First Reading of Judges: 20, Losing Benjamin


Judges 20 - Gustave Dore
This is a woodcutting from the marvelous collection of Gustave Doré’s biblical artwork.  He was an amazing talent, and his illustrations are all very good at showing off that evocative, romantic style of the 19th century in all of its melodramatic brilliance.


I had initially thought to make this a final post combining both chapters 20 and 21 together, but since my post on chapter 19 was so incredibly long, I decided to give us all a break and split the finale of Judges into two parts.  More “Ooh! Look at the Bible art!” Less “gloomy wall of heartrending text.”  That’s the intention, anyway.

Chapter 20, despite the violence we see in it, contains glimmers of hope for restoration of the covenant fellowship that is supposed to exist between God and Israel.  Hopefully, you’ll see what I mean when we get to it, but let’s just start at verse one of chapter 20 and figure out where we all are.

If you haven’t read Judges 19, you will need to at least skim it, first, so that you can understand the context of this battle in chapter 20.  I have covered the entire book of Judges up to this point in a series of articles that you can access by clicking on “First Reading” in the menu bar at the top of the page.

Canaan - Tribal Map with Cities
I tried to find a good attribution for this map to no avail.  I’m including it anyway because it’s fabulous.  I found it here.

Judges 20:1-11 – The Concubine’s Levite Rallies Israel to His Cause
If you remember from the end of Judges 19, the Levite has cut the body of his concubine into 12 pieces and sent a piece to each tribe of Israel.  Here in chapter 20, we are told that Israel is united “as one man” from Dan (formerly Laish) in the north to Beersheba/Beersheva (the tribe of Judah) in the south, to the men of Gilead (the tribes of Gad and Reuben) across the Jordan.

I could not help but think of modern media coverage here.  When something terrible happens, like a terror attack or even a natural disaster, while passions are still high and before enough time to gather facts has passed, we are bombarded with a sensational set of partial truths–breaking news!–that makes us frightened or dreadful or otherwise emotionally engaged.  We don’t have a full set of facts, yet, but we know that something terrible is happening, and we act upon it with a herd instinct.  It is a powerful survival tactic of human beings that seems hardwired into our brains, but it also has the ability to lead us into destructive and incorrect behavior before we have rationally considered our course.  This collective rush to protect the community, experienced as high emotion, is what the Levite capitalizes on here.

In his anger, he has employed the “if it bleeds, it leads” strategy of fomenting righteous rage and gathering people to his cause.  Like it so often does today, this strategy will have devastating effects.


A Human Life with Value, A Woman of the Tribe of Judah
It is also worthy of note that in the opening verses, the concubine has been suddenly elevated to personhood in her husband’s eyes, now that she is dead.  He has apparently come to see her value as a human being in a way that he never did while she was living.  She is “the woman who was murdered,” now, and the “terrible, shameful crime” against her demands justice.  In his speech given “in the presence of the Lord at Mizpah*,” our Levite conveniently leaves out the fact that he gave his concubine to the mob in Gibeah.  He tells Israel that the mob tried to kill him (no, they wanted to rape him).  He tells them that the mob raped his concubine until she was dead (no, they raped her, but she was still alive and crawled back to the house where her husband was sleeping instead of waiting up to save her).  He does not tell them that he threw her to the mob to save himself, and he does not tell them that he refused to care for her when he found her unresponsive and bleeding the next morning.

He revises the truth to fuel political ends.  Israel is being invited to blame the Benjamites of Gibeah for the whole of the crime without apportioning any responsibility for this woman’s well-being or culpability in her death to either her Levite husband or her Ephraimite host.

Amy’s Totally Non-Authoritative Editorial Comment as a Layperson: The men of Ancient Israel did not see women as equal in dignity, equal in value, or equal in imago dei, but the Lord our God clearly did, and he clearly wanted us to see it, too.  We can know this because it is all right here, recorded and kept in Scripture for all of us to witness.  Seeing God’s statements and judgments in Scripture is as easy as looking, and one thing I’ve learned in reading the Bible is that God’s Word is always in there, even in the ugly parts.  You just have to back up and look carefully at what it says and how it’s worded.  He is always in there.  Always.

*There are several mentions of a town called Mizpah in the Old Testament, and they cannot all be the same place.  One is in Gilead, east of the River Jordan.  One is in Judah.  One is in Benjamin.  The name Mizpah means “watchtower,” so it’s very possible that many places were called this.  Jephthah’s home was in a Mizpah, and since that was also in the book of Judges, I will assume for the moment, that this is the same Mizpah we see in the first verses of chapter 20.  I have no understanding at this time as to why the presence of the Lord was presumed to be at Mizpah because the Ark of the Covenant was in Bethel.  It’s something worthy of future study, I think.

I want to take a moment to look at verse 7 because it shows us what the Levite has gotten right.  This is the first glimmer of hope I was talking about.  It’s small, but it’s here:

“Now then all of you–the entire community of Israel–must decide here and now what should be done about this!” – Judges 20:7, NLT

Even in the absence of a judge or a king, the Levite instinctively knows that this is a question for the entire community.  Whatever his sins were before–and I hope that what we’re seeing here is remorse and regret and a real recognition of what his concubine was owed under God’s law–he is now appealing to the body of Israel in the presence of God.  He is declaring that this was not a crime against the Levite alone.  It was a crime against the woman. It was a crime against God. It was a crime against all of Israel.

Finally!  He gets it.  Israel gets it.  This is huge.

We can be cynical and say that he is selling it this way to get revenge, but I don’t think so because there are more glimmers of hope to come.  I think that maybe this tragedy has shaken something in our cowardly Levite.

Judges 20:12-13 – An Appeal to Reason
Israel does the right thing.  They appeal to the authorities in Gibeah to send out the rapists who are guilty so that they can be lawfully executed for their crimes.  The death penalty for rape and adultery are explained in Deuteronomy 22 as a way to “purge Israel of such evil,” and Israel has united, finally, behind the law.

They do not initially come to Gibeah for war.  They come to Gibeah for justice.

But the Benjamites won’t listen.  They aren’t interested in the law.  They are only interested in honor, just as the Levite was in chapter 19.  Just as Lot was in Genesis 19.  This pride through honor business has come to a vicious head, and the Benjamites are about to fight for honor Canaan’s way (war) instead of God’s way (the Law).

IMG_2222Judges 20:14-17 – The Left-Handed Troops of Benjamin
Okay, so the left-handed thing appears in Judges chapter 3 with Ehud, the 2nd judge we learn about.  Ehud was a left-handed Benjamite, and that stuck out to me as an odd detail to include.  I highlighted the verse and kept reading.

When I got to chapter 20:16 and saw the “700 elite left-handed troops” of Benjamin, I was intrigued again.  I highlighted the mention and wrote a note about it in the margin.  At the time, however, I was still very upset about the story of the Levite’s Concubine and just wanted to finish the book.  I didn’t follow up on it at that time.

Then, just this past week, I was reading chapter 12 in First Chronicles, and I came upon a third reference to an elite, left-handed Benjamite who fought as a soldier for King David.

Three mentions of amazing martial skill in left-handed men from the tribe of Benjamin.  My rule is:  if the Bible repeats it, it’s important.  If the Bible repeats it three times?  Stop what you’re doing, Amy, and look it up.  So I stopped and looked it up.

Left-Handed People in the Bible,” by the Biblical Archaeology Society staff is a really basic overview.  It’s very short and easy to read.

Genetics and the Bible: The Curious Case of the Left-Handed Benjamites,” by Boyd Seevers and Joanna Klein of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) is a little bit longer and really interesting.  ASA is a group of Christians who work in the sciences, and I’ll have to look into their organization further some time.  They have a main website hub at

The upshot is that we aren’t sure why left-handedness was a prized attribute of soldiers in the tribe of Benjamin, but we know that it was.  It’s possible that it was a genetic predisposition amongst Benjamites, and it is very reasonable to assume that left-handedness provided an advantage against right-handed majorities in battle.

The part that I found most interesting, however, lies in the word study of the Hebrew term for left-handedness.

Quoting the “Curious Case” article from Seevers and Klein (linked above):
“The Hebrew term for ‘left- handed’ in Judges 3:15 and 20:16 literally means ‘restricted in his right hand.’  Did the Benjamites bind the right arms of their sons to their sides to encourage use of the left hand?  The phrase ‘restricted in his right hand’ seems to allow for the possibility, although it may just as easily mean something similar to ‘can’t use his right hand like normal.’”

I find these notions and questions fascinating.  Your mileage may vary.  ha ha.  Whatever the case, it is clear that the tribe of Benjamin valued left-handedness in their military warriors, and they had 700 of their best lefties living right there in Gibeah.

If we take the troop numbers literally here, and I see no reason why we shouldn’t, we have huge masses of tens of thousands of troops on either side converging on this small town in the land of Benjamin.  Given the average urban population estimates of the Late Bronze Age (generally a few thousand  with anything in excess of 20,000 being found only in the very largest cities of the world)…we need to understand that this gathering of Israel’s troops against Benjamin was a massive, whole-community turnout.  This was everyone.

Judges 20 Battle of Gibeah - Calmet 1720
“Victoire des Benjamites sur les onze tribus devant Gabaa,” or, “The Victory of the Benjamites on the Eleven Tribes Before Gibeah,” from an 18th century book entitled Dictionnaire historique, critique, chronologique, geographique et litteral de la Bible by A. Calmet, published in Paris, 1730.

Judges 20:18-23 – Judah is to Go First
The first thing that sticks out in the account of the Battle of Gibeah is that when Israel asks God who to send, He replies, “Judah is to go first (v.18b).”  Judah and its future role as the tribe of David and Solomon and Jesus has been set up right here in this narrative of the Levite’s concubine.  We see the concubine from Judah as the wronged party and her father as the only example of proper godly behavior in chapter 19.  Here in chapter 20, Judah is sent out first.  Judah is being given precedence here, and I am unsure whether my New Testament view of Christ (which is a bias that all Christians bring to the text) is causing me to see significance where it wasn’t intended…or not.

Another possibility did occur to me.  Instead of Judah’s precedence here being about the line of David and the Messiah, perhaps it’s something else:

Maybe this is because the offense was given against the body of a woman of Judah, and none of the Israelites gathered seem to understand that.  Maybe God is here saying, “the crime was against the honor of a family of Judah, not a family of Levi.”  Maybe that’s a stretch, but it was a thought that occurred to me, so I’m sharing it…because that’s the whole point of this “First Reading” exercise, right?  Ha ha.

Maybe it’s about the line of David.  Maybe it’s about giving the murdered woman of Judah her due.  Maybe it’s about both.  I will have to study it more closely at a later time, and I encourage any of you reading this to share your thoughts on it with me in comments.

On the first day of battle, Judah’s troops led the Israelites, but Benjamin was victorious, killing 22,000 of their Israelite brethren.  But then something marvelous happens.  These Israelites seem to be learning the lessons of Judges because Israel retreats back to Bethel.  They go to God with their grief and ask Him for guidance.  They come together as a community of tribes and support one another.  And God answers them.

Judges 20:24-28 – The Second Day of Defeat
Israel faces Benjamin again, just as God told them to do, but again, Benjamin wins.  Israel loses 18,000 men on the second day, but they do not lose their faith in God’s justice.  They return a second time to the Ark of the Covenant in Bethel.  A second time they pour out their grief and seek God’s counsel, but they also offer burnt offerings and peace offerings (which are not about assuaging wrath or bribing God.  They are gifts of thanksgiving for fellowship and closeness with God, Lev. 3 & 7).  Israel has returned to rightful worship of God, rightful gratitude for His presence among them at the Tabernacle, and humble recognition of their need for God’s leadership.

Once they have done this, God tells them, “Go!  Tomorrow I will hand them over to you (v.28).”

Judges 20 - Tissot Ambuscade
“Ambuscade,” or, “The Ambush” by late 19th-century French artist, James Tissot

Judges 25-48: Bittersweet Victory
On the third day of battle, Israel again faces Benjamin, and through an ambush strategy designed to funnel the Benjamites into a narrow roadway, “the Lord helped Israel defeat Benjamin.”  When the certainty of defeat became apparent to the Benjamites who remained, they fled off toward the wilderness, but Israel chased them down.  There was no escape.  Israel razed Gibeah and many towns of Benjamin as they pursued the Benjamite fighters.  The image we are given of buildings burned, people killed, and livestock slaughtered indicates a dedicated campaign to literally wipe out the tribe of Benjamin.

Is that justice?  Was it necessary?  Was it what God wanted?  I don’t think so.  God gave Israel victory over Benjamin, but it doesn’t say that He told them to annihilate Benjamin, burn their towns, or kill their women and children (which is not explicitly stated but implied here).

When the heat of battle settles into quiet, Israel starts to wonder if maybe they went a wee bit far, as well.  In chapter 21, we will follow Israel into its mourning over the loss of “their brother Benjamin.”  It wouldn’t be the book of Judges if this all had a happy ending, but we can take comfort in knowing there is a seed of understanding left in the tribes of Israel.  In chapter 20 we are shown that they still have a memory of God’s presence among them, of His covenant promises to them, and His laws for how to worship and seek relationship with Him.  We see some humility.  We see some recognition of the evil that has so permeated their lives in Canaan.  We see regret and the instinctive return to God’s comfort when they are in mourning.

But…in Chapter 21, we will see Israel forget these scattered showers of godly impulse and return to the Canaanite way of solving problems.  Once victory was given and the crisis passed, Israel would make one more tragic moral mistake.

See you there.

6 thoughts on “First Reading of Judges: 20, Losing Benjamin

    1. Definitely do! I love “read with me” posts, and that’s why I decided to make one myself. I find them very helpful in several ways, and I believe that writing it all down is an excellent exercise in understanding, too.

  1. You definitely have a gift. After reading judges I really enjoyed your comments. I do think that there was some sin in the other tribes as well. I would like to read more of your comments on other books . Could you send me the link to them? Thanks Jeff

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