What does Judges chapter 19 mean?The writer of Judges gives another example of the depth of Israel's wickedness in the days before the nation had kings (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 21:25). The central figure in this story is a Levite, but not the same person mentioned in the previous chapters (Judges 17:7; 18:15).
This man lived in a remote area controlled by tribe of Ephraim. He arranged to take a woman from Bethlehem, in the territory of the tribe of Judah, as a concubine. In most ancient contexts, a " concubine " was some combination of a servant and a lesser wife. Typical concubines were women from families with little wealth or status. They would be supported and cared for, but not given the same rights as a "full" spouse. Kings, on the other hand, often took numerous concubines for purely sexual purposes (Judges 19:1).
The concubine is said to have been unfaithful to her husband. Scripture does not specify exactly what happened. However, it uses the Hebrew word zanah, which most often implies sexual immorality or adultery. Either in addition to adultery, or separate from it, she abandoned the Levite and went home to her father in Bethlehem. The Levite waited four months and then went to persuade her to return to Ephraim with him. He appears to be gracious and forgiving. She responds well, as does her father (Judges 19:2–3).
In keeping with the cultural laws of hospitality, the Levite's father-in-law entertains the man with food and drink. He urges the Levite to extend his stay for several days. Striving to be polite, the Levite remains longer than he wishes. Finally, he insists on leaving late one afternoon with his concubine, his servant, and their donkeys. As it's late, the sun is already low in the sky when they approach the city of Jebus (Judges 1:21). At that time, the city later named "Jerusalem" was under Gentile control. The servant suggests they stop there rather than travel at night (Judges 19:4–11).
However, the Levite refuses to stay in a city occupied by non-Israelites. Instead, the group pushes on a few more hours to Gibeah, controlled by Israelites of the tribe of Benjamin. Rather than finding hospitality and safety, they find a cold and unwelcome environment. Nobody offers to take them in for the night. So, the small group prepares to sleep outside, in the city square (Judges 19:12–15).
What happens next is a tragic, deliberate echo of Lot's experience in the city of Sodom (Genesis 19:2–7). An elderly worker, who is not a native of Gibeah, sees the small group in the square. Though they have ample supplies, he is adamant they cannot stay in the open. He demands they come to his home, offering to meet all their needs. As did Lot, this man likely knows that unsecured visitors to the city are in grave danger (Judges 19:16–21).
While the group is eating and drinking together, a mob surrounds the old man's house. The men are described using a Hebrew term which literally means "sons of wickedness." They violently demand the Levite be sent out to be raped. The old man pleads with them not to do something so heinous. In desperation, he offers them his virgin daughter and the Levite's concubine, inviting the mob to violate them (Judges 19:22–24).
The throng of depraved men completely ignores this request. They continue to demand access to the Levite. Finally, in an act of shocking cruelty, the Levite physically forces his concubine outside and into the hands of the mob. They rape and beat her, releasing her only shortly before the sun rises. She makes it to the door of the old man's house and collapses on the threshold, unable to enter. Whether locked out or simply ignored, she dies on the doorstep (Judges 19:25–26).
The Levite, portrayed here as oddly cold towards his concubine, opens the door in the morning and demands she get moving. She does not answer, having died from her injuries. The Levite picks up her corpse and puts it on a donkey. Then he returns, with the body, to his home in Ephraim. There, he further dishonors the concubine by dismembering her body and sending it in twelve separate pieces, presumably to each of the twelve tribes and with a messenger (Judges 19:27–29).
Israel reacts with stunned surprise. They indicate that such heinous things have not been seen since the people left Egypt. This, itself, connects the deep depravity of Israel with cities such as Sodom, which was destroyed in the time of Abraham. If the Levite's intent was to get the attention of his countrymen—to warn them and call them to respond—he is successful (Judges 19:30).
In the next chapter, the Levite will further explain what happened. Israel will rally to punish those responsible, but the tribe of Benjamin will refuse to hand over the guilty men. This sparks a bloody, chaotic civil war which nearly obliterates an entire tribe of Israel (Judges 20).