Project Genesis

The Land of Israel

Jewish Wars

The Incident of Benjamin and the Concubine

Question: Why did the Israelite army go to war against all of the tribe of Benjamin when only some were responsible for the rape of the Levite’s concubine. After going to war they killed everybody in all of Benjamin’s territory – men, women, children even animals. Why did they give collective punishment to all of Benjamin when it is against the Jewish law to do so? After this they started killing the people of Jabesh in Gilead because they didn’t respond to the assembly at Mizpah. There too they killed everybody – men, women, children. Only the virgin women were kept alive for providing wives for Benjamin. This is a pure act of mass murder and genocide. There was no prophesy or command of G-D which allowed the Israelites to go and kill the people of Jabesh. As the wives were not enough the leaders told Benjamin to take away the girls of Shiloh by force. This is an immoral evil thing. Its like kidnapping somebody. (This whole episode is given in the book of Judges chapter 20 and 21.) What sort of leaders were there at that time that they allowed such mass murder of women and children to take place. Please don’t say that it was G-d’s will because no where it is written that G-D commanded to slaughter women and children because of other people’s sins. The Torah clearly says that children are not to be punished for their parent’s sins why then did this thing happen. Why did no one protest against this act of murder.

Answer: I’d like to begin by saying that I don’t think there’s any necessity to defend all or most of what was done in this story. To a large extent, this is true of many incidents in the Bible. The Jewish people are holy, and our deepest desire is to serve G-d. That does not mean that we have always been successful. Unless one can point to a clear statement by a prophet, there’s no guarantee that things were done properly.

In this story, even the Urim and Tumim was very confusing, advising the people to go into battles that they would lose. Our Sages have said (Sanhedrin 103b) that all of Israel deserved punishment at that time, having begun to sink into idol worship with the image of Micah. And their punishment: to trap themselves into a disastrous war.

Having said all that, I think that this incident is not all one-sided. It illustrates both the incredible strengths and weaknesses of that period in Jewish history. “At that time, there was no king in Israel: Each man did what was right in his own eyes.” This statement is meant very seriously – right and wrong were considered everyone’s personal responsibility. It was a remarkable experiment in serving G-d. They went spectacularly wrong at times, and this is one of them. But just imagine: A rape takes place, with the victim dying from her injuries. People don’t just sigh, and turn the page of the newspaper. They are all aghast. And outraged. Everyone in Israel sees it as a responsibility. They ALL leave their homes and their work, and come to punish the criminals. And when the tribe of Benjamin disastrously sees this as a case of Us versus Them, other tribes trying to gang up on theirs, the rest of Israel again reacts vehemently: No one may defend evil, period! No one may stand idly by (Yavesh Gil’ad)! It’s all very sad, but it’s also amazing. They really believed that “Every Jew is responsible for every other.”

We know how things can happen during war that seem outrageous to civilians. No one can doubt that Israel went overboard in their outrage. And once things started to get awful, the war got worse and worse. The proof is their own words! “The Jewish people swore in Mizpah, saying ‘Not one of us will marry his daughter to Benjamin.’ And the people came to Beth-El, and sat there till evening before G-d, and they raised their voices, and cried loudly. They cried, ‘Why has G-d caused this to happen in Israel, that a tribe should be taken away?...’” Were they schizophrenic? Or did they finally come to their senses, and realize what they had done?

As for the incident with the daughters of Shiloh, I think it’s pretty well explained there. Normally, everywhere in the Torah, fathers give their daughters in marriage. People normally got married then just as they reached puberty. The father was considered a much better judge of who would be a good husband than the silly teenager herself. As long as the father is loving and decent, I would add that that might still hold true today (but of course it’s impractical).

For the tribe of Benjamin, this wasn’t going to work. Everyone had sworn not to give them their daughters. So the best that they could do was to have the sons of Benjamin arrange the matter themselves, with the girls directly. The fathers’ role was simply to stand by and allow it to be completed; that was the most they were allowed to do by their oaths anyway. I expect that both fathers and daughters understood that their marriages were extremely important – they were saving an entire tribe. The Bible doesn’t record that anyone was unhappy with the situation, just that it came about in an unusual and irregular way.

To repeat: I’m not trying to defend what anyone did. It was not a time of strong leadership, and the Bible is recording, not commending. We don’t normally learn Jewish Law from the Prophets and Writings, though we can try to take lessons from it.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

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