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By Lynn Japinga
Sometimes the only moral lesson to be found in a biblical story is “Go and do NOT do likewise.” Or, more concisely, “This is revolting.” Or, even more concisely, “NO!”
The story of the concubine and the Levite in Judges 19 is one of those stories. You may have never heard of it, because it is not in the lectionary, and is not a likely text for a daily devotional. It demonstrates the depth of human brutality.
The Levite took a concubine, or second wife, but she left him and returned to her father’s house. Some translations say that she was unfaithful to him, but a more logical translation says that she was angry with him. Several months later, he went to try to win back her affections. After several days of eating and drinking with her father, they set off toward the Levite’s home. The text does not say whether she wanted to go.
They went to a Benjaminite town called Gibeah, and waited for someone to offer them hospitality. An old man finally invited them to his home, but their pleasant evening was interrupted when a group of townsmen pounded on the door and demanded that the host send out the Levite so they could rape him.
The host tried to divert them by offering his virgin daughter and the man’s concubine. The men refused, but the Levite seized his concubine and threw her out the door. The men raped and abused her all night, and in the morning they let her go. She made her way to the door of the house and collapsed. No one noticed.
The Levite did not express concern, go out to look for her, or wait up to see if she returned. In the morning, when he stepped outside to leave, his concubine was lying at the door. He said, “Get up! We are going” (19:28).
There was no answer. She may have been unconscious. She may have been dead. He put her on a donkey and when he arrived home, he cut her up into twelve pieces and sent one body part to each of the tribes of Israel, as a call to military action against the tribe of Benjamin. Something terrible had happened to his property, and something must be done.
This story is horrifying and offensive in so many ways. The host was justifiably frightened, but how could he blithely offer his daughter to a gang of rapists? The Levite pursued the concubine, but once she was under his control, he did not care enough to protect her. He expressed no grief or sadness. His callous words “Get up, we are going” are some of the most unfeeling, insensitive words in Scripture.
The woman’s story is profoundly sad. She was “given” and “taken,” regardless of her wishes. She had no voice, until finally her body parts were allowed to “speak” about her death. Even then, they told the Levite’s story, not hers.
It is even more disturbing to read the history of interpretation of this text. Commentators have tried to justify the actions of the Levite and host by claiming that heterosexual rape was “better” because at least the sex was “natural.” Some commentators said she deserved the gang rape because she left her husband. One said she died of shame rather than return to her husband as damaged goods.
It is unnerving to realize how pervasive and long standing is the idea that women should feel it is their fault that they have been raped. The Levite threw her out to the mob, but she was the one who died of shame. Better to simply say “NO” to this text than to try to defend the appalling behavior. The story could prompt us to think about how we respond to sexual violence. Do we blame the victim? Do we wonder whether she asked for it? Do we excuse the perpetrator?
The Levite made of big show of avenging her death, but he was ultimately more concerned about the affront to his honor than he was about the brutality done to her. His desire for revenge led to even more murder and mayhem and that will be the inspirational topic of next week’s blog.
Lynn Japinga is Professor of Religion at Hope College. She recently published Preaching the Women of the Old Testament: Who They Were and Why They Matter, from which this essay is adapted. She is relieved to currently be in a season of reading books rather than writing them. One of the bright spots in her life is her “grand-dog,” a smart but stubborn Golden Retriever puppy named Wrigley who requires constant supervision lest he succeed in his mission to eat the entire yard.