(Warning: If you’re squeamish, or dealing with issues of sexual abuse, it might be good to sit this week out.)
Yesterday, we read the disturbing, stomach-turning story found Judges 19. We noticed how it was part of a section of the book of Judges describing a people who had essentially abandoned God as their king: a picture of a world without God. Today and tomorrow, we’ll be looking more closely at the details of the story – in the hope of finding some kind of relevance for us today. In particular, we’re going to take note of how this story fits into this wider, “godless” picture, pointing out everything that’s not as it should be.
It starts off in verse 1 introducing a Levite living ‘in a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim’. Already something’s wrong. He’s a Levite, the tribe of priests. He’s not living where he should be, in one of the cities allotted to the Levite, doing what priests should do. It may well be that he was trying to sell his services as a priest-for-hire like the young Levite in the previous chapter. (You can read that story later if you like.)
But we don’t just meet the Levite, we also meet his concubine. Now a concubine was kind of a second-tier wife, for a guy brave enough to want more than one. You’d be married to the concubine, but she didn’t have the same rights as a full wife. And again, this isn’t the way things should be. This isn’t God’s ideal for how marriage should work.
In verse 2 we read that this concubine was ‘unfaithful to him’ – literally ‘playing the whore’ – so she went back to her parents’ home. Suggesting that she’s at fault in this domestic conflict. Yet despite this, it’s her husband who then goes to get her back after four months. Interestingly, the Greek manuscripts of the OT say that she left because ‘she was angry with him’, and that’s why her husband went to try to win her back. After waiting four months for her to cool down. (A plausible timeframe.)
But there is another translation option, which I think better fits the evidence, and it makes the story even more revolting. Not that she was ‘playing the whore’, but that he was whoring her – he was pimping her out for money, earning a living by selling his wife’s body. She left (understandably), and after four months the cash started to run out again, so he decided to go and get his meal ticket back. Not the way a husband is supposed to treat his wife.
So whichever way you look at it, their relationship isn’t an example of marriage the way God intended.
Now there is one good scene in this story. It’s the welcome the Levite receives from his father-in-law. Described as being almost extravagant in his hospitality. Three days of feasting – and most of a fourth – before he heads back home. Yet the reason the narrator makes a big deal of it is to highlight the bad that’s about to happen. This scene of warmth and generosity act as a foil for the complete lack of hospitality he receives on his way home.
In fact, because he doesn’t get away on time, he’s unable to make it home in a day. He has to stay somewhere for the night. Although Jerusalem is close, at that point in history it’s not inhabited by Israelites. There are foreigners living there. So when his servant suggests they stop there, he replies:19:12-13 “No. We won’t go into any city whose people are not Israelites. We will go on to Gibeah.” He added, “Come, let’s try to reach Gibeah or Ramah and spend the night in one of those places.”
He’s trusting that fellow Israelites will be more welcoming than foreigners. But that would be if the world’s working right. And pretty soon, we find something else in the story that’s not as it should be:19:14-15 So they went on, and the sun set as they neared Gibeah in Benjamin. There they stopped to spend the night. They went and sat in the city square, but no one took them in for the night.
Now although if you and I tried this in the middle of Sydney tonight, we wouldn’t be too surprised if we didn’t get any offers. Except maybe from spruikers for backpacker hostels with East London accents. But in ancient Mediterranean cultures, it was the height of rudeness not to do so. The whole town’s honour was at stake. It was responsible to show hospitality to travellers – particularly to a fellow Israelite. Yet no-one did!
In the end, it’s up to an elderly day-labourer who came from the same neck of the woods as the Levite. Despite his poverty, he takes him in for the night, and all is well. For about five minutes.
Then the story takes a sharp turn in the adults-only direction. Pretty quickly the house gets surrounded by a gang of local men wanting to have sex with this travelling stranger.
OK, so this is where it just gets weird. I mean, why? I can understand a gang of local men wanting to rob him. Have sex with the guy’s wife. Maybe even kill him. All bad things, but at least they’re plausible plot-lines. But what kind of weirdo custom is this?
“Hi there! Welcome to Gibeah, have a nice day! In our country we don’t just shake hands…”???
That’s the question we’ll look at tomorrow. Why is it that the arrival of a stranger in Gibeah occasions a welcoming party of homosexual rapists?