Thursday, April 9, 2009

Bizarre Bible Stories 2: Jdgs 19-21

As I noted in my earlier treatment of this subject, the Book of Judges is perhaps the best repository for bizarre stories from the Bible. The value of these stories in the biblical record is hard to grasp when taken at face value. At the very least, they scan as morally questionable; at worst, they appear to be completely at odds with the teachings of Torah. In the latter regard, they fit well with the rest of the Deuteronomic History, reflecting a disconnect between the Prophets and the Law already noted in the 19th century by Graf and Wellhausen.

Judges 19 and the story of the Levite and his concubine has always puzzled and fascinated me. The bizarre crime committed in Gibeah leads to civil war and the near-extinction of the tribe of Benjamin in Judges 20-21. Such a simple summary makes the narrative arc sound fairly tame, but these inter-connected stories take one bizarre turn after another as they draw the Book of Judges to a close.

Piquing the interest of the close reader even more are the frequent echoes of earlier narratives and the foreshadowings of what’s to come in 1 Samuel. For example, the story of the Levite and his concubine fits the general outline of the events leading up to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen 19. The ensuing battle in Jdgs 20 reflects a winning strategy reminiscent of Joshua’s conquest of Ai in Josh 8. Looking ahead, the calling of an assembly at Mizpah and the focus on Gibeah foreshadow the importance of those places in 1 Sam 10.

Let’s turn now to some of the bizarre details from Judges. First of all, we have a Levite from Ephraim traveling to Bethlehem to collect his concubine who returned to her father’s house after being unfaithful. If she’d been unfaithful, shouldn’t she have been put to death according to Lev 20:10?

When the Levite finally heads back to Ephraim with his concubine, he foregoes stopping at Jebus, a Canaanite city, in favor of spending the night at Gibeah, an Israelite city. Once there, he’s eventually taken in by an Ephraimite sojourning there. Then the events similar to Sodom unfold. The men of Gibeah surround the city and demand the Levite be given over to them so that they can get to “know” him. I don’t think they just wanted to chat over coffee since the old Ephraimite offers his virgin daughter and the concubine to them instead. As the mob got more unruly, the Levite pushed his concubine out to them where she was gang-raped and abused all night long.

In the morning, she lies dead on the threshold, but the Levite shows no regard for her, calling to her to get up so they can leave until apparently realizing she’s dead. He takes her body home and cuts her into twelve pieces, sending a piece to each tribe of Israel. How does that work to send the proper message? Something must have been sent along with the body part, but it’s not mentioned. How do the recipients know how she died? The text doesn’t even recount the Levite telling the old man that she was dead. For all they know, she died at the edge of his knife. Maybe the response recorded in Jdgs 19:30 was actually a reaction to the horror of getting a body part in the mail! (Of course, 1 Sam 11:7 makes that unlikely where Saul sends a similar message with pieces of cut up oxen. The difference is the verbal content of Saul’s message is preserved.)

The story of Israel’s war against Benjamin is not technically that bizarre.  The fact that 26,000 Benjaminites repelled attacks from 40,000 Israelites on two separate days is remarkable (though not quite to the caliber of the 300 Spartans). Of course, Israel eventually realizes they should just make use of their superior numbers (400,000) and a near-total victory ensues. All but 600 Benjaminites are killed.  This sets up the problem solved by the other bizarre details of this account.

The problem is that the tribes of Israel realize after the fact that exterminating one of their own tribes is a bad idea. But they have another problem because they all swore not to give their daughters to Benjamin as wives.  They find a bizarre solution to the problem.  Determining that Jabesh-Gilead didn’t send anyone to the summons at Mizpah, they sack the city and devote all to destruction except for 400 virgins found there. This solved the problem for all but 200 remaining Benjaminites who are instructed to kidnap wives for themselves when the daughters of Shiloh come out for an upcoming festival.

Perhaps this bizarre chain of events is meant to underscore the social and political chaos of pre-monarchic Israel. That this is likely the case is seen by the way the book ends with the well-known refrain: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Jdgs 21:25)

On the one hand, this appears to be looking favorably on the order brought by having a king. On the other hand, the story disparages Saul’s ancestry since it suggests he must have been descended from one of the 600 survivors of Benjamin, and it reflects badly on his hometown of Gibeah.

So what to make of this story? Did it really happen or is it just a reflection of the failure of Saul’s kingship? Makes for a good story – “Yeah, Saul didn’t really work out as a good king, but you know he had it rough, came from bad stock there in Gibeah. Did I ever tell you about the time . . .”

It seems like the end of Judges is setting us up for the later conflicts from the books of Samuel and Kings, but the formulaic nature of the stories (i.e., major plot points are reworked from other stories that are likely prior) suggests they are rather retrojecting later conflicts into the time of the judges.

A.D. Riddle offered an insightful comment on my earlier post that I think deserves the final word as a good statement of what is likely going on here.

These stories certainly make the case that things are not right, and they might be setting up the tension between David (of Bethlehem) and Saul (of Gibeah in Benjamin), and the later conflict between Judah and Ephraim as the Southern and Northern kingdoms.

There are many more bizarre narratives to explore, so the series may continue. (Perhaps Tod will favor us with a discussion of 2 Kings 2 for part 3.)


  1. Great post. I look forward to hearing more.

    That quote from A.D. Riddle is really interesting. I haven't thought of that before, I need to chew on that some more. I think it also interesting given the somewhat dejected status of Benjamin that the first king would have even come from that tribe.

  2. Definitely an interesting story with a lot of narrative connections. Perhaps the reason she wasn't stoned was precisely to show the lawlessness that was going on in the pre-monarchic era. Anyway, truly a bizarre story.

  3. This Hebrew passage has always puzzled commentators. While I believe this is a real historical incident, I also believe it was recorded as a kind of spiritual parable. It is about the inability of the Levitical priesthood to bring its bride to God. The concubine is Israel as a nation, the Levite is the Levitical priesthood. Together they were supposed to be unmarried. But she was not willing, and ended up being abused by the world. The bride was cut up and divided to all parts of Israel, as Israel has been cut up and scattered across the world (the diaspora). The "story" will finish when vengeance will be taken on those who committed this terrible crime - i.e. when the Messiah ("as one man" in the next chapter) comes to take revenge on those who abused and punished Israel.

  4. I think the story help provides the reason political reason for Saul's selection. He is really is the least threatening candidate for Kingship and the other tribes must feel guilt towards Benjamin. Moreover, the story in Judges helps explain why Saul is so angry when hears that Jabesh Gilead which a town in the tribal land of Mannesh is attacked by Nahash. Chances are he has tribal connections to this city which we learn about in Judges 20.