The final events in the book of Judges 19-21 are among the most grievous in Scripture. From a human perspective, it also seems to make little sense how God operated. If you’re like me, perhaps you come away from the narrative scratching your head and wondering what God had in mind the way everything transpired.
We get a glimpse in this account of the wickedness that prevailed throughout Israel during this period, particularly within the tribe of Benjamin. Their actions remind us of Sodom and Gomorrah. The men were satisfied to have forced sexual relations with either another man or a woman; it didn’t matter. Worse, their collective lust was so great that the life of the one whom they ravished had no value. In this case, the Levite’s concubine died at their hands following a night of pure horror for her.
The Levite’s actions in response were no less eye-opening. When he returned home with the concubine’s body, he cut her into pieces and sent those parts throughout Israel to all twelve tribes. The shock of receiving these body parts produced outrage, which is what the Levite desired. When the tribes came together to understand this evil, they learned of Benjamin’s crime. The Levite intended to stir up revenge against the perpetrators, and he did. The Benjamites, rather than hand over the guilty men, defended them, and all Israel went to war: the eleven tribes against Benjamin.
In any normal circumstance, the odds that Benjamin faced were overwhelming. They had 26,000 men of war, while Israel in opposition had 400,000 men. In addition to that enormous difference in troops, Israel actually inquired of the Lord, doing so three times in this episode. That’s unusual in itself during this period, but with each inquiry, Yahweh told Israel to go against their brother Benjamin.
To Israel’s surprise in their first two forays, their losses against Benjamin were staggering. Benjamin seemingly lost not a single man in the initial two battles, while Israel with – 15 times the manpower – lost 40,000 troops. It was only on the third try in coming against Benjamin that Israel prevailed with limited losses and destroyed the Benjamite army as noted in Judges 20:35:
And the Lord defeated Benjamin before Israel, and the people of Israel destroyed 25,100 men of Benjamin that day. All these were men who drew the sword.
This left Benjamin with only a handful of men remaining in the entire tribe. It grieved Israel, as they realized that God had purposed the nation to have twelve tribes, and the loss of Benjamin would destroy what He intended. This made them have compassion for the remainder of Benjamin. Because of Israel’s vow not to provide them with wives, they had a problem. However, they found a way to circumvent their vow and all the remaining men of Benjamin ended up with wives. This event is the reason why Saul in 1 Kings 9:21 later refers to Benjamin as the smallest tribe of Israel.
The book ends on this note with the reminder once more in Judges 21:25 that:
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
It was a period of great apostasy. Yahweh was little thought of, and His ways were certainly far from those of the inhabitants of the land. The Bible shows us that God allowed these circumstances to occur. Men made their own choices and lived their lives without regard for the Law that Yahweh had given them.
The question that arises is why did God let these things happen? What do we learn from them?
Several lessons come to mind:
- The book of Judges illustrates the free will of men. If God were directing the decisions of mankind in a Calvinistic manner, He would have allowed none of this. If He had with that theological understanding that advocates predestination, then He would be responsible for, i.e. the initiator of, all the evil that occurred. That’s certainly not the case, as we know that’s not God’s character.
- It appears that God allowed these events and then orchestrated the final outcome so that Israel would see that their wickedness had consequences. When men went their own way and gave in to the deceitfulness of their heart, terrible things happened. This may have been one of the factors in looking at their history as a nation that prompted the Pharisees by the time of Jesus to enact such strict legalism in their religious practices. They had seen what happened when Israel neglected the Law of Moses, so they put severe restraints in place so that the people would follow what God decreed. Of course, we know that morality cannot be legislated, which is essentially what the Pharisees tried to do. Man’s heart must be changed from the inside. Outward laws cannot change the heart of man.
- Finally, why God allowed this to play out as it did remains a puzzle. Why did He permit Israel to lose so many men before He gave them the victory over Benjamin? They actually did what they were supposed to do by inquiring of Him. He gave Israel the go-ahead to fight, yet Benjamin’s first two victories appear to have been supernaturally orchestrated for them not to lose a single man. On the surface it makes no sense. We come away from that by realizing that God has a big picture view that we don’t have with our human limitations. He had His reasons, and we don’t have a clue.
The one bottom line we take away from Judges is that when man does what appears right in his own estimation, that’s not necessarily in accord with what God intends. Yet, He allows us to make our mistakes so that, hopefully, we eventually learn from them. Only by surrendering our prideful thinking that we know best can God finally get a Word in edgewise to inform us otherwise. In addition, we typically have to reach rock bottom to let go of our presumptions for us to let God intervene for our good.
He truly knows what is best for us. How much better it is when we live life His way!
Good article Gary. The things of God can sometimes be a mystery. But we can continue to trust the One who sees the beginning to the end.