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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Judges 21

Introduction

Chapter 21. Preservation of the Remnant of Benjamin.

Verse 1

Chapter 21. Preservation of the Remnant of Benjamin.

Judges 21:1

Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mizpah, saying, ‘There shall not any of us give his daughter to Benjamin to wife.’

This interesting snippet reminds us that a serious covenant had been made at Mizpah once action had been determined. Any who did not respond to the call to arms would be put to death. Any who married their daughter to a Benjaminite would be punished, probably again by death. Death was very much on their minds.

In the circumstances this latter provision about marriage was sensible. Benjamin had become sexually depraved through their contact with the Canaanites and they did not want their daughters to be caught up in such a situation (compare Deuteronomy 7:3-4). But in the present situation they regretted it. On the other hand it was part of their oath of allegiance to the tribal confederacy so that they had to observe it.

Verse 2

And the people came to Bethel and sat there until the evening before God, and lifted up their voices and wept grievously.’

Having carried out their dreadful massacre the people suddenly realised the consequences of what they had done, they had destroyed a tribe in Israel. This struck them so vividly that they went to Bethel to seek God’s guidance on the matter. This fact would again confirm that the Tabernacle had been moved temporarily to Bethel.

“Sat there until the evening before God.” Compare Judges 20:26. This seems to be the custom for seeking God when some disaster has struck. And as they sat there they wept. They realised what they had done. To lose a tribe was like losing a near relative, indeed a brother. The use of ‘God’ indicates how dreadfully they felt this hole in the Confederacy. A tribe was missing from the covenant. It was breached. It was as though Yahweh was far away.

Verse 3

And they said, “Oh Yahweh, the God of Israel, why has this happened in Israel that there should be today one tribe lacking?”

What they were asking was what had been the causes that had brought this about. What had led Benjamin to become caught up in the Canaanite religion and ways? So do men behave when they are unaware of their own weaknesses. Some of them were in danger of the same thing. The answer, of course, was that they had fraternised with the Canaanites in spite of God’s prohibition. They had disobeyed God.

Verse 4

And so it was that on the next day the people rose early and built there an altar, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings.’

The ‘building’ of an altar refers to refurbishing it since its last use and preparing it for the offering of sacrifices. The ‘rising early’ demonstrates that they were in earnest. Then again they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. The burnt offerings were offered wholly to God. The peace offerings they could partake of themselves. The one represented total dedication, the other their fellowship with God through the shedding of blood.

Bethel was one of the places where God had revealed His name in the past, and He had done so again in Judges 20:28. This last was presumably the grounds on which they had rebuilt the altar. Thus they were proceeding in their view in accordance with Exodus 20:24.

Then they began the serious business of dealing with those of their own who had failed to observe the covenant.

Verse 5

And the children of Israel said, “Who is there among all the tribes of Israel who did not come up in the assembly in Yahweh?” For they had made a great oath concerning such a one as did not come up to Yahweh, to Mizpah, saying, “He shall surely be put to death.” ’

Included in the oath made at Mizpah was that any who did not respond to the call of the tribal confederacy would be put to death. (These solemn oaths remind us how seriously they took their tribal covenant). Now was the time for giving account.

“In Yahweh.” Bound in covenant relationship with Yahweh.

“A great oath.” Literally ‘the great oath.’ As often in Hebrew the definite article need not be seen as referring back. The great oath? Which one? The one now spoken of as having been made.

Notice the repetitiveness of the narrative. The writer has in mind that the account will be heard rather than read, and the repetitiveness ensures that the audience go along with the story. This kind of repetition is paralleled in stories among other nations, sometimes tediously.

Verse 6

And the children of Israel repented because of what they had done to Benjamin their brother, and said, ‘There is one tribe cut off from Israel this day.’

Their musings from one subject to another was to indicate that they were thinking through a solution to the problem of the Benjaminites. ‘Benjamin’ had nearly been destroyed and they were thinking how they could restore them.

In the circumstances in which they found themselves they were convinced that they had destroyed all of Benjamin apart from the six hundred holed up in the Rock of Rimmon (Judges 20:47). They were almost certainly overlooking the realities of the situation. Quite a number of Benjaminites would have been travelling and would not have been present in the area when the battles and massacre took place. A good number would have escaped in the flight from the massacre, however fierce pursuit was, and would now be in hiding in the mountains, with some possibly in Jerusalem under the protection of the Jebusites. And some would have escaped from the cities before the avenging armies arrived there, as fugitives passed through with news of the defeat. But as armies will they had convinced themselves that they had left none alive.

Verse 7

How shall we do for wives for those who remain, seeing we have sworn by Yahweh that we will not give of our daughters to be their wives.?’

They had decided on mercy for the six hundred holed up in the Rock, but the problem now was how to find wives for them without breaking their solemn oath to Yahweh. It is a reminder that we do well to consider carefully before we make promises and take oaths. They are not easily undone. But as such men will they had a solution. Men are always good at wriggling out of inconvenient promises.

Verses 8-9

‘And they said, “What one is there of the tribes of Israel who did not come up to Yahweh, to Mizpah?” And lo, there came none to the camp from Jabeshgilead to the assembly. For when the people were numbered, behold, there were none of the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead there.’

A check was made of the tribes and sub-tribes and it was discovered that the people of Jabesh-gilead had failed to respond (Gilead had a reputation for failing to respond to the call to arms (Judges 5:17)). And it was not a failure involving only the confederacy. They were seen as having directly refused to obey Yahweh. Such a failure rendered them liable to The Ban in accordance with the oath taken at the assembly. It was always a risk to refuse to respond to the call to arms (compare Judges 5:23).

Verses 10-11

And the people sent there twelve eleph men of the most valiant, 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 you will do. You will utterly destroy every male, and every woman who has lain with a man.” ’

Twelve picked units of fighting men were despatched to Jabesh-gilead with a view to carrying out The Ban. All there were to be slain except for young virgins. The hypocrisy of the situation is clear. Why should the children die and the virgins be spared? Simply for man’s convenience to get him out of a tight corner. We note that they did not seek Yahweh’s guidance on this. They knew He would not approve.

But the carrying out of the same procedure on Jabesh-gilead as on the Benjaminites demonstrates how seriously this campaign and the stain of the actions of the men of Gibeah were taken. It was seen as a sacred crusade to eradicate deep sin in the tribal confederacy. And those who would not partake were considered to be tainted with the sin of the men of Gibeah. They were traitors to the covenant, and the penalty for that was death, for they had failed to recognise and bow down to the holiness of Yahweh. (This was in this case their view, not God’s. But it was genuine nonetheless.).

Verse 12

And they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead four hundred young virgins who had not known man by lying with him. And they brought them to the camp, to Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan.’

The Ban was carried out and four hundred virgins spared who ‘had not lain with a man’. Or so it was presumably said by their loved ones before they died, to save their lives. And these were brought to the camp at Shiloh where The Tabernacle usually was. The Ark would now also have returned there, for Shiloh was the regular central sanctuary. A sacred ceremony would soon follow with the six hundred men of Benjamin in renewal of the covenant.

Verses 13-14

‘And the whole congregation sent and spoke to the children of Benjamin who were in the Rock of Rimmon, and proclaimed peace to them. And Benjamin returned at that time, and they gave them the women whom they had saved alive of the women of Jabesh-gilead. And yet so there were not sufficient for them.’

We note the lack of mention of the names of central leaders throughout the whole narrative. It may have been in order to stress that the whole of Israel was involved, or it may have been because there was no man prominent enough to be so mentioned. The period of the Judges was one in the main lacking in leadership, although at times there were local exceptions.

“Proclaimed peace to them.” The war was over. No further reparation would be required. They could come out safely and rejoin the tribal confederacy.

“And Benjamin returned at that time.” Not just returned to their camp but returned to the confederacy. They became once more a brother. And the four hundred virgins were supplied to them for the producing of children to rebuild the tribe. But four hundred was not enough for there were six hundred men.

Verse 15

And the people repented themselves for Benjamin, because Yahweh had made a breach in the tribes of Israel.’

All that was done was in the end thought of as done by Yahweh, for He was the God of the covenant and of the tribal confederacy. Thus He was seen as over all that they did, even when He might not have approved of it. It was His law and His holiness that had caused the actions that had brought the breach. But it was the people who had to repent and change their minds so as to allow Benjamin back into the confederacy. It was not God Who had banned them.

Verse 16

Then the elders of the congregation said, ‘How shall we do for wives for those who remain seeing the women are destroyed out of Benjamin?’

Compare Judges 21:7. The Ban had (in their view, but some must have survived) resulted in the killing off of all Benjaminite women. Thus the problem was how to obtain wives for the two hundred still without them. This is the first mention of the elders, as rulers of the tribes as opposed to military chiefs (Judges 20:2), although they must have been present at all major decisions made. Things were returning to normal.

Verse 17

And they said, ‘There must be an inheritance for those who have escaped of Benjamin, so that a tribe is not blotted out of Israel.’

The feeling was strong. To lose a tribe would be like losing a limb. The inheritance here was children not land. There was plenty of free land in Benjaminite territory.

Verse 18

However, we may not give them wives of our daughters.’ For the children of Israel had sworn saying, ‘Cursed is he who gives a wife to Benjamin.’

The latter phrase was probably literally part of the wording of the covenant made at Mizpah. Blessings and cursings regularly accompanied covenants. The repetition of the former (Judges 21:1; Judges 21:7) was to remind the hearers of the narrative when it was read, and may also indicate their continual repetition to themselves because of the headache they had caused themselves.

Verse 19

And they said, ‘Look there is a feast of Yahweh from year to year in Shiloh’, which is on the north of Bethel, on the east side of the highway that goes up from Bethel to Shechem, and on the South of Lebonah .’

They expressed their awareness of a coming feast of Yahweh.The connection with vineyards suggests that this was the feast of Tabernacles. All Israel would gather to the central sanctuary for the feast to celebrate the harvest and it would provide opportunity for their plan to work. The position of Shiloh was carefully described. It was an important site to Israel, and it would seem that the Tabernacle had again returned there.

Verses 20-21

And they commanded the children of Benjamin, saying, ‘Go and lie in wait in the vineyards. And watch, and behold if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances, then you come out of the vineyards and you catch every man his wife of the daughters of Shiloh and go to the land of Benjamin.’

There is no mention of God’s approval to this plan which would no doubt have been sadly lacking. It demonstrates that leaders of peoples do not change over millenniums. They consider that in times of emergency they can behave in ways that decent men would decry. It is difficult to think of words to describe leaders who recommend abduction by force of innocent girls. But they had forced themselves into a corner and now they were trying to find a way out of it.

The problem was that it had to be done in such a way as to be evident that no one had given his daughter to the Benjaminites. But if the elders were not doing that, what were they doing? They were fathers of their tribes. It was a legal fiddle.

The plan was simple. The Benjaminites were now present at the feast having been restored to the covenant and the tribal confederacy. And every year at the feast of Tabernacles the girls of Shiloh would go out for the celebrations in the vineyards where they would dance in the dances. There they would be only partially protected. What could happen with all the tribes of Israel gathered there at a feast of Yahweh? And no one would take much notice of ‘lovers’ seizing their girlfriends and carrying them off. But once the Benjaminites had succeeded they had to immediately leave the feast and make for Benjaminite territory just over the border. It was abduction by force without any regard for the girls or their families.

Verse 22

And it shall be, when their fathers and their brothers come to complain angrily to us, that we will say to them, ‘Grant them to us as a gift. For we did not take for each man his wife in battle, nor did you give them to them. Or else you would now be guilty’.’

Clearly once news of the kidnappings got out the fathers and brothers of the girls would come to the elders for them to deal with the situation. Then the elders would put in their plea, speaking on behalf of the Benjaminites. They would point out that the girls had not been taken in battle (that would have rendered the Benjaminites guilty again of fighting the confederacy). Nor had they been given freely (that would have put the blame on the fathers who gave their daughters.) Thus no covenant had been broken. And they would ask that the relatives give their daughters, as a gift to them, the elders, for the sake of preserving the tribe of Benjamin in the tribal confederacy. (The language may be typical Eastern understating. The ‘gift’ might have included some form of recompense).

Verse 24

And the children of Israel left there at that time, every man to his tribe and every man to his family, and they went out from there every man to his inheritance.’

The repetition is typical of ancient literature and Hebrew parallelism. Their task finished, and Benjamin on the way to restoration, they could return to their homes (see Judges 20:8). They went to their tribe, to whom their loyalty was due, and through whom God’s future blessings would come on them as promised to Abraham; to their family (clan) to whom they owed specific allegiance and from whom they too would be ministered justice; and to their inheritance in Israel, which was their reward for being in the covenant. Having fulfilled God’s work in their own way they were able to proceed with life in a covenant relationship with God, satisfied that the stain of the folly had been removed from them.

Verse 25

In those days there was no king in Israel. Every man did what was right in his own eyes.’

The writer was clearly disillusioned. Even in this matter of Benjamin the people had stooped to subterfuge and hypocrisy, not seeking Yahweh’s voice when they had the final difficult decisions to make. From Judges 21:4 onwards there had been no consultation of Yahweh. They had done what was right in their own eyes without looking to Yahweh as King. What they had done as a confederacy had been on His behalf, and yet when it came to the crunch they had ignored Him. Once again it was apparent that there was no King in Israel, neither divine nor human.

And that was the continual problem. They just would not give Yahweh His true place. Central government was loose, the central sanctuary was marginalised, justice was left to the clan, who tended to favour their own, God’s law was only applied as seemed fit to them (Judges 19:1 on). And individuals went their own way in matters of religion (Judges 17:5-6). That was not how God had intended it to be.

There are, however, those who claim that the writer is writing in order to recommend kingship in Israel. But can that really be so? Could the man who demonstrated the final failure of Gideon through multiplying wives as a result of his princeship (Judges 8:30), who described the rule of kings as being like a tree waving its branches aimlessly over other trees (Judges 9:9; Judges 9:11; Judges 9:13), be finishing off with a panegyric to kingship? Was he not rather longing for the true application of the kingl rule of God, for his people to turn to Yahweh and really treat Him as king?

We can contrast with all this the change that took place when Samuel became priest at the central sanctuary. Then Yahweh was acknowledged as King and Israel prospered. There was a King in Israel and men did what was right in His eyes. And all the problems slipped away. It was not the system that was at fault but those who ran it. So what was he trying to do? He was trying to wake Israel up to its need to respond to the Kingly Rule of God. He was preaching a message that would not be preached again for a thousand years when another would come proclaiming the Kingly Rule of God.

So it may well be that this book was written by Samuel, for he too protested against earthly kingship. He too warned of the dangers of appointing an earthly king who would simply prove to be like Gideon and Abimelech (1 Samuel 8:10-18). He too recommended trust in the Kingly Rule of God. And when the people sought a king like the nations no one was more against it than Samuel, except perhaps for Yahweh.

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Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Judges 21". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/judges-21.html. 2013.