Judges 21: Final Warnings from the Book of Judges Against Relative Morality

Introduction: Judges chapter 21 concludes both the book of Judges and the story of the brutal gang rape and alleged murder of a Levite’s concubine by members of the Benjamite tribe. The Levite incited the entire nation to civil war against the Benjamites by cutting up her corpse into 12 pieces and sending the pieces throughout the 12 tribes. In response to his misleading testimony, the tribes then killed all of the women, children and most of the Benjamite men. The once mighty tribe of Benjamin was reduced to a mere 600 men, who were trapped at a rock and facing extinction. Like the rest of the book, this chapter addresses the flawed morality of the time where everyone did what they felt was right in their own eyes. As a result, they all did evil. None was righteous before God. As the Jews came to realize their mistakes, they made even greater mistakes as they tried to solve the problems they created without God. From this last chapter, God reveals seven final lessons on the dangers of living according to your own morality.

First, the Jews made a foolish vow at Mizpah never to allow for future marriages with the Benjamites. From this, He reveals that people who live by their own morality will make foolish decisions. Second, the Jews refused to take responsibility for their foolish vow when they realized that it would lead to the extinction of the Benjamite tribe. From this, He reveals that people who live by their own morality will refuse to repent of their sins. Third, the Jews made a separate oath to kill any tribe or clan that did not participate in their proceedings against Benjamin. From this, He reveals that those who live by their own morality will be ruled by their flesh and their emotions. Fourth, the Jews murdered their brethren at Jabesh-gilead to give the Benjamites wives. From this, He reveals that people who live by their own morality will respond to evil with more evil. Fifth, the Jews blamed God for their own foolish vows. From this, He reveals that people who live by their own morality will blame God for their own inevitable mistakes. Sixth, to address their prior mistakes, the Jews allowed the Benjamites to kidnap their own daughters. From this, He reveals that those who live by their own morality will create misery for their families. Finally, from the Jews’ failure to live by God’s fixed standard of morality, He reveals that those who live by their own morality will do whatever feels right in their own eyes.

1. People Will Make Foolish Vows and Decisions. Judges 21:1-2.

  • The Jews’ vow never to intermarry with the tribe of Benjamin. After the Jews killed all of the Benjamites except for a mere 600 men, they lamented that they had foolishly vowed before the war never to allow for future marriages with that tribe: “Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mizpah, saying, ‘None of us shall give his daughter to Benjamin in marriage.’ So the people came to Bethel and sat there before God until evening, and lifted up their voices and wept bitterly.” (Jdgs. 21:1-2). The Jews previously burned every single Benjamite town, not just the offending town (Jdgs. 20:48). They also killed every woman and child, even though they had not committed any sins. Their punitive actions coupled with their mean-spirited vow threatened the surviving members of the tribe with extinction: “Ironically, whereas earlier in the Book the Israelites had displayed few scruples in intermarriage with the Canaanites, evidently they pledged not to intermarry with their own countrymen. The men of Israel [did] not realize the significance of their action, but in the mind of the narrator this grotesque application of Yahweh’s prohibition on intermarriage with the Canaanites (Deut 7:1-5) to their own kinfolks serves as a final acknowledgement of the Canaanization of Israel.” (Daniel Block, The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, Judges, Ruth, Vol. 6, B & H Publishing Group 1999 p. 569). Moreover, “Jacob’s fears concerning his youngest son expressed centuries ago have come true: in bizarre fashion Joseph’s brothers have taken Benjamin. (Gen. 42:36.)” (Id. at 570).

The Jews’ wept because of their actions1

  • Don’t make foolish vows. The Jews were normally obligated to fulfill their vows: “If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” (Nu. 30:2; Dt. 23:21; Ecc. 5:4; Ps. 66:13; 50:14). The Jews were warned not to “swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God.” (Lev. 19:12). Thus, breaking a vow violated the Third Commandment (Ex. 20:7; Dt. 5:11). The penalty for breaking a vow before God was death (Lev. 24:16). Thus, even Jesus commanded believers to fulfill their vows to God (Matt. 5:33). He warns not to make foolish vows that you cannot keep: “But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.” (Matt. 5:37). But the Jews realized that they could not allow their foolish vow here to cause the extinction of this tribe. This was not the first time that the Jews made a foolish vow. Jephthah previously made a foolish vow to sacrifice whoever walked through his door if he defeated the Ammonites (Jdgs. 11:30-31). After defeating the Ammonites, Jephthah fulfilled his misguided vow by sacrificing his daughter shortly after she walked through his door to greet him (Jdgs. 11:34-40).

  • Jesus can annul your foolish vows. The Jews were not bound to fulfill an unlawful vow (cf., Lev. 27:26). Even if their vow to kill off the Benjamites were lawful, the law allowed them to break a “difficult vow” by paying the redemption price of the vow in silver (Lev. 27:1-8). But the price was expensive and might have required the leaders to become indentured servants to pay off their debts. This was apparently too high a price for the leaders to pay to save the Benjamites. Jephthah likewise killed his daughter to uphold a foolish vow instead of paying the redemption price of his vow. Without Jesus, believers would also be punished if they did not fulfill their vows. Yet, through faith in Jesus, you will one day also be married to Him in heaven (Eph. 5:23-30; Rev. 19:6-8; 21:2). As a future bridegroom, He can annul any foolish vow (Nu. 30:5, 8). He has also paid the price for your broken vows. If you have broken a vow or made a foolish one, have you repented and thanked Jesus for paying the price for you?

2. People Will Refuse to Repent of Their Sins. Judges 21:3.

  • The Jews’ refusal to take responsibility for their sins. The Jews lamented to God for the Benjamites’ plight as if the source of the problem were a mystery: “They said, ‘Why, O Lord, God of Israel, has this come about in Israel, so that one tribe should be missing today in Israel?’” (Jdgs. 21:3). “They cried out to God, almost as if it was His responsibility that the tribe of Benjamin was on the edge of extinction. The question, ‘Why has this come to pass?’ was easily answered: Because of the excessive vengeance of the tribes of Israel against the tribe of Benjamin.” (David Guzik on Judges 21).2

  • Be humble, not stiff necked, when God exposes your sins. The Jews had a long history of refusing to humble themselves and repent of their sins. God frequently lamented to Moses that they were a stiff necked or obstinate people: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people.”’ (Ex. 32:9). “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, because you are an obstinate people, and I might destroy you on the way.” (Ex. 33:3). “The LORD spoke further to me, saying, ‘I have seen this people, and indeed, it is a stubborn people.”’ (Dt. 9:13). He later deported them because they refused to give up their idolatry: “However, they did not listen, but stiffened their neck like their fathers, who did not believe in the LORD their God.” (2 Kgs. 17:14). Stephan later warned the Sanhedrin that their same stubbornness caused them to reject Jesus: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.” (Acts 7:51). When God exposes your sins, do you humbly repent and accept responsibility?

3. People Will Be Ruled By Their Flesh and Emotions. Judges 21:4-5.

  • The Jews’ oath threatened to kill any clan that did not participate. The Jews initially thought to atone for their sins by building an altar for burnt and peace offerings. But their actions that immediately followed demonstrated that they had made a false repentance. They were instead ruled by their flesh and their emotions. In addition to vowing never to allow for intermarriage with the tribes, the Jews made a vow to destroy any tribe or clan that did not participate in their investigation of the murder of the Levite’s concubine. “It came about the next day that the people arose early and built an altar there and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. 5 Then the sons of Israel said, ‘Who is there among all the tribes of Israel who did not come up in the assembly to the Lord?’ For they had taken a great oath concerning him who did not come up to the Lord at Mizpah, saying, ‘He shall surely be put to death.’” (Jdgs. 21:5). The Jews placed themselves in their own predicament because they failed to consult with God.

  • Let the Spirit and not the Flesh guide your actions. The Jews’ decisions were governed almost entirely by their flesh or emotions. God, however, warns that a believer’s actions are never pleasing to Him when they are ruled by the flesh: “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Ro. 8:6-8). “For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” (Gal. 6:8). If you act out of anger and emotion, your flesh is guiding you. To let the Spirit lead you, you must first read the Word to guide your path (Ps. 119:105). You must also pray for guidance (Jam. 1:5). Do you read the Word and pray before you make decisions in your life?

4. People Will Respond to Evil with More Evil. Judges 21:6-12.

  • The Jews’ slaughter of Jabesh-gilead in order to give the surviving Benjamites wives. In a misguided effort to correct their own sins, the Jews decided to murder an entire clan of their brothers and sisters and take their virgin daughters for the Benjamites: “And the sons of Israel were sorry for their brother Benjamin and said, ‘One tribe is cut off from Israel today. What shall we do for wives for those who are left, since we have sworn by the Lord not to give them any of our daughters in marriage?And they said, ‘What one is there of the tribes of Israel who did not come up to the Lord at Mizpah?’ And behold, no one had come to the camp from Jabesh-gilead to the assembly. For when the people were numbered, behold, not one of the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead was there. 10 And the congregation sent 12,000 of the valiant warriors there, and commanded them, saying, ‘Go and strike the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead with the edge of the sword, with the women and the little ones. 11 This is the thing that you shall do: you shall utterly destroy every man and every woman who has lain with a man.’ 12 And they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead 400 young virgins who had not known a man by lying with him; and they brought them to the camp at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan.” (Jdgs. 21:6-12). While acting according to their own morality, the Jews committed an act of murder. Their premeditated murder violated the Sixth Commandment (Ex. 20:13; Dt. 5:17). In other circumstances, deaths that occur during state-sanctioned warfare fall outside the definition of murder (Ro. 13:3-4; 1 Pet. 2:14). But the mass killing of Jabesh-gilead without warning violated God’s laws of warfare. His laws required that the Jews offer terms of peace before attacking: “When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace.” (Dt. 20:10). If they had followed these laws, the people of Jabesh-gilead might have agreed to allow their daughters to intermarry with the 600 surviving Benjamite soldiers. The Jews’ unprovoked attack revealed the evil in their hearts: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.” (Matt. 15:19; Mk. 7:21). Their murder not only brought judgment upon them, it also defiled the land (Nu. 35:33-34; Ps. 106:38; Ho. 4:1-3). Finally, their murder of the Jabesh-gilead clan to take their virgin girls did not solve the problems created by their rash oaths. If their misguided oath required that they kill the people of Jabesh-gilead, how could they keep that oath by sparing only the virgin girls?

The Jews slaughtered the people of Jabesh-gilead3

  • The Jews’ misuse of God’s special law for killing the Canaanites. In the Old Testament, God gave the Jews the limited right to kill non-combatants in the context of clearing the Promised Land of the ungodly Canaanites, who were under His judgment: “When the LORD your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Gir'gashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Per'izzites, the Hivites, and the Jeb'usites . . . then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them.” (Dt. 7:1-2, 16; 20:17; Nu. 31:7-8; Josh. 11:10-14). This special commandment, however, only applied to the Canaanites. This unique law did not permit them to kill innocent Jews: “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people . . .” (Lev. 19:18). Ironically, the Jews were willing to misuse God’s special law for killing non-combatants against their own people. But they were unwilling to apply His law in its intended manner by driving the Canaanites out of the Promised Land.

  • Don’t respond to evil with evil. When believers are confronted with evil from any source (including their own doing), God warns them against “returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing.” (1 Pet. 3:9). “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.” (Ro. 12:17). “See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people.” (1 Thess. 5:15; Prov. 28:10). Do you respond to evil with the love of Jesus? When you cause evil, do you repent to God and restore those whom you have hurt?

5. People Will Blame God for Their Own Evil Acts. Judges 21:13-15.

  • The Jews’ decision to blame God for their own foolish vows. When the Jews realized that their murder of an entire clan was not enough to create wives for all the remaining Benjamites, they blamed God for the impending extinction of one of the 12 tribes: “13 Then the whole congregation sent word and spoke to the sons of Benjamin who were at the rock of Rimmon, and proclaimed peace to them. 14 Benjamin returned at that time, and they gave them the women whom they had kept alive from the women of Jabesh-gilead; yet they were not enough for them. 15 And the people were sorry for Benjamin because the Lord had made a breach in the tribes of Israel.” (Jdgs. 21:13-15). The Jews had created their own breach. They had no right to blame God for their actions.

  • God is not responsible for the evils of mankind. Like the Jews at that time, many today are also quick to blame God for the evils of mankind. But God is holy and cannot commit evil (Lev. 11:44). He gave mankind freewill. People choose evil because their hearts are evil (Jer. 17:9; Ro. 3:23; Eph. 2:3). When mankind choses evil and fails to repent, God will remove His holy presence because He cannot look upon evil (Hab. 1:13). Without His protection, people are then exposed to the enemy’s attacks (Eph. 6:16). When believers repent and take refuge in Him, He is a shield to the attacks of the enemy (Prov. 30:5; 2 Sam. 22:31). If the Jews had taken refuge in God, He could have protected them from the evil that they inflicted upon each other. When evil strikes in your life, do you blame God? Or, do you search for your hidden sins to repent of them?

6. People Will Create Misery Within Their Own Families. Judges 21:16-24.

  • The Jews’ agreement to allow the Benjamites to kidnap their own daughters. In an effort to get around their own vows, the Jews came up with a second misguided plan. They would allow the remaining Benjamites to kidnap their daughters: “16 Then the elders of the congregation said, ‘What shall we do for wives for those who are left, since the women are destroyed out of Benjamin?’ 17 They said, ‘There must be an inheritance for the survivors of Benjamin, so that a tribe will not be blotted out from Israel. 18 But we cannot give them wives of our daughters.’ For the sons of Israel had sworn, saying, ‘Cursed is he who gives a wife to Benjamin.’ 19 So they said, ‘Behold, there is a feast of the Lord from year to year in Shiloh, which is on the north side of Bethel, on the east side of the highway that goes up from Bethel to Shechem, and on the south side of Lebonah.’ 20 And they commanded the sons of Benjamin, saying, ‘Go and lie in wait in the vineyards, 21 and watch; and behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to take part in the dances, then you shall come out of the vineyards and each of you shall catch his wife from the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin. 22 It shall come about, when their fathers or their brothers come to complain to us, that we shall say to them, ‘Give them to us voluntarily, because we did not take for each man of Benjamin a wife in battle, nor did you give them to them, else you would now be guilty.’’ 23 The sons of Benjamin did so, and took wives according to their number from those who danced, whom they carried away. And they went and returned to their inheritance and rebuilt the cities and lived in them. 24 The sons of Israel departed from there at that time, every man to his tribe and family, and each one of them went out from there to his inheritance.” (Jdgs. 21:16-24). By inviting the Benjamites to kidnap their daughters, the Jews made a mockery of their vows. Moreover, they violated God’s laws against kidnapping. The penalty for kidnapping was death for both the Benjamites and the Jewish leaders who permitted it: “If a man is caught kidnapping any of his countrymen of the sons of Israel, and he deals with him violently or sells him, then that thief shall die; so you shall purge the evil from among you.” (Dt. 24:7). “He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” (Ex. 21:16). Theft of any kind (including people) is barred under the Eighth Commandment (Ex. 20:15; Dt. 5:19). The Jews’ actions no doubt caused misery for the poor girls who were kidnapped.

The surviving Benjamites abducted 400 surviving virgins from Jabesh-gilead4

  • Acting on your own morality will also hurt your family. Although Jesus paid the price for you for breaking the Law, the Law still exists for your protection. When you give into lust, coveting, or idolatry, you not only hurt yourself but also those around you. Drug abuse, pornography, or adultery are all evils that God’s Law is meant to protect you from. Are you giving into temptations that may cause pain to both you and your family?

7. People Will Do Whatever Feels Right in Their Own Eyes. Judges 21:25.

  • The Jews’ failure to live by God’s fixed standard of morality. The book concludes with a warning about the root cause of the Jews’ debauchery. They lived according to their own morality, not God’s morality: “25 In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Jdgs. 21:25). This repeated an earlier explanation for the Jews’ behavior to draw emphasis on the root of their problem: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” (Jdg. 17:6). Both then and now, God warns believers not to adopt a relativistic standard of morality: “You shall not do at all what we are doing here today, every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes;” (Dt. 12:8). He knows that if believers accept all types of morality as equal, they will compromise their walk. Eventually, they will embrace many forms of evil in the world: “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” (Prov. 14:12; 16:25). “Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death.” (Ro. 6:21).

Let Jesus by Lord over every aspect of your life5

  • Let Jesus be Lord over your life by living according to His fixed standard of morality. Many believers bristle at the suggestion that the Church suffers from the same problem as God’s people during the time period of the Judges. Many would assume that the problem lies with non-believers, not the Church. But the book of Judges is about the failure of God’s people to follow His standard of morality and instead do whatever feels right in their own eyes. Today, the Church mostly accepts Jesus as its savior. But it has increasingly rejected His standard of morality: “This book is a wake-up call for a church moribund in its own selfish pursuits. Instead of heeding the call of truly godly leaders and letting Jesus Christ be Lord of the church, everywhere congregations and their leaders do what is right in their own eyes.” (Block at p. 586). If the Church wants to do what is right in Jesus’ eyes, it will exhort its members to follow the Ten Commandments as the standard of His morality. He is the “I AM” who gave Moses the Ten Commandments (Ex. 3:14; Jo. 8:58). Failing to keep His Commandments will not cause you to lose your salvation (Eph. 2:8; Ro. 6:23). If keeping the Ten Commandments were a test for salvation, then Christ died needlessly (Gal. 2:21). But He warns that you show your love to Him when you keep His Commandments: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (Jo. 14:15, 21; 15:10; 1 Jo. 5:3; 2 Jo. 1:6). “[I]f you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Matt. 19:17). Jesus merely came to correct people’s motives in following His Commandments. He wants you motivated by love, not obligation. He therefore summarized the Ten Commandments as something that comes naturally when you love the Lord and your neighbor (Matt. 22:35-38; Lk. 10:27; Dt. 6:5). Moses taught believers to live obediently as it is written. Jesus taught believers to love obediently as it is written. Whether you keep the Commandments out of love (and not obligation) is also the test for whether you “know” Jesus as the true Lord over your life: “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.” (1 Jo. 2:3). As the author of the Ten Commandments, His standard of morality does not change: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb. 13:8). Have you rejected His fixed standard of morality to do what feels right in your own eyes? If so, what must He think of your love for Him?

  • Pervasive evil is a sign of the end times. As society and the Church both follow after their own morality, the book of Judges teaches that they will both turn toward evil. When evil becomes pervasive, it will inevitably bring God’s judgment. Before He flooded the earth, He looked down and saw that mankind had openly and continuously embraced evil: “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Gen. 6:5). Jesus warned that believers will know that His Second Coming and judgment upon the earth will come when mankind lives again as it did in the times before the flood: “For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah.” (Matt. 24:37; Lk. 17:26). Thus, the Church must repent and become the light of His morality (Matt. 5:14). If the Church does not live by the Ten Commandments, why should it expect society to do so?

  • Let Jesus reward you for both your faith and your deeds for Him. As stated above, keeping the Ten Commandments is not a test for your salvation. Yet, if you keep them out of love and devotion, He will bless you both here and in heaven: “For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds.” (Matt. 16:27; Ro. 2:6; Ps. 62:12; Prov. 24:12; Job 34:11). “I said to myself, ‘God will judge both the righteous man and the wicked man,’ for a time for every matter and for every deed is there.” (Ecc. 3:17; Jer. 17:10). To the Church of Thyatira, Christ warned that He will reward believers according to their deeds: ‘“And I will kill her children with pestilence, and all the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds.”’ (Rev. 2:23). Are you storing up blessings for yourself here and in heaven?

  • Give thanks for God’s mercy and grace. Finally, this story is remarkable because God did not bring full judgment upon the tribes. All of the tribes acted in an evil manner. None deserved to be spared. Yet, instead of destroying them, He later allowed a drought to overtake the Promised Land to bring the people back to repentance (Ruth 1:1; Dt. 28:23-24; Jer. 3:3; Hag. 1:10-11). Moreover, He not only restored the tribe of Benjamin, He gave Israel its first king, Saul, from this tribe (Acts 13:21; 1 Sam 9:1). His love is greater than our evil (Ps. 103:8; 86:5; Dt. 4:31). If you have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior and you repent of your sins, He can also forgive and restore you for His use (1 Jo. 1:9). Are you giving thanks for His love, mercy, and His grace in your life?

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