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Lutheran forum vol. 43, no. 2, summer 2009

Elizabeth A. Goodine
The writer of Judges 19 begins by introducing his pri- The ugly stories in the book of Judges are often inter- mary characters: a Levite who “took a concubine” and preted in a twofold manner: first, they underscore Israel’s the concubine herself. The reader quickly becomes aware unfaithfulness to God Who is their king; and second, they that this is not a happy tale. The union is not a joyful one, point to the need for an earthly king who might bring for already by verse two the woman leaves the man and order out of chaos and unity to the tribes.2 It is certainly returns to her father’s house. Finally, after four months, true that as this people grew in terms of both population her husband comes looking for her, whereupon her father and territory, they did regularly reject Yahweh in favor of welcomes him with open arms and the two men join in other gods. It is equally true that the tribal confederacy had drunken revelry for several days before the couple heads become an inadequate system. Yet while the political situ-back to Ephraim. Unable to travel the entire way before ation of ancient Israel does serve as a backdrop to the tale nightfall, they stop in Gibeah, where an old man takes told in Judges 19, it cannot account entirely for the inclu-them in for the night. Unfortunately, wicked men also live sion of such a passionate and personal story in the biblical in Gibeah and, reminiscent of the inhabitants of Sodom, text. Indeed, the narrative suggests that the ancient author these men surround the house at nightfall and demand that intended to convey a message far less timebound than that the old man turn over his guest so that they may “know of Israel’s need for a king.3him.” The old man, an exemplary host, protects his guest In the past thirty years there has been renewed scholarly and refuses to comply. Instead, he offers up his own virgin interest in exploring that message. Feminist interpretations daughter and the Levite’s concubine. The virgin daughter in particular have highlighted this text, generally giving it somehow escapes being tossed to the mob. But the Levite, prominent status among the “texts of terror,”4 so named evidently wishing to be a helpful guest, “seized his concu- because they reveal the nature of Israel’s patriarchal system bine and put her out to them. They wantonly raped her and its far-reaching consequences for women, particularly and abused her all through the night… In the morning… during the time of the judges. Our feminist colleagues are [the Levite] cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and to be credited for retrieving this and other horrific, distaste-sent her throughout all the territory of Israel… Consider ful, and easily ignored texts from the dustbins of history it, take counsel, and speak out.”1 and once again bringing them into the light of day. Still, “Consider it!” Of all of the graphic stories in the Old while there can be no denying that the text is about the Testament, this is one of the most difficult to make sense abuse of a woman under a patriarchal system, the narra-of in our day. Inevitably, when my undergraduate students tive as well as its context suggests that the message was and read this account of the unnamed, raped, and butchered is broader in scope. Actually, Judges 19 presents a strong concubine, they react with expressions of horror—shake critique of the devaluation of women—and by extension, their heads, sigh, express dismay that something so “gross” of the devaluation of any person by those in authority.5 is actually in the Bible. But those expressions of horror In order to grasp the critique embedded in the narra- quickly give way to indifference. After all, it’s an ancient tive, however, we must address several questions through-story. It has nothing to do with us. These days we’re more out the reading. First, what is the nature of the relationship civilized! We have the occasional psycho, but we lock those between this man and this woman? If she is a “concubine,” people up in psychiatric wards or prisons. Surely this dis- what exactly does that mean? Second, since she is bound to gusting tale was relevant in its day—but not in ours. No the Levite, why does she leave him, and what factor(s) allow surprise, then, that this account of the Levite and his con- her to do so? Third, what informs the relationship between cubine is rarely mentioned on a Sunday morning. Such is a the woman’s husband and her father? And the relationship pity, though, because a close reading of the text reveals rich between the old man and the Levite as well? And finally, meaning for Christians today.
why does the Levite dismember the woman and send the As the following verses unfold, the text In answer to the first question lot against him,” and others (following continues to reveal the deep moral dis- the Septuagint) taking the phrase less integration taking place in Israel that ship between the man and the woman, literally and rendering it “his concu- there can be little doubt that the two bine became angry with him.”11 after all, talking about a Levite, a man Two problems accompany either of the priestly order. He is hardly wor- of some type. The woman’s father is translation. First, it does not seem thy of the name.
referred to three times as the Levite’s likely that the woman’s father would “father-in-law,”6 while the woman have welcomed her home and allowed in-law’s house, no more is said of the herself is referred to several times by her to stay for four months if she had woman until her husband departs sev-the word שׁגלפ, generally translated as indeed “played the harlot” or if she eral days later with her in tow. If the “concubine.”7 In 19:1 and 19:27, the had simply become angry with her father knows why his daughter left the nature of the relationship is empha- sized by adding the word השִָׁא—a archal structure of marriage in Israel, issue; and if the man needs to convince woman or wife8—to the term שׁגלפ. it is much more likely that her father the father that he cares for his daughter Thus in 19:1, the man is said to take would at the very least have encour- in spite of all that has taken place, we for himself a “wife, a concubine,” and aged her to return quickly to her hus- get no hint of it here. Instead, the men in 19:27, it is his “concubine, his wife,” band. He would not have wished to act as long-lost buddies. For five days whom he finds lying on the doorstep. resume financial responsibility for a they party, the narrator taking pains The difference in status between a daughter whose future he had already to inform the reader that they ate and wife and a concubine is often unclear secured. Second, it seems odd that a drank together,15 with the result that in the biblical text but most scholars husband wronged and deserted, espe- have come to understand the term cially if forsaken by a cheating wife, the fifth day, the Levite determines to “concubine” as meaning a wife with would wait four months to make start out anyway, probably still intoxi-secondary status.9 Regardless of sta- amends—and then still feel the need cated and nursing a serious headache. to “speak tenderly”12 to her in order to And so, with no opposition from her ite has acquired this woman and is bring her back. More likely, he would father, the Levite fetches his concu-responsible for her care. According demand (as would have been within bine and sets out for Ephraim. If the to the custom of ancient Israel, she his legal rights) that her father return woman has any say in the matter, it has left the sheltering roof of her her to him. A more reasonable explanation little more than the donkeys that travel ity she has previously lived, and is now both for the father’s initial acceptance with them—this woman who ran to under the authority of the Levite. She of his daughter and the Levite’s meek her father for protection is now turned is totally dependent on him both for manner as he goes to retrieve her lies, over by him to the very man who had provision and protection, a fact that as Pamela Tamarkin Reis has recently abused her. A pact has been made by makes her leave-taking all the more pointed out, in the translation not of those in authority over her. Between troublesome.
the verb but of the preposition. Reis them it is a “good for you, good for Why would this woman leave her posits that the concubine did not play me” situation, but neither man con- husband and return to her father’s the harlot against her husband but siders the lowly one. No one “speaks house? This is perhaps the most rather that she played the harlot for tenderly” to her.
important question raised by the text, her husband or on account of her hus- and its answer is complicated by issues band.13 As Reis notes, the preposition servant, and the donkeys leave Beth-of translation. In the Masoretic text, לעַ can carry either meaning.14 In this lehem. A more sober man might the disputed phrase (19:2) reads וֹשׁגְלַיפִ case, to read the preposition as “for” have known that he could not reach וילָעָ הנֶזְתִּוַ . This phrase, literally trans- clarifies the concubine’s reason for Ephraim before nightfall, but this fact lated, is “and his concubine prostituted leaving—her husband has become her seems to take the Levite by surprise. for/against him.” The root of the verb pimp—which also clarifies her anger. Even so, when the servant suggests הנז always refers to fornication and Furthermore, it makes understand- they bed down in Jebus, a Canaanite unfaithfulness. The problem, however, able the fact that her father accepts city, he knows enough to reject that is that in Scripture the word often her return, and it enables us to under- bears a metaphorical sense, depicting, stand why this supposedly wronged safer in an Israelite town, they trek on for instance, unfaithfulness to God.10 husband feels the need to woo a har- Thus in this text, translations of the lot and why he should need to—after There they find only one person will-verb itself have been various, some four months his wallet is empty and he ing to take them in, an old man also translators retaining the sexual sense needs to retrieve his source of income. from the hill country of Ephraim. thus far. Now too, he is determined to in the bright light of day as he opens of the priestly order.17 At any rate, the and torture, he slept quietly, protected little group’s relief at having a place to stay is short-lived, for soon the “men of the city, a perverse lot,” surround is clinched by the refrain that leads up thing. Instead, he offers up his own vir- The selective memory of the Levite pitable even as they feigned hospital- bine—“Ravish them and do whatever tion that he himself threw the woman social structures, the Levite, the girl’s you want to them; but against this man out to the men. He says only that they father, and the old man of Ephraim do not do this evil thing.”20 Clearly, killed her, that they committed this all betrayed vulnerable persons whom the women are expendable. They are “vile outrage.” In his own telling of they were supposed to love. They did property, less significant even than the the event, he is a victim turned hero. it because the stakes were high and male servant who is not offered up. He uses his own tragedy to ensure the benefit to themselves outweighed They are the least of human beings, the honor of all Israel, if only the their care for the other. The Levite and no laws of hospitality protect people will heed his call. And heed sold his wife for money. Likewise, the them. But once again it is the concu- bine who fares the worst, as her own lows the concubine’s grisly dismem- husband seizes her and throws her out berment, numerous men, women, assets she would soak up if she stayed to the mob.21 Here we come to the and children die and the tribe of with him, so she had to go.
crux of the tale—it is either her skin Benjamin is nearly extinguished. The or his—and he is determined to save methods used to repopulate the is a Levite, and that the message goes his own skin at the cost of hers. Just as tribe—the extermination of an entire out specifically to the tribes of Israel, he made her to prostitute herself for city except for its four hundred young forces us to look at ourselves and not him in the past, so he does now. Get virgins and the kidnapping of young at the world. Who are the least, the out there and do your job, he seems girls during a festival to the Lord at most vulnerable, in our midst? Is it the to say. And so she does, all night long Shiloh—compound rather than alle- until the morning breaks and this viate the horror of the tale. Where, we smells of alcohol and mumbles inco-wicked “man of God” finds her lying might ask, is grace in any of this? Is herently throughout the service? Is it with her hands on the threshold in a there no balm in Gilead?24 pitiful and unheeded call for mercy.
rator who carries the message of workplace but ignored in her church? passion has become evident, yet the Yahweh sanctions none of this. The Is it the gay man whose vibrant person-author forces the reader to hear still narrator illumines the self-centered- more. With nary a tear, the man tells ness of the Levite, of the girl’s father, as he doesn’t actually share too much the woman to “get up”; and when she of the old man, and of the entire about himself ? As the church, what is does not, he throws her on his donkey human group that elects to prey on the our calling? Surely not to sit around and heads for home, where he pro- vulnerable. The very language of the like drunken fools wagering away the ceeds to chop up her body and send text lays injustice bare. If the reader lives of others; butchering their spirits it “throughout all the territory of had any sympathy for the Levite, it as surely as this Levite butchered the Israel.”22 Abused in life, so now she quickly vanishes with the terseness body of his concubine —and doing is also abused in death—for this man of his words directed to the battered it all in the name of God! This is a cares only for himself. In fact, concern woman who lies, arms outstretched, text that calls us to deep introspection, for self has driven his every action across the threshold: “Get up.” “We both as individuals and as church bod- are going.” His own words, spoken ies. Such introspection requires not only examining our official statements of Judges 19, and the daughter of Jephthah in but also intentionally recognizing the Judges 11.
the violence in this text is not rooted in homo- sexual urges but rather in the desire to exert greater emphasis on the abuse that takes place authority over and dishonor the stranger. See decisions. Are their voices being heard under the patriarchal system (rather than on especially Mieke Bal, Death and Dyssymetry: The in the decision-making process? Or, the embedded critique of that system) include Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges (Chi- like the Levite’s concubine, are they Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the cago: University of Chicago, 1988), 92–93. made invisible, talked about but never Bible (New York: Schocken, 2002) and Cheryl Ken Stone, “Gender and Homosexuality in with? Judges 19 calls us to these ques- Exum, Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions Judges 19: Subject–Honor, Object–Shame?” tions of process; how are we to go of Biblical Narratives, 2nd ed. (Valley Forge: Trin- Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 67 (1995): ity Press International, 1993). Trible’s reading 94–102. See also Frymer-Kensky, 125–126.
suggests that while the text itself appears to 22. Judges 19:28–29. The dismemberment Through this story the central theo- devalue women, other stories of the Bible such of the woman’s body symbolizes the separation as those of Hannah and Ruth, which are juxta- of the tribes and leads into the final chapters ing of God is conveyed. That is, that posed to this text, serve to point to the possibil- of the book of Judges. It should also be noted unlike other gods of the ancient Near ity of a better way of being. Shifting the focus that there is ambiguity regarding whether the further, Pamela Tamarkin Reis understands body parts are sent as one package to each East, Yahweh is one Who stands for this text as a strong critique of Israel’s system tribe in turn or are separated with the various the poor, for the oppressed, for the and of those in power who perpetuated moral tribes each receiving a piece. As Reis points out lowly. It foreshadows the message of depravity. See Pamela Tamarkin Reis, “The (142–144), the former more adequately depicts the prophet Micah and later the sav- Levite’s Concubine: New Light on a Dark the disintegration of tribal unity but the latter Story,” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, might more readily have served as a call to war. Viewed in this way, the incident has sometimes been linked to Saul’s call to war in I Samuel 7. Benjamin Davidson, Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1981), 25. Trible astutely points out that four ref- 9. See Reis’s discussion of the biblical use erences to morning and daylight follow upon of this word in regard to the wives and concu- the single phrase “abused her all through the bines of the patriarchs as well as those of King night.” The repetition accentuates the horror of the crime as it all comes to light. Trible, 10. Davidson, Analytical Lexicon, 240. See also Phyllis Bird, Missing Persons and Mistaken 26. The entire phrase is found in Judges 17:6 LF
Identities: Women and Gender in Ancient Israel (Min- and 21:25. Only the first portion is repeated in neapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), especially chap- 18:1 and 19:1. It should also be noted that the ter 10, “To Play the Harlot: An Inquiry into an story of the Levite and his concubine follows Old Testament Metaphor,” 219–236.
directly on that of another Levite from Bethle- 11. The Septuagint, which is followed by the hem who was said to reside in the hill country Professor of Religion at Concordia RSV and NRSV, reads that she “became angry of Ephraim. This Levite agreed to serve as a College–New York.
with him.” The NKJV and NASB follow the Mas- private priest to a man named Micah who set oretic text and read that his concubine “played up a shrine in which he housed idols. The Lev- the harlot against him,” while the KJV says “his ite served as Micah’s priest until some Danites concubine played the whore against him,” and came along with a better offer. At that point the Levite deserted Micah, became the priest of the Danites, and assisted them in conquer- that speak to this point. A good overview can ing Laish, a city wherein lived a peaceful group be found in “Judges, Book of,” in Anchor Bible 14. Davidson, Analytical Lexicon, 599.
of people who were put to the sword (Judges Dictionary, vol. III, ed. David Noel Freedman 17–18). Not only are the circumstances of this man’s birth and residence strikingly similar to 3. Phyllis Trible points out that serious the Levite of Judges 19, but so is his charac- moral injustice continues to take place in Israel Septuagint in regard to the Levite’s words to ter. His readiness to make a commitment and even after the establishment of the monarchy. the old man: “I am going to my home.” How- his easy betrayal of that commitment closely See Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Femi- ever, the Masoretic text, followed by the KJV resemble the behavior of the concubine’s hus- nist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: band. It is no surprise, then, that the story of Fortress, 1984), 84. Thus, if the only purpose NKJV, reads, “I am going to the house of the Lord.” Thus in the Masoretic tradition, the Levite and his concubine follows on the for this text was to point to the need for a king, the Levite seems to mislead the old host since story of this other wicked and false priest. The it seems likely that a later editor would have there is no indication elsewhere that he intends first text serves to prepare the reader for the to travel anywhere but back to his home. It is second, which is horrendous enough then to 4. This phrase was first used by Phyllis possible that he uses his status as a Levite to close the book with the indictment: “In those Trible as the title of her 1984 book and has persuade the old man into opening his house days, there was no king in Israel; all the people become commonplace in speaking of biblical texts that involve gross injustice committed against women. Trible’s book treats the stories of Hagar, Tamar (II Samuel 13), the woman

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