Chapter 20

                                                                              Another civil war


Chapter 20 describes another Israelite civil war, all of Israel against the tribe of Benjamin. However, if our supposition mentioned in the last chapter is correct, it is the tribe of Ephraim alone or as the lead tribe that is fighting against the tribe of Benjamin.

This is not the first time that Ephraim is involved in civil war. In chapter 11 Ephraim complained to Jephthah that he failed to call them to be part of the battle against Ammon, probably because they wanted a share of the spoils. This complaint to Jephthah was their second protest; the first was their similar grievance against Gideon.[1] Unlike Gideon, Jephthah did not appease Ephraim with words, and unlike his engagement with Ammon, Jephthah did try to avoid war by negotiations, but he started a brutal civil war resulting in many deaths. Just as Jephthah’s civil war was unnecessary, cruel, and immoral, so too was Israel’s war against Benjamin, as the Israelites realized after they butchered tens of thousands of their brethren.

All[2] of the Israelites went up “to the Lord at Mizpah”[3] to hear the Levite tell how the Benjamites of Gibeah killed his concubine. Among his claims, he states that the Benjamite rogues intended to kill him.[4] An army of 400,000 enraged Israelite soldiers[5] sent messages throughout all of Benjamin demanding that the tribe turn over the culprits.[6] Benjamin refused. “They flocked from their town to Gibeah to engage in war with the Israelites.” They mustered 26,700 men.[7] The Israelite army rolled lots to select a tenth of their force, to secure provisions for their fighters.

The Israelites went to Beth El and inquired of God, “’Who should go first for us to battle Benjamin?’ And the Lord said: ‘Judah first.’” The Israelites suffered a huge defeat in this first battle, 22,000 deaths. The Israelites went again to Beth El, wept, “And they asked the Lord, ‘Should I go again to battle Benjamin my brother?’[8] And the Lord said: ‘Go up against him.’” The Israelites did so and lost again; this time 18,000 men. They petitioned God a third time,[9] asking “’ Should I go again to battle Benjamin my brother, or should I cease.’ And the Lord said: ‘Go up, for tomorrow I will deliver him into your hand.’”

This third time the Israelite troop used Joshua’s ambush tactic, described in Joshua 8, in his battle against the city of Ai: they drew the Benjamites from their city by means of a feigned flight.[10] They were so successful that only 600 Benjamin men survived, men who ran and hid. The Israelites killed not only more than 26,000 Benjamite warriors but every Benjamite woman, child, and animal. I will discuss this “immoral practice” in the next chapter.


Interpretations by Arnold Ehrlich

The tenth of the Israelite forces, 40,000 of the 400,000, assigned to procure provisions for the battle were chosen by lots[11] because the men in this logistical unit did not have to engage in battle, many men preferred this safe assignment, and the fairest way to determine its participants was by lots.


Why was this battle different than other Israelite battles mentioned in Scripture? It is the only one where a logistical unit was required? When Israel fought in their homeland, the soldiers brought their own food or their families brought it to them, as David’s father sent him with food for his brothers who were in King Saul’s army.[12] When the Israelites fought outside their homeland, they lived off the produce of the enemy land. Here, the Israelites did not want to take food from the Benjamites, just as they took no spoil after defeating them, so that it would be clear to all that they did not fight their brother tribe to obtain spoils or even food. (Ehrlich may be right, but there is a biblical style, used frequently, of not stating everything, certainly not the obvious, such as providing food and other supplies. A slight variation to Ehrlich’s question and answer is: Why does this book tell readers about the logistical unit when it does not do so elsewhere in describing other wars? The answer: to emphasize that the Israelites did not want anyone to think they battled a brother tribe to secure wealth.)


Why did God tell the Israelites to fight Benjamin twice when God must have known they would be defeated? God opposed the notion that the act of some men in raping the concubine gave Israel the right to engage in civil war and the murder of thousands of people. The Israelites should have sent messengers to the elders of Benjamin requesting the deliverance of the alleged culprits for trial. Instead the Israelites send messengers throughout all of Benjamin telling the Benjamites about the atrocity. This was improper. This behavior suggests that they were seeking an excuse to wage war against the entire tribe. (If we believe God was not involved in the affair at all, we would understand that the enquiry was part of the war planning of Israel’s leaders “Should we fight Benjamin and, if so, how?” Their tactics failed twice until they used the ambush technique.)


The mention of Pinchas in verse 28, a third generation after Moses (he was Moses’s brother Aaron’s grandson), supports the view that Judges 17-21 occurred just after the death of Joshua, before the onset of the period of the judges. This is further supported by the book’s statement that at the time there was no king in Israel.[13] The phrase “no king” means no leader, not even a judge.Is there two different tales of the civil war in this chapter?


Scholars noted what they considered two different descriptions of battles in this chapter and supposed that the editor had both versions and rather than deciding which to place in his book put both of them, even though they have different details. These scholars failed to take account of a frequently-used biblical writing style, which we encountered in the past. The biblical writers often state an event briefly and then follow it with details. Thus verses 11-13 and 23-25 and 36-46 are not different versions of what precede it, but the details of the prior general statement.


[1] In chapter 8.

[2] There are many exaggerated statements in this chapter. As usual, the Bible’s “all” means “many.”

[3] Why did they assemble at Mizpah? The chapter does not say. The use of “to the Lord” seems to indicate that, contrary to the traditional belief that there was only a single sanctuary and it was at Shiloh, there was a sanctuary in Mizpah as well and at Bet El (Ehrlich).

[4] The intent to kill the Levite is not mentioned in chapter 19 which only indicates they wanted to “know him.” Among other possible explanations: (1) The Levite may have exaggerated his plight to enrage the Israelites. (2) The claim may be true. Scripture very frequently states something briefly and elaborates upon it later, adding details when the event is retold. We will see another example of this writing style in the description of the battles.

[5] Scholars call this number as well as all the numbers in the chapter as an exaggeration.

[6] Abarbanel focuses anachronistically on later Jewish law and asks what the legal basis for killing the malefactors is? Among other suppositions, he suggests that if the concubine was considered a wife, the rouge Benjamites committed adultery with her with the punishment being death. If she was not a wife, the “conditions of the time” required it. See chapter 4 for a discussion of this rabbinical law.

[7] 25,000 Benjamites were killed in the final battle and 600 escaped. This leaves 1,100 unaccounted for. Although not explicit, Kimchi sates that about a thousand were killed in the first two of the three battles and the one hundred is not stated in the 25,000, even though the true count of the dead Benjamites in the third battle was 25,100 because Scripture frequently rounds off numbers. There is a Midrash that printers placed in parenthesis in Rashi – perhaps believing Rashi did not include it in his writing – that the hundred escaped to Rome.

[8] This time, they added “my brother.”

[9] As usual, the number three reappears frequently. It is also part of the third day ambush tactic. A small group attacked the city and feigned fleeing in panic. A second group lay hidden prepared to attack the city when the Benjamites left the city and chased the first group. A third element waited until the Benjamites left the city and attacked them.

[10] The fact that the Israelites used the Joshua tactic and did not rely on God to secure their victory lends support to the interpretation that the civil war was a natural event and God was not involved.

[11] Lots are mentioned in verse 9.

[12] I Samuel 17:17. This was when David asked Saul for permission to fight the Philistine giant Goliath.

[13] 18:1, 19:1, and 21:25.