Judges 19 is put in the context of the sad ending of the tale of Micah. At the end of chapter 18, we are left with the sad news that Micah’s carved image was set up at the house of God in Shiloh. God’s temple had been defiled by this idol. The story in the book of Judges is just getting more and more lawless. The downward cycle is continuing as we are progressing through the book, and Judges 19 is almost as low as the Israelites can get. This chapter is probably one of the grossest, sickest chapters in the Bible. You will be disgusted as you read it. It is meant to shock, horrify, and anger you.
That is the note with which Judges 19 begins—the repetition of one of the narrator’s refrains, “there was no king in Israel.” Here at the opening, we are introduced to yet another sojourning Levite (there seems to have been a rash of them in those days, which indicates that the Israelites were not following God’s law to provide for them). He was traveling to the hill country of Ephraim. This Levite had a concubine from Bethlehem who was unfaithful to him. A concubine had all the responsibilities of a wife, but far fewer privileges, kind of like a permanent prostitute, a sex slave. The last time we met a concubine in the book of Judges, she had a son name Abimelech, and boy, was that a mess. This offense of adultery called for death according to the Levitical law, but it seems no one was interested in keeping God’s laws in those days. This Levite’s concubine ran away from him to her father’s house. She was there for four months before the Levite took any action. If the Levite was really interested in her or wanted to smooth things over, why did he wait for four months? Did he really care about her? She did not seem very high on his agenda.
He followed her to her father’s house to “speak kindly to her and bring her back.” He did not come to kill her as he should have under the law. Rather than express anger toward the Levite on behalf of his daughter’s mistreatment, the father of the concubine was more than gracious to the Levite. In Jewish culture, the idea of carrying on the family line was based upon having a good match. This daughter was not where she was supposed to be (with her “husband”). She was not carrying on the family line. This would be a shame on the family. Everyone would see that she was home and either know or speculate that she was unfaithful. The town gossips would start wagging their tongues, and soon everyone would look down on the family. So, the Levite’s return was good news for the father.
In fact, every time the Levite tried to go, the father-in-law insisted he stay another night, then another day, and on and on. What is missing from this narrative? What was not happening that should have been happening? There are no conversations between the Levite and his concubine recorded. No “kind word,” not even any spats. The fact that there are no recorded conversations, in addition to the four month waiting period, gives us a picture of the Levite. He does not care.
After the invitation was extended three times (and after five days), the Levite, his concubine, and his donkeys finally left. The Levite just decided to leave, or else the father-in-law would just keep inviting him again and again. So, he left in the middle of the night. Why was the father-in-law so hospitable? In the ancient Near East, hospitality was regarded as one of the highest virtues (as we will see again later).
So the Levite and his little band of people and donkeys traveled by night. Notice the word order in verse 10. The traveling party consisted of the Levite, his donkeys, and his concubine. She was listed after the donkeys; she existed only to serve him in the same way the donkeys did.
When they reached Jerusalem (which at that time was still a Jebusite city) in verses 11–13, the servant and his master had a conversation. Their conversation did not include the concubine. The servant and the master were the ones who decided. The servant encouraged him to stop in the city for the night. But the Levite refused. There was no way he would spend the night in a heathen, Gentile city. They were Gentiles, heathens, “and you know how they are; nasty things go on.” He chose rather to go to his own people, whom he probably thought would be more hospitable and open to him.
When they got to Gibeah (a Benjamite town where eventually Saul came from), no one took him in. He probably would have fared better in Jerusalem. So, the Levite went to spend the night in the middle of the city square. The Levite had thought that his own people, fellow Israelites, would have treated him better, but he was wrong.
In verses 16–19, an old man coming in from the fields passed by where the Levite was resting. He asked the Levite who he was and where he was going. The Levite responded that he was on the way to the house of the LORD (this would seem to be a good thing, but then we remember that the last time we heard of the house of the LORD, they had set up Micah’s idol there). The Levite went on to tell the old man that he had everything that they needed, so all they needed was a place to stay, but no one had offered hospitality. The old man offered to put them up for the night, warning them not to spend the night in the square (he probably knew the characters of his neighbors).
As our travelers and the old man were eating and drinking, the men of the city (worthless fellows, we are told) surrounded the house. They asked the old man to bring out the Levite so that they could “get to know him.” “Knowing” is a well-known biblical idiom for having sex with someone, the closest form of intimacy. It seems the Gibeonite welcoming committee thought it was best to greet newcomers by raping and abusing them. This should ring some bells in terms of familiar stories. Before we go on, the parallel with Genesis 19 needs to be addressed. There are clear parallels between this and the story of Sodom. A guest is taken in, the men of the town want to abuse him, but the host intervenes, offering his daughter instead. This parallel is obvious. The sad thing is—this was not Sodom. This was an Israelite city. These were God’s chosen people, acting worse than the heathens living in the land. The Levite was afraid to spend the night in Jerusalem because it was full of foreigners. It turned out to be far worse to spend the night with Israelites in those days.
The old man replied that he cannot do such a thing because of his hospitality—he would rather let them have his virgin daughter and the concubine than to sacrifice his hospitality for a guest. Keep in mind, the text does not idealize this option. It does not tell us that this is what we should do: shoving out women to be abused if the case arises. This was not approved behavior in antiquity any more than it would be today. This is just another example of doing whatever was right in their own eyes. The old man basically said, “You can do any outrageous thing, just not to my guest.”
The men were not tempted with the offer and demanded the Levite. They did not listen. So “the man” seized the concubine and pushed her out into the hands of the perverted Gibeonites. The text just refers to the shover as “the man,” which could refer to the old man or the Levite. It probably refers to the Levite, because it says “the man pushed his concubine out,” so it would fit that “the man” is the antecedent of “his” later in the verse. They abused her all night. At daybreak, they let her go, but she could not get back into the house. She crawled to the door and fell down dead (or close to it), her hands outstretched, trying to get in. In Genesis 19, fire from heaven descended to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their evil deeds. Here, daybreak came, and nothing happened. Where is God?
The next morning, the Levite got ready to go, walked out, and saw his concubine. He simply told her to get up so that they could hit the road. But she did not answer. He did not rush to help her or try to save her. He just walked by and said, “Hey, get up, let’s go.” How uncaring. All of our suspicions as to his character in the earlier verses are confirmed. What a terrible time in Israel’s history.
When the Levite got home, he took the corpse of his concubine, cut it in twelve pieces and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. He sent twelve pieces for the twelve tribes. How disgusting! It is like something out of a horrible horror movie. Was this a good thing or a bad thing? No matter what, it was a bizarre thing. We find out in the next chapter that the Levite did this out of self-pity, “poor me, look at what happened to me,” not out of any compassion for his dead concubine. He had no respect for her body. If he had loved her, he was supposed to have buried her body in respect and honor, not sent her across the land in mangled pieces via UPS.
The recipients of these bloody packages were horrified, remarking that such a thing had never happened or been seen from the Exodus to this day. What were they referring to? The rape or the ripping up of the concubine? Or both? Body parts in mailboxes would be something that had never been seen before. So, the Israelites planned to consider it, take counsel, and speak. What were their alternatives? How could they have responded? They could have repented for their own sins; they could have seen where their idolatry and unfaithfulness had taken them. They could have fasted, wept, and sought the LORD. But their reactions are all focused on themselves, not on the LORD. Indeed, it is a terrible time in Israel’s history. But it resulted in the tribes acting unified in a way they never had before under any judge, prophet, or deliverer. We will see how they acted in chapter 20.
What a horrible, horrible story we have before us. What can we learn from this passage? Why do we even have to read it? We would rather skip it. These things are so foreign, so alien, so bizarre. We feel dirty and gross when we read a passage such as this one. But we cannot let this passage make us become Pharisees, crying out, “Oh, LORD, I thank you that I am not like those Gibeonites.” For the most horrible part of it is that this is a mirror of where we would be. This is not a story of the heathens, of the unconverted. This is a story of the Israelites, the “good guys.” Just because you are “in the church” does not mean you are clean. This is exactly where we would be, exactly how far we would fall if it were not for Christ.
One time in this lesson, I asked “Where is God?” That is probably a question that was on all of your minds. Where was God? The Israelites in this story have finally been abandoned by the LORD, and this is the end result. The people did not get here overnight. This was not the first step down the slippery slope. This whole book has shown us the downward spiral to this low point. I hope you and your churches are not down here. In most settings, I hope that you are near the top of the spiral, closer to Israel in chapter 1 than Israel in chapter 19. This chapter serves as a warning not to get proud. It shows us what happens when a society gets out of control, when they let go of the LORD. Romans 1 talks about this. People abandon God and are handed over to their sin, exchanging natural relationships for unnatural. The Gibeonites were completely given over to their sins.
This was not just any old evil society. These were God’s people. In Genesis 19, it was Sodom, a bunch of pagans who plumbed the depths of sin. Now, the people of God were in the Promised Land and they have built New Sodom within the limits of the Promised Land. They behaved exactly as the pagans they replaced. Actually, they behaved worse than the pagans they replaced! What is inevitably going to happen? God will curse and judge these people. There is a measure of that judgment in the next chapter, but also of grace, for this is not the end of the story of Israel. God does not destroy the entire nation. Judges is just a part of the long story of Israel. But Israel still ended up in exile. Why? All the books from Joshua to 2 Kings answer that question. This chapter in Judges explains why: because Israel had became so much like the nations around them that the only response God could give was judgment. But even then, 2 Kings was not the end of the story. There is the New Testament, and all the prophets. Look at Ezekiel 16. This chapter is a description of the history of Jerusalem and its pagan origins. The people of Israel returned to the pagan practices of early Jerusalem and received judgment for them. But the unexpected part is that Jerusalem will be restored, along with her two sisters. Who does Ezekiel say Jerusalem’s sisters are? Samaria and Sodom. Samaria’s sin was idolatry (like the fake priesthood and golden calves, similar to Judges 17–18). Sodom’s sin was exactly what we found in Judges 19. This passage humbles Jerusalem by comparing her to those two cities, by pointing out that she is worse than they were. It is not through any merit of her own that Jerusalem is saved. Only the LORD’s mercy and grace are sufficient to take her and restore her.
Even if you see yourself at the top of the downward spiral, even if your behavior is more similar to Judges 1, just imagine what we would be like if we acted on the thoughts of our hearts, no holds barred. We might look as good as the Pharisees on the outside, but on the inside, it is clear that we are all vicious sinners, as bad as the Gibeonites. Yes, just as bad as they were. If you acted out the sinful thoughts of your heart in this last week, just what would you be guilty of today? Murder, idolatry, fornication, all ten of the Commandments would be broken. In our hearts, we are every bit as defiled as the pagans around us. In our hearts, there is no difference between us and the pagans (Romans 3). All have sinned. This is why we need the gospel. This is why we need God’s free gift of grace in Jesus Christ. We need to be restored, just like Jerusalem. God, in His sovereignty, has decided to redeem the wicked through no merit of their own. There is no room for us to be proud or boastful, or to have any confidence in ourselves. All of the glory must go to God. There is hope even for those of us living in a Judges 19 situation, which is all of us in our hearts. We all need Christ desperately.
Mr. James Oord is a Christian Thought major and a Junior at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.
Lesson 18: Points to Ponder
1. Why does the author repeat the refrain, “In those days there was no king in Israel”?
2. How are those who call themselves Christians sometimes worse than their non-Christian neighbors?
3. How can we benefit from a study of these perverse activities of the Israelites?
4. Could something as horrible as this happen within the church today? Is this sin really worse than false worship?
5. How do the actions of the Gibeonites reinforce Romans 1?
6. Why did the Lord spare Israel while destroying Sodom?
7. What is the only way to get out of the downward spiral of our sinful hearts?