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Judges 19:1 says,
18 Now it came about in those days, when there was no king in Israel, that there was a certain Levite staying in the remote part of the hill country of Ephraim, who took a concubine for himself from Bethlehem in Judah.
This is the start of the most serious consequence of the problem of “no king in Israel.” Israel had no earthly king, but they did have a king, for God was their King, at least nominally. In practice, Israel was an anarchist’s dream. By ignoring God’s laws and by having no lawful courts to settle disputes, they went about their business as if there were no king and no justice.
During that time, “a certain Levite” living in the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. The focus shifts away from the tribe of Dan back to Ephraim and Judah, the two leading tribes of Israel.
Recall the earlier story of the Levite from Bethlehem-Judah that was hired by Micah the Ephraimite to be his priest (Judges 17:7, 8). So once again we see interaction between Ephraim and Judah playing out with actors from both locations and with a Levite connecting the two tribes. The added feature in the present story, as we will see shortly, is the tribe of Benjamin, which was also a connector between Ephraim and Judah. The road from Ephraim to Judah passed through Benjamin.
The tribes in the story provide us with prophecy on a broader scale, speaking into the tribal consequences of “no king in Israel.” Years later, in the divided kingdom, Ephraim represented the house of Israel, while Judah represented the house of Judah (which included Benjamin and a portion of Levi).
Judges 19:2 says,
2 But his concubine played the harlot against [al, “on, above, against, because of”] him, and she went away from him to her father’s house in Bethlehem in Judah and was there for a period of four months.
This reads a little differently in the Septuagint (Greek) translation:
2 And his concubine departed from him and went away from him to the house of her father to Bethleem Juda, and she was there four months.
The Septuagint says nothing about her becoming a harlot but just says that she left her husband and returned to her father’s house in Bethlehem. While some may credit the Septuagint with having a more accurate Hebrew text to work with, it is more likely that the rabbis who did the translation toned down the language and thereby altered the text.
The Hebrew text uses the word zanah, which is a verb that means “play the harlot.” On the other hand, the word may also mean “cause to commit adultery” or “to force into prostitution.”
Scripture does not tell us the circumstances of her harlotry. Why did she run back to her father’s house? Did she love some young man in Bethlehem? Did her father marry her to the Levite in order to prevent her from marrying the one she really loved?
If she had committed adultery while she was in the hill country of Ephraim, why did she not remain there with her lover? Why did she run back to her home in Bethlehem? It seems more likely that the corrupt Levite forced her to be a religious prostitute, which was routine in Canaanite religion. Did she play the harlot because of him? Was this Levite as corrupt as the Levite from the previous story?
Since this story is yet another example of the corrupt priests in Israel, it seems likely that the wording in the Hebrew text was meant to show us that this Levite forced his concubine into prostitution, perhaps to imitate the common practice of idolaters in the Canaanite groves and Philistine temples.
Perhaps the concubine herself was more righteous than her Levite husband. Perhaps that was her motive for running away and returning to her father’s house after playing the harlot. Scripture is silent on this point, but we ought to view the account as another example of corruption among the Levites. The question is whether the corrupt priesthood was caused by “no king in Israel” or the other way around.
The Levites were supposed to teach the people the ways of God and to judge disputes according to the law. Obviously, Samuel’s purpose was to show not so much a lack of political leadership but (more importantly) the breakdown of the priestly order at Shiloh. In other words, the problem was that the people had already rejected God as their King. They rejected His law in favor of doing what was right in their own eyes.
Samuel’s motive may have been to show the roots of the problem in Shiloh which had produced Eli and his corrupt sons, as well as the root problems of Gibeah, which produced the corrupt King Saul.
If so, we might compare the sons of Eli with the Levite in Judges 19. As a boy, Samuel was raised at Shiloh, and he had ample opportunity to observe the immoral behavior of Eli’s sons. We read in 1 Samuel 2:22,
22 Now Eli was very old; and he heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who served at the doorway of the tent of meeting.
Is it unreasonable to assert that Samuel would later write about the origins of this spiritual and moral problem among the priests and Levites? If fornication was going on at the tabernacle in Shiloh during the time of Samuel, when did this problem begin? Did Samuel trace it back to an earlier time, giving us the example of the “certain Levite” who had used his concubine as a temple prostitute?
Since the concubine was originally from Bethlehem, she was probably a righteous woman who had been forced into prostitution at the house of Micah. Bethlehem was the birthplace of David, and so it seems unlikely that Samuel would portray Bethlehem as having evil spiritual roots. Hence, it appears to me that the concubine found refuge in her father’s house in Bethlehem from a life of religious prostitution.
After the concubine returned home, Judges 19:3 says,
3 Then her husband arose and went after her to speak tenderly [leb, “heart”] to her in order to bring her back, taking with him his servant and a pair of donkeys. So she brought him into her father’s house, and when the girl’s father saw him, he was glad to meet [qara, “encounter”] him.
Much can happen in four months. The Levite must have pondered the situation continually. If he had been the righteous one in this case, then we would have to credit him with being a forgiving husband. But if she were the righteous one, we would have to see him as a repentant Levite. We are not told. We only know that the concubine’s father was glad to see him—if not at first sight, then certainly after the Levite explained his situation.
In my view, the Levite would have been embarrassed to show up at his father-in-law’s house unless he had repented. He was welcomed only because he agreed not to continue in his previous course of action. This is why her father was so friendly.
In fact, he insisted that the Levite spend a few days with him. After spending five days in Bethlehem, the Levite and his concubine began the journey home. However, they left too late in the day to arrive home. Jerusalem (called Jebus at that time) was just a few miles north of Bethlehem, and they considered stopping there for the night (Judges 19:10, 11). But Jebus was inhabited by ungodly Jebusites, and the Levite was afraid to spend the night there. Jebus means “threshing floor,” which may have contributed to the ominous nature of the town.
Judges 19:12-14 says,
12 However, his master said to him [the servant], “We will not turn aside into the city of foreigners who are not of the sons of Israel; but we will go on as far as Gibeah.” 13 And he said to his servant, “Come and let us approach one of these places; and we will spend the night in Gibeah or Ramah.” 14 So they passed along and went their way, and the sun set on them near Gibeah which belongs to Benjamin.
The irony here is that the Levite thought that a Jebusite city could be dangerous, when in fact the Israelite town of Gibeah turned out to be far more dangerous. The underlying message tells us that lawless Israelites can be far worse than pagan Canaanites.