The story of the Levite and his concubine in Judges 19 is one of the most misunderstood stories in the Bible. Many Christians have never read the story and are unfamiliar with its gruesome details. If you have never read this story, stop, go to Judges 19 and read it for the first time. Some Christians have read the story but have never paid attention to the ugly actions of an abusive husband. If you have never paid attention to the outcome of the story, stop, read the story again. I will wait for you.
A Story of Violence
I have written one post on this horrific story titled Rereading Judges 19:2. This post has resulted in many comments from readers. Most men and a few women who left a comment blame the woman for being unfaithful to her husband. Some even believe that just by leaving her husband, the woman was being unfaithful to him. I get similar views from some of my students when we discuss this text in class.
Why do I write a second post on a story of violence against a woman who did not deserve the horror inflicted on her? The words of Phyllis Trible in her book Texts of Terror explains the reason I revisit this sad story. Trible wrote:
“The betrayal, rape, torture, murder and dismemberment of an unnamed woman is a story we want to forget but are commanded to speak. It depicts the horrors of male power, brutality, and triumphalism; of female helplessness, abuse, and annihilation. To hear this story is to inhabit a world of unrelenting terror that refuses to let us pass by on the other side” (1984: 65).
Before I discuss the story, let me identify the two main characters in the story. Levites were religious functionaries who served God as temple personnel. This Levite was somewhat wealthy, since he could buy a concubine, had a servant and two donkeys. Because of their position in the religious life of Israel, Levites were honored and respected by the people of Israel and served in many important positions in the temple, court, and palace.
A concubine was a secondary wife. In some poor families, a father would sell his daughter to be a secondary wife, a maid, or a servant in the household of a man of means. In the case of the woman in this story, she was probably sold by her father to be a secondary wife of the Levite.
The Woman and the Text
The reason the woman is often blamed for what happened to her is because of the unfortunate mistranslation of Judges 19:2 by the King James Bible (KJV) and by the New International Version (NIV) and several other versions.
The King James says: “And his concubine played the whore against him, and went away from him unto her father’s house” (Judges 19:2 KJV). According to the KJV, the woman betrayed her husband by becoming a whore. The KJV’s translation implies that the woman left her husband because she became a prostitute. This view finds no support in the text. As Boling wrote in his commentary of Judges, “it is strange that the woman would become a prostitute and then run home” (1975: 273).
The NIV says: “But she was unfaithful to him. She left him and went back to her father’s house” (Judges 19:2 NIV). According to the NIV, the woman betrayed her husband by having sex with another man. However, in Israel adultery was a great evil which was punishable by death: “If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel” (Deuteronomy 22:22). In addition, the Levite would not be able to take his adulteress wife back because she had been defiled by another man (Deuteronomy 24:4).
The reason the woman left her husband was not because she became a prostitute or because she committed adultery. It was not what she had done that prompted her to leave her husband; it was what the husband did to her that promted her to leave. This is how the New Revised Standard Version reads Judges 19:2: “But his concubine became angry with him, and she went away from him to her father’s house.” The same translation is also adopted by the NET Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible, The New Living Translation, and several others.
The reason for the different translations of Judges 19:2 is because there are different textual traditions about what happened between the Levite and his concubine. Some textual traditions blame the woman and say that she was unfaithful to her husband. Some textual traditions blame the husband by saying that the woman was angry at her husband for something that he did to her.
In his article, “Mistranslations in the Old Testament,” G. R. Driver wrote: “in the story of the outrage at Gibeah the Hebrew text, in speaking of the estrangement between the Levite and his concubine, says wattizneh ‘ālāyw (Jud. XIX 2), which cannot mean ‘and she played the harlot against him’ (R.V.) Because this verb is never followed by this preposition and especially because the cause of the estrangement was obviously a passing disagreement and not an act of unfaithfulness. The LXX makes admirable sense and may be accepted as correct; for the [Akkadian] zinû ‘to be angry’ supports it and suggests a Hebrew zānāh ‘was angry’, totally different from the Hebrew zānāh ‘committed adultery, fornication’. Two homonymous verbs have here been confused by all interpreters except the LXX who, as so often, have preserved the true sense” (1947: 29-30).
What most readers of this story do not realize is that several translations, including the Vulgate, the Septuagint, and the Targum do not understand the Hebrew word zānāh to imply any act of conjugal infidelity on the woman’s part.
The Hebrew word zānāh has two meanings. One meaning of the word is “to be unfaithful” or “to commit adultery.” The second meaning of the word is “to be angry.” In light of how the Septuagint and the Targum translate the word, Soggin, in his commentary of Judges wrote: “In no way can this be the zānāh, ‘practice prostitution’, in the sense of ‘betrayed him’” (1981: 284). Because the word zānāh in Judges 19:2 means “to be angry,” Soggin concludes: “the responsibility for the matrimonial crisis, on which the text gives us no information, must have lain with the husband, at least in view of his later behaviour” (1981: 284).
This is the same view of Josephus, the Jewish historian who wrote a few years after Paul’s death. In his Antiquities of the Jews (v. ii, 8), Josephus wrote:
“There was a Levite, a man of a vulgar family, that belonged to the tribe of Ephraim, and dwelt therein; this man married a wife from Bethlehem, which is a place belonging to the tribe of Judah. Now he was very fond of his wife and overcome with her beauty; but he was unhappy in this, that he did not meet with the like return of affection from her, for she was averse to him, which did more inflame his passion for her, so that they quarrelled one with another perpetually; and at last the woman was so disgusted at these quarrels, that she left her husband, and went to her parents in the fourth month.”
The Woman’s Reason for Leaving Her Husband
In light of the textual evidence presented above, why was the woman not guilty of the accusations lodged against her? The text presents several clues to indicate that the separation should be blamed on the husband.
First, the woman’s husband made her angry so she left. The Bible does not provide any information on the reason she became angry. Whatever the reasons for the anger, it was severe enough that she had to leave her husband.
Second, it is important to notice that in the story it is the woman who takes the initiative to leave her husband. It is also important to notice that this is the only time in the Old Testament where the woman takes the initiative to leave her husband. This fact may also explain another textual problem in the story. When the Levite came to Bethlehem to bring his wife back, the biblical text differs on what happened next.
The New Revised Standard Version says: “When he reached her father’s house, the girl’s father saw him and came with joy to meet him” (Judges 19:3). This translation is adopted by the New Living Translation, the New Jerusalem Bible, and a few others.
The New International Version says: “She took him into her father’s house, and when her father saw him, he gladly welcomed him” (Judges 19:3). This translation is followed by the KJV, ESV, Holman, and all translations that follow the Masoretic text.
The Septuagint and the Syriac versions say that the man came to her father’s house. Many scholars believe that in the textual transmission of the story, the wording of the text was changed by the scribes to say that the woman met her husband and brought him into the house based on the fact that since it was believed that the Levite was (supposedly) betrayed by his wife, that the woman then should take the initiative to welcome him back.
Third, it is possible that the woman did not want to return with her husband. The text never mentions whether or not the woman desired to return with her husband, but her reluctance to return with the Levite may be inferred by several clues in the text. It took four months for him to come after her (19:2). It took five days of dealing between the woman’s father and the Levite before he was able to leave with his wife.
According to the text, he came “to speak tenderly to her” (19:3). Literally, the Hebrew says: “to speak to her heart.” This expression is used nine times in the Hebrew Bible and in a few places it carries the idea of convincing someone. The Levite’s effort to go from the hills of Ephraim to Bethlehem of Judah to reconcile with his concubine clearly shows that she was the one in the right, not him.
The Abusive Husband
Although the text does not give the reason the woman became angry and the reason the man and the woman argued to the point of separation, the text gives evidence that the Levite was an abusive husband. First, he made her angry. His behavior toward the woman probably was abusive, causing her to become angry and leave him. Second, he came after her in order to “speak to her heart,” that is, to convince her to come home with him. When they left the house of her father, they came to Gibeah where he planned to spend the night.
In Gibeah, the Levite met an old man who offered him hospitality. When the Levite met the old man of the city, not wanting to be a burden to him, the Levite said: “we have both straw and feed for our donkeys, and bread and wine for me, your female servant, and the young man with your servant” (Judges 19:19 HCSB). With these words, the Levite demeans his concubine by saying that she was “your female servant,” that is, inferring that the woman was the old man’s property. After he came to the man’s house, his life was threatened by the man of the city. In order to save his own life, the Levite concluded that the life of his concubine was expendable, so he sacrificed her life to save his own. “So the [Levite] seized his concubine, and put her out to them. They wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning” (Judges 19:25).
The action of the Levite shows the tragedy of this story. Once the concubine fled from her husband probably to avoid his abuse and violence. He went after her to speak to her heart and brought her back, only to deliver her into the hands of evil men who raped her and abused her mercilessly all night.
When morning came, the Levite was prepared to continue his journey: “When her master got up in the morning, opened the doors of the house, and went out to leave on his journey” (19:27), but without her. But, as he opened the door and prepared to leave the house without his concubine, he found the woman, lying at the door of the house, whether alive or dead the text does not say. The silence of the text may indicate that she was still alive, however, to mitigate the brutality of what happens next, the Septuagint says “for she was dead” (19:28 LXX).
When the Levite arrived home, he took a knife, took hold of the battered body of his concubine and cut her into twelve pieces. When the men of Benjamin asked what had happened, the Levite lied in order to justify what he did: “The Israelites asked, ‘Tell us, how did this outrage occur?’ The Levite, the husband of the murdered woman, answered: ‘I went to Gibeah in Benjamin with my concubine to spend the night. Citizens of Gibeah ganged up on me and surrounded the house at night. They intended to kill me, but they raped my concubine, and she died’” (Judges 20:3-5). The men of Gibeah did not try to kill him; they wanted to rape him and the only reason the men of Benjamin raped his concubine was because he gave her to them to be raped.
The Truth of the Story
I believe the text provides evidence that the woman had reasons to leave her husband. He was an abusive husband, a selfish man who treated his wife as an object to be disposed of, who did not value her as a woman and as a wife. Although some commentaries try to justify the Levite by saying that the woman “treacherously departed from her husband to embrace the bosom of a stranger,” the text does not prove that.
The text, however, seems to present a different view of the situation. To blame the woman for what happened is to ignore the fact that the Levite’s actions clearly show that the woman had a reason to fear him and her rape, abuse, death, and dismemberment proved that she was right all along.
Let her rest in peace.
NOTE TO READERS:
I welcome your comments on this post, however, if you are planning to blame the woman for being unfaithful to her husband, do not leave your comment; this woman has been vilified long enough.
Did you like this post? Be sure to click the “Like” button and then share this post on Facebook, and tweet it on Twitter! If you blog, put a link on your blog. Maybe together we can tell a different story about this woman.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Boling, Robert G. Judges. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1975.
Driver, G. R. “Mistranslations in the Old Testament.” Die Welt des Orients 1 (1947): 29-31.
Josephus, Flavius. The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus, Trans. William Whiston. New York, Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1961., p. 152.
Soggin, J. Alberto. Judges. The Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1981.
Trible, Phyllis. Text of Terror. Overture to Biblical Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1984.
Reblogged this on The Biblical Review and commented:
Thank you for your reaction to my post. This topic is a difficult one, but one that people should talk about.
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Although I was not aware of these textual issues prior to your post, one of my previous professors, Brad Embry, has done quite a bit of work with Judges 19. Most recently, he wrote about the role of Judges 19 within his own faith tradition: “as I participated in the life of this faith tradition I was equally impressed by how unimportant Judges 19 (and Judges for that matter) was, in practice, to the weekly expression of faith in this community… Aside from a few idiomatic comments, the story of Judges 19 simply did not register in the religious conscience of this tradition” (Brad Embry, 2013, “Narrative Loss, the (Important) Role of Women, and Community in Judges 19”). Prior to this, he has done some other work with Judges.
That’s all to say that Judges 19 holds a special place in my own conscience, regardless of my faith tradition.
Your previous professor is not alone. Many Christians have never read Judges 19 or if they have, they do not pay too much attention to the details of the story. Unfortunately, there are many evangelical Christians who still blame the woman based on their reading of the KJV and the NIV.
Thank you for your comment.
Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.
“The Levite’s effort to go from the hills of Ephraim to Bethlehem of Judah to reconcile with his concubine clearly shows that she was the one in the right, not him.”
Hi Dr. Marriottini,
Once again, you have enlightened us with your wisdom and your expertise. From the above quote and your statement that the Levite spoke to the concubine’s heart nine times trying to persuade her to come back to him is eye opening. Your explanation of why the Levite was the blame is well proven. This information will be very helpful for me when I speak to ladies who are battling domestic abuse. (In fact, I wish I read this about six months ago.) It’s sad that even after several months apart, the Levite did not change. His heart remained self-centered. Not that the abusers can not change, but it takes more than a few months to stop that kind of behavior.
Moreover, I can only imagine the many false promises the Levite gave to her and her father in order for him to take her back. Unfortunately, this same technique happens today. Often times after an incident, the woman will hear their abusive partners say, “I promise this won’t happen again, because I love you so very much.” After hearing this, she will normally trust him and return only to experience the horrific cycle again. Unfortunately, his behavior normally worsens each time.
In regards to her father, I believe that he was not totally convinced that the Levite had changed which is why he tried to stall them from leaving so soon. No matter how polite the father seemed to be to the Levite, I believe the father still needed to confirm that his daughter was going to be safe so he wanted to keep them there with him as long as possible. It’s sad that ultimately she was not protected.
I’m so grateful that you wrote this, and I wish more scholars especially males, would share things like this. We must advocate for all hurting people. Again well done!!
Thanks for writing this!
Thank you for your nice words about my post. The reason I wrote this post is because many people believe that she did something very evil, when in reality, she was innocent. Many people do not look at what the husband did.
The problem of abuse is an issue that all of us need to address; this is one of the reasons why I wrote this post. I hope more people will read it.
I truly enjoyed reading this post. It is insightful and I did share it on Facebook. God bless you for sharing this.
Thank you for your nice words. Let us hope people will change their minds about this woman.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I believe that eyes are being opened to the truth. Keep shedding His light with your writing.
Thank you for your comment. Sometimes it is difficult for people to accept the truth, but we need to keep on trying. The woman in the story has been wrongly criticized for being unfaithful to her husband, but she was not guilty of the charges against her.
Grateful for this post. I remember reading Texts of Terror in one of your classes, and it brought me right back. This analysis was both enlightening and relieving.
Thank you for your comment. Text of Terror is a great book which I recommend to my students. I am glad you enjoyed the book and also my post.
Seems like we are still blaming the women!
Thank you for standing up for us!
The abuse of women in our society and in societies around the world is a shame and people need to act to end this problem. My goal was to stand for a woman who, in my view, has been wrongly criticized for something she did not do.
Has anyone noticed the similarity of the “welcome” that the Levite received with that of the angels in Sodom, and of the host’s response? The difference is that the men of Sodom weren’t vindictively cruel against women. The similarity of the interactions is not coincidental in my opinion, but represents two examples of a corrupt cultural norm.
The text in the Septuagint makes no judgments. It simply reports the events dispassionately. The Levite was very angry (orgizó egó), the concubine wasn’t a harlot and her father wasn’t joyful when he saw the Levite, but purposely stalled the him for time. The text doesn’t say why. However, the relationship between the Levite and his concubine was not the same after he left. Perhaps the father negotiated with the Levite. Just connecting the dots from the evidence presented . . .
Many writers have noticed the similarity between the story in Judges and the story of the angels in Sodom. I did not say anything about the similarity because it was outside of my purpose for the post.
I have an idea about the reason the father delayed the departure of the Levite, even though this reason is not in the text. Here is my view: since the father sold his daughter to be a concubine, when she returned home, the father had to return the bridal price. Since the woman did not want to return with the Levite and since the father did not want to return the money, he had to stall for time while he convinced his daughter to go with the Levite.
I know that this is not in the text, but I think it makes sense.
Are you suggesting that זנה be read as זנח? It looks as if you have a tenable argument. Is there manuscript evidence for this reading? Thanks for the post. I’m not there yet in my reading but I will be some day, if the Lord will.
The way you expressed the problem with the Hebrew words is not correct. There are two meanings for the word זָנָה. The word
זָנָה I means “to be unfaithful, to commit an act of prostitution.” The word זָנָה II means “to be angry.”
According to HALOT and many of the ancient versions, the word זָנָה here has the meaning of “to be angry.”
Thank you for your comment.
I have posted my response here also and I have asked the Hebrew Language Detective and my Hebrew coach, a professional modern translator, for opinions. This is an absolutely vital question about how we read.
I apologize for the delay in answering you comment.
I read your post. Thank you for taking times to address my post. In a future post I will seek to address some of the issues you raised in your post.
“Gerry on April 12, 2015 at 4:16 am
The most reasonable reading of Judges 1:2 is not that the Levite’s concubine literally had sex or consorted with another but that leaving him, running away, in itself constituted unfaithfulness, zanah. This, not being actual sexual connection with another, which was a death-penalty offense unless she was forced, did not qualify for stoning.”
Zanah and its related words, while having a literal meaning having to do with sexual relations, is repeatedly used to denote Israel’s unfaithfulness to the LORD, with Whom Israel most certainly did not have literal sexual relations.
Exodus 34:15, 16
Leviticus 20:5 – here zanah is sacrificing children to Moloch
1 Chronicles 5:25
Ezekiel 6:9; 16:28
And several more in which zanah denotes unfaithfulness; infidelity, not literal physical illicit sexual relations.
When a wife leaves her husband without his approval, she breaches faith with him. This would not be the case if he drove her away by violence.
You are still blaming the woman. Read again what the text says: “But his concubine became angry with him” (Judges 19:2 NRSV). The text does not say that she was unfaithful to him, the text does not say anything about sex with another man, nor does the text say anything about infidelity. According to the text the man caused her to be angry. Don’t blame the woman; blame the man.
I am so glad you are back to blogging. I learned a lot from this post and it has force me to re-evaluate this passage. I think you effectively answered questions I should have been asking. I thank God for this. I was wondering if you have ever written about Jephthah from Judges 11? Did he really sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering or did she merely serve God the rest of her life and never married or have children of her own, as some commentators suggest? Do you have any suggestions on what to read? thanks!!!
It is nice to hear from you after such a long time. I am glad you enjoyed my post.
I have written three posts on Jephthah’s daughter. You can read them here: Judges 11:39: The Virginity of Jephthah’s Daughter.
In your previous post, using the interpretation that she had not been sexually unfaithful to her husband, you talked about how the woman ran to her father’s house for protection from abuse and mistreatment. You also said that the father was welcoming and conciliatory to the man, I believe. My dad would not have been welcoming if an abusive husband came to get me. So, I’m having a problem with that and would like your input. Thank you.
When the Levite acquired his wife, he gave the father of the woman the “mohar” or the bridal price. It is possible that the man would request a return of the money if the woman refused to return with him. Remember, a father had the right to sell his daughter to be a secondary wife. We cannot look at the story from our American perspective; the position of the woman in that society was completely different from societies today.
Here’s the problem I have even to this day with this verse (but God’s Ways are NOT mine, nor His thoughts my thoughts, I DO believe there’s a DEEPER meaning to the story, but until I get the low down from God/Jesus I’ll leave it right there) I DON’T understand why the husband “intentionally put his wife out KNOWING what might become of her, seem to have NO sympathy that she was RAPED ALL NIGHT LONG, then cut her body up into pieces” like she never even existed, and why the Priests didn’t do anything to him? I Don’t know how he lived with himself after that horrific incident.
As for the “King James Version being incorrect”, I NEVER visit those waters because as far as I’m concerned, God’s Word STANDS and it’s not for me to say what is wrong with it, should be taken out, added, etc. I consider that “DANGEROUS” territory and leave that to the Father and Son ALONE. “Their Word” has and Does Stand the tests of time, has proven itself over and over again, IS the guide post for ALL humanity, and that’s more than good enough for me.
The only way to understand this story is knowing that the man had a low estimate of his wife. She was just a concubine, a secondary wife which be bought with money. Probably, in his mind, she was just his possession.
The problem with the KJV is that it uses an incorrect meaning of the Hebrew word. If you reread my post, I said that the Hebrew word has two different meaning. The KJV chose the first meaning, when in reality the second meaning of the word fits the context of the story in a better way.
Thank you for visiting my blog.
So thankful I came across your blog ! This was a story I didn’t like to read because I didn’t understand it. It always left me sad and hurt for this woman. It still does but at least now I understand why such a story would be included in God’s Word. This kind of behavior and worse still exist today and for the same reason ..a life without God . Thanks again for explaining
I am glad to know that you enjoyed this post. I believe this story has been misinterpreted and because of that, the woman in the story has been called all kinds of names, even though she did not deserve it.
Thank you for visiting my blog.