Saturday, August 6, 2011

Judges 20 - Why did God let Israel fail twice?

First, some context is in order. In Judges 19 we hear of a Levite's wife who was raped and murdered while staying overnight in the territory of Benjamin. After the Levite finds his wife dead, he cuts her into 12 pieces and sends them through the tribal territories. Israel responds in outrage and gathers men to make war against Benjamin, specifically the city Gibeah, where the offense happened.
Then all the people of Israel came out, from Dan to Beersheba, including the land of Gilead, and the congregation assembled as one man to the LORD at Mizpah. And the chiefs of all the people, of all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God, 400,000 men on foot that drew the sword. (Judges 20:1-2 ESV)
Then the people of Benjamin came together out of the cities to Gibeah to go out to battle against the people of Israel. And the people of Benjamin mustered out of their cities on that day 26,000 men who drew the sword, besides the inhabitants of Gibeah, who mustered 700 chosen men. (Judges 20:14-15 ESV)
The people of Israel arose and went up to Bethel and inquired of God, “Who shall go up first for us to fight against the people of Benjamin?” And the LORD said, “Judah shall go up first.” (Judges 20:18 ESV)
So, not only is Benjamin outnumbered 15-to-1, but it sounds as if Israel has God's blessing to punish Benjamin by war. But the first two times that Israel went out for battle, they were routed by Benjamin. The first day Benjamin killed 22,000 Israelites, and the second day they killed 18,000 Israelites. Both days God told Israel to "go up against them."

Finally, on the third day, God tells Israel to go out again, but this time he tells them they will succeed. Israel changes their battle tactics (very interesting), sieges and burns the city after drawing the Benjaminites out of Gibeah.
So all who fell that day of Benjamin were 25,000 men who drew the sword, all of them men of valor. (Judges 20:46 ESV)
Israel finally succeeds in defeating Benjamin. But the question posed in the title remains: with God's apparent direction, why did Israel fail twice in battle against Benjamin? Were the men of Benjamin simply better warriors?

If you read the previous three chapters of Judges, I believe you can see the answer there. First, looking forward to the next chapter of Judges, in the very last verse of the book, you read, "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:25). You see this "in those days" phrase in the previous three chapters (Judges 17:6, Judges 18:1, Judges 19:1). The moral degradation had progressed enough in the established nation that all were culpable. This would give a very good explanation for Israel's initial failure. The atrocity that caused this skirmish deserved the discipline of the nation, but the nation exacting God's justice deserved punishment as well.

Failing [only] twice may have been an act of mercy. The men of Israel probably deserved to fail 11 times before succeeding (or they all deserved to be wiped out), but it appears that God heard their cry of repentance. This was probably the first time in a long while since the whole assembly came before the Lord in contrition.
Then all the people of Israel, the whole army, went up and came to Bethel and wept. They sat there before the LORD and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD. (Judges 20:26 ESV)
D.A. Carson has some wise words about this passage in his devotional book, For the Love of God. He writes:
That is the sort of thing that happens when the rule of law dissolves, when people start acting out of tribal loyalty and not principle, when vengeance overtakes justice, when superstitious vendettas displace courts, when brothers no longer share a common heritage of worship and values, when government is by fear and not by the consent, it can ignite a Bosnia, it can start a world war. It is the stuff of dictators and warlords, the lubricant of gangs and violence.
The sad reality is that every culture is capable of this. The ancient Israelites sink into this quagmire not because they are worse than all others, but because they are typical of all others. A society that no longer hangs together, whether on the ground of religion, shared worldview, or at least agreed and respected procedurals, is heading for violence and anarchy, which, sooner or later, becomes the best possible breeding ground for the ordered response of tyrants — power authorized by sword and gun.
May God save us from living as if we have no King in our days, for doing what is right in our own eyes.

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