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.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary