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Sefer Shoftim Chapter 20
A National Tragedy

In this chapter, the personal tragedy of the concubine of Giv’ah becomes a national tragedy. Representatives from all the tribes of Israel (totalling 400,000 men) gathered at Mitzpah to discuss a response. The Levite man explained what happened to his wife and how she had died. The tribes did not turn to Binyamin to find out their point of view. Instead, even though strictly speaking this was an internal issue within the tribe itself, they decided deal with the perpetrators of the atrocity as a nation. The text states that they were unified in their decision to act (20:11).


The men of Israel demanded that Binyamin hand over the lawless men responsible for the outrage, so that they could be put to death. The tribe of Binyamin refused to cooperate. Commentators explain that they wanted to deal with the crime internally within their tribe and were angry that the other tribes made demands without even consulting them about what happened. The tribe of Binyamin also prepared for war. Binyamin had 26,700 men to face the 400,000 men of the rest of the tribes.


The tribes went to Beit-El to inquire of God who should wage war first. The 19th century biblical commentator Malbim (1809-1879) explains that they did not ask whether to go to battle in the first place or whether they would succeed. They had already made that decision. This is one of their mistakes. The Israelites lost the first battle, with Binyamin killing 22,000 men from the tribes.


A second time, they asked God whether they should wage war on Binyamin. However, they did not ask whether they would be successful. They arrogantly trusted their superior number of soldiers. They lost the second battle, with another 18,000 men dying.


Finally, the children of Israel went to the Beit-El and cried and repented for their sins, asking whether they should again wage war on Binyamin. This time, after doing sincere repentance, God responded that He would deliver Binyamin into their hands. Using ambushes, the children of Israel defeated Binyamin and killed 25,100 men. They also killed everyone in the cities of Binyamin. Only 600 men of Binyamin survived. They fled to Rimon in the desert and stayed there in hiding for four months.


Who was right?

What began as a desire to rectify a wrong ended tragically in civil war. An entire tribe of Israel was almost completely wiped out. Was it the right thing to do? The 15th century Portuguese biblical commentator, Abarbanel (1437-1508) explains the four reasons that the people felt the need to act, rather than leaving Binyamin to deal with this themselves. Firstly, the lack of a king or judge to guide the nation meant that the rest of the tribes acted in the place of the ruler. Secondly, the Jewish people are all responsible for each other and are part of one family, so need to act together to stamp out evil. Thirdly, they felt that the crime was so terrible, it necessitated strong action. Lastly, the crime mirrored the sin of Sodom and Gemorah which was destroyed.


In contrast, the medieval Spanish scholar, Ramban (1194–1270) states that the people were wrong: the war was unlawful, and therefore the tribes lost the first two battles and so many Israelites were killed. According to the Ramban, it was for the tribe of Binyamin to deal with the perpetrators.

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