It’s a horrific story. A woman is thrown to a crowd by the man who was supposed to protect her. She is gang-raped, dies, and then cut into pieces and sent to the tribes of Israel to generate enough passion to start a war – a war that results in the wholesale slaughter of men, women, and children and the kidnap and rape of 400 Israelite virgins. It is shocking and abhorrent in so many ways. But why is it here? Is there more in here for us to know? Or does it merely relate a grisly and tragic tale? Even if it is the latter, how do we process this event?
It’s the time of the judges – Moses has died, the Israelites have entered the land and Joshua is dead. A succession of people, collectively titled “judges” rise up to lead Israel, with varying degrees of success. Each of them falls short in some way. The judges period lasts somewhere between 300 and 400 years and when we read the book of Judges, it feels like a gradual decline into complete mayhem and depravity.
Our story comes at the end of the book, in Judges 19 and is the catalyst for the events of Judges 20 and 21 which end the book. Chapter 19 begins with “In those days, when there was no king in Israel” and chapter 21 ends with “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” This connects the events within these chapters and gives us a flavour of what can be expected.
An unnamed Levite takes to himself a concubine. “Concubine” in this context may not mean what we think it means (ie a mistress) and could mean a legal but second-ranked wife who had been a servant or slave (Hess, Block and Manor, p319). There is a suggestion that the way the Levite “took to himself” the concubine implies that she had no say in this arrangement (Webb, p455). She is “unfaithful” to him and returns to the house of her father and Webb notes that the harlotry or infidelity she commits could be nothing more than walking out on him. This seems logical given the level of choice she appears to have over her own personhood in this story.
The Levite eventually follows to take her back and there is much hospitality shared by the Levite and the concubine’s father. The hospitality involves only the two men. The concubine is invisible in these scenes. Eventually, the Levite heads for his home with his concubine. He decides to not stop in Jerusalem which may be explained by Judges 1:21 which says that the Benjaminites didn’t drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem. The Levite presses on to Gibeah which is inhabited by Israelites from the tribe of Benjamin and from whom he might expect safety and hospitality.
And yet, as they sit in the town square expecting to find some hospitality, they find none. Until an old man from Ephraim offers to provide them a roof for the night. Here then is where we start a strong parallel with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:4-9. The house is surrounded and the Gibeonites (or the men of Sodom in Genesis) and demand the Levite (Lot in Genesis) to come out so that they can have sex with him. The old Ephraimite (Lot in Genesis) offers them his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine instead. In Genesis, an angel of God saves Lot and his family. Here, the Levite shoves his concubine out of the door to save himself “And they knew her and abused her all night until the morning” (Judges 19:25).
And what does the Levite do? He goes to bed and sleeps and gets up in the morning (19:27). As Webb says “The expression is chilling in what it implies by its sheer ordinariness” (p469). Worse, “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. 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.” (19:27-28). I have no words to even describe how cold and unfeeling this response is.
What comes next is even more gruesome. “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” (19:29). There is a possible additional horror in this. It is possible that the woman was not dead as she lay on the threshold. In Judges, the narrator makes special mention of someone being definitely dead (cf. 3:25, 4:22, and 5:27) but not here. The ambiguity at the very least makes this part of the event chilling.
The sending of her body parts is designed to raise an army against the Gibeonites, who are Benjaminites – which means Israel raising an army against itself. There are two examples of where this type of strategy is used. The first is from a few centuries earlier from the kingdom of Mari in what is now Syria. A letter to the king of Mari says “The Hanaeans have arrived from the steppe and established themselves among the settlements. Once, twice, I have sent [word] to the settlements and the appeal has been made. But they have not assembled, and for the third day they have not assembled. Now, it is the desire of my lord, a criminal in jail shall be killed, beheaded, and [his body] be carried and transported around throughout the area between the villages as far as Hudnim and Appan to cause the people to be fearful and assemble quickly” (Hess, Block and Manor, p407).
The second example is from 1 Samuel 11:7 which states that Saul, with the Spirit of God on him, “took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hand of the messengers, saying, “Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!” Then the dread of the Lord fell upon the people, and they came out as one man.”
There are some key differences. Saul has the Spirit of God and it is the dread of the Lord that falls on the people. In Judges, it is merely more of a pagan strategy – a person rather than an animal – and designed to outrage the people at an atrocity manipulated by the Levite.
The Israelites rally and battle ensues against one of their own tribes. Thousands are killed and after the battles are won, the victors sent 12,000 men and commanded them “This is what you shall do: every male and every woman that has lain with a male you shall devote to destruction.” And they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead 400 young virgins who had not known a man by lying with him, and they brought them to the camp at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan” (Judges 21 11-12). Kidnap the virgins and kill the rest. It is hard to comprehend how such acts could be even thought of.
It seems that the Israelites have reached the lowest of the low. This shows us how depraved the Israelites have come – how far they have fallen from Moses’ and Joshua’s leadership. This demonstrates how broken the leaders and judges were and how desperate for a king and savior the people are.
Except…..except…..this story appears at the end of the book of judges but does not happen at the end (Davis, p207).
The judges period is around 400 years between Joshua and the coming of Saul and the advent of God’s kingship through David. We humans are bears of simple brain and we read things quite literally and chronologically. If this story occurs at the end of the book, this should be roughly 350-ish years after the death of Joshua, right? Wrong. Judges 20:27-28 says that “And the people of Israel inquired of the Lord (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, and Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, ministered before it in those days), saying, “Shall we go out once more to battle against our brothers, the people of Benjamin, or shall we cease?”
Phinehas son of Eleazar is known best from the book of Joshua. Phinehas is present and mentioned throughout Joshua (22:13, 22:30-32 and 24:33 which notes that Eleazor died). In fact Phinehas is mentioned 3 times with his father in the book of Numbers and his birth is recorded in Exodus 6:25 while the Isrealites are still in Egypt.
So this story actually happens within living memory of Joshua dying. This event happens within a few years of the Israelites entering the promised land.
And that’s why this story is here. It is meant to be shocking. It is meant to show us the depths of Israelite depravity. It is meant to show us the wickedness and evil of everyone doing what is right in their own eyes. It is meant to demonstrate how in need of a savior and Lord we are. The original readers would have picked up on the reference to Phinehas immediately. They would have realised instantly that this debauchery was not the result of 400 years of slow degradation. They would have seen that wickedness overtook the people rapidly and horrifically. That’s how quickly it happens. If we needed a Lord and savior after a 400-year slide into darkness and sin, how much more when evil can overtake us so quickly.
And in that, we must see ourselves.
The very next book in our Bible is the book of Ruth which gives the salvific backdrop to the degradation in the book of Judges. I’ve written about that before here. Its in the book of Ruth that we see God working to bring us the very savior we so desperately need.
This story is shocking and horrific. But it is not here to normalise that behaviour. It is not the grim re-telling of something that was culturally normative. It was degrading and disgusting as it is today. The literary device of its placement in the book is clever and intentional. We are brought on a journey, thinking it is a slow slide into evil and with the reader becoming persuaded that we need a savior. Then the realisation that it happened right at the beginning of coming into the promised land would have been like a bucket of ice water. That’s how prone to wickedness we are. That’s how quickly we can take on the culture of those around us. That’s how quickly we can forget God and do what is right in our own eyes.
We must not forget that this is us too. Only God can be the lamp for our feet. We must remember to walk by faith. We must abide in Christ and keep him present in our minds and hearts. He is our savior, but unless we accept him as our Lord, we run every chance of sliding into wickedness – and far more quickly than we would like to think.
I have felt moved to write a series of blogs on passages of the Bible that can be confusing or disquieting for people. Other blogs in this grouping include:
- Given similar circumstances, why did God save the boy but let the girl die?
- The Bible tells us what a woman is worth. Is that for real?
- In the Bible, why is a woman unclean for twice as long after giving birth to a girl?
- Does the Bible endorse trial by ordeal for a woman?
- Does the Bible tell us what actually happens when we die?
- Is the transfiguration story just a myth or is there a point here?
If there is a passage that has always troubled you, feel free to contact me and I’ll take a look!