The prelude to civil war


Chapters 19-21 tell how members of the tribe of Benjamin committed egregious breaches of hospitality, how this led to civil war, the virtual destruction of Benjamin, and how after making a vow that could not be annulled Israel saved the tribe from extinction.

In chapter 19 a Levite living in the tribal area of Ephraim took a concubine from the tribe of Judah. She deserted him after having an adulterous affair with another man and went to her father’s house. Four months later, he travels to her father’s house to beg her to return to him. He had planned to stay only three days, but his father-in-law urged him three times on three successive days to stay longer. He left late on the sixth day and had to stay overnight in the Benjamin city of Gibeah where a kind old man who was not a Benjamite, but a man from Ephraim who was sojourning there, offered them shelter.[1]

Benjamites ruffians in the town surrounded the old man’s house and insisted that he send out the Levite “that we may know him” (so we can sodomize him, Rashi). The old man refused because of the basic law of hospitality, and, like Lot in Genesis 19 offered his virgin daughter as well as the Levite’s concubine.[2] The Benjamites refused. Nevertheless, the Levite pushed his concubine outside,[3] and the Benjamites “knew her, and abused her all night until morning, when they let her go.” She crawled to the old man’s house and died at the threshold.

The Levite found her in the morning when he was leaving.[4] He took her body home, cut it into twelve pieces, and sent the pieces throughout the land, and everyone who saw the pieces was outraged.


Arnold Ehrlich’s interpretation

Ehrlich states that the chapter is emphasizing that the protagonist is a Levite to inform readers that not only the average Israelite acted improperly during the period of the judges, but even Levites who had the duty to serve in the temple and be an example to others, did so.

In ancient times, once a daughter married, she was no longer under her father’s control. In this chapter the concubine committed adultery, left her husband, and returned to her father’s house; but her father had no control over her because she had married. Thus the chapter relates that the concubine met him and took him to her house. It was her decision to accept her husband and return with him. (Yet, while she is a central figure in the drama, she does not speak in the chapter. Is this a reflection of discrimination against women? Ehrlich notes later that the husband and his father-in-law sat and dined, but the concubine was not present at the meal because men and women did not eat together in these ancient days.)

Her father was overjoyed at the reconciliation because his daughter had committed adultery and it was therefore unlikely that another man would want her. Now he wouldn’t have to support her.

We are told that the husband slept in the father-in-laws house for three days[5] to euphemistically suggest that he slept with his concubine, her father knew it, was now certain a reconciliation occurred, and was so happy that he kept encouraging his son-in-law to stay longer. He did so three times, and the pair left late on the sixth day after the husband arrival.

Sometimes an unintentional result occurs from an intended good deed. The father-in-law begged his son-in-law to remain three times. He listens to him and even leaves late on the sixth day because his father-in-law suggested they have a final meal together. The trip would normally take a single day, but since the pair left late on the sixth day, they had to stay overnight in the Benjamite town Gibeah, with dire consequences.

The chapter mentions three times (verses 3, 10, and 19) that the Levite had many supplies with him to show that despite being wealthy, the evil Benjamites treated him badly. Similarly, although stated in verse 9 that the Levites concubine was with him, this fact is repeated in verse 10 to show why the Levite felt he needed to stay in a fortified town, to protect his concubine. “This is characteristic; the Bible explains matters such as these by repetitions. It doesn’t do so with many words of explanation as do non-biblical writings. Remember this, don’t forget it, for this will open your eyes (in understanding) Holy Scriptures.”[6]

When the old man offered his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine, the Benjamites refused to listen. They rejected his offer because they did not want to harm the old man, only his visitors.


A radical view consistent with past understandings

It is possible that the tale of “all Israel” fighting the tribe of Ephraim is a typical biblical overstatement. We noticed in the past that scripture uses the descriptive term “all” when it means “many,” but not “every.” For example, the Bible says frequently that Moses spoke to all of Israel, which he could not have done without a microphone, so it must mean that he spoke to many Israelites, perhaps just tribal leaders. We see that this chapter mentions two tribes frequently. The Levite and the old man who helps him are from Ephraim. The villains in the episode are Benjamites. We saw previously that the tribe of Ephraim acted in a hostile manner and attempted to assume a leadership role in chapters 8 and 12. The tribe of Judah is mentioned as the home of the Levite’s father-in-law, the man who treated the Levite hospitably.

It is possible that this narrative is describing a war between Ephraim and Benjamin, the third time in Judges where Ephraim is exerting what it thinks is right. Alternatively, if other tribes were involved, it is possible that they joined to aid Ephraim and acted under its leadership.

This interpretation raises the question, is the author of Judges portraying Ephraim, the tribe of King Jeroboam who succeeded from the nation of Judah and established his own kingdom in Israel, in a negative fashion as an attack against the northern nation Israel, similar to what I discussed in chapter 17? As we will see, the attack against Benjamin was foolhardy and the attackers themselves realized they did wrong. Did the author contrast the foolishness of Ephraim and the cruelty of some Benjamites with the proper behavior and peaceful nature of Judea, as shown in how the father-in-law acted?[7]


Another commentary

Abarbanel understands that the Benjamite rabble was not interested in homosexual sex with the Levite. If so, the old man would have offered the Levite’s male servant, not his daughter and the Levite’s concubine.[8] The rabble wanted the concubine because they saw that she was beautiful. The Levite understood this and sent her out to them. Abarbanel also understands that the Levite send pieces of his concubine also to Benjamin since all Benjamites were not involved in her rape and murder; he did not know that they would support the evil men of Gibeah.



[1] Ironically, they avoided the closer city Jerusalem that was inhabited at the time by non-Israelites because they felt they would be safer with Israelites (Ehrlich).

[2] Why didn’t the law of hospitality apply to the concubine? Was it because she was a woman?

[3] This “was a dastardly act to save himself” (Cohen).

[4] It is unclear whether the Levite meant to leave town without recovering his concubine because she was damaged goods and defiled by other men.

[5] The use of three occurs  several times in this chapter: the number of days the Levite intended to stay with his father-in-law, the three times his father-in-law begged him to delay his departure, the three times the chapter mentions the Levites provisions, and the three uses of vayechzeik, “retained” and “take hold”: in verse 4 the father-in-law hospitably restrained the Levite; in 25 the Levite took hold of his concubine and pushed her out to the rabble; and in 29 he took hold of her dead body and severed it into twelve pieces. It is ironically first used in a positive sense but later in a vicious manner.

[6] My translation.

[7] If this conjecture is correct, the taking of the concubine from Judah could be seen as symbolic of Jeroboam taking the ten tribes from the Judean nation of the descendant of King David and forming his own nation, Israel.

[8] Gersonides has the same view. He adds they must have always wanted her because if they were only interested in homosexuality, why did they continually rape her when they had her in their possession.