Levite's concubine

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Judges 19–21
Levite's concubine
Benjamite War
Maciejowski leaf Levite.gif
Illustration from the Morgan Bible of the Levite and his concubine.
BookBook of Judges
Hebrew Bible partNevi'im
Order in the Hebrew part7
CategoryEarly Prophets
Christian Bible partOld Testament (Heptateuch)
Order in the Christian part7

The episode of the Levite's concubine, also known as the Benjamite War,[1] is a biblical narrative in Judges 19–21 (chapters 19, 20 and 21 of the Book of Judges). It concerns a Levite from Ephraim and his concubine, who travel through the Benjamite city of Gibeah and are assailed by a mob, who wish to gang-rape the Levite. He turns his concubine over to the crowd, and they rape her until she collapses. The Levite dismembers her and presents the remains to the other tribes of Israel. Outraged by the incident, the tribes swear that none shall give his daughter to the Benjamites (or Benjaminites) for marriage, and launch a war which nearly wipes out the clan, leaving only 600 surviving men. However, the punitive expedition is overcome by remorse, fearing that it will cause the extinction of an entire tribe. They circumvent the oath by pillaging and massacring the city of Jabesh-Gilead, none of whose residents partook in the war or in the vow, and capturing its 400 maidens for the Benjaminites. The 200 men still lacking women are subtly allowed to abduct the maidens dancing at Shiloh.

Biblical account

The outrage at Gibeah

A Levite from the mountains of Ephraim had a concubine, who left him and returned to the house of her father in Bethlehem in Judah.[2]

According to the King James Version and the New International Version, the concubine was unfaithful to the Levite; according to a note in the Septuagint[3] and in the New Living Translation she was "angry" with him.[4] Rabbinical interpretations say that the woman was both fearful and angry with her husband and left because he was selfish, putting his comfort before his wife and their relationship,[5] and the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges argues that the translation as 'angry' "suits the context, which implies a quarrel, but not unfaithfulness, on the woman’s part".[3] The Levite travelled to Bethlehem to retrieve her, and for five days her father managed to persuade him to delay their departure. On the fifth day, the Levite declined to postpone their journey any longer, and they set out late in the day.

The Levite attempts to find lodging in Gibeah – by Charles Joseph Staniland, circa 1900

As they approached Jebus (Jerusalem), the servant suggested they stop for the night, but the Levite refused to stay in a Jebusite city, and they continued on to Gibeah. J. P. Fokkelman argues that Judges 19:11–14 is a chiasm, which hinges on the Levite referring to Jebus as "a town of aliens who are not of Israel." In doing this, the narrator is hinting at the "selfishness and rancid group egotism" of the Levite. Yet, it is not the "aliens" of Jebus who commit a heinous crime, but Benjaminites in Gibeah.[6]

They arrived in Gibeah just at nightfall. The Levite and his party waited in the public square, but no one offered the customary hospitality. Eventually, an old man came in from working in the field and inquired as to their situation. He, too was from the mountains of Ephraim, but had lived among the Benjaminites for some time. He invited them to spend the night at his house rather than the open square. He brought him into his house, and gave fodder to the donkeys; they washed their feet, and ate and drank.[7]

The Israelite discovers his concubine, dead on his doorstep – by Gustave Doré, Circa 1880

Suddenly certain men of the city surrounded the house and beat on the door. They spoke to the master of the house, the old man, saying, "Bring out the man who came to your house, that we may know him." "To know" is probably a euphemism for sexual intercourse here, as in other biblical texts and as the NRSV translates it.[8]

The Ephraimite host offered instead his own maiden daughter and the Levite's concubine. Ken Stone observes, "Apparently the sexual violation of women was considered less shameful than that of men, at least in the eyes of other men. Such an attitude reflects both the social subordination of women and the fact that homosexual rape was viewed as a particularly severe attack on male honor."[8]

When the men would not be dissuaded, the Levite thrust the concubine out the door. They abused her all night, not letting her go until dawn, when she collapsed outside the door, where the Levite found her the next morning. Finding her unresponsive, he placed her on a donkey and continued his journey home. The account does not state when or where the woman died.[8] Upon his return, he carved up her body into twelve pieces which he sent to all the Israelite tribes, demanding revenge.[9]

The war against Benjamin

Outrage at Gibeah, the Levite carries his dead concubine away – by Gustave Doré, circa 1890

Outraged, the confederated tribes mobilized to demand justice and gathered a combined force of about 400,000 confederated Israelites at Mizpah. They sent men through all the tribe of Benjamin, demanding that they deliver up the men who committed the crime to be executed, but the Benjaminites refused and decided to go to war to defend the men of Gibeah instead. They gathered a rebel Benjaminite force of 26,000 to defend Gibeah. According to Judges 20:16, among all these soldiers there were seven hundred select troops who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss. When the Tribe of Benjamin refused to surrender the guilty parties, the rest of the tribes marched on Gibeah.[9]

On the first day of battle the confederated Israelite tribes suffered heavy losses. On the second day Benjamin went out against them from Gibeah and cut down thousands of the confederated Israelite swordsmen.[9]

Then the confederated Israelites went up to the house of God. They sat there before the Lord and fasted that day until evening; and they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord. (The ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, and Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, stood before it.) And the Lord said, "Go up, for tomorrow I will deliver them into your hand."[10]

On the third day the confederated Israelites set men in ambush all around Gibeah. They formed into formation as before and the rebelling Benjaminites went out to meet them. The rebelling Benjaminites killed about thirty in the highways and in the field, anticipating another victory where unaware of the trap that had been set as the confederated Israelites appeared to retreat and the Benjaminites were drawn away from the city to the highways in pursuit, one of which goes up to Bethel and the other to Gibeah. Those besieging the city sent up a great cloud of smoke as a signal, and the Israelite main force wheeled around to attack. When the Benjaminites saw their city in flames, and that the retreat had been a ruse, they panicked and routed toward the desert, pursued by the confederated Israelites. About 600 survived the onslaught and made for the more defensible rock of Rimmon where they remained for four months. The Israelites withdrew through the territory off Benjamin, destroying every city they came to, killing every inhabitant and all the livestock.[11]

Finding new wives

Israelite tribes (Joshua 13–19). In Judges 19–21, all other tribes attack Benjamin.

According to the Hebrew Bible, the men of Israel had sworn an oath at Mizpah, saying, "None of us shall give his daughter to Benjamin as a wife."[12]

Then the people came to the house of God, and remained there before God till evening. They lifted up their voices and wept bitterly, and said, "O Lord God of Israel, why has this come to pass in Israel, that today there should be one tribe missing in Israel?"[12]

So it was, on the next morning, that the people rose early and built an altar there, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. The children of Israel said, "Who is there among all the tribes of Israel who did not come up with the assembly to the Lord?" For they had made a great oath concerning anyone who had not come up to the Lord at Mizpah, saying, "He shall surely be put to death." And the children of Israel grieved for Benjamin their brother, and said, "One tribe is cut off from Israel today. What shall we do for wives for those who remain, seeing we have sworn by the Lord that we will not give them our daughters as wives?" And they said, "What one is there from the tribes of Israel who did not come up to Mizpah to the Lord?" And, in fact, no one had come to the camp from Jabesh Gilead to the assembly. For when the people were counted, indeed, not one of the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead was there. So the congregation sent out there twelve thousand of their most valiant men, and commanded them, saying, "Go and strike the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead with the edge of the sword, including the women and children. And this is the thing that you shall do: You shall utterly destroy every male, and every woman who has known a man intimately." So they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead four hundred young virgins who had not known a man intimately; and they brought them to the camp at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan. Then the whole congregation sent word to the children of Benjamin who were at the rock of Rimmon, and announced peace to them. So Benjamin came back at that time, and they gave them the women whom they had saved alive of the women of Jabesh Gilead; and yet they had not found enough for them. And the people grieved for Benjamin, because the Lord had made a void in the tribes of Israel.[12]

Morgan Bible illustration: the Benjamites take women of Shiloh as wives.

Then the elders of the congregation said, "What shall we do for wives for those who remain, since the women of Benjamin have been destroyed?" And they said, "There must be an inheritance for the survivors of Benjamin, that a tribe may not be destroyed from Israel. However, we cannot give them wives from our daughters, for the children of Israel have sworn an oath, saying, 'Cursed be the one who gives a wife to Benjamin.'" Then they said, "In fact, there is a yearly feast of the Lord in Shiloh, which is north of Bethel, on the east side of the highway that goes up from Bethel to Shechem, and south of Lebonah." Therefore, they instructed the children of Benjamin, saying, "Go, lie in wait in the vineyards, and watch; and just when the daughters of Shiloh come out to perform their dances, then come out from the vineyards, and every man catch a wife for himself from the daughters of Shiloh; then go to the land of Benjamin. Then it shall be, when their fathers or their brothers come to us to complain, that we will say to them, 'Be kind to them for our sakes, because we did not take a wife for any of them in the war; for it is not as though you have given the women to them at this time, making yourselves guilty of your oath.'" And the children of Benjamin did so (on Tu B'Av); they took enough wives for their number from those who danced, whom they caught. Then they went and returned to their inheritance, and they rebuilt the cities and dwelt in them. So the children of Israel departed from there at that time, every man to his tribe and family; they went out from there, every man to his inheritance.[12]

According to the Book of Judges 20:15–18, the strength of the armies numbered 26,000 men on the Benjamin side (of whom only 700 from Gibeah), and 400,000 men on the other side.[13]

The Levite of Ephraim, A.F.Caminafe (1837)

See also


  1. Gunn, David M. (18 January 2016). Judges 1–3: Beginnings. pp. 243–275. doi:10.1002/9781118710746.ch1. ISBN 9781118710746. Retrieved 25 May 2021.
  2. Judges 19:2
  3. 3.0 3.1 Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges on Judges 19, accessed 16 November 2016
  4. Translations of Judges 19:2 at Biblehub.
  5. Kadari, Tamar. "Concubine of a Levite: Midrash and Aggadah", Jewish Women's Archive.
  6. J. P. Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative (Leiderdorp: Deo, 1999), 110–11.
  7. Judges 19
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Stone, Ken. "Concubine of a Levite: Bible", Jewish Women's Archive.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Arnold SJ, Patrick M., Gibeah: The Search for a Biblical City, A&C Black, 1990 ISBN 978-0-56741555-4
  10. Judges 20:28
  11. Judges 20:48
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Judges 21
  13. Richard A. Gabriel, The Military History of Ancient Israel.

Further reading

  • Bohmbach, Karla G. "Conventions/Contraventions: The Meanings of Public and Private for the Judges 19 Concubine." Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, vol. 24, no. 83, 1999, pp. 83–98., doi:10.1177/030908929902408306.
  • Szpek, Heidi M. "The Levite's Concubine: The Story That Never Was." Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary e-Journal, 19 Jan. 2008.

External links