Sunday, April 5, 2015

Difficult stories

This week we're looking at a story that is not one you will likely hear preached on Sunday morning. It feels odd to post about this on Easter Sunday. Before we begin I must give a trigger warning. Be aware that this story contains acts of sexual violence and brutality.

This story takes place from Judges 19:1-21:25. It describes a story of a levite and his nameless concubine who are on a journey home from her father's house. Because of her father's hospitality they leave late and are unable to make it home before nightfall. The levite decides to press on until they reach the city of Gibeah where nobody in the town will take them in for the night. A man who is staying in the town comes and invites them to stay the night at his residence once again showing hospitality. However, once they are inside the men of the city come an demand the levite come out so that he may be raped. The man sheltering the pair refused and instead offered the concubine as well as his own daughter for rape instead. Ultimately, only the concubine is mentioned as being forced outside where she is raped throughout the night. In the morning she is found by the levite who tells her to get up because they are leaving, but she is dead so he puts her on a donkey, takes her home, and dismembers her and sends the parts of her body around Israel.

This is only the set up to the story. The rest of the story revolves around all of Israel coming together in response to this vicious act of rape. All, except for the tribe of Benjamin that is for it was in a city of Benjamin that the rape occurred. The rest of Israel goes to war against Gibeah and the tribe of Benjamin comes out to defend it. After multiple days in which Benjamin has been winning the rest of Israel finally traps the Benjamin army and defeats them. From there Israel slaughters the remaining Benjaminites except for 600 men who escape into the wilderness. Israel, not willing to let the tribe of Benjamin die off, try to gain wives for these 600 men in the wilderness but they won't allow any of their daughters to marry them do to an oath they gave. So they found a city that did not come out in support of the war and they abducted women from that city so that they could force them to marry the remaining Benjaminites except they are either unable to get enough women this way. So Israel has the Benjaminites lay in wait for a festival to YHWH in which women from another city will leave the safety of the city at which point the Benjaminites abduct those women and force them into marriage so that the tribe does not die off.

This story is the final story contained within the book of Judges and it ends with the rather ominous sounding phrase "In those days there was no king in Israel, all the people did what was right in their own eyes" (Judges 21:25). This story leads right into the story of how Israel got a king in 1 Samuel. While Samuel warns the people against having a king the book of Judges seems to reinforce the absolute need for a king because atrocities are being committed by the people when they rule themselves. This story has many atrocities, from the rape, to the slaughter of the Benjaminites, to the abduction of the women to force them into marriage which brings us right back to rape. This story is a justification for the need of a king and to remind Israel of how they can easily fall into acting in such a way.

Today, virtually every element of this story is offensive to us. The way the woman is treated by the levite, the way the man offers up his daughter and the woman to the men of Gibeah, and the desire to rape and the actual rape and murder of the woman. The genocide of the Benjaminites and the multiple abductions of women to force into marriage. All of this is offensive today and is a real point of struggle to read about.

For the ancient Israelites, these elements are more of a mixed bag. The desire of the men in Gibeah to rape the Levite and the subsequent offering of the women to the men alludes to the earlier story of Lot where the men of Sodom wish to rape the two strangers he is housing while Lot offers his daughters to them instead. Unlike in this earlier story where the strangers end up being angels who protect the family from the town, here no such protection is found. This seems to indicate just how far everybody in Israel has fallen from righteousness. Lot was considered righteous and he is spared and protected for that. The people of Israel have fallen so far that there is no protection anymore. In fact they are the ones committing these acts. At no point in the story does Israel act justly. Even in the war against those that raped and murdered the other Israelites are defeated time and again despite consulting God first about what they should do. Even when compared to the Benjaminites the other Israelites are not considered righteous and given easy victory.

The leadership of this pre-monarchical seems incredibly democratic with the people (men) in masse deciding what to do against the tribe of Benjamin and how to handle obtaining wives for the remaining Benjaminites. Instead of one person taking responsibility for the actions of all there is more of a mob rule mentality where the decisions are not carefully thought through and considered. Ultimately, I see no doubt that this text is the perfect ending for the book of Judges in that justifies so thoroughly why a king was needed over Israel despite Samuel's insistence that a king would not be good.

This is a text for us to struggle with today and it is important to read it as an awful story that was used as a justification for later action. None of the actions found within it are to be considered good. Instead, we should see that the ancient Israelites would have seen just how far they had fallen in this story and used that to support a kingship over themselves as a way of saving them from their own brokenness. 


  1. Why is it that these difficult stories are not preached on Sunday mornings, but we love to discuss “controversial topics” during small group time? Thank you for sharing this thought-provoking post and getting my mind warmed up for the rest of the semester after a very much-needed spring break. "In those days there was no king in Israel, all the people did what was right in their own eyes" (Judges 21:25). We think we know what is best for us. This is a great reminder that we need our king, He truly knows what is best for us and wants the best for us. I completely agree that the difficult stories are really tough to read, but it teaches us to not make the same mistakes. I loved the last paragraph of your post. “We should see that the ancient Israelites would have seen just how far they had fallen in this story and used that to support a kingship over themselves as a way of saving them from their own brokenness.”

  2. It is ironic that these stories aren't preached or, from my experience, not discussed much at all in a church setting. Yet, in a church setting so many cling to a literal reading of the bible as representing God's will for people for all time. It should stand as a lesson for us to be more humble in deciding what is God's will for people for all time - after all, as you mentioned they consulted God before deciding what to do and clearly we don't agree with their determination of God's will.

  3. You make a good comparison that I did not pick up on relating to the story of Lot and the men at Sodom. Another good point is the mob mentality that one could use to forgive our individual sins, blaming wrongdoing on the mob. It was interesting in this passage that everyone was nameless, thereby endorsing corporate guilt and not "naming names". I'm sure we skirt our individual responsibility for modern social ills in the same way. What do we need in modern society if the Israelites answer was that they needed a king. I think the lack of moral political leadership in our country and around the world makes our need for Jesus even greater.