According to the Torah, the Tribe of Benjamin (Hebrew: שבט בִּנְיָמִין, Modern Shevat Binyamin, Tiberian Shevaṭ Binyāmîn) was one of the Tribes of Israel descended from Benjamin, the youngest son of the patriarch Jacob and his wife Rachel. In the Samaritan Pentateuch the name appears as Binyamīm (Hebrew: בנימים, “Son of my right hand”).
From after the conquest of the promised land by Joshua until the formation of the first Kingdom of Israel, the Tribe of Benjamin was a part of a loose confederation of Israelite tribes. No central government existed, and in times of crisis the people were led by ad hoc leaders known as Judges (see the Book of Judges).
Almost the entire tribe of Benjamin, women and children included, was wiped out by the other Israelite tribes after the Battle of Gibeah (related in the Hebrew Bible in Judges 20). The text refers several times to the Benjaminite warriors as “men of valour” despite their defeat. A remnant of the tribe was spared: “those few who remained” were allowed to marry women of another town, whose husbands had been killed, to enable the tribe to continue (Judges 21).
Responding to a growing threat from Philistine incursions, the Israelite tribes formed a strong, centralised monarchy. The first king of this new entity was Saul, from the tribe of Benjamin, (1 Samuel 9:1-2) which at the time was the smallest of the tribes. He reigned from Gibeah for 38 years (1 Samuel 8-31).
After Saul died, all the tribes other than Judah remained loyal to the House of Saul, but after the death of Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son and successor to the throne of Israel, the tribe of Benjamin joined the northern Israelite tribes in making David — then king of Judah — king of the united Kingdom of Israel and Judah. On the accession of Rehoboam, David’s grandson, in c. 930 BCE the northern tribes split from the House of David to reform a Kingdom of Israel. The tribe of Benjamin remained a part of the Kingdom of Judah until Judah was conquered by Babylon in c. 586 BCE and the population deported.
In the Blessing of Jacob, Benjamin is referred to as “a ravenous wolf”; traditional interpretations often considered this to refer to the might of a specific member of the tribe, either the champion Ehud, king Saul, or Mordecai of the Esther narrative, or in Christian circles, the apostle Paul.
The Temple in Jerusalem was traditionally said to be partly in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin (but mostly in that of Judah), and some traditional interpretations of the Blessing consider the ravenous wolf to refer to the Temple’s altar, as simile in regard to the heavy presence there of biblical sacrifices. Some scholars believe that it instead originates from the tribe having the figure of a wolf in its standard.
Battle of Gibeah
The tribe of Benjamin is initially described in the Bible as being very pugnacious, for example in the Song of Deborah, and in descriptions where they are described as being taught to fight left handed, so as to be able to wrong foot their enemies (Judges 3:15-21, 20:16, 1 Chronicles 12:2) and where they are portrayed as being brave and skilled archers. (1 Chronicles 8:40, 2 Chronicles 14:8)
However, an abrupt change of character to one of placidity occurs in the text after a traumatic incident for the tribe. The Book of Judges recounts that the rape of the concubine of a member of the tribe of Levi, by a gang from the tribe of Benjamin resulted in a battle at Gibeah, in which the other tribes of Israel sought vengeance, and after which members of Benjamin were killed including women and children. Six hundred of the men from the tribe of Benjamin survived by hiding in a cave for four months.
The other Israelite tribes were grieved at the near loss of the tribe of Benjamin. They decided to allow these 600 men to carry on the tribe of Benjamin but no one was willing to give their daughter in marriage to them because they had vowed not to. To get around this, they provided wives for the men by killing the men from the tribe of Machir who had not shown concern for the almost lost tribe of Benjamin as they did not come to grieve with the rest of Israel. 400 virgin women from the tribe of Machir we found and given in marriage to the Benjaminite men. There were still 200 men remaining who were without a wife so it was agreed that they could go to a Jewish festival and hide in the vineyards, and wait for the young unmarried women to come out and dance. They then grabbed a wife each and took her back to their land and rebuilt their houses. (Judges 19-21)
According to the Hebrew Bible, following the completion of the conquest of Canaan by the Israelite tribes, Joshua allocated the land among the twelve tribes. Kenneth Kitchen dates this conquest to just after 1200 BCE. However, according to the consensus of modern scholars, the conquest as described in the book of Joshua did not occur.
The Bible recounts that Joshua assigned to Benjamin the territory between that of Ephraim to the north and Judah to the south, with the Jordan River as the eastern border, and included many historically important cities, such as Bethel, Gibeah, and encroached on the northern hills of Jerusalem. (Joshua 18:11-28)
Modern Israeli scholars have identified most of the towns mentioned in the Book of Joshua and that belong to the lot of Benjamin. Only those towns and villages on the northern-most and southern-most territorial boundary lines, or purlieu, are named in the land allocation—though, in actuality, all unnamed towns and villages in between these boundaries would still belong to the tribe of Benjamin. The Babylonian Talmud names three of these cities, all of which were formerly enclosed by a wall, and belonged to the tribe of Benjamin: Lydda (Lod), Ono (Kfar ‘Ana = كفر ئنا – wherein is now built Or Yehudah), and Gei Ha-ḥarashim. Presumably, the westward boundary of the tribe of Benjamin would have stretched as far as the Mediterranean Sea. Marking what is now one of the southern-most butts and bounds of Benjamin’s territory is “the spring of the waters of Nephtoah” (Josh. 18:15), a place identified as Kefar Lifta (كفر لفتا), and situate on the left-hand side of the road as one enters Jerusalem. It is now an abandoned Arab village. The word Lifta is merely a corruption of the Hebrew name Nephtoah, and where a natural spring by that name still abounds.
Though Jerusalem was in the territory allocated to the tribe of Benjamin (Joshua 18:28), it remained under the independent control of the Jebusites. Judges 1:21 points to the city being within the territory of Benjamin, while Joshua 15:63 implies that the city was within the territory of Judah. In any event, Jerusalem remained an independent Jebusite city until it was finally conquered by David in c. 11th century BC and made into the capital of the united Kingdom of Israel. After the breakup of the United Monarchy, Jerusalem continued as the capital of the southern Kingdom of Judah.
The ownership of Bethel is also ambiguous. Though Joshua allocated Bethel to Benjamin, by the time of the prophetess Deborah, Bethel is described as being in the land of the Tribe of Ephraim. (Judges 4:5) Then, some twenty years after the breakup of the United Monarchy, Abijah, the second king of Kingdom of Judah, defeated Jeroboam of Israel and took back the towns of Bethel, Jeshanah and Ephron, with their surrounding villages. Ephron is believed to be the Ophrah that was also allocated to the Tribe of Benjamin by Joshua.
Its situation, between the leading tribe of the Kingdom of Israel (Ephraim), and the leading tribe of the Kingdom of Judah (Judah),may have been prophesied in the Blessing of Moses, where it is described as dwelling between YHWH’s shoulders. Some textual scholars view this as a postdiction – maintaining that the poem was written long after the tribe had settled there.
The Tribal Border of Benjamin
Nevertheless, the border description of the tribe of Benjamin occurs first in Joshua 18:11-21. The border description starts at the ancient city of Jericho in verse twelve.
“And the border on the north side was from the Jordan, then the border went up to the side of Jericho on the north, and went up through the hill country westward and it ended at the wilderness of Beth-aven.”
The border followed the road leading from Jericho to Ophrah, turning southward north of Ophrah and descending towards Bethel. The wilderness of Beth-aven would have incorporated much of this area, with the actual city of Beth-aven located a mere few miles east of Bethel. Nadav Na’aman states the northern border followed the Bethel-Ophrah line.
The northern border of Benjamin would come to constitute the northern frontier of the southern kingdom of Judah. It became the limit of the southern frontier of the northern kingdom of Israel. Simply put, the land of Benjamin was the frontier between Israel and Judah. It buffered the north from the south, and the Benjamite northern border was the very line of separation between the two kingdoms – much like the DMZ between North and South Korea today.
Consequently, the loyalties of the tribe of Benjamin were always divided, and many skirmishes were fought along this frontier over the course of its history. Only one major war was waged on the soil of Benjamin, though sporadic fighting occurred along the frontier, with both sides caught in a perpetual cycle of gaining, then subsequently losing, ground.
Verse thirteen continues with the border continuing to Luz, which is also Bethel. From Bethel the border of the tribe of Benjamin turned southward to Ataroth-addar, near Lower Beth-horon. Though its identity not certain, Ataroth-addar is believed to have been located along the Central Ridge Route.
Likewise, some cities on the maps given are questionable as to their location at best. Ataroth-addar, based on the map provided, would not seem to lie near “the hill which lies on the south of lower Beth-horon”.
Yet, it’s proximity to Lower Beth-horon is undeniable, though the exact locale may be in question. Verse fourteen continues the border description of the tribe of Benjamin.
“And the border extended from there, and turned round on the west side southward, from the hill which lies before Beth-horon southward; and it ended at Kirath-baal (that is Kiriath-jearim), a city of the sons of Judah. This was the west side.”
This verse is significant because it not only delineates the Benjamite border to the west, but also delineates the eastern boundary for the tribe of Dan. The tribe of Dan’s borders, as scholars such as Nadav Na’aman have pointed out, were determined after the borders of Judah, Benjamin and Eprhaim. Na’aman states “its borders presuppose the demarcation of its three neighbors”.
Dan’s allotment, thus, was the gap left by the borders of Judah, the tribe of Benjamin, and the tribe of Ephraim.
Verses fifteen through nineteen give the southern border of the tribe of Benjamin.
“Then the south side was from the edge of Kiriath-jearim, and the border went westward and went to the fountain of the waters of Nephtoah. And the border went down to the edge of the hill which is in the valley of Ben-hinnom, which is in the valley of Rephaim northward; and it went down to the valley of Hinnom, to the slope of the Jebusite southward, and went down to En-rogel.”
The cities will be discussed shortly, however Jebus was the name of the city before Jerusalem. Thus, in this verse the southern border of Benjamin includes what will become Jerusalem in time. The southern border extends from Kiriath-jearim, through the Valley of the Rephaim, an interesting reminder of kings Og and Sihon and the remnant of the Nephilim from Numbers, to the Valley of Hinnom south of Jebus.
This valley lay to the south of Jebus, thus the city was within the tribe of Benjamin, and came to represent the line of demarcation between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. The original city of Jebus was simply the stronghold, or citadel seen on the map below, which the tribe of Benjamin failed to conquer. David drove out the Jebusites, and expanded the original City of David, making it his capital. Thus Jerusalem came to be identified with the tribe and kingdom of Judah.
The description continues in verse seventeen.
“And it extended northward and went to En-shemesh and went to Geliloth, which is opposite the ascent of Adummim, and it went down to the stone of Bohan the son of Reuben. And it continued to the side in front of the Arabah northward, and went down to the Arabah. And the border continued to the side of Beth-hoglah northward; and the border ended at the north bay of the Salt Sea, at the south end of the Jordan. This was the south border.”
The border description ends in verse twenty.
“Moreover, the Jordan was its border on the east side. This was the inheritance of the sons of Benjamin.”
The southern border of the tribe of Benjamin stretched all the way to the Jordan River in the east. The Jordan River, in turn, formed its eastern boundary. The southern frontier of Benjamin over time would merge with the northern frontier of the tribe of Judah.
This border description of the tribe of Benjamin would come to be known as the “land of Benjamin” in certain passages regarding the boundaries of the southern kingdom of Judah. Nadav Na’aman points out Jeremiah’s description of the border of Judah in Jeremiah 17:26
“They will come in from the cities of Judah and from the environs of Jerusalem, from the land of Benjamin, from the lowland, from the hill country, and from the Negev…”
This verse echoes similar descriptions given in Joshua 10:40, 11:12, 16, 12:8, and also in Deuteronomy 1:7. Clearly there were certain geographical descriptions which were familiar to most, if not all, ancient Hebrews.
It is Na’aman’s belief Jeremiah was a contemporary of the author of the city lists found in Joshua 15 and Joshua 18. Thus, the phrase “land of Benjamin” was used to denote a broad geographical area within the kingdom of Judah.
The debate continues amongst scholars whether these geographical divisions also represent administrative districts within Judah’s kingdom. Regardless, though the tribe of Benjamin was a part of the southern kingdom, it maintained the tribal autonomy of its borders, as evident by the phrase, “the land of Benjamin”.
After the dissolution of the united Kingdom of Israel in c. 930 BCE, the Tribe of Benjamin joined the Tribe of Judah as a junior partner in the Kingdom of Judah, or Southern Kingdom. The Davidic dynasty, which had roots in Judah, continued to reign in Judah. As part of the kingdom of Judah, Benjamin survived the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians, but instead was subjected to the Babylonian captivity; when the captivity ended, the distinction between Benjamin and Judah was lost in favour of a common identity as Israel, though in the biblical book of Esther, Mordecai is referred to as being of the tribe of Benjamin, and as late as the time of Jesus of Nazareth some (notably Paul the Apostle) still identified their Benjamite ancestry:
If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised on the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.”