Difficult Passages: The Levite’s Concubine

At the suggestion of a few people, today I’m beginning a long running series. Every Monday I’m going to try to tackle a different difficult passage of the bible. If you have come across a difficult passage in the bible and didn’t know how to handle it, maybe we can tackle it together (leave it in the comments).

The Passage and Problem

So, today’s passage is on the episode in Judges 19.

If you haven’t read it (and can’t click the link above) here’s the summary w/ some brief commentary: A Levite has a concubine, definitely not married but sleeping together, who runs away. Clearly something’s amiss in the relationship. So the Levite goes after her, finding her with her family. Rather than letting the woman have a say, the Levite and the father bargain over what seems to be a fair price and she is forced to go with him. On their way, they stop in a town in the midst of the tribe of Benjamin’s territory and intend to stay in the town square. One person in the town knows most of the citizens are up to no good and offers them shelter. The Levite accepts, but that night, the townspeople are having none of this kindness. In an episode clearly reminiscent of Sodom, the townsfolk show up at the door and demand to rape the visiting Levite, suggesting they’ll break down the door if he’s not let out. While the host is attempting to reason with them (unfortunately in very similar terms to Lot’s bargaining), the Levite, without saying anything puts the concubine outside with the men.

The men, as is expected by this point in the story, rape the woman all night before letting her go and leaving. Exhausted and violated she collapses on the doorstep of the house. In the morning the Levite, seemingly annoyed, tells her to get up so they can go. She doesn’t respond. It’s unclear whether she is unconscious or dead at this point, but the Levite throws her on his donkey, takes her home and then he cuts her into pieces, mutilating her body (and possibly killing her in the process).

In the following chapter, it’s revealed that this causes the 11 tribes of Israel that are not Benjamin come together to nearly annihilate the tribe of Benjamin. Apparently they don’t leave the women or children alone since once the war is finished, there some concern that the tribe of Benjamin will completely die out, and soon. The solution is for them to kidnap a group of women in order to repopulate the tribe. The result is that the victimization of one woman results in others being victimized. To make matters worse, it seems the “judge” of this particular narrative is meant to be the Levite. What in the world is going on?

How I’d suggest looking at the passage

Let me be upfront about one thing in this series. The main guiding principle I have for dealing with most difficult passages resolves about 90% of the problems up front. Here’s the principle that I’ve learned from my hermeneutics instructor: There is one hero in the bible, and it is God. No one else is hero or a model to be perfectly imitated. Everyone else makes mistakes and shouldn’t be considered the hero. Instead, they are fallen characters in God’s story.

This passage is clearly no exception. No one here seems to be very moral, least of all the Levite. Understand that, particularly in this part of judges, that’s kind of the point. Judges opens after the conquests of Joshua when nearly all the land was taken. The problem was that the people failed to take all of the land. They had, in effect, already rejected the direct rule of God and, it seemed, needed a human intermediary to serve as king. The book of Judges, in part, tries to help the reader see why the king was necessary. This was the period without a king (a point that judges brings up again and again). In the absence of a human king, people sinned freely. The immediate result was that God sent a group to come punish the people (such as the Philistines).

The people would cry out for help for their immediate needs and God would send a deliverer, the judge, who would temporarily rule over the people. This was the immediate effect of the people’s rejection of God as king and the lack of an immediate human king. Long term, however, Israel began a downward spiral as things got worse and worse. This is reflected in the series of the judges. The cycle of rebellion, punishment, cry for help, God raising up a judge, redemption and then rebellion again takes place throughout judges. However, it also becomes a spiral. The first judges are downright admirable. The final judges less so. Samson, who appears not too long before this, isn’t just a strong man. He also systematically breaks every single aspect of he Nazarite vow. The hair was just the last one. He has no moral fortitude (an irony juxtaposed against his physical strength). Thus, when we come to the end of judges, we should expect to find the most morally repugnant of the judges. This is what happens in the absence of a king, the text seems to tell us, nearly smacking us upside the head with that point in the opening line “in those days Israel had no king.” The Levite is not the hero, but the problem. He’s why a king is needed.

In order to drive this point home further, when one looks at this instance there is no outside oppressor (as is the case with the other judges). The Philistines neither attempt to rape the Levite nor do they nearly destroy the tribe of Benjamin. Israel is its own oppressor. So in summary here is the best way, I think, to deal with the difficulty in this passage.

This was a terrible incident in the history of the world. It merely highlights how sinful we are and how much we need redemption, not only from sin, but also form ourselves. Historically it also highlights the need Israel had for a human king, one who would be provided in the best way as David. The incident of the Levite’s concubine is recorded in the bible to remind us how wicked we are capable of being, but how good God is nevertheless, and thus how little we deserve the grace that is poured over us, in spite of ourselves.

What do you think? Any thoughts you’d like to add, or any other hard passages you’d like to see covered?

  26 comments for “Difficult Passages: The Levite’s Concubine

  1. Beth
    August 20, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    How about 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 & ch. 14:33-36; or Genesis 38

  2. August 22, 2012 at 2:48 pm

    Good suggestions. It’ll take a few weeks, I’ve already got a different one for next week (requested on facebook). But I’ll get to these.

  3. August 28, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    What a blessing this is . ..you are! Thank you! And I will remember what you said about there only being one Hero in the Bible .. .and that is God. 🙂 God bless you and thank you for taking on the hard stuff!

    • Anonymous
      March 23, 2016 at 12:41 am

      Samual two goes into detail why Israel should want no king but God. I don’t think this is a pro king chapter.

  4. September 7, 2012 at 12:15 am

    Throughout Judges the fundamental issue is the lordship of God in Israel, especially Israel’s acknowledgment of and loyalty to his rule. His kingship over Israel had been uniquely established by the covenant at Sinai ( Ex 19-24 ), which was later renewed by Moses on the plains of Moab ( Dt 29 ) and by Joshua at Shechem ( Jos 24 ). The author accuses Israel of having rejected the kingship of the Lord again and again. They stopped fighting the Lord’s battles, turned to the gods of Canaan to secure the blessings of family, flocks and fields, and abandoned God’s laws for daily living. In the very center of the cycle of the judges (see Outline), Gideon had to remind Israel that the Lord was their King (see note on 8:23 ). The recurring lament, and indictment, of chs. 17 – 21 (see Outline) is: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (see note on 17:6 ). The primary reference here is doubtless to the earthly mediators of the Lord’s rule (i.e., human kings), but the implicit charge is that Israel did not truly acknowledge or obey her heavenly King either.

  5. September 13, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    As for the Lot story, many anti-Christian arguments revolve around “How could Lot be a righteous man if he did that?” But the angels (messengers) who spoke for God specifically told Lot NOT to send the girls out, and he didn’t send them out; God was opposed to the sacrifice of the girls, and Lot obeyed God’s messengers in that. And that was after marrying and raising children with a Sodomite woman and probably celebrating thousands of Sodom holidays with her family, doing business and making conversation on the streets of Sodom, and probably being intimidated and somewhat worn down emotionally from decades of fighting off the festival crowds at his door every year.
    The Benjamite story tells us several things worth remembering in these times: Everyone, even someone with no status, matters; the rape and murder of a servant girl is just as terrible as if it had happened to someone famous or glamorous. The people agreed that it was the worst crime in their history.
    Sin leads to sin; he was cohabitating with a servant, and that dulled his conscience until he was capable of sacrificing her for someone he was afraid to antagonize, his friend, which led to the mob’s brutal crime, which led to a war that killed civilians, which led to the captivity of foreign girls. Only repentance and forgiveness can stop the escalation of sin. And, it is never just to punish the innocent for someone else’s crime.

    • Nathyjegs
      July 20, 2018 at 8:35 am

      hello there can i get an invite to read this?

    • Sara
      October 31, 2019 at 6:46 pm

      Actually it’s not clear what they were upset about, it’s probably not the gang rape of that poor woman because Sodom tried to do the same thing and a father offered his daughter to the rapists, so they wouldn’t say it’s never been done. The body chopped into pieces and sent all over Israel was more so what they were referring to.
      When they find out that the levite did it, they don’t punish him, they just get incited into war where they kill married women and kidnap virgins.
      It’s nice of you to say what you said but it’s not true. They didn’t think she mattered in the way you are referring to. They would have been concerned that she was his property and it was against the law for men to do that to other peoples property.
      Ancient Israel’s customs and the “God of love” we speak of today don’t seem to gel together. It’s these stories that confuse people and keep them away from God and the church.

  6. October 26, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    I wrote a poem about this giving an angle I had not considered before based on the writings of scholar Phyllis Trible: http://sonyakatasheva.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/the-woman-who-was-cut-into-twleve.html where the concubine might be seen as a female type of Christ?

    • Nathyjegs
      July 20, 2018 at 9:11 am

      hello there can i get an invite to read this?

  7. Tammy
    September 10, 2013 at 7:14 am

    Everyone starts this chapter with one wrong assumption and then Judges 19 make very little sense. The truth is the Levi is Gay. We find out later in the Judges 19 that the servant is a young man. The servant is also Gay and is the Levite’s lover. Reread Judges 19 with this assumption and God’s true meaning will be understood.

    The Levite is living in the hill country of Ephraim with his young male servant and lover to avoid detection and escape possible persecution if discovered to be Gay. The Old Testament requires the death of all homosexuals. He takes on a Concubine for a better appearance and to avoid detection. But it is now very understandable why the Concubine becomes very unhappy living in the Levite’s home. The people of Gibeah can easily spot that the one or both men are Gay; the male servant must be very flamboyant in dress and behavior. No one in Gibeah wants a Gay in their home.

    The mob of men is like the KKK of the south that persecuted the blacks in the South. The mob are in the habit of persecuting the homosexual and then general public condones this practice because the Old Testament tells then Homosexuals are extremely sinful and should be killed. You also see this practice in the Middle East and it happens daily that a mob of men will bang on a door and say “Send Jonny out, we want to play with him and have sex with him.” In their perverted minds they want to rape the Homosexual so that he stops this behavior and maybe kill him but they really enjoy the power they have over another person and they know they can get away with it. In the Koran just like the Old Testament Homosexuals should be killed.

    This mob cannot be a Homosexual mob since Homosexuals only comprise of 5% of the general population and the other 95% which is Hetersexual would not condone or allow this mob behavior to be inflicted on the Heterosexual community. In any society the weak never persecutes the strong but it is the strong or the majority that inflicts persecution of the weak or the minority.

    So that explains why the Levite does not give the mob himself or his young male servant and lover. He gives the mob his Concubine.

    The Levite plans his act of revenge and it is executed almost perfectly by all parties. The men of Israel make an oath to God without hearing the other side. Later they hear the story from the Tribe of Benjamin that the mob was trying to persecute the Homosexual but in the frenzy they raped, abused and maybe killed the innocent woman. The men of Israel are then sympathetic to the Tribe of Benjamin because they too have condoned or participated in the torture and killing of Homosexuals as required by the Old Testament. The men of Israel lose the will to fight but they must honor there other to God.

    Judges 199 starts with “when there was no king in Israel” meaning that if there was a king or government the king would have listened to all parties involved before reach a fair and just decision.

    • May 17, 2014 at 7:10 am

      Very interesting! I was led to this story this morning. When I first read what you wrote about the Levite being gay…my first response was “What?”. But as I thought about it and read the rest of your reply it does start to make sense. But I have a few questions. The mob wanted to rape the angels in Sodom and Gomorrah. What about that in reference to the ‘homosexuals’ not being the majority. No one was gay in that story. And I get your reference to the Muslims of today…but in this scenario aren’t these also ‘Israelites’ from the Tribe of Benjamin? Not descendants of Ishmael? I do not believe Jews dealt this way with homosexuality by raping them. Killed/stoned them…yes. I am thinking that quality is something passed down from Ishmael -Muslim descendants??? And servants are very common…what leads you to believe he is gay ? Thanks

  8. Jackie Dover
    July 27, 2014 at 7:35 am

    I think your hermeneutics instructor is right. This is the point of the whole Bible as summarised in Romans 8:23.

  9. Paulus2014
    August 4, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    Shameful passage even if we come back to a patriarchal society like that one of Old Testament. Worst is the bizarre, cruel and coward behavior of the old man: offering his virgin daughter and Levite’s concubine to the lascivious crowd of rapists. Why he didn’t demonstrate his hospitality offering his body to the mob?

  10. Anonymous
    August 4, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    Homosexuality persecution? I don’t agree with that.The chapter 19 of Judges demonstrates the awful condition of the women in those times: something like garbage.

  11. M. Young
    August 29, 2015 at 1:43 pm

    thank you for discussing this passage. have you ever addressed the story of Jephthah and the sacrifice of his daughter in Judges 11?

    • M. Young
      August 29, 2015 at 1:55 pm

      ok, nevermind I just read your explanation of the Jephthah’s story. thanks!

  12. Amethsy Jans
    January 30, 2016 at 10:26 am

    I also even find this passage very difficult for me to comprehend. I stumbled on this chapter of the book of Judges. I have read some passages which really take time for me to understand or even accept that that’s how it was and so even today. I have to pause for a moment to breathe before reading it again as my soul is already troubled reading across this passages. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  13. Trilogy
    July 26, 2016 at 1:08 pm

    …seemed to have missed the point that God approved of this War between Israel and The Tribe of Benjamin.
    Judges 20:18
    Judges 20:23
    Judges 20:28

    The principle of the passage is that it was God’s divine will that this happened

    3x it is written “The Lord said,..”

    This is an example of the gospel
    The (1) Death, (2) Burial, and (3) Ressurrection of King and Christ Jesus, The Son of the Living God
    1 Corinthians 15:3-4

  14. Ola
    May 13, 2017 at 7:27 am

    Thank you for your help with this passage, every time I read I kind of wish it wasn’t included in the Bible! I know that is a horrible thought but I am so saddened to “see” what happened to this woman, especially when the Levite said let’s go to an Israelite town, not knowing the freakish nightmare that awaited him. Also I couldn’t believe what I was reading…I might as well have been back in Genesis reading about Sodom and Gomorrah again! I literally had to put down my Bible and pause in disbelief even though this is going to be my 4th or 5th time reading through the Bible …it was so shocking to see Israel reduced to this. But having just finished Deuteronomy and Joshua I am reminded that God warned them of all that would happen if they turned away from him. It was horrific to read…this again and to imagine how it played out! I purposely finished the book of Judges today because I didn’t want to come back to it tomorrow. It was so depressing to see how it ended. So disturbing. I was glad to know that the book of Ruth is next. Looking forward to some good news tomorrow!
    Again what I read was weighing on me which is why I came online to see if I could find any commentaries on it. Why do I want to blame God at this point? Funny, that’s what Adam did right after he disobeyed God’s command not to eat the fruit but foolishly followed his wife in disobedience. Not much has changed since the garden I guess. Praise God for JESUS.

  15. Karren
    June 25, 2017 at 10:20 pm

    Thank you for explaining, this was hard for me to digest. I kept reading the passages thinking where is this going? What is God trying to say and why didn’t he leave this out but it makes sense now.

  16. Godswill
    February 10, 2018 at 3:58 pm

    I found it difficult to digest it but

  17. Godswill
    February 10, 2018 at 4:01 pm

    I found it difficult to digest it, but through your explanations about the Scenario, I’m happy now. Thanks!

  18. Serano
    April 29, 2018 at 3:03 pm

    Men do what they like whether there’s a king or not. The lack of love in men’s hearts is the cause of today’s ills. The power they wilt over other created beings has corrupted them completely. The love of self has turned them to become consumers of themselves. Everything is about men’s pleaures, everybody else is a commodity to be used for their selfish satisfaction. Drugs, prostitution, human trafficking, rape are all man-made things to pleasure one species at the expense of others. When a married man rapes a two-months old baby, what is that for? A gorilla can never do that to its own offsprings. Mankind is supposed to at least have a fair share of human intelligence. Every day animal show their superiority by the way they behave which is something lacking in men. They rape everything in sight, no self respect enough to respect others. This story show that nothing men device will ever be of any quality because the functional brain is positioned outside the thinking scope. Sex is god of this world.

  19. Sara
    October 31, 2019 at 5:24 pm

    It is difficult to call God a hero when in the Sodom story, angels protect themselves from this threat by making the mob blind so they couldn’t find the door. But in this story, the angels are not there, and this poor woman is given over to be destroyed. God nor angels do anything to save her. It would seem because this time they are not the ones under threat. Not very heroic.
    What makes matters worse is God was still watching over these people and literally speaking to them because he answers a direct question to them only a little while later. So he saw the whole thing happen and didn’t stop it. He also would have known their future horrible decision to kidnap women of other tribes and force them to be their wives, and again, God does nothing.
    I wouldn’t call God a hero in relation to anything about this story at all. It must be the worst story in the whole bible and he does absolutely nothing.

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