In a lot of undergraduate psychology programs, a legendary crime case comes up. Kitty Genovese was raped, robbed, and repeatedly stabbed outside her Queens, New York, apartment building in 1964.
Although the killing was horrific, the case isn’t studied for its gruesomeness. Professors don’t generally focus on Genovese or her murderer but rather on the bystanders and neighbors who, according to reports, heard her screams for help but didn’t act to save her life.
Their supposed indifference is explained by a social theory known as the “bystander effect,” which says a bystander is less likely to assist someone if they’re in a group rather than alone.
In short, the response to one woman’s murder reveals the common evil of people “standing by” out of self-protection and passivity.
Something similar happens in Judges chapter 19. An unnamed victim is identified by her connection to a Levite. This man, commanded to follow God’s Law, should have been her safeguard. But shockingly, he throws her into the hands of her abusers.
The Old Testament is packed with narratives of seemingly obscure women like the Levite’s concubine. Some of these stories are rarely taught and largely unknown. And yet, they are part of the canon of Scripture—divinely inspired words that unfold the grand story of redemption. So what do we miss from the larger portrait when we overlook its dimmer corners?
And how might these dark stories—in this case, the account of a molested woman and her indifferent priest—diagnose our own hearts amid the church abuse crisis of our day?
In the Book of Judges, we find a Levite man bending God’s law by marrying a nameless concubine. The dubious union is further compromised by adultery when the concubine is found in the bed of another (19:1–2). The narrator doesn’t give us details, but this much we know: The Levite appears committed to his unfaithful and now estranged concubine. He rides off to her hometown, Bethlehem, to win her back with kind words (v. 3).
After reconciling with the woman, the two of them prepare to leave Bethlehem for home, but only one old man is willing to house them for the night (v. 16). The problem of shelter seems resolved until a sudden plot twist occurs: Rapists encircle the house. They are in Gibeah of Benjamin, which has become the new Sodom.
The men of Gibeah beat on the door and demand the Levite man for sex. But in accordance with the ancient Near Eastern law of hospitality, the old man stops them (v. 23). He’s willing to risk his own family for the protection of his guests—but only the male guests.
The next scene of the narrative reveals the way vulnerable women often get treated in a morally depraved society. When the old man offers his daughter and the concubine to the mob, the Levite decides to toss his own “wife” outside (vv. 24–25). A violent group comes for him, and he preserves his own skin instead of hers.
The woman in this story is nameless and speechless. We don’t hear a word from her. Like Kitty Genovese, her screams in the night go unheard. The men of Gibeah rape her from night to dawn, and after they leave, she collapses in front of the house.
The Levite finds her unresponsive at the door and then carries her home by donkey to divide her body limb by limb into 12 pieces—one for each tribe in Israel (19:29–30). He uses the body parts of a silent, victimized woman to voice his complaint against Gibeah, and the people respond to his cry, not hers. The nation then wages a civil war against the tribe of Benjamin, which precipitates the abuse of even more women (Judges 21–22).
This tale of an assaulted woman and an unrighteous Levite authenticates the conclusion of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25).
The entire book chronicles Israel’s spiraling departure from their covenant God. The nation—including its spiritual leaders—forsook her its King for idols and became a blind people guided by dead things. In that spirit, the Book of Judges ends with a Levite dismembering the woman he had callously thrust into the hands of rapists.
The American evangelical church today has spiritual leaders who construct careful systems to protect themselves from allegations and lawsuits while leaving members of their denominations, churches, and organizations vulnerable to sexual predators.
These men have shoved sheep into the hands of wolves—instead of acting like the shepherd who laid down his life for his flock (John 10:12–15). Church leaders who govern by the wisdom of their own eyes will depart from the “pure religion” that according to James is marked by care for the vulnerable (James 1:27).
As the church abuse crisis unfolds, sexual abuse survivors and advocates are recommending various forms of prevention and intervention, training and treatment. We have to listen to the wisdom of their suggestions. But we should also remember that structural reforms without godly sorrow will prove hollow.
We need self-examining servant leaders who will repent of their self-preservation, turn to God, and start to shepherd the church Jesus purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28). Let’s pray for that with hope.
God’s justice seems distant in Judges 19—and it often seems far from our dark world. Yet what darkness can overcome the light of Christ? Even the murder of a Levite’s concubine has its place in God’s big story of redemption.
The narrative screams out for a righteous king. We read it and long for the kind of priest who would come to pursue an adulterous woman at a well—one without voice or standing in her community—and make her a renewed herald of good news:
Now many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of what the woman said when she testified, “He told me everything I ever did.” (John 4:39, CSB)
Jesus’ ministry to women (even immoral ones) was full of compassion. He wasn’t a passive bystander to their needs—and he’s not passive to our prayers either. Even now, he’s making all things new.
Nana Dolce is the author of The Seed of the Woman: 30 Narratives that Point to Jesus, a visiting lecturer at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, and a Charles Simeon Trust instructor.
This piece is adapted from The Seed of the Woman. Published with permission by 10ofthose.