Judges 19:1 and Judges 21:25 both have a similar phrase in them: "In those days there was no king in Israel." Judges 21:25 adds the phrase "every man did what was right in his own eyes."
In Bible-study circles, we refer to a story that is bookended by the same phrase on both ends an inclusio. It serves to tell the reader that the content between the two little brackets serves as one thematic unit.
Judges 19:1-Judges 21:25 forms an inclusio, and the theme is that everything that happened in those chapters was because there was no king in Israel, and that every man did what was right in his own eyes. The reason why this story evolved so strangely is because God was not consulted at important times during the story, but instead every man did what he thought in his own gut was the right thing to do. There were many opportunities where, if the characters had chosen to get God involved, that the story probably would have gone a little differently:
- Judges 19:5-10: The Levite should have sought God's wisdom on when to leave, rather than only the influence of his father in law.
- Judges 19:10: The Levite should have sought God's advice on whether to enter Jerusalem to stay there for the night.
- Judges 19:13-14: The Levite should have sought God's advice on whether to lodge in Gibeah.
- Judges 19:22-24: The Levite and his hoost should have sought God's protection when their house got surrounded, rather than trying to offer their children/wife as a substitute
- Judges 19:26-27: The Levite should have been praying for his wife that night, and God may have woken up the Levite when his wife returned to the door step
- Judges 19:29: The Levite should have asked for God's advice on how to process the death of his wife, and how to seek justice for her death.
- Judges 20:7: The Levite should have invited God to give counsel, rather than seeking the counsel of a huge group of angry men who just walked for days with swords and spears (what other advice is a person going to give after they take 3-weeks leave from work and their family to walk 100 miles with weapons).
- Judges 20:14-15: The Benjamites ought to have sought God's will, rather than reflexively responding to the (perhaps rude and demanding) request of the 400,000-man army that came against them.
- Judges 20:20: After seeing that this situation had escalated and they were going to wind up fighting against a fellow tribe of Israel, the tribes should have sought God's will in this matter, seeing that they still haven't once asked God if this is the right thing to do.
- Judges 20:48: The Israelites, after defeating the Benjamite army, don't stop there, but continue in their rage to set fire to every Benjamite town that they came to, such that the tribe of Benjamin is almost completely wiped out. They had no express commandment from God to do this, but were rather carried away by their own passion.
- Judges 21:1: After wiping out 99% of the tribe of Benjamin, the leaders of Israel should have asked God's will on what they would do to get wives for their brethren, rather than come up with really strange solutions on their own.
The First Time They Get God Involved
Now, there were two points in this story where the children of Israel did seek the will of God. The first happened in Judges 20:18
And the children of Israel arose, and went up to the house of God, and asked counsel of God, and said, Which of us shall go up to battle against the children of Benjamin? And the Lord said, Judah shall go up first. Judges 20:18
This prayer, however, was presumptive. They had already assumed that going to war with another tribe was the right thing to do, but they wanted to ask God which tribe should go up and fight first. If you think about it, it was probably a cowardly thing to do. They were going to fight in a mountainous country, and the Benjamites were likely encamped on some high ground that had a choke point leading up to it. As such, even though the Israelites were greater in number than the Benjamite army by a factor of 400,000 against 26,000 (15.3:1), they could only attack with a few hundred to a few thousand at a time. Given that the first wave of the attack would likely be the deadliest for the aggressors, the awkward question was: which of the 11 attaching tribes is going to be subjected to the bloodbath?
Now, up until this point, everyone in this story had been doing what they felt was right in their own heart. The Levite and their hosts offered up their female family members to get mistreated instead of themselves. But when it looked like the Levite might get blamed for the consequences of his bad and selfish idea, he blamed the mistreatment of his wife on the Benjamites (despite the fact that he was the one who came up with that idea in the first place!) Now again, we see an act of cowardice, where they have to make the difficult decision on who is going to attack Benjamin first, but instead of owning the decision themselves, they choose to shift the responsibility to God to make the decision on their behalfs, lest they start their own fight among themselves. This instance of seeking God was not out of a humble spirit or to actually know God's will. For all they cared, God could have been a random number generator that would pick one of the tribes at random, and then they could say "Aha! The god of randomness has chosen Judah! Now we are sure to win!".
The Second Time They Get God Involved
On day one, Benjamin slays 22,000 soldiers from Judah.
Lamenting the great loss of their own troops, a depuation from Israel wept before the Lord until the evening:
And the children of Israel went up and wept before the Lord until even, and asked counsel of the Lord, saying, Shall I go up again to battle against the children of Benjamin my brother? And the Lord said, Go up against him.Judges 20:23
God responded and said, "Go up and fight against Benjamin." However, God did not guarantee the victory yet. The Israelites had started down a path, and God said that they were to continue it (because the Benjamites were indeed guilty of crimes against the law of God), but those who had sought to handle the situation their own way for their own honor and glory were not going to have their plans turn out as perfectly as they thought.
This parallels in many ways the story of Balaam in Numbers 22:33-34. God already told Balaam not to go to curse Israel, but Balaam refused God's counsel and sought his own pride and honor instead. After Balaam committed to his own plan, he was almost slain by an angel of the Lord. Realizing his sin, Balaam asked the Lord whether or not he should change his course. The Lord pretty much responded: "Balaam, you've already started down this road. You're gonna go all the way, but it's not going to pan out as rosy as you thought it would."
Balaam and the Israelites alike were confronted with a setback as they followed through their plan. When the set back arose, they realized that they had made an error. However, in acknowledging their sin, they were concerned more over the consequences of their action (e.g., fear of death) than remorse over the action itself (e.g., pride, presumption).
The Third Time They Get God Involved
On day two, Benjamin smites 18,000 soldiers again. And now, Israel finally begins to undergo what seems to be some form of heart conversion.
Then all the children of Israel, and all the people, went up, and came unto the house of God, and wept, and sat there before the Lord, and fasted that day until even, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord. Judges 20:26
I'm not an expert in Old Testament practices, but the commentaries that I read suggest that the fact that "all the children of Israel" came, and that the text specifically says that they fasted and offered burnt offerings, suggests that they were finally acknowledging their personal sinfulness and a willingness to turn from their wicked ways.
Finally, for the first time in this entire story, God had a group of people who were willing to humble themselves and to turn from their wicked ways. It is only these people that God can bless as they seek to do God's will.
There's an interesting parallel with the story of Gideon. Gideon was faced with a confrontation with an innumerable army of Midianites. Gideon mustered a force of 32,000 troops. However, God needed Gideon to know that deliverance would come from a group of troops who trusted and relied entirely on the Lord. So God humbled the army by dismissing 22,000 troops (the exact same number of troops that died at the hand of Benjamin on the first day, see Judges 7:2-3; Judges 20:21). However, there were still 10,000 troops, and God again chose to humble the army the following day by dismissing all but 300 troops (see Judges 7:4-7). In both stories, God twice reduces the size of the army before he delivers the decisive victory. In the case of Gideon, he was willing to submit himself to the Lord's humbling, and in the case of Judges 20, the people believed themselves to be self-sufficient. But regardless, God still humbled His people and then used them.
Examining this passage, as well as the other passages referenced herein, it's clear that when we want a positive outcome, it's really important to make sure that we are seeking the Lord's will throughout the story. There is never an inappropriate time to seek the Lord's leading, as we can see in this story of Judges 20 when the Israelites finally fasted and offered burnt sacrifices. However, how different would this story have been had the main characters been willing to put pride and self-sufficiency aside earlier, or later in this story, as Gideon did.