Notes on Judges 21, verses 1-14
by Jonathan Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)
Judges 21:1, KJV: 1 Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mizpeh, saying, There shall not any of us give his daughter unto Benjamin to wife.
Israel had gathered together at Mizpeh (Judges 20) in order to punish the evildoers of Gibeah. These men had attempted to defile a male Levite, and had abused his concubine until she almost died. By the time she arrived at the doorstep of the house where she and the Levite were staying, she had died. Judges 19 has the complete story.
2 And the people came to the house of God, and abode there till even before God, and lifted up their voices, and wept sore;
This was because they had reduced the tribe of Benjamin down to only 600 men. Perhaps now they realized they had done too much to the tribe of Benjamin. To be repeated, if Benjamin had given over the wicked men who had done the evil deeds, it is very unlikely anything like this would have happened. Why punish a tribe for doing what is right?
3 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?
They knew exactly why this had happened! There was one tribe missing because the other Israelites had killed all but 600 men of Benjamin (Judges 20).
4 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.
There were two altars that were dedicated to the tabernacle, the “brazen” altar (compare Ex. 27:1-8 with 39:39) and altar of incense (compare Ex. 30:1-5 with 39:38). Israel had built some other altars before and after the Tabernacle was constructed: Moses built an altar called “Jehovahnissi (Ex. 17:15)” and another altar according to Ex. 24:4; Joshua had built an altar near Mount Ebal (Josh. 8:30-32) and the two-and-a-half tribes built a memorial altar to remind all the tribes that regardless of where they lived, all the tribes formed one nation, under the LORD—at least that was the rationale given at that time (Josh. 22:10, 34). Later Gideon tore down an altar to Baal and built one to the LORD, God of Israel (Judges 6:26-27) and there may have been others.
Building altars was never forbidden, so long as the altar was only used for the True God and, if made of stones, the builders didn’t use any tools in its construction (Ex. 20:24-25). Phineas, grandson of Aaron was there (Judges 20:28) so the sacrifices were considered legitimate—there is no record that God was displeased with these offerings or sacrifices.
5 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.
This is not recorded in the dialog of chapter 20 but is mentioned here. Israel, rightly, wanted to take appropriate action against the evildoers at Gibeah but took some extreme measures.
6 And the children of Israel repented them for Benjamin their brother, and said, There is one tribe cut off from Israel this day.
This most likely means they had remorse over what they had done to Benjamin. There was apparently no genuine sorrow over their deeds because there is no mention of sacrifices, offerings, confession of sin, or anything like that.
7 How shall we do for wives for them that remain, seeing we have sworn by the LORD that we will not give them of our daughters to wives?
The other Israelites had apparently slain all the women and children of Benjamin, as well as over 20,000 soldiers in this most recent battle. If there were no more women for wives, there would be no children and eventually the tribe of Benjamin would become extinct.
This is the reverse of the problem the Israelites faced in Egypt: there, Pharaoh had commanded the Hebrews to kill all the baby boys (Exodus 1:22); here, Benjamin’s kinsmen had destroyed all the women and children, plus all except 600 men.
8 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.
The people may have wondered what was going to happen. Earlier, the people were reminded of the oath that whoever had not come to Mizpeh would be put to death (verse 5). How this was determined is not specified in this verse.
9 For the people were numbered, and, behold, (there were) none of the inhabitants of Jabeshgilead there.
To discover who had taken the banned goods of Jericho (Joshua 7), the tribes were narrowed down to families and eventually Achan was discovered. Here there seems to have been a record or list of tribes, families, cities, or some kind of accounting so that the leaders discovered no one from Jabesh-Gilead had come to take part in this battle. No reason why no one from there came to this battle was ever given.
10 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.
This is nowhere commended, nor commanded, by the LORD. Israel had committed a serious error by nearly exterminating all of Benjamin; now, they propose to destroy an entire city simply because the people of Jabesh-Gilead did not take part in the “Battle of Benjamin”.
Note that they are proposing to do the same thing to Jabesh-Gilead as they did to Benjamin, namely by killing every person including the women and children. They sent 12,000 “of the valiantest”—probably the best of all the best—to attack Jabesh-Gilead. Compare this with placing the entire 400,000 man army against Gibeah itself.
Did they think Jabesh-Gilead was a “softer” or easier target?
11 And this (is) the thing that ye shall do, Ye shall utterly destroy every male, and every woman that hath lain by man.
This is a similar, but much different situation than that of Numbers 31. There, the Israelites had nearly destroyed the Midianites, partly as punishment for the treachery of Moab and Midiian at Baal-Peor (Numbers 25). Because of this, 24,000 Israelites were put to death because they abandoned the God of Israel for the pagan god, Baal-Peor. In Numbers 31, Israel was told to kill all the men, and every woman who was not a virgin. The virgin females were to be kept alive.
This provision was further explained in Deuteronomy 21, that when an Israelite captured a “beautiful woman (Deut. 21:10-14)”, he could keep her as his wife. Nothing was mentioned as to whether or not she was a virgin. This was humane treatment: the woman was allowed to live, in the first place! Further, the foreign woman was free to go anywhere she wanted if the Israelite did not “have (a) delight” in her. The only restriction was that he couldn’t sell her for money. Here, though, the Israelite leaders specifically gave orders to kill everyone except virgin females.
12 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.
How many other people had lived (and died) in Jabesh-Gilead is nowhere specified. Here, the 400 young female virgins were the only survivors. They were brought to Shiloh, in Canaan, compared to Jabesh-Gilead which was on the east side of Jordan, in Gilead.
Shiloh had been the site of the tabernacle since Joshua’s days (Joshua 18:1). Shiloh was in Ephraim, a good ways south of Jabesh-Gilead and west of the Jordan River. A more exact location is in verse 19.
13 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.
Clearly the other Israelites wanted to make and keep peace with Benjamin now.
14 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.
Benjamin had been reduced to 600 men (Judges 20:47) who were hiding at the “rock of Rimmon”. Now they had come back to an unspecified location. They may have come to Shiloh first, to perhaps worship the LORD there (but this is not stated) or they may have stopped in order to find a wife. The virgins of Jabesh-Gilead were brought to Shiloh (verse 12) so this may be the place where “boy met girl”.
However there were still 200 Benjamites who did not find a wife. What was Israel going to do about this?
Scripture quotations taken from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV).