The Last Three Chapters of Judges, Part 2 — Smoke Up To Heaven

Last November, I started writing the first of three (or maybe four) blog entries on the last three chapters of the Old Testament Book of Judges, which tell what is quite possibly the worst tale in all scripture.

Judges 19 begins thus:

In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite was sojourning in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, who took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah…

I meant to continue this long ago, and now I will.

Go back and read the original blog. There will be something of a refresher, because the passage itself does that. Briefly, in Chapter 19, a Levite traveling to the hill country of Ephraim stays overnight in Gibeah in the land allocated to the tribe of Benjamin (in order to avoid Jerusalem, which is still a Canaanite city), where a mob shows incredible inhospitality and demands to “know him.” The Levite and/or his host toss the concubine out, and the mob rapes her to death. The Levite then takes her home, cuts her into twelve equal pieces, and mails a piece to each tribe in Israel, provoking outrage across the country.

And that’s where we are when chapter 20 begins. (All Bible quotes from the ESV unless otherwise noted.)

1 Then all the people of Israel came out, from Dan to Beersheba, including the land of Gilead, and the congregation assembled as one man to the Lord at Mizpah.

Pay attention to this construction, “as one man.” Just as the butchering of the concubine foreshadows what King Saul will later do in 1 Samuel 11:7, so does Israel’s response. “Then the dread of the Lord fell upon the people, and they came out as one man.” This construction, כּאִישׁ אֶחָד, appears several time in the Hebrew Bible, mostly to describe the nature of Israel’s military response to an enemy. And most of this type of reference appears here, as 11 of Israel’s tribes gang up to extract an incredibly violence justice from the tiniest of Israel’s tribes.

In Judges 6, this construction refers to the people Israel will kill (or is killing) in battle. And in Numbers 14, this is part of Moses’ appeal to the Lord not to kill to Israel “as one man” in the wilderness because, if the Lord does so, well, what will the Egyptians think?

So, this phrase, “as one man,” appears most consistently in a passage in which Israel is clearly not united. Because they are getting ready to make war on their own.


2 And the chiefs of all the people, of all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God, 400,000 men on foot that drew the sword. 3 (Now the people of Benjamin heard that the people of Israel had gone up to Mizpah.) And the people of Israel said, “Tell us, how did this evil happen?” 4 And the Levite, the husband of the woman who was murdered, answered and said, “I came to Gibeah that belongs to Benjamin, I and my concubine, to spend the night. 5 And the leaders of Gibeah rose against me and surrounded the house against me by night. They meant to kill me, and they violated my concubine, and she is dead. 6 So I took hold of my concubine and cut her in pieces and sent her throughout all the country of the inheritance of Israel, for they have committed abomination and outrage in Israel. 7 Behold, you people of Israel, all of you, give your advice and counsel here.”

This is clever. The Levite is lying. Or rather, he isn’t telling the entire truth. He’s omitting the whole part about “[s]o the man seized his concubine and made her go out to them.” (19:25) (Though we need to appreciate the construction here is ambiguous. It’s unclear who the he is who seizes the concubine — the Levite or the old man hosting them? Either way, she’s not tossed out by a Benjaminite.) He is deliberately omitting his (or his host’s) culpability, the part he played in tossing a young woman (I’m guessing) he’d sworn, on some level, to protect (he is, after all, described as “husband” — אישׁ האשּׁה, or “man of the woman”) to a mob of rapists.

This is an interesting omission, and one that is probably very deliberate. Because it is clear (more or less) in the previous chapter, the teller of the story (and the editors) have left all the details in. They did not try to square the narrator’s account with that later reported as being related by the Levite as he tells all Israel.

Something similar happens in Exodus 32 with the account of the Golden Calf. Aaron calls for gold, and “he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf” (Ex. 32:4), clearly indicating Aaron takes an active part in making the idol, creating it with his own hands. But later in the chapter, when an incredibly angry Moses comes down off the mountain to inquire of the people (and his brother) what happened, Aaron says “So I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.” (Ex. 32:24)

Meaning: Don’t look at me. I didn’t do it. I don’t know where it came from. It just sorta emerged from the fire. It’s not my fault.

This is an incredibly human desire, to fudge the truth, to avoid responsibility and not be held accountable. And scripture not only shows people doing it, but also getting away with it. Cleanly and completely.

Because this is what comes of the Levite’s story:

8 And all the people arose as one man, saying, “None of us will go to his tent, and none of us will return to his house. 9 But now this is what we will do to Gibeah:we will go up against it by lot, 10 and 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 people, that when they come they may repay Gibeah of Benjamin, for all the outrage that they have committed in Israel.” 11 So all the men of Israel gathered against the city, united as one man.

12 And the tribes of Israel sent men through all the tribe of Benjamin, saying, “What evil is this that has taken place among you? 13 Now therefore give up the men, the worthless fellows in Gibeah, that we may put them to death and purge evil from Israel.” But the Benjaminites would not listen to the voice of their brothers, the people of Israel. 14 Then the people of Benjamin came together out of the cities to Gibeah to go out to battle against the people of Israel. 15 And the people of Benjamin mustered out of their cities on that day 26,000 men who drew the sword, besides the inhabitants of Gibeah, who mustered 700 chosen men. 16 Among all these were 700 chosen men who were left-handed; every one could sling a stone at a hair and not miss. 17 And the men of Israel, apart from Benjamin, mustered 400,000 men who drew the sword; all these were men of war.

I find myself wondering — if assembled Israel knew the truth, that the concubine wasn’t simply taken, but was actively thrown to the mob, would the response have been different? Would they have been so eager to wage war if they had know how much responsibility non-Benjaminites bore for her rape and murder? We cannot know, but as the readers, we know a truth that Israel assembled does not. And that, in itself, is interesting.

Anyway… Israel has occupied Benjamin and has asked for those responsible — the mob of rapists from Gibeah themselves — to be handed over. For whatever reason, very likely tribal honor, prevents of forbids Benjamin from giving into the rest of Israel’s demands. I cannot help but think, at this point, of the demand by the United States to the Taliban government of Afghanistan after the attacks of September 11, 2001, to hand over Usama bin Laden. And the Taliban’s refusal. And the war the followed.

And so, Benjamin prepares for war. Heavily outnumbered, almost 20-to-1, if the numbers — 400,000 from the rest of Israel and 26,000 from Benjamin — can be believed.

Then the fighting begins:

18 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.”

19 Then the people of Israel rose in the morning and encamped against Gibeah. 20 And the men of Israel went out to fight against Benjamin, and the men of Israel drew up the battle line against them at Gibeah. 21 The people of Benjamin came out of Gibeah and destroyed on that day 22,000 men of the Israelites. 22 But the people, the men of Israel, took courage, and again formed the battle line in the same place where they had formed it on the first day. 23 And the people of Israel went up and wept before the Lord until the evening. 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.”

So, one tribe at a time. We have no numbers for individual tribal levies for this war, but I suspect it’s probably closer to 30,000 or 40,000 — not much more than that. Maybe 50,000 for Judah, perhaps the largest tribe of Israel. And it may be that it was one tribe at a time on that first day, so that beleaguered little Benjamin faced the whole 400,000-man army.

Whatever it was, Benjamin clearly outfought the entire Israelite army that first day, killing nearly as many in the combined army of Israel as they had men under arms.

Shaken, but not broken, the Israelites regroup, and God for advice. “Fight some more,” God says.

Fight some more. As if God is simply toying with everyone.

24 So the people of Israel came near against the people of Benjamin the second day. 25 And Benjamin went against them out of Gibeah the second day, and destroyed 18,000 men of the people of Israel. All these were men who drew the sword. 26 Then all the people of Israel, the whole army, went up and came to Bethel and wept. They sat there before the Lord and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord. 27 And the people of Israel inquired of the Lord (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, 28 and Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, ministered before it in those days), saying, “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.”

Because, in fact, God is toying with everyone. The second day goes badly — though not as bad as the first — for Israel, and the Israelite army is forced to retreat from Benjamin by an army less than a tenth its size. (We are given no figures for Benjaminite casualties on these first two days.) Defeated, and demoralized, Israel is asking what the point of this whole endeavor has been. And they ask God — who seems to be nothing much more than a heavenly spectator, sitting and watching the violence — if the war is worth continuing. Because 40,000 Israelite soldiers have so far been killed in two days of fighting with not so much as a peep from God about the morality or even efficacy of this whole thing.

But God promises Israel victory on the third day. (Sound familiar?) So, the fighting continues.

At this point, Israel decides to use a little strategy. They plant a number of soldiers around Gibeah to ambush the Benjaminites. The army of Benjamin, clearly confident after the last two days of fighting, sallies forth from Gibeah and attacks. Israel then feigns a retreat, in order to draw Benjamin away from the city, and Benjamin follows. With the city of Gibeah abandoned, the Israelite soldiers lying in wait invade the city and set it on fire. Smoke rising over Gibeah distracts the Benjaminites (described in almost sacrificial language, “behold, the whole of the city went up in smoke to heaven” in 20:40), and the army of Benjamin panics and breaks, seeing “that disaster was close upon them” (20:41). While the army is shattered, and some elements of the Benjaminites escape, I suspect most of what comes next is much like the Battle of Cannae, a many-hours-long knife fight in which Israel surrounded the bulk of the Benjaminite army and simply cut that confused and frightened army down one by one.

Another important thing to note. Judges 20:34 says, “And there came against Gibeah 10,000 chosen men out of all Israel, and the battle was hard, but the Benjaminites did not know that disaster was close upon them.” This is not the Powell Doctrine at work. Overwhelming force, and superior numbers, are not the key to victory here. Israel outnumbered Benjamin nearly 20-to-1 on the first day, and probably closer to 15-to-1 on the second day. It hardly mattered, because in those two days of fighting, Israel lost 10 percent of its army. Having superior numbers was of no value.

Benjamin was victorious so long as they were outnumbered. And on the day Israel is victorious, the Israelite army is outnumbered more than 2-to-1.

And this is key to every victory God gives Israel over its enemies when God gives victory (because not all victories come from God), beginning at the Red Sea. “Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand.” God is the author and architect of this victory, not Israelite military might. God has secured victory, not Israelite arms. That’s the clear — but very understated message — in this passage.

But it’s also clear, God was not going to intervene to stop this war. Or what came next.

46 So all who fell that day of Benjamin were 25,000 men who drew the sword, all of them men of valor. 47 But 600 men turned and fled toward the wilderness to the rock of Rimmon and remained at the rock of Rimmon four months. 48 And the men of Israel turned back against the people of Benjamin and struck them with the edge of the sword, the city, men and beasts and all that they found. And all the towns that they found they set on fire.

Scripture isn’t entirely clear how many soldiers are killed. In the above passage, it’s 25,000. Earlier in Judges, it’s 25,100. Quibbling, I know, because there’s a greater horror embedded in that last verse than the death of an army. Israel perpetrates genocide against Benjamin, and after rampaging through the place, strike everything and everyone down. There was blood, and smoke, and death, everywhere. Israel very nearly exterminates the entire tribe of Benjamin.

Except for the 600 who flee to the Rock of Rimmon. They are all that remain. And how Israel deals with them becomes the final horrifc act of the Book of Judges.