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Bible Commentaries
Judges 19

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes


B. The Immorality of Gibeah and the Benjamites chs. 19-21

Chapter 19 records an event that provoked civil war in Israel. The account of that war follows in chapter 20. Then the consequences of the war unfold in chapter 21. This section of the book is the climactic and supreme demonstration of the Canaanization of Israel during the pre-monarchic period of her history.

Chapters 19-21 teach us how to survive in a society without spiritual and moral standards. Chapter 19 is a story of love and hate. It is so contemporary that, with a few minor changes, we might read it on the front page of our newspaper any day. Scenes of rape frame this three-chapter section.

The first verse introduces a new story. The events of chapters 19-21 are not a continuation of those in chapters 17-18. "Those days" were the days of the amphictyony. The reference to Phinehas (Judges 20:28) suggests that they took place in the years fairly soon after Joshua’s death. The writer of Chronicles did not record that any other descendant of Aaron bore the name Phinehas except the godly son of Eleazar (1 Chronicles 6:1-15) and the ungodly son of Eli (1 Samuel 4:4). This series of events (chs. 19-21) evidently transpired during the lifetime of Aaron’s grandson, and the previous events (chs. 17-18) may have during the lifetime of Moses’ grandson. The reference to Israel’s lack of a king (Judges 19:1) points to the Israelites’ practical denial of Yahweh’s lordship over them as well as the absence of an Israelite monarch. This refrain occurs four times in chapters 17-21 (Judges 17:6; Judges 18:1; Judges 19:1; Judges 21:25). It brackets the story in chapters 19-21 and provides the key to its interpretation. This incident shows what happens when God’s people fail to acknowledge Yahweh’s sovereign authority over their lives. In chapters 17-18 the result was religious apostasy (idolatry), and in chapters 19-21 it was moral degeneracy (immorality), political disintegration (anarchy), and social chaos (injustice).

Verses 1-15

The background of the incident 19:1-15

We meet another Levite in Judges 19:1 who was paying no attention to God’s directions concerning where the Levites should live (cf. Judges 17:7). Since monogamy was God’s standard for marriage the Levite should not have married a concubine (Genesis 2:24). This was doubly wrong in the case of a Levite because the Levites were to remain as holy as possible in view of their special ministry in Israel. It appears that the Levite and his concubine had a disagreement that resulted in the woman leaving him and returning to her father’s home (Judges 19:2).

"The reason for her return given in many ancient versions, ’because she was angry with him’ (followed by RSV), is more plausible than that supplied in the AV and RV that she played the whore against him. The penalty against the adulteress was death (Leviticus 20:10), but a heated argument would allow the Levite to seek a reconciliation when the passions of temper had subsided." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 193.]

Arthur Cundall’s preference, expressed in the quotation above, rested on the Septuagint translators’ rendering of Judges 19:2 that is the equivalent of "his concubine was angry with him." However the Hebrew text has "his concubine was unfaithful to him," and this is the preferable reading. As we have noted, the Israelites paid less attention to the Law in the period of the judges than they did while Joshua was alive. It is probable that the concubine had been unfaithful and the Israelites simply did not execute the penalty for that offense that the Law prescribed. The fact that the Levite waited four months to get his wife back suggests that he was not eager to do so.

The writer referred to the Levite as the concubine’s husband because that is what she was in God’s sight (Judges 19:3). The Levite’s tender words were insincere, as his later dealings with her prove. Apparently he wanted her back for selfish reasons. The two donkeys the Levite brought with him to Bethlehem were for his wife and him to ride back home. The concubine’s father was probably glad to see the Levite because it was disgraceful for a woman to leave her husband in that culture. The Levite wanted to patch up the relationship, and that would have pleased his father-in-law.

The writer’s mention of the hospitality of the Levite’s father-in-law (Judges 19:4-9) points out the contrast with the Gibeahites’ lack of hospitality later in the story (Judges 19:15; Judges 19:22-26). Hospitality was a sacred duty in the ancient Near East when there were few public facilities for travelers (cf. Judges 4:17-23; Genesis 18:5; Genesis 24:55). Perhaps it is significant that this man who practiced hospitality (lit. love of strangers) lived in Bethlehem, David’s hometown. Saul came from Gibeah where the residents hated strangers, as the story will show. The fact that Israel’s first king came from this city has led some scholars to conclude that by including this incident the writer may have intended to discredit Saul. [Note: See Jeremiah Unterman, "The Literary Influence of ’The Binding of Isaac’ (Genesis 22) on ’The Outrage at Gibeah’ (Judges 19)," Hebrew Annual Review 4 (1980):161-66.]

Jebus (Jerusalem) was and is about six miles north of Bethlehem (Judges 19:10). The Levite and his concubine would have reached it in about two hours. Gibeah (Judges 19:12) was three miles farther north and Ramah (Judges 19:13) two miles beyond Gibeah. Jebus was then, and until David finally captured it (2 Samuel 5:6-9), a stronghold of the Jebusites who were one of the native Canaanite tribes. The Levite expected to find hate in Jebus and love in Gibeah. He would have been wiser to stop for the night in Jebus since he found no hospitality in Gibeah but hatred. All the "motels" there were full, or at least not open to the Levite and his party. Of all people, the Israelites were to give special consideration to their Levites (Deuteronomy 16:14; Deuteronomy 26:12).

"The last clause in Judges 19:15 would have been shocking anywhere in the ancient Near East. But it is especially shocking in Israel. The social disintegration has infected the very heart of the community. People refuse to open their doors to strangers passing through. It makes no difference that these travelers are their own countrymen." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 530.]

Verses 1-30

1. The atrocity in Gibeah ch. 19

This incident and chapter closely relate to those that follow.

Verses 16-21

The hospitality of the stranger 19:16-21

The old man who took the Levite and his traveling companions in for the night evidently had moved to Gibeah temporarily, perhaps as a farm laborer (Judges 19:16; cf. Judges 19:23; Genesis 19:9). The contrast between this stranger’s hospitality and the Gibeahites’ lack of it stands out in the text. The writer of Judges used a tragicomic literary style to emphasize the terrible moral and spiritual climate in Israel at this time. [Note: Stuart Lasine, "Guest and Host in Judges 19 : Lot’s Hospitality in an Inverted World," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 29 (1984):37-59.] One wonders if the men of Gibeah knew that the Levite was a Levite. Was their refusal to grant him shelter as a servant of Yahweh a deliberate act of disrespect for the Lord? Judges 19:19 shows that there was no reason for the Gibeahites to refuse the Levite hospitality.

Beginning with Judges 19:21 this story begins to sound like a replay of what happened to Lot in Sodom (cf. Genesis 19:1-3). Gibeah proved to be New Sodom. [Note: Davis, Such a . . ., pp. 211-27.]

Verses 22-26

The immorality of the Gibeahites 19:22-26

Only a group of "worthless fellows" ("sons of Beliel," i.e., ungodly men, AV, RV) surrounded the stranger’s house (Judges 19:22). However, the men of Gibeah as a whole defended the actions of this group. Furthermore the whole tribe of Benjamin refused to punish them (Judges 20:13-14). This points to the Benjamites’ sympathy for the perpetrators of this atrocity who lived in Gibeah. The "worthless" men repeated the request of the Sodomites in Lot’s day (Genesis 19:4-5; cf. 1 Samuel 2:12). What had previously characterized the Canaanites now marked the Israelites (cf. Romans 1:26-27). [Note: See Susan Niditch, "The ’Sodomite’ Theme in Judges 19-20 : Family, Community, and Social Disintegration," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 44:3 (July 1982):365-378.]

The Levite, and his aged host to a lesser degree, shared the callousness to sexual perversion that marked the gang from Gibeah. Note that the older man told the men of Gibeah, "Do to them [the Levite’s concubine and his own daughter] whatever you please [i.e., what is right in your own eyes]." And they did.

"In his concern for the accepted conventions of hospitality the old man was willing to shatter a code which, to the modern reader, appears of infinitely more importance, namely, the care and protection of the weak and helpless. Womanhood was but lightly esteemed in the ancient world; indeed it is largely due to the precepts of the Jewish faith, and particularly the enlightenment which has come through the Christian faith, that women enjoy their present position. . . . The Levite himself, with a callous disregard for the one he professed to love, or, perhaps more pertinently, with a greater concern for his own skin, took his concubine by force and thrust her out to the men [cf. Genesis 19:6-9]." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 197.]

Evidently "the man" in Judges 19:25 was the Levite. He was more guilty than the old stranger because he sacrificed his concubine to the homosexual terrorists. Recall Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter (Judges 11:39). The Levite threw his concubine out of the house as one tosses a scrap of meat to dogs. There is no mention that the old stranger did so with his daughter. Imagine the fight the concubine must have put up as her husband tried to wrestle her out of the door to save his own cowardly skin. Clearly he did not really love this woman or he would have defended her and even offered himself in her place. His actions speak volumes about his views of women, himself, and God’s will. Now it is easier for us to understand why this woman left him earlier (Judges 19:2).

The writer called the Levite the "master" of the concubine in Judges 19:26 rather than her husband. Perhaps he did so because the Levite treated her as his property rather than as a person.

"The entire book presents a nation rotting at the core. Nothing is normal, least of all the Canaanite version of patriarchy. Normative biblical patricentrism perceives male headship not as a position of power but one of responsibility, in which the leader sacrifices himself for the well-being of the led. In the Book of Judges this pattern is reversed. Repeatedly women and children are sacrificed for males." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 584.]

Verses 27-30

The Levite’s reaction to the atrocity 19:27-30

"It is not only the action of the men of Gibeah which reveals the abysmally low moral standards of the age; the indifference of the Levite who prepared to depart in the morning without any apparent concern to ascertain the fate of his concubine, and his curt, unfeeling command when he saw her lying on the threshold (27, 28), these show that, in spite of his religion, he was devoid of the finer emotions. The sense of outrage does not appear to have influenced him until he realized that she was dead, when he lifted her body on to one of the asses and continued his journey." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 198.]

"That the woman is put on a donkey recalls Judges 1:14, where the woman Achsah is also riding on a donkey. The two scenes form a tragic envelope-structure for the book of Judges. Whereas Achsah is an active subject, stating her desire for ’a present’ or ’a blessing’ from her father, and getting it, the Levite’s concubine remains nameless and without a voice. Whereas Achsah prospers, the Levite’s concubine is tragically victimized. This envelope-structure is part of the larger pattern in the book of Judges. The progressive deterioration that starts with Gideon and reaches its nadir in Judges 17-21 is signaled in part by the increasing violence against women . . . It is the case, then and now, that the disease of a society manifests itself in the abuse of women." [Note: McCann, p. 131.]

As soon as he arrived home the Levite callously cut his concubine into 12 pieces, as one would slaughter an animal (Exodus 29:17; Leviticus 1:6; Leviticus 1:12; Leviticus 8:20). It is possible that he murdered her here. He later described what happened as though she was already dead when he cut her up (Judges 20:5-6), but we wonder if we can believe him in view of how the writer painted his character. He may have committed murder in a fit of rage over the indignity to his honor that the men of Gibeah’s treatment of his concubine involved. This shows his further disrespect for his wife. In that culture the treatment people gave a corpse reflected their respect, or lack of respect, for the dead person. He should have given her a proper burial. Instead he sent one piece of her body to each of the Israelite tribes explaining what had happened and calling on them to take action. King Saul later summoned the tribes for war with a similar act involving an animal (1 Samuel 11:7).

"Sending the dissected pieces of the corpse to the tribes was a symbolic act, by which the crime committed upon the murdered woman was placed before the eyes of the whole nation, to summon it to punish the crime . . ." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, p. 446.]

The Israelites perceived this incident as the greatest act of moral corruption in their nation’s history (Judges 19:30; cf. Hosea 9:9; Hosea 10:9). The last sentence in the last verse of this chapter is perhaps the most significant. What would Israel do? Would she deal with this situation as God had specified in the Mosaic Law, or would she disregard His will as almost everyone in this story had done? The nation had faced a similar crisis in dealing with Micah (cf. Judges 18:14). The next chapter shows what Israel did.

". . . it is truly remarkable that this nameless Levite from an obscure place in Ephraim was able to accomplish what none of the divinely called and empowered deliverers had been able to do. Not even Deborah and Barak had been able to galvanize support and mobilize the military resources of the nation to this extent." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 550.]

Chapter 19 is a story about love and hate. The major manifestation of love is hospitality. The major manifestation of hate is immorality (lit. what is contrary to manners). Webster’s dictionary defines immoral as "contrary to the moral code of the community." [Note: Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, s.v. "immoral."] The idea that man sets his own standards of morality goes all the way back to the Fall (Genesis 3). Really God sets these standards. He does so in love and for the welfare of humanity, and He reveals them in His Word. When people abandon God’s standards, life breaks down, unravels, and disintegrates.

Notice how the characters in this chapter behaved when they chose to disregard divine sovereign authority. The most admirable person was the Levite’s father-in-law. He showed love to both the man and the woman by extending hospitality (Judges 19:4-9). The concubine loved the Levite enough to live with him temporarily, but she did not love him enough to remain faithful to him. The Levite loved the concubine enough to go after her, but he really hated her as a person. He handed her over as a coward, spoke to her callously, and treated her body contemptuously. He failed to protect her (Judges 19:25), to assist her (Judges 19:27), and to respect her (Judges 19:29). The old stranger loved the other men in the story, but he hated the women: his daughter and the concubine. The men of Gibeah are the most despicable characters. They hated the men and the women in the house. Their profession of love (intercourse, Judges 19:22) was a pretext for hate (attempted homosexual rape, heterosexual rape, and murder). This is how people, even God’s people, may behave when they reject God’s rule over their lives (Judges 19:1).

"By describing as clearly and graphically as possible the horrible, terror-filled, violent consequences of human self-assertion and idolatry-that is, everybody doing what is right in their own eyes-Judges 19, the book of Judges, and the prophetic canon invite repentance and conformity of self and society to the just, righteous, and peaceful purposes of God." [Note: McCann, p. 132.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Judges 19". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/judges-19.html. 2012.
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