One of the most disturbing events in Israel’s biblical history takes place in the book of Judges, chapters 19 through 21.
Reading this passage can be an unnerving experience and will leave unanswered questions in the student’s heart. Yet these chapters contain one of the most powerful cautionary tales about administering justice and punishing sin.
The Initial Crime
The story begins with the commission of a heinous crime. A woman of Israel was gang-raped and murdered in the city of Gibeah, a town within the borders of the tribe of Benjamin. This crime aroused such outrage in Israel that the Israelites mustered a huge army of 400,000, prepared to wage war against Gibeah—and the entire tribe of Benjamin, if necessary. The military commanders demanded that the elders of Benjamin immediately hand over the guilty party (literally, “the sons of Belial”).
However, Israel’s arrogant, high-handed, and self-righteous approach put the Benjamites on the defense. Instead of meekly complying with Israel’s demands, they gave their support to the men of Gibeah.
In response, Israel flew into a rage and made a series of rash vows. First, they swore that none of them would return to his home until judgment had been carried out against Benjamin. Second, they vowed that none of them would give his daughter to any Benjamite in marriage. Third, they swore an oath that any city in Israel which had failed to join in their righteous cause would be put to the sword.
What was the outcome? It could not have been more disastrous—for everyone involved. Although God was grieved over the sin of Gibeah, He was also deeply displeased with Israel’s self-righteous fervor. So, Israel’s first attempt to punish Benjamin ended in their defeat. Of Israel’s “holy ranks” 22,000 soldiers perished in that first battle. Israel was shaken, wondering why God had granted victory to the guilty. They regained their composure, however, and launched a second attack against their fellow countrymen. This too ended in defeat, with the loss of 18,000 soldiers.
Badly humbled, the Israelites wept, fasted, and cried out to God for guidance. “Should we stop what we’re doing or should we continue fighting?”
God responded. He would give them victory over Benjamin in the next battle. So, for a third time, Israel waged war against their brothers—God’s chosen people. And God gave them the victory.
Israel, however, became quite vengeful in the battle and turned the route into a slaughter. Of the many thousands in the tribe of Benjamin, Israel killed every man, woman, and child. Only a group of 600 soldiers managed to escape annihilation.
But Israel just kept making one bad decision after another. Suddenly, Israel became remorseful over the loss of one of its Twelve Tribes—which they partly blamed on God (Judges 21:3, 15). So they cooked up a scheme to fix things.
Fixing One Bad Decision with More
Remember those 600 surviving Benjamite soldiers? Well, Israel wracked their brains for a way to get them wives so they could rebuild the missing tribe. But they had already vowed not to give any man of Benjamin their daughter in marriage. So they found another solution. They had also vowed to annihilate any city in Israel which had not joined them in their “righteous cause.” And of all the cities of Israel, the town of Jabesh-Gilead had failed to show. So Israel sent their army and slaughtered everyone in that city, only sparing 400 unmarried girls. Israel took these 400 girls to the 600 surviving Benjamites.
Of course, there weren’t enough girls for every man. So the Israelites cooked up another plan to get wives for the remaining 200 bachelors of Benjamin. Israel advised the remaining 200 bachelors of Benjamin to hide out at the next religious festival. They told them to “lie in wait” for any unmarried girls who might pass by on their way to the festival. Then, should one pass by, the Benjamites were to kidnap her and marry her.
I suspect it never occurred to Israel that the purpose of their holy war was to punish a handful of men for sexually assaulting and murdering one women. Yet, when it was all over, they themselves had killed tens of thousands of their fellow Israelites—male and female—and had orchestrated the sexual assault 600 additional women. Israel had repeatedly fallen on its face like a drunken fool. Because of its own self-righteousness and haughtiness, the nation stumbled from one tragic decision to another.
Would this not have been a far better strategy? A delegation from Israel could have respectfully approached the elders of Benjamin and informed them of the crime and humbly ask that they punish the guilty men? Such a plan would have resulted only in the deaths of the guilty men of Gibeah. But Israel’s arrogant, heavy-handed, and self-righteous approach only aroused Benjamin’s anger.
Listen to Paul the apostles advice on correcting sins among God’s people. “Brothers, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness; each of you looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1).
Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and pray for God’s wisdom.
The year 1987 will always leave a bitter taste in the hearts of American Christians. This was the year that a prominent televangelist, Jim Bakker, was disgraced after his financial and sexual indiscretions were revealed. Leading the crusade against Bakker, was fellow televangelist, Jimmy Swaggert. Swaggert conducted his righteous war against Bakker with an air of arrogance and self-righteousness. Yet, within the same year, Swaggert himself would stumble and his own sins exposed. It’s for a good reason that King Solomon warned us, “Pride goes before destruction, And a haughty spirit before stumbling” (Prov. 16:18).
Have others around us committed some grievous sin? Approach that person in a spirit of meekness and gentleness to make your concerns known. However, first consider the words of Jesus, “First remove the log that is in your own eye and then you will see clearly enough to remove the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:1–5). Pray for the offender. Pray for yourself. And, above all, humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and pray for God’s wisdom.
Dear Father in heaven, please forgive my own self-righteous attitude, which is a far worse sin than those I seek to correct. Open my eyes to my own need for prayer and forgiveness. Cultivate in me a humble and forgiving heart and make me an instrument of Your peace. Amen.