(Based on Stanley, Exercise 45:) Read Judges 19:1-21:25. In about 1000 words:
What would you say is the central message or theme of the story? What purposes would the story have served for the people who preserved it and told it in ancient Israel?
List, in detail, the plot elements that would seem strange or even offensive to most modern readers in your social context. How, in detail, might these narrative elements have been perceived by an ancient audience? How might these narrative elements have functioned for that audience and its society? (That is, what good might these strange and offensive elements have served for the original hearers?)
How does the story depict the leadership of Israel during this premonarchical period?
The central message of this story is…well…difficult to find in the midst of the chaos! The entirety of the story is so full of strange and offensive material (at least to this modern reader) that the social and political context of the text must be taken into consideration as accurately as possible when discerning the message.
The story begins with “In those days there was no king in Israel” (Judges 19:1), but we do not arrive at the central message until the very last verse. At the end of the whole narrative we finally hear the central theme in a sort of recapitulation of the first verse with the final conclusion now added: “In those days there was no king in Israel; each person did what they thought to be right” (Judges 21:25). In other words, in the absence of a king the people were chaotically following their own will rather than the will of YHWH. Reading the passage with this final conclusion in mind does help (somewhat) frame the offensive material in the rest of the story.
The central theme of Judges sets the reader up for the history in I Samuel when a monarchy is established. Christopher Stanley speaks to this central theme of Judges in The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach: “[Judges] makes the point that the system of intermittent judges is incapable of ensuring the peace and stability of the people, whether against outsiders or against one another. For this a monarchy is needed.” This idea is key in helping to frame the troubling elements in this passage.
The narrative goes a little something like this:
There is a Levite man and a concubine.
Said concubine leaves the Levite and goes back to her father’s home.
After four months the Levite goes to get her and bring her back to his house.
Much eating, drinking, and spending the night take place at the father’s house before the Levite and concubine set off to return home.
They leave late and end up having to stay in a city called Gibeah.
An old man from the Ephraim highlands offers to let the Levite and concubine (and servant and donkeys) stay the night.
A rowdy group from Gibeah comes over and tries to have sex with the Levite.
The old man offers his daughter and the concubine instead.
The Levite ends up throwing the concubine outside to be raped by the rowdy group of men from Gibeah.
The Levite brings her home, cuts her into 12 pieces, and sends the pieces to the 12 tribes of Israel.
The Israelites kill the Benjaminites and burn Gibeah.
Everyone freaks out about there not being a Benjaminite tribe anymore, so they go and abduct and force women from Jabesh-gilead and Shiloh to be with the remaining Benjaminite men.
Much of this story would be offensive to most modern readers. The key offenses would be sexual violence towards women (19:23-25, 21:23), attempted sexual violence towards men (19:22), chopping up a dead woman and sending her body parts to 12 locations in Israel (19:29), war as revenge (chapter 20), and the practice of owning concubines (chapters 19 and 20). Honestly, it sounds like something you’d see on the show “Criminal Minds.” Though – when I read this passage I was reminded immediately of Genesis 19, which contains a similar story of attempted rape of male visitors and Lot offering his daughters to be raped instead. This provides some historical context for the passage. The original audience had a different cultural understanding of rape, and they had a very different understanding of the importance of hospitality. I believe that if this story is like the Genesis 19 context then the inhospitality somehow trumps the rape of women in the realm of detestable activity. (This does NOT make this an acceptable narrative in my modern mind, but I’m trying to have some hospitality for the social context too…)
The Deuteronomic message likely plays into the themes of this narrative and helps to navigate some of the offensive messages from a clearer contextual center. I believe that the Deuteronomic ideology helps navigate the war narrative in a sensible manner. The original audience would have seen revenge war as something commanded and carried out by YHWH. Hence the appearance of the commandments of the Lord in chapter 20 (20:18, for example).
The leadership of Israel is depicted as non-existent. It seems important to tell this story to the people of Israel in order to maintain an enduring understanding of the danger of weak/absent rulers. In this sense one wonders – is this story “true”?
There is evidence that the events in this story are fictional or that there has been an artificial framework put here to tie together traditional stories about ancient Israel (see Stanley, p. 264). This would make the story more palatable as a message for Israel rather than as an actual historical event. Here we can find a possible answer to Dr. Lester’s Essential Question for this unit – “What should a written history accomplish in its own time?” Is this, like the book of Job, more useful as a “Once upon a time” story? Or is it a typical example of the manner in which we must read histories – as events filtered through diverse lenses? Is there truth even if the events did not actually happen? This is the exciting and mysterious puzzle of history…