In the previous chapter the Benjaminites had almost totally been destroyed, leaving six hundred men (still hiding at the Rock of Rimmon) but no women or children to continue their line.
Read Judges chapter 21:1-5.
1 The men of Israel had taken an oath at Mizpah: ‘Not one of us will give his daughter in marriage to a Benjaminite.’
2 The people went to Bethel, (here and and in verse 12 Beth-El means house of God. it may well have been at Shiloh where the Tabernacle was situated) where they sat before God until evening, raising their voices and weeping bitterly.
3 ‘Lord, God of Israel,’ they cried, ‘why has this happened to Israel? Why should one tribe be missing from Israel today?’
4 Early the next day the people built an altar and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings.
5 Then the Israelites asked, ‘Who from all the tribes of Israel has failed to assemble before the Lord?’ For they had taken a solemn oath that anyone who failed to assemble before the Lord at Mizpah was to be put to death.
Taking oaths was common, perhaps all too common. Here it seems to have been used (v1) simply as a collective sign of disgust towards the Benjaminites, and then as a way to coerce each tribal clan to send representatives to attend the assembly at Bethel.
Read Judges chapter 21:6-9.
6 Now the Israelites grieved for the tribe of Benjamin, their fellow Israelites. ‘Today one tribe is cut off from Israel,’ they said. 7 ‘How can we provide wives for those who are left, since we have taken an oath by the Lord not to give them any of our daughters in marriage?’ 8 Then they asked, ‘Which one of the tribes of Israel failed to assemble before the Lord at Mizpah?’ They discovered that no one from Jabesh Gilead had come to the camp for the assembly. 9 For when they counted the people, they found that none of the people of Jabesh Gilead were there.
Jabesh Gilead was east of Jordan, and part of the area allocated to the tribe of Manasseh.
Read Judges chapter 21:10-5.
10 So the assembly sent twelve thousand fighting men with instructions to go to Jabesh Gilead and put to the sword those living there, including the women and children. 11 ‘This is what you are to do,’ they said. ‘Kill every male and every woman who is not a virgin.’ 12 They found among the people living in Jabesh Gilead four hundred young women who had never slept with a man, and they took them to the camp at Shiloh in Canaan.
13 Then the whole assembly sent an offer of peace to the Benjaminites at the rock of Rimmon. 14 So the Benjaminites returned at that time and were given the women of Jabesh Gilead who had been spared. But there were not enough for all of them.
This all seems barbaric and arbitrary, but in those days attitudes to women were very different. Here they are simply treated as a means to continue the Benjaminite race. Any ideas of mutual love and respect seemed to be absent.
15 The people grieved for Benjamin, because the Lord had made a gap in the tribes of Israel. 16 And the elders of the assembly said, ‘With the women of Benjamin destroyed, how shall we provide wives for the men who are left? 17 The Benjaminite survivors must have heirs,’ they said, ‘so that a tribe of Israel will not be wiped out. 18 We can’t give them our daughters as wives, since we Israelites have taken this oath: “Cursed be anyone who gives a wife to a Benjaminite.” 19 But look, there is the annual festival of the Lord in Shiloh, which lies north of Bethel, east of the road that goes from Bethel to Shechem, and south of Lebonah.’
20 So they instructed the Benjaminites, saying, ‘Go and hide in the vineyards 21 and watch. When the young women of Shiloh come out to join in the dancing, rush from the vineyards and each of you seize one of them to be your wife. Then return to the land of Benjamin. 22 When their fathers or brothers complain to us, we will say to them, “Do us the favour of helping them, because we did not get wives for them during the war. You will not be guilty of breaking your oath because you did not give your daughters to them.”‘
We sometimes accuse the Pharisees of making laws then finding ways to break them; it seems people were always good at that.
Again, no thought was given to the feelings of these young girls who had gone out happily to go dancing with their friends at a religious festival – only to be kidnapped and dragged from their families to be forcibly married to strangers.
23 So that is what the Benjaminites did. While the young women were dancing, each man caught one and carried her off to be his wife. Then they returned to their inheritance and rebuilt the towns and settled in them.
24 At that time the Israelites left that place and went home to their tribes and clans, each to his own inheritance.
25 In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.
That just about sums it up.
What does Judges 17v7 and Judges 19v1 have in common?
In 17v7 we had a Levite going off to seek his fortune, and in 19v1 a Levite going off to get a woman, and in both passages we are reminded that Israel considered that they had no King. No political leadership and questionable spiritual leadership.
But what have these two sections done for the nation as a whole?
It left a power vacuum between the Philistines on the coast, through the area abandoned by Dan, through the central Canaanite cities who had made a treaty with Joshua, through a much reduced Benjamin to the Jordan in the east. Further isolating Northern and Southern tribes and leaving an entry for any who wanted to attack.
Moses and Joshua had died, and v25 tells us ‘Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit ’ With no-one to exert moral or spiritual leadership the nation of Israel rapidly went into decline.
Read Judges 3:1.
1 These are the nations the Lord left to test all those Israelites who had not experienced any of the wars in Canaan
Who were ‘those Israelites’?
The next generation.
Read Judges 3:2-5.
2 (he did this only to teach warfare to the descendants of the Israelites who had not had previous battle experience): 3 the five rulers of the Philistines, all the Canaanites, the Sidonians, and the Hivites living in the Lebanon mountains from Mount Baal Hermon to Lebo Hamath. 4 They were left to test the Israelites to see whether they would obey the Lord’s commands, which he had given their ancestors through Moses.
It would be so easy for the new generation to accept the gift of a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’, with ready-made houses, fields, vineyards and orchards; and for them to descend into a life of laziness and idleness where everything was handed them on a plate.
They needed to be taught that they must defend their lands against attack, but also to continue to drive out the heathen influences in their midst. And they needed to learn to trust the Lord to fight with them. More than that, they had to obey all his commands.
5 The Israelites lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.
Read Deuteronomy 20:1-4.
1 When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you. 2 When you are about to go into battle, the priest shall come forward and address the army. 3 He shall say: ‘Hear, Israel: today you are going into battle against your enemies. Do not be faint-hearted or afraid; do not panic or be terrified by them. 4 For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.’
Then read Deuteronomy 7:1-3.
1 When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations – the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you – 2 and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.
5 This is what you are to do to them: break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. 6 For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.
Now read Judges 3:6.
6 They took their daughters in marriage and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods.
This then sets the scene for us as we return to look at the rest of the book of Judges. Remember there was actually no ‘Nation’ of Israel, just loose tribal groupings – so when we read of Israel being attacked, it was more likely a localised battle (See map below); although still a major disaster for the people involved.
The stories of Israel’s often miraculous success would have spread throughout the land discouraging further attacks – at least temporarily.
Read Judges 3:7-11.
7 The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord; they forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asherahs. 8 The anger of the Lord burned against Israel so that he sold them into the hands of Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram Naharaim, to whom the Israelites were subject for eight years.
No war is mentioned, simply a more powerful leader who was able to take oppressive taxes of goods and possibly people too.
9 But when they cried out to the Lord, he raised up for them a deliverer, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, who saved them.
Once the people finally came to their senses, and turned back to the Lord for help, he came to their aid – not with a miracle, but by raising up a godly man to lead them.
10 The Spirit of the Lord came on him, so that he became Israel’s judge and went to war. The Lord gave Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram into the hands of Othniel, who overpowered him. 11 So the land had peace for forty years, until Othniel son of Kenaz died.
What was different about Othniel (v10)?
‘The Spirit of the Lord came on him’
Next a coalition of Moabites, Ammonites and Amalekites crossed the Jordan and took possession of the ruins of Jericho.
Why did the Lord allow this?
See the first phrase of v 12.
Also notice references to ‘the stone images near Gilgal’ (verses 19 and 26)
Read Judges 3:12-31 (Get people to share this long passage)
12 Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and because they did this evil the Lord gave Eglon king of Moab power over Israel. 13 Getting the Ammonites and Amalekites to join him, Eglon came and attacked Israel, and they took possession of the City of Palms (Jericho). 14 The Israelites were subject to Eglon king of Moab for eighteen years.
15 Again the Israelites cried out to the Lord, and he gave them a deliverer – Ehud, a left-handed man, the son of Gera the Benjaminite. The Israelites sent him with tribute to Eglon king of Moab. 16 Now Ehud had made a double-edged sword about a cubit long, which he strapped to his right thigh under his clothing. 17 He presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab, who was a very fat man. 18 After Ehud had presented the tribute, he sent on their way those who had carried it. 19 But on reaching the stone images near Gilgal he himself went back to Eglon and said, ‘Your majesty, I have a secret message for you.’
The king said to his attendants, ‘Leave us!’ And they all left.
20 Ehud then approached him while he was sitting alone in the upper room of his palace and said, ‘I have a message from God for you.’ As the king rose from his seat, 21 Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right thigh and plunged it into the king’s belly. 22 Even the handle sank in after the blade, and his bowels discharged. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it. 23 Then Ehud went out to the porch; he shut the doors of the upper room behind him and locked them.
24 After he had gone, the servants came and found the doors of the upper room locked. They said, ‘He must be relieving himself in the inner room of the palace.’ 25 They waited to the point of embarrassment, but when he did not open the doors of the room, they took a key and unlocked them. There they saw their lord fallen to the floor, dead.
26 While they waited, Ehud got away. He passed by the stone images and escaped to Seirah. 27 When he arrived there, he blew a trumpet in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went down with him from the hills, with him leading them.
28 ‘Follow me,’ he ordered, ‘for the Lord has given Moab, your enemy, into your hands.’ So they followed him down and took possession of the fords of the Jordan that led to Moab; they allowed no one to cross over. 29 At that time they struck down about ten thousand Moabites, all vigorous and strong; not one escaped. 30 That day Moab was made subject to Israel, and the land had peace for eighty years.
31 After Ehud came Shamgar son of Anath, who struck down six hundred Philistines with an ox-goad. He too saved Israel.
If you feel that Israel has settled into a predictable pattern, you are right. But God has not abandoned them, we get the impression that he is patiently watching and waiting for the Israelites to come to their senses and turn back to him.