The war with Benjamin (19:1-21:25)
A Levite whose concubine had run away from him came to Judah looking for her. When they were reunited, her father was so pleased he did not want them to leave. They therefore stayed with him a few days, then set out to return to the Levite’s home in Ephraim (19:1-9).
The route back to Ephraim took the couple through the tribal territory of Benjamin. Looking for somewhere to sleep the night, they preferred not to stay in Jerusalem, which was inhabited by foreigners, but to move on to Gibeah, where they would be among their fellow Israelites (10-14). But the people of Gibeah were not hospitable, and the Levite and his wife thought they would have to sleep in the town square. However, an old man (who was not a Benjaminite, but an Ephraimite) saw them and took them into his house (15-21).
While the Levite was enjoying the old man’s hospitality, a crowd of Benjaminite men attacked the house, demanding that the old man hand over his guest for them to satisfy their sexual perversions. The old man refused, but the Levite gave them his concubine instead. They raped her throughout the night and she was found dead on the doorstep the next morning (22-26). Her husband responded to this violence by cutting the corpse into twelve pieces and sending a piece to each of Israel’s twelve tribes. This was an ancient method of calling the people together to fight against a common enemy, which in this case was the wicked men of Gibeah (27-30). (For a comparable incident see 1 Samuel 1:1-11.)
Soldiers from all Israel gathered to attack Gibeah (20:1-11). Not only did the rulers of Gibeah make no attempt to punish the murderers, but the leaders of Benjamin also took their side. Benjamin decided to fight against the other eleven tribes (12-17).
At the beginning the battle went well for the Benjaminites. They knew the terrain of the country better than the Israelites, and in those hilly regions Israel’s larger numbers were of no great advantage. Added to this, the Benjaminites were fighting for the lives of their people and for their homeland, whereas the Israelites shared no such personal interests. Also, the Israelites may have been over-confident with their much larger army (18-25). Only when the Israelites became desperate and turned to God in sincerity and complete dependence did God promise them victory (26-28).
In spite of the assurance of God’s help, the Israelites had to plan their attack carefully and carry it out properly in order to be victorious (29-36a). The story of the battle is then repeated in greater detail to show how the Israelites operated. Their main force drew the Benjaminites out from Gibeah, after which a smaller Israelite force came out of hiding to attack the defenceless city. The soldiers of Benjamin, caught between the two Israelite forces, were massacred (36b-46). Only six hundred of the Benjaminite fighting force escaped. The Israelites meanwhile spread their attack throughout the whole tribal territory of Benjamin, burning the towns and slaughtering the people (47-48).
Soon the Israelites were sorry that they had acted in such savage haste against the Benjaminites. Almost the whole tribe had been wiped out. Now the Israelites wanted to rebuild Benjamin, but they could not see how to do it. They could not provide wives for the six hundred Benjaminite men who survived the battle, because they had earlier vowed never again to allow their daughters to marry Benjaminites (21:1-3).
The Israelites therefore looked for other ways of finding wives for the Benjaminites. To start with they made a destructive raid on the town of Jabesh-gilead and carried off the young ladies. Their excuse for this was that they were punishing Jabesh-gilead because it had not joined in the battle against Benjamin. The operation provided four hundred of the wives (4-14).
Israel’s leaders then thought of how to find wives for the remaining two hundred Benjaminite men (15-17). They arranged for the men to go to a festival at Shiloh and each take a wife for himself without asking the parents’ permission. Because no fight would take place, the Benjaminites could not be accused of capturing the girls; and because the parents of the girls had not actually given their daughters to the Benjaminites, they could not be accused of breaking their vow (18-22). The men did as they were told and the plan succeeded (23-24). It would have been useless for either the girls or their parents to complain about these matters, because, as the writer pointed out earlier, Israel had no central government to administer justice in inter-tribal affairs (25; cf. 17:6; 19:1).