My sister’s keeper: The Levite as brother-guardian

How the priests and Levites served as brother-guardians of Israel until her wedding day

My sister’s keeper: The Levite as brother-guardian
Gustave Doré, The Israelite discovers his concubine, dead on his doorstep, c. 1880
For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. (2 Cor. 11:2)

The book of Judges ends with the gruesome story of the Levite and his concubine, her brutal rape in Gibeah, and the national conflict that ensues as a result (Jud. 19-22). It is, as E T A Davidson says, “an allegory of the history of the pre-monarchic period”. She continues:

In the parable, the Concubine is “Israel,” ravished by the terrible tribe of Benjamin, and now being cut apart into 12 pieces (i.e., 12 separate dysfunctional tribes) […] Israel is not even at this time a legal wife. [E T A Davidson, Intricacy, Design & Cunning in the Book of Judges, 60.]

This insight by Davidson is basically sound, relying as it does on the very common motif of Israel-as-bride. But given that Scripture focuses so much of its marital symbolism on the figure of the king, why is Israel portrayed here as married to a Levite?

I will argue that by placing the Levite in the husband role for this narrative, the author of Judges is bringing to our attention that the Levitical priesthood is not an adequate “husband” for the people of Israel, and that at this point in their history some better husband is needed, namely, a king. The Levites fail to exercise faithfully their office as the brother-guardian of the bride Israel, charged to guard her virginity until she is given to her husband, the king.

The king as the husband of Israel

The marital motif of Scripture is closely connected to the pairing of the figures of the king as husband with the people or the city as his bride.

Psalm 45 exhibits this theme with clarity yet economy, evoking key themes of the literature concerning David and his son Solomon. Like David himself, the king is a handsome figure, moreso than all “the children of men” (Ps. 45:2; cf. 1 Sam. 16:12). The king is “blessed forever”: this should remind us of the Davidic covenant, in which God promises that David’s son would rule “forever” as God’s own son (2 Sam. 7:13, 16). The king images God’s own person: he is addressed as God on an eternal throne, alongside God himself (Ps. 45:6-7).

Alongside this Davidic king is a fittingly glorious bride. In marrying this king, she is decisively leaving behind her former people and her father’s house in promise of being the mother of many children, who will be “princes in all the earth” (Ps. 45:6, 16). She is illustrated in terms that evoke the Solomonic temple: she is draped in the gold of Ophir, just as David prepared gold of Ophir for the construction of the temple in Jerusalem (1 Chr. 29:3-4). The daughter of Tyre is present at the wedding to offer the bride a gift, just as Hiram of Tyre offered his services for the construction of the temple under Solomon (1 Kings 7:13-14).

The king, as God’s son, represents his Father’s person in a more direct way than do the king’s other servants. The writer to the Hebrews invokes this distinction, contrasting “Moses [who] was faithful in all God’s house as a servant” with Christ, God’s son, who is “the express image of his person” (Heb. 3:5; 1:3, ESV). Therefore, it is fitting for Israel’s marriage covenant to the Lord to be imaged in terms of marrying the king rather than marrying a priest.

Israel’s marriage to the Davidic monarch is a high point in its national history, and that marriage brings resolution to Israel’s “unmarried” state under the guardianship of the priests and Levites. In that time prior to the arrival of the king, it was imperative that the bride Israel be prepared and kept pure for her wedding day.