So, some concluding thoughts on a passage very few people — Bible scholars, theologians, or lay believer — spend any significant time with, with last three chapters (19-21) of the Book of Judges.
First, to the mundane. Where does this fit in the biblical narrative, and why might this incredibly awful story even be there in the first place?
Taken at face value, this story is the second story in Judges that begins by noting something akin to “in those days there was no king in Israel.” Chapter 18 gives us the strange little story of the landless Danites and their meeting with Micah and the levite (which I will not explore here), and it seems to be something of a continuation or add-on to the previous story of Chapter 17 (which follows the death of Samson at the end of Chapter 16, and thus ends the tale of the judges in this book).
There is no king in Israel. And so an Israelite tribe wanders and brutal civil war follows a gang-rape. Perhaps the statement the ends the book, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” is an honest statement of truth. There was no king in Israel (though Gideon might have been a king; surely his son Abimelech got himself appointed king), and while there was some kind of unity — cultural, religious, linguistic, familial — in Israel, the twelve tribes were divided in some very important ways. No other Israelite tribe, for example, does hospitality as badly as the Benjaminites do.
And yet unity under a king doesn’t prevent civil strife or conflict. David and Saul fight for many years. Upon Solomon’s death, the kingdom breaks in two — ostensibly over matters of taxation, but the north in rebelling repudiates David (1 Kings 12, 2 Chronicles 10). God does something God does not do in Judges with the war against Benjamin, and steps in and commands Reheboam and his army to return to Judah (1 Kings 12:21-24).
Even political violence stemming from an act of rape is not unknown in the time of Israel kings, as Amnon’s rape of his (likely half-) sister shows. David’s failure to police his family prompts his son Absalom to avenge his sister and eventually rebel and seize the throne, driving David from Jerusalem. So, even with a king in Israel, the kind of violence the entire miserable episode with the Benjaminites and their perverted and violent hospitality prompts is still very much a part of Israel’s existence.
So, perhaps the statement about a “king in Israel” is meant somewhat ironically. Gideon gives a short but impassioned speech against monarchy earlier in Judges 8 when Israel calls upon him top be their king: “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you.” If Gideon’s right, Israel does have a king — The LORD, Israel’s God. This is the claim God himself makes in 1 Samuel 8 when Israel again demands a king. (Only then, God gives in.) And so, it may be, that this is also an ironic statement about Israel rejecting the covenant with God and God’s rule. Israel’s continued faithlessness, and God stepping in to redeem Israel time and again, is one of the central themes of Judges. And so, it could be, that the whole episode in Judges 19-21 is all about the rejection of God. After all, Israel’s redeemer plays almost no role in the decision making or even the outcomes.
The passage also appears to be a set up for two very different things. First, the reason the Levite and his girly-girl (well, what else do I call her?) go to Gibeah in Benjamin in the first place is that because Jebus — which is closer to Bethlehem than Gibeah, and they left late in the day — is a “city of foreigners, who do not belong to the people of Israel.” (Judges 19:12) This is a result of the incomplete conquest of the land, and that very incompleteness was a result of Israel’s faithlessness — it’s unwillingness to exterminate the Canaanite populations and, out of strength and not weakness, instead simply enslave them.
But the people of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem, so the Jebusites have lived with the people of Benjamin to this day. (Judges 1:21)
It doesn’t say why Benjamin failed to conquer Jebus. Only that they did. David would later conquer the city, and make it his capital. But the episode of Judges 19-21 is the direct result of something that happened long before.
The second set-up deals with Saul the King, who comes from Gibeah (1 Samuel 10:26). I think his association with the place is one unstated reason his kingship fails. David, as we know, comes from Bethlehem, the home city of the concubine. Make of that what you will.
This is how the ancients told stories. Small things lead to huge things, the personal prompts the cosmic. Rome became a republic because the last of the Tarquin kings raped a patrician’s wife. The sons of Jacob slaughter the men of Schechem because one of them had a dalliance with their sister Dinah. Here, a war begins because a man — an unnamed man — goes after his unfaithful (in Hebrew; the LXX merely describes her as angry) “wife.” He’s not the nicest guy, and is either a real bastard who would throw his wife to a rape gang rather than muss his hair, or was merely a coward (I’m trying to think of what courage I might have in such a situation). But he doesn’t have to run after her with kind words to try and get her back. She’s committed adultery, and he’s a priest. He has the power to put her to death. (Leviticus 20:10) But he doesn’t. At least not right then. The law is not applied. This suggests a human quality, and a kind of mercy, to relationships in the scripture we should not forget.
We see hospitality gone horrifically bad. We see too much — in the girl’s father who begs the man and his daughter to stay past the customary three days. We see the refusal of hospitality in the Levite himself, who decides to undertake a long journey to Ephraim despite the close of the day.
And we see an evil kind of hospitality in the people of Benjamin, the reverse of “comfort and ease,” but rather “send them out that we may know them,” a hospitality that violates, that uses people as objects rather than welcoming them as guests.
But it is in the war, and all that follows, that I think this passage gives us the most to consider. And I will do that in my next, and final, essay.