The story of Judges 19 and the subsequent chapters are some of the most shocking and appalling accounts in all of Scripture. The callousness of the old host and the Levite, and the monstrous brutality of the men of Gibeah, leaves us feebly scrabbling for words by which to surmount our dumbfoundedness. Yet the actions of the old man and the Levite in chapter 19 are only some of the initial events in a litany of cruelties, crimes, and catastrophes, as the evils of that night in Gibeah exploded into a conflagration that engulfed the entire nation, and almost eradicated the tribe of Benjamin from Israel.
Despite the violence and wickedness of Judges 19-21, this dark passage in Israel’s history is not excluded from the musical order of Scripture. Rather, its meaning is only truly perceived within the broader context established by that order, as within that order it is related to other events and times. Indeed, its presence at the end of Judges—although out of historical sequence—serves to frame it as a narrative that climactically expresses the moral state of Israel without a king, bringing themes of the book to a head (much as the events of 2 Samuel 24, also out of historical sequence, serve to highlight the movement of the themes of the book towards the future establishment of the temple).
Israel Become Sodom
Most attentive readers of this text will swiftly appreciate that it invites extensive comparison with the story of Lot and Sodom in Genesis 19. In both cases, two visitors arrive at a wicked city in the evening (Genesis 19:1; Judges 19:14-15). They plan to stay in the open square (Genesis 19:2; Judges 19:15), but, prevailed upon by a man of the city (in both cases someone whose origins were from outside of the city), they stay in his house instead (Genesis 19:2-3; Judges 19:16-20), where they are fed and given something to drink (Genesis 19:3; Judges 19:21). The house is then surrounded by men of the city, who wish to rape the male visitor(s) (Genesis 19:4-5; Judges 19:22). The men of the city are resisted by the host (Genesis 19:6-7; Judges 19:23), who offers two women to the crowd instead of the male guest(s) (Genesis 19:8; Judges 19:24).
In both accounts there is a lot of attention given to the doorway as the threshold between safety and death (Genesis 19:6, 9-11; Judges 19:22, 26, 27) and to the contrast between the night and the dawn (Genesis 19:1, 2, 15, 23, 27; Judges 19:11, 14, 15, 25, 26). In both cases, the outcome is the guests’ condemnation of the wicked city (Genesis 19:13; Judges 19:29-30), leading to its utter destruction (Genesis 19:23-29; Judges 20), the death of a woman at dawn (Genesis 19:26; Judges 19:26), followed by an ill-fated or tragic attempt at repopulation (Genesis 19:30-38; Judges 21).
There are noteworthy contrasts between these accounts. Lot puts himself in a position of extreme danger to protect his guests, going out to the mob and addressing them directly (Genesis 19:6, 9). He offered his daughters to the crowd, in an extreme last-ditch measure designed to protect his guests. By contrast, the old man of Gibeah offered his daughter and the Levite’s concubine, one of his guests (and it is possible that the old man only originally extended hospitality to the Levite when he realized that he came from the same region as he did—Judges 19:16-20).
In the end, it was the concubine—a guest—who was cast out to the hostile mob. Lot’s sinful willingness to sacrifice his daughters was a wrong marginally mitigated by the fact that he was clearly motivated by the extreme demands of hospitality. The old man of Gibeah, who seemed to be in no personal danger, was prepared to sacrifice a guest.
In Genesis 19, the angelic guests protect those within the house and prevent Lot from coming to harm. Rather than allowing the mob to do ‘whatever was right in their eyes’ (cf. Judges 19:24), they struck the eyes of the crowd with blindness. The Levite, by contrast, does not act as a guardian, but is prepared to sacrifice his concubine for his skin. The Levite is shockingly callous towards his concubine. The impression is given that he turns in for the night while she is being brutally raped outside. In the morning, he wakes up and, eager to get on his way, addresses her roughly, without even betraying the faintest concern for her well-being after the horrific treatment she had suffered in the night (Judges 19:27).
In the parallels between Gibeah and Sodom we see that Israel had sunk to the level of repeating the most signal sin of the people of the land who preceded them (a fact accented by the fact that the Levite purposefully chose to stay in Gibeah, rather than a non-Israelite city in verses 11-12). In consequence, Gibeah suffered the same destruction as the paradigmatic Sodom and the cities of the plain, its smoke rising up to heaven (Judges 20:40; cf. Genesis 19:28). This judgment and its unsavoury aftermath bring the era of the judges to its grim nadir. If the golden calf was Israel’s initial fall at Sinai, Gibeah is Israel’s great fall in the land, the sin that reveals that they have become indistinguishable from the people they were sent to drive out.
The Death of the Matriarch
Before we are enveloped by the thick darkness of Gibeah and its terrors, the account of Judges 19 opens with a peculiar yet faintly foreboding vignette. The Levite, seeking the return of his unfaithful concubine, goes to Bethlehem to win her back. He finds her and speaks kindly to her, after which she brings him to her father’s house, where the Levite is shown generous hospitality.
Several verses are devoted to describing the Levite’s tarrying in the house of his father-in-law. The father-in-law successfully delays the Levite’s departure on five different occasions until, finally, the Levite insists on leaving. The sense is given of an urgent journey, dangerously delayed. The lateness of their departure from the father-in-law’s house is one of the precipitating factors for the events that follow.
In his commentary on the book, James Jordan remarks: “We cannot help but notice the way the writer emphasizes how the father-in-law tried to detain the Levite. We might expect the writer to say that the girl’s father tried to get the Levite to prolong his stay, but when we read over and over and over again that the father-in-law persuaded him to stay a bit longer, we are alerted to a theme of ‘detaining.’ Now, the Levite was a man with a calling, a task. He was supposed to be pastor of a local congregation in the remote part of Ephraim. For him to be gone too long would result in a neglect of his task. Thus, after three days, he wants to depart. The girl’s father, however, detains him.”
Now we are reminded of Laban, how he sought to detain Jacob, and of Pharaoh’s detaining of Israel. Once again, there is no indication of a moral parallel between this father-in-law and Laban or Pharaoh, but there is a formal parallel. After three days is indeed the proper time for a definitive break, to be on one’s way; but the father-in-law persuades him to stay. In all, the father-in-law is shown trying to get the Levite to stay five times (v. 4, 5, 6-7, 8, 9).
The number of verses devoted to this episode and the frequent repetition within them suggests that it is a more important part of the narrative than often presumed.
In verse 13, there is a reference to Ramah, which in Jeremiah 31:15 is associated with Rachel, who died after giving birth to Benjamin on the road to Bethlehem (Genesis 35:16-20). Faintly sounding beneath the surface of the text, we hear the story of Rachel, a woman detained for too long with her husband in her father’s house, who later died in an interrupted journey on the Bethlehem road.
The treatment of the Levite’s concubine by the Benjamites of Gibeah takes on a new level of tragic significance when the concubine’s similarities with Rachel are taken into account. The Benjamites kill a woman who recalls the mother who once died giving birth to them. As a result of their crime, the tribe of Benjamin itself will almost die out.
Death and the Threshold
An account of night-time death at the threshold recalls the great events of Exodus, as the Israelites prepared for the plague of the death of the firstborn and the celebration of the Passover by marking the doorposts and lintels of their houses with blood. Several significant themes surround the event of the Passover, not least themes of giving birth and the firstborn. Through the Passover, the Lord sanctified to himself all of the firstborn males of Israel (Exodus 13:2; Numbers 3:13). Later, he took the Levites instead of the firstborn (Numbers 3:12-13, 40-51). The Levites were charged with guarding the Lord’s house and with representing the divine husband to his bride.
Through the events of the Exodus, the Levites were set apart as the tribe that had the charge of the threshold; they were the liminal tribe that upheld the boundaries and the appropriate crossings of them. They defended realms against trespass. They themselves dwelt on the threshold of Israel, depending upon the hospitality of the nation, neither straightforwardly insiders nor outsiders. They had been set apart from the nation as the Lord’s special possession. They didn’t have territory in the manner of the other tribes, as their inheritance was the service of the Lord (Joshua 18:7). The cities of the Levites were within other territories and the cities of refuge were all Levite cities.
That the primary protagonist in the narrative of Judges 19 is a Levite is worthy of note, not least because it reveals something of the importance of the themes of inhospitality that pervade the narrative. Although the Levite walks in the house of the Lord, no one will take him into his house (verse 18). The fact that the visitor was a Levite compounds the inhospitality of the city. The Levite represents the Lord and is peculiarly cast upon the hospitality of Israel. That no one should offer him hospitality is a sign of the attitude of the people of the city to the God who gave them their home within the land.
It also accentuates the cruelty and wickedness of the Levite in his treatment of his concubine. The Levite is charged with guarding the thresholds of Israel, with protecting the Lord’s bride, and with representing the loving divine husband. The Levite’s life is threatened, much as the firstborns’ lives were threatened in Exodus, and being on the right side of a protective threshold was all important. However, rather than guarding the threshold, the Levite allows his security to be bought at the cost of his concubine’s life. Rather than protecting the bride, the Levite thrusts her out to the dogs of Gibeah to be torn apart. Rather than representing the divine husband of Israel, the Levite displays an exquisite callousness towards his concubine.
The concubine and the Levite are figures for Israel and her religious guardians. What emerges from this text is a devastating indictment of the religious guardians of Israel. The guardians are indifferent to the safety and well-being of the Lord’s bride. They have abandoned their post at the threshold and have rendered the very place that is elsewhere associated with new birth a site of death. Israel, the bride, having pursued her sin and been greatly mistreated by those who should have guarded her, is now dismembered, cut into twelve pieces.
Saul of Gibeah
In 1 Samuel, there is a striking retracing of themes from Judges 19-21, as Saul is established as the new guardian of Israel. The story of the Levite and the concubine begins with the Levite, his servant, and two donkeys setting off to find the lost concubine. The story of Saul begins with Saul and a servant setting off to find some lost donkeys. However, Saul soon learned that the donkeys had already been recovered and that he was actually the one who had been found—the much sought after bridegroom of the nation, the one on whom was ‘all of the desire of Israel’ (1 Samuel 9:20). Samuel also gave Saul the priest’s portion of the meal (9:24), perhaps identifying him as a priest-like guardian of the house of the nation.
Saul himself was a Benjamite, a man from a tribe that had almost entirely been wiped out. When Saul speaks to Samuel, ‘Am I not a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel…?’ it is the entire history of Gibeah and the national tragedy that followed that lurks in the background. Indeed, Saul came from the city of Gibeah, the very city whose wickedness had occasioned Benjamin’s near obliteration (1 Samuel 10:26; 11:4). However, from the ashes of the tribe of Benjamin, the Lord laid the foundations of the kingdom. The story of the Levite and his concubine opens with a reference to the fact that there was no king in Israel in those days; in the story of Saul, we see this problem being addressed.
Gibeah isn’t the only significant place name within the story of Saul. Saul receives the first sign of the kingdom that Samuel foretold by Rachel’s tomb (1 Samuel 10:2). The place where the mother of the tribe of Benjamin had died after giving birth, and which had since become associated with the tribe’s near destruction, became the site where the first shoot of new life broke the once scorched earth.
In 1 Samuel 11:1, the city of Jabesh Gilead is severely threatened by Nahash the Ammonite. In Judges 21, the city of Jabesh Gilead was almost completely destroyed for their failure to join the rest of Israel in their fight against the Benjamites. The news of Jabesh Gilead’s plight reached Saul in Gibeah. Like the Levite cut the body of his concubine in pieces and sent it throughout Israel, Saul cut a yoke of oxen in pieces and sent the pieces throughout Israel, calling everyone to respond to his summons or suffer the same fate (1 Samuel 11:7). However, unlike the Levite, Saul handled the situation justly.
The actions of the Levite following the rape and murder of his concubine were a continuation of his shameful self-absorption and callousness in many respects. He treated the body of his concubine as a prop and pursued a destructive vengeance, while hiding his own complicity in the matter (cf. Judges 20:4-6). He is at the centre of his account of events: the lords of Gibeah rose up against him, surrounded the house because of him, and sought to kill him. He doesn’t mention the fact that he allowed his concubine to be cast to the mob, somehow managing to present himself as if he were the primary victim. Had there been a king in Israel, one suspects that these events would have been handled more carefully. Instead, we see, as in the case of Dinah in Genesis 34, the mistreatment of a woman being answered, not with true justice, but with an outburst of male-focused vengefulness, with further women being caught up as victims as a result, especially in chapter 21.
When Jabesh Gilead was surrounded by threatening men, calling for them to come out to them and face a cruel fate (1 Samuel 11:2-3), the new guardian of Israel, the Spirit of God upon him, fought to protect them. The atrocity of Gibeah and its horrific aftermath are overcome, as the themes of Israel’s sin are taken up and slowly unworked by divine grace. The old associations of wickedness are replaced by the new associations of deliverance and the Lord’s goodness. Jabesh Gilead becomes the site of rescue. Gibeah, once synonymous with the deepest wickedness, is now ‘Gibeah of Saul’ (1 Samuel 11:4; 15:34; 2 Samuel 21:6; Isaiah 10:29).
The Quest for the Wayward Bride
The Levite first sets off for Bethlehem as his concubine had played the harlot and returned to the house of her father. At the beginning of the story, it seems as though he was a just man: he doesn’t seek vengeance against her, but rather sought to speak kindly to her and win her back. Unfortunately, as the story unfolds, the Levite is revealed to be other than what he first appears to be.
The events of Gibeah are only alluded to in one prophetic book, that of Hosea (5:8; 9:9; 10:9). That Gibeah should be referenced in this particular book is no accident. The prophet Hosea is himself instructed to take an adulterous wife, illustrative of Israel’s own spiritual adultery towards their divine husband (1:2). Hosea’s prophetic actions and message declare a God who pursues and graciously restores his adulterous bride. Where priests and kings have both proven negligent or unfaithful in their charge, the Lord will seek and win back his people himself (13:9-11).
The Levite of Judges failed to represent the divine husband as he ought to. However, in the book of Hosea we see the pursuing divine husband, the One whose kind words to his bride do not prove hollow. The Lord comes in person to deliver his bride from the clutches of death (13:14).
The book of Hosea is a book of changed names and fates, where those called ‘Not My People’ are declared the sons of the living God (1:10). It anticipates the One who will rewrite the darkest pages of Israel’s history in the ink of his grace. Rather than throwing his bride to the murderous mob, he will sacrifice himself for her sake. Beneath a sky scoured of its light, his body will be the one torn and pierced. Unlike that Levite who once lightly surrendered his concubine to the grave, this Bridegroom will wrest his bride from its grasp. Where once a murder spelled the doom of a people, his life-giving will spell its restoration from the dead.
Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham) is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged.