Back Story: A woman was central to a civil war between eleven Israelite tribes versus the tribe of Benjamin. The battles occurred early in the era of the judges because Phinehas grandson of Aaron was identified as the priest at Bethel. Despite the actual year of the conflict, the Bible offers the account near the end of Judges as final proof that the Israelites need a king and centralized government. Otherwise every man and clan acted independently, doing what they saw as correct in their own eyes.
Story Line: Judges chapters nineteen and twenty identified that some men of Gibeah gang raped a concubine and left her to die. This episode demonstrated the problematic treatment of women in this era of Israelite history. Clearly, the primary victim in the story is the raped and butchered concubine. At the same time, discerning who are the good and bad guys is difficulty. Here is the story as recorded in chapters nineteen and twenty of Judges: A Levite lived in the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. For some reason, the concubine left the Levite and returned to her father’s home in Bethlehem. After four months, the Levite went to Bethlehem to convince her to return home with him. He had a servant with him and two donkeys. The concubine’s father greeted the Levite warmly and prevailed on him to stay four nights. On the fifth day, the Levite and concubine left Bethlehem and started for home sometime after the noon hour. When they approached the Jebusite city (now Jerusalem), the servant suggested that they spend the night there. Fearing that no one in the Jebusite city would welcome a Israelite into their home, the Levite continued to Gibeah in the tribal lands of Bethlehem.
In Gibeah the travelers sat in the city square; but no one invited them to spend the night. Finally, an old man came in from his work. The man was himself an Ephraimite. He invited the Levite to spend the night at his home and was a hospitable host. While they were enjoying themselves, wicked men surrounded the house. They pounded on the man’s door and shouted at him to bring out his guest so that they could have sex with the Levite. The old man refused and offered to send out his own virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine so the townsmen could use them sexually rather than the Levite. When the townsmen persisted, the Levite took his concubine and sent her outside the door. The Gibeonites gang-raped and abused the concubine the entire night. At daybreak the townsmen let her go. She was able to make her way back to the old man’s house. She fell down at the door and lay there until the door was opened in the morning.
When the Levite exited the door in the morning, there lay his concubine on the threshold. He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” (Judges 19:28, NIV). The concubine did not answer; however, the Levite put her on his donkey and set out for home. The story does not say whether the concubine was dead when the Levite put her on the donkey or died during the trip between Gibeah and the remote hill country of Ephraim where the Levite lived. Upon returning home, the Levite cut the concubine’s body into twelve pieces and sent a piece to each of the Israelite tribes along with a description of what occurred. The tribal members were shocked. They assembled at Mizpah to discuss what to do. The only tribe that was not present was Benjamin. In addition to the leaders of each tribe, four hundred thousand soldiers assembled. The leaders asked the Levite, to tell them “how this awful thing happened” (Judges 20:3 NIV). After he completed his tale, the Levite asked the assembled tribal leaders to give a verdict.
The verdict of the tribal leaders was to punish the vile act of the Gibeonites. They asked the Benjamites to surrender the men of Gibeah involved in the heinous act. The Israelite tribal leaders’ plan was to kill only the culprits. The Benjamites refused to surrender the guilty men. They marshalled thirty three thousand men to fight against the combined might of the Israelite army. After several battles, the Benjamite army was destroyed. But the Israelite army did not stop there. The men of Israel went back to Benjamite tribal land. They killed every person and animal they found in every town and burned all the towns. The only Benjamites who remained alive in the land were six hundred men who fled into the desert to the rock of Rimmon.
Pondering Relationships: In 21st century westernized countries, this story is gruesome. Actions of the Levite, Ephraimite old man living in Gibeah, and Benjamites who protect the Gibeonites are criminal. All are culpable in the death of the concubine. As we interpret the story and attempt to learn from it, we see both the power and lack of power of a woman in the era of the Israelite judges.
One of the first factors has to do with the status of a concubine during the time of the judges. A concubine (pîylegesh in Hebrew) was a secondary wife who had recognized social status in a household, but that status was below that of a full wife. Sometimes a concubine was a slave. Usually, a concubine didn’t bring a dowry to the marriage and there was no marriage contract. Some Bible scholars identified the Levite’s concubine as a prostitute, even a Canaanite temple whore (Pett, Anglefire.com). The King James Version of the Bible translated Judges 19:2 as the concubine played the whore against the Levite. Other Bible translators rejected the notion that she was a whore. The New International Version (2002) translation is that concubine was unfaithful to the Levite and left her husband to return to her father’s house in Bethlehem. The New Living Translation Bible translated the reason the concubine returned to her father’s house was because she became angry with the Levite.
Bethlehem was a town that belonged to Judah. Although there may have been Canaanites living in Bethlehem, the Bible give no indication that the concubine’s family was Canaanite. The Levite stayed with the family and ate and drank their food. The concubine’s family urged Israelite hospitality on him and begged him to enjoy himself in their home. At a minimum the Levite had racial and social ties to the concubine’s family.
The Levite’s actions are not an admirable, even in Judges, a book that teems with sordid characters. The Levite’s actions demonstrated that he had little respect and perhaps less love for this woman who was his wife. It took four months before the Levite traveled from Ephraim to Bethlehem to find his wife. Probably, the Levite had some wealth; he traveled with a servant and two donkeys. Likely, he rode one donkey and the other donkey carried provisions, food, drink, bedding, straw for the donkeys. The Levite’s servant walked and possibly the concubine who was of lower status would walk back to Ephraim. At no place during the five days that the Levite visits in the concubine’s family home, do we read that the Levite spoke to the concubine.
When the Levite was threatened with sodomy, neither the Levite or the male house-holder made an effort to protect the females in the home. The laws of hospitality, so important to Israelite life, seemed to apply only to men who were protected at all cost. As a man dedicated to God, a Levite was particularly revered and untouchable; he should not be defile under any circumstances. To the house owner and Levite, the concubine and the man’s daughter were more expendable than the Levite’s male servant. The Levite “took” his concubine and “sent” her out the door knowing the Gibeonites would rape her brutally. The concubine never volunteered to be used by the Gibeonites. Perhaps the Levite and the old man concluded that sex between the men of Gibeah would be natural, i.e., make-female intercourse, and was more optimal than homosexual contact between two men.
Nowhere is the Levite’s callous selfishness and demeaning attitude toward women more evident than when he exited the old man’s door in the morning. He saw his wife lying in the doorway. He didn’t get down on his knees to check her condition. He didn’t ask her how she was, if she could ride a donkey, or if she could walk. Instead, the Levite told her “get up” and “let’s go.” When his concubine did not or could not answer him, the Levite put her on his donkey and set out for home. Clearly, the concubine was badly hurt or near death, but the Levite made no effort to secure medical help for her.
Back in the remote hill country of Ephraim, the Levite continued his disrespect for the dead woman. He mutilated the woman’s corpse body by dividing it into 12 pieces. The Levite sent a pieces of the mutilated corpse to each of the 12 tribes. Can you imagine receiving a severed head, one of two breasts, or severed genitalia of a corpse? The Levite’s intent was to shock recipients of the body parts and he achieved this intent. When the Israelites gathered at Mizpah, they were unified in condemnation of the Gibeonites for their lewd behavior. When tribe of Benjamin refused to turn the miscreants over for punishment, together the other eleven tribes battled the Benjamins. All Benjamites who were in Benjamin’s territory were killed with the exception of 600 men who took refuge at Rimmon.
Reflection: Who do you think acted badly (if anyone) in this story and who acted nobly (if anyone). Ponder your answer.
Concubines or secondary wives were generally treated poorly in ancient Israel. If you want to learn more about their lives purchase Lesser Known Bible Characters (http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com/
Copyright: May 18, 2016; Carolyn A. Roth; all rights reserved.