Judges 19 needs to come with a massive “Trigger Warning” tag. Seriously, I found it very difficult to read, so if you are in any way triggered by descriptions of rape, just skip this one. I mean it.
We begin with a reminder that all this is happening “when there was no king in Israel” (Judges 19:1). As I noted in my discussion of Judges 17-18, it could be that these chapters serve to show why the monarchy is necessary. The Mosaic model of leadership (the people are ruled by prophets and priests) got the Israelites through the wilderness, but doesn’t seem to have been able to stick once they were settled. So God tried appointing judges instead, but their power seems to have diminished – culminating in Samson who, despite his great strength, was unable to deliver Israel from its enemies.
Now, we are through with judges and the impression the author(s)/editor(s) seems to be trying to convey is that Israel descended into something like anarchy: the Danites are stealing idols from their fellow Israelites and, as we shall soon see, the Benjaminites are doing far worse. The frequent reminders that this is happening in a time prior to monarchy seems to reinforce that the monarchy (perhaps even a united monarchy) is needed to hold the people together.
It may also be important that the tribes behaving badly – Dan and Benjamin – both seem to be located in the northern part of the divided kingdom (Israel), while Jerusalem is in the southern part (Judah), if my map-glancing isn’t failing me.
Ephraim, too, actually. You’ll remember Ephraim as the tribe that gave us Micah and his idols, as well as the tribe that gave Gideon (Judges 8:1) and Jephthah (Judges 12:1) so much trouble. Benjamin, Ephraim, and Dan’s original patch of land all lie right on the border between the two kingdoms of the divided monarchy. If we assume a southern editor, it would make sense that they would feature more often in stories due to proximity, and that the impressions of them might be mixed – positive because of similar culture/religion/history, negative because of possible border disputes and the fact that they joined the “wrong” side.
Ephraim, in particular, has featured a great deal in this book. It is the Ephraimites who support Ehud in defeating the Moabites (Judges 3:27), Deborah appears to have been an Ephraimite (Judges 4:5), they kill two of the Midianite leaders for Gideon (Judges 7:24-25), the judge Tola was an Ephraimite (Judges 10:1), and, of course, Micah was an Ephraimite (Judges 17:1).
The tribe crops up again and again, doing naughty things and spawning various folk heroes. If I were to venture a guess, I would say that the author(s)/editor(s) lived near Ephraim and so was exposed both to their stories and to the stories told about them by Uncle Joe who is totally sure that it was one of his Ephraimite neighbours who stole his sheep in the middle of the night because you know how those people are.
The Levite and his concubine
A Levite was “sojourning” (Judges 19:1) in the hill country of Ephraim. This may relate him to the Levite mentioned in Judges 17, who was from Judah but took a job in Micah’s household. He had a concubine (who, in my RSV, is always a concubine in relation to him while he is a husband in relation to her) who was originally from Bethlehem, in Judah.
One day, this nameless concubine gets angry at her Levite “husband” and runs back to her father’s house in Bethlehem – which would have meant passing through Benjaminite territory. It is not explained why she was angry, but the Levite’s behaviour later on in the story gives me a fairly good idea of why she might have run away.
It takes him four months, but finally the Levite decides to go after her, hoping to “speak kindly to her and bring her back” (Judges 19:3).
When he arrives in Bethlehem, the text says that his father-in-law “came out with joy” (Judges 19:3) to meet him and begged him to stay for three days. At the end of those three days, when the Levite tries to leave, the father-in-law convinces him to stay just one more night, then just one more. The text describes it in entirely positive terms as though the father-in-law just really loves playing host, but taken together with all the other details of the story, it seems rather sinister. Like, maybe his daughter had a very good reason to escape and her father is trying to delay her being taken away again. Frankly, I found the father’s almost desperate attempts to delay the Levite’s leaving rather heartbreaking to read.
Days pass and, in the end, the Levite leaves so late in the day that they are caught by nightfall just outside Jebus (which the text tells us is what Jerusalem was called while still in pagan hands – which, according to Judges 1:21, it still is). The Levite’s servant advises that they stop for the night, but the Levite doesn’t want to stay in a “city of foreigners” (Judges 19:12). Rather, he has his household press on to Gibeah, a Benjaminite city.
When the travellers reach Gibeah, they find no one willing to take them in for the night. Finally, they seat themselves in the city square, presumably prepared to sleep there through the night.
An old man, originally from the hill country of Ephraim, is walking by when he sees the travellers, and he asks the Levite what they are doing there. The Levite explains that they are passing through, and that he has all the provisions the travellers need and extra to share, but that they are in need of a roof. The old man puts on his best horror movie voice and assures them that he will feed the travellers, “only, do not spend the night in the square” (Judges 19:20).
As the guests get comfortable in the old man’s house, however, the men of the city come round asking for them: “Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him” (Judges 19:22). The old man begs them not to violate his guest, instead offering up his own virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine to the crowd, saying “ravish them and do with them what seems good to you; but against this man do not do so vile a thing” (Judges 19:24).
It’s worth noting, with horror, that the concubine – despite being every bit as much a guest in the old man’s home as her “husband” – is not extended the protection of hospitality.
Not that it seems to have bothered the Levite much. When the crowd refuses to listen to the old man’s entreaties, the Levite himself tosses his concubine out to them and shuts the door. Then he apparently goes to sleep while his concubine is raped all night long. When she is finally released in the morning, she can only crawl up to the old man’s door and collapses. The inclusion of details here is horrific, the text describes “her hands on the threshold” (Judges 19:27).
Her “husband,” the Levite, “rose up in the morning” (Judges 19:27) and gets ready to leave, apparently fully intending to just leave without even so much as trying to find out if the woman he threw out to a mob to “ravish” to save his own skin is okay. As it happens, the knowledge comes to him – or, rather, trips him. Yes, he trips over her body on the way out the door.
For all the detail (her hands on the threshold), the text never actually says that she died, only that she collapsed and that she does not respond when the Levite tells her motionless and abused body, “get up, let us be going” (Judges 19:28).
I hope she’s already dead at this point, because what the Levite does when she fails to respond is pack her up on one of his donkeys and head home. When he gets back to Ephraim, he carves her up into twelve pieces and mails one out to each of the tribes (does Benjamin get one?). If the mob didn’t kill her, her “husband” just did.
The story is clearly meant to be an indictment of Benjamin. This is made all the more clear by the fact that the Levite is apparently afraid to stay the night in Jebus, yet is attacked in Gibeah. The lesson, apparently, being that the Benjaminites are behaving as badly as foreigners.
If the Levite himself is meant to be seen critically, there’s nothing in the text to say so. He behaves with callous disregard for his concubine, a woman who by all rights should be under his protection, and he seems to lose no sleep over tossing her out to the rapacious crowd to save himself.
Yet while the Benjaminites will be punished in the next chapter, the Levite is not. If anything, he is painted as a victim, in that it is his story of what happened in Gibeah that incites the retaliation against Benjamin.
The implications are grotesque.