The Period Of The Judges

 Chapter 97
Another Tradition of the Last Encounter [Judges 20.37-20.44]


Scripture (KJV) Judges 20.37-44

37 And the liers in wait hasted, and rushed upon Gibeah; and the liers in wait drew themselves along, and smote all the city with the edge of the sword.
38 Now there was an appointed sign between the men of Israel and the liers in wait, that they should make a great flame with smoke rise up out of the city.
39 And when the men of Israel retired in the battle, Benjamin began to smite and kill of the men of Israel about thirty persons: for they said, Surely they are smitten down before us, as in the first battle.
40 But when the flame began to arise up out of the city with a pillar of smoke, the Benjamites looked behind them, and, behold, the flame of the city ascended up to heaven.
41 And when the men of Israel turned again, the men of Benjamin were amazed: for they saw that evil was come upon them.
42 Therefore they turned their backs before the men of Israel unto the way of the wilderness; but the battle overtook them; and them which came out of the cities they destroyed in the midst of them.
43 Thus they inclosed the Benjamites round about, and chased them, and trode them down with ease over against Gibeah toward the sunrising.
44 And there fell of Benjamin eighteen thousand men; all these were men of valour.


Commentary

It is amazing to me that some scholars would complain about this passage, asserting that, "In Judg. 20:35 the battle is over; and in Judg. 20:36 it begins again"! One wonders if they ever read Sir Walter Scott who was a master of the art of retrogression, a literary device, in which there is a retelling of an event with the addition of many significant details.

 

37 And the liers in wait hasted, and rushed upon Gibeah; and the liers in wait drew themselves along, and smote all the city with the edge of the sword.—Judges 20.37 (KJV) 
37 Then those who were hiding rushed in from all sides and killed everyone in the town.
—Judges 20:37 (NLT)

And the liers in wait hasted
The men of Israel had retreated from the armed forces of Benjamin, because they relied on the ambush they had set near Gibeah. And when the time they agreed upon arrived, the liers in wait came out of their hiding places, and made a dash to get into Gibeah before the men of Gibeah along with the Benjaminites, who were pursuing the flying Israelites, could become aware of their intention.

and rushed upon Gibeah;
Most of the men of Gibeah (Hebrew manuscripts have Geba) have joined the forces of Benjamin in pursuit of the Israelites, and they are unaware of the movements of the liers in wait, until they entered the city with great force and violence, and took possession of it.

Rushed upon is perhaps better rendered fell upon.

and the liers in wait drew themselves along;
There are two possible interpretations of this line:
1. The liers in wait spread themselves throughout the defenseless city, so they could slay the people and burn all parts of it simultaneously.
2. They "made a long sound" with a trumpet, and kept repeating it, which was done to terrify the inhabitants, or to let the Israelites know they were in possession of the city.

and smote all the city with the edge of the sword;
There was a slaughter of all the Gibeahites, because all that was left in the city were old men, women, and children, who were not able to bear arms.
 


38 Now there was an appointed sign between the men of Israel and the liers in wait, that they should make a great flame with smoke rise up out of the city.—Judges 20.38 (KJV)  
38 They had arranged to send up a large cloud of smoke from the town as a signal.
—Judges 20:38 (NLT)

Now there was an appointed sign between the men of Israel and the liers in wait,
Or an appointed time, as the Targum has it; Kimchi and Abarbinel being in agreement. There was a time previously agreed upon, when the men of Israel planned to be at Baaltamar, and that was exactly when the Benjaminites would be drawn a certain distance from the city, and then the liers in wait were to break out of their hiding places, and rush upon the city, and enter it.

Although it may have happened like the preceding paragraph states, I believe that the men of Israel’s forces were looking for a sign, not waiting for a time, and they got that sign when the liers in wait set the city on fire and the smoke rose high above Gibeah.

From this verse to the end of the chapter, we have the details of the same operations which are mentioned, in a general way, in the preceding verses of this chapter.

that they should make a great flame with smoke rise up out of the city;
This is the sign the Israelites at Baaltamar were waiting for. The city was set on fire by the liers in wait, and they made the fire to burn fiercely, so that the flame and smoke reached high enough to be seen by the Israelites at Baaltamar. When the men of Israel saw it, they would know the city was taken.

The Hebrew of this verse is difficult to comprehend, but the A.V. gives it the right sense. This line seems to be the very orders given to the leader of the ambush. “Make them (the ambush) send up (i.e. send up in great quantities) the column of smoke from the city.” It seems that the appearance of the smoke was the signal for the Israelites to turn (ver. 41).

The flame, (ver. 40); rather, the column began to go up in (or as) a pillar of smoke.

The flame of the city. Literally, the whole of the city, meaning of course the whole city in flames.



39 And when the men of Israel retired in the battle, Benjamin began to smite and kill of the men of Israel about thirty persons: for they said, Surely they are smitten down before us, as in the first battle.—Judges 20.39 (KJV) 
39 When the Israelites saw the smoke, they turned and attacked Benjamin’s warriors. By that time Benjamin’s warriors had killed about thirty Israelites, and they shouted, “We’re defeating them as we did in the first battle!”—Judges 20:39 (NLT)

And when the men of Israel retired in the battle,
which is expressed in the previous verses in this chapter, when it says that the Israelites withdrew from the forces of Benjamin as if they were in a full retreat; but, their fleeing, and giving way to the Benjaminites was only a ploy of theirs, to draw them away from the city?

Benjamin began to smite and kill of the men of Israel about thirty persons:
Benjamin had grown bold because of the two former victories that were won in the highways leading to Bethel and Gibeah in the field (Judges 20:31[1]).

To smite and kill indicates that those Israelites who were wounded were mercilessly killed. There were thirty killed in the fake retreat.

[1]Judges 20:31 (KJV)  And the children of Benjamin went out against the people, and were drawn away from the city; and they began to smite of the people, and kill, as at other times, in the highways, of which one goeth up to the house of God, and the other to Gibeah in the field, about thirty men of Israel.

For they said, surely they are smitten down before us as in the first battle.
In the first and second battle there were considerably more Israelites slain by them. They were confident that the third time is a charm; they would win this third and last battle like the first two.

 

40 But when the flame began to arise up out of the city with a pillar of smoke, the Benjamites looked behind them, and, behold, the flame of the city ascended up to heaven.—Judges 20.40 (KJV) 
40 But when the warriors of Benjamin looked behind them and saw the smoke rising into the sky from every part of the town,—Judges 20:40 (NLT)

But when the flame began to arise up out of the city with a pillar of smoke,
The liers in wait set  the entire city on fire, but here the reference is to a very large signal fire they made when they first entered the city; from it a vast pillar of flame and smoke[2],[3],[4],[5] arose, which might be seen a great way off.

[2]Gen 19:28 (KJV) And he looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld, and, lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace.

[3]Song 3:6 (NLT) Who is this sweeping in from the wilderness like a cloud of smoke? Who is it, fragrant with myrrh and frankincense and every kind of spice?

[4]Joel 2:30 (NLT) And I will cause wonders in the heavens and on the earth— blood and fire and columns of smoke.

[5]Rev 19:3 (KJV) And again they said, Alleluia. And her smoke rose up for ever and ever.

the Benjamites looked behind them,
Perhaps they looked[6] back to see what the Israelites were looking at that seemed to energize them and stop their retreat.

[6]Josh 8:20 (NLT) When the men of Ai looked behind them, smoke from the town was filling the sky, and they had nowhere to go. For the Israelites who had fled in the direction of the wilderness now turned on their pursuers.

and, behold, the flame of the city ascended up to heaven.
The entire city was being consumed by the fires set by the liers in wait, and the smoke went upwards, and reached to a great height.

 


41 And when the men of Israel turned again, the men of Benjamin were amazed: for they saw that evil was come upon them.—Judges 20.41 (KJV) 
41 the men of Israel turned and attacked. At this point the men of Benjamin became terrified, because they realized disaster was close at hand.—Judges 20:41 (NLT)

And when the men of Israel turned again,
They turned their faces to the Benjaminites, on whom they had turned their backs; which they did upon seeing the smoke from the city, and in order to fight the Benjaminites, because now it was their opportunity to chase and kill them.

the men of Benjamin were amazed:
at this strange and sudden change[7] of their circumstances, at the sight of the smoke from their burning city, behind them, and at the Israelites turning back to fight them, when they thought they were as sure of victory, as at other times.

[7]Thess 5:3 (KJV) For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. In the case before us, they were so convinced they would win that when the tables turned on them they saw that evil was come upon them.

for they saw that evil was come upon them.
They were between a rock and a hard place, between two fires, as we might say, liers in wait behind them, which had seized their city and burnt it, and the army of Israel turning upon them with great force and resolve. The Benjamites were somewhat surrounded, which made them fearful and disheartened. A sense of guilt now pervaded their thoughts, and the higher their hopes had been raised the more severe was their confusion. Benjamin was terrified, because now they saw that evil was come upon them (see Judges 33-34[8]).

The Hebrew for was come upon them is "touched them."

[8]Judges 20:33-34 (NLT) When the main group of Israelite warriors reached Baal-tamar, they turned and took up their positions. Meanwhile, the Israelites hiding in ambush to the west of Gibeah jumped up to fight. There were 10,000 elite Israelite troops who advanced against Gibeah. The fighting was so heavy that Benjamin didn’t realize the impending disaster.

 

42 Therefore they turned their backs before the men of Israel unto the way of the wilderness; but the battle overtook them; and them which came out of the cities they destroyed in the midst of them.—Judges 20.42 (KJV) 
42 So they turned around and fled before the Israelites toward the wilderness. But they couldn’t escape the battle, and the people who came out of the nearby towns were also killed.
—Judges 20:42 (NLT)

Therefore they turned their backs before the men of Israel,
and fled from them; they did not turn directly back towards Gibeah, since the smoke rising from that city led them to believe the city was in the hands of the Israelites. And, now there were Israelites attacking their rear and preventing them from returning to Gibeah. Therefore, only one way was left open for them to escape; they turned on one side towards the wilderness, hoping they could make their escape in that direction.
Now they thought, “one pair of heels (as we say) was worth two pair of hands,” and they made their way (some fought their way) towards the wilderness; but in vain: the battle overtook them, and, to complete their distress, those who came out of the cities of Israel, that waited to see the battle, joined with their pursuers, and helped to cut them off. Every man’s hand was against them.

unto the way of the wilderness
The narrative now adds something new. The result of the Benjamites finding themselves between two forces, the liers in wait and the army of Israel was that they took flight in an easterly direction toward the wilderness, that is to say, the wilderness described in Joshua 16:1[9] as “the wilderness that goeth up from Jericho throughout Mount Bethel,” where the direction of the wilderness relative to Ephraim is also described as being “on the east.” In the same way, Zedekiah fled towards the plain or plains of Jericho—a term nearly synonymous with wilderness; 2 Kings 25:4, 5[10].

[9]Josh 16:1 (NKJV) The lot fell to the children of Joseph from the Jordan, by Jericho, to the waters of Jericho on the east, to the wilderness that goes up from Jericho through the mountains to Bethel,

[10]2 Kings 25:4-5 (KJV) And the city was broken up, and all the men of war fled by night by the way of the gate between two walls, which is by the king's garden: (now the Chaldees were against the city round about:) and the king went the way toward the plain. And the army of the Chaldees pursued after the king, and overtook him in the plains of Jericho: and all his army were scattered from him.

but the battle overtook them;
The Israelites that were engaged in battle with them pursued them, and overtook them.

and them which came out of the cities they destroyed in the midst of them;
This is a very vague line, and it is explained in several ways.
1. Them which came out of the cities must be those described in verse 15[11], and designates the Benjamites who were not inhabitants of Gibeah; but had come to aid Gibeah, from the other Benjamite cities. The simplest way, therefore, to understand the line is to include some additional details: “And the battle overtook Gibeah and those that were from other Benjamite cities (i.e. the men of Gibeah and the rest of the Benjamites), and destroyed them (the entire Benjamite army).
2. Another explanation of this line (which I don’t accept) is that it is referring to the Israelites that came from their cities to observe the battle; but when the Benjamites tried to escape they joined their brother Israelites and fought against the Benjamites that were fleeing from the men of Israel.

In the midst of them, that is, “going right into the midst of the fleeing Benjaminites, and destroying them right and left.” Some, however, render it in the midst of it, i.e. of the wilderness.

11Judges 20:15 (KJV) And the children of Benjamin were numbered at that time out of the cities twenty and six thousand men that drew sword, beside the inhabitants of Gibeah, which were numbered seven hundred chosen men.

 


43 Thus they inclosed the Benjamites round about, and chased them, and trode them down with ease over against Gibeah toward the sunrising.—Judges 20.43 (KJV) 
43 The Israelites surrounded the men of Benjamin and chased them relentlessly, finally overtaking them east of Gibeah. —Judges 20:43 (NLT)

Thus they enclosed the Benjaminites round about,
They were surrounded on all sides; the army of Israel being positioned in different places, and people coming to their assistance out of all the cities of Israel that were in the vicinity of the battle. Josephus says, they were forced into, and cooped up, in a hollow place in a valley, so that they could not escape.

This is how they got into such a hopeless situation. The slaughter of the inhabitants of Gibeah and the burning of the city provided the pre-arranged smoke-signal for the Israelites to turn and engage the Benjamites. At the same time, the liers-in-wait were free to press the attack from the direction of Gibeah, thus "surrounding" the whole army of the Benjamites and fighting them on all sides.

Armerding explains to us that the RSV avoided the Hebrew word here rendered "enclosed," meaning "surrounded," "On the basis that surrounded men are not pursued." But if the RSV translators had read Josephus they could have spared themselves from making such a blunder. Josephus tells us that: "They were all destroyed except six hundred, which formed themselves into a close body of men, and forced their way through the midst of their enemies, and fled to the neighboring mountains, and, seizing upon them, remained there."

All of the men of Benjamin except that six hundred were destroyed. Not only that, the last verses of the chapter indicates that all of the cities of Benjamin, being then without protection, were put to the sword, men, women and children without mercy. There were not even any women left to marry the remaining six hundred Benjamites, because in their anger, the children of Israel had bound themselves with an oath never to give their daughters in marriage to the sons of Benjamin.

and chased them,
or while in pursuit, they yelled to one another as they went along, saying, pursue them, pursue them, according to Jarchi and Kimchi; which filled the pursuers with eagerness and inflicted the Benjamites with terror.

and trod them down with ease
They offered very little resistance because they were depressed and their thoughts were only of escape. The Targrim adds, “from the house of their rest,” referring to the place where they tried to rest that night, but could not, seeing that they were so closely pursued, and diligently sought after.

The men of Israel trode down the men of Benjamin with ease with God on their side. It is an easy thing to trample upon those who have made God their enemy; See Mal. 4:3[12].

[12]Mal 4:3 (NLT) On the day when I act, you will tread upon the wicked as if they were dust under your feet,” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies.

over against Gibeah, towards the sunrising.
That is, as Jarchi interprets it, to the east of Gibeah; there was the place where this overthrow and slaughter occurred.


 

44 And there fell of Benjamin eighteen thousand men; all these were men of valour.—Judges 20.44 (KJV) 
44 That day 18,000 of Benjamin’s strongest warriors died in battle.—Judges 20:44 (NLT)

And there fell of Benjamin eighteen thousand men
This is just the number that Israel had slain during the pursuit, when Israel turned upon them, and up until they got to the east of Gibeah; afterwards 5000 more were slain on the highways, and 2000 near Gidom, as related in the next chapter.

Why did Israel lose in battle twice before finally defeating Benjamin?
1. God was using this to humble the whole nation; this was not merely the result of the sin of one group of men, or one city, or even one tribe. The whole nation had to be humbled, because after the first loss, they thought that "they" had a sin problem, but they came to see that "we" have a sin problem. Israel had to get the beam out of its own eye before it started dealing with the eye problem of the tribe of Benjamin.
2. After the first failure, Israel was sorry and wept; but it was only after the second failure that they put their repentance into action (by fasting) and making a sacrifice for their sins; weeping and being sorry isn't enough if it is not matched by real repentance and taking care of the sin problem through sacrifice (the cross).

The Israelites' abhorrence of the crime committed at Gibeah, and their resolution to punish the criminals, were right; but they formed their resolves with too much haste and self-confidence. The eternal ruin of souls will be worse, and more fearful, than these desolations of a tribe.

And there fell, etc. The account in verse 35[13], anticipating the details of the battle, had already given the gross number of casualties in the Benjamite army on this disastrous day as 25,100. We now have the details of the account: 18,000 killed in the pursuit, in the open plain; 5000 on the highways, i.e. the highways mentioned in verse 45[14]; and 2000 more who were fleeing from Gidom; in all 25,000, which is only 100 men short of the reckoning in ver. 35[13]. That number could have easily been killed in the first two battles.

[13]Judges 20:35 (KJV) And the LORD smote Benjamin before Israel: and the children of Israel destroyed of the Benjamites that day twenty and five thousand and an hundred men: all these drew the sword.

[14]Judges 20:45 (KJV) And they turned and fled toward the wilderness unto the rock of Rimmon: and they gleaned of them in the highways five thousand men; and pursued hard after them unto Gidom, and slew two thousand men of them.

all these were men of valour;
The proof of their courage is that they faced and engaged with the army of Israel, which was vastly superior to them, and twice defeated them. As far as I am concerned they were brave men on both sides. I can’t imagine facing a man in battle with only a sword in my hand.

 

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