Benjamin was Jacob’s only son born in the holy land, coincidentally right after Jacob’s name was changed to Israel. Rachel named her second son with her dying breath ‘Ben-oni’ (בֶּן־אוֹנִי). The Sages explain the name as meaning ‘son of my suffering’ or, alternatively, ‘son of my mourning.’
His father immediately changed his newborn son’s name to Bin-yamin (בִנְיָמִין), ‘the son of the right.’ Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the medieval French Biblical commentator known by the acronym Rashi, says that Jacob chose this name because Benjamin alone was born in the land of Canaan which is in the south, i.e. on the right hand side (yamin) of a traveler coming from Aram-naharaim. This differentiates Benjamin from all his brothers who were born in Aram-naharaim. Alternatively, Binyamin means “son of his old days (yamim).”
The 13th Century sage Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, or Ramban, states that oni implies ‘strength,’ and Rachel named him thus because in birth the baby took the last of her strength to leave the womb, leading to her demise. This meaning of the word ‘oni’ is seen in Jacob’s blessing of Reuven, his firstborn to Leah (Genesis 49:3).
Reuven, you are my first-born, My might and first fruit of my vigor (oni), exceeding in rank and exceeding in honor.
According to this interpretation, Jacob was translating the name Rachel had given the child, adhering to the tradition that mothers name the children.
The right (yamin) also implies especially beloved, as seen in Psalms 80:18:
Grant Your help to the man at Your right hand, the one You have taken as Your own.
Thus, the name also indicates that Benjamin was beloved to Jacob.
Jacob’s house was struck with tragedy when his ten older sons returned with bloody evidence of Joseph’s death. This left Benjamin as the only reminder of Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel. Hence, Jacob’s reluctance to allow Benjamin to leave his side. Perhaps Benjamin was still too young to tend the flocks or even to accompany Joseph on his tragic trip to visit his brother. But even when his entire clan was faced with starvation, Jacob refused to send Benjamin down to Egypt though the second to the Egyptian king demanded to see the last brother. Jacob was willing to send all ten of his other sons into Egypt but not his youngest son.
Joseph’s demand from the unwitting brothers to see Benjamin may have been motivated by a desire to cause them grief in return for their rough treatment of him. Benjamin was, after all, the only sibling not implicated in selling Jospeh into slavery. Or it may have been an overwhelming desire to see his now-full-grown brother from his mother who he had not seen since he was young.
Benjamin was listed in the Talmud (Shabbat 55b) as one of the four men who died by the poison of the serpent in Paradise; i.e., without sin of his own, the other three being Amram, the father of Moses; Jesse, the father of David; and Kileab, the son of David.
The tribe of Benjamin was the source of various Israelite leaders, including Ehud, a great warrior who delivered Israel from Moab (Judges 3:12–30). The first Israelite king, Saul, was also from the tribe of Benjamin, as were Mordecai and Esther.
Despite its patriarch being portrayed in the Bible as a tender and favored young child who was kept at his father’s side, Jacob’s blessing reveals the tribe’s belligerent nature (Genesis 49:27):
This warlike inclination played out in the episode of the Concubine at Gibeah (Judges 19-20) when Benjamin went to war against all the other tribes. Sometimes referred to as the evil of Sodom appearing within Israel, the civil war led to the near-total annihilation of the tribe of Benjamin. At the last moment, the other tribes realized in horror what they were about to do. To remedy the situation, they arrange marriages between their daughters and the remaining 600 men from Benjamin.
One Bible commentator, wrote that Rachel foresaw this tragic series of events when she was giving birth to her son, leading to his name ‘the son of travail.’
The tribe of Benjamin inherited the prime section of land to the north of Judah but to the south of the northern Kingdom of Israel, and Jerusalem was shared by the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. The Sages refer to Benjamin’s blessing of the ‘wolf,’ given to him by his father, as referring to the Temple which stood in his land. Like a wolf, the Temple ‘devoured’ the sacrifices in the morning and in the evening. Another opinion explains that Benjamin merited the Temple because, unlike his brothers, he was not yet born, and therefore unable to bow down Esau, when Jacob met with him to reconcile (Genesis 33:5-6).
After the brief period of the united kingdom of Israel came to an end, Benjamin became part of the southern kingdom of Judah following the split into two kingdoms. After the destruction of the northern kingdom, Benjamin was absorbed into the southern kingdom. When the southern kingdom was destroyed in the early sixth century BCE, the tribe of Benjamin as a separate entity faded from history.