Bible Commentary: Judges 21

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Judges 21

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Finding Wives for the 600 Benjaminites

The slaughter of all the Benjamites except the 600 men holed up in Rimmon only worsened the situation—now an Israelite tribe was about to become extinct. The 600 men had no wives, for they had all been slain in the carnage that followed the war, and all Israel had bound themselves with an oath that they would not give their daughters to any Benjamite man. What could be done?

While searching for an answer, the men of Israel determined that no men had come up to the war from Jabesh Gilead. Recalling that they had sworn to slaughter any who did not come up to the war against Benjamin (verse 5), the answer seemed obvious—send a company of soldiers down to Jabesh Gilead, slaughter all the men there, and their wives, but preserve alive the virgins for the 600 men of Benjamin. And so one rash action followed another and the trail of blood continued. With the slaughter of the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead, 400 virgins were procured. But that was not enough.

In the strange twists of logic common in that day, again the answer seemed obvious: since all Israel was bound with an oath not to give their daughters to the Benjamite men, let the Benjamite men take the daughters! And so the Benjamite men were allowed to raid a group of women dancing in religious celebration and to carry away whomever they chose as wives. The fathers of the women were prevailed upon not to attempt to retrieve their daughters. And in this way, all oaths were kept and a tribe in Israel was preserved.

This kind of bizarre, torturous logic with regard to oaths might seem foolish to many of us today. Indeed, it all seems rather disingenuous, as they sought out loopholes to skirt the clear intent of their oaths. But the keeping of one oath, even if it was at the cost of some strange behavior, was another one of those social customs and expected morality that was common to all Middle Eastern society. Indeed, the keeping of oaths is commanded by God. But God expects those who give their word to follow through on the intent—not just the letter. Often a considerable degree of wordplay and shades of meaning were employed to extract one from a difficult circumstance (as the story of Hushai, 2 Samuel 15-17, will show), but in the end everyone was deemed to have kept his word. Of course, none of this is to say that strange reasoning of this sort never happens today. Similar “logic” is often applied in our day when people try to avoid blatant lies while nevertheless attempting to completely mislead people.

So what should the Israelites have done instead? Following through on the intent of their oaths would have put them in an untenable position from their vantage point. Of course, that was the problem. They were looking at things from their own vantage point. What they should have been more concerned about was God’s will. Thus, they should first have repented for making foolish vows to begin with. Then they should have returned to Phinehas and inquired of God about what to do. If they were truly seeking the Lord, He would have given them an answer. And God’s direct commands always override any vow. Indeed, if a father could void his daughter’s vows and a husband could void his wife’s vows, God could certainly void the vows of Israel, who was His daughter by creation and wife by covenant. Furthermore, no vow is binding if it obligates one to violate commands God has already given. The real solution in such situations is, as already stated, humble repentance—something sorely lacking in the period of the judges, when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

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