Rereading Judges 19:2

The story of the Levite and his concubine in Judges 19:1-30 is a sad story.  It is a story that brings together a man and a woman who lived in the chaotic days that preceded the establishment of the monarchy in Israel.  It was a time when “there was no king in Israel” and “people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6).  If you have not read this story in the past few months, this is a good time to read it again.

The biblical text presents the story of a woman, the concubine of a Levite, who leaves her home to return to the house of her father. The Levite, a man from Ephraim, goes to Bethlehem to bring his concubine back with him to their home.  After much reluctance on the woman’s part, and at the insistence of her father, the woman agrees to return home with her husband.

On the way back they spent the night in Gibeah of Benjamin.  While in Gibeah, some men of the city make an attempt at having a homosexual affair with the Levite.  Because of his fear of violence against him, the Levite gives his concubine to the men of the city, who raped her over and over again all that night.  The next morning the woman dies, the Levite cut her into twelve pieces and sent the parts of her body to the twelve tribes of Israel.

In light of the tragedy that resulted in the woman’s death and the dismemberment of her body by the hands of her own husband, a question lingers: why did she leave her home to return to her father’s house?  Why did she leave the protection of her husband?

According to the King James Version (KJV), she left her home because she had played the whore against him:  And his concubine played the whore against him, and went away from him unto her father’s house to Bethlehemjudah (Judges 19:2).  Thus, according to the KJV, the woman committed adultery and for that reason, she left her husband.

The New International Version only says that she was unfaithful to him: She was unfaithful to him. She left him and went back to her father’s house in Bethlehem, Judah.  The view that the woman was unfaithful to her husband and had committed adultery is assumed by the American Standard Version (ASV), the Darby Bible, The English Standard Version (ESV), the Jewish Publication Society Bible (JPS), the New American Bible (NAB), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the Today’s New International Version (TNIV), the New King James Version (NKJV), the New Living Bible (NLB), and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).

In his commentary on Judges, Matthew Henry wrote: “Had her husband turned her out of doors unjustly, her father ought to have pitied her affliction; but, when she treacherously departed from her husband to embrace the bosom of a stranger, her father ought not to have countenanced her sin. Perhaps she would not have violated her duty to her husband if she had not known too well where she should be kindly received.”

Matthew Henry also wrote: “The Levite went himself to court her return. It was a sign there was no king, no judge, in Israel, else she would have been prosecuted and put to death as an adulteress; but, instead of that, she is addressed in the kindest manner by her injured husband, who takes a long journey on purpose to beseech her to be reconciled, v. 3. If he had put her away, it would have been a crime in him to return to her again, Jer. iii. 1. But, she having gone away, it was a virtue in him to forgive the offence, and, though the party wronged, to make the first motion to her to be friends again.”

But, what is wrong with this statement?  It is hard to believe that in a land where honor killing was very common, that a woman who played the whore against her husband, one who had been unfaithful to the marriage relationship would be allowed to return to her father’s house.  

When Judah discovered that his daughter-in-law Tamar was pregnant, he was indignant. When Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the whore; moreover she is pregnant as a result of whoredom,” Judah was enraged: “Bring her out, and let her be burned” (Genesis 38:24).  The same fate should have fallen upon the Levite’s concubine, but it did not.  Therefore, there must be another explanation.

The word translated “played the whore” and “unfaithful” in Hebrew is zanah.  The word has a primary meaning of committing fornication, being a harlot.  However, according to Koehler-Baumgartner, Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1958), 261, the word also can mean “to be angry, hateful” or to “feel repugnant against.”

Thus, taking the above meaning of the word, the translation of the NRSV makes better sense: But his concubine became angry with him, and she went away from him to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah.  This is the view also adopted by some ancient translations such as the Septuagint, the Targum, and the Vulgate.  Neither of these ancient translations nor Josephus accused the woman of conjugal infidelity.

The view that the woman left her husband because of a domestic quarrel is adopted by the Revised Standard Version (RSV), the New Standard Revised Version (NRSV), the New English Bible (NEB), the Bible in Basic English (BBE), and the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB).

It is clear that this reading of Judges 19:2 does not presuppose an act of conjugal infidelity by the Levite’s concubine. This translation points to the fact that husband and wife had a fight and in anger, the woman left her husband and returned to her father’s house.

The social and cultural backgrounds of the story tend to affirm the correctness of this translation. If the concubine had played the whore and been unfaithful to her husband, her husband would not have gone after his concubine to return her to his home.  Since she was a secondary wife, it is quite probable that he would invoke the tradition of honor killing and have her put to death for her unfaithfulness.

The KJV’s translation places the blame for the problem on the woman: she was the one who committed adultery and left.  The NRSV’s translation places the blame on the husband: he did something so outrageous that in anger she left the security of her home to find security in the house of her father.  In his explanation of what happened between the Levite and his concubine, Josephus wrote: “They quarreled one with another perpetually; and at last the woman was so disgusted at these quarrels, that she left her husband and went [back] to her parents.”

It is evident that this rereading of Judges 19:2 reflects a better understanding of what happened between the Levite and his concubine.  The fact seems to be that husband and wife had a big fight, that she probably was afraid for her life, and that she tried to find security and protection in the house of her father.

The end of the story seems to demonstrate the basis for her fear.  The Levite left his home to “speak to her heart,” to convince her to come home.  Although the father of the woman was eager for reconciliation, it seems that she was reluctant to go with him.  His willingness to sacrifice his concubine in order to save his honor may indicate that the woman’s fear was real.  His selfishness demonstrates that in the end, he loved himself more than he loved her.

It becomes imperative that the biblical text be reread in light of this new understanding of the social and cultural conditions of ancient Israel.  Today’s generation of Bible students need to know that this unnamed woman was not a whore nor was she unfaithful to her husband.  Only by rereading the text will today’s readers discover that all the accusations lodged against this woman were false.  May this rereading of the text vindicate her reputation.

Rest in peace.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

This entry was posted in Hebrew Bible, Translation Problems, Women and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Rereading Judges 19:2

  1. >Another enlightening post. I linked to it this evening at my blog. Keep up the good work, professor!

  2. fencekicker says:

    >That is an interesting interpretation. However, I’ve never really thought that this story was about the woman at all. I see many similarities between this story and the one of Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen 19. Perhaps the men were following the example of Lot in offering the women with them (not only did the Levite offer his concubine, but the old man who owned the house also offered his own virgin daughter to them). It appears that sending out the women in this manner may have been a more common practice than we would like to think. The dismemberment of a human being sounds horrific, and indeed, it was so disturbing that the tribes cried out for justice. It might appear that the Levite took his living wounded concubine to his house and finished her off, then sending her parts across the land. Verse 28 seems to indicate that she was dead already, as when he spoke to her, there was no answer. We would think that a man would protect his wife or daughter from such an ordeal out of his love for them. We are satisfied in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah that the angels prevented any harm to come to the women. Perhaps we are also satisfied that the old man’s virgin daughter was spared. But, we are unable to comprehend in a free (no slavery) and law-filled country the conditions of that town. The town was going to abuse and rape someone from that household, and the lowly concubine had the least monetary and social value. Placing the blame on the concubine or on her huband takes the focus off the ones who beat and raped a woman all night long until she was so damaged that she couldn’t knock on the door or even speak. If she wasn’t dead by morning, she still would not have recovered. The point of the story as I understand it is that a town of Israel had become so wicked that it did this thing. The town’s tribe then refused to hand over the guilty and instead went to war against their brothers; then the whole tribe nearly perished because they chose their wicked brothers over justice.

  3. Mark says:

    >I’ve linked this at Blogwatch here

  4. Anonymous says:

    >The best & most plausible explanation for the behaviour of the husband that I have seen – just could not accept Matthew Henry’s explanation

  5. Polly says:

    >This chapter disturbs me greatly. It shows how lowly women were perceived. First, this was a Levite whose life was obviously dedicated to serving God. Second, he had a concubine, a woman who was unlawfully his wife, then later in verse 25, he handed his concubine to them (didn’t he care, why would an honourable man want to see his woman humiliated?), then in the morning he walks casually by her at the door step (v.25) and says “Get up; lets go.” All the clues help us understand that this man was trully cruel and that must have been the reason she had left her ‘husband’ and gone back to her father. I mean, she would not have gone back to her fathers house if she had committed adulterly against the levite, it had to be something different just as Prof. Mariottini explains it. Then followed the war in Chap 20 between the benjamins and the Israelites. It was total chaos, I felt very confused and upset after reading this chapters.

  6. >Polly,Judges chapter 19 is considered by many to be “a text of terror.” It is amazing that such an event could happen in the Bible, but it did happen. But, there are several things that you should consider when reading this story.1. Just because the man was a Levite, it does not mean that he was religious. There were many Levites who were not involved in the religious life of Israel.2. The concubine was not his unlawful wife. She was his lawful wife but a secondary wife. A concubine was a wife that did not have the same rights as the primary wife.3. The concubine was not unfaithful to her husband. The husband had done something wrong to the woman, this is the reason she left him4. The situation in Judges 19 and 20 reflects a very chaotic time in the life of Israel. It was a time when people had ignored God and the result was chaos.I think other women need to read what I wrote in order to see that the blame was not on the concubine but on the Levite.Thank you for visiting my blog and for your comments.Claude Mariottini

  7. Anonymous says:

    >What a dreadful story, Judges 19. I would never let my children read that, or any other similarly dreadful stories in the Old Testament. This story of “please leave my male visitor alone; let me give you my daughter to gang-rape instead” is a repetition of what Lot did in Sodom and Gomorrah, and God actually rewarded Lot for this behavior. I am disgusted by such immoral and sexist stories, and I (and many other educated people) seek morality elsewhere. Why does the Bible promote this kind of behavior, professor?

  8. isabelle says:

    >Thank you Dr. Mariottini, for the first sensible explanation I have got for Judges 19. No one I have asked has been able to tell me anything except “it’s a horrible story”. i kept telling myself “seek and you shall find” and I found you.

  9. >Isabelle,Thank you for your comment. The story in Judges 19 is a sad story that brings much pain to women who are abused. I am glad my post has helped you gain a better understanding about this sad story.Claude Mariottini

  10. Chinkee says:

    >Claude Can you please enlighten me with my question?Why does he need to cut the concubine to 12 pieces what does it represents?Looking forward to your reply.Ty for your time.

  11. >Chinkee,Thank you for your comment. I want to apologize for the delay in answering your question. I have been out for the holidays.The twelve pieces were meant to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. One piece was sent to each of the twelve tribes. This action was meant to raise outrage among the tribes, which it did. As a result, the tribes went to war against the Benjaminites and, as a result, the tribe of Benjamin was almost decimated.Thank you for visiting my blog. God bless you in your new church start. Happy New Year.Claude Mariottini

  12. forgiven318 says:

    >I know it is outrageously late to post anything here, but I found this site by searching for some explanation that would help me with Judges 19 and maybe others will too.To Anonymous who wrote: “What a dreadful story, Judges 19. I would never let my children read that, or any other similarly dreadful stories in the Old Testament. This story of “please leave my male visitor alone; let me give you my daughter to gang-rape instead” is a repetition of what Lot did in Sodom and Gomorrah, and God actually rewarded Lot for this behavior. I am disgusted by such immoral and sexist stories, and I (and many other educated people) seek morality elsewhere. Why does the Bible promote this kind of behavior, professor?”This blog article helped me understand that the Bible does not ‘promote this kind of behavior’. I’ve said for quite some time that I trust God. I know He loves women. But why would He allow things like this? Well the fact that it was in the Bible in two examples (Sodom and in this chapter) does not mean that it is being condoned or promoted. As the Professor said, this was a time of chaos, a time of sinful rebellion against the Law that God had given to His chosen people. And certainly, anyone can see that God did not condone what was happening in Sodom or Gomorrah. I don’t like the fact that Paul says that a man who marries a woman whose husband is still living is making HER an adulterer. But that is Paul, speaking 2000 years ago, still not necessarily the way God would have ultimately put it if He were speaking directly to our generation. I’m sure that the man who did that would also be an adulterer, not just the woman. But Paul didn’t phrase it that way. Oh well, the Holy Spirit spoke through humans and there is probably some human filtering of the ultimate message.Lot was not rewarded for offering his virgin daughters as a sacrifice. Lot was a selfish man who chose the easy way (the green valley of the Jordan) and was seduced by the city life. He allowed his daughters to be raised in a place that taught them that anything goes, and he suffered for it ultimately. But in the destruction of S&G, he was rewarded because of Abraham’s faith. He was saved because God was blessing Abraham, who believed God and ‘it was credited to him for righteousness.’ But also, Lot did believe the messengers from God. Of course this (Judges 19) is not something you would want to share with your children. That is why God gave children parents: so they can introduce children to the truths they need and are prepared for as governed by adult wisdom. No one is suggesting that this be a bedtime story. But that does not change the bottom line that the Bible presents the ONE WAY to LIFE.These are all side issues, actually they are distractions, meant to keep people who need a Savior from accepting that unique gift. Like my brother-in-law choosing not to believe in a loving God because of the flood and earthquake victims in China: what does that have to do with the fate of his soul? If he spends eternity in hell, how will that help the earthquake victims? These are lies and delusions thrown up by satan to keep people who listen to him from listening to the Holy Spirit and finding the God who is the only source of love.The bottom line is, whoever we are, do we trust God? Do we believe that Jesus was/is His one and only Son? Do we believe that Jesus accepted the ordeal of becoming human in order to save all of us? That He became fully man, but remained fully God? Do we believe that Jesus freely offered His own life to purchase our pardon from the judgment that our sins deserve? Do we accept His free gift of Salvation? Nothing else matters.

  13. >Dear Forgiven 318:Thank you for visiting my blog and for your comment. There is much I could say about what you wrote.One thing we muts remember is that the people who appear in Judges 19 were not Christians and they did not have the same moral standards that Christians draw from the Bible.God allowed these stories to appear in the Bible to teach us a lesson. That lesson teaches that when people live without God they can commit all kinds of atrocities. As the text says, everyone did what was right in their own eyes.Claude Mariottini

  14. K Pritchard says:

    >Hi, what an interesting discussion. I hear the excuse often that this was the cultural norm for women to be treated this way – that God didn’t approve but it was just the way things were. Well, with all of the rules and regulations God posted in Leviticus, why couldn’t God demand fair treatment of women and forbid slavery?! People that believe the bible is infallible cannot have a logical discussion with those that do not. They are trying to rationalize the irrational. We try to sanitize the bible for our children e.g. the genocide at Jericho and Joshua murdering pregnant mothers and infants. We don’t sing “Joshua killed the babies at Jericho, Jericho, Jericho…”Why didn’t God add a commandment about equality? You’d better not covet your neighbor’s house but hey, sending your virgin daughter or concubine out to be gang raped isn’t that big a deal. The evidence that Jesus of the New Testament isn’t the God of the Old isn’t only what the bible says but also what it doesn’t say. I do respect your opinions and enjoy the discussion.K PritchardColorado

  15. carlf says:

    >Thank you for the interesting explanation of this troubling chapter, Dr. Mariottini. My take on this, as well as many other scenes of OT violence, is that when Man lives without God, he lives with Satan. And when he lives with Satan, anything, including tossing your wife out to satisfy demons for the night rather than protecting her becomes is what happens. Treating her as a doormat and then chopping her up just rounds out the context of a man, the Levite, who lives in a world that has closed its eyes to God and his simple instructions for happiness. In other words, without Grace, we are doomed to act like beasts. If one reads the OT as a repetitive and insistent reminder of how bestial we can be without God’s Grace, then troubling chapters like this begin to make some sense. Viewing chapters like this as some kind of validation of the acts described is a grave mistake. Perhaps the way for Anonymous to present this story to her children is simply to say “without God, Man is capable of the greatest of evil.” Thank you again Dr.

  16. >Carlf,Thank you for your comment. I agree with you. People who do not live according to God’s Word commit these kinds of actions. Evil seems to prevail when people live without God.Thank you for visiting my blog.Claude Mariottini

  17. solitaire says:

    >Thanks for your help, Professor. I too was looking for an answer as to why the woman was cut into 12 pieces. I sent an email to a group of believers and none of them bothered to answer.I decided to search again but didn’t see your blog in the initial search. I know God led me to your blog. God bless you.

  18. >Dear Solitaire,I am glad to know that my post on the Levite and his concubine was helpful to you. I write my blog to help people who want to develop a better appreciation for the Old Testament.Thank you for visiting my blog.Claude Mariottini

  19. A Berean says:

    >”I don’t like the fact that Paul says that a man who marries a woman whose husband is still living is making HER an adulterer. But that is Paul, speaking 2000 years ago, still not necessarily the way God would have ultimately put it if He were speaking directly to our generation. I’m sure that the man who did that would also be an adulterer, not just the woman. But Paul didn’t phrase it that way. Oh well, the Holy Spirit spoke through humans and there is probably some human filtering of the ultimate message.” Posted by ForgivenI disagree. That was not Paul speaking but God using Paul’s men. There was no “human filtering of the ultimate message.” The Holy Spirit is God and immutability is an attribute of deity. What God has written in His word is eternal. Didn’t Jesus say in Matthew 5:18 that, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” The original Scriptures therefore, as God gave them in the Hebrew language, are absolute perfection. We may say the same of the New Testament in the Greek language.As for the man who marries a woman whose husband is still living is already an adulteress. Very often it is the married woman who seduces an unmarried man. The passage you are referring to (Romans 7) does not say that the man is not an adulterer. Paul is speaking of a believer’s relationship with Christ who becomes dead to the law and is married, so to speak, to Christ so that he/she can bear fruit to God.

  20. Anonymous says:

    >I cannot help but wonder why so many posts on here state that only people who do not follow god’s word could commit these kinds of atrocities. Obviously these people are intelligent and go to great lengths to try and understand that which they study and try to live their life by. How then, in such a case, are so many blinded to all of the atrocities that have been committed in the name of their god?

  21. >Dear Friend,God’s word says: “You shall not murder.” If one lives by God’s word, that person will not murder. If a person says: “I believe in God” but commits murder then that person is not obeying God’s word because God says “you shall not murder.”Many people may say they believe in God but they do not do what God teaches them not to do.Thank you for visiting my blog.Claude Mariottini

  22. Anonymous says:

    >While your interpretation offers cultural & social consideration, it offers only a partial view to the remainder of scripture. Do you not recall how Joseph was a just man who was minded to put Mary away privily when he could have likewise had Mary put to death? I'd say the KJV is quite correct in Judges 19.

  23. >Dear Anonymous,Thank you for your comment and thank you for visiting my blog.You can say that the KJV is correct, but the fact is: the social, cultural, and linguistic realities of the text clearly indicate that the translation of the KJV is not correct.The woman was not a whore. The Levite was an abuser and that was the reason the woman left him.Claude Mariottini

  24. >This passage has always confused and horrified me. This year I'm trying to re-read the whole Bible and when I got stuck on this passage I went searching for an answer. I'm glad I found your post because this is the first reasonable explanation that I have ever encountered. Thank you very much for your clear and well-reasoned thoughts.

  25. >Emily,Thank you for visiting my blog. I try to write posts that deal with difficult topics in the Old Testament but in a way that makes sense to people.I am glad to know that my post helped you understand this passage.Congratulations on your beautiful family.Claude Mariottini

  26. Dave says:

    >Dr. Mariottini:While I am newly saved, I'm far from "new" (read "old"). When I heard this passage read on a CD Bible (KJV), I wondered if I had heard it correctly. Thank you for your clarifying insight. Even more interesting are some of the posters to this verse who would have God put twenty-first century American values on issues such as "equality" and "slavery" on a 3000 year-old text. Their misguided attitude that, somehow, God should conform to their concepts of justice is astounding to me.

  27. >Dave,Thank you for your comment. I appreciate your words. I hope that, as a new believer, you will find my blog informative.Thank you for visiting my blog.Claude Mariottini

  28. >Hi Sir, Your essay is clear and thought provoking. I agree with your view. I read this passage in the Bible recently, just opening it up as I do. But, what stood out this time was how adamant the Israelites were about punishing the Benajaminites. The idea that they were Israelites as well, made them sad, but they did it anyway. I applied this in my life, not as extreme as the Israelites, but I had to instill some discipline on my son. Even though it made me feel sad to see him unhappy, I know that unhappiness will pass, and his new found wisdom will serve him. Rob

  29. Janvier says:

    >Professor, I agreed with your post as well. I am writing a Squidoo Lens about Judges 19. I'd like to include your thoughts.I just getting started, but your post is one of the more solid articles written on the chapter. Let me know what you think.Janvier

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