Restoring a Woman’s Good, but Lost, Reputation

When you have time, read Judges 19, where you will the sordid story of a Levite, his concubine, and a plot that thickens into a sickening display of violence. My colleague Claude Mariottini in  Rereading the Biblical Text: Searching for Meaning and Understanding, sorts this text out wonderfully. I’ve enclosed the text below, so read it first if you have time.

1. Some translations say the woman played the part of a whore or harlot or, as the NIV 2011 has below, “was unfaithful to him.” The narrative then tells us she fled to her father’s home. This view that she was unfaithful is found in a number of translations: ASV, ESV, JPS, NAB, NASB, TNIV, NKJ, NLT, and the HCSB.

2. This view however does not account well for why the man would have sought reconciliation with his concubine; he would have sought, most likely, an honor killing.

3. But the word zanah does not necessarily mean “unfaithful.” It can just as likely mean “hateful” or “feel repugnant about” (NRSV). In this view, then the problem is the Levite despises the woman, to the point of her life being in danger, so she seeks her father’s home as a refuge for safety from the Levite. In this case, the Levite is at fault; in #1 the concubine is at fault. What Mariottini is assuming here is a scenario: the Levite is an angry and violent man, or has done something to offend the woman deeply, she gets angry at him and she leaves. The verb in this sentence has her for the subject (she’s angry) and the object is the Levite (she’s angry at him).

4. If this view of zanah is accurate, she left because of a heated domestic quarrel.

5. If she was unfaithful, there is no reason for the Levite to sweet talk her when he got to her father’s house to reclaim her. If, however, there had been a quarrel and he was at fault, this is explainable.

6. The conclusion — sordid as it gets — confirms the character problem in the Levite. He chooses to protect himself and hands his concubine to violent men who rape her all night long, she is then cut into twelve pieces which are sent to the tribal leaders. The Levite is an evil man.

7. The woman did nothing wrong; the Levite did. Her reputation, Dr. Mariottini contends, deserves to be restored.


Judges 19:

Judg. 19:1    In those days Israel had no king.

Now a Levite who lived in a remote area in the hill country of Ephraima took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah.b

2 But she was unfaithful to him. She left him and went back to her parents’ home in Bethlehem, Judah. After she had been there four months,  3 her husband went to her to persuade her to return. He had with him his servant and two donkeys. She took him into her parents’ home, and when her father saw him, he gladly welcomed him.  4 His father-in-law, the woman’s father, prevailed on him to stay; so he remained with him three days, eating and drinking,a and sleeping there.

Judg. 19:5    On the fourth day they got up early and he prepared to leave, but the woman’s father said to his son-in-law, “Refresh yourselfa with something to eat; then you can go.”  6 So the two of them sat down to eat and drink together. Afterward the woman’s father said, “Please stay tonight and enjoy yourself.a”  7 And when the man got up to go, his father-in-law persuaded him, so he stayed there that night.  8 On the morning of the fifth day, when he rose to go, the woman’s father said, “Refresh yourself. Wait till afternoon!” So the two of them ate together.

Judg. 19:9    Then when the man, with his concubine and his servant, got up to leave, his father-in-law, the woman’s father, said, “Now look, it’s almost evening. Spend the night here; the day is nearly over. Stay and enjoy yourself. Early tomorrow morning you can get up and be on your way home.”  10 But, unwilling to stay another night, the man left and went toward Jebusa (that is, Jerusalem), with his two saddled donkeys and his concubine.

Judg. 19:11    When they were near Jebus and the day was almost gone, the servant said to his master, “Come, let’s stop at this city of the Jebusitesa and spend the night.”

Judg. 19:12    His master replied, “No. We won’t go into any city whose people are not Israelites. We will go on to Gibeah.”  13 He added, “Come, let’s try to reach Gibeah or Ramaha and spend the night in one of those places.”  14 So they went on, and the sun set as they neared Gibeah in Benjamin.a 15 There they stopped to spend the night.a They went and sat in the city square,b but no one took them in for the night.

Judg. 19:16    That eveninga an old man from the hill country of Ephraim,b who was living in Gibeah (the inhabitants of the place were Benjamites), came in from his work in the fields.  17 When he looked and saw the traveler in the city square, the old man asked, “Where are you going? Where did you come from?”a

Judg. 19:18    He answered, “We are on our way from Bethlehem in Judah to a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim where I live. I have been to Bethlehem in Judah and now I am going to the house of the LORD.a a No one has taken me in for the night.  19 We have both straw and foddera for our donkeysb and bread and winec for ourselves your servants—me, the woman and the young man with us. We don’t need anything.”

Judg. 19:20    “You are welcome at my house,” the old man said. “Let me supply whatever you need. Only don’t spend the night in the square.”  21 So he took him into his house and fed his donkeys. After they had washed their feet, they had something to eat and drink.a

Judg. 19:22    While they were enjoying themselves,a some of the wicked menb of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him.c”

Judg. 19:23    The owner of the house went outsidea and said to them, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this outrageous thing.b 24 Look, here is my virgin daughter,a and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But as for this man, don’t do such an outrageous thing.”

Judg. 19:25    But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped hera and abused herb throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go.  26 At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.

Judg. 19:27    When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold.  28 He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.

Judg. 19:29    When he reached home, he took a knifea and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel.b 30 Everyone who saw it was saying to one another, “Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt.a Just imagine! We must do something! So speak up!b”

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  • Susan_G1

    “Her reputation, Dr. Mariottini contends, deserves to be restored.”

    Indeed it does. Thank you for this. I didn’t see this in the commentaries.

  • Rick Presley

    I guess I did well not to read the commentaries. I always assumed that she ran back to Daddy because she was tired of being a concubine and wanted to be a wife. The callous Levite finally relented, perfunctorily made up with her father and then decided to take her back home. However, he abandons her when the situation becomes dangerous. That’s pretty much what I got from a “plain sense” reading without the benefit of commentary. Her reputation, from my reading, was never in doubt and therefore never needed to be restored. But thanks for sharing this.

  • Fernando

    This is pretty much how I have always read the story. It’s an ugly business all around, but the woman is certainly the least at fault here.

  • Lise

    This story is one of the great horrors of the bible. We haven’t come a long way, baby. Nor has society.

  • (Re)Affirming the books central thesis-refrain, “everyone did as they saw fit; there was no king in Israel”

  • Tom F.

    Hmm, always interesting to see the connection between political anarchy and sexual perversion. It’s also interesting to see what the hierarchy of ethics was at this time. Granted, this is a book seeking to portray this time as depraved. However, the duty to hospitality to a man was apparently stronger than the duty to protect a daughter or a woman. (This isn’t just Judges: you get the same in Genesis 19 with Lot.) I don’t think the text thinks that the rape of women is a good thing; but both Genesis 19 and this text seem to presume that the rape and killing of women doesn’t threaten the basic social order (i.e., doesn’t incur God’s wrath on a whole city, as in Genesis 19) the same way as homosexual behavior. (Yes, its homosexual rape, but rape doesn’t seem to be the problem, clearly raping a woman would be an improvement.)This threat to the social order was often referenced in the Middle Ages when homosexuals were put to death: their behavior threatened the whole community by possibly incurring God’s immediate wrath. Although, at least by the Middle Ages, illegitimate rape was also punishable (in theory) by death.

    In terms of “Guest-rights”, I’m reminded of Game of Thrones, where you can rape, pillage, and murder all you want, but attacking guests is the last taboo.

  • Westcoastlife

    I agree with Tom F – if point #6 (The conclusion — sordid as it gets — confirms the character problem in the Levite. He chooses to protect himself and hands his concubine to violent men who rape her all night long, she is then cut into twelve pieces which are sent to the tribal leaders. The Levite is an evil man.) is true, then so is the host that night (offering his virgin daughter) and Lot (offering his daughters). Making the host, Levite and Lot all evil, and what about Abraham, he does this to Sarah, twice, only, in that case, the men want Sarah (not Abraham).

    Anyways, Bronze Age tribal societies were awful, and Israel wasn’t any better. I do wish God had addressed this better, but then, apart from Pentateuch none of the O.T. writings are considered guides to live by in Judaism.

  • Mark Pixley

    I really like this article and will probably purchase the book, however, there is a ship-load of commentary and history that completely disagrees with this interpretation…just about every commentary or lexicon I own call her a whore…the word “ZNH” (obviously reversed in hebrew) has the pictograph of a plow, seed and behold…the idea as I look for evidence suggest that this is someone who spreads only seed and no harvest (missing the growth), which is where the undiplomatic scholars will land with harlot…the strongs (God help us) says “highly fed, therefore wanton”…I have read some scholars who take the approach here that the word means something different and that in fact based upon “highly fed” could mean that Rahab was actually running a bed and breakfast since the word implies feeding others/hospitality…its hard to find accurate perspective through such a labyrinth of patriarchal academientia… and yes I amde up a word again…”academentia” to be so scholastic as to be blind to your blindness…

  • Graham Bates

    Yiesh, let’s not demonize the Levite in an attempt to restore the woman’s reputation!

    In an effort to look charitably at the concubine I feel Dr. Mariottini does not do the same for the Levite (in the very next chapter the man is called her husband in the ESV, so he was not a cold, ruthless man). Also, let’s not anachronistically apply feminist logic to 3-4,000 year-old culture. That is the fatal mistake Mariottini makes and it annoys the heck out of me. They did not do what feminists today would do. But they also did not have the same values we have today and should not be judged on our values, as though we are more “civilized” than their “primitive” culture.

    I am blogging through the Bible in a year and came to this section back in early April ( The issue with interpreting this passage today is understanding that we have to compare it to current ideas not subsequent ideas dealing with this type of event. It obviously compares to the story of the angels visiting Lot at Sodom. I believe the story is told to connect the two and help make a case against the tribe of Benjamin. The woman’s reputation is never in question, at least not after the Levite goes to her home and persuades her to return. The gang rape which led to her death does not make her look bad but makes Gibeah look evil. The Levite cutting her remains into 12 pieces and sending them to the tribes for support to punish Benjamin for their “abomination and outrage in Israel” (20:6) shows he cares not only for her honor but God’s Chosen People doing what is right. God blesses the avengers’ task and they win the day.

    Maybe next time before we make rash judgments against men written about in the Bible (or women for that matter) we should first continue reading past the story! That would help mitigate unnecessary controversies such as this one.

  • Kristen

    I always thought it strange that it never states the concubine died from the gang raping. But she certainly died when the Levite cut her up into 12 pieces…That part of the story disturbs me more than anything else.