First Reading of Judges: 21, When Vows Lead to Violence

Matthew Vows
I took this photo from my car on a 12-hour trip that turned into 21 hours.  I remember whispering promises to God if he would keep me safe.  It was a time of  high stress, and those hasty, thoughtless little vows I made, all alone in my car, make it the perfect image for this passage.


Well, this will be the last First Reading post on the book of Judges.  It always feels good to complete something, and this experience of writing everything down has been wonderfully beneficial for me.  I hope it’s useful for other people, too, and if nothing else, I hope it encourages people to open their Bibles, read the book of Judges, and process the lessons it’s trying to teach us.

This one is going to have to draw from other books of scripture, and I’ll do my best to keep the length manageable.  Open your Bibles to Judges 21, and let’s get down in the mud with these Israelites and see what we can learn.


Judges 21:  It’s All About People Making Vows

Should we make vows at all?

What does the law actually say about vows?

Is there a way to get out of vows?

What if a vow was made in sin and you repent later?

What if you didn’t understand the vow when you made it?

If you accidentally vow something, does it still count?


My personal belief is that all of the above questions tend to lead us down the primrose path toward legalism.

God sees the heart (1Sam 16:7), but man gets tangled up in the letter of the law.  Over and over again, we are told that God never wanted our offerings (Psalm 51:16, Hosea 6:6, Isaiah 1:11, and many more).  He wanted our love, obedience, and loyalty.  The heart of a man matters, and the problem in Judges 21 is that Israel has both an obedience problem and a serious heart problem.  They commit terrible sin and then they keep compounding their guilt at every, single step in this story.

If you’re here because you just read from Judges in your Bible and you’re upset about the mass kidnapping and forced marriage in this chapter…stick with me.  I promise you that God didn’t tell the Israelites to do that; I promise you that the Bible isn’t trying to excuse it or hold it up as justified; and I promise you that it is all being presented to us on purpose as depraved sin.  This chapter is the finale in a book about total moral failure, so we are supposed to be horrified by it.

In order to see it clearly and correctly, however, we have to look really hard at what the author was trying to show us and the way he was trying to show it to his original audience.  The author was not a post-Enlightenment man from an English-speaking nation, so in order to “get him,” we have to understand the tangled web of wrongness that went into the vows from the perspective of Ancient Israel.  Once we do that, everything else will get really easy to see, even for 21st-century folks like us.

Verses 1-5 – Two Hasty Vows that Lead to Tragic Sin
Paging Jephthah on Aisle 21!  Here, we see the Israelites facing the consequences of stupid, rash vows that they made in the heat of high passion.  Like Jephthah, they resorted to swearing things to God on the eve of battle, and like Jephthah, the Israelites will commit atrocities and murder as a result.

In verse 1, we see Israel’s first hasty vow:  “We will never give our daughters in marriage to a man from the tribe of Benjamin.”

In verse 5, we see Israel’s second hasty vow: “anyone who refused to come (to the Battle of Gibeah in chapter 20) would be put to death.”

These were vows or oaths that the Israelites made to God, at Mizpah, during the Levite’s big rallying speech.  Remember back there in the chapter 20 post when I said that this kind of emotional agitation could cause devastating consequences?  Well, here they are!

Israel has gone way beyond God’s promise of victory over Benjamin because, in their agitated anger, winning wasn’t enough.  Even after the battle had been decisively won, they chased the defeated and fleeing Benjamites into the wilderness and outlying towns.  They burned whole communities to the ground, killing masses of innocent Benjamite men, women, and children who had nothing to do with Gibeah or the crime against the Levite’s concubine.

Chapter 21 begins in the aftermath, when the bloodlust has evaporated, and Israel is looking around at the violence and devastation they’ve caused.  They recall the vows they made, and they lament over what keeping them will mean.  Like Jephthah before them, they don’t know enough about the character of God to understand that a sinful vow is better unkept, that a vow involving murder and pillage…is not a vow.  It’s just a sin.

What They Didn’t Understand…Because Context
There are laws about vows in Leviticus 27 and Numbers 30, so let’s have a quick gander at the relevant passages that may have tripped up our Judges people.

Leviticus 27:29, NLT – “No person specially set apart for destruction may be bought back.  Such a person must be put to death.”

Leviticus 27:29, JPS Tanakh – “No human being who has been proscribed may be ransomed; he shall be put to death.”

This first passage from Leviticus (and I encourage you to read Lev 27 to get the context around it) is talking about “proscribed” or “set apart” people who are already claimed by God.  This refers to convicted idolaters, captured prisoners of war that God has commanded be killed, and Israelites who failed to comply with the “ban,” which means “public declaration.”  That speaks of battle deserters, for example, and it’s the reason why Israel may have thought it applied to Jabesh-gilead (it didn’t).  There is a lot of commentary on this in a lot of places, but it’s about a specific sort of person that God specifically commanded Israel to destroy.

Nobody in this story qualifies (and neither did Jephthah’s daughter).

God wasn’t about human sacrifice.  It was never about that–never–and the original audience for Judges would have been well-versed in their Torah.  They would immediately understand the mistake that Jephthah made when he killed his daughter and the mistake these Israelites in Gibeah made when they slaughtered the people of Jabesh-gilead.

Numbers 30:2, NLT – “A man who makes a vow to the Lord or makes a pledge under oath must never break it.  He must do exactly what he said he would do.”

Numbers 30:3, JPS Tanakh – “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.”

This second passage comes from Numbers 30.  You may note that the two translations have different versification (numbering).  Nevertheless, it is the same passage from a Masoretic source text.  This verse is part of a whole list of conditions made to protect the vows of a woman, but we can see in it, perhaps, why these men in Judges would have taken it to mean they were justified–even obligated–to go through with their vows to the letter.

Reading without understanding can get us trapped in some really sticky pits, can’t it?  These two verses, when cherry-picked from the whole (and don’t think for a moment that ancient people were any less likely to do that than we are), actually distort the meaning of the Law.

So wait:  if that stuff didn’t mean that God expected Jephthah to cut his daughter’s throat and burn her ritually dismembered body on an altar,

…and if it didn’t mean that God expected Israel to refuse intermarriage with Benjamites for all of forever,

…and if it didn’t mean that God expected Israel to slaughter any Israelite who didn’t show up in Mizpah to hear the Levite agitating for war,

then what did it actually mean, and how would anybody know?

Well, let’s throw the context in and see what it looks like.

The verse in Numbers 30 is a preface to the protections given to women for their vows.  It reminds the people that men, who have agency, are obligated to their vows and then segues into a set of rules designed to explain that women, who don’t have agency in Ancient Israel, are obligated to their vows, too.  It tells husbands and fathers to allow women to fulfill their vows; it holds women blameless if men prevent them from fulfilling their vows; and it generally says, “Hey…listen up, Israel! Women are people, and they have fellowship with God, too!  Don’t get in the way of that!”

Clearly, that message was lost in more ways than one by the time we reach the time of Judges.

Still…it does say that men must keep the letter of their vows, right?  Well, yes and no, and that’s where the Leviticus laws about vows come in.  Numbers 30 reminds men to keep their vows and allow women to keep theirs, but the regulations for vow-making and vow-breaking are all laid out explicitly in Leviticus 27.  For every kind of vow–except for the one (quoted above) about people who were set apart for destruction BY GOD HIMSELF–there is a clearly stated solution for getting ransomed out of the vow.  Read the entirety of Leviticus 27, and you will see these.

Vows were meant to be kept, but they were never meant to be made in the name of violence, destruction, murder, and general depravity.

Make sense?  Do you see how we got here?  Let me know if I just totally lost you with this in the comments, and I can try to edit it for more clarity.

What we have here is a group of Israelites with no king.  They have no functioning priesthood to guide their religious practice.  They don’t even have a judge anymore to handle their disputes.  They don’t know God anymore, and they have no leadership to set them back on track.

In Chapter 20, we see them attempt to draw close to God properly and consult with him.  We see that God immediately responded to his people and gave them victory over Benjamin, who up to that point, was in the wrong.  It looks like we might actually get a reconciliation and a happy ending here!  But the very next day, Israel ran straight back to the morality of Canaan by slaughtering and destroying.  They started treating God like the idol gods of Canaan by laboring under this belief that He would punish them for failing to keep ridiculous and sinful vows made rashly in a fit of passion.

They’ve learned nothing.

Judges 21 - Gustave Dore
You may have noticed that I have a particular fondness for the woodcutting art of Gustave Doré.  He was one of several impressive French artists who were making illustrations for Bibles in the 19th century.  Doré made so many!  I love looking at them.


Verses 6-14: The Slaughter and Rape of Jabesh-gilead
So, the Israelites decide that they cannot lose their brother Benjamin, and they lament that they cannot give any of their daughters to the surviving Benjamites to wife because of the vow.  The basic problem seems to be that they’ve killed too many of the Benjamite women for the tribe to sustain itself, and without women to make babies, Benjamin will die out.

Israel doesn’t know what to do about this “not our daughters” vow they’ve made.  They can’t break it, they say, because that would anger God.  They will simply have to find another huge group of women and steal them.  The women will have to be maidens, of course, because nobody wants an Israelite widow, right?  I mean, when I read this the first time, my mind immediately jumped to, “Well, the simple solution would be to give them all of your widows.  Give the widows protection, remove the burden of their support from your tribe, and give the Benjamites some new wives.  It’s a win-win.”  But this is Judges.  It’s not going to end with happy tidings.

Nope.  Israel’s widows are not up for consideration.  It’s gotta be virgins.

Now the only question remaining is where to go about getting such a group of physically pure young ladies.

Again, an absolutely brilliant solution presents itself, and it can be conveniently achieved by fulfilling that second hasty vow they all made.  They vowed to kill anyone from Israel who didn’t respond to their tribe’s bloody piece of the Levite’s concubine by agreeing to gather at Mizpah for war.  It just so happened that a town across the river in Gad territory had not shown up to join the fracas.  The town was called Jabesh-gilead.

The plan to kill two vows with one stone took shape.

They would march into Jabesh-gilead,

…and kill everybody except the virgins (apparently, killing “everyone” doesn’t include virgins if you want to keep them),

…in order to fulfill the “kill everyone who didn’t show up” vow.

…Then they would then take all of the Jabesh-gilead virgins

…and give them to Benjamites as wives,

…after killing everyone else in Jabesh-gilead

…for not helping them slaughter all of the Benjamite men, women, and children

…which resulted in the surviving Benjamite men needing wives.

Set aside the horror aspect for a moment and look at how utterly ridiculous this logic circle is.  It’s like a bad comedy skit.  We’re meant to see it in this light, I think.  We’re supposed to see the absurdity of these excuses Israel is making for itself.  We’re supposed to see the self-serving language that makes no sense, and we’re supposed to condemn this ugly, violent, and sinful backpedaling that Israel is doing.  They’re serving themselves while claiming it’s all to serve God.  This is blasphemy, y’all.

It’s fratricide, it’s kidnapping, it’s rape, and it is blasphemy.

Israel is hiding behind the thin veil of these two idiotic vows so they can wave away all their sin and call it obedience to God’s law.  The alternative is too awful to contemplate because it would mean facing down the horrible truth that they have executed one of their own tribes down to near extinction.  That truth is too hard, so they just keep digging the hole deeper, and they have no leader among them who will stand up and say, “Enough.”

IMG_2228Verses 15-24: The Benjamites Crash a Party and Steal More Women in Shiloh
Now that we’ve gotten through all of that, I hope you can see that the author is showing us a structured story of progressive evil.  They start with evil vows.  They continue with evil murder of the defeated and innocent Benjamites.  They move on to evil murder of Gadites in Jabesh-gilead.  They go on with evil kidnapping of Gadite maidens.  They’re going to close out with more evil kidnapping of random women they can seize off the side of the road as the women dance in the vineyards to honor God.  It’s…well. It is what it is.

The women of Shiloh would have been encountered on the march back from Jabesh-gilead as they returned to Mizpah.  Shiloh is right in the path of return, so it seems like this was probably a target of opportunity.  Israel has realized that 400 Gadite virgins was a pretty good haul, but it isn’t enough, and when they see the dancing ladies in the fields off the side of the road, it must have felt like providence.  To people who have deluded themselves so successfully thus far, it wouldn’t surprise me.  Whether that factored in or not, the Benjamites who hadn’t scored a wife from Jabesh-gilead stole one from Shiloh and they all ran back to Mizpah.

Everyone considered the matter closed at this point.  The Benjamites went home to their ruined towns to rebuild, dragging their traumatized “wives” with them.  The rest of Israel scattered back to their homes.

Verse 25: “In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.”

This is the final act of Judges.  The author wants to make sure that we see how very chaotic, debauched, and violent Israel has become.  He wants to make sure that we see it because he wants us to understand that Israel has no king.

The repetition of this theme begins in chapter 17 with the story of Micah’s idolatry and desecration of the priesthood.  It is repeated in chapter 18 with the sacking and slaughter of Laish by the Danites.  It is repeated in chapter 19 with the Levite’s concubine and subsequent war with Benjamin.  And, finally, it is repeated here at the end, after Israel has brought itself to the absolute rock bottom by killing their own countrymen, stealing Israelite women from one of their own tribes, and then stealing Israelite women from God as they danced in honor of Him.  Israel has no king.

And that’s the end.

Thank you for reading my scribbles.  Thank you for the encouragement you have given me.  I will see you next time in the very short, but blessedly happy, book of Ruth.



10 thoughts on “First Reading of Judges: 21, When Vows Lead to Violence

  1. These posts about Judges have cleared up SO many of my wonderings!!! Thank you so much for writing these and for helping me know God’s heart and word more!

  2. Also, as far as the vows go… the verses from Jesus you quoted at the top… do you think Jesus said that to protect us from making and trying to fulfill evil vows like the Israelites in chapter 21? Is there more to it than just that?

    Maybe this is the recovering legalist in me, but I worry I’m breaking that command when someone asks me to promise them something and I do, even if it’s as simple as keeping someone’s confidence. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  3. The quotes at the top from Christ are, of course, from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 is the chapter I will discuss here), and they appear in a list of topics that Jesus is teaching in the “You have heard it said…but I say to you” format. He is reminding the people of a moral law and then he illustrates to them the meaning of that moral law and how we break it in ways we don’t think of. He is breaking the idea of legalistically following rules by demonstrating the heart of the laws in question so that we might obey with a willing heart rather than obeying in a legalistic, empty way. That is how I read it.

    This is the section of that sermon where he says, “you have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery, but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has committed adultery in his heart.” This is the part of the sermon where he says, “You have heard it said that you shall not murder…but I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.”

    It is in this context that Christ comes to the part about vows.

    “Again, you have heard it said that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn,’ but I say unto you, Do not take an oath at all…”

    I think there is a great deal we could talk about in what Christ meant in his statements about not taking oaths. The examples he gives are about the vow-maker puffing himself up and swearing by things that don’t belong to him. We can’t swear on things that belong to God, and Christ points out that heaven belongs to God, and even our own heads are under God’s power, not our own. So we aren’t to swear by those things. He goes on to say, “Just let yes be yes and no be no,” essentially. That is good enough.

    I think it speaks directly to the mindset we can carry when we’ve made vows. We get so wrapped up in the legalism of the fact that we made a vow that we totally miss the heart of it and the sacred nature of it. We also can end up promising sinful things we shouldn’t have promised and then struggle with whether or not we should just go ahead and do the sinful thing because, after all, we promised we would.

    The answer is, “no,” and the best way to stay out of that sticky situation is to avoid swearing and vowing and making oaths about everything.

    In each topic of Matthew 5, Jesus is talking through a law that the people follow and then turning it back on them with how legalism has destroyed the heart of what that law was for. Thou shalt not murder was about turning our backs on wrath and violence and anger. Thou shalt not commit adultery was about keeping our hearts as well as our bodies only for our spouses. It wasn’t just about the sex act. The laws about keeping vows, like the laws about murder and adultery, have become these legalistic quagmires where people sat and wrote page after page about loopholes and “what if” scenarios. Jesus was saying, “cut it out! Just don’t make vows. Just say what you mean and mean what you say and do your best with an honest heart.”

    Do not worry about breaking a command when you lovingly promise a friend that you will/won’t do something. That isn’t what he’s saying. As long as when you promise someone something, you don’t bring God’s name into it.
    No swearing to God. No swearing on your mother’s grave. No swearing on the Bible. Just…let your yes mean yes and your no mean no. If Israel had done that, there would have been a lot less heartache at the end of Judges.

    The spirit of what Jesus is saying here is this: If you say “yes,” or if you say, “no,” do your best to keep your word with an honest heart. That is enough.

  4. Well, the way it reads to me, this is about oaths or vows made hastily or in a state of high emotion that turn out to be sinful or otherwise regrettable. Whether they were made “for good or evil,” if the person looks at a vow/oath and says, “Lord, I never should have promised that,” it seems to apply.

    In the case of religious vows that one makes as part of a sacrament, these are things you would need to discuss with God, and I would also recommend discussing with trusted spiritual leaders. Generally speaking, vows of celibacy are made in a religious calling context, and I would never presume to interfere with or offer advice on those. It simply is not my place and I am unqualified.

    If, however, we’re talking about a personal vow of celibacy made in a moment of emotional fervor, I think it would fall under this Leviticus 5 kind of category.

    Just know that, as Christians, whatever vows we have taken and kept or broken, we have the privilege of constant access to God. He is our Father in Heaven, and we can take ALL of our troubles to him for clarity and forgiveness. The sacrifice has already been given for us and atonement has been fully made. This is not an issue of legality, so to speak. This is an issue of the heart, of obedience, and relationship.

    1. Yes, I was referring to those personal vows. So you’re saying, after being forgiven, the vow is annulled?

      1. Given that I don’t know anything about the situation, I cannot speak to it particularly. Even if I did, something of so personal a nature should be left strictly between the individual and God (and maybe a trusted person in a position of spiritual authority of some kind in that individual’s life).

        What I can say is that according to Leviticus, vows that should never have been made or vows that were made hastily/without sufficient foresight, should be brought before God and released. In the old covenant, people did that by making an offering at the Tabernacle. In the new covenant, we simply go to God and repent of having made the vow, ask for forgiveness, and move on in life, resolved not to make that same error in the future.

        If someone has taken a vow of celibacy for his/her personal life for some private reason (maybe he/she wished to be like Paul and devote himself entirely to service, or maybe he/she was hurt by sexual sin early in life and vowed never to indulge in physical or romantic relationships in the wake of that), that is an understandable thing. If said person later decides they were mistaken and that they wish to marry and make a family, I don’t think there is any reason to believe that God will not release them from their previous promise. Furthermore, though we are to take very careful thought before making solemn promises to God, and though we should try to keep our word when we give it, God sees the heart. He knows better even than we do what our motivations are. If your heart seeks to be obedient and do the right thing, God knows that and, I believe, will bless it.

        There is no need to be tied in knots or get mired in the notion of “rules” when it comes to things like this. It’s about living honestly and uprightly before God and man. I cannot know the particular situation, so I cannot speak to it. There may be other factors or other people involved, so I would not dare to have an opinion or give advice there. When it comes to vows in general, if we make a vow we later regret, we can go to God and ask to be released from it, acknowledging that we made a mistake.

        Sacramental/covenantal vows are quite different things. Vows of marriage and vows to enter Holy Orders in the Roman Catholic or Orthodox faith traditions…are very, very different from a person saying, “Lord, I swear that I will never do X again.” One is very serious. The other is made in haste. The latter is what Leviticus 5 addresses, and this is what Jesus is addressing in Matthew 5, as well.

        If the vow you’re talking about fits in that latter category, then just talk to God frankly and honestly about it…and then let it go.

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