Kingless Israelites: Sinking to a Whole New Level

This passage begins and ends with the words, “In those days there was no king,” and after the horrific tale of rape, murder and justification of more rape and more murder…additional words were added to the end of the scripture, and “all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Interesting bookends, for a story that was included in the Hebrew bible for a specific purpose.

The whole story is very disturbing. I was casually reading through Judges 19 until I got to verse 22. Prior to that verse, the story included two main characters: A Levite, from the hill country of Ephraim, and his concubine from Bethlehem in Judah.  We don’t know why or what the situation was, but the concubine became angry with her husband the Levite and went to her father’s house for a number of months until her husband followed her to reclaim her. The Levite is shown generous hospitality by his father-in-law, even to the point of being asked to stay much longer than he has desired. But the Levite declined and he and his concubine headed out late into the night. It becomes time to stop their journey for the night, but the Levite is unwilling to stay in a city of foreigners, and so they find shelter in the Benjaminite city of Gibeah. This is where the story turns very, very dark. In verse 22, we find some of the townspeople wanted to rape the Levite, but the master of the house instead offers his daughter and the Levite’s concubine! The crowd isn’t going for it – but then, the Levite “seized” (NRSV) his concubine and sent her out…to be raped and abused all night. In the morning, after a good night’s sleep, the Levite found her on the threshold of the door unresponsive. He threw her on the back of his donkey and headed back home. Back in Ephraim he chopped her body up in 12 pieces and told his version of the violence that took place in the Benjaminite town. This became the catalyst for a deadly spiral of violence (and more rape) to avenge the concubine’s death.

The historical context of Judges is set during a transitional period when Israel has celebrated their conquest into Canaan, but now must survive new threats and dangers. “The pressures of the age forced the diverse groups who identified with the deity name Yhwh to come together in a union that transcended tribal interests.” (Bandstra) External threats called them to bond together as one nation under their common faith in Yhwh. The central message of this story is to point out how far Israel had gone astray – shockingly astray. Even though the Judges had pointed out the evils of worshipping false gods, this concluding story sent the message loud and clear: Israel had sunk to a new level and the only thing that will save it, is a king.

To read this story with modern eyes, stirs up violent images of women treated as objects and less than human. One can easily get stuck on the blatant, ugly abuse at the hands of those who should be committed to love and protect. But my perspective, as a wife, daughter and mother of daughters is far removed from the cultural context for which this was written. In the ancient context, women were perceived as second class citizens, and the far more shocking situation was that the Levite was almost raped by men. This act of control over another man was more hideous to the Israelites than the concubine’s rape.

The bottom line is, the author of this story left no room for interpretation – the message and agenda was clear: Israel had sunk to a new and very depraved level, and would face extinction if a kingship were not established.

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4 thoughts on “Kingless Israelites: Sinking to a Whole New Level

  1. Jenny,

    I found your post very interesting. It seems that you have seen through this tragic and disturbing story with your own critical lens on Israel during this transitional period of time. You indicated the central theme of this passage that Israel is in chaos and sinking to a whole new level of depravity and facing destruction without a king ruling over the nation.

    In regards to the modern reader’s response to the story in this passage, you pointed out that women were treated as second class citizens or even as sexual objects less than human. To readers like us, it is so offensive and detestable to see women and children oppressed and murdered with no justifiable reasons. It made me wonder: Was this YHWH’s plan for Israel to have a king? Why did YHWH let this horrible thing happen to his chosen people? Yet, why was it not in another way more humane and better instead? I think the answers could have been given by the Deuteronomistic historian or editor of the book of Judges.

    Blessings.

    Daniel

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  2. Jenny,

    I found your post very interesting. It seems that you have seen through this tragic and disturbing story with your own critical lens on Israel during this transitional period of time. You indicated the central theme of this passage that Israel is in chaos and sinking to a whole new level of depravity and facing destruction without a king ruling over the nation.

    In regards to the modern reader’s response to the story in this passage, you pointed out that women were treated as second class citizens or even as sexual objects less than human. To readers like us, it is so offensive and detestable to see women and children oppressed and murdered with no justifiable reasons. It made me wonder: Was this YHWH’s plan for Israel to have a king? Why did YHWH let this horrible thing happen to his chosen people? Yet, why was it not in another way more humane and better instead? I think the answers could have been given by the Deuteronomistic historian or editor of the book of Judges.

    Blessings,

    Daniel

    Like

  3. Thanks for you post, and for tying it back to your own experience/emotions as well. It’s interesting how, in Judges, the author is citing the lack of a king as the reason for a lot of the problems. However, in Samuel, the author goes back and forth about whether or not the institution of a monarchy is good or bad. In any case, I didn’t have an appreciation for the story until I read your post – thanks for that.

    Reflecting on Dr. Lester’s question this week, about how to relate the Hebrew Bible class to gender / ethnic / sexuality, your comments on women stood out to me. Women were viewed very differently by the biblical authors than they are today…and that both influenced them and influences our interpretations of their writings. I wonder how that aspect of this passage would be likely to be interpreted in, say, 1900, 1950, 1980, and today. I bet the differences would be telling! –D.

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  4. Thanks for the excellent post. I really appreciated how you retold the story. It was refreshing to read it through your compassionate and thoughtful lens. The story is really so awful, but you got to a deeper truth and helped me to see that as well. That is a gift — to sit with scripture and find where God is in it.

    I think you are right on with the central messages of the text – Israel going so far astray, the need for a kingship, the common faith in YHWH. I think a great example of how important context is could be the fact that the culture for which this text was written would have found the inhospitality inherent in the attempted rape of men visiting a city much more disturbing (and solid evidence of how far they had gone astray) than the rape of women. Reminds me of some of the confusion in the Genesis 19 passage about Sodom/Gomorrah. Context helps us to see the text more clearly and then to rightly interpret it for us today.

    Thanks again for your post!

    Like

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