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Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm: A Toolkit for Churches 

The Shiloh Project is pleased to announce the launch of a new toolkit called Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm. The toolkit has been developed as an educational resource for church leaders, inviting them to reflect on ways that churches can become spaces where sexual harm survivors feel safe and supported. This resource can be downloaded by following the link to the “Accompanying Survivors Toolkit” page on this website.

Below, Emily Colgan (one of the creators and editors of the toolkit) explains more about the toolkit’s development and its goals.

Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm: A Toolkit for Churches 

Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm is a trauma-informed resource that offers education and support of Christian clergy and lay leaders as they respond to sexual harm in their communities.  The resource is the collaborate effort of seven academics, all of whom work broadly at the intersection of sexual harm and Christian faith traditions in Aotearoa New Zealand. Through our work in this area, we have long been aware of the distressingly high rates of sexual harm in our communities, and we believe it is important for churches to recognise that the trends we see in society more generally are reflected in church communities as well. Moreover, churches need to acknowledge that sexual harm is perpetrated within these communities—at times by those in positions of authority—and the primary response of church leaders has far too often been one of self-preservation and concealment. For the most part, churches in Aotearoa have not yet found a voice to adequately address the issue of sexual harm, which is endemic in faith communities and in society at large. We (as a country, generally) have a problem with sexual harm and, for the most part, churches keep silent on this issue. 

This situation has come into sharper focus since February 2018, when the New Zealand government announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse in state care. In November of the same year, the inquiry expanded its scope to include abuse of those in the care of religious institutions. The harrowing testimonies of victims and survivors who experienced horrific sexual harm while in the care of religious institutions reveal that, for many people, churches have not been places of welcome and safety; they have not been places of good news. Churches have failed in their duty of care for the most vulnerable in their midst. The Commission’s work is still ongoing. But it has highlighted the urgent need for churches to be proactive in their support of victims and survivors, as well as in their efforts to ensure that church communities are no longer spaces where sexual harm can flourish. This resource is our – the contributor’s – response to this need. 

Over a number of years, we have canvassed stakeholders from within the Anglican, Methodist, and Roman Catholic traditions, seeking feedback about the educative needs of these churches for confronting the issue of sexual harm. We have also piloted this resource material with various church groups, seeking comment on the relevance and usefulness of its content for those in ministry. It reflects scholarship by experts in their respective fields, consultation with church leaders and those in frontline ministry positions, and insights and input from victims and survivors of sexual harm. It is by no means exhaustive, nor does it claim to be the full and final word on an appropriate Christian response to the issue of sexual harm. Instead, it enables workshop-based sessions which aim to educate clergy and lay leaders about

  • Understanding the nature of sexual harm and its prevalence in New Zealand society. 
  • Being alert to and responding in a pastorally sensitive manner to people within their community who have experienced/are experiencing sexual harm.  
  • Identifying and articulating some of the scriptural and theological foundations that work to justify/legitimise/enable sexual harm while silencing the voices of victims/survivors. 
  • Identifying and articulating some of the scriptural and theological foundations that work to challenge and resist sexual harm. 
  • Exploring how their church might work to create a safe space for victims/survivors of sexual harm. 

The toolkit will be of value to anyone in a church leadership position, including those training for Christian ministry and  those who have extensive ministry/leadership experience. It is intentionally ecumenical in nature and does not require knowledge of any one denominational tradition. While the format of the resource requires reflection and discussion in an “intellectual” sense, the aim of this work is to enable tangible, practical action in our communities that will support victims and survivors, and to make our churches spaces that are welcoming and safe. 

While some of the content relates specifically to the context of Aotearoa New Zealand, most of the material can be adapted and used further afield. There is space offered throughout the sessions for participants to discuss how issues pertaining to sexual harm relate to their own communities. Participants also have opportunities to consider how their own cultures, contexts, traditions, and languages will help shape their role of accompanying victims and survivors. 

The toolkit is free for anyone to download and use. It can be accessed here on the Shiloh Project website. If you have any queries about the use of the toolkit, please contact us at assh.toolkit@gmail.com

We hope this resource is a useful and meaningful tool for all those who accompany victims and survivors on their journey.

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Introducing the Contributors to “The Bible and Violence” – Emily Allsopp and Alastair Hunter

Today we introduce two more contributors to the project – both based in Scotland: Emily Allsopp and Alastair Hunter

Emily Allsopp is PhD Candidate in Hebrew and Old Testament Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests include feminist literary criticism, female bodies, sex, pregnancy, childbirth, gendered and sexual violence, and the prophetic texts. Emily’s current research considers the rhetorical use of female bodies and pregnancy imagery in the Book of Isaiah; her previous research has focussed on female bodies and sexual imagery across the prophetic books. Emily is writing one of two chapters on Violence and Ezekiel, with focus on physical and gendered violence

As an undergraduate, the trajectory of my academic life was changed when I read Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror. In preparation for a Hebrew language class, I had read and translated Judges 19, and found myself – as many of us are – deeply moved and even more deeply disturbed by the account of the ‘concubine’ being raped, abused, killed, and dismembered. When considering violent and distressing biblical texts, I find the space occupied by feminist biblical scholars profoundly satisfying and profoundly painful.

Ever since, I have been researching women in the Hebrew Bible, in particular the role of female bodies in The Prophets. It’s a joy to study these books, in all their literary variety, depth, and richness, and it is also at times incredibly difficult; female pain and suffering is all over. 

Ezekiel is particularly notorious within feminist study of The Prophets, and for very good reason. Ezekiel 16 and 23 are infamous for being the most sustained, violent, furious, and gruesome depictions of violence directed at women in the entire biblical canon, and they do not stand in isolation in the text of Ezekiel. The whole book is marked by its propensity towards physical violence and bodily expressions of pain and suffering, large parts of which are specifically about women (whether literally or metaphorically). 

Reading Ezekiel can be extraordinarily difficult, especially for those of us who consider it not only an ancient text, but scripture. Physical and gendered violence are real threats to modern readers, as they were to ancient ones, and it is not easy to engage with the text of Ezekiel as a woman, a feminist, and a Christian. I suspect it is not easy for anyone for that matter. I’m also acutely aware that Ezekiel’s accounts of (often divine) violence towards women have almost certainly been used to justify or inspire real-world acts of violence. And yet, Ezekiel’s presence in the biblical canon is unavoidable, and as such demands our consideration, whether that’s given easily or not. 

My chapter will look at physical violence in the book of Ezekiel, with a particular focus on gendered violence. Reading the text of Ezekiel carefully, thoughtfully, and compassionately is an immense challenge and responsibility. I hope that through research of the physical and gendered violence that characterise large parts of the book, I can contribute to wider discussions on the role of violence in biblical texts and its consequences. 

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Alastair Hunter taught for thirty years at the University of Glasgow. His publications include studies of Psalms and Wisdom, and most recently a reading of Jonah: The Judgement of Jonah: Yahweh, Jerusalem and Nineveh (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2022). A core part of his research is a focus on the way that biblical texts are read by contemporaries, reflecting the need to balance the inherent character of ancient documents with the concerns of modern readers for justice, the rejection of all forms of discrimination, and openness.

Essential to these concerns is a willingness to confront uncomfortable aspects of the Hebrew scriptures, which are often sexist, racist, intolerant, and complicit in various forms of violence. While these cannot be defended, it is important to see them not as ultimate defining qualities but rather, as aspects of a flawed humanity which we ourselves are part of. Looking at them honestly sheds light on ourselves as much as on our distant ancestors, and how we respond to them can form part of a renewal in the quest for a better human society. One example from his publications on such themes is ‘(De)nominating Amalek: Racist stereotyping in the Bible and the justification of discrimination’ in Sanctified Aggression: Legacies of Biblical and Post-Biblical Vocabularies of Violence, edited by Jonneke Bekkenkamp & Yvonne Sherwood (T&T Clark, 2003), pp.92-108. Alastair is writing one of the chapters on Violence in the Minor Prophets, focusing on Joel and Jonah

While neither Joel nor Jonah is at first glance an obvious offender of violence, the attitudes attributed to the deity, and the relationship between Israel and its competitors (enemies?) are at least implicitly violent in both books. Studying them together within the wider compass of the Minor Prophets makes sense when we note that both, possibly, emerged from a shared milieu, and are likely to be interdependent.

Here are more publications by Alastair (PDF format).

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Introducing Contributors to “The Bible and Violence” – Robert Monson and Katherine Gwyther

Today we are happy to introduce two more contributors to the project, Robert Monson and Katherine Gwyther.

Robert Monson Junior is a musician, writer, podcast host, co-director of enfleshed, and graduate of United Theological Seminary, with special research interests at the intersection of Black liberation theology, womanist theology, and what it means to become soft in a cruel world. These interests matter particularly to Robert on account of growing up as a Black atheist in the United States of America. Burning questions surrounding race, religion, shared humanity, and masculinity drive Robert in the academy. Robert is writing the chapter on Violence in the Books of Samuel. 

As I research and write, I draw on a wealth of theological traditions and researchers, but most readily on womanist scholars and Black theologians. As a Black scholar I am keenly aware of how violence shows up in the world today and, indeed, how the nuances of violence can be flattened within texts of the Bible. It matters to me to be able to bring forth work that is accessible both to academics and to regular people who bring questions to these troubling texts.  

For more on Robert and his poignant work, check out his regular column at The Witness BCC (Black Christian Collective), his substack newsletter ‘Musings From a Broken Heart’ (see here), and the podcasts ‘Three Black Men’ and ‘Black Coffee and Theology.’

Katherine Gwyther is PhD candidate in Hebrew Bible at the University of Leeds (UK) where she is funded by a School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science postgraduate research scholarship. Her doctoral research examines Exodus 20–23 using interdisciplinary engagement with the field of Utopian Studies. Outside of her PhD research, she is interested in the book of Esther and has published on the themes of hybridity, resistance to imperial hegemony, and gender in this book. Her publications on Esther are, “Feasting and Fasting: Hybridity in the Book of Esther” (2021) and “The Disidentification of Mordecai: A Drag Interpretation of Esther 8:15” (2022, see here). Katherine is writing the chapter on Violence in Esther.

Violence appears in a myriad of ways within the book of Esther, from sex-trafficking and anti-Semitism to threat of genocide. This violence is not only perpetrated against Jews but by them too. Still, when summarising the book, it is hard not to echo the dominant narrative: one queen is evicted for not submitting to her royal husband’s (sleazy!) command, a Jewish girl who has concealed her identity and Jewish name enters the imperial Persian court, becomes queen, and defeats the wicked plot to annihilate the Jews of Persia. Alongside her cousin Mordecai, Queen Esther becomes the saviour of her people and smites their enemies.

I aim to highlight the difficult nature of violence in the book. On the one hand, Esther and the Jews are a marginalised group who fight back against imperial dominance; on the other, they wreak violence against their oppressors. The narrative whereby Esther is the heroine, and the Jews are victorious is ultimately complicated by their very tools of resistance. In this chapter, I demonstrate that thinking through Esther and violence is a messy task and I will proceed using a postcolonial framework. However, rather than proposing solutions, I want to sit with the difficulty of the text. If we do not, and ignore the complicated content of the biblical text, we risk endorsing the violence within it, or legitimising it on account of its place in Scripture.

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Q&A with David Tombs about his new book – available open access

There is a new book in our Routledge Focus series, ‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’ and this one is available from today and open access.

The author is David Tombs and the book’s title is The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross (London: Routledge, 2023). 

For the open access ebook DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429289750 

For further information and the hardback: www.routledge.com/9780367257651

Tell us about yourself. How does your book relate to your work as a whole and how did this book come about?

When I was an undergraduate studying Philosophy and Theology I picked up a copy of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s book A Theology of Liberation in Blackwell’s bookshop in OxfordIt is a classic work, but I had no real idea of that when I first looked at it. Instead, I was drawn to the distinctive cover image. I had visited Peru the previous summer and the cover captured what I had seen there in two readily recognisable scenes. One scene showed a poor community, the other showed a row of military police. It was not what I expected from a theology book. 

I started reading the work of Gutiérrez and then the works by other liberation theologians in the library. I was struck by the passion and compassion they brought to their work and their belief that theology can make a radical difference when it is rooted in what they called ‘an option’ for the oppressed. Their concern for poverty and injustice guided a liberative approach to theological and biblical work. From then on, I have been interested in how faith and theology can make a difference, and how reading the Bible from a specific context can offer new insights into the text. In my theological work in the UK, then in Ireland, and now in New Zealand, I continue to seek insights from liberation and contextual theologies for my thinking and writing.

The specific prompt for the book dates back to the 1990s. I was a PhD student at Heythrop College, London, and working on liberation theology and Christology. Following a visit to El Salvador in the summer of 1996, I read a story of a sexualised execution that occurred during the war in the 1980s. It was a very confronting testimony and I wanted to understand more. First I asked myself why it had happened. Then I asked why it did not get more attention.  Even a theologian as insightful and courageous as Jon Sobrino who had worked in El Salvador for many years seemed to be silent on this type of violence. So I read more about sexualised violence during torture and state terror in Latin America. Then I  started to explore the relevance of this to crucifixion. I first published on this in the article ‘Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Abuse’ (1999) (see here). The book has been an opportunity to revisit this and develop the argument further. 

Last year, I co-edited the book When Did We See You Naked? Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse (SCM 2021) with Jayme Reaves and Rocío Figueroa. Scholars from Australia, the Bahamas, Botswana, Indonesia, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK, and the USA, explored implications of acknowledging Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse. It was an opportunity to work with a fantastic group of colleagues and a really inspirational learning experience. It helped me see more clearly what a book like The Crucifixion of Jesus could support this area of research. 

What are the key arguments of your book?

The book investigates some disturbing elements of crucifixion that have only recently started to get attention. It starts with the Salvadoran execution I just mentioned and the impact this had on me. I then turn in Chapter 1 to the strippings of Jesus. These include the multiple strippings by the cohort of soldiers in Pilate’s palace (the praetorium) recorded by Mark and Matthew. In addition, there is the stripping of Jesus at the cross recorded by all four gospels. The strippings and the enforced nakedness of crucifixion are well attested in the gospels, and I would argue that the facts of these alone  are compelling reasons for acknowledging that Jesus was a victim of sexual abuse. 

I then ask whether Jesus might have experienced other forms of sexualised violence beyond the strippings. The evidence for further violence is less direct, and the answers less clear-cut than the strippings, but the questions are worth asking. Forced stripping often leads to further violence and Chapter 2 investigates whether there might be more to the mocking than is usually assumed. I look at what might be learnt from the rape, murder, and dismemberment of the Levite’s wife in Judges 19, and also at why the mockery that followed the death of Herod Agrippa in 44 CE might be relevant to the mockery of Jesus.

Chapter 3 turns to the horror and shame associated with crucifixion. It looks at passages by the Roman writer Seneca that suggest sexualised violations during crucifixion. This is explored with attention to ancient impalement practices and the common belief that the Romans used crucifixions but not impalement. I think the reality might have been more complicated, but the evidence is not easy to interpret. It  requires more research by specialists and I hope to encourage this work by others. Although Jesus’ experience of strippings and enforced nudity provide strong reasons for seeing him as a victim of sexual abuse, we don’t know—and will probably never know—whether there were further forms of sexualised violence in the mocking and crucifixion.

Chapter 4  discusses why this sort of research matters and what positive value might come from it. These are questions that I have often been asked;  I discuss them with attention to Christian belief in resurrection. I believe that recognising Jesus’ experience can help churches address victim-blaming and the perceived stigma associated sexual violence. For example, it can strengthen positive messages to survivors like ‘You are not alone’ and ‘You are not to blame’. Of course, churches should not need the experience of Jesus to prompt them to respond well to survivors. But in my experience it can be an effective way to open up a deeper conversation on how churches can do better.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I am a theologian not a biblical scholar, so whilst I found the biblical discussion very interesting, and I hope it will be of interest to others, I also hope that some readers will be interested in the theological issues the book raises. For example, how this reading might offer a  better understanding of Jesus as fully human and vulnerable, or how it might challenge the assumption that the cross must be good. Sobrino speaks of ‘taking victims down from the cross’. I hope the book will encourage readers in churches to think about how recognition of Jesus’ experience might guide a better response to sexual violence. 

Please give us a quotation that captures something significant about your book and will make readers want to read the rest.

“This has been a difficult book to write, and it will almost certainly be a difficult book to read. But the book is driven by the conviction that the biblical text matters. It is also shaped by the belief that recognising and confronting violence—especially sexual violence—matters’”(p. 2).

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Reading with self-care when reading in vulnerability

Today’s post is by Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke, Co-Leader at The Ordinary Office

Twitter: @Dechurching

Email: rebecca@deconstructingchurch.com

In this piece, Christian, activist and survivor Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke reflects on her experience of reading the new book by David Tombs, The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross, which is the latest volume to appear in the Routledge Focus Series, “Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible” (see here).

The book is out today and open access! Please see here.

As its title already flags up, the content of David Tombs’ book is difficult. It deals with suffering, infliction of torture and sexualised abuse – but also with the horror of suppressing and denying such violence. Rebecca offers advice to fellow Christians about reading the book with an eye towards self-care. 

Reading With Self-Care When Reading In Vulnerability

Silence and violence. Key ideas throughout this book, and, as a package, something a person often doesn’t understand fully unless it touches their own life. Through their work, through anecdotal evidence. Through lived experience of a traumatic event. I’d go so far as to say silencing is an act of violence: from repeated neglect and dismissal of the same one’s voice every time a meeting is held, to the outright threats of “Don’t tell anyone!” which can follow a sexual assault. 

Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke, courtesy of the author.

My understanding of silence and violence is shaped by my own experience as a rape survivor. If we have the capacity (and only if), those of us who understand the complexities and repercussions of silence and violence have an opportunity to speak up, speak out and educate. We don’t have to agree on the ins and outs, the hows and whys, the extent to which we advocate. We don’t have to find the conversations comfortable or agree on the same premises. But neither can we dismiss very real possibilities and discussions which may prove revelatory, thought-provoking and immensely helpful to others.

Those of us working in and around Trauma Theology do this work not because we “enjoy” it, but out of a deep sense of justice, a calling even. Many in this area of work start from a place of lived experience, drawing from the well of those memories and the journeys back from their own trauma to speak into better practices for the future. Protecting the next “them,” when they could not be protected themselves. Others understand the societal and structural importance of safeguarding, protecting vulnerable people and supporting victims within a society that calls itself civilized and caring. Others still do it from a deep sense of conviction, that the work is right and important, and must be spoken out into the world whatever the cost. Professor David Tombs is absolutely part of this latter group.

This book gives careful attention to parts of the biblical text that have been ignored or overlooked or skated over. It invites the reader to confront these disturbing details. But one question is, how do we find out if something will be helpful or harmful to us before we choose to read a book? How can we know if it will harm us when the first of it we know is finding out it already has? How do we read difficult texts with self-care when we also want to inform our own healing journeys, in both vulnerability and faith?

Self-care as an active practice is vital when engaging in any form of study, activism or work on issues of violence. This is not an “airport book,” or something to be enjoyed by the pool with a Pina Colada. It will challenge you, shock you, upset you. It did all of those things to me. Unsurprisingly. The crucifixion of Jesus was, after all, a shocking and upsetting event, which has sometimes been sanitized. Over the years we have even come to wear crucifixes as jewellery and display their representations on our church walls. But nobody would contemplate admiringly or for long a true representation of the naked, exposed, beaten, bloodied and abused Jesus, not on the walls of the Sistine Chapel or anywhere else. Yet still, for all the brutalities confronted in this book, I encourage you to read it if you can.

Treat this book gently. As a rich, high percentage dark chocolate bar. It has much to offer and you can be nourished by it. But it may also bring a bitterness you will have to make a choice about. You can wrinkle your nose in disgust and push the remainder away. Or, you can reflect, let the taste linger and actually, as a whole, see there is more than just the sharpness which gave you cause to pause.

Treat yourself gently. You are a beloved child of God. You are treasured, and blessed. The themes explored in this book are painful. If you are not ready to explore them, then please, don’t. Those involved in the creation of this book do not want to cause distress or harm; that is the exact opposite of the intent. If you wish to try, why not set aside a period of time with a comforting drink and a scented candle, calming music, in a familiar space, with someone you trust on standby in a nearby room or at the end of the telephone. Try one chapter. Connect with the premise of the book in Chapter 1, understand what the book is looking to explore. Then put the book down, and give yourself some time to reflect. From there you can make your decision about proceeding, in discussion with your trusted friend if you need to. 

You may find you devour this book page after page with keen interest, reaching the end feeling like you have completed a sprint. Feeling deeply heard, represented and understood on a level never before reached. Feeling free. On the other hand, you may need to take a chapter, a section, a page at a time, as you would a devotional, establishing a safe space within which to contain your reading, process your thoughts and let them settle before re-entering the world. 

You could start a journal, either writing your responses or channelling them through art, helping you express what arises through your engagement with the book. You may want to consider reaching out to your church pastoral team if you have one, a spiritual director or a therapist should you require. Honouring yourself and your responses is vital. However you respond to this book, listen to what your body is telling you and give yourself what you need to remain well.

For that is the root of all of this. Central to Christianity is the belief Jesus came, lived, and died for us, so we may be made well. In all his ways, he taught us. Through the brutal shame of his sexual assault and murder, followed by the subtle beauty of his resurrected life, he taught us how to live again too. How to be in our own violated, traumatized body-minds. To have simple conversations with trusted friends. Breaking bread. Sharing vulnerabilities. Just being with your favourite people in safe places, by the waters, on long walks, reconnecting with yourself and them as you discover who you are in light of what has happened to you. I often wonder if what Jesus went through, and indeed what the disciples went through in witnessing, was just so brutal, that a soft period between resurrection and ascension was a necessary journey of healing and recovery for all of them, creating the space for the Holy Spirit to subsequently descend.

I pray this book gives you this gift. By journeying through and learning just how much Jesus suffered, you may see just how much he can, and has, walked with us through our suffering. That there is nothing we can experience which is too shameful, too awful, too degrading or horrific, that God would turn away. When we feel the worst has been done to us, our worth has been destroyed and our personhood diminished forever. No, my siblings. God has been through it too. 

In Chapter 4 David Tombs explores how, in recognising the full extent of the crucifixion pain, we too can also realise the full extent of the resurrection’s power. Know that Jesus will walk with each and every one of us for as long as our resurrection journey takes. So, if you can read this book, in a safe, measured and supported way, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so. 

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:36)

Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke

Content Warning. This book by David Tombs includes graphic descriptions and examples of sexual assaults. If you are a survivor who is still early in your recovery, I would suggest you exercise caution in reading Chapters 2 and 3 in particular, making sure your support network is on hand. Please be aware that the content might trigger traumatic memories, cause you undue distress, or put your mental wellbeing at risk.

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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.

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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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