We don’t normally think of the slaughter of the Levite’s concubine when we read about king Saul in 1 Samuel. But we should. The writer of 1 Samuel assumes that his audience is familiar with the stories in the book of Judges—the twisted sense of justice meted out by more and more corrupt leaders in Israel that culminates in Gibeah’s murder. The writer wants us to notice something about the first kings of Israel that should set the tone for not only how we understand Saul and later David, but even Jesus himself.
But in order for any of that to shine through in the chapters of 1 Samuel, we need to already be familiar with Judges. And for that to work, we need to read the books as whole stories making a central argument. It’s not a matter of academic research or even piecemeal Bible study. It’s a matter of recognizing the flowing of a story from beginning to end.
The book of Judges opens with the failure of Israel to accomplish the task given to her by God. The land of Canaan still has dozens of cultures antagonistic to God and his people. Israel quickly falls into the trap of worshipping the gods of the surrounding nations just like God said would happen if they didn’t fully eliminate his enemies.
So begins the famous cycle of the judges—Israel sins and falls into captivity with a local nation. They realize their mistake and call out for help. God raises up a deliverer (or judge) and redeems them only for the cycle to repeat again (Judg. 2:11–19).
The first judge God raised up was Othniel—a man from the tribe of Judah and cousin to the famously faithful Caleb. Nothing bad is said of Othniel. He obediently executes the will of God and delivers Israel from their oppression and then he dies (Judg. 3:9–11). From there, however, the cycle starts taking a downward turn.
The next judge doesn’t deliver Israel in the straightforward fashion established by Othniel. Instead the writer of the book highlights how Ehud-the-left-handed is a trickster who accomplishes his task deceitfully and in the shadows (Judg. 3:12–31).
Throughout the book, the writer shows how God’s deliverance comes from increasingly left-handed-type characters. The strong, masculine way of right-handed obedience set out with Othniel becomes the deceitful, feminine way of circuitous left-handed compliance. That’s not to say that Judges is in any way trying to argue that men are obedient and women are not, but that the typically masculine form of straightforward march-to-battle gets replaced with trickery and the slyness of Jael luring Sisera into her tent to murder him (Judg. 4:22–24).
Gideon is a coward who has to be held by the hand through his entire campaign and destroys his family’s idols in the cover of darkness (Judg. 6:25–32). Even Samson whom we laud so often in our Sunday school classes rarely delivers Israel because God wants him to. Instead he does it to either exact revenge on the Philistines for foiling his own plans or because he wants to annoy them.
By the time we get to the end of the book, Israel’s leaders have become self-absorbed and barely accomplish the task that God sets them to. The leaders look more and more like the people they’re supposed to save—they want God only when he’s helpful and when serving him would mean giving up their selfish impulses, they abandon him.
The book culminates in the chilling story of a Levite who’s traveling from Bethlehem of Judah and stops in Gibeah of Benjamin to spend the night. As darkness falls, the men of the city reprise a Sodom-like story where they demand the right to assault the stranger who stopped for the evening. Instead, the man throws his concubine to the men who proceed to rape and murder her (19:22–25).
It’s a sobering picture of just how far Israel has fallen. She’s become no better than the wicked nations she was meant to replace. But it sets the scene for an even more disturbing reality a few books later. When the people of Israel demand a king to rule over them like the nations, the one they get is a man from Gibeah of Benjamin. Coming off the story of the Levite’s concubine, we should get chills.
The people asked for a king like the nations, and they get a king like the nations. Just as the descending cycle of the judges more and more reflected the wicked heart of the people, so now Israel’s first king mirrors the heart of the nation.
And Saul doesn’t disappoint. He’s a coward like Gideon, self-absorbed like Samson, and deceitful like Ehud. And instead of murdering a Levite’s concubine, he slaughters the entire priestly family. Saul is everything the judges were wrapped up in a terrible package. But the story doesn’t end there.
Just as the Levite traveled from Bethlehem to Gibeah, so the story of Israel’s kings journeys from Gibeah back to Bethlehem. For there Samuel finds the nation’s second ruler—David born in Bethlehem of Judah. It signals a shift in the leadership of the nation. Instead of a king who leads in fear and self-absorption, David leads with confident obedience to his God. He leads with right-handed, straightforward trust in the God of Israel.
It’s little surprise, then, that Jesus—David’s final heir—is born in Bethlehem. He’s unlike any king Israel ever encounters. And his obedience outclasses his father David’s in every way. But if we fail to read the Bible in large chunks we miss the story of Judges. And if we miss the story of Judges we miss the chilling tale of Saul. And if we miss the chilling tale of Saul, we’ll fail to appreciate the move from Gibeah back to Bethlehem. And in doing so the birth of Jesus doesn’t shine as brightly as it could.
When you read the Bible, let the stories do their job. And keep your eyes open. You never know what will jump to the surface.