In Judges 19-20 we get the next step in the Not Quite Happy Ending for Israel. Wait, the story doesn’t end when we reach the Promised Land? What a rip-off!
Things start out funny enough, depending on your sense of humor, with a certain anonymous Levite in the hill country of Ephraim. Wait a minute…!
It’s tempting to connect him to Jonathan from the previous chapters, but that does not seem to make any story-telling sense here. As the story unfolds it becomes quite difficult to make the two characters coincide. More likely, the composition of the book is partially influenced by the similarity—two tales of degenerate Levites. But it’s nice to know that the hill country of Ephraim is the land of plus ça change!
This Levite travels south, to Bethlehem of Judah, to acquire a concubine for himself. All sorts of questions arise here. As I teach my students, concubines were something between second-class wives and sex-slaves, depending on time and place. What’s this Levite up to? Why doesn’t his wife-wife show up in the tale? Does he even have one?
We leave that a mystery, although I would say the story seems to run best if the Levite is young and stupid. We’ll let him be unattached and unwise, to say the least, in the ways of women (and, er, justice). At any rate, this Levite brings home a concubine from Bethlehem, and she promptly runs away.
Now women in the ancient world don’t have a lot of great options in life. You can be someone’s daughter, you can be someone’s wife, or you can be a slave. If we take the more charitable interpretation of concubine here, then she’s running away from a fairly stable life—perhaps an unhappy one, but not something you would want to sacrifice over a spat. On the other hand, if concubine here really does just mean sex-slave, this story becomes a whole lot darker. When I teach it, I work from the position of second-class wife. YMMV.
At any rate, the concubine attempts to return to life with her father. The Levite decides he should go get her back…3 months later. Three months! As if he were the deadbeat boyfriend constantly telling himself, “She’ll be back,” and only many months later finally realizing, “Huh…maybe she’s not coming back.” The funny-but-not moment comes when the girl’s father, seeing the Levite coming, runs out with joy to meet him. This woman is not wanted! Maybe the father really wants his daughter to end up in this match and settle down…or maybe he really wants this girl off his hands and doesn’t care if she’s a poorly-treated sex-slave. Even the “Get this shrew off my hands!” version is a bit too chauvinist for modern sensibilities.
But then the story takes a funny turn, and it’s hard to know what to make of it. Absurdist? The father insists that the Levite stay for three days of feasting and then, despite apparently wanting the girl off his hands, repeatedly undermines their efforts to return to the Levite’s home in the hill country of Ephraim. Finally the Levite has had enough of this strange family and puts his foot down—honey, get your stuff. We are leaving!
Unfortunately the Levite is being reckless. Leaving so late in the morning, he can no longer make the trip all the way to his home in a single day. The hill country of Ephraim is, well, hilly—rocky, treacherous, uncertain terrain as we will see in future stories. And because of the strange behavior of the father and the silliness of the Levite, the trip home is interrupted by nightfall.
We take for granted that people travel around at night all the time now. It’s really important to understand that night, for most of human history, is that time of greatest peril when all the things that can and want to kill us or worse are out and about. It’s dangerous to travel at night because you might break your leg, you might get eaten, you might get waylaid by rough riders…the list goes on. Don’t travel at night!
And so the Levite and his concubine, along with a servant, come to the town of Gibeah of Benjamin just as night falls. This is when we shift gears to a proper horror movie. Tumble-weed blows through a deserted town square. Doors slam and lock. A weird piping flute plays strains of tense insanity. When the Levite decides they have no choice but to settle down in the empty square and hope for the best, a crazy-eyed old man canes his way over and warns them to get into his house ASAP.
What plays out next is nothing else than a rewrite of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah except this time there are no angels to save the day. The townfolk storm the old man’s house demanding to have relations with the Levite. The old man offers them his daughters instead, so long as they not do this vile thing to the Levite, but the crowd goes restive. The Levite does what any god-fearing Israelite would do—he thrusts his catty concubine out the door and locks her out of the house so that the crowd can rape her to death (!).
In the morning, after a good night’s sleep, the Levite steps outside to stretch and prepare for the journey home (!). He sees his concubine lying on the ground, wonders how anyone could be so lazy, and nudges her with his foot to get her moving. There’s stuff to do today, and lunch isn’t going to make itself, honey!
When the Levite realizes that the concubine is dead, he does what anyone would do—he slings her dead body onto a donkey, takes the corpse back to his house, cuts it into twelve pieces, and mails them to the twelve tribes of Israel. This gruesome message is a Bat Signal for the tribes of Israel to assemble—the blood of this woman is on all our hands, screams the symbol. Let’s gloss over how exactly these parts get passed around and in what condition. It’s a symbol!
When the Israelites assemble at their mountain redoubt of Mizpah, the Levite explains very plainly what happened. There are two outlandish things about this part of the story. The first is how shamelessly the Levite leaves out his role in throwing his concubine out into the street. I go crazy when my kids or students deceive that way, but this one takes the cake. Just the brassiest face ever! The second is how the Israelites, hearing that the man carved up his girlfriend to assemble them all, seem to think this is a perfectly rational decision. Well, yeah, what else were you going to do. Man, you’ve had it rough!
The story segues directly into the third phase of this cycle of degeneracy, but we’ll save that for another post. Why, oh why, is this insane story in the Bible?
Pretty simple, actually: we get to see in gory detail the continued decline of all things Israel. Listen, the only good guy in the Bible is God; everyone else is either outright wicked or intermittently wicked. Every character fails, sometimes spectacularly, to live up to the Law (ok, let’s leave aside Mary for a bit here).
This is what you get when Israel has no Law, when the Levites are corrupt, when Moses is gone. The basic moral message is simple: Sodom and Gomorrah is no longer a cautionary tale about what those people did over there a long time ago. It’s happening in Israel, right now, but worse. Will anyone care enough to stop it?
Well it turns out, yes. Except that the way they choose to go about doing that causes even more problems. Surprise!
Stay tuned for more.