SILENCE THAT SHOUTS
by Pamela Walford
“Dismembering the concubine’s body and sending parts to each of the 12 tribes was intended to awaken Israel from its moral lethargy and to marshal the tribes to face up to their responsibility. It is ironic that the one who issued such a call was himself selfish and insensitive. See also Saul’s similar action in 1 Sa 11:7” (Barker 355).
For many women, the rape and murder of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19 and her subsequent dismemberment is among the most horrifying of all biblical narratives, particularly since God appears to be blatantly silent about it. Moreover, typical scholarly efforts to explain this passage compound the horror because the atrocity of the rape is usually minimized and the character of God often distorted through attempts to find spiritual meaning in the wicked acts that permeate the book of Judges. Admittedly, Judges is a difficult book to interpret since the Lord appears to eschew commenting on any event beyond the statement, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (NIV Judg. 17:6). This silence has commonly been interpreted as his endorsement of the civil war that the concubine’s death provokes. The higher spiritual cause of war obscures the tragic murder of the concubine and implies God’s ambivalence toward her and toward women in general.
However, if Judges is read afresh without the androcentric presupposition of a God-ordained inferiority of women, we discover that his silence is not the noncommittal neutrality it appears to be. We discover that his silence shouts from the pages of Scripture as the sin against women that was set in motion in Genesis (3:12, 16) comes to a point of no return in Judges.
Women saturate Judges like no other book in Scripture, and their sheer number should be enough to send up a signal that their presence is intentional and pregnant with meaning. Caleb’s daughter, Acsah, appears in the very first chapter; Deborah and Jael dominate chapters four and five; a nameless woman slays Abimelech in chapter nine; Jephthah’s daughter is the focus of chapter eleven; Samson’s mother figures prominently in chapter thirteen; chapters fourteen to sixteen pivot around Samson’s Philistine women; chapter nineteen details the story of the unfortunate concubine and chapter twenty-one closes the book with the abduction of the Gilead girls and their Shiloh sisters.
A closer look at these Judges women reveals a progressive, or rather regressive, shift in their status in the young nation of Israel. Judges opens with Acsah being bestowed to Othniel as a reward for capturing Kiriath Sepher. Her status is such that she asks for and receives a valuable tract of land from her father (1:11-15).
The next woman is Deborah, a prophetess and judge, who is told by the Lord to command Barak to attack Sisera. Barak consents to do this only if Deborah comes with him. She agrees but tells Barak that because he will not go without her, the Lord will hand Sisera over to a woman and he will be denied the honor of victory. A grisly narration of Sisera’s death at the hands of Jael follows and chapter five is devoted to Deborah’s song of praise to the Lord, in which she lauds his mighty work through herself, Jael and Barak.
The narratives of Gideon and Abimelech occupy chapters six through nine, and we encounter no women until the death of Abimelech, when a woman drops a rock on his head. It is interesting to note the differing attitudes between Abimilech and Barak. Barak willingly shares the glory of victory with two women, while Abimelech is more afraid of being killed by a woman than he is of death itself. It is also not much of a stretch to claim that this same anonymous woman defeated Abimelech’s army because they immediately retreat after she kills him (9:50-55).
Jephthah’s nameless daughter appears in chapter eleven. Jephthah is a mighty warrior who receives the Spirit of the Lord to aid him in battle. Nevertheless, Jephthah attempts to manipulate God by making a wicked vow to sacrifice “whatever comes out of my door to meet me” (11:30) if the Lord will give him victory over the Ammonites. Jephthah, who should have known the Law of Moses and the command not to kill, compounds his sin when he murders his daughter to keep his unholy vow. With her death, daughters depreciate in value, going from something to be won in victory to something to be sacrificed to purchase victory.
However, God continues to demonstrate his esteem of women and sends an angel of the Lord to the nameless wife of Manoah. The angel visits Manoah’s wife twice before finally appearing to the unbelieving Manoah. Manoah is terrified that he will die after he realizes he has seen the Lord but his wife chastises him for his foolish fear. It is noteworthy that it is Manoah’s wife who receives the Lord’s message and who is commanded to keep the Nazarite law (13:1-23).
The son of these two, Samson, brings all manner of destruction upon himself in chapters 14-16 because of his sinful weakness for Philistine women (Exod. 34:16), suggesting that the Lord reveres the women of Israel and does not look favorably on Samson’s rejection of them.
Micah and his idols follow in chapters 17-18 and the tribe of Dan falls into idolatry, which Israel seems to tolerate without any sense of outrage, and for which the Lord appears to withhold judgment.
This brings us to one of the most appalling events in Scripture - the gang rape and dismemberment of the Levite’s concubine (19). Ignoring the fact that any man who had a concubine was already an adulterer himself, we can only speculate on what motivated the concubine to be unfaithful. The character of her husband as demonstrated by his actions coupled with the fact that he tarries four months before seeking her out at her father’s home, implies an abusive environment from which she sought escape or comfort. Any man who can cut his wife to pieces, even if she were unfaithful, has to be a monster, and her death smacks of a thinly disguised “honor killing” The merciless manner in which the Levite hands his concubine over to the savagery of the Benjamite men and then in the morning prepares to continue his journey home without her, exposes a brutal heart that is murderous to the degree that when he trips over his wife lying on the threshold, he commands her to “get up; let’s go” (19:28) and then straps onto his donkey when she does not respond.
We can only hope that she is in fact dead when he dismembers her and sends her body parts to the twelve tribes in a disgusting act that still offends society in every culture. Israel is also appalled, “such a thing has never been seen or done” (19:30).
Barker explains this macabre deed as a call to Israel’s sense of morality. However, the book of Judges clearly demonstrates that Israel’s sense of morality is severely compromised by this point. Why then is all Israel so offended that civil war flares up? Is it that a woman has been raped and murdered, that a man’s pride has been insulted by homosexuality or that his property (the concubine) has been destroyed? What possible explanation can there be for such a great lust for the blood of a brother that in the aftermath, thousands of lives have been lost and a tribe teeters on extinction?
Virtually every response to the rape of the concubine on the part of Israel is steeped in sin, save for the town of Jabesh-Gilead, which seems to be the only instance of common sense and restraint in this incident. Israel demonstrates a measure of morality by demanding the offending Benjamites be turned over to them, but they totally miss the point that the husband was equally, if not more so, at fault. This is understandable since he conveniently omitted his full involvement in the retelling of his tale. Nevertheless, Israel does not bother to verify his story, and even if they had, it is doubtful anyone would have been offended because Israelite men already had a habit of offering up wives and virgin daughters to save their necks (Judge. 20:24, Gen. 13:10-16, 19:6-8.26:6-9).
Therefore, one wonders anew what Israel was so upset about? The only possible conclusion one can make is that Israel was merely bloodthirsty. Even before they demand the Benjamites to surrender the men of Gibeah, they amass an army, swearing to put to death any tribe that refuses to join them (21:5) and mastermind the genocide of the Benjamite tribe, swearing a curse on anyone who gives their daughter to them in marriage (21:1,18).
Although, the Lord is noticeably silent as Israel’s sinfulness escalates, it can be deduced from the law (Deut. 5:6-7) that Dan’s idolatry angers him. It can be further deduced from his threat to punish Israel if they mistreat orphans, widows and aliens (Exod. 22:22-24) and for which he eventually sent them into exile (Zec. 7:8-14), that he is angered over the rape concubine and is also angered that the practice of delivering up of women was not uncommon.
If we analyze the civil war with this in mind, we see that God does indeed communicate his wrath and punishes both Israel and Benjamin. When Israel asks God the wrong question, “Who should go first against the Benjamites?” (20:18), he instructs them to send Judah into battle and allows Benjamin to kill twenty-two thousand of them.” Perplexed by this defeat, Israel amends their question; “Shall we go up again to battle against the Benjamites, our brothers?” However, this is not a moral questioning about the ethics of killing their relatives. Rather, the question exposes their sinful hearts and is a poorly disguised attempt to manipulate him. They presume God’s faithfulness regardless of their sins and expect him to help them murder their brothers.
The Lord tells them to go into battle again and an additional eighteen thousand Israelites are killed. Finally, they recognize that they have offended the Lord in some way. They frantically pray and fast and offer burnt sacrifices. The Lord tells Israel that he will give them victory over Benjamin, but they demonstrate that they still do not have a clue as to the nature of their sin when they butcher so many Benjamites, including the women and children, that tribe is left too small to repopulate itself (21:16). They again turn to God and blame him for this calamity, asking why he could have allowed such a thing.
The civil war ends but Israel learns nothing from it. They regret their foolish vow to keep their daughters from Benjamin but sinfully believe their vow has the power to obligate the Lord to curse on their behalf. They remember their oath to kill anyone who did not join them in the civil war and proceed to massacre Jabesh-Gilead, the only community with enough discernment to stay out of the war. They spare Gilead’s virgin daughters and send them to Benjamin as brides. Unfortunately, four hundred Gilead girls are insufficient and two hundred more girls are abducted from Shiloh. The book closes with everyone returning to his to live on his own inheritance and doing as each sees fit (21:24-25).
But what of the Judges women, who begin the book on equal footing with men in terms of relationship with the Lord and close the book as mere male possessions of no more significance than Saul’s oxen (1 Sam. 11:7)? Again, God appears to refrain from voicing his opinion explicitly, but by his character we must surmise that he has an opinion and that he communicates it in some way. Is his silence tacit approval? Are women a substandard species of humanity whom he values so little that he does nothing to oppose their dehumanization? Since women are made in his image (Gen. 1:27), the answer cannot be anything but a resounding no because to despise women would be to despise himself.
The book of Judges closes on four hundred Gilead women who have witnessed the massacre of their families, who fear and possibly even hate their Benjamite husbands and who are rearing the next generation of girls. There are two hundred abducted Shiloh brides rearing the next generation of girls. There is an entire nation of Israelite women rearing the next generation of girls, all of whom have seen or heard what happened to the concubine and the brides of Benjamin. Would any woman in Israel be so foolish as to risk allowing herself an individual identity? What woman would not question God’s love for her when he seems to have not cared enough to deliver them from the abuse of men? What did these women teach their daughters? Lastly, what does the relationship between husbands and wives now look like, but more importantly, what does the relationship between men and God look like after their having cast aside the very thing that God said was for their good (Gen. 2:18)? Is it possible to truly know God through only half of his image?
As the story of Judges plays out we witness God silently lift his hand of restraint from Israel and give them over to their depravity. In the aftermath, thousands are dead, but that is not the end of it. The answer to God’s silence lies more in the questions Judges raises than in the solution, which does not appear until Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection, and we see that the consequence of Israel’s ultimate sin in follows them throughout the Old Testament.
The abuse of women that began in Genesis comes full circle in Judges. The husbands of Israel were cut off from a full relationship with their wives simply by virtue of their subjugation of them. While that is a great loss on its own, the greater loss is the fullness of the knowledge of God through the loss of relationship with half of his image – woman.
And so it stood, until Jesus redeemed the events in Judges through his restoration of women. He taught the women; they called him “Rabboni” (John 20:16); he would not condemn the adulteress (John 8:4-11), and he loved the Samaritan woman (John 4:7-26). And, he brought women full circle back to the status they enjoyed at the outset of Judges when he commissioned Mary Magdalene, the first human to see the resurrected Lord, to “go and tell ” the men (John 20:17-18) as Deborah had.
Barker, Kenneth, ed. NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995.
Sasson, Jean P. Princess. New York: William Morrow, 1992.
 “Honor killing,” an act of murder against a woman who has brought dishonor on her family through infidelity or having been raped, is still practiced in some countries (Sasson 199-209).