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The book, then serves as a witness to the failing unity of the chosen people of God. The final four chapters of the book repeat the refrain, "in those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes" (cf. 17:6; 18:1; 21:25). This phrasing is introduced to suggest that without a king, the society will disintegrate. The final saga of the Judges narrative, Judg.19:1-30, is the pivotal point in which any sort of virtue is gone from the society. The narrative of the rape, torture, and dismemberment of the Levite's concubine reflect a distortion of virtue and custom in a society that lacked strong leadership. Judges 19:1-30 is inserted at the end of the book in order to highlight the need for stronger leadership, which prompts the development of the monarchy.
Judges 19 presents us with one of the most disturbing and distressing stories in the Hebrew Bible. A woman is thrown to a mob of men who gang rapes her and abuses her possibly to death. Neither her husband, her father, nor the man giving her hospitality tries to protect her. It is a story that depicts the horrors of male power and brutality while at the same time depicting female helplessness, abuse, and annihilation. All throughout the passage the concubine is given no voice, and the characters of the story continually act against her. The violence enacted against her is portrayed as the result of there being no king in Israel. The author is trying to make an explanation for why there was need of a king. If the author can make the environment of the nations to be as shocking and appalling as possible, then the reader will be able to understand why there was a need for some sort of strong central leadership. Essentially, Judges acts as a bridge between conquest and monarchy. As I will discuss later, this depraved nation of Israel is personified in the beaten and torn body of the concubine in the passage.
The passage begins by explaining that "In those days there was no king in Israel (Judg. [et. al.] 19:1). This phrase insists that the account which will follow is the result of there being no king in Israel. The writer generally uses the phrase 'in those days' to discuss what had once been the condition of Israel, but is no longer the case. This sets up the passage to be a story that serves as evidence as to why there was need for a king. This is to say that the events that will follow illustrate the pivotal reason why there is indeed the need for a king, and thereby legitimatizing the monarchy which is probably present at the time that the author is writing.
R.A. Wilson remarks that it was in fact YHWH who was to act as the king over Israel and that this will be the thrust of the final chapters. Was it therefore the lack of a human King that is able to unify and bring peace to the land that is lacking in this passage? Or is it that YHWH, the king, was not present and had basically deserted Israel? While it is most likely referring to an earthly king, this can be related to YHWH's divine action in the narrative of the accounts proceeding Judges with the exodus and conquest, of God's action in Egypt and the wilderness and the search for a king that occurs after with Samuel's call and anointing of the kings. It is, however, the lack of leadership in Israel that gives rise to the terror that occurs in this passage.
The entire story unfolds because "a certain Levite, residing in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, took for himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. But his concubine became angry with him, and she went away from him to her father's house at Bethlehem in Judah" (vv. 1-2). We are not told why she had become angry with the Levite, but she was angry enough to return to her father. There was no law set up for women to divorce their husbands at this time; divorce had to be initiated by the husband. Therefore, her act of leaving and returning home could be seen as her own decision to divorce her husband, and this is the only way that she knew to make that separation. Other translations suggest that rather than the concubine becoming angry with the Levite and leaving, she rather "played the harlot against him." Some scholars have suggested that since divorce can only be done by the husband, her act of walking out was equivalent to committing adultery.
This translation of the passage has been used by some scholars to suggest that the fate of the concubine was then a punishment for this act. This does not seem to be the case for several reasons. First, if the concubine had prostituted herself, she would most likely not have returned to her father's house. The attitude of the concubine's father, or lack thereof, suggests that nothing serious was involved in her running to him. The Concubine would know that her father's house would not be the safe place to flee to if she had played the harlot. Second, if the concubine had in fact prostituted herself, the penalty in Levitical law was death (e.g., Lev. 10:20). The Levite would most likely have enacted the punishment for this sort of behavior rather than seeking her out at her father's house. This is especially the case since in the next line it says that the Levite went to Bethlehem to "speak kindly to her". In Hebrew, this would mean to "speak to her heart" which is a widely used and connoted reassurance, comfort, loyalty, and love. His journey to find her, though, suggests that they had an argument and he was traveling to reconcile their relationship, rather than her playing the harlot, after which the Levite would probably not seek reconciliation. Therefore, the interpretation that she became angry with him seems more plausible. Regardless of the reason for her fleeing, without the fleeing there would be no need for the Levite to search for her and bring her back. This would have prevented the entire passage to have not happened.
The Levite is welcomed into the Father's house and is referred to as the father-in-law for the rest of the narrative. The hospitality experienced at the Father-in-law's house sets the framework for what is virtuous and what is distorted in the story. The events described while the Levite was at the father-in-law's house are an example of what hospitality was to look like in the ancient Near East (vv.3-9). This is later put into perspective by the lack of hospitality offered at Gibeah (v.15). The leisureliness of festive occasions in the Middle East shows itself in the event of the father and the Levite. The father's effort to get the Levite to stay another day over and over was common etiquette of the day. Further, the man alludes to the hospitality given to the Israelites when they were wandering in the wilderness. He begs his guest to stay because "the day draws to its close," which would mean that the time has come to stop traveling and to pitch a tent for the night. When the father-in-law says that in the morning the Levite can continue to his home, the word translated as 'home' really means 'tent.' Such vocabulary remains long after the time period of wandering in the wilderness is gone. Perhaps the author of this account is trying to juxtapose this event of hospitality with the hospitality that they will receive later. This hospitality that they are receiving at the father-in law's house is the normative example of what hospitality was supposed to look like; such as when the Israelites had strong leaders such as Moses and Aaron. The hospitality that will be shown later is what happens when Israel is not unified under a strong leader.
Once the Levite, the Concubine, and the Levite's servant leave the father-in-law's house it is already fairly late in the day (v. 9). The journey will therefore have to be broken up and finished the following day. The servant suggests that they take refuge in the city of Jerusalem, which was inhabited by the Jebusites at that time (v. 11). The Levite answers by saying "We will not turn aside into a city of foreigners, who do not belong to the people of Israel; but we will continue on to Gibeah" (v.12). The Levite wishes to find hospitality and welcome in a city occupied by Israelites. Only later do we learn that in fact there is no safety in a city occupied by Israelites. The travelers likely would have been safer and left in a better condition if they had gone to the city of the Jubusites. This scene only strengthens the claim that the world of the Israelites has gone awry. The city of Jerusalem will one day be the city of refuge and unity under King David, a strong leader (2 Sam. 5-6). For now it is seen as a city of danger, whereas Gibeah will be seen as the city of safety. This could be foreshadowing to the idea of Jerusalem as a haven for the Israelites under a unified leader. In the end, however, it is in the city of Gibeah that hospitality is sought.
Once in the city of Gibeah, the Levite, concubine, and servant, "sat down in the open square of the city, but no one took them in to spend the night" (v. 15). Most likely they were waiting in the city gate, which was typical custom for a traveler searching for hospitality for the night. The two laden donkeys that the travelers had with them would be an assurance to any that there would be no liability for taking them in; they were self-sufficient. Therefore, the failure for any to offer hospitality was extremely uncouth on the part of the Benjaminites. Such a breach in proper Near East etiquette was indictment enough against the men of Gibeah. The author of the passage however, seems to be building the tension to the ultimate crime that is to take place. This is the first step in the distortion within Israel of basic custom. Again, the writer highlights this in order to show the state of the tribes with no leader present. The author wants to portray that things have gotten so bad that even a Levite traveling through the area needing nothing but a place to sleep is not taken care of by the Benjamin tribe. The manners and virtues once found within Israel are slowly disappearing. Just at evening, though, a man, also from the hill countries of Ephriam, invites the travelers in to his home for the evening (v. 16). The author takes great pains in informing the reader that it was in fact not a Benjaminite that offered the hospitality. Instead, it was a foreigner, just like the travelers. The job of hospitality, which would traditionally have been done by the men of Gibeah, has to be done by a foreigner.
While feasting and enjoying the hospitality of the old man, we are introduced to a part of the story reminiscent of one we may already know. The men of the Gibeah begin pounding on the door of the old man with the request that he "Bring out the man who came into your house, so that we may have intercourse with him" (v.22). We are not told why the men of the city have made this request, but some claim a motive being that their pride was offended that a sojourner in their city should put them to shame by offering the hospitality that they had withheld. Whether this would mean that they were declining hospitality intentionally, or if they are ashamed for their own lack of action we do not know. The old man responds by asking the men not to do this evil thing since the man is a guest (v. 23). If he were to give up his guest this would be a considerable breach in hospitality. There is an ancient Ugaric text which makes reference to the ideal son 'who may drive away any who would molest his night-guest.' In the code for hospitality in the Near East then, it was expected for a host to drive off those who would try to molest guests that stay for the night. Instead of giving over his guests, the man offers his own virgin daughter and the guest's concubine for the men to "Ravish them and do whatever you want to them" (v.24). The old man was willing to shatter a different code of conduct in order not to break the accepted conventions of hospitality. Rather than give his guest to the men he was willing to give up the care and protection of the weak, that is, the women. The man was willing to give up his own virgin daughter and the Levite's concubine rather than give up his primary guest to abuse.
There are parallels between this story and the one that takes place in Gen. 19. The author of Judges 19 presupposes that the reader is aware of Gen. 19, and depends on that awareness in order for this episode to be properly understood. The reader must be familiar with Lot's story in Genesis 19 in order to understand the extent to which Israel has gone astray from order and care. While the story about Lot may not seem to be a 'normal' story for modern readers, it is the normative hospitality story to be juxtaposed next to this 'distorted' hospitality story in Judges 19. First, it is one thing for Lot to offer his two virgin daughters to the mob in Sodom in order to fulfill his duties as a host. It is quite another thing to offer one's virgin daughter along with the guest's concubine to be ravished. While the man's main concern is to protect his primary guest, the Levite, it is still a breach in hospitality to give up the guest's possessions, which in this case is the Concubine. The host fails to see that offering the concubine is in fact inhospitable. Both of the stories, that of Genesis 19 and Judges 19, illustrate that the rules of hospitality in Israel only protected males.
The writer seems to be going step by step in following Lot's example from Genesis 19. First, the demand of the men of the city to know the guests ties the stories together (Gen. 19:5; Judg. 19:22). Second, the guests in Genesis had planned on staying the night in square and had to be urged not to spend the night in the square (Gen. 19:2-3; Judg. 19:20). Lot, much like the old man in Judges, is a sojourner in the town (Gen. 11:27; Judg. 19:16) Lot says to the men of Sodom "do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men for they have come under the shelter of my roof" (Gen 19:7-8). The old host in Judges says "do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing. Here are my virgin daughter and his concubine; let me bring them out now. Ravish them and do whatever you want to them; but against this man do not do such a vile thing" (Jud 19:23-24). Lot asks the men not to do this wicked thing, and the host asks the men not to do this wicked thing. Lot offered two women to the mob, but the host has only one virgin daughter, and therefore has to improvise. Therefore, he adds the Levite's concubine to the offer so that there are two total women, just as in the Genesis story. It is in the offering of the concubine that the Judges story begins to show itself as the 'distorted' version of the story. The host is not being as hospitable as Lot since he is offering the Levite's concubine. The host also goes one step further than Lot in saying that the men can "Ravish them and do whatever you want to them" (Jud 19:24) whereas Lot says only to "do to them as you please" (Gen 19:8). The normative story of Genesis becomes distorted in the world of Judges by going one step further to show the downhill slope that Israel has found itself in without a central leader. Judges 19 uses Genesis 19 to show how hospitality is turned upside down when one's guests are not angels, and one lives in an age governed by human selfishness rather than a strong, unified central leader. This is also an example of what happens when the divine is inactive or at least when the angels functioning on behalf of the divine are absent.
The Genesis story ends with the angel guests striking the men of the city blind and the guests and Lot's daughter's staying in safety. The Judges story however does not end so happily. Rather, the text says that "the man seized his concubine, and put her out to them. They wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning" (v.25). Instead of there being some sort of divine intervention on part of the guests, the concubine is thrust out into the throng of the men and raped and attacked. The Levite is traditionally the one who thrust the concubine out to the men. This seems to contradict the idea that this woman was someone that he loved since he pursued her at her father's house. Some scholars propose that perhaps he was simply trying to save himself by pushing her out to the men. Others offer the idea that perhaps the Levite was 'punishing' his concubine for "playing the harlot" as mentioned at the beginning of the passage. It seems, however, after seeing how the story turns out, that the Levite is simply a very callous individual who cares nothing about his concubine. This is a hard reality to understand, though, in light of his venture to retrieve the concubine in the first place.
The concubine's plight comes to a close when dawn began to break and she fell down at the threshold of the house in which her master was staying (vv. 25-26). At this point we do not know if the concubine is dead or alive. When the Levite wakes up he makes ready to continue home, with no regard to how his concubine fared the night before. It is possibly that he and the old man continued "eating" and "enjoying themselves" while the woman was being abused (vv. 21-22). As he leaves to set out back home he just happens to come upon the concubine lying on the ground outside the door. It is almost as if he came upon her on accident (v. 27). Perhaps he had not even planned on finding out the fate of his concubine after he had gone to bed the night before. Either way, all of the actions the Levite takes since pushing the concubine out the door to men are callous and vulgar. The fact that he threw her out to the mob and also seems oblivious to her death contradicts what appears to be his desire for her at the beginning of the story. Also, his behavior is in violent disagreement with what we must assume most readers would consider being the appropriate response to such a situation. The Levite tells his concubine to get up because they are going, to which he gets no response (v. 28). He then puts her on his donkey and returns home (v. 28). There are no words of concern; nothing to imply that the Levite is upset at the fate of his concubine, there is only the action of taking her, or at least what is left of her, home.
Once the Levite gets home another terror occurs. The Levite grasps his concubine and "cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel" (v.29). At this point in the story we are still not sure if the concubine is dead or alive. Therefore we do not know if her death resulted in the abuse she received in Gibeah, or from the dismemberment done by the Levite. The verb to divide is used of ritual dissection and the number of pieces corresponds to the twelve tribes. Once the concubine is dismembered, she is sent out with the message "Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day? Consider it, take counsel, and speak out" (v.30).
The Levite is rallying Israel together in order to take revenge on the Benjaminites of Gibeah. This rallying of the tribes of Israel has only happened elsewhere with Saul, when the yoke of Oxen were dismembered and distributed throughout Israel (1 Sam. 11:1-8). When the two instances are compared, it becomes strikingly apparent the intensely grotesque nature of the Levite's actions. The 1 Samuel passage then becomes the 'normative' story juxtaposed to the 'distorted' story of Judges 19. While Saul's act may have been considered the 'ritual' thing to do when rallying the nation, the Levite's actions are nowhere near a faithful application of such a ritual.
One major difference between the two narratives is in the significance of the message. Saul cut up the oxen as a symbol of what would happen to the nation's oxen if the nations did not rally together; hence he says "Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!" (1 Sam 11:7). The Levite does not quote the exact significance of the message he intends to send by the severed body. Are we to believe that this will be the fate of Israel's concubines if they do not rally together? Also, Saul's action of dividing the oxen is done when the "spirit of the Lord" (1 Sam 11:6) comes upon him. There is no indication that the spirit of YHWH prompts this dividing up the body of a woman whose death the Levite himself has caused. Therefore, when comparing the stories of Saul dividing the oxen to rally the nation and the Levite dismembering his concubine, it can be said that the Judges account is a 'distorted' view of the 'normative' story.
The city of Gibeah was founded around the time of the Israelite invasion. Later, this city becomes famous as the birthplace and subsequent capital of Saul. It is significant that this event happens in Saul's town of Gibeah, because it is where he later performs his own act of dismembering the oxen. Also, the disaster prevented by Saul through this dismemberment concerned the city of Jabesh-Gilead which is the same town that later refuses to assemble for the uprising against Gibeah in Judges (Judg. 21:8-9). Some scholars believe that Judges 19-21 then serves as a sort of execration of Saul. His hometown is the one that committed the atrocious act of raping and abusing the concubine, so Saul must also be of this mind. However, if one compares the two accounts, it seems as if instead it functions as an execration of the Levite, as well as the Benjaminites, and the whole nation of Israel during this kingless period in their history. Again, this type of argument sets up Saul's actions as the 'normative' story, while introducing the episode in Judges as a 'distorted' version of the normative story that results from the lack of a king in Israel.
This story in Judges is one of the most graphic and terrorizing stories in the Hebrew Bible. Its purpose is to show just how out of hand Israel has become with no king. The author begins the passage by saying that "there was no king in Israel," and then explains the consequences that the lack of a king poses to Israel. The nation has continued to only do "what was right in their eyes" to the point that they have raped and abused an innocent concubine, dismembered her, sent her to the nations, and later had a civil war (Judges 20-21). Without a king, the nation is in a state of anarchy. While this story of overt violence against a woman gives the assumption that a strong leader or royal authority is needed to ensure Israel's community coherence, this unity is depicted in the image of the woman's body. The violation of the woman's body is similar to the violation of the nation. The images of brokenness through sexual violence serve as a figure of brokenness in the life of the nation. The image of Israel as reflected in the treatment of their women is paramount to the episode. The fact that it is a woman who is portraying this brokenness, though, just adds to the symbolism of the time that men are entrusted with the power and control in the nation.
The nation of Israel wanted a king, and the book of Judges acts as the warrant for why that king is needed. The lack of a central leader has caused the nation to fall into a state of anarchy and confusion where that which would be considered 'normal' has turned in that which is 'distorted.' The comparison with the story of Lot in Sodom and Saul dismembering the Oxen display the normative behavior that is severely distorted in the conduct of the Levite. The character of the concubine, is simply the portrayal of how bad the things have gotten. She is not named in the story nor is she given a voice. Her individual character, however, was not the author's concern so much as the violent and callous actions acted upon her. The author's hope is to show that with the sort of behavior that was happening in the nation, it was imperative that Israel rally together under the leadership of a king.