“And the people of Israel inquired of the Lord (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, and Phineas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, ministered before it in those days), saying, ‘Shall we go out once more to battle against our brothers, the people of Benjamin, or shall we cease?’ And the Lord said, ‘Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand.'” (ESV – Read the chapter)
The people were surely confused by now. They felt they were doing their righteous duty by punishing the people of Benjamin militarily for not condemning the terrible acts of the evil men of Gibeah, but also for refusing to turn them over so the rest of the nation could hold only them accountable. Their refusal amounted to a defense of their actions which essentially made the whole tribe guilty of them. But now, even after seeking the Lord together for direction twice and feeling assured of His presence to guide them, they had lost in battle against the Benjaminites twice…badly.
Was God really with them before? How could they have lost if He was? In the past, the only time they lost any battles was when He wasn’t with them because they were acting on their own. Here He apparently tells them He will not only be with them, but assured them of victory this time. And, that is indeed what ultimately happens. In fact, they wipe out the tribe completely save 600 men who manage to escape.
Everything is right again, then, yes? Well, no, not at all, but that will have to be something we talk about in another conversation. My question at this point is more concerned with their seeking the Lord and His response in the first place. Did God really send the other 11 tribes up against Benjamin to destroy it? Why would He do that? Why would He officially sanction a civil war in Israel?
I think there are a few options here to consider. The first option is, no, God didn’t have anything to do with this. The people had long since left any kind of meaningful faithfulness to the Lord. They may have sought Him according to how they were instructed by the Law even to the point of doing so in front of the Ark of the Covenant, but He wasn’t actually answering them. They may have cast the Urim and Thummin stones (we’re not told this, but it was certainly a possibility; and to know more about these see Exodus 28 and this short article) and gotten a “yes,” but it wasn’t from the Lord. They were operating all on their own. This option doesn’t seem very good, though, because we aren’t given any clue that it’s true. It would be an argument from silence in opposition to what the text says which is particularly weak.
The second option is that, yes, God did sanction this. He was so disgusted with the vileness of the men of Gibeah and the rest of the tribe of Benjamin’s refusal to condemn the act that He was actually setting the rest of the nation on them as an act of judgment. The problem here is that it doesn’t explain the loss on the first two battle attempts. If He was sending the rest of the people as an act of judgment, why would He not enable them to be victorious from the start?
I think a third option may be the best understanding. God did give the rest of the nation a positive answer on their question of whether or not to move against Benjamin, and this was an act of judgment, but His judgment was against the whole nation. Rather than Him saying, “Go, with My blessing,” this was more of God saying, “Go, do what you want.” He was like the exasperated parent who was finally saying, “You’re obviously going to go in this direction no matter what I say, so have at it” (although to make such a comparison risks demeaning God—we can rest assured that He was fully just and loving in His approach unlike we exasperated parents have been at times).
The point, is that God’s judgment on the whole nation for their incorrigible unfaithfulness was to essentially step back and let them experience the full consequences of their sinfulness. He let them get themselves into this awful situation and then let them try and get out of it. It was a mess from start to finish because they were consistently doing what was right in their own eyes.
When we set out to do what is right in our own eyes, this kind of tragic end is all that awaits us. It will not be until we come to our senses and start striving to do what is right in God’s eyes that we will get ourselves back on track. Indeed, that was the case here. And yet, even in the midst of our brokenness, as Ruth, the companion book to Judges, reminds us, He is still at work, laying the ground for our salvation if we will have it. That’s the kind of faithful God we serve.