Difficult Bible Passages: Judges 20
We can learn a lot from what happened to ancient Israel:
All of Judges 19-21 is difficult to say the least. Indeed, it is one of the darkest, sordid and most violent episodes in the Old Testament. The story of the raped concubine in Judges 19 is parallel in many ways to Genesis 18-19, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. But here I want to focus on what occurs in Judges 20.
Let me begin by stating that we have various biblical truths we must always hold to:
1. God is fully sovereign and in control.
2. Man is fully accountable for his moral choices.
3. How 1 and 2 fully cohere is hard to understand.
4. Often what God says or does can be rather mysterious.
All four of these elements come together in what is found in Judges 20. The story is this: the tribe of Benjamin was protecting the people of Gibeah who had done this great evil. So the other tribes went to war against them to get justice. They even asked the Lord about this, and he answered them, but things did not go as expected.
In verse 18 we read this: “The people of Israel arose and went up to Bethel and inquired of God, ‘Who shall go up first for us to fight against the people of Benjamin?’ And the Lord said, ‘Judah shall go up first’.” But what was the result? Verse 21 informs us: “The people of Benjamin came out of Gibeah and destroyed on that day 22,000 men of the Israelites.”
So a second time they come to ask God about this: “And they inquired of the Lord, ‘Shall we again draw near to fight against our brothers, the people of Benjamin?’ And the Lord said, ‘Go up against them’” (v. 23). And the result? “And Benjamin went against them out of Gibeah the second day, and destroyed 18,000 men of the people of Israel” (v. 25).
Oh dear. So a third time they ask God: “‘Shall we go out once more to battle against our brothers, the people of Benjamin, or shall we cease?’ And the Lord said, ‘Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand’” (v. 28). The result? “And the Lord defeated Benjamin before Israel, and the people of Israel destroyed 25,100 men of Benjamin that day” (v. 35).
So what is going on here? They inquired of God all three times, and God answered them all three times, and told them to go. But the first two attempts ended in disaster. Only the third and final attempt was successful. We are told in v. 26 that they fasted and offered sacrifices to the Lord before asking the third time. Was that the main difference?
Several things can be said about all this. First, while the tribe of Benjamin was involved in this great crime, and Gibeah more specifically, and some evil individuals in Gibeah even more specifically, the whole book of Judges makes it clear that Israel as a whole is in a sense involved, since the whole book speaks of repeated sins and evil that the nation kept getting into.
So while this was a localised crime on one hand, it was indicative of the nation as a whole. As such, God could judge not just Benjamin but all the tribes. Just as a holy and just God had to judge Sodom and Gomorrah for similar evils, so too he had to act here.
As to seeking God’s will, one can ask this: did the 11 tribes ask God first if they should go to war against Benjamin? No, they simply asked who should lead the charge. So it seems they had already made up their minds ahead of time about this matter.
However they, like God, were quite right to want to see justice done. But this good end of justice can be carried out by wrong means: rash, fleshly actions instead of waiting on God for his timing and his ways. Even good things done in our own way can lead to disaster. As Mary Evans comments:
As in the whole book of Judges, we see good and bad standing side by side in the behaviour and attitudes of the Israelite people. They were seeking justice and they were courageous, but at the same time they had forgotten the lesson of Joshua 5:14 where the angel of Yahweh made it clear that God could not be manipulated in support of their own cause.
Or as Kenneth Way explains in more detail:
The most important emphasis in this story relates to the fact that God is the ideal Judge who brings justice to his world. Justice must be defined on God’s terms, not human terms (cf. Gen. 18:25; Judg. 11:27; 1 Pet. 2:23). God judges those who reject his authority and live for themselves. Such people are God’s enemies, and their destruction is sure (see Judg. 5:31; cf. Ps. 145:20; Heb. 10:26-27).
Corporate Israel is God’s enemy in this story because Israel is morally indistinguishable from Canaan. God therefore stands against Israel and partially destroys them (or at least helps them to do so) as a necessary act of judgment. While this story can be viewed against the backdrop of biblical accounts of divine judgment against pagan groups (e.g., Gen. 6-9; 19), it is more helpful to compare it with accounts of divine judgment against Israelite groups (e.g., Exod. 32; Num. 11; 16-17; 25; Josh. 7; 2 Sam. 24).2 These are instances when God metes out justice in order to preserve the integrity of his covenant people (cf. 1 Cor. 11:29-32; Acts 5:1-11).
The problem in this story is that Israel’s will and God’s will are not aligned, although they do intersect. Both God and Israel want justice in this story, but Israel’s understanding of justice is distorted and misguided (19:22-20:13), whereas God’s justice is perfect. In this instance, God lets Israel execute justice as they see fit (20:28, 35), but Israel’s actions providentially fulfill God’s judgment against the whole nation (21:3, 15). The point is that God sometimes gives people what they want as a disciplinary measure (cf. 1 Sam. 8-16).
Barry Webb looks in summary form at the many moral questions that come out of all this, such as why so many lives (over 50,000 fighting men) were lost to achieve justice; why God seemed to prolong the carnage; what’s left of the tribe of Benjamin, and so on.
He concludes: “The moral outrage committed in Gibeah has had terrible consequences. We have entered a very dark place, where Israel seems to have been given over to the full consequences of ‘everyone [doing] what was right in his own eyes’ (17:6).” That phrase, also found in 21:25, really does sum up the whole book. It makes for sad reading indeed.
Questions abound in these closing chapters of the book, and mystery seems to hover over this sad story. Dale Ralph Davis looks at my fourth point above, that of divine mystery:
Israel’s initial defeats may not point to the suffering of Yahweh’s judgment but to the mystery of his ways. Yahweh directs Israel, mysteriously, to their own destruction—until the last episode. Israel receives the favor of divine guidance (vv. 18, 23) and yet sees no evidence of divine help. Does this not constitute one of the enigmas of Christian experience—being certain of the divine will (because a matter is clearly taught in Scripture) and yet finding that path marked more by trouble than by success? Does that mean we are out of the divine will or simply that Yahweh is dealing with us in one of his hidden ways?
Good questions indeed. Learning how to walk by faith and with a strong trust in God even when the way ahead looks very foggy and uncertain is something all believers need to learn. The negative lessons found in the closing chapters of Judges are part of the way that we can learn about what God expects of us.
May we do better than the Israelites did.
2 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: Judges 20”
Thanks Bill for explaining this episode in the Bible that used to make me wonder what is going on. I think it is a good example of what is happening now – we want justice and ready to fight for it, but is it God’s timing. A lot of the church is still asleep as to what our govts did to us concerning the coronavirus and how this New Economic Forum/One World Govt wants to control us so until the church wakes up, gets serious on its knees in sacrificial worship and fully dependent on God we wont win if we try. We should keep trying though as we need more people on our side to stop the enemy.
I’m just catching up with your articles as I got assigned Electoral Captain for Lismore in the NSW state election for the AustraliaOneGroup U that was the only group that had ‘Ban late and full-term abortion’ on its How To Vote so I had to put time and energy into contacting volunteers and manning booths etc but it was worth it.