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The Woman from Judges 19

Hilary Willett (she/her) fights for gender justice by writing icons and reclaiming the lives of biblical women. Her most recent icon writes the unnamed woman whose story is found in Judges 19. Here, Hilary reflects on the process of writing this icon.

“The Woman from Judges 19” is one of the more confronting icons I have written. I knew I wanted to write it within a few months of learning iconography. I first read about this woman in Phyllis Trible’s book Texts of Terror.[1] Judges 19 tells the story of a woman in scripture who should be known and mourned everywhere, but is rarely discussed.

The woman in Judges 19 has no name. In many translations, she is rather crudely described as a “concubine” to a Levite man. In even less forgiving translations, she is described as an “unfaithful” concubine (ESV, NIV). But it is hard to know the precise nature of her relationship with the Levite. At times, the Levite is described as her “husband.” Some scholars speak of her as a “secondary wife.” For myself, I do not really want to describe her according to her relationship with a man. It is enough to know that this woman existed and that the biblical authors give her no name.

This unnamed woman appears to be in a fraught relationship with the Levite. While the woman from Judges 19 is not given much agency by the textual authors, she does leave the Levite man at the beginning of the narrative. She travels back home and is away for four months. This hint of autonomy, however, is short-lived. The Levite sets out with a servant, follows her to her home and is welcomed (“with joy!”) by the woman’s father. The father and the Levite enjoy food and drink for five days. The father does not uphold his daughter’s choice to live separately from the Levite in this moment, he focuses on male comfort and social expectations around hospitality.

On the afternoon of the fifth day, the woman’s father encourages the Levite to stay for another night. The Levite wants to leave (a deeply unwise decision). He takes the woman with him; there is no objection to her leaving with him in the text. As they travel, the Levite refuses to stop for the night at many of the safe havens they pass, preferring to keep travelling until they reach a Benjamanite town. Unable to travel any further, the Levite and the woman are stranded. The Levite is unable to find a place to keep them safe for the night.

Eventually, an older man takes pity on the Levite and shelters him, the woman, and the Levite’s servant. However, the house is surrounded by men who wish to rape the Levite man. To protect the Levite, the woman is cast out of the house. She is raped to death. She dies with her hands on the doorstep of the house.

But this story, as horrific as it is, gets worse.

The Levite cuts up the woman’s body and sends the pieces throughout Israel to incite war. Israel goes to war against the tribe of Benjamin, virtually wiping them out. Towns, people, and animals are destroyed, until only 600 men are left alive. Then, fearing a future where the tribe of Benjamin is eradicated, these armies kill the inhabitants of another town (Jabesh-Gilead), sparing only 400 virgin women. These women are given to the 600 Benjaminites to continue the bloodline of the tribe. The men left without wives are instructed to abduct still more women from Shiloh.

There is a reason we don’t often talk about this story. It is depraved. It is a story of extreme male violence and terror, of war justified by patriarchal sin. At the heart of this violence is a woman, whose name is absent, whose voice is silenced, and whose body is not her own. She is used, over and over, by men who care more about protecting their masculinity, upholding social expectations, and enacting vengeance. Her vulnerability is extreme – just like every innocent person who died in the fallout of war, just like every one of those 400 women from Jabesh-Gilead, just like every woman abducted from Shiloh.

To show such vulnerability in this icon, the woman is written naked. To show her stark reality, the shadows are deep; there is no colour apart from the red lines on her skin. These lines indicate where her body will be divided up. In the middle of some of the sections, a tribe of Israel is written on her body. This visual allusion drew upon butchers’ charts for inspiration, which divide up animals according to their meat cuts. Her face is hidden to highlight the absence of her name or any identifying feature. Finally, to show the utter horror of her situation, her halo is fractured, its pieces raining down on her body.

There is a reason why we should tell this woman’s story. It is because the story has not ended. There is so much war and violence occurring in the world today, so much justifying the unjustifiable. Every time we allow violence to reign in the home, in church, in society, and in politics, it is horrifying. Every time a vulnerable body is used, every time women are abused, every time innocent people become fallout or justifications for war, we need to remember this story and say very clearly: “No. No more. Never again. This ends here.”

Find more of Hilary’s icons – including the Woman from Judges 19 – at Lumen Icons: https://www.lumenicons.nz/


[1] Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984).

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Power Dynamics: Who Can Say No?

Princess O’Nika Auguste hails from Helen of the West, the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia. She is a PhD student in Biblical Studies at Dublin City University. Follow her on Twitter:/X @isletheologian.

The complex interplay of power dynamics is not limited by time; it is present in ancient history, in holy books like the Bible, and in our current world. Indeed, many stories that depict human interactions bear witness to the presence of complex power relationships across time and space. Two such stories include that of David and Bathsheba (2Sam 11), and the encounter between Mary and the Angel Gabriel (or God in Luke 1). This post will engage these biblical narratives alongside contemporary narratives in order to ruminate on this complex and timeless topic. By examining these stories, I will highlight the deep and long-lasting effects of power relations, acknowledging their presence over generations and influence on the human condition. 

Jenna Van Schoor describes power dynamics as “the balance of power between two or more people when they engage with each other. Depending on cultural and other relevant contexts, this can look very different” (van Schoor 2023 What Are Power Dynamics). So, how do the narratives of Bathsheba and David and Mary and Gabriel/God reflect these dynamics of power? The power of both David and Gabriel is signaled initially by their gender and status – David as a king and Gabriel as an angel/deity. In each story, this power is contrasted with the lack of status held by Bathsheba and Mary both of whom have little or limited status. David and Gabriel thus wield great authority, power, and influence over Bathsheba and Mary respectively.

David and Bathsheba’s story is widely contested on and offline. Every year there are debates on social media about whether Bathsheba was raped by David. In this narrative, the power dynamics are those of a king and his subject. Thus, any conversations about the relationship between David and Bathsheba needs to include the nuanced discussion around concepts of consent, cultural context and, of course, power disparities.

The limited amount of detail given in the biblical text of the Bathsheba narrative reveals its complexity. The text tells us that David sent men to find Bathsheba after he observed her taking a bath (2Sam 11:2–5). We read, “David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her,” after which she became pregnant. The text is silent on Bathsheba’s feelings about the encounter. Some, like Randall C. Bailey (1990, 86) contend that Bathsheba was a consenting and equal partner. They suggest she flirted with David and even requested to be sent for. Despite extensive research by feminist biblical scholars like Phyllis Trible, Jennifer Wright Knust, and Johanna Stiebert which problematise the power dynamics between Bathsheba and David, such interpreters continue to deny the power differentials and insist that Bathsheba consented to King David’s advances for sex.

It is important to recognise, however, that even if Bathsheba had agreed to the encounter with King David, this relationship is still problematic because David is the king, and the inequality of relationship amounts to an abuse of power. The problem is one of consent and Bathsheba’s ability (or lack thereof) to say ‘no’ or refuse the advances of one who has power and authority over her.

Similar power dynamics exist in contemporary culture, where powerful men have sexual relationships with women who have less power and status than them. Examples of powerful men who have used their power to abuse women include Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly, and Danny Matterson. In some instances, these men have been found guilty of rape, but all of these relationships amount, at the very least, to an abuse of power. Another example is the relationship between Monica Lewinsky and former US President Bill Clinton – a relationship which is still the subject of intense media debate decades later. In the mid-1990s, President Clinton started an intimate relationship with a young White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. Eventually, media leaks about the affair led to Clinton’s impeachment although he was ultimately acquitted and remained in office until 2001. Monica Lewinsky, on the other hand, was demonized as an opportunist and seductress who tempted an honourable man and she continues to bear the fallout from this affair to this day. While some argue that Monica was a free intern and could have left the relationship at any time, we have to question whether this was even an option for her given the power disparity between them (as intern and president). What would have happened to her if she had ended the relationship? Would she have been able to find other forms of employment? What consequences would she have suffered for denying the most powerful man in the world? Would she have been ostracized from Washington DC? (See Sex, power, and humiliation: eight lessons women learned from Monica Lewinsky’s shaming).

The relationship between defamed R&B singer, R. Kelly, and the late singer Aaliyah offers another opportunity for reflection on relational power dynamics. Their relationship began in the early 90s when Aaliyah was emerging in the music industry. There were rumours that Aaliyah (15) and R. Kelly (27) were married – a rumour that was also implied in her album Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, which Kelly was heavily involved in. At the time of the relationship, Aaliyah was underage and was also looking to grow in the music industry. Her family argue that Kelly took advantage of her at a time when she was very vulnerable. Others argue, however, that Aaliyah and her family used the relationship with R. Kelly to cement her as music royalty. Aaliyah already had connections in the music business as her aunt was Gladys Knight and her uncle was recording producer Barry Hankerson. This meant that an alliance between Aaliyah and R. Kelly would strengthen Aaliyah’s place in Hollywood. However, it is now known that when Aaliyah’s parents found out about the relationship they had her marriage annulled and Aaliyah never worked with R. Kelly again. Her marriage to the singer was covered up until years after her death and after R. Kelly had been accused and convicted of sexual assault unrelated to Aaliyah’s case. 

How do the relationships between Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton and Aaliyah/R Kelly relate to the story of Bathsheba and David? It could be argued that, like Monica and Aaliyah, Bathsheba was a seductress and an opportunist who used her relationship with a powerful man to ‘get ahead’. Some scholars suggest that Bathsheba was of noble blood because she was the granddaughter of Ahithophel, King David’s counsellor (2Sam 11:3; 23:34). Bathsheba’s father was Eliam, and her husband was Uriah the Hittie both of whom were part of a group of soldiers called David’s Thirty Mighty Men (2Sam 23:8-38). Those men were David’s closest friends and thus, it could be argued that Bathsheba may have taken advantage of her family’s connections to advance in society through her connection to the throne. But, like Monica and Aaliyah, we have to ask, did Bathsheba have the ability to consent to the relationship with David? Could she have said no to him without fear of consequence? Can any woman in a relationship where this is a large disparity in power say no?

Before these questions are answered, we need to discuss rape and consent. According to Barstow (2023), rape is

“unlawful sexual activity, most often involving sexual intercourse, against the will of the victim through force or the threat of force or with an individual who is incapable of giving legal consent because of minor status, mental illnessmental deficiency, intoxication, unconsciousness, or deception. In many jurisdictions, the crime of rape has been subsumed under that of sexual assault. Rape was long considered to be caused by unbridled sexual desire, but it is now understood as a pathological assertion of power over a victim.” (Barstow 2023).

When we consider this understanding of rape, we must ask ourselves, did any of these women have the freedom to fully consent to their relationship with such powerful men? Could Monica Lewinsky say no to President Bill Clinton? Could Aaliyah say no to the “King of R&B,” R. Kelly? Could Bathsheba say no to King David? If the answer is no, then by the rape definition above these women were coerced into sexual relationships with men in higher positions than them because if they said no, they could lose their livelihoods.  

Perhaps one of the reasons that some interpreters understand Bathsheba as a consenting participant in the relationship is the fact that the biblical the text is not clear on Bathsheba’s feelings and perspective. This is in contrast to another text, 2 Samuel 13, where King David’s daughter, Tamar, is raped, and the biblical writer is very clear about her violation. Tamar clearly resists her rapist, saying ‘no’ and asking him not to ‘force’ her (v 12). She declares his intentions to be evil and offers him a way out (vv 12, 13). She does everything she can to prevent her assault. She is the “ideal victim.” The fact that the author of 2Sam 11 is not explicit about Bathsheba’s role in her relationship with David has led some to be convinced that Bathsheba was complicit in the affair and thus just as guilty as David. Bathsheba does not fulfil the ideal victim trope.

So, what is the ideal victim? According to Mary Morgan,

“Victims of sexual assault are forced to prove not only the guilt of their perpetrator, but also their own innocence. The ideal victim is seen as innocent in the eyes of the public, the judge, the jury and the public. The ideal victim cannot be blamed whatsoever for violence committed against them. It is only then, when the victim has been deemed completely innocent, that perpetrators are evaluated for their guilt” (Words from an “Unideal” Victim).

So, can a woman only be a rape victim if she is deemed to be good, pure, and holy? Conflicting with the myth of this ideal victim is another common rape myth that good and holy women would not be the target of predatory men. But these myths – like all rape myths – only serve to excuse perpetrators of sexual violence and blame victims.

These rape myths are conceivably one of the reasons why many find it difficult to consider the Virgin Mary a rape victim. But equally, people may find it difficult to believe the Virgin Mary was a rape victim because of who impregnated her. To identify Mary in this way is to question the reputation of an angel and of a good God. While the relationship between David and Bathsheba is open to discussion, many seem afraid to debate the narrative of Mary in order to raise similar questions – either because it is too complicated, or because it would cause controversy. The idea that Mary was sexually assaulted or raped would be hugely controversial, of course, because it would be to accuse the deity of sexual violence.

The Biblical narrative in Luke 1 narrates that when the angel Gabriel came to speak to Mary she was afraid and did not understand what the angel was speaking about. The angel told her not to be afraid, that the deity would overshadow her, and Jesus would be born. At the end of the narrative, Mary submits. (Luke 1:26-38).  The text reads:

The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Some argue that Mary is portrayed as having autonomy in this text because she agrees to become pregnant with Jesus (Barber 202, 22). Mary Daly, for example, argues that Mary as the virgin mother could be empowering and an image for female autonomy (Daly 1993,84).

But did Mary have the full freedom of consent? What if Mary did not consent and the deity abused his power? In Luke 1 we find a similar power disparity to that seen between David and Bathsheba – but the inequalities between Mary and the angel are even greater. Here we see an all-powerful male impregnating a young, vulnerable woman. And so, the same questions about power dynamics that were applied to Bathsheba should also be applied to Mary. Could Mary say no? Could she leave? What would have been the consequences if she had told the angel Gabriel “no”?  While some scholars will not go as far as to suggest the Mary was a victim of rape, there there are those who find her consent troubling. Wil Gafney, for example, notes although Mary’s ancient context would have meant that she probably could not have consented to the encounter, she still used whatever agency she had to withhold her consent initially by asking the question, “How could this be?”  Gafney notes that while she did agree, her consent was problematic because, “Mary’s submission [‘here I am, the woman-slave of the Lord] is in the vernacular of slavery… In this light, her consent is troubled and troubling.” (Gafney, Did Mary Say “Me Too”?

Thus, both the narratives of Mary and Bathsheba raise questions of power dynamics and consent. Our traditional interpretations of these stories are troubling because if we are not interpreting these women as victims of male power, we are sexualizing them – Mary a virgin and Bathsheba an adulteress. This, in turn, emboldens patriarchy and sexual violence and puts women in similar power relationships in our own time in a perilous situation. Perilous situations that benefit men. When power disparities are overlooked, we underplay how these dynamics can lead to sexual violence and sexual coercion. Consent is not complicated; power dynamics should not determine who can say no!

References

Bailey, R.C., 1990. David in love and war: The pursuit of power in 2 Samuel 10-12 (Vol. 75). A&C Black.

Barber, M., 2021. Hagar and Sarah and Mary and Elizabeth: Reading Luke 1 with Genesis 16/21 (Doctoral dissertation, Union Theological Seminary).

Daly, M., 1993. Beyond God the father: Toward a philosophy of women’s liberation. Beacon Press.

Klein, L.R., 2003. From Deborah to Esther: sexual politics in the Hebrew Bible. Fortress Press.

Kirk-Duggan, C.A. ed., 2004. Pregnant passion: gender, sex, and violence in the Bible (Vol. 44). Brill.

Reilly, F., 2005. Jane Schaberg, Raymond E. Brown, and the problem of the illegitimacy of Jesus. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion21(1), pp.57-80.

Schaberg, J., 2006. The Illegitimacy of Jesus. A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the infancy Narratives, Expanded Twentieth Anniversary Edition.

Images

“David en Batseba, RP-P-2015-17-117-8” by Rijksmuseum is marked with CC0 1.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en/?ref=openverse.

“File:PM 080988 E La Granja n.jpg” by PMRMaeyaert is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/?ref=openverse.

<div class=’fn’> <div style=’font-weight:bold;display:inline-block;’><a href=’https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/en:Annunciation’ class=’extiw’ title=’w:en:Annunciation’><span title=’announcement of the birth of Jesus to Mary’>Annunciation</span></a></div></div>” by Fra Angelico is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

  

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New Book: The Bible and Gender-Based Violence in Botswana

In this post we feature the forthcoming book The Bible and Gender-Based Violence in Botswana (Routledge, 2024) by Mmapula Diana Kebaneilwe. The book is in the Routledge Focus series, ‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’, which is edited by Emily Colgan, Johanna Stiebert and Barbara Thiede. The book is out in March and ready for pre-order from 22 February 2024. (Yes, this post is early… – but we just couldn’t wait!) Read about the book here first!

  1. How did the book come about?

The current rampancy of gender-based violence (GBV) against women and girls in Christianised Botswana prompted the writing of this book. As a Motswana woman who lives and has lived in this country since birth, I have witnessed uncountable inhumane acts of violence that disproportionately affect women and girls. I have experienced GBV myself, as have many women and girls that I know personally (family and friends), as well as those I only read or hear about on different media platforms, including the national television station, newspapers, etc. They, we have suffered GBV, and many have lost their lives at the hands of men and boys, those who are most often the perpetrators of GBV. Therefore, my identity, experiences, and research created in me the hunger to put together in print Batswana women’s stories of GBV alongside stories of GBV against biblical women. My quest has been to explore how the Bible and the Botswana faith communities it inspires intersect with traditional political landscapes to reinforce GBV. 

  • What does activism mean to you, and how does this book relate to religion and GBV?

Activism means everything to me. I am of the view that keeping quiet about acts of violence and injustice of whatever nature, including GBV, equates to colluding with perpetrators, and hence, I choose to expose, name, and seek ways to correct such. Researching and writing on GBV, as in this book, is a way of campaigning for social change regarding women’s and girls’ rights. Their rights are being stifled by gender inequality, which has resulted in our pandemic of GBV. 

The book relates to religion and GBV in that stories of GBV against women in Botswana are read alongside similar stories from the Bible, the sacred literature of Christianity, the dominant religion in Botswana. My research has revealed unbelievable resonance between GBV against textual biblical female characters and Botswana’s real flesh and blood female persons. The exercise of inter-reading or co-reading is an important one, given the authority and respect accorded the Bible in the Botswana context where many people intimately associate themselves with its faith and teachings.

  • What are the main themes of the book?

The main themes of the book are as follows:

  • Demonstrating and acknowledging that GBV is endemic in the Bible and in Botswana
  • Insisting that there should be no recycling of biblical injustices: read it, name it, and fix it
  • Reading the Bible and its stories of GBV in a quest for transformational revelation and for gender justice in Botswana and beyond.
  • Who would benefit from the book?

The book will benefit everyone willing to seek positive change in regard to gender equality, and is intended for a wide readership, including researchers, postgraduates, church leaders and other representatives of religious institutions, and upper-level undergraduates.

  • Give us a quotation from your book and tell us why you chose it?

“Like a mirror, the Bible is an accessible resource—but only if we first, use it and second, use it purposefully and constructively with integrity” (Kebaneilwe 2024, 84).

I choose the above quotation because I believe that the Bible is confrontational in nature by reflecting parts of life that we do not want to see or do not want to admit to: jealousy, passion, anger, violence, etc. Like a mirror, its transformational effect can only be accessible if we first admit what we see when we look into its pages.  Ultimately, concealing, spiritualising, or twisting the rottenness in biblical texts will only serve to perpetuate the same in our world, which explains why even in Christianised contexts like Botswana, we still find heinous acts of injustice and violence, including, in this case GBV. 

Congratulations to Mmapula from everyone at The Shiloh Project!

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The Bible and Violence Project: Meet Joseph N. Goh

Picture of Joseph N. Goh credited to Puah Sze Ning

Joseph N. Goh (he/they/any) hails from Sarawak, Malaysia, and joined the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University Malaysia in January 2016.  Currently a Senior Lecturer in Gender Studies, Goh’s first single-authored monograph entitled Living Out Sexuality and Faith: Body Admissions of Malaysian Gay and Bisexual Men (Routledge 2018) was based on his doctoral project. It analyses and theorises the self-understandings of gay and bisexual men of various ethnicities, classes, ages and faiths on their gender and sexual identities and practices, and their performances of religiosity and spirituality. His second book, Becoming a Malaysian Trans Man: Gender, Society, Body and Faith (Palgrave Macmillan 2020), was the first dedicated academic volume on Malaysian transgender men, and won the ‘Ground-Breaking Subject Matter Accolade’ in the IBP 2021 Accolades in the Social Sciences category of the ICAS Book Prize 2021 competition. His third sole-authored volume, Doing Church at the Amplify Open and Affirming Conferences: Queer Ecclesiologies in Asia (Palgrave Macmillan 2021), was the first in-depth theological study of a series of Christian conferences in Asia by and for LGBTIQ-affirming churches, communities, organisations and individuals. Goh has also co-edited several anthologies with Robert E. Shore-Goss, Hugo Córdova Quero, Michael Sepidoza Campos, Sharon A. Bong and Thaatchaayini Kananatu. He is a member of the Emerging Queer Asian Pacific Islander Religion Scholars international group (EQARS), and sits on the advisory board of the Queer Asia Book Series (Hong Kong University Press), as well as the editorial boards of the Queer and Trans Intersections Series (University of Wales Press) and QTR: A Journal of Queer and Transgender Studies in Religion (Duke University Press).

Goh, along with his collaborators, was awarded the Vice-Chancellor’s Diversity and Inclusion Award (2018) and Pro-Vice Chancellor’s Excellence in Diversity & Inclusion Award (2022) for the development of the Understanding Gender Inclusivity in Malaysia training module at Monash University Malaysia, which serves to create greater awareness of the issues, needs and concerns of LGBTIQ people in the interest of equity, diversity and inclusion. With research interests in LGBTIQ studies, human rights, sexual health, theology, spirituality, religion, and qualitative research, Goh’s two present projects focus on the complex and controversial operations of SEED Malaysia, the first transgender-led community-based organisation in Malaysia, and the manifold spiritualities of Malaysian Christian transgender women.

Goh’s contribution to The Bible and Violence Project is a book chapter entitled ‘A Triptych of Biblical Violence Towards Gay and Transgender Christians: The Case of Malaysia’. Cognisant of the multifarious ways in which the Bible continues to be weaponised against people of diverse genders and sexualities in his home country, Goh argues that there are three parallel and mutually interactive dynamics in the production of Christian violence against LGBTQ Malaysians: (i) official Bible-based ecclesiastical pronouncements against gender and sexual diversities; (ii) scriptural de-legitimisations of gay and transgender people as personally experienced in churches and faith communities; and (iii) insidious practices of conversion therapy. He demonstrates how non-affirming Malaysian Christianity galvanises and preserves the vulnerability of LGBTQ Malaysians, branded as ‘sexually broken’, with far-reaching consequences beyond the immediate use of the Bible as ‘sacred’ arsenal.

Goh owns a personal website at https://www.josephgoh.org/

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New Publication: Marriage, Bible, Violence: Intersections and Impacts

Marriage, Bible, Violence - book cover

In this post, we feature the bookMarriage, Bible, Violence: Intersections and Impacts (Routledge, 2023), by Saima Afzal and Johanna Stiebert, which is out this week! We caught up with them both for an interview.

How did the book come about?

The two of us have been friends for some years. We first met at the University of Leeds when Saima was completing her MA in Religion and Public Life, and we have collaborated on a variety of campaigns focused around preventing gender-based violence.

The book, while succinct, took longer to write than we had anticipated – not least, because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But the harder it was for us to find time for writing, the clearer the importance of this book became. We could see the harm and damage caused by instrumentalising sacred texts to afflict real people, with women and girls disproportionately represented among victims and survivors. This was exacerbated by the pandemic. Resisting such violence on multiple fronts, including with research-based arguments, drove us on.

Tell us about your collaboration – how you met, what work you do. 

Like we said, we met at the University of Leeds where Johanna works, and Saima completed an MA. Saima has a wealth of practitioner experience from working in local government, child protection, and as National Crime Agency-registered expert witness and Independent Member of the Lancashire (UK) Police Authority, with a national Equality, Diversity, and Human Rights portfolio. Johanna is a biblical scholar with particular interest in topics of gender and gender-based violence. She co-founded and co-directs The Shiloh Project.

Together we co-direct (together with researchers Mmapula Kebaneilwe and Emma Tomalin) a Community Interest Company (CIC) founded by Saima, called SAS Rights. This CIC is the primary vehicle for much of our activist work. The book is our co-production and an attempt to combine our perspectives as researchers and as activists to explore the multiple ways the topics of ‘marriage’ and ‘violence’ are enmeshed. We use the Bible as our focus for demonstrating some of these intersections and the impact they have on real lives.

Johanna and Saima

What does ‘activism’ mean to you, and how does this relate to religion and gender-based violence?

Activism is central to much of what we do. Religion is central to our research and central to the lives of many in the communities we work in. Each of us identifies as both scholar and activist, even if in our working lives, these carry different emphases. We share a conviction that activism benefits from a basis in research and research benefits from having impact on positive social change.

The book is based on research and analysis of biblical texts, yes. But in the course of this, we are mindful of and remind readers why these matter: that is, because recourse to the authority and ‘plain meaning’ of the Bible has had and continues to have impact on real people’s lives. Sometimes, this impact is violent and traumatic, notably when the Bible is weaponised to justify intimate partner violence. As such, the book explores aspects of family violence and domestic abuse and the role of religion within this. These discussions are increasingly in the public domain, which is a welcome development.

What are the main themes of the book?

‘Marriage’ and ‘the Bible’ are both prominent themes in day-to-day contexts, including in popular culture. One ideology very prominent in claims about ‘biblical marriage’ is complementarianism. One purpose of this book is to explore the disjuncture between, on the one hand, complementarian accounts of biblical marriage and, on the other, intersections of marriage and violence in texts from Jewish and Christian Scriptures.

We challenge authoritative complementarian claims to the Bible’s allegedly clear and unequivocal directions on marriage, and we refute these claims with analysis of the muddled and often violent depictions of marriage in the Bible itself. We focus on the influential pronouncements on ‘biblical marriage’ by the US Family Research Council and Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and analyse such key texts as Genesis 1–3, Malachi 2, and Ephesians 5.

Who would benefit from the book?

This book will, we hope, appeal to students of biblical studies and theology, as well as anyone interested in research-based activism and in how sacred texts are directed towards modern day-to-day life. 

Saima and Johanna [2]

Give us a quote from the book you are most pleased with and why!

Can we have two? (We are two authors, after all!)

“[In Genesis 2–3] one woman (Eve) is created to be the companion of one man (Adam), and prior to this humanity is told to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28). Extraordinarily, this story is used to justify all of monogamy; heteronormativity; heterosexual, monogamous, sexually exclusive marriage to the exclusion of all other kinds of marriage; female submission to male headship; and procreation. It is also used to condemn homosexuality, non-binary gender, transgender, polygamy, feminism, abortion, divorce, and, though less often, single life, elective childlessness, and women’s ordination. Wow. For a short mythological story, featuring an anthropomorphic deity, a talking serpent, and magical fruit, in a biblical book that makes no claims to divine authorship or inspiration, a story which never makes any explicit reference to marriage, let alone feminism, or homosexuality, this is quite something…”

This quote shows up some of the brazenness of claims regularly made about the clarity of the Bible’s claims on ‘marriage’ – yet there is not even a word that captures ‘marriage’ in the whole of the Hebrew Bible!

“Often laws are characterised as ‘secular’, with religious law overriding secular law. Adherence to religious law over secular law is even seen as a proof of faithfulness to God. One woman I am working with acknowledged her husband’s abuse and abandonment. But he had made her swear on her sacred book that she would not report him to the police. She will not budge from this oath, and I know that if I suggested it I would lose her trust.”

This quote is a reflection by Saima on some of the hands-on work she does. It is a reminder of why we wrote this book. 

Saima and Johanna

The book is in the Routledge Focus series Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible, edited by Emily Colgan, Johanna Stiebert, and Barbara Thiede. Books in the series are concise (between 25,000 and 50,000 words – all inclusive) and explore some aspect of rape culture (e.g., sexualised microaggressions, sexual violence) alongside some aspect of religion and/or the Bible. We are very interested in proposals exploring religions other than those associated with the Bible. If you would like to find out more, discuss this, or propose a volume, please contact Johanna: j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk.

If you are interested in the topic of marriage, Bible, and violence, you might also like Helen Paynter’s book, The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So. It is reviewed on our blog, here.

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Update on the Bible & Violence Project

The Bible and Violence Project is up and running!

We now have over 120 contributors signed up. Many of them are busy forming and working together in writing groups; others are receiving or providing mentoring. If you are a contributor and find yourself in need of support or motivation, please be in touch if we can help.

The publication emerging from this project aims to be the most comprehensive and inclusive on the topic of the Bible and violence to date. Alongside chapters on every text of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Greek Bible, there will also be chapters on the Bible and…:

Its role and impact in diverse geographical settings

Incel cultures and the manosphere

The ethics of citing violent scholars

HIV/AIDS

Liberative readings in violent settings

Environmental violence

Colonialism

Trafficking

Intimate partner violence

Genocide

Gender-based violence

Rape and rape culture

Violence aimed at children, at animals, and at the deceased

Violence in the family

Divine violence

Supersessionism

Antisemitism, as well as Islamophobia

Martyrdom

War

Crime fiction

Abortion activism

Transphobia

Zionism

Fat shaming…

… and that is not all. Alongside yet more exciting topics, there will also be some chapters on select rabbinical texts and Dead Sea Scrolls, gnostic and deuterocanonical texts.

We have already received contributions ahead of the first deadline of 2 October 2023 by Katherine SouthwoodSébastien DoaneAlison JackBarbara Thiede and Alexiana Fry, with more in the pipeline.

Two of the editors – Chris and Johanna – recently visited Manchester to present at the United Reformed Church research conference on both The Shiloh Project and Bible and Violence Project. While there, we enjoyed hearing Megan Warner’s paper on her topic for the project. 

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The Bible and Violence Project: Meet Sébastien Doane 

Bible picture with a 'warning' sign.

Sébastien Doane is a tenured professor at Université Laval in Québec, Canada. His thesis (Analyse de la réponse du lecteur aux origines de Jésus en Mt 1-2, Peeters 2019) was on the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel applying a reader-response methodology. His research focuses on the relation between biblical texts and real readers with regards to gender, affect, and trauma. To find out more, see his recent articles: « Affective Resistance to Sirach’s Androcentric Presentation of a Daughter’s Body » (Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies)« Echoes of Rachel’s Weeping: Intertextuality and Trauma in Jer. 31:15 » (Biblical Interpretation), « Masculinities of the Husbands in the Genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:2–16)» (Biblical Interpretation), and « An Ass in a Lion’s Skin: The Subversion of Judah’s Hegemonic Masculinity in Gen 38 » (Postscripts). He is a member of the SBL Hermeneutics of Trauma unit.

Sébastien Doane

I became a feminist in my mid thirties and was invited to speak at a National Women Studies Association Annual Meeting. I met great people and realised that as a man, I have a role to play to strive for gender equality. And as a biblical scholar, I must work towards meaningful work, such as this Bible and Violence project. It was only a year ago, in my mid forties, that I truly became aware that I am a descendant of French and English colonisers. My ancestors have lived in North America for the last 300 years. The first American Doane was a deacon in the first New England colony.  He came to America Bible in hand and the good book was used to legitimise a violent enterprise. In my chapter, I will focus on Matthew’s version of Jesus’ genealogy. This biblical text does not seem to be violent. However, its interpretations have engendered violence against women and members of first nations. It is important for religious and academic biblical commentators to become aware of the ethical implications of our work. 


If you are involved in the Bible and Violence Project and want to be featured on this blog, please contact Johanna (j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk)

If you have questions about the project, or suggestions for our next workshop, please be in touch.

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Comfort or Cajole: Reading Elkanah’s Response to Hannah with the Awareness of Coercive Control 

by Yannis Ng (University of Leeds, UK)  

Yannis Ng is PhD candidate at the University of Leeds. Formerly, she studied Bible and theology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her PhD research focuses on Hebrew Bible wisdom literature (primarily, Ecclesiastes and Job) and trauma-informed and bystander approaches. 

A version of this paper was presented at the annual conference of the Society for the Study of Theology on Wednesday, 19 April 2023. 

Yannis Ng, presenting in Leeds in January 2023.

INTRODUCTION 

The story of Elkanah and his wives Peninnah and Hannah is in 1 Samuel 1. Here Peninnah, a mother, provokes Hannah, who has no child and yearns for one, year by year when the household go to an annual sacrifice. Upon such provocation, Hannah weeps and will not eat. Elkanah then asks Hannah four questions in response to her pain. He asks: ‘Why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not better to you than ten sons?’ 

This paper focuses on how Elkanah and Hannah are described, and on how these descriptions are disputable. After that, I introduce controlling and coercive behaviour. Then I re-read the story and illustrate how Elkanah’s questions relate to tactics of coercive control. Finally, I talk about how Hannah’s response demonstrates self-empowerment in the face of coercive control.  

ELKANAH AND HANNAH 

The relationship between Elkanah and Hannah is regularly described by commentators as sweet and supportive. Elkanah gives a (double) portion to Hannah because he loves her ‘even though’ she is ‘barren’ (1:5). (The word ‘barren’ occurs in many English translations. It is a harsh word referring to the pain that is involuntary childlessness.) Elkanah, so it is widely accepted, loves Hannah. Then, Elkanah’s response to Hannah is appreciated as one of comfort and acceptance. He is described as a caring and compassionate husband. Hannah’s silence is sometimes criticised for being ungrateful towards Elkanah’s comfort. This couple presents an intimate partnership.  

HOWEVER, THERE IS MORE TO IT THAN THAT… 

  1. Doesn’t Elkanah know why Hannah weeps and refuses to eat? 

The text tells us that Peninnah provokes Hannah severely year by year (vv.6–7). If Elkanah knows the reason, he seems to accept, even to justify Peninnah’s bullying behaviour and overlooks or mitigates the harm done to Hannah. 

  • He finds her heart is ‘sad’, or rather, ‘bad’ 

Though this question velameh yera levavekh is commonly translated as asking why Hannah has a sad, or aggrieved mood, the Hebrew text states her heart is yera (bad). This is contrasted with Elkanah himself who is tov (good) to Hannah in the consecutive question.  

In verses 17–18, Eli answers Hannah that the God of Israel will grant her petition. Then, the English translation has, ‘her countenance was sad no longer’. This seems to support that Hannah’s heart was sad; however, the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain here. There are no words descriptive of sadness; the Hebrew reads, literally, ‘her face was not anymore’—with no mood adjective.  

McCarter, in his commentary, interprets Elkanah’s question differently as, ‘why are you so wretched?’,i because, in Deuteronomy 15:10, yera levavekh refers to a grudging heart (NRSV, ESV). In this case, Elkanah’s question does not show regard for Hannah’s sadness. Moreover, the Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament suggests a translation for yera in this verse of ‘discontented’.ii The question would be, ‘why is your heart discontented?’. 

  • The final question is a trick question, or maybe a rhetorical question.  

After three why-questions, Elkanah asks ‘Am I not better to you than ten sons?’ He offers Hannah two options: either, to opt for him; or, for ten sons. But she does not have ten sons; she does not have even one. Having ten sons is probably an unachievable target. Between Elkanah and ten sons, her only choice is Elkanah.  

  • He is not prepared to listen to her answers. 

Elkanah asks multiple questions without leaving time for her to answer. This is unlikely to be an expression of caring or comfort, but rather, exposes his annoyance at Hannah’s weeping, and her ‘bad’ mood.  

Therefore, Elkanah’s response maybe does not reflect any comfort or acceptance of Hannah’s infertility. Instead, he blames Hannah’s heart and is not taking care of her or showing compassion. The partnership between this couple may be complicated and not one of reciprocal love and care.   

CONTROLLING AND COERCIVE BEHAVIOURS 

Before re-reading the story, let me introduce the concept of controlling and coercive behaviour. This is a well-documented and common type of domestic abuse. 

According to the Statutory guidance framework: controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship from Home Office,  

Controlling behaviour is: a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape, and regulating their everyday behaviour.  

Coercive behaviour is: a continuing act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.iii 

Since this guidance is aimed at police and criminal justice agencies involved in the investigation of offences, the descriptions are legalistic.  

A description from the perspective of psychiatry tells us more practically about a feature of coercive control:  

[…] it is a self-perpetuating form of abuse because so much of the controlling behaviour is about preparing and maintaining the internal environment of the relationship so that the controlee has no power to question it and/or feels he or she has no credibility in order to reach out to outsiders for help.iv 

This description tells us of the controlling and coercive behaviours situated in and maintaining an intimate partnership. Here the perpetrator and the victim are confined, and the victim has no agency to seek help.  

An expert in coercive control studies, Evan Stark, highlights that the aim of coercive control is, ‘to usurp and master a partner’s subjectivity’.v  

RE-READING ELKANAH’S BEHAVIOURS WITH CONTROL AND COERCIVE BEHAVIOUR 

Let us now re-read Elkanah’s questions with the perspective of controlling or coercive behaviours. I am not going to prove that Elkanah is a coercive perpetrator, but I would like to sensitise readers to consider the possibility and to note the tactics that coercive perpetrators use to control and confuse their partners. According to the Controlling or Coercive Behaviour: Statutory Guidance Framework recently published by the Home Office, perpetrator tactics can be categorised into four categories: 1) Threats and intimidation, 2) manipulation, 3) exploitation, and 4) sabotage.vi The categorisations may vary across different disciplines. I adopt this categorisation from the Statutory Guidance Framework because it aims to provide information for identifying offences and reducing risk to victims.vii I position myself and readers among the general public, who may or may not have experienced coercive control (consciously or otherwise). 

Questions 1 and 2: Threats and Intimidation 

  • Before Elkanah asks, ‘Why do you weep? Why do you not eat?’, Elkanah has already given his wives a portion (or portions) in verses 4 to 5. He may expect Hannah to eat and drink at the feast, expressing joy and gratitude. When she does not, the question ‘why do you not eat?’ could connote threat: Hannah is falling short of Elkanah’s expectation.  
  • Threats to remove care, or not to undertake caring responsibilities that the victim relies on, is a tactic of intimidation. This may escalate to exploitation because Elkanah could use his power to refrain from supplying food altogether.   
  • Asking ‘why do you weep?’ may also reflect Hannah’s helplessness. These questions further humiliate her: weeping and not eating are useless for resisting controlling or coercive behaviours.  

Question 3: Manipulation and Sabotage 

Manipulation 

  • Elkanah asks, ‘why is your heart discontented?’ This question blames Hannah, the victim, and suggests she is ungrateful.  
  • This kind of blaming can be a manipulative tactic: making false allegations against victims, pretending their controlling tactics are for the victim’s own safety. The depiction of Hannah as an ungrateful wife renders Elkanah as a kind and generous husband.  

Sabotage 

  • The depiction of Hannah’s discontented heart also harms her image in the public sphere. It demeans and devalues Hannah and puts guilt and shame on her.  
  • This kind of depiction can be sabotaging. A tactic that perpetrators deploy to interfere in victims’ personal or professional opportunities or to frustrate a police investigation. This includes claiming victims are mentally ill, so their statements are not trustworthy.  
  • Elkanah, in contrast, is depicted as a good husband. Hannah’s weeping and not eating are due to her discontentment with his love. Therefore, he himself can remain innocent in the conflict between his wives.  

Question 4: Intimidation and Manipulation 

Intimidation 

  • When Elkanah asks whether he is better than ten sons, Hannah cannot reply that having ten sons is better to her than Elkanah. Otherwise, she may make him angry or lose his protection because Elkanah has the power to abandon her.  
  • He also has control over whether she can possibly conceive ten, or any sons. Both options offered are actually under Elkanah’s control. He knows her vulnerabilities, that she has no other support and protection. He also understands her deepest desire of having a son. The dependence on physical needs and protection puts a vulnerable person at greater risk of intimidation, because a perpetrator has control over all their needs.  

Manipulation 

  • Hannah could have more choices, besides either Elkanah’s love, or ten sons. He decides for her that staying with him is the only way she can go. Meanwhile, he permits Peninnah’s provocation. Indeed, his ‘love’ for Hannah makes the relationship between Peninnah and Hannah worse.  
  • The options offered devalue all Hannah’s other relationships, isolate her from any support network, and hinder potential solutions. Elkanah has decided for her that being his wife is the only option. This question renders her a person who does not know what is good for herself.  
  • So, this yes-no question not only limits her options, it can also be a tactic of manipulation. This manipulation tactic obscures the facts and creates doubt. This question together with the previous questions creates confusion and instils doubt about her feelings. These doubts can make a victim forget why she responds as she does in the first place, direct her to query her responses and render her vulnerable to trusting a perpetrator’s ‘comforting’ decision. 

RE-READING HANNAH’S RESPONSE WITH COERCIVE CONTROL BEHAVIOUR   

Reading the text with the perspective of controlling and coercive behaviours can illustrate how power can be used by a perpetrator on their victim, but we can also see how a victim can empower herself in the face of abuse. After her husband asks her those controlling and coercive questions, Hannah neither responds directly nor endures helplessly. Hannah looks for an opportunity to get away from the immediate pressures.  

  1.  She seeks alternatives and breaks old patterns  

Not giving a reply to Elkanah’s questions, she goes to pray to her God (vv.9–11). Hannah recognises her identity, not only as the wife of Elkanah, but also as a servant of the LORD. She makes her vow to the LORD as an alternative to Elkanah’s ‘choices’ of either having Elkanah or ten sons. Her action is a form of resistance. 

After she has borne Samuel, Hannah does not go up together with Elkanah and all his household to the yearly sacrifice (vv.20–22). Though she still belongs to him, she does not stick with the pattern. The pattern is most likely set up by her husband, but she again demonstrates agency and resistance and opts out. 

  • She speaks up.  

Having built up her own identity, Hannah now speaks up for herself. She resists Elkanah’s request of going up to the yearly sacrifice (v.21) and voices that her determination is to wait until she has weaned her son, and then to offer him as a Nazirite and let him remain at the sanctuary forever (v.22).  

William de Brailes, ‘Hannah Prays in the Temple’ and ‘Hannah gives birth to Samuel’ (Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts. Ms W.106 for.17r (Creative Commons).

Her vow is from her own volition using ‘I’ (vv.26–28) and reflects her self-identity and autonomy to do what is best for herself. As she has decided to offer Samuel to the LORD, she vows, ‘I have lent him to the LORD’ rather than ‘we have lent’.  

  • She protects herself and her son 

Having a son may release Hannah from Peninnah’s provocation. She asks for a son, not a child, or a daughter. In that time, a woman needed male protection.  

However, it is odd to ask for a child from God, then offering the child to God. Having a relationship with a controlling and coercive abuser, the custody of the child might entail further harms and threats to her, as well as to the child. Offering her son to the LORD may be a way to protect the son from becoming a tool for manipulation. This also limits Elkanah’s power to deploy his controlling and coercive tactics through Samuel, the son. 

CONCLUSION 

Rereading the first book of Samuel chapter 1 verse 8, Elkanah’s four questions escalate in terms of exertion of control. My rereading demonstrates how a veneer of care can hide cajoling and controlling behaviour within an intimate relationship where there is power imbalance. This rereading is not judging Elkanah as perpetrator but seeks to sensitise readers to the means and tactics of coercive control. The reading of Hannah’ response may illustrate how controlees can empower themselves to reduce risk of harm to them and their loved ones. 

EPILOGUE 

At the presentation at the SST conference, members of the audience asked me how the narration of the LORD’s closing Hannah’s womb relates to my reading. They also asked how other people relate to the relationship between Elkanah and Hannah. These questions reflect the complicated power dynamics in the story and how other people can be involved in and affected by coercive control in different ways. Due to time constraints, my paper focused only on Elkanah as potentially coercive – not on God, or Peninnah, or Eli, as well. There is definitely potential for further research.

Another question proposed that Peninnah also suffers from Elkanah’s coercive control and that she directs her own pain towards Hannah. I am reminded of a contextual Bible reading of this passage, which I conducted with domestic workers in Hong Kong. One of them identified with Peninnah. She had children with her husband, but her husband also had an extra-marital relationship with another woman and provided financial support to this woman. This, in turn, made the wife feel deprived of resources and resentful towards the other woman. This perspective would again direct us to feeling differently – both towards the ‘good’ husband Elkanah, and towards his less favoured wife Peninnah. 

The power dynamics among the biblical figures in 1 Samuel 1 are significant and worthy of more study. The perspective of coercive control can, I argue, shed some light on this story, as well as open up questions for present-day predicaments and situations. 

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Introducing Contributors to The Bible & Violence: Rosie Clare Shorter and Kirsi Cobb

Bible picture with a 'warning' sign.

Rosie Clare Shorter is a feminist researcher interested in sociology of religion and genders and sexualities studies. She completed her PhD at Western Sydney University in Australia. Her doctoral thesis explores Sydney Anglicanism as a lived religion, focusing on the social consequences of complementarianism. She is currently a sessional academic and you might catch her teaching or doing research assistant work at The University of Melbourne, Deakin University, or Western Sydney University (the latter online only, the commute is too far!). She is the executive officer for the Australian Association for the Study of Religion. Rosie is writing on the violent consequence of complementarian language.

To read more about Rosie and her work, see:
https://rosieclareshorter.com/  and https://supporttosurvive.com/

Shorter, R. 2021. ‘Rethinking Complementarianism: Sydney Anglicans, Orthodoxy and Gendered Inequality’, Religion and Gender 11/2 (doi: 10.1163/18785417-bja10005).

Shorter, R., E. Sessions & E. Hamence. 2021. ‘Taking Women At Their Word: How to Respond Well’, Eternity New (see here). 


Rosie Clare Shorter


My chapter will look at how the language of complementarianism, which is derived from the Bible, maintains gendered hierarchies and inequalities that scaffold gendered violence in evangelical Anglican communities. My focus is on the Anglican church in Sydney, Australia.  We know that Anglicans experience gendered violence at rates which are at least equal to, if not higher than, their non-Anglican counterparts (Powell and Pepper, 2021). Aspects of church teaching, particularly complementarian ideas to do with headship and submission, as well as misuse of Scripture, contribute to this. It is important to look closely at the language of complementarianism. Changing our language is key to changing cultures of gendered inequality and violence. My chapter will emphasise this.

Kirsi Cobb is a lecturer in biblical studies at Cliff College in Derbyshire, UK. She wrote her PhD dissertation on the biblical figure of Miriam and the multiple ways her story can be read when using different methods of hermeneutics. Her current research focuses on women in the Hebrew Bible with a special interest in biblical interpretation, including feminist, deconstructive and trauma studies. Her recent projects include two papers (one open access with De Gruyter and one with JSOT) which focus on the story of Lot’s daughters in Genesis 19 in the light of trauma theory. Her forthcoming publications include a book chapter on Woman Wisdom and Dame Folly in Proverbs (for The Oxford Handbook of the Hebrew Bible, Gender, and Sexuality) and a study on gender and sexual violence in Hosea (for The Oxford Handbook of the Book of Hosea). Kirsi is co-founder of the Bible, Gender and Church Research Centre, with Dr Holly Morse (University of Manchester). Together they work on an AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) funded research network around the topic Abusing God: Reading the Bible in the #MeToo AgeTo date they have hosted one colloquium focused on coercive control, with another on hypermasculinity due to take place in April 2023. Kirsi is writing the chapter on Spiritual Abuse.  

Dr Kirsi Cobb, Cliff College (UK)

Several years ago, I was visiting friends on holiday with my then-boyfriend. We were supposed to stay for a few weeks but after about five days my boyfriend wanted to leave. I wanted to stay but he informed me that complying with his wish would be good practice for marriage where he would be my head and I would need to submit to his wishes. As an obedient Christian (and to the great upset of my friends) I left with him. A couple of decades later I was marking a student essay. She was evaluating her recent experience in a church, where the pastor had used the Bible to brow-beat his congregants into submission. Not touching the ‘Lord’s anointed’ was held up as an ideal that shut down any questioning over decisions made. Both this student and I had experienced something for which at the time we had no name: spiritual abuse.

Spiritual abuse is a relatively new and a contested term, and some see research into the topic as threatening religious freedom. As Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys  (2019: 18-20) have noted, however, these qualms should not prevent us from acknowledging people’s experiences of spiritual abuse or listening to survivors’ voices. In their monograph, they use the term ‘spiritual abuse’ to describe a range of experiences. Darby Strickland (2020: 346) has defined spiritual abuse as ‘[a]buse that occurs when an oppressor establishes control and domination by using Scripture, doctrine, or their “leadership role” as weapons. Spiritual abuse may mask itself as religious practice and may be used to shame or punish. For example, 

  • using Bible verses to shame or control 
  • demanding unconditional obedience 
  • using biblical texts or beliefs to minimize or rationalize abusive behaviors.’ 

In the experiences mentioned, some of these behaviours can be clearly seen. In my case, my boyfriend took a passage about male headship and wifely submission in Ephesians 5:22-23 and with some creative interpreting turned it into a manifesto about girlfriends, boyfriends, and unquestioned female obedience to male dominance. In the experience of the student, the pastor used his position of power and a misreading of Scripture (Psalm 105:15; 1 Samuel 24:6, see Helen Paynter 2020:90-92) to enforce his authority. Scripture, doctrine, and leadership roles can all be forces for the good in the world, but they can also be used to harm fellow believers. This demands our attention and requires a response. In my chapter I will explore the different forms of spiritual abuse and what the Church can do to become a safe space for survivors.  

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Introducing the Contributors To “The Bible and Violence” – Ericka S. Dunbar, Chingboi Guite Phaipi, and Tim Judson

We are delighted to introduce three more contributors to the Bible and Violence Project. Today, meet Ericka S. Dunbar, Chingboi Guite Phaipi and Tim Judson (– and find the Baylor connection between two of them!). 

But first… the editorial team of The Bible & Violence has finally met in person! Johnathan Jodamus and Mmapula Kebaneilwe joined Shiloh co-directors Chris Greenough and Johanna Stiebert for a public engagement event and conference in Leeds (30 and 31 January 2023). It was fantastic to hatch plans and meet in person (even if it was a trifle chilly outside). But now… back to the contributors…

Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Baylor University (USA). Her research focuses on biblical texts in relation to topics of gender, ethnicity, violence, intersectional oppression, sexual(ized) abuse, colonialism, trauma, and diaspora. Her first book, Trafficking Hadassah: Collective Trauma, Cultural Memory, and Identity in the Book of Esther and the African Diaspora (Routledge, 2021) is based on her doctoral dissertation and is a dialogical cultural study of sexual trafficking in the book of Esther and during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In this project, Dr. Dunbar analyses how ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, and colonialism intersect and interact in instances of human trafficking both in ancient and contemporary contexts. Dr. Dunbar will be writing the chapter on The Bible, Trafficking, and Enslavement

Enslavement, trafficking, and exploitation of the vulnerable are deeply rooted in large expanses of human history. From ancient to contemporary times, sacred texts and historical narratives and artifacts reflect practices of enslavement and trafficking of marginalized individuals and communities. I will illustrate that depictions of trafficking and enslavement in the Bible are often normalized and rarely contested by biblical writers and biblical interpreters alike. Moreover, many biblical stories frame trafficking and enslavement as reliant upon and as perpetuating kyriarchal and patriarchal ideologies, values, and practices.   

Drawing on biblical texts, I intend to (a) use contemporary definitions of (human and sexual) trafficking and enslavement to analyse practices depicted in biblical texts; (b) challenge ancient and contemporary rape cultures and other structural inequities that lead to widespread violence and oppression; (c) reflect upon physical, psychological, and spiritual implications of trafficking and enslavement; and (d) urge readers and interpreters to continue resisting and transforming exploitative, violent and oppressive systems. 

________________________________________________________________________________________

Chingboi Guite Phaipi comes from a tribal Christian community in Northeast India that converted en masse a century ago, the result of Western missionaries’ efforts. Chingboi has taught Old Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary and also serves as a Ministers Team member at the First Baptist Church of Chicago. She has published two monographs, Rebuilding a Post-exilic Community: The Golah Community and the “Other” in the Book of Ezra (Pickwick/Wipf and Stock, 2019) and The Bible and Patriarchy in Traditional Patriarchal Society: Re-reading the Bible’s Creation Stories (T&T Clark, January 2023), as well as articles, including “The First Encounter of the Golah and Their ‘Adversaries’ (Ezra 4:1–5): Who Are the Adversaries, and on What Is the Adversity Based?” (Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 20, 2020)“Sending Away Foreign Wives in Ezra 9–10: With a Brief Reflection from a Minority Tribal Perspective” (Asia Journal of Theology 35.1, 2021), and “The Bible and Women’s Subordination: A Tribal Woman Re-reads Genesis 2–3” (International Journal of Asian Christianity 5.1, 2022). For this project, Chingboi will be writing a chapter on The Bible and Violence with Perspectives of Tribal Communities of India.

The Bible is a deeply ingrained part of the identities of the Northeast Indian hill tribes and our traditional tribal cultures share some similarities with biblical Israel’s cultures, as I observe in my latest monograph, The Bible and Patriarchy in Traditional Patriarchal Society

I argue in my earlier monograph, Rebuilding a Post-exilic Community (2019), that it was the strong self-perception of the exile returnees that impelled them to come up with the stringent measure of sending away “foreign” wives (Ezra 9–10) whom they came to perceive as the “other”. This was unjust. But sometimes, in our culture, too, even standards that are unjust are uncritically and irresponsibly upheld as biblical and Christian. 

Reflecting more deeply on our tribal Christian societies, it has become clearer to me that the Bible has been used violently, and that is partly connected with our confident self-perception of being “right” Christians and biblical. In my chapter for this volume, I will explore further the violent employment of the Bible in tribal Christian societies.

In tribal Christian societies (such as Northeast Indian tribes), violence may never be associated with the Bible. Indeed, no physical violence may be carried out in the name of the Bible or Christianity. But when observed carefully, non-physical violent use of the Bible abounds in tribal Christian societies—through both its religious doctrines/rules and its societal and cultural customary laws, mores, and unscripted gestures—that rob some community members of their dignity and fullness of life. In fact, such usages of the Bible are perhaps as or more tragic and deadly than physical violence. 


Tim Judson is Lecturer in Ministerial Formation at Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford (UK), where he specialises in systematic theology. He is also an ordained minister in The Baptist Union of Great Britain and serves as pastor of a church in Devon. Tim is contributing a chapter on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christological appropriation of the vengeance psalms as they pertain to Christ’s call to love our enemies. The German theologian and pastor offers rich material for thinking seriously about the call to discipleship in a world where the church can be easily co-opted to serve violent agendas. 

Tim’s doctoral thesis explored the place and meaning of lament using Bonhoeffer as his main interlocutor. His monograph Awake in Gethsemane: Bonhoeffer and the Witness of Christian Lament (Baylor University Press, to be published in 2023) examines the theological, ethical and liturgical premise, as well as the obstacles, for faithful lament in the Christian community today. Something that Tim has been keen to do is to explore in more depth how Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount sits alongside Bonhoeffer’s stress on praying the whole Psalter. 

In my chapter I will present a summary of Bonhoeffer’s historical and theological context, which is necessary for understanding the problems he is attempting to redress in his own work. I will then offer an overview of Bonhoeffer’s famous book, Discipleship (or The Cost of Discipleship), which includes an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. An analysis of how Bonhoeffer navigates the “love your enemies” passages will frame an optic for then exploring the vengeance psalms, also known as the imprecatory psalms. Bonhoeffer offers a compelling, and disturbingly real hermeneutic for interpreting and appropriating these psalms as a form of faithful participation in the prayers and redemptive suffering of Christ. Finally, the chapter will suggest some challenges and opportunities for using Bonhoeffer’s method as it relates to situations of violence, abuse, and trauma. 

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