Domestic Abuse, A Second-Class Wife, and a Bible Horror Story

Sometimes reading the Bible will make you sick. Unflinchingly honest about man’s inhumanity to man, there is more than one narrative that is nearly impossible to stomach. We are left wondering how and why such horrors came to be and, in our disgust, prefer to look the other way. We tell ourselves we don’t need to study these passages, since we would never do such things.

Of course not.

So we move on.

Yet if we skip the ugly stories we miss what God wants to say to us through them, how he wants to warn our minds of their dullness, open our eyes to their carelessness, awaken our hands to their blindness.

The account of the Levite and his second-class wife, found in Judges 19-21, is one of those. I know its general purpose in the Old Testament is to explain what in the world happened to the tribe of Benjamin, once so strong and powerful. But I am convinced its purpose for our hearts goes much deeper than that.[1]

Maybe you know the sordid tale. A Levite from the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem. This in itself is strange, since men didn’t usually take a second-class wife unless a first-class wife was already in the wings. Here no true wife is mentioned, yet the Levite didn’t marry the girl properly. Instead he took her as his concubine, his servant-wife.[2]

One wonders why.

Things didn’t work out as planned for this upstanding man of God, however. In no time at all, his woman split and ran home to Dad.[3]

Now a Levite who lived in a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. But she was unfaithful to him. She left him and went back to her father’s house in Bethlehem, Judah. (Judges 19:1-2)

Literally the Hebrew text reads that the concubine “played the harlot” against the Levite.[4] This does not appear to be literal unfaithfulness, since most likely the meaning is metaphorical.[5] No other man is identified, no adultery, no sexual indiscretion, no threat of stoning. Not to mention that no self-respecting Israelite father would take back an immoral daughter.[6]

All of these facts, taken together, work against a literal understanding of the woman’s “harlotry.” It seems that it was the act of leaving that constituted this nameless woman’s unfaithfulness.[7]

If she was not running off with another, more exciting man, one wonders why she left at all. She hadn’t been married long. No children as of yet, but no indication of barrenness either. As the narrative develops she is repeatedly referred to as “the girl,” so she was still young, most likely a teenager only recently thrust into a second-class marriage. And for some reason, unknown to us, she simply couldn’t take it.[8]

So the girl went home to her dad, her one safe place. No doubt the concubine and her father talked about what happened, going over it first from one angle and then from another: what caused the rift, why she decided to leave, what was next. Despite the shame and diminished community standing he experienced due to his daughter’s failed alliance, the father did not haul her back to the hill country boonies. Instead he kept her home with him.

Then, out of the blue, the girl’s erstwhile man showed up. Four months after she ran off he finally got around to going after her.

After she had been there four months, her husband went to her to persuade her to return. (Judges 19:2-3)

Literally the Hebrew says the Levite went to “speak to her heart,”[9] yet he never spoke to her at all, so far as we know. The girl’s father, however, was very glad to see his esteemed son-in-law and welcomed him warmly.[10]

A comedy of manners ensues.[11] Played out between father-in-law and son-in-law, girl-concubine absent from view,[12] the Levite repeatedly tried to leave while the father repeatedly talked him into staying. After three days and three nights of male bonding with lots of eating and drinking, and one wonders precisely how much drinking, a several pounds heavier son-in-law attempts to take his second-class wife and head for the hills.[13]

“Sustain your heart,” said the father, “with a piece of bread.”[14] So Mr. Hill Country delayed, sitting down to eat and drink some more with his surprisingly hospitable father-in-law. When he decided to leave a few hours later the father talked him out of it saying, “Let your heart be good,” convincing him to stay another night.[15]

Day five dawned, and it was way past time for this classy man to take his second-class woman and hit the trail. Yet once again the girl’s father focused on the heart of the matter, telling his son-in-law to fortify his heart before he left.[16] And so he did. All this heart-fortification entailed more feasting on the part of the men, after which the Levite was determined to leave. This time the father did not prevail; though he tried to convince the man to stay another night, the Levite’s heart was sufficiently fortified and there remained no reason to delay any longer.[17]

So they left.[18]

Now comes the sickening part of our little bedtime story. The entourage headed out too late in the day to make it all the way home, so they had to spend the night in Gibeah, sheltering with an elderly man.[19] Some wicked Benjamites surrounded the house, demanding to have sex with the Levite. The old man graciously offered his unmarried daughter and our concubine instead, but the mob violently refused his thoughtful generosity.[20] What was our hero to do? Always a quick thinker, the Levite shoved his second-class wife out the door and climbed into bed.[21]

Sweet dreams.

Our girl, on the other hand, was raped and abused through the night and then discarded. Somehow she managed to make it back to the old man’s house, collapsing on the doorstep. In the morning the man of her dreams got up to leave, without a thought of his servant-wife on his mind.

At least until he practically tripped over her body.

At that point the Levite couldn’t very well leave her lying there so, solicitous as ever, he told her to “Get up!” With no response forthcoming, the man threw the concubine over his donkey and headed for the hills.[22]

Finally safe at home the goriest part plays out. The Levite cut the girl’s body into twelve pieces, sending them throughout Israel to incite civil war against those wicked, wicked Benjamites. When the nation assembled our hero explained how the men surrounded the house, how he feared for his life, and how his poor, dear wife was now dead.

In his account of the tragic events, though, Mr. Self-Righteous left out a few minor details.[23]

Such as the fact that his second-class wife had run away from him shortly after they were married (this might be hard to explain) and that he had shoved her out to the wild mob to save his masculinity (that might be even harder to explain).[24]

Nevertheless, like a true leader, he galvanized the nation to action!

An Oscar-worthy performance, no doubt.

His fellow Israelites were properly indignant at the wrongs suffered by our hero. The men of Israel made a snap judgment and went to war on the testimony of one, forgetting the law about having at least two witnesses before deciding a case.[25]

Oh, right. Didn’t think about that.

Rather than seeking the Lord about whether they should fight at all, the Israelites merely asked who should go up first.[26] God answered, even though they were asking the wrong question. Yet it is clear that God did not bless this ill-conceived war. Thousands of innocent people were slaughtered, the tribe of Benjamin was decimated, and hundreds of women were kidnapped so the few Benjies who survived could have wives.

And we never hear from the Levite again.

Good riddance.

As Bible readers we are horrified. Horrified at the rape and abuse, horrified at the massive bloodshed, horrified at the treatment of women.

Yet we maintain our distance, for we would never do such things. We would never treat a woman like that, we would never jump to conclusions, we would never slaughter an entire people due to the actions of a few.

We would never.

Of course not.

So we have a hard time relating to the story, a hard time applying it to our everyday lives.

Perhaps we succeed at keeping our distance because we are comparing ourselves to the wrong characters. We’re not like the Levite, we’re not like the men of Gibeah, we’re not like the old man.

True enough.

But maybe what we need to do is ponder more deeply the actions of the supporting actor. You know who I mean: our second-class wife’s father. We never hear from him again either; we never hear how he grieved, what he did, where he went.

Nada.

Did his heart break? Did he ever recover? Did he spend his remaining years and days and hours and minutes grieving his loss?

We have no idea.

But we do know something.

The concubine’s father is the one person who could have changed everything, the one individual who could have protected his little girl. Think about it: he knew something was wrong with this man, this man of the cloth his daughter had abandoned in two seconds flat. Why else the comical hospitality, the repeated delays, the manifest hesitation to let this Levite take his little girl once again? Why else the hours spent wining and dining his first-class son-in-law, unless he was trying to uncover his character, to figure out what lay behind the polished religious veneer?[27]

He knew, he knew, he knew.

Yet in the end the concubine’s father did nothing.

He failed her.

What was he thinking when he let her go?

That his daughter’s failed marriage was embarrassing to him personally? That it couldn’t really be that bad? That there are always two sides to every story? That she should just learn to really submit, and her husband would become the man of her dreams? That she ought to be patient and forgiving and realize she was just as much the problem as her husband? Or was it simply that the father had a high view of marriage, that marriage is for life – no ifs, ands or buts?

And what are we thinking when we tell a woman to go back or to stay put?

That her separation or divorce would be embarrassing to our ministry, to our reputation? That it can’t really be that bad? That there are always two sides to every story? That she should just learn to really submit, and her husband will become the man of her dreams? That she ought to be patient and forgiving and realize that she is just as much the problem as her husband? Or is it simply that we have a high view of marriage, that marriage is for life – no ifs, ands or buts?

Is this how we protect the abused?

It isn’t always a woman, though often it is. And it doesn’t always happen in the home, though many times it does. No matter who the victim is or where the abuse takes place, the responsibility is the same: to protect, not abandon.

This is our takeaway from the account of the Levite and his second-class wife. We need to open our eyes, listen closely, discern the truth, and protect the abused.

[1] Numerous scholars note the ironic tone that comes through loud and clear in the Hebrew. I have adopted a similar approach in my retelling of the sad account here.

[2] Tammi J. Schneider comments, “Normally a man has other wives before taking a concubine – yet this Levite does not.” Judges (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2000), 249. See also Barry G. Webb, The Book of Judges (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012) 455.

[3] K. Lawson Younger, Jr. notes that “the text does not explicitly blame either party for this separation. But in light of the Levite’s later conduct, it seems most likely that the blame rests with the Levite.” Judges and Ruth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002) 352.

[4] The LXX, the Greek version of the Old Testament, has the alternate reading: “She became angry with him.”

[5] The same Hebrew word is used metaphorically in Judges for the Israelite practice of turning to foreign gods (Judges 2:17; 8:27, 33).

[6] Trent C. Butler writes, “A woman who had abandoned her husband could not expect to meet a warm welcome elsewhere, even in the house of her father.” Judges (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009) 419.

[7] Webb, 456, explains: “It seems that znh is used metaphorically rather than literally here: the ‘harlotry’ the concubine committed was nothing more, as far as we know, than walking out on her husband; and then, far from giving her favors to other men, she went straight home to her father and stayed there. Her only motive, it seems, was to escape from a situation that she found intolerable.”

[8] “The nature of the domestic problem is not disclosed, but judging from the Levite’s later behavior, one might easily imagine a scenario of abuse.” Danna Nolan Fewell, “Judges,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992/1998) 81.

[9] Webb, 457, says that the wording of speaking “to her heart suggests that she had not left without provocation, and that the Levite intends to win her back by gentle persuasion.”

[10] We are not told why the father is so welcoming. Butler, 420, thinks the father may desire “restoration of his daughter to social and economic stability,” want to “avoid disgrace for the family,” or “see economic advantage for himself.”  Schneider, 254, conjectures: 1) the father was naturally hospitable; 2) he wanted his daughter to go back; 3) he wanted to hear the Levite’s side of the story. Younger, 353, speculates that the father welcomes the Levite because “the separation of his daughter and her husband is a matter of disgrace for the family.”

[11] Butler, 420, remarks: “A comic series of rising and sitting, eating and drinking follows with the father-in-law strongly in control, the Levite silently giving in to each of the father-in-law’s tricks to make him stay, while the secondary wife does nothing and says nothing until it is time to stand to go.”

[12] Susan Niditch observes, “The woman has no voice throughout the men’s conversation.” Judges (Lousville: Westminster John Knox, 2008) 192.

[13] Webb, 458, explains that the string of verbs indicates it was the two men who ate and drank together. Fewell, 81, notes that “a scene of excessive male bonding replaces any attempt at romantic persuasion.”

[14] Webb, 458, notes that the father uses the masculine singular in v. 5, so it is clear the concubine is not included. It is the father and son-in-law who sit down for a meal. The masculine singular referents continue through v. 10, though they are clouded by the English words “you, yourself” that can be singular or plural, masculine or feminine. The point is that the entire scene at the father’s house takes place between the men.

[15] “The young woman has neither presence nor voice. She is at best a pawn in the game being played by her husband and father.” Webb, 459.

[16] Webb, 458-59, notes the father’s repeated reference to the Levite’s “heart” in vv. 5-8, translated in the NIV with “refresh yourself” and “enjoy yourself.” The Hebrew listener would have immediately made the connection to the Levite’s stated purpose for his journey – to speak to his wife’s heart – noting that it never happened. Instead the entire episode turned out to be all about the Levite’s “heart.”

[17] Webb, 460, speculates regarding what significance there might be to the father’s “exaggerated, and finally desperate, hospitality.” Webb concludes that “we do not know.”

[18] “We do not know if [the girl] wanted to return with her husband or if her father had persuaded her or had, more likely, simply arranged for her to return.” Fewell, 81.

[19] The way the Levite left out essential facts when talking to the old man raises suspicions about his character, foreshadowing what is to come, according to Schneider, 259. It is clear that the author of Judges intends the reader to pick up on the man’s duplicitous character.

[20] Younger, 357, remarks that “amazingly, there is no protest from the Levite” when the old man offers the women to the mob.

[21] Niditch, 193, writes: “A most troubling feature… is the apparent willingness of the men to hand over their women to violent miscreants. Implicit is a worldview in which women are regarded as disposable and replaceable. On the other hand, the narration that follows implies that the author [of Judges] does not condone the men’s behavior. They emerge as cowardly, and their complicity in the rape and murder of the woman is a clear and reprehensible violation of covenant.”

[22] Younger, 358, explains it like this: “Having tossed his concubine to the pack of men and being assured that he was no longer personally threatened, the Levite went to bed! He now rises without any apparent remorse for what he has done or concern for his concubine. In fact, he appears to give no thought to her at all until he practically trips over her as he goes out the door.” Schneider, 264, notes, “The point is clear by the way this verse is narrated that the man did not express any remorse nor did he feel responsible for her plight. He made no attempt to save her from the fate to which he threw her. There is no indication that he would have sought her out had she not been lying there.” See also Webb, 469.

[23] “Before the assembled company the Levite gives a cleaned-up, self-serving version of what happened,” according to Ailish Ferguson Eves, “Judges,” in IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Catherine Clark Kroeger and Mary J. Evans (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002) 145.

[24] Niditch, 193, explains that there is more to the homosexual rape than merely sexual abuse. The point is that a “man who is actually raped is made into the woman, the quintessential defeated enemy. Issues of shame and honor are at play. The worthless men seek to assert their power over against the outsider, whom they seek to humiliate.”

[25] The other tribes first asked that the perpetrators themselves be handed over for judgment. When the Benjamites refused to give them up, they went to war.

[26] Fewell, 82, remarks that the Israelites “are careful to inquire of Yahweh. They are not careful, however, to ask the right question, which is whether or not they should fight at all.”

[27] Not all commentators agree with my assessment of the father’s reasons for dragging out the visit, usually arguing that the father’s extended positive hospitality was meant to contrast with the negative “hospitality” of the men of Gibeah. Robert B. Chisholm Jr. is an example of this perspective: “[The father’s] hospitality will serve as a literary foil to the treatment the Levite receives in Gibeah, for it places the heinous deed of the men of Gibeah against the backdrop of the societal ideal,” A Commentary on Judges and Ruth (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2013) 490. Yet this view does not explain why the father himself chose to extend hospitality so far beyond what was customary, nor does it tie together the various lose ends of the narrative like the girl’s leaving the man in the first place. There is generally a key to a narrative of this sort, and the key in this case is the unusual hospitality of the father. The father’s hospitality is not an example of the “societal ideal,” but rather his doomed attempt to save his daughter and save face at the same time. As noted earlier Butler, 420, points to the “comic series of rising and sitting, eating and drinking,” and the “tricks” the father used to get the Levite to stay. Younger, 353, argues that “the father-in-law’s hospitality borders on the excessive. Six times he offers hospitality.” For the alternative view, see also Schneider, 256.

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