Harry Whittaker
Judges And Ruth

25. The Rebuilding of Benjamin (ch. 21)

The punitive campaign against Benjamin was no sooner concluded than the tribes immediately became very uneasy about the consequences of their zeal for righteousness. So fully and completely had they done what they had deemed to be their duty that there was now grave prospect of the complete disappearance of one of their twelve tribes. For Benjamin was reduced to a mere handful of men, and how could these continue their families since their brethren had sworn not to give their daughters in marriage to a tribe of such wickedness? “And the people came to Bethel....and lifted up their voices, and wept sore.”

Here is demonstrated the folly of human oaths. Only God, the Eternal, who knows the end from the beginning, can truly bind Himself by an oath never to be set aside, for with Him, only, is the wisdom to foresee the outworking of events. In this incident there is the plainest of all warnings to those who love government by constitution and minute-book and all the paraphernalia of the Medes and Persians. Such may be all very well for business executives, but in a community of the people of God reliance on a cast-iron adherence to rules and resolutions is a sign of small-mindedness. The fewer the governing principles of an ecclesia the smaller will be the risk of becoming fettered hand and foot by chains of one’s own fashioning. It was a lesson Israel should have learned from this experience with Benjamin. It is a lesson the New Israel has not learned yet.

Another pitiable decision

As the people brooded on their problem before God in Bethel, bad became worse. Instead of confessing their folly and relying upon divine wisdom to correct their short-sightedness, they proceeded to indulge in casuistry with a typical Pharisaic flavour, and so piled more evils on top of the first. Such was ever the result of human cleverness. These men would fain disguise their spiritual immaturity with the brilliance of their scheming.

The solution was worked out with a logic at once admirable and reprehensible: The oath not to intermarry with Benjamin (they said) applies to all of us who assembled together at Mizpeh. Therefore it does not apply to those who refrained from joining the assembly. Therefore the only exceptions are the men of Jabesh-gilead. But we also swore most solemnly to destroy all who did not combine with us to punish the iniquity of Gibeah. Therefore Jabesh-gilead lies un-der a ban of extermination. And now see how clever-ly we can implement both ‘resolutions’ simultaneously! We will send an army against Jabesh-gilead to exterminate all except the maidens, and these will we give in marriage to the lonely men of Benjamin.

It was a mathematically concise solution which must surely have given much satisfaction to whoever propounded it. The comparatively trivial snag about it was that it punished the innocent and involved those who had started out to reform the corruptions of Israel in as great an injustice and as blatant an iniquity as that of Gibeah. More than a millenium later, the same mentality in the sons of these men was still straining out gnats and swallowing camels.

In this incident is to be found the origin of the connection and sympathy in later days between Saul, king of Israel, and the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead. Saul would have descended from one of these women given as a consolation prize to the Benjamites. His intense anxiety to save Jabesh-gilead from the ravages of the Ammonites (1 Sam. 11) would be a perfectly natural expression of family feeling.

It is interesting too to observe that Saul’s method of rallying Israel for the defence of Jabesh was a conscious imitation of the unnamed Levite’s appeal to the tribes to take action against Gibeah — he took a sacrifice, but instead of offering it upon the altar he severed it into twelve pieces and sent it with an urgent message to all the twelve tribes. Only, there was this difference: the Levite was making an appeal; Saul was issuing a threat: “Whosoever cometh not forth after Saul and after Samuel, so shall it be done unto his oxen.” Saul had inherited the mentality of Israel at Mizpeh.

— and yet again!

As it turned out, the admirable scheme for the rehabilitation of Benjamin was not fully adequate to the occasion, for there was still a shortage of some two hundred women. So a further expedient, equally disreputable, had to be connived at.

The men of Benjamin were encouraged to satisfy their needs by crudely abducting the maidens of Shiloh as, dancing in the meadows at Passover, they kept fresh the memory of the crossing of the Red Sea and of the delight with which Miriam and the women of Israel celebrated that deliverance in dances before the Lord (Exodus 15).

The casuistry involved in this scheme was even worse than before, for in effect the elders of the people said to Benjamin: We vowed not to give our womenfolk to any of you in marriage, but if you take them by force, there will be no breaking of the vow on our part, and we will turn a blind eye to the offence of abduction.

This surely was straining out a gnat and swallowing a hippopotamus! The idea was particularly clever in its recommendation that the maidens of Shiloh be seized, for they would be virgins who, like Jephthah’s daughter, had been consecrated to the Lord in the service of the Tabernacle, and consequently they would — in a sense — be the special concern of no particular tribe. Hence the escapade — or rather, outrage — could be carried through with complete freedom of fear of reprisals.

It was, of course, blandly overlooked that these women were the Lord’s and that consequently this ‘Operation Shiloh’ was comparable with the sacrilege of misappropriating tithes and offerings which had been dedicated to God. What a serious lack of spiritual maturity there was in these men of Israel, now that Joshua was taken from them.


It might be thought that the presence of Phinehas in their midst would contribute a certain degree of balance to their spiritual judgments. But far from this being the case, it is to be feared that Phinehas himself must bear a good deal of the responsibility for these tragic blunders. The more carefully this last chapter of Judges is compared with other incidents in which Phinehas figured, the more they are seen to be of a piece. First, there was the full-blooded zealous way in which he took action to stop the rot of the apostasy of Baal-peor: “And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand; and he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel” (Num. 25:7,8).

In the circumstances it was an action wholly admirable and one that was blessed by God with an everlasting “covenant of peace”. But it betrayed an unreflecting impetuosity that was evidently characteristic of the man.

Next, there was the conclusion of the war against Midian: “And Moses sent them to the war, a thousand of every tribe, them and Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, to the war with the holy instruments, and the trumpets to blow in his hand. And they warred against the Midianites, as the Lord commanded Moses; and they slew all the males” (Num. 31:6,7).

The resemblances to the campaigns against Benjamin and Jabesh-gilead can readily be seen:

  1. the priest taking the field along with the host.
  2. the use of “the holy instruments” — Urim and Thummim — for divine decision.
  3. a thousand from each tribe; compare the twelve thousand against Jabesh.
  4. the slaughter of all the males.

These similarities suggest that Phinehas may have been the impetuous mind responsible, at least in part, for some of the decisions taken in this sorry epoch of Israel’s history. It is to be hoped that this tentative conclusion does him an injustice. On the other hand, it is just possible that there is here the reason for the otherwise unexplained transfer of the high-priesthood to the family of Ithamar, the younger son of Aaron.


The triple emphasis on “Israel” here is significant.
Built there an altar. A pointer that “the house of God” (v. 2) was not Shiloh, for the altar there would not need (re-) building. But it is easy to understand that the ancient holy place at Bethel had fallen into disuse.
Concerning him that came not up. Cp. the curse on Meroz (5:23).
We will not give them of our daughters. Treating Benjamin like Canaanites: Deut. 7:3,4.
Shiloh....on the north side of Bethel, etc. These precise details about the site of Shiloh were necessary for all readers of Judges from the time of Samuel onwards, because then the Philistines wiped Shiloh completely off the map; Jer. 7:12-15; 26:6,9.
The daughters of Shiloh would be mostly from Ephraim. The other wives of Benjamin were from Manasseh. Thus the descendants of Rachel come together — Ephraim and Manasseh with Benjamin.

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