Why a Biblical Priest Dismembered a Concubine

By Paul Thomas Zenki

And shipped the pieces all over Israel …

Surely you recall the story from Sunday school: A rural priest is traveling across Israel with a member of his harem. They stop over in a town where the young woman is gang raped and beaten to death. So the priest cuts her body into a dozen pieces and has them sent all around the country.

Wait, no? Not ringing any bells?

OK, well, to be fair, the Levite’s concubine doesn’t get nearly the air time of, say, Eve and the forbidden fruit or Moses parting the sea. But weird as it sounds, this little-told tale might just hold a key to one of the biggest mysteries about the Bible and the Ancient Hebrew kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

First, the story. It’s short, just three brief chapters from Judges, but it’s a doozy! Here’s a link to the Biblical text, followed by the IMDB synopsis version.

The Levite’s Concubine

The tale of the Levite’s concubine is set in the late second millennium BCE (although it was written much later and contains several anachronisms) back when the Hebrew tribes were independent, forming two confederations — the two Judahite tribes to the west of the Dead Sea, and the much larger group of Israelite tribes to their north and east.

A map of the region at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea showing the traditional territories of the tribes of Israel
Map showing the traditional territories of the twelve Hebrew tribes. In reality, the tribes coexisted with other Canaanite tribes and did not have complete control of the areas they occupied, which were likely much smaller than shown. Nor did all of these tribes necessarily exist together during the same time periods, and it is a near certainty that other Hebrew tribes have been lost to history. The relative locations of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Judah are roughly accurate, although Jerusalem was not a Hebrew city during the time in which this story is set. The distance between Bethlehem and the hill country of Ephraim would be around 40 kilometers or 25 miles. (Wikimedia Commons)

One day, in the rural hill country of Ephraim, a young woman in a priest’s harem runs away, back to her parents’ home down in Judah. The priest and a servant ride off to get her back.

Down in Bethlehem, the woman’s father treats his son-in-law with such effusive generosity that the Levite has to practically tear himself away in order to go home. Having been delayed by his father-in-law’s hospitality, the priest finds himself along toward evening near the city of Jebus, which in those days had not yet been taken by the Hebrews (and renamed Jerusalem).

The servant wants to stay in Jebus but the Levite insists they push on to the Hebrew city of Gibeah in Benjamin, where they will be treated well. But despite having enough provisions for themselves and their donkeys, they are ignored by the townsfolk as they sit in the square, until along toward sundown an elderly Ephraimite comes in from the fields and invites them to stay at his home, warning them not to remain in the square after dark.

Engraving of a scene in the Ancient Near East: An elderly man speaks to a younger man sitting in a town square, flanked by a robed woman and a boy holding a donkey.
The Levite at Gibeah, ca. 1900, by Charles Joseph Staniland (public domain)

As they are eating and drinking, the men of Gibeah surround the home and demand that the old man turn out his guests so they can rape them. He refuses to surrender the priest, but sends out his virgin daughter and the concubine, who are gang raped all night.

In the morning the Levite finds his concubine dead on the doorstep. He loads her body onto a donkey, rides home, cuts her corpse into twelve pieces and sends them out to the tribes, demanding justice against Gibeah. Representatives from the Israelite and Judahite tribes meet (except for the people of Jabesh-Gilead, who ignore the call) and decide that Gibeah must be destroyed. They send emissaries to Benjamin demanding that Gibeah be given over, but the Benjaminites refuse and defend their kinsmen. The tribes then march to war, with Judah in the lead.

After 3 days of battle, the Benjaminites are defeated, except for a band of 600 men who escape to the wilderness and hole up at the Rock of Rimmon for four months. All other Benjaminites and their animals are put to the sword and their cities burned to ashes.

The Israelites are grieved that a tribe should be lost, but they have pledged not to marry their daughters to Benjamin. So they send 12,000 men to Jabesh-Gilead (who had refused to fight) to slaughter all the men, boys, wives, widows, and little girls. They bring back 400 virgins of marrying age whom they give to the surviving Benjaminites.

Still, some men are without wives, so the unmatched Benjaminite men ambush the Canaanite maidens of Shiloh on their way to dance at a festival and take them so that the tribe of Benjamin survives to this day.

Now you may be wondering, how did a story like that end up in the Bible?

It’s not history. All the characters are anonymous, it’s not dated to any dynastic year, and it’s a blatant reboot of the tale of Sodom with the old Ephraimite as Lot, the Levite as the angels, and the Gibeahites as the Sodomites.

The Depravity of Sodom

So who would write such a story, and why? And how would it end up in Judahite scripture?

The book of Judges is a loose collection of tales set in the tribal period, but written in later centuries and compiled and edited during the Babylonian Exile of the 6th century BCE and the early Second Temple period after Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and repatriated the Jews to Judah. Scholars generally agree that this is among the book’s later additions.

It’s a justification tale, a story recasting an event as righteous. And while there’s not universal agreement about what exactly had to be justified, the most likely explanation in my opinion is the simplest:

  • It explains why Ephraim and Judah fought in a war against Benjamin (perhaps as a replacement of previous writings or traditions about the war).
  • It explains why the tribe was not exterminated despite the story’s invocation of herem (or utter destruction) because of the sin supposedly justifying the war.
  • It explains why Gibeah in particular is the home city of the faction of Benjaminites not destroyed in the war.

OK, fine, so some ancient Israelite and Judahite tribes may have ganged up against one of their own in a war. It wouldn’t be the last time ancient Hebrews fought each other. And one group of Benjaminites comes through it. So what?

Well, this particular story closes the narrative of the tribal epoch, right before the story of Samuel, a prophet from the hill country of Ephraim, who will anoint the first king of a United Monarchy of Israel and Judah, a Benjaminite from Gibeah named Saul.

Coincidence? Not likely.

The Bible is like a cyclorama — and why that matters

The Cyclorama in Atlanta depicts the Civil War Battle of Atlanta “in the round” with visitors on a platform at the center of an enormous circular room. Below them stands a life-sized diorama of the action. Behind that, covering the curved wall, is a realistic painting. From the vantage point on the platform, it’s often impossible to tell where exactly the 3-D model ends and the 2-D painting begins.

A scene from the Atlanta Cyclorama depicting scale models of troops fighting near a railroad track, and behind them a painting of more troops fighting around a two-story brick building flanked by pine trees.
Close-up view of the Atlanta Cyclorama diorama and painting, by Carol Highsmith (Library of Congress)

The Biblical literature is a lot like a cyclorama when it comes to history and legend. The earliest materials are obviously mythic — the garden of Eden, Noah and the ark, the tower of Babel, that sort of thing. Yet we can verify that the reigns of the latter kings of Israel and Judah, and their wars and alliances, are generally accurate, notwithstanding a great number of miracle tales, anachronisms, and nationalistic exaggerations slathered on top of it all. But from our point of view, many centuries in the future, it’s often unclear where mythology gives way to legend, and where legend cedes ground to historical fact.

According to Hebrew tradition, for about a century around the year 1000 BCE the Israelite and Judahite tribes were joined under a common king — first Saul, briefly one of his sons, then David, then Solomon. When Solomon’s son Rehoboam ascended to the throne, Israel and Judah split again into separate kingdoms.

The Biblical accounts of this “United Monarchy” are riddled with problems. But most of these are typical of ancient accounts of earlier times — anachronisms, inaccurate dates, and exaggerations born of national pride and/or of assuming that the past was more like the writers’ own time than it actually was. But one issue especially draws the United Monarchy into doubt.

The territory of Judah in the eleventh and tenth centuries BCE was a tiny region in an arid and mountainous area with a sparse population. The Israelite territory to the north spanned fertile farming and grazing lands flanking the Jordan river, and so boasted a much larger and more prosperous polity. But David and Solomon were both Judahites. Why would Israelites allow themselves to be ruled by Judahite kings?

Some historians believe they didn’t, that the United Monarchy is a fictional history composed during and after the Exile to aggrandize the Judahite legacy and justify the aspirations of the rebuilt kingdom of Judah. After all, if David had ruled over Israel as well as Judah, efforts to expand Jerusalem’s power northward could be justified as a return to the Judahites’ own territories rather than encroachments into other peoples’ lands.

We have archaeological evidence for the Davidic dynasty, but only from the period after the supposed United Monarchy. Is there good reason to believe that the Judahites David and Solomon really reigned over a Hebrew kingdom that included Israelite tribes? Or was that part made up?

Three pieces of broken stone from an ancient monument placed back together, showing an inscription across the surface
Reproduction of fragments from the Tel Dan Stele, including an inscription referencing victories by an Aramaic king (likely Hazael) over the king of Israel and the House of David (Kingdom of Judah) in the 9th century BCE (Wikimedia Commons)

Clues that the United Monarchy did exist

Before returning to our unfortunate concubine, let’s first take a look at another clue about the United Monarchy. Then we can see where the tale of the Levite fits in.

The Hebrew Bible is rife with “doublets” (and triplets), a scholarly term for stories that appear more than once. For instance, there are two very different (and irreconcilable) stories of how David comes to fight in Saul’s army, and three distinct versions of Saul’s rise as the first Hebrew monarch with the help of Samuel.

The reason for these doublets is quite simple — more than one faction of priests and their scribes were writing about these events, and recording their own versions of the Hebrew oral tradition. The Ancient Hebrews had varying accounts of the anointing of Saul for much the same reason that the contemporary United States has varying accounts of the Trump inauguration, or the Reagan administration. At the time they were written, these conflicting accounts were separate, produced by different theocratic factions for their own audiences. Centuries later, they were compiled into a single text.

Contained within the books of Genesis and Exodus are two complete parallel stories (among others) beginning with Abraham and Sarah and ending with the death of Moses, one told from an Israelite point of view and another from a Judahite view, each with its own geographic locations, neighboring cultures, local heroes, and theocratic politics. (See the postscript to this article for an example of an extended doublet story within this narrative.)

We know from archaeological evidence that the Hebrew enslavement in Egypt and the ensuing exodus is a fiction. And in fact, if the Hebrews had fled from north Africa to the eastern Mediterranean at the time of the supposed exodus, they would have been “escaping” from Egypt into Egypt, because the Levant was part of the Egyptian Empire up through the Late Bronze Age Collapse in the 13 century BCE. So why is it that both kingdoms, Israel and Judah, had parallel accounts of the exodus?

The obvious answer is that the core story was written prior to the establishment of the two kingdoms, in an earlier version now lost to history but preserved in the dual accounts which were later incorporated into the Hebrew Bible. If so, then the purpose of the exodus tale was not, at least initially, to justify the territorial ambitions of Second Temple era kings, but rather to justify the United Monarchy by crafting a pan-Hebrew past in which the Israelite and Judahite tribal groups were all one family from the get-go, and in which the authority of the Levitical priesthood and the Mosaic law are sanctioned by God.

The tale of the Levite’s concubine meshes well with this view of the Hebrew literary tradition. According to this hypothesis, the tribe of Benjamin became a seat of political power in the Israelite confederation after the collapse of Reuben (which may have been the tribe of the historical Moses, given the legendary Moses’ repeated association with the southern Transjordan). At some point in the late 11th century BCE, the historical Saul — it is important to differentiate between actual historical persons and the legendary literary figures crafted after their deaths — formed a military alliance with the neighboring Judahites and Ephraimites to depose the current ruling faction within Benjamin and establish a multi-tribal monarchy with a capital in Gibeah. The tale of the concubine was composed at a later time as an alternate history justifying the purely political war by casting Benjamin as a latter-day Sodom, with the tale of the Gibeahite survivors explaining why Benjamin was not in fact destroyed despite supposedly committing such a grievous sin.

But what about David and Solomon?

If the tale of the Levite’s concubine glosses over a war that led to a monarchy spanning Israelite and Judahite territories, and if the original exodus story (now lost, but forming a basis of later versions which were eventually incorporated into the larger book of Exodus) was crafted to justify this monarchy, we are still left with the question: Why did the Benjaminites and Ephraimites tolerate the rule of the Judahite kings David and Solomon?

Part of the answer is hinted at in the story of the concubine, in which Judah leads the attack. The Judahites may have lived in rugged lands, but they also had rugged warriors. The advantages of an alliance comprising Ephraim’s agricultural wealth, Benjamin’s political savvy, and Judah’s military prowess didn’t vanish at Saul’s death.

Successions of power among Ancient Hebrews tended to be bloody affairs, and assassinations were common. The reign of Saul’s son Ish-bosheth is largely forgotten, and was likely as short as reported in the Biblical tradition, the throne being quickly seized by the warrior David.

But David seems to have made smart political moves to retain his power. Rather than relocating the capital from Benjamin to Judah, he takes a city in the region between them, Jerusalem, and places it there. He then allows high priests from Benjamin and Judah to share power, and brings the holy relics of both tribes to the new capital. And he takes wives from all the tribes in the alliance.

As always, it’s difficult to be certain about any of this, to sift out the facts from among the legends crafted by later political factions to present a history aligned with their theology and in which they avoid blame and appear righteous. But David’s son Solomon seems to have been more keen than his father to centralize power. While Biblical stories of his building projects and worker conscription are clearly overblown (with obvious echoes of the tales of Pharaoh’s abuse of Hebrew slaves in Egypt), it’s likely that he did establish a temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem through which an official religion could be, and undeniably came to be, controlled by the throne.

King Solomon receives the Queen of Sheba in an elaborate palace featuring golden lions, turbaned courtiers, doric and ionic columns, and strolling peacocks
King Solomon’s abode would have been a relatively modest stone building, nothing even remotely resembling the gilded palace shown in Edward Poynter’s 1890 rendition of “The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon” (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s no surprise, then, that when a third Judahite assumed power after Solomon, the Israelite factions within the alliance no longer saw any advantage in it and withdrew, spawning the era of the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah, for which we do have archaeological evidence.

Clearly, the United Monarchy as presented in the Hebrew Bible, with its palaces and expansive territories and international intrigue, is an anachronistic work of Exilic and post-Exilic fiction. But is it a fiction based on a kernel of truth?

I believe it likely is, and that the tale of the Levite’s concubine points us toward that truth — a united monarchy of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Judah born out of a Hebrew civil war, established by the historical Saul and Samuel, continued by the historical David, and ruptured after the death of the historical Solomon who lost the confidence of the Israelite faction. Such a scenario would not only explain the rehash of the Sodom tale as the concubine’s tale, but also the source of parallels between Judahite and Israelite source materials compiled into Exodus, even if the surviving Israelite texts were written by priestly factions which relocated to Judah after the fall of Israel at the end of the 8th century BCE.

Even so, it’s possible that the truth about the United Monarchy, fact or fiction, may never be definitively determined. On the other hand, we know more about David today than we did 30 years ago, and it’s anybody’s guess what archeological discoveries are yet to be made.

Postscript: Two stories of Joseph

As an example of the composite nature of the early Biblical texts, revealed in doublets, the following paraphrased storylines are excerpted from Genesis 37–45, which compiles Israelite and Judahite source texts, along with other sources. While some doublet texts are juxtaposed in the Bible, one after the other, these are interspliced.

The Israelite version is in bold, and the Judahite version in Italics (based upon a parsing by Richard Elliott Friedman):

J-1: Joseph irritates his brothers and his father Jacob by telling them dreams in which his brothers’ grain sheaves bow to his, and the sun and moon and stars bow down to him. One day, seeing him approach, the brothers decide to murder him, throw his body in a pit, and say he was killed by wild animals.

I-1: Joseph’s brothers hate him* because their father Jacob loves him best. One day Jacob sends Joseph to see how his brothers and their sheep are faring in Shechem (in Israel). Seeing him approach, they conspire to kill him. [*The last part of the first sentence, regarding the coat, belongs to the Judahite source material.]

J-2: Judah (the Judahite patriarch) convinces his brothers not to kill Joseph, but instead to sell him to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites, who take him to Egypt and sell him to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s chief of guards. The brothers dip Joseph’s coat in goat’s blood and take it to their father, saying Joseph was killed.

I-2: Reuben (the eldest Israelite patriarch) convinces his brothers not to kill Joseph, but to throw him into a pit instead, planning to return and save his brother later. But passing Midianite merchants find him* before Reuben returns. They take him to Egypt and sell him to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s chief of guards. [*Only the first part of the linked text is from the Israelite source, ending at “the pit”.]

J-3: Joseph is such a good servant that Potiphar puts him in charge of his house. But Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph, who runs from her, leaving his garment in her hands. She then takes his garment outside and denounces him, saying he tried to rape her. Potiphar sends Joseph to prison, but he is such a good prisoner that the warden makes him a trustee in charge of all the prisoners. And God makes Joseph successful in everything he does in Egypt.

I-3: Potiphar assigns Joseph to attend to two of Pharaoh’s officers who are being held on charges. They each have dreams which Joseph interprets. He predicts that in three days one will be restored to his office and the other will be executed, and so it comes to pass. Two years later, Pharaoh is troubled by dreams, and his pardoned officer recommends that he call Joseph to interpret them. Joseph predicts seven years of bumper crops followed by seven years of famine, and advises that Pharaoh store up food to survive. Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of the effort.

J-4: When there is famine in Canaan, Jacob sends all his sons except Benjamin, the youngest, to Egypt to buy grain. By then, Joseph has been put in charge of selling Pharaoh’s grain stores. He recognizes his brothers but they don’t recognize him, so he accuses them of being spies and demands their story. They say they are the sons of one father, all come to buy food except for the youngest. Joseph sells them the grain but says they can buy no more unless they return with the remaining brother to prove their story.

I-4: During the famine, Jacob’s sons go down to Egypt to buy food, except for Benjamin, the youngest. When Joseph sees them, he pretends not to know them and speaks through an interpreter. [There is a gap in the story here.] Reuben tell his brothers that their situation is divine retribution for what they did to Joseph. Joseph has Simeon (a Judahite patriarch) shackled and held, then sells them the grain, but secretly hides their money in the grain bags.

J-5: When the brothers stop for lodging on the way back, they open the bags to feed their donkeys and find their money in the bags. When they arrive home, Jacob refuses to let them return with Benjamin, for fear of losing more sons. But when the grain runs out, Judah convinces his father to trust him with Benjamin. Jacob sends them with double payment and gifts.

I-5: When the brothers arrive home and empty their sacks they find the coins hidden inside. Reuben vouches for Benjamin’s safety, so Jacob lets them return to Egypt.

J-6: When Joseph sees his brothers*he tells his servant to prepare a meal for them at his house. When the brothers are told to go to Joseph’s house they think they’ve been framed for taking back their payment and they tell Joseph’s servant how they found the money in their bags when they stopped for lodging. The servant said he received their payment, so their god must have put the silver in their bags. The brothers give Joseph the gifts from Jacob, whom Joseph learns is still alive, and after the meal they ride off with the grain they purchased. But Joseph has hidden a goblet in Benjamin’s bag. He sends a servant to search them and bring them back. Judah then offers himself in exchange for Benjamin, at which point Joseph reveals his identity. [*The final sentence of this passage does not belong to the Judahite sources.]

I-6: When the brothers arrive, Joseph releases Simeon* and reveals his own identity, asking if his father still lives. [*Only the last sentence in this passage belongs to the Israelite sources.]

Header image: The Levite of Ephraim, 1837, by Alexandre-François Caminade (public domain)

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Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.