BENJAMIN: A Ravenous Wolf
“Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf; in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil” (Genesis 49:27).
Occasionally the Authorized Version employs a word which current in English usage. This is due to the fact that it was produced in 1611, and the language has undergone changes in over three and a half centuries. Such an obsolete word appears in Jacob’s prophecy about his twelfth and last son, Benjamin. Jacob prophesied that his youngest “shall ravin as a wolf.” The word translated ravin comes from a verb which means to tear. The authoritative Commentary on the Old Testament by Keil and Delitzsch translates the verse, “Benjamin-a wolf which tears in pieces ….”
A wolf is the fifth animal used by Jacob to characterize the future course of his sons’ descendants. Judah is a lion (v. 9); lssachar is a donkey (v. 14); Dan is a serpent (v. 17); Naphtali is a deer(v. 21); and Benjamin is a wolf (v. 27).
Jacob thus declared that Benjamin would be characterized by a vicious and warlike attitude. That Jacob spoke thus of his youngest, of whom he was so fond, is a striking surprise to many. His words must have arisen from the Spirit of God and not just from the tender feelings which he undoubtedly had for young Benjamin. Matthew Henry eloquently declared, “It is plain that Jacob spoke by prophecy and not by natural affection, else he would have spoken with more tenderness of his beloved Benjamin.” Did Jacob’s prophecy come true? Did Benjamin’s descendants evidence such a ravenous, wolf-like spirit? To answer these questions requires that we take a look at the son Benjamin and also at the tribe Benjamin.
Benjamin The Son
Benjamin was the twelfth son of Jacob and the second son born to him by Rachel, his beloved and dearest wife. When Benjamin’s older brother was born, he was named Joseph, which means may He add–a pious prayer that was granted when Joseph’s younger brother was born. His birth, however, was an event of joy mixed with sorrow. Genesis 35:16-20 records the events: “And they journeyed from Bethel; and there was but a little way to come to Ephrath: and Rachel travailed, and she had hard labor. And it came to pass, when she was in hard labor, that the midwife said unto her, Fear not; thou shalt have this son also. And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing (for she died), that she called his name Benoni: but his father called him Benjamin. And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day.”
As Rachel lay dying, her last act was to call her newborn Benoni, a name meaning son of my pain. Jacob, however, named the child Benjamin, meaning right-hand son. This name proved to be prophetic as well, because Benjamin was later to replace the “lost” Joseph in Jacob’s affection.
The events surrounding Joseph’s being sold into Egypt and how God’s providence was seen in his preservation and elevation have been recounted in the previous study on Joseph. When Jacob’s favorite son was thus lost to him, all of his fatherly affection was poured into Benjamin. For example, when the sons were sent down to Egypt during the famine to buy corn, Jacob kept young Benjamin with him “Lest perhaps mischief befall him” (Gen. 42:4).
Later when Joseph commanded that his brothers return home to bring the youngest, old Jacob cried out, “Me have ye bereaved of my children; Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and ye will take Benjamin away: all these things are against me” (Gen. 42:36). Still later Benjamin figured in the trick that Joseph played on his brothers when his cup was discovered in Benjamin’s sack (Gen. 44:1-13).
Although it may be overstating the case, one cannot help imagining young Benjamin as a pampered and protected “Little Lord Fauntleroy” type receiving all the doting affection of an aged father. Whether or not this characterization of the son is accurate, the future history of Benjamin’s descendants records nothing resembling perfumed sweetness.
Benjamin The Tribe
The prophecy of Jacob that Benjamin would be “a wolf who tears in pieces” found graphic fulfillment throughout the history of that tribe. Before examples of Benjamin’s ferocity are mentioned, however, notice should be taken of the strategic location of the tribe. According to Joshua 18:11-28, Benjamin was basically a buffer zone between the two dominant tribes of Judah and Ephraim. Its northern line was the same as Ephraim’s southern border, and its southern line the same as Judah’s northern boundary (see map). Benjamite territory included many cities important in biblical history–Jericho, Bethel, Gibeon, Ramah and Mizpah. Most importantly, Jerusalem itself was in Benjamin, and not in Judah as is so often popularly conceived (Josh. 18:28). Many have seen a reference to Jerusalem in Moses’ blessing on Benjamin: “And of Benjamin he said, The be loved of the Lord shall dwell in safety by him; and the Lord shall cover him all the day long, and he shall dwell between his shoulders” (Dt. 33:12). Thus, the Lord later located His sanctuary, the Temple, in Benjamite territory.
Jacob’s prophecy stated that the “wolf ‘ would devour his prey in the morning and divide its spoil in the evening (cf. Gen. 49:27). Compared to a wolf’s activity throughout the day, Benjamin’s ferocity would be evident throughout Israel’s recorded history. Many “ferocious” Benjamites are recorded from the earliest period of Israel’s history to the latest period.
The first evidence of this ferocity is seen in Ehud, the second judge of Israel (Jud. 3:12-30). This fearless warrior singlehandedly assassinated Eglon, the king of the Moabites who had been oppressing Israel for eighteen years. Ehud’s left handedness, which was characteristic of Benjamites (Jud. 20:15-16), was a bit ironic since Benjamin means right-hand son. Concealing his weapon under his garments on his right thigh (which is probably why it was undetected), Ehud gained entrance to Eglon’s presence, ran the fat king through with his dagger, and made good his escape. The resulting confusion led to a great victory over the Moabites and a resulting eighty year peace.
The next evidence of Benjamin’s “ravenous” character is one of the truly dark spots in Israel’s history. In the anarchic days when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Jud. 17:6; 21:25), Benjamin was at the center of a devastating civil war among the tribes. Responding to the brutality of the men of Gibeah (described graphically in Jud.19), the other tribes launched a disciplinary action against Benjamin (Jud. 20). When the tribe refused to relinquish the guilty offenders, a major military confrontation took place. Although greatly outnumbered, Benjamin with its famous seven hundred left-handed stone slingers (Jud. 20:16) inflicted forty thousand casualties on their brethren in the first two days’ fighting. On the third day, however, the tide of battle turned and the forces of Benjamin were devastated nearly to the point of annihilation. Only six hundred escaped, and these formed the nucleus of the continuing, although greatly weakened, tribe. The wolf had torn, but in the end had been torn!
The next prominent member of Benjamin and probably its most famous representative was Saul, son of Kish. The ferocity of his rule was evident to all, particularly his enemies. When the town of Jabesh-gilead was besieged by the Ammonites, Saul, probably due to family ties (cf. Jud. 21:12-14), dramatically mustered the armies of Israel and attacked the Ammorites by night “so that two of them were not left together” (1 Sam. 11:1-11). Saul’s bellicose rule was felt by many surrounding kingdoms, whom he not only defeated but also humiliated. “. . . and wherever he turned himself, he defeated them” (1 Sam. 14:47b).
Saul’s son Jonathan was also a great warrior although his zeal was channeled for the Lord and not for his own glory. First Samuel 14 records the brilliant maneuver of Jonathan and his armor-bearer when they climbed a sheer cliff and slaughtered a Philistine garrison of twenty soldiers. This bold deed led to complete confusion in the enemy camp and its eventual rout at the hands of the Israelite troops. Contrasted with selfish zeal, Jonathan acted on faith in God’s promise (1 Sam. 14:6, 12). This godly “wolf ‘ was doubtless one of those who, according to Hebrews l1:34b, “became valiant in fight, [and] turned to flight the armies of the aliens.”
Other ferocious Benjamites who can be mentioned only briefly were: (1) Abner, Saul’s cousin and commander of his army who mercilessly killed Asahel and who was himself murdered by Joab (2 Sam. 2:23; 3:30); (2) Shimei, who cursed David during his flight from Absalom and was himself killed by Solomon in return (2 Sam. 16:5-13; 1Ki. 2:44-46), and (3) Sheba, who led a rebellion against David and was himself beheaded by the citizens of Abel of Beth-maachah (2 Sam. 20:1-22). These serve as examples of how selfish and misguided zeal receives its own punishment in the end.
In the evening of Israel’s Old Testament history, however, there appeared two stellar examples of Benjamite zeal that were channeled for the glory of God. Esther and Mordecai, cousins in the Persian town of Shushan, were boldly instrumental in saving their own people and in turning the tables on Haman and other Jew haters of that time (see Esther 7 and 9). The Jewish festival of Purim commemorates their brave zeal. In this unique way Benjamin divided the spoil in fulfillment of Genesis 49:27.
A!though this listing exhausts the major members of Benjamin cited in Scripture, there remains one other who graphically portrayed the wolf-like viciousness of his ancestors. In one of his letters he wrote “I say, then, Hath God cast away his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Rom. 11:1). In another letter, while rehearsing his pedigree, he says that he was “Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee” (Phil. 3:5). He was called Saul, after his ancient namesake, although we know him better by his Roman name, Paul. If there ever appeared on the human stage a prime example of a ferocious Benjamite wolf, it was this citizen of Tarsus who had boasted so proudly of his Pharisaic membership and his zeal and devotion to the traditions of his forefathers. His blind zeal was such that he attacked his own brethren who were following the Nazarene Messiah.
Listen to this litany of quotations from Paul himself: “For ye have heard of my manner of life in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure [ persecuted the church of God, and wasted it” (Gal. 1:13); “And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women” (Acts 22:4); “I verily thought within myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth, Which thing I also did in Jerusalem; and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests. And when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them” (Acts 26:9·10).
Luke, the early Church historian, describes this son of Benjamin thus: “As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house and, haling men and women, committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3); “And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2). This “wolf”’ tore in pieces the followers of Jesus until he was stopped in his tracks by that One who in reality he was persecuting (Acts 9:4). From that day on, Saul was radically different. His zeal, however, did not abate -it was channeled in a positive, God-honoring direction. Instead of attacking the followers of the Lord, he spent the rest of his earthly life assaulting the citadels of Satan! Matthew Henry has graphically written, “Blessed Paul was of this tribe and he did, in the morning of his day, devour the prey as a persecutor, but In the evening he divided the spoil as a preacher.” God can use any temperament, whether it be phlegmatic or choleric, when that person has surrendered completely to the Lord. May God give us a host of Benjamins, who will tear in pieces the armies of darkness!