Every now and then I stumble on a story in the Bible that is so uniquely horrifying it makes me consider Scripture in an entirely different way. Today, that story came from Judges 19:1-30: it’s the unfortunate tale of a concubine.
In the story, a Levite takes a concubine from Bethlehem. She is unfaithful to him and, as a result, goes “back to her parents’ home.” After four months he finally goes to retrieve her and ends up staying at her parents’ house for a time, eventually eschewing their invitation to linger and heading back home.
The journey is long and, rather than stop for rest in a city where the people are “not Israelites,” the Levite and his concubine rest instead in Gibeah. That false sense of assurance – the feeling of being safe among one’s own people – doesn’t linger long. No one in the city offers them any hospitality (a red flag if ever there was one in Scripture) and the man, his servant, his concubine, and their animals are forced to stay in the town square until an old man invites them in.
Then, much like in Sodom and Gomorrah, the townspeople come knocking on the door with foul intentions in mind. They want to have sex with the Levite; the Levite’s horrified host offers up his own virgin daughter and the concubine instead. The townsmen do not listen and so, as a result, the Levite sends his concubine out to them. They – this bothers me even to write – “raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go” (25).
The verse that sticks most with me of that entire horrible passage is this:
When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. (27).
She’s dead; the Levite loads her onto his donkey, then dismembers her body and sends the bits all around Israel as a warning about the depravity of the town. The result of this, eventually, is that the rest of Israel goes to war against the Benjamites as punishment for this heinous act.
There’s a lot of stuff to be taken from this miserable wreck of a story, not least of which is that the many, many problems therein occurred in no small part because “in those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Judges 21:25). This bleak and violent chapter is a meditation on the wicked nature of man when left to himself, a dark parable about the necessities of hospitality, and a morality-play-that-isn’t in which even the “best” characters are reprehensible in their behavior.
But reading it, I return over and over again to the imagine of the concubine: dead in the doorway, with her hands on the threshold, and of so little apparent worth that the one man obligated to care for her collides with her body as he steps out to continue on his journey. Her unfaithfulness has little bearing on the horrible way she died; she is no better and no worse than many of the other characters in the story. And in this description of her dead body, Scripture can offer no clearer meaning: she wanted in. In her suffering and her terror, she held on desperately to the threshold. Safety, security, and those who could protect her waited on the other side of the door.
It never opened.
Contrast that haunting image with the repeated warm welcome that resonates throughout the New Testament. “I am the gate,” says Jesus in John 10:7. “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out…” In Matthew 7:7-8 Jesus promises that the door will be opened for all who knock. And to the church in Philadelphia, in Revelation it is said that “what he opes no one can shut…See, I have placed an open door before you that no one can shut” (3:7-8).
It is in the New Testament that Jesus makes the acquaintance of women not so different from the abandoned concubine: He permits a sinful woman to anoint Him (Luke 7:36-50), reveals Himself to a Samaritan woman who has had multiple husbands and is currently living with a man to whom she is not married (John 4), and He intervenes in the near-stoning of an adulterous woman (John 8). The woman a Levite did not bother or care to save was the sort of woman Jesus would have quite willingly talked to and guided.
What a contrast! The concubine died alone in front of a closed door, her life apparently of little value to anyone but God; yet we – who are no less sinners, and probably far worse, and still so highly valued – stand freely before an open door. In a world without a king, the concubine’s life is lost and barriers stand in the way of hope and rescue; under the guidance of the King, no life is valueless and all who call Christ Lord may enter.
The lingering image in the story of the concubine is a woman desperately trying to get inside. But the lingering image of the salvation story is the temple curtain torn in two from top to bottom. It was not enough for God merely to open the door for those who wanted in; He destroyed the door completely and annihilated the barriers keeping you out.
Yes, you. Even you. Even me. Small and wretched as I am, and as in desperate need of help to get inside. The world of the closed door is a depraved, wretched, hopeless, helpless horror. But we don’t live in it.
The door is open for you.
The door is open for you.
Please don’t lose the wonder of it.
The door is open for you.