A program of the Center for Inquiry
Our last trip into the Twilight Zone left God's chosen people grappling with a terrible problem. They themselves had virtually wiped out the tribe of Benjamin in a battle described in Judges 20, only to realize that they were responsible for practically destroying a tribe of Yahweh's pet nation Israel. Six hundred had survived the Benjamite massacre, but these were all males, soldiers, who had retreated to the rock of Rimmon (20:47). Our last trip found the Israelites in the "house of God" pondering what they could do to rebuild the tribe of Benjamin. They couldn't give their own daughters to the Benjamite survivors, because they had sworn with an oath at Mizpah before the massacre that "[n]one of us shall give his daughter to Benjamin as a wife" (21:1,7), and neither could the Benjamite survivors violate Yahweh's holy law and marry foreign women (Dt. 7:3-4; Ex. 34:12-13).
As we noted at the end of our last trip, God's chosen people never confronted a problem that they couldn't solve with a little bloodshedding, and so it was in this matter too. The people rose early the next morning, built an altar, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. As we saw in a previous excursion into the Twilight Zone, apparently the quickest way to get through to Yahweh was to offer burnt offerings and peace offerings, although we must wonder why they had to build an altar if they were assembled at the house of God, because the house of God was already equipped with an altar on which they had in fact offered sacrifices during the war with Benjamin (20:26). At any rate, during the assembly at the house of God, a question was asked that suggested a solution to their problem: "Who is there among all the tribes of Israel who did not come up with the assembly to Yahweh" (v:5)? For, lo and behold, the people had also made a "great oath" that anyone who had not come up to Yahweh at Mizpah would surely be put to death. Upon considering this question, they remembered that "in fact, no one had come to the camp from Jabesh Gilead to the assembly, for when the people were counted, indeed, not one of the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead was there" (vv:8-9). So here was the solution. The Israelites would go teach those cowards at Jabesh Gilead a lesson for sitting out the battle and in the process also find wives for the Benjamite survivors.
Twelve thousand of their "most valiant men" were sent out from the congregation of Israel with orders to "[g]o strike the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead with the edge of the sword, including the women and children" (v:10). Well, of course, the women and children had to be included in the massacre. That was always Yahweh's way. In the male-dominated societies of biblical times, the women and children had nothing to do with tribal and civil decision making, so certainly they had in no way been responsible for not sending any soldiers to fight against the Benjamites. However, that was no excuse as far as Yahweh was concerned. They were citizens of Jabesh Gilead, so they too had to be included in Yahweh's next massacre.
Well, not every woman was to be killed. A qualification of the battle command was added: "And this is the thing that you shall do: You shall utterly [one of Yahweh's favorite words] destroy every male, and every woman who has known a man intimately." In other words, they were to kill every male without exception but kill only the nonvirgin females. Of course, you don't need three guesses to figure out that the virgin females were to be spared so that they could be given to the Benjamite survivors. One would think that under the circumstances beggars wouldn't be choosy and that the Benjamite survivors would have been delighted to get any women at all, but that's just not the way things were done in the Twilight Zone. No, indeed, these Benjamites had to have virgin wives. Just the day before, the Israelites were killing every Benjamite in sight, but now they had to make sure that any wives given to the survivors would be virgins. Don't try to figure it out. We're talking about Twilight-Zone ethics.
So the military expedition went to Jabesh Gilead, found 400 virgins in the population [how they determined virginity is anybody's guess], and brought them back to the Israelite camp at Shiloh (v:12). An announcement of peace was sent to the Benjamites at the rock of Rimmon, who then came back and claimed their brides. However, the problem wasn't entirely solved. Six hundred Benjamite men but only four hundred virgins from Jabesh Gilead you don't have to be a mathematical wizard to see that two hundred Benjamites would have to settle for cold showers.
But not to worry; the "elders of the congregation" had an idea. They instructed the 200, who had gotten no wives from the raid on Jabesh Gilead, to hide in the vineyards of Shiloh during a feast-day celebration and to kidnap wives when the "daughters of Shiloh" came out to dance during the festivities (vv:19-20). The elders told the Benjamites not to worry about complaints from the fathers or brothers of the abducted women. The elders would say to the complainers, "Be kind to them [the Benjamites] for our sakes, because we did not take a wife for any of them in the war; for it is not as though you have given the women to them at this time, making yourselves guilty of your oath" (v:22). So the Benjamites did as instructed, abducted enough "daughters of Shiloh" for everyone to have a wife, and then returned to their tribal homeland (v:23).
Nothing was said about the consent of the abductees, but what the heck? It must have been Yahweh's will for the Israelites to solve their problem in this way, because no indication of divine anger was recorded. Apparently, then, the more things change, the more they stay the same, because we see in this story an early example of religious pragmatism. Keeping one's oath was a supremely sacred duty to God in those days, but these Israelites found a way to circumvent an oath that forbade them to give any of their daughters to the Benjamites in marriage. To get around the inconvenience of the oath, they just decided to look the other way and let the Benjamites abduct their daughters. In this story, then, we see that even in the heyday of Israel, when Yahweh routinely talked directly to his people, smorgasbord religion was as much in vogue as now. If one didn't like a divine command, he simply rationalized it away.