An excerpt from today’s reading, Judges 19-21, from the NIV. I’m removing chapter and verse markers to make the story more readable:
Now a Levite who lived in a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. But she was unfaithful to him. She left him and went back to her father’s house in Bethlehem, Judah. After she had been there four months, her husband went to her to persuade her to return. He had with him his servant and two donkeys. She took him into her father’s house, and when her father saw him, he gladly welcomed him. His father-in-law, the girl’s father, prevailed upon him to stay; so he remained with him three days, eating and drinking, and sleeping there.
On the fourth day they got up early and he prepared to leave, but the girl’s father said to his son-in-law, “Refresh yourself with something to eat; then you can go.” So the two of them sat down to eat and drink… On the morning of the fifth day, when he rose to go, the girl’s father said, “Refresh yourself. Wait till afternoon!” So the two of them ate together. Then when the man, with his concubine and his servant, got up to leave, his father-in-law, the girl’s father, said, “Now look, it’s almost evening. Spend the night here; the day is nearly over. Stay and enjoy yourself. Early tomorrow morning you can get up and be on your way home.” But, unwilling to stay another night, the man left and went toward Jebus (that is, Jerusalem), with his two saddled donkeys and his concubine.
When they were near Jebus and the day was almost gone, the servant said to his master, “Come, let’s stop at this city of the Jebusites and spend the night.” His master replied, “No. We won’t go into an alien city, whose people are not Israelites. We will go on to Gibeah.” […] So they went on, and the sun set as they neared Gibeah in Benjamin. There they stopped to spend the night. They went and sat in the city square, but no one took them into his home for the night.
That evening an old man from the hill country of Ephraim, who was living in Gibeah (the men of the place were Benjamites), came in from his work in the fields. When he looked and saw the traveler in the city square, the old man asked, “Where are you going? Where did you come from?” He answered, “We are on our way from Bethlehem in Judah to a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim where I live. I have been to Bethlehem in Judah and now I am going to the house of the LORD. No one has taken me into his house. We have both straw and fodder for our donkeys and bread and wine for ourselves your servants—me, your maidservant, and the young man with us. We don’t need anything.”
“You are welcome at my house,” the old man said. “Let me supply whatever you need. Only don’t spend the night in the square.” So he took him into his house and fed his donkeys. After they had washed their feet, they had something to eat and drink.
While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him.” The owner of the house went outside and said to them, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this disgraceful thing. Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But to this man, don’t do such a disgraceful thing.”
But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight. When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.
When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel. Everyone who saw it said, “Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Think about it! Consider it! Tell us what to do!” Then all the Israelites from Dan to Beersheba and from the land of Gilead came out as one man and assembled before the LORD in Mizpah… four hundred thousand soldiers armed with swords. […] Then the Israelites said, “Tell us how this awful thing happened.”
So the Levite, the husband of the murdered woman, said, “I and my concubine came to Gibeah in Benjamin to spend the night. During the night the men of Gibeah came after me and surrounded the house, intending to kill me. They raped my concubine, and she died. I took my concubine, cut her into pieces and sent one piece to each region of Israel’s inheritance, because they committed this lewd and disgraceful act in Israel. Now, all you Israelites, speak up and give your verdict.”
All the people rose as one man, saying, “None of us will go home. No, not one of us will return to his house. But now this is what we’ll do to Gibeah: We’ll go up against it as the lot directs. We’ll take ten men out of every hundred from all the tribes of Israel, and a hundred from a thousand, and a thousand from ten thousand, to get provisions for the army. Then, when the army arrives at Gibeah in Benjamin, it can give them what they deserve for all this vileness done in Israel.” So all the men of Israel got together and united as one man against the city.
The tribes of Israel sent men throughout the tribe of Benjamin, saying, “What about this awful crime that was committed among you? Now surrender those wicked men of Gibeah so that we may put them to death and purge the evil from Israel.” But the Benjamites would not listen to their fellow Israelites. From their towns they came together at Gibeah to fight against the Israelites. At once the Benjamites mobilized twenty-six thousand swordsmen from their towns, in addition to seven hundred chosen men from those living in Gibeah. […]
[Epilogue: tens of thousands of Benjamites are killed. Out of the entire tribe only 600 survive.] The people went to Bethel, where they sat before God until evening, raising their voices and weeping bitterly. “O LORD, the God of Israel,” they cried, “why has this happened to Israel? Why should one tribe be missing from Israel today?” Early the next day the people built an altar and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings.
In all of scripture I think this reading is the most difficult to get a handle on. It’s painful to read and raises more questions than it answers. It’s also the kind of story non-believers love to point to in order to “disprove” the Christian faith. I don’t really know how to respond to it, but here are some thoughts.
As a woman, my immediate reaction is one of indignation and fury at the spineless, cold-hearted men who sent the poor concubine out to be raped and killed. Did they have no conscience? No sympathy? And where was God in this? Why did He not defend her?
According to scripture, one of the duties of a husband is to defend and protect his wife and family. The woman’s fate was decided by her husband. There’s no doubt back in those days women were seen as property and not as fully human (a point of view God never agreed with). Could God have stopped it? Sure, but only by preventing people doing what they had already decided to do — and forcing people to obey Him is the one thing God won’t do. Yet there’s no doubt whenever men are disobedient to God, it’s women who suffer for it most.
On the other hand, the woman might have avoided the situation completely if she hadn’t left home — which raises many more questions. The reading doesn’t say she was “unfaithful” with another man, only that she was “unfaithful” and returned home to her father. Was she running away from an abusive husband? Did she have another guy on the side? Was she tired of living with a country bumpkin and longing to get back to her big-city lifestyle? We don’t know. We only know she deliberately placed herself in a situation that would almost inevitably (in that culture) result in some form of conflict.
And there’s one more thing conspicuous by its absence: Why would a Levite and his family — Levi being the priestly tribe — never once mention God or seek His guidance when making decisions?
Then we have the man’s father-in-law, who (while avoiding addressing the issue at hand) seems to be trying to persuade the husband to remain in the city indefinitely. The father-in-law is not unkind but he is completely ineffective in dealing with the situation and with whatever was troubling his daughter.
Then, traveling home, things do not bode well when the travelers sit in a city square and are not offered a place to stay. In this ancient culture, to refuse to offer hospitality to strangers was an unthinkable breach of custom that has no parallel in our society. Finally one poor old man takes them in.
Then we have men of the town, the very ones who should have offered shelter and hospitality to the strangers, who surround the old man’s house and demand the visitor be sent out so they can rape him. The old man’s first reply — “don’t do such an evil thing, take my daughter instead” — might have been a reflection of the hospitality customs of the day, as in “you may harm me and mine but do not shame us all by harming our visitors”. However the second and final offer — “here’s the man’s concubine” — reveals the true motivations: prejudice and cowardice. First, the men in the house think heterosexual rape is more acceptable than homosexual rape. (Just in case there are any doubts, there is no such thing as acceptable rape. Period.) Second, the men in the house show a lack of courage that goes beyond imagination. Couldn’t someone have been sent for help? Couldn’t some bargain have been made? Couldn’t some form of resistance been offered? Third, the men breach their own customs by sending the visitor’s wife out to be sacrificed.
Then the next day this cowardly husband takes his wife’s corpse home, dismembers it, and sends it out to the four corners of the nation. What kind of twisted mind… oh nevermind, we’re already so far beyond the pale. He works the people up into a frenzy and starts a war — and if that’s not bad enough, he himself doesn’t lead or (it appears) fight in the war he starts! By the time the conflict is over, more than 25,000 people have lost their lives and one of Israel’s tribes – 1/12 of the nation – is nearly wiped out. After which the survivors weep before God and turn to their religion for comfort. Whatthe…??
Why is this story even in the Bible?
Maybe to remind us there is no one who is innocent. There is no such thing as “private” sin, or sin that is “only between two people”. More often than we realize, battles start over disputes between individuals.
Above all the story illustrates the depths of evil human beings are capable of. I forget who it was that said all of us are potential Hitlers and all of us are potential Mother Teresas, but it’s true. Every one of us has the potential to be that evil or that good, and more beyond. And often it’s the little decisions — the decisions made when we’re alone or in the dark or when we think no one is watching — that make the difference.
And it illustrates why it was necessary for God’s Son Jesus to be born as a human being, to die on the cross, and to defeat evil and death by walking out of the grave alive.
This story isn’t pretty. But it is real, and it’s where the story of the restoration of humanity begins.