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.