The story described in Judges 19:1-21:25 reflects a social and political context of the Judge’s period. Dr. Lester suggests in his Lecture A about the emergence of Israel that the Judge’s period was between the Israelites’ settlement in the Promised land and the rising of the monarchy. According to Dr. Lester’s lecture, unlike Joshua ch. 1-12 which describes Israel’s entering the Promised land as Israel’s all united tribes’ unmitigated success of driving out the Canaanites from the land, the book of Judges depicts the Judges’ period as many failures of Israel’s independent tribes’ driving out the Canaanites in the land; Dr. Lester explains that this coheres with the continuing presence of the non-Israelites among the people for centuries thereafter.
Bandstra also explains the age of Judges as Israel’s transitional period “after the great leadership of Moses and Joshua and before the coming era of the monarchy” and “a time of threat and danger when Israel, internally, seemed to be losing the faith of its ancestors and externally, other groups were threatening Israel with extinction.” (p223) In addition, Bandstra suggests that every judge story in the book of Judges follows the cyclic pattern of the Deuteronomic thematic outline; (1) Israel turns from Yhwh; (2) an enemy oppresses Israel; (3) Israel cries for help; (4) Yhwh sends a judge to deliver Israel, who Bandstra suggests may have been called ‘judge’ because of his fulfillment of God’s judgment to Israel’s enemies and who was empowered by God to rescue the Israelites in trouble. (p 228) Compared with the story of Israel’s all united tribes’ unmitigated success in Joshua ch. 1-12, which Dr. Lester explains is more idealized part of what the Deuteronomistic historian wants to show as what perfect obedience look like, the independent activities of each tribe of Israel might bring about more failure than success in their battle with the Canaanites and let the tribes of Israel lose their faith in God and separated from each other by acting independently.
Considering this information about the Judges’ period regarding the central theme of the story, what is the central theme of this story of Judges 19:1-21:25 that the narrator wants to express? The story described in Judges 19:1-21:25 represents the intertribal conflicts of Israel, that is, Israel’s Civil War against the Benjaminites, in the Judges’ period. After the death of Joshua, the Israelites were threatened and attacked by various non-Israelites in the land (1) which the narrator explains as the result of their worship of Baal rather than Yhwh (2-3). After the stories of judges, Ehud (3), Deborah (4-5), Gideon (6-8), Jephthah (10-12), and Samson (13-16), to deliver the Israelites in trouble, the story of the intertribal conflicts of Israel is given to the reader before the story of the beginning of the monarchy begins in the book of 1 Samuel.
Is this coincidence that the story of intertribal conflict of Israel is given at this position? I think the location of this story at the end of the book of Judges also reflects the central theme of the story; the story appears to articulate the necessity of the unity of Israel’s tribes they showed with the leadership of Joshua and their focus on Yhwh in Joshua ch. 1-12 which resulted in unmitigated success of their entering the Promised land and to provide a clue to the beginning of the monarchy in the history of Israel.
In short, in the story of the intertribal conflict of Israel, the central theme of the story appears to be “the necessity of Israel’s unity as the people of Yhwh with their focus on Yhwh to keep themselves from the enemies in the land under the guidance of an effective and sustained leadership, a king.” The narrator might implicitly express this theme when he starts and ends the story with the sentence, “In those days there was no king in Israel…” in 19:1 and 21:25; in The Harper Collins Study Bible, it is mentioned that the first sentence, “In those days, when there was no king in Israel,” of 19:1 laments the lack of a king who would make such horrifying lawlessness unlikely as the sentences of 17:6, 18:1, and 21:25 do. (p 376)
Stanley also explains this point as follows,
By the end of the book, the narrative has made its point that the system of intermittent judges is incapable of ensuring the peace and stability of the people, whether against outsiders or against one another. For this, a monarchy is needed (Judges 17:6; 21:25). In this way, the artfully structured story line of the book of Judges prepares the way for the establishment of the monarchy in the book of Samuel. (p264)
Thus, the story would have served for the people who preserved it and told it in ancient Israel to recognize the importance of their unity as the people of God with their focus on Him for their salvation and security and also of the leadership, a king, who would keep them in law and settled at the time of threat and danger.
In the story of Judges 19:1-21:25, the central theme is presented through the whole story of Israel’s Civil War against the Benjaminites, who are described as kinfolks of Israel (20:13), starting from a story of a certain Levite and his concubine leading to the Israelites’ Civil War and ending with Israel’s plan to recover from the disastrous consequences of the war. (The Harper Collins Study Bible, pp. 376-381) However, there are some details of the plot elements that would seem strange or even offensive to many modern readers in our social context, which might have functioned good in some way for the ancient audience and its society.
The first one is Gibeah’s outrageous sexual crime against their kinfolks of Israel in which the Levite let his concubine raped by the men of Gibeah and put to death to save himself from their threat of homosexual rape (19:22-30). In this plot, Gibeah’s crime of rape and murder was an offense to Israel’s foundational principles and it made the Levite’s personal anger lead to intertribal conflict ending in the Benjaminites’ destruction (20:1-48). This plot element might seem very strange and offensive to many modern readers in the way of what happened to the Levite’s concubine and the tribal destruction of the Benjaminites as the result of this personal crime. However, the plot element might have served good for the ancient audience to recognize the Deuteronomic message about the sin against Israel’s foundational principles that would result in their own destruction and exile as God’s punishment.
The second one is Israel’s punitive expedition against Jabesh-gilead to destroy them for their not coming up to the Lord to Mizpah (21:8-11) and capture young virgins among them to get the Benjaminite survivors to have wives without the Israelites’ breaking their swearing at Mizpah (21:12-14). This plot might also seem strange and offensive to the modern reader in that Jabesh-gilead was destroyed only for the reasons of their not coming up to the council at Mizpah and of the Israelites’ compassion for the Benjaminiate survivors to allow them to have wives and keep them survive among their tribes (21:15-23). However, this plot element might have served good for the ancient audience to recognize the importance of focusing on God, the violation of which would also result in the tribal destruction like the case of Jabesh-gilead (Deuteronomic message), and of the unity of Israel with twelve tribes and their compassion for their kinfolk tribes.
Finally, as Stanley mentions in the cited passage above, the story depicts that the leaderships of Israel, judges, were incapable of ensuring the peace and stability of the people even against one another and as explained in The Harper Collins Study Bible (p380), 21:25 implies that “looking back at chs 17-21, the idolatrous shrine, rape and murder, civil war, and genocide all might be a consequence of having no king,” which Stanley asserts prepares the way for the establishment of the monarchy in the book of Samuel. (p264)