Is this the most brutal chapter in the Bible? Unpacking Judges 19

How’s that for an eye-catching first post? This is a long one, so go get yourself a cup of tea.

I’ve decided that Wednesdays will be known as “In the Word Wednesdays”. Every Wednesday I’ll post about a passage I’m studying, preaching on, or have just come across in my daily reading. Today (or yesterday)’s reading turned out to be Judges chapter 19, and I thought there’d be no better way than to start with one of the bible’s most shocking and controversial chapters.

If you know your bible, you might know that some of the scenes in the book of Judges make Game of Thrones seem like the Tellytubbies. The book of Judges is filled with violence, death, abuse, gore, slaughter, rape and more. Eyes are plucked out, toes are cut off, intestines tumble out of stab wounds in graphic detail, a woman drives a tent peg through the skull of a sleeping man, prisoners of war are executed, men are killed because of their accent, a woman is gang-raped and cut into pieces. Some of the goings on in this particular chapter are enough make George R.R.Martin himself squirm.

But wait a minute, I hear you say – why is this stuff in the bible? Isn’t the bible God’s Holy Word? Doesn’t the Bible itself tell us to fix our eyes on things that are just, pure, lovely and commendable? How can we do that when parts of it are filled with some of the horrors listed above?

If you’ve ever asked yourself that question, you’re not alone. For many of us, this stuff makes us cringe. How is a chapter like this supposed to lead me to perfect peace? How is reading and meditating on this going to make me like a tree planted by streams of water? How is this particular part of God’s word a lamp to my feet and a light to my path?

Let’s take some time to unpack this chapter, and find out not only why it’s in the bible in the first place, but what it has to say to us today.

Judges 19

The book of Judges is a part of what’s known as the Historical Books of the Old Testament. It tells the story of God’s people after they’d been rescued from Egypt, and at this point in the story they’ve finally taken hold of (most of) the land promised to them by God. Moses and Joshua (the former leaders of God’s people) die, and it doesn’t take long for the Israelites to forget the God who saved them in the first place. They begin worshipping idols and demons. They become sexually immoral. They sacrifice their children as offerings. They backstab, bicker and fight each other. If you read through Judges you’ll find a common occurence that runs through the whole book:

Step 1: God’s people turn away from him.

Step 2: They are over run by their enemies.

Step 3: They cry out to God for help

Step 4: God has mercy and sends a ruler (or “judge”) to save them.

Step 5: They turn back to God for a wee while.

Back to Step 1: God’s people turn away from him.

and so on. The book continues like that. The author(s) of the book make it clear; this was not a good time for Israel. The Bible doesn’t hide the fact that the events in this book are morally bankrupt. This isn’t how it’s meant to be, and all of the evil that transpires is ultimately offensive to God.

In Chapter 19, we are introduced to an unnamed man. This man was Levite, of the tribe of Levi. This Levite has a female companion who the bible describes as a “concubine”. There are debates over who exactly this lady was; some say she was his wife, others say she was his mistress. Another interpretation states that she was one of several women married to him, but was of lower status than the other women in his household.

In this particular story, the man’s concubine is “unfaithful to him” and leaves him. Again, there’s some debate over whether this meant she was sexually unfaithful or “unfaithful” simply in that she left him – possibly due to his violent nature. Regardless, she goes back to her father’s house to stay there. The man goes searching for her, and tries to win her back with “kind words”. After many days, eventually he does and they both leave. A subtle detail in the text says he took his “donkeys and had his concubine with him” – make of that what you will, but the ordering of the words might hint that the donkeys were of more value to him than she was!

As the sun begins to set the man decides to stop for the night. They pass by a city, Jebus (which is actually Jerusalem) which would probably have provided a good refuge for them. However, at this point in time Jerusalem was still a Caananite city, and the Levite didn’t want to stop in a city filled with “foreigners” as he called them. Instead, he said he’d prefer to stop in a place where there will be fellow Israelites, his kind of people; righteous people. “We’ll be better off there”, he says. His bigotry would soon prove him wrong.

They eventually come to a village called Gilbeah, which belongs to the people of Benjamin, one of the Tribes of Israel. Thinking they would be safe there because they’re with “God’s people”, they decide to stop and rest there for the night. It soon gets dark, and they find themselves ready to camp out in the town square because, strangely, no one has invited them into their home. This should have been their first warning sign; hospitality and caring for strangers was a huge part of ancient Near East (especially Israelite) culture. The fact that “God’s people” had left them out in the cold and dark was surely a sign that these weren’t the kind of people the man thought they were.

Eventually, an old man finds them and warns them not to sleep in the town square. He invites them back to his house, where they have a few drinks and begin to relax (or get “merry” as my translation says).

They’re all having a rare old time, when suddenly there’s a knock at the door. They look outside to see that some of the men of the city, “worthless fellows”, have gathered around the house. These men are demanding that the owner sends his guests out so that they can “know” them – the ESV’s subtle way of saying “have sex with them”. Or more accurately, rape them.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because something like this has already taken place in one of the bible’s more well known stories, that of Sodom and Gommorah in Genesis 19. The difference being that back then it was angels who the men of the city wanted to rape. I’m not sure which is worse. This story has obvious parallels to the Genesis account, and uses similar vocabulary. The author’s point is clear: Gilbeah had become as bad as Sodom.

The crowd won’t go away without getting what they want. Instead of handing over his guest, the old man instead offers the crowd his daughter and the man’s concubine – as if that’s somehow better (again, similar to what Lot offers in Genesis 19).

Most readers stop at this point and wonder what on earth is going on. Why would he offer to hand his own daughter over to these men?! To understand this, we again have to understand a bit about ancient Near Eastern culture. As I said earlier, hospitality and caring for the stranger was a huge part of Israelite society. A man who invited a guest into his home was honour-bound to look after his well being. It was unthinkable that he would give over a man under his own protection and care to a mob to be raped. In that patriarchal, male dominated society, it was somehow less unthinkable to give over a daughter, or the servants (who were of lesser importance). To be clear, the Bible doesn’t condone this. As we’ll see, the whole incident serves to give us a picture of just how evil Israel had become. To us reading it today, it’s rightly shocking. The Bible doesn’t give us any indication that what the Levite did was good – the only person not in the wrong here was the poor woman who was given over.

Eventually, the Levite sends his concubine out to face the crowd in his stead, and the text says that they “knew her and abused her until morning”. Or as other translations bluntly put it, they “raped and abused her all night”. For hours this poor girl suffered at the hands of these vile, wicked men. As the sun rose, the crowd finally left her alone and went back to their homes. After a while, the girl picked herself up and walked back to the house, but collapsed at the front door. It’s not clear if she died then and there, or if she died afterwards. What is known is that her master woke up (after somehow having found the ability to sleep despite everything going on) and went to leave, as if nothing had happened. When he opened the door he found her lying there, and when he tried to wake her, he couldn’t.

What happens next is perlexing to most modern readers. The man takes her, puts her body on his donkey, takes her home and then cuts her body up into 12 pieces. He then sends those pieces to each of the 12 tribes of Israel. Again, most of us will stop here. What is he doing?! What was the point of that?!

To put it simply, what the man did was a sort of call to arms. We see a similar scene in 1 Samuel 11:7, where Saul cuts up an Oxen into 12 pieces and sends them throughout all of Israel, saying “whoever does not come out and help me, may the same thing be done to you!” When the Levite sends the 12 pieces of his former concubine to the 12 tribes, it’s as if he’s saying “look at the evil being done here – we can’t leave it unpunished.”

Sure enough, this action causes outrage throughout the land. The tribes agree to wage war against Gilbeah and eventually the Tribe of Benjamin, whose men were responsible for her rape and murder.

The chapter ends there, but the book of Judges goes on. To cut a long story short, the Israelites wage war against the against the Benjamites, killing them and forbidding them from taking any Israelite wives for themselves ever again. The Benjamites complain, and the book ends with them kidnapping the Israelite women to take back to their own territory to live as their slaves and their wives. There’s no happy ending to the book of Judges. There is no silver lining to this story. The point is clear; this was a dark, dark time in the history of Israel.

So what on earth is going on? Why is this passage included in the Bible? And what on earth does that have to say to us today?

Finding the Thread

When trying to interpret books of the bible, it can be useful to find a common motif, or a thread, that weaves itself throughout the whole book. Some call this “finding the melody line”. Whatever you call it, it’s all about finding the main idea of the book, and using that to interpret what the rest of the book says. This thread can be easy to find, or extremely difficult, depending on which book you’re studying! Sometimes it will look like a phrase repeated often throughout the book, or a specific theme that keeps coming up.

If you read the book of Judges you’ll find one phrase that crops up at several points throughout the narrative:

“There was no king in Israel in those days. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

This phrase, or variations of it, appears several times throughout the book of Judges. It is the thread that weaves itself through the entire book. What it means is that the people of Israel had abandoned God, abandoned his law, and did whatever they pleased. There was no order. No justice. No good. Everyone fell prey to their own depravity.

Keep that in mind. Chapter 19 starts with the phrase: “In those days, when there was no king in Israel…”

That simple line is easy to skip over, but it’s an important inclusion; it’s a sign. It’s that common thread, running through the book. By reading it, we know that the theme of the book will feature heavily in the next section.

What is the theme of Judges? That Israel had abandoned God and did evil as a result. Since the opening of the chapter reintroduces the thread, we should be instantly aware that what happens next isn’t going to be good. And it’s not. In this chapter almost everyone is the bad guy.

The most brutal chapter of the bible serves to remind us of the ugliness of sin. Human beings are visual creatures, and the bible uses explicit imagery to communicate the horror of sin in a way that we can understand. The message of Judges: when there is no King, no righteous ruler, no God, everyone does what is right in their own eyes; and it is horrible.

The King is Coming

For those of us who know the Bible, we know that after the book of Judges comes the book of Samuel. In the book of Samuel, we’re introduced to King David. David was a man who, for all of his frailties and personal sin, loved God dearly. God calls David a “man after his own heart”. David brought God’s rule and righteousness to the nation of Israel – for a time, at least. David would eventually bring order; he would restore the widespread worship of the God of Israel. He would become King in the land that had no King. He would deliver righteousness to the land plagued with wickedness, and bring order to a people who did what they pleased.

The book of Judges paints the picture of the world without a King. And with that in mind, Judges has a lot to say to us today.

You see, human beings today aren’t all that different to how the book of Judges portrays us. Human wicknedness is still rampant. If you’re not convinced of that, just hop over to your favourite news site for a minute. I’ll wait. Like ancient Israel we find ourselves in a world tainted by evil and sin. Like ancient Israel, we are in need of a King to deliver us, to lead us to God, who is fully willing to pour out his blessing and goodness upon us.

This week Christians all over the world celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In dying, Jesus took the sin that seperates us from God and that leads to death. In rising again, he conquered the powers of sin and death, and has given life and light to those who would call upon him. Make no mistake; with the coming of Jesus, the Kingdom of God is here, driving back the powers of darkness in our world. We see glimpses of it today, but it’s not fully here yet. As Christians, we await the day when Jesus will return, to finally bring an end to sin, suffering, death, human depravity, and the evils of this world.

Just now, at this point in time especially, it may seem like we’re still in the world of Judges 19. It may seem like we’re without a King, and that the evils – natural and man made – of the world are rampant. But the bible reminds us that we do have a king who is on his throne, ready to rescue us and judge the world. We have hope.

The bible does not shy away from the reality and horrors of human evil. It acknowledges it and makes it plain that it isn’t right. It also reminds us that evil won’t exist forever, and that in Jesus Christ we can look forward to the day when evil, sin and darkness will be vanquished forever.

-J

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