The army of the elven tribes of Israel had divided into three parts. After setting the Benjamite city of Gibeah on fire, they managed to bottle up the people who had escaped from the city, plus the whole Benjamite fighting force (Judges 20:29-41).
In the furious battle that followed, about eighteen thousand soldiers of the tribe of Benjamin died. With so many troops involved in such close action, a few thousand Benjamite men managed to escape. Most of these took to the roads leading northeast, hoping to reach a certain mountain hideout.
A part of Israel’s massive army had not yet been very active that day. These soldiers set off in pursuit of the weary Benjamites, easily overtaking them. About five thousand of the fleeing were killed in their race for freedom. Another two thousand or so were overtaken and slain in another engagement a few miles farther on.
About six hundred succeeded in reaching a place in the mountains called Rimmon Rock. This was in such a rough, cliffy area that the pursuers gave up the chase (judges 20:42-47).
Very few Benjamites had been killed in the first two battles. The almost-complete army of the Benjamites, still numbering almost twenty-six thousand, came to an end in one day. But the action against the rebel tribe that approved homosexuality didn’t end there. After a night’s rest the Israelite troops moved over all the territory of Benjamin to burn all the cities and kill all the people (Judges 20:48).
This destruction was so thorough that the only men left were those who had escaped to Rimmon Rock. This near-death of one of the tribes was a terrible thing. Some might ask: “Why did God allow it, as well as the deaths of at least forty thousand other Israelite soldiers?”
The answer: because of the near-universal disobedience of the people.
God was letting Israel learn from bitter experience that doing as” they thought best” was the worst way to live. If the people hadn’t fallen away from obeying the laws of their Creator, who constantly warned them against sin, this wretched civil war would never have happened.
Not long after these miserable events, the people of the elven tribes began to be sorry that they had dealt so harshly with the tribe of Benjamin. The leaders of the tribes met to discuss what could be done to make amends, and to express to God their hope that the tribe wouldn’t be wiped out. This was indeed a change in attitude.
To show that they regretted their extreme actions, they went to their meeting place at Shiloh. There, to gain God’s favor, they made burnt offerings and peace offerings (Judges 21:2-4).
When they had met at Mizpeh before the battles to decide what to do, they swore that they would never allow any of their daughters to marry a Benjamite (Judges 21:1). This seemed to make it impossible for the tribe to survive as pure Israelites. What could they do about the six hundred soldiers who were safely holed up at Rimmon Rock? They had no wives. And if they couldn’t marry Israelites, they might marry into Canaanite tribes.
The leaders carefully looked for a loophole out of this discouraging circumstance. At their council of war at Mizpeh, they had decreed that if any part of the eleven tribes failed to help with the war against Benjamin, those people would later be punished by the sword (Judges 21:5-7).
So many things had been taking place that there had been no opportunity to check for any family, region or city that might have failed to supply soldiers. An inquiry was made. It disclosed that the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead, a city east of the Jordan in the territory of Manasseh, had not joined in the civil conflict.
This seems to present an answer to their problem. Twelve thousand troops were picked to march on Jabesh-gilead and punish the inhabitants by killing everyone except unmarried women. Following so soon after the regretful attitude toward the men of Benjamin, this was an abrupt switch by the Israelites back to their mania for rash action.
After the new senseless slaughter – which wouldn’t have occurred if the people had stayed close to God – all the spared women and teen-age girls were carefully questioned. The questioning soon revealed those who weren’t married and those who had not committed fornication. Four hundred such females were acquired. Others who didn’t pass the requirement suffered the fate of the rest of the people of Jabesh-gilead (Judges 21:8-12).
Even though their lives had been spared, these four hundred virgins were anything but happy to be dragged away against their will so quickly. They didn’t even get to attend the mass burial of their relatives and friends. They were brought to Shiloh and kept there under guard to await the outcome of a trip to Rimmon Rock by Israelite scouts.
This visit to this rugged area was a dangerous one. Those who entered it could easily be picked off by men hiding in the caves and among the rocks. It turned out that the scouts were allowed to come very close. Then a voice coming from some uncertain source commanded them to stop and state their business.
The hiding Benjamites expected to be asked to surrender or expect a mass attack by their Israelites brothers, and so were quite surprised to hear words on quite a different topic.
“Listen men of Benjamin,” one of the scouts shouted in a voice that echoed and re-echoed from one cliff to another. “We are not here to ask you to surrender. You are the only remaining men of the tribe of Benjamin. All the rest of your people are dead because they approved of sex vices.
“But because the leaders of Israel want you to continue as one of the tribes, we have come to make an offer of peace. At Shiloh we have four hundred virgins from whom you may choose brides. If you want them and want to rebuild your tribe in peace, come to Shiloh. First there will have the best choice! Don’t be afraid to come. No harm will come to you as long as you are peaceable!”
At first Benjamites thought that this was a ruse to get them out in the open where they could be attacked. They made no reply. Finally the scouts left. Benjamite lookouts reported that no enemy troops were in sight on the adjoining plains or behind nearby ridges. The six hundred survivors then began to believe that perhaps their Israelite brothers were telling the truth.
They crept in small groups to the Shiloh area. There, by cautious spying, they found out that there were indeed four hundred women being held to give them as wives.
Up to this time, it wasn’t known by the eleven tribes just how many Benjamites had escaped to Rimmon Rock. When six hundred men suddenly put in an appearance to claim wives, the competition became somewhat heated. The two hundred Benjamites who emerged empty-handed complained so bitterly that the Israelite leaders felt obliged to produce two hundred more virgins (Judges 21:13-15).
This wasn’t such a simple task, though finally someone came up with another extreme and violent plan. At this time of year there was a religious festival about to be observed near Shiloh. A part of its social life included dancing in a nearby field by a large group of young women.
It was suggested to the two hundred wifeless Benjamites that they stay at Shiloh until just before the dance was to be performed and hide in adjoining vineyards. Then they might be able to rush forth and seize two hundred of the young women when they came out to dance (Judges 21:16-21).
This scheme was even more fantastic than the one by which the four hundred wives had been obtained, though certainly not as bloody. Anxious as they were for wives, the Benjamites questioned the plan.
“This idea sounds good up to a point,” they told the Israelites leaders, “but won’t the families of the girls create trouble for us if we succeed in taking away their young women?”
“Don’t be concerned about that,” the leaders advised. “Probably the fathers and brothers of the girls will be angry at first, but we’ll stop them from any rash action. We will persuade them to let you keep their daughters and sisters without causing trouble because we took the lives of all your women. We swore that none of us should give our women to you men of Benjamin. But if you take them forcibly from us, that is another matter. The fathers will not be guilty of breaking their vow and you will have your wives.”
The Benjamites considered this explanation somewhat odd. Nevertheless, they went to where this dance was about to take place and successfully concealed themselves in surrounding vineyards.
When the several hundred young women came to the field to perform, the hidden men had sufficient opportunity to observe and choose. At a planned signal, the Benjamites rushed out of the vineyards and swarmed into the mass of leaping, swaying femininity.
Shrieks filled the air as the girls realized that they were being set upon by strangers. Two hundred struggling dancers were whisked off the field and away into the vineyards almost before anyone could comprehend what was going on.
The rest of the screeching girls fled into the stunned crowd that had come to watch the dance. By the time the men in the assemblage realized that the kidnapping was not a new part of the dance, it was too late to rescue the young women.
The six hundred surviving Benjamites lost no time in returning to their territory with their brides. Whether or not their women were ill-gotten seemed of no great matter. No one seemed to care. The war with Benjamin was over, and the tribe was saved from extinction.
Even so, the troops of the eleven tribes didn’t disband and go to their homes until the Benjamites were again safely settled in their territory and had started to repair their cities.
In this whole episode, which occurred shortly after the death of Joshua, wisdom and good judgment were rather rare. Everyone did what he thought best, instead of obeying God (Judges 21:25; Deut. 12:8). This was a prime example of how death and suffering came to the people when they fell away from God and into idolatry (Judges 21:22-24).
But even at such times there were a few Israelites who were loyal and obedient to God. Their lives were rich, meaningful and without violence, though not always without trouble and tragedy.
The story of Ruth depicts that sort of life, the happy result of obeying God. Ruth was a Moabite, a descendant of Lot, the nephew of Abraham. She had been reared a heathen, but was converted after seeing how God’s law benefited others. She left her land and pagan training to become an adopted Israelite and obey the laws of the God of Israel. She became one of the ancestors of David and of Jesus Christ. Ruth was a type of the New Testament Church which is to come out of the world and be joined to Christ.
During the early years of the time of the judges, there was a drought which made crops especially poor in many parts of Canaan. Besides, the neighboring nations carried off much of the produce, thus helping to create a state of famine for many Israelites.
A man by the name of Elimelech lived in the town of Bethlehem, where Christ was born over thirteen centuries later. Elimelech decided to leave Canaan and try to find an area where there was more rain to help him grow a better supply of food. He reasoned that if he could migrate to one of the adjoining nations, he might stand a better chance of having good pasture and produce.
To move out of Canaan and into a heathen land was not the best thing for Elimelech, his wife, Naomi, and his two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. In fact, not long after he was settled in the pagan—populated land east of the Dead Sea-- his life ended (Ruth 1;1-3).
Later, Elimelech’s two young sons married Moabite women. About ten years later both men died. Their wives, Orpah and Ruth, had become greatly attached to Naomi, their righteous mother-in-law. Although they had been taught to worship pagan gods, they had great respect for Naomi’s beliefs and her desires to go according to the ways of the God of Israel.
Life in Moab, without their husbands, became increasingly difficult for the three childless widows. Not only were they very lonely, but they soon became very poor. It was evident that something would have to be done to improve their welfare. That something was sparked when Naomi heard that living conditions had been greatly improved by good weather and abundant crops in many parts of Canaan, including the territory of Judah. Immediately she decided to return to her native land.
Naomi didn’t ask her daughters-in-law to return with her, but they helped pack three burros and willingly set off wither to the west. After they had gone a few miles, Naomi stopped to tell them what was on her mind (Ruth 1:4-7).
“Much as I want both of you to go with me back to Canaan,” she explained, “I feel that it is unfair to you to move to a nation that is strange in your sight. You have been reared to believe in many things in which I cannot believe. If you go to Bethlehem with me you will probably find things so different that you will regret having left your own country.
“For this reason I’m asking you to turn back to your people and to the homes of your parents. You are yet young, and you should be married to men of your nation. I can return alone to Bethlehem. Go back, and I pray that my God will take care of both of you because you have been good wives and good daughters-in-law!”
Ruth and Orpah were distressed at Naomi’s words, and especially when she kissed them goodbye as though to finally dismiss them forever from her life.
“We don’t intend to leave you,” they assured her after recovering from their tears. “We want to go back with you to your people” (Ruth 1:8-10)!
Naomi was moved by their display of loyalty, but she felt that they really preferred to stay in their own country, though they were willing to make this sacrifice for her. She tried to make it easier for them to decide to stay, by pointing out that she had nothing more to add to their lives.
“Even if I had another husband and were to bear more sons,” she told them, “you wouldn’t want to wait till they are grown to marry them. You would seek other husbands long before that, so you can see why it would be wise to go back to your people. I am very sorry you have lost your husbands.”
This last little speech by Naomi convinced Orpah that her mother-in-law was right. She sadly kissed Naomi and Ruth farewell and turned back with her burro and possessions toward the place where her parents lived in Moab.
“Your sister-in-law has wisely decided to return to her people,” Naomi pointed out to Ruth. “You would do well to try to catch up with her” (Ruth 1:11-15).
“Why try to talk me into doing something I don’t think is right?” Ruth asked. “I want to stay with you. Wherever you go I will go. I will stay where you stay. Your people shall be my people. Your God is my God. I want to die in the place where you die, and be buried where you will be buried. If I fail in any of these things, let God deal with me as He chooses.”
Naomi was so moved by these remarks that she said nothing more to Ruth about parting. She was convinced that her daughter-in-law was converted and meant all that she said, for which she was very happy (Ruth 1:16-18).
The two women arrived at Naomi’s run-down house in Bethlehem a few days later, fortunate not to have been bothered by roving bandits. Naomi was glad to see the familiar places and faces, though at first she wasn’t recognized because she had changed in appearance. When a neighboring friend realized who she was, however, a crowd of acquaintances quickly gathered about her and Ruth.
“Can it really be Naomi?” some of them asked.
“Yes, it is I, returned from Moab with my daughter-in-law, Ruth,” Naomi said to them. “But perhaps it would be well not to call me any longer by that name. It means beautiful and pleasant, and I am not now beautiful and my life is no longer pleasant. I have aged, mostly because of losing my husband and two sons. It would be more fitting if you would call me Mara, which means bitter.”
“No! No!” some of the bystanders exclaimed. “All of us have aged, Naomi, but you are still a beautiful woman. We are sorry to hear that God has allowed your loved one to be taken, but we are happy to have you back among us.”
Naomi’s many friends showed their concern by pitching in on the house-cleaning so the two women would have a suitable place to live. They were comfortable for the moment. But their meager amount of money was practically gone, and Naomi wasn’t the sort to prevail on the goodwill of her friends and neighbors for her needs. Something had to be done right away, or the two widows would run out of food.
Be watching for the next installment of “The Story of the Bible.”