land of Egypt until this day” (v. 30). We don’t know if they were referring to the dismemberment of the woman or the rape and murder of the woman at the hands of the men of Gibeah. But that statement is saying something considering all the unusual things that had happened since leaving Egypt.
Judges 20 – War Against Your Own People
It seems as though the Levites horrific action of sending body pieces of his dead concubine around Israel had the intended effect. “…all the children of Israel came out, from Dan to Beersheba, as well as from the land of Gilead, and the congregation gathered together as one man before the Lord at Mizpah” (v. 1). 400,000 foot soldiers and all the chiefs of the people gathered together at Mizpah.
The assembly wanted to know firsthand what had happened that prompted the Levite to take this drastic action (v. 3). So the Levite recounts the events that transpired at Gibeah (vv. 4-6). In conclusion, he wants to know what the men of Israel will do about it saying, “Look! All of you are children of Israel; give your advice and counsel here and now!” (v. 7).
To their credit, the men of Israel recognized the atrocity that happened. They vowed, “None of us will go to his tent, nor will any turn back to his house; but now this is the thing which we will do to Gibeah: We will go up against it by lot” (vv. 8-9). In other words, they are going to fight against the city and hold them accountable for their wickedness.
The men of Israel gather against the city, “united as one man” (v. 11). That is an interesting comment that they were united. We haven’t seen Israel united as one throughout the entire book of Judges. It again reflects how disgraceful this act was that it drew everyone together for a common cause.
To their credit, the men of Israel showed restraint. They asked the leaders of Gibeah to deliver up the specific men who had committed the act so that “we may put them to death and remove this wickedness from Israel.” Unfortunately, “…the sons of Benjamin would not listen to the voice of their brothers” (vv. 12-13).
So instead of handing over the men and ending the conflict before it began, they gathered 26,000 men from the surrounding cities in Benjamin to go fight against Israel. They had some specialists in the army – 700 men who were left-handed and “could cling a stone at a hair and not miss” (vv. 15-16). Maybe they thought that gave them an advantage. However, with 26,000 going against 400,000, the odds are not in Benjamin’s favor.
War Against Benjamin
It is important to note that Israel did inquire of God before going to battle against the tribe of Benjamin (v. 18). When they do, the Lord assigns the tribe of Judah to lead.
The first day of battle does not go well for Israel. 22,000 men of Israel die (v. 21). We have no explanation as to why this happened. What we do know is that it drove Israel to weep and cry out to the Lord again.
They asked the Lord if they should continue the battle for another day (v. 23). The Lord said “Yes.” So Israel obeyed and on day two, they lost 18,000 men (v. 25).
After that, Israel’s armies are distraught. That night, they fasted until evening and offered burnt offerings to the Lord. And again, they inquired of the Lord about what to do saying, “Shall I yet again go out to battle against the children of my brother Benjamin, or shall I cease?” (v. 28)
God’s answer this time is more definitive. He says, “Go up, for tomorrow I will deliver them into your hand.”
Israel did indeed go. And this time, with the help of some strategic planning and an ambush (like at Ai – see Joshua 8), they route Benjamin (vv. 29-46). All told, they kill 25,100 men of Benjamin that day. That’s roughly 96% of the fighting force from Benjamin. Later, we read only 600 men of Benjamin escaped (v. 47).
(One interesting side note – Verse 27 mentions Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron as being alive at this time. So clearly this chapter is not placed chronologically in the book. Too many years had passed for Phinehas to be alive if the event occurred in a chronological timeframe.)
Judges 21 – Wives for Benjamin’s Men
Now that the battle was over, the men of Israel are feeling remorse. They’ve essentially wiped out an entire tribe of Israel. To make matters worse, before the battle, the men of Israel had sworn an oath saying they would not give their own women to the men of Benjamin to be their wives (v. 1). So without wives, these men could not have children. Thus, the tribe was facing eventually extinction.
They devise a plan to provide wives, although the methods are questionable. First, they realized that Jabesh Gilead had not answered the battle call for Israel. They sent no men to fight against Benjamin (v. 9). This was turning a blind eye to the Levite’s call to arms.
So they sent 12,000 select men to Jabesh Gilead and killed all the men, women (who had known a man) and children (vv. 10-11). When finished, they found 400 virgins and brought them for the men of Benjamin (vv. 13-14).
But it wasn’t quite enough. And they could not go back on the oath they had made before the battle (vv. 17-18). So how would they make up the difference?
Catch a Wife
One wouldn’t condone the following marriage strategy. But, in order to make up the difference, the men of Israel said to the men of Benjamin:
“…there is a yearly feast of the Lord in Shiloh…Go, lie in wait in the vineyards, and watch; and just when the daughters of Shiloh come out to perform their dances, then come out from the vineyards, and every man catch a wife for himself from the daughters of Shiloh…” (vv. 19-21)
So basically, abduct (steal) a wife. No justification for this action is given other than the men of Benjamin just needed a wife.
They further said,
“Then it shall be, when their fathers or their brothers come to us to complain, that we will say to them, ‘Be kind to them for our sakes, because we did not take a wife for any of them in the war; for it is not as though you have given the women to them at this time, making yourselves guilty of your oath'” (v. 22).
So by doing it this way, the men of Benjamin could get a wife and the men of Israel would not break their oath to not give them wives of their own. So that’s how the tribe of Benjamin survived, albeit at a very reduced capacity going forward.
Judges Conclusion – In Their Own Eyes
The events of Judges are at times extreme. So much seems to happen that is abnormal and outside the bounds of typical human functioning. It’s hard to imagine people or a nation behaving in such disturbing ways. However, there are some passages and verses in the Bible that give us a clear picture of what life was like for the people in those times.
Judges concludes with one such verse. It completely sums up what was wrong with this period in the history of Israel. It explains why the people had so many ups and downs and why they couldn’t seem to serve God consistently.
We read this in Judges 21:25:
“In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
No leadership + No basis for morality = Chaos. It’s a sad commentary on the times and mirrors in some ways what we see happening in places of our world today.
Questions to Consider:
What happens when there is no basis of morality and people can simply do what they think is right for themselves? How have you seen a lack of leadership lead to chaos in the lives of those around you?
What is right? That’s a question people have asked since the beginning of time. Today we call that relativism – the denial of absolute truth. Relativism contradicts Biblical teaching and should have no place in the lives of Jesus followers. He is the only standard of truth to follow.
What other points would you want to know about in our Judges 19-21 commentary? Email us here with questions or comments.