Judges 21:20, 21: Plan to Seize the Dancing Girls of Shiloh

Verse 20:[1] Therefore they commanded the children of Benjamin, saying, Go and lie in wait in the vineyards…

Verse 21:[2] And see, and, behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out (see Ex. 15:20; Judg. 11:34; 1 Sam. 18:6; Jer. 31:13) to dance in dances, then come ye out of the vineyards, and catch you every man his wife of the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin.

[And when ye see that the daughters of Shiloh go forth to conduct dances according to custom, לָח֣וּל בַּמְּחֹלוֹת֒] To perform dances in bands (Montanus); to dance in dances (Junius and Tremellius), or, in bands (Pagnine), that is, to perform dances (Vatablus, Munster, Tigurinus). I would prefer, to pipe with pipes. In this signification the same, or cognate, words are taken, Exodus 15:20;[3] 1 Kings 1:40;[4] Psalm 87:7[5] (Piscator). To beat upon timbrels (Syriac), with timbrels and tambourines (Arabic). Peter Martyr notes that the virgins abused the feast, inasmuch as in the sacred assembly they gave themselves to matters of sport and dancing, while they ought to be have been occupied in graver matters. Indeed, the days of the feast were instituted for this, that the people might assemble, and hear the word of God, etc. So then it is not strange if a forcible carrying away was inflicted upon these girls (Martyr). But these dances were not conducted out of girlish wantonness, but out of religion, and ancestral custom (Montanus). Question: Why did they appoint the maidens of Shiloh to be seized, rather than the maidens of other cities? Responses: 1. This was done for the protection of the Benjamites, to whose lot Shiloh was conjoined, so that they might be able very quickly to take the young women to some city, before the men of Shiloh might follow them. 2. Perhaps such a solemnity was not kept in Shiloh, but not in other places (Tostatus). 3. Not only were those seized, but others that assembled there from all the cities of Judea (in the annual solemnities, to which women often were freely coming with their husbands and parents, although they were not bound to it [Bonfrerius on verse 19]). But they call them the daughters of Shiloh, because the daughters of Shiloh were certainly going to be present, and were going before the rest to these dances: concerning the rest it was uncertain whether they would come; or even, if they had come, whether they would join themselves to these dances (Bonfrerius). Those that were seized are indeed called women of Shiloh, because they were coming forth either to Shiloh, or from Shiloh: yet it was possible that others from diverse tribes were joined to them (Serarius). It was not a solemnity of the place, but of the people of Israel, who were assembling for the feast: and since all the Israelites were not able to be contained in one city, they were extending themselves into all parts near to the city, and to those especially that are here described (Martyr).

The daughters of Shiloh; by whom he may possibly understand not those only who were born or settled inhabitants there, (as many conceive,) but all those who were come thither upon this occasion, and for a time sojourned there; for although only the males were obliged to go up to the three solemn feasts, yet it is apparent that the women had liberty to go, and those who were most devout did usually go, and others, upon special reasons or occasions: see 1 Samuel 1:7, 21, 22; 2:1; Luke 2:22, 23, 41-43. And it may be justly presumed, especially concerning those women that lived at no great distance from the place of public worship, that they came thither in great numbers. Moreover, the daughters of Shiloh, strictly so called, are not only they that lived in that town or city, but in the country belonging to it, which oft comes under the name of the city to which it belongs. And these may be here particularly named, because though others might come, yet they were under great obligations to come, because of their nearness to the place. The vineyards were near to their dancing-place.

[And catch ye wives] Question: Whether they were able lawfully to advise this abduction? Response: Some answer in the affirmative (thus Serarius, Lapide, Bonfrerius). Because they each only swore particularly that they were not going to give their own daughters to them (that is, willingly [Bonfrerius]), but not that they were not going to give the daughters of others by joint decree (Lapide). They did not swear that they were not going to give counsel, in what manner the Benjamites might be able to provide for themselves; or that they were going to impede them from taking (Bonfrerius); or that they were not going to permit, or even suggest, that they seize them by force or cunning (Tirinus). They are only bound by the oath from an erring conscience; and so, in whatever manner they might satisfy conscience, it was lawful for them to work against it (Menochius out of Serarius). Since an oath does not bind beyond the intention of the one swearing, and it is certain that this case of necessity, in which an entire Tribe was to be cut off by a want of wives, did not come into mind for the Israelites when they swore, it is certain that in this case they were not bound to it. Yet, because they were regarding themselves to be bound, erring in conscience, they prudently turned to recommend abduction (Tirinus). Ambrose defends, or excuses, this deed of the Benjamites in a passage that we brought forward in Concerning the Law of War and Peace 2:13:5. Seneca[6] in his Excerpts,[7] The Law binds the one that helps an exile, not the one that suffers him to be helped. Symmachus,[8] He attempts to instill in your divine soul an empty fear, if anyone asserts that conscience of those giving binds you, unless ye endure the hatred of those taking away. Certainly thos that had not given the counsel to abduct were innocent: which thing would not have been done, if a Prince with authority had been among the people. See the end of this chapter (Grotius). Moreover, the parents of the young women were not perjured, because they were not aware of the counsel to abduct; neither did they give their daughters, but these were snatched away from them (Lapide). And permission is one thing, a positive donation is another thing, which latter alone were they thinking to be prohibited to them by the sanctity of their oath (Bonfrerius). Finally, neither did the Benjamites sin; 1. because they were not bound by the oath (Serarius): 2. because this abduction was done by counsel or decree of superiors for an honest end (Tirinus, similarly Lyra, Serarius, Estius); and in such a way that the consent of the parents of the virgins might also be expected, and much more of the virgins themselves, just as it follows in verse 22 (Estius). [Others find fault with this deed.] It has some appearance of equity, that they interpret and mollify the oath: But they do not act candidly and simply, neither does the device loosen the oath, indeed it rather tightens it. They are unwilling to to expose themselves as an example of perjury, but they grant an abduction; which is not a lesser disgrace. And what if some of those carried off were heiresses? Then they would have violated this law. God took precautions for these things, that marriages without the consent of parents might not be ratified; but this was done against the will of the parents. They slip from one sin into another, neither did they seek the sentence of God on this matter (Martyr). With this supposed, that the oath bound them, those Elders sinned by this counsel. 1. Because they act contrary to their oath: For the intention of those swearing was that the Benjamites might have no wife of Israel; but here they procure wives for them. 2. Because they were inciting others to perjury, since they were wishing the fathers of the virgins to relinquish their daughters to the Benjamites (Tostatus). In addition, in a similar manner, Romulus and the Romans instituted games (the great games of the Circus [Grotius]), and they, drawing near to them, seized Sabine virgins, so that they might have them as wives. This was done seven hundred years latter[9] (Lapide). Aristomenes Messenius[10] at the Hyacinthine festivals seized fifteen virgins of the rounds of dancing Spartans:[11] Jerome Against Jovinianus (Gataker).

Catch ye every man his wife; take them away by force or violence; which they might the better do, because mixed dances were not used by the people of God in their solemnities, but the women danced by themselves, and therefore were more liable to this rape.

[1] Hebrew: וַיְצַ֕ו אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י בִנְיָמִ֖ן לֵאמֹ֑ר לְכ֖וּ וַאֲרַבְתֶּ֥ם בַּכְּרָמִֽים׃

[2] Hebrew: וּרְאִיתֶ֗ם וְ֠הִנֵּה אִם־יֵ֙צְא֥וּ בְנוֹת־שִׁילוֹ֮ לָח֣וּל בַּמְּחֹלוֹת֒ וִֽיצָאתֶם֙ מִן־הַכְּרָמִ֔ים וַחֲטַפְתֶּ֥ם לָכֶ֛ם אִ֥ישׁ אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ מִבְּנ֣וֹת שִׁיל֑וֹ וַהֲלַכְתֶּ֖ם אֶ֥רֶץ בִּנְיָמִֽן׃

[3] Exodus 15:20: “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances (וּבִמְחֹלֹת, or, with pipes).”

[4] 1 Kings 1:40: “And all the people came up after him, and the people piped with pipes (מְחַלְּלִ֣ים בַּחֲלִלִ֔ים), and rejoiced with great joy, so that the earth rent with the sound of them.”

[5] Psalm 87:7: “As well the singers as the players on instruments (וְשָׁרִ֥ים כְּחֹלְלִ֑ים) shall be there: all my springs are in thee.”

[6] Lucius Annæus Seneca, or the Elder (c. 54 BC-c. 39 AD) was a Roman rhetorician.

[7] Controversiæ.

[8] Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (c. 345-402) was a Roman statesman. His endeavors to preserve the traditional religions of Rome brought him into controversy with Ambrose. Ambrose wrote a rebuttal to Symmachus’ “Plea to Valentinian concerning the Removal of the Altar of Victory”.

[9] It is said that, after the founding of Rome in the eighth century BC, Romulus and the Romans, attempting unsuccessfully to contract marriages with the surrounding Sabines, attracted their neighbors to the festival of Neptune Equester, and seized wives for themselves then.

[10] Aristomenes was King of Messenia, remembered for his struggle against the Spartans in the Second Messenian War (685-668 BC).

[11] There was a famous temple to Artemis at Caryae. During the annual festival to the goddess, the Lacedædomian virgins would dance.

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Dr. Steven Dilday holds a BA in Religion and Philosophy from Campbell University, a Master of Arts in Religion from Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), and both a Master of Divinity and a  Ph.D. in Puritan History and Literature from Whitefield Theological Seminary.  He is also the translator of Matthew Poole's Synopsis of Biblical Interpreters and Bernardinus De Moor’s Didactico-Elenctic Theology.




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