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Clarke's Commentary on the Bible
The heads of the eleven tribes come before the Lord in Mizpeh, and examine the Levite relative to the murder of his wife, who gives a simple narrative of the whole affair, Judges 20:1-7. They unanimously resolve to avenge the wrong, and make provision for a campaign against the Benjamites, Judges 20:8-11. They desire the Benjamites to deliver up the murderers; they refuse, and prepare for battle, having assembled an army of twenty-six thousand seven hundred men, Judges 20:12-16. The rest of the Israelites amount to four hundred thousand, who, taking counsel of God, agree to send the tribe of Judah against the Benjamites, Judges 20:17, Judges 20:18. They attack the Benjamites, and are routed with the loss of twenty-two thousand men, Judges 20:19-21. They renew the battle next day, and are discomfited with the loss of eighteen thousand men, Judges 20:22-25. They weep, fast, and pray, and offer sacrifices; and again inquire of the Lord, who promises to deliver Benjamin into their hands, Judges 20:26-28. They concert plans, attack the Benjamites, and rout them, killing twenty-five thousand one hundred men, and destroy the city of Gibeah, Judges 20:29-37. A recapitulation of the different actions in which they were killed, Judges 20:38-46. Six hundred men escape to the rock Rimmon, Judges 20:47. The Israelites destroy all the cities of the Benjamites, Judges 20:48.
1Then all the children of Israel went out, and the congregation was gathered together as one man, from Dan even to Beersheba, with the land of Gilead, unto the LORD in Mizpeh.
Unto the Lord in Mizpeh - This city was situated on the confines of Judah and Benjamin, and is sometimes attributed to the one, sometimes to the other. It seems that there was a place here in which the Lord was consulted, as well as at Shiloh; in 1 Maccabees 3:46, we read, In Maspha was the place where they prayed aforetime in Israel. These two passages cast light on each other. Some think that Shiloh is meant, because the ark was there; but the phrase before the Lord may signify no more than meeting in the name of God to consult him, and make prayer and supplication. Wherever God's people are, there is God himself; and it ever was true, that wherever two or three were assembled in his name, he was in the midst of them.
2And the chief of all the people, even of all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God, four hundred thousand footmen that drew sword.
The chief of all the people - The corners פנות pinnoth; for as the corner-stones are the strength of the walls, so are the chiefs the strength of the people. Hence Christ is called the chief corner-stone.
In the assembly of the people of God - The Septuagint translate, And all the tribes of Israel stood up before the face of the Lord, εν εκκλησιᾳ του λαου του Θεου, in the Church of the people of God. Here was a Church, though there was no priest; for, as Tertullian says, Ubi tres, ecclesia est, licet laici; "Wheresoever three are gathered together in the name of the Lord, there is a Church, although there be none but the laity."
3(Now the children of Benjamin heard that the children of Israel were gone up to Mizpeh.) Then said the children of Israel, Tell us, how was this wickedness?
Tell us, how was this wickedness? - They had heard before, by the messengers he sent with the fragments of his wife's body; but they wish to hear it, in full council, from himself.
4And the Levite, the husband of the woman that was slain, answered and said, I came into Gibeah that belongeth to Benjamin, I and my concubine, to lodge.
5And the men of Gibeah rose against me, and beset the house round about upon me by night, and thought to have slain me: and my concubine have they forced, that she is dead.
6And I took my concubine, and cut her in pieces, and sent her throughout all the country of the inheritance of Israel: for they have committed lewdness and folly in Israel.
7Behold, ye are all children of Israel; give here your advice and counsel.
8And all the people arose as one man, saying, We will not any of us go to his tent, neither will we any of us turn into his house.
We will not any of us go to his tent - We will have satisfaction for this wickedness before we return home.
9But now this shall be the thing which we will do to Gibeah; we will go up by lot against it;
10And we will take ten men of an hundred throughout all the tribes of Israel, and an hundred of a thousand, and a thousand out of ten thousand, to fetch victual for the people, that they may do, when they come to Gibeah of Benjamin, according to all the folly that they have wrought in Israel.
Ten men of a hundred - Expecting that they might have a long contest, they provide suttlers for the camp; and it is probable that they chose these tenths by lot.
11So all the men of Israel were gathered against the city, knit together as one man.
12And the tribes of Israel sent men through all the tribe of Benjamin, saying, What wickedness is this that is done among you?
13Now therefore deliver us the men, the children of Belial, which are in Gibeah, that we may put them to death, and put away evil from Israel. But the children of Benjamin would not hearken to the voice of their brethren the children of Israel:
Deliver us the men - Nothing could be fairer than this. They wish only to make the murderers answerable for their guilt.
Benjamin would not hearken - Thus making their whole tribe partakers of the guilt of the men of Gibeah. By not delivering up those bad men, they in effect said: "We will stand by them in what they have done, and would have acted the same part had we been present." This proves that the whole tribe was excessively depraved.
14But the children of Benjamin gathered themselves together out of the cities unto Gibeah, to go out to battle against the children of Israel.
15And the children of Benjamin were numbered at that time out of the cities twenty and six thousand men that drew sword, beside the inhabitants of Gibeah, which were numbered seven hundred chosen men.
Twenty and six thousand - Some copies of the Septuagint have twenty-three thousand, others twenty-five thousand. The Vulgate has this latter number; the Complutensian Polyglot and Josephus have the same.
16Among all this people there were seven hundred chosen men lefthanded; every one could sling stones at an hair breadth, and not miss.
Left-handed - They were ambidexters - could use the right hand and the left with equal ease and effect. See the note on Judges 3:15.
Could sling stones at a hair - and not miss - ולא יחטא velo yachati, and not sin: και ουκ εξαμαρτανοντες; Sept. Here we have the true import of the term sin; it signifies simply to miss the mark, and is well translated in the New Testament by ἁμαρτανω, from α, negative, and μαρπτω, to hit the mark. Men miss the mark of true happiness in aiming at sensual gratifications; which happiness is to be found only in the possession and enjoyment of the favor of God, from whom their passions continually lead them. He alone hits the mark, and ceases from sin, who attains to God through Christ Jesus.
It is worthy of remark that the Persian khuta kerden, which literally signifies to sin or mistake, is used by the Mohammedans to express to miss the mark.
The sling was a very ancient warlike instrument, and, in the hands of those who were skilled in the use of it, it produced astonishing effects. The inhabitants of the isles called Baleares, now Majorca and Minorca, were the most celebrated slingers of antiquity. They did not permit their children to break their fast till they had struck down the bread they were to eat from the top of a pole, or some distant eminence. They had their name Baleares from the Greek word βαλλειν to dart, cast, or throw.
Concerning the velocity of the ball out of the sling, there are strange and almost incredible things told by the ancients. The leaden ball, when thus projected, is said to have melted in its course. So Ovid, Met. lib. ii.. ver. 726.
Obstupuit forma Jove natus: et aethere pendens
Non secus exarsit, quam cum balearica plumbum
Funda jacit; volat illud, et incandescit eundo;
Et, quos non habuit, sub nubibus invenit ignes.
Hermes was fired as in the clouds he hung;
So the cold bullet that, with fury slung
From Balearic engines, mounts on high,
Glows in the whirl, and burns along the sky.
This is not a poetic fiction; Seneca, the philosopher, in lib. iii. Quaest. Natural., c. 57, says the same thing: Sic liquescit excussa glans funda, et adtritu aeris velut igne distillat; "Thus the ball projected from the sling melts, and is liquefied by the friction of the air, as if it were exposed to the action of fire." I have often, by the sudden and violent compression of the air, produced fire; and by this alone inflamed tinder, and lighted a match. Vegetius de Re Militari, lib. ii., cap. 23, tells us that slingers could in general hit the mark at six hundred feet distance. Funditores scopas-pro signo ponebant; ita ut Sexcentos Pedes removerentur a signo-signum saepius tangerent. These things render credible what is spoken here of the Benjamite slingers.
17And the men of Israel, beside Benjamin, were numbered four hundred thousand men that drew sword: all these were men of war.
18And the children of Israel arose, and went up to the house of God, and asked counsel of God, and said, Which of us shall go up first to the battle against the children of Benjamin? And the LORD said, Judah shall go up first.
Went up to the house of God - Some think that a deputation was sent from Shiloh, where Phinehas the high priest was, to inquire, not concerning the expediency of the war, nor of its success, but which of the tribes should begin the attack. Having so much right on their side, they had no doubt of the justice of their cause. Having such a superiority of numbers, they had no doubt of success. See the note on Judges 20:1.
And the Lord said, Judah - But he did not say that they should conquer.
19And the children of Israel rose up in the morning, and encamped against Gibeah.
20And the men of Israel went out to battle against Benjamin; and the men of Israel put themselves in array to fight against them at Gibeah.
21And the children of Benjamin came forth out of Gibeah, and destroyed down to the ground of the Israelites that day twenty and two thousand men.
Destroyed down to the ground - twenty-two thousand men - That is, so many were left dead on the field of battle.
22And the people the men of Israel encouraged themselves, and set their battle again in array in the place where they put themselves in array the first day.
23(And the children of Israel went up and wept before the LORD until even, and asked counsel of the LORD, saying, Shall I go up again to battle against the children of Benjamin my brother? And the LORD said, Go up against him.)
Go up against him - It appears most evident that the Israelites did not seek the protection of God. They trusted in the goodness of their cause and in the multitude of their army. God humbled them, and delivered them into the hands of their enemies, and showed them that the race was not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.
24And the children of Israel came near against the children of Benjamin the second day.
25And Benjamin went forth against them out of Gibeah the second day, and destroyed down to the ground of the children of Israel again eighteen thousand men; all these drew the sword.
26Then all the children of Israel, and all the people, went up, and came unto the house of God, and wept, and sat there before the LORD, and fasted that day until even, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD.
And wept - Had they humbled themselves, fasted, and prayed, and offered sacrifices at first, they had not been discomfited.
And fasted that day until even - This is the first place where fasting is mentioned as a religious ceremony, or as a means of obtaining help from God. And in this case, and many since, it has been powerfully effectual. At present it is but little used; a strong proof that self-denial is wearing out of fashion.
27And the children of Israel inquired of the LORD, (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days,
28And Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, stood before it in those days,) saying, Shall I yet again go out to battle against the children of Benjamin my brother, or shall I cease? And the LORD said, Go up; for to morrow I will deliver them into thine hand.
Phinehas, the son of Eleazar - This was the same Phinehas who is mentioned Numbers 25:7, and consequently these transactions must have taken place shortly after the death of Joshua.
29And Israel set liers in wait round about Gibeah.
Israel set liers in wait - Though God had promised them success, they knew they could expect it only in the use of the proper means. They used all prudent precaution, and employed all their military skill.
30And the children of Israel went up against the children of Benjamin on the third day, and put themselves in array against Gibeah, as at other times.
31And the children of Benjamin went out against the people, and were drawn away from the city; and they began to smite of the people, and kill, as at other times, in the highways, of which one goeth up to the house of God, and the other to Gibeah in the field, about thirty men of Israel.
32And the children of Benjamin said, They are smitten down before us, as at the first. But the children of Israel said, Let us flee, and draw them from the city unto the highways.
Let us - draw them from the city - They had two reasons for this:
1. They had placed an ambuscade behind Gibeah, which was to enter and burn the city as soon as the Benjamites had left it.
2. It would seem that the slingers, by being within the city and its fortifications, had great advantage against the Israelites by their slings, whom they could not annoy with their swords, unless they got them to the plain country.
33And all the men of Israel rose up out of their place, and put themselves in array at Baaltamar: and the liers in wait of Israel came forth out of their places, even out of the meadows of Gibeah.
Put themselves in array at Baal-tamar - The Israelites seem to have divided their army into three divisions; one was at Baal-tamar, a second behind the city in ambush, and the third skirmished with the Benjamites before Gibeah.
34And there came against Gibeah ten thousand chosen men out of all Israel, and the battle was sore: but they knew not that evil was near them.
35And the LORD smote Benjamin before Israel: and the children of Israel destroyed of the Benjamites that day twenty and five thousand and an hundred men: all these drew the sword.
Twenty and five thousand and a hundred - As the Benjamites consisted only of twenty-six thousand and seven hundred slingers; or, as the Vulgate, Septuagint, and others read, twenty-five thousand, which is most probably the true reading; then the whole of the Benjamites were cut to pieces, except six hundred men, who we are informed fled to the rock Rimmon, where they fortified themselves.
36So the children of Benjamin saw that they were smitten: for the men of Israel gave place to the Benjamites, because they trusted unto the liers in wait which they had set beside Gibeah.
37And the liers in wait hasted, and rushed upon Gibeah; and the liers in wait drew themselves along, and smote all the city with the edge of the sword.
38Now there was an appointed sign between the men of Israel and the liers in wait, that they should make a great flame with smoke rise up out of the city.
Now there was an appointed sign - From this verse to the end of the chapter we have the details of the same operations which are mentioned, in a general way, in the preceding part of the chapter.
39And when the men of Israel retired in the battle, Benjamin began to smite and kill of the men of Israel about thirty persons: for they said, Surely they are smitten down before us, as in the first battle.
40But when the flame began to arise up out of the city with a pillar of smoke, the Benjamites looked behind them, and, behold, the flame of the city ascended up to heaven.
41And when the men of Israel turned again, the men of Benjamin were amazed: for they saw that evil was come upon them.
42Therefore they turned their backs before the men of Israel unto the way of the wilderness; but the battle overtook them; and them which came out of the cities they destroyed in the midst of them.
43Thus they inclosed the Benjamites round about, and chased them, and trode them down with ease over against Gibeah toward the sunrising.
44And there fell of Benjamin eighteen thousand men; all these were men of valour.
45And they turned and fled toward the wilderness unto the rock of Rimmon: and they gleaned of them in the highways five thousand men; and pursued hard after them unto Gidom, and slew two thousand men of them.
Unto the rock of Rimmon - This was some strong place, but where situated is not known. Here they maintained themselves four months, and it was by these alone that the tribe of Benjamin was preserved from utter extermination. See the following chapter, Judges 21 (note).
It is scarcely possible to imagine any thing more horrid than the indiscriminate and relentless slaughter of both innocent and guilty mentioned in this chapter. The crime of the men of Gibeah was great, but there was no adequate cause for this relentless extermination of a whole tribe. There was neither justice nor judgment in this case; they were on all sides brutal, cruel, and ferocious: and no wonder; there was no king in Israel - no effective civil government, and every man did what was right in his own eyes. There was no proper leader; no man that had authority and influence to repress the disorderly workings of the pell-mell mob.
46So that all which fell that day of Benjamin were twenty and five thousand men that drew the sword; all these were men of valour.
47But six hundred men turned and fled to the wilderness unto the rock Rimmon, and abode in the rock Rimmon four months.
48And the men of Israel turned again upon the children of Benjamin, and smote them with the edge of the sword, as well the men of every city, as the beast, and all that came to hand: also they set on fire all the cities that they came to.