Sefer Shofetim Chapter 20
In a rare show of unity, the entire nation of Israel gathers together to address the travesty that occurred in Givah. The Levite husband presents a sanitized version of the events that acquits him of all wrongdoing while highlighting the evil of the people of Binyamin. The Jewish people demand that the Tribe of Binyamin hand over the perpetrators of the crime to be punished; this request is denied. The tribes decide to go to war against Binyamin because they have chosen to harbor, and therefore aid and abet, wicked criminals.
A large military force representing all eleven of the tribes is mobilized to fight against Binyamin. The nation consults with Hashem (via the Urim Vetummim) and are told that the tribe of Yehuda should lead them into battle. Surprisingly, the Tribe of Benjamin defeats the much larger national army in the first conflict. The Jews again ask Hashem if they should attack their brethren and they are told that they should; however, they suffer serious losses in the second battle as well.
Crying, fasting and offering sacrifices to Hashem, the Jews inquire for a last time whether they should pursue this cause and Hashem assures them that in the third battle they will prevail. The “allied forces” position an ambush outside of the city of Givah and lure the soldiers of Binyamin out onto the open roads and fields. They flee from before the Tribe of Benjamin so as to convey the impression that they are once again losing the fight. This spurs the Benjaminites on with even greater intensity.
Meanwhile, the ambushing party conquers the city of Givah and sets it aflame, and a pillar of smoke billows up to the heavens. When Israel see this signal of victory they are emboldened; when Binyamin realizes they have been fooled, they are bewildered and begin to fail. The national military force finally and decisively triumphs over Benjamin in the civil war as promised by Hashem.
There are several interesting points in this story that are worth mentioning. One is the obvious similarity between the consultation with Hashem here in our chapter and the consultation with Hashem at the beginning of the Book of Shofetim, both of which culminate in the same answer – namely, that Yehuda should go first. The similarity in phrasing suggests that the Jewish people have, in the wake of this tragedy, recaptured some of the initial unity that they had exhibited when they first entered the land and began settling it.
The third and final battle against Binyamin is also unmistakably similar to the battle against Ha-Ai. In that conflict, recorded in the Book of Yehoshua, the Jewish people lost the first battle only to employ the same sort of “lure-them-out-and-ambush-them” strategy to vanquish them in the next fight. Here, too, the national army capitalized on the growing confidence of the troops of Benjamin and fooled them into exiting the confines of their city, leaving it exposed to the soldiers who were lying in wait to destroy it.
There is a very important question that nearly all of the commentaries raise about this story; namely, why did the national army of Israel lose the first two battles? The difficulty is compounded by the fact that Hashem Himself endorses their attack of Binyamin, implying that He will provide assistance, support and victory to their troops. Instead, they sustain enormous casualties in both conflicts.
The Sages explain that these losses can be attributed to an element of hypocrisy in their pursuit of this battle. The Jews acted as if they were motivated to preserve the purity of Judaism and Jewish ethics and therefore could not tolerate the depravity of Binyamin, yet they were not mobilized in such a fashion against the graven image of Mikha and the proliferation and embrace of idolatry among the Jews.This irony and self-contradiction is highlighted by the limited Divine assistance provided to them in the story; the battle with Binyamin is both a success and a failure, both a positive accomplishment and a punishment of the victors for their complacency in the face of idolatrous worship.
We may be able to take this a step further and suggest that the nation of Israel believed that the righteousness of their cause guaranteed that miracles would be done on their behalf. They assumed, in their “religious” fervor, that they had no chance of losing on the battlefield against Binyamin – God’s justice would not allow it. As in the battle against Ha-Ai in the era of Yehoshua, there was an exaggerated sense of entitlement at play in their rush out to the battlefield.
However, the truth was that, in order to win, they would have to employ intelligent strategy to vanquish their opponents. Hashem would not present them with victory on a silver platter as if they deserved it. And as the Rabbis point out, we can understand His hesitation to “reward” them with such assistance given their tolerance for the idolatrous practices that were being imported into Jewish society via their assimilation. Ironically, again, the same nation that was so hesitant to drive the Canaanites and their pagan traditions out of Israel and chose, instead, to dwell alongside them, is now arming itself to battle fellow Jews over an incident (however terrible) of injustice.
We have also learned, both in the Book of Yehoshua and of Shofetim, that one of the signature signs of the Jews’ distance from Hashem is their reliance on magical thinking in battle, their belief that without any strategy, planning or intelligent preparation for battle, they are guaranteed success. The mere fact that they are under the illusion that Hashem will help them supernaturally without any effort on their part is an indication of their remoteness from Him, not their closeness to Him. Their irrational religious zeal leading up to this battle is symptomatic of the influence of idolatry upon the thought processes and attitudes of the Jewish people such that they have adopted a simplistic, distorted perspective on the workings of Divine providence.