Old Testament

Why the Levite Cut Up His Concubine in Judges 19

Photo of the Levite and his concubine
The Israelite discovers his concubine, dead on his doorstep – Gustave Doré, Circa 1880

Having recently taught Judges 19 (the story about the Levite and his concubine) to a group of women who were keen to study their Bibles, I was asked afterward why the Levite would cut up his concubine. Further, what was the reason the Levite sent the pieces of the concubine to the other tribes? These are good questions, and after having done a little more research on the issue I wanted to provide some of my thoughts.  

First, it is evident that the story of the Levite and his concubine in Judges 19 is one of the most gruesome and tragic chapters in all of Scripture! The details of the story are intentionally crafted to chronicle the Canaanization of Israel for the reader. After reading the chapter, one cannot help but be struck by the wickedness of the people of Israel. They are not just wicked, but they have reached the utter depravity which characterized the Canaanites and led to their expulsion from the land (cf. Lev 18:26-30). Unless Israel receives divine help, the book of Judges is telling us they are in major trouble!

What about the Levite’s actions of cutting up his concubine?

First of all, the Levite cutting up his concubine is meant to be seen as a gruesome and heinous act! Nowhere in biblical law or narrative do you have anything resembling this grotesque act. In fact, this disregard for proper burial of the concubine would have been egregious to those in the ancient Near East, and should have especially been so for Israelites who were to bury even criminals (cf. Deut 21:23). The fact that this man was a Levite (a spiritual leader) is all the more shocking! The way in which he treated his concubine is quite instructive to the reader about how wicked and calloused Israel has become.

Second, although the cutting up of the concubine is nowhere explained, the closest biblical parallel is found in 1 Samuel 11. In 1 Samuel 11, Saul is overcome by the Spirit of God when he heard about the suffering of Jabesh-gilead (1 Sam 11:5-6). As a result, he cuts up two oxen and sends their pieces throughout Israel. However, we are not told that there was one piece sent to each tribe (as is implied with regard to the concubine in Judges 19). Rather, it seems that Saul simply sent out multiple pieces throughout the territory of Israel.

A further difference in the narratives is that in 1 Samuel 11 Saul includes a threatening message with the pieces of oxen—“Whoever does not come out after Saul and Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen!” (v. 7). This message may be implied in Judges 19, but it is not explicitly stated.

Based on the comparison of Judges 19 and 1 Samuel 11, perhaps we can say that the action of dismembering and sending out 12 pieces of the concubine was meant to induce shock and anger. It certainly seems that in both Judges 19 and 1 Samuel 11 the people respond with shock and unity. At the very least, the uniqueness of the act grabs the people’s attention in a way nothing else could.

Perhaps we get more understanding into why the Levite cut up his concubine from an extrabiblical parallel. We seem to have such a parallel to Judges 19 found in the texts from the excavations at Mari (Tell Ḥarı̄rı̄). The text is a letter from Baḫhdi-Lim to a king, Zimri-Lim (ca. 1800–1775 BC).

To my lord, speak. Baḫhdi-Lim your servant [speaks] as follows: For five full days I have waited for the Hanaeans but the people do not gather. The Hanaeans have arrived from the steppe and established themselves among the settlements. Once, twice, I have sent [word] to the settlements and the appeal has been made. But they have not gathered together, and for the third day they have not gathered. Now, if I had my way, a prisoner in jail should be killed, his body dismembered, and transported to the area between the villages as far as Hudnim and Appan in order that the people would fear and gather quickly, and I could make an attempt in accordance with the command which my lord has given, to carry out the campaign quickly.

(Cited in Block, Judges, Ruth, 546).

We can readily note the similarity here with the account of the concubine in Judges 19. Importantly, this extrabiblical text gives the purpose for this action—the expectation that “the people would fear and gather quickly.”

What this seems to communicate is that the practice of dismemberment was at least known in the ANE. In 1 Samuel 11 oxen (legitimate sacrificial animals) were cut up and sent out as legitimate sacrificial animals. However, in contrast, by dismembering his concubine (a human being made in the image of God) the Levite appears to be appropriating a practice from the pagan nations—in a similar vein to human sacrifice!

Thus from start to finish the story of the Levite and his concubine is a discouraging tale of the paganization of Israel. It is fascinating that throughout the story the concubine remains silent, never saying a word. Yet, it is the concubine who tells the story so clearly—Israel is in trouble and is in desperate need for God’s sovereign and gracious intervention.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.


  • Samuel

    Thank you for the well written artical answering this question! Would you say that 1 Samuel 15 (when Samuel cuts King Agag into pieces) symbolizes that God had permanently deleivered his people from the Amalakites for their actions after Israel’s deleiverence from Egypt?

    • Peter Goeman

      Good question, Samuel. I do think 1 Samuel 15 was meant to be a fulfillment of the Amalakite treachary when Israel left Egypt. Of course what it did instead was showed Saul’s ineptitude and lack of obedience to Yahweh, thus disqualifying him as king.

    • Krystyn

      It seems to me what is not mentioned is that theLevite cut up the woman but blamed it on the Benjamites. Wouldn’t that likely explain why the Benjamites wouldn’t give up the 5 men who had raped? Also, the woman most probably was a Canaanite woman; wouldn’t that explain her being referred to as a ‘concubine’? Wouldn’t that further explain why the father would not confront the man but could only delay her departure? He was afraid of the Levites as the Levites were the elders of the town who divided out justice as they saw fit so of course they sided with His story instead of the Benjamites! The Levites man was most corrupt of all as he was infuriated with the Benjamites calling him out on his homosexuality; and therefore got them back almost obliterating their tribe.

  • Deborah

    not only was the concubine offered to the perverse men but, the daughter of the host was also offered. this is similar to the situation when the angels were with Lot. to me this says a lot about the status of women.

  • Todd

    The story is typology, connected to Jacob’s prophecy about his son. Benjamin is a wolf which tears its prey in the morning and in the evening divides the spoils. Saul is a Benjamite. So is another Saul, also called Paul. In the morning he stands giving aproval for the murder of those who carry the testimony of Christ and in the evening divides the spoils by carrying it himself after meeting Christ.
    It is basically a story of the redemption of Israel, who first crucified Jesus and in the end are saved. In the end, the the wolf shall dwell with the Lamb, and the wolf and the Lamb shall feed together (Is 11 and 65).
    If you look at a map, Benjamin is situated in the shoulder of Judah, and of course, the governement will be on the shoulder of Christ, the Lion of Judah, and the key of the house of David is laid on His shoulder, and Jesus carries His people like a lamb on His shoulders etc. Benoni, the son of Rachel’s sorrow becomes Benjamin, the Son of his Father’s right hand. Jesus of course is the right hand of the Father, making Benjamin the son. At the cross, Jesus tells Mary, Behold your son, and to John, behold your mother. Mary is a new Rachel “ewe” who gave birth to the Lamb, and John is a new Benjamin who “bears witness of all that he saw.”

  • Bholanath Majhi

    What do you think about ethnic identity of the concubine-an Israeli woman or Canaanite? The manner she is treated by the Levite in the text is questionable about her identity as an Israeli woman.

  • Carolyn Emonson

    I think what is not discussed is the bits that are left out. The concubine is never treated well. She is powerless. Perhaps she left her husband because he was abusing her. Her father was reluctant for them to leave. As a woman I would read this as a father trying to protect his daughter. The Levite needs to be condemned, both as a man and spiritual leader. Blaming Israel’s relationship with God for the levites treatment of the woman leaves out the personal responsibility he has. He is a human being as is his wife. His responsibility is to treat her with humanity.

    • Dessa

      I never thought of this until you pointed it out. I didn’t get it why the father of the concubine was stalling. It must have been devastating hearing what happened with his daughter.

  • Lame-R

    There are elements from Judges 17/18 that seem to indicate the Levite in ch19 is one and the same–even apart from the contextual relation. This would further bolster the apparent depravity of the Israelites. It is interesting that God still had not written off His wayward people; though the cost to them of their wickedness was becoming more and more severe.

    The episode is certainly a very sobering lesson, as well as an insight into God’s remarkable patience.

    Thank you for your thoughtful and scholarly editorial.

  • Wanda Storey

    Did the man really love his concubine?
    Why did he give her to the men in the city?
    Why did the man address her with disrespect when he found her at the door?

  • Brittania

    I think he cut his concubine in 12 pices to let other tribes know that they better do something about the tribe of Benjamin. The Benjamin tripe was living in great sin, the sin of Soddom nd Komorah. Its the reason why all other tribes were fighting against Benjamin, it almost wipe out the tripe of Benjamin, virgin female mostly saved, so they can married to other tribes in order to keep the Benjamin’s.

  • Paula Wray

    That really shows the depravity of man without God and without a King. But because he was a Levite, he had to have had some knowledge about God and His laws. My other concern is in Chapter 20…why did Israel fight against their brother Benjamin? What did Benjamin have to do with the Concubine being dismembered and sent to the different tribes? Was there any correlation in that?

    • Peter Goeman

      Hi Paula,

      I think one of the major themes of the story is that things are so messed up, you actually have Benjamin defending the actions of those within their territory instead of standing up for righteousness. Israel has devolved at this point to some tribal behavior which is not befitting of the people of God. So, I think the connection is actually just to show the fact that Benjamin is refusing to “listen to reason” and showing their depravity as well.

      • Autumn

        That Still doesn’t take away from the fact that the so called priest was as depraved and cold as the sadist men he so willingly offered her to.

  • Rose

    It would be interesting to see how the Levite would have been judged for his crime under Torah law.
    The act that he did by dismembering her body rather than grieve and repent certainly shows how far from Yahweh that the Israelites had fallen. Or maybe this was his way or repentance? To invoke justice by getting the attention of the surrounding tribes against the Benjaminites.
    Thank you for providing such a good in depth article.

    • Peter Goeman

      Yes it is fascinating to think about. Although, it definitely seems that the Levite shows spiritual INsensitivity throughout the narrative. In other words, there are many things he would be judged for in unrepentance, not just the lack of care for his wife/concubine. This seems like just one of his sinful actions. I would take the view that his method of trying to incorrect injustice is not justifiable, but its an example (like you said) of how far Israel and their leaders (the Levites) have fallen.

    • Peter Goeman

      “perhaps we can say that the action of dismembering and sending out 12 pieces of the concubine was meant to induce shock and anger. It certainly seems that in both Judges 19 and 1 Samuel 11 the people respond with shock and unity.”

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