Judges 19:1-21:25 – Civil War


Judges 19:1-21:25


Outrage at the rape and murder of a Levite’s concubine erupts into the near elimination of the tribe of Benjamin by the other tribes.


The repetition of the ominous refrain, “In those days, when there was no king in Israel” (19:1), leads us to expect that the following story will be yet another gruesome example of the anarchy and depravity that Judges relentlessly holds before us.

This horrific story begins with yet another Levite who took a woman from Judah as his concubine, or second wife. Following some undisclosed marital difficulties, the concubine returned to her father for four months, after which time the Levite retrieved her. They decide to spend the night in Gibeah, a town in the territory of Benjamin. In a scene reminiscent of Lot’s experience in Sodom (Genesis 19:1-8)–though here, the atrocity actually takes place–the Levite’s concubine is viciously gang raped and all but beaten to death (the Septuagint claims that she was dead at this point, mitigating some of the ensuing horror). This part of the story closes with a repulsive depiction of the Levite who leaves the house and coldly informs his concubine that it is time to go. When she does not respond, he throws her on one of his pack animals and takes her home. There, he carves her body into twelve pieces and sends one to each tribe summoning them to battle against Benjamin (vv. 1-30). It should be remembered that the Hebrew text does not specifically state that she is dead before the carving began. The Levite’s actions are a dark parody of the function of a judge: a mustering of the tribes for battle.

In chapter 20, “all the Israelites” came together for the first time in Judges. Previously, various tribes had banded together for defensive purposes against Canaanite oppression; here the tribes engage in vengeance and civil war. Benjamin prevails twice, but on the third attempt the Israelite militia succeeds, reducing Benjamin to a mere six hundred male survivors (vv. 1-48).

In chapter 21 the eleven tribes realize what they have done and seek to remedy their near extermination of one of the tribes. An unanswered oracle leads them to consider civil war again, this time against Jabesh-gilead, who had refrained from the previous attack upon Benjamin. Jabesh-gilead was utterly destroyed–all, that is, but four hundred virgins, who were brought to the six hundred surviving males in Benjamin as wives. The remaining two hundred Benjaminite males are instructed to lie in wait in the vineyards outside Shiloh while the virgins of Shiloh dance at the festival. The tribes will settle any disputes Shiloh may bring concerning any Benjaminite male who carries off a virgin from Shiloh. Thus was Benjamin restored (vv. 1-24).

Few passages in the Bible are as distasteful as these closing stories in Judges. Readers are appropriately offended by the callous disregard, wanton abuse, and selfish disposition that are so appallingly presented here. But that is precisely what the editors of Judges want us to experience, the absolutely untenable position that had arisen, because “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (21:25; compare 17:6; 18:1; 19:1).