Shofetim Chapter 19

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 19

This chapter is the first of three that contain the concluding story of the Book of Shofetim, known as “Pilegesh B’Givah” or “The Concubine in Givah”. It begins with a tale of marital discord between a Levite from Har Ephraim and his “pilegesh”, or concubine. She leaves him and returns to live with her father in Bet Lehem in the territory of Yehuda. After one year and four months, the husband decides to attempt reconciliation with his concubine, so he travels to her father’s home and remains with his in-laws for three days.

The reunion is a joyous and positive one, so much so that, contrary to his planned itinerary, he stays a fourth day. On the fifth day, the couple get a late start returning home but insist on leaving, over the objections of the concubine’s father. Unfortunately, it becomes dark long before they make it home, so they must find a place to stay for the night. Rather than seek lodging in a non-Jewish town, they come to a city of the tribe of Binyamin hoping to be invited into someone’s residence to sleep. However, they are ignored completely; nobody offers them hospitality.

Eventually, an elderly man from Har Ephraim who is sojourning in Givah encounters them on the street and welcomes them into his home. In a scene clearly reminiscent of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the townspeople form an angry mob and surround the house, demanding to meet the strange visitor who had trespassed in their village. The homeowner initially offers to give them his virgin daughter and his visitor’s concubine as a consolation prize so they will desist from harming the Levite guest; they stubbornly refuse.

The Levite then decides to take the initiative himself, placating the crowd by physically presenting them with his concubine. This strategy seems to satisfy the mob which proceeds to abuse the woman throughout the night. When the Levite wakes up in the morning he founds her lifeless body on the doorstep. He cuts her corpse into twelve pieces and sends one to each of the tribes of Israel, insisting that they respond to this depraved behavior and redress the horrific injustice that was committed.

This terrible story illustrates the moral decline of the Jewish people. The tribe of Binyamin conducts itself like Sodom and Gomorrah, denying hospitality to fellow Jewish visitors and raping and assaulting innocent women to satisfy their aggressive instincts. The details of the plot are disturbingly similar to those of the account of Lot and his daughters in Sodom. Indeed, the phraseology used in the text is deliberately borrowed from the story in Genesis to emphasize this commonality. The Torah’s description of Sodom and Gomorrah was meant to serve as an illustration of everything the descendants of Avraham are NOT supposed to become; clearly, they have fallen short of this expectation.

Ironically, the Levite believed he was making a wiser and safer choice visiting a Jewish town than a non-Jewish neighborhood; the text means to highlight how far the circumstances on the ground had changed. The kindness and compassion of Jews, our sacred heritage from Avraham Avinu, could no longer be relied upon simply as a matter of course. The Jewish people had exchanged their moral and ethical standards for those of their Canaanite neighbors; they had fundamentally lost their unique “Jewish” identity.

At the same time, the story does not reflect well on the “protagonists” either. The Levite, first of all, has a concubine instead of a legal wife. This is surely inconsistent with the spiritual calling of the Tribe of Levi. When approached by the man from Har Ephraim who becomes his host, he presents himself as a pilgrim on the way to the House of God in Shiloh, a far cry from the true explanation of why he happened to be in Givah that night (his marital situation coupled with partying a bit too intensely at his in-laws’ home).

The Levite is supposedly repulsed by the horrific deed committed by the Benjaminites, but he himself was responsible for providing the angry crowd with his concubine as a plaything and he didn’t even bother to check on her again until he had gotten a good night’s sleep inside! Bear in mind that he had just “reconciled” with this woman after a lengthy separation and was happily returning with her to their shared residence in Har Ephraim; yet somehow neither he nor his host had any compunction about offering her as a commodity or a bribe to the townspeople so they would leave the men in the house alone.

None of the characters in this sordid tale emerge as paragons of justice, compassion or morality. This is undoubtedly a further indictment of the Jewish people, and the Levites in particular, for their spiritual and religious failures and for the wanton violation of their covenant with Hashem.