What does Judges chapter 21 mean?Immediately after Israel slaughters nearly the entire population of the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 20:47–48), the people seem to realize they have gone too far. This results in grief and threatens the extinction of the Benjaminites. The Lord instructed Israel to attack Benjamin at Gibeah (Judges 20:28), bringing judgment on that city for its heinous sins (Judges 20:11–13). Yet there is no hint that God commanded Israel to completely wipe out the entire tribe. Israel, acting on its own, seems to have gone beyond God's judgment to, once again, do what was right in their own eyes (Judges 17:6).
Only six hundred men of the tribe of Benjamin remain alive. Women, children, and even cities have been destroyed. The tribe will quickly die out unless wives can be found for the surviving men. This is major problem, however, since the Israelites who gathered for battle took a hasty oath. They vowed to God they would not give their daughters as wives to the Benjaminites. Now that no women remain, however, the oath seems to guarantee than no more Benjaminites will ever be born. Marrying Canaanite women is not an option (Deuteronomy 7:1–5). The people mourn and offer sacrifices to God, but He seems prepared to let them suffer the consequences of their actions (Judges 21:1–4).
First, the leaders investigate to see if any clan did not send a representative to aid in the civil war. Israel had taken an oath to put any such clan to death. They soon identify that nobody from Jabesh-gilead in Manasseh came to the assembly. Israel sends soldiers to kill every man, married woman, and child in the clan. Unmarried young women are spared to give to the Benjaminite men as wives. This echoes the methods sometimes used against the depraved, evil Canaanites (Joshua 6:17), but not God's own people. The other eleven tribes find the surviving men of Benjamin hiding in caves, fearful for their lives after the slaughter of the battle. Israel proclaims peace and gives to them the four hundred young women from Jabesh-gilead. Of course, two hundred more wives are needed to restore the tribe (Judges 21:5–15).
The leaders of Israel hatch another scheme that will allow them to keep their oath not to provide wives for Benjamin, while still allowing Benjamin to acquire Israelite wives. This plot involves twisting their vow, warping the intent of the promise by creating a loophole in its literal words. In short, Israel decides that women "taken" are not women "given," so they stage a kidnapping and hasty negotiation. Israelite leaders tell the remaining unmarried men of Benjamin to hide near an upcoming feast. A group of young women are expected to participate in the dances there. The Benjaminites are to each grab one young woman to carry back to their territory as a wife. When the fathers and brothers of these young women object, the Israelites will assure them these young women are needed to save the tribe of Benjamin, convincing them to agree to the marriages (Judges 21:16–22).
In this way, the men of Benjamin begin to produce a new generation. They rebuild their towns and continue as one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The author makes a point of repeating the fact that Israel was without a king during this era (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1). The final echo of this point comes after stories of moral failure, violence, and chaos. Israel is not merely without a central government; the people are not following their Creator God, and the result has been death and misery (Judges 21:23–25).
The next major phase of Israel's history will begin with the ministry of the judge-and-prophet Samuel. He will complete the work begun by judges like Samson (Judges 13:5; 1 Samuel 7:14–15) and oversee the nation's transition into a monarchy (1 Samuel 8:19–22).