We have come to the end of our series on the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Along the way we have seen the hand of a gracious, sovereign God working out His purposes in spite of human failure. It is the same for the last tribe in our consideration, the tribe of Benjamin, named after the baby of the family. Benjamin was born to Jacob some way past his one-hundredth birthday and was named Ben-oni by Rachel as her soul departed. Ben-oni means ‘on of my sorrow’.
Throughout the Old Testament, the tribe has an unpleasant habit of being at the eye of national storms. Proper low points! Take, for instance, their hideous acts recorded in Judges chapter 19. Acts which clearly correspond with Genesis chapter 19. Acts which led to a bitter civil war and near extinction for the tribe. Sons of sorrow indeed! Jacob had spoken of Benjamin as being a ravenous wolf, Gen. 49. 27, and, for the most part, we might see this being played out in their unique military capabilities. Left-handed sharpshooters, bowmen and fiercely courageous, they emerge from the Old Testament with a reputation for prestige in warfare.1 Sadly, they only avoided extinction from the Judges chapter 19 episode by yet another nauseating show of ravenous savagery, this time conducted by the other tribes, the slaughter of fellow Israelites in exchange for virgins, Judg. 21. 14. They become embroiled in civil war again under Abner’s manoeuvring to prolong the Benjamite monarchy. It is so painful to read; such turmoil amidst the people of God. It is always painful to see God’s people tearing themselves apart.
Mercifully, there are positive things to say. Rachel’s naming was overruled by a highly unusual intervention by Jacob. Benjamin means ‘on of my right hand’, a place of privilege and blessing. In the passage of time, Benjamin would quite literally occupy a privileged position at the right hand of another tribe.
For a moment in the history of the nation, it looked like the tribe of Benjamin would be less the right-hand man, more the head. But the nation soon learnt that what they needed was not a tall ravenous warrior but a ruddy shepherd with a sling.
Consider the parallels between Judah and Benjamin’s relationship in Genesis with their cooperation after the kingdom was divided. In the first case, Benjamin’s life was at stake. You will recall the story recorded in Genesis chapter 44. And it was Judah who pleaded Benjamin’s case in a remarkable show of self-sacrifice. In the latter case, David’s ascendancy was at stake. The bond began via Jonathan and David’s camaraderie. Ultimately, Benjamite warriors would defect to support the once ruddy shepherd boy and his ascent to the throne.
Benjamin stood with Rehoboam in 1 Kings chapter 12, and the mutual attachment of these two tribes was thus set for good. When reading thereafter about the events of the southern kingdom, we should have Benjamite territory and peoples in mind.
Notwithstanding Benjamin’s awful low-points, and his geographical proximity to both Judah and Ephraim,2 his relationship at Judah’s right-hand ultimately trumped his attachment to his blood-brothers.
How beautiful this is, that two equally capable tribes, in human terms, find themselves able to cohabit in the same physical and spiritual territory. This is not how things work on the shop floor or in the board room. Equals fight for the right to be top dog. But not in the company of God’s people.
There should be no nemesis in the assembly. If you have a nemesis, then pay attention to Jonathan and David, Benjamin and Judah. There were low points as we have noted, cp. 2 Sam. 16. 5, but grace prevails and pulls us together so that the whole is more than the sum of the parts.
This tribal collaboration carried the nation forward through dire days. Days when you would ask, ‘has God cast away his people?’ Well, let us ask three Benjamites that question. First, Esther, and then Mordecai, Ahasuerus’ right-hand man, Esther 10. 3. Esther chapter 10 reads as a resounding ‘no’. And, last but not least, let us ask the Apostle Paul. Writing after his conversion had taken his ravenous soul and transformed it by grace, he replies, ‘God forbid’. But what could possibly redeem a tribe like Benjamin with its sorrowful past? The same thing, dear believer, that has redeemed you and me – the Son at God’s right hand. ‘For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen’, Rom. 11. 36.