To identify Yahweh’s hand in all this, let’s look first at all the references to Him in Judges 20 –21:
Judges 20:1-2 (where all of the Israelites except Benjamin identify themselves with Yahweh);
Judges 20:18 (where Yahweh commands Judah to be the first to go up and attack Benjamin);
Judges 20:23 (where Yahweh commands them to go up and attack a second time);
Judges 20:26-28 (where Yahweh commands them to go up a third time, and He will give them victory);
Judges 20:35 (where it clearly says, “And the LORD defeated Benjamin before Israel);
Judges 21:2-4 (where they cry out to Yahweh over what has happened to Benjamin, but no response from Yahweh is mentioned);
Judges 21:5, 7-8 (in reference to their meeting at Mizpah and their vow);
Judges 21:15 (where it says, “the LORD had made a breach in the tribes of Israel”);
Judges 21:19 (a yearly feast of the LORD at Shiloh).
From Judges 20:35 (supported by the instructions in Judges 20 and by 21:15) we can say that Yahweh fought against Benjamin just like He fought against the Canaanites in the book of Joshua. But if that is the case, why did so many of the other Israelites die? Why didn’t the others win a decisive victory the first day?
It may be useful to ask,“What events in Israel’s history are most like these battles against Benjamin?” If we look at details like a defeat followed by victory, a successful ambush, and others, perhaps we’ll say: the battle of Ai in Joshua 7. But Judges 20 – 21 lacks an essential element: there is no mention of the need for repentance, nor is there clear evidence of Israelite repentance that has changed defeat into victory. I don’t believe that Ai is the best example to understand Judges 20 – 21.
From the high number of casualties on both sides of the battle, Judges 20 – 21 appears to me to be more like the plagues in the desert when the Israelites offended Yahweh’s holiness as in Numbers 11 at Taberah (Burning) and Kibroth-hattaavah (Graves of Covetousness), in Numbers 16 in Korah’s rebellion and the general rebellion afterwards and in Numbers 25 in the idolatry at Baal-peor. In
these events, all Israel experienced Yahweh’s devastating holiness and its potential to consume the entire nation. Now in Judges 20 – 21, Benjamin has placed not only himself but all Israel at risk of being consumed by Yahweh’s holiness, and instead of a plague, now Israel’s armies are the instrument of punishment – among
If that is the case, then the last verse of the book of Judges (and of the sixth unit of the Bible) is a critique not only of the questionable attempts to rebuild Benjamin but above all, of the reckless immorality that the men of Gibeah have committed with the support of Benjamin and the founding of the city of Dan as a center of Israelite and Canaanite syncretism. “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). If no king is raised up who can govern in righteousness and in concert with Yahweh’s holy and just dominion, all Israel is at the risk of being consumed.