The youngest son of Jacob, and one of the oldest names in the Hebrew Bible, Benjamin is at once historically enigmatic and also an essential and enduring feature in the Bible’s political history of Israel.
What did the name Benjamin mean to the biblical authors?
The name Benjamin literally means, “son of the south.” In the Song of Deborah (Judg 5), Benjamin and Ephraim receive pride of place in a military muster of the “people of Yahweh.” Many understand the Song of Deborah to preserve the oldest recoverable writing in the Hebrew Bible, dating to the premonarchic (Iron I) period. The latest references to Benjamin in the Hebrew Bible appear in Persian period texts, where Benjamin features as both a tribal identity and a territory. In the book of Esther, Mordecai is a Benjaminite descended from the line of Saul. The approximately six hundred-year time span separating the Bible’s earliest and latest references to Benjamin, during which the implications of the name changed considerably, accounts for some of the Bible’s diversity and inconsistency in its representation of Benjamin. In the New Testament, Paul’s lineage is traced to tribe of Benjamin (Rom 11:1; Phil 3:5).
In some contexts Benjamin connotes something diminutive: the youngest son of Jacob but not his favorite (Gen 30; Gen 35:16-18); the smallest tribe in Israel (1Sam 9:21); a territory “between” Judah and Joseph (Josh 18:11). In the tribal territorial scheme in Joshua, Benjamin is a borderland, neither clearly Judah, nor clearly Israel. Representations of Benjamin as “the least” may mask a formative role for this entity in the political life of ancient Israel from earliest times to the postmonarchic period, which the Bible’s Judahite authors sought to subvert. Benjamin’s historical importance may be reflected in texts that set it apart from the rest of Israel. For example, Judg 20 depicts Benjamin as an entity with its own political agency that defends itself against Israel, its “brother,” language associated with political equals. Israel’s first king, Saul, hails from Benjamin. When David becomes king he competes with Saul for control of Israel. When open conflict ensues, the servants of David are set against Benjamin in particular (2Sam 2). According to Joshua, Jerusalem is in Benjamin, making David’s establishment of this city as his capital a potent political act. In texts set later in Israel’s history, Benjamin appears to retain its independent identity, with a political base at Mizpah (Tel en Nasbeh). In a description of the regional constituents of Judah, Jeremiah (who hails from Benjamin) refers to Benjamin alone as a “land” (Jer 17:26), a term often used to designate a political body, as it does for Judah and Israel. The idea of Benjamin as an independent political entity may underlie the story of the birth of the sons of Jacob in Haran (Gen 29:1-30:24), where Benjamin is absent and Joseph is the long-awaited son of Rachel. Benjamin’s birth in Bethlehem (Gen 35:16-20) and the death of his mother Rachel in childbirth constitutes an independent narrative that seems deliberately constructed to establish Benjamin’s difference and to diminish him. This literary choice is likely to have served the religious-political interests of the text’s Jerusalem-oriented, Judahite authors, who continued to identify themselves in contradistinction to Benjamin.
Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible , Cornell University
Lauren Monroe is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Cornell University. Her research focuses on how what it meant to be Israelite changed over time and how such changes are reflected in the stratigraphy of the biblical text and the archaeological tel. Her book, Josiah’s Reform and the Dynamics of Defilement: Israelite Rites of Violence and the Making of a Biblical Text (Oxford University Press, 2011) explores the seventh century BCE religious reforms of the Judean King Josiah, whose rites of violence are a formative moment in the Bible’s representation of the emergence of monotheism. She is currently working on two books, Joseph the Hebrew and the Genesis of Ancient Israel (Oxford University Press, under contract), and Becoming Israel: Political Identity and the Song of Deborah. On the horizon is a project entitled Tidings from Sheba, which addresses how South Arabian Sabaean inscriptions from Yemen illuminate ancient Israelite society, politics and religion.
A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.
The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."
Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.
A written, spoken, or recorded story.
A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.
Judges 5, a poetic account parallel to Judges 4 and attributed to the prophetess and judge Deborah.
Literally "mound," a small hill-shaped site containing numerous occupational layers of a town or city built on top of one another over millennia.
Related to tribes, especially the so-called ten tribes of Israel.
The Song of Deborah
1Then Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang on that day, saying:2“When locks are long in Israel,
when the people offer themselves willingly— ... View more
Israel's Rejection Is Not Final
1I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe ... View more
5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;
1When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!”2Jacob became very angry with ... View more
The Birth of Benjamin and the Death of Rachel
16 Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, ... View more
21 Saul answered, “I am only a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel, and my family is the humblest of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin. ... View more
11 The lot of the tribe of Benjamin according to its families came up, and the territory allotted to it fell between the tribe of Judah and the tribe of Joseph.
20 Then all the Israelites came out, from Dan to Beer-sheba, including the land of Gilead, and the congregation assembled in one body before the Lord at Mizpah. ... View more
2 After this David inquired of the Lord, “Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah?” The Lord said to him, “Go up.” David said, “To which shall I go up?” H ... View more
26And people shall come from the towns of Judah and the places around Jerusalem, from the land of Benjamin, from the Shephelah, from the hill country, and from ... View more
Jacob Meets Rachel
29 Then Jacob went on his journey, and came to the land of the people of the east. 2 As he looked, he saw a well in the field and three flock ... View more
The Birth of Benjamin and the Death of Rachel
16Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, ... View more