The last five chapters of Judges are better treated as appendices. They set the overall theme of the book that speaks to Israel’s canaanization. The events recorded in them take place early in Israel’s history in the land. Shortly after Joshua had died. They clearly record Israel’s ethical and religious apostasy, demonstrating a direct violation of the Ten Commandments.
Chapters 17 and 18 is the story of Israel’s religious apostasy. Chapter 17 begins by telling of a family making a household idol and dedicating a private shrine of worship. Additionally, a Levitical priest was commissioned to lead the worship of this idol by means of the shrine. Chapter 18 tells how an entire tribe abandoned the task of conquering the land assigned to them by the LORD. They move to where they were not to be and they take the priest as their personal, tribal priest.
Chapter 19 brings us to an episode that displays a severe moral and ethical apostasy of the people. The subject matter is so terrifying, there are not many sermons preached on the text. The story is a horror. A brutal, unimaginable crime against an innocent woman, followed by the callus, heartless response by her husband. It is the kind of happening that we only hear about from far away, lawless lands. Yet God had it recorded and preserved in Scripture to reveal the moral degeneracy of the people of God.
I. The Background
The chapter begins reminding us of the general spirit of the age: There was no king in Israel. People were living outside the law with no fear of punishment or recourse of any kind. Additionally, another Levite is mentioned. Levites were supposed to be spiritual leaders. The one tribe setting the spiritual standard for all the other tribes. They were to lead worship and teach the law and covenant. Yet in both accounts recorded in chapters 17-18 and here in 19, they have allowed extreme apostasy to take over a country.
This particular Levite had taken a concubine, what would essentially be a secondary wife. She was more than likely a young lady in her teens. Her primary duty would be to have babies when the first wife could not. Of course, she could have been a second wife after the death of the first. Whatever the case, she leaves her husband and returns home to Bethlehem.
Four months pass and her husband makes the journey to Bethlehem to retrieve her. He is welcomed by her father, who overdid the hospitality more than likely to make good on his promise on their arrangement of marriage to his daughter. After the fifth day, the husband is ready to get home. He packs up to leave for home and comes to Jebus (Jerusalem), but he did not wish to stay in for foreign territory he believed to be hostile. He presses on to Gibeah, and ironically, the Gibeans treat them worse than he feared the Jebusians would treat them.
When they finally reach Gibeah, no one offers to take them in. Finally, an older man from Ephraim opens his home to them. He even warns them not to sleep in the town square knowing what could possibly happen.
II. The Crime
What transpires next is difficult to recount. It reads almost word for word as the account of Sodom and Gomorrah. First, the men of the city gather at the door and wish to rape the Levite. The older man offers his own daughter, choosing hospitality protocols over the safety of his family. That response makes one wonder what sort of men would do such a terrible sin? The Levite tosses out his concubine to them instead.
The men sexually abuse her all night with unsurpassed cruelty. When they finally let her go, she is able to return to the door of the house, but dies before day break. When morning comes, the husband, ready to depart, tells her to “Get up, let’s go!” How did he even sleep? What sort of spiritual leader/husband allows his wife to be assaulted all night?
III. The Call to Arms
Discovering her dead on the doorstep, does stir some outrage in his heart and in a bizarre moment, he mutilates her corpse by cutting in to 12 pieces. He sends a piece to each of the 12 tribes of Israel along with some message as to what had happened. It was a call to arms for the men of Israel to join together in dealing with what happened at Gibeah of Benjamin.
This story is often mockingly retold by skeptics and atheists as a tale happening within a religious society. The so-called godly people allow their women to be mistreated. Wives and daughters are considered inferior and disposable. But the chapter is not about a religious society at all. It shows how God’s people Israel had plunged headlong into the depths of human depravity. Where God’s law doesn’t hold sway, God’s priests do not teach and warn, and God’s people quickly become like the world.