There are lots of stories in the Bible that are never read in church, or taught in church schools, or even get discussed in adult Bible studies. They are the embarrassing underbelly of the Bible. How are we to regard them? Are they mistakes that somehow got by the scrutiny of the Holy Spirit we believe inspired the scriptures? Are they literary or cultural oddities that can safely remain in the shadows of the bright light of the gospel?
Phyllis Trible, in her groundbreaking Texts of Terror, was one of the first present-day scholars to take these stories seriously and offer a theologically astute reading along with a plea for their relevance. Her argument is that these are the forgotten voices, the cries from the depths that offer the basso profundis of the biblical story. Of all these texts, none is as harrowing as the story of the sex slave in Judges 19. I use the term “sex slave” advisedly because that’s what she essentially became, and because of its relevance in today.
The story is almost too horrific to tell. A concubine runs away from her master, a Levite, back to her abusive father. She ends up gang-raped by a large group of men, and finally mutilated by her master, her body parts sent around all Israel.
In the middle of the story there is a break in the action and it seems that a new voice appears. Some argue that it is the voice of the Levite himself. However, given the half truths he later tells the 12 tribes about what happened with the concubine it doesn’t seem likely to be his voice. Trible suggests that it may be the voice of the narrator, who interrupts the story, having had enough of the Levite’s carnage. And who is this mysterious narrator?
The voice says in 19:30, “Thus shall you say to all the Israelites, ‘Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day?” It is a rhetorical question to which the only possible answer is an emphatic “No!”
The voice continues and offers a three-step plan for redemption. The voice says to the Israelites: 1) Consider it. 2) Take counsel. 3) Speak out. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Consider it: Phyllis Trible points out that this first imperative “consider it” is actually the Hebrew idiom, “direct your heart to her,” which parallels the Levite’s initial intentions toward the concubine when he set out to bring her back. The voice is asking Israel to do the one thing that the Levite himself couldn’t do.
Take counsel: The voice instructs Israel to reflect on the heart of the one who has been raped and dismembered. The voice pleads with Israel to build a council that will consider her and think on her heart tenderly.
Speak out: Having considered her heart tenderly and having built a council that does the same, then and only then, does the voice urge Israel to speak out.
Notice the order of the commands. The voice knows the danger of speaking without reflecting, of acting without thinking. Had Israel listened and done what the Levite failed to do, perhaps things would have unfolded differently. Unfortunately the tribes didn’t listen. In the tragic end of the story, civil war breaks out and the 11 tribes crush the Benjaminites, killing 25,000 Benjaminite men and ALL of the women and children. They even killed all the Benjaminite “beasts,” which may have been the most innocent of all the victims. Only six hundred Benjaminite men survived.
What started out as the story of one man failing to direct his heart and speak tenderly to his lover becomes the story of a nation that fails to direct its heart to one of its own most violently abused victims and speak tenderly in her memory. What started as the brutal rape of one sex slave becomes the brutal rape and enslavement of 600 innocent women and children and countless men. The ultimate betrayal is that Israel pulls God into the sordid mess by projecting her lust for vengeance into God’s very mouth. We are in radically dangerous territory.
And we quickly realize that, for all its horror, this story isn’t so far from our lives today. Millions of women, girls and boys around the world would find it all too familiar, trapped as they are as sex slaves in the prostitution and pornography trade. What assaults, disfigurements, and mutilations do they endure? How many die unknown and helpless?
Recently the story came out of a university football coach allegedly raping a 10-year old boy in a university shower. When a young man discovers the rape, he does nothing to stop the crime, but waits for hours, and then reports it to the head coach, who reports it to the athletic director, who only orders the offender not to bring boys onto school property—the ultimate NIMBY. Then we discover that this is likely only one victim of many.
So, today’s news echoes the most horrific story of the Bible. What does that say about the Bible and about the church? It says that the Bible will give a voice to the forgotten and despised victims of this world. God’s word will not flinch from confronting the most monstrous evils we can imagine. It means that everywhere the gospel sings its message of amazing grace we will also hear the blue note of human degradation and despair. These abused, forgotten, mutilated victims have a place in God’s story, and God chooses to tell their story too.
It’s not much, I suppose, but there’s this little detail of the story that intrigues me. The concubine was from Bethlehem. The same Bethlehem, the house of bread, that was the birthplace of the one called Emmanuel, God with us, who was born a stranger, escaped as a refugee and ended up on a cross, his body pierced and mangled.
Two horrific stories in God’s book, God’s story, both connected with Bethlehem. The first, in all its hopeless and senseless violence, reveals a world of helpless victims we can still identify today. The second reveals the one who embraces and is present with all victims—himself a victim of violence, sin, evil, and death—who rose again, a mighty savior.
Leonard Vander Zee is editor-in-chief Faith Alive Christian Resources. Previously he served in pastorates in Indiana, Michigan, Iowa and New York. He is the author of In Life and In Death: A Pastoral Guide for Funerals (CRC Publications, 1992) and More Than Words: Prayer as a Way of Life, a Leader’s Guide (CRC Publications, 1995). His articles have appeared in The Banner, Reformed Worship, Perspectives and Christianity Today. He earned an M.Div. from Calvin Theological Seminary.