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.