Judges 21 A Tragic Conclusion

Benjaminites take the virgins of Jabesh-gilead, Gustave Dore 1865

Judges 21

Now the Israelites had sworn at Mizpah, “No one of us shall give his daughter in marriage to Benjamin.” 2 And the people came to Bethel, and sat there until evening before God, and they lifted up their voices and wept bitterly. 3 They said, “O LORD, the God of Israel, why has it come to pass that today there should be one tribe lacking in Israel?” 4 On the next day, the people got up early, and built an altar there, and offered burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being. 5 Then the Israelites said, “Which of all the tribes of Israel did not come up in the assembly to the LORD?” For a solemn oath had been taken concerning whoever did not come up to the LORD to Mizpah, saying, “That one shall be put to death.” 6 But the Israelites had compassion for Benjamin their kin, and said, “One tribe is cut off from Israel this day. 7 What shall we do for wives for those who are left, since we have sworn by the LORD that we will not give them any of our daughters as wives?”

8 Then they said, “Is there anyone from the tribes of Israel who did not come up to the LORD to Mizpah?” It turned out that no one from Jabesh-gilead had come to the camp, to the assembly. 9 For when the roll was called among the people, not one of the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead was there. 10 So the congregation sent twelve thousand soldiers there and commanded them, “Go, put the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead to the sword, including the women and the little ones. 11 This is what you shall do; every male and every woman that has lain with a male you shall devote to destruction.” 12 And they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead four hundred young virgins who had never slept with a man and brought them to the camp at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan.

13 Then the whole congregation sent word to the Benjaminites who were at the rock of Rimmon, and proclaimed peace to them. 14 Benjamin returned at that time; and they gave them the women whom they had saved alive of the women of Jabesh-gilead; but they did not suffice for them. 15 The people had compassion on Benjamin because the LORD had made a breach in the tribes of Israel. 16 So the elders of the congregation said, “What shall we do for wives for those who are left, since there are no women left in Benjamin?” 17 And they said, “There must be heirs for the survivors of Benjamin, in order that a tribe may not be blotted out from Israel. 18 Yet we cannot give any of our daughters to them as wives.” For the Israelites had sworn, “Cursed be anyone who gives a wife to Benjamin.” 19 So they said, “Look, the yearly festival of the LORD is taking place at Shiloh, which is north of Bethel, on the east of the highway that goes up from Bethel to Shechem, and south of Lebonah.” 20 And they instructed the Benjaminites, saying, “Go and lie in wait in the vineyards, 21 and watch; when the young women of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances, then come out of the vineyards and each of you carry off a wife for himself from the young women of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin. 22 Then if their fathers or their brothers come to complain to us, we will say to them, ‘Be generous and allow us to have them; because we did not capture in battle a wife for each man. But neither did you incur guilt by giving your daughters to them.'” 23 The Benjaminites did so; they took wives for each of them from the dancers whom they abducted. Then they went and returned to their territory, and rebuilt the towns, and lived in them. 24 So the Israelites departed from there at that time by tribes and families, and they went out from there to their own territories. 25 In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.

An ugly ending to the tragic narration of the period of Israel’s history between the time of Joshua and the time of Samuel, Saul, and David. Once again a rashly spoken oath leads to violence against women but now instead of a single daughter losing her life an entire town is destroyed and at least six hundred women between Jabesh-gilead and the festival at Shiloh are pirated away from their homes and are viewed as a human peace offering for the tribe of Benjamin. The LORD remains silent to the accusation of the Israelites that God has caused this problem. God may have delivered Benjamin into their hand, but it is the Israelite men who went beyond Gibeah and destroyed the rest of the tribe’s homes and families.

Once again at Mizpah a tragic vow is spoken. Jephthah was appointed as a judge at Mizpah, and it is there he spoke his vow which resulted in his daughter’s sacrifice. Now it is the gathered tribes who have made the oath which cut Benjamin off from the other tribes and now in the aftermath of the war the remnant of Benjamin is six hundred fighting men with no prospect of a future beyond their generation. Benjamin still remains outside of Israel, and like the Canaanites the people are not to intermarry with them. Yet, in the aftermath this is a cause for mourning among the tribes. Yet, there is another tragic oath that is made at Mizpah which provides a part of the dark solution that the leaders of the tribes accept.

The second oath was to punish any group that did not join in the crusade against the Benjaminites. As Michael Hattin indicates there are similarities with this narrative and the war against Midian in Number 31: 1-20. (Hattin, 2020, p. 202) In both cases 12,000 Israelite combatants were sent and only the women who are young enough not to have slept with a man are spared the slaughter, but now the same treatment is used against a group of Israelites. The four hundred young and traumatized women are presented as a peace offering for the Benjaminites and as a way to bring the remnant of Benjamin back into the congregation of Israel. Yet, when there are still too few women the solution proposed by the leaders is to encourage the kidnapping of women participating in a festival to the LORD. A narrative that begins with the abuse, rape, and brutal dismemberment of one woman now has led us through the elimination of the women and children of one tribe and ends with the abduction and traumatization of at least six hundred additional women. “The Israelites seem unaware that kidnapping and rape violated basic covenant obligations more severely than any vow.” (NIB II: 886)

The book of Judges narrates a loss of covenantal identity for the people of Israel. The worship of the LORD has taken on the characteristics of the worship of the Canaanite deities. The tribes and families were never unified but they have now devolved into warring groups among themselves. At the beginning of the book women were named and were granted respect, at the end they are captives carried away, concubines raped and dismembered, the innocent casualties of a war spun out of control, nameless and voiceless. While I can appreciate the desire for inclusive language in the final verse of Judges, in the days where there was no king in Israel it is men (and in the Hebrew it is men) that do what is right in their own eyes. It is a dystopian portrayal of a time where rash vows are made and where the reestablishment of Benjamin as a tribe is to be done by the surviving virgins of Jabesh-gilead and the kidnapped dancers of the festival at Shiloh. Women are viewed as child bearers and a commodity to be traded for peace and their trauma and desires are immaterial to the narration of this final tragic story.

As Barry Webb highlights, at the end of the book of Judges the land of Canaan has not become the land of Israel. (Webb, 2012, p. 511) On the one hand the desperate events indicate the need for a different type of leadership to bring the individual tribes together and to create a different environment than the hellish one portrayed here. The Levites, the tribal and familial networks, and the judges have not enabled Israel to remain faithful to its covenant identity. Ironically the first king, King Saul, will be a Benjaminite from Gibeah and his first battle will be freeing Jabesh-gilead from Ammonite oppressors (1 Samuel 10-11).

Although the book of Judges ends on a tragic note to modern eyes, it is not the end of the story nor is it the only story. The short story of Ruth comes from the time of the Judges, and it is a story that illustrates some of what Israel was intended to be and it makes possible the later story of David. 1 Samuel follows the event of the Judges, and while the tribes will continue to struggle throughout the time of the kings to remain faithful, God does not allow this tragic ending to the be last word of the people of Israel. Despite the lack of faithfulness among the people God continues to provide an opportunity for the people to grow into their identity.

1 thought on “Judges 21 A Tragic Conclusion

  1. Pingback: The Book of Judges | Sign of the Rose

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