Reading through the Bible together
In chapter after chapter we have witnessed the complacency and inaction of the Israelites to do something about their moral condition. We began the book with the death of Joshua and the subsequent apostasy of Israel. Since then the children of Israel have not only been oppressed because of their unfaithfulness, they have also been divided, and at times even fighting and killing each other. In this chapter we finally see what had not occurred since the days of Joshua, the entire nation of Israel (except for the Benjamites) coming together “as one man before the Lord.” Even more encouraging, they assembled to address the “wickedness” that has occurred among them.
The men of Israel were united in their outrage and they intended to “repay the vileness” by putting to death these “perverted men” from Gibeah. The Benjamites, on the other hand, were determined to protect the evildoers and refused to hand the men over. Confronted with this response, the Israelites go to Bethel (‘house of God’) and inquire not what they should do but who should fight first (20:18). The Israelites had already decided what they intended to do. Ironically, the offended party here is not the Levite or the leaders of Israel. This was a grievous sin against the Lord. Yet the Israelites don’t seek God to pray for forgiveness and guidance. God is not entreated as their King and commander; He is approached as an oracle, consulted for His fortune telling skills. That the Israelites have misunderstood the role of God in all of this is also evident from the fact that they brought the Ark of the Covenant from Shiloh to serve as a good luck charm (cf. 1 Sam 4).
God answers only that which He has been asked—Judah ought to fight first. But there is no blessing or promise of victory. The Benjamites prevail and there is a massive slaughter. This time the Israelites actually seek the “counsel of the Lord” (20:23), but the Lord still does not promise victory. It is only after another colossal defeat that the children of Israel approach the Almighty the way they should have from the start: they “fasted that day until evening; and they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord.” Only then does the Lord promise to deliver the Benjamites into their hands (20:26-27). Then “the Lord defeated Benjamin before Israel” (20:35).
God intentionally allows Israel to be defeated twice before granting them victory. There was an important lesson they needed to learn about securing God’s blessing. Even though their cause was just—to remove the iniquity from Israel—the Lord demands repentance and humility, especially considering the whole nation was deserving of God’s wrath. There is a major contrast between the moral outrage exhibited at Gibeah and Israel’s complete lack of concern for all the years of open idolatry they practiced. Their penalty against the Gibeahites was the utter destruction of all life and property, but such a judgment was prescribed only for the sin of idolatry (Deut 13:12-18)! In their hypocrisy, they did not realize they were more diligent in destroying their brethren for their sins than they were in purging and atoning for their own sins. Shouldn’t that be a lesson for us?
Southern Adventist University
Justo E. Morales