The Silencing of the Dancing Women of Shiloh

It was the annual festival at Shiloh and as was the custom, the ladies were getting ready to participate in celebratory dance. Little did they know that on this particular day their joyful dance would be interrupted by them being forcefully seized to provide men with child-bearing wombs. Dancing was most often, but not always, a form of worship that was performed by women in ancient Israel, and unlike other Ancient Near East cultures, who performed dances for times of mourning, the Israelites only used dance as a form of joyful celebration. However, this day a conspiracy was set against the young women as whirled about in a round dance. As the music rang out and the young women abandoned themselves to the festive dance, they were viewed by men hiding in the vineyards as plunder to be taken.

The tribes of Israel have been warring against the tribe of Benjamin because of the rape and murder of the Levite’s concubine (see Judges 19-20). However, vengeance is being sought not for the woman herself, but for the insult her rape and murder have caused her husband. What ensues is a bloody battle with all but 600 men from the tribe of Benjamin being killed. The tribes then grieve the demise of the tribe of Benjamin because they no longer have women to be wives for the remaining 600 men, and if women are not provided, the tribe will cease to exist.

The other eleven tribes have made a vow that they would not marry their daughters to the sons of Benjamin, so they are now seeking a way to find women for the Benjamites without breaking their vow. First, they attack a city that did not participate in the war against Benjamin and kill everyone except the virgin women. These 400 women are then given to the Benjamites as wives. Yet, they are still 200 women short (Judg. 21:1-15). Therefore, the elders devise a plan to help the rest of the Benjamite men to get wives. It is the time for the annual festival at Shiloh and the women will be dancing, so the elders tell the Benjamites to hide in the vineyards and watch and when the young women join the dances, they are to pick one they want and kidnap her and return home and take her as a wife (Judg. 21:16-24). The narrative ends with the tribes returning home, and the concern about the tribe of Benjamin ceasing to exist being resolved.

Though the situation seems to be settled, we need to pause and reflect on what has been left unreported from the narrative account of the women of Shiloh. These women have been silenced. We need to stop and hear their cries and see their resistance. The welfare and concern of these women, as well as the 400 women from Jabeth-gilead is non-existent. The only concern with forcefully taking the dancing women of Shiloh that is spoken of is how the elders will deal with the complaints from the fathers and brothers (Judg. 21:22).

Shiloh was not just an ordinary city; it was where the ark of the covenant was kept in the tent sanctuary. Here where the tent of meeting was, where thoughts of God should have been prevalent, women were dancing in celebration. This was a place that should have been safe, but it becomes instead a place of danger and exposure for these women. The women of Shiloh are torn away from their families and their lives without a thought of their dignity, and not one word of their horror is shared. These women do not know that the elders of the tribe have sanctioned them being plundered. They are grabbed during the festival’s ritual dancing. They would have been scared, they would have tried to get away, they would have been screaming for help. I imagine some of the women would have been handled roughly too. None of this is information is provided in the text, but we owe it to these women to remember what happened from their point of view.

Some may point out that the women of Shiloh did become wives of the Benjamite men, but this does not dismiss the lived experiences of these women. In Texts of Terror, Phyllis Trible notes that the rape of one woman (the Levite’s concubine) led to the rape of 600 women. These women were taken and forced to bear children for the men of the tribe of Benjamin. While these women would not have been considered to be raped in their own culture, yet cultural norms do not change how violated a woman feels when she kidnapped and forced to have sex and bear children, despite the period of history in which she lives.

Let us listen to the cries of injustice that these women voiced. Let us see their struggling to set themselves free and the tears that streaked their faces. Let us remember the violence and pain they suffered. Let us no longer silence the dancing women of Shiloh.  

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