Pastors in positions of power are vulnerable to being purveyors of abuse. This is true irrespective of Christian conviction or pleasing personality. Counselors Mabel and Colin Dunbar acknowledge, “Many abusers are actually quite charming and pleasant to people outside of the family . . . [they] are often unable to envision him as a violent abuser.”1
Access and accountability are key ingredients to abuse. Pastoral counselor John Trusty states, “The pastoral role by its very nature gives the pastor access to people’s lives in a very intimate way.”2 The account of the Levite and the concubine demonstrates that when accountability is low, abuse will be high, and when authority meets opportunity, the results can be devastating.
Who, reading the Old Testament, has not wondered at times why God kept some of those gruesome stories in there? Of all the gruesome ones, that of the Levite and his concubine in Judges 19 has to be a top contender. What possible redeeming value can we get from this sordid account that appears in the Word of God?
The story begins with the statement that, in those days, Israel had no king (Judges 19:1). Then the Levite story, and the book of Judges as a whole, ends by stating that, in those days, Israel had no king—having rejected God as their king—and that “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25, ESV).
The fact that this gruesome and disgusting story of the Levite and his concubine is bookended by these statements points to the idea that, without God as their king, each one then doing what was right in his own eyes is the entire reason that the story happened in the first place.
Scholars point out that the classic phases of abuse—honeymoon, tension-building, and explosive—are all identified in this narrative.3 What, if any, are the lessons for pastors?
A young Levite, who by family connections was supposed to be a minister of God, took a concubine, a kind of secondary wife. It was a legal situation in which the secondary wife did not have all the privileges of a primary wife but was, nonetheless, a legal wife, which usually meant that she had obligations to her husband and her husband to her.4
The Levite took his new wife to his residence in Ephraim, but she acted unfaithfully and fled home to Bethlehem. The Levite must have had some decency. Judges 19:3 says that he went after her and spoke tenderly to her in order to bring her back.
The story is, so far, palatable (as palatable as concubinage can be to us). In spite of her unfaithfulness, he was kind and wanted her back, inconveniencing himself when he certainly did not have to. A concubine was easily divorced, but he chose not to.5 Her father evidently liked his son-in-law and convinced him to stay for several extra days. Finally, the Levite decided he must go, even though it had grown late in the day.
The three of them—the Levite, his wife, and a servant—traveled as far as Jerusalem (“Jebus” at the time). The Levite’s servant tried to convince his master to stop there for the night, but the Levite wanted to avoid staying in a city that did not belong to Israel. Instead, he preferred to travel as far as Gibeah in Benjamin. So, the Levite overruled his servant, and they arrived in Gibeah late in the day.
Because inns were uncommon, the standard practice was for travelers to wait in the town square. Cultural hospitality codes were such that the people of the town would invite travelers to lodge at home for the night.6 Unfortunately, no one offered the travelers a place, an indication of how uncommonly degraded the inhabitants of Gibeah had become.7 For the travelers, the hour grew so late that they had nearly resigned themselves to sleeping in the town square.
Finally, though, an old man returned from the fields, saw the travelers, and invited them home, insisting that they dare not sleep in the square for reasons that soon become apparent. The Levite, his concubine, and his servant went home with their host. But then some Gibeonite men surrounded the house, hammering on the door, demanding that the Levite be brought out to them so that they “may know him” (v. 22, ESV).
Whatever positive ideas readers may have granted the Levite and the hospitable old man disappear at this point. The old man went out and begged the mob not to do this wicked thing to the Levite, his guest. Rather, he offered them his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine instead. But the men refused, insisting they wanted the Levite himself. In response, the Levite pushed his concubine out to them, and the mob accepted her. Then her husband, the servant, and the old man went to sleep while the Levite’s wife was raped all night. The next morning, when the Levite went to leave, he found her dead on the doorstep.
And, if that were not all bad enough, the Levite carved up his concubine's body and sent it as a gruesome message throughout Israel. The outraged men of Israel gathered in righteous indignation in order to punish the tribe of Benjamin, which was defending its perverted men.
So, again, the question remains: why was this gruesome and disgusting story preserved in the Word of God?
One reason can be found in Hosea 9, where God warned Israel that they were getting close to the end of His forbearance. Eventually, He would allow them to have their way, and He would withdraw His presence, allowing the forces of evil to conquer them. Why would He do this? Hosea 9:9 says it was because they had sunk so deeply in their corruption that it was like the days of Gibeah.
Of the 48 times the name Gibeah is used in the Old Testament, half are found in the story of the Levite and his concubine, making it the most natural allusion for Hosea’s warning to Israel. The additional information in Hosea 10:9, about war overtaking the evildoers in Gibeah, confirms the allusion.
Although it happened about 400 years before Hosea’s time, the story of the Levite and his concubine was later used by God to illustrate the depths to which Israel had fallen. When Hosea proclaimed to Israel that they were as corrupt as Gibeah, evidently, God knew Israel would recognize the allusion. After all, who could forget such a dreadful story?
In a paraphrase of Hosea 10:9, God was essentially saying to Israel, Do you remember the story of what happened in Gibeah, how terrible that was? That is your condition today. That is how awful you have been from that day until this. And remember the result? Remember what happened to the tribe of Benjamin, how it was nearly annihilated? That is where you are headed. That is what will happen to you soon if you do not change your ways!
Although God’s message through Hosea was applicable to this ancient people, it remained relevant through biblical history and even to the end of time. Here is Hosea 10:8:
The high places of wickedness will be destroyed—
it is the sin of Israel.
Thorns and thistles will grow up
and cover their altars.
Then they will say to the mountains, “Cover us!”
and to the hills, “Fall on us!” (NIV).
That last sentence is commonly recognized. Hundreds of years later, Jesus repeated Hosea’s words. In Luke 23:28–30, as He was marched to Calvary, Jesus said to the women weeping for Him:
“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then
“ ‘they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!”
And to the hills, “Cover us!” ’ ”
Quoting Hosea, Jesus referred to what would happen to Jerusalem about 40 years later, when the Romans would destroy the city and scatter Israel. Just as Hosea himself warned Israel about the judgment that would befall them if they refused to remain faithful to their covenant relationship with God, so in His day, Jesus used Hosea’s words to convey the same message, bringing along, by extension, the story of the Levite and his concubine.
Returning to Hosea 10:8, 9,
Then they will say to the mountains, “Cover us!”
and to the hills, “Fall on us!”
“Since the days of Gibeah, you have sinned, O Israel,
and there you have remained” (NIV; emphasis added).
Jesus alluded to the entire situation that Hosea addressed, in which Israel was still as depraved as the men of Gibeah that night. And, not accidentally, Jesus spoke these words just after the chief priests around Him had cried out to Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15, NIV).
Israel still had no king, and they remained as wicked as the men of Gibeah. Their wickedness looked different at that point in time, but it was just as horrifying to God as what happened in Gibeah. But the sad saga continues, even to the end.
Alluding to Hosea, Revelation 6:15–17 points to a time future to us and includes the phrase “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne” (v. 16, NIV). This use demonstrates that the story will remain relevant until the Second Advent, serving as a benchmark illustration of the depths to which humanity has fallen. The condition of the world has not improved since the story of the Levite and his concubine. Humanity is just as depraved now as it was then, and often for the same reason, too: God is not acknowledged as king, so everyone does what is right in their own eyes.
Time to speak
The story’s tragedy lies in the abuse and the apathy. Pastoral misconduct occurs in both perpetration and passivity. Redemption comes when clergy acknowledge that their God-given position of responsibility requires them to alleviate pain, not elevate it. A perceived need for sexual fulfillment should never become a depraved need for abusive gratification.
The narrative ends with the plea, “Everyone who saw it said, ‘Such a horrible crime has not been committed in all the time since Israel left Egypt. Think about it! What are we going to do? Who’s going to speak up?’ ” (Judges 19:30, TLB). Professor Elaine Heath, author of We Were the Least of These: Reading the Bible with Survivors of Sexual Abuse, maintains that godly pastors will know what to do.
“The clergy will mediate the presence of Christ to her and will companion her in her healing journey, offering protection from the destructive ideology of the ‘men of Gibeah.’ . . . In their teaching and preaching the clergy will empower the woman to ‘rightly interpret the word of truth’ concerning her value and dignity as a person made in the image of God … They will help her to regain self-esteem and will provide her with healthy, biblical images of God.”8
Time to be
Yes, we are shocked, disgusted, even angered by this story. We are supposed to be. It was included to show just how fallen humanity is and that the idea of each person functioning as his or her own moral compass is a fallacy. Clergy counselor G. Lloyd Rediger states, “The reality is that clergy are sex offenders. We must move beyond shock if we are to handle cases of clergy sexual malfeasance with justice and caring.”9
From Jeremiah’s words about humanity’s moral state (Jer. 17:9) to Paul’s (Rom. 3), Scripture is painfully clear about human corruption. And what about our modern world makes us think that it is any different or that humans today, doing what is right in their own eyes, will act any more morally than did those in Judges 19?
Anyone not having God as King, as Law-Giver, is in danger of being just as corrupt and evil as those in this story, which, however gruesome and disgusting, powerfully reminds us of our need for God, for His sanctifying power (1 Cor. 6:11) and saving grace (Eph. 2:8).
* With the author’s permission, we have connected the Levite’s detestable behavior with abuse throughout the article. Editors.
- Mabel C. and Colin A. Dunbar, No More Excuses: Domestic Violence—How Will Your Church Respond to the Crisis? (Lincoln, NE: AdventSource), 2009.
- John A. Trusty, Why Some Pastors Cheat . . . And What Can Be Done to Help Them to Be True (Gaithersburg, MD: Signature Book Printing, 2010), 75.
- Kitty Taylor, “The Unheard Cry of the Levite Concubine,” Ministry Matters, October 26, 2016, https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/7805/the-unheard-cry-of-the-levite-concubine.
- Daniel I. Block, “Judges,” in Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, vol. 2, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament, ed. John H. Walton (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 168.
- Block, 168.
- John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 273.
- K. Lawson Younger Jr., Judges, Ruth, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 355.
- Elaine A. Heath, “The Levite’s Concubine,” Priscilla Papers, vol. 13, no. 1, January 31, 1999, https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/levites-concubine.
- G. Lloyd Rediger, Ministry and Sexuality: Cases, Counseling, and Care (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1990), 27.