Often writers wish to save their most telling ideas for the end of their composition. The author of Judges seems to have followed suit. Judges 19-21 reveals that while Israel finally united to address the covenant decay that had characterized the nation since the death of Joshua, even their best efforts at justice were little more than each man doing whatever he wanted (Judg 21:25).
The description of the Levite and his concubine in Judges 19 displays the depth of depravity in Israel. When the Levite was able to take his concubine and depart for his home to the north in Ephraim (Judg 19:1), the Levite insisted that they “not stop at a foreign city where there are no Israelites” (Judg 19:12). Their hopes for hospitality were delayed until an old man vigorously took them in (Judg 19:13-21). But “all of a sudden, perverted men of the city surrounded the house and beat on the door” (Judg 19:22). To allow the peace of the meal to continue, the Levite casually tossed his concubine to the mongrels; it would be her last night. The Levite’s command to her limp body, “Get up…let’s go” (Judg 19:28), confirmed that despite earlier hints of genuine affection for the woman, his ethics were on par with the men of the Gibeah who had violated her all night long. When the Levite realized that such a thing should not be done among God’s people, he sought a response from the tribes of Israel (Judg 19:29-30).
In Judges 20, the author describes how the tribes responded to the Levite’s inquiry. The text is marked by Israel’s coherent response. “All the people stood united” (Judg 20:8) and they “went to Bethel, and inquired of God” (Judg 20:18). Upon the Lord’s assurance that He would hand the Benjamites over to them, Israel set up an intricate ambush against Gibeah (Judg 20:29-45); and “the LORD defeated Benjamin in the presence of Israel, and on that day the Israelites slaughtered 25,100 men of Benjamin” (Judg 20:35). Israel spared none of the inhabitants of Gibeah (Judg 20:46-48). But the excessive slaughter had produced an unexpected result: an entire tribe had been nearly destroyed and the people cried out to the Lord, “Why, LORD God of Israel, has it occurred that one tribe is missing in Israel today?” (Judg 21:3). The matter was complicated by the fact that at Mizpah the Israelites vowed to restrict the men of Benjamin from taking a wife from outside of his own tribe (Judg 21:1, 18). The united tribes of Israel made two attempts to fix the problem. First, they provided the surviving Benjamite men with the virgins of Jabesh-gilead (Judg 21:6-14). Yet, even this violent scheme proved ineffective as 200 of the 600 Benjamite fugitives (see Judg 20:47) remained bachelors. They then encouraged these 200 Benjamites to take hostage the women of Shiloh and make wives of them (Judg 21:15-23). The book of Judges fades to black as “each of the Israelites returned…to his own tribe and family…to his own inheritance. In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did whatever he wanted” (Judg 21:24-25).
Israel had the land but they failed to keep the law. In the storyline of Scripture, the book of Judges is the initial fulfillment of the prophecies of both Moses and Joshua. On the plains of Moab, Moses warned, “If your heart turns away and you do not listen and you are led astray to bow down to other gods and worship them, I tell you today that you will certainly perish and will not live long in the land you are entering to possess across the Jordan” (Deut 30:17-18). Joshua said, “If you turn away and cling to the rest of these nations remaining among you, and if you intermarry or associate with them and they with you, know for certain that the LORD your God will not continue to drive these nations out before you. They will become a snare and a trap for you” (Josh 23: 12-13). Moses prophesied that only when God circumcised the hearts of the people of Israel would they heed His word (Deut 30:1-6). After Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension this change of heart is said to be accomplished by the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote to the Romans, “A person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart—by the Spirit, not the letter (of the law)” (Rom 2:9).