Good morning! Today’s passage (Judges 17-19) is the first of a terrible two-day set of stories that close out the book of Judges. This era started out with more righteous judges like Deborah, who were succeeded by half-decent folks like Gideon, and then the amoral power of Abimelech and Jephthah. At least all of these folks sought to defeat non-Israelite threats. Now though, we see utter chaos in the tribes of Israel against one another. Strength unhinged from righteousness has led to anarchy, as a repeated refrain emphasizes: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” In the narrative arc of the Bible, these terrible times help justify the later urge to have a king. The stories today also smear residents of northern tribes, suggesting that they were written at a time when southern Judah and northern Israel were at war with one another.
The first of these two stories comes in Judges 17-18. We meet a man named Micah, who stole a great deal of silver from his mother, but when he returns it she makes an idol for him. Micah’s son becomes a priest for him, and later a wandering young Levite looking for a home is recruited as another priest. (Upgrade!) In the next chapter, this Levite blesses representatives of the Danite tribe in their quest to dispossess Laish residents of their idyllic homeland. The Danites steal the sacred items from Micah’s household and offer the priesthood of their tribe to the young Levite, who accepts. By force they intimidate Micah so that he gives up pursuit for that which was stolen, and then they murder the residents of Laish, burning down the town and rebuilding it for their own dwelling place. The final verse of chapter 18 connects this story to the time that “the house of God was at Shiloh”, a possible sign that the story is told to condemn the northern kingdom of Israel after the monarchies split and they refused to worship in Jerusalem.
Judges 19 presents an even worse story of a Levite and the concubine he has married. The two argue and she returns home to be with her father again, until the Levite comes to reunite with her after four months. The woman’s father convinces her Levite husband with much food and drink to stay nearly a week. When the Levite finally determines to go with the concubine it’s late in the day, but he doesn’t do the sensible thing of finding shelter in Jerusalem because it belongs to non-Israelites (!), another sign that this pejorative story comes from the time of divided monarchies. The Levite’s affinity for northern tribes goes unrewarded, because when they reach the Benjaminite town of Gibeah nobody takes him in for the night (scandalous inhospitality). Finally, an old man from the Levite’s home region takes him in and offers respite. So far, this story is similar to that of Lot taking in the angels of God in the town of Sodom (Genesis 19). As in that earlier story, the town’s residents pound on the door and demand to have sex with the Levite. When the old man denies the request and the crowd declines a counteroffer (!) of a virgin daughter and the concubine, the Levite forces her out the door, where the men of the town rape and abuse her all night long. We don’t know whether she’s alive or dead in the morning before she is slung over the Levite’s donkey. When he makes it home, the Levite cuts her body into twelve pieces and sends them throughout Israel in order to rile them up. We’ll read the rest of what happens tomorrow; this is more than enough for one day.
I’d understand if you never wanted to read another chapter in the Bible for fear of coming across more stories like this. But I encourage you to stick with it, and it actually helps to not take this with too much reverence. Instead, bring a literary “magnifying glass” and look for the ideology that is apparent in the details here. Reading such episodes, we learn something about the author’s intentions. For instance, I believe these chapters are propaganda of the highest order by southern Judah against northern Israel—much like the stories that used to be told of what the Germans, Japanese or Vietnamese would do if they could get their hands on “nice Americans”. I’m not sure why Levites are targeted here, but they are not characterized favorably either. In fact, nobody is innocent in these stories: not thieving Micah; nor his fickle Levite priest; nor the stealing, strong-arming, and murderous Danites; nor the men of Gibeah; nor the Levite who dismembers his concubine. There’s also no mention of the God of Israel here, only idols. The writer of these stories implies that without the God of Israel (and without a king who would rule as God’s representative), Hebrew civilization will on go from bad and worse. What other subtle and overt messages do you discover in these pages? “Happy” reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Judges 20-21. Thanks for reading!