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Bible Commentaries
Judges 21

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes


B. The Immorality of Gibeah and the Benjamites chs. 19-21

Chapter 19 records an event that provoked civil war in Israel. The account of that war follows in chapter 20. Then the consequences of the war unfold in chapter 21. This section of the book is the climactic and supreme demonstration of the Canaanization of Israel during the pre-monarchic period of her history.

Chapters 19-21 teach us how to survive in a society without spiritual and moral standards. Chapter 19 is a story of love and hate. It is so contemporary that, with a few minor changes, we might read it on the front page of our newspaper any day. Scenes of rape frame this three-chapter section.

The first verse introduces a new story. The events of chapters 19-21 are not a continuation of those in chapters 17-18. "Those days" were the days of the amphictyony. The reference to Phinehas (Judges 20:28) suggests that they took place in the years fairly soon after Joshua’s death. The writer of Chronicles did not record that any other descendant of Aaron bore the name Phinehas except the godly son of Eleazar (1 Chronicles 6:1-15) and the ungodly son of Eli (1 Samuel 4:4). This series of events (chs. 19-21) evidently transpired during the lifetime of Aaron’s grandson, and the previous events (chs. 17-18) may have during the lifetime of Moses’ grandson. The reference to Israel’s lack of a king (Judges 21:1) points to the Israelites’ practical denial of Yahweh’s lordship over them as well as the absence of an Israelite monarch. This refrain occurs four times in chapters 17-21 (Judges 17:6; Judges 18:1; Judges 19:1; Judges 21:25). It brackets the story in chapters 19-21 and provides the key to its interpretation. This incident shows what happens when God’s people fail to acknowledge Yahweh’s sovereign authority over their lives. In chapters 17-18 the result was religious apostasy (idolatry), and in chapters 19-21 it was moral degeneracy (immorality), political disintegration (anarchy), and social chaos (injustice).

Verses 1-4

The plight of the Benjamites 21:1-4

The "wife oath" that the Israelites had taken at Mizpah (Judges 20:8-11) may have had some connection with God’s commands concerning Israel’s treatment of the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 7:1-3). Israel was to destroy these enemies utterly and not intermarry with them. However, this was how Israel was to deal with Canaanites, not her own brethren. Obviously the remaining Benjamites needed wives and children to perpetuate the tribe.

"That they justify their attempt at compassion with reference to solemn oaths (see Judges 21:1; Judges 21:5) is not much of a defense, given the poor history of oaths in the book of Judges (see Judges 11:29-40)." [Note: McCann, p. 136.]

The civil war had left only 600 Benjamite warriors alive (Judges 20:47). The population of this endangered tribe was so small now that it could easily have become extinct. Returning to Bethel and the ark, the victorious Israelites reflected on the situation they had created (Judges 21:2). The thrill of victory turned to the agony of defeat as they realized the consequences of their actions. The dilemma that their "wife oath" (Judges 21:1) and their sorrow (Judges 21:2) posed is the subject of this chapter. How could they resolve these two things?

The Israelites’ initial reaction was to ask God to explain the situation (Judges 21:3). The reason for it was their failure to seek and follow God’s will earlier (cf. Judges 20:8-11). Here we see no mourning for sin, no self-humbling because of national transgression, and no return to the Lord. The Lord did not respond to them because they acted in self-will (Judges 21:10).

Then the Israelites sought the Lord more seriously (Judges 21:4). It seems strange that they built an altar at Bethel since they had recently offered sacrifices on the one before the tabernacle there (Judges 20:26). Perhaps they rebuilt or enlarged the altar at Bethel, or they may have built another one.

Verses 1-25

3. The preservation of Benjamin ch. 21

In chapter 20 Israel tried desperately to destroy the tribe of Benjamin. In Genesis 42:36 Jacob feared that Joseph’s brothers would do something that would result in Benjamin’s death. What he feared then almost happened now. In chapter 21 Israel tried just as hard to deliver this tribe from the extinction that her own excessive vengeance threatened to accomplish. The anarchy of God’s people complicated the problems that her apostasy had initiated. The moral degeneracy of chapter 19 proceeded from political disorganization in chapter 20 to social disintegration in chapter 21.

"Interpreting biblical narrative can be like trying to figure out someone who has a dry sense of humor. The person may give no visible indication that he intends humor, so that you have to divine it as best you can. Judges 21 is noncommittal like that. The writer reports but hardly critiques, so that we are left asking how we are to take the story." [Note: Davis, Such a . . ., pp. 224-25.]

The way to determine the rightness or wrongness of Israel’s actions is to compare them with God’s revealed will in the Mosaic Law.

Verses 5-15

Israel’s first insufficient solution: a previous oath 21:5-15

Judges 21:5-7 stress the sorrow and the dilemma the Israelites felt because of the Benjamites’ situation. The "great oath" (Judges 21:5) seems to have been that any Israelites who did not participate in the nation’s battles against her enemies should suffer God’s punishment (cf. Numbers 32:20-33). Judges 21:8-9 record the Israelites’ solution to their dilemma having asked themselves, "What shall we do?" (Judges 21:7; cf. Judges 21:16). They should have confessed their mistake in making the "wife vow" and asked for God’s solution (cf. Judges 20:8-11). Jabesh-Gilead ("well-drained soil of Gilead") was about 48 miles northeast of Shiloh on the east side of the Jordan River.

Next, the Israelites commanded 12,000 assailants to attack the uncooperative Israelite town (Judges 21:10-11). This was another sinful plan born out of self-will and vengeance.

"The action [against Jabesh-gilead] appears cruel in the extreme to the modern reader, but the virtual sacredness of the bond linking the several tribes into the amphictyony must be appreciated, and the sin of Jabesh-gilead seen in its light." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 210.]

This oppressive action provided only 400 women for the 600 remaining Benjamites, an insufficient number (Judges 21:12-14). The failure of the plan confirms that it was not God’s will, though He permitted it.

This section closes with the people’s response to the continuing problem due to the failure of their plan (Judges 21:15). The Lord had made a breach or gap in the ranks of the Israelites in the sense that He permitted it to happen. However, He would not permit the annihilation of Benjamin in view of His promises concerning the future of Israel.

Verses 16-24

Israel’s second sufficient solution: a technical loophole 21:16-24

The writer constructed this section parallel to the previous one (Judges 21:5-15) to highlight the dilemma Israel continued to face. [Note: Davis, Such a . . ., p. 224.] About 200 Benjamites still needed wives. Judges 21:16-18 repeat the dilemma that the Israelites’ "wife oath" had created (Judges 21:1).

The elders of Israel proposed a second plan (Judges 21:19; cf. Judges 21:8-9). It would give the Benjamites wives without causing the Israelites to break the letter of their "wife vow," though it violated a more basic law. The problem with this plan was that it required the forcible kidnapping and raping of 200 women from Shiloh. Undoubtedly, if the elders had sought the Lord’s counsel, He would have given them a better plan. There is no evidence in the text that they did so.

"Preoccupation with legalistic and technical obedience to certain rules or laws without an accompanying sense of the principles of faithfulness and love that undergird such laws and temper their rigid application is a recipe for disaster." [Note: Dennis T. Olson, "Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections on the Book of Judges," in The New Interpreter’s Bible, 2:887.]

"The rape of one has become the rape of six hundred." [Note: Trible, p. 83.]

The annual feast of Yahweh was probably the Passover ". . . as the dances of the daughters of Shiloh was apparently an imitation of the dances of the Israelitish women at the Red Sea under the superintendency of Miriam (Ex. xv. 20)." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, pp. 461-62.] Another possibility is that this was the Feast of Tabernacles ". . . in the time of the vintage-harvest." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 212.] A third option is that it was a festival of the Israelites’ own making. [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 580.]

Judges 21:20-22 record the Israelites’ command to the assailants (cf. Judges 21:10-11). The fathers and brothers of the women would complain because of the treatment these women would receive and because these men would not receive dowries from their sons-in-law as was customary. The Israelites also expected these fathers and brothers to find some consolation in the fact that they had not technically broken the "wife oath."

This second provision of wives proved to be sufficient for the Benjamites (Judges 21:23; cf. Judges 21:12-14) even though the plan involved the violation of basic human rights. With this resolution of the problem the Israelites returned to their homes (Judges 21:24; cf. Judges 21:15).

"There is a certain rightness and a certain wrongness about what Israel does. They justifiably requite Jabesh-gilead with unjustifiable severity (Judges 21:5; Judges 21:10). They stand consistently upon their wife-oath (Judges 21:7; Judges 21:16-18) but trample happily upon the rights of the Shiloh girls and their families (Judges 21:19-22). It is a mix of consistency and confusion. . . .

"The ambivalence pervading chapter 21 simply fits the pattern of incongruities throughout the story from the beginning of chapter 19." [Note: Davis, Such a . . ., p. 226.]

"Through Moses Yahweh had warned that if the Israelites stoop to behaving like Canaanites, then they can expect the same fate (Deuteronomy 8:19-20). The narrator never declares so outrightly, but the present account, coming as it does at the end of the book affirms the total Canaanization of the tribe of Benjamin and the Israelites’ falsely based sympathy for their brothers." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., pp. 582-83.]

Verse 25

The concluding key 21:25

Judges 21:25 concludes the story of the atrocity of the men of Gibeah and the Benjamites (chs. 19-21). This second vignette from the period of the judges began and ends with the same statement (cf. Judges 19:1). It reflects the failure of Israel in this event in its history to acknowledge the sovereignty of Yahweh in a practical way.

"The motivation for including this second narrative of the Bethlehem trilogy is evident. It reflects badly on Benjamin and by implication on the Saulide ancestry and dynasty. The pro-David sentiment is crystal clear." [Note: Merrill, Kingdom of . . ., pp. 181-82.]

However, the verse also summarizes the whole period of the judges surveyed in this book. It forms a fitting concluding statement that explains why life in Israel was as it was during this era. For this reason many Bible students regard this verse as the key verse in the book. [Note: See Frederick E. Greenspahn, "An Egyptian Parallel to Judges 17:6 and 21:25," Journal of Biblical Literature 101:1 (1982):129-35.]

"Judges 19-21 gives us the ugliest story in the Bible. The key to it is that, at every stage, men were acting on the basis of what was right in their own eyes. As far as the men of Gibeah were concerned, rape was all right. To the farmer and the Levite in the house, homosexual rape was unthinkable, but other rape was acceptable. The men of Benjamin thought it was right to overlook sin and to defend evil men. To Israel, revenge and retaliation would be justified, and to solve their problems about marriage for the Benjamites, the massacre of innocent people and kidnapping could be condoned.

"The interesting thing is that none of this had anything [?] to do with idolatry or Baal worship. It began with individuals ignoring the law of God, doing what was right in their own eyes, and it led a whole nation into moral collapse." [Note: Inrig, p. 289.]

The Israelites needed no judge or king to lead them into apostasy or battle. They did both on their own.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Judges 21". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/judges-21.html. 2012.
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