Holy Horror: The Levite and the Concubine

JUDGES 19-21

Horror movies follow a predictable set-up. They always begin with the most normal, wholesome scenes possible. It’s the picket fence, the high school, the camping trip. Of course, just as we become saturated with the calm, everyday familiarity, it becomes increasingly obvious that something is a bit off. Even though horror movies are usually the most fantastical genre, the better the viewer believes the normalness of the set up, the more terrifying the horror is when it finally splatters on screen. [In fact, movies that start off with unrealistic settings and circumstances are probably comedies, and if you find yourself completely incapable of suspending disbelief far enough, it’s probably a chick flick.]

If the story of Micah’s Idols in Judges is divine comedy, the book’s conclusion with the much-maligned story of the Levite and the Concubine is holy horror (without hollywood’s sense of relish at the bloodshed). It covers a vicious re-enactment of the horrors of Sodom, the rape and murder of a woman, a grisly summons to war, and inter-tribal genocide. It is a story that is frequently misunderstood, meeting with criticism, for example, in Dawkins’ God Delusion, and some inarticulate gasps from skepticsannotatedbible.com. What critics seem always to miss is that the narrator shares their revulsion towards these events, and is passing comment on the moral depravity into which God’s chosen nation has sunk.

The Scene
The pivotal event in the story, the rape of the Levite’s wife, is set up by the preceding scenes of relative normality and calm. Granted, the woman committed adultery and fled from her husband, but he has travelled from the far North to the deep South to coax her back. He is received with over-abundant hospitality by her father, who persuades the Levite husband to stay and feast with him for day upon day. Eventually, the couple are able to extract themselves, and they head to Bethel to worship. Having left after a big lunch, they don’t reach their destination before nightfall, and are left with the choice of making for a Canaanite town or a slightly further Israelite one. Believing that they would be in danger among the immoral Gentiles, they head for Gibeah.

In Gibeah (as in all horror movies), things are a bit ‘off’. No-one extends the cultural courtesy of hospitality to them, despite the fact that they have no need of provisions, only shelter. Eventually a temporary resident arrives to find them in the square, and pleads with them to come with him and not to spend the night in the open. The mood has darkened with the sky, and one gets the feeling that creatures of the night lurk in the shadows waiting for the last vestiges of twilight to drain away, freeing them to prey upon any hapless souls left vulnerable.

Sure enough, while the party feasts in the old man’s house, some low men of the city surround the home and demand that the visitor be delivered over to them so that they can have sex with him. In the first of many attempts by the characters in this story to protect their own honour, even at the expense of others’ lives, the old man offers his virgin daughter and the Levite’s wife to the men instead of his principle guest. Eventually, the Levite himself shoves his wife out the door. Unlike the story of Sodom, in which the men weren’t interested in anything but the men, this mob is willing to sink to any depth. They gang rape the woman all night, and then let her go. She manages to crawl as far as the threshold of the door before collapsing, with her arms plaintively stretched out towards what was supposed to be her place of safety.

Morning breaks, and the Levite seems to have had a good night’s rest. He gathers his things together, and prepares to continue his journey. He opens the door and finds his wife lying there. In an act of staggering callousness, he says, ‘Get up. Let’s go.’ She doesn’t respond, and so he loads her on his donkey and leaves.

Clearly understanding that an outrage and an offence has taken place, the man decides that revenge must be taken against Gibeah. He devises an extremely effective call to arms. He dismembers his wife, sending one grisly piece of express mail to each tribe of the twelve tribes of Israel. As an extra twist to the horror of the story, we are never told at what point the woman actually dies


The narrator’s message and criticism are delivered structurally, by means of the plot, and not through a series of moralisms, as we might have expected. Here are some of the key points:

The Levite
The Levite’s callousness towards his wife is one thing, but it becomes increasingly clear that this is not the only sign of moral decline that he represents. Having called all Israel together to make a judgment about this assault and offence, he begins to relate the story of what happened.

I have always wondered why the Bible insists on having characters repeat agonisingly long speeches, said only moments before, word for word. But here, I think, is the reason. When you compare the first account with the second, you are able to tell whether the second speaker is a faithful witness or not. Here, when we compare what the Levite says with what the narrator tells us, it’s clear that he is less than candid.

Firstly, while it was the lowlifes of Gibeah who committed the outrage, the Levite claims that it was the nobility (according to Dr Barry Webb). While they wanted to rape him (admittedly a bad enough fate), he claims that they intended to kill him. When it comes to his role in throwing his wife to the dogs, he is sure to retain his honour, and leaves it at ‘They raped my concubine, and she died’.

The Levite leaves the story with his honour intact, but in implicating all of Gibeah, he sparks off a civil war that was more ferocious than necessary, and gave birth to greater evils.

War and Rape
The whole tribe of Benjamin stands in solidarity with Gibeah, and so the rest of the country comes out to purge the wickedness from the Promised Land. It was right for the wicked to be removed from Israel’s theocracy. However, the injudicious severity of Israel’s judgment and the hypocrisy of the nation as a whole reveals that ‘the wicked’ was a label that fit more than just the tribe of Benjamin. When God Himself appears for the one and only time in the epilogue, this is the point.

Israel self-righteously asks God not whether to proceed or how, but only who should go first to exact revenge upon Benjamin (in a manner that mimics the start of the conquest against Canaan in Judges 1). God sends Judah in as before, but wicked Benjamin inflicts heavy defeat upon ‘righteous’ Israel twice. Only the third time does God promise and grant victory (and is described as ‘defeating Benjamin before Israel’). Israel as a nation is subject to God’s displeasure.

The main criticism of Israel’s moral condition centres around a rash vow that they make that no-one will permit their daughter to marry a Benjamite. In their defeat of Benjamin, Israel had gone overboard and slaughtered every living thing but for 600 soldiers who escaped. Now even those 600 would be unable to marry and to continue their tribe name. This provokes ‘repentence’ (that amounts to them blaming God for ‘allowing’ this to happen), and regret that a tribe should be lost to Israel. So, they remember another vow that they made, that anyone who didn’t show to the national council would be subject to a death penalty, and they discover one town that was not represented. So to keep their vows and their honour intact, they send an army to entirely obliterate that town except for any virgins that lived there. And so man, woman and child is killed to find wives for wicked Benjamin.

Only 400 are found, and they need 600. So, their next cunning plan is to encourage the 200 Benjamites who lost out in the virgin raffle to travel to Shiloh where the young women hold an annual worship dance. They can kidnap and rape themselves 200 new wives. The aggrieved fathers and brothers of the poor girls are told not to protest, because they will have done a kindness to Benjamin, and they will not have broken their vows. Because of course that’s the most important thing.

So the structure of the passage is as follows:

A1 – Rape of the concubine
B1 – War against Benjamin
C – Bad vows
B2 – War against Jabesh-Gilead
A2 – Rape of the Shiloh Worshippers

The narrator chose this story to stand as the climax of Israel’s total moral degradation. As bookends to these three chapters, he sounds his refrain, ‘In those days, Israel had no king, and everyone did as he saw fit.’ The characters all exhibit a moral compass that is at best culturally defined, and at worst, mob rule, but notably bearing no resemblance to the ‘good law’ that was given to them only a handful of generations before in order that they might stand out among the darkness of the nations around them. They are not only like Sodom, and like Canaan, but have got even worse.

The narrator draws parallels (of intensifying depravity) between Israel’s too-brutal holy war (B1) and their totally unholy war (B2); between Gibeah’s rape of one semi-innocent, and Israel’s rape of 200 virgin worshippers. The event that sparked civil war in the first place is replicated ‘judicially’ and ‘honourably’ by Israel’s leaders in order to save face.

This story has been cited in the past supposedly as evidence of Biblical misogyny, and tacit agreement with the cultural mistreatment of women. I think that the opposite is true. In every case, the narrator aims his criticism at men who are careful to preserve their reputations, and always at the expense of the chastity or the lives of the women in their care. The men are protecting what is important in their culture (avoidance of shame), but the narrator condemns them for it.

One is left to wonder what kind of story from our time might stand as representative of our moral condition? Or indeed what kind of cultural values we uphold as of the utmost value, while turning a blind eye to the massive injustices that accrue as a result? How often are we guilty of keeping a good standing in our culture, while never actually lifting a finger to defend those in our care?


5 thoughts on “Holy Horror: The Levite and the Concubine

  1. greg lam says:

    OK – good analysis… but what was failed to mention here is that this whole incident was caused by sodomites. Sodomites then and now bring a curse on the land.

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      Mimicking Sodomite sin is indicative of deep lostness, but there are lots of sins that bring curse on the land. Biblical condemnation of homosexuality is no justification for homophobia, and nor should one denigrate homosexuality while failing to ‘take the plank out of one’s own eye’ so to speak. I’d worry more about complacency, idolatry, and rebellion in the church than the pet sins outside (read 1Corinthians 5:12 in context). Maybe if the church was more Christlike, we’d win more of the lost and have fewer people to condemn.

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