I had to study this one before I could write about it. It’s still technically my first reading, but unlike everything else in this First Reading series on Judges, I had to spend time with this story before I could write about it with any clarity. I will start this one off with a warning:
THIS POST MAY NOT BE APPROPRIATE FOR YOUNG CHILDREN. Please read Judges 19 (it’s very short) and assess whether or not your children are emotionally mature enough to understand this piece of Scripture before sharing it.
Welcome to the most brutal of the Old Testament “Texts of Terror.” Judges 19 is a violent and sexually explicit tale of callous abuse and betrayal, gang rape (yes, you read that correctly), and corpse dismemberment (you read that correctly, too). Seriously. Grab some tissues or a hanky and then line up some adorable puppy gifs or kitty memes to bolster your spirits afterward. You’re gonna need ‘em.
There are several main themes in Judges 19, as far as I can tell, and I think it might help for clarity if I put them here at the start so that you can be on the lookout for them. The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is about God’s seeking a return to Edenic fellowship with mankind. He created us, we chose to disobey, and so we lost that perfect fellowship with him. Since that very day, God has been working his plan to bring us back into Eden, back to that perfect relationship with him as companions and stewards over the earthly realm. In Judges, God gives many, many opportunities for Israel to return to their covenant relationship by anointing leaders to guide them home. Each time, Israel fails. Judges is the story of Israel’s fall from holiness and their loss of God’s favor.
Chapter 19 is rare for Judges in that it does not contain a treatise against idolatry. Instead, this chapter was written to describe the causes of the Benjamite War/Battle of Gibeah and condemn several other destructive sins. The highlighted themes are these:
- The distortion of God’s plan for man’s relationship with woman.
- The loss of fraternal love between the tribes of God’s people.
- The destruction of choosing man’s morality and laws over God’s morality and laws.
The story of the Levite’s Concubine is very little-known amongst modern Christians, and that’s because it’s hard to read and it’s hard to preach from. It is also a story that brings together a lot of important concepts and references in order to illustrate the culmination of Israel’s downfall. This story is IMPORTANT. That’s why it’s horrific. That’s why it’s shocking. That’s why it’s provocative. It’s supposed to grip you and shake you and force you to look at it. Because it’s important. The messages and warnings and themes of this story are too important for us to skim over, twist into a simplified proverb, or dismiss as “too ugly to read.”
The Western church has never used this story properly, in my opinion. Now that I’ve read it, spent time with it, and studied it, I see it. What I also see is several centuries of unforgivably dismissive and over-simplified exegesis from Western commentaries and pulpits that have diminished this story to a false conclusion or just ignored it altogether.
Sin is ugly, and the wages of sin is death. It is only through blood sacrificed on the altar that we can be redeemed (Lev 17:11). We have Christ. The people of Judges did not. For them, the only redemption was the Law, and they had utterly abandoned it.
I’ve done what I can as a layperson to illuminate the messages and warnings in this chapter. I did it for my own understanding and I am sharing it with you here as a means of spreading that understanding. BUT, I am also putting it out here as an invitation for scholars/pastors to correct me if I’ve gotten it wrong. This is one of the least-read chapters in one of the least-studied books of Scripture. I’ve done my best, and I invite you to read the biblical text and do your best, as well.
This is a long one, so get a snack and a beverage and we’ll just dive right in.
The Levite’s Concubine – What does that Even Mean?
In verse 1, we meet another Levite living in the land of Ephraim and this one has a concubine from Bethlehem. In verse 2, we discover that the concubine has left her husband and returned to her father’s house in Bethlehem.
There is a lot to unpack in verse 2. Let’s start with concubine…because the meaning of that word and the contrast between concubines and wives was a sticking point for me in understanding this chapter. I had to study that during my first reading before I could move on. Here is what I found:
A concubine was a wife of secondary status.
Generally, this means that instead of having her marriage arranged by her father and secured with a formal bride price, she was procured by less honorable means.
- She could have been literally purchased by her husband as a sex slave. I cannot believe I had to just type that sentence, but I did.
- She could have been sold by her father as a concubine. This was done in many cases when the status of the woman’s family was lower than the status of the husband. In other words, to sell the daughter to the higher-status man would lift the status of the daughter’s family, but it wasn’t the same as an arranged marriage between family members or equal peers. It’s about status. Concubines held a secondary status.
- She could have been a servant in the husband’s household and taken as a concubine by the husband’s prerogative or on the orders of the primary wife (perhaps barren) as a means to produce heirs.
A concubine was property, and she was obligated to her husband in the same way a wife would be. The catch was that the husband is not, in return, obligated to the concubine as a husband would be to a proper wife.
A concubine’s children did not have a guaranteed inheritance. They would only inherit if the father wished it whereas the children of proper wives were legally entitled to a share of the father’s wealth. In addition, divorcing a concubine was a far less cumbersome affair than divorcing a wife. It could be done literally on a whim. The only stipulation was that, if a man married a slave as his concubine, he could not then divorce her and sell her as a slave again. He could divorce her, but he could not profit from it or enslave her again. Make sense?
Concubines were not specifically prohibited (nor was polygyny in general) by Mosaic Law, and it was the common practice of wealthy and powerful men to collect numerous concubines. Like big herds of livestock and precious metals, concubines were possessions that indicated wealth and status.
Western minds like ours recoil from this, and so did God…clearly. Polygyny and the taking of concubines were not specifically prohibited or punished under the Law. They were not specifically condemned in the New Testament, either, but church leaders had to be men with only one wife from the very beginning of the early Christian church. Genesis makes it clear that monogamy was God’s design, and every story of concubines and polygamous marriage in the Old Testament demonstrates the corruption and destruction and misery that contaminated every family engaging in these situations.
Nevertheless, men with multiple wives and stables full of concubines were a societal norm in the Ancient Near East, and the reality of this practice is recorded for us in Scripture…because the Bible always tells the truth. Abraham, Jacob, King Saul, King David, and King Solomon are all examples of men who took on concubines and/or multiple wives, and the destruction and sin those relationships caused are unflinchingly revealed in Scripture.
Zanah: I Do Not Think it Means what You Think it Means.
The King James Version contains a problematic translation of the Hebrew word zanah in verse 2. By far the most fanciful of the English translations of this verse, the KJV goes in with particularly zealous flourish using the primary definition of this word. I have typed out Judges 19:2 for you in both the KJV and the NLT with the portion containing zanah in bold italics:
“And his concubine played the whore against him, and went away from him unto her father’s house to Bethlehem of Judah, and was there four whole months.” – Judges 19:2, KJV* (added emphasis is mine)
“But she became angry with him and returned to her father’s home in Bethlehem. After about four months…” – Judges 19:2, NLT** (added emphasis is mine)
*There is no footnote my my KJV Bible indicating a second/alternative definition for zanah in this verse.
**The NLT adds a footnote with “was unfaithful to him” as a possible alternative meaning. Less dramatic than the KJV, but far more accurate. In the ESV, which chose the “unfaithful” meaning, a footnote is provided with “became angry with him” as an alternative translation.
There are two possible meanings for the word zanah, and the most common one we find in Scripture, is indeed “harlot” or “unfaithful woman” and it appears in the Bible many times. The second meaning springs from the first. Zanah didn’t just mean sexual misbehavior. It was used to describe going away from/departing from one’s husband or going away from/departing from one’s god. It means “unfaithful,” and there was a tie to the concept of “overly fed” in the definition–wanton, lustful, or overfed, basically.
The “going away from/departing from” aspect coupled with the “over fed” aspect informs the second meaning of zanah, and that second meaning is in every way demanded by the context (both immediate narrative context and the context of the entire book). What the chapter really demands here is the use of zanah to mean “so overfed/fed up that she departed from her husband.”
This has been recognized by Bible translators and Hebrew scholars for a long time. I don’t speak or read Ancient Hebrew. I gathered all of this from word study searches, and you can look it all up if you have further interest. That said, this secondary meaning of zanah is recognized by biblical scholars, and all modern translations pick one of the two meanings and universally footnote the other for transparent honesty and scholarship.
I was flummoxed when I saw the “harlot” option after my first reading because there is zero evidence in the rest of the text that this woman was of loose morals or unfaithful to her husband. On the contrary, there is quite a lot of evidence that she was abused and therefore fled from the Levite to her father’s home for protection. She didn’t run off with a lover or flee to hide from the consequences of her crimes. She went to her father. Had she been an adulteress, the house of her father is the last place on earth she would have gone.
Dr. Claude Mariottini, who is the Professor Emeritus of Old Testament studies at the Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Illinois, has written an article explaining this verse and the contextual evidence in depth:
“Rereading Judges 19:2,” by Dr. Claude Mariottini
For those of you who do not have the time or inclination to read it, here is my summary of its conclusions:
Had the concubine been sexually unfaithful, her husband would have been within his legal right to kill her, and the norms of society would have put tremendous pressure upon him to do so. Even if her husband hadn’t killed her for being an adulteress, her father most certainly would have. The destruction of honor would have devastating consequences for both men and both families if they had not killed her for adultery.
Even if neither her husband nor her father upheld the law and killed her, the idea that she’d be warmly received in her father’s home and allowed to take up residence is just unthinkable in the Ancient Near East. The idea that her husband would follow her to make up and bring her back into his home is patently absurd.
Even if we suspend disbelief on all of the above and stipulate that she was sexually unfaithful to her husband, that neither man killed her for it, that her father warmly received her, and that the husband wanted her back, inviting public shame upon his entire family by traveling from Ephraim to Judah in order to beg her return, there is still the problem of context and continuity.
First, if we take the second definition, “disgusted or fed up,” the story actually makes sense. She’s so upset with the Levite that she runs back to her father’s home, and the husband, like every abuser in history (either male or female) comes along after a while with sweet words to entice her back. Wow. All of a sudden, everybody’s behavior fits the narrative and what we know of human nature perfectly instead of every character in the story doing something wildly out of the realm of possibility for their time and culture.
Second, If we look at the whole of the book of Judges, what are we being shown? We are being shown the Israelites bereft of God’s kingly leadership and bereft of an anointed human leader. The Israelites never stopped executing unfaithful women. That’s just a fact, and so the idea that this story is about the consequences of not slaughtering a lone adulteress is absurd. What Israel did stop punishing was idolatry, lack of charity, uncleanliness, unholiness, and disobedience to the Law. Judges shows us all of that. The only person in this story who does get punished…is the innocent concubine. That’s the whole point. The guilty keep sinning and the innocent suffer. The concubine suffers because of her husband’s wickedness and the entire nation of Israel suffers because of mankind’s wickedness. It is a masterful literary illustration. We’re being shown the Fall of Israel. We saw the Fall of Man in Genesis, and now we’re witnessing the fall of God’s chosen people.
Zanah, in this case, means that the concubine was so desperate and fed up in her marriage that she ran away from the Levite and sought refuge in her father’s house, where our story begins.
Bread, Salt, and the Shadows of Roof Beams: Ancient Guest Right
Hospitality and Guest Right, which people fond of European history might be somewhat familiar with, was even more emphasized in the Ancient Near East.
In ancient Europe, the concept of eating bread and salt beneath a man’s roof was sacred. It meant that no matter what enmity existed between those guests and their host, the covenant of guest right was affirmed and could not be broken. No harm would come to the guests from inside the house or without. That idea of guest right didn’t originate in Europe. The concept of a sacred contract between guest and host is as old as the history of man.
Bedouins say that “every stranger is an invited guest.” The Middle East, even today, has a cultural mandate for generous hospitality to guests, and especially to strangers. Christian missionaries and Western military personnel who have spent time in the region constantly share stories of the impressive hospitality and kindness they receive from strangers in the Middle East. In ancient times, the responsibility to shelter, protect, and provide for guests under one’s own roof was sacred and inviolable. A man’s honor was engaged in caring for his guests, and this had connotations far beyond anything we could compare it to in post-Enlightenment Western mores. The story of Lot, in Genesis 19, demonstrates this. To the horror of modern readers the world over, Lot offers his virgin daughters to the angry mob at his door rather than risk allowing harm to come to the divine guests under his roof.
These angels have come under the “shadow of his roof-beam.” They are, therefore, his responsibility. Western readers often get confused and believe his behavior was due to the angelic nature of these “men” in his home, but there is no substantive reason to believe this. This is about the universal understanding of guest right, and the biblical text demonstrates this. Lot doesn’t tell the crowd to leave them alone because they’re angels. He tells the crowd to leave the “men” alone because they are his guests.
“Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.” – Genesis 19:8b, KJV
Debating whether Lot’s choice was moral or immoral is an argument for Judges 19. In Genesis 19, the point is: Lot believed it would have been more immoral than allowing a gang rape of his own children for him to allow his guests to be molested while under his protection and authority. You have to let that sink in or the figures and the undertones in this story of the Levite’s Concubine will not make sense or show up for us.
The Bible showed us a man who was willing to throw his female children out into a murderous mob to save two able-bodied men/angels, but God stepped in. Here in Judges, we see the same scenario play out, but God doesn’t step in because Israel has abandoned God. Go back to the story of Jephthah and his daughter earlier in Judges. It also harkens back to Genesis where God stepped in to stop child sacrifice and contrasts it to a picture where God does not step in because Israel has abandoned God. We’re being shown an historic tale, but it’s being told in parable form with symbols and allusions that would not have been lost on anyone in the original audience. Man’s law vs. God’s law. Man’s righteousness vs. God’s righteousness. Worldly morality vs. God’s morality.
It’s important to get a grasp on all of this because the author of Judges wanted you to see it and because the original audience for the book of Judges would have been laser-focused on it. We must come to Scripture on Scripture’s terms. Right?
This is not the story of one woman and her callous husband. It is…but it is much, much more than that. Do not dare to diminish this chapter of Scripture into a platitude about adultery or a platitude about charity or a platitude about urban violence. It has a much higher purpose and it was written to shock Israel and shake Israel until they could see it and be convicted by it.
Article Links that might help bring clarity on the hospitality customs of the Ancient Near East
“Manners and Customs of Bible Lands,” by Fred H. Wright, 1953
“Travelers and Strangers: Hospitality in the Biblical World,” by Dennis Bratcher, 2013
Judah’s Hospitality vs. Benjamin’s Inhospitality
In vv. 3-21, we read a story within the story, and it is used to show us a sharp contrast. Despite the awkwardness or anger that might exist between the Levite and his father-in-law during this uncomfortable visit, the concubine’s father in Judah demonstrates true Israelite hospitality. Her father encourages the Levite to stay, rest, feast, and make use of his home until he is ready to leave. It is clear that the author intends for us to make note of this man’s exceptional display of generosity and hospitality. The wining and dining goes on until the fifth day when the Levite and his concubine leave to return to their home in the land of Ephraim.
The Levite and his servant consider stopping for the night in the Jebusite city of Jebus, which will become Jerusalem during David’s reign. The author notes that the men reject Jerusalem (which is a very loaded statement in and of itself) in order to travel on to the land of Benjamin. The Levite and his servant reasoned that if they waited until they came to Israelite land, they would surely find hospitality and safety.
When they reach the town of Gibeah in the land of Benjamin, however, we see a very different picture. The inhospitable atmosphere of Gibeah is ominous but it’s getting dark and the Levite can travel no farther until morning. They begin to make preparations for sleeping in the town square because no one has offered to take them in (a gravely dishonorable thing to have said about your town in this time and place).
Eventually, an Ephraimite man comes along. He lives in Gibeah, but the Levite is from Ephraim, too, so kinship of place–not kinship of Israel–prompts the man to offer hospitality. He tells the Levite that no matter what he does, he shouldn’t stay outside overnight because it’s dangerous. The weary travelers take him up on his offer, and they all settle in for a pleasant evening.
The author shows us a picture of hospitality in the land of Judah and inhospitality in the land of Benjamin. The Israelites of Gibeah, God’s own chosen people, are less hospitable than the Jebusites of Jebus. So to recap, we have a Levite who has followed his estranged concubine to her father’s house, made up with her after their marital trouble, and is now traveling home with her, encountering inhospitality and threat against his safety in an Israelite town.
Genesis 19 Comes Rushing Back in Judges 19
Starting in v.22, any reader familiar with Genesis will do a double take because we find ourselves reading the story of Lot in Sodom all over again, this time with an Ephraimite in Gibeah. Any time something is repeated in Scripture, we can know that it is important.
Some drunk and disorderly types come banging on the door. They know there’s a new guy in town and their idea of a good time would be to rape him together. Here, just as Lot before him, the Ephraimite is horrified at the implications of his guest being molested in such an evil way. So the Ephraimite, just as Lot did, offers up the women of the house instead of the Levite in order to protect the mantle of guest right. I know, right? It’s disgusting. But stay with it.
We already know this story, and we know that things are about to get really ugly. Setting that dread aside, however, let’s compare them and see what the differences might be.
While the Ephraimite is trying to reason with the crowd, the Levite bodily grabs his concubine and shoves her out at the crowd. In Genesis, the “men” were godly (obviously, they were divine beings…not men). They protected the women and destroyed the evil people of Sodom. In Judges, the Levite is ungodly. He sacrifices his concubine to save himself by shoving her to the rapists outside. He bars the door against her and leaves the crowd to “[abuse] her all night, taking turns raping her until morning.”
The guests in Sodom punished the wicked and protected the innocent women. The guest in Gibeah threw the innocent woman into the midst of the wicked, and he never demonstrates even a tiny tic of remorse for having done so. The morality of the world around him said this was a reasonable and honorable course of action. The morality of God says the opposite.
The Next Morning
The concubine is literally raped to the point of death. She drags her ravaged and devastated body to the threshold of the Ephraimite’s door after her assailants finally let her go. The inhuman strength it must have required to return, however, would avail her nothing. Neither her host nor her husband would attempt to find her or rescue her, and she would lie there on the doorstep for hours, unconscious and bleeding, before either of the cowardly men inside will open the door.
When her husband arose in the morning (yes, he slept while she was suffering), verse 27 tells us that he “opened the doors of the house and went out to continue his journey.” He was actually heading home without her and had no intention of looking for her or saving her. She’s been ruined now, in the eyes of men, and a ruined concubine is no longer of any value. This is yet another reason we can know that this man did not travel to Judah to get an adulteress back. She was an innocent woman with an abusive, selfish, and ungodly husband.
In the eyes of God and under the letter of Mosaic Law (Deut 22), this woman, who was married, is entitled to the justice of seeing her rapists hunted down and executed, but her husband is not a godly man and he doesn’t follow the Law. A godly man of Israel would have demanded her honor and his own be upheld through the Law.
When the Levite sees the prone body of his concubine on the doorstep, does he cry out in dismay? Does he weep over her and apologize for what she endured? Does he carry her into the house and seek medical attention?
This is the book of Judges. Of course he doesn’t.
The Levite looks down at his concubine wife and callously says, “Get up. Let’s go.” He’s not angry that she’s been raped brutally by a mob of Benjamite men, his own people in his own country. Rather, he seems irritated that she’s inconveniencing him. This tragic woman is now unresponsive, but we are not told that she is dead. The Levite puts her over a donkey like a sack of potatoes and continues home to the hill country of Ephraim.
Now, We Go to War
The Levite gets home, and he “takes hold” of the body of his concubine and carves it into twelve pieces. He sends a piece out to every tribe of Israel, which starts a war against the tribe of Benjamin that we will explore in the closing chapters of Judges.
The story of the Levite, I believe, is here to show us some very basic lessons that the Israelites have forgotten in the time of Judges.
First, the institution of marriage should be sacred. The Hebrew word translated into English as “helper” or “helpmeet” is used two times to describe wives and more than ten times to describe God. In this image of the Levite and his concubine, we see a woman deprived of her “strong helper” role and a man who has failed in his “strong leader” role. When men treat wives as property, they fail in their godly role of manhood and deprive the wives of their godly role of womanhood. In Judges, man has treated his woman as property, as a thing for his use. He has also treated his God as property (idols), as a thing for his use. Do you see it?
In Israel, the relationship between man and woman has been corrupted and distorted so thoroughly that no harmony, love, help, or protection is encountered there. Only subjugation, violence, contempt, and misery remain where the image of God’s love was meant to shine forth in this most basic and foundational relationship.
Second, when Israel deferred to the morality of man (guest right is the example used) instead of upholding the morality of God (love of neighbor and manly stewardship of woman), their values and priorities were disordered and brought in the corruption of sin. The mirror of Lot’s story from Genesis 19 is used to illustrate the moral failing of the Levite and his host just as the mirror of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac was used to illustrate the moral failing of Jephthah and his daughter back in Judges 11. Israel has leaned on the morals of the world rather than the morals of God. Gibeah in the land of Benjamin has become worse than Sodom and Israel is yet unmoved.
Finally, we are shown the picture of a man, a Levite, who refuses to see or accept any blame or guilt for any part of his sad situation with this concubine. He sees no error in his own behavior, and instead of repentance for his crimes against her or seeking justice for her from the Law, he seeks vengeance for the attack on his honor in Gibeah. We do not see love or a demand for justice over the ravaged body of his still-living concubine. We only see his wrath when he treats her dead body with callous disrespect and uses it as a political tool to foment war against a tribe of fellow Israelites.
I know this was very long, but I hope it helped you sort through this tragic tale. Even if you disagree with some of my thoughts on it, I hope that spreading it out and going over every detail of it will assist you with your own understanding.
More than anything, I hope this chapter of Judges makes you grateful to be a Christian, which was a privilege of grace not yet afforded to these Israelites. We have Jesus. We have our king. We have God’s Word, we have God’s Son, and we have God’s Spirit. Every day, no matter where we are or what we’re involved in…we have our king.
We will come back next time and, hopefully, finish out the book of Judges with the Battle of Gibeah, when a tribe is separated from Israel and the final recorded sins of this ungodly era come to a close.