The Levite’s Concubine
Exegetical Notes & Bible Study Outline
Exegesis of Levite’s Concubine
The book of Judges is part of deuteronomistic history (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings). It portrays a liminal period between pastoral nomadism and sedentary agriculturalism. Liminality is associated with chaos, anxiety and transition. Boundaries are fluid and stable patterns of relationship are not established.
Power is a big issue; periods of lawlessness—everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Jud 21:25)—interspersed with periods where awesome power was vested in one person. Chapter 19 starts with a similar declaration, ”…when was no king in Israel…”
No-one in this story is named (unlike every other story of note in Judges), though the names of places appear frequently and three tribes are mentioned. This may be intended to steer the reader away from the particularities of the incidents and underline its status as a prologue to the civil war described in chapters 20-21.
The role and status of Levites in the days of the judges is uncertain. This Levite was from the hill country of Ephraim. Priests shall not take a woman profaned by harlotry (Lev 21:7)—did this also apply to Levites?
The Levite’s servant
Described as a young man in v. 19 he provides the foil to the Levite in discussion about Jebus.
The Levite’s concubine
A concubine seems to have had same or similar status to wife, except (normally) a slave. But had definite rights (Ex 21:10). In this case, she must have been bought from her father because of his extreme poverty. She would not be able to go free as a male slave would after six years (Ex 21:2, 21:7). Nevertheless, this does not make much sense here, given the over-profuse hospitality of her father. An exchange relationship has been set up—money for woman. In other words this was not a purely commercial transaction but sets up relationship of affinity, similar to bridewealth transaction.
The concubine’s father
An ambiguous character. His over-zealous hospitality sits uncomfortably with his willingness to let his daughter become a concubine rather than a bride. Depending on the meaning of ‘she played the harlot’ (v 2) his attitude towards his daughter is also strange.
Do not profane your daughter by making her a harlot, so that the land will not fall to harlotry and the land become full of lewdness. (Lev 19:29)
The men of Gibeah
Saul was from Gibeah (1Sam 10:26). Eleazer, son of Aaron was buried there, where Phinehas, grandson of Aaron lived (Jos 24:33).
An old man of Gibeah
This man was staying in Gibeah but came from the hill country of Ephraim, as did the Levite. He obviously has a house there so his sojourn is apparently semi-permanent, possibly as a hired labourer since he had been working in the fields (v 16) (The hill country was normally not very fertile or wealthy).
The old man’s daughter
She features merely as bait for the ravening mob but in the end escapes being thrown to them.
The individual episodes in Judges are sometimes linked chronologically but at other times there appears to be no more than a coincidental detail which is the motivating factor. Indeed even the order may not have been fixed for many years, since Josephus (Ant 5.2.8) places the episode of the Levites concubine & subsequent civil war before the rise of the judges (Jud 2:16) though LXX as we currently have it has this incident as chapter 19.
In particular the last few chapters are a catena, each link often being no more than an apparently incidental detail. Thus in Jud 16 we learn that the Philistine lords promise Delilah 1100 silver pieces (each) if she will betray Samson. In Jud 17 & 18 we read the start of the story of Micah who steals 1100 pieces of silver from his mother. He lives in the hill country of Ephraim and engages a Levite to live with him and be his priest. In Jud 19 we learn of a Levite from the hill country of Ephraim.
Chapter 19 itself is part of a larger story. Indeed, there are some slight signs of chiasmus, which might lead to the conclusion that the this has always been a complete unit rather than the editorial conjunction of two originally separate stories about Benjamin:
I believe that chapter 19 ought to be considered as the prologue to chapters 20 & 21. It is artificial to pluck it out from its full context and any exegesis is likely to be skewed as a result.
Structure of passage
The story of the Levite’s concubine is complex, with many themes and implications. I will therefore use an approach which I will call Filtration Exegesis to attempt to make some sense of it. The approach uses a series of ‘filters’ to expose aspects of a passage.
The essence of a filter, such as a piece of coloured glass, is that it reveals some aspects of the whole while concealing others. Thus a coloured picture observed through red glass is seen as consisting of shades of (red-tinted) grey. Those parts which are coloured pure red are perceived as white; those containing colours which contain some shades of red are seen as grey, while those colours which have no red in them show up as black.
In filtration exegesis the ‘filters’ are cognitive. For example, in attempting to understand this passage I will use the following filters: sex, retribution, power, and hospitality. This list is not exhaustive—honour would also be interesting—and if the whole story was to be investigated it would certainly be necessary to use additional filters such as tribal relations and social structure and this might mean that the four chosen here would need to be rethought. But they will suffice to illustrate the method and draw out many of the main aspects of the passage.
An advantage of this approach is that any view is known to be partial and there is no obligation to try to account for all aspects of the passage in any one view. The aim is not to create a synthetic ‘truth’ but rather to attempt to hold all the perspectives in tension, allowing meanings to emerge through reflection, contemplation and inspiration.
After using the four filters we can see that the story has little to do with sex and probably not a great deal to do with retribution—certainly not retribution for the concubine’s misdeeds. The themes of power and hospitality are much richer and pervasive. They set the scene well for the account of the civil war in the next two chapters.
What we have here is an account of the unacceptable abuse of power by kinfolk; a betrayal of all the acceptable modes of behaviour. The Levite’s action in cutting up his concubine is extreme but certainly no less extreme than the injury done to her, to him and to the whole polity of Israel. Certainly the incident becomes a byword for the depths to which an Israel without God might sink:
“They have gone deep in depravity as in the days of Gibeah” (Hos 9:9, cf Hos 10:9)
Bible Study Outline
I will use the filtration exegesis approach outlined above as the basis of the bible study.
After opening prayer, we read the passage together, noting perhaps some of the different translations available.
The leader then outlines the context of the passage. Something like this:
The group splits into four smaller groups (I’m thinking of our group which has between 12 – 16 members). Each uses a filter to examine the passage: sex, retribution, power and hospitality. The group leader will give notes to each group to help them in their task. (Samples follow below.)
Each group will report briefly on what it has seen in the passage. General discussion will ensue.
The leader will then invite people to offer modern parallels with what they have read, either from their own lives or from what they have heard or read.
Where is God?
The groups reconvene to read the passage again, this time using God as a filter. “Where is God in this passage?” “What would God say/do if he were watching?”
Pulling it together
Coming back into plenary, the group reflects on God’s role and purpose in events like the Levite’s concubine as well as the modern parallels identified. This will lead naturally into intercessory prayer, which will end the study.
Group Leader’s Notes—Sex
Read the passage and try to discover what it has to say about sex and sexual relations. Interpret everything from this perspective. These notes contain some questions and references which might help you in your study. You don’t have to answer them unless it seems helpful to do so.
Group Leader’s Notes—Retribution
Read the passage and try to discover what it has to say about crime and punishment. Interpret everything from this perspective. These notes contain some questions and references which might help you in your study. You don’t have to answer them unless it seems helpful to do so.
Group Leader’s Notes—Power
Read the passage and try to discover what it has to say about power and dominance. Interpret everything from this perspective. These notes contain some questions and references which might help you in your study. You don’t have to answer them unless it seems helpful to do so.
Group Leader’s Notes—Hospitality
Read the passage and try to discover what it has to say about hospitality. Interpret everything from this perspective. These notes contain some questions and references which might help you in your study. You don’t have to answer them unless it seems helpful to do so.