The following originally appeared as a series of tweets that Peter posted and I was so taken by his presentation that I asked him to post it here as a guest post. He has generously agreed. Enjoy!
The Bible’s most gory story
Judges 19 contains the disturbing account of the rape and dissection of the Levite’s concubine. The whole episode covers Judges 19–21 and teaches us a lot about male violence against women.
The story is set during the time of the judges, when there’s little government. The first and last verses of the episode remind us that there was no king (Judges 19:1; 21:25), which has already become a motif in the book (17:6; 18:1).
Judges is arguably the Bible’s goriest book. Yes, other Bible books relate more deaths, but Judges, with Adoni-bezek’s thumbs and big toes cut off, Eglon’s belly stabbed, Sisera’s temple pierced, Abimelech’s skull crushed, Samson’s eyes gouged out, and the concubine dissected depicts more explicit body damage than the whole rest of the narrative sections of the Bible put together. This section is thus the final bloody climax of the Bible’s goriest book.
It’s probably no coincidence that the Bible, which relentlessly depicts human wrong, records both small government (judges) and big government (kings) as unravelling in tragedies of male sexual violence followed by civil war. Thus neither decentralised nor centralised government, nor even a great (God-given!) constitution, can restrain human evil. The Bible portrays the failure of these things so that we know that God has to come into the world personally to sort things out.
Our account begins in 19:1 with a Levite taking a concubine. This is strange, because a concubine is a second tier wife, but this man doesn’t seem to have a first tier wife. In other words, he’s in an abusive relationship towards her from the start.
Note also that she’s from Bethlehem, just like David, and like Jesus. In this story it’s no coincidence that the main victim comes from Bethlehem, the town of king David and that the main bad guys come from Gibeah, the town of king Saul. In fact, both the final stories in the Book of Judges (chapters 17–18 and 19–21) contain a Levite, Ephraim, and the town Bethlehem. If, as in some orderings of the Bible (e.g. typical Greek, Latin, and English), you put Ruth after Judges you have three stories about Bethlehem in a row.
Next, the concubine is unfaithful to her man (19:2), but this doesn’t seem to consist in her going off with someone else so much as her going home to Bethlehem. She’s there for four months during which the Levite seems to do nothing about her (cf. another four month wait in 20:47). Eventually the Levite goes to Bethlehem to find her.
What’s so striking to me is how warmly the Levite’s father-in-law receives him (19:3). They eat and drink together and her father repeatedly delays his departure: the men have a camaraderie which the Levite doesn’t share with his concubine. Later on we see a bond between the Levite and another male host which overrides their concern for the women.
After days of delay and more merriment with his father-in-law the Levite sets off with his concubine and male servant, but too late in the day for safe travel.
As it gets dark, the servant advises that they go to a Canaanite city (19:11), which resonates with when later Saul’s servant advises him to go to Ramah (1 Samuel 9:6). The Levite here wants to press on to an Israelite city like Gibeah or Ramah. So they get to Gibeah (belonging to the tribe of Benjamin) after dark, but no one welcomes them in.
Just then, an old man from out of town, from the tribe of Ephraim, arrives back from the field and welcomes them in. We like him. He seems an ideal host, and offers all the food and supplies they could want. They’re having a great time together (19:22).
But then suddenly the men of the city start banging on the door. Though the Hebrew for ‘men’ could grammatically be generic for ‘people’, I think it’s right here to take it as exclusively male. Careful readers will have already noticed many echoes of the Sodom narrative of Genesis 19 in Judges 19. In both, the locals don’t offer hospitality; there’s mention of the city square (Genesis 19:2; Judges 19:15); someone from out of town hosts. Even the phrase ‘he pressed (פצר) upon him’ (Judges 19:8) is rare enough to remind us of how the men of Sodom pressed (פצר) Lot (Genesis 19:9).
But now the echoes become unmistakable as the men of this city demand that the Levite be brought out that they might ‘know’ him. One might be tempted to read ‘know’ (19:22) innocently: they want to get to know the stranger in their midst. But the context and subsequent horror don’t allow us to dwell on this possibility for long. The men of this Israelite city are wanting the man to be brought out for sex with them just as the men of the most proverbially wicked non-Israelite city (Sodom) had wanted sex with Lot’s guests.
But parallels run deeper. The host in both goes out to say, ‘My brothers, please do not do [this] bad’ (Genesis 19:7; Judges 19:23). Lot offers his virgin daughters to protect his male guests (by the way, we know that Genesis thinks that’s a bad idea because after he’d offered them for non-consensual sex, later in the passage as his comeuppance Lot himself ends up having non-consensual sex with these same daughters.). Here the old man (whom we were just beginning to like) verbally offers his virgin daughter and the concubine up to the mob. Worse than Lot, he invites them to humble (=rape) them and ‘do what is good in your eyes’ (19:24)—a phrase which echoes the motif of this part of Judges: people doing what’s right in their own eyes.
Extraordinarily we hear him say ‘but to this man do not do this foolish thing’. So things have come to a point where a father thinks his solidarity to his male guest trumps his parental care for his daughter. The Levite grabs hold of his concubine and thrusts her out.
Sparing us details, the narrator tells us ‘they knew her and abused her all night until morning. And when the day began to break they let her go’ (19:25). What horrors she must have undergone!
Another reason her torments are not recorded is that they are not known. Other than the perpetrators, most or all of whom are dead by the end of the episode, the victim was the only witness. She bore the pain utterly alone.
It goes on. ‘Then the woman came as the day was dawning and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, till it was light’ (19:26). She collapses while her ‘master’ (doesn’t that title say a lot about the asymmetry of the relationship?) is safe inside.
The narrator shocks us with the callousness and pathos of the next verse: ‘When her master arose in the morning [presumably after a good night’s sleep], and opened the doors of the house [which she’d been shut out from] and went out to go on his way [business as usual]… there was his concubine, fallen at the door of the house with her hands on the threshold’ (19:27).
The position of her hands—so close and yet so far—shows exactly where the narrator’s sympathies lie, in the personal tragedy of this poor woman.
But the juxtaposed callousness of the Levite shocks further: ‘And he said to her “Get up, and let’s go”, but there was no answer.’ And he put her on the donkey and the man arose and went to his place. And he came to his house and took a knife and took hold of his concubine and cut her up into twelve pieces and send her [sic] into all the territory of Israel’ (19:28-29).
People are shocked and respond to a call to arms.
But we have to observe the heartlessness of this Levite who thrust out his concubine to predators, expected her simply to resume travel in the morning, and then finally dismembered her body. We also notice that death through misnamed ‘rough sex’ is not new.
It is unusual (relative to biblical narrative generally) that the story never relates the concubine’s death. We don’t know when she died because the heartless Levite never checked. I hope it was before he cut her up. Was she put on the donkey half-dead like the man in Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan—a better host than the Ephraimite host in this story? There’s also a Levite in that parable, but he doesn’t act well either.
The Levite tells her to ‘arise’ qumi (קוּמִי) linguistically like talitha qum (variant qumi) said by Jesus in Mark 5:41, but quite unlike Jesus’s saying in almost every other way.
Moving through the rest of the story rather more quickly: in chapter 20 civil war breaks out. 11 tribes fight against the one tribe of Benjamin, the tribe from which the aggressors of Gibeah came. But even if we consider the 11 tribes to be the ‘good’ side, they’re not really good because they’re following the Levite’s false report of what happened (20:5), which focusses on the mortal threat of the locals against the Levite, though it’s not clear he was ever in such danger. His report also conveniently omits his role in putting the concubine outside for the rabble. So one tenth of Israel’s 400,000 strong force is lost and almost all the tribe of Benjamin. The whole narrative is deeply reminiscent of Israel’s attack on Ai. In other words, an Israelite city has become as bad as a Canaanite one.
In the end, all of Benjamin are killed except for 600 men. Note thus that the Benjaminite men were the problem, but more women were wiped out!
Now the Israelites have another problem. They’ve made a foolish vow (as Benjaminite Saul does later). This vow was not to allow their daughters to marry men from Benjamin. The solution they now find to this problem is to destroy all of Jabesh Gilead, except 400 virgins because Jabesh Gilead hadn’t responded to the call for war. This creates a strong bond between the small tribe of Benjamin and Jabesh Gilead so that Saul is quick to come to their aid in 1 Samuel 11, after Saul cuts up oxen and sends the pieces by envoy (1 Samuel 11:7). The parallels and contrasts with the concubine’s fate are hard to miss.
Still 200 wives short, the Israelites decide that if Benjaminites ambush and abduct 200 dancing girls in Shiloh that’s alright.
That’s how the book ends. People seem to think that the solution to the problem of male violence was to abduct more women. It looks like they’ve learned nothing. The last line of the book runs like this: ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.’ (21:25) When we reflect on the story as a whole, we see that it’s a story without heroes, but with a clear victim. No character is named. This can actually aid us in connecting with the characters, which could be any one of us.
The Bible is not tone deaf to the problem of male violence against women. It’s actually a theme to which it repeatedly returns. The picture of the woman’s hands on the threshold is meant to haunt us.
The woman from Bethlehem was the involuntary victim, a substitute for others. Later the Bible tells of someone from Bethlehem who willingly gave up his life as a substitute to protect others from death. This story resonates with the big Bible theme that human evil runs deep and that’s exactly why we need someone willing to die for us.
Peter J. Williams, August 2019