Friday, May 23, 2008

Sex and War, Part 1: Judges 19

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

I wondered in the last post why the story of Micah kept repeating that "in those days Israel had no king," when this was never mentioned before. It crops up again in the final three chapters of the book, making me suspect rather that the author of the last third of Judges simply wasn't the same person as the author of the first two-thirds. With that out of the way, it's time to turn to what may be the most disturbing story in the book, Jephthah's human sacrifice possibly excepted. (Samson's massacres were also disturbing, but the suspension of disbelief required to read about that cartoonish episode softened the psychological blow.)

When the Bible really wants to talk about sexual violence against women, it's perfectly capable of doing so, at least for a few lucid verses. A Levite living in Ephraim buys a concubine in Judah and starts to head home when she escapes, running back to her father's house in Bethlehem. Judges says she was unfaithful, which given the context might mean she was adulterous, or could also simply mean that the act of escaping was the act of unfaithfulness. The Levite goes to Bethlehem and begs his wife to come back with him. The father-in-law initially welcomes the Levite but then seems kind of reluctant to let his daughter go. He plays a sort of Arabian Nights-esque delaying game, delaying the Levite with offers of food, drink, entertainment, and so on. After a few days, the Levite leaves anyway.

He, the woman, and his servant arrive at a town named Jebus (actually, this is Jerusalem), which at this point is supposedly populated by non-Israelites (even though the Israelites conquered the city decades ago). The servant wants to stop, but the Levite makes a fateful decision to keep going, since he reasons they will be safer with their friends the Benjamite Jews, who live in Gibeah.

It turns out to be a fateful decision. They are offered free lodging for the night by an old man, but "some wicked men of the city" came to the house and demanded that the old man give them the Levite so they can rape him. It's shades of Sodom and Gomorrah, but with actual human beings involved instead of mysterious angels, the narrative is a lot more painful. This time, the Levite throws his concubine out the door (helpfully, the old man offers a virgin daughter to the mob too, but apparently the Levite's woman is enough for them). She is gang-raped all night and then left laying at the door.

The Levite is notably unsympathetic. He finds the woman sprawled unconscious on the doorstep the next morning. He tells her to get up, "but there was no answer," so he puts her on his donkey and keeps going. At some point - the author of Judges doesn't say when - the woman passes away, so the Levite, in a gruesome and dubious rite, cuts her body up into pieces and sends them around Israel. He wants vengeance.

As usual, Judges takes no moral position on the incident except, it would seem, to imply that there is no moral behaviour. The Benjamites are supposed to have descended to the same level of general sexual depravity as the Sodomites. The Levite knew precisely what was going to happen when he handed over his concubine to the mob. Complaining after the fact that they committed a heinous crime seems a little ridiculous.

Only the concubine displays any degree of real personal loyalty - after being sent away to be raped, she tries to crawl home to the Levite, before collapsing by the door. (This is an interesting reversal of the incident at the beginning of the page, when she left him for several months and he came after her to get her back.)

Once again, the concubine doesn't even get a name in the narrative. She is simply an object to be fought over: it would appear that the Levite is more upset that his rights to her body have been violated than that she has suffered personally from being raped. The fact that he's willing to mutilate her remains is also exceptionally dubious; perhaps as a Levite he's been cutting up animal corpses so long that the mutilation of dead bodies has simply become second nature. I could comment on the sheer absurdity of a social order in which homeowners are expected to turn over their daughters to be raped, but I did that already months ago in the context of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Indeed, one can't help but wonder if the author of Judges is simply recycling that story in order to make a point about Israelite depravity.