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The Levite and his concubine and his servant stopped for the night at “Gibeah, which belongs to Benjamin” (Judges 19:14). No one offered to take them in and give them shelter for the night until after sundown. This was probably their first clue that all was not well, because hospitality is a cardinal virtue in that part of the world. Finally, a man returning from working in the field all day walked up to them and inquired of their welfare. He then invited them into his home.
Judges 19:22 says,
22 While they were making merry, behold, the men of the city, certain worthless fellows [beliya’al iysh], surrounded the house, pounding the door; and they spoke to the owner of the house, the old man, saying, “Bring out the man who came into your house that we may have relations with him.”
These “worthless fellows” were “sons of Belial” (KJV). The word beliya’al is a compound word consisting of beliy, “failure, wear out, decay” and ya’al, “to ascend, profit, gain.” It denotes the idea of being unprofitable, corrupt, or a failure to attain a high moral standard.
Perhaps the good people of the town had not offered hospitality to the Levite because they did not know who he was and were already living in a certain amount of fear from this gang that was roaming the streets at night. Whatever the case, Gibeah had become a corrupt city, and Samuel recorded it, no doubt, to explain the corruption in King Saul who came from Gibeah. Of course, Samuel did not tell us this directly, because that would have been inappropriate and disrespectful of the reigning king. We are left on our own to draw that connection.
Judges 19:23, 24 continues,
23 Then the man, the owner of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my fellows, please do not act so wickedly, since this man has come into my house, do not commit this act of folly [nebalah]. 24 Here is my virgin daughter and his [the Levite’s] concubine. Please let me bring them out that you may ravish them and do to them whatever you wish. But do not commit such an act of folly against this man.”
The householder was obviously frightened by the gang. After all, they all lived in the same town, and if he angered the gang, he knew that they were capable of doing him harm. The best he could do was to offer them his own daughter and the Levite’s concubine. At least then they would not be engaging in homosexual acts. His offer presumes that he knew it was a gang of bisexual men.
The Hebrew word for “folly” is nebalah, which is from nabal, “foolish, stupid, wicked.” (Recall that Abigail’s husband was named Nabal in 1 Sam. 25:3. It is not likely that his mother named him Nabal, but this is what the people called him, because “the man was harsh and evil in his dealings.”
Hospitality to strangers was biblically and culturally very important in those days. Few in Gibeah dared to be hospitable, however, precisely because they did not want to put themselves in danger from the gang that ruled the town.
Judges 19:25, 26 says,
25 But the men would not listen to him, so the man seized his concubine and brought her out to them. And they raped her and abused her all night until morning, then let her go at the approach of dawn. 26 As the day began to dawn, the woman came and fell down at the doorway of the man’s house where her master was, until full daylight.
We could say much about the gang’s lawlessness, of course, but it also shows the common attitude toward women in those days. Today, the honorable thing to do would be to defend one’s wife, daughter, and all women. But in times when the Old Covenant formed the foundation of the culture, wives and daughters were often thought of as property—especially since the woman in question was just a concubine. A slave wife had few rights, if any, and even free women were not so free. They did not have much revelation of a New Covenant marriage.
The Levite picked up his dead concubine, put her on the donkey, and went home to the hill country of Ephraim.
Judges 19:29, 30 says,
29 When he entered his house, he took a knife and laid hold of his concubine and cut her in twelve pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout the territory of Israel. 30 And it came about that all who saw it said, “Nothing like this has ever happened or been seen from the day when the sons of Israel came up from the land of Egypt to this day. Consider it, take counsel, and speak up!”
This gruesome act was designed to shock the conscience of the Israelites and to induce them to bring the guilty men to justice. The problem was that his actions gave the impression that the gang in Gibeah had cut up the concubine. The people’s reaction indicates this, for they said that this had never been done in Israel since coming out of Egypt. It is hardly possible that no one had been raped or murdered up to that time. But no one had been cut up into pieces before then.
In other words, the Levite exaggerated the situation in order to stir the men to action. He was obviously very angry, and so this was hardly a case of righteous indignation. His plan worked, and 400,000 Israelites gathered to declare war on crime (Judges 20:2). The Levite presented his case to them in Judges 20:3-7, and the people responded in Judges 20:8-10,
8 Then all the people arose as one man, saying, “Not one of us will go to his tent, nor will any of us return to his house. 9 But now this is the thing which we will do to Gibeah; we will go up against it by lot. 10 And we will take 10 men out of 100 throughout the tribes of Israel, and 100 out of 1,000, and 1,000 out of 10,000 to supply food for the people, that when they come to Gibeah of Benjamin, they may punish them for all the disgraceful acts that they have committed in Israel.”
The Israelites were all united against the town of Gibeah. So they sent messengers to the town and to the entire tribe of Benjamin, demanding that they deliver up the gang that was guilty of this crime. Their self-righteous, loveless approach, however, only caused the people of Benjamin to unite in a display of tribal patriotism, and the situation quickly escalated into a full-scale civil war.
Judges 20:13, 14 says,
13 … But the sons of Benjamin would not listen to the voice of their brothers, the sons of Israel. 14 And the sons of Benjamin gathered from the cities to Gibeah, to go out to battle against the sons of Israel.
The Levite had inflamed emotions of the Israelites, and the Israelites failed to inquire of the Lord to know how to handle this case. Neither did they consider the root cause of this injustice. As a result, a civil war broke out, in which many on both sides were killed. In fact, more Israelites were killed than Benjamites.
In the laws of war, the priests were supposed to assure the people that “the Lord your God is the one who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you” (Deut. 20:4). They could do this only if they had previously won the battle in spiritual warfare. But in the case of the Gibeonite war, no such spiritual warfare had been done, and so no one was given the assurance of faith. Only after deciding to go to war did the Israelites inquire of the Lord. Judges 20:18 says,
18 Now the sons of Israel arose, went up to Bethel, and inquired of God, and said, “Who shall go up first for us to battle against the sons of Benjamin?” Then the Lord said, “Judah shall go up first.”
Their first questions ought to have been, “What shall we do? How should we handle this? Is there a way to prevent war? Do we ourselves need to repent of anything?”
But their question was based on their prior decision to go to war. Hence, God answered them according to the idol (strong opinion, viewpoint) of their heart. God told Judah to go first, because Judah was the leading tribe. Authority brings an equal level of responsibility. The battle was fought, and 22,000 men of Judah were killed (Judges 20:21).
The Israelites then “wept before the Lord” (Judges 20:23) and inquired again. This time they asked the right question, “Shall we again draw near for battle against the sons of my brother Benjamin?” The Lord answered, “Go up against him,” for by this time the method of justice already had been established and could not be undone.
What the Israelites did not understand was the principle in Matt. 7:1, 2, which says,
1 Do not judge, so that you will not be judged. 2 For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.
This was not a prohibition on judging but a warning to search your own heart before you judge others. The law of equal weights and measures in Lev. 19:35, 36 demands that we judge impartially and equally. This is how God judges as well.
For this reason, when the people demanded justice from Gibeah, God first judged the judges by their own standard. Their own lawlessness had to be judged first. So 22,000 Israelites fell in battle because they did not prepare their own hearts before judging others.
In the next battle, another 18,000 Israelites were killed (Judges 20:25), for a total of 40,000. This was in spite of their obedience to the word of the Lord, who had said to “go up against him.” Just because one obeys God’s leading does not mean that one will win the battle. God has a higher perspective, and in this case the death of 22,000 Israelites was insufficient to judge Israel. A full 40,000 had to die, because 40 is the biblical number of trial, testing, or probation.
Only then did the Israelites realize that they were required to deal with their own hearts before they could bring justice to Benjamin and the city of Gibeah.