The Story of the Concubine at Gibeah: A Satire on King Saul
The Story of the Concubine at Gibeah
Set in a time “when there was no king in Israel,” Judges 19–21 tells the tale of a Levite who travels from Ephraim to Bethlehem in order to win back his adulterous concubine, who has fled to her father’s house. The bride’s father greets his son-in-law with abundant hospitality, wining and dining him for four days before the couple heads home.
On their return trip, the Levite considers stopping in Jebus (i.e., Jerusalem, at that time, a non-Israelite town) but instead proceeds to Gibeah of Benjamin, an Israelite town. No one but an elderly Ephraimite (i.e., not a Benjaminite) who happens to live in Gibeah takes them in, cautioning them not to spend the night in the square. No sooner does the pair settle in when the men of the town surround the house, demanding that the Levite come out so that they can “know” him.
Comparison with the Sodom Story
There are a number of striking parallels between this scene and the infamous narrative in Genesis 19 concerning Lot and his daughters at Sodom:
Concubine at Gibeah
Lot’s Daughters in Sodom
…וְהִנֵּה אַנְשֵׁי הָעִיר אַנְשֵׁי בְנֵי בְלִיַּעַל נָסַבּוּ אֶת הַבַּיִת מִתְדַּפְּקִים עַל הַדָּלֶת וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל הָאִישׁ בַּעַל הַבַּיִת הַזָּקֵן לֵאמֹר הוֹצֵא אֶת הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר בָּא אֶל בֵּיתְךָ וְנֵדָעֶנּוּ.
וַיֵּצֵא אֲלֵיהֶם הָאִישׁ בַּעַל הַבַּיִת וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם אַל אַחַי אַל תָּרֵעוּ נָא אַחֲרֵי אֲשֶׁר בָּא הָאִישׁ הַזֶּה אַל בֵּיתִי אַל תַּעֲשׂוּ אֶת הַנְּבָלָה הַזֹּאת.הִנֵּה בִתִּי הַבְּתוּלָה וּפִילַגְשֵׁהוּ אוֹצִיאָה נָּא אוֹתָם וְעַנּוּ אוֹתָם וַעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם הַטּוֹב בְּעֵינֵיכֶם וְלָאִישׁ הַזֶּה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ דְּבַר הַנְּבָלָה הַזֹּאת.
… וְאַנְשֵׁי הָעִיר אַנְשֵׁי סְדֹם נָסַבּוּ עַל הַבַּיִת … וַיִּקְרְאוּ אֶל לוֹט וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ אַיֵּה הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר בָּאוּ אֵלֶיךָ הַלָּיְלָה הוֹצִיאֵם אֵלֵינוּ וְנֵדְעָה אֹתָם.
וַיֵּצֵא אֲלֵהֶם לוֹט… וַיֹּאמַר אַל נָא אַחַי תָּרֵעוּ. הִנֵּה נָא לִי שְׁתֵּי בָנוֹת אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּ אִישׁ אוֹצִיאָה נָּא אֶתְהֶן אֲלֵיכֶם וַעֲשׂוּ לָהֶן כַּטּוֹב בְּעֵינֵיכֶם רַק לָאֲנָשִׁים הָאֵל אַל תַּעֲשׂוּ דָבָר
|And here, the men of the city, worthless men,surrounded the house, knocking on the door and they said to the man, the elderly owner of the house, “Bring out the man who came to your house so that we can know him!”
And the man, the owner of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, please don’t act terribly to this man who came to my house; don’t do this abomination. Here is my virgin daughter and his concubine let me bring them out. Degrade them and do to them what you wish, but to this man, don’t do this abominable thing!”
|And the men of the city, Sodom, surrounded the house… and called to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can know them!”
And Lot went out to them… And he said, “Please, don’t act terribly, my brothers. Here, please, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Let me bring them out to you so that you can do to them what you wish. Just don’t do anything to these men!”
In addition to using similar language, the stories share the following major plot points:
- Both the angels in Genesis 19 and the couple in Judges 19 arrive at night;
- In both texts, only someone who is an “outsider” takes them in;
- The men of each town utter nearly identical demands regarding the male guest(s);
- In both texts, the hosts tell the men “not to commit such a wrong” (אַל תָּרֵעוּ);
- Both men offer two women up to the mob instead of the man/men.
The Old Man’s Virgin Daughter: A Blind Motif
In determining the nature of the relationship between two texts, it is helpful to consider whether there are any “blind motifs,” i.e., details that make sense in one text but are superfluous in the other. In this case, while the elderly man in Judges 19 offers his daughter up to the mob, only the concubine is taken, while the daughter is never mentioned again. In contrast, Lot’s two daughters play a crucial role further on when they birth the ancestors of Moab and Ammon.
Most thus conclude that Judges 19 is dependent on Genesis 19. With this allusion, the severely negative associations of the Sodomites are transferred to the men of Gibeah.
The Dismemberment of the Concubine
The story of the concubine ends in a heartbreaking scene: the men of Gibeah assault the woman throughout the night, until she finally returns to the elderly man’s home and passes out at the entranceway. By the time the Levite arises the next morning and finds her, she is on the brink of death. The man hoists her atop a donkey, heads for home, and then proceeds to chop the woman up into twelve pieces, distributing them throughout Israel.
Although no message accompanies the body parts, the Israelites know to rally to war. This single crime leads to a massive battle against the Benjaminites, where the tribe is nearly wiped out (Judges 20).
Judges 19 as Literature
How could a crime against a single woman launch a massive intertribal war? And why does this text parallel the story of Lot and his daughters so closely?
The clearly literary nature of Judges 19, with its anonymous characters, direct speech, and folkloric repetition, indicates that this unit must be read and interpreted as literature, but what is it trying to say? The text leaves us a number of clues.
Contrasting Saul and David’s Capital Cities
As scholars have observed, the place names in Judges 19–21 line up with known Saul and David reference points. While the places associated with David are depicted in positive or neutral terms, all of those tied to Saul are negative.
Thus the Levite receives great hospitality in Bethlehem of Judah (David’s hometown) and refuses to stop in Jebus (= Jerusalem, David’s future capital).
שופטים יט:יא הֵם עִם יְבוּס וְהַיּוֹם רַד מְאֹד וַיֹּאמֶר הַנַּעַר אֶל אֲדֹנָיו לְכָה נָּא וְנָסוּרָה אֶל עִיר הַיְבוּסִי הַזֹּאת וְנָלִין בָּהּ. יט:יב וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲדֹנָיו לֹא נָסוּר אֶל עִיר נָכְרִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵנָּה וְעָבַרְנוּ עַד גִּבְעָה.
Judg 19:11 Since they were close to Jebus, and the day was very far spent, the attendant said to his master, “Let us turn aside to this town of the Jebusites and spend the night in it.” 19:12 But his master said to him, “We will not turn aside to a town of aliens who are not of Israel, but will continue to Gibeah.”
Thus, the Levite insists on heading to Gibeah (Saul’s capital), where the men turn out to be violent rapists, akin to the Sodomites.
At the end of the story, after the war against Benjamin is won, the Israelites begin to regret that Benjamin, a tribe of Israel, is on the brink of extinction (Judg 21:6). The Israelites are faced with a quandary, however: apparently they swore an oath when they assembled for battle at Mizpah, promising not to give any of their daughters as wives to the Benjaminites (21:1). In order to solve this dilemma, they ask if any group among the tribes failed to assemble at Mizpah (a decision punishable by death).
As it turns out, no one from Jabesh-Gilead, a city in the Transjordan, participated in the oath. The Israelites then kill everyone in Jabesh-Gilead, including children and most women (a disturbingly ironic move, given that the conflict was precipitated by outrage at a woman’s wrongful death). Only the virgin girls survive this massacre, and these are given as wives to the Benjaminites (Judg 21:7-14).
The inclusion of Jabesh-Gilead in this story is significant, since this group is the very group that Saul saved in his first military campaign (1 Samuel 11), and it was the people of Jabesh-Gilead who stealthily retrieve Saul and his sons’ bodies from the Philistines and burn them to avoid their further desecration (1 Sam 31:11-13).
In fact, the Levite’s dismemberment of the woman at the end of Judges 19 closely echoes the scene in 1 Sam 11:1-11, where in response to the plight of the Jabesh-Gileadites, Saul takes a yoke of oxen, chops the animals up into pieces, and distributes them throughout Israel.
|Saul and Jabesh Gilead
(1 Sam 11:7)
|The Levite and the Concubine
וַיִּקַּח צֶמֶד בָּקָר וַיְנַתְּחֵהוּ וַיְשַׁלַּח בְּכָל גְּבוּל יִשְׂרָאֵלבְּיַד הַמַּלְאָכִים
וַיִּקַּח אֶת הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת וַיַּחֲזֵק בְּפִילַגְשׁוֹ וַיְנַתְּחֶהָ לַעֲצָמֶיהָ לִשְׁנֵים עָשָׂר נְתָחִים וַיְשַׁלְּחֶהָ בְּכֹל גְּבוּל יִשְׂרָאֵל.
|He took a yoke of oxen and cut them into pieces, which he sent by messengers throughout the territory of Israel||…[H]e took a knife, and grabbed hold of his concubine and cut her up limb by limb into twelve pieces. He sent them throughout the territory of Israel.|
In the Saul story, he sends a message with the pieces:
שמואל א יא:ז אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ יֹצֵא אַחֲרֵי שָׁאוּל וְאַחַר שְׁמוּאֵל כֹּה יֵעָשֶׂה לִבְקָרוֹ
1 Sam 11:7 Whoever does not go out after Saul and Samuel, thus will be done to his oxen!
Given that Judges 19 lacks an accompanying message, and that 1 Sam 11:1-11 features a reasonable and far less gruesome call to battle, it appears that Judges 19 is again the “alluding” text, not the reverse.
This cluster of pro-David and anti-Saul references in Judges 19–21, including a brazen effort to satirize a positive account of Saul is thus comparable to 1–2 Samuel, which is highly tendentious, with the bulk of the book elevating David at Saul’s expense.
This anti-Saul, pro-David prejudice is even more explicit in Chronicles, which preserves only a single account of Saul’s death before detailing David’s reign. The heavy-handed nature of the bias suggests that the figure of Saul was still a force with which to be reckoned at the time of this (late) book’s composition.
Yet while we expect this polemic in the Books of Samuel or Chronicles, what is it doing in Judges, given that this book is situated in the time “before kings”? In order to answer this question, we must consider some of the less obvious details in Judges 19–21. These bring us to the beginning of Samuel, which serves as the haftarah (prophetic reading) of the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
Links between Judges 19–21 and 1 Samuel 1
- Why is the Saul “stand-in” at the end of Judges depicted as a Levite from Ephraim?
- Why does this man have a concubine (a wife of lesser status) and not a wife?
- Why does the Levite go to the “House of YHWH” (Judg 19:18), surely an anachronism in this period?
- Why does the Levite consider stopping at Ramah (Judg 19:13) before heading to Gibeah?
- Why are wives procured from two places, the surviving girls from Jabesh-Gilead and the dancing girls in Shiloh?
The reasons for these details arguably lie in an unexpected source: 1 Samuel 1.
A Birth of Saul Account?
It has long been posited that in an earlier form, 1 Samuel 1 narrated the birth of Saul, not Samuel. In that account, each year, Elkanah and his two wives travel to Shiloh, and on one of these occasions, Hannah prays to YHWH silently, and her wish is granted: she conceives a son and names him Samuel. Oddly, however, all of the puns on the boy’s name play off the name Saul:
Hannah names her son (v. 20)
וַתִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ שְׁמוּאֵל כִּי מֵיְהוָה שְׁאִלְתִּיו.
She named him Samuel because, “I borrowed him from YHWH”
Hannah dedicates her son to the temple (vv. 27-28)
אֶל הַנַּעַר הַזֶּה הִתְפַּלָּלְתִּי וַיִּתֵּן יְהוָה לִי אֶת שְׁאֵלָתִי אֲשֶׁר שָאַלְתִּי מֵעִמּוֹ. וְגַם אָנֹכִי הִשְׁאִלְתִּהוּ לַי-הוָה כָּל הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר הָיָה הוּאשָׁאוּל לַי-הוָה.
It was this boy I prayed for and YHWH has granted me the request I asked of him. And now I have loaned him to YHWH. For as long as he lives, he is lent to YHWH.
This last instance is most striking, with the passive participle שאול (“lent”) identical to Saul’s name. There is every indication, then, that the story originally detailed Saul’s miraculous birth.
More Saul Details in the Concubine Story
If the writer of Judges 19–21 knew 1 Samuel 1 as a Saul story, these opaque details begin to make sense. The author seems to know (and satirize) two competing origins for Saul: one as a priest from Ephraim (now Samuel’s story) and the other as a man associated with Gibeah of Benjamin.
Ramah-Ramatayim – Just as Elkanah hails from Ramathayim-Ephraim, the Levite is from Ephraim and considers stopping in Ramah (= Ramathayim) before settling on Gibeah.
שופטים יט:יג וַיֹּאמֶר לְנַעֲרוֹ לְךָ וְנִקְרְבָה בְּאַחַד הַמְּקֹמוֹת וְלַנּוּ בַגִּבְעָה אוֹ בָרָמָה.
Judg 19:13 He said to his attendant, “Come, let us approach one of those places and spend the night either in Gibeah or in Ramah.”
Gibeah and Ramah are the two cities of origin for Saul in the two competing narratives (1 Sam 1:1, 10:26).
House of YHWH – The presentation of the man as a Levite who is heading to the “House of YHWH” (ואת בית י-הוה; Judges 19:18) mirrors the dedication of the boy to the temple at Shiloh (1 Sam 1:24), which is also called “the House of YHWH.”
Shiloh – The setting at Shiloh further accounts for the theft of Shilonite women in Judg 21:15–25.
A “Kingly” Concubine - The decision to award a concubine (and not a wife) to the Levite may also represent a dig on Saul. Concubines are largely associated with kings in the Bible, and Saul’s concubine Ritzpah bat Ayah, over whom Saul’s successor Ish-boshet and his general Abner ben Ner have a falling out (2 Sam 3:7-9), was known for heroically shielding the bodies of her dead sons from animals (2 Sam 21:1-14).
The Concubine at Gibeah: Backstory to the “Birth of Saul [Samuel]” Narrative
The tale that concludes Judges thus emerges as a not-so-veiled critique of Saul, a figure who was thought to have ties to Ramah, the House of YHWH at Shiloh, the Gibeahites, and the Jabesh-Gileadites. In portraying Saul as a bumbling Levite from Ephraim who ends up dismembering his concubine, the writer of Judges 19 mocks key positive Saul narratives (1 Samuel 1, 1 Sam 11:1–11, and 2 Sam 21:1-14) that would have been well known.
A Time “. . . When There Was No King in Israel . . .”
At an early phase in transmission, it is possible that Judges 19–21 not only knew these Saul texts but also circulated with them as an independent anti-Saul complex. At some later point, however, as these collections took shape, Judges 19–21 was detached from the Saul material and tacked onto the end of Judges, while Saul’s birth story was rebranded as a Samuel story and affixed to the beginning of Samuel.
Nevertheless, the monarchic-oriented refrain in Judges 19–21, combined with the story’s plethora of obvious and subtle reference points, betrays its preoccupation with Saul and David—a preoccupation that surely would have been transparent to its earliest audience.
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September 19, 2017
January 19, 2021
Prof. Sara Milstein is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Near Eastern Studies in the Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia. She holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew and Judaic Studies Department at New York University. Milstein is the author of Tracking the Master Scribe: Revision through Introduction in Biblical and Mesopotamian Literature and co-author (with Daniel Fleming) of The Buried Foundation of the Gilgamesh Epic: The Akkadian Huwawa Narrative.
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