In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite was sojourning in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, who took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah…
And thus begins the last three chapters of the Book of Judges (19-21), which is quite possibly the ugliest, most violent, and least redeeming story in all of scripture.
It is also one of my favorites. I love this story. Human beings can do nothing right in this story, and try as they might to solve the problems they are faced with and create, make a mess of everything.
These three chapters describe the human condition for me. I am a big believer in limits, of acknowledging what we as human beings can and cannot do. Here, Israel organizes to right a wrong, avenge an outrage, and even fight to get what some might call “justice.” But in the process, more wrongs are done, more violence perpetrated, more injustices committed.
It’s a perfect example of what humans can do. And what we are simply not capable of.
Not even God comes off very well in this story.
So, I’d like to take about three blog entries to examine this fascinating story, starting with Judges 19.
1 In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite was sojourning in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, who took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. 2 And his concubine was unfaithful to him, and she went away from him to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah, and was there some four months.
It’s true, there was no king in Israel. The judges were ad hoc leaders “elevated by God” to defend, protect, and rule Israel during times of crisis. Usually, that meant war with their Canaanite neighbors. The institution, such as it was, bears an intriguing resemblance to the Roman “office” of Dictator (with his partner, the Master of Horse). The Dictator was also an emergency leader elevated to manage the affairs of state, usually during a time of war. (But not always. Cincinnatus’ was dictator twice, I believe, the second time to deal with civil unrest between Rome’s large debtor population and the city’s avaricious creditors.) So this statement about there being no king, and thus nothing but lawlessness without the central authority of monarchy, can be taken at face value. Especially given the awfulness that is to follow.
At the same time, there are two things to consider. First, earlier in Judges, Gideon rejects an attempt by Israel to make him their king by telling Israel, “The Lord will rule over you.” (Judges 8:23) Gideon’s son Abimelech actually gets himself appointed king of Israel (after killing all but one of his brothers), leading to one of the great anti-monarchy speeches of the Bible in Judges 9. To no effect, of course. Abimelech holds the position until he is eventually killed during a siege when a woman drops a millstone on his head. The point is, Israel already has a king—God. It has no need for any other ruler. This point is echoed later in 1 Samuel 8 when God tells Samuel “they have rejected me from being king over them.”
Besides, as the interregnum between David and Saul’s rule, or Absalom’s rebellion, or the violent division of the kingdom following Solomon’s death all show, having a monarch in Jerusalem didn’t stop much of anyone from doing what they wanted. So, most likely, the beginning of verse 1 (which is also repeated at the very end of judges) can be taken both literally and ironically. And it was probably meant that way too.
So, let’s go on.
3 Then her husband arose and went after her, to speak kindly to her and bring her back. He had with him his servant and a couple of donkeys. And she brought him into her father’s house. And when the girl’s father saw him, he came with joy to meet him. 4 And his father-in-law, the girl’s father, made him stay, and he remained with him three days. So they ate and drank and spent the night there. 5 And on the fourth day they arose early in the morning, and he prepared to go, but the girl’s father said to his son- in- law, “Strengthen your heart with a morsel of bread, and after that you may go.” 6 So the two of them sat and ate and drank together. And the girl’s father said to the man, “Be pleased to spend the night, and let your heart be merry.” 7 And when the man rose up to go, his father-in-law pressed him, till he spent the night there again.
Pay attention. This is what hospitality looks like. Even in an exaggerated form, which is what we have here. The girl’s father—the man and his young paramour are not married to each other—clearly does not want anyone to leave, and extends hospitality beyond the customary three days.
8 And on the fifth day he arose early in the morning to depart. And the girl’s father said, “Strengthen your heart and wait until the day declines.” So they ate, both of them. 9 And when the man and his concubine and his servant rose up to depart, his father-in-law, the girl’s father, said to him, “Behold, now the day has waned toward evening. Please, spend the night. Behold, the day draws to its close. Lodge here and let your heart be merry, and tomorrow you shall arise early in the morning for your journey, and go home.”
10 But the man would not spend the night. He rose up and departed and arrived opposite Jebus (that is, Jerusalem). He had with him a couple of saddled donkeys, and his concubine was with him. 11 When they were near Jebus, the day was nearly over, and the servant said to his master, “Come now, let us turn aside to this city of the Jebusites and spend the night in it.” 12 And his master said to him, “We will not turn aside into the city of foreigners, who do not belong to the people of Israel, but we will pass on to Gibeah.” 13 And he said to his young man, “Come and let us draw near to one of these places and spend the night at Gibeah or at Ramah.”
Jerusalem here is a foreign city, not yet conquered, and not yet central to Israel’s political or religious life. It will not become an Israelite city until David makes it so, largely (I think) because it sits roughly equal between Ephraim in the north (with its ritual worship centers at Schechem and Shiloh) and Judah in the south. It is a mountain redoubt, a place where David can rule independent of the internal politics of the north or of the south. The Levite refuses to stay in Jebus, full of people who are not Israelites. And would rather stay in Gibeah, one of main cities belonging to the tiny tribe on Benjamin.
14 So they passed on and went their way. And the sun went down on them near Gibeah, which belongs to Benjamin, 15 and they turned aside there, to go in and spend the night at Gibeah. And he went in and sat down in the open square of the city, for no one took them into his house to spend the night.
16 And behold, an old man was coming from his work in the field at evening. The man was from the hill country of Ephraim, and he was sojourning in Gibeah. The men of the place were Benjaminites. 17 And he lifted up his eyes and saw the traveler in the open square of the city. And the old man said, “Where are you going? And where do you come from?” 18 And he said to him, “We are passing from Bethlehem in Judah to the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, from which I come. I went to Bethlehem in Judah, and I am going to the house of the Lord, but no one has taken me into his house. 19 We have straw and feed for our donkeys, with bread and wine for me and your female servant and the young man with your servants. There is no lack of anything.” 20 And the old man said, “Peace be to you; I will care for all your wants. Only, do not spend the night in the square.” 21 So he brought him into his house and gave the donkeys feed. And they washed their feet, and ate and drank.
I’m not sure if the old man is simply being hospitable or is also giving the trio here a warning when he tells them “do not spend the night in square.” What is clear here is that no one showed the Levite, his girlfriend, and his servant, any hospitality. No one invited them into their homes, or offered them a meal, or even spoke a kind word to them. Until the old man, who himself is only sojourning in Gibeah. He knows the place well enough, and is somewhere between insider and outsider in Gibeah. He, and he alone, is compassionate enough to extend hospitality to the travelers who have found themselves, after dark, in the middle of town with no place to stay.
What comes next will strike some of you as familiar.
22 As they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, worthless fellows, surrounded the house, beating on the door. And they said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him.” 23 And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly; since this man has come into my house, do not do this vile thing. 24 Behold, here are my virgin daughter and his concubine. Let me bring them out now. Violate them and do with them what seems good to you, but against this man do not do this outrageous thing.” 25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine and made her go out to them. And they knew her and abused her all night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go. 26 And as morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light.
For what it’s worth, I think this is the original version of the Sodom story. While the men of Gibeah couldn’t be bothered to provide a place to stay and a meal to sojourners, they could insist upon raping them. Again, after dark, when a mob can do something like this with some amount of anonymity.
The people of Gibeah aren’t only violent rapists who don’t know the first thing about welcoming guests and travelers, they are also cowards as well.
But those in the house—the Levite and his elderly host—don’t come out very well either. To placate the rapaciousness of the men, who perhaps want to show their dominance over any visiting men by raping them, the host suggests they have at his daughter and (I think, because the pronouns aren’t quite clear) the guest’s concubine. So much for family values and biblical marriage. But mere woman will not placate the men surrounding the house. Again, I do not think this is a matter of lust so much as it is a really awful kind of hospitality and/or dominance ritual. “This is what we do to strange men passing through,” the men of Gibeah say. Most likely, most of these men were married with children. Not that it mattered. This was about showing visitors who’s boss.
You’d think the Levite would have known. You’d think this kind of thing would have gotten out. If nothing else, at least there would have been talk that people go to Gibeah, but they don’t ever come back. But he was insistent upon avoiding the city filled with foreigners.
(It makes me wonder: the old man, he too was sojourning in Gibeah, clearly with his family. Did the welcoming committee arrive at his house and gang rape him until the wee hours of the morning when he first arrived?)
And so the Levite (I think) grabs his concubine and tosses her outside, to the howling mob of aspiring rapists. And the mob appeared to be satisfied with this offering. They gang rape her death. At least I think she dies. It’s not clear, and the story doesn’t say specifically. The Levite seems far more concerned with his own life and safety rather than that of his girlfriend, but then again, Abraham and Isaac both passed their wives off as sisters to kings who hosted them because they both feared for their lives.
It also gets worse.
27 And her master rose up in the morning, and when he opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, behold, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. 28 He said to her, “Get up, let us be going.” But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey, and the man rose up and went away to his home. 29 And when he entered his house, he took a knife, and taking hold of his concubine he divided her, limb by limb, into twelve pieces, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. 30 And all who saw it said, “Such a thing has never happened or been seen from the day that the people of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt until this day; consider it, take counsel, and speak.”
There she was, in the morning, the men dispersed, the woman clinging onto the door frame, trying to find some kind of sanctuary, some kind of safety. (Consider how the usurper Adonijah grasps the horns of the altar as he seeks sanctuary from Solomon in 1 Kings 1.) She has been violated all night, clinging to the house in some pathetic and pointless bid for safety, and the Levite—did he sleep through her cries and pleas, through the hooting and cheers and groaning of the mob?—has the nerve to get up and demand of this woman that she be ready to go.
She isn’t, of course. So, he loads her like a sack of wet grain onto the back of a donkey, and wanders on his way to the hill country of Ephraim. At which point, she is most certainly dead.
And then comes possibly the most gruesome detail in this whole story. The Levite cuts her up into pieces and then mails a piece to each tribe of Israel. (Even Benjamin?) King Saul will do the same in 1 Samuel 11 to an entire yoke of oxen in order to mobilize Israel to fight the Ammonites besieging Jabesh-Gilead. The unnamed Levite is calling Israel to war over this horrific act. The callous bastard couldn’t even take any risks to defend his woman, but he could muster enough outrage to demand that “something must be done.”