THE SILENCE THAT SHOUTS
by Pamela Walford
“Dismembering the concubine’s body and sending parts to each of the 12
tribes was intended to awaken Israel from its moral lethargy and to marshal
the tribes to face up to their responsibility. It is ironic that the
one who issued such a call was himself selfish and insensitive. See
also Saul’s similar action in 1 Sa 11:7” (Barker 355).
For many women, the rape and murder of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19
and her subsequent dismemberment is among the most horrifying of all biblical
narratives, particularly since God appears to be blatantly silent about it.
Moreover, typical scholarly efforts to explain this passage compound the horror
because the atrocity of the rape is usually minimized and the character of God
often distorted through attempts to find spiritual meaning in the wicked acts
that permeate the book of Judges. Admittedly, Judges is a difficult book
to interpret since the Lord appears to eschew commenting on any event beyond the
statement, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (NIV
Judg. 17:6). This silence has commonly been interpreted as his endorsement of
the civil war that the concubine’s death provokes. The higher spiritual
cause of war obscures the tragic murder of the concubine and implies God’s
ambivalence toward her and toward women in general.
However, if Judges is read afresh without the androcentric presupposition of a
God-ordained inferiority of women, we discover that his silence is not the
noncommittal neutrality it appears to be. We discover that his silence
shouts from the pages of Scripture as the sin against women that was set in
motion in Genesis (3:12, 16) comes to a point of no return in Judges.
Women saturate Judges like no other book in Scripture, and their sheer number
should be enough to send up a signal that their presence is intentional and
pregnant with meaning. Caleb’s daughter, Acsah, appears in the very first
chapter; Deborah and Jael dominate chapters four and five; a nameless woman
slays Abimelech in chapter nine; Jephthah’s daughter is the focus of chapter
eleven; Samson’s mother figures prominently in chapter thirteen; chapters
fourteen to sixteen pivot around Samson’s Philistine women; chapter nineteen
details the story of the unfortunate concubine and chapter twenty-one closes the
book with the abduction of the Gilead girls and their Shiloh sisters.
A closer look at these Judges women reveals a progressive, or rather regressive,
shift in their status in the young nation of Israel. Judges opens with
Acsah being bestowed to Othniel as a reward for capturing Kiriath Sepher.
Her status is such that she asks for and receives a valuable tract of land from
her father (1:11-15).
The next woman is Deborah, a prophetess and judge, who is told by the Lord to
command Barak to attack Sisera. Barak consents to do this only if Deborah
comes with him. She agrees but tells Barak that because he will not go
without her, the Lord will hand Sisera over to a woman and he will be denied the
honor of victory. A grisly narration of Sisera’s death at the hands of
Jael follows and chapter five is devoted to Deborah’s song of praise to the
Lord, in which she lauds his mighty work through herself, Jael and Barak.
The narratives of Gideon and Abimelech occupy chapters six through nine, and we
encounter no women until the death of Abimelech, when a woman drops a rock on
his head. It is interesting to note the differing attitudes between
Abimilech and Barak. Barak willingly shares the glory of victory with two
women, while Abimelech is more afraid of being killed by a woman than he is of
death itself. It is also not much of a stretch to claim that this same
anonymous woman defeated Abimelech’s army because they immediately retreat after
she kills him (9:50-55).
Jephthah’s nameless daughter appears in chapter eleven. Jephthah is a
mighty warrior who receives the Spirit of the Lord to aid him in battle.
Nevertheless, Jephthah attempts to manipulate God by making a wicked vow to
sacrifice “whatever comes out of my door to meet me” (11:30) if the Lord will
give him victory over the Ammonites. Jephthah, who should have known the
Law of Moses and the command not to kill, compounds his sin when he murders his
daughter to keep his unholy vow. With her death, daughters depreciate in
value, going from something to be won in victory to something to be sacrificed
to purchase victory.
However, God continues to demonstrate his esteem of women and sends an angel of
the Lord to the nameless wife of Manoah. The angel visits Manoah’s wife
twice before finally appearing to the unbelieving Manoah. Manoah is
terrified that he will die after he realizes he has seen the Lord but his wife
chastises him for his foolish fear. It is noteworthy that it is Manoah’s
wife who receives the Lord’s message and who is commanded to keep the Nazarite
The son of these two, Samson, brings all manner of destruction upon himself in
chapters 14-16 because of his sinful weakness for Philistine women (Exod.
34:16), suggesting that the Lord reveres the women of Israel and does not look
favorably on Samson’s rejection of them.
Micah and his idols follow in chapters 17-18 and the tribe of Dan falls into
idolatry, which Israel seems to tolerate without any sense of outrage, and for
which the Lord appears to withhold judgment.
This brings us to one of the most appalling events in Scripture - the gang rape
and dismemberment of the Levite’s concubine (19). Ignoring the fact that
any man who had a concubine was already an adulterer himself, we can only
speculate on what motivated the concubine to be unfaithful. The character
of her husband as demonstrated by his actions coupled with the fact that he
tarries four months before seeking her out at her father’s home, implies an
abusive environment from which she sought escape or comfort. Any man who
can cut his wife to pieces, even if she were unfaithful, has to be a monster,
and her death smacks of a thinly disguised “honor killing” The merciless
manner in which the Levite hands his concubine over to the savagery of the
Benjamite men and then in the morning prepares to continue his journey home
without her, exposes a brutal heart that is murderous to the degree that when he
trips over his wife lying on the threshold, he commands her to “get up; let’s
go” (19:28) and then straps onto his donkey when she does not respond.
We can only hope that she is in fact dead when he dismembers her and sends her
body parts to the twelve tribes in a disgusting act that still offends society
in every culture. Israel is also appalled, “such a thing has never been
seen or done” (19:30).
Barker explains this macabre deed as a call to Israel’s sense of morality.
However, the book of Judges clearly demonstrates that Israel’s sense of morality
is severely compromised by this point. Why then is all Israel so offended
that civil war flares up? Is it that a woman has been raped and murdered,
that a man’s pride has been insulted by homosexuality or that his property (the
concubine) has been destroyed? What possible explanation can there be for
such a great lust for the blood of a brother that in the aftermath, thousands of
lives have been lost and a tribe teeters on extinction?
Virtually every response to the rape of the concubine on the part of Israel is
steeped in sin, save for the town of Jabesh-Gilead, which seems to be the only
instance of common sense and restraint in this incident. Israel
demonstrates a measure of morality by demanding the offending Benjamites be
turned over to them, but they totally miss the point that the husband was
equally, if not more so, at fault. This is understandable since he
conveniently omitted his full involvement in the retelling of his tale.
Nevertheless, Israel does not bother to verify his story, and even if they had,
it is doubtful anyone would have been offended because Israelite men already had
a habit of offering up wives and virgin daughters to save their necks (Judge.
20:24, Gen. 13:10-16, 19:6-8.26:6-9).
Therefore, one wonders anew what Israel was so upset about? The only
possible conclusion one can make is that Israel was merely bloodthirsty.
Even before they demand the Benjamites to surrender the men of Gibeah, they
amass an army, swearing to put to death any tribe that refuses to join them
(21:5) and mastermind the genocide of the Benjamite tribe, swearing a curse on
anyone who gives their daughter to them in marriage (21:1,18).
Although, the Lord is noticeably silent as Israel’s sinfulness escalates, it can
be deduced from the law (Deut. 5:6-7) that Dan’s idolatry angers him. It
can be further deduced from his threat to punish Israel if they mistreat
orphans, widows and aliens (Exod. 22:22-24) and for which he eventually sent
them into exile (Zec. 7:8-14), that he is angered over the rape concubine and is
also angered that the practice of delivering up of women was not uncommon.
If we analyze the civil war with this in mind, we see that God does indeed
communicate his wrath and punishes both Israel and Benjamin. When Israel
asks God the wrong question, “Who should go first against the Benjamites?”
(20:18), he instructs them to send Judah into battle and allows Benjamin to kill
twenty-two thousand of them.” Perplexed by this defeat, Israel amends their
question; “Shall we go up again to battle against the Benjamites, our brothers?”
However, this is not a moral questioning about the ethics of killing their
relatives. Rather, the question exposes their sinful hearts and is a
poorly disguised attempt to manipulate him. They presume God’s
faithfulness regardless of their sins and expect him to help them murder their
The Lord tells them to go into battle again and an additional eighteen thousand
Israelites are killed. Finally, they recognize that they have offended the
Lord in some way. They frantically pray and fast and offer burnt
sacrifices. The Lord tells Israel that he will give them victory over
Benjamin, but they demonstrate that they still do not have a clue as to the
nature of their sin when they butcher so many Benjamites, including the women
and children, that tribe is left too small to repopulate itself (21:16).
They again turn to God and blame him for this calamity, asking why he could have
allowed such a thing.
The civil war ends but Israel learns nothing from it. They regret their
foolish vow to keep their daughters from Benjamin but sinfully believe their vow
has the power to obligate the Lord to curse on their behalf. They remember
their oath to kill anyone who did not join them in the civil war and proceed to
massacre Jabesh-Gilead, the only community with enough discernment to stay out
of the war. They spare Gilead’s virgin daughters and send them to Benjamin
as brides. Unfortunately, four hundred Gilead girls are insufficient and
two hundred more girls are abducted from Shiloh. The book closes with
everyone returning to his to live on his own inheritance and doing as each sees
But what of the Judges women, who begin the book on equal footing with men in
terms of relationship with the Lord and close the book as mere male possessions
of no more significance than Saul’s oxen (1 Sam. 11:7)? Again, God appears
to refrain from voicing his opinion explicitly, but by his character we must
surmise that he has an opinion and that he communicates it in some way. Is
his silence tacit approval? Are women a substandard species of humanity
whom he values so little that he does nothing to oppose their dehumanization?
Since women are made in his image (Gen. 1:27), the answer cannot be anything but
a resounding no because to despise women would be to despise himself.
The book of Judges closes on four hundred Gilead women who have witnessed the
massacre of their families, who fear and possibly even hate their Benjamite
husbands and who are rearing the next generation of girls. There are two
hundred abducted Shiloh brides rearing the next generation of girls. There
is an entire nation of Israelite women rearing the next generation of girls, all
of whom have seen or heard what happened to the concubine and the brides of
Benjamin. Would any woman in Israel be so foolish as to risk allowing
herself an individual identity? What woman would not question God’s love
for her when he seems to have not cared enough to deliver them from the abuse of
men? What did these women teach their daughters? Lastly, what does
the relationship between husbands and wives now look like, but more importantly,
what does the relationship between men and God look like after their having cast
aside the very thing that God said was for their good (Gen. 2:18)? Is it
possible to truly know God through only half of his image?
As the story of Judges plays out we witness God silently lift his hand of
restraint from Israel and give them over to their depravity. In the
aftermath, thousands are dead, but that is not the end of it. The answer
to God’s silence lies more in the questions Judges raises than in the solution,
which does not appear until Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection, and we see
that the consequence of Israel’s ultimate sin in follows them throughout the Old
The abuse of women that began in Genesis comes full circle in Judges. The
husbands of Israel were cut off from a full relationship with their wives simply
by virtue of their subjugation of them. While that is a great loss on its
own, the greater loss is the fullness of the knowledge of God through the loss
of relationship with half of his image – woman.
And so it stood, until Jesus redeemed the events in Judges through his
restoration of women. He taught the women; they called him “Rabboni” (John
20:16); he would not condemn the adulteress (John 8:4-11), and he loved the
Samaritan woman (John 4:7-26). And, he brought women full circle back to
the status they enjoyed at the outset of Judges when he commissioned Mary
Magdalene, the first human to see the resurrected Lord, to “go and tell ” the
men (John 20:17-18) as Deborah had.
Barker, Kenneth, ed. NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI:
Sasson, Jean P. Princess. New York: William Morrow, 1992.
 “Honor killing,” an act of murder against a woman who has brought dishonor
on her family through infidelity or having been raped, is still practiced in
some countries (Sasson 199-209).