Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Preservation of the Tribe of Benjamin - The Remnant Provided with Wives - Judges 21
Through the extraordinary severity with which the tribes of Israel had carried on the war against Benjamin, this tribe had been reduced to 600 men, and thus brought very near to extermination. Such a conclusion to the sanguinary conflict went to the heart of the congregation. For although, when forming the resolution to punish the unparalleled wickedness of the inhabitants of Gibeah with all the severity of the law, they had been urged on by nothing else than the sacred duty that was binding upon them to root out the evil from their midst, and although the war against the whole tribe of Benjamin was justified by the fact that they had taken the side of the culprits, and had even received the approval of the Lord; there is no doubt that in the performance of this resolution, and the war that was actually carried on, feelings of personal revenge had disturbed the righteous cause in consequence of the defeat which they had twice sustained at the hands of the Benjaminites, and had carried away the warriors into a war of extermination which was neither commanded by the law nor justified by the circumstances, and had brought about the destruction of a whole tribe from the twelve tribes of the covenant nation with the exception of a small vanishing remnant. When the rash deed was done, the congregation began most bitterly to repent. And with repentance there was awakened the feeling of brotherly love, and also a sense of duty to provide for the continuance of the tribe, which had been brought so near to destruction, by finding wives for those who remained, in order that the small remnant might grow into a vigorous tribe again.
The proposal to find wives for the six hundred Benjaminites who remained was exposed to this difficulty, that the congregation had sworn at Mizpeh (as is supplemented in Jdg 21:1 to the account in Jdg 20:1-9) that no one should give his daughter to a Benjaminite as a wife.
After the termination of the war, the people, i.e., the people who had assembled together for the war (see Jdg 21:9), went again to Bethel (see at Jdg 20:18, Jdg 20:26), to weep there for a day before God at the serious loss which the war had brought upon the congregation. Then they uttered this lamentation: "Why, O Lord God of Israel, is this come to pass in Israel, that a tribe is missing to-day from Israel?" This lamentation involved the wish that God might show them the way to avert the threatened destruction of the missing tribe, and build up the six hundred who remained. To give a practical expression to this wish, they built an altar the next morning, and offered burnt-offerings and supplicatory offerings upon it (see at Jdg 20:26), knowing as they did that their proposal would not succeed without reconciliation to the Lord, and a return to the fellowship of His grace. There is something apparently strange in the erection of an altar at Bethel, since sacrifices had already been offered there during the war itself (Jdg 20:26), and this could not have taken place without an altar. Why it was erected again, or another one built, is a question which cannot be answered with any certainty. It is possible, however, that the first was not large enough for the number of sacrifices that had to be offered now.
The congregation then resolved upon a plan, through the execution of which a number of virgins were secured for the Benjaminites. They determined that they would carry out the great oath, which had been uttered when the national assembly was called against such as did not appear, upon that one of the tribes of Israel which had not come to the meeting of the congregation at Mizpeh. The deliberations upon this point were opened (Jdg 21:5) with the question, "Who is he who did not come up to the meeting of all the tribes of Israel, to Jehovah?" In explanation of this question, it is observed at Jdg 21:5, "For the great oath was uttered upon him that came not up to Jehovah to Mizpeh: he shall be put to death." We learn from this supplementary remark, that when important meetings of the congregation were called, all the members were bound by an oath to appear. The meeting at Mizpeh is the one mentioned in Jdg 20:1. The "great oath" consisted in the threat of death in the case of any that were disobedient. To this explanation of the question in Jdg 20:5, the further explanation is added in Jdg 21:6, Jdg 21:7, that the Israelites felt compassion for Benjamin, and wished to avert its entire destruction by procuring wives for such as remained. The word ויּנּחמוּ in Jdg 21:6 is attached to the explanatory clause in Jdg 21:5, and is to be rendered as a pluperfect: "And the children of Israel had shown themselves compassionate towards their brother Benjamin, and said, A tribe is cut off from Israel to-day; what shall we do to them, to those that remain with regard to wives, as we have sworn?" etc. (compare Jdg 21:1). The two thoughts, - (1) the oath that those who had not come to Mizpeh should be punished with death (Jdg 21:5), and (2) anxiety for the preservation of this tribe which sprang from compassion towards Benjamin, and was shown in their endeavour to provide such as remained with wives, without violating the oath that none of them would give them their own daughters as wives, - formed the two factors which determined the course to be adopted by the congregation. After the statement of these two circumstances, the question of Jdg 21:5, "Who is the one (only one) of the tribes of Israel which," etc., is resumed and answered: "Behold, there came no one into the camp from Jabesh in Gilead, into the assembly." שׁבטי is used in Jdg 21:8, Jdg 21:5, in a more general sense, as denoting not merely the tribes as such, but the several subdivisions of the tribes.
In order, however, to confirm the correctness of this answer, which might possibly have been founded upon a superficial and erroneous observation, the whole of the (assembled) people were mustered, and not one of the inhabitants of Jabesh was found there (in the national assembly at Bethel). The situation of Jabesh in Gilead has not yet been ascertained. This town was closely besieged by the Ammonite Nahash, and was relieved by Saul (Sa1 11:1.), on which account the inhabitants afterwards showed themselves grateful to Saul (Sa1 31:8.). Josephus calls Jabesh the metropolis of Gilead (Ant. vi. 5, 1). According to the Onom. (s. v. Jabis), it was six Roman miles from Pella, upon the top of a mountain towards Gerasa. Robinson (Bibl. Res. p. 320) supposes it to be the ruins of ed Deir in the Wady Jabes.
To punish this unlawful conduct, the congregation sent 12,000 brave fighting men against Jabesh, with orders to smite the inhabitants of the town with the edge of the sword, together with their wives, and children, but also with the more precise instructions (Jdg 21:11), "to ban all the men, and women who had known the lying with man" (i.e., to slay them as exposed to death, which implied, on the other hand, that virgins who had not lain with any man should be spared). The fighting men found 400 such virgins in Jabesh, and brought them to the camp at Shiloh in the land of Canaan. אותם (Jdg 21:12) refers to the virgins, the masculine being used as the more common genus in the place of the feminine. Shiloh, with the additional clause "in the land of Canaan," which was occasioned by the antithesis Jabesh in Gilead, as in Jos 21:2; Jos 22:9, was the usual meeting-place of the congregation, on account of its being the seat of the tabernacle. The representatives of the congregation had moved thither, after the deliberations concerning Jabesh, which were still connected with the war against Benjamin, were concluded.
The congregation then sent to call the Benjaminites, who had taken refuge upon the rock Rimmon, and gave them as wives, when they returned (sc., into their own possessions), the 400 virgins of Jabesh who had been preserved alive. "But so they sufficed them not" (כּן, so, i.e., in their existing number, 400: Bertheau). In this remark there is an allusion to what follows.
Of the six hundred Benjaminites who had escaped, there still remained two hundred to be provided with wives. To these the congregation gave permission to take wives by force at a festival at Shiloh. The account of this is once more introduced, with a description of the anxiety felt by the congregation for the continuance of the tribe of Benjamin. Jdg 21:15, Jdg 21:16, and Jdg 21:18 are only a repetition of Jdg 21:6 and Jdg 21:7, with a slight change of expression. The "breach (perez) in the tribes of Israel" had arisen from the almost complete extermination of Benjamin. "For out of Benjamin is (every) woman destroyed," viz., by the ruthless slaughter of the whole of the people of that tribe (Jdg 20:48). Consequently the Benjaminites who were still unmarried could not find any wives in their own tribe. The fact that four hundred of the Benjaminites who remained were already provided with wives is not noticed here, because it has been stated just before, and of course none of them could give up their own wives to others.
Still Benjamin must be preserved as a tribe. The elders therefore said, "Possession of the saved shall be for Benjamin," i.e., the tribe-land of Benjamin shall remain an independent possession for the Benjaminites who have escaped the massacre, so that a tribe may not be destroyed out of Israel. It was necessary therefore, that they should take steps to help the remaining Benjaminites to wives. The other tribes could not give them their daughters, on account of the oath which has already been mentioned in Jdg 21:1 and Jdg 21:7 and is repeated here (Jdg 21:18). Consequently there was hardly any other course open, than to let the Benjaminites seize upon wives for themselves. And the elders lent them a helping hand by offering them this advice, that at the next yearly festival at Shiloh, at which the daughters of Shiloh carried on dances in the open air (outside the town), they should seize upon wives for themselves from among these daughters, and promising them that when the thing was accomplished they would adjust it peaceably (Jdg 21:19-22). The "feast of Jehovah," which the Israelites kept from year to year, was one of the three great annual festivals, probably one which lasted seven days, either the passover or the feast of tabernacles-most likely the former, as the dances of the daughters of Shiloh were apparently an imitation of the dances of the Israelitish women at the Red Sea under the superintendence of Miriam (Exo 15:20). The minute description of the situation of Shiloh (Jdg 21:19), viz., "to the north of Bethel, on the east of the road which rises from Bethel to Shechem, and on the south of Lebonah" (the present village of Lubban, on the north-west of Seilun: see Rob. Pal. iii. p. 89), serves to throw light upon the scene which follows, i.e., to show how the situation of Shiloh was peculiarly fitted for the carrying out of the advice given to the Benjaminites; since, as soon as they had issued from their hiding-places in the vineyards at Shiloh, and seized upon the dancing virgins, they could easily escape into their own land by the neighbouring high-road which led from Bethel to Shechem, without being arrested by the citizens of Shiloh.
The Kethibh ויצו in the singular may be explained on the ground that one of the elders spoke and gave the advice in the name of the others. חטף in Jdg 21:21 and Psa 10:9, to seize hold of, or carry off as prey = חתף.
"And when the fathers or brethren of the virgins carried off, come to us to chide with us, we (the elders) will say to them (in your name), Present them to us (אותם as in Jdg 21:12); for we did not receive every one his wife through the war (with Jabesh); for ye have not given them to them; how would ye be guilty." The words "Present them to us," etc., are to be understood as spoken in the name of the Benjaminites, who were accused of the raid, to the relatives of the virgins who brought the complaint. This explains the use of the pronoun in the first person in חנּוּנוּ and לקחנוּ, which must not be altered therefore into the third person.
(Note: One circumstance which is decisive against this alteration of the text, is, that the Seventy had the Masoretic text before them, and founded their translation upon it (ἐλεήσατε ἡμῖν αυτάς, ὅτι οὐκ ἐλάβομεν ἀνὴρ γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ πολέμῳ). The different rendering of Jerome given in the Vulgate - miseremini eorum! non enim rapuerunt eas jure bellantium atque victorum - is nothing but an unfortunate and unsuccessful attempt to get rid of the difficulties connected with the readings in the text.)
The two clauses commencing with כּי are co-ordinate, and contain two points serving to enforce the request, "Present them," etc. The first is pleaded in the name of the Benjaminites; the second is adduced, as a general ground on the part of the elders of the congregation, to pacify the fathers and brothers making the complaint, on account of the oath which the Israelites had taken, that none of them would give their daughters as wives to the Benjaminites. The meaning is the following: Ye may have your daughters with the Benjaminites who have taken them by force, for ye have not given them voluntarily, so as to have broken your oath by so doing. In the last clause כּעת has an unusual meaning: "at the time" (or now), i.e., in that case, ye would have been guilty, viz., if ye had given them voluntarily.
The Benjaminites adopted this advice. They took to themselves wives according to their number, i.e., two hundred (according to Jdg 21:12, compared with Jdg 20:47), whom they caught from the dancing daughters of Shiloh, and returned with them into their inheritance, where they rebuilt the towns that had been reduced to ashes, and dwelt therein.
In Jdg 21:24 and Jdg 21:25, the account of this event is brought to a close with a twofold remark: (1) that the children of Israel, i.e., the representatives of the congregation who were assembled at Shiloh, separated and returned every man into his inheritance to his tribe and family; (2) that at that time there was no king in Israel, and every man was accustomed to do what was right in his own eyes. Whether the fathers or brothers of the virgins who had been carried off brought any complaint before the congregation concerning the raid that had been committed, the writer does not state, simply because this was of no moment so far as the history was concerned, inasmuch as, according to Jdg 21:22, the complaint made no difference in the facts themselves.
(Note: "No doubt the fathers and brothers of the virgins demanded them both from the Benjaminites themselves, and also from the elders of Israel, or at any rate petitioned that the Benjaminites might be punished: but the elders replied as they had said that they should; and the persons concerned were satisfied with the answer, and so the affair was brought to a peaceable termination." - Seb. Schmidt.)
With the closing remark in Jdg 21:25, however, with which the account returns to its commencement in Jdg 19:1, the prophetic historian sums up his judgment upon the history in the words, "At that time every man did what was right in his own eyes, because there was no king in Israel," in which the idea is implied, that under the government of a king, who administered right and justice in the kingdom, such things could not possibly have happened. This not only refers to the conduct of the Israelites towards Benjamin in the war, the severity of which was not to be justified, but also to their conduct towards the inhabitants of Jabesh, as described in Jdg 21:5. The congregation had no doubt a perfect right, when all the people were summoned to deliberate upon important matters affecting the welfare of the whole nation, to utter the "great oath" against such as failed to appear, i.e., to threaten them with death and carry out this threat upon such as were obstinate; but such a punishment as this could only be justly inflicted upon persons who were really guilty, and had rebelled against the congregation as the supreme power, and could not be extended to women and children unless they had also committed a crime deserving of death. But even if there were peculiar circumstances in the case before us, which have been passed over by our author, who restricts himself simply to points bearing upon the main purpose of the history, but which rendered it necessary that the ban should be inflicted upon all the inhabitants of Jabesh, it was at any rate an arbitrary exemption to spare all the marriageable virgins, and one which could not be justified by the object contemplated, however laudable that object might be. This also applies to the oath taken by the people, that they would not give any of their daughters as wives to the Benjaminites, as well as to the advice given by the elders to the remaining two hundred, to carry off virgins from the festival at Shiloh. However just and laudable the moral indignation may have been, which was expressed in that oath by the nation generally at the scandalous crime of the Gibeites, a crime unparalleled in Israel, and at the favour shown to the culprits by the tribe of Benjamin, the oath itself was an act of rashness, in which there was not only an utter denial of brotherly love, but the bounds of justice were broken through. When the elders of the nation came to a better state of mind, they ought to have acknowledge their rashness openly, and freed themselves and the nation from an oath that had been taken in such sinful haste. "Wherefore they would have acted far more uprightly, if they had seriously confessed their fault and asked forgiveness of God, and given permission to the Benjaminites to marry freely. In this way there would have been no necessity to cut off the inhabitants of Jabesh from their midst by cruelty of another kind" (Buddeus). But if they felt themselves bound in their consciences to keep the oath inviolably, they ought to have commended the matter to the Lord in prayer, and left it to His decision; whereas, by the advice given to the Benjaminites, they had indeed kept the oath in the letter, but had treated it in deed and truth as having no validity whatever.