Everyone Did That Which was Right in His Own Eyes, Part 4
As Christians, we must strive to overcome our survival instincts and to accept the portion of blame, however small or large it may be, that lies at our door.
Judges 20 opens with all the people of Israel gathered “together as one man” to heed the Levite’s call for justice. This in itself was a remarkable thing. When there was no king or any other central authority to bind them together, all of the people had rallied as one. Not even the greatest of the divinely appointed judges, such as Ehud or Deborah and Barak, had been able to muster all of Israel as a coherent, motivated fighting force. We can only speculate as to the reasons why this was.
Could it have been that Israel found it easier to rally to an entirely human call for justice against their own people than a God-given call for repentance and deliverance from a numerically superior outside oppressor? As humans, we often find it easier to commit to action when it doesn’t involve personal introspection or change.
It’s much easier to right a wrong or to institute change when the problem is identified as someone else’s fault, not ours, and when the solution is to force that person to change or have them removed entirely. This seems to be one of the biggest problems facing Western society today: every social issue is politicized and polarized so that one side is to blame for all of the other side’s woes.
Do we let friendship or family loyalties get in the way of applying God’s principles?
Unfortunately, this attitude appears to have made its way into various churches, including our own. Where was God in their thinking? Verse 1 says that they assembled as one man “to the LORD” and, in verse 2, as “the assembly of the people of God.” This suggests that their self-identification as people of Yahweh had not entirely disappeared. Perhaps it is easier to consider oneself faithful to Yahweh when it involves passing judgment on others rather than examining oneself.
The tribe of Benjamin did not appear at the assembly. Evidently, they were aware of the details of the Levite’s complaint and had decided to stand with Gibeah in tribal loyalty rather than seek justice for what Gibeah had done. Is that a trap that we, too, might fall into? Do we let friendship or family loyalties get in the way of applying God’s principles? Do you ever find yourself relaxing the standards of doctrine or behavior you expect from others when it concerns a close friend or family member?
In verses 4-7, the version of events recounted by the Levite could be described as “sanitized” at best. He managed to absolve himself of all blame and make himself the victim of the night’s horrors rather than the helpless woman whom he sacrificed and failed to rescue or revive. It’s a natural human reaction to push the blame onto others and portray oneself as a helpless victim who can do nothing to help the situation. In doing so, we put all of the responsibility for the problem onto someone else.
As Christians, we must strive to overcome our survival instincts and to accept the portion of blame, however small or large it may be, that lies at our door. The Levite’s words were powerful. The distribution of the murdered woman’s body parts had served to gather the disparate tribes as one, yet it was his speech that motivated them to fight as one. However, we may notice that in his speech, the Levite made no mention of God.
As a Levite, he was responsible for teaching the people the spiritual significance of these events and ought to have called them to action in God’s name, not his own. Despite his making himself the center of this gathering, he vanished entirely from the account after finishing his speech and was never mentioned again. Perhaps the movement for justice and vengeance had taken on a life of its own, and he was no longer in control of it, much less able to stop it.
What had started as an act of atrocity by one city against a single woman then escalated into a pan-tribal crusade against that city. As we shall see, it would then escalate further into a civil war that virtually annihilated an entire tribe.
When we make decisions in the heat of anger to act against those we perceive to be entirely at fault, the situation can gradually yet irreversibly grow into something far worse. It’s been suggested that the account presents the Levite almost as an ironic parody of the judges. Whereas the judges rose up in God’s name to gather the people to fight against an external evil to deliver themselves, the Levite rose up in his own name to gather the people to fight against an internal evil, an act which ultimately only harmed themselves as a result, as we shall see.
One more thing we may note about the Levite’s speech is that nothing he said was false. It was the truth, and yet it was not the whole truth. When we have a goal in mind, it can be very tempting to convince others of our perspective by presenting a technically true narrative, but which leaves out essential detail and context required to give the whole picture. Telling the truth means telling the whole truth, even the details that put ourselves in a bad light.
In Judges 20, telling only part of the truth set in motion an escalating campaign of violence in which one side thought they were entirely in the right and that this justified anything they might do against such a terrible evil. We can only speculate about what might have happened had the Levite told the whole truth and included his failings at Gibeah. Perhaps the thirst for vengeance could have been quenched by destroying only Gibeah, and some agreement could have been reached with the rest of Benjamin.
In verse 8 and following, the tribes began planning for the military campaign against Gibeah. Note that they did not involve God at all during this initial phase. In verse 9, they used the casting of lots to determine who would lead the charge. The casting of lots was one way God’s will could be determined (see, e.g., Acts 1 with the choice of Matthias), but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.
The tribes appeared to have been unaware that Benjamin had a secret weapon: an entire group of left-handed slingers. Block describes it thus: “Alone a left-handed person was considered handicapped and in a contingent of right-handed troops an actual liability, but if enough left-handed men could be assembled to make up an entire contingent, a disadvantage would be transformed into a distinct advantage, physically and psychologically.” (Block, p. 557).¹
The record does not state the reason for Benjamin’s overwhelming victories on the first two days of battle. Perhaps the rest of Israel had no answer to this elite group of “special forces.” Had God been with the rest of the tribes during the first two battles, neither these lefthanded men nor anything else would have been able to achieve victory for Benjamin. Why didn’t God help them?
Perhaps there is a parallel here to the Israelite attempt to conquer Ai in Joshua 7. There they fought, confident of success in their strength, and were soundly defeated. It wasn’t until they turned to God in humility and dealt with the sin of Achan that God enabled them to prevail. Nevertheless, on the eve of the first day of battle, God was willing to answer their question about who should go first into battle. His answer was Judah. This may have been because the murdered concubine was from Bethlehem in Judah, and so perhaps in God’s eyes, the tribe of Judah had the first claim to justice from Gibeah.
Notice that God did not promise they would succeed on this occasion, but then again, that wasn’t the question they had asked him. Perhaps they were so sure of the rightness of their cause and their hearts that they’d assumed God would help them no matter what. Whether they listened to God and sent Judah in first, we are not told. Either way, the first day resulted in an utter defeat in which the tribes lost about as many men as Benjamin had in their entire army. The record doesn’t tell us how many, if any, Benjamite casualties there were.
Our own eyes do not see our faults. That’s why we need to see through God’s eyes
On the evening of the first day, they went weeping before God and finally asked what they should have asked at the start: whether they should have been engaging in this fight at all. We can only assume that they didn’t understand how they could have been defeated with God on their side and concluded that perhaps this war wasn’t His will at all. They didn’t at this time understand that ultimately Benjamin’s defeat was, in fact, God’s will but that it would not happen until they had corrected their attitude toward God.
God confirmed He wanted them to keep fighting, yet He did not promise whether they would succeed. The second day of fighting saw them suffer another massive round of casualties, though not quite as many as the day before. Again the record depicts only the perspective of the eleven tribes and is silent about the reasons for Benjamin’s success or any casualties on their side.
On the second evening, they once more went before God and sat before Him, fasted and offered sacrifices. It seems that they began to understand it wasn’t enough for them to be fighting for justice against a terrible atrocity. They had to be standing faithfully in covenant with God before they could fight and claim victory in His name.
This should give us much food for thought in our own time. In the modern day, there are countless evils, abuses, injustices and so forth taking place in the Western world and beyond. There are also numerous people and groups standing up to denounce such things and demanding that something be done about them.
As Christians, we should also wish to see an end to abuse and injustice against those who cannot defend themselves. Yet, Jesus said we must look at our faults first before we begin to call out those of others (see, e.g., Matt 7:1-5). As humans, it’s only natural to call attention to others’ sins while trying to minimize or hide our own. Our own eyes do not see our faults. That’s why we need to see through God’s eyes.
Anyone who calls for justice to be done in God’s name or by quoting God’s Scriptures must make sure he/ she is right with God first. That does not mean a person must be sinless but rather conscious and repentant of his/ her faults. Few things blind us to our faults more than a crusading attitude against evil outside of ourselves.
Today there are so many people, Christian or otherwise, who see the world in such a polarized way that they can only see evil in those on the “other side.” Perhaps with good reason, they may perceive themselves as having been victimized by those on the “other side.”
Yet there lies a danger in identifying oneself as a victim, namely that a victim generally sees no need to accept responsibility to examine or change him/ herself or make a sacrifice to improve the situation or seek reconciliation. In many ways, the thinking of the Western world encourages us to embrace the idea of victimhood. God does not. Instead, he encourages self-examination and repentance before we attempt to right any wrongs we perceive in other people.
Yet there lies a danger in identifying oneself as a victim
Jesus will not allow us to criticize and demand change from others while refusing to address the same faults in our own lives. Examine yourself. Do you do the same things you find it so easy to criticize in others? Do you use people for your own satisfaction? Do you ignore the suffering of the helpless? Do you live for pleasure at their expense? The Israelites’ question on the second evening now ended with “or should we not?,” implying their growing doubts whether God was really behind them in this quest for justice.
In verse 27, we see that they had brought the ark of the covenant along with them. It’s unlikely the ark made the journey from its usual place to Gibeah in a single day, suggesting it had been there since the first day of battle. Perhaps, as in 1 Samuel 4, the Israelites had brought the ark to battle as if it was some talisman whose mere presence would bring them success. Yet now, after two punishing defeats, were they beginning to understand that the ark’s physical presence did not guarantee God’s blessings on their actions? What might this tell us about the attitude with which we ought to approach God?
We should always be wary of expecting to be blessed with success or safety in our endeavors when God hasn’t promised us either thing. It’s only when we come to God in humility and repentance that He’ll be receptive to our requests. In verse 28, we see that Phinehas, apparently the grandson of Aaron, is in charge of the ark. If we assume that this is the same Phinehas who brought Israel’s intermingling with Moab to a brutal end in Numbers 25, then along with Jonathan in chapters 17-18, it’s an indication that these events took place within the lifetime of some of those who first entered the land under Joshua.
If it is indeed the same Phinehas, then we know from Numbers 25 (and Joshua 22) his reputation for extreme, even violent, zeal in defending the truth and its purity. Perhaps we can imagine him pushing for similar violent action against evil in this situation as well. He likely was one of the foremost voices exhorting the tribes to repentance after the defeats on the first and second days of battle.
On this occasion, God, presumably satisfied with their change in attitude towards Him, finally promised victory. On the third day, again in parallel with the conquest of Ai in Joshua 8, the Israelites laid an ambush against Gibeah. In Joshua 8, God commanded them to do this, but on this occasion, we aren’t told whose idea it was. On the third day, we first get to see the battle from Benjamin’s point of view.
In verses 32 and 39, we see their confidence that Israel is fleeing as they did twice before. Presumably, they know nothing about the change of attitude the eleven tribes have gone through and God’s new willingness to help them. In verse 34, we see their complete ignorance of their imminent destruction, and in verses 40-41, their sudden dismay at the now inevitable defeat.
We should reflect that these will be the general feelings of the world in which we live when Jesus returns. Most people have no idea he is coming and will have no reason to think anything has changed when he does. They will realize too late that the way of things they wish to cling to is gone forever. The smoke rising out of the burning city was a sign to the “fleeing” Israelites to turn back and re-engage in battle.
What was a sign of impending victory for those on God’s side was a sign of inescapable doom to those clinging to the side of evil. The return of Christ will be no different.
The Israelites failure had come full circle
Unfortunately, the similarities between these two events only go so far. Instead of the Israelites beginning a time of peace and justice and faithfulness to God, they turned only to more bloodshed and violence. The fleeing army of Benjamin was almost entirely cut down. The Benjamite towns, now without any fighting men to defend them, were burned and the citizens massacred. Ironically this sort of warfare was what God had commanded to be done to the Canaanites in the first place, something the Israelites mainly had failed to do.
That failure was the reason they had become more and more like Canaanites themselves in their thinking and lifestyle, doing only what was right in their own eyes. Now that way of thinking had led to the unsanctioned slaughter of fellow Israelites. Their failure had come full circle.
God had not commanded Benjamin to be wiped out. Did wrath consume the tribes after two humiliating defeats? Were they determined to wipe out the evil “infecting” Benjamin before it could spread to anyone else? Did they convince themselves this was what God wanted them to do? Israel overreacted disastrously in their massacre of Benjamin.
Ultimately they only harmed themselves by almost losing an entire tribe, including many excellent fighters who were now unavailable to help engage the Canaanites. If sin within the community is dealt with in a heavy-handed or over-the-top manner, the whole community may suffer. There is always a danger that in the zeal to eradicate evil, the innocent will be destroyed along with it.
This should cause us to think very carefully about our approach to those in our midst who are consistently unrepentant of their sin. Nevertheless, sin must be opposed and confronted in the correct, godly manner. Anything that stands in opposition to God must be challenged.
We should not make the mistake of thinking that it is “unloving” to hurt a person’s feelings by confronting their sins and encouraging them to turn to God in repentance. Daniel Block (1943- ), Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, puts it this way: “The extent to which people will stand up to defend evil and evildoers is a measure of how deeply rooted is the Canaanizing rot in a culture.”²
Anything that stands in opposition to God must be challenged.
If we leave a person to do what is right in their own eyes and tell ourselves we are acting in love, we are badly mistaken. Block sums up Judges 20 with “Perhaps most ironic of all, this chapter portrays the nation of Israel engaged in a holy war against their kinsmen with all the passion they should have displayed in their war against the Canaanites. Israel has discovered who her greatest foe is: she is her own worst enemy.”³
Is there genuine passion in your faith? If so, where is it directed? Toward the pursuit of godly principles and character in your own life? Toward the encouragement of the same in others? Toward what’s right in your own eyes or the eyes of God?
1 Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, Publishers, 1999), from the New American Commentary series. Page 557.
2 ibid. Page 568.
3 ibid. Page 569.