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Judges 19, Mario Moore

The Death of the Levite’s Concubine

James E. Harding

University of Otago

Why didn’t the Levite’s concubine—that is, his pilegesh—scream?[1]

A few weeks ago, I visited the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. As I wandered through the maze of rooms in this treasure trove of European painting, I came across a work by the seventeenth century Dutch artist Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621-1674) entitled “The Fieldworker of Gibeah offers Lodging to the Levite and his Concubine” (Der Feldarbeiter von Gibea bietet dem Levit und seinem Kebsweib Unterkunft). Eeckhout was a pupil of Rembrandt, whose far more famous work “Moses with the Tablets of the Law” (Moses mit den Gesetzestafeln) hangs just a few footsteps away.

It was not some particular detail or quality of Eeckhout’s painting that caught my attention, so much as the sheer fact of it. I had never seen any part of the story of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19:1-30) represented in art before. The scene is the moment when the fieldworker, an old man from Ephraim who is living as a sojourner in Gibeah, part of the tribal patrimony of Benjamin, speaks to the Levite and his concubine and offers them the hospitality of his home, while warning them against spending the night in the town square (Judges 19:20). It is difficult to know what someone who knew nothing of the biblical story might make of it, but knowing the details of the narrative in Judges lent the painting a distinct yet subtle sense of foreboding. None of the figures in the scene looks at the viewer. The Levite looks at the fieldworker, while gesturing towards his female companion who, seated and weary from the journey, also looks towards the fieldworker. In the background, a tired and visibly bored young boy leans on their donkey and gazes, like his older companions, at the old man. Leaning on his spade, the fieldworker looks towards the Levite, and although turned slightly away from the viewer, his gaze and hand gesture seem to convey a sense of warning. Hanging from his belt is a large bunch of keys, perhaps to keep his house locked against the violent men of the town. And a knife: is it for work only, or must it double as a weapon for self-defence?

Although the story of the Levite’s concubine is an unusual subject, Eeckhout’s painting is not unique. The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg holds a work by another painter of the Dutch Golden Age, Willem Bartsius (ca. 1612-after 1639), entitled “The Death of the Levite’s Concubine.” Here, the Levite has opened the doors of the house to find his concubine lying senseless on the step (Judges 19:27). He stares at her in shock, while an old man—presumably his host—sits desolate in the shadows behind him (unless I have misidentified the men, and it is the host who is staring at the dead woman in shock, but the wording of the biblical text would suggest I have identified them accurately). Again, I wonder what someone unfamiliar with the biblical story might make of the scene. Would they know the woman has been raped? Perhaps the artist could safely assume that his viewers would know the story, and would therefore instantly recognise what had happened to the woman, but we might then ask how they were accustomed to interpreting the text. With whom would they have sympathised? With the woman, the Levite, the host? I must confess that, knowing the Hebrew text well before ever having heard of this painting, I find the Levite’s visible shock a little jarring. For in the biblical account, he shows no apparent emotion at all. “‘Get up,’ he said to her, ‘we are going.’ But there was no answer. Then he put her on his donkey; and the man set out for his home …” (Judges 19:28 NRSV).

One might, indeed, wonder what the Levite was expecting. After all, he had thrown her out to the men of Gibeah in the first place (Judges 19:25), after the host had begged them not to rape his male guest (Judges 19:23), offering his own virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine instead (Judges 19:24) (incidentally, what did become of the old man’s daughter?). At any rate, it seems that the Levite and his host assume she is dead, as, apparently, did Willem Bartsius.

This is certainly the most common way of reading the story. After all, when the Levite addresses the Israelites gathered before the LORD at Mizpah, he tells them that, “The lords of Gibeah rose up against me, and surrounded the house at night. They intended to kill me, and they raped my concubine until she died” (Judges 20:5 NRSV). The Levite’s word tends to be taken at face value, not only by the other characters in the story, but by later readers, both within and without the guild of biblical scholars. To take but one example, the brief summary of the story in Heinrich Krauss and Eva Uthemann, Was Bilder erzählen, tells us that, after being handed over by the Levite, “the next morning she lay dead in front of the door.”[2]

And it may indeed be the case that this is not only the most intuitive way of reading the biblical narrative, but also the one most faithful to the text. It may simply be that the author, for stylistic reasons, chose not to tell us explicitly in Judges 19:26-27 that the Levite’s concubine was dead. The author could have been avoiding redundancy, given that the Levite himself tells the Israelites gathered at Mizpah—and therefore indirectly tells us—that the men of Gibeah raped her until she died (though in point of fact the Hebrew text does not make absolutely explicit the causal link between her rape and her death, and so perhaps Robert Alter’s translation, always attentive to the stylistic subtleties of biblical narrative, may have it slightly better—“Me they thought to kill, and my concubine they raped, and she died”).[3] He—and I am assuming for the sake of argument that the author was male, though I have no firm evidence for this—may have been deliberately reticent in Judges 19:26-27, heightening the pathos of the scene by making the reader draw the most obvious conclusion from her battered and silent body, and incidentally making the Levite’s blunt statement to the Israelites in the next scene all the more stark. Alternatively, by making a distinction between what the Levite tells the Israelites and what the narrator tells us, the author could have been casting into relief the moral bankruptcy of what the Levite has done, and of how he reacted to the woman’s fate—I am leaving aside for the moment the question of the extent to which the Levite’s situation could have been so morally compromised as radically to restrict his freedom to choose what course of action to take, the implications of which are powerfully explored in an important essay by Katharina von Kellenbach[4]—perhaps even hinting that it was the Levite himself who was either the woman’s murderer, or at the very least indirectly responsible for her murder.

The conciseness of classical Hebrew narrative leaves a great deal of room for the reader to probe its gaps and ambiguities, in stark contrast with the instinct of modern philologists, translators, and commentators to explain everything, leaving the reader with almost nothing to do. As Alter comments in the introduction to his recent translation:

Literature in general, and the narrative prose of the Hebrew Bible in particular, cultivates certain profound and haunting enigmas, delights in leaving its audiences guessing about motives and connections, and, above all, loves to set ambiguities of word choice and image against one another in an endless interplay that resists neat resolution. In polar contrast, the impulse of the philologist is—here a barbarous term nicely catches the tenor of the activity—to ‘disambiguate’ the terms of the text. The general result when applied to translation is to reduce, simplify, and denature the Bible.

The problem, however, is that the enigmatic character of biblical narrative prose is such as to leave gaps and ambiguities that may be filled in ways that may be so at odds with the intention of the text (I will leave the putative intention of the author to one side for now) as radically to misrepresent it. Yet what does one do with a text that leaves such ambiguities and gaps?

Even if we cannot be absolutely sure whether a particular gap or ambiguity has been dealt with fairly or not, in view of the range of probabilities that might be inferred from a careful study of comparable ancient texts, we can perhaps learn quite a lot from the way that later readers and interpreters dealt with such ambiguities and gaps. What we learn, though, has at least as much to do with the presuppositions of those later interpreters and readers as with the text they are reading and interpreting. So we might well ask, just why do most readers of the story of the Levite’s concubine assume that she was dead when the Levite opened the doors of the house to find her lying there, silent?

As Phyllis Trible pointed out long ago in her famous exegesis of this passage, this assumption goes back at least as far as the ancient translators of the scriptures into Greek. Where the Hebrew tells us sparingly that “there was no answer” when the Levite ordered her to get up, the Greek of Codex Vaticanus tells us instead that, “she did not answer, for she was dead.” Thus Trible: “The Greek Bible says, ‘for she was dead,’ and hence makes the Benjaminites murderers as well as rapists and torturers. The Hebrew text, on the other hand, is silent, allowing the interpretation that this abused woman is yet alive.”[5] So when the Levite gets home and cuts his concubine up in order to send the twelve bloody chunks of her body to each of the tribes of Israel, could it be that he is also her murderer? Trible notes a suggestive and disturbing parallel here to the Aqedah, where Abraham raises a knife to his still living son Isaac (Genesis 22:10). She writes:

Does he intend to slay the concubine? Though the Greek Bible rules out such a possibility, the silence of the Hebrew text allows it. Moreover, the unique parallel to the action of Abraham encourages it. Perhaps the purpose in taking the knife, to slay the victim, is not specified here because indeed it does happen. The narrator, however, protects his protagonist through ambiguity.[6]

So we need at least to consider the possibility that the concubine was not, in fact, dead when the Levite found her, and that he was in the end more directly responsible for her death. How might this alter our reading of this text, and our moral response to this most brutalised of biblical characters?

In a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, written against the background not only of the Harvey Weinstein trial but also recent rape trials in the United Kingdom, Sonia Sodha raises some vital questions about how victims of sexual assault are expected to respond when they are attacked, in light of the range of responses survivors actually report. For some survivors, the instinctive response is, in effect, to freeze, a response that has been termed “tonic immobility” or “rape-induced paralysis,” or in Sodha’s words, “the evolutionary equivalent of playing dead.” This “freeze” response is a key part of Rape Crisis Scotland’s current public awareness campaign #ijustfroze, which aims to raise awareness of the variety of responses to sexual assault that survivors actually experience, and thereby to challenge popular misconceptions of how they can be expected to react. The neurobiology of sexual assault is not something that, to my knowledge, has yet been considered in any depth in the study of the fate of the Levite’s concubine. Perhaps it is time for this to change.

It may be instructive to compare the narrative in Judges with the laws in Deuteronomy that cover what we would now call rape (it is important to bear in mind both that there is no single word in the Hebrew of the Tanakh that corresponds to the English word “rape,” and that there are major social and cultural differences between our world and that of Iron Age Israel and Judah—but we need somehow to find a vocabulary that enables us to speak intelligently about both contexts, and to draw out the points of comparison and contrast between them).

There are two laws in Deuteronomy 22:23-27 that deal with the case of a virgin (betulah) whom a man has found and had sex with. In the first case, the man found the girl and had sex with her in a town. They are to be taken to the town gate and stoned to death, because on the one hand the girl did not cry for help, and on the other the man has committed the crime of adultery against another man. In the second case, the man comes upon the girl in the countryside, where no-one could hear her cries for help. The man alone should die, because even if the girl had cried for help, there was no-one to hear her screams.

A lot could be said about this passage, but for now let us look at what distinguishes the two cases. While one might, with some justification, say that the law at least does seem to recognise the distinct personhood of the girl—the acknowledgement that she may have cried for help in the second case suggests that she is not only regarded as a part or extension of her father’s property (contrast Exodus 22:15-16, which like Deuteronomy 22:28-29 is so worded as to exclude entirely the matter of the girl’s consent, making it impossible to tell how far the language of “rape” can be meaningfully applied, though in Deuteronomy 22:28-29 the man is admittedly said to have “seized” the girl rather than “seduced” her), or the property of the man who had paid the brideprice for her, and she does indeed seem to be given the benefit of any doubt there might have been as to whether she was in fact forced by the man to have sex—nonetheless the distinction between the two laws is significantly determined by the reaction of the girl to a man having sex with her. But why, in the first case, should anyone assume that the girl’s silence denoted her consent? What if the man had indeed forced her to have sex with him, entirely against her consent, and she simply froze due to the trauma of the assault?

My point here is that the way readers of biblical texts concerned with rape continue to interpret those texts may have more than a little to do with wider cultural assumptions about how victims and survivors are expected to react. Sodha makes the point that “the ‘freeze’ response can be appallingly mischaracterised as willing submission and plays into societal myths about what does and does not constitute rape and consent,” referring to the question posed by a defence barrister in a Belfast rape trial two years ago: “Why didn’t she scream?” (He continued: “[T]he house was occupied. There were a lot of middle-class [!] girls downstairs—they weren’t going to tolerate a rape or anything like that”).

Why didn’t the Levite’s concubine scream? Why didn’t she fight back? Why didn’t she try to escape?

The narrative in Judges in fact does not tell us whether she screamed, whether she fought back, or whether she tried to escape from her abusers. To be sure, the narrator tells us that she was abused by “the men of the city,” a gang of men, thus presumably severely limiting her ability to fight back or escape. And of course, we readers are at the mercy of an author who wrote the narrative in this particular way, adopting the persona of a putatively omniscient narrator, and so we are left to wonder, as we puzzle over the gaps and ambiguities, how she might have responded. But perhaps this narrative silence is significant for more than purely literary reasons, for could it not be that the narrative is, whether deliberately or not, drawing our attention to our own temptation to ask precisely the sorts of invasive and presumptuous questions of alleged victims of rape that Stuart Olding’s barrister wished the police had asked?

And then why, when she reached the house where “her master” was staying, did she simply fall at the door? Why did she not then at least cry out for help?

The usual interpretation would imply that she was so bruised and battered by her assault that she simply could not do anything else, could not even raise her voice to cry for help (compare perhaps Deuteronomy 22:24), and that if she was not dead when she fell at the door of the house, her physical trauma was such that she soon died.

It may, however, be worth bearing in mind that it was “her master” who threw her out to the mob in the first place, and his host who offered her, and his own daughter, to them to protect his male guest’s body, and therefore his honour. We also do not know much of the backstory. Why, for example, did the woman flee to her father’s house in the first place? Leaving aside for a moment the possibility suggested by Mieke Bal that the Levite had contracted a sort of marriage in which his wife ordinarily remained in her father’s house, could she have been trying to escape from an abusive partner? The Greek text of Codex Alexandrinus (perhaps preserving the Old Greek reading)[7] tells us she was “angry” with him, without telling us why, whereas the Masoretic Text seems to say she “prostituted herself against” (NRSV note) him, seemingly laying the blame for what happened on her (the precise meaning of the Hebrew in Judges 19:2 is admittedly not at all clear, a number of suggestions having been made to explain it).

It is sobering indeed to reflect on the possibility that, in the society that lies behind this narrative, far too many women may have stayed with violent husbands they were too afraid, or too restricted by the norms and customs of their clan and their society, to leave. It may, then, be worth considering the possibility that in addition to the trauma of a horrific sexual assault, she was now faced with the dread of returning to a house that contained men who had either surrendered her to violence, or offered to do so. Yet not only were they implicated in her assault, and not only may they themselves have been perpetrators of sexual violence, they were now her only source of protection.

So why didn’t the Levite’s concubine scream? Perhaps she did, and we, along with the Levite and his host, have closed our ears. Perhaps the narrator has simply closed our ears for us. Or perhaps she remained silent out of sheer terror, frozen between the horror of what she just endured, and what she might still be about to face from “her master.”


[1] There is some debate concerning the appropriateness of the English word “concubine” to translate the Hebrew noun pilegesh. J. Cheryl Exum, with some justification, prefers “wife,” since the term in this narrative seems to indicate a “legal wife of secondary rank” (Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives (JSOTSup, 163; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993), 177). The term “concubine,” by contrast, might lead the reader to regard her less sympathetically than they would a primary wife. Indeed, the usual interpretation of the Hebrew text of Judges 19:2 might even compound the problem by associating her with prostitution. Mieke Bal, furthermore, has suggested that pilegesh here indicates a wife who continues to dwell in her father’s house after marriage (Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 83-86), but even if that is the case here, it cannot apply to all biblical occurrences, and it may indeed be the case that the biblical corpus reflects an evolution in the meaning of the term. I have retained the term “concubine” here, despite its problems, because it has been so widely used, and in particular because it is used in the names of the paintings by Eeckhout and Bartsius (the Gemäldegalerie uses Kebsweib and the Hermitage uses nalozhnitsa, respectively). Elsewhere, in discussing this passage, I have left the term pilegesh untranslated in order to signal that the term is not fully understood (see my “Homophobia and Masculine Domination in Judges 19-21,” in The Bible & Critical Theory 12 (2016): 41-74; “Homophobia and Rape Culture in the Narratives of Early Israel,” in Rape Culture, Gender Violence, and Religion: Biblical Perspectives (ed. C. Blyth; E. Colgan, and K. B. Edwards; Religion and Radicalism; Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 159-178). I am assuming, however, that not all readers of this blog are conversant with Hebrew, and that to use the Hebrew term throughout might, in this context, be cumbersome and confusing. I hope that I may be forgiven, then, for continuing to use the term “concubine.”

[2] Heinrich Krauss and Eva Uthemann, Was Bilder erzählen: Die klassischen Geschichten aus Antike und Christentum (5th ed.; München: C. H. Beck, 1998), 218. A sixth edition was published in 2011, but I am quoting from the edition to which I have ready access.

[3] Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2019), 2:152.

[4] Katharina von Kellenbach, “Am I a Murderer? Judges 19-21 as a Parable of Meaningless Suffering,” in Strange Fire: Reading the Bible after the Holocaust (ed. T. Linafelt; The Biblical Seminar 71; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 176-191.

[5] Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Overtures to Biblical Theology, 13; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 79. Trible is partially drawing here on an earlier work by Robert Polzin, Moses and the Deuteronomist (New York: Seabury, 1980), 200-202.

[6] Trible, Texts of Terror, 80.

[7] Cf. Natalio Fernández Marcos (ed.), Judges (Biblia Hebraica Quinta, 7; Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2011), 53.

Tags : BibleHebrew BibleJudges 19LeviteRape CultureSexual ViolenceUniversity of OtagoVisual Criticism
James Harding

The author James Harding

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