21:4. Built there an altar, in Mizpeh. This altar had long existed. Exodus 38:1. Altars were erected in many places: Samuel, David, and Elijah officiated at those altars. Yea, more; the Lord’s anger was appeased at those altars, and fire descended from heaven to denote the acceptance of the sacrifices. The altar at the sanctuary was for the regular oblations, but was never designed to supersede the extraordinary occasions of the nation.
21:8. None from Jabesh-gilead. The tribes would keep their oath against citizens or delinquents in war, but not their oath with the Lord against idolaters! The inhabitants being Joseph’s descendants, would not arm against the favourite brother of their father.
21:12. Four hundred virgins, known by their ornaments and dress. The Lacedemonians were remarkable for distinguishing all orders of persons by dress; and this custom still prevails in the east, though with numerous variations.
21:19. Behold, there is a feast to the Lord in Shiloh. The feast of tabernacles, when the people rejoiced with sacred songs. Those elders were so very religious that they would not break their oath; they only gave advice how it might be violated with impunity.
In the preseding chapter we have seen the sad effects of wickedness, contumacy, and civil war. The tribe of Benjamin, which filled fourteen cities and villages, contained a population of nearly two hundred thousand persons, besides Jabesh-gilead, and the forty thousand of Israel who fell. Surely, when in arms, brothers are the worst of foes. Benjamin had no pity on Israel in his days of victory; and Israel in return had no pity on Benjamin. How impetuous are human passions when excited by the ardour of battle, and by the sight of blood. To give quarter to a vanquished foe was not the law of war in that age, and would to God it had been only that age. Real courage is never divested of humanity: to vanquish and to spare are indications of a great and generous soul. During the battle, the crime was equal on both sides. When the vanquished fly, retaining their arms, they are pursued with slaughter. But those who cast away their arms, and on their knees beg for life, it is cruelty, nay, it is murder, to give them the stroke of death. The man who does this is not a hero, and he must expect a similar visitation in return.
We see farther, that the stronger passions of man turn as the tide. Israel had carried his vengeance on his brother far beyond his first intentions. Now he weeps for his brother; but tears are unable to restore him to life. Strong passions, excess of punishment, and rash oaths, are sure to be followed with humiliating reflections. Let us ever hold the reins of passion by reason; for strong passions when directed by wisdom may be attended with honour, not with shame.
We see also the great regard which the ancients paid to an oath of the Lord. Whether right or wrong, rash or prudent, they considered it as inviolable; and that no man, no nation would be safe, if an oath were left to the decisions of interest. It is an adage, that rash vows are better broken than kept: it would be better however for every man, before he breaks an oath, to consult the safety of his conscience. What we should principally learn from the errors of Israel is, to vow with prudence, and to perform with fidelity.
The smiting of any city or tribe which came not up to war, it would seem, was another breach of the oath Israel had made in Shiloh. And alas, Jabesh- gilead, of the tribe of Joseph, would not arm against his brother Benjamin. This was a breach of the national covenant, and very often acted upon. But as so much blood had been spilt, it would have been better to have said, sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.
Israel, impressed with sorrow for the loss of one tribe, next proceeds to provide wives for the six hundred of their brethren who had escaped the common carnage. The four hundred virgins of Jabesh were disposed of in fair marriage, and without scruple; and to husbands who had now large tracts of land. But the two hundred remaining men, were directed by the elders to catch virgins in the dance at a festival in Shiloh, while they were singing and playing sacred songs in their approach to the house of God. This was a singular step, but an act of necessity, by no means to be imitated in future life. There were many things lamentable in it. It forced the women’s affections, it deprived the parents of their right in the disposal of their daughters, and it estranged them to a distance, where they could not console their parents in old age. But withal it was done by the advice of the magistrates, and it did the captives no wrong in point of landed property; otherwise it had been an action worthy of death. The rape of the Sabine women under Romulus, differs widely from this case. They were allured to a festival by a stratagem; and the elders of their country being totally ignorant of the crime, they armed to avenge their wrongs.
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Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Judges 21". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany