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.

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