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This is the last part of the 5-chapter “appendix” to the book of Judges. In this appendix we have two “ground level” examples of what Israel’s life was like between judges. Last week, the case study revealed the “hollowness” and “weightlessness” of Israelite culture and religion. On the outside, it invoked the name of the Lord and utilized the forms of Biblical worship, but at its core it was idolatrous. That is: 1) it relied on religion rather than repentance, for 2) a goal of manipulating God rather than serving and loving God, and 3) it was grounded in human experience rather than divine revelation.
The first story in the appendix (17:1-18:31) was very rather banal and slightly comical. It depicted weak-willed, opportunistic, and unprincipled people trampling on each other. That is why we readers are unprepared and stunned by the violence this second story–it goes far beyond anything we have read already. Even by modern standards, it is deeply repulsive to both ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ sensibilities. But though it is very different in tone, it’s theme is the same (21:25) as in the first story (17:6)–the need for a Savior-King.
The Levites were the descendants of Levi, one of the twelve sons of Jacob. The Levites were the only tribe of Israel who were not given an allotment of land in Canaan. Rather than working the land for their livelihood, they were to live near and work in the tabernacle and the worship of God–and they were to be supported by the tithes and gifts of the rest of the people. (Read Numbers 18:20-24.) The actual priests were Levites who were descended from Aaron (Numbers 3:10), while the rest of the Levites assisted the priests in the work of the tabernacle. The Levites were considered by the Lord to be consecrated to his service and ministry (Numbers 3:5-13) and thus had a special responsibility to be holy.
Concubine: “A secondary wife acquired by purchase or as a war captive, and allowed in a polygamous society….” (New Bible Dictionary, p.246.) A concubine was essentially a slave-mistress who was not a prostitute, but was not a wife in the full sense of the term. She was a ‘second-class’ wife, a slave-mistress, a sex-object. That is why sometimes in this passage the Levite is called the ‘master’ of his concubine (19:27) but once her ‘husband’ (v.3). While God makes clear in the beginning (Gen.2:24) and in the teaching of Jesus (Mark 10:7-8) that marriage is to be between one man and one woman, many believers in intervening times nonetheless had both multiple wives and concubines (e.g.Abraham in Genesis 16:2-3) contrary to God’s design. But from the history of Abraham through Jacob down to Solomon, the practice of polygamy is revealed in the Bible to bring heart-ache and pain in every family without exception. What we see here in Judges is that a Levite, who should have been quite holy, has been shaped by the pagan culture surrounding him, by buying a concubine and treating her like a piece of property.