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Concubine of a Levite: Bible

by Ken Stone

The story of the unnamed woman in Judges 19–20 is one of the most disturbing texts in the Hebrew Bible. The woman, who is from Bethlehem but lives with a Levite in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Jerusalem, is referred to in Hebrew as the pilegesh of the Levite. The precise nature of the relationship between a man and his pilegesh is not always clear from the biblical texts, however, and scholars have sometimes disagreed about the term’s meaning. It is usually translated into English as “concubine” and understood to refer to a wife or sexual partner of secondary status. Although certain men in the Hebrew Bible have both wives and concubines, no wives or additional concubines are referred to in Judges 19. The Levite is referred to as the “husband” of the woman (19:3; 20:4) and the “son-in-law” of the woman’s father (19:5), who in turn is referred to as the Levite’s “father-in-law” (19:4, 7, 9). The uncertain nature of the differences between a wife and a concubine reveals the complexities involved in understanding notions of kinship and marriage presupposed by biblical narratives.

The Hebrew text states that the woman “prostituted herself against” the Levite (19:2). Thus, it has often been assumed that she was sexually unfaithful to him. Certain Greek translations, however, state that she “became angry” with him. The latter interpretation is accepted by a number of commentators and modern English translations, including the NRSV, since the woman goes to her father’s house rather than the house of a male lover. It is also possible that the woman’s “prostitution” does not refer to literal sexual infidelity but is a sort of metaphor for the fact that she leaves her husband. The act of leaving one’s husband is quite unusual in the Hebrew Bible, and the harsh language used to describe it could result from the fact that it was viewed in a very negative light.

Four months after the woman returns to Bethlehem, the Levite goes after her. Although the Hebrew text states that he wishes to “speak to her heart” (19:3; NRSV, “speak tenderly to her”), no discussion between the Levite and the woman is recounted. Indeed, the text never records any of the woman’s words. The woman’s father acts as if he is glad to see the Levite, but for several days he delays the return of the Levite and the woman to Ephraim. Because of this delay the travelers finally set out at a late hour and, due to the unwillingness of the Levite to spend the night in a city of “foreigners” (19:12), arrive at the Benjaminite city of Gibeah after the sun has gone down.

Although hospitality to strangers was an important custom in the ancient world, the travelers initially have a difficult time finding a place to spend the night. They are finally offered hospitality by an old man who, like the Levite, is from Ephraim. While the travelers are eating, the house is surrounded by men of the city who, according to the Hebrew text, wish “to know” the Levite (19:22). “To know” is probably a euphemism for sexual intercourse here, as it is in other biblical texts and as the NRSV translates it. The Ephraimite host attempts to dissuade the men of the city from raping his male guest, offering to them his own daughter and the Levite’s concubine in place of the Levite.

Several elements in this part of the story, including the offer of two women as objects of rape in the place of a male object, are very similar to elements of the story of Lot and his daughters (Gen 19:1–8). Apparently the sexual violation of women was considered less shameful than that of men, at least in the eyes of other men. Such an attitude reflects both the social subordination of women and the fact that homosexual rape was viewed as a particularly severe attack on male honor.

When the men of Gibeah refuse to accept the two women, one of the men inside the house throws the concubine outside. Interpreters generally agree that it is the Levite who throws her to the crowd, though the text only states ambiguously that “the man seized his concubine, and put her out to them” (Judg 19:25) without noting specifically which man is meant. The woman is then raped by the men of Gibeah throughout the night. They do not kill her, however, for in the morning she returns to the house from which she was thrown and collapses at the door. The Levite finds her there when he rises to leave and orders her to get up. When she does not respond, for she apparently is near death, he places her on the back of his donkey and returns to Ephraim.

The text does not tell us exactly when or how the woman dies. The Levite, upon his arrival in Ephraim, cuts the woman’s body into twelve pieces and sends these pieces throughout the land. As a result of this action, the Israelites gather at Mizpah, a traditional site of tribal assembly, to listen to the Levite’s story and plan a response to the Benjaminites. A cycle of violence ensues, resulting in the slaughter of many Benjaminite men, women, and children (20:35–48), the slaughter of most of the inhabitants of the city of Jabesh-gilead (21:8–12), and the kidnapping of young women at Shiloh (21:15–24).

It unlikely that any of the characters in this troubling tale are meant to be understood in an entirely positive light. The story is placed in a section of Judges (chaps. 17–21) illustrating the social and religious chaos that preceded the institution of Israelite kingship. The horror of the tale represents extreme disorder, to be rectified only by the establishment of monarchic rule. The fate of the concubine is particularly gruesome, however, and the story has appropriately been called a “text of terror” by one feminist commentator (Trible).

Bibliography

Exum, J. Cheryl. Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives. Sheffield, England: 1993.

Meyers, Carol, General Editor. Women in Scripture. New York: 2000.

Stone, Ken. “Gender and Homosexuality in Judges 19: Subject-Honor, Object-Shame?” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 67 (1995): 87–107.

Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Philadelphia: 1984.

Yee, Gale A. “Ideological Criticism: Judges 17–21 and the Dismembered Body.” In Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, edited by Gale Yee, 146–170. Minneapolis: 1995.

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15 Comments

Appears to be a "Changing of the Guard" in this story from the Levite priesthood to Melchizedek order of priesthood. And the 10% tithe of Judah warriors killed appears to be the tithe to Melchizedek like Abraham gave him. But since Melchizedek (i.e. concubine-Jesus or Jehoshua Ben-Deker) is in heaven as High Priest now, who will serve in the heavenly sanctuary like the Levites served in the earthly sanctuary. Do these 40,000 Judah warrirors serve to redeem Ben-Deker/Melchizedek? Like the Levites redeemed the first born males of the other tribes of Israel. Or are the 40,000 a type of 1/2 shekel temple tax to redeem Israel for the military census of 400,000 fighting men that drew the sword.

See how things get out of hand when Jews are selfish like Mordecai (the Benjamite) and Queen Esther. If Mordecai would simply have bowed to Haman then thousands of non-Jews would not have been slaughtered. Mordecai almost got Esther killed too by her having to take a chance and go to the King when not called. Remember Captain of the Guard Naaman the Leper? He asked the prophet Elijah if it was ok with God for Naaman to bow to a foreign god when his King/Master leaned on him. Elijah said, "of course silly". (paraphrased). Jesus (Annointed One/Christ/Messiah) would agree that to be a Jew is to be one on the inside, not the outside. If Mordecai would have had that kind of heart, then all would be fine and no PURIM (man-made holiday) honoring Mordecai would be celebrated and Jehovah would not be dishonored this way. In the same way, thousands were killed to avenge the death of one lowly concubine (65,000 warriors plus countless: women, children, animals). Things do get out of hand. We must understand the consequences of our actions. You don't go to war without counting the cost (Proverbs). Nor do you refuse to show honor and respect to public officials (when it is expected) just because you are a Jew on the "outside". Bow, but in your heart bow as if bowing to your God Jehovah.

I see Jesus as the concubine (from Bethlehem-Judah) whom God the indifferent Levite husband locked out of heaven to be ravaged to death by evil men (Benjamite Wolves). I see the 12 Disciples of Jesus as the parts(branches) cutoff from Jesus (the main vine) upon his death. I see Judas (the Traitor) as the tribe of Benjamin. I see King Saul and Saul of Tarsus (aka Paul) as the 600 man remnant of Benjamin allowed to live and kidnap virgin wives to perpetuate the evil clan. God (Jehovah) appeared indifferent because it was his plan for Jesus to die this way (Isaiah 53). The Paradox is that a concubine is an earthly woman who belongs to an earthly man and inherits nothing from him. Whereas, Jesus was a heavenly man who belonged to God and inherits all things from his Father. The other paradox being that 40,000 (22,000 + 18,000) warriors from Judah (10% of 400,000 fighting men in Israeli Army) died to avenge the death of a single lowly concubine, and rid/purge Israel of evil. Whereas, Jesus (the concubine in this story) died for the many, for all who will accept and receive him from the House of Israel. It was Jesus who in Gospel of MARK chapter 8 verses 15-21 pointed to the 22,000 + 18,000 Judah tribe warriors killed fighting Benjamin, by his miracle of feeding the 5000 + 4000. 5 loaves + 5 [000] fed + 12 baskets gentile dog/puppy (MARK 7) fragments/scraps collected = 22 or 22 [000]. 7 loaves + 4 [000] fed + 7 baskets gentile dog/puppy (MARK 7) fragments/scraps collected = 18 or 18 [000]. 18+22=40 DAYS PROPHECY of ACTS 1:3, 1:11, 3:21, 10:41. Jesus warned us in Mark 8:15 in effect: Beware the yeast (false teaching) of the [Benjamite] Pharisees. That could only mean one person in my opinion in scope at the time of Book of ACTS i.e. Saul of Tarsus(Wolf) and Paul of Tarsus(Wolf in Sheep's clothing). Righteous Jesus and King David came from Judah tribe. Evil King Saul and Saul of Tarsus came from Benjamin tribe. Saul of Tarsus devoured and divided Jesus' followers of the WAY, by persecution. Paul of Tarsus caused followers of the WAY to devour and divide one another with sin accusations and countless denominations arising from doctrinal conflicts caused by false teaching. A LITTLE SLEEP, A LITTLE SLUMBER, A LITTLE FOLDING OF THE HANDS TO REST, and POVERTY (spiritual poverty from false teaching) WILL CREEP IN (into the body of Christ and New Testament) LIKE A BANDIT (Benjamite Wolf n Sheep's clothing - false apostle Paul). In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul condemns the sinning Israelites (in the wilderness) and their resulting destruction as examples to us not to sin and tempt Christ. Yet Paul fails to mention God's GRACE to them through Moses' lifted up copper symbol of a serpent on a pole, to heal them. Jesus compared himself to this lifted up serpent in Gospel of John 3. All who behold the lifted up Christ on a Tree, and believe, will gain eternal life. It is a gift from God. We should not be like Paul/Saul of Tarsus, who like the unmerciful servant Jesus warned about, would not accept the free gift of debt pardon from his master, but only wanted more time to clean up his act, so to speak, and rid his life of sin - and demand others do the same. Jesus warned that such as person would be thrown into debtor's prison until their insurmountable sin debt should be paid in full. For them, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

You are in very deep. Ease up off that Kool aid.

This is one the cruelest and absurds stories ever.

Only looks that way to the untrained eye. You have to understand that to him/her that has understanding, more will be given. And to him/her who has little understanding, even the little they have will be taken away. God has hidden many things from those thinking themselves wise, and granted children (or those with child like faith) to understand. Humble yourself under the hand of Almighty God and he will lift you up.

Agreed; but let's not be to quick to kill the messenger or the medium (the Bible).

I have rejected much of what is written in the Bible, starting with the creation myth. I have that right. You or no other person can convince me otherwise.

Okay. I'm having a hard time with this. An entire war was started because instead of standing up for what was right a man took the easy road out? Not only that but after the war the Benjaminites where "given" women and the stole women to meet their sexual desires? This is definitely the text of terror. This justifies evil. P.S. I also did not see a mention of homosexuality.

Indeed a text of terror but, just as the newspapers of Sept 12, 2011, it does not justify evil. Also, although you're quite right that the word "homosexuality" is not used in this text, it is clearly inferred with the mention of the men (of Gibeah) wanting to have sex w/ the Levite (also a male)... also not a justification thereof.

The point of the text is what is mentioned twice in the book of Judges "everyone did what was right in his own eyes" Judges 21:25 + 17:6.

We start this chapter with one wrong assumption. The truth is he is not a natural born heterosexual ( (typical comprising of 95% of the natural population but a natural born homosexual). we find out later in the chapter his servant is a young man and he is the Levi's lover. Reread this chapter with this true assumption and God's true meaning of this Chapter will be reveled to you!

Ben JB, the Basque

Although it is possible that he was a homosexual, the Bible does NOT say that he was. Anyone can reread anything with someone's own agenda fresh in their mind, but that does not give it any legitimacy. The only thing I smell is your stinking lie.

What is your documentation to substantiate such a claim?

Um.... I have no idea where you got that idea from. I re-read this passage several times but no where did I see any sign of the Levite begin homosexual.

How to cite this page

Stone, Ken. "Concubine of a Levite: Bible." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 24, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/concubine-of-levite-bible>.

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