Harry Whittaker
Judges And Ruth

23. The Outrage at Gibeah (ch. 19)

The second appendix to the Book of Judges comprises three chapters (Jud. 19,20,21), and — even more obviously than its predecessor — it is separate and distinct from the main purpose of the book. It mentions no judge, and it records no declension into idolatry. That there is a purpose in its inclusion here can scarcely be doubted, but consideration of the reasons for such an unexpected addendum must be deferred for the moment (see Chapter 32).

In point of time this incident and its grim sequel belong to the beginning and not the end of the Book of Judges. Many indications combine to establish this fact. There is no suggestion of either idolatry or foreign marriages, no judge is needed to save the people from oppression, there is the same military solidarity characteristic of the days of the Joshua, the people maintain the sanctuaries of the Lord and worship Him with offerings and fastings, they seek His counsel by Urim and Thummim and (as will be seen by and by) make strenuous, if mistaken, efforts to apply in full-blooded fashion the stern exhortations of Moses in Deuteronomy. Finally — the clearest of all indications as to date — there is mention of Phinehas the son of Eleazar as high priest. Eleazar was Joshua’s contemporary; so this incident of Gibeah and the Benjamites belongs to the generation after Joshua.

Strange proceedings at Bethlehem

A certain Levite of Mount Ephraim had taken to himself a concubine. With its story of Abimelech the Book of Judges has already taught something of the evils of concubinage, and now, that earlier lesson is to be reinforced. It may be inferred that this Levite already had a wife, otherwise he would surely have had this woman of Bethlehem as his wife and would have accorded her the full privileges of that higher status.

Not surprisingly the man soon ran into domestic difficulties. This concubine ran away, “played the harlot against him” (says the RV text), and eventually returned to her home in Bethlehem. Josephus has a different version of the story here — that “they quarrelled one with another perpetually; and at last the woman was so disgusted at these quarrels, that she left her husband and went to her parents.” The Septuagint tends to support this. And it requires but the interchange of two letters in the Hebrew text to read the same idea here.

This alternative reading seems likely, especially since it disposes of two other difficulties — the otherwise strange fact that a woman of such loose inclinations (if she were) should promptly return to her father’s house and settle down quietly there; and the remarkable circumstance that the Levite felt neither compunction about receiving the woman back again nor inclination to invoke the severity of the Law against her.

When he went to Bethlehem with the object of seeking reconciliation, the Levite was favourably received by the girl and by her father, and so there followed a time of feasting and friendship together. On the fourth day the man felt that his stay had been sufficiently prolonged, and he began preparations for departure. But the girl’s father was importunate: “Comfort thine heart with a morsel of bread, and afterward go your way.” When Abraham entertained angels unawares, “a morsel of bread” was his euphemism for three measures of meal made into cakes, with milk and butter and “a calf tender and good”. So it is not surprising that the Levite, who evidently enjoyed the good things of life, was easily persuaded, and when the meal ended it was too late to think of taking the road. What sort of Levite was this would could be so easily influenced by indulgence in food and drink?

Next day saw a repetition of the same pressing invitation to enjoy a long drawn-out meal before departure and the same willingness to be persuaded. Only this time as the afternoon declined the Levite threw off his post-prandial lethargy and insisted that a start be made. It may be that he was due to be on duty at the Tabernacle at Shiloh. Another guess is that the reconciliation had taken place on the Sabbath and in that case, since this was the fifth day, he would want to make the journey home before the next Sabbath came on.

Travel problems

As the sun sank into the west the man and his concubine and servant found themselves abreast of Jerusalem, known at that time (and until the reign of David) as Jebus.

The servant’s sensible suggestion that Jebus would be a good place to stay the night was scouted by his master. He refused to run the risk, as he considered, of entering “the city of a stranger”. How he would rue that decision before the night was out! Ramah and Gibeah were not far ahead. It would be better to press on to one of them. From the indication that Ramah and not Gibeah was the original objective (vv. 14,15) it may perhaps be inferred that the lawlessness of Gibeah was known to the servant, hence his advocacy of Jebus as a superior place of lodging.

But too much of the forenoon had been given over to feasting, and “the sun went down upon them” whilst they were still a good distance from their goal. There was nothing for it but to turn aside to Gibeah. Here surely they would find shelter, for hospitality was not only a prominent article in the social code of the times but was also an element of the religious duty of all good Israelites (Lev. 19:33,34).

However, it proved to be otherwise. There in the open square they had to make dismal preparation to spend the night under the stars, “for there was no man that took them into his house to lodging”.

Hazards of life at Gibeah

Then came an old man — not a native of the town, but an Ephraimite by birth — and enquired of their circumstances. There is more than a touch of surprise in his questions: “Whither goest thou? and whence comest thou?”, as though implying: ‘Who are you, that you know no better than to seek shelter in a place as notorious as this?’ In his reply the Levite contrived to mention his religious status: “I walk in the house of the Lord.” This reading is better than the AV “I am now going to the house of the Lord”. Pity, truly, that he was not more conscious of his Levitical office when he was spending the greater part of a week in futile over-indulgence.

The old man readily gave to the party all possible hospitality, but before they were able to settle down for the night, stark horror and tragedy descended upon them. Vile men of the city, learning that strangers were within, thundered on the door and coarsely demanded that the man come forth that was with him. They knew, and so did he, what they wanted with him! The phrase “the men of the city” means ‘the city leaders’; thus is explained the complete absence of any restraint of wickedness. The fabric of society in Gibeah was rotten from top to bottom, as Rome was in the time of Claudius Caesar. That gentleman used to indulge in the same kind of beastliness, which in now a token of twentieth-century respectability.

The outcome of this assault on the only hospitable house in Gibeah is both unexpected and difficult. Instead of a stout refusal and a stern resolve to take the consequences, instead even of offering the man-servant as a substitute, the old man was prepared to hand over the two women in the house — his own daughter and the Levite’s concubine: “Do with them what seemeth good unto you: but unto this man do not so vile a thing.”

As it turned out, the concubine only was thrust out into the clutches of the miscreants without, to be “humbled” (grim understatement!) through a long and ghastly night. If she had indeed played the whore against her lord (v. 2), this was a terrible retribution. Expositors may talk as plausibly as they may about the shockingly low status of women in those countries and those days; it still remains a grievous difficulty that the Levite should behave so callously to the woman whom he had just coaxed into returning with him. It has been argued that, after all, righteous Lot was prepared to make a similar offer to the vile men of Sodom (Gen. 19:8). But in this respect are the two cases really parallel? Lot probably had good reason already to suspect the identity of his guests, and he certainly knew something of the character of his daughters (!) and would realise that having grown up in the place it would not be beyond their powers to cope with that vicious mob, most of whom they knew personally.

Even so, this resemblance to the experience of Lot and the angels in Sodom is remarkably close in certain details. There can be little doubt that the narrative is designed to stress the similarities:

  1. The wickedness of each city is general.
  2. The one offering hospitality is a stranger, and aged.
  3. The house is attacked,
  4. the door is assaulted;
  5. and the surrender of visitors is demanded,
  6. for the same vile purpose.
  7. Women are offered, that hospitality might not be abused,
  8. and ultimately each city is utterly destroyed.

Can it be that in this resemblance between Gibeah and Sodom lies the explanation of the two men’s strange readiness to sacrifice their womenfolk to the animal appetite of the gang outside? When they did so, was it because they had already recognized the similarity with Lot’s experience, and were even then devoutly hoping that the outcome would be the same — blindness on the perverts howling outside the door, and speedy judgment from heaven on their incurable wickedness? Certainly there would then be added reason for the Levite’s precipitate departure next morning.

That horrible night, and its ghastly consequence — a pathetic corpse stark on the threshold next morning — wrought a profound change in this Levite who hitherto had given far more thought to food and drink and concubinage than to his calling as a servant in the house of the Lord and as an instructor in the Law of Moses. It came home to him with sickening force how rapid had been the declension in the moral and religious standards of the nation during the few short years since the death of Joshua. His own inexcusable case stood out as an epitome of the nation’s spiritual plight. Something drastic must be done.

A grim sequel

So he brought home that melancholy memento of his sojourn in Gibeah, and taking a knife, he carved the body into pieces as though it were a sacrifice to be laid in order on the altar. But here was no sacrifice. Instead a swift messenger carried a piece of the corpse to each tribe of Israel, and with a vivid account of how it came to be thus, ending in an urgent appeal for action. The Septuagint version concludes this portion of the narrative with the words: “And he charged the men whom he sent out, saying, Thus shall ye say to all the men of Israel, Did ever a thing like this happen from the day that the children of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt unto this day? consider it, take counsel, and speak.” No need to say: ‘What do you mean to do about it?’ What had happened to her might happen to any other woman in Israel. The nation was sunk as low as Sodom. Ought not this evil to be dealt with speedily according to God’s Law?


A couple of asses. In itself a plain intimation that he wished to take her home.
The form of these sentences implies repeated persuasion.
No man took them into his house. What a contrast with vv. 5-9!
Whither....whence...? The man seems astonished that anyone should consider spending a night in such a place.
Folly. This word (v. 24 RV; 20:6,10) is often used to describe some sexual evil.
What seemeth good unto you. What an irony!
The influence and memory of this night’s work lasted a long time: Hos. 9:9; 10:9.
Apparently the Levite had now abandoned all hope of recovering the woman

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