Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Judges 19:1-4. A Levite of Mount Ephraim goes to Bethlehem to bring back his unfaithful concubine, and is hospitably received by her father. 5-9. The afternoon of the fifth day after his arrival he sets out to return. Judges 19:10-15. Unwilling to stop at the heathen town of Jebus, he proceeds to Gibeah, where at first no man gives him shelter. Judges 19:16-21. An old Ephraimìte offers him hospitality. Judges 19:22-28. Infamous conduct of the inhabitants of Gibeah, resulting in the woman’s death. Judges 19:29-30. The Levite, by sending her dismembered body to the tribes, rouses them to vengeance.
In this chapter we see the unutterable depth of profligacy and shamelessness into which some of the Israelites had sunk. At the same time, we see that the moral sense of the nation was still sufficiently keen to be aroused by the glare of unnatural illumination thus flung upon their consciences. This narrative, like the former, belongs to the period between the death of Joshua and the rise of the greater Judges (Theodoret, Quœst. 27; Jos. Antt. v. 2, § 8).
And it came to pass in those days, when there was no king in Israel, that there was a certain Levite sojourning on the side of mount Ephraim, who took to him a concubine out of Bethlehemjudah.(1) On the side of mount Ephraim.—Literally, on the two thighs (yarcethaim). (Comp. Psalm 128:3; Isaiah 37:24.) As to the residence of the Levite at Mount Ephraim, see Note on Judges 17:8. It is probably a fortuitous coincidence that both this Levite and Jonathan have relations with Mount Ephraim and with Bethlehem.
Took to him a concubine.—Such connections were not legally forbidden; yet it is probable that in the case of all but princes or eminent men they were looked on with moral disapprobation. She is called “a wife or concubine”—i.e., a wife with inferior rights for herself and her children.
And his concubine played the whore against him, and went away from him unto her father's house to Bethlehemjudah, and was there four whole months.(2) Four whole months.—Literally, days, four months, which some interpret to mean “a year (see Note on Judges 17:10) and four months.” The incident has, however, little bearing on the general story.
And her husband arose, and went after her, to speak friendly unto her, and to bring her again, having his servant with him, and a couple of asses: and she brought him into her father's house: and when the father of the damsel saw him, he rejoiced to meet him.(3) To speak friendly unto her.—Literally, to speak to her heart—i.e., to bring about a kindly reconciliation (Genesis 34:3; Genesis 1:21; Ruth 2:13).
A couple of asses.—One was meant to convey back his wife on her return.
And his father in law, the damsel's father, retained him; and he abode with him three days: so they did eat and drink, and lodged there.(4) Retained him.—One motive of the father-in-law would doubtless be to practise the full rights of hospitality, which are in the East so specially sacred; but he probably desired further to win back the Levite’s heart to his erring daughter.
And it came to pass on the fourth day, when they arose early in the morning, that he rose up to depart: and the damsel's father said unto his son in law, Comfort thine heart with a morsel of bread, and afterward go your way.(5) Early in the morning.—Except in winter, most journeys are performed in the early morning or late evening, in order to avoid the burning heat.
Comfort thine heart.—Literally, Prop up thy heart, as in Genesis 18:5. This resembles the Latin expression cor fulcire.
And they sat down, and did eat and drink both of them together: for the damsel's father had said unto the man, Be content, I pray thee, and tarry all night, and let thine heart be merry.(6) Let thine heart be merry.—Judges 16:25; Judges 18:20.
And when the man rose up to depart, his father in law urged him: therefore he lodged there again.(7) His father in law urged him.—Considering the remorselessly savage revenge which is to this day permitted to an Eastern husband in punishment of unfaithfulness, the father might well desire to be thoroughly assured that the Levite was not dissembling, and did not desire to inflict some sanguinary retribution on his wife.
And he arose early in the morning on the fifth day to depart: and the damsel's father said, Comfort thine heart, I pray thee. And they tarried until afternoon, and they did eat both of them.(8) And they tarried until afternoon.—The verb is perhaps an imperative: and linger (as in Isa. (19:9) till the day turns. So the LXX., Chaldee, and Vulg. take it.
And when the man rose up to depart, he, and his concubine, and his servant, his father in law, the damsel's father, said unto him, Behold, now the day draweth toward evening, I pray you tarry all night: behold, the day groweth to an end, lodge here, that thine heart may be merry; and to morrow get you early on your way, that thou mayest go home.(9) The day draweth toward evening.—Literally, is weak, or has slackened to evening. The father had purposely detained the Levite till late, in the hopes of inducing him to spend one more night under his roof. The forms of Eastern politeness would render it difficult for the Levite to resist these importunities.
The day groweth to an end.—Literally, it is the bending or declining of the day, not, as in the margin of our version, “the pitching time of the day.”
Home.—Literally, to thy tent, which may be something more than a mere reminiscence of the earlier stage of the national existence. (Comp. “To your tents, O Israel,” 1Kings 12:16, &c.) The Levite is conscious that if the father has been too pressing he has himself been too self-indulgent, and too fond of good living. “His experience is that of all weak and vacillating people: first, unnecessary delay, and then overstrained hurry.”
But the man would not tarry that night, but he rose up and departed, and came over against Jebus, which is Jerusalem; and there were with him two asses saddled, his concubine also was with him.(10) Jebus, which is Jerusalem.—See Judges 1:8; Joshua 15:8.
Saddled.—Rather, loaded (Vulg., onustos).
And when they were by Jebus, the day was far spent; and the servant said unto his master, Come, I pray thee, and let us turn in into this city of the Jebusites, and lodge in it.(11) The day was far spent.—Jerusalem is only two hours distant from Bethlehem. The father of the woman, by his unwise neglect to “speed the parting guest,” had greatly added to the perils of their journey in a half-conquered country, and in such wild times.
Unto his master.—Literally, to his lord, a mere form of respect, as in Genesis 39:2.
This city of the Jebusites.—Their complete and undisturbed possession shows that this narrative falls at an early date (Judges 1:7-8; Judges 1:11; Judges 1:21; Joshua 15:63). The travellers would reach the town from Bethlehem at about five o’clock.
And his master said unto him, We will not turn aside hither into the city of a stranger, that is not of the children of Israel; we will pass over to Gibeah.(12) To Gibeah.—This is the “Gibeah of Saul,” where the first king of Israel was born (1Samuel 11:4). It was one of the fourteen cities of Benjamin (Joshua 18:28), and is the modern Tuleil el Ful. It only involved a journey of four miles more (Jos. Antt. v. 2, § 8).
And he said unto his servant, Come, and let us draw near to one of these places to lodge all night, in Gibeah, or in Ramah.(13) Or in Ramah.—This town, now el-Ram, is only two miles beyond Gibeah. The two places are often mentioned together (Hosea 5:8). The Levite is naturally anxious to push on homewards as fast as he can. Perhaps he knew that Gibeah did not bear a good character, and that it would be better to get as far as Ramah if possible. In countries where there are no public inns, each town and village gets a character of its own from the reports of travellers.
And they passed on and went their way; and the sun went down upon them when they were by Gibeah, which belongeth to Benjamin.(14) The sun went down upon them.—They were evidently reluctant to stop at Gibeah; but it was dangerous to travel after dark, and the twilight in Palestine is very brief.
Which belongeth to Benjamin.—There were many other Gibeahs in Palestine, and for that reason Jibah and el-Jib are common names.
And they turned aside thither, to go in and to lodge in Gibeah: and when he went in, he sat him down in a street of the city: for there was no man that took them into his house to lodging.(15) In a street.—Rather, in the open place (Rechob)—i.e., the square or market-place of the city, often a space outside the walls (Deuteronomy 13:16). (Comp. Genesis 19:1-2; “The stranger did not lodge in the street”—Job 31:32.)
No man that took them into his house.—The same neglect would have been experienced by the angels at Sodom but for the care of Lot. This neglect of the very first duty of the East was sufficient at once to prove the base condition into which Gibeah had fallen (Deuteronomy 10:19; Matthew 25:35).
And, behold, there came an old man from his work out of the field at even, which was also of mount Ephraim; and he sojourned in Gibeah: but the men of the place were Benjamites.(16) Which was also of mount Ephraim.—He was therefore a fellow-countryman of the Levite, but his hospitable feelings were aroused before he had been informed of this fact.
Toward the side of mount Ephraim.—Rather, the depths of the hill-country of Ephraim.
I am now going to the house of the Lord.—We are not told anywhere else in the story that the Levite was going to Shiloh (Judges 18:31; Joshua 18:1), but that he was returning to his home in Mount Ephraim. Hence some render the words, “I walk at the house of Jehovah”—i.e., I am a Levite, engaged in the service of the Tabernacle at Shiloh. It is true that this would be no answer to the question, “Whither goest thou?” On the other hand, the phrase is not a usual one for going to a place, and the Levite perhaps meant to imply an additional reason why the inhospitable reception was very unworthy. His office ought to have procured him a welcome, yet he who belongs to God’s house cannot find shelter in any house in Gibeah. The LXX. adopt another reading, and render it “to my house” (reading Bîthî). The reading of the MSS. may have come from regarding the last letter as an abbreviation of Jehovah.
Yet there is both straw and provender for our asses; and there is bread and wine also for me, and for thy handmaid, and for the young man which is with thy servants: there is no want of any thing.(19) Straw and provender.—Comp. Genesis 24:25-32. All that the Levite asked was shelter. He would provide for all his own wants.
Thy servants.—The ordinary language of Eastern obsequiousness.
And the old man said, Peace be with thee; howsoever let all thy wants lie upon me; only lodge not in the street.(20) Peace be with thee.—The words are not here a greeting, but an assurance of help.
Only lodge not in the street.—Genesis 19:2.
So he brought him into his house, and gave provender unto the asses: and they washed their feet, and did eat and drink.(21) Gave provender unto the asses.—Notice the humane Eastern custom of attending first the wants of the animals.
They washed their feet.—One of the first necessities for personal comfort after a journey in hot countries, and where only sandals are worn (Genesis 18:4; Genesis 24:32; Genesis 43:24; Luke 7:44; John 13:5; 1Timothy 5:10).
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.(22) Sons of Belial.—It is only by a deeply-rooted misconception that Belial is written with a capital. The word is not the name (as is supposed) of an evil spirit, but an ordinary noun, “sons of worthlessness,” i.e., “worthless fellows.” (See Deuteronomy 13:14; Psalm 18:5.) Later (comp. 2Corinthians 6:15) it became a kind of proper name. Josephus dishonestly suppresses all the darkest features of the story (Antt. v. 11, § 7).
Beset the house.—There is a close resemblance to the equally hideous narrative of Genesis 19:8.
Beat at the door.—The word implies continuous knocking and gradual increase of noise (Song of Solomon 5:2). We cannot wonder that the intense horror excited by this scene of infamy lasted for centuries afterwards. “They have deeply corrupted themselves, as in the days of Gibeah” (Hosea 9:9). “O Israel, thou hast sinned from the days of Gibeah” (Hosea 10:9).
“And when night
Darkens the streets, then wander forth the sons
Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine.
Witness the streets of Sodom, and that night
In Gibeah, when the hospitable door
Exposed a matron to avoid worse rape.”—Milton. “Non ragionam di lor ma guarda è passa.” But we must not omit to notice that the conduct of the old man and the Levite, though it is not formally condemned, speaks of the existence of a very rudimentary morality, a selfishness, and a low estimate of the rights and sacred dignity of women, which shows from what depths the world has emerged. If it was possible to frustrate the vile assault of these wretches in this way it must have been possible to frustrate it altogether. There is something terribly repulsive in the selfishness which could thus make a Levite sacrifice a defenceless woman, and that woman his wife, for a whole night to such brutalisation. The remark of St. Gregory is very weighty: “Minus peccatum admittere ut gravius evitetur est a scelere victimas offerre Deo.” Upon an ass.—Rather, the ass, which had borne her while she was living. The omission of every detail, the narration of the naked facts in the simplest words, without pausing to say so much as a single word respecting the Levite’s or the old man’s feelings, is a striking example of the difference of the historic method of ancient and modern times. With her bones.—Literally, according to her bone. Into twelve pieces.—One for each tribe. Benjamin was probably thus appealed to as well as the other tribes. It is needless to suppose that one was sent to Eastern Manasseh or to Levi.
“Non ragionam di lor ma guarda è passa.”
But we must not omit to notice that the conduct of the old man and the Levite, though it is not formally condemned, speaks of the existence of a very rudimentary morality, a selfishness, and a low estimate of the rights and sacred dignity of women, which shows from what depths the world has emerged. If it was possible to frustrate the vile assault of these wretches in this way it must have been possible to frustrate it altogether. There is something terribly repulsive in the selfishness which could thus make a Levite sacrifice a defenceless woman, and that woman his wife, for a whole night to such brutalisation. The remark of St. Gregory is very weighty: “Minus peccatum admittere ut gravius evitetur est a scelere victimas offerre Deo.”
Upon an ass.—Rather, the ass, which had borne her while she was living. The omission of every detail, the narration of the naked facts in the simplest words, without pausing to say so much as a single word respecting the Levite’s or the old man’s feelings, is a striking example of the difference of the historic method of ancient and modern times.
With her bones.—Literally, according to her bone.
Into twelve pieces.—One for each tribe. Benjamin was probably thus appealed to as well as the other tribes. It is needless to suppose that one was sent to Eastern Manasseh or to Levi.