What does Judges chapter 20 mean?In this chapter, the people of Israel respond to the outrageous events described in chapter 19. A Levite man's concubine was brutally abused and murdered by men from Gibeah, a city in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 19:22–28). The Levite dismembered her corpse and sent pieces throughout Israel along with the story of what had happened. Israel's leaders react in shock and anger, resolving to meet to settle the issue (Judges 19:29–30).
Representatives from eleven tribes—every tribe except for Benjamin—gather at a town called Mizpah. There were several locations with this name, but the one in question is not far from Gibeah (Judges 19:14). There, they hear the Levite reiterate what happened to his concubine. It's almost certain that this meeting is a formality. Israel's leaders have likely discussed what happened and resolved how to respond: the meeting depicted here involves major troop movements. The Hebrew word 'eleph can refer to "thousands" or to "divisions," and Israel sends four hundred to Mizpah. Benjamin's tribe notices what is happening but does not attend the meeting (Judges 20:1–7).
The eleven tribes of Israel agree they will not disband their gathering until Gibeah is held accountable. Supply systems are arranged in anticipation of a siege. Before attacking, however, Israel invites the tribe of Benjamin to join their cause. Gibeah is a Benjaminite city, and the purpose of this summit is to punish those who are guilty. They hope the tribe of Benjamin will agree to bring justice. Instead, the Benjaminites assemble their own forces. Despite being about one-fifteenth the size of their attackers, they resolve to protect Gibeah (Judges 20:8–17).
Before their first attempt to take Gibeah, Israelite leaders travel to Bethel. At that time, the ark of the covenant was there (Judges 20:27). The people ask for God's guidance, but only to know which tribe should take the lead. The Lord answers that Judah should go first. The next day, Israel's army forms battle lines and attacks Gibeah. The soldiers of Benjamin emerge from the city and counterattack. The natural terrain of Gibeah probably made it difficult to assault. The people are also fighting on their home soil, so they know it well. Benjamin's well-prepared and motivated soldiers kill about one in twenty of the invading Israelite fighters (Judges 20:18–21).
After that humiliating defeat, representatives of Israel travel to Bethel once again. Mourning their struggle, the Israelites bring to God the question they likely should have asked in the first place: whether they should be attacking their fellow Israelites at all. The Lord tells them to keep attacking. The second attempt, however, fails as badly as did the first. A total of one in every eleven Israeli troops has been killed outright. This is more than the total number of soldiers in Benjamin's entire army. In response, the entire group, including soldiers, travels to Bethel. They appeal to God's will through tears and sacrifices. They once again ask the Lord if they should attack. The Lord tells them to continue—and this time, He promises victory (Judges 20:22–28).
The Israelites use a new strategy for their third attempt on the city. They position part of the army in hiding nearby, then reform the same battle lines used previously. They attack Gibeah as before, but as soon as the fighters of Benjamin emerge from the city, Israel's army falls back. Benjamin's army falls for the trap, being drawn out of the city in pursuit of the false retreat. Only a remnant is left behind in Gibeah. Once the city is vulnerable, Israelite soldiers in hiding emerge and attack the city (Judges 20:29–34).
The final portion of the chapter begins with a summary: that Benjamin was defeated, losing almost all the tribe's fighting men. After Israel's false retreat draws out Gibeah's defenders, a group ambushes the city, conquers it, and sets everything on fire. The retreating Israelite army from the prior passage sees the smoke, which is their signal to turn and fight the Benjaminite army. The tribe of Benjamin instantly realizes they are defeated; they attempt to run. Israel's forces surround them, cut off escape, and slaughter nearly the entire army. Rather than stopping there, Israel's forces sweep through the territory of Benjamin, devastating animals, buildings, and people in a terrible storm of destruction. The tribe is almost completely exterminated, with only a small number of soldiers left in hiding (Judges 20:35–48).
The consequences of these actions are dire: the tribe of Benjamin has been virtually annihilated. Israel now must decide what to do to prevent an entire tribe from disappearing. The following chapter explains the process of establishing peace and restoring Benjamin's future.