There is this shockingly macabre event in the Bible about an Israelite who gives his concubine to a band of wicked men. They pack rape her and leave her to die. Her husband, a Levite, then carves her up and sends a part to each tribe. All this happened in the nation-church Israel. We read of it in Judges 19 and ask ourselves: How could things have gotten to be so bad so quickly, what doesn’t it say about our corrupted human nature, and what must we do to prevent degeneration?
The characters’ actions
The sad sequence of events begins with a Levite who has a concubine who has run away. For a Levite to have a concubine already suggests something askew here because Levites are appointed for the church services, and for him to have a concubine – a secondary wife, usually of lower status than a wife, and often little more than a mistress – was certainly not according to what God established in the beginning (Gen. 2). Moreover, the clear marriage prescriptions for priests shows how they needed to lead by example (Lev. 21). And although not every Levite is priest, this one is nevertheless engaged in the worship service. He is, at best, reflecting borderline behaviour by having a concubine. We’re reminded here too of the refrain in Judges that “everyone did what was right in his own eyes”.
What about the concubine? The Bible says she played the harlot. If that’s so, her behaviour is also objectionable. However, several reputable commentators (de Wolf[i], Holwerda[ii], and others) say this is a wrong translation. The proper translation, they say, is that the couple quarrelled and she ran back to her father in Bethlehem. The context seems to reinforce this. Whatever the case, after a few months the Levite misses her and travels to her father to fetch her. She’s evidently persuaded by his kind words; they reconcile and she’s prepared to come back with him.
Then there’s her father. Perhaps happy that the relationship is restored and maybe out of concern for his daughter, he keeps holding back their departure. In the end, however, the Levite doesn’t want to dilly-dally any longer, finally getting away with his concubine on the fifth afternoon.
After a few hours’ travel, however, it’s dusk and, rather than spend the night in a Canaanite city, he decides to stay in Gibeah of Benjamin. These, after all, were fellow Israelites, his brothers in the Lord.
But there’s something very wrong with their behaviour. It appears that, because this Levite served in the house of God, no one in Gibeah would take him into his house. The indignity is (say Keil & Delitzsch), that while the Lord thinks the Levite to be worthy to minister to Him in His house, there is not one of the people of the Lord in Gibeah who considers him worthy to receive hospitality.[iii]
There is, however, an old Ephraimite – someone who hails from the Levite’s own territory – who takes them in.
And then horrific things happen. Whilst the host and his visitors are enjoying food and drink the pleasant evening’s socialising is shattered by a gang of pestilent Benjaminites, homosexuals (literally, men of Belial, Satan’s men[iv]) who want the Levite for their perverse lusts. According to Albright[v], such men formed a religious guild in Canaanite worship. And since the Israelites hadn’t eradicated all the Canaanites, some of God’s people had become ensnared in these detestable practices which were strictly forbidden and about which they had been warned (Lev. 18:22). Sodomites had to be cut off from Israel (Lev. 18:29). Tolerating homosexual practices undermined the whole Israelite religion which, through its sacrifices and ceremonies, pointed to Christ. It poisoned their religious life and hence it was an insult to Christ. We see elsewhere in the Bible that where this sin is established God is at the end of His patience and starts destroying such nations (Gen. 19; Gen. 15:16; Hos. 9:9, 10:9).[vi]
The old man, the host, goes outside and tries to persuade the Benjaminites not to act so wickedly. As a compromise he offers his daughter and the Levite’s concubine, rather than the Levite, to gratify these Benjaminites’ lusts. Apparently, according to the culture of that time, offering shelter and protection to strangers was more noble than protecting one’s own children, and heterosexual behaviour was at least to be preferred to the abomination of sodomy. That willingness to trade off female family members was also illustrated through the earlier behaviour of Lot in Sodom (Gen. 19:8), but there the angels prevented him from giving his daughters. Anyway, these Benjaminites are given the Levite’s concubine whom they raped and abused so badly through the night that she died.
We’re not told how the Levite endured a night knowing his concubine was being ill-treated, but in the morning he finds her lying at the door with her hands on the threshold and, seemingly unfeeling, says, ‘Get up and let’s go’. But she’s either dead or soon will be. Whilst his own behaviour is less than praiseworthy, he’s understandably upset. He carries her body home on the donkey, carves his concubine into 12 pieces (thereby desecrating it) and sends a piece to each tribe. As he no doubt calculated, it has a shock effect throughout Israel, loosens the tongues and stirs the tribes to action.
The whole account is a horrific part of Bible history. We shake our heads and wonder how this could happen so quickly after Israel settled into the promised land. So quickly? Yes, because although this account is found in the last chapters it really happened early on, just after Joshua’s death. We know this because at that time the high priest Phinehas is still alive (ch. 20:28).
There was no king
So, how did things degenerate so quickly? In verse 1 we read that “in those days there was no king in Israel”. That’s repeated elsewhere in Judges with the added words that “everyone did what was right in his own eyes”. The fact that this whole story begins (19:1) and ends (21:25) with this reference to there being no king must therefore be important. It implies that a king would ensure that people stuck to the rules.
Let’s see: What does a king do? He is to represent God and execute justice for all. That’s why Solomon asked the Lord for wisdom to judge rightly – that is, on the basis of God’s Word. Solomon wanted to distinguish between right and wrong, to execute justice. Being king involves ruling on behalf of God, and the blueprint to follow was God’s Word. In that way they were to stamp out evil, giving the devil no foothold, and promote the spiritual, and hence physical, wellbeing of the people of God. It’s why the good kings Hezekiah and Josiah brought reformation, first by purifying the temple service and then by eradicating idolatry and the wrong service to the Lord. In the time of the Judges there was no king exercising that authority.
Absence of mutual discipline
But should they need such a king? Was not God their King? Later, when they ask Samuel for a king, God tells a dismayed Samuel: They have not rejected you but they have rejected Me (1 Sam. 8:7). As the people of God, they had God as their King and His representative the high priest Phinehas, and the elders and judges. Hence, no need for a king. Additionally, the “tribes bore the responsibility for keeping an eye on each other”.[vii] Lamentably however, apart from right at the beginning when Joshua was still alive, they failed to carry out this responsibility, or made a mess of it (see ch. 20).
Throughout the book of Judges, they were being tested to see if they would trust in and serve the Lord. Time and again they failed miserably and were “in danger of sinking into the abyss of paganism”.[viii] True, Moses and Joshua were gone. But they knew what God required of them: to love, trust and obey Him, and to help one another withstand evil. Had they done that they wouldn’t have needed a king as ruler over all Israel.
The whole trouble was that, as shown in earlier chapters, the spirit of love and covenant obedience was not in their hearts and so degeneration in the way of fear, taking it easy, compromise and unbelief set in. Instead of wiping out the rest of the Canaanites they found it convenient to leave them alone. They permitted the world – the Canaanites – to live in the middle of the church, they established friendships with them and the result was that they were soon infected by the very same practices that led to Canaan’s destruction. We see the sad results of it in the events of this chapter.
Whenever we read of horrific acts, we stand aghast. Yet in a way that’s us in our sinful human nature. Left to ourselves, without the Holy Spirit regenerating us, we, Christ’s communion of saints, soon fall away from the life of thankful love and obedience that God has every reason to expect from us. It’s another sad inditement of our natural sinful state.
A cry for the Saviour and His Spirit
Israel’s situation in those days led to the cry for a leader, a shepherd, a ruler that could lead the people. “Had there been a king who ruled according to the covenant, he would not have tolerated this abomination.”[ix] Such a king could exercise compliance by wielding the sword. Later, for a while, the people of Israel received the theocratic kings Saul, David, Solomon and others. But even the better kings, and there were many bad ones, showed deficiencies.
What the people really needed was not a king who forces obedience through fear and coercion; they needed a change of heart. And God promised to give it: “But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD. I will put My law in their minds and inscribe it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they will be My people” (Jer. 31:33). And therefore the need was really for the great Son of David, the Lord Jesus Christ, who would not only reconcile the people to holy God through His sacrifice on the cross but would also pour out the Pentecost Spirit to renew their hearts.
Exercising the communion of saints
But it’s also a call to loving action. We share in Christ’s anointing as prophets, priests and kings—so that we would confess Him, live a life of thankful service to Him and fight the good fight against Satan, the world and our own sinful hearts. Moreover, as members of the church we are called to use our gifts readily and cheerfully for the advantage and salvation of other members. We have a King, who has given us His Spirit so that in all things we would live according to God’s Word. That is to happen in our personal relations (wherein we exhort one another to live in God’s ways and, if necessary, apply the rule of Mt. 18). It is to happen in our church relations (which is why, at classical level, we also arrange church visitation). And it is to happen in our international sister-church relations (whereby we exhort and admonish one another, as we did with the GKv).
When “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” in the days of the Judges it led to terrible degeneration and apostasy. Subsequent church history has seen repeats of this. We need to be constantly vigilant, constantly testing the spirits, constantly studying God’s Word and our confessions, and constantly acting accordingly in humble submission to God. Therein lies a huge God-given responsibility for each of us, who have been endowed with His Spirit, to exercise that three-fold office for which we have been anointed.
[i] Joh. De Wolf, Joshua and Judges: The Promised Land, and Endangered Possession, Pro Ecclesia, Armadale WA, 2017, p. 108.
[ii] B Holwerda, Jozua en Richteren, (Seminary notes) van de Berg, Kampen, 1971, p. 229.
[iii] Keil-Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament 2, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, p. 444
[iv] Holwerda, op. cit.
[v] Albright, The Biblical Period, quoted in Holwerda, p. 231.
[vi] Holwerda, Op. cit.
[vii] S G de Graaf, Promise and Deliverance II, p. 52.
[viii] de Graaf, ibid.
[ix] de Graaf, ibid.