This is the first post in a series of discussions on what I perceive to be the the most confusing passages in Scripture. I will post an abridged version of the passage. Then l will link an example of an interpretation I believe to be misguided, and then offer my interpretation in response in an attempt to accurately unpack the Scripture’s intent.
A Levite and His Concubine
In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite was sojourning in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, who took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. 2 And his concubine was unfaithful to him, and she went away from him to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah, and was there some four months. 3 Then her husband arose and went after her, to speak kindly to her and bring her back. . . . when the girl’s father saw him, he came with joy to meet him. 4 And his father-in-law, the girl’s father, made him stay . . . 10 He rose up and departed and arrived opposite [Jerusalem]. . . . [He said,] “We will not turn aside into the city of foreigners, who do not belong to the people of Israel, but we will pass on to Gibeah.” . . .15 And he went in and sat down in the open square of the city, for no one took them into his house to spend the night.
16 And behold, an old man . . .was sojourning in Gibeah. . . . 17 And he lifted up his eyes and saw the traveler in the open square of the city. And the old man said, “Where are you going? And where do you come from?”18 And he said to him, “We are passing from Bethlehem in Judah to the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, from which I come. I went to Bethlehem in Judah, and I am going to the house of the Lord, but no one has taken me into his house. . . . 20 And the old man said, “Peace be to you; I will care for all your wants. Only, do not spend the night in the square.” . . .22 As they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, worthless fellows, surrounded the house, beating on the door. And they said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him.” 23 And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly; since this man has come into my house, do not do this vile thing. . . . 25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine and made her go out to them. And they knew her and abused her all night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go. 26 And as morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light.
27 And her master rose up in the morning, and when he opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, behold, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, . . .28 and the man rose up and went away to his home. 29 And when he entered his house, he took a knife, and taking hold of his concubine he divided her, limb by limb, into twelve pieces, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. 30 And all who saw it said, “Such a thing has never happened or been seen from the day that the people of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt until this day;consider it, take counsel, and speak.”
Here is a link to a self-proclaimed feminist interpretation whose thesis is “conflict between males is solved by the sacrifice of females,” which I believe misrepresents the significance of the events. Here is another, whose thesis is “when men are wicked, women suffer” that doesn’t truly get to the heart of the text. (***NOTE: I am not insensitive to the concerns of these authors, but I find their interpretations fall short of pointing all glory to Christ, and extending the greater hope and healing that is found only in Him.***)
Here is what I believe the text is actually communicating…
In the days of the Judges great wickedness persisted because moral relativism (“everyone did what was right in their own eyes”) prevailed, and “the people had no king to lead them.” Unlike the interpretation linked above, in the story of the Levite and his concubine, it becomes evident that the Levite is not the evil antagonist, but a righteous man. The Levite shows himself merciful and patient toward his unfaithful covenant partner. The author of Judges communicates that the Levite is long-suffering and slow to anger in waiting 4 months for the woman to return. When she does not return he sets out to allure her home. Under Torah Law the punishment for the concubine’s unfaithfulness is death, but in love and mercy the Levite sets out to speak lovingly to her and implore her to return. Further, the Levite is proven noble in that he is looked upon, not with disdain but with respect, by the woman’s father. In ancient Israelite society, a concubine was not necessarily a sex slave, but a woman from a lower social class who enters into a covenant relationship for the promise of provision and a better life. While concubines did not have the same status as wives, they were to be well treated (Exodus 21:7-10), provided for as family, and this particular Levite is specifically designated as this concubine’s “husband” (Judges 19:3, 20:4). This woman’s father is referred to as the man’s “father-in-law” (Judges 19:9).
The concubine is not the protagonist of the story, but the perpetrator of offense who’s unfaithfulness has led the Levite into this dilemma. Having been convinced to return home with the Levite, the concubine and her partner begin traveling back to their home in Ephraim. However, because the woman’s father has delayed them they are forced to lodge in Gibeah. Gibeah is a city of fellow Israelites, and the Levite shows himself further righteous by rejecting the easier option of stopping short of Gibeah, but instead chooses to honor the Law’s command that he not take the company of the Gentiles. The couple instead presses on to a city of fellow Israelites who, as God’s people, are expected to take care of them. Rather than graciously host the Levite and his concubine, these Israelites of Gilbeah demand to have sex with the Levite, and ultimately take the concubine and rape and kill her. It is the concubine’s rebellion against her covenant caretaker (and distant venturing from the couple’s home) that has landed the two of them in this wicked place. It is by the concubine’s sin that she finds herself in the horrific circumstances in which she pays the horrible consequence of her unfaithfulness. While the Levite is a righteous man, he will not go out to endure the consequence of the unfaithful concubine’s action. It is not for the faithful Levite to suffer in the place of the unfaithful concubine. The Levite is not to be her Savior. In this case, the righteous does not die in the place of the unrighteous.
In anguish and disgust with the wickedness of the men of Gilbeah, the Levite divides the dead concubine into twelve pieces and sends them to the twelve tribes of Israel so that his anger, grief, and disgust will be known throughout the entire land. The author’s intent is to communicate the vileness and lawlessness of the Israelites in this time, and their desperate need for the direction of a king. Further, like the Levite’s rebellious partner, all men (you and I) have been unfaithful to our Covenant Creator in heaven. While rape is horrific and condemnable, and everyone should be disturbed and angered by the horrible fate of the concubine,the story is not recorded to detail the mistreatment of women in patriarchal societies, or to detail the brokenness of the Levite. The events are recorded to depict the atrocious depth of the consequences of breaking a covenant, and to demonstrate that no ordinary man can die in the place of the covenant breaker. Genesis 15:10 and 17 demonstrate the ancient practice of making covenants by dividing an animal. Then both parties passed between the severed carcass. This symbolized the seriousness of their intentions in that the divided carcasses represented what would happen to them if they were not faithful to their oath. This is symbolized in the fate of the concubine.
Fortunately as Christ followers, we are not a people without a king; we have a King and his name is Jesus. He has shown us the Way, and has shown us what is right. We have not been left to fend for ourselves, each doing whatever is right in our own eyes. Jesus, like the Levite, has sought out His bride (the Church), implored us to return, and forgiven us. Where the Levite failed to die for his unfaithful partner, Jesus did step outside the camp to brutally suffer in our place. Christ, the fully righteous Son of God, stepped out in our stead to take the punishment that we deserved; to suffer once, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us back to God. This concubine does not represent women who suffer at the hands of men, but she represents all mankind rebelling against God in a fallen world. We are the concubine (the covenant partner of poor estate and lower standing), welcomed into the provision of God, loved as family, but rebelling against our Covenant Creator, and running back to our former life. We must cease the unfaithfulness and rebellion and return home to our righteous and loving Caretaker. He is merciful and faithful to forgive, and He is calling us to turn from our folly, to leave the land of the wicked (which places us in peril and holds our destruction), and to return home with Him. He has already died at the hands of vile lawless men so that (if we will stand under His protection) we will not have to suffer the fate of the covenant breaker.
If you enjoyed this discussion of difficult Scripture, you might also enjoy my other post about the Top 5 Most Misquoted, Misused, and Misunderstood Bible Verses.
Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer – a husband, father, urban missionary, community group leader, Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Community Life Intern at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY.