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Rape, Dismemberment, and Chaos in Judges 19–21

by Kimberly Dickson | February 03, 2022

The unifying theme of Judges 19–21 is the dismal failure of Israel to care for their most vulnerable, ultimately contributing to the demise of the nation. This theme is the culmination of two different agendas within the story. The first and more obvious is the backstory of a devastating civil war due to the collapse of hospitality, a value central to Israel’s national identity. The second is an illustration of Israel’s moral degeneracy that could only be reversed (or so they thought) through a new form of government, a monarchy. Like concern for the “least of these” shrouded in Israel’s hospitality rules, Israel’s moral collapse is symbolized in its degenerate treatment of women, both through an individual and the broader group she represents.1

Structure and Placement

Structure and Themes

The overarching structure divides this tale into three parts. Chapter 19 provides the backstory with what could be termed a “human interest story” that culminates in a Levite calling the tribes together to incite civil war. Chapter 20 describes the tribes’ rationale for civil war and the battles that lead to its military outcome. Chapter 21 wrestles with the future of the tribe of Benjamin, as Israel seeks to provide wives for the tribe’s remaining warriors. Embedded within this structure are recurring ideas that drive the theme of the story. These four ideas are: “the heart”; hospitality manipulated, denied, and abused; sexual abuse and outrage; and the destruction of women.

Judges 19–21 is a grim ironic narrative.2 Intentionally contrasting with Lot’s guests in Sodom in Gen 19, Judges 19 uses the same plot but reshapes it so the reader recognizes the irony.3 Features common to the two stories include sojourners seeking hospitality, being taken in by another foreigner, a mob seeking to sexually assault the guests, a host seeking to protect his guests using the same words to the townsfolk, and girls offered in the place of the men. The differences between the stories are where the gruesome irony becomes apparent.4 One set of God’s representatives arrive immersed in prayer to protect while the other comes as a pimp; one protects the weakest while the other thrusts the weakest out to protect himself; one physically grabs the family to take them to safety while the other grabs the devastated to take her to dismember.5

The irony continues beyond the Genesis/Sodom and Judges/Gibeah parallel. The story revolves around terminology of “the heart.” The Levite intends to persuade the girl to return by “speaking to her heart.” Instead, he makes his own “heart merry” with his father-in-law and with the host in Gibeah. Likewise, the tribes of Israel advise one another to “set their heart” on the dismembered girl as they consider their actions. Instead, by the close of Judges 21, the women of Israel have been “dismembered” like the concubine.6

The lament that surrounds the story solidifies the grim irony: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (NRSV). What was right in their own eyes was evil in the eyes of God and all others.

The book of Judges begins with the accounts of morally upright and good leaders, only to progressively descend until it reaches its most ignoble conclusion with the final two stories at the close of the book, Judges 17–18 and Judges 19–21.7 Together they demonstrate the revolting depravity into which the nation had fallen without a king, as the stories are uniquely surrounded by and even interrupted by the saying, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (NRSV).

Each of these two stories is centered on the actions of a Levite who is meant to serve as an intermediary with God but, instead, is wholly inept and unqualified to lead the people. In Judges 17–18, not only is the Levite tainted by idol worship, but he also lacks the leadership clout to stop the Danite tribe from annihilating a “quiet and trusting people” (18:27). At sword point his courage fails him and he acquiesces to their genocide. The final Levite ups the ante, actually instigating civil war. Again, irony seeps through these stories as Levites, who were never meant to be a warrior tribe, are central to these unholy wars.8

Canon Position and Its Significance

The Jewish and Christian canons position Judges differently, revealing emphases in their traditions. The Jewish canon juxtaposes Israel’s abysmal leadership and abuse of women in Judges with the book of Samuel. Directly following the demise of women in Judges, Eli summarizes how great a sin YHWH considered sexual abuse against women in his warning against his own sons. He states that their sexual use of women serving at the tent of meeting is worse than sinning against men (1 Sam 2:22–25). Instead, this type of abuse incites the judgment of YHWH (1 Sam 2:27–36). True to Eli’s word, YHWH removes leadership from Eli’s descendants and through Samuel transfers the leadership to a monarchy.

Alternatively, the Christian canon reacts to the violated hospitality, which destroyed rather than protected the weakest of society, by placing the story of Ruth and Naomi directly after Judges.9 This canonical placement highlights that both the concubine and also Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem in distress. But instead of Bethlehem failing to protect a vulnerable girl, the defeated widow and powerless foreign daughter-in-law are honored and protected, and they flourish. Hospitality fulfills its role of protecting the weakest of society.

Judges 19–21: Section by Section

Judges 19:1–10, Something Is Not Right

The concubine and the Levite are introduced in the midst of conflict. The concubine has no voice throughout the narrative, yet her one action launches the entire story. She has fled a day’s journey to her father’s house in Bethlehem. The term used to describe her, na’ara, refers to a girl just married, likely between twelve and fourteen years old, right after puberty begins.10 Yet her marriage is not one that gives her the legal rights of a wife. Rather, she is a concubine with the status of a slave.11 The Hebrew word indicating why she ran away has to do with prostitution or harlotry. However, the ancient Greek translation omits any reference to prostitution, saying she left angry or repulsed by the Levite. Pamela Tamarkin Reis bridges this difference by arguing that the Hebrew text is most naturally translated to say that the Levite was prostituting her.12 This understanding is consistent with the biblical documentation of ancient leadership and priestly involvement with temple prostitution. Examples can be found in the story of Judah, who assumed he had slept with a temple prostitute rather than his daughter-in-law Tamar (Gen 38), as well as in the story of Eli’s priestly sons’ sexual use of women who served at the tent of meeting (1 Sam 2:22–25).13 The Greek translation “repulsion” would be sympathetic to a young girl with the status of a slave rather than a wife; taken to be prostituted, she runs away in anger or disgust to her father’s house.14 True even of some pimps today, to get her back the Levite knows he must “speak to her heart.”

When the Levite journeys to persuade her to return, her father’s behavior further alerts the reader that something is not right. Daughters are not expendable in Israel, and her father thus provided a safe place for his daughter to flee for the past four months.15 When the Levite arrives, the father protects his daughter by manipulating the rules of hospitality. He offers the Levite a joyous welcome, thereby performing the host’s duty of keeping his son-in-law from losing face. This action maintains his power to stall his son-in-law’s (and by extension his daughter’s) departure. Through inebriating his son-in-law (making his heart merry) daily, he makes it nearly impossible for the Levite to depart on his own terms.16 Phyllis Trible confirms this power-play by noting that the father-in-law insults the Levite’s “tent,” as compared to his own “house” where he has been able to extend grand hospitality.17 Mieke Bal also recognizes the power competition around who keeps the girl.18 Ultimately the father-in-law’s efforts fail. Defeated, he shares his foreboding about them leaving at a time unsafe to time—the evening of the fifth day.19

Judges 19:11–21, Vulnerable Travelers

While the section before introduced hospitality manipulated, this section reveals hospitality denied, and then only granted through an immigrant. Irony is introduced as the Levite discriminates against foreigners in Jebus, only to be denied hospitality by fellow Israelites in Gibeah. However, a fellow sojourner from the hills of Ephraim finds them sitting in the city square as evening descends. He listens to their story and likely recognizes the representation of God, as the Levite makes his case that they are heading to the House of YHWH. Following the hospitality rules of his Israelite identity, he offers his own home, warning them against spending the night in the square.20 His warning likely alerts the reader that he is aware of an unsafe undercurrent against foreigners.21

Judges 19:22–30, The Levite’s Character Revealed

While the old man, the host, entertains and makes their “hearts merry,” the city “scoundrels” come to the house and demand “to know” the Levite. In a desperate effort to protect his guest, he seeks to minimize his own foreignness by addressing the mob as “brothers,” which indicates legal equality.22 He then rebukes the mob for such a vile proposal using the word nebalah, meaning “vile” or “outrage.” It hearkens to the sexual prohibitions of Lev 18, where homosexual acts are described as an abomination. Instead, the host offers what he considers the lesser of two evils, his own virgin daughter and the concubine.23 In contrast to Lot, he specifically tells the mob to rape and abuse these girls and do what is good in their eyes, equating rape to that which is good.24

The mob rejects both him and his proposal. But when the Levite “seizes” and thrusts out his concubine to them, they rape the girl all night, releasing her early in the morning. She crawls to where the Levite, now called her “master,” is housed and collapses.25

The Levite gets up in the morning, ready for an early start home alone, as all the verbs for departure are expressed in the third masculine singular.26 He had already disposed of his concubine. Thus, the Hebrew expresses surprise, “behold,” when he finds the girl collapsed at the door, touchingly with “her hand upon the threshold” as if reaching for him and safety. When she does not respond to his order that she get up and go with him, he loads her on his donkey. Upon reaching home, he “seizes” her to dismember her, in the same way that he “seized her” to thrust her out the door to be raped and abused all night. As he had sacrificed her for his safety in Gibeah, he now cuts her up like an animal sacrifice.27 He then sends the parts to the twelve tribes of Israel. When the Israelites see the dismembered body parts, they counsel themselves to direct their hearts towards this girl as they decide what to do.

Judges 20:1–19, The Israelites Gather, Seek Reconciliation, and Prepare for War

The Israelite men gather to hear the details of what happened, whereupon the Levite lies. Instead of describing the Gibeahites’ intent to rape him, he reports that they meant to kill him, but instead abused his wife and she died.28 Just as the text is ambiguous regarding who killed her, he fails to say that he threw his wife out to protect himself. He does, however, readily admit that he dismembered her. His point of view reduces the story to his loss of property through Benjamin’s violation of hospitality.

The Israelites lose focus on the girl as the Levite touches upon the core of their identity in the care of sojourners. They must always provide hospitality in remembrance that their early ancestors were sojourners. Furthermore, the law required special care to be given to Levite sojourners.29 Israel’s anger did not correspond to the host’s revulsion at the threat of same-sex rape because they had not been told the whole story. Likewise, their anger was not about the girl’s treatment, as evidenced by the Levite feeling free to reveal that he had dismembered the girl, and the Israelites’ later actions of murdering, abducting, and offering hundreds of innocent girls to trafficking, forced marriage, and resulting rape. Rather, Israel was horrified that hospitality to a fellow Israelite, a Levite no less, was so violated that it resulted in the loss of his property, his concubine.30 In essence the Benjamites had denied their heritage, which could not be tolerated.

Israel vowed not to go home until justice was complete. To their credit, they first confronted the tribe of Benjamin to demand they offer up the scoundrels, giving Benjamin an opportunity to demonstrate solidarity with Israel and evade war. The highly skilled warrior tribe of Benjamin refused, in effect pronouncing a declaration of secession. Civil war ensued. In seeking YHWH’s support for what they had already decided, Israel asked who should first attack Benjamin, rather than if they should attack. Tellingly, the girl’s tribe of Judah was selected—the tribe most likely to desire revenge.31

Judges 20:20–28, The Humbling of the Israelite Tribes and the Annihilation of Benjamin

To the surprise of the Israelite forces, they were routed by Benjamin—twice. The first twenty-five thousand deaths brought the Israelites before YHWH in tears. Then they gathered themselves to fight again and in one day lost eighteen thousand. This defeat humbled the Israelites who, for the first time, asked YHWH whether they should be at war at all. YHWH answered that Benjamin would be delivered into their hands. Israel did rout Benjamin, but the killings were abominable. Rather than remembering the killing of an innocent girl and vowing not to do the same, Israel killed essentially all the inhabitants of Benjamin, as well as their livestock and any innocent bystander they came upon.

Judges 21:1–14, Murder of Jabesh-Gilead, Save the Virgins

The Israelite warriors then made oaths denying their daughters marriage to surviving Benjamites, reminding the reader that, like the concubine, women had no voice. They doomed the existence of the tribe of Benjamin by murdering their wives and children and withholding their own daughters. But in further irony, they blamed YHWH instead of recognizing that it was their own doing. Again, after their reckless actions, they brought offerings before YHWH. But YHWH remained silent. Thus, they devised their own plan that accomplished two of their goals. In retaliation against the city of Jabesh-Gilead for its restraint in not joining the civil war, they abducted the city’s virgins and annihilated its remaining inhabitants.32 Israel then delivered the 400 traumatized girls to the surviving Benjamites to be raped as “wives.”

Judges 21:15–25, The Final Act of Israelite “Justice”: Abduction and Rape of Worshipping Girls

Still in need of 200 more girls, the next plot did not include the consent of all the Israelite men to anticipate the complaints of fathers and brothers. This plan gave Benjamin permission to abduct the young girls who came to dance before YHWH at an annual festival in Shiloh. The group deciding these girls’ fates preyed on guilt of their fathers and brothers to give their abducted girls as gifts.33 Thus the story ends, with Benjamin given full blessings to abduct and rape girls celebrating before God. Israel, satisfied that justice was complete, went home. In deep irony the narrator dryly remarks, “In those days there was no king in Israel, everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

Theological Significance for the Church

This story is so troubling that commentators throughout history have tended to avoid it.34 Then as now, they struggled with how to demonstrate any hope that could speak to the Jewish and Christian faiths. In truth, it is a story that does not intend to show hope, but to serve as a warning through illustrating the moral depths to which humanity can fall.

  • The Levite demonstrates corrupt leadership, where those who are meant to protect instead abuse, use, and sacrifice the most vulnerable for their own pleasures, financial gain, protection, and political means.
     
  • The host in Gibeah demonstrates the vulnerability of immigrants in a host culture, where they are not seen as equals and are targeted for abuse.
     
  • The deeply entrenched value of hospitality for vulnerable outsiders demonstrates how a positive value can be marshalled as a war cry and thus eclipse its primary value and commit in gross degrees the same crime that incited the war.
     
  • Israel’s devastation at the hands of Benjamin demonstrates how damaging war can be when God’s intentions are not humbly consulted before such action is taken.
     
  • These events demonstrate that those who seek to resist the hysteria of national sin are often targeted for destruction.
     
  • Israel’s vows to withhold their daughters from a Benjamite marriage demonstrate how promises and actions made in the heat of a great injustice can cause even more harm. This further demonstrates how easy it is to blame others, especially YHWH, rather than accept responsibility.
     
  • And finally, the slow demise of women over the course of Judges, concluding with this horrific rape and dismemberment, demonstrates how easy it is for a people to target and sacrifice a distinct population group whom they once valued as equals, whose wit, skill, and intelligence had previously saved and enriched them as a people.

This demise parallels the Israelites’ history. Like Joseph who was Egypt’s second in command and saved his people, Deborah’s leadership among men saved Israel. But like Israel, who was eventually enslaved by Egypt, the Levite’s concubine and the women of Israel were enslaved and devastated by men. As the Israelite slaves called out for salvation, so too did the women of Judges 19–21.

The editor of Judges lamented the depravity into which the people of Israel had fallen. Doing what was good in their own eyes, they lost sight of all that was good. The narrator sought salvation and displayed, through the final two stories of the corrupt Levites, that religious leadership sat at the pinnacle of corruption. Therefore, the nation needed a king who could at least impose laws to reign in the excesses of a sinful people.35 However, as the canon reveals, the kings and their laws become just as corrupt and abusive as the religious leaders.

Ultimately this yearned-for salvation can only come through one who can love others more than oneself. It must come from one willing to be sacrificed when the “scoundrels” demand abuse, rather than to thrust others out to be sacrificed in one’s place. Salvation must come from one whose heart is focused on the salvation needed for all, the weak and vulnerable as well as the mighty and corrupt. The good news is this salvation came through the Jewish story, through Jesus.

Judges 19–21 is a warning to those of faith, that when hearts have lost focus, and people do what is good in their own eyes, all that is good and precious will be lost. The warning must work to direct hearts and eyes back to the servant King who saves the weak and the mighty and restores a world where women and men serve together as respected equals.

Notes

  1. Garcia Mercedes L. Bachman, “Judges 19:1–21:25: The Apotheosis of Gendered Violence,” in Judges, Wisdom Commentary 7, ed. Calderon Pilarski Ahida and Barbara E. Reid (Liturgical, 2018) 213. Bachman notes that the violation of hospitality demonstrates that the story is concerned with a society that is not concerned about its weakest members.
  2. Stuart Lasine, “Guest and Host in Judges 19: Lot’s Hospitality in an Inverted World,” JSOT 9/29 (1984) 38. Lasine notes the genre of Judges 19 as irony in parallel with Gen 19.
  3. Lasine, “Guest and Host in Judges 19,” 38.
  4. Lasine, “Guest and Host in Judges 19,” 37.
  5. T. J. Schneider elaborates on how the messengers of Sodom protected the daughters: Schneider, “Mothers who Predate the Promise,” in Mothers of Promise: Women in the Book of Genesis (Baker Academic, 2008) 18.
  6. Phyllis Trible, “Levite’s Concubine,” in Texts of Terror: Literary Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Fortress, 1984) 83.
  7. D. T. Olson (“Judges,” NIB, 872–73) notes this decline in Judges parallels the declining status of women, beginning with Deborah and Jael and ending with the dismemberment of the concubine and the women of the nation; see also Trent C. Butler, Judges, WBC 8 (Thomas Nelson, 2009) 429–30.
  8. D. A. Garrett, “Levi, The Levites,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (InterVarsity, 2003) 521. Garrett confirms that Levites were not meant to be a warrior tribe.
  9. Bachman, “Judges 19:1–21:25,” 213.
  10. Butler, Judges, 420.
  11. M. J. Evans, “Women in Legal and Ritual Texts,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (InterVarsity, 2003) 898.
  12. Pamela Tamarkin Reis, “The Levite’s Concubine: New Light on a Dark Story,” SJOT 20/1 (2006) 128; see also Evelyn Sweerts-Vermeulen, “He Made Her Play the Harlot: Judges 19 through the Lens of Domestic Abuse,” Priscilla Papers 35/3 (Summer 2021) 15–19.
  13. John Peterson, Reading Women’s Stories: Female Characters in the Hebrew Bible (Fortress, 2004) 140–41. The term qedesha(h) or hierodule is used by Judah when he instructs Hirah to find and pay the prostitute. This term is distinct from the more inclusive term zonah for “prostitute,” which can include temple prostitution or a commercial sex worker. According to Peterson, this indicates that Judah understood he had slept with a temple prostitute.
  14. Butler, Judges, 407, 418.
  15. Joseph Blenkinsopp, “The Family in First Temple Israel,” in Families in Ancient Israel, ed. Don S. Browning and Ian S. Evison (Westminster John Knox, 1997) 77.
  16. Katherine Southwood, “‘This Man Has Come into My House:’ Hospitality in Genesis 19; 34; and Judges 19,” BibInt 26/4–5 (2018) 473.
  17. Trible, Texts of Terror, 68–69.
  18. Mieke Bal, Death & Dissymmetry (University of Chicago Press, 1988) 84–90. She postulates that this is a competition between marriage patterns that are in the process of shifting away from patrilocal marriage toward the bride staying in her husband’s house. While Bal’s placement of this story within a cultural shift away from patrilocal marriage may be debatable, the theory is not new. A century ago, first wave feminist scholar Katharine Bushnell noticed a similar trend of patrilocal marriages within the early biblical stories: Katharine C. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women (Christians for Biblical Equality, 2003).
  19. Bachman, “Judges 19:1–21:25,” 220.
  20. Bachman, “Judges 19:1–21:25,” 242.
  21. Southwood identifies this “other”ness assigned to foreigners in this story and therefore the opportunity to abuse: Southwood, “This Man Has Come into My House,” 474.
  22. Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, rev. ed., trans. John H. Marks (Westminster, 1972) 218.
  23. Bachman, “Judges 19:1–21:25,” 224; Deirdre Brouer, “Voices of Outrage against Rape: Textual Evidence in Judges 19,” Priscilla Papers 28/1 (2014) 2.
  24. Brouer, “Voices of Outrage against Rape,” 3.
  25. Butler, Judges, 426.
  26. Trible, Texts of Terror, 78.
  27. Brouer, “Voices of Outrage against Rape,” 4.
  28. Lasine, “Guest and Host in Judges 19,” 48.
  29. R. J. D. Knauth, “Aliens, Foreign Residents,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (InterVarsity, 2003) 28; Bachman, “Judges 19:1–21:25,” 242.
  30. Women had no legal rights and were considered the property of men. In this case, the girl was a concubine, not even a wife; her status was below that of a slave. Evans, “Women in Legal and Ritual Texts,” 898.
  31. Bachman, “Judges 19:1–21:25,” 230.
  32. Lasine also notes that Jabesh-Gilead had shown laudable judgment: Lasine, “Guest and Host,” 37–59.
  33. Bachman, “Judges 19:1–21:25,” 239.
  34. Trible, Texts of Terror, 86; John L. Thompson, “Four Expendable Women,” in Writing the Wrongs: Women of the Old Testament among Biblical Commentators from Philo through the Reformation (Oxford University Press, 2003) 32.
  35. Thompson, “Four Expendable Women,” 32.