The Penalty of Desertion
Judges 21:5
And the children of Israel said, Who is there among all the tribes of Israel that came not up with the congregation to the LORD?…

It was quite in accordance with the rude and cruel age of the judges that a whole town should be visited with the death-penalty for deserting the tribes in the assembly of war. The punishment was not so unreasonable as it might appear at first sight, though there are circumstances in the whole transaction which reflect discredit on the Israelites.

I. DESERTION IS A GREAT CRIME. In war-time, even among civilised nations, desertion is punished with death.

1. Negative wickedness may be as bad as positive sin. If we know that an equally injurious result will follow inaction, this is equally guilty with an active offence. Thus the refusal of a ship's master to save a drowning man is morally equal to the guilt of murdering him.

2. We must not measure the value of our actions by their individual effects, but by the effects of the principles they express. One act of desertion may have no perceptible effect. But if one is justifiable, many are, and thus the principle of freedom to desert allows of total desertion resulting in total ruin. Desertion from the cause of Christ is a great sin. To refrain from obeying his call to action is as guilty as to actively disobey him.

3. The crime which is heinous when committed by one man is equally bad when committed by a whole community. We should not think of destroying a town for the crime for which we should execute an individual; but this is because of our horror of wholesale slaughter, etc., and not because evil desert is lessened when it is shared by a number.

II. CHARITY IS NO EXCUSE FOR THE NEGLECT OF DUTY, That was a terrible work to which the tribes were summoned - the slaughter of the Benjamites. Yet if they felt it to be a necessary act of justice sanctioned by God, as they evidently did feel it to be, they had no right to shrink from it out of feelings of kindliness. It is terrible to be called to such a duty; but it is brave and noble to accept the odium when the necessity is felt, and weak and selfish to avoid it. Charity is not honoured by the sacrifice of justice. It is more charitable to punish wickedness than to let it work its evil unchecked. Charity to the criminal often means cruelty to the victim. There is a danger lest we should become so mild that we should virtually punish the innocent in order to spare the guilty.

III. THE PURITY OF JUSTICE IS VIOLATED WHEN PUNISHMENT IS ADMINISTERED WITH INTERESTED MOTIVES. It appears that the great motive of the Israelites in executing the threat of their oath on the people of Jabesh-Gilead was not a regard for strict justice, but a desire to secure wives for the escaped Benjamites. This motive vitiated the character of their action. The difficulty of executing punitive justice lies in the danger of other motives than a simple regard for right entering rote our conduct. We desecrate the temple of justice when we convert it into a house of merchandise. - A.

Parallel Verses
KJV: And the children of Israel said, Who is there among all the tribes of Israel that came not up with the congregation unto the LORD? For they had made a great oath concerning him that came not up to the LORD to Mizpeh, saying, He shall surely be put to death.

WEB: The children of Israel said, "Who is there among all the tribes of Israel who didn't come up in the assembly to Yahweh?" For they had made a great oath concerning him who didn't come up to Yahweh to Mizpah, saying, "He shall surely be put to death."

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