Commentary on the Bible, by Adam Clarke, , at sacred-texts.com
The heads of the eleven tribes come before the Lord in Mizpeh, and examine the Levite relative to the murder of his wife, who gives a simple narrative of the whole affair, Jdg 20:1-7. They unanimously resolve to avenge the wrong, and make provision for a campaign against the Benjamites, Jdg 20:8-11. They desire the Benjamites to deliver up the murderers; they refuse, and prepare for battle, having assembled an army of twenty-six thousand seven hundred men, Jdg 20:12-16. The rest of the Israelites amount to four hundred thousand, who, taking counsel of God, agree to send the tribe of Judah against the Benjamites, Jdg 20:17, Jdg 20:18. They attack the Benjamites, and are routed with the loss of twenty-two thousand men, Jdg 20:19-21. They renew the battle next day, and are discomfited with the loss of eighteen thousand men, Jdg 20:22-25. They weep, fast, and pray, and offer sacrifices; and again inquire of the Lord, who promises to deliver Benjamin into their hands, Jdg 20:26-28. They concert plans, attack the Benjamites, and rout them, killing twenty-five thousand one hundred men, and destroy the city of Gibeah, Jdg 20:29-37. A recapitulation of the different actions in which they were killed, Jdg 20:38-46. Six hundred men escape to the rock Rimmon, Jdg 20:47. The Israelites destroy all the cities of the Benjamites, Jdg 20:48.
Unto the Lord in Mizpeh - This city was situated on the confines of Judah and Benjamin, and is sometimes attributed to the one, sometimes to the other. It seems that there was a place here in which the Lord was consulted, as well as at Shiloh; in 1 Maccabees 3:46, we read, In Maspha was the place where they prayed aforetime in Israel. These two passages cast light on each other. Some think that Shiloh is meant, because the ark was there; but the phrase before the Lord may signify no more than meeting in the name of God to consult him, and make prayer and supplication. Wherever God's people are, there is God himself; and it ever was true, that wherever two or three were assembled in his name, he was in the midst of them.
The chief of all the people - The corners פנות pinnoth; for as the corner-stones are the strength of the walls, so are the chiefs the strength of the people. Hence Christ is called the chief corner-stone.
In the assembly of the people of God - The Septuagint translate, And all the tribes of Israel stood up before the face of the Lord, εν εκκλησιᾳ του λαου του Θεου, in the Church of the people of God. Here was a Church, though there was no priest; for, as Tertullian says, Ubi tres, ecclesia est, licet laici; "Wheresoever three are gathered together in the name of the Lord, there is a Church, although there be none but the laity."
Tell us, how was this wickedness? - They had heard before, by the messengers he sent with the fragments of his wife's body; but they wish to hear it, in full council, from himself.
We will not any of us go to his tent - We will have satisfaction for this wickedness before we return home.
Ten men of a hundred - Expecting that they might have a long contest, they provide suttlers for the camp; and it is probable that they chose these tenths by lot.
Deliver us the men - Nothing could be fairer than this. They wish only to make the murderers answerable for their guilt.
Benjamin would not hearken - Thus making their whole tribe partakers of the guilt of the men of Gibeah. By not delivering up those bad men, they in effect said: "We will stand by them in what they have done, and would have acted the same part had we been present." This proves that the whole tribe was excessively depraved.
Twenty and six thousand - Some copies of the Septuagint have twenty-three thousand, others twenty-five thousand. The Vulgate has this latter number; the Complutensian Polyglot and Josephus have the same.
Left-handed - They were ambidexters - could use the right hand and the left with equal ease and effect. See the note on Jdg 3:15.
Could sling stones at a hair - and not miss - ולא יחטא velo yachati, and not sin: και ουκ εξαμαρτανοντες; Sept. Here we have the true import of the term sin; it signifies simply to miss the mark, and is well translated in the New Testament by ἁμαρτανω, from α, negative, and μαρπτω, to hit the mark. Men miss the mark of true happiness in aiming at sensual gratifications; which happiness is to be found only in the possession and enjoyment of the favor of God, from whom their passions continually lead them. He alone hits the mark, and ceases from sin, who attains to God through Christ Jesus.
It is worthy of remark that the Persian khuta kerden, which literally signifies to sin or mistake, is used by the Mohammedans to express to miss the mark.
The sling was a very ancient warlike instrument, and, in the hands of those who were skilled in the use of it, it produced astonishing effects. The inhabitants of the isles called Baleares, now Majorca and Minorca, were the most celebrated slingers of antiquity. They did not permit their children to break their fast till they had struck down the bread they were to eat from the top of a pole, or some distant eminence. They had their name Baleares from the Greek word βαλλειν to dart, cast, or throw.
Concerning the velocity of the ball out of the sling, there are strange and almost incredible things told by the ancients. The leaden ball, when thus projected, is said to have melted in its course. So Ovid, Met. lib. ii.. ver. 726.
Obstupuit forma Jove natus: et aethere pendens
Non secus exarsit, quam cum balearica plumbum
Funda jacit; volat illud, et incandescit eundo;
Et, quos non habuit, sub nubibus invenit ignes.
Hermes was fired as in the clouds he hung;
So the cold bullet that, with fury slung
From Balearic engines, mounts on high,
Glows in the whirl, and burns along the sky.
This is not a poetic fiction; Seneca, the philosopher, in lib. iii. Quaest. Natural., c. 57, says the same thing: Sic liquescit excussa glans funda, et adtritu aeris velut igne distillat; "Thus the ball projected from the sling melts, and is liquefied by the friction of the air, as if it were exposed to the action of fire." I have often, by the sudden and violent compression of the air, produced fire; and by this alone inflamed tinder, and lighted a match. Vegetius de Re Militari, lib. ii., cap. 23, tells us that slingers could in general hit the mark at six hundred feet distance. Funditores scopas-pro signo ponebant; ita ut Sexcentos Pedes removerentur a signo-signum saepius tangerent. These things render credible what is spoken here of the Benjamite slingers.
Went up to the house of God - Some think that a deputation was sent from Shiloh, where Phinehas the high priest was, to inquire, not concerning the expediency of the war, nor of its success, but which of the tribes should begin the attack. Having so much right on their side, they had no doubt of the justice of their cause. Having such a superiority of numbers, they had no doubt of success. See the note on Jdg 20:1.
And the Lord said, Judah - But he did not say that they should conquer.
Destroyed down to the ground - twenty-two thousand men - That is, so many were left dead on the field of battle.
Go up against him - It appears most evident that the Israelites did not seek the protection of God. They trusted in the goodness of their cause and in the multitude of their army. God humbled them, and delivered them into the hands of their enemies, and showed them that the race was not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.
And wept - Had they humbled themselves, fasted, and prayed, and offered sacrifices at first, they had not been discomfited.
And fasted that day until even - This is the first place where fasting is mentioned as a religious ceremony, or as a means of obtaining help from God. And in this case, and many since, it has been powerfully effectual. At present it is but little used; a strong proof that self-denial is wearing out of fashion.
Phinehas, the son of Eleazar - This was the same Phinehas who is mentioned Num 25:7, and consequently these transactions must have taken place shortly after the death of Joshua.
Israel set liers in wait - Though God had promised them success, they knew they could expect it only in the use of the proper means. They used all prudent precaution, and employed all their military skill.
Let us - draw them from the city - They had two reasons for this:
1. They had placed an ambuscade behind Gibeah, which was to enter and burn the city as soon as the Benjamites had left it.
2. It would seem that the slingers, by being within the city and its fortifications, had great advantage against the Israelites by their slings, whom they could not annoy with their swords, unless they got them to the plain country.
Put themselves in array at Baal-tamar - The Israelites seem to have divided their army into three divisions; one was at Baal-tamar, a second behind the city in ambush, and the third skirmished with the Benjamites before Gibeah.
Twenty and five thousand and a hundred - As the Benjamites consisted only of twenty-six thousand and seven hundred slingers; or, as the Vulgate, Septuagint, and others read, twenty-five thousand, which is most probably the true reading; then the whole of the Benjamites were cut to pieces, except six hundred men, who we are informed fled to the rock Rimmon, where they fortified themselves.
Now there was an appointed sign - 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 part of the chapter.
Unto the rock of Rimmon - This was some strong place, but where situated is not known. Here they maintained themselves four months, and it was by these alone that the tribe of Benjamin was preserved from utter extermination. See the following chapter, Judges 21 (note).
It is scarcely possible to imagine any thing more horrid than the indiscriminate and relentless slaughter of both innocent and guilty mentioned in this chapter. The crime of the men of Gibeah was great, but there was no adequate cause for this relentless extermination of a whole tribe. There was neither justice nor judgment in this case; they were on all sides brutal, cruel, and ferocious: and no wonder; there was no king in Israel - no effective civil government, and every man did what was right in his own eyes. There was no proper leader; no man that had authority and influence to repress the disorderly workings of the pell-mell mob.