Real Bible Studies: Judges, The Levite and his Concubine

The book of Judges concludes with a rather gruesome story about a Levite and his concubine, which appears to have contributed elements to or borrowed elements from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis. Initially, it starts out as another meandering tale highlighting the overwhelming customs of hospitality exhibited by denizens of the Middle East at that time, but quickly takes a dark turn as the Levite and his entourage take refuge in the city of Gibeah controlled by the Benjamites. It’s here that the story is almost a verbatim retelling of that of Sodom and Gomorrah. It seems appropriate to have parallels to Sodom and Gomorrah, because the incident leads to the near destruction of the tribe of Benjamin.

This tale begins with the disclaimer common to Judges that it takes place before Israel had a king. An unnamed Levite living in Ephraim takes a concubine from among the tribe of Judah. The term “concubine” appears to be synonymous with “wife” in this instance, though, in the NIV, she’s always called his concubine and never his wife or bride. Different translations of the Bible refer to her as a “slave woman” or his “mistress” or “second wife” but never his wife. Judges tells us that she was unfaithful to him, though exactly what she did is undisclosed, other than relating that the woman left him and returned to her family. Apparently, he had no hard feelings about it, because after a few months, he went to Judah to persuade her to return. It’s possible that her unfaithfulness was manifested solely in the act of leaving her husband and returning to her parents, which betrothed women weren’t supposed to do.

When the Levite goes to retrieve the concubine, the almost comical traditions of hospitality come into play, as the woman takes the Levite to her father’s house, and the father is so gracious, he pretty much won’t let the man leave. After three days, the father, who is frequently referred to as the Levite’s father-in-law in the NIV, persuades the Levite, referred to as the man’s son-in-law, to stay for breakfast rather than leaving at the first light of dawn, and once the Levite has indulged the father, he then insists the Levite not leave late in the day, but stay for another night. This goes on for a day or so, before the Levite finally insists and heads out with his donkeys, his servant and his concubine in the afternoon.

Since they got a late start due to the graciousness of their host, nightfall approaches just as they’re nearing the town of Jebus, which was the home of the Jebusites. Earlier in Judges, we’re told that the Benjamites were unable to drive out the Jebusites from Jerusalem, and were still living alongside them. The Levite’s servant suggests they stay there for the evening, but the Levite makes the fateful decision not to visit any town not inhabited by one of the tribes of Israel, so they head on until they come to Gibeah which is part of Benjamin. Judges 19:15 concludes with the Levite and his entourage camped out in the city square for the evening, after no one offered the Levite hospitality.

As evening comes on, an old man who also comes from the hill country of Ephraim finds the Levite and his group camped out and asks them why they’re staying in the square. The Levite explains his situation and the old man invites him and his group back to the old man’s house, and cautions them against staying outdoors. The Levite accepts. While they’re eating, what’s described as the “wicked men of the city” show up and demand that the stranger be brought out, as the wicked men state they want to have sex with him. Here, other translations give slightly differing details as the Living Bible refers to them as “sex perverts,” and the KJV calls them, “certain sons of Belial,” and the International Standard Version lists them as “certain ungodly men”. In all translations, it’s made clear that it isn’t all of Gibeah, just a few bad apples, though one could argue the situation was set up by none of the people of town offering hospitality to the stranger, other than the one person from Ephraim.

Judges 19:22-24 is almost verbatim to what’s in Genesis 19:4-8, including the offer by the homeowner to bring out his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine, as opposed to Lot offering his daughters to the wicked men of Sodom. Other parallels include the fact that the old man is not of the tribe inhabiting Gibeah, similar to Lot being a newcomer in Sodom, and his words to the wicked men are also very similar to what Lot says to the men of Sodom in discouraging them from harming his guests. In this instance, however, the Levite sends out his concubine when the wicked men won’t go away, and the translation of Judges in the NIV states she was raped and abused all night. At daybreak, the poor woman crawls back to the door of the house, where she presumably dies, though the only translation of Judges 19 I found which explicitly says that she died was the Living Bible. The NIV doesn’t specifically spell it out, though it’s made more explicit in the next chapter.

The next morning, the Levite awakens, apparently refreshed from all the hospitality he has received, and goes out to find his concubine laying at the doorstep. Without inquiring how she’s doing, or checking to see if she’s even breathing, he tells her to get up because they need to hit the road, but, as one might imagine, she doesn’t respond, having been raped and abused all night by a group of strangers. The Levite puts her on one of his donkeys, and heads back to Ephraim, and for those who don’t believe things can get worse, trust me, they do. Judges tells us that when he arrived home, the Levite took out a knife, cut the woman into twelve parts and sent these parts to all the areas of Israel, where the recipients were justifiably horrified at receiving them. Let that sink in a moment. The man cut the woman, who may or may not have been dead, into twelve pieces, then distributed the pieces throughout Israel.

This is only the first part of the story.

We need to stop right here and examine all that’s happened up to this point in the tale. A man takes a concubine who runs away from him back to her family. He goes to retrieve her, and after enjoying her family’s hospitality for several days, sets out for home with her. That night, he refuses to go to the nearest town, simply because the residents aren’t Israelite, and ends up in a town controlled by the Benjamites. He’s taken in by an old man who comes from his home region, and they’re set upon by the wicked men of town. The old man offers the wicked men his virgin daughter and his guest’s concubine, and when the wicked men don’t accept the offer, the Levite sends his concubine out to unspeakable horrors at the hands of an unruly crowd of strangers. The next day, the man shows no concern for the woman, who’s lying unresponsive at the door to the house where he’s staying, then loads her onto a donkey, and once he gets home, he carves her up and sends the parts out to people he doesn’t even know. We can only assume she was dead when he started cutting her up, but the translation of Judges 19 in the NIV — not to mention most other translations I’ve read — doesn’t explicitly say she was.

In the next chapter, it’s made clear that the concubine had, in fact, died from the treatment she received in Gibeah. The remaining tribes of Israel are assembled, and the Levite tells the assembled tribes how this came to be. Judges tells us that after receiving parts of the concubine, four hundred thousand armed men gathered in Mizpah, with the exception of the Benjamites, who, the text says, had nonetheless heard of the assembly. Once the tribes have heard the Levite’s story, they resolve to go against Gibeah for the crime, and send word to the Benjamites to surrender the men responsible, so they can be put to death. The Benjamites, however, don’t listen, and instead arm themselves, and head to Gibeah to fight. It’s not stated why the Benjamites would rather go to war than surrender a few lawless citizens, but this is the choice they make. After consulting the Lord, the Israelites decide Judah will lead the attack.

Things don’t go very well for the assembled tribes, because apparently the Benjamites were fierce warriors. In Genesis 49, Benjamin is compared to a ravening wolf, and apparently this translates into being very impressive on the battlefield as well. The first day, Judges says, twenty-two thousand warriors are slain at the hands of the Benjamites. Following this, the Israelite tribes ask the Lord if they should be fighting against their fellow tribe. God tells them to go back and fight some more. Things don’t go much better and the tribes lose another eighteen thousand men in the battle. Once again, they return to the Lord to question whether they should just let bygones be bygones. God tells them to go back and fight some more, promising to deliver the Benjamites to them. This time the Israelite tribes set up an ambush, and using other clever tactics, manage to lure the Benjamites away from Gibeah, where their ambush forces are able to take the town and put it to the sword, before burning everything. A cloud of smoke sent up from Gibeah signals that the Israelites have won the day, and seeing it, the Benjamites flee the battlefield. This time it’s Benjamin who takes the brunt of the battle, losing first eighteen thousand individuals on the battlefield, then another five thousand as they flee toward the wilderness, and finally an additional two thousand. Judges tells us only six hundred men from Benjamin manage to take refuge in the wilderness. The Israelite tribes retaliate by putting all of Benjamin save the six hundred hiding in the woods to the sword, including women and children. They then take an oath to add insult to injury by swearing that they won’t give their daughters in marriage to anyone from Benjamin, not that there are that many left by this point.

As is common in Biblical tales, in Judges 21, once the tribes of Israel have pretty much decimated Benjamin, they begin to feel really bad about wiping out one of their fellow tribes, but given the oath they’ve taken, there’s not much they can do to change things. They assemble at Mizpah and build an altar, and once again take an oath that anyone who fails to show up, other than the remaining Benjamites, who are still in hiding, will be put to death. While grieving for Benjamin, they realize no one from Jabesh Gilead showed up at the assembly, so they immediately dispatch twelve thousand troops to put the entire tribe to death, save for all the unmarried virgin women, which, once the carnage is done, comes to about four hundred. The remaining tribes take these women to Benjamin as a peace offering, but since there are six hundred remaining Benjamites and only four hundred women, the remaining tribes are at a loss as to how to provide women to help replenish Benjamin. They seem to forget that the reason the Benjamites have no women for their wives is because the other tribes put them all to the sword, along with the children, all for the actions of a few wicked individuals in a single town against a single individual. This is not meant to imply the crime wasn’t horrifying, but the punishment was totally out of proportion to the infraction even taking into account Benjamin’s reaction to it. At last, the tribes instruct the Benjamites to go to the festival of the Lord in Shiloh, and when the young women come out to dance, the Benjamites should rush out and kidnap the women for their wives. In doing so, the fathers are let off the hook, because they didn’t break their oaths by giving their daughters to the Benjamites.

Honestly, how any woman can read the Old Testament and feel good about what goes on in much of it is beyond me. For every Deborah and Ruth, there are countless nameless concubines, wives and daughters who are treated like absolute garbage. In most cases, the writers don’t even bother to give them names, such as the case with the Levite’s concubine, or Lot’s wife and daughters in Genesis. It’s rare in the genealogies for the wives names to even be included, except in certain cases like Leah, Rachel, and Tamar. Even Ruth, who’s held up as a paragon of virtue, does little more than make herself available to Boaz, since she has no authority or power of her own, being a Moabite and a woman and a recent follower of the God of Israel. Deborah is one of the few women in the whole of the Old Testament who holds her own among the men, and even she derives part of her authority from her deceased husband, and the fact she’s a prophet.

In this story from Judges, the men have little consideration for any of the women, the Levite sending his concubine out to the wicked men of Gibeah to satisfy them with no concern for the health and well-being of the woman, and the men of Benjamin are instructed to simply go out and grab whichever woman they want from among the maidens of Shiloh, without obtaining consent from the women or their families. When warriors are sent to punish a town or tribe, the women and children are shown no mercy at all, unless they’re virgins, in which case they’re simply stolen away and forced to become wives to complete strangers, to make up for actions committed by the men. More than anything, it highlights the tribal customs common among the people who came to be known as the children of Israel, and many of these customs are still in evidence in the modern world throughout the Middle East, Pakistan, and wherever else the tribal lifestyle is still in practice.

Judges ends pretty much as it began, by informing the readers that Israel was without a king and that the tribes pretty much did as they chose, which is aptly illustrated by the stories in Judges. While Benjamin is left devastated by the attack, the tribe proves to be very resilient, becoming one of the tribes represented as part of Jerusalem in later history, and being the tribe of Saul, the first anointed king of Israel. Aside from Judah, the majority tribe in Jerusalem, and the Levites, who comprised the priestly class, Benjamin was one of the more important tribes in the later history of Israel. One source I read speculated that Benjamin’s identification with wolves may have come from their bearing a tribal standard depicting a wolf. My own ancestors, who adopted the name “Lupo” meaning “wolf” in Italian, were Jews who appear to have identified with Benjamin.