Judges - 13 Moral Degeneration and Fratricide

Chapter 13

“Right in His own Eyes”
Moral Degeneration and Fratricide

In the sad events that follow, once again a Levite in Mt. Ephraim is the central player. This one seems to have been a man who, though professedly serving the Lord, displayed indulgence of the flesh and personal desires. He was not forbidden to have a concubine, but that relationship was not quite the same as if she were indeed his wife. From his later attitude and acts toward her in Gibeah, it seems that she was only physically his without any genuine love for her (19:25). In addition, he was content to tarry with her father, eating, drinking and making merry for five days, so it seems that he was a man who easily could be persuaded to indulge the flesh. This characteristic, along with the evil acts done by the men of Gibeah, by the tribe of Benjamin and by the entire nation of Israel expresses what happens when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”

The fact that the prominent man in this chapter, as in Judges 17, was a Levite, seems to indicate that there was a poor state among the leadership of God’s people. These were men who were responsible to teach the law as well as serve in the tabernacle (Deuteronomy 33:10). Therefore, their actions in these chapters suggest a breakdown in the quality of leadership among God’s people that resulted in general failure of the nation. The character of the people was the result of the example and teaching that they had received. Since that leadership was at a low ebb, we cannot wonder at events that resulted. It is notable that there is no mention of the elders or oversight of the assembly in 1 Corinthians. One might wonder if they were either powerless to correct the evil that Paul addresses, or perhaps it indicates that they were involved in the evil. An assembly can never rise higher than those who have responsibility to lead the saints; thus, it is important that those men who have that responsibility manifest the highest spiritual character possible so that they will be able to exercise a godly influence to lead the assembly properly.

This corresponds with conditions of our day, a day that is near the coming of our Lord to close this church age. Indulgence of fleshly desires, even by men in religious circles, is all too common. Moral iniquity by leaders in the religious circle takes place all too readily. Others are quick to judge them, but also, due to the general weakness that prevails, very quick to pass over sin. The standard set by Samson in the previous chapters seemed to determine the moral tone of all that followed. As has already been noted, the moral practices of the nation were the logical result of their denying the Lord’s authority. These conditions, sadly, result when men reject a divine standard for their behavior and cast off God’s sovereign control.

An Unsettled Levite
Exactly what initiated these sad events is not clear. We learn from Judges 19:1, that this Levite was “sojourning on the side of mount Ephraim,” so he seems to be like the Levite in chapter 17. He was not a man who occupied a particular sphere of service for God; he was not a man who was settled, and so he was wandering and sojourning.

In the assembly sphere, it is vital that believers have established themselves on the principles of an assembly, so that they are sure why they are there and what the Lord wants them to do. Convictions that we express by our full commitment to the place that God has chosen will preserve us from wandering wherever our desires might lead us. Those established convictions will also make us useful for the edification and blessing of the assembly where God has placed us.

Some believers never seem content in any local assembly; there is always something wrong in any place, and elements always exist that cause dissatisfaction in their hearts. As a result, they seem to move from one place to another, from one assembly to another assembly, looking for a “perfect” place, which, of course, they never can find. It is much better, and in harmony with God’s Word, if believers recognize that no assembly is perfect, but that they can seek to help that company where God has put them through their example and service, if not by their instruction.

His Unfaithful Concubine
Exactly what his concubine’s deed was is somewhat hard to determine accurately. The Authorized Version says that his concubine “played the whore against him, and went away from him” (Judges 19:2), indicating marital unfaithfulness on her part. However, Josephus and other translations of the passage (RSV, Moffatt, Latin Vulgate, and Septuagint) indicate that she was angry with him, or disgusted with his behavior and returned to her father’s house for this reason. There is some reason to consider that view, since if she were actually guilty of adultery against him, it would hardly follow that he would go after her to seek to bring her home as he did. Nevertheless, we can see that their relationship was not as it should have been, especially since he had the responsibility to lead God’s people by his personal example of life. Paul instructs the saints regarding the character and life of an elder in 1 Timothy 3, and those standards, including his marital relationship, are of the highest level and should be maintained.

Their journey homeward, after his stay of five days in her father’s house, led them by Jerusalem (v. 10), but he refused to stay there because it was not an Israelite city at that time. Perhaps he would have been more secure in that city than in Gibeah, the city that he chose. Events that took place in Gibeah repeated the characteristics of Sodom and Gomorrah. What a sad state, when a city of those who professed to be the people of God had sunk to such a level of depravity! It shows that even God’s professed people, whether genuine or only in name, can display depths of sin and ruin if not genuinely converted and controlled by God’s Spirit. What took place in that city caused the nation to respond, “There was no such deed done nor seen from the day that the children of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt unto this day.” (Judges 19:30).

Paul said in 1 Corinthians 5:1 that the sin among those saints was “such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles,” so we learn that this kind of evil behavior can cause even God’s enemies to blaspheme, as with David’s sin (2 Samuel 12:14). One might wonder what the Jebusites of Jerusalem thought of these people when they heard and observed these events!

After what took place during that tragic night in Gibeah, we learn what the Levite did upon arriving home with her body. In his indignation, he cut her body into 12 pieces and sent it into all the coasts of Israel (Judges 19:29). One can understand the emotional reaction of anyone who has gone through a night like that; however, little did the Levite know what would result from what he did. The entire nation was stirred with an emotional response, desiring to execute retribution on those who had committed this terrible deed.

Mistakes Committed
Permit a few comments on the way in which the Levite handled this sad affair. Not everyone will agree with this assessment, but it is worth consideration. How did the Levite deal with this problem? First, he spread the sinful deed as widely as possible. Instead of approaching the elders and leaders of Gibeah first, he appealed to the entire nation of Israel. He spread the information about what the men of Gibeah had done to the far ends of the nation and stirred up all the people. Should he not have gone to the elders of Gibeah, and if that failed, then to the rulers of Benjamin? Only after all had failed should he have appealed to the entire nation. Is there not a principle that sin or problems among God’s people should be dealt with on the local level first? Matthew 18:15-17 teaches us that if our brother sin, we are to go to him personally to seek to gain him. Only after we and others have made repeated efforts to settle the problem should it develop into a matter for the local assembly to deal with (certainly not a wider sphere than that).

Some teach that if an assembly fails to judge sin, then other assemblies of the surrounding area should deal with it. We have no scripture for any other assembly interfering in the affairs of a local testimony! It should be a local matter and should be dealt with on that level.

One might say that the conditions in Gibeah had sunk so low that the Levite had no hope to receive justice in that city. However, it does not say that in the text! That may have been the case; nevertheless, he should have gone to them so that they could have exercised their responsibility to deal with this sinful act. His action undermined their authority as responsible leaders of that city. Had he done that, there could have been two possible results: one is that the elders of Gibeah might have been aroused to realize how bad conditions were in their city and they would then have had to deal with them. The other is that following that pattern might have preserved the nation from the general bloodshed that resulted. We can learn something about how we ought to deal with problems in a local setting from reading these chapters.

Not only did the Levite spread the problem to the entire nation, but he also did it in a very inflammatory manner; he divided her dead body with its bones and sent those parts into all the coasts of Israel (Judges 19:29). Saul did something very similar when he wanted to rouse Israel to fight against Nahash in 1 Samuel 11:7, but he hewed a yoke of oxen in pieces instead. That was acceptable, and it was for a worthy purpose so that the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead would be saved. In this case, the Levite could not have chosen a more vivid manner to stir the emotions of any who viewed those parts of her corpse! What would anyone have thought when they saw those pieces of her mutilated body arrive? They would have, as was the case, responded with the highest degree of indignation and outrage. Is it possible that problems between saints or in a local assembly can be spread in a manner that incites an emotional reaction in those who hear of it? This can, and does, take place even without the hearers knowing all the related facts of the case. The Levite was, because of this manner of acting, partly responsible for the terrible events that resulted.

Basis of the Warfare
After hearing the Levite’s report (Judges 20:4-7), all the tribes except for Benjamin moved to act. F. C. Jennings notes that in his giving his account of the wickedness, he did it “with a natural care not to expose his own selfish baseness.” First, before attempting to hear what the men of Gibeah or the tribe of Benjamin might say for themselves, they bound themselves with an oath to “do…according to all the folly that they have wrought in Israel,” (Judges 20:10). Notice the fivefold repetition of “we will.” Do we see any indication that they asked counsel of the LORD? Not, “we will do the LORD’S will,” or anything like that. They never waited on the LORD at this point to determine what was His will for them. It was their own will that they expressed when they selected 1/10th of the men of the tribes to bring their judgment on these men. Did they send men to Gibeah to remind the elders of that city of their responsibility? Did they inquire to learn exactly what had taken place? NO. They simply decided to act and then determined what they would do. They were in a right position as they gathered, but their condition was deplorable.

More Mistakes Made
There are several mistakes here. One is that they should not have come together to the exclusion of Benjamin. They were like some in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:10-12) in that they formed their own groups and took a superior attitude to their brethren. Then, their mistake also lay, not only in failing to seek God’s mind about what they should do, but also in the fact that they never judged themselves. As C. A. Coates puts it,

“They did not feel it as the sin of Israel, but as the sin of Gibeah. If they had felt it as the sin of Israel, they would have all been on their faces before God, confessing it as their own sin. . . There was no sign of their being humbled before God. They did not seek direction; they decided what they would do. . . It was right, but they were not moving with God in it.”

Notice Proverbs 16:2, “All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes; but the Lord weigheth the spirits.” “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes: but the Lord pondereth the hearts.” (Proverbs 21:2). They failed to see that the same base possibilities resided in all of them as well. They had never acted to judge what Micah had done in the previous chapters. Why this? If they were going to “put away evil from Israel,” (Judges 20:13), they would have had to include all the tribes, for all had some measure of guilt in them. They could see wrong in another, but not in themselves. Is that not characteristic of human nature? We are all guilty of it to some extent, at least at some time in our lives.

We can see this in a personal reaction to a brother or sister when we hear what “they” have done. It can also be expressed in the hasty action of an assembly to judge evil (and rightly so, for it must be judged), but without self-judgment first taking place in all who are involved. We have instruction along this line in Galatians 6:1-2. The purpose of discipline is not the destruction of a brother or sister; it is the desire to “restore such an one,” and this can only be done by those who are spiritual and who consider themselves in the same light. Our Lord said, “with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged,” (Matthew 7:1-2) so that the same standard of righteousness must be applied to ourselves as well as to the offender. Paul writes to the Corinthian saints that with regard to sin in the assembly, “Ye have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you,” (1 Corinthians 5:2). If they had done so, even in the face of possible inability or unwillingness on the part of some to deal with that evil condition, God would certainly have come in to judge it, as took place in 1 Corinthians 11:30-32.

There is no doubt that Benjamin should have dealt with the evildoers. We cannot justify them either! However, the word of the tribes to Benjamin was “what wickedness is this that is done among you?” (Judges 20:12). That is to say, “This wickedness is among you, but we are free of it.” Did they really expect that Benjamin would respond to that approach? Therefore, war between brethren ensued.

It is sad to note that Israel bound themselves under an oath that was foolishly taken. We saw a foolish oath in the case of Jephthah. This oath resulted in a compounding of their problem in the end (Judges 21:5, 7). It is as if they had determined from the first that this tribe would be exterminated from among them. Saul bound his people under a foolish oath in their warfare with the Philistines in 2 Samuel 14, and that oath almost cost the life of Jonathon. Be careful what we swear or promise to do in this way; it may cause greater problems later in life. It may be possible to stand so rigidly on our “principles,” that we only end up acting irrationally and unreasonably, with the result that we ultimately will compound the problem.

The First Battle
One might say that their first act expressed a right attitude in some respects. They came before the Lord to ask counsel (for the first time). However, notice that they never asked, “Should we go up to battle against…Benjamin?” They never asked, “What should we do in this case and how can we bring about results that are according to God’s will?” They asked with the assumption that they would go up to battle, and it is with “the children of Benjamin.” At this point there was no mention of “Benjamin, my brother,” (as in vss. 23, 28). The relationship was not foremost in their minds, so they acted with severity and cruelty toward them. The question of Judges 1:1 was with regard to who would go up first against the Canaanites to battle, and God selected Judah. It seems that Judah was again going out to battle (vs. 18), but they were almost putting their brother, Benjamin, in the same class as their enemy. Only Judah should have been principally involved, for the concubine was from that tribe (Judges 19:1).

Numerically, the first day’s battle was very lopsided: 400,000 men of Israel were against only 26,700 men of Benjamin. Therefore, it must have seemed strange to them that the results were weighted so much in Benjamin’s favor with 22,000 men of Israel being destroyed. It is stranger that they only began to ask the Lord “Why?” at this point. They began to express some measure of exercise before God so that now, for the first time, they call Benjamin “my brother,” (vs. 23). They begin to manifest some tenderness of spirit as they think of the results from that first day. God was going to discipline the entire nation, not just a tribe or a city. It shows that when we presume to judge our brother without first judging ourselves, we may find that there will be a price to pay in personal loss that will humble us in the presence of God.

The Second Battle
Results from the second day of battle were not much different! Now 18,000 men were smitten by Benjamin. This resulted in the destruction of 40,000 men out of 400,000 men of Israel. They had spoken of 1/10th of Israel’s men going to battle against Benjamin (Judges 20:10) and now 1/10th of those men have been destroyed. It was not Benjamin only that was being disciplined by God; His hand touched the entire nation so that it produced the remorse recorded in Judges 20:26.

We easily notice that there were two occasions when they expressed this degree of sorrow in God’s presence. In Judges 21:2 they sense the great loss resulting from the near loss of an entire tribe of Israel. Losing 40,000 men first, then an entire tribe would cause deep sorrow and produce soul-searching, would it not? Why did they not react in this manner when they first heard of the sin in Gibeah? It seems that it takes an extreme expression of God’s hand of discipline to produce the proper state of soul before Him! Prior to this moment, they were judging their brother from a position of assumed self-righteousness, and God could not be with them in it. At this point we learn that they wept, expressing the depth of their sorrow. Then they sat before the Lord, and this would make them sensitive to His voice and His will. They fasted, and denied themselves all that would naturally give them pleasure. Lastly, they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord. One might wonder why there is no mention of a sin offering; we would think that this was surely the place for one! However, the burnt and peace offering expressed the ground of their acceptance before God and the expression of their fellowship with Him and one another. They represent Christ, as the One who has given us a perfect standing in God’s presence, and through whom we have fellowship with Him and one another. On that ground, communion Godward and manward is very important and can be expressed. They had failed in all these expressions of exercise at the first, but now God’s hand had brought them low. Expected success in their enterprise against Benjamin had resulted in defeat and loss. How contrary to what they had expected, but how consistent with the way by which God works to discipline His people. After having done all those things, they enquired of the Lord to seek His will.

For the first time, we read about Phinehas fulfilling his proper responsibility, representing Israel in their exercise before the Lord. He would likely be quite elderly at this point, since he was the high priest who had previously expressed God’s assessment of their actions and who had judged sin in the camp for God (Numbers 25:7). He had been involved in their warfare against the Midianites in Numbers 31:6. He was a militant priest, one who had a zeal for God and who would defend His honor. He represents a person in priestly capacity who knows how to judge sin in a godly way. God says about him, “He was zealous for my sake (with my jealousy) among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy,” (Numbers 25:11). He would not have a vindictive attitude toward anyone of Israel; his viewpoint would be along the line of what was for God’s honor and what was consistent with His will.

The mention of the ark at this point is a reminder that they were coming to the basis of their established unity as God’s people. It was the expression of the faithfulness of God in their midst, even though they had been so unfaithful. In addition, for the first time, they considered the possibility that the Lord’s will was for them to cease the warfare (Judges 20:28). That was a good thought, in that they were willing to submit to whatever was the revealed will of God in the matter. This, of course, is absolutely essential in all matters of assembly discipline.

The Third Day
It seems significant that victory for them comes on the third day, but we leave the reader to consider its meaning. Now, using the stratagem of Israel when they defeated Ai (Joshua 8), they drew the children of Benjamin out of Gibeah where they easily overcame them. This time the Lord was on the side of Israel (Judges 20:35), and they destroyed the Benjaminites without any mercy (20:43-48). What they did was a sad contrast with God in His judgment; even in the execution of His anger He shows mercy (2 Samuel 24:16, Psalm 78:38, Isaiah 40:2, 54:8, Joel 2:13-14). He, not they, should be the example for us.

It was good that six hundred men of Benjamin were able to escape the slaughter! They were much like Jotham in chapter 9, who escaped the fratricidal sword of his half-brother Abimelech. But, consider the extremity of their vengeance against their brother: They “trode them down with ease” (v. 43), they “gleaned of them . . . five thousand men” in the highways (v. 45), they “pursued hard after them unto Gidom” (v. 45), and they “smote them with the edge of the sword, as well the men of every city, as the beast, and all that came to hand: also they set on fire all the cities that they came to” (v. 48). It seems that they lost any semblance of reasonableness when they overcame their brethren. They were cruel to the extreme! No wonder, when we come to Judges 21:1-2, we read that they “wept sore.” Well they might!

Are there any cases of extreme actions in assembly discipline? Are there not examples of brethren acting far more severely than is warranted? Is it not true, that in some cases a brother or sister has been put away from an assembly with no possibility of their ever returning? Discipline in an assembly is Scripturally required, but we must, if we are to carry out God’s mind in discipline, seek to act consistently and reasonable, being guided by the Scriptures. Joseph is an excellent example of a man who dealt properly with his own brethren to judge their sin but who also acted to restore fellowship (Genesis 42-45). Paul dealt with the believers in Corinth the same way regarding the sin that existed in the assembly (1 Corinthians 5, 2 Corinthians 2:4-10). It takes spiritual, godly men to properly judge sin when it appears among God’s people so that the one being dealt with can be fully restored in the end, if possible. May God give us that discernment and consistency to act with righteousness as well as with mercy in these matters.

The Aftermath
Even after executing their vengeance on Benjamin and nearly eliminating that tribe, they expressed no repentance for what they had done, neither was there any indication of self-judgment as there should have been. “Israel in this last view we have of her here never confesses her true condition; and much it is to be feared that in this she will picture all too faithfully at least one point in which the Church will also woefully fail at the closing period of her testimony on earth” (F. C. Jennings). Self-judgment and honest confession of our own sinful condition is the hardest thing to do; far easier to judge our brethren than to judge ourselves!

Because of their foolish oath and their extreme severity with Benjamin, they had to face the dilemma of the near extermination of a tribe in Israel. Even as they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings to the Lord as an expression of their worship (Judges 21:4), they failed to seek His will to learn what they should do.

Once again they compounded the atrocity by deciding to enforce another of their oaths (notice how many times they did this) to put anyone to death who did not participate in their action against Benjamin. They balanced one foolish oath with another. They had decided to cut off anyone who had not agreed with their judgment, or who could not participate in their action. Since the men of Jabesh-gilead had not come to the battle, then they would eliminate them as well. “For the people will religiously keep their oaths! They must maintain their “principles”! Their “principles” demanded the extirpation of a tribe; and now the same strict “principles” require the extirpation of a city to save that tribe from extirpation” (F. C. Jennings). They could not permit any of the nation to remain neutral, even if those might have had good reasons for refusing to participate; they must now pay the price for non-participation. Even though Israel was repenting of the severity of her action against Benjamin, their conscience seems to have been hardened so that they failed to recognize the injustice of this further action.

The absurdity of their vow to eliminate Jabesh-gilead is that their judgment on that city was selective and unrighteous in every aspect. The vow was that all would be killed, but they spared 400 unmarried virgins from that number. It was another case of them doing that which was right in their own eyes and not seeking the mind of God. Wrong principles result in inconsistency of their application, and some might be cut off and destroyed while others might be spared.

Those 400 were not enough to satisfy the need so that the tribal remnant of Benjamin could continue, so another expedient was selected in Judges 21:19-23. The first expedient involved murder, the second involved kidnapping! How strange man’s ways can be when he is not subject to God’s will nor actively seeking to know that will. Israel covered their self-righteous behavior toward their brother Benjamin by their action, but the book closes with God’s commentary on the entire affair. The statement apparently ends the book on a note of anxious anticipation for the day of established rule that was yet future. Israel must yet pass through the unsettled conditions under Samuel and the limited attempts of Saul (another who failed to submit to the will of God completely) until it would arrive at the glorious days of David and Solomon. The closing verse of this book seems to give a sense of that anticipation even as it reveals the underlying basis for the problems that Israel faced in these tumultuous times.

Do we learn from the pattern of Israel’s behavior during these days that we are much the same? These things have been written for our admonition and learning, we read (Romans 15:4, 1 Corinthians 10:11), so that we should take heed and seek not to fail in the same way. The question is whether or not we are willing to learn from their sad history. It is so easy to apply this teaching to others, and, as a result, we fail to profit from it personally. The history of the church age, as we have attempted to show, has not been much different in principle, so we can easily apply this pattern to us so that we might learn from it and be preserved. Only as we recognize the same tendencies in ourselves and among us will we be preserved from making the same mistakes. May the Lord help us to do so as we live in the anticipation of His coming again and in view of our responsibility to our absent Lord Jesus Christ.