Battle of Gibeah

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Battle at Gibeah
Part of Book of Judges
Maciejowski leaf Levite.gif
"A Levite and his wife are given lodging in the city of Gibeah."
Date Sometimes between 1200-1000 b.c., at the time of Israelite judges
Location Gibeah, Canaan
Result Israelite victory
Near-total extermination of the Tribe of Benjamin
Tribes of Israel Tribe of Benjamin
400,000 26,000
Casualties and losses
~40,060 ~25,100

The Battle of Gibeah is an episode in the Book of Judges. The battle was triggered by an incident in which a concubine belonging to a man from the Tribe of Levi was raped by members of the Tribe of Benjamin and later died. The Levite had offered his concubine to the mob in his place. In the morning he found the concubine unresponsive on the doorstep. He later cut her body into twelve pieces, and sent the pieces throughout all the territories of the Israelite tribes.

The outraged tribes of Israel sought justice, and asked for the miscreants to be delivered for judgement. The Benjamites refused, so the tribes then sought vengeance, and in the subsequent war, the members of Tribe of Benjamin were systematically killed, including women and children; when Benjamin was nearly 'extinguished', it was decided that the tribe should be allowed to survive, and all the men from another town, Jabesh Gilead, that had refused to take part in the punishment of the Tribe of Benjamin, were killed, so that their daughters could be wed to the surviving men of Benjamin.[1] The first king of Israel, Saul, descended from these surviving men. Due to this war, the Tribe of Benjamin was subsequently referred to as "the smallest of all the tribes."[2]

Biblical account

The Outrage of Gibeah

A Levite from the mountains of Ephraim had a concubine who left him and returned to the house of her father in Bethlehem. Heidi M. Szpek observes that this story serves to support the institution of monarchy, and the choice of the locations of Ephraim (the ancestral home of Samuel, who anointed the first king) and Bethlehem, (the home of David), are not accidental.[3]

Rabbinical interpretation say the woman was both fearful and angry with her husband and left because he was selfish, putting his comfort before his wife and their relationship.[4] He travelled to retrieve her, and for five days her father managed to persuade him to delay their departure. On the fifth day, the Levite declined to postpone their journey any longer and they set out late in the day.

As they approach Jebus (Jerusalem), the servant suggested they stop for the night, but the Levite refused to stay in a Jebusite city, and they continued on to Gibeah. J. P. Fokkelman argues that Judges 19:11-14 is a chiasm, which hinges on the Levite referring to Jebus as "a town of aliens who are not of Israel." In doing this, the narrator is hinting at the "selfishness and rancid group egotism" of the Levite. Yet, it is not the "aliens" of Jebus who commit a heinous crime, but Benjaminites in Gibeah.[5]

The Levite attempts to find lodging in Gibeah - by Charles Joseph Staniland, circa 1900

They arrive in Gibeah just at nightfall. The Levite and his party wait in the public square, but no one offers to extend the customary hospitality. Eventually, an old man came in from working in the field and inquired as to their situation. He, too was from the mountains of Ephraim, but had lived among the Benjaminites for some time. He invited them to spend the night at his house rather than the open square. He brought him into his house, and gave fodder to the donkeys; they washed their feet, and ate and drank.[6]

The Israelite discovers his concubine, dead on his doorstep - by Gustave Doré, Circa 1880

Suddenly certain men of the city surrounded the house and beat on the door. They spoke to the master of the house, the old man, saying, "Bring out the man who came to your house, that we may know him." “To know” is probably a euphemism for sexual intercourse here, as in other biblical texts and as the NRSV translates it.[7]

The Ephraimite host offers instead his own maiden daughter and the Levite's concubine. This scene is reminiscent of the earlier tale in Genesis of Lot and his daughters. Ken Stone observes, "Apparently the sexual violation of women was considered less shameful than that of men, at least in the eyes of other men. Such an attitude reflects both the social subordination of women and the fact that homosexual rape was viewed as a particularly severe attack on male honor.[7]

Outrage at Gibeah, the Levite carries his dead concubine away - by Gustave Doré, circa 1890

When the men would not be dissuaded, the Levite thrust the concubine out the door. They abused her all night, not letting her go until dawn, when she collapsed outside the door, where the Levite found her the next morning. Finding her unresponsive, he placed her on a donkey and continued his journey home. The account does not state when or where the woman died.[7] Upon his return, he carved up her body into twelve pieces which he sent to all the Israelite tribes, demanding revenge.[8]

The Battle of Gibeah

Outraged, the tribes mobilized to demand justice and gathered at Mizpah. They sent men through all the tribe of Benjamin, demanding that they deliver up the men who committed the crime, but the Benjaminites refused. Instead, they gathered to defend Gibeah. According to Judges 20:16, among them were seven hundred who were marksmen proficient in the use of a sling. When the Tribe of Benjamin refused to surrender the guilty parties, the rest of the tribes marched on Gibeah.[8]

Tribe of Benjamin (light pink - center) invaded by the rest of Israel

On the first day of battle the Israelite tribes suffered heavy losses. On the second day Benjamin went out against them from Gibeah and cut down thousands of Israelite swordsmen.[8]

Then the Israelites went up to the house of God. They sat there before the Lord and fasted that day until evening; and they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord. (The ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, and Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, stood before it.) And the Lord said, "Go up, for tomorrow I will deliver them into your hand.[9]

On the third day the Israelites set men in ambush all around Gibeah. They formed into formation as before and the Benjaminites went out to meet them. The Benjaminites killed about thirty in the highways and in the field, and anticipated another victory. The Israelites appeared to retreat and the Benjaminites were drawn away from the city to the highways, one of which goes up to Bethel and the other to Gibeah. Those besieging the city sent up a great cloud of smoke as a signal, and the Israelite main force wheeled around to attack. When the Benjaminites saw their city in flames, and that the retreat had been a ruse, they panicked and retreated toward the desert, pursued by the Israelites. About 600 survived the onslaught and made for the more defensible rock of Rimmon where they remained for four months. The Israelites withdrew through the territory off Benjamin, destroying every city they came to, killing the inhabitants and livestock.[10]

Tribe of Benjamin's reconciliation

According to the Hebrew Bible, the men of Israel had sworn an oath at Mizpah, saying, "None of us shall give his daughter to Benjamin as a wife."[11]

Then the people came to the house of God, and remained there before God till evening. They lifted up their voices and wept bitterly, and said, "O Lord God of Israel, why has this come to pass in Israel, that today there should be one tribe missing in Israel?"[11]

So it was, on the next morning, that the people rose early and built an altar there, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. The children of Israel said, "Who is there among all the tribes of Israel who did not come up with the assembly to the Lord?" For they had made a great oath concerning anyone who had not come up to the Lord at Mizpah, saying, "He shall surely be put to death." And the children of Israel grieved for Benjamin their brother, and said, "One tribe is cut off from Israel today. What shall we do for wives for those who remain, seeing we have sworn by the Lord that we will not give them our daughters as wives?" And they said, "What one is there from the tribes of Israel who did not come up to Mizpah to the Lord?" And, in fact, no one had come to the camp from Jabesh Gilead to the assembly. For when the people were counted, indeed, not one of the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead was there. So the congregation sent out there twelve thousand of their most valiant men, and commanded them, saying, "Go and strike the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead with the edge of the sword, including the women and children. And this is the thing that you shall do: You shall utterly destroy every male, and every woman who has known a man intimately." So they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead four hundred young virgins who had not known a man intimately; and they brought them to the camp at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan. Then the whole congregation sent word to the children of Benjamin who were at the rock of Rimmon, and announced peace to them. So Benjamin came back at that time, and they gave them the women whom they had saved alive of the women of Jabesh Gilead; and yet they had not found enough for them. And the people grieved for Benjamin, because the Lord had made a void in the tribes of Israel.[11]

Illustration from the Morgan Bible of the Benjaminites taking women of Shiloh as wives.

Then the elders of the congregation said, "What shall we do for wives for those who remain, since the women of Benjamin have been destroyed?" And they said, "There must be an inheritance for the survivors of Benjamin, that a tribe may not be destroyed from Israel. However, we cannot give them wives from our daughters, for the children of Israel have sworn an oath, saying, 'Cursed be the one who gives a wife to Benjamin.'" Then they said, "In fact, there is a yearly feast of the Lord in Shiloh, which is north of Bethel, on the east side of the highway that goes up from Bethel to Shechem, and south of Lebonah." Therefore they instructed the children of Benjamin, saying, "Go, lie in wait in the vineyards, and watch; and just when the daughters of Shiloh come out to perform their dances, then come out from the vineyards, and every man catch a wife for himself from the daughters of Shiloh; then go to the land of Benjamin. Then it shall be, when their fathers or their brothers come to us to complain, that we will say to them, 'Be kind to them for our sakes, because we did not take a wife for any of them in the war; for it is not as though you have given the women to them at this time, making yourselves guilty of your oath.'" And the children of Benjamin did so (on Tu B'Av); they took enough wives for their number from those who danced, whom they caught. Then they went and returned to their inheritance, and they rebuilt the cities and dwelt in them. So the children of Israel departed from there at that time, every man to his tribe and family; they went out from there, every man to his inheritance.[11]

According to the Book of Judges 20, 15-18, the strength of the armies numbered 26,000 men on the Benjamin side (of whom only 700 from Gibeah), and 400,000 men on the other side.[12]

Rabbinical interpretation

R. Ebiathar and R. Yonatan explained that this incident shows that a person should never abuse his household, for in this narrative it resulted in the death of tens of thousands of Israelites in the ensuing warfare. What happens within the small family unit is reflective of society as a whole, and marital peace is the basis for every properly functioning society.[4]

Scholarly view

Traditionally the story of the Levite’s Concubine and the preceding story of Micah's Shrine have been seen as supplemental material appended to the book of Judges in order to describe the chaos and depravity to which Israel had sunk by the end of the period of the Judges, and thereby justify the establishment of the monarchy. The lack of this institution ("At that time, there was no king in Israel") is repeated a number of times, such as Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; and 21:25.[3]

Yairah Amit in The Book of Judges: The Art of Editing, concluded that chapters 19-21 were written by a post-exilic author whose intent was to make the political statement that Israel works together.[3]

According to scholars, the biblical text describing the battle and the events surrounding it is considerably late in date, originating close to the time of the Deuteronomist's compilation of Judges from its source material, and clearly has several exaggerations of both numbers and of modes of warfare.[13] Additionally, the inhospitality which triggered the battle is reminiscent of the Torah's account of Sodom and Gomorrah.[13] Many Biblical scholars concluded that the account was a piece of political spin, which had been intended to disguise atrocities carried out by the tribe of Judah against Benjamin, probably in the time of King David as an act of revenge or spite by David against the associates of King Saul, by casting them further back in time, and adding a more justifiable motive.[13] More recently, scholars have suggested that it is more likely for the narrative to be based on a kernel of truth, particularly since it accounts for the stark contrast in the biblical narrative between the character of the tribe before the incident and its character afterwards.[13]

The Christian scholar Dr Barry Webb has written that the account illustrates God as 'the judge and preserver of his wayward people.'[14]

Trible's contributions

In her chapter titled "An Unnamed Woman: The Extravagance of Violence," Trible argues that the concubine featured in Judges 19 was subject to violence as a result of negligence on the part of the men in the story: her master, her father, and the old man who hosted them in Gibeah. She cites the phraseology of the text, parallels to other biblical stories, symbolism, and comparisons between different interpretations of the text to provide evidence for this overarching claim.

According to Trible, the choice of words in this story hold a great deal of significance. This is especially seen in the differentiation between singular and plural verbs: "And his father-in-law, the father of the young woman, made him stay; and he remained with him three days; so they ate and drank and spent the night. On the fourth day they got up early in the morning, and he arose to go." Judges 19:4-5 Trible suggests that the change from they to he excludes the woman from the action. She also highlights the phraseology in the verses that describe their arrival in Gibeah: "And he went in and sat in the open square of the city; no man took them into his house to spend the night." Judges 19:15 This verse uses the plural "them," which is in direct contrast to when the old man extends an invitation: "So he brought him into his house, and gave the asses provender; and they washed their feet, and ate and drank." Judges 19:21 Trible argues that this contrast is "prophetic," a foretaste of the exclusion from safety that the woman would face when danger struck later that night.[15] Symbolism, according to Trible, also permeates the narrative. Trible argues that the doorway the concubine crosses, to be handed over to the group of vicious males, is a dichotomy between two settings. Inside the threshold, represents stability and shelter, this is where the men remained, and an environment of wickedness, is found outside the threshold. The men in the narrative save themselves by handing the concubine over in order to remain sheltered indoors. The abstract argument being, men give the dispensable life of a woman in order to preserve theirs.[16]

Additionally, Trible brings attention to the fact that this particular biblical narrative, as all others are as well, is subjected to various interpretations. Specifically, she identifies a critical differentiation in the story found in the Hebrew Bible in comparison to the same story found within the Greek Bible. In the narrative of the unnamed woman, it is said that she was subject to rape and torture. However, after these violent acts, it is then said that her master then ordered her to "Arise," but received no response. In the Greek Bible, it is stated that there is no response for she has not survived the violence thrust upon her. On the contrary, in the Hebrew Bible, it simply states that it was silent, thus implying that the woman has not died but still lives.

In addition, Trible draws parallels between the narrative of the Levite concubine and that of Lot and his daughters. In the Hebrew Bible, he offers his daughters to violent men outside his house in exchange for the safety of the men under his roof. Trible addresses these similarities to show that the commonality of these narratives is the sacrifice of women for the well-being of men. She emphasizes this point by stating, "Conflict among them could be solved by the sacrifice of females."


  1. Judges 19-21
  2. Shmuel Aleph
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Szpek, Heidi M., "The Levite’s Concubine: The Story That Never Was", Women in Judaism, Vol.5, No.1, 2007
  4. 4.0 4.1 Kadari, Tamar. "Concubine of a Levite: Midrash and Aggadah", Jewish Women's Archive
  5. J. P. Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative (Leiderdorp: Deo, 1999), 110-111.
  6. Judges 19
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Stone, Ken. "Concubine of a Levite: Bible", Jewish Women's Archive
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Arnold SJ, Patrick M., Gibeah: The Search for a Biblical City, A&C Black, 1990, ISBN 9780567415554
  9. Judges 20:28.
  10. Judges 20:48.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Judges 21
  12. The Military history of Ancient Israel - Richard A. Gabriel
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 Jewish Encyclopedia
  14. Dr Barry Webb Inter-Varsity Press New Bible Commentary
  15. ‘An Unnamed Woman: The Extravagance of Violence’ (1992) in Trible, P. Texts of Terror: Literary Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. London: S.C.M. Press.
  16. An Unnamed Woman: The Extravagance of Violence’ (1992) in Trible, P. Texts of Terror: Literary Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. London: S.C.M. Press.

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