Throughout this summer, my wife and I have been walking through the Book of Judges as part of our family devotions. As all would attest, Judges is a difficult (and depressing) book to study in depth because of the constant refrain of the book: “In those days, there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes”. The moral decline of the Jewish nation is very pronounced in the book, particular from Chapter 17 to the end of the book. For my wife and I, the hardest chapters of Judges to read are Chapter 19 and 20 because few accounts in Scripture match the heinousness of male criminality against women.
Apart from the institution of concubinage, which is taken for granted in this episode, the Levite from the hill country of Ephraim originally appears to be a gracious man. Even though his concubine had been unfaithful to him and left him, he goes to great lengths to maintain positive relations with her family and to bring her back to his house. The moral degradation of Israel is hinted at in Judges 19:20, but it comes to the light in verses 22 and following. In a scene reminiscent of Lot’s experience in Sodom (cf. Genesis 19), the men of the town come to the house where the Levite, his concubine, and his servant are lodging, demanding homosexual relations with the men. Horrified by the vileness of the townsmen, the host offers them his own virgin daughter and his guest’s concubine. Just as in the account of Sodom in Genesis 19, women are expendable in defense of both male pleasure and male honor. The rights of one’s own daughter must take second place to the rights of one’s male guests. As a father of two girls, I find such actions are utterly reprehensible.
However, the abuse does not end there. After the men of the town had raped and violated the concubine all night, they effectively left her for dead on the doorstep of the house where the men were staying (cf. Judges 19:27). When the Levite gets up the next morning, he displays no compassion at all toward his concubine. Instead of weeping over her desecration and trying to help her, he orders her to get up so they can be on their way. When the concubine doesn’t respond, he cuts her body into twelve parts. Although the Levite accuses the people of Gibeah of murder (cf. Judges 20:4-7), the speech appears to be devoid of any feeling toward the woman. Rather, it appears that the larger concern is male honor rather than the woman’s treatment.
This account of mistreatment of women follows a general pattern throughout the book of Judges and this leads to a broader question of the underlying causes of this pattern. First, it should be remarked that the book of Judges does not present any of these accounts positively. From start to finish, the narrator’s purpose in the book is to describe a nation in a state of serious and progressive apostasy. In particular, this book emphasizes the progressive intensification of Israel’s apostasy with each succeeding narrative cycle that follows. The causes cited for this apostasy are intermarriage with the Canaanites (cf. Judges 3:6) and the failure to remember God’s redemptive acts (cf. Judges 3:7). Chapter 19-21 bring the development of this apostasy to its intended climax and conclusion.
Within Chapters 17 – 19, we see how deeply Canaanite customs and practices infected the Levites and the religious institutions of Israel. The account of the rape of the concubine by the Benjamites of Gibeah purposefully echoes Genesis 19 in order to demonstrate than the nation of Israel has taken on the character of ancient Sodom. Reminiscent of Paul’s conclusions in Romans 1 regarding the consequences of idolatry, the Jewish nation has been given up to suffer the consequences of its own spiritual idolatry and folly. Rather than seeing these accounts as normative, the book of Judges should be seen as a warning; the narrator of this book calls upon the people of his day (and all subsequent generations who would read the book) to recognize the degeneration, to think about it, to consider it, and to speak against it. In the book of Judges, Israel’s fundamental problem is spiritual, and thus, the only prescription of her ills is the spiritual re-awakening of the nation.
I also believe that there is another vitally important application that should be brought to mind. During this time, one of the primary functions of the Levites was to teach the law of God to the Jewish nation. However, this essential role becomes largely neglected as the Levites adopt the practices of the Canaanites who surround them. In the absence and/or ignorance of God’s law during the book of Judges, we also see significant abuse of women. I do not believe that this is incidental. Our God is a father to the fatherless and a defender of the widow (cf. Psalm 68:5); the Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed (cf. Psalm 9:9). For this reason, God’s Word commands that the rulers of Israel must defend the cause of the oppressed without partiality (cf. Isaiah 1:17; Psalm 82:3-5). In other words, where God’s law is honored and respected, we will observe that men will treat women with the respect, honor, and dignity they deserve as co-images of God himself. Conversely, where God’s law is ignored and tramped upon, we will also see women (and the vulnerable in any society) exploited and neglected.
In this sense, it can be said that the manner in which men treat women today serves as an indicator of the spiritual condition of a family, church, society, or nation. Many of the atrocities against women that we observe around the world today are no different than what is recorded in the book of Judges. These atrocities range from child sex trafficking to the appearance of “incel groups” to the various cases of child molestation in churches. As Christians, we can ask ourselves do we honor God’s law and treat women with the honor they deserve or have we been “Canaanized”? Are our minds renewed by the word of God or have we been squeezed into the mold of the world (cf. Romans 12:1). The extent to which male exploitation and female abuse plague the church offers a picture by which worldliness can be assessed. If this is true, the narrator of the book of Judges calls upon us to repent of our sin and to let the memory of His acts of redemption motive us to obedience to His word.
Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston and a member of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, SC. He also writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.