A godless world (Judges 19) – part three

(Warning: If you’re squeamish, or dealing with issues of sexual abuse, it might be good to sit this week out.)

This week, we’re working through the truly horrible story found in Judges 19 (if you’re just joining us, you’ll need to read it further to catch up). The Levite and his concubine are travelling back to their home and have chosen to stay the night in Gibeah. Yesterday, we saw how the town wasn’t initially all that hospitable, but eventually an old man took them in for the night. But this only caused a gang of locals to surround the house demanding to have sex with the man. And we were left wondering – what kind of crazy custom is this? Why would they do this.

Now before we go any further, I’ll warn you that we’re going to hear some pretty offensive things. About a pretty messed-up worldview. These views are in the Bible, but let’s be clear that the Bible doesn’t condone them. Some people have issues with the fact that the Biblical narrator doesn’t seem to explicitly condemn some aspects of it – particularly the way this culture treated women. Now firstly let’s realise that the narrator is not God. And the narrator is a member of this patriarchal, chauvinistic society. But as we’ll see in a minute, the way the story is constructed is more condemning of what’s going on than is immediately apparent.

So anyway, back to our question. Why is it that the arrival of a stranger in Gibeah brings out a welcoming party of men wanting to rape him?

Well, we get some insights from the way in which homosexual rape was viewed in these ancient societies. You see, it was primarily about power, not sexual pleasure. It was done to show the victim who’s boss around here. Humiliating him by making him the object of sex, rather than the subject. Demeaning him by making him perform the role of a woman. In this worldview, it’s OK for a woman to be the passive ‘recipient’ of sex, because that’s the way it works. But for a male, it’s shameful. That’s how ancient societies saw things.

So what the men of Gibeah are doing is asserting their power. Rather than welcoming him as a fellow Israelite, they want to show him who’s boss by dishonouring his manhood. That’s the first big thing that’s wrong with this story.

But then, the host – this hospitable old man who starts off looking like a bit of a hero in the story – the host does something unthinkable in our eyes. He offers both his daughter, and the Levite’s concubine in place of the Levite.

19:23-24 The owner of the house went outside and said to them, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this outrageous thing. Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But as for this man, don’t do such an outrageous thing.”

Of course! What you’re proposing is far less outrageous… What’s this guy thinking? Why would he do such a thing?

Again, in this distorted, God-less worldview, it actually makes some kind of twisted sense. Why? Three reasons.

  • Firstly, women were seen more as property than equals. They were less than men.
  • Secondly, they thought it less shameful for a woman to be raped than a man. At least the act itself wasn’t contrary to nature.
  • And thirdly, being a good host was highly valued. Apparently more valued than the welfare of any women.

Charming. Shows us how messed-up this world can get once God’s out of the picture. Once everyone starts doing as they see fit. And we don’t need to look to a 3000 year old story for examples of how women can be treated like property and their welfare valued less than that of men. This is a sick world, the one we live in.

So anyway, does the old man’s “generous offer” do the trick? It seems not. The mob still wanted the man. Why? Because they’re not looking for sex. As we said before, they’re wanting to dishonour the man. This is the key to why they reject the offer of two women, but in the very next verse they seem happy to accept just one.

19:25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go.

You see the difference here? The Levite himself forces his concubine out in his place. As her husband, his responsibility was to protect her. She was a woman in his care: his failure to protect her brings him dishonour. And so the mob is content to abuse her, because they’ve achieved their objective of showing him who’s boss. By his actions, the Levite’s admitted he’s powerless to save his honour. By offering the woman in his place, he’s been demeaned just as effectively as if he’d been raped himself. And she ends up as collateral damage in this pathetic honour contest between men.

Again, how messed up is this. In our hopefully more enlightened, egalitarian world, this valuing of a man’s welfare over that of a woman is shocking. But let me tell you, it’s just as shocking in a patriarchal society – where it’s a man’s job to protect the women under his care. So this Levite’s a selfish coward, no matter what worldview you’re in.

So they have their way with her, he’s dishonoured, and she’s left for dead. The story is unclear as to whether she’s actually dead or just left dying. Either way, we see a callous response from the Levite the next day:

19:28 He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” But there was no answer. Then he put her on his donkey and set out for home.

He’s outraged. But not so much at her treatment, but at the dishonour done to him. He gets home and then famously cuts up her body. He then distributes the pieces across the land as a way of bringing the horror home to everyone, rallying the 12 tribes to action. “I’ve been dishonoured”, is the message. And Israel responds.

The next chapter is really just another scene in the same story, although we haven’t got time to look at it in detail this week. It’s about Israel waging a holy war on the perpetrators of this disgrace. Although it doesn’t go too well – again, they don’t have a king and tend to do things ‘as they see fit’ rather than doing it God’s way. And in so doing, they get into a worse mess, almost wiping out the entire tribe of Benjamin. They end up having to fix it by abducting some women to be wives for the men of Benjamin. And so the mistreatment of women continues on an even grander scale.

What on earth can we learn from this horrific story? More tomorrow…

One thought on “A godless world (Judges 19) – part three

  1. Glen Devenish says:

    Horrific then and horrific now!
    Judges is a totally messed up book. Thanks for your insights Tim into a particularly difficult passage to both read and understand.

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