Slaughtering the Benjamites I: Benjamin’s depravity—Judges 19:1—20:28

If biblical texts about slaughtering the Canaanites rightly make us uncomfortable (see;;, biblical texts about Israel’s wholesale slaughter of fellow Israelites (Judg 20:48; 21:10-12) may with good reason make us sick.

Judges 19—21 is a tale of horror, and no one should try to understand it otherwise. After narrating the exploits (and failures) of many of Israel’s judges, Judges frames its closing chapters with an ominous refrain: “In those days there was no king in Israel; each person did what was right in their own eyes” (Judg 17:6; 21:25). The accounts between these two bookends illustrate the horror of that moral anarchy even more hideously than most earlier events in the Book of Judges. Half the refrain also appears in Judg 19:1, at the beginning of the book’s closing story, signalling the special unity of the single story in chs. 19—21. It is this story, and especially the climax of its broadest violence, that I survey here.

A fatal gang rape

A Levite seeking to regain his concubine experiences excessive hospitality in Bethlehem (Judg 19:4-9) but the epitome of inhospitality in Gibeah of Benjamin (Judg 19:15, 22). (The one hospitable person there was a sojourner, a fellow Ephraimite, not a local; 19:16.) This story may thus have been of special interest early in David’s reign, since David was from Bethlehem, whereas Saul, his rival predecessor, was from Gibeah!

What highlights all the more starkly the contrast between hospitable Bethlehem and murderous Gibeah is the reason that the travelers chose to rest in Gibeah to begin with, rather than a somewhat nearer town. The Levite chose to trust the hospitality of Gibeah more than that of Jebus—the future Jerusalem—because Gibeah was an Israelite town and Jebus wasn’t (Judg 19:11-12). Yet Gibeah soon acted like a pagan town—like Sodom, in fact. (Israel’s prophets often later compared Israel’s wickedness to Sodom more explicitly—e.g., Isa 3:9; Jer 23:14; Lam 4:6; Ezek 16:46-56.)

Local thugs want to gang-rape the Levite visitor just as Sodom’s thugs wanted to violate the angelic visitors in Genesis 19. Likewise, the Levite’s host in Gibeah offers two women instead of his male guest, just as Lot in Sodom offered his daughters. (Like Lot, the Levite’s host was not from, and had not fully absorbed the attitude toward strangers in, the wicked town. But both Lot and the Levite’s host reflected some of their cultures’ values in other ways.)

Yet here, in contrast to the story of Lot and Sodom in Genesis 19, there is no divine intervention; God seems silent, and events follow their natural course with no deliverance. The Levite saves himself, his servant and his host’s household by forcing his concubine outside to the insistent criminals in the street. But God does not intervene in this tragedy, in contrast to his intervention in Sodom (just as Jephthah’s daughter is not delivered in Judg 11:34-40, in contrast to Abraham’s son in Gen 22:10-14).

Whereas in Genesis the angels “seized” Lot’s family to rescue them (Gen 19:16), here the Levite “seizes” his concubine to substitute her for himself (Judg 19:25, a matter perhaps conveniently omitted in the Levite’s retelling of the events in 20:5). He later seizes her violated body to cut it apart (19:29). (That the term used for “cutting” here often refers to cleaving meat or sacrifices may drive home the horror even more harshly.)

A war to avenge injustice

Many Israelites rightly took rape seriously, especially when someone violated their sister (Gen 34:27; 2 Sam 13:32), though the counterviolence sometimes killed the innocent alongside the guilty (cf. Gen 49:6-7). Gang-raping the concubine to death, however—an atrocity perhaps underlined all the more graphically by her subsequent dismemberment—stunned Israel’s sensitivities even in this anarchic period (Judg 19:30). Thus the rest of the tribes of Israel gather to demand justice, perhaps determined to prevent further atrocities caused by the continued disintegration of public morality.

The Benjamites, however, refuse to hand over the perpetrators (Judg 20:13). Were they simply unable to locate them and unwilling to admit it? The language of Judges probably instead suggests more deliberate refusal. Most likely, ethnic and family ties prove stronger here than ethical ones, as in the case of the Shechemites’ earlier murder of Abimelech’s brothers (9:1-6). Nepotism, racism, nationalism and other self-centered systems of group loyalties can blind us to moral truth. Not only the other men of Gibeah, but the other Benjamites join them, preemptively preparing for Israel’s attack (20:14).

By refusing to punish those responsible, the Benjamites embrace corporate responsibility for the murder (cf. Deut 21:1-9). Israel, which in the Book of Judges was often notably unable to unite against foreign aggressors without a divinely-empowered judge, now unites to battle the Israelite tribe of Benjamin (Judg 20:8-11, a paragraph that begins and concludes by noting Israel’s unity “as one”).

The Israelites heavily outnumbered the Benjamites (20:15-17), though the terrain probably prevented them from deploying their numbers all at once and the Benjamites had the advantage of distance “artillery” (20:16). Like all ancient peoples, Israel consulted its god before battle; yet God allows Israel to suffer heavily in it (20:21). Again the Lord remains largely silent in the background, the first few times apparently speaking only through the casting of lots that decides which tribe will go to battle (Judg 20:18) or whether they should keep engaging the battle (20:23, 28). Only after many losses does God promise victory (20:28), and unlike the stories in Joshua when God was with his people, this victory still comes at a cost of many Israelite warriors’ lives (20:31; cf. Josh 7:5, 11-12).

The suffering of many individuals before a common objective is achieved fits much of our present existence in this world; both in Scripture and today, suffering comes to both the righteous and the unrighteous. Still, there may also be another reason for God’s relative silence in this narrative, a silence that allows even more innocent people to suffer. Benjamin is not the only tribe in Israel that is sinning. God knows the rest of Israel’s moral state, as becomes clear later in the narrative, the part treated in Part II (to keep any one post from running too long), to be posted tomorrow (

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