Monthly Archives: August 2022

Resources on the Book of Judges

This is a list of the major sources I used in this six-month excursion through the book of Judges. I picked each resource for a reason and below is a brief evaluation of each source. It is not a comprehensive evaluation of the literature on the book of Judges.

Hattin, Michael. Judges: The Peril of Possession. Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2020.

When looking at books from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) I have tried to include a Jewish voice in the conversation, and I was introduced to the Maggid Studies in Tanakh when I was working on Jeremiah years ago. The Maggid Studies are a careful reading that are approachable without a background in Biblical Studies. Michael Hattin’s study of Judges has some keen insights from both his own readings and the Jewish history of interpretation into the reception of this unusual piece of scripture. The organization of the comments is more topical than textual and in combination with the other voices it was a valuable source.

Mobley, Gregory. The Empty Men: The Heroic Tradition of Ancient Israel. New York: Doubleday, 2005.

This is not a commentary but instead is a study into the stories of three individual judges (Ehud, Gideon, and Samson) from the perspective of ‘Heroic Culture’ and ‘Heroic Conventions.’ Looking more broadly at the literature of the ancient Middle East, Gregory Mobley attempts to provide a richer backdrop for hearing the narratives of the judges as hero stories. To me this is a useful resource to help place the book of Judges in a framework that is closer to its origins.



Olson, Dennis T. “The Book of Judges.” In New Interpreter’s Bible II: 721-888. 12 vols. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.

The NIB (New Interpreter’s Bible) is a solid resource as a resource for preaching and teaching that covers the entire bible and goes into some textual issues, but it primarily is focused on giving a fuller context to the story. Dennis Olson’s contribution on Judges is very readable and much shorter than some of the other stand-alone resources on the book. It is not designed to be a textual commentary but does a good job in highlighting the structural linkages throughout the book.


Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.

Even though this only covers the stories of Jephthah’s daughter and the Levite’s concubine this is a must-read resource for thinking about the book of Judges. Phyliss Trible is a phenomenal reader of texts and her ability to rhetorically craft a sentence for impact is powerful. She brings both the tools of feminist criticism and literary criticism together and her careful exegesis of the Hebrew of these two stories (and the additional two stories that make up the volume from Genesis and 2 Samuel) is stunning.


Webb, Barry G. The Book of Judges. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2012.

Barry Webb’s mammoth commentary on Judges is a part of the New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT) which is a rich historical and textual resource.  This was probably the resource I used the most but at over five hundred pages it is probably more than most people want to read on the book of Judges. For those who are interested in diving deeply into the Hebrew translation this is a great text, and it also does a great job at identifying parallels in the text of Judges but also throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

Judges 21 A Tragic Conclusion

Benjaminites take the virgins of Jabesh-gilead, Gustave Dore 1865

Judges 21

Now the Israelites had sworn at Mizpah, “No one of us shall give his daughter in marriage to Benjamin.” 2 And the people came to Bethel, and sat there until evening before God, and they lifted up their voices and wept bitterly. 3 They said, “O LORD, the God of Israel, why has it come to pass that today there should be one tribe lacking in Israel?” 4 On the next day, the people got up early, and built an altar there, and offered burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being. 5 Then the Israelites said, “Which of all the tribes of Israel did not come up in the assembly to the LORD?” For a solemn oath had been taken concerning whoever did not come up to the LORD to Mizpah, saying, “That one shall be put to death.” 6 But the Israelites had compassion for Benjamin their kin, and said, “One tribe is cut off from Israel this day. 7 What shall we do for wives for those who are left, since we have sworn by the LORD that we will not give them any of our daughters as wives?”

8 Then they said, “Is there anyone from the tribes of Israel who did not come up to the LORD to Mizpah?” It turned out that no one from Jabesh-gilead had come to the camp, to the assembly. 9 For when the roll was called among the people, not one of the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead was there. 10 So the congregation sent twelve thousand soldiers there and commanded them, “Go, put the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead to the sword, including the women and the little ones. 11 This is what you shall do; every male and every woman that has lain with a male you shall devote to destruction.” 12 And they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead four hundred young virgins who had never slept with a man and brought them to the camp at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan.

13 Then the whole congregation sent word to the Benjaminites who were at the rock of Rimmon, and proclaimed peace to them. 14 Benjamin returned at that time; and they gave them the women whom they had saved alive of the women of Jabesh-gilead; but they did not suffice for them. 15 The people had compassion on Benjamin because the LORD had made a breach in the tribes of Israel. 16 So the elders of the congregation said, “What shall we do for wives for those who are left, since there are no women left in Benjamin?” 17 And they said, “There must be heirs for the survivors of Benjamin, in order that a tribe may not be blotted out from Israel. 18 Yet we cannot give any of our daughters to them as wives.” For the Israelites had sworn, “Cursed be anyone who gives a wife to Benjamin.” 19 So they said, “Look, the yearly festival of the LORD is taking place at Shiloh, which is north of Bethel, on the east of the highway that goes up from Bethel to Shechem, and south of Lebonah.” 20 And they instructed the Benjaminites, saying, “Go and lie in wait in the vineyards, 21 and watch; when the young women of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances, then come out of the vineyards and each of you carry off a wife for himself from the young women of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin. 22 Then if their fathers or their brothers come to complain to us, we will say to them, ‘Be generous and allow us to have them; because we did not capture in battle a wife for each man. But neither did you incur guilt by giving your daughters to them.'” 23 The Benjaminites did so; they took wives for each of them from the dancers whom they abducted. Then they went and returned to their territory, and rebuilt the towns, and lived in them. 24 So the Israelites departed from there at that time by tribes and families, and they went out from there to their own territories. 25 In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.

An ugly ending to the tragic narration of the period of Israel’s history between the time of Joshua and the time of Samuel, Saul, and David. Once again a rashly spoken oath leads to violence against women but now instead of a single daughter losing her life an entire town is destroyed and at least six hundred women between Jabesh-gilead and the festival at Shiloh are pirated away from their homes and are viewed as a human peace offering for the tribe of Benjamin. The LORD remains silent to the accusation of the Israelites that God has caused this problem. God may have delivered Benjamin into their hand, but it is the Israelite men who went beyond Gibeah and destroyed the rest of the tribe’s homes and families.

Once again at Mizpah a tragic vow is spoken. Jephthah was appointed as a judge at Mizpah, and it is there he spoke his vow which resulted in his daughter’s sacrifice. Now it is the gathered tribes who have made the oath which cut Benjamin off from the other tribes and now in the aftermath of the war the remnant of Benjamin is six hundred fighting men with no prospect of a future beyond their generation. Benjamin still remains outside of Israel, and like the Canaanites the people are not to intermarry with them. Yet, in the aftermath this is a cause for mourning among the tribes. Yet, there is another tragic oath that is made at Mizpah which provides a part of the dark solution that the leaders of the tribes accept.

The second oath was to punish any group that did not join in the crusade against the Benjaminites. As Michael Hattin indicates there are similarities with this narrative and the war against Midian in Number 31: 1-20. (Hattin, 2020, p. 202) In both cases 12,000 Israelite combatants were sent and only the women who are young enough not to have slept with a man are spared the slaughter, but now the same treatment is used against a group of Israelites. The four hundred young and traumatized women are presented as a peace offering for the Benjaminites and as a way to bring the remnant of Benjamin back into the congregation of Israel. Yet, when there are still too few women the solution proposed by the leaders is to encourage the kidnapping of women participating in a festival to the LORD. A narrative that begins with the abuse, rape, and brutal dismemberment of one woman now has led us through the elimination of the women and children of one tribe and ends with the abduction and traumatization of at least six hundred additional women. “The Israelites seem unaware that kidnapping and rape violated basic covenant obligations more severely than any vow.” (NIB II: 886)

The book of Judges narrates a loss of covenantal identity for the people of Israel. The worship of the LORD has taken on the characteristics of the worship of the Canaanite deities. The tribes and families were never unified but they have now devolved into warring groups among themselves. At the beginning of the book women were named and were granted respect, at the end they are captives carried away, concubines raped and dismembered, the innocent casualties of a war spun out of control, nameless and voiceless. While I can appreciate the desire for inclusive language in the final verse of Judges, in the days where there was no king in Israel it is men (and in the Hebrew it is men) that do what is right in their own eyes. It is a dystopian portrayal of a time where rash vows are made and where the reestablishment of Benjamin as a tribe is to be done by the surviving virgins of Jabesh-gilead and the kidnapped dancers of the festival at Shiloh. Women are viewed as child bearers and a commodity to be traded for peace and their trauma and desires are immaterial to the narration of this final tragic story.

As Barry Webb highlights, at the end of the book of Judges the land of Canaan has not become the land of Israel. (Webb, 2012, p. 511) On the one hand the desperate events indicate the need for a different type of leadership to bring the individual tribes together and to create a different environment than the hellish one portrayed here. The Levites, the tribal and familial networks, and the judges have not enabled Israel to remain faithful to its covenant identity. Ironically the first king, King Saul, will be a Benjaminite from Gibeah and his first battle will be freeing Jabesh-gilead from Ammonite oppressors (1 Samuel 10-11).

Although the book of Judges ends on a tragic note to modern eyes, it is not the end of the story nor is it the only story. The short story of Ruth comes from the time of the Judges, and it is a story that illustrates some of what Israel was intended to be and it makes possible the later story of David. 1 Samuel follows the event of the Judges, and while the tribes will continue to struggle throughout the time of the kings to remain faithful, God does not allow this tragic ending to the be last word of the people of Israel. Despite the lack of faithfulness among the people God continues to provide an opportunity for the people to grow into their identity.

Review of Light in August by William Faulkner

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 49: Light in August by William Faulkner

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

Light in August deploys a combination of poetic and banal language to tell an ugly story with a series of characters who for their own reasons are unable to exist within the confines of their society. There is something that reminds me of the writing of Flannery O’Connor in the way Faulkner uses beautiful language combined with the simple speech of the characters in his stories that is authentic to their education and station. There are many times where the language and the assumptions of the American South in the 1930s, when the novel is written and set, are jarring to the ears of a modern hearer, but the novel is historically situated in a time where the views on race, sex, religion, and society are very different from our current era. At times I could fall into Faulkner’s poetic use of prose, and he is truly gifted as a wielder of the English language, but each of the characters is unlovable in their own ways. Whether it is the indomitable Lena who refuses to give up her search for Lucas Burch/Joe Brown who is the father to the child she carries, Joe Christmas whose birth and life seems to be overshadowed by a questionable birth and lineage and a grandfather who views his divine calling as bringing about the destruction of his grandson, or Gail Hightower the disgraced minister who lives in the shadow of his grandfather who died in the Civil War.

Light in August is a work of art but like all art its reception is subjective. The world of the 1930s American South at times seems like an alien world for its strangeness and prejudices. There are times where the work seems dystopian and none of the characters, except perhaps Byron Burch, attempt to be heroic. For me the prose is gifted but the story is plodding and the characters seem to fit into a deterministic pattern based upon their inherited flaws. I can appreciate it as a classic but it was hard to hear the speech of the 1930s South, especially towards Black Americans, and not cringe at the way the derogatory terms for Black Americans continued to echo in my head even after putting the book aside. Perhaps it, like Flannery O’Connor’s work, present an uncomfortable mirror to the world of my grandparents whose prejudices echo in both spoken and unspoken ways in our own.

Judges 20 War Between the Tribes of Israel

The Levite of Ephraim, A.F.Caminade (1837)

Judges 20

Then all the Israelites came out, from Dan to Beer-sheba, including the land of Gilead, and the congregation assembled in one body before the LORD at Mizpah. 2 The chiefs of all the people, of all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God, four hundred thousand foot-soldiers bearing arms. 3 (Now the Benjaminites heard that the people of Israel had gone up to Mizpah.) And the Israelites said, “Tell us, how did this criminal act come about?” 4 The Levite, the husband of the woman who was murdered, answered, “I came to Gibeah that belongs to Benjamin, I and my concubine, to spend the night. 5 The lords of Gibeah rose up against me, and surrounded the house at night. They intended to kill me, and they raped my concubine until she died. 6 Then I took my concubine and cut her into pieces, and sent her throughout the whole extent of Israel’s territory; for they have committed a vile outrage in Israel. 7 So now, you Israelites, all of you, give your advice and counsel here.”

8 All the people got up as one, saying, “We will not any of us go to our tents, nor will any of us return to our houses. 9 But now this is what we will do to Gibeah: we will go up against it by lot. 10 We will take ten men of a hundred throughout all the tribes of Israel, and a hundred of a thousand, and a thousand of ten thousand, to bring provisions for the troops, who are going to repay Gibeah of Benjamin for all the disgrace that they have done in Israel.” 11 So all the men of Israel gathered against the city, united as one.

12 The tribes of Israel sent men through all the tribe of Benjamin, saying, “What crime is this that has been committed among you? 13 Now then, hand over those scoundrels in Gibeah, so that we may put them to death, and purge the evil from Israel.” But the Benjaminites would not listen to their kinsfolk, the Israelites. 14 The Benjaminites came together out of the towns to Gibeah, to go out to battle against the Israelites. 15 On that day the Benjaminites mustered twenty-six thousand armed men from their towns, besides the inhabitants of Gibeah. 16 Of all this force, there were seven hundred picked men who were left-handed; every one could sling a stone at a hair, and not miss. 17 And the Israelites, apart from Benjamin, mustered four hundred thousand armed men, all of them warriors.

18 The Israelites proceeded to go up to Bethel, where they inquired of God, “Which of us shall go up first to battle against the Benjaminites?” And the LORD answered, “Judah shall go up first.”

19 Then the Israelites got up in the morning, and encamped against Gibeah. 20 The Israelites went out to battle against Benjamin; and the Israelites drew up the battle line against them at Gibeah. 21 The Benjaminites came out of Gibeah, and struck down on that day twenty-two thousand of the Israelites. 22 The Israelites took courage, and again formed the battle line in the same place where they had formed it on the first day. 23 The Israelites went up and wept before the LORD until the evening; and they inquired of the LORD, “Shall we again draw near to battle against our kinsfolk the Benjaminites?” And the LORD said, “Go up against them.”

24 So the Israelites advanced against the Benjaminites the second day. 25 Benjamin moved out against them from Gibeah the second day, and struck down eighteen thousand of the Israelites, all of them armed men. 26 Then all the Israelites, the whole army, went back to Bethel and wept, sitting there before the LORD; they fasted that day until evening. Then they offered burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being before the LORD. 27 And the Israelites inquired of the LORD (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, 28 and Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, ministered before it in those days), saying, “Shall we go out once more to battle against our kinsfolk the Benjaminites, or shall we desist?” The LORD answered, “Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand.”

29 So Israel stationed men in ambush around Gibeah. 30 Then the Israelites went up against the Benjaminites on the third day, and set themselves in array against Gibeah, as before. 31 When the Benjaminites went out against the army, they were drawn away from the city. As before they began to inflict casualties on the troops, along the main roads, one of which goes up to Bethel and the other to Gibeah, as well as in the open country, killing about thirty men of Israel. 32 The Benjaminites thought, “They are being routed before us, as previously.” But the Israelites said, “Let us retreat and draw them away from the city toward the roads.” 33 The main body of the Israelites drew back its battle line to Baal-tamar, while those Israelites who were in ambush rushed out of their place west of Geba. 34 There came against Gibeah ten thousand picked men out of all Israel, and the battle was fierce. But the Benjaminites did not realize that disaster was close upon them.

35 The LORD defeated Benjamin before Israel; and the Israelites destroyed twenty-five thousand one hundred men of Benjamin that day, all of them armed.

36 Then the Benjaminites saw that they were defeated. The Israelites gave ground to Benjamin, because they trusted to the troops in ambush that they had stationed against Gibeah. 37 The troops in ambush rushed quickly upon Gibeah. Then they put the whole city to the sword. 38 Now the agreement between the main body of Israel and the men in ambush was that when they sent up a cloud of smoke out of the city 39 the main body of Israel should turn in battle. But Benjamin had begun to inflict casualties on the Israelites, killing about thirty of them; so they thought, “Surely they are defeated before us, as in the first battle.” 40 But when the cloud, a column of smoke, began to rise out of the city, the Benjaminites looked behind them — and there was the whole city going up in smoke toward the sky! 41 Then the main body of Israel turned, and the Benjaminites were dismayed, for they saw that disaster was close upon them. 42 Therefore they turned away from the Israelites in the direction of the wilderness; but the battle overtook them, and those who came out of the city were slaughtering them in between. 43 Cutting down the Benjaminites, they pursued them from Nohah and trod them down as far as a place east of Gibeah. 44 Eighteen thousand Benjaminites fell, all of them courageous fighters. 45 When they turned and fled toward the wilderness to the rock of Rimmon, five thousand of them were cut down on the main roads, and they were pursued as far as Gidom, and two thousand of them were slain. 46 So all who fell that day of Benjamin were twenty-five thousand arms-bearing men, all of them courageous fighters. 47 But six hundred turned and fled toward the wilderness to the rock of Rimmon, and remained at the rock of Rimmon for four months. 48 Meanwhile, the Israelites turned back against the Benjaminites, and put them to the sword — the city, the people, the animals, and all that remained. Also the remaining towns they set on fire.

The Israelites gather as an assembly to hear an accounting for the gruesome message they have received. The location of Mizpah is significant in the story of the Judges, it is where Jephthah lived and where his daughter’s coming out to meet him results in her sacrifice because of his promise to God. Here the story of the sacrificed daughter and the sacrificed concubine come together in this final tragic tale. The Levite shares his version of the narrative which simplifies the story and lays the blame on the ‘lords of Gibeah.’ This condensed retelling attempts to remove the question that lingered in the previous story about who killed the concubine and to portray the Levite in a more positive manner. The Levites words manage to convince the gathered assembly to act.

The gathered forces of Israel and Benjamin here in this final story of Judges is significantly different than the numbers reported generations earlier in the book of Numbers. As Barry Webb can highlight,

Assuming the ratio between the number of men eligible for call-up and the total population remains relatively constant, these figures indicate a decline of almost 30 percent in Israel’s population in the Joshua-Judges period. Despite the victories under Joshua, Israel has not prospered since its arrival. (Webb, 2012, p. 481)

While I do not want to put too much emphasis on the contrast between Numbers 26 and Judges 20, it is consistent with the narrative of Judges which has shown Israel as a divided and often oppressed community. The generations in the promised land have lost their identity as the people of God by adopting the practices of the Canaanites and other residents of the land and they have diminished as a people. Unlike the Christian demarcation of the Bible which includes Judges as a part of history, the Jewish demarcation views it as a part of the prophets and this narrative becomes an enactment of the cost of disobedience to God’s covenant way. The narration of the time of the Judges is viewed through the theology of the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy (see for example Deuteronomy 28) and the tragedy is a result of the lack of obedience to the way that Moses and Joshua handed on to the people. This final episode was brought about by a portion of Israel being indistinguishable from Sodom. Now the assembly of Israel has to reckon with how they will respond to the violence that has occurred in their midst.

There is an attempt at a peaceful solution when the Israelites ask the tribe of Benjamin to surrender the ‘scoundrels’[1] who have committed this action against the Levite and his concubine. Perhaps there is some skepticism of the Levite’s narrative where the perpetrators are the ‘lords of Gibeah’ but regardless there is an attempt at a solution that does not involve a war between the tribes of Israel. Yet, Benjamin remains defiant and mobilizes to defend Gibeah. Israel inquires of God whether they are to engage in conflict and the bloodletting in Israel begins. The Benjaminites are viewed as equivalent to the Canaanites, a point that is reinforced by the parallel of Judah being called to go first, just like in Judges 1:2 against the Canaanites.

The casualties in the first two days are catastrophic: ten percent of the gathered Israelite forces. The magnitude of slaughter is difficult to comprehend but the loss of 40,000 men is close to the casualties on both sides of the battle of Gettysburg (between 46-51,000) and that does not account for the Benjaminite losses on day three. The cry of the Israelites before the LORD after the two days of devastating losses causes them to ask if they are to continue this conflict, but through Phineas the grandson of Aaron they are instructed to go back for one final day of warfare. In the final day better tactics and God’s ‘handing over’ of the Benjaminites turns the tide and brings the tribe of Benjamin to the brink of collapse. Gibeah now becomes like the Canaanite town of Ai during the time of Joshua (Joshua 8: 19, 24) and is utterly destroyed and then once the fighting men of Benjamin are dispatched the same fate awaits the remaining towns. Benjamin is dedicated to destruction and only a small remnant of escaped soldiers remains of the tribe.

Violence has begat violence and death has called out for more death. The violent rape and murder of one woman has now resulted in the death of the women (and children, animals, and men) of an entire tribe. Israel’s loss of unity and identity has led to the near extinction of one of the tribes. Yet this morally ambiguous tale is not over. More women are impacted by the actions of men in the coming chapter. Unfortunately, at this point in Israel’s story it is not a safe place to be a woman. Israel has proven to be its own worst enemy. The actions of Gibeah demanded a response but one has to wonder if the blood of combatants and innocents also cry for a different way. One can hope that the numbers reflected here are hyperbole and read the narrative as a disconnected observer of a conflict between to military forces. Yet, the pernicious cycle of disobedience has led Israel to the brink. Without a leader to unify the people and reorient them to the ways of God we are left with a dystopian narrative of violent men, rivers of blood, and a story we would rather forget but its inclusion within our cannon demands our telling and reckoning with it. It is, to adopt Phyliss Trible’s term, a text of terror. It serves as a prophetic reminder that a world without leaders where everyone does what is right in their own eyes is the hellish opposite of the covenant vision for the people entering the promised land.

[1] This is again ‘sons of Belial’ as in the previous chapter

Judges 19 The Levite, the Concubine, and the Violence of Gibeah

The Levite of Ephraim, A.F.Caminade (1837)

Judges 19

 In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite, residing in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. 2 But his concubine became angry with him, and she went away from him to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah, and was there some four months. 3 Then her husband set out after her, to speak tenderly to her and bring her back. He had with him his servant and a couple of donkeys. When he reached her father’s house, the girl’s father saw him and came with joy to meet him. 4 His father-in-law, the girl’s father, made him stay, and he remained with him three days; so they ate and drank, and he stayed there. 5 On the fourth day they got up early in the morning, and he prepared to go; but the girl’s father said to his son-in-law, “Fortify yourself with a bit of food, and after that you may go.” 6 So the two men sat and ate and drank together; and the girl’s father said to the man, “Why not spend the night and enjoy yourself?” 7 When the man got up to go, his father-in-law kept urging him until he spent the night there again. 8 On the fifth day he got up early in the morning to leave; and the girl’s father said, “Fortify yourself.” So they lingered until the day declined, and the two of them ate and drank. 9 When the man with his concubine and his servant got up to leave, his father-in-law, the girl’s father, said to him, “Look, the day has worn on until it is almost evening. Spend the night. See, the day has drawn to a close. Spend the night here and enjoy yourself. Tomorrow you can get up early in the morning for your journey, and go home.”

10 But the man would not spend the night; he got up and departed, and arrived opposite Jebus (that is, Jerusalem). He had with him a couple of saddled donkeys, and his concubine was with him. 11 When they were near Jebus, the day was far spent, and the servant said to his master, “Come now, let us turn aside to this city of the Jebusites, and spend the night in it.” 12 But his master said to him, “We will not turn aside into a city of foreigners, who do not belong to the people of Israel; but we will continue on to Gibeah.” 13 Then he said to his servant, “Come, let us try to reach one of these places, and spend the night at Gibeah or at Ramah.” 14 So they passed on and went their way; and the sun went down on them near Gibeah, which belongs to Benjamin. 15 They turned aside there, to go in and spend the night at Gibeah. He went in and sat down in the open square of the city, but no one took them in to spend the night.

16 Then at evening there was an old man coming from his work in the field. The man was from the hill country of Ephraim, and he was residing in Gibeah. (The people of the place were Benjaminites.) 17 When the old man looked up and saw the wayfarer in the open square of the city, he said, “Where are you going and where do you come from?” 18 He answered him, “We are passing from Bethlehem in Judah to the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, from which I come. I went to Bethlehem in Judah; and I am going to my home. Nobody has offered to take me in. 19 We your servants have straw and fodder for our donkeys, with bread and wine for me and the woman and the young man along with us. We need nothing more.” 20 The old man said, “Peace be to you. I will care for all your wants; only do not spend the night in the square.” 21 So he brought him into his house, and fed the donkeys; they washed their feet, and ate and drank.

22 While they were enjoying themselves, the men of the city, a perverse lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door. They said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, so that we may have intercourse with him.” 23 And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing. 24 Here are my virgin daughter and his concubine; let me bring them out now. Ravish them and do whatever you want to them; but against this man do not do such a vile thing.” 25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine, and put her out to them. They wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go. 26 As morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light.

27 In the morning her master got up, opened the doors of the house, and when he went out to go on his way, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. 28 “Get up,” he said to her, “we are going.” But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey; and the man set out for his home. 29 When he had entered his house, he took a knife, and grasping his concubine he cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. 30 Then he commanded the men whom he sent, saying, “Thus shall you say to all the Israelites, ‘Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day? Consider it, take counsel, and speak out.'”

Israel stands on a razor’s edge. The action of a tribe of Israel has become indistinguishable from Sodom. It is an environment when women are surrendered to unspeakable physical and emotional torment, the expectation of hospitality is met with violence, and heroes and judges are absent. It is a time when men (and I do mean primarily males) do what is right in their own eyes and the ways of God are abandoned. Phyliss Trible named this as one of her ‘texts of terror’ and it is, “a story we want to forget but are commanded to speak.” (Trible, 1984, p. 65) This is an unpleasant story that is told unlike the countless untold stories of violence towards women in places where they should expect safety. A story of a woman without a name, without a voice, and with no agency to protect herself or guardian to shield her from those who claim her. The final story in Judges places Israel in a precarious position where a reckoning is needed to reclaim their identity as a covenant people and to be a place where women and men can live in safety.

The narrative begins with the ominous reminder of this being a time without a king and even though the second half of the refrain that, “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” is not repeated at the beginning of the story it emerges throughout the narrative and will be restated at the end. This story has a number of connections to the previous story of Micah’s idol and several other important stories throughout scripture. The narrator in crafting this retelling of this story has obviously wrestled deeply with its meaning in light of both its construction and its inclusion in the book of Judges and scripture. We wrestle with this story in remembrance of the unnamed concubine and the unnamed six hundred women who are taken from their families along with the countless women and children killed in the conflict later in the story. The story begins with a single relationship but will expand into a conflict which threatens to destroy one of the tribes of Israel.

A certain unnamed Levite and his unnamed concubine form the two primary characters of this initial chapter. The Levite is living in Ephraim, where the Levite of the previous story moves to initially in the story of Micah’s idol. There is not a direct connection between the two Levites, but the resonance links the two stories, especially when we learn the concubine is from Bethlehem, where the previous Levite came from. Both stories leave Bethlehem for Ephraim and encounter violence. To identify the woman as a concubine gives her a lower status than a wife. Previously we encountered a concubine in Abimelech’s mother, and she contrasted to his ‘many wives’ (9:31). The woman in our story likely had no choice in her relationship with the Levite and the language supports this when it says, “he took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem.” There are two textual possibilities which offer differing accounts for the woman’s departure from the Levite’s residence in the hill country of Ephraim to her father’s house in Bethlehem. This is reflected in the differing translations of the NIV, “she was unfaithful to him” and the NRSV, “became angry with him.[1] Regardless of who is to blame for the domestic conflict between the Levite and the concubine, the woman takes action and returns to her father’s house in Bethlehem, and it is only four months later that the Levite goes to, “speak tenderly to her[2] to encourage her to return to his household. Much like Samson returning to his aggrieved wife after an extended absence we have this Levite return home, but this time the concubine’s father welcomes him and shows him lavish hospitality.

Something that most English translations fail to convey is the ‘heart language’ of the Levite’s time in Bethlehem. The Levite hopes to ‘speak to her heart.[3]Fortify yourself” is literally “support/sustain your heart,” later in verse six “enjoy yourself” is “let your heart be good,” and in verse eight “fortify yourself” is once again “support/sustain your heart.” Heart makes a final appearance in the father’s appeal to “enjoy yourself” and five occurrences of ‘heart language’ in a condensed space should catch our attention. (Webb, 2012, pp. 458-461)  We are not given any insight into the father’s motives for continually attempting to delay the Levite’s departure with his daughter over the five days he showers him with hospitality but the text may be hinting that the father sees the ‘heart trouble’ that this Levite will soon exhibit towards his daughter. It is also noteworthy that the daughter is absent from this time the father spends with the Levite. The text may indicate that the Levite is viewed as a son-in-law, but he still may wonder if his heart is right towards his daughter. The differentiation between the father’s house and the Levite’s tent[4] in verse nine may also point to not only distinct levels of comfort but may also indicate the different hospitality that his daughter has experienced there. It is likely that the Levite did not live in a tent, but the change in language is suggestive that the situations are different between the two households.

The departure late on the fifth day creates a situation where it will be impossible to complete the journey home in one day, but the Levite takes his concubine and his servant and depart to escape the father’s delaying hospitality. In contrast to the voiceless woman, the servant does speak and tells the Levite they are near Jebus and need to stop for the night. The Levite indicates they will journey further trying to get as close to home as possible but also that they will not stay in a non-Israelite town. Ironically, everyone in this small party would have, “fared better with foreigners than with their fellow Israelites.” (NIB II: 876) The party arrives in the square in Gibeah looking for hospitality for the night.

The only person who offers hospitality in Gibeah is a man from the hill country of Ephraim working in the fields outside Gibeah. The Levite indicates that they can provide food for themselves and their animals and that they are on a journey from Bethlehem to the hill country of Ephraim, but the old man implores them not to stay in the square and to be welcome in his home and allow him to provide for them and their animals. Yet, things quickly turn dangerous when “men of the city, a perverse lot”[5]demand that the visitor be brough out so that they might “know him.” Most English translation correctly indicate that the demand is to know the man sexually, but it should also be clear that what they are after is rape and not consensual intercourse. This is about power and asserting dominance over the visitor and not primarily about sexual attraction. This is the opposite of the hospitality that the father of the concubine showed or that the old man has shown to this point. The story at this point clearly echoes the language of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19: 1-29) and the comparison between Gibeah and Sodom is damning. Like Lot in Sodom, the old man offers his virgin daughter but he also offers the Levite’s concubine to attempt to assuage these men of the city.[6] Missed in the English translation is the ominous return of the second half of the refrain when the old man tells the crowd, “Do with them (the two women) what is good in your own eyes.” (Webb, 2012, p. 468) Yet, there is no divine action here and ultimately it is the Levite who sends the concubine outside and surrenders her to the violent desires of this mob and then apparently goes to sleep as she is tormented outside the house.

The woman who endures the physical and emotional trauma in the hands of a violent mob survives the rape and abuse for a time and is able to crawl back to the door of the old man’s home and collapse. We do not know if she is alive or dead at this point, the text remains ambiguous, but when the Levite wakes in the morning and discovers her he shows no empathy for the situation he placed her in. He appears to view her as a possession, a violated possession, but like an animal she is expected to get up and accompany her master on his journey. When she is unable due to injuries, shock, or death, he places her on a donkey and completes his journey home. Then in a “final, ultimate violation of her personhood. She is denied even the dignity of burial.” (Webb, 2012, p. 472) In another important Hebrew echo that most English translations miss is the Levite takes “the knife” using language that is only found here and in Genesis 22:10 when Abraham takes “the knife” in preparation of sacrificing Isaac. The concubine becomes the second woman in Judges sacrificed by a man who was expected to protect her (the daughter of Jephthah in 11:34-39), and we are not even sure if she is dead or unconscious when the dismemberment begins. Her dismembered body is sent throughout the tribes like the ox that Saul will later slaughter and send throughout the territory to summon the Israelites (1 Samuel 11: 7). As Phyliss Trible memorably states, “Lesser power has no woman than this, that her life is laid down by a man.” (Trible, 1984, p. 81)

This is an ugly story that it would be easier to forget but like many of the dark stories in history the violence against the innocence cries out from the earth demanding that we hear the stories of these nameless ones who bore the desecration of violence. This will never be a story that taught in most churches, but its presence in scripture bears witness to the violence that comes from a world where, “men do what is right in their eyes.” When a town of the chosen people become indistinguishable from the inhospitable and violent Sodom of memory the people need to look long and hard into the mirror of what their actions show them to be so that they might repent and become a people of peace, righteousness, and hospitality. This story is unique to Israel, but its pattern of children of God becoming sons of Belial is not. It is present in the experience of slavery in the history of the United States, or the history of the treatment of Native Americans, it is present in the Tulsa race riots, or the Holocaust, or in those who attempted to suppress the Civil Rights Movement by violence. It is present in the countless untold stories of violence against women, children and the vulnerable. These dystopian stories may be hard to read and hard to understand, we may wish to forget them, but we are commanded to read and tell these stories so that we do not become like Gibeah. Even the old man in this story with his twisted view of ‘male hospitality’ where he can offer to sacrifice his own daughter and the Levites concubine to the crowd should make us uncomfortable. We are unsure whether the Levite is merely unempathetic or a murder, but he surely has something wrong in his heart. We who hear this dark narrative are called to look into our own hearts, to look at our actions, and where we find darkness to pray for changes in our hearts and our actions towards others.

[1] The Hebrew (MT) and the Syriac manuscripts claim that “his concubine played the harlot” while the Greek and Old Latin maintain “his concubine became angry with him.” (Trible, 1984, p. 66) and each translation gives a quite different initial impression of this unnamed concubine. Neither translation can justify the violence that will be done to her or the actions of the Levite towards her.

[2] Literally “speak to her heart” (‘al-libba) (Webb, 2012, p. 457)

[3] This was also used to describe the actions of Shechem to convince Dinah to marry him after he raped her in Genesis 34:3. (NIB II: 876)

[4] Also missed in most English translations.

[5] Literally “men, sons of Belial.” As Barry Webb can state the etymology of Belial (beliy’al) is uncertain but it is probably the poetic use of this term as a parallel of death and Sheol which helped this term become associated with a supernatural evil being (Belial or Beliar) in the New Testament and Intertestamental literature. (Webb, 2012, p. 466)

[6] In contrast Lot offers his two virgin daughters. Perhaps to parallel the story two women are offered but only one ‘belongs’ to the old man. It is a twisted version of ‘male hospitality’ that is at work here since as Phyliss Trible states, “the rules of hospitality in Israel protect only males.” (Trible, 1984, p. 75) Whether this is true in general or not it certainly is true in this story.