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Bible Commentaries
Judges 21

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

Verses 1-7




The enormity of the disaster of that civil war finally sank into the minds and hearts of the leaders of Israel. Oh yes, they had done it all, they claimed, according to the will of God, but as Matthew Henry remarked:

“They who had spared the Canaanites in many places, who were devoted to destruction by Divine command (finding countless excuses for doing so), could not find in their hearts the willingness to spare their own brothers who had been devoted to destruction, not by God’s command, but by their own rash and irresponsible oath. Men are commonly more zealous to support their own authority than that of God.”(F1)

The tribe of Benjamin had been almost exterminated, only 600 escapees to the rock of Rimmon remaining. There was the further fact of those two stupid and ridiculous oaths which they had sworn at Mizpah (Judges 20). In the details added here concerning that original meeting, there is another example of the Biblical method. There is another instance of the same thing in the `recapitulation’ Judges 20:37-48, in which added details of the battle are supplied.

This common characteristic of Biblical writings was accurately described by Keil.

“The allegation (by critics) that Judges 20:36-46 are a different account of the battle overlooks this peculiarity in the Hebrew mode of writing history. The general result of any occurrence is given as early as possible, and then the details follow afterward.”(F2)

In our commentaries we have cited scores of examples of this peculiarity. We saw it in God’s instructions to Noah and in the narrative of the Book of Jonah, etc.

“Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mizpah, saying; There shall not any of us give his daughter unto Benjamin to wife. And the people came to Bethel, and sat there till even before God, and lifted up their voices and wept sore. And they said, O Jehovah, the God of Israel, why has this come to pass in Israel, that there should be today one tribe lacking in Israel? And it came to pass on the morrow, that the people rose up early, and built there an altar, and offered burnt-offerings and peace-offerings. And the children of Israel said, Who is there among all the tribes of Israel that came not up in the assembly unto Jehovah? For they had made a great oath concerning him that came not up unto Jehovah to Mizpah, saying; He shall surely be put to death. And the children of Israel repented there for Benjamin their brother, and said, There is one tribe cut off from Israel this day. How shall we do for wives for them that remain, seeing that we have sworn by Jehovah that we will not give them of our daughters to wives”

The two ridiculous oaths that Israel had sworn at Mizpah are reported here:

(1) They would not give of their daughters to Benjamin for wives; and

(2) any part of Israel that had not responded to come to Mizpah would be destroyed.

“There shall not any of us give his daughter to Benjamin” (Judges 21:1). God Himself had forbidden Israel to intermarry with the Canaanites, and this meant that no source whatever remained for procuring wives for the Benjamite survivors of the war.

“The people came to Bethel” This occurred promptly after the war and before the ark, temporarily at Bethel, had been removed to its permanent location in Shiloh.

“They lifted up their voices and wept sore” All Israel engaged in this lamentation which was carried on with loud wails and cries of sorrow.

“O Jehovah, why has this come to pass?” Why? They had gone far beyond the Word of God. God indeed had commanded that the offenders of Gibeah should be destroyed, but there was no Divine order to destroy one of the tribes of Israel. Their rash oaths full of sin and bitterness were the source of the calamity, not God.

“The people built there an altar” Back in the previous chapter, it is recorded that the Israelites had offered burnt-offerings and peace-offerings at Bethel, so why did they build another altar? There are two possible reasons:

(1) The great bronze altar that had been at Bethel had already been carried back to Shiloh, preparatory to the removal of the ark also.

(2) The number of the burnt-offerings and peace-offerings might have been so great that an additional altar was required.

We prefer the first of these reasons, and, if that is correct, the Israelites again violated God’s law by building an altar to replace the true one.

“And the children of Israel said, Who is there of all the tribes of Israel that came not up… to Mizpah?” It is obvious that the Israelites, by this inquiry, were already on the way to what they hoped would be a means of getting wives for Benjamin.

“For they had made a great oath concerning him that came not up… that he should surely be put to death” This is the second foolish oath of which Israel was guilty. It was, by no means, a Divine order for “all Israel” to come to Mizpah. That command rested absolutely upon the human authority of the elders of the congregation. How convenient that oath seemed to be here. By killing all of the Jabesh-Gileadites, except the virgin maidens, they might be able to get wives for Benjamin. The stupidity of this action demonstrates how foolish it is for people to solve their problems by the fallible wisdom of themselves instead of seeking the counsel of God. There is no record whatever of their asking God what they should have done.

“How shall we do for wives for Benjamin” This question they asked of themselves, not of God.

Verses 8-12


“And they said, What one is there, of the tribes of Israel that came not up unto Jehovah to Mizpah? And, behold, there came none to the camp from Jabesh-Gilead to the assembly. For when the people were numbered, behold, there were none of the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead there. And the congregation sent thither twelve thousand men of the valiantest, and commanded them, saying; Go and smite the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead with the edge of the sword, with the women and the little ones. And this is the thing that ye shall do: ye shall utterly destroy every male, and every woman that hath lain by man. And they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead four hundred young virgins that had not known man by lying with him; and brought them unto the camp to Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan”

“There came none… from Jabesh-Gilead” The reason for this failure is not far to seek. “Jabesh-Gilead was related by blood to Gibeah (1 Chronicles 7:12-15)).”(F3) It was a very costly mistake which they made. “This is the first mention of Jabesh-Gilead in the Bible,”(F4) but it is mentioned twice, later.

(1) In 1 Samuel 11, it is stated that King Saul responded to their appeal and rescued them from an invasion of the Ammonites; and

(2) When King Saul was slain, the citizens of Jabesh-Gilead took down the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Bethsban and buried them at Jabesh (1 Samuel 31:11-13), for which gallant and courageous action, David thanked them (2 Samuel 2:5). We are not told how the city was perpetuated following their brutal depopulation reported here, but the fact of their survival is evident. Perhaps, a large number of them escaped.

Matthew Henry deplored the fact of Israel’s willingness to destroy Gibeah and all who supported them, asking:

“Why did they not then send a detachment of troops to root out the Jebusites from Jerusalem who had been responsible for the Levite’s being forced to go to Gibeah in the first place?”(F5)

“Four hundred young virgins that had not known man” None of the commentators I have consulted mentions anything concerning the basis of this selection. Did it follow a cruel and inhuman physical inspection, or just how was it done? Perhaps it is a merciful omission that we are not told.

“And they brought them unto the camp in Shiloh” By this time, the temporary location of the ark of the covenant in Bethel was terminated. “Shiloh was the Israelite sanctuary par excellence in the central highlands prior to its destruction circa 150 B.C.”(F6)

“In the land of Canaan” Some scholars seem to be puzzled by this phrase, seeing that everyone in Israel certainly knew where Shiloh was located. Hervey thought that, “It was inserted to contrast it with Jabesh in the land of Gilead.”(F7) Gilead, of course, was east of Jordan.

Verses 13-15


“And the whole congregation sent and spake to the children of Benjamin that were in the rock of Rimmon, and proclaimed peace unto them. And Benjamin returned at that time; and they gave them the women they had saved alive of the women of Jabesh-Gilead: and yet so they sufficed them not. And the people repented them for Benjamin, because that Jehovah had made a breach in the tribes of Israel”

“The whole congregation… proclaimed peace unto them” Josephus relates that the surviving Benjamites confessed their sins and accepted this offer of peace:

“These men, with sorrow, confessed that what had been done was according to the decree of God, and that it had happened because of their own wickedness; and they assented to those that invited them, and came down to their own tribe.”(F8)

Josephus did not mention it, but it is clear that all Israel also repented of their own sins and confessed them.

Commenting upon the emotional thrust of this chapter, Moore remarked that, “The feeling and action of the Israelites here are entirely in the spirit of primitive times, and by no means indicate that the story was invented at a later period.”(F9)

Matthew Henry pointed out that in this provision of wives for the Benjamites, only one wife was allotted to each person, the same standing as another indication of the divine approval of monogamy.

“They gave them the women whom they had saved alive from the women of Jabesh-Gilead” Our hearts cannot fail to be touched with the heartbreak, apprehension and fear which undoubtedly filled the hearts of these four hundred young women. They had witnessed the destruction of their city, the ruthless butchering of their sisters, mothers, fathers, and brothers by the overwhelming army that descended in fury upon their helpless village, and they could have had no clear idea whatever of what was to be their fate. We shall comment on this again under Judges 21:24.

“And yet so they sufficed them not” This refers to the remaining two hundred Benjamites who were still without a wife, It was the problem of supplying that deficiency that next engaged the whole congregation.

Verses 16-21


“Then the elders of the congregation said, How shall we do for wives for them that remain, seeing the women are destroyed out of Benjamin? And there must be an inheritance for them that are escaped of Benjamin, that a tribe be not blotted out from Israel. Howbeit, we may not give them wives of our daughters; for the children of Israel had sworn, saying; Cursed be he who giveth a wife to Benjamin. And they said, Behold, there is a feast from year to year at Shiloh, which is on the north of Bethel, on the side of the highway that goeth up from Bethel to Shechem, and on the south of Lebonah. And they commanded the children of Benjamin, saying; Go and lie in wait in the vineyards; and see, and, behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances, then come ye out of the vineyards, and catch you every man his wife of the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin”

“There must be an inheritance for them that are escaped” Hervey pointed out that the meaning here is that the properties and territory allotted to Benjamin could not revert to the other tribes, but that it would be necessary for the Benjamites themselves to inherit it, hence, the extreme urgency that they should be provided with wives.

“Cursed be he that giveth a wife to Benjamin” Their evil oath in this particular was an acute embarrassment to the whole congregation. In all generations, men have struggled with the problem of how to deal with a rash, thoughtless or unwise promise. An example of this is seen in the solemn vows that some parents make with regard to rearing any children they may have in the precepts and teachings of some particular religion, which they later find to be contrary to God’s Word. Such vows or promises, of course, should be fearlessly repudiated. The only proof of this needed is the fact that God approved of the manner in which Israel avoided complying with the foolish oath mentioned here.

“There is a feast of Jehovah from year to year in Shiloh” Commentators seem to be in total disagreement concerning what feast is mentioned here. “Hengstenberg, Keil, and Delitzsch think it was the Passover. Bishop Patrick and others think it was the Feast of the Tabernacles, a more joyous feast.”(F10) Others believe it to have been a local festival peculiar to Shiloh. Moore said that, “This feast with its dances among the vineyards was doubtless, like that of Shechem (Judges 9:27), a local vintage festival at Shiloh.”(F11)

It is this writer’s conclusion that the Feast of Tabernacles is the one meant, for the following reasons.

(1) Josephus tells us that when the people came together to discuss the situation, being very fearful to violate their oath, a certain man stood up and told them how to get around the problem. He said:

“Three times in the year, when we meet in Shiloh, our wives and daughters accompany us. Let the Benjamites be allowed to steal away and marry such women as they can catch.”(F12)

The significance of this is that the “festival” intended was definitely one of the three annual festivals of Israel at the central shrine, namely, Passover, Pentecost, and Feast of the Tabernacles.

(2) The problem of which one of those festivals is meant is clarified by the fact that, “The Feast of Tabernacles was the only feast at which Jewish maidens were permitted to dance.”(F13)

(3) Also, Moore’s opinion that it was held at the time of the grape harvest also supports the view that the Feast of Tabernacles was meant, for it was the harvest festival. “It was at the Feast of Tabernacles that the grape harvest was celebrated in the vineyards with dancing and feasting.”(F14)

“To the north of Bethel on the east side of the highway,” “This minute description of the situation of Shiloh shows how the situation was perfectly fitted for the carrying out of the advice given to the Benjamites.”(F15)

Verses 22-24


“And it shall be that, when their fathers or their brethren come to complain unto us, that we will say unto them, Grant them graciously unto us; because we took not for each man of them his wife in battle, neither did ye give them unto them, else would ye now be guilty. And the children of Benjamin did so, and took them wives according to their number, of them that danced, whom they carried off; and they went and returned unto their inheritance, and built the cities and dwelt in them. And the children of Israel departed thence at that time, every man to his tribe and to his family, and they went out from thence every man to his inheritance”

Assured of the nation’s approval, Benjamin quickly consented to the proposed strategy.


Matthew Henry has this perceptive paragraph about the two groups of maidens who became the wives of the survivors of Benjamin:

“The virgins of Jabesh-Gilead were taken out of blood and slaughter, but the maidens of Shiloh were taken out of the midst of mirth and joy. The former had reason to be thankful that their lives had been spared, and it is to be hoped that the maidens of Shiloh found no reason of complaint, for they soon found themselves the wives, not of broken and defeated men, but of men, who but recently in a cave, were actually the richest in all Israel. This wealth came about by reason of their having inherited all of the land and the estates of the entire tribe of Benjamin.”(F16)

We conclude this episode with a quotation from the inimitable Dr. George DeHoff who stated that, “It is not known whether or not some of those Shiloh maidens made themselves easy to catch.”(F17)

Verse 25


“In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes”

All commentators agree that this is an editorial comment by the author of the Book of Judges and that the purpose of it, repeated several times, was to establish the theological proposition that Israel should have a king. What many of the commentators seem to overlook is that there is an implied assertion in every one of the uses of this comment that, IF Israel had a king, all such disasters as those recorded in Judges would have been avoided.

These facts almost amount to a statement that SAMUEL wrote Judges. It is utterly inconceivable to this writer than any person whomsoever, who might have lived at any of the “later periods” assigned to the writing of Judges could possibly have entertained such a foolish and erroneous notion. It was only in the times of Samuel, before the monarchy had been experienced, that these comments would have been written. Furthermore, they could not have come from the earlier part of Samuel’s life, because, at first, he was opposed to the establishment of the monarchy. This restricts the probability of the time when Judges was written to the “honeymoon phase” of the reign of Saul. Who can believe that any Israelite living after God’s chosen people had witnessed the conduct of any of their reprobate kings could have entertained for a single moment the naive notion in evidence here that, IF Israel had had a king, none of these shameful things would have happened?

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Judges 21". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/judges-21.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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