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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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Introducing … The Bloody Bible Podcast

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

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

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

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

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

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Theology in a Divided World: Five Poems

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

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

Poem 1: God’s intention for creation

God’s intention for creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Introduction of Sarah Everard’s murder.

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

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

Poem 2: Ruin and “redemption”

Ruin and “redemption”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poem 3: The “sanctuary” of Christian theology

The “sanctuary” of Christian theology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poem 4: The vigil as relapse

The vigil as relapse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poem 5: The perfection of God’s word

The perfection of God’s word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s post is by Karina Atudosie and Katherine Gwyther

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Christmas, Mary, and the new Nationality and Borders Bill

Today’s post is by Tasia Scrutton, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Leeds. Tasia’s research lies in the intersection between religion and human experience, including experiences of mental illness, bereavement, and displacement. Her most recent book, Christianity and depression: interpretation, meaning, and the shaping of experience came out with SCM Press in 2020 and you can find out more about it here. Outside of her academic work, she enjoys walking her dog Lola. She also volunteers with an asylum seeker charity, BEACON, whose work you can find out more about here: Bradford Ecumenical Asylum Concern (beaconbradford.org)   

Kelly Latimore, Our Lady of the Journey (jpg purchased from the artist and reproduced with kind permission: kellylatimoreicons.com)

Kelly Latimore’s icon, Our Lady of the Journey, depicts the episode early in Matthew’s Gospel in which Mary, Joseph and the newborn Jesus flee to Egypt to escape the persecution of an oppressive government (Matthew 2:13-23). While many paintings have depicted the ‘Flight into Egypt’ in relation to the plight of refugees, one of the most striking features of this icon for me is the way it highlights the experience of Mary, and especially her fear.

In this respect the icon is realistic, since the fear of asylum seekers who are women and girls is very real, and very well-founded. Women who attempt to flee their country of origin in hope of better, safer prospects are at risk from the same very-real threats to life that men experience, as was devastatingly laid bare with the recent Channel crossing drownings (see here). But women who flee their countries of origin are also vulnerable to additional dangers: to rape, to sexual trafficking, and to other forms of sexual exploitation, both on their journey, and in the place where they seek refugee status. In the words of one woman, who fled from Cameroon, where homosexuality is illegal:

“I came to the UK because I was raped, beaten and locked up in my country because of my sexuality. When I arrived, I didn’t know where to go or what to do and I had never heard of asylum. I thought I was coming to a country where I would be accepted for who I am but that was not the case.

Being a refugee in a new country, you don’t trust people easily, especially if you have been through so much hatred, so much abuse. It took me a while to trust people who told me about the asylum process. When I applied, it was a very long journey of stress and struggle. The Home Office said they didn’t believe my story and refused my asylum claim. I was depressed and had nowhere to go for support. I had to sleep on the bus and the only way to survive was to have sex to get food. It was traumatic and degrading.” 

(‘Anna’, quoted in Women for Refugee Women : Legal Opinion: The Nationality and Borders Bill will harm women)

Detail from Kelly Latimore’s Our Lady of the Journey

In addition to the sexual violence and exploitation they face, women are also more likely to be travelling with children, whose presence makes the journey harder, and the stakes even higher – since women asylum seekers are risking not only their own lives, but also the lives of their children. And especially if the children are girls, they too are vulnerable to violence and hardship, including sexual violence and exploitation.

These dangers might make one wonder, why would any woman take these terrible risks? The answer, of course, as ‘Anna’s’ story highlights, is that the things that make women risk all these things are yet more terrible and fearful still.   

The way in which female asylum seekers are especially vulnerable – what we might call the ‘gendered aspect’ of asylum seeking – makes the UK government’s Nationality and Border Bill, passed by the House of Commons last week, all the more cruel and unjust. Briefly, the Bill allows the government to deprive a person of citizenship, without even notifying them. This can be done, either if the Home Office does not have the person’s contact details, or if notifying them is ‘not reasonably practical’ (see here).

In addition, the same Bill criminalises anyone taking part in the rescue missions in the English Channel. To put this another way, it means that the people we regard as heroes for helping persecuted people escape torture and death (for example, people who smuggled Jewish children to the UK during the Nazi regime), would be regarded as criminals in the UK, according to the new law.

Although it doesn’t explicitly target women, the new Bill is, in practice, misogynistic, since it will disadvantage women and girls especially. This is for a number of reasons, but I will highlight just three here. First, the new Bill will introduce a ‘two-tier system’ that discriminates especially against asylum seekers who arrive in the UK via what the Home Office considers illegal means, such as in small boats. People coming from Afghanistan are among those asylum seekers especially likely to arrive in small boats – and women and girls from Afghanistan are highly likely to be fleeing, because of the newly-installed Taliban regime, which has, since the 2021 offensive, severely constrained women’s and girls’ movements, including access to education. In other words, the new Bill won’t discriminate against women explicitly and directly, but by virtue of discriminating against people who come via ‘illegal routes’ on small boats, it will effectively discriminate against people who are forced to flee from places such as Afghanistan, for gender-based reasons. 

Second, the new Bill will mean that there is a ‘heightened standard of proof’ expected of asylum seekers, and that cases will be considered at a more rapid rate (see here for the Executive Summary).  But women and girls who have frequently experienced rape and other forms of sexual torture are often traumatised to the extent that they do not have a coherent narrative about what has happened to them. Narratives of trauma often emerge only long after the traumatic event itself, because victims of sexual violence and exploitation experience guilt and shame, because being a victim of sexual violence is still a cause of stigma in many cultures, including our own. The asylum process is stacked against them. And asylum seekers are oftentimes interrogated without sensitivity about the violence and torture they have experienced.

Third, as human rights lawyers have pointed out, the new Bill’s clauses about modern slavery and trafficking will make it harder for women and girls who are victims of trafficking and modern slavery to be identified and protected. This is contrary to the UK’s obligations according to international law. In addition to that, the much swifter process that will lead a woman or girl to be deported may well mean that there is not enough time for trafficking claims to be determined (see here, for the Executive Summary).

I could go on about the other ways in which the new Nationality and Borders Bill will harm female asylum seekers, not just because they are asylum seekers, but (additionally) because they are women and girls. But those who are interested can read more about the reasons here.

So instead, I want to return to where we started – to the Bible – and provide just a few passages for reflection about the way the Scriptures encourage us to show solidarity with the oppressed, and hospitality to asylum seekers in particular. At the very end, I suggest four  ways in which we can help.

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:21).

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:34).

You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 24:22).

Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and she will repay her for her deed (Proverbs 19:17).

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute (Psalm 82:3).

 Learn to do good;
 Seek justice,
 Rescue the oppressed,
 Defend the orphan,
 Plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another (Zechariah 7: 9-10)

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:34-40)

Four ways you can help:

  1. Join, donate, or volunteer for Women for Refugee Women: Women for Refugee Women
  2. If you are in the UK, write to your MP and oppose the Nationality and Borders Bill. You can find out who your MP is, and how to write to them, here: Find out who your MP is / mySociety . If you’re stuck for what to write, you can copy or adapt the template here: #antirefugeebill (asylummatters.org)
  3. Sign up to receive campaigning news and opportunities from Asylum MattersHome | Asylum Matters
  4. Encourage your church and any other organisations with which you may be involved to join the Together with Refugees coalition: Join the coalition – Together With Refugees
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Disobedience: Reading the Sacred Text Otherwise

Today’s post is by Yael Klangwisan, Senior Lecturer in Education at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand.  In this post she reflects on the violence of a sacred text towards the lesbian community through the lens of Naomi Alderman’s novel “Disobedience”, and the 2017 film directed by Lelio. 

Disobedience: Reading the Sacred Text Otherwise

[Rav]: In the beginning Hashem made three types of creatures.  The angels, the beasts and the human beings.  The angels He made from His pure word.  The angels have no will to do evil.  They cannot deviate for one moment from His purpose.  The beasts have only their instincts to guide them.  They, too, follow the commands of their maker.  The Torah states that Hashem spent almost six whole days of creation fashioning these creatures.  Then just before sunset, He took a small quantity of earth and from it He fashioned man and woman.  An afterthought?  Or His crowning achievement.  So, what is this thing?  Man? Woman?  It is a being with the power to disobey.  Alone among all the creatures, we have free will.  We hang suspended between the clarity of the angels and the desires of the beasts.  Hashem gave us choice, which is both a privilege and a burden.  We must then choose the tangled life we live. (Opening lines of “Disobedience”, Lelio, 2017)

The relation of tradition and sexual freedom is a tangled space, particularly for those identifying as LGBTQ+. Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel Disobedience explores this space, and particularly the signal themes of faith, truth, and freedom in the context of lesbian desire. In 2017, the cinematic realisation of the novel was directed by Sebastián Lelio. Like other films of its kind, Lelio portrays the disconnect between the frum (religious) world and the secular world and traces the personal cost of this divide in terms of sexuality with great effect. Alderman’s novel has a striking point of difference to the film, and this is the strangely affirming arrangement of each chapter around the Torah and the interpretive writings of the sages as the plot evolves. This positioning rests subtly on the wings of a particular kind of creative, resistant reading of the sacred text.  It is a compilation and interpretation of sacred texts in such a way that their violence against women expressing same sex desire is disempowered.  In Alderman’s novel, and similarly in Lelio’s film, the role of speech in defining and realising women’s sexual freedom, is at the fore.  Alderman’s presentation of this real struggle as the narrative progresses is heart-rending. The twist is when freedom to realise one’s true sexual self is incarnated from within the very texts and traditions that repress it. 

Alderman’s novel is set in an orthodox Jewish community in North London and begins with the death of the revered Rav Krushka, which is then followed by tumult over the appointment of a successor. This appointment is a contentious process that is cast into further disarray when the Rav’s estranged daughter Ronit returns from New York for the Hesped (her father’s eulogy).  Ronit stays with her cousin Dovid, the ascendant rabbi, and is surprised to find that he has married her best friend and first love, Esti.  Ronit finds herself falling in love again with Esti and this presents a crisis for them all. 

Joseph Nacino of Lesbian News describes Lelio’s film Disobedience as “a transfixing consideration of love, faith, sexuality, and personal freedom” (2018). Stephanie Zacharek from Time Magazine describes the two female protagonists, Ronit and Esti, as “circling each other warily, each cautious about disrupting the pattern of the other’s life” (2018). For Zacharek, these very patterns and cycles of orthodox Judaism bring comfort but can also lead to alienation and intense loneliness for those who are estranged.  Zacharek describes Rachel Weisz’s character Ronit as assertive yet dreamily wistful, and Rachel McAdams’ character Esti as subdued and pragmatic about her life in the orthodox community. Esti has kept her true desires and sexual identity tamped deeply down and this fiercely suppressed part of herself is about to burst out.  

In the film, Alessandro Nivola plays the character Dovid.  Dovid is deeply observant and, in terms of tradition a good husband. However, for Esti, Dovid’s generosity, patience and benevolence are suffocating.  Captivation and care are entangled. As Zacharek notes, “In Disobedience, three people reckon with the cost and meaning of freedom. Everybody pays. But if it were free, what would it be worth?” (2018). Joel Streicker, who reviews the novel for the journal Shofar, suggests that “the novel’s sympathies shift from Ronit’s anger and bitterness to Esti’s unfolding self-understanding and self-assertion” (2008). While Ronit seems to have found a certain troubled freedom in New York, and certainly one on her own terms, Streicker points out that for Esti, it is in fact God who makes space for every creature’s freedom to disobey tradition—though one “cannot escape the consequences of disobedience” (2008, 204).  There will always be a price. This is the crux of the theology both in the film and the novel—God might be an ally.  For Streicker, Alderman’s novel enacts “a reconciliation between Orthodoxy and lesbianism, between individual desire and collective constraints on it” (2008, 205).

Lesbianism is not strictly considered a breaking of the law in Judaism.  It is not mentioned in the Hebrew bible and only became a concern to the sages in later periods.  Thus, in Sifra, the midrash on Leviticus, in its commentary on Lev 18:2-3, there is reference to a prohibition against lesbianism or mesolelot.  In the Talmud (Nashim) Yevamot 76a, the sages consider whether lesbians could marry priests and try to answer the question of whether lesbians are “virgins”.  The Mishnah contains the text of a debate over whether lesbianism is a minor or major infraction for the Jewish community.  And in probably the strongest denunciation, in the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides associates lesbianism with an ambiguous Torah reference to the “practices of Egypt” and prescribes flogging.  Maimonides says in the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Biah 21:8:

It is forbidden for women to enmesh [play around] … with one another and this belongs to the “practices of the Egyptians” [of] which we have been warned: “you shall not copy the practices of the Land of Egypt” …  However, a flogging for disobedience (mardut) should be given, since they have performed a forbidden act. A man should be strict with his wife in this matter, and should prevent women who are known to engage in this practice from visiting her, and prevent her from going to them.

Lesbianism was outlawed by the sages primarily because it is considered a danger to the community, to men’s control of their marriages and symptomatic of the apparently rebellious nature of women. It is ironic that while clearly not a capital offence, it does, for the sages, make a woman impure for a period of 12 days and at the end of this time, she is considered “straightened out” enough to return to her husband, children and community.

While in the novel Alderman does quote the sages on “the practices of Egyptian women,” this is not where she begins what could be a futile battle against tradition’s status quo.  She begins in the unlikely place of the Shabbat service with the most unlikely companions of Genesis and creation.  She begins with an exploration of wonder in a portion of prayer from the Mishnah Tamid 7.4 chanted in the Shabbat morning service: “And on the Shabbat, the priests would sing a song for the future that is to come, for that day which will be entirely Shabbat and for the repose of eternal life” (Alderman 2006, 1; also Neusner 1998). On the theme of the creative power of speech, Alderman offers the possibility that one might create her one’s own world through speech and does this through the old Rav’s drash (exegesis) on Genesis 1. 

“Speech,” said the old Rav. “If the created world were a piece of music, speech would be its refrain, its recurring theme. In the Torah, we read that Hashem created the world through speech. He could have willed it into existence. We might have read: ‘And God thought of light, and there was light.’ No. He could have hummed it. Or formed it from clay in His hands. Or breathed it out. Hashem, our King, the Holy One Blessed Be He, did none of these things. To create the world, He spoke. ‘And God said, let there be light, and there was light’. Exactly as He spoke, so it was. … The Torah itself. A book. Hashem could have given us a painting, or a sculpture, a forest, a creature, an idea in our minds to explain His world. But He gave us a book. Words … What a great power the Almighty has given us! To speak, as He speaks! Astonishing! Of all the creatures on earth, only we can speak. What does this mean? … It means we have a hint of Hashem’s power. Our words are, in a sense, real. They can create worlds and destroy them. They have edges, like a knife.” (Alderman 2006, 7-8)

Alderman recalls that the sages compare the Torah to the primordial water that covered the world (Gen 1:2). Without it, they say the earth would be nothing but a desert.  In a way, these waters of the Torah serve as a mikvah (ritual pool) for the world.  As a mikvah, Alderman hints that the very impurity that is created and attributed by the sages, for example, the laws that magnify Esti’s feelings of guilt, can also be washed away by the sages’ own sayings.  Here Alderman celebrates the sacred without allowing the strictures of a violent text to cultivate shame regarding a woman’s desire for another woman. 

“Without Torah, man too would be only a shell, knowing neither light nor mercy. As water is life-giving, so Torah brings life to the world. Without water, our limbs would never know freshness or balm. Without Torah, our spirits would never know tranquillity. As water is purifying, so Torah cleanses those it touches. Water comes only and forever from the Almighty; it is a symbol of our utter dependence on Him. Should He withhold rain for but a season, we could no longer stand before Him. Just so, Torah is a gift which the Holy One Blessed Be He has given the world; Torah, in a sense, contains the world, it is the blueprint from which the world was created. Should Torah be withheld only for a moment, the world would not only vanish, but would never even have been.” (Alderman 2006, 18) 

Yet while water covered the earth, chaos exists too.  Even from the beginning God wrested between order and chaos, life and death.  In tohu vabohu and the ruach elohim (Gen 1:2) there are tensions and balances that all beings are fated to navigate, as God did too in the beginning—that this very tension is written into the fabric of the world. Alderman takes the reader to the shacharit morning prayer: “All say: Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who did not make me a slave. Men say: Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who did not make me a woman. Women say: Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who made me according to His will. from shacharit, the morning prayer.” (Alderman 2006, 58). This prayer and its troubling gender binary invokes a certain kind of violence, but Alderman links this prayer to the story of the Sun and the Moon and deconstructs the presumed inequity from within the tradition.  As in that first great chapter of Torah, on the fourth day the sun and the moon were made by God, just as man and woman were made (as per what is written) and were originally of equal status, a mirror image of each other: 

“For it is written, ‘And God made the two great lights.’ But the moon complained at this, saying, ‘Two rulers may not use one crown.’ And Hashem replied, saying, ‘Very well, since you ask for one to be lesser and one to be greater, your size shall be diminished, and the size of the sun increased. Your light shall be one-sixtieth of its previous strength.’ The moon complained to Hashem at her plight and, so that she should not remain utterly without comfort, Hashem gave her companions – the stars.” (Alderman, 2006, 58).

In this story, at the end of days, the Moon will be returned to her former glory, and be once more equal with the Sun.  Alderman suggests that one might learn from this that God listens to creatures and these creatures can sometimes be in the right. “In the first place, we learn that the moon was correct, for Hashem hearkened to her words” (Alderman 2006, 58-59). But also, we learn that Hashem is merciful – that this God recognizes the plight of those considered lesser and gives comfort to those in need. Esti muses that the stars are God’s gift to the moon. Ronit and Esti’s girlhood love and desire are as a gift of Hashem, as if the Moon (the motherless and abandoned Ronit) was given Esti, who was like a constellation of stars to her.  As the narrative of Ronit and Esti winds through Alderman’s bricolage of the Torah and the sayings of the sages, Alderman reminds the reader of God’s propensity to hear, to listen and to change God’s mind. In the whimsical stories of the sages she offers the possibility that God hears and answers the cry of the soul (Ps 66:19).

“God instructed the moon to make itself new each month. It is a crown of splendour for those who are borne from the womb, because they are also destined to be renewed like her. from the kiddush levana, recited every month after the third day of the lunar cycle and before the full moon What is the shape of time? On occasion, we may feel that time is circular. The seasons approach and retreat, the same every year. Night follows day follows night follows day. The festivals arrive in their time, cycling one after the other. And each month, the womb…” (Alderman 2006, 101)

Alderman describes a beautiful scene that relates to the haftarah readings (cycle of readings from the prophets) associated with the new moon.  What is felt here in the writing is the rhythmic constancy of the Jewish calendar, its unceasing movement, as if the cycle of readings was tidal.  These patterns of practice are deeply embodied, finding kinship in the lunar rhythms of the womb.  These cycles are thus interior and hold the observant reader in a cultural and maternal embrace.  There is a sense that these cycles cannot be held back from their return. They are as inevitable as the seas and, just as these same cycles draw forth Jewish practice, Alderman wants to suggest they will inevitably draw forth the truth of oneself.  Esti is sitting in the sabbath service in the balcony reserved for women, and the Haftarah is to be read.  The reading happens to be from 1 Sam 20. It is as if even the seasonal readings from the Tanakh arrive as gifts to support Esti’s realisation of her desire for Ronit and what that might mean regarding for the elemental truths of her sexuality and moreover, her own community’s failure of love: “The tones of the Haftarah, more melodic and more poignant than those of the Torah reading, speak so often of faithlessness and betrayal, of Israel’s failures of love towards God.”(Alderman 2006, 101)

Esti is pictured following the English story of 1 Sam 20 with her eyes. She is captivated when Jonathan says to David “Tomorrow is the New Moon, and you will be missed because your seat will be empty.” (1 Sam 20:5).  Jonathan is the son of the mercurial King Saul, but also in a deep and abiding relationship with David (1 Sam 20:17).  David is King Saul’s favoured musician. In the Haftarah reading, King Saul’s anger at David inexplicably grows, and the King’s increasing aggression has the courtiers on eggshells. Incredibly, Jonathan, the King’s own son, has made an escape plan with David. He cautions David to hide in the countryside nearby. David would miss the start of the feast to celebrate the new month. Jonathan would wait to see how Saul took it. If all was well, Jonathan would send word that David could attend after all. But as it turns out, Saul was incensed, and when Jonathan tried to calm his father, Saul humiliates his son in front of the entire court: “Do you think I don’t know that you have chosen this David, son of Jesse, to your shame and the shame of your mother’s nakedness?” (1 Sam 20:30).

In Esti’s recounting of this tale, she notes the Haftarah reader was talented, that he could even reproduce King Saul’s rough and anguished voice.  It speaks to her and Esti wants it to speak to Ronit. “Do you remember? she whispers. “It’s Machar Chodesh. Tomorrow is Rosh Chodesh, the new moon. Do you remember what you told me once about this day?” Through the cadences of the reader’s voice, low and melodious, Ronit and Esti remember David and Jonathan’s meeting in the fields outside the city, telling of a love which the sages record, was the greatest that had ever been known. Alderman writes, “the notes fluttered up and down the scales, falling like tears and rising like an arrow sprung from the bow … Machar Chodesh. When we read about David and Jonathan…” (2006, 108-109).

In a later chapter Ronit will reflect on this same text again with Esti. It has a central meaning for Esti and her initial reasons for choosing to marry Dovid.  She had been trying to sublimate her desire for Ronit through the only legitimate avenue available to her, by marrying Ronit’s own cousin.

“‘Do you remember “tomorrow is the new moon”? The story of David and Jonathan?’ I nodded. ‘And do you remember how much David loved Jonathan? He loved him with “a love surpassing the love of women”. Do you remember?’ ‘Yes, I remember. David loved Jonathan. Jonathan died in battle. David was miserable. The end.’ ‘No, not the end. The beginning. David had to go on living. He had no choice. Do you remember whom he married?’ … ‘He married Michal. They weren’t very happy. Didn’t she insult him in public, or something?’ ‘And who was Michal?’ It clicked. I understood. Michal was Jonathan’s sister. The man he loved with all his heart died and he married his sister. I thought about that for a moment, taking it in. I wondered whether Michal and Jonathan had looked anything like each other. I thought about King David and his grief, his need for someone like Jonathan, near to Jonathan…”. (Alderman 2006, 210)

Esti finds within the cycle of synagogue readings that these have nurtured a kind of liminal journey to the truth of herself, though it has taken years of such cycles.  The novel and the film coalesce at this point.  The Haftarah of Machar Chodesh, and the intimate meeting of Jonathan and David in the field, coalesces with scenes from the Song of Songs.  In Lelio’s film, Dovid appears in a scene with his religious students quoting and commenting on the Song of Songs 1:13-15.

[Dovid]: “A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me, that lies all night between my breasts.  My beloved is to me as a cluster of henna blooms … in the vineyards of Ein-Gedi.” 

[Talmid]: “Is it about sensuality? That is, the way in which true love manifests itself?”

 [Dovid]: “But it might also be that between a male and a female, there is something higher than that?”

[Talmid]:  But isn’t it that the references to sensual pleasures celebrate physical love here?  The enjoyment of that love becomes, in this context, the highest …

[Dovid]: “See, you are fair, my love.  You are fair.  Your eyes are doves.  See, you are handsome my beloved, yea, pleasing, and our bed is verdant.”

This scene segues into the next on the image, “Our bed is verdant.” This image then acts as a foil when Dovid and Esti appear in the intimacy of their home with the words “our bed is verdant” still drifting in our minds.  We see Dovid’s and Esti’s careful attention to one another, as if the other was so fragile they might break. The ground between them is a desert.  Even with their attentiveness and extraordinary care for the other, they both seem to know there is little flourishing there, that they are the companions of the other’s slow grief—two fig trees that never bore fruit. As if to intensify the contrast, there is a lovers’ interlude in Hendon, the grassed space of Golders Green in North London. The parkland is transformed via the elemental passion of Esti’s and Ronit’s love into the gardens and wild spaces of the Song of Songs, true joy.  Esti and Ronit walk down dark paths, and into a wintery domain, into the somber North London streets in the evening, as if they were the Song of Song’s lovers searching for each other in Jerusalem’s alleyways (Son 3 & 5).  Ronit and Esti share the intense beauty of their remembrances, their secret places, the scent of hydrangeas.  They listen at the door of their hearts for one another, revel in the rising of desire, searching the other out.  Eventually the inevitable culmination of their renewed relationship takes place.

As in chapter 5 of the Song of Songs, there is danger too in the shape of watchers, guardians of the community’s way of life, those who seek to maintain a certain way of life, those whom Alderman might suggest have misunderstood the Torah all this time.  Thus, pressure is brought to bear on Dovid by a community of brothers and uncles.  Dovid will need to keep the order of his own house and to “straighten out” the outré sexuality of his wife if he wants to lead the community.  What transpires, then, is a scene between Esti and Dovid reminiscent of Moses before Pharaoh in Exodus (9:13). In the film, the narrative of freedom is a spoken thing.  Esti, as the supplicant Moses, asks for her freedom – that is, the freedom to live in the dignity of who she is, to live and love truly – and Dovid grants it.  In the novel, Alderman also draws on Exodus and the Moses narrative when she has Ronit dream of the Passover, but in this dream, Ronit is the angel of death who flies over the city (2006, 253).

Alderman concludes her novel with the curious Talmudic tale called the “The Caving Walls of the Study Hall.”  The story itself is based on an interpretation of Deut. 30:11-14: “this instruction … is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” Found in Talmud Baba Mesia 59:2, the tale is set as a classic debate on Torah, and concerns theology and the proper interpretation of the law.

On a certain day, regarding a certain interpretation of the law, Rabbi Eliezer brought them all sorts of proofs, but the other sages kept rejecting them. Said he to them: “If the law is as I say, may the carob tree prove it.” The carob tree was uprooted from its place a distance of 100 cubits. But the sages to him: “One cannot prove anything from a carob tree.”

Said [Rabbi Eliezer] to them: “If the law is as I say, may the river prove it.” The water in the river began to flow backwards. But they said to him: “One cannot prove anything from an river.”

Said he to them: “If the law is as I say, then may the walls of the house of study prove it.” The walls of the house of study began to cave in. But Rabbi Joshua rebuked the walls and said to the walls, “If Torah scholars are debating a point of Jewish law, what are your qualifications to intervene?” The walls did not fall, in deference to Rabbi Joshua, and nor did they straighten up, in deference to Rabbi Eliezer. They still stand there today at a slant.

Then said Eliezar to them: “If the law is as I say, may it be proven from heaven!” There then issued a heavenly voice which proclaimed: “What do you want of Rabbi Eliezer — the law is as he says…”

But Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said: “‘The Torah is not in heaven!’1” … We take no notice of heavenly voices, since You, G‑d, have already, at Sinai, written in the Torah to ‘follow the majority.'” (Ex 23:2)

Rabbi Nathan subsequently met Elijah the Prophet and asked him: “What did G‑d do at that moment?” [Elijah] replied: “He smiled and said: ‘My children have triumphed over Me, My children have triumphed over Me.

“The Caving Walls of the Study Hall” is a profound text that holds the matter of the love of Esti for Ronit gently, and even more gently, Esti’s journey of self-realisation and sexual liberation. The delicate turn in reading here is in the image of a Hashem that smiles.  It is as if Hashem is at this very moment the embodiment of Ronit’s father, raised up with face alive with mirth:  “My [daughters] have triumphed over me”.  What is striking in the novel (and also in the film), is the way in which the narrative calls on the Torah and the Talmud, as allies on behalf of Ronit and Esti and their desire.  These two women are, each in their own way, alienated and estranged from their community.  They have also been a precious awakening to each other.  This is regardless of Ronit’s separation from her father, cousin and community and Esti’s attempt to live an observant life as a rebbetzin, frum wife and a teacher.  This love is made even more challenging in a sheltered community that cannot accept the truth of the otherwiseness of Esti’s desires.  “I have always felt like this,” Esti says to Dovid in Lelio’s film (2017), “I will always feel like this.”  The way in which the film and novel draw upon the sacred text to frame Esti’s untangling and unfolding acceptance of herself and her sexuality is deeply moving, similarly the resolution of Ronit’s quandary over her troubled love for Esti and the community of her childhood.  This connection is tender and honouring of an age-old and beautiful set of sacred texts and traditions, without forfeiting the sacred human right to dignity, freedom and the expression one’s whole self in ways otherwise to that tradition.  It is in this kind of reading that Alderman finds a liberating trajectory of scriptural interpretation on behalf of lesbian desire, that is, the possibility of finding sexual freedom in the very texts that violate it.

REFERENCES

Alderman, Naomi. Disobedience. London: Penguin, 2006. Kindle Edition.

Harding, James.  The love of David and Jonathan. London: Routledge, 2014. Kindle Edition.

Neusner, Jacob. The Babylonian Talmud :  A Translation and Commentary. Hendrickson, 2005.

Neusner, Jacob.  The Mishna: A New Translation. New Haven: Yale University, 1988.

Lelio, Sebastián. Disobedience. Film4, FilmNation, Element Pictures, et al, 2017.

Nacino, Joseph. “Love as disobedience,” Lesbian News (April 2018): 10-12.

Steicker, Joel. “Review of Disobedience,” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, 26, no. 3 (2008): 203-205.

Zacharek, Stephanie. “Forbidden lovers seek grace in Disobedience,” TIME Magazine, 191, no. 19 (May 21, 2018): 54-54.

Image: Charles Landelle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Noirthern

Shiloh directors have been busy with their day jobs, but work goes on and there are some great posts in the pipeline…

If you haven’t already, please check out Noirthern – the magnificent blog and podcast on crime fiction in Scottish and Northern English settings. Given that the hosts are none other than Caroline Blyth and Katie Edwards, the (wide-ranging and wonderful) conversations often veer into the territories of rape culture and religion. But it’s far from relentlessly grim.

Shiloh followers might appreciate particularly Episode 4, ‘Saints and Saviour Syndrome’ (focused on Durham) and Episode 5, ‘Tartan Noir’ (focused on Glasgow and Liam McIlvanney’s The Quaker, which draws inspiration from the notorious and unsolved Bible John case).

We hope to have some exciting updates soon… including about restarting suspended research project activities and a call for papers for a fabulous publication.

Watch this space!

[The feature image is adapted from artwork by Melody Clark. Please see: https://www.etsy.com/people/mellyemclark? ]

Noirthern is funded in part by a grant from AHRC/UKRI.

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Clothed in strength and dignity? The use and misuse of the Proverbs 31 woman

Today’s post comes from Esther Zarifi and focuses on the use and misuse of the Proverbs 31 woman. Esther completed her MA in Religions and Theology (Distinction) at the University of Manchester in 2020 and was awarded the department’s Leonard Hassé Memorial Prize for her MA Dissertation, from which this blog is drawn. Esther, formerly a Religious Studies teacher, is now Head of Curriculum for Religious Studies for the examination board, AQA.


The book of Proverbs – a collection of age-old wisdom, compiled circa the 8th – 5th centuries BCE – closes its 31 chapters with a striking poem in praise of a woman, the ʾēšet ḥayil.[1] It is debated by biblical scholars whether this woman is ‘real’ or an allegory, with some suggesting she is a metaphorical wisdom figure or composite. Either way, the woman of this ancient text has had (and is still having) a very real impact on actual women.

Fast-forward 2500 years from the scribes’ writings… and on entering ‘Proverbs 31’ into a search engine you’ll find mugs, t-shirts, keyrings, shopping bags… – ancient verses printed on to 21st century merchandise.

Rachel Held Evans describes how growing up in an evangelical subculture she got to know this ‘Proverbs 31 woman’ well. Presented as God’s ideal for women, she is a mainstay of women’s conferences and Christian bookstores.[2] While biblical ‘merch’ may not be an uncommon sight growing up in church circles, it is still rather niche to see women wearing t-shirts bearing phrases such as ‘clothed in strength and dignity,’ or ‘more precious than rubies.’ At first glance, it all seems very empowering and liberative.  

Arguably though, there is far more going on here. I’d suggest that these supposedly positive affirmations are working within the paradigm of an unmistakeably patriarchal structure.

The twenty-one verses, an acrostic of the Hebrew alphabet, present something of an A-Z of the ʾēšet ḥayil; she is the total package!The poem opens by asking, ‘A capable wife, who can find? She is far more precious than jewels’ (Proverbs 31:10, NRSV).

On the one hand, we could read this as saying she is precious and to be valued. On the other, is the woman here being given a price-tag? Is it actually rare to find a capable woman with ḥayil? Throughout the Hebrew Bible many men are afforded ḥayil for reasons such as having courage, physical strength and wealth. Christine Yoder encapsulates these descriptions by calling them ‘persons of substance’[3] and so translates ʾēšet ḥayil as ‘Woman of Substance.’ Despite the abundance of these men of substance, only thrice is ḥayil used in relation to female characters (alongside Proverbs 31, see Ruth 3:11 and Proverbs 12:4). Perhaps in the minds of the ancient sages, women with ḥayil were indeed rarer than jewels.

Following the rhetorical opening verse, the Woman of Substance in Proverbs 31 is praised for an incredible list of achievements and attributes including: hard work (v.13), buying land (v.16), strength (v.17), helping those in need (v.20), making and selling clothing (v.24), wisdom (v.26) and being God-fearing (v.30). In contrast to the frequently seen wife and/or mother motifs of ancient texts, the ʾēšet ḥayil really stands out as an industrious over-achiever.  

This woman has it all – career, family, wealth – and it is easy to see why this enigmatic figure has become an inspirational and aspirational emblem for ‘biblical womanhood.’

But, while she may be an aspirational role model, she is also perhaps an unrealistic ‘gold standard’ for women to attain and for men to seek. Proverbs’ foremost focus is, after all, cultivating wisdom in men, so this chapter still has male concerns uppermost in its mind’s eye. Notwithstanding all her activities and achievements, her husband appears in no fewer than five verses of the poem and is the only character to speak (v.29). What he does say, however, is in praise of his wife (hurrah!). But … in this praise he compares her to other women who have also ‘done excellently’ – if he said this today, he may find himself the subject of a social media storm for his ‘backhanded compliment’!

Nevertheless, this woman is active and has agency, demonstrating that women could/can hold power and authority in some spaces. The Hebrew bêtah (‘household’) in verses 21 and 27 has a feminine pronominal suffix, thus designating the house as hers. Yet, she remains anonymous with no name and no direct voice, framed in reference to her husband from the outset (vv.10-11). The woman at the heart of this biblical poem could easily be viewed as a mixed blessing; she may be a tribute to the lives and work of actual women but is still, ultimately, an objectification.[4] Hence, her role is complicit with a male-dominated system – she holds a prominent place but conveys and promotes male interests and fulfils a traditional heteronormative role.

The ʾēšet ḥayil has agency as a woman, but she is also a symbol of ‘Woman.’ These two categories – women, who are real people with varying degrees of agency within different social situations, and Woman, a symbolic construction of sex, gender and sexuality, comprised of allegory and male fantasy – can be used to examine a variety of sources.[5] Here the symbolic wise Woman of Proverbs 31 is divinely legitimated and eternal through her place in the scriptures, but she can also shape the lives of actual women up until today. Through cultural understandings of Woman, lived realities can be shaped (and vice versa), therefore the symbolic Woman can/should be reimagined and critiqued. This approach could certainly problematise not only the Proverbs 31 Woman image, but also the ways she is presented as an agent when viewed as a symbol for female empowerment.

As a popular passage of scripture, the ‘mixed blessing’ of Proverbs 31 begins to outwork itself in contemporary lives, not only in the positive affirmations of t-shirt slogans, but at times in the form of complementarianism. This theology of patriarchal subordination can be said to misuse the biblical text to fulfil its traditionalist, heteronormative aims. The wise and industrious woman here becomes a symbol of a model wife and ‘biblical Woman.’ This symbolic treatment of Woman could also manifest itself in the furthering of rape culture and its very real outworking.

It may be surprising however, that our Proverbs 31 woman is used in this way not just by Christian men seeking ideal wives, but is advocated by women themselves. Contemporary postfeminist appropriations of her are made by women using their agency to adhere, in some sense, to the patriarchal construction of Woman. On to women’s bodies, here the ideal Christian ‘capable wife’ is mapped, via the symbol of the ʾēšet ḥayil.

Evangelical celebrity pastors, such as Priscilla Shirer, guide thousands of women through the study of scripture in their books, videos, and conferences.[6] Shirer is an example of a prominent church leader who advocates a complementarian position and does not identify as ‘feminist.’ In her aptly titled book, A Jewel in His Crown: Rediscovering Your Value as a Woman of Excellence (2004), Shirer writes, ‘Satan will do everything in his power to get us to take the lead in our homes …. He wants to make us resent our husband’s position of authority so that wewill begin to usurp it. … Women need to pray for God to renew a spirit ofsubmission in their hearts.’[7]

Through blogs, books and sermons, some Christian women are encouraging a complementarian theology by their appropriation of the Proverbs 31 woman. Here they can be found to advocate a new traditionalist postfeminist ideology – caught between a contemporary, liberal rhetoric of empowerment and a neo-conservative narrative of traditional gender roles, these women exemplify the same double-entanglement found within the biblical text itself. Praised and honoured, hardworking and influential – the Woman of Substance presents an empowering image of domestic life that is called upon by women’s ministries to illustrate the liberating choice of ‘biblical womanhood.’ Thus, women agents in the end seem to conform to the male psyche’s Woman symbol. This ‘double entanglement’ means that although these female agents are free of the symbolic construction of Woman, they are also controlled by it, perhaps unconsciously, through the paradigmatic patriarchal forces of history and tradition. It seems that there is a need to continue interrogating the gender ideologies present in the biblical text and their ongoing influence on the construction of societal norms.

Readers, we must ask, what does the ‘mixed blessing’ of the Woman of Substance mean for actual women today?

References

Held Evans, Rachel. A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master.” Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012.

Sered, Susan Starr. “Woman as Symbol and Women as Agents: Gendered Religious Discourses and Practices.” In Revisioning Gender, edited by Myra Marx Ferree, Judith Lorber, and Beth B. Hess, 193-221.Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 1999.

Shirer, Priscilla. A Jewel in His Crown: Rediscovering Your Value as a Woman of Excellence.  Chicago: Moody, 2004.

Woods, Robert H., ed. Evangelicals and Popular Culture: Pop Goes the Gospel (Vol. 2), Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Publishing, 2013. 

Yoder, Christine. “The Woman of Substance: A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 31:10-31.” Journal of Biblical Literature 122, no. 3 (2003): 427-447.

Yoder, Christine. Proverbs. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009. 


[1] The word pairing ʾēšet ḥayil is translated ‘capable wife’ in the NRSV, but in various other ways elsewhere: such as, ‘virtuous woman’ (KJV), ‘wife of noble character’ (NIV), ‘virtuous and capable wife’ (NLT), and ‘good woman’ (The Message)).

[2] Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, p.74.

[3] Christine Yoder, Proverbs, p.292.

[4] Christine Yoder, ‘The Woman of Substance: A Socioeconomic Reading of Proverbs 31:10-31.’ Journal of Biblical Literature 122/3 (2003): 427–447.

[5] Susan Starr Sered, ‘Woman as Symbol and Women as Agents: Gendered Religious Discourses and Practices.’ In Revisioning Gender, ed. Myra Marx Ferree et al. (1999), p.194.

[6] Kathleen Sindorf, ‘Evangelical Women’s Movements and Leaders.’ In Evangelicals and Popular Culture: Pop Goes the Gospel (Vol. 2), Robert H. Woods Jnr (2013). (See also: Mary Worthen, ‘Housewives of God,’ New York Times Magazine. Available online: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/magazine/14evangelicals-t.html; Kate Bowler, The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities (2019).)

[7] Priscilla Shirer, A Jewel in His Crown: Rediscovering Your Value as a Woman of Excellence, 74

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Bearing the burden

Today’s post is an honest and moving piece by Stephen Pihlaja (@StephenPihlaja) and examines the personal experiential journey of purity culture as a man who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment in the USA. Stephen recounts his experience of purity culture in the Japanese church in comparison.

Stephen Pihlaja teaches and researches Language and Religion at Newman University in Birmingham, UK. His latest book Talk about Faith: how conversation and debate shape belief (Cambridge University Press) explores how changes in belief emerge from interaction between people of faith.


In the past several years, increasing critical attention has come to Evangelical Christian teaching on ‘purity’, and its particular focus on abstinence from sex before marriage. A recent New York Times article highlighted the pressures this placed on young Christians, and young women specifically, to avoid sexual expression, to keep both themselves and others free from sexual sin. Joshua Harris, the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which outlined the ideology of abstinence and pressured young Christians to consider romantic relationships only in the context of a potential marriage partner, has since denounced the book and pulled it from circulation, The Times reports — Harris himself is no longer a Christian.

Highlighted in The Times’ reporting are stories of personal experiences of the Evangelical church and of the damaging effects of its theology. These are brought to the forefront and highlighted by such figures as Blake Chastain and Chrissy Stroop. The attention in reporting about purity culture has rightly focused on the pain and trauma this teaching inflicts on young women in the church, because they bear the burden of both keeping themselves pure from sexual sin, but also not appearing as a temptation for the men in their community. The complementarian, patriarchal teaching of sexuality in these contexts sees women as subservient to men in the home and in the church, but also as responsible for sexual sin. These teachings understand sexuality in women as primarily oriented towards men — sex is what men want and it is the role of women to withhold it or give it.

The consequences of this teaching aren’t, however, limited to young women in the church. As a young man, I, too, attempted to kiss dating goodbye. Having grown up homeschooled in the USA, in a fundamentalist home in the nineties, sexuality was something that we avoided entirely — you changed the channel when the joking turned sexual, you didn’t watch movies with sex in them. My friend couldn’t watch any films for a year after he secretly saw Titanic because there was nudity in it.

At the same time, the older I got, the sexual prosperity gospel offered a way out — if you were faithful, God would bless you with an incredible sex life once you got married. In books like Every Young Man’s Battle, we were told the reward for abstinence was a kind of sexual fulfilment that couldn’t be found outside of marriage, a fulfilment that would make any part of the struggle to stay pure pale in comparison. So, I was focused on marriage, even when I was sixteen, accepting that this was the only acceptable way to express my sexuality.

In my final year in high school, I began a relationship with someone in the church youth group. Both of us had read Harris’ book and committed to dating ‘intentionally’ (as we would have said). We looked at wedding rings and discussed how big our family would be. I remember having just turned 18, asking her father, who was far less religious than I was and much more pragmatic, for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He told me it really wasn’t his decision, I could do what I wanted, but his suggestion was that I wait a year, at least. What was the rush.

The rush was, of course, sex. We were in a liminal space that no one seemed to account for in their theologies: we were supposed to be married, but we were too young to be married. Our sexual desire was from God, it was a good thing, but acting on it was not. The relationship couldn’t withstand these contradictions — we were teenagers. I exercised an unreasonable amount of authority and arrogance because it was my role — I would question how she dressed, what she did with her friends, all the while feeling the crushing guilt as our relationship grew closer and we slipped up or went too far more often. I became sick from the guilt in my first year of college — I went through a series of tests for chronic pain in my stomach and eventually, inevitably, we broke up.

Two years passed and I graduated college and felt called to the mission field. A friend of mine in the church had been asked to go to Japan to teach English at a church and was looking for someone to potentially go with him. I could go then and have an accountability partner, someone to help me avoid temptation and still serve the church. I found myself serving in a small church for a year, teaching free English lessons and leading Bible studies, which the students attended in exchange for the free English lessons.

Purity Culture in the Japanese Church

The church in Japan remains small — in the early 2000s we were told that only 1% of the population was Christian — and predominately female. The message of purity in the Japanese church that I experienced was different suddenly, much less focused on whether you were sexually impure (as there were far fewer teenagers in the churches), but more on when you would marry and start a family. The teaching in the Japanese church around this was against marriage to non-Christians, seemingly for understandable reasons: if a woman married a non-Christian, her in-laws would pressure her and the children to take part in Shinto and Buddhist religious ceremonies and eventually to leave the church.

But the churches always had a much higher number of Christian women than men. This led to a situation where Christian women were encouraged to marry and have kids (this being their primary purpose) but were unable to find Christian spouses. The ageing church leaders encouraged marriage in the same way as in the States, but with fewer options, the relationships between potential partners had one prerequisite: that you were both Christians and would have Christian kids. You could have, essentially, arranged marriages, where the basis wasn’t love or mutual attraction, but perceived fit in terms of religious belief, because what the church needed more than anything was more people.

I was oblivious to this cultural nuance and history, listening instead to the other American missionaries around me. Mostly, they were men married to American women and steeped in deeply racist and sexist understandings of Asian culture. They talked about marriage as a kind of service to the Japanese church, one which led to mutual blessings: that same sexual prosperity gospel, where if you were willing to step out and have faith to get married, God would bless you. It fit with the message I had heard in the American church, the same story: marriage was the only appropriate way to express sexuality, and marriage would bring blessings to you, because God intended it that way.

These two cultural expressions of the same purity myth touched in a predictable way — I met the woman who would become my wife and we were married within less than a year. Our first child was born ten months and seven days later. Any doubt about the success of the relationship was swallowed up in a belief about God’s will, and the truth that by doing the right thing, blessings would follow. When they did not, when both myths turned out to be wrong, the disappointment, anger, and depression stayed lodged within the relationship, affecting everything about our lives even after we had identified it as a set of irreconcilable false beliefs. You can stop believing anything, but it doesn’t stop living in you.

I, like Harris, couldn’t keep these contradictions from affecting my theology and I eventually left the faith. Now, fifteen years later, I’ve come to understand in my own life and through my research into religious discourse, how worlds of meaning are created by what you say about feelings and actions in the social world, and, more importantly, how the myths that emerge out of particular systems of power serve those systems.

Theologies do not exist in a vacuum, and religious belief which is not applicable without creating trauma in the real world needs to be rejected. The control exerted over sexual expression in the Evangelical church objectifies and shames women, erases gay and trans people, and demands that all men participate in the system without question. Everyone, including believers, benefits from its critical examination and deconstruction.


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