The injustice of Israel’s ‘justice’ in Judges 20&21


To avoid being sodomised by sexual perverts, a Levite hands them his concubine (Judges 19).[i] She is raped and abused through the night and left to die. The Levite, deeply upset by what’s happened, carves his concubine into twelve pieces and sends a bloodied portion to each tribe in Israel. The horrified tribes—except Benjamin—are galvanised into action. Justice must be done! But the ‘justice’ they engage in has disastrous consequences. Why? Because the church-nation Israel did what was right in its own eyes instead of heeding God’s Word. It executed ‘justice’ in its own way, and the result was a horrendous injustice. When a church begins a process of church discipline by deviating from God’s Word, the fall-out can be catastrophic (think also of the Great Reformation, the First Secession of 1834 and the Liberation of 1944) as events in Judges 20 & 21 show.

Where did the discipline process start to go wrong? Well, first the Levite did the wrong thing. Having earlier handed his concubine over to the perverts who abused her, and having further desecrated her by cutting her body into pieces, the Levite then acquainted all Israel with what occurred. Although what occurred in Gibeah was dreadful, it was not at this stage a sin to be broadcast throughout the nation. The Levite should have begun by keeping it local. He had witnesses (his servant and the old man who had sheltered him) and with these he should have gone to the elders in Gibeah who acted as judges in the city gate[ii] and who were to “judge the people with just judgement” (Deut. 16:18). Now one might argue that in those days “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” and maybe therefore there was little likelihood of justice being done by the local elders. But this cannot be used as an excuse to ignore the clear directives of the Lord. Moreover, by sending around his concubine’s body parts, the Levite worked on people’s emotions rather than a sound and sober investigation. The unscriptural action by the Levite started the discipline process off on a wrong footing.

Now things could have gotten back on track if the tribes had told the Levite to follow the procedure God gave in His Word (Deut. 13 & 17). But they didn’t. Having come together at Mizpah[iii] (along with 400,000 armed soldiers!) they ‘investigated’ the matter. However, only the Levite’s side of the story was heard and no witnesses (as required in Deut. 17) were presented. Furthermore, the Levite made matters worse by giving a slanted version of events. He remained silent about his own guilt in handing his concubine over to the perverted men and changed the story from the men’s attempt at sodomy to one of murder. He also made it emotive by referring three times to ‘Israel’ (as though it was already all Israel’s responsibility) instead of sticking to the bare facts. Moreover, the tribe of Benjamin, in whose city Gibeah the dastardly deed was done, was not represented at the meeting. Instead of enquiring why Benjamin was absent, Israel had already sworn to kill anyone who was not represented at the Mizpah meeting (21:5). This was self-styled justice instead of justice based on God’s Word.

And then things went from bad to worse. Highly indignant at what occurred, the tribes’ national meeting immediately declared its verdict: Benjamin’s city Gibeah is guilty, even though no formal complaint had been lodged there. Israel reached this verdict without Benjamin being represented, without having heard the accused, without considering the rights of Gibeah, and even without consulting the Lord. Indeed, it already treated the whole tribe of Benjamin as excommunicable, as though it was a Canaanite tribe, by vowing not to intermarry with them (21:1 & Deut. 7:3). The elders of Israel treated Benjamin as if it had no rights by demanding that it hand over the people of Gibeah; and when Benjamin refused, they declared war on Benjamin. Israel thought it was doing the right thing, as sometimes happens at ecclesiastical gatherings, when in reality it was not carefully basing its decisions on Scripture.

To be sure, the men of Benjamin did not follow Scriptural directives either. Although they had reason to be indignant at the way they were being treated, they should have admonished the assembly of Israel to follow the procedure stipulated by God. Instead, Benjamin also readied itself for battle. Thereby it chose the side of Gibeah when, according to Leviticus 18, the demands and behaviour of those wicked perverts in Gibeah was indefensible. Herein Benjamin neglected its own calling towards Gibeah (see Deut. 13).

Hence we see a whole wrong process of action leading to civil war between brothers. At first the elders of Israel didn’t even ask the Lord whether they should fight; they’d decided that without Him. They merely asked who should begin, and the Lord answered. (Framing the right question was extremely important. In the Old Testament, when questions were asked of God using the Urim and Thummim, the LORD would give either a positive, or negative, or no answer. Therefore, it was important to frame the question so that a yes or no answer would give clear direction.) The assembly of Israel had already made up its mind to fight Benjamin; it merely asked the Lord who should go first. The LORD replied as it were: Okay, you want to go ahead and fight without hearing what I said through Moses (see also Lk 16:31), then go ahead.[iv]

There’s a clear message in this for us too. Ecclesiastical assemblies can be a great blessing or curse for the churches. A great blessing if they submit in all humility to the clear directives of God’s Word. A curse if they commit the church members to a course of action that is not clearly governed by God’s Word. What an incentive to study God’s Word carefully about each issue!

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Israel prepared to destroy Gibeah, but the army of Benjamin took the initiative to attack Israel and routed them; Israel suffered a humiliating defeat. Instead of reflecting and investigating where they’d gone wrong, Israel went to Bethel, where the ark was, and wept and asked God: “Shall I again go near for battle against the children of my brother, Benjamin?” But again, it was the wrong question. If God were to answer ‘No’ it would imply there was nothing amiss, while clearly there was.[v] For what happened at Gibeah was very seriously wrong; they could not just continue as though there was nothing amiss. The LORD answered, as it were: go ahead; you have already determined how to proceed, so keep going on your self-chosen way and reap the consequences.[vi] Says Prof. B Holwerda: Spending a day lamenting their defeat and fasting, formally in the style of Joshua 6, while they continued to place the wrong question before the Lord, was meaningless.[vii] The second attack again resulted in defeat and was followed by another pointless day of fasting. The Lord’s positive response to the wrong question put to Him proved catastrophic for Israel.

But Benjamin was also deluded. It interpreted its second victory over Israel as meaning that the Lord must be on its side, but did not understand that the Lord had placed them on a slippery slope. For in the third and final battle not only was Gibeah wiped out, and not only was Benjamin’s army routed, but the entire tribe faced annihilation. Israel now interpreted its victory as a sign that God was blessing them and it proceeded to destroy completely all the cities of Benjamin and their people. This was a further cruel injustice; Benjamin had not deserved this. [viii]

Finally, Israel seemed to come to its senses. They’d almost wiped out an entire tribe and realised, too late, that this mustn’t happen. Benjamin must remain as one of the twelve tribes. Yet there were just 600 Benjaminite men left; Israel’s ‘scorched earth’ genocide meant that the women-folk in Benjamin had been murdered along with the rest of the tribe. So now Israel was stuck with another problem: where would they get wives for these 600 men so that this tribe did not disappear? In their rash decision the men of Israel had made that foolish vow that no one was to give his daughter to a Benjaminite as wife (21:1).

Major assemblies can, occasionally, be very inventive when it comes to undermining earlier decisions (as the ‘synodicals’ did after the Liberation of 1944). The meeting of Israel’s elders noted that no one from Jabesh-Gilead had joined them in this whole operation. And hadn’t they vowed that anyone who didn’t join the assembly of Israel would be put to death? Therefore Israel proceeded to murder everyone in Jabesh-Gilead, all except 400 unmarried girls who could serve as wives for the left-over Benjaminite men. So here the elders measured with two measures: on the one hand they wanted Benjamin to survive even though it had not joined with them; on the other hand, they wiped out a city for the same reason. Such injustice illustrates how rash decisions not soundly based on Scripture can lead to catastrophes. As Goslinga says, they “were heaping injustice on injustice, and they did not seem to realize that they were playing a hideous game with the oath they had sworn”.[ix]

Of the 600 Benjaminites, 400 now had wives. But that left 200 without wives and the Israelites were stuck with the vow they’d made not to give the men of Benjamin their daughters. However, again the ‘general synod’ (Holwerda) found a handy solution. Whilst they were afraid of breaking their vow, they weren’t afraid of finding subtle ways of getting out of the vow, nor were they afraid of committing murder, or stealing women, or sacrilege. The gentlemen at the meeting developed a ‘fine’ way to slip out from under their vows:

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There happened to be a yearly festival, probably to remember the Passover, at which the maidens would joyfully dance in rows. So these gentlemen proposed that the 200 Benjaminite men left over should each kidnap a girl for himself. That way they could say that, in accordance with their vows, they hadn’t really given their daughters to Benjamin. Now, kidnapping was punishable by death (Ex. 21:16), but this inconvenient truth evidently escaped the leaders of Israel. And so it happened that while the girls were engaged in the festivities of a ‘worship service’ for a special occasion, 200 were kidnapped and forced to marry a Benjaminite.

Such unfaithfulness to the clear norms of God’s Word, the terrible injustices against Benjamin and Jabesh-Gilead, the gauging of God’s approval of what’s right or wrong on the basis of perceived ‘success’ in war, the unjust manipulations, the squirming out from under their vows—all was a sad indictment on Israel’s unjust disciplinary measures, the injustices of their unscriptural judiciary. The last verse of Judges is telling: if God does not give something more than judges, Israel will be destroyed—not from enemies across the border, but from the chaos within. The sad history of Israel in the promised land during the time of the Judges, during which “everyone did what was right in his own eyes”, form the tragic background to the books of Samuel and Kings. In it all is an unformulated cry for the coming of the Messiah, the Great King, to wash away the sins of His people, and for Pentecost—the outpouring of the Spirit in greater measure[x]—so that His people would be ruled by His Word and Spirit, renewed to reflect more and more His image.


[i] See

[ii] Cornelis van Dam, The Elder, P&R, Phillipsburg, 2009, p. 64.

[iii] Mizpah – where Israel assembled in times of national emergency (see also 1 Sam. 7:5-16).

[iv] I de Wolff & R Houwen, De Geschiedenis der Godsopenbaring 3, Boersma, Enschede, PP 438,439.

[v] Prof. B Holwerda, Jozua en Richteren, (Seminary notes) van de Berg, Kampen, 1971, p. 253.

[vi] Ibid, p. 439.

[vii] De Wolff & Houwen, op. cit.

[viii] Holwerda, op.cit.

[ix] C T Goslinga, Bible Student’s Commentary: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1986, p. 509.

[x] Rev R Bredenhof, sermon on Ezekiel 36:27, Mt Nasura, 31 May 2020.