BENJAMIN, a tribe of Israel, named after the youngest son of Jacob and Rachel. As distinct from the others Benjamin was born not beyond the Jordan but in Palestine, between Bethel and Ephrath. His mother, dying in childbed, gave him the name Ben-ōnī, “Son of my sorrow,” which was changed by his father to Ben-jāmīn, meaning probably “Son of the right hand” (i.e. “of prosperity,” or, perhaps, “son of the south”; Gen. xxxv. 16-18). Of his personal history little is recorded. He was the favourite of his father and brothers (with which contrast the spirit of the stories in Judg. xix.-xxi.), and the reputation of fierceness ascribed to him in the blessing of Jacob (“Benjamin is a wolf that teareth,” Gen. xlix. 27) agrees with what is told of the tribe’s warriors (see Ehud, Saul, Jonathan). It is a curious feature that its noted slingers were said to be left-handed (Judg. xx. 16, cf. iii. 15) and even ambidextrous (1 Chron. xii. 2). The late references to this tribe in the Israelite wanderings in the wilderness are of little value. On entering Palestine it is allotted a portion encompassed by the districts of Ephraim, Dan and Judah. In the time of the “judges” the tribe of Benjamin was almost exterminated (see Judges, Book of), 600 men alone escaping (Judges xix. sqq.). The tribe was built up again by the rape of the maidens of Shiloh at one of their annual festivals (for which cf. Judges ix. 27), but a later narrative gives currency to a tradition that 400 virgins were also brought to Shiloh, the survivors of a massacre of the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead. At all events, Benjamin claimed the honour of providing the great king of Israel whose heroic deliverance of Jabesh-Gilead is referred to elsewhere (see Saul), and it is noteworthy that the tribe only now attain historical importance. If the genealogies associated it with Joseph the father of Ephraim and Manasseh, its fortunes were for a time bound up with the northern kingdom (see David). Although its territory lies open on the west and east, its physical features unite it to Judah, and what is known of its mixed population makes it difficult to determine how far the youngest of the tribes of Israel enjoyed any independent position previous to the monarchy. Its neutral position between Judah and Ephraim gave it an importance which was religious as well as political. Anathoth the home of Abiathar and Jeremiah, Gibeon the old Canaanite sanctuary, the royal sanctuary at Bethel, its associations with Samuel and the prophetic gilds of the times of Elijah and Elisha, and finally Jerusalem itself, the centre of worship, give “the least of all the tribes” a unique value in the history of Old Testament religion.
See H. W. Hogg, Ency. Bib., col. 534 sqq. (S. A. C.)
- Jerusalem and its district was Jebusite until its capture by David (see 2 Sam. v.); for Beeroth and Gibeon, see 2 Sam. iv. 2 seq., xxi. 2, and note the Benjamite and Judahite names which find analogies in the Edomite genealogies. See, on these points, S. A. Cook, Jew. Quarterly Review (1906), pp. 528 sqq.