Difficult Passages: The Levite’s Concubine
At the suggestion of a few people, today I’m beginning a long running series. Every Monday I’m going to try to tackle a different difficult passage of the bible. If you have come across a difficult passage in the bible and didn’t know how to handle it, maybe we can tackle it together (leave it in the comments).
The Passage and Problem
So, today’s passage is on the episode in Judges 19.
If you haven’t read it (and can’t click the link above) here’s the summary w/ some brief commentary: A Levite has a concubine, definitely not married but sleeping together, who runs away. Clearly something’s amiss in the relationship. So the Levite goes after her, finding her with her family. Rather than letting the woman have a say, the Levite and the father bargain over what seems to be a fair price and she is forced to go with him. On their way, they stop in a town in the midst of the tribe of Benjamin’s territory and intend to stay in the town square. One person in the town knows most of the citizens are up to no good and offers them shelter. The Levite accepts, but that night, the townspeople are having none of this kindness. In an episode clearly reminiscent of Sodom, the townsfolk show up at the door and demand to rape the visiting Levite, suggesting they’ll break down the door if he’s not let out. While the host is attempting to reason with them (unfortunately in very similar terms to Lot’s bargaining), the Levite, without saying anything puts the concubine outside with the men.
The men, as is expected by this point in the story, rape the woman all night before letting her go and leaving. Exhausted and violated she collapses on the doorstep of the house. In the morning the Levite, seemingly annoyed, tells her to get up so they can go. She doesn’t respond. It’s unclear whether she is unconscious or dead at this point, but the Levite throws her on his donkey, takes her home and then he cuts her into pieces, mutilating her body (and possibly killing her in the process).
In the following chapter, it’s revealed that this causes the 11 tribes of Israel that are not Benjamin come together to nearly annihilate the tribe of Benjamin. Apparently they don’t leave the women or children alone since once the war is finished, there some concern that the tribe of Benjamin will completely die out, and soon. The solution is for them to kidnap a group of women in order to repopulate the tribe. The result is that the victimization of one woman results in others being victimized. To make matters worse, it seems the “judge” of this particular narrative is meant to be the Levite. What in the world is going on?
How I’d suggest looking at the passage
Let me be upfront about one thing in this series. The main guiding principle I have for dealing with most difficult passages resolves about 90% of the problems up front. Here’s the principle that I’ve learned from my hermeneutics instructor: There is one hero in the bible, and it is God. No one else is hero or a model to be perfectly imitated. Everyone else makes mistakes and shouldn’t be considered the hero. Instead, they are fallen characters in God’s story.
This passage is clearly no exception. No one here seems to be very moral, least of all the Levite. Understand that, particularly in this part of judges, that’s kind of the point. Judges opens after the conquests of Joshua when nearly all the land was taken. The problem was that the people failed to take all of the land. They had, in effect, already rejected the direct rule of God and, it seemed, needed a human intermediary to serve as king. The book of Judges, in part, tries to help the reader see why the king was necessary. This was the period without a king (a point that judges brings up again and again). In the absence of a human king, people sinned freely. The immediate result was that God sent a group to come punish the people (such as the Philistines).
The people would cry out for help for their immediate needs and God would send a deliverer, the judge, who would temporarily rule over the people. This was the immediate effect of the people’s rejection of God as king and the lack of an immediate human king. Long term, however, Israel began a downward spiral as things got worse and worse. This is reflected in the series of the judges. The cycle of rebellion, punishment, cry for help, God raising up a judge, redemption and then rebellion again takes place throughout judges. However, it also becomes a spiral. The first judges are downright admirable. The final judges less so. Samson, who appears not too long before this, isn’t just a strong man. He also systematically breaks every single aspect of he Nazarite vow. The hair was just the last one. He has no moral fortitude (an irony juxtaposed against his physical strength). Thus, when we come to the end of judges, we should expect to find the most morally repugnant of the judges. This is what happens in the absence of a king, the text seems to tell us, nearly smacking us upside the head with that point in the opening line “in those days Israel had no king.” The Levite is not the hero, but the problem. He’s why a king is needed.
In order to drive this point home further, when one looks at this instance there is no outside oppressor (as is the case with the other judges). The Philistines neither attempt to rape the Levite nor do they nearly destroy the tribe of Benjamin. Israel is its own oppressor. So in summary here is the best way, I think, to deal with the difficulty in this passage.
This was a terrible incident in the history of the world. It merely highlights how sinful we are and how much we need redemption, not only from sin, but also form ourselves. Historically it also highlights the need Israel had for a human king, one who would be provided in the best way as David. The incident of the Levite’s concubine is recorded in the bible to remind us how wicked we are capable of being, but how good God is nevertheless, and thus how little we deserve the grace that is poured over us, in spite of ourselves.
What do you think? Any thoughts you’d like to add, or any other hard passages you’d like to see covered?