Judges 19-21: It’s All About the Benjaminites

The last three chapters of Judges all revolve around Gibeah, a town in Benjamin.

These chapters are closely interrelated. Chapter 19 is rare in that it consists of a single coherent narrative- I see almost no sign of editing. Chapter 20 escalates the story to full-blown Israelite civil war; and the last chapter resolves the plot, in two contradictory manners.


The focus of this tale is an unnamed Levite; For convenience, I’m going to name him Levy. He lives in Ephraim and has a concubine from Bethlehem (in Judah). One day, in a “fit of anger”, she ran off home. After four long whore-free months, Levy goes to get his ladyfriend.

They end up at her father’s house. What follows is a rather inscrutable episode where Levy is prevented from leaving. Every time he’s about to set out, some excuse is made, and he tarries. Like a bad sitcom gag. This goes on for five days, and seems to be building up to something… but eventually, without much fanfare, “he rose and left”. Apparently, she went with him without further protest.

On the way back from Bethlehem, they pass by Jerusalem- which the author is calling Jebus, because it once was run by the Jebusites. (In the days before the monarchy, the region was really just a collection of city-states. Some were run by Israelites, some weren’t. Jerusalem is conquered by David later on.)

19:10 He had reached a point opposite Jebus, that is Jerusalem, with his two laden asses and his concubine, and when they were close to Jebus, the weather grew wild and stormy, and the young man said to his master, ‘Come now, let us turn into the Jebusite town and spend the night there.’

So they continue on to Gibeah (in Benjamin territory), which isn’t overrun with evil non-Israelites. They plop down on the curb and wait for some goodwill. Eventually, an old man (an Ephraimite, as it happens) comes across them and offers them lodging. Things are looking up for Levy and friends. But then things go pear-shaped:

19:22 While they were enjoying themselves, some of the worst scoundrels in the town surrounded the house, hurling themselves against the door and shouting to the old man who owned the house, ‘Bring out the man who has gone into your house, for us to have intercourse with him.’ The owner of the house went outside to them and said ‘No, my friends, do nothing so wicked. This man is my guest; do not commit this outrage. Here is my daughter, a virgin, and his concubine; let me bring them out to you. Rape them and do to them what you please; but you shall not commit such an outrage against this man.’

This should sound familiar. This story is vividly similar to a (much more) famous story from Genesis. (19:1-29) There, Lot takes two men (secretly angels) into his house at Sodom; the people of the town demand a gang-raping; Lot offers his two virgin daughters instead. The men refuse the deal and are all slaughtered by God. The short, bizarre episode is one of the better-known stories from Genesis for an unfortunate reason: it’s been seized upon by homophobic assholes as proof God Hates Fags. It’s also, of course, the source of the word “Sodomy”. (I have a *lot* to say about this episode and it will have to wait until I get to blogging Genesis.)

The main difference between these two stories is that in the Judges story there is a complete lack of divine intervention or judgement. There is no Deus Ex Machina. The story here does not end with God destroying Gibeah. Instead, we get to watch the natural consequences of Levy’s decision play out. Lucky us?

19:25 But the men refused to listen to him, so the Levite took hold of his concubine and thrust her outside for them. They assaulted her and abused her all night till morning, and when dawn broke, they let her go. The girl came at daybreak and fell down at the entrance of the man’s house where her master was, and lay there until it was light. Her master rose in the morning and opened the door of the house to set out on his journey, and there was his concubine lying at the door with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, ‘Get up and let us be off’; but there was no answer.

Holy shit. There is a lot of horrible stuff that happens in the Bible, but this really takes the cake. 😦

Rather than divine judgement, we get human vengeance. Setting the stage for the next chapter, Levy calls on his inner Dexter:

19:28 So he lifted her on his ass and set off for home. When he arrived there, he picked up a knife, and he took hold of his concubine and cut her up limb by limb into twelve pieces; and he sent them through the length and breadth of Israel. He told the men he sent with them to say to every Israelite, ‘Has the like of this happened or been seen from the time the Israelites came up from Egypt till today? Consider this among yourselves and speak your minds.’

On first read I was baffled by these actions. It turns out, Levy is mustering support against the tribe of Benjamin from the other Israelites. The twelve pieces is of course an allusion to the canonical twelve tribes of Israel- I guess this implies each tribe got a piece. (Did Benjamin?)

Finally, I need to point out a strange example of New English Bible translation weirdness. At certain points the editors mark that their translation is a “probable reading” and provide notes on the original Hebrew. Sometimes their choices make sense (the Hebrew is often corrupted or obscure) and sometimes it’s made to “fix” an apparent mistake in the text. When I typed up verse 24 above I actually used their alternate text, provided in the margins. But here is their primary translation, their “probable reading” of the Hebrew:

19:24 Here is my daughter, a virgin; let me bring her out to you. Rape her and do to her what you please; but you shall not commit such an outrage against a man.

Compare to their alternate translation, based on the actual Hebrew (I’ve constructed this by inserting their footnoted changes):

19:24 Here is my daughter, a virgin, and his concubine; let me bring them out to you. Rape them and do to them what you please; but you shall not commit such an outrage against this man.’

Why did they make these changes? I’m baffled. They’re not resolving a contradiction: it’s reasonable that the old man had proposed this two-woman deal, and that Levy then threw just his concubine at them and hoped they would go away. (Turns out he was right!) I’m wondering if there is alternate tradition (the Septuagint’s version?) that caused them to make this strange decision.


I’ve not really settled the connection between chapters 19 and 20. This war epic relies on the previous story, but is markedly different in focus. This does not appear to be the case of two separate narratives being stitched together. I can only guess that it’s a “sequel” of sorts- written later as a direct follow-up.

It begins with the immediate result of Levy’s concubine-dicing scheme:

20:1 All the Israelites, the whole community from Dan to Beersheba and out of Gilead also, left their homes as one man and assembled before the LORD at Mizpah.

The LORD was not mentioned once in the previous chapter; now he is all over the place. This meeting at Mizpah is important within this story thread.

Levy gives his version of events:

20:4 ‘I and my concubine came to Gibeah in Benjamin to spend the night there. The citizens of Gebeah rose against me that night and surrounded the house where I was, intending to kill me; and they raped my concubine and she died.

I notice a few salient facts being left out! Still, I don’t see this as any textual contradiction. This is simply his version of events.

So the Israelites enter Gibeah and ask everyone to narc on the concubine-rapers. Instead, the Gibeonites amass their own army- 26,000 men against the Israelite’s 400,000.

At Bethel, the Israelites ask God for an oracle, and God says Judah will strike first. As they’re making to attack Gibeah, the Benjaminites surprise them and slaughter 20,000 poor Israelites. The next day, this happens again, and Israel loses another 18,000 men. Brilliant. So they ask God: should we try again? And God tells them to man up and try again.

Third time’s the charm; This time, the Israelites ambush the Benjaminites and slaughter them (or at least 25,000 out of 26,000.) There are actually two accounts of this event given, the first in 20:29-36a and the second, immediately following in 20:36b-48. (At least according to the OSE editors. I quibble that the margin in a bit blurry.) This makes me rethink the rest of the story. We have two failed attacks, two oracle episodes in Bethel, and two successful ambushes resulting in the death of 25,000 Benjaminites. Have two battle accounts been merged? I say yes. (Perhaps one was the original continuation of Chapter 19?) I’m not going to worry about the specifics, though.

I’ll just point out one bit of obvious editing. In the second trip to the oracle at Bethel, someone has inserted this:

20:27 In those days, the Ark of the Covenant of God was there, and Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, served before the LORD.

Since this is the only reference to the Ark anywhere in Judges, it’s considered a later insert. From the mention of the Ark, Phinehas, and Aaron, we can narrow it’s source down to either P or J. (The sources which focused on the Ark and Aaron.) I would put my money on J, only because a P insertion within the Deuteronomic Histories seems unlikely; the Priestly source is a Torah thing, limited to the first five books, while the Jahwist was used elsewhere in the DH.

However, Phinehas, along with the more prominent Eleazar, are only referenced by P in the Torah. (They also appears in some censuses in Joshua.)

My tentative conclusion is that this verse was taken from non-J, non-P material; from a body of work that also contributed to the endless censuses in Joshua.


My god, we’re almost done Judges. This is the final story. Well, just a continuation of chapter 20. Again we have two accounts; here they are kindly presented consecutively.

21:1 In Mizpah the Israelites had bound themselves by oath that none of them would marry his daughter to a Benjaminite.

This bring about a dilemma for the Israelites. They just slaughtered almost all the Benjaminites. But they don’t want the tribe to die off completely.  They have to find them foreign wimminfolk to spur repopulation.

In version #1, they decide to take from the town of Jabesh-gilead. This was a city east of the Jordan (not technically part of Canaan/Israel) and its people had not participated in the Mizpah oath, which occurred at the start of Chapter 20. The Israelites have divine right to slaughter them over this missed appointment, so they’re an obvious target of virgin theft. The Israelites go and slaughter all men and all the non-virgin women, and give the virgins to the Benjaminites.

Version #2 does not mention Mizpah. Here the Israelites have the same problem- no ladies for the Benjaminites. This time, they direct the Benjaminites themselves to make the pilgrimage up to Shiloh in Ephraim. (Apparently, it was a real Mecca in the autumn.)

21:20 They said to the Benjaminites, ‘Go and hide in the vineyards and keep watch. When the girls of Shiloh come out to dance, sally out of the vineyards, and each of you seize one of them for his wife.

This grisly deed is done, and then everyone goes home happy. (Except the women, of course, but who cares about them.)


And that, folks, is Judges. Wow. What a book. Much more interesting than the Book of Joshua, but that’s not saying much because Joshua was terrible.

In deference to the integrity of the Deuteronomic Histories, I will be bypassing Ruth and continuing directly to Samuel-Kings. This mammoth epic is 102 chapters, arbitrarily divided into four books (1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings). If I do three chapters per post, it will take me 34 entries to finish!

*rolls up sleeves*

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