What do classic sources / commentaries say on why the tribes went to war against Benjamin, Shoftim 19-21, and what the Benjaminites sins were?

On the face of it, the rape and murder of a single woman, and even the refusal to turn over the perpetrators, would not seem sufficient to cause an all out war of extermination against Benjamin. A war maybe, but not a war of extermination where even the women and children are put to the sword.

However, I've read / heard ( can't remember where ) that the passage which says the men wanted to "know" the stranger is an intentional parallel to the story of Sodom, and that Benjamin was guilty of similar crimes, homosexuality / general sexual debauchery, persecution of the poor and strangers, and just generally a corrupt debased and unjust society, and that this is the reason for the war of extermination.

I'm primarily interested in early sources like the Talmud, Geonim or Rishonim, as I'd like to know if this is a modern or classical interpretation of the story, or if this interpretation is even found in Jewish sources at all.

  • I understand the focus of O/P. as why was the rape of 1 woman sufficient to wage war? When I was learning this w/ my Rav, he said that some of the commentaries note that G-d was "angry" that all the tribes pooled together to wage war on this, yet with Micha's idol which was a defamation of G-d, directly, the tribes did not pool together to defend G-d's honor. Apparently, this was the wrong decision in G-d's eyes, and all Israel was later punished. B"N, next time I see my rav, I'll ask him for sources of this comment.
    – DanF
    Aug 5, 2015 at 13:10
  • While I did not down-vote on this, I think I can understand why some people did. Your question seems to be based on an assumption (due to contemporary societal norms) that the entire tribe shouldn't be attacked due to one event that occurred. In your question itself, you mention the reason might have been due to the rape, murder and refusal to turn over perpetrators is not 'sufficient to cause an all out war of extermination'. Well, who says it isn't? It seems like the decision makers of the other 11 tribes from biblical times felt it was. Aug 5, 2015 at 14:27
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    @Salmononius2 Which is why I'm asking the question - I'd like to know what classic commentaries say on this subject - especially in light of the literary parallel / allusion to Sodom. Aug 5, 2015 at 14:51
  • @Salmononius2 If the answer is that "contemporary societal norms" are wrong, then you can post that. Asking the question though seems fine, because likely the "contemporary societal norms" in question are actually good ones and there is more to the story than meets the eye (as there usually is in Tanakh). (Incidentally I don't know how you know his assumption is based on "contemporary societal norms" and not on Torah.)
    – Double AA
    Aug 5, 2015 at 16:45
  • While I didn't downvote this post (I've kinda been ignoring it, because it doesn't interest me), I believe that it's been downvoted because earlier revisions were very unclear. (I think this is more likely than @Salmononius2's explanation)
    – MTL
    Aug 5, 2015 at 20:12

1 Answer 1


Ramban (see the translation in Judaica press Shoftim pages 367-371) has a big discussion about the matter. One should note that he explicitly states that this is not the same as the case of S'dom since it was only a small group of people who just wanted to "enjoy" immorality. Ramban states that some of them were "baalei Givah".

The rest of Bnai Yisrael (Mallbim says both the Sanhedrin of the other tribes and the Eidah 20:1) immediately arose and wanted to put them to death even though the miscreants were not technically liable for the death penalty (because of no witnesses or warning and that they released the concubine [not an aishes ish] who was able to return to the house and died of exposure). Daas Sofrim states that it was because of the lack of a king that they relied on the testimony of the Levite himself.

This judgement has its origin in the priciple which our Rabbis have stated(Yevamos 90b): "The Court may administer lashes and the death penalty which are not authorized by the Tora. However, they may not do this [with the intent of instituting a law which] transgresses the Torah but only for the purpose of erecting a fence around the Tora. The tribe of Benjamin, however, did not consent to this as they were not guilty of the death penalty for violating the concubine. Perhaps the Benjamites were also provoked by the fact that the tribes did not communicate with them first and reached a consensus without asking for their opinion.

In my opinion, this [failure to consult Benjamin] caused Israel's punishment which resulted in their being routed at first since the war was done not in accordance with the law. The obligation of making the "fence" lay upon the tribe of Benjaminand not upon them, as it is the tribe itself that is obliged to judge its constituents.

Thus we see that both groups were deserving of punishment. Benjamin forgot to punish the sinners in its insistence on maintaining its prerogative (though they might have done so later had the war not broken out). The other tribes sinned but not asking Hashem first if they should go to war but only "Who shall go up for us first to battle against the children of Benjamin?

Benjamin compounded the error by not just driving the tribes away but "seeking to destroy them by a perpetual hatred" (Yechezkel25:15). Bnei Yisrael, while they asked for permission to continue to fight, still hads not completely atoned and did not ask about victory because they still relied on natural means. When they finally atoned for this, they still sinned by letting their anger continue to have control of them and killing all the men women and children of Benjamin aside from the men who escaped from the battle.

Ramban says that it could be that the total killed on both sides (with the men women, and children additional) the total killed was equal (40,000) on each side, making the punishment on each side equal.

Ramban then goes into why this occurred.

And how significant are the words of our Rabbis (Sanhedrin 103b) who said that the anger of Hashem at that time was due to the idol of Micah (Shoftim chapter 17)! Said the Holy One, blessed be He, 'Concerning My honor, which was violated by those guilty of death and thosed who raised their hand against the priciple of religion, namely, the unity of Hashem, you did not protest; but for the honor of a mortal you did protest, to an extent which exceeded the limits of justice'.

Therefore He confounded the counsel of the two groups and made their hearts stubborn, and they remembered not the brotherly covenant. (Amos 1:9). But after the affair they had regrets, just as it is said (Shoftim 21:2-3) ... For now they realized their mistake and punishment.

We have thus incidently explained a concealed matter which is not clear [with a cursory reading of the text], and we have mentioned the cause thereof.

  • So basically Ramban mentions the parallel with S'dom, but limits it only to the small group that carried out the attack, and not to the tribe as a whole? Do you know where I could read the whole thing in the original Hebrew? Aug 5, 2015 at 16:11
  • By the way, extremely interest answer! Aug 5, 2015 at 16:23
  • @RobertS.Barnes The Judaica Press points to the Ramban on Shoftim 20:48 (at the end of the perek). Aug 5, 2015 at 20:02

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