The old man, who had invited the three strangers to spend the night at his home in Gibeah, was pulled outside by hoodlums. They demanded that they send out the Levite guest. The old fellow shook his head in fear and disbelief when he realized what these vile men wanted to do (Judges 19:16-22).
“Please go away and leave us alone!” he pleaded. “This Levite is my guest along with his wife and servant! It would be a terrible disgrace to let anything happen to him at my home. Surely you can find your pleasure elsewhere!” The old man was very concerned about his reputation. But he was much less concerned about the drift into the “new morality’ of that age!
“Do as we say,” the men growled, closing in more tightly around him, “or you’ll never get back into your house!”
The elderly Ephraimite was sure that by now the man they wanted probably had heard the unfriendly voices, and wouldn’t come out under any circumstance. In a frantic attempt to escape from this nightmare situation, the old man was moved to make a miserable suggestion. To save his male guest – and his own reputation as a host – he self-righteously stooped to an unthinkable compromise.
“Look fellows,” he begged, “Don’t consider such a terrible perversion. I have a young daughter inside! We’ll send her and my guest’s wife out to you to do with as you please if you’ll only forget about the man” (Judges 19:23-24)! The miserable old man hadn’t studied God’s Word. He thought men were more important and more worthy of protection than women. He reasoned that what he was suggesting was a lesser perversion and would be less sinful. He should have been willing to protect all the household with his own life.
“We don’t care about the women!” was the angry reply.
Sick with fear, the old man ambled back into the house. Hesitantly he whispered the situation to his guest, who turned pale at what he heard. Like his host, his frenzied mind quickly sought a wretched way of escape. As a Levite from the Tabernacle at Shiloh, he especially should have trusted God for His promised deliverance (Lev. 26:3, 6; Deut. 4: 31; 20:4; 31:6).
“Don’t let them in!” the Levite muttered cravenly, seizing his common-law wife. To save himself, he was ready to do anything- even sacrifice the woman he should have been protecting.
He hauled the surprised woman up to the door, yanked it open and thrust her outside (Judges 19:25). Quickly he closed and bolted the door, hoping the mob would be gentler with her than depraved mobs usually are. It happened so suddenly that the poor woman hardly knew what was happening until she found herself being stared at by the depraved men waiting outside. She wheeled around to get back into the house, pounding feverishly on the door. The men stared lustfully at her, noting for the first time that she was unusually attractive.
“Let’s take her and forget about the man for now!” one of them suggested.
The others nodded in agreement. The frightened, struggling woman was dragged away. Though she repeatedly screamed for help, there was no one to even try to rescue her. The men who should have protected her were hiding behind locked doors. Each man – instead of obeying God (Deut. 12:8) – was doing what pleased him (Judges 17:6).
A noted Jewish priest and historian said these Israelites had so over-indulged in enjoying their luxuries that they had become effeminate, depraved.
Hours later, just before sunrise, the woman came staggering up to the house and fell down at the door (Judges 19:26). In the meantime, her cowardly common-law husband was preparing to leave without her. He didn’t know where she was, but he was afraid to look for her lest he run into trouble with the depraved men who had taken her.
On opening the door to leave, he was surprised to find her lying there face down. His conscience stung him because of the cowardly, brutal way he had acted. Instead of helping her up, he chose to assert himself as her master, even in the face of her pitiable circumstance.
“Get up, woman!” he barked. “I want to get going for home right away!”
There was no answer or movement. The man motioned for his servant to help the woman up. The servant tried to get her to her feet. It was then that they discovered she was dead, the end product of the “new morality” of that age!
Without a word the Levite lifted the body onto one of his burros and started for home (Judges 19:27-28). On the way he had plenty of opportunity to consider how cruel and cowardly he had been. He regretted his terrible conduct, but at the same time he hoped that he could place the blame for his common-law wife’s death elsewhere. The more he thought about the depraved Benjamites, the more he considered their guilt and the less he considered his. By the time he arrived home, his anger and desire for revenge had grown to such an extent that he conceived a gruesome plan.
The first thing he did was compose twelve copies of this message, a copy to be sent to each of the twelve tribes of Israel:
“My wife was lately seized by wicked Benjamites in their city of Gibeah. She died because of their brutal advances. I am sending proof of her death. I ask that something be done to execute vengeance on the foul men who are responsible.”
The Levite immediately sent the letter to all parts of Israel by swift carriers. Wherever it arrived it was startlingly effective, but not just because of the words. With each message the angry Levite included a piece of his wife’s body, having cut her up into twelve parts!
Even though most of Israel was in a state of lawlessness and idolatry at the time, people were shocked and angered to hear of the atrocity by the Benjamites (Judges 19:29-30). Following a hasty exchange of communication, the various leaders of all tribes, except Benjamin, soon meet at the city of Mizpeh, not far from Gibeah, to decide what to do. The head men of the tribe of Benjamin did not attend because of being offended at the ghastly accusation that had come to them from Mt. Ephraim.
Representatives at this meeting asked the complaining Levite to come and give them a more concise report of the miserable event. The Levite welcomed the chance to do so, explaining in detail most of what had happened. He made no mention of how he had thrust his wife into the hands of the men of Gibeah in an attempt to save his own life.
“It’s true that I performed the awful act of cutting her in pieces, but she was dead many hours before I did so,” the Levite informed his listeners. “I went to this horrible extreme to try to awaken Israel to the fact that there are such evil men in the city of Gibeah. I trust that I have moved you to do something about this shameful matter” (Judges 20:1-7)!
The Israelites remembered God’s command that any murderer should be executed (Num. 35:19-21; Deut. 19:11-13). Enforcing this law would make others fear to commit murder (Num. 35:33-34; Deut. 19:20).
The leaders of the eleven tribes were not long in agreeing that the matter would be investigated as soon as possible. They went so far as to claim that none of them would return home until it was cleared up. They decided that a tenth of all the capable men of each tribe would be drafted into service to supply the army with food and water in the event that force would be necessary against the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 20:8-11). Meanwhile, men were sent throughout the Benjamite territory to make a careful inquiry and to demand the death penalty for the murderers.
When the investigators came to the leaders of the tribe of Benjamin to ask about the matter of the Levite and his common-law wife, they were received coldly. All the Benjamites refused to punish the murderers. They believed in mollycoddling criminals.
“This sort of thing you speak of could happen anywhere in Israel these days,” the Benjamites observed. “Why point to us as the black sheep of the whole nation?”
“We are not to be put off so easily,” the investigators countered. “No matter where such a crime happens, the guilty ones must be punished. We have orders to demand that you seek out the offenders in this case and turn them over to us to be put to death for their crime! We expect you to act right away!”
“Go back to your leaders and tell them that we can take care of our own affairs!” the head men of Benjamin retorted angrily. “Tell them also that we shall resist any effort to force us to do anything about this matter” (Judges 20:12-13)!
Surrounded by a growing group of hostile men, the investigators had no choice but to return to Mizpeh empty-handed. When they reported what had happened, a state of war was declared by the leaders of the eleven tribes. Men were organized into units to form an army numbering four hundred thousand.
At the same time the Benjamite soldiers gathered at Gibeah, numbering about twenty-six thousand besides the seven hundred men of Gibeah. This was only a small fraction of the size of the army of the other tribes of Israel, but the Benjamite soldiers were well trained. Besides, they were angry because of the accusation that had been made against them, and had more of a desire for battle. They felt confident also because seven hundred of their soldiers were left-handed and unusually skillful with slings. Some of them could sling a stone to hit a man as far away as six hundred feet (judges 20:14-17).
The army of the eleven other tribes was almost ready to march on Gibeah. But one more thing needed to be done. God should be consulted in the matter.
The Israelites went to the city of Shiloh where the Tabernacle was, to ask Phinehas the priest to inquire of God which soldiers should lead the attack. Phinehas was surprised that the leaders of the tribes of Israel would ask advice of the Creator instead of going to some pagan oracle. Seeing their sincerity, he spoke to God for them, although he could see they were self-righteous.
God answered Phinehas’s prayer by making it known to the priest that the solders of the tribe of Judah should be foremost in an attack on the Benjamites (Judges 20:18).
Next morning the troops of the eleven tribes marched toward Gibeah. When they were only a mile or so away, they lined themselves in fighting formation with the soldiers of Judah forming the first ranks. The commanders of the four hundred thousand men planned on surrounding the city and then demanding that the Benjamites surrender. If they refused, the large army was to close in and crush the opposition into defeat.
It didn’t quite turn out that way.
Suddenly the whole army of Benjamin poured out of the gates of Gibeah and rushed madly toward the would-be attackers! This unexpected event caused such confusion in the larger army that the troops fell into terrible disorder. The foremost one broke rank and plunged backward into those following, causing a uselessly struggling, screaming mass of humanity!
By afternoon there was no more action on the field of battle. The Benjamites had withdrawn into Gibeah and most of the army of the eleven tribes had fled to the north. They had left twenty-two thousand soldiers on the battlefield, but they had no more desire to fight. They were all dead (judges 20:19-21).
This unexpected victory by the Benjamites was a sobering blow to the other tribes of Israel, who had assumed that their cause was so important, and just, that there was no need of asking help from God. They had thought the eleven tribes could easily defeat the Benjamites. Although the people were shocked and saddened, there was still no appeal for divine aid. Instead, the Israelites went again to Shiloh to weep and merely ask Phinehas to inquire if there should be another attack against the Benjamite army. They still thought they were righteous just because they were trying to punish the Benjamites.
Through Phinehas, God indicated that another attempt should be made to overcome the Benjamites at Gibeah. Next day the troop of the Israelites pushed toward that city as they had done in the first attack. This time the commanders felt that their men were prepared for anything, and that there would be no more frenzy and disorder.
The Benjamites didn’t pour out of the city to meet their opponents as they had done before. This gave the larger army the opportunity to start surrounding Gibeah as had been originally planned. Just as their front ranks were splitting up and going to the right and left, the Benjamites rushed out through hastily opened gates to catch their enemies in such a thinned-out condition that the larger army was again thrown into a sudden state of confusion!
When the action of battle had ceased and each army had withdrawn, the ground was again strewn with dead and dying. This second combat had cost the eleven tribes eighteen thousand more men (Judges 20:22-25).
The loss of a total of forty thousand soldiers was an awesome price to pay to try to avenge one person and punish the Benjamites. Leaders of the eleven tribes were so shaken that they all went to Shiloh, along with many other Israelites, to humbly make offerings at the Tabernacle and to ask for God’s help. Tears of sorrow and repentance flowed from many eyes as the people realized that their sad losses had occurred because of their departing from God’s laws.
After making their offerings and fasting for at least most of a day, they asked God through Phinehas if they should go into battle once more against the Israelite brothers or drop the idea of trying to punish them. All this should have been done in the first place. After Phinehas had made this third request at the Tabernacle, God disclosed to him that one more attack should be made. Moreover, He promised that, if they sought Him in real earnest, this next attempt would result in victory for the eleven tribes. When Phinehas passed on the Creator’s pronouncement to the people, they were thankful and greatly encouraged. For the time being they resolved to be more obedient so that they might receive more help from God (Judges 20:26-28).
Next day part of the troops of the eleven tribes again marched toward Gibeah. Those troops who didn’t march had been sent during the night to a hiding place south of the city and to a palm grove to the east of it.
The Benjamites were expecting another attack. They rushed out to meet the enemy troops coming from the north when they reached a point a short distance from Gibeah. At sight of the oncoming Benjamites the attackers halted. Then they turned and fled – just as they had been told to do!
Believing that their enemies were in the same state of fear they had shown twice before, the Benjamites pursued them vigorously in the hope of affecting a quick victory. They proved to be the faster runners. Soon the distance between the two groups was so lessened that the men with slings started hurling their missiles. About thirty of the fleeing Israelites were struck and killed before someone among the pursuing Benjamites began hollering excitedly and point backward.
The pursuers glanced back. They came to a quick halt when they saw the great cloud of smoke billowing up over the city. Not until then were they beginning to be aware that enemy troops had somehow made their way into the city and set it on fire. When they turned and saw the Israelites rushing back toward them without a sign of fear, they realized that they were the victims of well-planned strategy (Judges 20:29-32).
It was the Benjamites’ turn to panic. Pursued by the ten thousand Israelites who had turned on them, they raced for the hilly area east of Gibeah. As they ran, they could see throngs of their people hurrying out of the city in a frantic attempt to escape the men who had rushed in as soon as the Benjamite soldiers had left. Hundreds were not able to get out.
The escaping inhabitants also headed for the hills to the east. Just as the first of their numbers topped the first large rise, they stopped, then rushed back in the opposite direction. Behind them suddenly appeared the first ranks of the largest division of the army of the eleven tribes. At the same time the troops who had raided the city came out of it from the west in hot pursuit of the inhabitants (Judges 20:33-34).
The people of Gibeah and the whole Benjamite army were rushing into a tremendous three-jawed trap that was closing in on them just as fast as they were moving into it!
Be watching for our next installment of The Story of the Bible! Coming soon.