A Levite, a murdered concubine, and the near annihilation of the tribe of Benjamin, that's how the book of Judges ends. It is truly a depressing conclusion. Does the nation of Israel have a future? Will it ever realize the hopes God has for it? Are the twelve tribes doomed to destroy one another, the nation of Israel spiraling apart into twelve warring mini-nations? The book of Judges ends with a cliff-hanger.
The story begins with a woman leaving her husband. The NRSV says this was because she was angry with him, but there is a footnote that says she "prostituted herself against" him. This is one of those moments that I truly regret letting my Hebrew slip away because I really want to know which is the more accurate translation. Oh well. Either way, after a few months the Levite decides to try to win her back, so he begins a journey to Bethlehem. The woman's father seems overjoyed to see him and entertains him for multiple days, convincing him to stay longer and longer, but eventually the Levite must return home and begins the trip back. However, they leave late in the day and are forced to choose where to stay for the night. One option is Jerusalem, which during the time of Judges was not a Jewish town. Their other option is to travel a bit further north and spend the night in one of the villages of Benjamin. They choose the later option, assuming that it would be safer to spend the night with fellow Hebrews. At once, things go wrong.
First of all, no one welcomes them into the village. They're forced to sit in the village square. As the reader, this should immediately tip us off to a serious problem. In the back of our minds there should be a little voice that says, "Hey, I remember this...this sounds just like Sodom and Gomorrah." In a direct parallel to that story, an outsider to Gibeah (the Benjamite village in which the Levite stopped), an Ephraimite, is the only one to eventually shelter them, just as Lot was the hospitable foreigner in Sodom. Just like Sodom, the men of Gibeah come out at night, bang on the Ephraimite's door, and demand to rape the Levite. The Ephraimite offers them his only daughter; he offers them the Levite's wife, but they want nothing but the Levite. Danger is imminent. Lives are at stake, all because the Levite needed a place to rest. I'm guessing in desperation, the Levite pushes his wife out the door.
Now before we get too angry at the abhorrent decision of the Levite, let us just remember that this couldn't have been an easy decision. He seems to have loved her. Why else would he track her down after she left him, especially if she had prostituted herself to other men, with the sole intent of "speaking tenderly to her." The Levite was not an evil man, and I can only imagine what it must have been like with an angry mob screaming on one side of a door and a woman you had traveled to a different part of the country to rescue on the other, along with a servant and a whole family who stood a real chance of being killed. What would you do in that situation?
Whatever you might do, when the Levite deems it safe to leave the next day, he finds his wife dead, her hand on the threshold of the door, loosing her life in a last attempt to return to safety. At first it seems the Levite is rather callous to this, but assuming that would be wrong. He is outraged. So outraged that once he returns home he takes his wife's body, cuts it into twelve pieces, sends a piece to each tribe of Israel, and asks, "Are you going to allow such a thing to happen?"
The ultimate answer is "no." There is a new Sodom in Canaan, but unlike the original, this one is within the very people of God. As the reader, I find this completely disheartening and disillusioning. Eleven of the twelve tribes of Israel muster at Shiloh, for the first time since entering Canaan. Judges says they were "united as one." This is how God intended them to be all along, but they have never done it until now, and it is to destroy one of their own tribes.
Many details skipped, civil war breaks out. Out of an entire tribe only 600 men remain alive after the war. Benjamin is a single breath away from extinction. All Israel mourns for the situation they find themselves in. The eleven tribes had made a vow before the war to not allow any of their daughters to be married to the Benjamites, so how can things be remedied? One possible solution is to punish one town for not responding when all Israel was called to war. Other then the virgin women, the entire town was eradicated. The young women were then given to the 600 remaining men of Benjamin, but only 400 virgins had been captured. That wasn't enough to save the tribe of Benjamin. The ultimate solution...allow the remaining men of Benjamin to kidnap women from the yearly festival at Shiloh, and if the fathers complain...well, Benjamin is saved and the fathers won't be killed for breaking their vow to not allow their daughters to marry anyone from the tribe of Benjamin. Think that through. The solution to the problem of Benjamin's extinction is murder or the threat of murder.
And what does the author of Judges think about all this? How does he summarize the situation? The last words of Judges are these:
"In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes."
This, of course, is a foreshadowing of the kings to come, but on another level this is a critique of how far Israel had fallen. Kings, of course, can be men, but in Israel the true King was God himself, and Israel had done a fine job of pushing him out of the picture. Without him, they were left to their own devices. Without him, there was nothing to keep them from becoming what they had always been: selfish, greedy, destructive, and stubborn. Israel had turned its back on its God, and in so doing embraced death. Is it any wonder they mourned and wailed? In the absence of a "king," Israel realized they were doomed.
One last thought before wrapping up this post. When Christians read books like Judges, especially for the first time, they're understandably shocked. However, far too often Christians seem to write off the book of Judges with a subtle sense of arrogance. The attitude seems to be that the Jews were barbaric, the Jews were selfish, the Jews had turned against God and each other...but thank God that we're not like that any more. The only difference between the Jews and Christians is that the Jews were brave enough to write down their own history, warts and all. By the end of the 30 Years War in Europe, Germany's population had dropped by upwards of 30%. And why was that? Because the Reformation had happened and the Christian tribes had gone to war with one another. America might not have fought a civil war over religion, but I was raised in a Christian tribe that taught we don't marry people from other tribes. It doesn't take a long google search to see where we might not be killing one another, but there is a civil war going on among the Church and its tribes. So, before we start patting ourselves on the back for being superior, we need to take a cold, hard look at ourselves and see if there is any King among us. Otherwise we're doomed to a reality where everyone does what is right in their own eyes. The book of Judges tells us exactly how that will go.
Stopping point: Judges 21