Judges 19-21 • Civil War Among Believers


The book of Judges is really a book about wars. Mostly it’s about wars with the enemies of God who are trying to influence Israel away from Him such as the Philistines, Jebusites, etc., but ultimately it ends up telling about the worst war of all: civil war. The casualties are always worst in a civil war because they all come from the same side originally. We know that from a spiritual point of view we will engage in battle with cults, false religions, or even atheists, but the worst war we will ever know is the one with other believers, with other elements of the church.

Read 19:1-4

Q: What might be important about the fact that the woman comes from “Bethlehem in Judah”?

A: This is the exact place spoken of in the preceding chapters from where false religion began and spread. The marital adultery mentioned here is almost certainly alluding to spiritual adultery as well.

Q: How might this be confirmed by her father’s actions?

A: Living in Bethlehem, a place now devoted to false religion, he completely ignores the Old Testament Law where such sin is concerned and acts as if nothing has really happened. There is no accountability or concern for reconciliation.

Q: From a strict, Old Testament point of view, why might the Levites actions be surprising?

A: The wording in v.2 that she “played the harlot against him” means that he most likely had proof of what she did, which according to Old Testament Law demanded that she be put to death for this sin. Instead, he seeks to reconcile with her.

Point: While adultery is a biblically justifiable reason for divorce, it does not mean that as a Christian we are relieved from the obligation to make every effort to first reconcile. Just as it is possible to recover from marital adultery, so it is with spiritual unfaithfulness.

Read 19:5-10

Q: What is most likely taking place here? Why do you suppose the father-in-law keeps enticing them to stay?

A: The father-in-law does not want them to leave, and since he cannot force them to stay against their will, he is making every attempt to get them to remain voluntarily.

Q: Why would this be particularly bad for the Levite, to stay voluntarily?

A: First, he’s a Levite and his duties would mean that he would need to be at Bethel where the Tabernacle is currently located in order to fulfill his Levitical duties properly. Second, this alludes to the problem in chapters 17-18 where a Levite voluntarily remained in Bethlehem and initiated a false religion. What is implied here is another attempt at spiritual seduction to get someone called exclusively to God’s service to begin serving another god.

Q: What is the primary temptation the father-in-law employs?

A: In v.6 and 9 he repeats, “Let your heart be merry”. It is an appeal to satisfy one’s self through good company and drink. Inebriation is a biblical representation of spiritual seduction and satisfying self.

Point: We are being presented with a picture of a Christian being tempted by the things of this world first in the behavior of the woman and then that of her father in order to teach about spiritual faithfulness.

Read 19:11-21

Q: What might be ironic about selecting Gibeah over Jebus?

A: Jebus, as Jerusalem was still called then, was under the direct control of the known enemies of God whereas Gibeah was settled and under the control of the Benjamites, fellow Israelites who should have not only been friends of God but technically family relations.

Q: What might be ironic about choosing between Gibeah or Ramah in v.13?

A: Although both belong to the tribe of Benjamin, Gibeah will eventually be known as the birthplace of Saul, Ramah as the birthplace of Samuel. This might be hinting at the spiritual roots each of these come from.

Q: What was the first warning sign that something was wrong?

A: When “no one took them into his house”. The spirit of hospitality which they would normally have expected, and specifically rejected Jebus in order to attain in Gibeah, was absent.

Q: What was the second warning sign that something was wrong?

A: The one man that finally offered hospitality wasn’t actually a full-fledged native of this Benjamite town. He is described as “from the hill country of Ephraim” which is where the Levite was originally described as coming from. (v.1) The only friendly face is himself a stranger in this place.

Q: What was the third warning sign something was wrong?

A: The Levite’s point in v.19 is that they do not have material needs and therefore it should be visible to all that they are not going to be a burden to anyone. But the implication is that the people of that place see even the most cursory aspects of hospitality as being burdensome and a bother.

Point: When believers no longer behave like believers it is more than likely that they have become exactly like the world they live in. The greater spiritual picture here is not of someone who is merely backslidden, but completely forsaking God and returning to their old life in the world.

Read 19:22-30

Q: Why might this story sound familiar?

A: It sounds remarkably similar to the story of Lot living in Sodom and Gomorrah.

Q: But what is significantly different about this story from Sodom and Gomorrah?

A: Whereas the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah were unbelievers practicing sin of the worst kind imaginable, the residents of Gibeah are Israelites, those who are supposed to be believers; yet they are engaging in the same, horrific sinful practices as the worst example of unbelievers of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Q: Why is it significant that the residents of Gibeah are described in v.22 as “worthless fellows”?

A: This is a specific term used repeatedly throughout Scripture to describe someone who is a complete and total non-believer, someone completely despised by God.

  1. In Dt. 13:12-18 it describes people who have left the Lord and become such a bad spiritual influence that the rest of Israel is required to destroy them and everything they own in order to be rid of its influence.
  2. In 1 Sam. 2:12 it describes the sons of Eli with the additional qualifying descriptor that “they did not know the Lord”.
  3. In 1 Kings 21:8-10 it describes false witnesses presented by Jezebel in order to steal Naboth’s vineyard for the king, a story which represents spiritual seduction and deception.

Q: What does the owner of the house attempt to do?

A: He attempts to confront them with the issue of sin, entreating them, “Please do not act so wickedly”. (v.23)

Q: What is being taught by the fact that the men abused the women all night but released them in the morning?

A: It testifies to the greater spiritual lesson that their works, being works of darkness, could not bear the light.

Q: Stepping back a moment, what is the overall spiritual meaning of this story?

A: An attempt at reconciliation from unfaithfulness was met with unfaithfulness of the worst kind, destroying the body with which reconciliation was being attempted. The woman could be a representation of the body – the church – assaulted by believers so compromised by the world that they aren’t even considered believers in God’s eyes anymore but simply “worthless fellows” – the biblical term for unbelievers.

Point: When believers turn upon believers, the result is that the body of believers is actually torn asunder by the degree of unfaithfulness present. The only resolution is going to be for the body to completely destroy and be rid of the cancerous influence.

Read 20:1-17

Q: Why is it important that everyone showed up “including the land of Gilead”?

A: Gilead described the lands assigned to tribes on the others side of the Jordan River. So “from Dan to Beersheba, including the land of Gilead” shows 100% participation by every tribe in Israel. It would be like saying, “the whole United States including Alaska and Hawaii”.

Q: What is the meaning of “Mizpah”, the place they chose to gather?

A: It means “watch tower”. They not only assembled there physically in preparation for what was to come, but assembled there spiritually to look over the situation in order to properly assess what to do.

Q: Why might it be significant that they “assembled as one man to the Lord at Mizpah”?

A: It indicates the purpose for which they’ve assembled, the enforcement of God’s Word according to Dt. 13:12-18 and not strictly out of a desire for vigilante justice.

Q: What is another way of translating “chiefs”?

A: “Cornerstones”. It’s a very graphic way of describing the totality of their purpose in assembling, that they intend to fully carry out God’s Word in this matter.

Q: What do the people do first after arriving at Mizpah?

A: They inquire as to the nature of “this wickedness”. (v.3)

Q: What might sound familiar about Israel’s choosing to go up against Gibeah “by lot”?

A: This is the manner in which the often went up against the enemy. They are making a statement that since according to biblical definition the Benjamites in Gibeah are indeed “worthless fellows”, they will be treated the way any other enemy would be treated.

Q: How did Israel specifically desire to address the problem?

A: Since the problem was with the city of Gibeah, then it wanted to destroy Gibeah per the instructions of Deuteronomy.

Q: What did Israel try to do with the whole tribe of Benjamin?

A: According to v.12-13 they tried to confront Benjamin with the sin within it by asking, “What is this wickedness that has taken place among you?” They provided the opportunity for Benjamin to be part of the solution.

Q: But what happened instead?

A: The whole of the tribe of Benjamin “would not listen to the voice of their brothers” and intervened on the city of Gibeah’s behalf causing the conflict to be elevated to a war between the whole of Israel and the entire tribe of Benjamin.

Point: Believers have an obligation to present the truth but cannot make other people’s choices for them. Sometimes our brothers in Christ choose not to listen and pursue their own way instead. This is often the case when a group or organization is not 100% corrupt but refuses to address that element within it which is patently sinful and influencing the mainstream.

Read 20:18-35

Q: Why would they leave Mizpah and assemble at Bethel?

A: “Bethel” literally means “:house of God” and is the place where the Tabernacle was located. It is in Ephraim along its border with Benjamin. In effect they searched the matter out in Mizpah (“watch tower”) and now they’re going directly to the Lord in Bethel.

Q: What is different about the way they went before the Lord the second time (v.23) from the way they came before Him the first time? (v.18)

A: The first time they merely “went up”; the second time they “went up and wept before the Lord”.

Q: What is different about the way they went before the Lord the third time? (v.26)

A: This time they not only wept, but “remained there before the Lord and fasted…and they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord”.

Q: So why did it take three attempts before God granted them success?

A: They were physically ready but not spiritually ready. Remember that in the chapters just before this is the account of how false religion was allowed to spread throughout ALL of Israel – this was not just a problem isolated to Benjamin alone. Yes, they were supposed to address the issue of sin, but not before first addressing the issue of their OWN sin.

Point: Revivals don’t begin with the unsaved, but the saved. Judgment always begins with the house of God first. In order to drive out sin within the church overall, it has to begin at the personal level of addressing one’s own sin first.

Q: Who is ultimately credited with the victory so that we know this was as much a spiritual victory as an earthly one?

A: “And the Lord struck Benjamin before Israel”. (v.35)

Read 20:36-45

Q: Why was Israel not merely content to win the battle? Why did it pursue Benjamin to such extremes?

A: This is what was dictated by God’s Word.

“If you hear in one of your cities, which the lord your God is giving you to live in, anyone saying that some worthless men have gone out from among you and have seduced the inhabitants of their city, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods’ (whom you have not known), then you shall investigate and search out and inquire thoroughly. If it is true and the matter established that this abomination has been done among you, you shall surely strike the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying it and all that is in it and its cattle with the edge of the sword. Then you shall gather all its booty into the middle of its open square and burn the city and all its booty with fire as a whole burnt offering to the lord your God; and it shall be a ruin forever. It shall never be rebuilt. Nothing from that which is put under the ban shall cling to your hand, in order that the Lord may turn from His burning anger and show mercy to you, and have compassion on you and make you increase, just as He has sworn to your fathers, if you will listen to the voice of the Lord your God, keeping all His commandments which I am commanding you today, and doing what is right in the sight of the Lord your God.

— Deuteronomy 13:12-18

Q: What is the sign of God’s final judgment?

A: Fire.

Q: What might be significant about the fact that the Benjamites fled to Rimmon and Gidom? (v.45)

A: Although “Rimmon” can be translated as “pomegranate”, it is also the name of the Syrian false god of wind, rain and storm. It may allude to their fleeing from one false god to another rather than coming to terms with the One True God. “Gidom” means “cutting off” and represents Benjamin’s final disposition both physically and spiritually as they found themselves both “cut off” from the Lord spiritually and from their inheritance in Israel physically.

Point: When a person, group, or entire organization has been investigated and confronted with the issue of sin, and steadfastly remains unrepentant and refusing to give up that sin, there is no other recourse that it can experience other than God’s final judgment, its total and complete destruction. HOWEVER: No believer is allowed to undertake such action on their own, but only after thorough investigation of the matter and prolonged and sincere submission of it to the Lord.

Read 21:1-25

Q: Why do you suppose they gave such an oath in the first place?

A: It seems to mirror their outrage at what happened to the Levite’s concubine.

Q: But could there be a significance about why they made such an oath at Mizpah rather than at Bethel?

A: The oath was made while they were investigating the incident at Mizpah and seems to indicate an earthly judgment from man. If it were a heavenly judgment, it probably would have been directed by the Lord when they brought the matter to Him at Bethel.

Point: The problem now is different from the original issue of dealing with unrepentant sin. Now they’re dealing with how to reconcile their own judgment against a brother and how to bridge the gap of their own differences.

Q: What was the first step in reconciliation between the two groups?

A: The victor in the battle “sat there before God until evening, and lifted up their voices and wept bitterly.” The “righteous” group intervened on behalf of the “unrighteous” group.

Point: Ever notice that it often takes a righteous person to intercede on the part of the unrighteous? Take note of the examples of Moses, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Ananias, etc.

Q: What was the second step that was taken?

A: They “offered burnt offerings and peace offerings”. (v.4) They followed up the sincerity of their prayers with the sincerity of their worship and supplication.

Q: Did they render judgment against those who did not participate in the battle with Benjamin?

A: No, they were looking for those who did not send representatives to Mizpah to initially investigate the matter. (v.5) Therefore whoever was not even interested enough to participate in the investigation is most likely to be experiencing the same kinds of sin and issues as found in Gibeah, or at least giving tacit approval of them.

Q: Where is Jabesh-Gilead located?

A: It’s on the other side of the Jordan to the northeast. “Jabesh” means “dry” and “Gilead” means “rocky place”.

Q: So what happened to them?

A: Basically they incurred the same judgment as Gibeah.

Q: What was the final step in the restoration process between Israel and Benjamin?

A: In v.13 Israel “sent word…and proclaimed peace to them”. (It’s an interesting parallel to the fact that the Gospel itself is often called “the Gospel of Peace”.) And by giving them the women from Jabesh-Gilead for wives, they restored Benjamin’s inheritance in Israel.

Q: What is the “loophole” that Israel seems to be providing Benjamin by intervening with the men of Shiloh when their daughters are taken away for brides?

A: That the men of Shiloh aren’t breaking the oath made at Mizpah to “give” their daughters in marriage to Benjamin but that their daughters are being “taken” by the Benjamites.

Q: What appears to be the final conundrum here?

A: They’re having to find a man-made solution to a man-made problem. It’s summarized in the opening and closing sentences of these chapters: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes”.

Point: No one on any side of this problem from any perspective would have had any kind of problem if they had only kept God’s Word and ways to begin with and sought to return to them wholeheartedly without adding their own restrictions on top.


Have you ever noticed a repeated, biblical pattern where the tribe of Benjamin is concerned? There’s an interesting cycle of which Jacob spoke when he gave his final blessings to each of his sons:

“Benjamin is a ravenous wolf;

In the morning he devours the prey,

And in the evening he divides the spoil.”

— Genesis 49:27

A paraphrase of this blessing might be, “He begins badly (devours the prey) but ends up well (divides the spoil).”

In this example, the tribe of Benjamin starts off badly and ends up well. In fact, it will produce the first king of Israel in Saul.

Saul will begin badly by disobeying God where the Amalekites are concerned but through his Benjamite relatives Esther and Mordecai will end up well and defeat them (represented by Haman).

The apostle Paul is from the tribe of Benjamin and starts off badly (persecuting the church) but ends up well (as an apostle to the Gentiles).

Overall Application

We can expect to go to war with other cults and false religions, but by far the most difficult war is the one that has to be undertaken against fellow believers, people who were at one time right in their relationship with both Christ and His body the Church, but are now so unrepentant that the only option is to oppose them publicly. This can only be successful when preceded by sincere repentance and supplication on the part of the “righteous” on behalf of the “unrighteous” in order to be properly God-directed. Final judgment on the apostate only comes after judgment upon the house of God is first rendered and those truly on His side are in spiritual alignment with Him.