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“A Universe of Ontological Terror”: A Comparative Analysis of Genesis 34 and the Rape and Murder of Sarah Everard.

Isobel Wood has recently graduated from the University of Leeds after studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Her research critically reflects on feminist approaches to global social justice and gender inequality issues. In particular, her most recent research centres on the intersection of religion and gender, namely the similarities between contemporary and biblical rape culture, which this blog focuses on. Her other research interests include popular culture, Marxism and identity politics. Following graduation, she will be moving to London where she begins her career as an Associate Consultant at one of the world’s leading technology companies.

Deena Metzger (cited in Blyth 2010, p.91) introduces a horrifying reality for women in her definition of rape.[1] She argues that women live in a “universe of ontological terror”, whereby the very essence of womanhood is threatened by sexual violence and misconduct. This post explores Metzger’s claim by addressing similarities between biblical and contemporary British rape culture through a comparative analysis of the 2021 rape and murder of Sarah Everard, contemporary rape rhetoric, and the biblical story of Genesis 34.

Sexual violence towards women continues to be a prominent issue in the United Kingdom, with recent surveys estimating 1.6 million adults aged 16 to 74 years have experienced sexual assault by rape or penetration (including attempts) since the age of 16 years. This, however, is no contemporary phenomenon. There is a common consensus amongst feminist biblical scholars that the Bible has been highly influential in the creation of Western rape culture due to its authority in both faith-based communities and pop-culture as well as the recurring themes of patriarchy and gender-based violence present within its narratives (see, e.g., Scholz, 1999; Stiebert, 2021; Thiede, 2022). Such a connection warrants an exploration into the similarities between biblical and contemporary rape cultures.

Genesis 34

This blog post focuses upon the narrative of Genesis 34 which recounts the rape of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, by a Canaanite prince called Shechem. The story begins by introducing Dinah’s journey to see the “daughters of the land” (Genesis 34:1). Here, she is intercepted by Shechem, son of Hamor the Canaanite, who ‘takes her by force’ (Genesis 34:2). Following the rape, Shechem’s father Hamor meets with Jacob to negotiate marriage terms between Shechem and Dinah. Hamor also suggests that further intermarriage and assimilation take place between the Hivite and Jacobite communities. Though Jacob remains silent on the matter, Dinah’s brothers (Simeon and Levi) are enraged and, in a plot to avenge their sister, demand that all the Hivite men must first be circumcised before any intermarriage can occur. The brothers then invade the town whilst the Hivite men are recovering from surgery, proceeding to slaughter the recovering Canaanites, taking their wives, and pillaging their wealth (Klopper, 2010, p. 656).

Genesis 34 and Sarah Everard

In early March 2021, Sarah Everard, aged 33, was walking home from a friend’s house in Clapham when she was intercepted by Wayne Couzens, a Metropolitan Police officer. Couzens falsely arrested Ms Everard on the pretence that she was breaking COVID-19 legislation. He drove her to a secluded rural area in Kent where he raped and murdered her.

The case of Sarah Everard echoes the plight of Dinah in Genesis 34, and whilst the most obvious comparison is the sexually violent nature of the crimes,[2] the similar responses to both cases offer an insight into the perpetuation of rape mythology and culture.

Victim Blaming and the Policing of Women

The first point of comparison centres around rape myths, including victim-blaming and the subsequent policing of women in both biblical Israel and contemporary Britain.

Much of the victim-blaming response to Dinah’s story is elicited by the first verse, which details Dinah’s journey to see the Canaanite daughters: “Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the region” (Genesis 34:1). For instance, Aalders (1981 cited in Parry, 2002, p.7) confidently surmises that Dinah has “natural desire to be seen by the young men of the city” and is disturbed that she would “flippantly expose herself” to these men. His response exemplifies a victim-blaming stance, making assumptions about Dinah’s character and placing her at fault for the crimes perpetrated against her. This maintains another rape myth: that ‘normal men’ do not commit rape but are driven “to such an extreme form of sexual behaviour” by female promiscuity (Blyth, 2010, p.3).

This same stance of victim-blaming has been repeated in the policy and rhetoric of senior UK government officials in response to the Sarah Everard case. North Yorkshire Commissioner Philip Allott exhibited these attitudes in his statement, arguing “she [Sarah] never should have submitted to the arrest” and “women need to be streetwise”. The government action which follows Sarah Everard’s rape and murder also reinforces the opinion that the surveillance of women and girls is necessary for their own safety. The “immediate steps aimed at improving safety for women” included “an additional £25m for better lighting and CCTV” and a “pilot scheme which would see plain-clothes officers in pubs and clubs”. Surveillance is an important facet of victim-blaming, insofar that it monitors women ensuring that they are in keeping with the “ideal rape victim” construct (Larcombe, 2002). Here, women are chaste, sensible and cautious, modifying their behaviours to demonstrate caution in interactions with the opposite sex (Larcombe, 2002, p.133). Furthermore, the introduction of plain-clothed officers perpetuates the “damsel in distress trope,” academically termed “benevolent sexism” (Glick and Fiske, 2001). Though a more covert form of prejudice, benevolent sexism is “disarming” through its “promises that men’s power will be used to women’s advantage” (Glick and Fiske, 2001, p.111). This form of sexism is innately patronising, by positioning men as saviours it condescends the role of women, implying men’s dominance and depicting women as a liability (Dardenne et al, 2007, p.765).

Similarly, victim-blaming rhetoric is littered throughout contemporary media, specifically newspaper articles. A recent Daily Mail article included details about Sarah’s education, the value of her parent’s house, and the clothing she was wearing before the attack. By including these details, the Daily Mail attempted to position Everard as an “ideal rape victim’” (Larcombe, 2002) deserving of sympathy and retribution. For instance, she was presented in the article as a sensible, responsible woman with a university degree who came from a respected middle-class family; consequently, she would have understood the risk of rape and chose to wear modest dress. Circulating this information reinforces the opinion that certain characteristics of women make them more or less susceptible to or culpable for violence. 

Just as Lange (1899, pp.563-564) describes Dinah’s story as a “warning to the daughters of Israel”, Meyers (1997, p. 24) argues that problematic news coverage “serves as a warning and a form of social control over women and a guide to appropriate female behaviour.” By sharing intimate and unnecessary details of a woman’s character, and responding to such acts with further forms of policing and surveillance on women’s freedoms, society is merely perpetuating the rape myth that women are culpable for the crimes committed against them. The mere act of going out becomes an invitation for sexual violence. In fact, the disclosure of intimate details about rape victims continues to be a legitimate judicial defence strategy, contributing to the extremely low conviction rates seen today in the United Kingdom[3] (Larcombe, 2002, p.136). Therefore, contemporary media outlets must understand their complicity in perpetuating rape culture and accept responsibility for ceasing the propagation of rape mythology (Meyers, 1997, pp.xi).

Race and Rape Culture

Sexual violence against women intersects with race to the detriment of already marginalised groups. The media hysteria surrounding the Everard case may be wrongfully credited to the appearance and social standing of Sarah, who, as a privileged white woman received more publicity and attention than other victims of similar crimes (Stiebert, 2021, p.48). For instance, Sabina Nessa’s murder, which occurred six months after the murder of Sarah Everard, received minimal coverage and, according to internet analytical tools like Google Trends and Crowdtangle, markedly less public engagement.

Similarly, the fate of the Canaanite women who are abducted (and presumably raped) by Dinah’s brothers during the raid of the Hivite city (Gen. 34:29) receive very little attention in both the text and its interpretative traditions. The injustice they face is rooted in the identity politics of Ancient Israel, where boundaries are set between different groups through geography, ethnicity, and allegiance. Outsiders are demonised in an attempt to justify violence against them and to form stronger group boundaries (Bechtel, 1994, p.22). Consequently, genealogy is understood to be essential in maintaining purity within the precincts of different groups, and so the concept of a woman being raped by an “outsider” is considered especially abhorrent (Bechtel, 1994, p.22).

Both Simeon and Levi share a disdain for the inter-ethnic sexual relationship between Shechem and Dinah and the proposal of long-term interdependence between Canaanites and Jacobites, which “threatened to put the colonized and the colonizer in a relationship of equality (although not gender equality)” (Dube, 2017, p.54). Subsequently, the Canaanite women (Gen. 34:29) are simply depicted as plunder, and as restitution for the sins Shechem conducted against the Jacobite family (Dube, 2017, p.54). These women are silenced by the text, just as Sabina Nessa’s story is omitted from much contemporary media coverage.

Rape Rhetoric

In Genesis 34:2, where we read about Shechem’s act of rape, Dinah is repeatedly referred to using pronominal suffixes, which “depersonalise and objectify her” (Blyth, 2010, p.87), limiting her to a sedentary object of Shechem’s desire and subsequent abuse.  Dinah is referred to by name eight times throughout the narrative, and in most cases, she is identified in relation to her family (particularly her father and brothers): she is “the daughter of Leah”, “our sister” and “Jacob’s Daughter” (Genesis 34) (Scholz, 1997, p.151-2). This kinship language reinforces the discourse that a woman’s plight is only valued at the cost to her male counterparts; her status as a rape victim only deserves sympathy in relation to others.

However, recent British media campaigns have criticised the usage of such language within rape culture rhetoric. This is illustrated by an image created by popular Instagram page and blog @Ladbible, which was shared as part of a campaign during Sexual Abuse & Sexual Violence Awareness Week. The image features the statement “She is Someone’s” followed by ‘Daughter,Sister, Mother, Wife, Girlfriend, Friend’ which are all crossed out.

The use of slogan, “She is Someone’s” (Ladbible, 2021) is particularly poignant, insofar that it acknowledges the use of kinship language within contemporary “lad” culture to wrongfully evoke sympathy towards the victim, much like the language used to describe Dinah within Genesis 34. The campaign implores readers to consider victims (in this case women) as simply people in their own right, as opposed to those deserving of empathy by virtue of their relationships with others. Ultimately, a victim’s background, sexual history and race should not influence the condemnation of the crime.

Concluding Remarks

This blog post offers a damning indictment of the pervasiveness of patriarchy and sexual violence, concluding that despite millennia, the responses of both biblical and contemporary societies to sexual violence are almost identical in their semantics, their mistreatment of minority groups, and their recitation of rape mythology. The female rape survivor’s experience is focalised by an exclusively androcentric ideological framework, where male voices take precedence (Blyth, 2009, p.485), confining the survivor to the limitations of the “ideal rape victim” (Larcombe, 2002). Here, a woman’s race, background and the most intimate details of her personal life are derised and critiqued, until she is rendered culpable to her own defilement, despite exercising the most basic of freedoms.

Nowadays, rape mythology is no longer limited to the pages of ancient texts but a reality of the very essence of womanhood.

Works Cited

Bechtel, L.M. 1994. What is Dinah is Not Raped? (Genesis 34). Journal for the Study of the Old Testament62 (1), pp. 19–36.

Bible: New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

Blyth, C. 2009. Terrible Silence, Eternal Silence: A Feminist Re-Reading of Dinah’s Voicelessness in Genesis 34. Biblical Interpretation 17 (1), pp.483–506.

Blyth, C. 2010. The Narrative of Rape in Genesis 34: Interpreting Dinah’s Silence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cates, L and Penner, T. 2007. Textually Violating Dinah. The Bible and Critical Theory 3 (3), pp. 37.1–37.18.

Dardenne, B., Dumont, M. and Bollier, T. 2007. Insidious Dangers of Benevolent Sexism: Consequences for Women’s Performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 93 (5), pp. 764–779.

Dube, M. 2017. Dinah (Genesis 34) At the Contact Zone “Shall Our Sister Become a Whore?” In: Claassens, L.J and Sharp, C.J. (eds), Feminist Frameworks and The Bible: Power, Ambiguity, and Intersectionality. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, pp. 39–58. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Musa-Dube/publication/323839710_SHALL_OUR_SISTER_BECOME_A_WHORE_Introduction_Colonial_Contexts_Race_and_Sexual_Violence/links/5aaed3bc0f7e9b4897c03807/SHALL-OUR-SISTER-BECOME-A-WHORE-Introduction-Colonial-Contexts-Race-and-Sexual-Violence.pdf

Glick, P and Fiske, S. 2001. An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality. American Psychologist 5 (2), pp. 109–118. 

Klopper, F. 2010. Rape and the Case of Dinah: Ethical Responsibilities for Reading Genesis 34. Old Testament Essays 22 (1), pp.652–665.

Ladbible.  2021. SHE IS SOMEONE. [Instagram]. January 31st. Available from: https://www.instagram.com/p/CZZXNfvMuFN/

Lange, J. 1899. Genesis, or, The First Book of Moses. Together with a General Theological and Homiletical Introduction to the Old Testament. 5th Edition. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. Available from: http://www.orcuttchristian.org/John%20Peter%20Lange,%20Critical,%20Doctrinal%20and%20Homiletical%20Commentary_Genesis.pdf

Larcombe, W. 2002. The “Ideal” Victim v Seccessful Rape Complainants: Not What You Might Expect. Feminist Legal Studies 10 (1), pp. 131–148.

Meyers, M. 1997. News Coverage of Violence Against Women: Engendering Blame. London: SAGE. 

Parry, R. 2002. Feminist Hermeneutics and Evangelical Concerns: The Rape of Dinah as a Case Study. Tyndale Bulletin 53 (1), pp. 1–28.

Scholz, S. 1997. Rape Plots: A Feminist Cultural Study of Genesis 34. New York: UMI. Available from: https://search.proquest.com/openview/650d9a9842518cf704771516cce932ed/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y

Scholz, S., 1999. Was it Really Rape in Genesis 34? In: Washington, H., Graham S.L. and Thimmes, P. (eds), Escaping Eden: New Feminist Perspectives on the Bible. New York: New York University Press. pp 182–198.

Stiebert J., 2021. Rape Myths, the Bible, and #MeToo. Abingdon: Routledge.

Thiede, B., 2022. Rape Culture in the House of David: A Company of Men. Abingdon: Routledge.

The featured image at the start of the blog post is by Tim Dennell, “Reclaim These Streets: Vigil for Sarah Everard in Sheffield.” On Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/2kKAaZR.


[1] Metzger (cited in Blyth, 2010, p.91) describes rape as when “a woman is brutally stripped of her humanity and confronted with her definition as a nonperson, a function…Rape asserts only combat, brutalizing the communal aspect of sexuality, destroying meaning, relationship, and person, creating a universe of ontological terror”. I have used part of this quote in the title of the blog post.

[2] It is important to note that whilst both crimes involve the abduction and rape of women, their fates are very different. Dinah returns to her household following her brothers’ attack upon the Canaanite men, whereas Sarah is murdered following her rape.

[3] 1.3% of 67,125 rape offences recorded by police in 2021 led to a prosecution.

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Q&A with Joachim Kügler about his new book

There is a new volume in the Routledge Focus series ‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’! The title is Zeus Syndrome: A Very Short History of Religion-Based Masculine Domination, and the author is Joachim Kügler, who has featured earlier on the blog as one of our 2019 activists (see here).

Tell us about yourself. How does this book fit into your work more widely and how did you come to write this book?

I am a professor of New Testament studies with particular interest in religious history and topics of gender. Alongside this, I am also an ordained priest of the Catholic Church, and I am upset and outraged about the many scandals of clerical sexual abuse. This book has grown out of a decision to use my academic skills to find some answers to how such abuse happens – not only in the Church but in multiple social spheres. My first step was to go to the Egyptian and biblical source materials that I knew and to investigate the intersections of masculine domination, sexuality, and religion. I try to inform readers beyond the inner circle of academia to better understand what is going on and why. 

What is the key argument of your book?

The key argument is that we have to overcome masculine supremacy if we want to create a new kind of sexuality that serves as a language of love. As long as sexual activities and symbolisms primarily reflect and promote dominant masculine power and the submissiveness and subordination of women and of men who are symbolically feminized, we will continue to see rape culture phenomena at the core of our social interactions.

Please give us a quotation from the book that will make readers want to go and read the rest.

My quotation is on the perils associated with sexuality: “Penetration in particular is often deployed as a body-sacrament of masculine domination, and as a means to subjugate women (and men). But the generalized demonization of sexuality cultivated by Christianity under Platonist influence is no solution; it is even part of the problem.”

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New Book: ‘Boys Will Be Boys, and Other Myths: Unravelling Biblical Masculinities’ by Will Moore

Book cover of 'Boys will be Boys and other myths' by Will Moore

The Shiloh Project caught up with Will Moore, to discuss his new book Boys Will Be Boys, and Other Myths: Unravelling Biblical Masculinities, with SCM Press.

Hi Will, tell us a bit about you. 

Hello! My name is Will Moore. I’m an ordinand (training to be a priest!) in the Church of England at Westcott House in Cambridge, and will be beginning a PhD in September with the Cambridge Theological Federation and Anglia Ruskin University, focussing on constructing a trauma theology of masculinities under the supervision of the fantastic Dr Karen O’Donnell. I’ve also studied for previous degrees with Cardiff University. And, of course, I should say that I’m the author of Boys Will Be Boys, and Other Myths: Unravelling Biblical Masculinities, published by SCM Press.

How did this book come about and how does it relate to your work and interests and passions more widely? 

During the final months of my MTh degree, I completed my dissertation which focussed on using queer theory and theology to resolve a seeming tension of divine masculinities, particularly looking at God and Jesus, in the Bible. (A much-reduced version was later published with the Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies.) During this time, the coronavirus pandemic began and I was stuck inside my university home for more than I had planned. Having been captivated by masculinity studies, and with my final dissertation completed earlier than expected, I let my brain keep on thinking and I continued to write. I knew the insights of masculinity studies needed to break into the popular and accessible Christian imagination, as feminist theology had done in recent decades, and I thought this might be the perfect opportunity for where such a process could begin. 

My previous work has been mostly focussed on gender, sexuality, and violence, and how they intersect with the Bible and Christianity. Some of this has taken a particularly academic shape, but as someone working in and with the Church, I have always valued theological work being accessible and meaningful for Christian communities. This book, then, combines my commitment for academic rigour as well as theological accessibility with my research interests.

Can you tell us more about the title, and about “unravelling biblical masculinities”?

The title ‘Boys Will Be Boys, and Other Myths’ sets the structure and main argument of the book. Each chapter uses a biblical man (from Adam and Moses to Jesus and his disciples) as a springboard for conversation around masculinities, in the biblical worlds as well as for modern readers. It tackles myths of masculinity such as men’s presumed entitlement to power and authority, the necessity to endure without any sign of vulnerability, their inability to express emotion or talk about mental health difficulties, and a reluctance to show intimacy towards other men. Such myths of masculinity seem to persist through so many times and cultures.

What is clear throughout this book is that masculinity, or more accurately masculinities in their plurality, are not and cannot be clear cut. They are slippery, messy, and tangled up in so many other wider conversations. As such, the subtitle ‘unravelling biblical masculinities’ acknowledges that there are no definitive answers to understanding masculinities in the Bible and modern world for Christians. This book is simply an attempt to begin to ‘unravel’ and untangle some of the key characters, themes, issues, and interpretations that are on offer – this unravelling is certainly not exhaustive. Instead, I hope my contribution is the beginning of a wider conversation on men and masculinities at a grass-roots level for Christians and church communities. 

What are the key arguments of your book? 

As well as tackling myths of masculinity outlined above, the central claim I make is that masculinities are just that: a plurality of gender performativities (as Judith Butler would have it). Within that plurality, there is so much breadth and diversity. We can see that in the societies around us, as well as even in the biblical texts. There is no singular way to be a man that is coherently proposed in the Bible; rather, we find that God takes, uses, and adores men just as they are. Therefore, the claim that we should enact a ‘biblical’ or ‘Christian’ masculinity or manhood is a tricky and dangerous one to make, for masculinities in the Bible and Christian living are too complex and intricate to be pinned down to one particular way of being. If we acknowledge this, we are invited to read scripture again and see the flawed, troubled, and trying men in our Bibles staring back at us and reflecting much of what it means to be men today too.

Image of Will Moore
Will Moore, author of ‘Boys Will Be Boys and Other Myths’

Who is the book for and what would you like your readers to take away from reading your book? 

My book aims to be as useful to undergraduate and postgraduate university students looking into the application of gender studies in theology and biblical studies as it should be for Christians, church leaders, and intrigued spiritual wanderers. It’s a broad readership to try to cater for, but I hope my book contains as much scholarly insight as it does personal stories, popular culture, and humour!

I have always said that not everything in this book will please everyone, but I hope that each reader has something that they can take away. In honesty, I expect that this book might shake up at least one myth or misconception about masculinity or the Bible that the reader might hold – it might not give them the solution that they are looking for but will perhaps provoke them enough to search further.

What activities do you have to promote the book? 

I’m excited to say I have lots of speaking and media appearances coming up to talk about the book which you can find on my website or Twitter, but I’m most looking forward to the two wings of my book launch. One will be held in St John the Baptist church in Cardiff on Fri 9th Sept at 7pm and another in Cambridge (and on Zoom) on the 5th Oct at 7pm. I will be in conversation with a different set of scholars and practitioners at each event and I can’t wait to meet others intrigued in the book. Copies will also be available to buy on the nights. Free tickets for both events can be reserved on Eventbrite (see links here and here). 

Give us a short excerpt from the book that will make us want to go read more! 

This is from my introduction:

 “Phrases like ‘boys will be boys’ have reverberated around the walls of school halls, family homes, locker rooms, and courts of law for far too many years in British society, with their justification wearing a little thin. In a country where seven times more men are arrested for crimes than women, unhealthy traits found in modern masculinities have caused men to inflict violence on those close to them as well as their surrounding communities. Yet, simultaneously, an inward bound violence to manhood and men themselves is being perpetrated, where three times as many men are committing suicide than women. Toxic masculinity in modern Western society is a poison which, whilst infecting those who encounter it, is crippling the very hosts that keep it in circulation. Men truly have become their ‘own worst enemies’.”

What’s next for you?

I’m excited to begin my PhD in September, as well as continue my ordination training for two more years before beginning ordained ministry. I hope to keep following my two-fold calling of ministry and theological education – who knows in what form! This book coming about was such a surprise to me, that I can honestly never guess what’s in store next.

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Bye Bye Binary: God as Mother-Bear

Sara Stone is a first-year PhD student at the University of Glasgow looking at blame-shifting in the Hebrew Bible. Her MLitt dissertation, also looking at blame-shifting in the Hebrew Bible, has recently been published as a book chapter in: Zanne Domoney-Lyttle and Sarah Nicholson (eds.), Women and Gender in the Bible: Texts, Intersections and Intertexts (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2021, see here). 

Sara can be found on Twitter: @wordsfromastone. Her earlier Shiloh post (on shifting blame in Genesis 3:12) can be found here.

Images of God as a maternal deity are sprinkled throughout Jewish and Christian writings, such as God as birth-giver (Isa. 42:14), God as a comforting mother (Isa. 66:13) and God as nursing (Hos. 11:4).[1] However, Hosea 13:8a depicts God as mother-bear – ‘I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs and will tear open the covering of their heart…’.[2] Hosea 13:8a portraying God as a ferocious mother-bear is a verse that contrasts with the usual depictions of a calm and compassionate mother. 

The purpose of this post is to explore what the description of divine ‘mother-bear’ entails, its significance, and to consider some of the ramifications of overlooking Hosea 13:8a. Ultimately, I argue that Hosea 13:8a is a verse that takes the traditional images of ‘feminine’ (i.e., soft, nurturing and gentle) and adds them to (‘masculine’?) images of violence, strength and power – an all-loving, fierce and ferocious mother-bear. 

‘God as Mother-Bear’ is a striking image that breaks down the typical ‘mother’ stereotype which culture-bound preconceptions dictate, and the imagery used further blurs the gender binary that society has established, particularly regarding parental roles.

Hosea 13:8a is not the only place where the description of a mother-bear appears in the biblical text; it occurs three other times: at 2 Samuel 17:8, 2 Kings 2:24 and Proverbs 17:12. Notably, in all instances where the depiction of a mother-bear appears, it is a portrait of rampaging fury – including in Hosea 13:8a. 

Initially, when the idea to examine Hosea 13:8a first came about, I intended to explore how commentators had previously interpreted the verse. However, I was surprised to discover that little has been mentioned about the arguable significance of ‘God as Mother-Bear’. There were a couple of comments regarding the idea that Hosea 13:8a is a portrayal of God’s rage (see Stuart, 1987: 204; Davies, 1992: 291), but nothing substantial; and in a lot of other commentaries, the image has been overlooked altogether.[3] The silence surrounding God’s illustration as mother-bear raises the question of why interpreters find the imagery so insignificant, and what are the benefits of highlighting the significance of the imagery now?

So, what does the depiction of a mother-bear entail? In pre-modern times, the Syrian bear was fairly common (see King, 1988). We can also assume that the ancient Israelites were aware that the bear was a dangerous animal, due to references to it in the biblical text.[4] Notably, one may see that Amos 5:19a – ‘as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear’ – is equivalent to the idiomatic expression ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’. When bear imagery is utilised in the biblical text it points to violence and power and is usually in conjunction with a lion. Hosea 13:8a is no exception to this as Hosea 13:8b depicts God as a lion – ‘…there I will devour them like a lion, as a wild animal would mangle them’. Allegedly, the lion is less of a threat than the bear, because the behaviour of a lion is more predictable (see King, 1988: 127). 

Indeed, Hosea 13:8a depicts the mother-bear (God) as profoundly attached to her bear cubs (the people). But because God is bereaved of human gratitude, he turns in rage on those who have ‘robbed [her] of her cubs’ and withheld thankfulness. Virginia R. Mollenkott (2014: 50) states that the image in Hosea 13:8a projects internal ripping and tearing, and captures the bitter sensations associated with fragmentation and alienation from the ‘Source of our being’. In other words, when one allows oneself to become ungrateful for the gift of life and liberty (as Hosea 13 describes), one proverbially feels torn to pieces. 

Mollenkott (2014: 51) also notes that the bear is associated with the constellation Ursa Major – a constellation that never sets. Therefore, the imagery used in Hosea 13:8a could also be associated with the constant watchfulness of God-the-Mother-Bear. So, ‘God as Mother-Bear’ can depict his/her/their omnipotence and be understood to connote God’s omniscience, alongside being proverbial for his/her/their rage. 

While there is not a wealth of scholarship about what it means to be described as a mother-bear in the Bible, I argue that the significance of the imagery used in Hosea 13:8a is compelling. The Bible is hugely patriarchal and has been used time and time again to reinforce gender role stereotypes, historically and currently. The image of God as Mother-Bear is an image which breaks down the stereotypes that are usually associated with how a woman, particularly a mother, should behave. 

Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1992: 164) notes that the concept of parental roles tends to assign attributes and behaviours according to ‘gender lines’ and gender binaries. For example, culture-bound preconceptions encourage a person to think of ‘the father’ as authoritarian and punitive and ‘the mother’ as compassionate and/or nurturing. So, it is unsurprising to see that interpreters have the tendency to label the passages in which God expresses compassion and nurture as ‘mother passages’, and passages where God expresses judgement or pronounces punishments as ‘father passages’ (Frymer-Kensky, 1992: 164). 

But it is not the biblical text that assigns these rigid categories: it is the gendered thinking of the reader, or the set of assumptions determining parental roles that does so. However, Hosea 13:8a does not fit neatly into the stereotypical boxes of what is considered a ‘mother’ passage or a ‘father’ passage; it does not fit neatly into traditional gendered thinking. 

Maybe this is one factor contributing to the oversight of Hosea 13:8a. Does the verse sit uncomfortably for interpreters, so it is easier to bypass the verse than to engage with it? It is worth remembering when questioning the oversight of Hosea 13:8a that the biblical text has been subject to centuries worth of patriarchal interpretation.

Where feminized metaphor is concerned, the depiction of an infuriated female God has never achieved the same popularity as the gentler, more sentimental imagery of God as a ‘loving and self-sacrificial’ Mother (Mollenkott, 2014: 51-52). Centuries worth of patriarchal interpretation of the biblical text continuously associate female God images with the stereotypical feminine image of nurture and supportiveness – imagery which better fits the culture-bound preconceptions of gender norms. 

However, Frymer-Kensky (1992: 164) notes that God-as-parent transcends gendered thinking, because the same parent is ‘both judgmental and compassionate, punitive and emotional’. In other words, God is beyond the culture-bound preconceptions that we have created for ourselves. Yet, we are insistent in making passages regarding God-as-parent ‘black and white’ so that they can fit into a neat little binary box. God-as-parent transcends the gendered thinking behind parental roles, and Hosea 13:8a blurs the gender binary which culture-bound preconceptions have assigned. 

Indeed, our culture-bound preconceptions have assigned the father as punitive and the mother as nurturing. In Hosea 13:8a, however, both these parental qualities are exhibited together. The ‘mother-like’ nurturing quality is expressed through the image of a female-bear protecting her young, and the ‘father-like’ punitive quality is expressed through the gruesome image of God the Bear ‘tear[ing] open the covering of their heart’. 

Caroline W. Bynum (1982: 225-226) states that, ‘fathers feed and console, as do mothers: mothers teach, as do fathers; the full range of such images applies both to God and to self’. This reiterates the idea that God is capable of being both mother and father, he/she/they can possess multiple parental qualities. 

Ultimately, Hosea 13: 8a portrays an image illustrating the fury of God. However, by looking at the verse in more depth, we can see that the verse can show us more than simply describing the rage of God. It is a verse that can break down stereotypes, blur gender binaries, and illustrate that God can be both mother and father simultaneously. Hosea 13:8a takes the traditional images of ‘feminine’ (i.e., soft, nurturing, and gentle) and adds them to imagery of violence, strength, and power – portraying God as an all-loving, fierce, and ferocious mother-bear.

References

Bynum, Caroline W. (1982). Jesus as Mother. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Davies, G. I. (1982). The New Century Bible Commentary: Hosea. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdsmans Publishing Company/London: Marshall Pickering.

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. (1992). In the Wake of Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth. New York: Fawcett Columbine.

King, Philip J. (1988). Amos, Hosea, Micah – An Archaeological Commentary. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. 

Mollenkott, Virginia R. (2014) [1984]. The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

Stuart, Douglas. (1987). World Biblical Commentary: Volume 31, Hosea – Jonah. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.


[1] The title of this post took inspiration from an episode of Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness (2022) on Netflix, titled ‘Can we say Bye-Bye to the Binary?’.

[2] Biblical quotations follow the NRSV.

[3] This post is based on an essay I wrote as part of my MLitt degree. Due to various factors, I have been unable to go back and recall which commentaries overlooked the image of God as mother-bear at Hosea 13:8a. On reflection, noting which of the commentaries overlook the bear would have been helpful as part of my research and for this post.

[4] For example, 1 Sam. 17:34, 36-37; 2 Sam. 17:8; Amos 5:19; Is. 11:7; Prov. 28:15; Lam. 3:10; Rev. 13:2.

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Abortion and the Bible

NB (added 27 June 2022): The article following predates the Supreme Court overturning on 24 June 2022 of the landmark abortion decision of Roe v. Wade. Since that day, there has been another flurry of articles, posts and tweets. Responding to some of these, please note first, that the self-designation of anti-abortionists as being ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-lifers’ is critiqued in Note 2. There are further comments about language use in Notes 1, 6 and 10. Second, I agree that Numbers 5 is a frightening text, or ‘text of terror’, for women – hence, I write of it being reprehensible and to be rejected. Third, the reason I confine myself to examples from the Hebrew Bible is that this is my area of expertise, not because I deem the New Testament or Christian texts unproblematic. Indeed, a number of these texts advocate control over or subordination of women, which can contribute to both spiritual abuse and restriction of women’s rights, including the right to health care and reproductive control. For evidence of violence, including gendered violence, in Christian texts, as explored by subject experts, please see this forthcoming book (among other texts cited in the ‘Resources’ tab of the Shiloh Project blog): Christy Cobb and Eric Vanden Eykel (eds.). 2022. Sex, Violence, and Early Christian Texts. Lexington Books.

____________________________ ______________________________

The imminent risk of abortion rights becoming even more severely restricted across the USA feels very frightening, and it also feels personal. In today’s post I look at why. I realise this piece is a bit of a long read. The first bit is mostly some context. The latter section is about how selectively the Bible is drawn into anti-abortion polemic.

From 2003 to 2009 I lived and worked in East Tennessee. My work there, as elsewhere over the past 20+ years, was teaching and researching the Hebrew Bible within a higher education setting. 

Both my children were born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and my 6+ years there were a memorable chunk of my life. Looking back, I made many great friendships. I also regularly encountered people – friendly, kind people – who (bizarrely, to my mind) believed gun owning is a human right, state health provision is ‘nanny state’ stuff, and abortion is genocide. 

Every year a portion of the University of Tennessee campus, right outside the tower block containing the Department of Religious Studies’ offices, would be taken over by ‘The Genocide Awareness Project’ (GAP) and their horrible large images of foetuses, alongside other horrifying images of emaciated corpses at the sites of Nazi atrocities. There is so much that is wrong, offensive, disingenuous, and manipulative about such an association and comparison between ‘abortion’ and ‘genocide’, which I won’t go into here now. Suffice to say, every year GAP would repel and enrage me.[1]

Christmas trees would have upset or enraged me far less, if at all. Christmas trees were, however, unlike GAP displays, discouraged on campus, because they were seen as privileging or promoting one religion – namely, the undeniably, unequivocally dominant one of Tennessee – over other religions. This religion, of course, is Christianity. Tennessee is, after all, the ‘buckle of the Bible belt’. US laws of free speech and freedom of religion, like the alleged or actual separations of ‘religion’ and ‘state’, are complex, and sometimes baffling – certainly to me.

Most anti-abortion, or ‘pro-life’,[2] voices in Tennessee are overtly Christian ones. That is hardly surprising, given that the majority of Tennesseans full stop are Christian. Tennessee is in the top three ‘most religious’ states of the USA. According to the Pew Research Center, 81% of Tennesseeans identify as Christian, and 73% as highly religious. While Protestants (73%) are the majority, both Protestant and Catholic Christians of Tennessee tend to oppose abortion.[3]

However, surveys conducted among adult Tennesseeans show that while a majority (55%) oppose abortion in all or most cases, a significant number (40%) are in favour of permitting abortion in all or most cases.[4] None the less, Pew Center research on views on abortion in Tennessee shows clearly that belief in God, level of church attendance, and participation in prayer, scripture reading, and scripture study, have impact on abortion views (i.e. on whether one is ‘for’ or ‘against’ abortion).

During my years in Knoxville, I spent one summer (2005) teaching as a volunteer at the Kerala United Theological Seminary (KUTS) in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, in southern India. It was an incredible experience on many levels. But one thing relevant to this piece that particularly struck me was how rarely strong feeling about abortion was mentioned and, instead, how frequently expressions about the wrongfulness of divorce cropped up in conversation. The situation in Tennessee was the exact opposite. In Tennessee, particularly among Christians, divorce was certainly deemed regrettable and unbiblical, but it was neither uncommon, nor particularly stigmatised.[5] Instead, it was accepted as a private matter and unfortunate thing to happen. In Tennessee, much more insistent and virulent opposition was reserved for both abortion and same-sex marriage. Both were protested publicly.[6] Health centres providing abortions were regularly picketed and attacked in a way that divorce lawyers were not. (Google searches for a divorce or an abortion in East Tennessee make abundantly clear that obtaining a divorce is quick, easy, and can be as cheap as US$139. An abortion, on the other hand, is much less straightforward, has a rapidly reducing number of providers, and at present costs closer to US$1000.) 

But in Kerala, it was divorce that was the big problem.[7] Divorce was a source of stigma and intense disapproval. Biblical passages were readily cited to support this: Malachi 2:16, about God hating divorce, and the line about what God has joined none should sever (Mark 10:9; Matthew 19:6).[8] Abortion, however, was, in Kerala, tolerated as a regrettable but sometimes necessary intervention – which was in line with how abortion tends to be regarded in other places I have lived (Germany, the UK, New Zealand). Margaret Atwood puts it well in her recent piece in The Guardian, ‘Nobody likes abortion, even when safe and legal. It’s not what any woman would choose for a happy time on Saturday night. But nobody likes women bleeding to death on the bathroom floor from illegal abortions either.’[9] In other words, in conversations I had in Kerala abortion was spoken of as something to advocate for and legalise not because it is desirable but because (like divorce when discussed in Tennessee) sometimes it is the best and safest course of action.[10]

Given the wider context of Kerala, this made sense. In India, Christianity is a minority religion. The majority religion and dominant culture of India – to which we give the (inadequate) name ‘Hinduism’– does not outright ban divorce but none the less considers it alien (see here). Given population density, managing family size is, however, encouraged in India and most couples I encountered through the seminary had no more than two children. Birth control and even abortion, were viewed with acceptance and spoken about freely. Compared to the ‘hot potato’-matter abortion was in Tennessee, the prevailing attitude to abortion among Christians in Kerala struck me. It showed me very clearly that context and positionality, where and who we are, has enormous bearing on how we view the world and the Bible. The Bible may in one sense be a fixed text, but it is read and interpreted and emphasised in radically different ways and with wide-ranging effect and consequence.

Abortion and divorce: both are life events we may or may not be confronted with. Neither refers to something that is easy or – in most cases – rashly decided upon. For both, I would argue, safe strategies need to be in place, because both can be the best course of action in a difficult situation. I am sure that more restriction placed on safe, legal abortion will have devastating consequences in the USA, as it has elsewhere.[11] Given that restrictions on divorce are not (yet?) under threat in the USA, let me turn to abortion and the Bible. After all, the Bible is very often cited in public statements about the banning or restricting of abortion rights.[12]

Distressing cases are regularly brought up in abortion discussions. I mean here, situations of pregnancies resulting from rape, sometimes gang rape or child rape, or incestuous rape; or pregnancies, such as ectopic pregnancies, that endanger the health or life of pregnant women; or cases where the unborn has no chance of viability, or where diagnosable diseases, such as Tay-Sachs, promise a life of pain. 

Over the past days and weeks, since the leak of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s draft case for reversing Roe v. Wade, there have been many emotionally affecting posts about just such cases. Lizzi Green tweeted that she is a Christian priest who has had two abortions: one following a rape and another following a pregnancy that was killing her. Ruth Everhart, author of the spiritual memoir about rape Ruined, posted her essay Skin in the Game, about rejection by a church that failed to acknowledge the violence of rape and the violence of condemning abortion even in cases of rape. Several Facebook friends circulated a text attributed to Evelyn Raso, which begins, ‘I am not pro-murdering babies. I’m pro Beccy… Susan… Theresa…’. Raso lists the abbreviated ordeals of persons, pregnant with unviable foetuses, pregnant as the result of rape, whose wellbeing, fulfilment, lives, are at risk in ways that can only be ameliorated or made bearable by access to safe abortion. 

Understandably, such harrowing life situations feature prominently at this critical time of defending women’s rights and access to health care, because they make the case for access to abortion particularly persuasively and urgently. 

Those cases – heart-rending, searing, and important to hold before us – are very far from my own experience. I read books like Christina Lamb’s Our Bodies Their Battlefield (reviewed here), because they are incredibly important – but the experiences it describes are, like those of Lizzi Green, Ruth Everhart and the people in Evelyn Raso’s post, far from my own.

Through the random fortune of birth and circumstance – I have been spared the brutalities of war, rape, forced marriage, forced pregnancy, and denial of abortion. Instead, my experiences of violation, grief, heartache, and illness have been certainly formative and keenly felt, just more prosaic.

And, from and through my experience, I am firmly pro-choice. And that choice extends to persons choosing abortion in less harrowing scenarios and situations, too.

Why? Because life is messy. Because people have sex without wanting, or expecting, a pregnancy and a baby. Because you can get pregnant to people you fall in, then out of, love with, or in relationships that grow apart and awry; because we fall for people who are not good to or for us, people who coerce, force, manipulate or deceive us – or we, them. Because it is possible to get pregnant by accident or deliberately – and this can be disastrous in either case. Because for fertile women who have sex with fertile men, the prospect of pregnancy can be a source of tension, fear, difficulty. And none of this means that abortion is a trifling choice made lightly but a necessity and safe alternative in life which can be or can get complicated.

Abortion is part of the package of reproductive health care that includes also smear tests, and contraception. Such health care saved my life when I was diagnosed and operated for cervical cancer. For all women who have sex with men before we are able or fit to have a full-term pregnancy, let alone a baby to look after, the knowledge that abortion is a safe available option not affecting fertility down the line is a relief.

Giving birth – even if you love the baby the moment you set eyes on it – is not the end of the matter either, of course, because a baby is demanding and absorbing on every level. It cannot and it should not be taken on unwillingly.

Choice has to mean choosing what is the best course of action for the pregnant person concerned – on their terms. Otherwise, it is not a choice. The wonderful pie graph on the internet, headed ‘reasons for abortion’ with each colour segment of various size being labelled ‘it’s none of your business’ is bang on.

There may be people who ‘get their life together’ when or because they are pregnant but – like with diets – for everyone that works for, there are many for whom it doesn’t, for whom a pregnancy and baby does not ‘fix the problem’: be that a rocky relationship, an incentive to break an addiction, or to get a better job, or be a better person. Instead, going through a pregnancy and having a baby can often put relationships under strain, create dependencies, and reduce options. The consequences can be devastating, and the stakes are very high, no less than the life and wellbeing of a completely dependent human. Access to safe,[13] legal abortion can and has make enormous positive difference, for individuals and more widely.[14]

I am even more confirmed in my pro-choice stance since having been pregnant and become a parent. Because I know now how a pregnancy reorganises one’s imagination and takes over one’s thoughts, emotions, plans, and body. And, being pro-choice means I find it crucial to support those who want to carry their pregnancy to term and those who do not. For me, this is not a case of disdaining the potential life of the unborn but of respecting and dignifying the life and agency of the living. 

And now to the Bible, which on this, as on so many topics, is often brought into public discussion… 

First off, the Bible has nothing to say about elective abortion. Because elective abortion did not exist as an option in any of the diverse societies reflected in biblical texts. While there is occasional mention of midwives and wise women, and while they may have known about herbal remedies, maybe about ways of preventing pregnancy or inducing miscarriage, there is not much to go on. Like IVF, organ transplants, or blood transfusions, safe elective abortions are modern (and by now routine) medical procedures. 

One possible reference to a potion that brings on miscarriage, or spontaneous abortion, might be present in the peculiar Sotah passage of Numbers 5:11-31.[15] This text describes what a jealous man, suspecting his wife of infidelity, is to do. It goes into tremendous detail describing the sequence of offerings and quasi-magical rituals led by the priest in the sanctuary. At one point the priest takes holy water and dust from the tabernacle and makes a potion; he then exacts an oath from the woman suspected of infidelity and makes her drink it. Apparently, the potion contains a curse that will lead, if the woman has ‘gone astray while under [her] husband’s authority’ (5:20, NRSV), to her uterus dropping and her womb discharging (5:21, NRSV). This sounds like an induced abortion. It is performed without the woman having any other say than ‘agreeing’ (!) to the ritual by saying ‘Amen’ (5:22). If this is a text about a husband who is jealous, because he suspects his wife is pregnant by someone other than him, and if the potion and ritual – which is, incidentally, prescribed by God, relayed to Moses (5:11), and performed by a priest ‘before the LORD’ (5:16) – brings about an abortion in the event of infidelity, which is what most biblical scholars take to be the most straightforward reading of this strange text, then what we have here is divinely sanctioned abortion of an adulterous conception. In other words, we have a concession for abortion. 

Now, I am NOT advocating that this text become a proof-text in discussions about abortion! I am NOT saying women should be subjected to such rituals, or that there are cases where women should be forced to abort. Far from it. In fact, I think this text is frightful. This text is also odd (to me at least), and it doesn’t speak very well into the world I live in. It’s clearly from a time and place completely different from mine, reflecting assumptions, practices and beliefs that are also unfamiliar, not to mention objectionable. It is unsurprising to me that this is not a text I encounter much – unlike some other biblical texts – except in academic literature I seek out. 

Numbers 5 may feel particularly strange, but all biblical texts present us with challenges. They are all in languages of which there are no longer native speakers (bringing about lack of understanding and nuance about both denotation and connotation of words). Furthermore, we lack the context of these texts. And context, of course, has enormous consequence for meaning and understanding. (We need only think of the song line, ‘you are the cream in my coffee’ – and how differently this will be decoded in settings where coffee is always drunk black. What is heard as a delight, complement, and completion to one listener, is heard as discordant and bizarre to another.) This needs to be kept in mind – especially when the Bible is interpreted with confidence and stridency. 

Parts of the Bible, indeed, are reprehensible and should be rejected. Numbers 5 is one such text, which I see as having nothing positive to say into the world I inhabit. Instead, it renders women vulnerable and passive in the face of men’s jealousy and authority over women and exonerates and justifies both (Num. 5:29-31). The potential for spousal coercive control and abuse is obvious. Also, even people who claim that all the Bible is God’s true and unchanging word tend to be quiet about this text, just as they tend to be quiet about making raped unbetrothed virgins marry their rapists without possibility of divorce (Deut. 22:28-29),[16] or about reinstating the enslavement laws.[17]

There is another law that might refer to an instance of abortion – though, again, not elective abortion. Exodus 21:22-23 describes a scenario resulting in a law. (Such laws, resulting from precedent and usually constructed in terms of ‘when/if… then’, are called casuistic laws.)[18] Here two who are fighting injure a pregnant woman, and this causes a miscarriage, or spontaneous abortion. The law is that if ‘no further harm follows’ (presumably, if the woman is not disabled or if she does not die subsequently), then the one who is deemed responsible for causing the miscarriage must pay the woman’s husband a sum determined by the judges. This shows that the crime is not considered a capital crime, because the unborn is not here regarded as having a status equivalent with a human. The woman, meanwhile, is depicted in relation to her husband and as not fully independent: hence, she does not receive the compensation directly. Instead, a sum of money is paid to her husband. This compensation suggests that the miscarriage is constructed above all in economic terms, i.e., as ‘damages’. It again appears to be the case that a wife is considered the property, or commodity, of her husband. 

The next verse says that if ‘any harm follows, then you shall give life for life’. In other words, if the pregnant woman miscarries, and then goes on to die, then this does become a capital crime. The woman – while in one sense the property of her husband – is (unlike the unborn) a full life. Killing her, requires ‘life for life’ (according to what the text says, at least – we cannot know if the law was actually followed to the letter). 

As already stated, elective abortion is not represented in the Bible. Nowadays, like Caesarean births, elective abortion can be a safe option in a way it was not in times past. This is because things change. The Bible itself also makes allowance for things changing, including rules and ways of doing things. Arguably, this is another reason for not using the Bible rigidly to impose its regulations made long ago on times present. 

To give one example, The Ten Commandments begin with ‘…For I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me…’ (Exod. 20:5; cf. Deut. 5:9 and Exod. 34:7; Num. 14:18). This makes very clear that there is inherited guilt and justification for punishing people whose forebears did something that constitutes rejection of God. What precisely this rejection of God looks like is not clear: would a spontaneous, one-off blasphemy or curse of one’s parent incur guilt for generations to follow (cf. Lev. 24:10-16; Exod. 21:17)? In any case, what is clear is that things took a different turn. In other words, God changed his mind. Hence, in the books of the Prophets it now says, ‘…they shall no longer say, “Parents have eaten sour grapes and children’s teeth are blunted.” But every one shall die for his own sins… I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel… It will not be like the covenant I made their fathers …’ (Jer. 31:29-31; cf. Ezek. 18:4 and the long qualification that follows, 18:5-22).

Quick recap… The Bible is a text that has great authority but that is difficult to navigate. It is in an ancient language of which there are no native speakers. Even those who have studied Biblical Hebrew are stumped by, and muddle through, much of it. Moreover, the Bible has been edited extensively and it is a composite text, compiled of many pieces that were written by a variety of authors in multiple times and places. Consequently, there are internal inconsistencies. Added to this, the contexts are not known to us. For all these reasons, claiming certainty in applying the Bible to the here and now is ill-advised. Added to this, where abortion is concerned, the Bible has nothing to say about elective abortion as it is practised in modern medical facilities. Plus, the Bible itself – where other matters are concerned (e.g. enslavement) offers a diversity of pronouncements, or shows evidence of change over time (e.g. regarding inherited guilt). Furthermore, which texts are emphasised and how texts are received and interpreted through time has changed. Christians once used the Bible routinely to justify enslavement of other peoples – for instance, by identifying Black Africans with Ham’s descendants, called on to be enslaved to the descendants of Shem and Japheth (Gen. 9:26-27), who were – conveniently – identified with enslavers. Beating enslaved persons to the point of near death is – helpfully – excused by the Bible, too (Exod. 21:21), as is an enslaver’s possession of any children born in his household (Exod. 21:4). While enslavement has not gone, using the Bible to justify it is now superseded in many settings by using it instead to decry abortion, homosexuality, and transgenderism. Depending on time and on setting, the Bible is selected from and used in strikingly different ways. 

The Bible is not a useful guidebook for deciding about whether an abortion is preferable for a particular person and their situation.  For those who do want to consult the Bible for such a purpose, what can be brought in to speak to the topic of abortion is, taken together, ambiguous at best. 

There are passages – widely cited by pro-lifers – that depict the unborn as extraordinary and ready to live. In Psalm 139:13-16 the psalmist praises God for forming their internal parts and knitting them together in their mother’s womb. It says here God beheld them already when they were yet unformed and wrote them in his book. This is a beautiful passage and reflects trust in God’s omnipotence and omniscience. (It then goes on, less beautifully, to express hatred for and wish death on all who are wicked, Ps 139:19-22).[19] In Jeremiah, God tells his prophet that he formed and knew and consecrated him in the womb (Jer. 1:5).[20] Job,[21] too, acknowledges that God made him (Job 10:8), fashioned him like clay (10:9), and knit together his bones and sinews (10:11) – but this is not a hymn of praise and gratitude. Instead, Job is in unbearable pain. He says he loathes his life (10:1) and accuses the God who made him of also destroying him (10:8) and of hunting him down like a predator (10:16). Job even says, ‘Would that I had died before any eye had seen me, and were as though I had not been’ (10:18b-19a). Jeremiah expresses similar bitterness (20:18). This might acknowledge that life and living are not always what’s ‘for the best’, to be preserved at any and all cost.[22]

Life – this is certainly not hidden in the Bible – can be utterly brutal and painful. As I defend being pro-choice, I appreciate how profoundly fortunate I am to have and can make choices at all. For all too many human beings, life is only, or predominantly, about suffering and pain and a complete absence of choices or prospects. The starkest image of this in the Bible is in Lamentations, depicting the destruction of Jerusalem and the suffering of the people. As in Job, God is not questioned here in terms of his power – but he is questioned on account of the relentless cruelty suffered by his people.[23] One of the most awful images in Lamentations is of the women who have boiled their own children for food. These women are called ‘compassionate’ (Lam. 4:10) – presumably, because life can indeed be so cruel that not living is a mercy. 

All in all, the passages of the unborn, woven together in the womb, confirm what very many, including I myself, feel: that the formation of a human life is astonishing and wondrous. None of the scientific detail can take away from how miraculous it is that in nine short months of gestation after a sperm and an egg come together, a little human is formed, who can go on, with nurturing and help, to become an independent being, with consciousness, attitude, and personality. Wow. Even to an agnostic like me, this is divine, awesome, mind-blowing. 

Pro-lifers make a great deal of abortions killing ‘the innocent’. Even though ‘an unborn’ is not the same as ‘a baby’, abortion is equated with baby-killing, or (see GAP) genocide. Such allusions recall a biblical trope, namely, ‘the massacre of the innocents’, the name given to the gruesome event mentioned in Matthew 2:16-18, which, it says, fulfils a prophecy in Jeremiah where wailing and lamentation erupt as Rachel weeps for her children.[24] Pro-lifers point to Proverbs 6:17 and to Psalm 68:5: according to Proverbs, God hates ‘hands that shed innocent blood’ and, according to the psalm, God is father of orphans and protector of widows. From this, they extrapolate that the unborn is the most innocent – therefore, God hates all who abort (that is, kill) the unborn. Moreover, the unborn is the most vulnerable – so, if God is champion to such vulnerable figures as the widow and orphan, how much more so to a vulnerable unborn. But a woman who finds herself pregnant against her will, or in the face of circumstances that make a pregnancy very difficult and traumatic for her, or for the potential life she is carrying, is also vulnerable; arguably, she, too, is as deserving of God’s protection as the widow and orphan. 

Yes, life is certainly a precious and sometimes vulnerable thing. Some biblical passages capture the wondrousness of life, and of its beginnings in pregnancy in beautiful and compelling ways. But elsewhere, the preciousness of life, including of the life of innocent babies, seems rather off the agenda. Yes, it is a mark King Herod’s cruelty that he vents his fury on the babies and toddlers of Bethlehem and surroundings in the massacre of the innocents (1 Matt. 2:16). But elsewhere in the Bible, the killing of adults and children, including male babies, is ordered by Moses, the recipient of divine instruction, and their killing is depicted as a sacred act (Num. 31:1, 17; cf. Deut. 2:34). 

Killing women along with their unborns, by ripping them open, is depicted in the Bible as a dreadful act, which it truly is. Chillingly, callously so. This is the action of the Ammonites, rebuked for their transgressions (Amos 1:13), and of Menahem of Samaria (the northern kingdom of Israel), who is called ‘evil in the sight of LORD’ for good measure (2 Kgs 15:16, 18).[25] But dashing to pieces the ‘little ones’ of Samaria and ripping open Samaria’s pregnant women is also, horrifyingly, what God threatens and prophesies as punishment (Hos. 13:16). What of the protection of the most innocent here? The verse is notably absent among pro-life-defending Bible citations. 

The Bible is – understandably, given its complex and only patchily understood composition, transmission, and formation – eclectic and polyvocal. It contains passages that resonate on into the present, and passages that are hard to make sense of, or which are downright reprehensible. It also contains a lot of inconsistency and internal contradiction. If it can be used at all, it must be read judiciously, in the light of the present, including knowledge gained in the intervening centuries since the Bible was canonised. 

The decision to have an abortion or not is personal and case-by-case. Ultimately, whether life begins at conception, or at some other stage, or whether an abortion can be a better choice than giving birth, cannot and should not be determined on the basis of the Bible alone. It is disingenuous to claim otherwise.

There now exist medical knowledge,  means and facilities whereby fertility can be controlled with contraception, or pregnancy facilitated with IVF, or early pregnancy terminated safely, without significant risk to future fertility.  This offers choices and opportunities to those fortunate enough to have access to them, which were not available in the centuries over which biblical texts were composed. 

It’s tough out there. Here in the UK the strain is palpable everywhere. Poverty and financial strains are escalating as fuel and food and housing and rent prices rise. Mental health care is utterly inadequate. NHS waiting lists are growing by the hour. It’s not so rosy in the USA either, with health care crises and gun deaths and post-Covid recession. On top of this, there is a climate crisis, a war in Ukraine, and a worldwide migration crisis. Right now, many choices and options and decisions are curtailed or particularly difficult for a checkerboard of reasons. And removing the choice of a safe abortion for someone who cannot cope with the alternative seems especially cruel. 

When the Bible is used to deny or malign the option of abortion, then it is propelled by extraneous agendas. In the absence of any mention of elective abortion these agendas are supported by hand-picked and cobbled together proof-texts given a particular spin. Whether someone chooses or refuses an abortion – keep the Bible out of it. 


[1] The GAP website is accessible here and there is much I could say (while fuming with rage) about the problematic, vile and offensive content and strategies contained therein. GAP is described on the site as the ‘mass media outreach’ for the (grandly named) ‘Center for Bio-Ethical Reform’. Not surprisingly (given the entanglements between the Republican Party and restriction of access to health care, including abortions) the Executive Director, Gregg Cunningham, is a Republican and former member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. While the site makes no references to the Bible and (like proponents of so-called ‘Intelligent Design’) instead bandies about pseudo-scientific language (e.g. ‘bio-ethical’), it uses Islamophobic rhetoric and it promotes the aims of the US evangelical anti-abortion and anti-choice (called ‘pro-life’) lobby. Regarding Islamophobia, in a passage arguing against abortion in cases of rape, Cunningham cites the words of a Jordanian man who shot dead his sister following her rape, because her death was, for him, preferable to inflicting shame on the whole family. The citation ends with, ‘His logic is not a logic rare in the Arab world’ – which airs the toxic prejudice that so-called ‘honour’ killings alongside lack of sympathy for rape victims and a callous disregard for life are widespread in ‘the Arab world’. This is offensive and unsupported by evidence. There is a well-articulated student response to GAP on US campuses here

[2] Language again (see note 1) functions in manipulative ways. Those opposed to abortion (in all or most cases) refer to themselves as being ‘pro-life’ or ‘anti-abortion’. The effect of this is to cast those who defend abortion (in all or most cases) as ‘anti-life’ or ‘pro-abortion’. Those who defend a woman’s right to choose an abortion (in all or most cases) prefer to call themselves ‘pro-choice’, thereby accentuating agency and choice, rather than the taking or diminishment of life. 

[3] Jon Ronson in his BBC audio book Things Fell Apart provides a fascinating exploration of how in the USA the topic of abortion developed from a fringe matter associated above all with Catholicism into a divisive preoccupation of the so-called culture wars (available on the BBC Sounds app, see here).

[4] For a host of social and medical data on the state of Tennessee, including pertaining to marriage and divorce, induced terminations of pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases, with demographic break-downs, see here.

[5] For statistics on divorce by religious affiliation, see here. A no longer up-to-date but widely circulated study reported that US Christians were just as likely, possibly even more likely, to divorce than US non-believers (see here). Even Christian interpreters challenging such reports admit to high divorce rates among US Christians (see here).

[6] I was living in Tennessee at the time of The Tennessee Marriage Protection Amendment, also known as Tennessee Amendment 1 (2006). Once more, language is telling, because what is ‘protected’ here is heterosexual marriage, with the word ‘protection’ implying that other kinds of marriage are a risk, even a danger. This state constitutional amendment banned same-sex unions and the referendum was approved by 81% of voters. It specified that only a marriage between a man and a woman could be legally recognized in the state of Tennessee. Same-sex marriage only became legal in Tennessee with the US Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26, 2015. There are plausible concerns that the current Supreme Court will enforce restrictions and violations not only on abortion rights but on other human rights, including those of LGBTQ+ persons. Pat Buchanan’s 1992 ‘Culture Wars’ speech (available here) in many ways galvanises the ‘package’ of conservative Christian and Republican values exemplified particularly by strong opposition to all of feminism, abortion, and LGBTQ+ identities.

[7] When I was in Kerala, same-sex marriage was not once raised as a topic. I was given to understand that conversation about homosexuality was taboo. 

[8] A host of Christian biblical commentators and theologians have scrutinized these biblical passages and considered their impact on those who feel constrained or endangered by them. See for instance, Helen Paynter, in The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So (The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2020), 68–76. I have reviewed Paynter’s book here.

[9] Margaret Atwood, ‘Means of production: Force women to have babies and then make them pay? It’s slavery’ (The Guardian, 2 May 2022, p.39). Atwood continues with, ‘What kind of country do you want to live in? One in which every individual is free to make decisions concerning his or her health and body, or one in which half the population is free and the other half is enslaved? Women who cannot make their own decisions about whether or not to have babies are enslaved because the state claims ownership of their bodies and the right to dictate the use to which their bodies must be put.’

[10] Those who choose to defend one over the other by depicting elective abortion as ‘the massacre of the innocents’ and divorce as less egregious because it is a choice made by mature adults, need to undertake more nuanced analysis. The discussion of when a human is a human with full human rights (at conception, at birth, at some other point) and whether an unborn has integrity and independence from or equal rights with the human in which it is forming, are, of course, very much contested. It should be noted that marriage, or intimacy, can also be violent, even deadly, as high rates of spousal coercive control, domestic and intimate partner violence and femicide the world over confirms. Importantly, too, pro-choice advocates support a woman’s right both to refuse forced abortion and forced pregnancy. I am very much on the side of advocating for the preservation and improvement of the lives and quality of life of those who are born – including those living in famine- and war-ravaged regions, refugees, trafficked humans, and those suffering from preventable diseases. 

[11] Cliona O’Gallchoir has written in an earlier post about the tragic outworkings of the amendment of Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution before its repeal in 2018 (see here). When I lived in Botswana, a country where abortion is only legally available in exceptional cases, I heard many stories of desperation and knew of women who had the means travelling to neighbouring South Africa for safe abortions. 

[12] The Bible is not drawn into Justice Samuel Alito’s draft ruling regarding Roe v. Wade (see here). The draft report would overrule the constitutional right to abortion. The response from religious leaders has not been monolithic (see here) but conservative voices have long used the Bible to condemn abortion. 

[13] There are many claims about abortion posing health risks, including to mental health and increased risk of breast cancer. These claims are carefully examined and mostly dispelled, see here.

[14] Access to safe, legal abortion  is linked to a drop in crime (see here) and to improvement in women’s and children’s health.

[15] I have written at length about this text. See Johanna Stiebert, ‘Divinely Sanctioned Violence Against Women: Biblical Marriage and the Example of the Sotah of Numbers 5’. The Bible & Critical Theory 15/2 (2019). It is available for free download here.

[16] Franklin Graham is one vocal and high profile proponent and projects the notion that the Bible is clear and straightforward on a number of matters, including abortion (see here). 

[17] Enslavement is assumed in the Bible – both in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. The three sets of laws of enslavement in the Hebrew Bible (Exod. 21:1-6; Lev. 25:39-46; Deut. 15:12-18) are by no means identical, suggesting changes in circumstance, attitudes, and law, over time. The Bible was widely used to justify enslavement, and also to achieve liberation from enslavement. This would seem to show that there is not ‘one truth for all time’ but a text that can be and is used to defend a variety of positions depending on the time and circumstances. As is clear from my observations in Tennessee and Kerala, setting drives both selection and interpretation. 

[18] Laws such as the Ten Commandments (‘you shall not…’) are called apodictic laws. 

[19] Psalm 137 – the opening verses of which have been made famous by 1970s band Boney M – ends with the line ‘Happy shall they be who take your [i.e. the enemy Babylon’s] little ones and dash them against the rock!’ There is not much love lost here for little ones.

[20] There is a similar sense of prenatal selection in Matthew 1:20, where Joseph is told that the unborn (Jesus-to-be) is ‘from the Holy Spirit’. The Gospel of Luke, too, refers to Elizabeth’s unborn (John-the-Baptist-to-be) as ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Luke 1:15). The presence of the Holy Spirit in these unborns clearly sets them apart. There is no indication that what makes these pregnancies special is ‘democatized’ to all other pregnancies. Another delightful detail in Luke is that Elizabeth’s unborn leaps in her womb on hearing Mary’s greeting. 

[21] The Book of Job is particularly difficult to translate. The book’s poetic passages are full of images that are difficult to decode, and the entire book is speckled with terms that are rare, even singular. Unsurprisingly, an annotated translation contains many notes saying ‘Meaning of Hebrew uncertain’. 

[22] Job is a very complex text that does not offer clear answers to such big questions as ‘why do humans suffer?’ ‘Is God all good?’ or, ‘is life always worth living?’ Instead, it says a lot about how meaningless and miserable life can be, how righteousness does not preserve from suffering, and how cruel God can seem. Yes, the book has a (trite) ‘happy ending’ where Job is comforted on account of all the evil God has brought on him (Job 40:11). His wealth is restored, he has ten more children, and dies at an old age. But experience shows us that such dramatic turn-arounds don’t always happen and also, that they don’t undo the harm and pain of severe trauma. 

[23] I have written about this extensively elsewhere: see Johanna Stiebert, ‘Human Suffering and Divine Abuse of Power in Lamentations: Reflections on Forgiveness in the Context of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Process’ Pacifica16/2 (2003): 195–215. (For access, see here.)

[24] The massacre of the innocents is, therefore, as inevitable as the consecration of Jeremiah in the womb or the vocation of John the Baptist and Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit before birth. Wonder and horror – both are depicted as foretold, matters of destiny. 

[25] Ripping open pregnant women is not a suitable analogy for elective abortion in a medical setting. Such an analogy would be like aligning the threat of male-male rape (e.g. Gen. 19:5) with consenting same-sex love-making. 

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Introducing … The Bloody Bible Podcast

The Shiloh Project is excited to announce the launch of our latest creative endeavour: the Bloody Bible podcast. Hosted by Shiloh co-directors Em Colgan and Caz Blyth, the podcast takes a deep dive into some of the violent and bloody traditions that are found throughout the Bible, including stories of murder, genocide, colonialism, rape, intimate partner violence, coercive control, and sex trafficking. Em and Caz explore these violent tales, drawing connections to contemporary cases of crime and criminality. What they discover along the way is that the violence we read about in ancient biblical texts remains all too familiar today.

The inspiration for this podcast grew from Caz and Em’s mutual fascination with all things related to true crime. During their many conversations about the topic, they started to recognise that true crime stories share many patterns and themes with biblical narratives of violence, including the perilous potential of human emotions such as envy, anger, and shame; the violent foundations of patriarchal power and toxic masculinity; the sexualization of “dangerous” women; the timelessness of rape culture ideologies; and the erasure of certain victims by virtue of their race, class, sexuality, or gender. The Bloody Bible podcast explores these themes in depth and considers how narratives of crime and criminality – both ancient and contemporary – can shine a light on the socio-cultural, emotional, and ideological forces that underpin so much violence in our families and communities

To get a taster of some of the texts and topics covered in the Bloody Bible, listen to the podcast trailer here. The first episode will be available on 1 June 2022, where Caz and Em take a close look at the Bible’s first murder mystery – the killing of Abel by his brother Cain (Genesis 4). Subsequent episodes will be available weekly throughout this 11-part series.

The podcast is co-produced, recorded, and edited by Richard Bonifant, and is supported by funding from the United Kingdom Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of the Shiloh Project research grant. It will be available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, and you can also find each episode on the podcast website.

You can follow the Bloody Bible on Twitter (@BloodyBiblePod), Instagram (@BloodyBiblePodcast), and Facebook (@TheBloodyBiblePodcast).

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Silencing, Shiloh, and the story of David Oluwale

Today’s post is by Tasia Scrutton who is Associate Professor at the University of Leeds. Her research interests include philosophy of religion, philosophy of emotion, and philosophy of psychiatry, as well as theology, and social epistemology.

Special thanks to Lucy Moore and her wonderful contributions to Leeds Civic Trust and Wikipedia.

Just hours after the Leeds Civic Trust installed the blue plaque commemorating the distressing and suspicious death of David Oluwale in 1969, the plaque was stolen. This occurred on the night of 25th April 2022 and is being treated as a hate crime.

At the time of his death in May 1969, David Oluwale, who had come to England from Nigeria in 1949, in search for a better life, was homeless and living in Leeds. He had already experienced ongoing ‘systemic, varied and brutal’ abuse by individual police officers. This was witnessed by other members of the police, who made no effort to prevent it (Sim 2010 159). Ultimately, Oluwale drowned in the local river, aged 39. 

Independent witnesses testified to seeing two uniformed police officers chasing Oluwale along the river on the night he drowned. Two police officers were eventually convicted of grievous bodily harm, though not of manslaughter. Activists have documented the way in which the court case was whitewashed through the portrayal of Oluwale as dirty, an animal, and a burden and menace to society; the judge instructed the jury to find the police officers not guilty (see Aspden, 2008).

David Oluwale (image with thanks to Yorkshire Post and Wikipedia)

The theft of the blue plaque, 53 years after Oluwale died, is another attempt to deny the existence of Oluwale, or, alternatively, to protest against the commemoration of Oluwale’s wrongful death. It both seeks to silence structural, including police, racism, while also demonstrating that such racism is alive and well in the UK today.

Silencing people’s stories – and especially the stories of disadvantaged and disempowered groups – is a familiar theme also to perceptive readers of the Bible. A comical Easter cartoon depicts Jesus’ male disciplines, just after the female disciples tell them they have seen the risen Jesus, saying to the women, ‘thank you ladies, we’ll take it from here’. The cartoon is apt, since, while it is clear from the Gospels that women were among Jesus’ disciples, Christian Scriptures were written and interpreted largely by men, with male interests and experiences in mind (see e.g. the important work of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza). 

The story in Judges 21 after which the Shiloh Project is named is a particularly sinister example of the silencing of women’s stories in the Hebrew Bible. (For the full account of the origins of the Shiloh Project and its name, including the story of Judges 21, see here.)

Silencing can be deliberate or inadvertent, even unconscious; it can be performed by individuals, or groups, or it can be systemic. The philosopher Miranda Fricker draws attention to two kinds of ‘epistemic injustice’ (that is, injustice relating to people as knowers) (see Fricker, 2007). These forms of epistemic injustice relate closely to silencing and shed further light upon it. 

The first of these is ‘testimonial injustice’, which happens when someone is not believed because of the type of person they are. An example Fricker gives of this is of a Black man who is not believed by the police, precisely because he is Black. The example is relevant to the case of Oluwale because, while the violence against him was not a mere case of testimonial injustice, the fact that he could be abused by police officers without them having to fear he could press charges against them, certainly is. Of course, Oluwale would more likely be disbelieved not only because he was Black in a systemically racist wider setting, but also because he was homeless. This shows how different aspects of a person’s identity (being Black; being a migrant; being homeless) intersect, so that the person is even more likely to be a victim of testimonial injustice. The police officers, in contrast, had what is called ‘a credibility surplus’: this means, their testimony was likely to be believed. 

Indeed, Oluwale’s case was highly unusual, in that his death ‘resulted in the first successful prosecution of British police officers for involvement in the death of a black person’ (see here). The reason was that there were other witnesses deemed reliable, as well as other evidence of gross misconduct concerning one of the police officers sentenced for grievous bodily harm. 

The second kind of epistemic injustice Fricker discusses is called ‘hermeneutical injustice’. This is where disadvantaged groups of people do not have access to concepts that help them make sense of their experience, or to communicate their experience to others. Hermeneutical injustice often results from the reality that disadvantaged groups do not get to have input into formulating the concepts that are supposed to reflect human experience: precisely because, as a group, they are not considered, or not considered consequential enough for their experiences to be taken seriously – or even just acknowledged. 

An example Fricker gives of hermeneutical injustice is of a (real life) woman who experienced sexual harassment at work but before the concept ‘sexual harassment’ was named, or talked about, or better understood. As a result, the woman was unable to explain why she felt miserable at work, became depressed, and ultimately left her job. She was unable to get another job (since her reason for leaving her previous job, without any reference, was mystifying) and was also unable to claim unemployment benefits (because she was understood as having left her job without good reason). The lack of a concept, such as ‘sexual harassment’ in this case, not only affected others’ opinions of her and of her material circumstances, but also her own self-esteem: she was unable to explain her unhappiness and her reasons for leaving her job not only to others, but also to herself.     

The example of hermeneutical injustice is strikingly relevant to the case of the women of Shiloh. The mass rape of the women is not called a mass rape in the biblical text, because the word ‘rape’ (today meaning, to be penetrated against one’s consent with the perpetrator knowing consent to be absent) was not understood in those terms when the biblical narrative was written. While rape (i.e. what the word now signifies) certainly existed (and hurt and harmed just as much), the experience of women – the group most often depicted as victims of rape in biblical and other ancient texts – was not considered important enough for there to be a concept that expressed the world from their point of view.

One might imagine the women in the Shiloh story, like the woman who suffered sexual harassment, wondering why they felt distressed, violated, depressed, but without the resources or language to make sense of their experience. Alternatively, perhaps they did have some concept that described their experience, but since their perspective was never written down, it was not conveyed in the biblical story – thereby enabling the story to perpetuate rather than challenge sexual violence against women.

Silencing, then, can be blatant and crass, as when the plaque telling Oluwale’s story is stolen; or, it can be more subtle, as when particular people do not get input into the concepts used by the rest of their society. It can be individual, as when a police officer refuses to believe a person who is Black, but more often it has a systemic dimension, too, as when police officers in general are less likely to believe persons who are Black, or homeless, or when an entire group lacks or is denied certain concepts or hermeneutical resources. In every one of these cases, silencing is brutal and destructive. Silencing is also deep-rooted, insidious, and pernicious; it works in different, often invisible, but extremely harmful, ways. Because of this, it is easy to feel hopeless: because it is not clear what we can do in response to something that is both subtle and systemic.

One thing we can do is to keep the stories of people like Oluwale and the women of Shiloh alive.

References

Aspden, Kester (2008). The Hounding of David Oluwale. London: VintageISBN 978-0-099-50617-1

Fricker, Miranda (2007). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sim, Joe (January 2010). The Hounding of David Oluwale by K. Aspden. The British Journal of Criminology50 (1): 158–161. doi:10.1093/bjc/azp073

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Legitimising Sexual Violence: Contesting Toxic Theologies that Valorise Suffering as Redemptive

George Zachariah is a lay theologian of the Mar Thoma Church. He has been working as a theological educator for the last two decades in India and in other countries. Currently, he is serving Trinity Methodist Theological College as Wesley Lecturer in Theological Studies. In this article, George reflects on toxic atonement theologies that valorise suffering as redemptive. His theological perspectives are informed by his long-standing association with different social movements. He has published several articles and books on ecotheology, climate justice, and human sexuality, including Decolonizing Ecotheology: Indigenous and Subaltern Challenge (Wipf and Stock, 2022), coedited with Lily Mendoza.

George Zachariah

“I went to my pastor twenty years ago. I’ve been trying to follow his advice. The priest said, I should rejoice in my suffering because they bring me closer to Jesus. He said, ‘Jesus suffered because he loved us.’ He said, ‘If you love Jesus, accept the beatings and bear them gladly, as Jesus bore the cross.’ I’ve tried, but I’m not sure anymore. My husband is turning on the kids now. Tell me, is what the priest told me true?”[1]

“Go back to him… Learn how to adjust to his moods…don’t do anything that would provoke his anger…Christ suffered and died for you on the Cross…Can’t you bear some suffering too? This is the voice of the church—the words of a priest counseling a woman who was being battered by her husband every single day of her married life. She went to the church for refuge and for moral and spiritual support. What she received instead was advice to learn submissiveness and obedience in a distorted relationship and abusive marriage.”[2]

Sexual harm in general, and intimate violence in particular, are not just heinous crimes that some “bad people” commit out of lust and anger. These are eruptions of male privilege and heteropatriarchal notions of sexuality, internalized by both men and women, mediated through social institutions such as family, religion, media, and education. People internalize these hegemonic worldviews as “normal,” and “sacred” thanks to the theological legitimations provided by religious traditions through their scriptures, doctrines, ethics, and pastoral counseling.

Suffering, sacrifice, and selfless love are foundational to Christian faith and Christian living. Invoking the memory of the crucified Christ is always an invitation to imitate Christ by walking in the way of the cross. Paul’s call to participate in the suffering of Christ makes suffering a virtue and a sacred duty: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24). In traditional Christian understanding, suffering that we undergo in our lives is intended by God, and we need to endure those sufferings as Christ did and sacrifice ourselves through selfless love for the glory of God. Any attempt to question and abstain from suffering is therefore considered as an expression of self-love, the desire of the flesh.

The quotes above from survivors of sexual harm expose the toxicity inherent in mainstream biblical, theological, and pastoral responses to intimate partner violence. These responses categorically proclaim that imposed torture and suffering are redemptive. They substantiate their arguments with the help of a distorted understanding of the Christ event and abusive interpretations of the Scripture. The dominant expressions of Christianity thus become an ideological apparatus of heteropatriarchy. Eradication of sexual harm and intimate partner violence from our faith communities thus require from us the courage and creativity to engage in counter-hegemonic biblical interpretations and doctrinal reformulations, informed by the body-mediated knowledges of survivors.  

The dominant expressions of Christianity thus become an ideological apparatus of heteropatriarchy.

Scriptural Legitimation of Sexual Harm

It is important here to explore how the Bible has been used to propagate the toxic valorisation of imposed suffering. Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie, The Passion of the Christ begins with Isaiah 53: 5: “But he was wounded for our transgression, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruise we are healed.” Gibson then invites us to watch the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life in a highly graphic way. The gospel according to Mel Gibson proclaims that imposed torture is redemptive, and it is the bruises of that torure that heal us.

Here, it is important for us to understand the Isaiah text in its context. This text is part of four texts (42.1-4; 49.1-6; 50.4-11; 52.13-53.12) generally known as “servant songs.” The way Isaiah 53:5 has been interpreted by isolating it from its larger context and identifying Jesus as the servant is a highly disputed issue. That said, the early church identified Jesus as the servant (Acts 8.32-35; Phil 2. 6-11; 1 Pet 2. 22-25), and the Markan narratives of Jesus’ foretelling of his imminent death (Mk 8. 31; 9.30-32; 10; 33-34) have also been interpreted to ‘prove’ that Jesus was the servant figure in Isaiah. The original historical context of the text, however, indicates that the metaphor of the “servant” stands for Israel in exile. The question here is whether Jesus perceived his death as an atoning sacrifice. As we know, none of the gospels quote from the “servant songs” to interpret Jesus’ death as atoning sacrifice, and the quotations in Mathew (8.17; and 27.57-60) do not discuss atonement. So, we need to ponder how this theology of “a passive victim as the saviour of the world” emerged and dominated our understanding of salvation.

Atonement Theology and Legitimation of Sexual Harm

Atonement theology is central to the Christian faith, and Sunday after Sunday we celebrate the memory of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. But “What happens when violent realities are transubstantiated into spiritual teachings?” This pertinent question posed by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker should invite us to critically engage with atonement theology in the context of intimate partner violence. According to Brock and Parker, “atonement theology takes an act of state violence and redefines it as intimate violence, a private spiritual transaction between God the Father and God the Son. Atonement theology then says that this intimate violence saves life. This redefinition replaces state violence with intimate violence and makes intimate violence holy and salvific.”[3] Atonement theology is thus lethal as it legitimizes terror and torture in the name of God.

Atonement theology is thus lethal as it legitimizes terror and torture in the name of God.

To understand the toxicity of atonement theology, we need to evaluate critically the atonement theories. The Christus Victor model is the first model of atonement to gain popularity in the early church. This objective model of atonement combines the motifs of ransom and victory. In the cosmic battle between God and Satan, Jesus died, but through his resurrection Satan was defeated. Human beings are in bondage to Satan, and Jesus is the ransom that is paid for our redemption.

Anselm of Canterbury developed the satisfaction model of atonement as a corrective to the Christus Victor model. Based on God’s justice, in order to forgive sin God needed satisfaction. Who can pay more than what was taken? Only God can pay such a price. But since the payer must be a human, God sent his son to pay the price. So, for Anselm, Jesus’ death was a divine plan to satisfy divine justice in order to save humanity. This theory not only argues that God requires a sacrifice for reconciliation, but also God derives satisfaction from sacrifice. Sacrifice is theologically prescribed here as a religious practice that tests the loyalty of the faithful. In the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, sacrifice is valorised as an act of responsibility and selfless love.

The third model of atonement is known as the moral influence theory developed by Peter Abelard. This is a subjective model focused on human conversion toward God. Jesus’ death is the manifestation of God’s love for us, and hence his death leads us to conversion.

All these models of atonement focus on the objective reality of Jesus’ death on the cross as the salvific event. Such an understanding of atonement reduces the person and work of Jesus into the magical value of his blood and legitimizes and romanticizes imposed suffering and torture. This is precisely what we see in The Passion of the Christ. By portraying the graphic visuals of flogging and torture as redemptive, Gibson’s gospel becomes religious pornography. The movie provides spiritual pleasure by experiencing the redemption that we received through inflicting pain and torture on Jesus’ body. Atonement theology is sadomasochistic.

Atonement theology is sadomasochistic.

Meditations on the cross informed by atonement theology reiterate imposed suffering and torture as redemptive. Such a faith affirmation compels women to accept passively unjust wounds, hurts, and abuses inflicted on them by their husbands, fathers, lovers, and others. As Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker rightly observe,

“Christianity has been a primary—in many women’s lives the primary—force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive. …Divine child abuse is paraded as salvific and the child who suffers ‘without even raising a voice’ is lauded as the hope of the world. Those whose lives have been deeply shaped by the Christian tradition feel that self-sacrifice and obedience are not only virtues but the definition of a faithful identity.”[4]

Women who experience the violence of abuse in their homes come to the sanctuary of the Church in search of solace, comfort, courage, and empowerment. But instead they are indoctrinated by the Church to endure the violence as Christ has done on the cross. 

How do we theologically and pastorally engage with these sisters and mothers who have been brutally abused within the intimate Christian institution of family, and treacherously betrayed by the church? Can our theology and pastoral care provide them healing and wholeness?  How can we promise them healing when our central message is the glorification and valorization of self-sacrifice and imposed torture?

“Christian theology presents Jesus as the model of self-sacrificing love and persuades us to believe that sexism is divinely sanctioned. We are tied to the virtue of self-sacrifice, often by hidden social threats of punishment. We keep silent about rape, we deny when we are being abused, and we allow our lives to be consumed by the trivial and by our preoccupation with others. We never claim our lives as our own. We live as though we were not present in our bodies.”[5]

Women and other marginalized communities have contested the Christology of atonement theologies that romanticize sacrifice and suffering. For Rosemary Radford Reuther, Jesus’s vocation was not “to suffer and die.” Rather, “redemption happens through resistance to the sway of evil, and in the experiences of conversion and healing by which communities of well-being are created.”[6] According to Carter Heyward, “We need to say no to a tradition of violent punishment and to a God who would crucify…an innocent brother in our place—rather than hang with us, struggle with us, and grieve with us….Jesus’s mission was not to die but to live.”[7] In other words, the Christ event does not invite women to suffer willingly for anyone’s sake. Rather, the Christ event challenges women to struggle together against the injustice of all human sacrifice, including their own.

What is the theological significance of the tortured and mutilated bodies of victims and survivors of sexual harm as we strive together to create a world devoid of ideologies and practices of domination, exclusion and violence? Dangerous memories, according to Johann Baptist Metz, are “memories which make demands on us. These are memories in which earlier experiences break through to the center-point of our lives and reveal new and dangerous insights for the present.”[8] Dangerous memories are subversive memories. Remembrance of those who have been abused is thus a political, spiritual, and subversive practice, inviting and inspiring us to engage in active resistance against all manifestations of sexual harm and their theological legitimations.

Mark Lewis Taylor’s concept of “anamnestic solidarity” of the victims is instructive here. Anamnestic solidarity, “as a remembrance of the dead constitutes an effect of the dead in the present that re-members, re-constitutes, living communities.”[9] For Taylor, this solidarity with the dead and the tortured affirms that they are co-present in our contemporary struggles for survival and dignity. Their co-presence strengthens those who experience sexual harm today and fight against it. The Eucharist can be understood as an anamnestic celebration of solidarity, which we practise in remembrance of the tortured and abused One. Remembrance of these dangerous memories is a celebration for all who undergo abuse and torture because “every rebellion against suffering is fed by the subversive power of remembered suffering.”[10] The meaning of history lies in the remembrance of those who are crushed by toxic ideologies and social practices. Remembrance of their dangerous memories “anticipates the future as a future of those who are oppressed, without hope and doomed to fail. It is therefore a dangerous and at the same time liberating memory that questions the present,”[11] and empowers all who are destined to live under regimes of abusive power to reclaim their agency and become midwives of a new utopia of hope.        


[1] Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves us, Boston: Beacon Press, 2001, 21.

[2] Aruna Gnanadason, No Longer a Secret: The Church and Violence against Women, Geneva: WCC Publications, 1993, 1

[3] Brock and Parker. Proverbs of Ashes,

[4] Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker: “For God So Loved the World?” in Violence against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Source Book, ed., Carol J. Adams and Marie M. Fortune, New York: Continuum, 1998, 37.

[5] Brock and Parker. Proverbs of Ashes, 36.

[6] Rosemary Radford Reuther, Introducing Redemption in Christian Feminism (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 104–105.Cited in Weaver, Nonviolent Atonement, 125.

[7] Carter Heyward, Saving Jesus from Those Who Are Right: Rethinking What It Means to Be Christian (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 175.

[8] Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, New York: A Crossroad Book, 1980, 109.

[9] [9] Mark Lewis Taylor, The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011, 203.

[10] Metz. Faith in History and Society, 110.

[11] Ibid., 90.

Image: “The Passion of the Christ” by six steps  Alex S. Leung is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/jp/?ref=openverse

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Theology in a Divided World: Five Poems

Today’s post is written by Hannah Buckley, a third-year Theology and Religious Studies student at the University of Aberdeen.  In the post, Hannah reflects on the topic of sexual violence and the murder of Sarah Everard from a Christian theological perspective.

As part of my course, “Theology in a Divided World,” I was asked to produce a creative case study that explores a topic related to theology, division, power, and conflict/conflict transformation. Violence against women is a topic I am passionate about but find difficult to express in standard academic prose, so I decided to use poetry. I chose to focus on Sarah Everard’s murder – it is a topic that’s quite literally close to home for me (Sarah lived 15 miles away from my family home in London). Through my poetry, I explore theological responses to Sarah’s murder in ways that capture raw and sometimes uncomfortable realities. Each of the poems is followed with a commentary on individual verses that offers further explanation and scholarly engagement with the themes raised. Some of the verses speak for themselves, so no commentary is required. The aim of these poems is to introduce my understandings of God’s intentions for women as witnessed in creation. Women has a salvific role for the man, and they rule in harmony until Genesis 3. I also dwell on the ways that humanity has failed to honour God’s intention through Sarah Everard’s murder and the police response at her vigil. Finally, these poems introduce a theological response that explores how the theology of the cross must be embraced by the church, but also by women through forgiveness. True forgiveness is not viewed as giving the perpetrator the upper hand but liberating the victim so they can heal. It is not simply, ‘forgive and forget;’ there is no demand to forget. Instead, it releases the victim from a prison of trauma so they can experience God’s healing, and trust in his justice.

Poem 1: God’s intention for creation

God’s intention for creation

1. The Hebrew phrase ‘ezer kenegdo illustrates equality,and Freedman suggests that this title signifies a “power (or strength) that can save” (cited in McCant 1999, p11). This suggests that the woman is defined equal to the man to be his helper but not his inferior.

2. God’s omniscience demonstrates that sequential creation was deliberate. The process of naming the animals enhanced the man’s loneliness and desire for companionship (Groothius 2005, 86). So the purpose was not to establish a hierarchy, but to emphasise companionship.

3. The woman was created from the man’s rib, a body part located in the centre to represent her literal equality (Groothius 2005, 86).  

5. Relationships are defined using the theory of fusion. The man and woman were psychologically and intellectually fused together with God (Hégy and Marios 2016, 191). Their lack of comprehension, however, caused them to fuse with the snake and abandon harmony.

6. This refers to the doctrine of original sin, how our nature was contaminated, and so I have used the imagery of decomposition.

7. Jerome’s mistranslation of Genesis 3:16 removes the man from temptation and places responsibility on the women (Parker 2013, 737).

8. This refers to Tertullian who says, “you are the one who opened to the door to the Devil” (cited in Parker 2013, 732). This shows how theologians, such as Jerome and Tertullian, have misused Scripture to oppress women.

10. This illustrates the issue of gendercide. The writers summarise the crisis by pointing out that in the twentieth century, the slaughter of females outnumbers that of males in war (Gerhardt 2014, 16).

11. Introduction of Sarah Everard’s murder.

12. Psalms will convey problems before focusing on God to change perspective towards the remedy – God.

13-15.The first section of the book of Psalms (Psalms 1-41) ends with a doxology and amen: ““Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,  from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen” (Psalm 41:13). See Lawson (2014, 85).

Poem 2: Ruin and “redemption”

Ruin and “redemption”

Verses 1-9 present the events that led up to Sarah Everard’s murder (BBC News, 30 September 2021).

6. This is a quotation from Sarah’s mother’s statement, “I go through the sequence of events. I wonder when she realised, she was in mortal danger” (BBC News, 30 September 2021).

9. This verse is a description of a photo of mourners paying tribute to Sarah Everard (see Sinclair 2021). This relates to peacebuilding because it emphasises the absence of peace that women presently experience. Sarah’s murder sparked the “Reclaim These Streets” movement, members of which planned Everard’s vigil, and strives to make the streets safer for women. This protest movement is concerned with liberation, so women aren’t afraid to walk outside at night; it isn’t about forgiveness but reform.

10. This links to the previous poem, which shows that God’s will in creation was for harmony and equality, not for division and gendercide.

11. The emphasis in the second section of Psalms (Psalms 42-72) is on redemption. Sarah Everard, on the other hand, was not redeemed, and women are still victims of abuse. Asking for redemption through prayer is the only alternative.

12. This links to the theology of the cross that will be discussed in the next poem.  

13-15. The second section of Psalms (Psalms 42-72) finishes with the doxology included in these the verses: “Praise be to the Lord God, the God of Israel, who alone does marvellous deeds. Praise be to his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen and Amen” (Psalm 72:18-19). See Lawson (2014, 86)..

Poem 3: The “sanctuary” of Christian theology

The “sanctuary” of Christian theology

1. Quotation from Sarah Everard’s family (BBC News 29 September 2021).

2. The church does not believe that this violence is a theological issue that requires a unified response (Gerhardt 2014, 5). Biblical interventions are thwarted because sexual violence is perceived as a secular problem that does not happen inside the church.

3. Despite this misogynistic root, the church response is passive and sexual violence remains trapped in a secular bubble.

5. The church denies that violence against women exists. For example, they preach sexual purity yet fail to recognise that 25% of the girls in their flock have been sexually assaulted. This is detrimental, as no response is given to those who had their “sacred purity” taken away through sexual violence (Gerhardt 2014, 6).

6. One method the church employs is to compartmentalise violence, making it a problem that only women can solve (Gerhardt 2014, 17).

7. A change in perspective is paramount for anything to happen. Despite manipulative teachings, involuntary suffering is not redemptive but opposes God’s intention (Gerhardt 2014, 91).

8. The continuity between poems is established by this numbing truth.

9. Changing the church’s perspective on this violence will enlighten the church to the fact that it is a sin because it deviates from God’s intention.

11. Changing language from violence against women being wrong to being a sin is not enough. The church must embrace their confession of faith to end gendercide.

12. By embracing a theology of the cross and Christ-centred actions, churches can remove their pride and devote themselves to helping their hurting neighbour.

13. If the church resists and actively opposes this evil, women will be restored as equals, and other misogynist beliefs will be challenged.

15. Because of the church’s silence, it is a bystander that allows this evil to continue.

16. This is a reference to Ravi Zacharias’s scandal of sexual abuse as a direct result of the church’s lack of accountability and care (Silliman and Sellnutt 2021).

18. When confronted with his victim, Zacharias manipulated her by shifting the responsibility of his ministry and those who follow his teaching onto her, instead of reconciling or allowing justice (Silliman and Sellnutt 2021).

19. Zacharias’s victim saw his ministry destroyed as an answer to [her] prayer (Silliman and Sellnutt 2021).

20-21. The third section of the Psalms (Psalms 73-89) concludes with a doxology.: “Praise be to the Lord forever! Amen and Amen” (Psalm 89:52). See Lawson (2014, 86).

Poem 4: The vigil as relapse

The vigil as relapse

The first 12 verses of this poem are presenting the events that occurred during the vigil (see BBC News 15 March 2021a).

1. Although public gatherings were prohibited during lockdown, COVID guidelines did allow some exceptions in cases where there was a “reasonable excuse” to gather, but it was unclear if the circumstances surrounding the vigil met this criterion (see BBC News 15 March 2021b).

8. Couzens was accused of indecent exposure in 2015, and this was not adequately investigated at the time. So, if the police force had proper accountability, Sarah’s murder should have been avoided. Instead, women were arrested and given a fine for breaking COVID guidelines as seen in the vigil.  

10. This refers to the photo of Patsy Stevenson being arrested at the vigil for Sarah Everard. Her face covered the front page of many newspapers, highlighting police brutality and the continual oppression of women (BBC News 15 March 2021b).

14. The church has been noticeably absent in discussions about Sarah’s vigil and her murder. This suggests that the church did not see this as a theological issue, and therefore did not respond.

15. This response reflects the theme of recovery and longing for the Promised Land in section 4 of the Psalms (Psalms 90-106).

16. There is a continuous reference to prayer, and this is seen as the primary step to defeat gendercide.

17-20. Section 4 of the book of Psalms ends with a doxology: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Let all the people say, ‘Amen!’ Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 106: 48). See Lawson (2014, 87)..

Poem 5: The perfection of God’s word

The perfection of God’s word

2. The main challenge for the church is to look upon the cross so it can understand that the task is to help women and not oppress them.

3. Although the church’s primary concern is the gospel, when accepts the mission of protecting women, it is presenting the gospel through its actions. More people will appreciate Christianity when the church becomes Christ for the hurting.

4. This refers to Luke 9:23 (NRSV, 1989). So, to be a disciple is to do what Jesus did and help women even if it results in your death instead of theirs.

5. In Luke 23:34, Jesus asks his father to forgive his murderers. Throughout the gospels, Jesus teaches us to forgive our enemies. This poses an opportunity for women who have experienced violence to offer forgiveness as a gift of liberation to themselves and the perpetrator (Tutu 1999, 16).

6. To ask for the church to draw their attention to the theology of the cross also encourages women to begin the process of forgiving the perpetrator. There are no boundaries to forgiveness because, as Demond Tutu says, “we may not always reach to that ideal but that is the standard.” Therefore, for one to experience healing, it is beneficial to begin on the path of forgiveness. However, this is a choice and a long process, but with their eyes on the cross, survivors know that with God it is possible.

7. Desmond Tutu’s ability to forgive others is an example for this crisis, as he was able to do the impossible and encourages us to work for reconciliation and peace.

8. Tutu took apartheid as an opportunity to mend division so there is an opportunity to allow Everards’s legacy to likewise mend division through reform by means of reconciliation.

9. This ties back to the first poem that shows gendercide was not God’s intention. God created harmony in the garden as a template of how we should interact with the world and each other (Tutu 1999, 200). So, Christians should strive to display God’s intention through forgiveness.

10. This refers to Tutu’s teaching that emphasises that true forgiveness takes away the sting and allows peace (Tutu 1999, 207). This suggests that women can achieve peace, but it is unclear whether this will make the streets safer or only provide therapeutic benefits.

11. Tutu speaks about clinging onto unforgiveness can place us in a prison of trauma where we relieve the memories of tragedy instead of living in liberation (Tutu 1999, 200).

12. Forgiveness shows it liberates and reflects God’s intention to heal the broken through reconciliation (Tutu 1999, 206).

13. The emphasis on God’s perfection is supported by Revelation 21:4, which promotes comfort to those who are suffering because God’s intention for the future is to remove our suffering and pain.

14-15. The last section of the book of Psalms (Psalms 107-150) ends with a doxology: “Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens.  Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150). See Lawson (2014, 88).

References

BBC News (15 March 2021a). ‘Sarah Everard vigil: ‘All I wanted was to stand with other women.’” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-56402418

BBC News (15 March 2021b). “Sarah Everard vigil: Boris Johnson ‘deeply concerned by footage.’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-56396960

BBC News (29 September 2021). “Sarah Everard murder: ‘Our lives will never be the same again.’” https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-58739421

BBC News (30 September 2021). “Sarah Everard: How Wayne Couzens planned her murder.” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-58746108

Gerhardt, Elizabeth (2014). The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Groothuis, Rebecca Merrill (2005). Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Hégy, Pierre, and Joseph Marios (2016). “Understanding the Dynamics of Gender Roles: Towards the Abolition of Sexism in Christianity.”In Equal at the Creation, edited by Joseph Martos and Pierre Hégy, pp. 181-202. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.

Lawson, Steven J. (2014). Preaching the Psalms: Unlocking the Unsearchable Riches of David’s Treasury. Darlington: Ep Books. 

McCant, Jerry W. (1999). “Inclusive Language and the Gospel.” Religious Education 94 (2): 172-87.

Parker, Julie Faith. (2013). “Blaming Eve Alone: Translation, Omission, and Implications of ‘mh in Genesis 3:6b.” Journal of Biblical Literature 132 (4): 729-47.

Silliman, Daniel, and Kate Shellnutt (2021). “Ravi Zacharias hid hundreds of pictures of women, abuse during massage, and a rape allegation.” Christianity Today, 11 February 2021. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2021/february/ravi-zacharias-rzim-investigation-sexual-abuse-sexting-rape.html

 Sinclair, Leah (2021). “Tearful mourners gather at Clapham Common Bandstand to pay tribute to Sarah Everard.” Evening Standard, 13 March 2021.  https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/sarah-everard-vigil-mourners-clapham-bandstand-b923948.html

Tutu, Desmond. (1999). No Future Without Forgiveness. London: Rider.

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Remembering Sarah Everard and Reflecting on Violation of Boundaries, Sexual Violence, and Victim Blaming Through the Song of Songs

Today’s post is by Karina Atudosie and Katherine Gwyther

Karina Atudosie recently completed her MA by Research at the University of Birmingham (UK) with a thesis exploring hegemonic power in the Song of Songs. She is currently examining how queenship, gender, and power are constructed and imagined in the Hebrew Bible. Her Twitter handle is: @KAtudosie 

Katherine Gwyther is a third-year PhD at the University of Leeds (UK) researching utopia and the book of Exodus. She can be found on Twitter: @katgwyther

______________________________________________________________________

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the kidnap, rape, and murder of Sarah Everard by Wayne Couzens, then a serving police officer. Sarah’s murder sparked a wave of grief, outrage, and public protest, and debate around women’s safety and the prevalence of gendered violence and abuse of male power throughout the UK.[i]

Only a week after Sarah’s murder first appeared in the news media, came the results of a UN Women survey, which confirmed that sexual harassment, one form of gendered violence, is endemic in UK society. 80% of women of all ages had recently experienced some form of sexual harassment. 86% of women aged 18–24 reported experiencing sexual harassment in public spaces; 76% of women of all ages recognised this experience. Only a shockingly small minority of a mere 3% of women did not recall ever experiencing any sort of sexual harassment. In the year since, multiple reports about other abuses of power and the rape culture underlying them, both inside the police and within our wider culture, have emerged.

But gendered sexual violence is not, of course, a modern phenomenon or a sign of just our times; we find it abundantly in our ancient and religious texts, too. Within the Hebrew Bible, we can call attention to Dinah’s rape in Genesis (34:2), to the ‘taking’ of captive Midianite girls for rape in Numbers (31:18), to the women offered as a sexual sacrifice in Judges (19:24), and to the mass rape ‘marriages’ of the women at Shiloh in Judges (21:21–24). These are just a few examples to be found in the biblical corpus. 

It may come as a surprise that the Song of Songs provides a further example of gendered sexualised violence. After all, many readers of the Bible regard this biblical book as benign love poetry. But that evaluation is deceptive and ignores the text’s traces of horror. We will read Song of Songs to reflect on Sarah Everard’s murder and on how we can use biblical texts to contemplate issues of power, boundaries, and victim blaming in situations of gendered violence perpetrated by men who have and who abuse authority. One aim of ours is to point out how important it is to recognise and to detoxify such situations even when – as in Song of Songs – they are all too rarely acknowledged and confronted. Sarah’s murder was shocking and widely mourned for its violence and for taking the life of a young woman with so much life to live. But such extreme sexual violence – in the police force as elsewhere – is underpinned by other forms of sexual violence, down to microaggressions. We advocate that these, too, must be called out – in our own time and place, including in sacred texts.

The Song of Songs is a series of sensual poems centred around two unnamed lovers who move in the landscapes of the city and nature to be with each other, overcoming obstacles along the way. The Song’s cyclical nature allows the lovers to continually part ways and reunite in different settings. We will focus on the two instances where the female lover encounters the city’s watchmen, or sentinels, as she wanders in the city at night. 

The female lover’s first search for her lover appears in 3:2-3: ‘“I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.” I sought him, but found him not. The sentinels found me, as they went about in the city. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”’ 

The description of the watchmen invokes contemporary experiences of police officers patrolling cities by night to ensure that citizens are safe and protected. Both the watchmen and modern police officers are in positions of authority to enforce the law, and, as these verses demonstrate, the watchmen and their vigilant gaze are believed to have their uses: they are relied upon to provide information that could help the female lover find her beloved. In short, 3:2-3 implies that interactions with watchmen, as so often with police officers or other authority figures in our communities today, are not expected to end in harm or violence. Instead, there is an assumption of trust and an expectation of reliability.

But the female lover’s second time wandering around the city at night describes a rather different experience. And this one is also all too familiar for very many women. This time when the female lover searches for her beloved (5:6-7), she is met with a completely different reaction from the watchmen. Describing her experience of wandering in the city on the second occasion, the female lover recounts the following: ‘I sought him, but did not find him; I called him, but he gave no answer. Making their rounds in the city, the sentinels found me; they beat me, they wounded me, they took away my mantle, those sentinels of the walls.’ 

‘The Watchman that went about the City’ (courtesy of Birmingham Museum).

The watchmen’s actions stand in stark contrast to their earlier interaction with the female lover. Earlier on, their role was passive. This time the watchmen do not only keep watch – they act violently. As well as physically assaulting the female lover (‘they beat me’), it is also implied that they sexually assault her: this is hinted at through the removal of an unidentifiable garment which is here translated as ‘mantle’. Stripping or exposing can be a euphemism or a prelude for sexual assault. 

Some scholars speculate whether the watchmen’s sudden and decisive reaction in 5:7 is in response to the female lover being dressed provocatively while wandering around alone at night, deducing from this that she is a sex worker. This, moreover, carries the implication that a sex worker invites and deserves the watchmen’s violence, or that their violent action is somehow defensible or ‘understandable’.[ii] This a very dangerous implication that legitimates violence, and demeans sex workers, erasing their human dignity and agency over their bodies and sexual encounters. Focus on the female lover’s removed clothing is quite prevalent in scholarship on the Song, and its depiction in the biblical text, without any criticism, let alone outrage, of the watchmen is indicative of victim-blaming. It serves an apologetic function, explaining, even excusing, the watchmen’s actions. Effectively, this echoes the well-known refrain from our own times: ‘she was asking for it.’ 

Such accusations might be launched at the female lover for walking alone at night searching for her lover: ‘She is looking for sex… She is asking for sex… No wonder people assume she is after sex’ – with the word ‘sex’ all too often actually pertaining to ‘rape’. As it happens, the female lover is looking for her beloved – not for sex. And if she is looking for sex, it is for sex with her lover, not sex with anyone or everyone. To imply or argue otherwise is rape suggestive. 

In chapter 3 we saw the female lover’s first search for her beloved; here she wanders by night and encounters the watchmen without any violent consequences. So, what happens in chapter 5 that results in such violence? Apparently, nothing about the female lover’s behaviour has changed; rather, it is the watchmen’s behaviour that has changed: this time they transgress boundaries and abuse their authority. They cross a corporeal boundary by physically and sexually assaulting the woman and inflicting pain on her. But they also cross a boundary in their role as watchmen, by digressing from keeping watch over the city and perpetrating an act of violence against a citizen. In their assault of the female lover, the watchmen go from those who are at the city walls, protecting its citizens, to abusers who use their authority to commit outrageous acts instead of guarding and protecting. In a vicious reversal, the watchmen, who should be protecting the city’s inhabitants, become the ones that women need to be protected from. 

The Song, composed over two thousand years ago, contains a violent motif that is eerily reminiscent of events in our own times, and which speaks to the tragic fate of Sarah Everard, and to that of many other women who have suffered at the hands of men or authorities who should have protected them. Moreover, with these contemporary stories, too, we still often find the same problematic questions being asked: What was she wearing? Why was she out at night? Why was she walking alone? Why did she not see this coming? Such questions reinforce a system where people in safeguarding roles or positions of power can abuse their authority by blaming the actions of the victim rather than the actions of the perpetrator. 

Asking such questions facilitates victim-blaming; at its worst, it conveys that certain lives matter more than others – for instance, that sex workers matter less than ‘respectable’ persons. It says that a woman walking alone at night can expect, in some cases deserves, to be kidnapped, raped, or killed; her clothing and behaviour can become a justification for such horrors. Victim-blaming takes the focus away from perpetrators, from those who cross boundaries and who should be held accountable. 

In both the Song and in Sarah Everard’s case, accountability should be with those who abuse their authority and positions of trust – the watchmen and Wayne Couzens. Whereas the fact that Wayne Couzens was a serving police officer who violated and violently abused his authority added to the horror and outrage of the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard, the actions of the watchmen are often passed over. Similarly, many less grave infringements of authority by police officers and other authority figures in our own times are also passed over. It is only in very recent times and in response to the emergence of multiple cases that so-called ‘banter’ between police officers on WhatsApp and other media is finally beginning to be taken as seriously as it deserves to be.

Allegations and concrete examples of police malpractice and abuse of power are, unfortunately, neither rare nor isolated. The Sarah Everard case is tragic and has elicited outrage, heartache, outpourings of grief and calls for investigations. All indications are that while Sarah’s kidnap, rape and murder are particularly brutal examples of fatal violence executed by a police officer, Couzens was not a case of ‘one bad apple’. Instead, investigations and tip-offs have shown the scale and depth of both racialized and misogynist abuses of power within the police to be far greater.[iii]

The Song might lull us into thinking about all kinds of sensualities, but we should remain alert to its abusive elements, no matter how fleeting these are. By drawing attention to the actions of the watchmen we can and should reflect also on sexual violence and on the abuse of power in our own contemporary society. 

The anonymity of the female lover in the Song makes it easier to see her as everywoman. Her encounters with the watchmen show us how an ordinary and everyday experience might turn into a nightmare for any one of us when those in power decide to transgress their boundaries and abuse their position. 

We mourn for Sarah Everard and for the many, many women who have suffered violence and lost their lives at the hands of abusers.

References

Davis, Ellen F. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000.

Exum, J. Cheryl. Song of Songs: A Commentary. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

Fox, Michael V. The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

LaCocque, André. Romance, She Wrote: A Hermeneutical Essay on Song of Songs. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1998.

Longman III, Tremper. Song of Songs. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2001.

Smith, Mitzi. Womanist Sass and Talk Back. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018.


[i] The rallying cry of public protests, ‘she was just walking home’, is now the name of a movement seeking change.

[ii] Davis (p.278) and LaCocque (pp.119–120) argue that the guards assume that the woman is a sex worker. Fox (p.146) offers a sexual, and arguably inappropriate reading of the text, noting that the description of the lover’s mantle invites the audience to ‘imagine the Shulammite running about the city hastily dressed and half-naked.’ Longman (p.169) and Exum (p.197–199) reject this designation. 

[iii] For just a few of distressingly many examples from the UK, see herehere, and here. The last example pertains to revelations of police misogyny and racism following the brutal murder of sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. Alongside appalling WhatsApp messages there are also examples of police officers charged with rape (e.g. see here and here). There are also very many examples from beyond the UK, with the US case of Daniel Holtzclaw constituting a particularly shocking example (see here). Womanist biblical scholar Mitzi Smith has discussed this case alongside the book of Susanna (pp.118–140). 

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