It will be recalled ‘that a heinous sin had been committed at Gibeah, Benjamin. A wayfaring Levite with his concubine had retreated for the night into the shelter of the home of a resident of this city. When it was dark, “sons of wickedness” assaulted the house and shamefully avowed their pederastic purposes. The Levite they would compel to co-operate with them in committing that lustful abomination at which Paul strikes in Romans 1 and that formed the curse of heathendom. Sparing himself, the Levite led forth his concubine and the wantons were”-satisfied. They abused her all night’ till daybreak so that she died. The Levite cut the corpse into twelve pieces and sent them in every direction din accompanied by the necessary message. The tactics of the Levite had its effect. There was a great wave of popular indignation. All were agreed that the criminals should be made to atone for their crime, the result being that “all the children of Israel went forth from Dan to Beersheba, with the land of Gilead unto the Lord at Mizpah. The Levite also was at hand and told his hideous story. The people of Israel now took action. 40,000 men of the tribes marched against Gibeah. Besides, messengers were sent throughout the tribe of Benjamin, who demanded to know, “What wickedness is this that is done among you.” They demanded, as was said, that the Benjamites disown the deed by surrendering the guilty. Instead of complying the Benjamites were defiant and prepared for war. Their reactions show that they were indifferent to the crime that had been perpetrated at Gibeah and that they were too proud to allow themselves to be told to root it, out. Rather, than hearken unto the voice of their brethren, they: trail the risk of war, and thus shielded the sinners in Gibeah. As was remarked, the reaction of this tribe, shows to what a pass conditions—political, social, and spiritual—bad come in the nation.
The Benjamites had cast, the die for war and it was war that they now had. We must follow the progress of this conflict which turned out most disastrously for the tribes and ended in the near extermination of Benjamin. The children of Israel went up to the sanctuary to ask counsel of the Lord. They wanted to know which of the tribes should take the lead in this war against the brother tribe. They received as an answer that Judah should go up first. So the following morning the 40,000 encamped against the city of Gibeah. The Benjamites went forth out of the city and in the ensuing battle killed and wounded twenty two thousand Israelites. That was a defeat as terrible as it was unexpected. It caused the children of Israel to consider. They went up and wept before the Lord until even, asking counsel of Him whether they again should do battle with the Benjamites. And: again they received answer that they should. Encouraged, they reorganized their scattered forces in the same place where they had suffered defeat the previous day. But once more they were smitten. When the battle was over, eighteen thousand of their number lay wounded or dead upon the battle field. Humbled and crestfallen, they again repaired to Bethel, where they spent the day in weeping, fasting, and offering peace and burnt offerings. Also they asked whether the war against Benjamin should be continued. “Go up,”’ was the Lord’s answer,” for tomorrow I will deliver them into thine hand.” The men of Israel now made use of a stratagem. Though the text here is ambiguous at places, the main features of the battle that now took place stand out clearly. The Israelites posted a part of their forces—there were in all ten thousand men chosen out of all Israel—in wait, concealed in the meadows of Gibeah for the purpose of attacking the city by surprise. Other divisions openly marched against Gibeah as at other times-, while still others “took up a position at Bal-tamar. The Benjamites, encouraged by their former successes, went forth to battle, and thus left their city unprotected. This was- the purpose of the stratagem of the men of Israel. The Benjamites advanced along two highways—one leading to Bethel, the other to “Gibeah-in-the- field”—and slew thirty men with such ease that, they said, “They are smitten before us as at the first.” But they knew not that the reason of their initial success was, that the men of Israel offered scarcely any resistance but voluntarily retreated to thereby allure them farther and farther away from the heights and the city. When the men of Israel reached Bal-tamar, they came to a halt and were joined by the other divisions, awaiting their coming. The troops concealed in the meadows now rushed upon the defenseless city and smote all its inhabitants. Further, according to plan, they caused a great pillar of smoke to rise out of the city, such as could not be mistaken. This was the appointed sign for the divisions at Bal-tamar to join battle with the pursuing Benjamites. The latter were amazed by this sudden surge of courage on the part of the adversary. But seeing the pillar of smoke, they understood. They had been tricked. Evil was upon them. Gone was their will to resist. Turning their backs upon the men of Israel, they fled into the wilderness, but were overtaken by the battle. Passing in their flight through the cities that laid in their course, they were attacked by the inhabitants of these cities, who arose and slew the fugitives in their midst. Thus were the Benjamites enclosed round about. Not only was the hostile army at their heels, but they met with enemies everywhere. Only the wilderness offered safety. But before they could arrive there, many of them were cut off. Still the pursuit continued, unrelentlessly. In this way they were driven until they found themselves in the wilderness east of Gibeah. Already eighteen thousand of their twenty six thousand and seven hundred had fallen. But the thirst for their blood continued unabated. So, with the pursuers still hard at their heels, they turned and fled to a place called Gidom, arriving there with their ranks reduced by seven thousand more, slain in the highways. Still the carnage continued. Again turning upon the Benjamites, the men of Israel smote the men and beasts of every city, and all that came to hand. And they set on fire every city they came to, ch. 20:21. This notice seems to imply that nearly the whole tribe of Benjamin—men, women, and children—was exterminated. What lends support to this view is the notice of the escape of the six hundred men, who saved themselves by turning and fleeing to the wilderness unto the rock Rimmon, in which, they abode four month, and that for this remnant there were no wives to be had from their own tribe. It was thus a war amazing in its toll of life. The figures <are these: Israelites 40,030; Benjamites, 25,100. Total, 65,130. This number does not include the slain women and children of the tribe of Benjamin. So had the nation been overtaken by a catastrophe of the first magnitude.
We must now try and understand this terrible history. The time of the occurrence of these events is indicated by the notice that “the ark of the covenant of God was there—in Bethel—in those days,” and that Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, stood before it.” Phinehas for many years was a contemporary of Joshua, so that the war against Benjamin must have taken place shortly after the death of Joshua and not long after the cessation of military operations for the conquest of Canaan of which we read in the second chapter of the book of the judges. This is also deducible from the fact that the ark was still in Bethel and that the exodus from Egypt was still living in the memory of the people, ch. 19:30. That the terrible events with which we now deal—the crime at Gibeah, the refusal of Benjamin to root out the evil, the resultant war against this tribe with its great toll of life which certainly must be regarded as divine judgment overtaking the nation—should have taken place in that early period, may, at first glance, gender surprise. For it was the period concerning which it is said,, and : “And the people served Jehovah all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that Jehovah, which he did for Israel.” What is more, the high priest—Phinehas—by whom the nation was headed in that period, distinguished himself by great zeal. It was he who slew the sinning Israelite, in the territory of Moab and by this act stayed the plague from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for the Lord among them, wherefore the Lord gave him the covenant of peace, . In the war against Median, by whom Israel had been seduced into heathen practices, he was sent with the thousand of every tribe with the holy instruments, and with the trumpets: to blow in his hand, . It was again Phinehas, who was sent with the ten princes by the tribes to admonish the two and a half transordanic tribes. These tribes, we learn from Joshua 22, had built themselves an altar, and the children of Israel this side of the Jordan thought it was intended for idolatrous purposes. They came together at Shiloh and thought to take action against the supposed sinners. But first this embassy was sent. The address which Phinehas made to the supposed apostates was in the spirit of the action determined against Benjamin.
It was in that period of religious zeal and covenant fidelity that the nation was scourged by that catastrophic war with Benjamin. Why should the hand of God have rested so heavily upon the nation in such a period? The question is pertinent in view of the fact that, according to God’s promise to Israel, national well-being and covenant fidelity had to go hand in hand. But the nation of this period served the Lord and reaped a national calamity. The only explanation of this is, that, though the people of Israel were still serving the Lord and were not prostrating themselves before the shrines of Idols, their hearts were not right with God. The first chapters of the book of the Judges reveal that this was actually the case. They reveal, do these chapters, that, despite its conformity to the precepts of the law, the nation was lacking in true zeal and love for the cause of God. For the facts of the matter are these. The people of Israel of the period of the war with Benjamin had subdued under the leadership of Joshua the Canaanites, that is, had so crippled their military might that they had neither the courage nor the man power to initiate another war with Israel. They were a conquered people, who kept themselves to their strongholds, prepared to defend their cities within whose walls they had entrenched themselves. Thus the task that remained to the nine and a half tribe east of the Jordan was to prosecute the conquest by freeing their respective allotments from the remnants of these heathen tribes. But the task was evaded. In violation of the command of God (ff), the tribes concluded a covenant with the Canaanites and, according to the articles of this covenant, spared their lives and allowed them to continue in the possession of their cities on the condition that they pay them tribute. What is worse, they condoned their pagan religion, and permitted them to continue in the public worship of their idols. We learn all this from the complaint of the angel of the Lord contained in the second chapter. The angel did not accuse them of joining the heathen in their pagan worship and of making marriages with them. It was not until after the passing of the old generation that the people of Israel fell into these gross sins. That Israel, after concluding a covenant with the heathen for a time refrained from worshipping their idols must be ascribed doubtless to the restraining influence of the older generation that had not yet wholly died out.
This failure on the part of the tribes to complete the conquest of Canaan was a serious offence and alone would account for the revelation of divine displeasure through the disaster that overtook the nation in its war with Benjamin. But the people of Israel in the period under consideration were censurable for still other reasons. Doubtless it was in this same period that Micah already had erected his spurious sanctuary and nothing was done about it. Dan, as we saw, founded shortly thereafter an idolatrous worship in northern Canaan in order not to lose his tribe consciousness, and the people of Israel took no action. And Benjamin refused to punish the sinners in Gibeah. After the death of Joshua the nation gradually ceased to exercise faith in Jehovah; its trust was in the arm of flesh, in military power. This accounts for the cessation of military operations for the completion of the conquest of Canaan after the death of Joshua. It accounts for the military expedition of Dan against that insignificant colony of Zidonians in northern Canaan. It explains the courage of the men of Israel to take action against the tribe of Benjamin. If need be, they could oppose to Benjamin’s 28,000 and army of 400,000. It is plain that the nation deserved that stroke. The nation was carnal. Its indignation at hearing of the crime perpetrated in Gibeah was carnal. Had it been spiritual the men of Israel first would have turned to themselves and repented of and confessed their own sins. And before taking action against Benjamin, they first would have offered the required burnt and peace offering, and thereby confessed that they too were undone .sinners as ill-deserving as their brethren yet spared solely for the sake of the blood of their sacrifice. But they had no need of the atonement for they were righteous in their own sight. The sinners among them were the Benjamites. Such was their frame of heart and mind in which they commenced that war. Therefore the battle at first was turned against them so that 40,000 of their number were destroyed down to the ground. This was the Lord’s doing. And they wept before the Lord and sacrificed burnt offerings and peace offerings. Then He delivered Benjamin into their hand. For Benjamin bad committed a great sin.