Chapter 21

                                                                 More rapes and a third civil war


The author or authors of Judges emphasize the Israelite depravity four times[1] in the final five chapters by stating “In those days there was no king in Israel; each man did what he felt was right.” Chapter 17 tells about a man stealing from his mother and from the sanctuary and building a house for an idol. The “holy” items in this house as well as its priest are stolen from him in chapter 18 by Danites who destroy the inhabitants of a peaceful Canaanite city to use the area for themselves. They establish a temple there that will serve for many years as a site for idol worship. In chapter 19, rouge inhabitants of a Benjamite town rape a concubine and her husband callously cuts up the woman and sends the pieces throughout Canaan to incite Israelites against the killers. The Israelites decide to engage in a civil war against the entire tribe of Benjamin because of the deed of some people in a single city. This was the second civil war in this book. The first, also unnecessary, was led by Jephthah who could have appeased Ephraim as his predecessor Gideon did under the same circumstances.[2] Chapter 20 tells about this war and the death of over 40,000 Israelites and the near destruction of the tribe of Benjamin.   

The Israelites express no remorse over their own many deaths or those of the tribe of Benjamin or their decision to murder every Benjamite, including every Benjamite woman and child. Remarkably and inexplicably, their only concern after the butchery was that the 600 Benjamite men who escaped the slaughter had no women with which to breed children and this would result in the extinction of one of the twelve Israelite tribes.[3] This concern seemed unresolvable since they had taken an oath not to give any of their daughters to Benjamite men.[4]

No thought is given to allowing the Benjamites to solve their own problem or to encouraging them to marry Canaanite women. Instead they devised a nefarious and tumultuous plan that involved still another civil war, the third in the book, multiple rapes, and an almost childish maneuver to override their oath.[5]

The Israelites investigated and discovered that there was only one Israelite city, Jabesh-gilead in Trans-Jordan,[6] which did not send any of its citizens to serve in the Israelite force against Benjamin.[7] They recalled that they had sworn “he (who does not join the military force) shall be killed.” They marched in a civil war against this town, killed every inhabitant, including women and children and saved only virgins to give to the Benjamites.

But they found only 400 virgins in Jabesh-gilead. So they told the 600 Benjamite survivors that the city of Shiloh celebrated a holiday in which girls would go out to the field and dance.[8]  They gave the Benjamites directions to the city, suggested that they hide just beyond the field, and when sufficient girls gather, they should rush out and snatch a girl and take her home as a wife.[9]


Ehrlich interpretations

  • Ehrlich points out the ridiculous belief of the Israelites that they are not violating their oath. They directly gave them the 400 virgins from Jabesh-gilead who were Israelites. While they did not “directly” hand over 200 Israelite women from Shiloh to the Benjamites they told them how to abduct the women and even gave them directions to the city. Similarly, when the Israelites swore to the Gibeonites that they would treat them peacefully, they violated their oath when they forced them to be hewers of wood and drawers of water.[10] Ehrlich adds that the fact that the author of this chapter thought the Israelites could violate their oath with a child-like subterfuge when it is clear that in the early days the Israelites believed they could not do so, suggests the possibility that this chapter and the one about the Gibeonites was composed at a later period when the sacredness and unviability of vows changed.
  • (And, I ask, what about the women, why weren’t the women restricted by the vow? How could they be married to the Benjamites? Should we understand that women were not included because they were women and excluded from the assembly? Abarbanel states the women were included in the oath. He writes that it is clear that the Israelites violated their oath: the women were also included as being forbidden to the Benjamites just as the Israelites considered all Benjamites – including women, children, and virgins – guilty for refusing to give up the rouges who raped the concubine.)
  • (The Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 30a, states that the Israelites found a way to avoid the oath and allow their children to marry Benjamites. The Israelites argued that they had forbid “no man among us and not our children,” but grandchildren and thereafter were not included in the ban. Is this sophistry; just another child-like evasion? The truth is that while the ancients, as I wrote in chapter 9, believed vows could not be annulled, the Israelites and other cultures later changed their practice and allowed annulment.)
  • Ehrlich emphasizes that the book of Judges means what it says and Radak is incorrect when he states that there was only one Israelite sanctuary in Canaan and when the book speaks about a sanctuary in Beth El it means Shiloh.
  • Why did the Israelites have to give the Benjamites directions how to get to Shiloh if Shiloh was the only sanctuary used by the Israelites in those days? This proves that the Benjamites did not worship there; they had their own sanctuary.
  • Commenting on verse 4 which states that the Israelites built an altar in Beth El and offered sacrifices there, he writes that the ancient Israelites built an altar as a sign of affection and service to God but not to bring offerings on it, as Abraham did in Genesis 12:7. He understands that the Israelites built a new altar as a gesture of homage to God and brought their sacrifices on the altar that was already being used for some time in Beth El. For, as stated in 20:27 Beth-el had an ark and priest.[11]Irony



We saw many examples of irony in Judges. Readers who know I Samuel 10 – which narrates events following the era of judges – will recall that the first king of the united Israel was Saul of the tribe of Benjamin who was crowned in Mizpah, the assembly area where the Israelites decided to eradicate this tribe.     


[1] 17:8, 18:1, 19:1, and 21:25.

[2] See chapters 10-12.

[3] Kaufman notes that the chapter gives no reason why the Israelites murdered the Benjamite women and children – non-virgins and virgins – and those of Jabesh-gilead, except for 400 virgins. He surmises that the only reason they did not kill the 400 was because they wanted virgins for the surviving Benjamites. However, there is a close parallel to this incident. In Numbers 31:17-18, the Israelites were told to kill all the captured Midianites except for the virgins because the Midianites seduced the Israelites to worship idols by using the seductive powers of women. It seems that in Numbers 31, the virgins were spared because they were not involved in the seduction. No reason is given why the male children were killed.

[4] I describe in detail in chapter 12 why the ancients believed that they cannot annul a vow. We can suppose that the Israelites took their oath in the heat of battle and they would not have done so while cool-headed. This made no difference; once the vow was made, it could not be annulled.

[5] Readers who suppose that God was involved in every occurrence in the book of Judges and who also suppose that the Israelites’ seeking out God’s will should be taken literally and not as internal human deliberations have difficulty trying to explain why God was not involved in the decision to engage in a third civil war which would end in the Israelites killing innocent people and violating their vow. Furthermore, the chapter states explicitly that the Israelites made the decision after deliberation. If they truly always sought divine guidance for other wars, why didn’t they do so here?

[6] From this time on, the city of Jabesh-gilead felt attached to Benjamin. Later, when King Saul of the tribe of Benjamin was killed and his and his son’s body hung by the pagan forces to humiliate them, some people of Jabesh-gilead heroically rescued their bodies and gave them a proper burial. See I Samuel 11 and 31, II Samuel 2 and 21:12.

[7] It is hard to believe that this town of the many Israelite towns was the only one where no citizen joined the military force. Second, why should the entire town be guilty for the failure of eligible men to enlist? Third why were women and children killed? Fourth, how did the Israelites determine that a girl was a virgin? (Rashi and Radak quote the Talmud that offers the rather strange idea that the women were placed over barrels of wine. Non-virgins turned the wine sour, but virgins did not affect the wine.)

[8] The chapter does not reveal if this was a holiday only observed in this way by the inhabitants of Shiloh and what holiday was it. Some, such as Radak, say it was Yom Hakkipurim or 15 Ab for the Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 26b and 30b, states there were such dances on these days. It states “There never were in Israel greater days of joy than the fifteenth of (of the month of) Ab and the Day of Atonement.” Abarbanel thought it was Succoth. Others say it was a pagan feast and still others a holiday celebrating the end of the harvest. Elitzur writes it is possible that the celebration of 15 Ab was a development of the Shiloh celebration and he informs readers that dancing was a customary celebratory practice in ancient Israel, see Exodus 15:20-21 and I Samuel 18:6.

[9] This was rape. It is similar to the legend of the Rape of the Sabine Women – traditionally dated as 750 BCE when the first Romans snatched women from Sabine families. The Latin raptio translated “rape” means “abduction,” and ancients such as Livy tried to mitigate the situation by saying the Romans gained their consent after the abduction, but this is unlikely. The story is also similar to the Greek tale about the Messenians who snatched virgins during the feast of Artemis.

[10] See my “Unusual Bible Interpretations: Joshua,” chapter 9.

[11] While tradition states that there was only a single sanctuary at that time and it was in Shiloh, Kaufman notes that Shiloh only became an important area at the end of the period of the judges.