In other words, is he the kind of man who exhibits single-minded devotion to one woman, displaying for the congregation the characteristics of a biblical marriage? If yes, then he is a one-woman man.
—Doug Wilson, Credenda Agenda (2012)
It was the job of the Levites to manifest God’s Husbandly attentions to His bride.
—James B. Jordan, Judges (1985)
The Root of the Problem
As we’ve seen, the Book of Judges shows us a repetitive cycle of apostasy, oppression, repentance, and deliverance. Each new generation falls into idolatry and then feels the full weight of an invading foreign army. Each generation cries out for deliverance, and, in time, God grants it. But each generation fails to pass on its covenant faith and conviction to its children.
At the end of Judges are two stories that help us understand the nature of Israel’s failure. Both involve a Levite, one of the designated teachers of the Law. In the first, a Levite encourages idolatry in order to gain money and position. In the second story, another Levite fails on a different level.
There Once Was a Levite….
A Levite was serving in Mt. Ephraim in the northern part of Israel. He had married an unendowered girl from Bethlehem in Judah. She proved unfaithful. We aren’t told the circumstances. However, rather than seek reconciliation with her husband, she fled back to her father’s house.
After four months, her husband came to woo her back. The young woman’s father was delighted to see the Levite and welcomed him with banqueting, one day after another. Finally, on the fifth day, as the afternoon was waning, the Levite said his good-byes and set out with his wife. When night fell, there were two cities nearby. One was Jebus (Jerusalem), which at that time was still a Canaanite city. The other was Gibeah, which belonged to the tribe of Benjamin. The Levite deliberately chose the Israelite city over the larger Canaanite city. He wanted to lodge with God’s people.
But when the Levite and his wife arrived in Gibeah, no one offered them hospitality. This was odd. There were no inns or hotels as we think of such things. Travelers were dependent on the hospitality and kindness of the locals. Finally, an old man came out of his fields and saw them waiting, unwelcomed, in the city square. The old man himself was originally from Mt. Ephraim. He immediately offered the Levite and his wife the hospitality of his hearth. “So he brought him into his house, and gave provender unto the asses: and they washed their feet, and did eat and drink” (Judg. 19:21).
So far the story seems mundane, even dull. There have been hints, though. The Levite took four whole months to pursue his wife. While he hung out with his father-in-law, the two of them partied together, but there’s no mention of the girl. And for those who know Scripture, the chilly reception that the Levite received at Gibeah should sound horribly familiar.
Now as they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, certain sons of Belial, beset the house round about, and beat at the door, and spake to the master of the house, the old man, saying, Bring forth the man that came into thine house, that we may know him (v. 22).
Know him sexually, that is. These are the same words that the men of Sodom spoke when they wanted to molest the two angels who came to Lot’s house. This Benjamite city had become a new Sodom. But the story gets even worse.
The elderly man protested and pled his duty of hospitality. Then, to satiate the lust of these men, he offered them his virgin daughter and the Levite’s wife (v. 24). The men accepted the bargain. They took the Levite’s wife and gang-raped her all night long (v. 25). Apparently the Levite did nothing to protest or intervene.
In the morning the Levite set out to leave. He found his wife collapsed on the threshold of the house. He barked at her: “Get up! We’re going.” (It’s only two words in Hebrew.) But she didn’t respond. She was dead.
The Levite threw her body on his donkey and set out for his home city. When he reached his house, he took his wife’s corpse and cut it up into twelve pieces. He sent those pieces throughout Israel as a warning and summons. God’s people were shocked, amazed, and incited to action. They gathered together at Mizpeh to deal with the matter.
The Rest of the Story
The elders of the assembled tribes questioned the Levite, and he told them a colored version of the events that left out his own failure as a husband: “The men of Gibeah rose against me, and beset the house round about upon me by night, and thought to have slain me: and my concubine have they forced, that she is dead” (20:5).
The rest of the story is war. The assembly ordered Benjamin to turn over the rapists for judgment. The tribe of Benjamin refused and prepared for battle. The two armies set themselves in array. Their numbers were 15 to 1 with Israel’s army numbering more than 400,000. Still Israel sought Yahweh’s guidance: “Which of us shall go up first to the battle against the children of Benjamin?” The answer was Judah.
But Judah failed. She lost 22,000 men that day. Israel wept before Yahweh and asked more carefully: “Shall I go up again to battle against the children of Benjamin my brother?” Yahweh told them to go. They went, but the results were nearly as disastrous. Israel lost 18,000 men.
Now Israel wept and fasted before Yahweh; her elders offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. They asked, “Shall I yet again go out to battle against the children of Benjamin my brother, or shall I cease?” This time Yahweh graciously promised them victory.
Israel set up an ambush, lured the Benjamites out of Gibeah, took the city, and set it on fire (vv. 29-48). Then the two parts of the Israelite army caught the Benjamite army in a pincer move. Those Benjamites who could escape fled into the wilderness. The rest were destroyed. Then the army of Israel turned on the cities of Benjamin and destroyed them all. When the war was over, only 600 warriors of Benjamin were left alive. Rather than lose a tribe altogether, the elders of Israel came up with two creative ways to find wives for these men (Judg. 21). Neither seemed to allow the women involved much of a choice in the matter. On that note the Book of Judges ends.
A Look Back
Centuries later the prophet Hosea would look back on this spiritual disaster and find in it the roots of the spiritual problems his generation faced: “O Israel, thou hast sinned from the days of Gibeah: there they stood: the battle in Gibeah against the children of iniquity did not overtake them” (Hos. 10:9). The battle “did not overtake them.” That is, the assembled tribes of Israel, despite their professed zeal for the battle, never really took the battle against sin to heart, for they did not and would not deal with their own sins. They sought God half-heartedly.
Hosea was the perfect spokesman for such a message. God had commanded him to marry a prostitute, and he obeyed (Hos. 1-3). Like the Levite’s concubine, Hosea’s wife was unfaithful. But Hosea, in imitation of God’s covenant mercy, sought after his wife with true persevering love. That’s how pastors ought to love their wives. That’s how they ought to model the love of God to their congregations. That’s how their lives ought to proclaim the gospel before a watching world. And this is exactly where the Levite—and by implication, most of the Levites—failed Yahweh and Israel in the days of the judges.
In those days there was no king in Israel. That is, Israel had rejected Yahweh’s kingship. At the roots of that rejection was the failure of the Levites, the pastors of Israel. They failed to preach the promises and requirements of God’s covenant. They corrupted the worship of God for money and position. They failed to love their wives deeply and sacrificially. And so Israel played the whore against her divine Husband. She chased after pagan gods and fell quickly into moral perversity and wantonness. The foreign invasions that repeatedly followed were simply Yahweh’s judgment upon the whole spiritual disaster.
God is still more concerned about the purity of His worship, the faithfulness of His pastors, and the sanctification of His people than He is about our political freedoms or economic prosperity. He will use hard things and terrible times to chastise His people and call them back to covenant faithfulness. He wants genuine, whole-hearted repentance. Spiritual band-aids and quick pick-me-ups aren’t the answer. What is required is radical surgery—a heart transplant, in fact (Ezek. 18:31; 36:26). And that’s what Jesus does for His people… when His judgment has run its course.
For Further Reading:
James B. Jordan, Judges, God’s War Against Humanism (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1985).
S. G. De Graaf, Promise and Deliverance, vol. II (St. Catherine’s, Ontario: Paideia Press, 1977).