Sefer Shofetim Chapter 21
The final chapter of the Book of Shofetim describes the consequences of the civil war with the tribe of Benjamin. The allied tribes had decimated Binyamin, leaving only six hundred male survivors. The nation gathers together at Mitzpah and undertakes a solemn oath that no one should give his daughter in marriage to a member of the tribe of Binyamin. Shortly after making this vow, however, the Jews regret this choice because it will inevitably lead to the elimination of a tribe of Israel. Unwilling to violate their oath, they must find a way to provide wives to the surviving Benjaminites so they do not die out.
Upon reflection, it becomes clear that there was one community in Israel that did not join with the allied forces in the war against Binyamin – namely, the men of Yavesh Gilead. The decision is made that in retribution for failing to support the military effort, they will kill of the men of Yavesh Gilead and then present the women of that city to the tribe of Benjamin for marriage. Yavesh Gilead is attacked and its male citizens are slaughtered, but only four hundred women become available. Two hundred of the men of Benjamin still require mates.
The congregation comes up with another creative solution; each year at Shiloh, there is a festival during which the young women go out and dance in the fields. The vow taken by the Jewish people stipulated only that they would not GIVE their daughters to the tribe of Binyamin for marriage – they didn’t say that the Benjaminites couldn’t TAKE wives for themselves! So they advise the men of Binyamin to hide out in the fields and, when the girls arrived to dance, kidnap the ones they liked to keep as wives.
If the family of the girl protested, they would be implored to have compassion on the remnant of Binyamin that had no other viable way to ensure the survival of its tribe and its heritage. The tribe of Benjamin followed this advice and was thereby confident that its future was secure. The Book of Shofetim concludes by once again remarking that at this time there was no king in Israel; each man did what was right in his eyes.
This narrative, like that of the Pilegesh in Givah, is full of tragic irony. Lack of foresight leads the nation to take a vow with disastrous (and rather obvious!) consequences, reminiscent of the vow of Yiftah that symbolized a misguided religious fervor not tempered by reason or proper deliberation. Considering that, as a communal oath, it must have been formulated and promulgated by the leaders of the community, we can infer that whoever was guiding the Jewish people politically and spiritually was doing an inadequate job, to say the least.
Rather than devise a creative way to release themselves from their vow, they are fully committed to honoring their foolhardy proclamation, and this propels them to further bloodshed. They massacre the citizens of Yavesh Gilead who, as far as we know, had committed no actual trespass that made them worthy of the death penalty. Finding even this outcome insufficient for the needs of the tribe of Benjamin upon whom they had imposed sanctions, they advise kidnapping young girls as the solution to the problem. As horrific a suggestion as this is, one wishes they had thought of this idea first rather than seeking a pretext to justify the attack on Yavesh Gilead.
Ironically, in their zeal to demonstrate their distaste for the events in Giveah and to isolate the offending tribe by refusing to intermarry with them, the Nation of Israel ends up justifying mass murder and (for all intents and purposes) recommending kidnapping and rape, the same crimes for which they were condemning the Tribe of Benjamin to begin with!
The Book of Shofetim ends with a clear message to the reader as to the underlying cause for all of this confusion of values and priorities – there was no king in Israel, no central authority to provide Torah-based religious and political guidance to the people so that such tragedies could be mitigated or avoided. The disorder and disarray that reigned in the land left much destruction and despair in its wake, and leaves those of us studying the book with a definite sense of the important role that strong and determined leadership plays in the spiritual and material success of our nation.
In this way, the Book of Shofetim serves as the ideal prelude to the Book of Shemuel. By illustrating the havoc that ensues in the absence of a strong central government, the prophet demonstrates that the institution of the monarchy, while imperfect, is truly necessary. The Book of Shemuel will pick up on this theme by describing to us the process by which a stable and principled national leadership is finally put in place.