Translating the Bible: The Case of the Abusive Husband

Bible Translations

People who speak more than one language know that every language has its own peculiarities and distinct features. Language is used by human beings to communicate to each other as they live in community. But language is arbitrary; there is no logic between the nature of things or ideas by which these things or ideas are expressed in words.

Language is complex and modifiable. For instance, some words have more than one meaning which radically differ from one another. Take for instance, the modern Hebrew word לְסַפֵּר . The word can mean “to tell” and “to cut hair.”

In many languages, there is the phenomenon of giving different meanings to identically pronounced words. This phenomenon is called a homograph. A homograph is a word that has the same written form as another word but which has a different meaning.

For instance, in English the word “bear” as a verb means “to support” or “to carry.” The word “bear” as a noun is an animal. As a noun, “rose” is a flower and as a verb “rose” is the past tense of the verb “to rise.”

Biblical Hebrew is an ancient language, and for this reason, many words have multiple meanings. Biblical Hebrew has several homographs. Take for instance, the Hebrew word מָשַׁל (māshal). The Hebrew word מָשַׁל I means “to rule.” “The rich rule over the poor” (Proverb 22:7). The same Hebrew word, מָשַׁל II, means “to be like,” “to speak in parables.” “ I shall be like those who go down to the Pit” (Psalm 28:1). “Son of man, . . . speak a parable to the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 17:2).

Thus, when translating a sentence from Hebrew into English, it becomes important, when dealing with homographs, to select the right meaning for the word in the context in which the word is used. Otherwise, the translation may give the reader a false impression of what the biblical author is trying to communicate to his reader. A classical example of this problem occurs with the translation of the Hebrew word זָנָה (zānāh) in Judges 19:2, the story of the Levite and his concubine.

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.

A Story of Violence

Most men and a few women who read this story 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.

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 prompted 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 [emphasis added].

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 [emphasis added].

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.

For other studies on translating the Bible, see my post, Studies on Translation Problems in the Old Testament.

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 poor woman.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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19 Responses to Translating the Bible: The Case of the Abusive Husband

  1. Robert Haggy says:

    Dr Mariottini,
    Growing up, (prior to college OT History with you at SBU), having, King James and New American Standard bibles, I had problems with thinking the concubine had been adulterous or went into prostitution because of what occurred in Gibeah. What the Levite did was horrible. I always thought IF she had done wrong, even under Hebrew law, his actions were still, unjust, illegal, and immoral. Even IF she had done such wrong she didn’t deserve that. Then for class you required the RSV Bible as one of our texts. Reading this passage there cleared it up and many other things in the Old Testament.

    I appreciate reading about the translation of the Hebrew language to English and how it affects understanding the Word of God.

    Sincerely,
    Robert Haggy

    Like

    • Robert,

      Thank you for your comment. I enjoyed my time at SBU. It is amazing how many of my former students at SBU read my blog regularly. I am happy to know that by attending my classes at SBU you learned to read this tragic story in a different way. I wish more people would change their minds about this tragic story and the fate of this poor woman.

      Thank you for visiting my blog.

      Claude Mariottini

      Like

    • Emilee says:

      I wonder too if the father’s actions support the idea that the husband was abusive. By allowing his daughter to remain home four months instead of sending her back, it seems he was in agreement with her decision to return home. It also seemed like he was doing everything he could to stall the return of his daughter with the Levite. Perhaps the stories he’d heard from his daughter made him fearful of upsetting the Levite, so he tried to avoid a direct confrontation.

      Like

      • Emilee,

        You have a good point. It is possible that the father was in agreement with his daughter’s decision to return home. However, if you read the text, if was the father who insisted that the Levite stay with him for three days: “Her father urged him to stay awhile, so he stayed three days, eating, drinking, and sleeping there” (Judges 19:4 NLT). It is possible that her father was trying to convince his daughter to return to her husband. It took two more days for the Levite to return home with his wife. I doubt that she returned willingly to the Levite’s home.

        Thank you for visiting my blog.

        Claude Mariottini

        Like

  2. deecline says:

    Sir. Good article, thank you.
    In v.19, the Levite includes himself as “your servant” when speaking to the old man.

    Like

  3. Charles Meadows says:

    What are your thoughts on Michael Heiser’s work?

    Like

    • Charles,

      Unfortunately, I am not familiar with his work. I say unfortunately because many people refer to his work. I may have to take some time and became acquainted with some of his works.

      Thank you for your question.

      Claude Mariottini

      Like

  4. vickys says:

    Thank you as I have always disliked the way this is often spoken about by ministers. We all know that concubines or second wives had no control over their lives and it was courageous of her to go home.

    Like

    • Vickys,

      Thank you for your comment. Most pastors use either the KJV or the NIV when the preach, thus they are unable to see the problem with the text. Also, many pastors do not do much research before preparing their sermons. Pastors must consult books that agree with them and books that disagree with them and then make their own mind.

      Concubines had a difficult time in the houses of their husbands. Someday I may take the time and write a post on concubines.

      Thank you for visiting my blog.

      Claude Mariottini

      Like

  5. Trish says:

    Whenever the Israelites sank to a point where everyone did as they saw fit, God always gave them a second chance. (And still does.) After this story in Judges about the abused wife, there are two encouraging stories about women, Ruth then Hannah, who both produced sons who were good men (assuming there are no mistranslations in my text…).

    Like

    • Trish,

      Thank you for your comment. You are right, Ruth and Hanna gave birth to sons that made great contributions to the life of the people of God. And I can assure you, there are no mistranslations in the text.

      Thank you for visiting my blog.

      Claude Mariottini

      Like

  6. Paul says:

    Another insightful article. Thanks. Makes sense.

    Like

  7. Bev Murrill says:

    This is such an insightful and wise blog. I agree with all that you’ve said. Once one understands that ‘being unfaithful to her husband’ can be understood as being upset with him and leaving him, all the rest is very clear. It makes total sense to infer that he was a typical narcissist, able to charm with his words and being abusive behind closed doors. The rest of the story bears this out, even to the point that he incites a war in which many more women are abused, merely by telling the story his own way.

    I am writing a book with the stories of some women who have been misrepresented or overlooked, and this woman is one whose story I have attempted to tell, and it’s very much down the same lines as you have expounded on. I would love to put this link in the discussion points, if that would be okay with you.

    Like

    • Bev,

      Thank you for you comment. This story has been highly misunderstood because most sermons are based on the KJV and its translation of the text. People who preach from this text do not do the kind of research that will allow them to see the problem with the KJV translation of Judges 19:2.

      I rejoice to know that you are writing a book on women who have been misrepresented. Feel free to use the link to this post on your book. I have written several articles on Old Testament women who have been misrepresented or overlooked. If you look at the Archive section of my blog, you will discover several series of studies on these women. I am sure you will find information that will help your research.

      And thank you for subscribing to my blog.

      Claude Mariottini

      Like

  8. Cynthia Ray says:

    Thank you for quoting the Septugint version.

    Like

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