What does Judges 20 mean?
Chapter Commentary:
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.
Verse Context:
Judges 20:1–17 depicts Israel's response to an atrocity in Gibeah, a town of the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 19:22, 25). The people agree to punish Gibeah, saying their intent is to purge evil from Israel. When the Benjaminites refuse to hand over the guilty men, the other eleven tribes prepare a large army to invade. Benjamin rallies their own troops and prepares to defend the city of Gibeah.
Judges 20:18–34 describes three battles between eleven tribes of Israel and the twelfth, Benjamin. Benjamin's forces are outnumbered about fifteen-to-one as they defend the city of Gibeah (Judges 19:14, 22; 20:13). The first two attacks fail, with almost a tenth of the Israelite fighters killed. After a day of fasting and sacrifices, God promises Israel victory. Israel's army uses a new strategy and succeeds. The following section begins with a summary of their eventual victory (Judges 20:35).
Judges 20:35–48 starts with a summary of the final conflict between the tribe of Benjamin and the rest of Israel. This is followed by details about how that result was obtained. The prior passage explained the other eleven tribes preparing for war, struggling, then eventually finding a winning strategy. Benjamin's armies are almost completely wiped out. Israel rages through the territory, destroying everything and everyone they encounter. Only 600 men remain alive out of the entire tribe.
Chapter Summary:
A massive army collected from eleven of the twelve tribes of Israel gather near the town of Gibeah. Their goal is to purge evil from the land (Judges 19:22–28). The tribe of Benjamin refuses to cooperate. Instead, they assemble an army about one-fifteenth the size of Israel's army. After two failed attempts and a promise of victory from the Lord, Israel uses a false retreat and ambush strategy to destroy Gibeah. This results in the loss of Benjamin's entire army. Israel's wrath spills over onto the territory, itself. All the people, animals, and towns in the tribe's territory are attacked, and it appears that only 600 Benjaminite men survive.
Chapter Context:
In the prior chapter, Benjaminite men of the town of Gibeah committed an act of heinous sin (Judges 19:22–25). In response, the murdered woman's husband rallies Israel with a gruesome message (Judges 19:29–30). Chapter 20 depicts how the tribe of Benjamin refuses to hand over the guilty men. Civil war ensues, resulting in near-total annihilation of their tribe. This creates a new crisis in Israel, as described in chapter 21; Israel doesn't want Benjamin to become extinct.
Book Summary:
The Book of Judges describes Israel's history from the death of Joshua to shortly before Israel's first king, Saul. Israel fails to complete God's command to purge the wicked Canaanites from the land (Deuteronomy 7:1–5; 9:4). This results in a centuries-long cycle where Israel falls into sin and is oppressed by local enemies. After each oppression, God sends a civil-military leader, labeled using a Hebrew word loosely translated into English as "judge." These appointed rescuers would free Israel from enemy control and govern for a certain time. After each judge's death, the cycle of sin and oppression begins again. This continues until the people of Israel choose a king, during the ministry of the prophet-and-judge Samuel (1 Samuel 1—7).
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