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Judges 19-21: A Call to War

Original Publication Date
September 26, 2016
Updated
Nov 5, 2022 3:19 PM
Tags
JudgesChapter StudySexual AssaultWomenLeviBenjamin
Bible References
Judges 19-21
Status
Done
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Table of Contents
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This page was originally posted on my Blogger version of the blog on September 26, 2016 The content below has a few minor tweaks for clarity, and additional references, and some updated information.

Introduction

Judges 19 introduces us to another Levite living in Ephraim. This Levite is never given a name throughout the passage discussing his ordeal. I think the reason he remains nameless is to revel in the fact that this man could have been any man and his situation could have been anyone's situation. The purpose of the of this narrative is not only a reminder to us, but was a message to the Israelites living at the time Judges was written. The author wanted to remind them that they had an obligation to their community to treat people well because anyone could become a victim.

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Trigger Warning: this post discusses rape and sexual assault, as well as war and death.

Journey to Gibeah

The Levite has a concubine, whom we are told left him to return to her father's home in Bethlehem. This is probably something that was common back then. While people weren't allowed divorces, it seems unlikely that arranged marriages always brought happiness. Since women couldn't own property or divorce and remarry (if there was no adultery), it stands to reason that they would end up back at home. In this case, we are told that the woman had committed adultery and this is the reason for the separation.

After 4 months, the Levite journeys his father-in-law's home to reclaim his wife. The father-in-law is quite delighted at this turn of events and welcomes the man with hospitality for 5 days. The Levite was eager to be on his way, but since it was considered rude to refuse the hospitality, he obliges the man's hospitality each day. On the final day, this causes the couple to take a late start traveling back home. When they reach Jerusalem, which was only a few miles away, darkness is starting to fall. However, the Levite does not want to take chances on foreign hospitality with the Jebusites, so he presses on to Gibeah.

Sodom & Gomorrah (Part 2)

Contrary to the unnamed Levite's mindset, the Israelite city of Gibeah is short on hospitality. They probably would have been better off in Jerusalem with the Jebusites... Eventually an old man comes to offer them lodging and what follows is almost an exact replica of what happened in Sodom and Gomorrah. Men approach the house to have sex with the man and are offered the host's daughter and concubine instead. This time there are no angels present to defend the household and the concubine is abused the whole night. While Sodom and Gomorrah is a famed narrative, this one has been buried in the text, despite (or perhaps because of) its more tragic outcome.

Strangely, the Levite's reaction is to carry on like nothing has happened. Either this is why the woman left him in the first place, or there was some reason he was powerless in the situation, thus choosing to react apathetically. When he calls for his wife to "come on," she is unresponsive and has collapsed upon the floor. Her death is not specifically recorded, but when the man gets home he divides her body into 12 pieces and sends one piece to each tribe in a call to war.

This is a strange, morbid, and tragic story. The man had just gotten his wife back only to lose her. Of course, we also can wonder why there was not more of a reaction from the man. Perhaps this anger was his reaction. It's unlikely that he could have fought the men alone and the host was too old to fight. If anything would have made Israel jump into action, this should have been it. Not only would it breed compassion for the poor woman, but the recognition of the parallels between Sodom and Gomorrah should have been a huge warning.

Unification and Destruction

The Israelites come together to flush out this evil, drawing 400,000 men to fight. The tribe of Benjamin asks why the Israelites are gather against them, to which the Levite recounts his experience. Since Gibeah was a city within the boundaries of Benjamin, the Israelites who banded together would have been gathering against the tribe of Benjamin if the tribe didn't turn against the city. We've already been told that the Levite sent the scattered pieces of the woman's body to all 12 tribes so unless the author was including Levi but excluding Benjamin (note the only place Levi is counted as a tribe is in Revelation), the Benjamites would have been in the know of what happened. Nonetheless, the Israelites request the Benjamites turn over the culprits of the crime, but surprisingly, the Benjamites refuse. Instead the Benjamites rally 26,700 men to fight for them. Does this not sound like an issue of nationalism? Even though they were wrong, they wanted to fight for the honor of Benjamin.

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Editing this in 2022, it reminds me of the state of the US politics. People are backing candidates who are incompetent and say outrageous things (just as the Benjamites backed rapists) out of a similar sort of nationalism. At least in the case of the US we’re talking evil vs. evil—neither the democratic or republican parties represent true Christian values—but in the case of Benjamin, it seems pretty clear that they should have just handed over the culprits and gone on with their lives.

Despite being out numbered by the rest of Israel, Benjamin achieves several victories before God is called upon by the Israelites. Thanks to God, this marks a turning point in the battle. The Israelites consult Phinehas—the high priest—and fast before heading back into war. The Lord promises to deliver Benjamin into the hand of Israel. This time, the Israelites employ an ambush to defeat Benjamin and are successful at annihilating the city of Gibeah.

The Benjamites flee toward the wilderness and 18,000 of their men are killed when the Israelites close in on them. The Israelites continued capturing and killing the men who escaped. This brings the total up to 25,000 men killed. Only 600 men survive. Those 600 flee to Rimmon for 4 months. Meanwhile, the Israelites set fire to all the cities of Benjamin. It's odd that the Israelites failed to follow God's commands about the strangers but were ready to execute their own people almost to extinction. This parallels our ability to get angry with those closest to us even though we may not be able to express this anger toward strangers.

The Issue of Wives for the Tribe of Benjamin

The Israelites make a vow not to let their daughters marry Benjamites—again, they are eager to shut out the tribe of Benjamin despite eagerly intermarrying with the Canaanites that God told them not to marry. I think this says a lot about our tendencies as human. The Israelites eventually feel sorrowful about the tribe being cut off from Israel and wish to fix it. The Israelites weep before God and offer sacrifices to God in search of a solution for the near extinct tribe of Benjamin. They come up with the idea that whomever didn't fight with them would be destroyed. So the Israelites rise up against Jabash-gilead. They kill all the men and non-virginal women. They then gather 400 virgins. These women were given to the survivors of Benjamin. They also tell the Benjamites to take wives from Shiloh. At this time Shiloh was likely under Canaanite control. The Benjamites take these women as wives and begin to rebuild their cities.

Why Did They Kill The Women?

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A glaring question and issue that I didn’t address in 2016 is Why did they kill the women? So let’s address it now—

We see that they are killing the men in this city because those men did not fight with them. This is the equivalent of a deserter in our time. Essentially when the call went out to fight for justice, these men refused to go or hid. It seems that in the immediate aftermath of the war, they didn’t punish the deserters, but when they realized that Benjamin would go extinct and wished to aid the tribe, they saw an opportunity in taking the women from this city that did not stand with them. In addition to the men being deserters, they haven’t taken an oath not to let their daughters marry in to Benjamin, so it seems like the ideal solution.

The reason they kill the non-virginal women is because these would be the married women. Technically these women would be widows and could remarry if they chose, but I believe it was less common for women with children to remarry than childless women in that time (all of the examples we see of widows remarrying make are either of childless women like Ruth or no child is spoken of, like Abigail). There are three possible reasons the Israelites executed the married women alongside the men.

  1. They were seen as guilty, too. In 1 Samuel 25, we see that Abigail is rewarded for doing the right thing when her husband would not. In Joshua 7, they punish Akan with is whole family for violating the command of God. In Acts 5, when the couple lies about keeping a portion of the money, both people are executed. Despite the modern assertion that women are just supposed to blindly follow their husbands, it seems that Bible encourages women to go against their husbands when it comes to doing the right thing. When the women kept quiet or went along with their husband’s scheme, everyone was punished, but when the woman did what was right only the husband was punished.
  2. They expected the married women to rebel or otherwise cause problems. There is a saying “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” If the women were in fact loyal to their husbands and deeply in love with the men that were slain, thy would not go easily. They would not have leapt at the chance to marry the Benjamites nor would they have eagerly sent off their daughters.
  3. They would have been a burden. The Israelites were commanded to to take care of widows and orphans. The women they married off to Benjamites would be taken care of by their new spouses, but any widow who remained a widow became their responsibility. We know that the Israelites were not good at actually following God’s law so it’s unlikely that they actually would have taken care of the widows, but perhaps it came up and was part of their twisted justification.

No matter the reason they killed these women, it is not an example of moral good. This story is a reminder of the consequences of rash behavior. There were several failures leading up to this point and many ways that this situation could have been prevented all together:

  • In Gibeah, the men should not have tried to rape anyone and should have left when their advances were not welcomed.
  • Also in Gibeah, the Levite could have took a stand for his wife instead of offering her up when the men didn’t back down.
  • The Benjamites should have just handed over the rapists so that no one had to fight and only the perpetrators had to suffer.
  • The Israelites didn’t have to decimate the Benjamites; they could have still made their primary objective to right the wrong and retreat once they had accomplished that goal
  • After decimating the Tribe of Benjamin, they should not have made a rash vow prohibiting the intermarriage with the Benjamites (especially when they were so quick to marry people God told them not to)

The moral of the story is not to go out and kill people but to order your steps that you don’t end up in desperate situations. I remember a viral clip from the TV show “Little Fires Everywhere” in which one of the characters screams “You didn’t make good choices, you had good choices to make.”[1] In the show this delves in to the topic of race and class, which is a topic for it’s own post, but the concept of recognizing that sometimes there are no good choices is very relevant to these chapters. In our fallen society, many times we don’t have good choices because sin has robbed us of them. In some cases, it is out of our hand and we have to play the cards we are dealt. In other cases, however, we put ourselves in bad situations because we made bad choices when we did have good options. The moral of the story is to be mindful of this, to be just, and don’t rape people!

References & Footnotes

  1. Little Fires Everywhere Episode 4 Clip”. YouTube. March 24, 2020

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