Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Judges 21:1-7. Remorse of the Israelites at the extirpation of a tribe in consequence of their oath not to give their daughters in marriage to the Benjamites. Judges 21:8-15. Expedient of destroying Jabesh-Gilead to furnish wives from thence. Judges 21:16-25. As there was still an insufficient number of wives, they persuade the Benjamites to seize the virgins of Shiloh at a sacred dance.
Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mizpeh, saying, There shall not any of us give his daughter unto Benjamin to wife.(1) Had sworn.—The circumstance has not been mentioned in the account of the proceedings at Mizpeh. It is clear from the sequel (Judges 21:18) that the oath was not only an oath but “a vow under a curse,” as in Acts 23:14.
And the people came to the house of God, and abode there till even before God, and lifted up their voices, and wept sore;(2) To the house of God.—Rather, to Bethel, as in Judges 20:18; Judges 20:27.
Wept sore.—As after their defeat (Judges 20:26); but this time they were remorseful for the fate of those whom they were then pledged to destroy.
And said, O LORD God of Israel, why is this come to pass in Israel, that there should be to day one tribe lacking in Israel?(3) Why is this come to pass . . .?—This is not so much an inquiry into the cause, which was indeed too patent, but a wail of regret, implying a prayer to be enlightened as to the best means of averting the calamity. The repetition of the name “Israel” three times shows that the nation had not yet lost its sense of corporate unity, often as that unity had been rent asunder by their civil dissensions. Their wild justice is mingled with a still wilder mercy.
One tribe lacking.—The number twelve had an almost mystic significance, and is always preserved in reckoning up the tribes, whether Levi is included or excluded.
And it came to pass on the morrow, that the people rose early, and built there an altar, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings.(4) Built there an altar.—We find David doing the same at the threshing-floor of Araunah (2Samuel 24:25), and Solomon at Gibeon. Unless the entire tabernacle had, for the time, been removed to Bethel, there was no regular altar there. It has been suggested that in any case this altar must have been necessitated by the multitude of sacrifices required for the holocausts and the food of the people. (See Note on Judges 20:26.) Probably there is some other reason unknown to us.
And the children of Israel said, Who is there among all the tribes of Israel that came not up with the congregation unto the LORD? For they had made a great oath concerning him that came not up to the LORD to Mizpeh, saying, He shall surely be put to death.(5) Who is there . . .?—This verse is anticipatory of Judges 21:8.
They had made a great oath.—Another detail which has been omitted up to this point. The spirit of this cherem was exactly the same as that which we find in Judges 5:23 : “Curse ye Meroz . . . because they came not to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty.” Now that these victories had been so complete, they probably were sick with slaughter, and would not have inquired after any defaulters but by way of finding an expedient to mollify the meaning of their rash oath. We see once more in this narrative both the force derivable from a vow and the folly and wickedness of fierce vows rashly taken in moments of passion. It is obvious that the direct meaning of the vow, taken in connection with the curse under which they had placed the Benjamites, had been to annihilate the tribe.
And they said, What one is there of the tribes of Israel that came not up to Mizpeh to the LORD? And, behold, there came none to the camp from Jabeshgilead to the assembly.(8) There came none to the camp from Jabesh-gilead.—Jabesh-Gilead, which Josephus calls the metropolis of Gilead (Antt. vi. 5, § 1), is probably to be identified with the ruins now called El-Deir in the Wady Yabes (Robinson, 3:319). It was six miles from Pella, on the top of a hill which lies on the road from Pella to Gerasa. For some reason with which we are unacquainted, there seems to have been a bond of intense sympathy between the inhabitants of this town and Benjamin. If their abstinence from the assembly of vengeance was not due to this, we must suppose that the sort of companionship in misery caused by these wild events itself created a sense of union between these communities, for it is the peril of Jabesh which first arouses King Saul to action (1 Samuel 11). and in memory of the deliverance which he effected the men of Jabesh alone save the bodies of Saul and Jonathan from the indignity of rotting on the wall of Bethshan (1Samuel 31:11), which gained them the blessing of David (2Samuel 2:5-6). We see from these later incidents that Jabesh recovered from the extermination now inflicted on its inhabitants.
For the people were numbered, and, behold, there were none of the inhabitants of Jabeshgilead there.(9) For the people were numbered.—It is doubtful whether this implies another numbering besides that at Mizpeh (Judges 20:1-17). In the tale which had then been made up, the absence of inhabitants of a single town might for the present escape notice. It would be sufficient now merely to refer to the lists then made (Judges 20:1-17).
And the congregation sent thither twelve thousand men of the valiantest, and commanded them, saying, Go and smite the inhabitants of Jabeshgilead with the edge of the sword, with the women and the children.(10) Twelve thousand men.—The Vulgate has 10,000, but it is doubtless meant to imply that each tribe sent a thousand “valiant men” (Genesis 47:6, &c.), as in the war against the Midianites, in which Balaam was slain and at which Phinehas had been present (Numbers 31:6).
And this is the thing that ye shall do, Ye shall utterly destroy every male, and every woman that hath lain by man.(11) Ye shall utterly destroy.—The verb is tacharîmû—i.e., Ye shall place under the ban (cherem), ye shall devote to destruction. The words of the cherem are almost identical with those of the indignant command of Moses after the war with Midian alluded to in the last verse (Numbers 31:17-18), and there the same exception is made. (Comp. Leviticus 27:21-28; Numbers 21:2-3.) The words are easy to read; it is needless to dwell on the horror of the massacre which they describe. We are dealing throughout with the fierce passions of men living in times of gross spiritual darkness; for we cannot doubt that the oath against Jabesh-Gilead was carried out, though the writer drops a veil over all but the result. The vow of destruction (cherem, anathema, Leviticus 27:28-29) was quite different from the vow of devotion (neder) and the vow of abstinence (corban).
(11) To dance in dances.—Possibly the dances of the vintage festival. There is a fountain in a narrow dale, at a little distance from Shiloh, which was very probably the scene of this event. It is a needless conjecture that the feast was the Passover, and the dances a commemoration of the defeat of the Egyptians, like those of Miriam. There seems to have been no regular town at Shiloh; at least, no extensive ruins are traceable. It was probably a community like the Beth-Micah (see Note on Judges 18:2), which was mainly connected with the service of the Tabernacle. The “daughters of Shiloh” would naturally include many women who were in one way or other employed in various functions about the Tabernacle, and not only those who came there to worship (1Samuel 2:22, where “assembled” should be rendered served, as in Numbers 4:23; “the handmaid” of the priests is mentioned in 2Samuel 17:17). But the traces of female attendants in the sanctuary are more numerous in Jewish traditions than in Scripture.
Catch you every man his wife.—The scene is very analogous to the famous seizure of the Sabine women at the Consualia, as described in Liv. i. 9. St. Jerome (adv. Jovin, 1 § 41) quotes another parallel from the history of Aristomenes of Messene, who once, in a similar way, seized fifteen Spartan maidens, who were dancing at the Hyacinthia, and escaped with them.
And they found among the inhabitants of Jabeshgilead four hundred young virgins, that had known no man by lying with any male: and they brought them unto the camp to Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan.(12) They brought them.—It can hardly be doubted that the “them” means the young virgins, although the pronoun is masculine (otham), as in Judges 21:22. If so, the idiom is like the Greek one in which a woman speaking of herself in the plural uses the masculine (Brief Greek Syntax, p. 61). There is no other trace of this idiom in Hebrew, but we can hardly suppose that many Jabesh-Gileadite captives were brought to Shiloh, and then put to death in cold blood in accordance with the ban.
Unto the camp to Shiloh.—The Israelites, now that the war with Benjamin was over, appear to have moved their stationary camp to Shiloh, the normal and more central seat of the tabernacle at this period (Judges 18:31).
Which is in the land of Canaan.—We find the same addition in Joshua 21:2; Joshua 22:9. Perhaps there was another Shiloh on the east of the Jordan; but see Note on Judges 21:19. The mere fact of Jabesh being in Gilead does not seem sufficient to account for it.
And the whole congregation sent some to speak to the children of Benjamin that were in the rock Rimmon, and to call peaceably unto them.(13) To call peaceably—i.e., proclaim peace.
And Benjamin came again at that time; and they gave them wives which they had saved alive of the women of Jabeshgilead: and yet so they sufficed them not.(14) Came again—i.e., returned to their desolate towns.
Yet so they sufficed them not.—There would still be 200 Benjamites left without wives.
And the people repented them for Benjamin, because that the LORD had made a breach in the tribes of Israel.(15) The Lord had made a breach.—The breach (perets, 1Kings 11:24) had been caused by their own headstrong fury and unreasoning passion, even though it had been in a righteous cause; but in the Hebrew conception the results even of man’s sin and follies is referred to Jehovah as overruled by Him (Amos 3:6; Isaiah 45:7). It was therefore needless, and not quite honest of St. Jerome in the Vulg., to omit “the Lord.”
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?(16) How shall we do . . .?—They want to keep their vow in the letter, while they break it in the spirit. The sense of the binding nature of the “ban” was intensely strong (Exodus 20:7; Ezekiel 17:18-19), but, as is so often the case among rude and ignorant people, they fancied that it was sufficient to keep it literally, while in effect they violated it. Similarly in Herodotus (iv. 154), Themison having sworn to throw Phronima into the sea—the intention having been that she should be drowned—feels himself bound to throw her into the sea, but has her drawn out of it again. Their want of moral enlightenment revealed itself in this way, and still more in having ever taken this horrible oath, which involved the butchery of innocent men, and of still more innocent women and children. In point of fact, the cherem often broke down under the strain which it placed on men’s best feelings (1Samuel 14:45) as well as on their lower temptations. The guilt of breaking a guilty vow is only the original guilt of ever having made it. What the Israelites should have done was not to bathe their hands in more rivers of fraternal blood, but to pray to God to forgive the brutal vehemence which disgraced a cause originally righteous, and to have allowed the remnant of the Benjamites to intermarry with them once more. As it was, they were led by ignorance and rashness into several vows which could not be fulfilled without horrible cruelty and bloodshed, and the fulfilment of which they after all casuistically evaded, and that at the cost of still more bloodshed. As all these events took place under the guidance of Phinehas, they give us a high estimate indeed of the zeal which was his noblest characteristic (Psalm 106:30), yet a very low estimate of his state of spiritual insight; and clearly to such a man the fulfilment of Jephthah’s cherem by sacrificing his daughter (see Note on Judges 11:39) would have seemed as nothing compared to the extermination of tribes and of cities, involving the shedding of rivers of innocent blood. But why should we suppose that the grandson of Aaron, in such times as these—when all was anarchy, idolatry, and restlessness, against which he either did not strive or strove most ineffectually—should stand on so much higher a level than his schismatical and semi-idolatrous cousin, the wandering grandson of Moses?
And they said, There must be an inheritance for them that be escaped of Benjamin, that a tribe be not destroyed out of Israel.(17) There must be an inheritance.—Rather, possession of the remnant shall be for Benjamin—i.e., We will leave untouched their land and possessions. “We give you leave to take the whole land of Benjamin to yourselves” (Jos. Antt. v. 3, § 12).
That a tribe be not destroyed.—Benjamin never quite recovered this crushing blow. Even though it furnished the second judge (Ehud) and the first king (Saul) to Israel, and was advantageously situated, and was often honoured by the residence of Samuel, it became a mere satellite to the more powerful tribe of Judah. Perhaps in the quiescence and permanence derived from the close association with its powerful neighbour we see in part the fulfilment of the blessing in Deuteronomy 33:12.
Then they said, Behold, there is a feast of the LORD in Shiloh yearly in a place which is on the north side of Bethel, on the east side of the highway that goeth up from Bethel to Shechem, and on the south of Lebonah.(19) A feast of the Lord in Shiloh.—It is unlikely that the reference is to a local feast; but it is impossible to say which of the three yearly feasts is meant. The most natural would be the Feast of Tabernacles. We see from 1Samuel 1:3 that even among pious families the trying custom of going up to the Tabernacle three times a year had fallen into complete abeyance.
A place which is on the north side of Beth-el . . .—This elaborate description of the site of Shiloh, a place which is so often mentioned elsewhere without any addition, is extremely curious. There can be little doubt that it is due to the marginal gloss of some Masoretic scribe, perhaps in the editing of the sacred books by Ezra. That it is a gloss seems clear, because it comes in as a parenthesis in the speech of the elders, and, of course, in their day such a description was needless. Indeed, it was spoken at Shiloh itself, and the site was well known to all Israel. But by the time that the story was committed to writing in the days of the kings, or finally edited in the days of Ezra, Shiloh had long been desolate, and probably the very site was unknown to thousands. Hence this very valuable and interesting description was added, which has alone enabled us to identify Shiloh in the modern Seilûn.
South of Lebonah.—Lebonah, now Lubban, is not mentioned elsewhere.
Therefore they commanded the children of Benjamin, saying, Go and lie in wait in the vineyards;(20) They commanded.—Rather, they gave notice. This is the keri or marginal reading of the Hebrew; the kethib, or written text, has the verb in the singular, in which case we must take it impersonally, “It was bidden,” and suppose that some leading personage—probably Phinehas, the impress of whose character and reminiscences is observable throughout—is the speaker.
And it shall be, when their fathers or their brethren come unto us to complain, that we will say unto them, Be favourable unto them for our sakes: because we reserved not to each man his wife in the war: for ye did not give unto them at this time, that ye should be guilty.(22) Be favourable unto them for our sakes.—Rather, Present them (otham, masc., as in Judges 21:12) to us; or (as in the margin), Gratify us in them. The verse is somewhat obscure, but its general drift is a promise to pacify the parents of the damsels, by showing them that thus they did not violate the cherem, and that the cause was pressing. Perhaps they would be more readily consoled, because the land of these six hundred Benjamites must now have been far more than was necessary for their wants. They had become possessors of the lot of the whole tribe. Perhaps the reading should be, Gratify us as regards these damsels, for they (the Benjamites) have not received every man his wife through the war.
At this time.—Rather, perhaps, in that case (i.e., “if you had given them your daughters in marriage, ye would be guilty”). We are left to assume that the appeal of the elders to the parents whose two hundred daughters were thus seized was sufficient to pacify them.
In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.(25) In those days . . . This verse, already occurring in Judges 17:6; Judges 18:1; Judges 19:1, is here added once more by way of apology for the lawless crimes, terrible disasters, evaded vows, and unhallowed excesses of retribution, which it has been the painful duty of the sacred historian thus faithfully and impartially to narrate. Out of these depths the subsequent Judges, whose deeds have been recorded in the earlier chapters, partially raised their countrymen, until the dread lessons of calamity had been fully learnt, and the nation was ripe for the heroic splendour and more enlightened faithfulness of the earlier monarchy.