The Gibeah Incident: Ancient Israel’s First Civil War Over a Concubine
The first civil war among the tribes of Israel broke out over the Gibeah incident, which was between the Israelite confederation and the tribe of Benjamin. While this incident is normally placed towards the end of the book of Judges, Chapters 19-21, the incident may have taken place much earlier - perhaps after the death of Othniel during the 40 years of peace, from external threats. Therefore, the incident at Gibeah should be placed in Judges 3 between the time of Othniel and Ehud. The argument for this placement is due to Judges 20:28 mentioning one ‘Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron,’ who participated in the battle, which is the same Phinehas that is mentioned in Exodus 6:25 and much so during the remaining last few decades of Moses’ life and during Joshua’s entire reign. Phinehas could not have lived that long, as he would have been well over 150 years old.
Twelve Tribes of Israel (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Decline of the Unity of the 12 Tribes
To understand how this civil war came about one must first look at its causes, long before the incident took place. The first clue to understanding the ensuing civil war, is an inspection as to how the tribes of Israel went from unification to collapse, and it begins with the era of Joshua. “And when Joshua had let the people go, the children of Israel went every man unto his inheritance to possess the land.” The Israelite army was still fundamentally intact, even after the death of Joshua and with a new generation in charge. But as one generation passes down authority, a new generation rises to the challenge, and it was this new generation that ultimately and unknowingly collapsed the Israelite military system. While the Israelites knew that they were related ethnically, they had gradually grown apart and decided it was to their economic benefit to live in peace with the Canaanites. In doing so, like all families over time, they become distant and unknowing to one another; they were related, but only in name. This explains, if one is familiar with the story of Othniel and the many judges to come after these events, why one rarely reads of Israel uniting and fully mobilizing for war. But Israel would unite over an incident involving a Levite and his concubine.
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Cam Rea is an author and military historian. He has written numerous articles for Ancient Origins, Classical Wisdom Weekly, and has authored several books, including: The Wars of Israel: A Military History of Ancient Israel from the End of Judges to Solomon
Top Image: The Levite of Ephraim avenging the death of his wife as the victim of brutality by the Benjamites by Alexandre-François Caminade (1837) (Public Domain)
By Cam Rea