As improbable as it sounds with the numbers in the respective armies, the first time the Israelites went up against the Benjamites, they suffered 22,000 casualties (Judges 20:22). While tactics are important, a lot of warfare comes down to numbers. With the numbers the Israelites have, they shouldn’t have had any trouble squashing the Benjamites. Somebody screwed up. However, we don’t have any kind of record of the actual battle to determine what went down aside from splitting up their forces as “Judah shall go up first” against the Benjamites (Judges 20:18).
But throughout this section of the chapter, something curious is happening. Thus far in the story, there’s been no mention of God. Suddenly, however, the Israelites are inquiring of God and receiving answers. I bring this up because there is no prophet. God has no direct spokesman like in so much of the rest of the Bible. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses all had direct contact with God, having conversations. Joseph had dreams, but Israel has been without a prophet since Joshua. And the book of Judges in particular has been light on connecting up with God.
Frankly, I’m dubious. I know, I know. We have to use what the text says, and I intend to do that. At first, the text doesn’t tell us how they inquired of God. It just gives a broadly “they inquired of the Lord,” and that’s not how God has operated in the past. God has preferred direct, personal contact with a representative of the population. Now, it’s not our nameless Levite priest. In fact, he’s dropped out of the story altogether. We won’t see him again.
Instead, in verse 28 we see that it is Phineas, Aaron’s grandson is more or less responsible, but not because there was a direct conversation, but because “the ark of the Covenant of God was there in those days and Phineas son of Eleazar, son of Aauron, ministered before it in those days)” (20:27-28).
This is in the days before the great temple that Solomon built, so they still relied on the Tabernacle they were instructed to build by Moses. The ark of the covenant was within this tabernacle in the Holy of Holies, an inner chamber that could only be entered by the high priest. This is the place where the high priest would go to receive inspiration from God, but we’re in brand new territory, here, where the high priest receives the same kind of conversations as the prophets. I don’t entirely buy it.
See, the instructions that God is relating are very terse, basic, and even self-serving to the Israelites. We’ll tackle them in order. The first answer is “Judah shall go up first.” Well, the fact of the matter is that the tribe of Judah is, by far, the largest of the tribes, so would suffer the least from any losses. They’d also be the most likely to take out the Benjamites on their own. We certainly wouldn’t see the Ephraimites running in to be first as they were one of the smallest tribes.
Second, in response to “Shall we again draw near to battle against our kinsfolk the Benjaminites” God’s reply is “Go up against them.” Not exactly the responses from God we’re used to. Very seldom is it an either/or situation. God usually contacts his prophets when he wants them to do something specific. This kind of answer is just . . . not in character.
The third answer has the same feel. It’s a terse, “Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand.” That’s it! I swear. God is not heard from again in this story, and there’s quite a bit of it left.
When God needs to punish people, there’s typically a long speech involved. There are reasons given, and a method by which he will exact that punishment. With Cain it was personal. The Tower of Babel he confused the languages, but not before telling us at length as to why. With Egypt, well, I haven’t gotten there, yet, but he and Moses talk long and often about what will happen to Egypt and why. This just doesn’t fit.
So, in my mind, this isn’t a direct conversation with God. It might be the impressions that Phineas got from communing with the ark of the covenant, but this doesn’t fit the characterization of a conversation with God, especially not this tersely. I’m not sure God is actually present in this story. I will grant you that He should be. This starts off exactly like Sodom and Gomorrah, but we are way past the part where any kind of divine intervention should have taken place. My feeling is that the asking of God is a justification for making war on the Benjamites and later declaring “The Lord defeated Benjamin before Israel” (Judges 20:35).
I don’t have definitive proof of this, but the words attributed to God don’t fit the character of God as we’ve come to know Him. This isn’t the strongest case I’ve ever built, but I believe it fits the circumstances. All of Judges shows a distinct lack of God’s character in what is a spiraling descent of Israel, and this story is the end of that spiral.