In the opening of this chapter, we are shown two more instances of zeal (which were not recorded before) on the part of the tribes of Israel, when they had met together in the general assembly before going to war with Benjamin. The first of these is that they had bound themselves with an oath of destruction to any city of Israel that failed to send their representatives and their quota of men of war to this assembly. This kind of failure would be interpreted as showing no righteous indignation against the criminals of Gibeah. The second zealous action was another solemn oath that no man in Israel would marry his daughter to a Benjamite. Those men were judged unworthy to be matched to a daughter of Israel, after such a villainous crime had been committed (and defended) in their midst.
In light of this second resolution, the nation had a deep cause of concern after the battle was over and nearly every person in the tribe had been slaughtered. It seemed as if Israel’s national unity was about to be broken, and a whole tribe was about to be “cut off.” The fortified cities might be restored, and houses might be rebuilt; but families could not be replaced! Only 600 men remained as the survivors of a once-powerful tribe that had been 45,000 strong! And these 600 had fled to the wilderness and were hiding in the rock of Rimmon.
The Israelites did not repent of their zeal and holy indignation against the sin of the men of Gibeah. But they did repent of the sad consequences of carrying the matter a little further than was either just or necessary. It would have sufficed to destroy all the Benjamite men who were bearing arms; but they overdid themselves when they cut off the farmers and shepherds, and even the women and children. From this instance of a war that was well-begun but ill-ended (as many other wars and contentions have also been), we are reminded that even necessary justice must be done with compassion. God does not punish with eager willingness and delight, and neither should men. Also, when we are in a strong temper, we must take heed that we do not say or do things that we will probably wish undone again when our passions cool down.
It would have been easy to give Israelite maidens in marriage to these remaining Benjamites, so that the tribe could be built up once more – except for the vow which the people had made, forbidding them to do so. And so now it looked as if the tribe of Benjamin would certainly go extinct. In the midst of this great national trouble, an altar was built before the Lord, sacrifices were offered, and unavailing tears over this matter were shed abundantly.
Suddenly a question arose: had any of the tribes been insufficiently represented at the general assembly? And upon inquiry, it was found that the city of Jabesh-gilead – lying in the portion of Manasseh on the east side of the Jordan River – had paid no attention to the national summons. With a spirit strangely inconsistent with their penitential sorrow, 12,000 Israelite warriors were dispatched to take vengeance upon this city. This piece of ignorant fanaticism was done because of that other oath which had been made – that any man who was fit for military service, and did not answer the call to Mizpeh, should be executed as a traitor. But it does not seem to have occurred to the tribes to ask counsel of Him to Whom they had just made solemn confession of sin. Is it not ironic that those who spared the wicked Canaanites in so many places could not find it in their hearts to spare their own brethren who were doomed by their rash oath? Thus the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead were slain with the sword – except for 400 maidens, who were brought as captives to the Israelite camp.
A friendly message was sent to the fugitive Benjamites, assuring them that they would no longer be treated as enemies, but as brethren again. Even those who have sinned must be forgiven and comforted if they repent (2 Cor. 2:7). Accordingly, they came out of hiding; and the 400 maidens of Jabesh-gilead, who had been brought to Shiloh, were formally given in marriage to these men. But 200 of them yet remained to be provided for, in order that the tribe would not perish from Israel. Therefore, in order to keep the letter of the vow which had been made, while evading its intent; it was suggested that Israelite virgins might be appropriated by force, although they could not be voluntarily given. It is far better to take time and take heed of what we promise, rather than to sort out difficulties and find loopholes after making a rash vow that we later regret.
So at the next annual festival at Shiloh, where the grape harvest was celebrated with songs and dances; the 200 Benjamites lay in wait for the maidens of the town, and carried away 200 of them into their own land. According to promise, the other tribes interceded with the girls’ fathers and brothers, attempting to sanction this desperate method of preventing the extinction of a tribe. Thus the ruined cities of Benjamin were gradually repaired and inhabited once more.
One modern author has pointed out that “Leviticus 5:4-6 gave clear instructions for the proper handling of a foolish vow before the Lord and the proper sacrifices attendant thereunto, rendering unnecessary all of their machinations in circumventing their pledge not to give any of their daughters to Benjamin in marriage. The explanation for such degeneracy, sham, and false worship is recorded in the final verse; there was no God-established human authority to whom the people had to give account (Jud. 21:25).” May the record of Israel’s transgressions remind us of the corrupt nature of all people, when they are unrestrained by grace; and may we be led to embrace our Lord Jesus’ Person and work as the only remedy for sin.
Lord, we thank You that the Book of Judges – like all of Scripture – is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” Amen.
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