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Q & A with Rabbi Dr. Barbara Thiede about her book Rape Culture in the House of David: A Company of Men

The latest volume in our Routledge Focus Series is out! It joins a string of carefully focused examinations of how rape culture and religion intersect. The focus of this volume by Rabbi Dr. Barbara Thiede is on the characters of the David story in the Hebrew Bible’s Books of Samuel. More volumes will follow later in the year. If you would like to propose a volume, please read more about our series here, and contact Johanna (j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk).

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

I am a professor of Judaic Studies at UNC Charlotte in North Carolina (USA) and an ordained rabbi. My work studies the male alliances, friendships, and networks that undergird biblical hegemonic masculinity. My first bookMale Friendship, Homosociality, and Women in the Hebrew Bible: Malignant Fraternities, explores how male relationships are engendered by the sexual use and abuse of women’s bodies. 

Rape Culture in the House of David: A Company of Men focuses specifically on the many men — from kings, princes, and courtiers, to generals, counsellors, and servants — who are complicit in the taking and raping of women in the Books of Samuel. I also examine male-on-male sexualized violence in biblical rape culture.

My next book, Yhwh’s Emotional and Sexual Life in the Books of Samuel: How the Deity Acts the Man, will be published with Bloomsbury Press. In that work, I directly address a topic that I began exploring in my previous books: the Israelite deity’s emotionally fraught and sexually charged relationships with his chosen men.

What are the key arguments of your book? 

I argue that the Books of Samuel present the reader with a powerful depiction of an ancient rape culture, in which the best king proves his right to the throne through powerful and exhibitionist displays of sexual violence. I contend that rapists in the Hebrew Bible do not act alone; they are enabled and supported by a company of men.

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

I hope readers will feel empowered to call out these texts for the rape culture they depict. If they can do so with the Bible, they will be better able to identify any and all depictions or enactments of dominant, exploitative masculinity in our own time. It is equally important to me that readers become conscious of the ways in which biblical literature has legitimized toxic forms of masculinity.

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

“[M]en of the texts, who aspire to honor their rulers, must emulate, support, collude, and enable them. The taking and raping of female characters and the intentional sexual humiliation of male ones do not constitute merely a backdrop to political events. Such deeds are political. They constitute the core of the narratives… Rapists are supported by a company of men, even an army of them.”

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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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Margin. Meeting. Mirror. Shifting perspective to read Rahab, the Levite’s wife, and the necromancer of En-Dor

Today’s post is by Alexiana Fry. Alexiana is a recent Hebrew Bible/Old Testament PhD graduate of Stellenbosch University. Her dissertation is on the sin of Gibeah, focusing on Judges 19 alongside Hosea through the lenses of trauma, migration, and feminism. She is currently working on her first book, under contract with Lexington Press, which explores the intersections of speech act theory and trauma hermeneutics. 

When not reading or writing, you can find Alexiana playing with her two pugs, or on Twitter: @alexianadlou

Today’s post looks at three biblical women characters on the margins (or are they?) of eventful stories of invasion and war. Each of these stories is violent; in each of these stories a woman is in danger. But is a straight-out rejection of such stories helpful? Is there another way to read and learn from them?

Dr. Alexiana Fry, PhD.

Margin. Meeting. Mirror.

Rahab in Joshua 2-6, the nameless Levite’s wife in Judges 19, the necromancer of En-Dor in 1 Samuel 28: all three characters have things in common. All of them feature in stories of hospitality and violence. All are considered “other” – inhabiting marginalized places. Each of these women’s bodies constitutes a “meeting place” for men. 

But maybe the biblical author is also through these women stating something rather subversive and calling on us to read responsibly. In what follows, I attempt to read these women for “the dignity of all” and in so doing, seek the God within these stories.

Introduction

I grew up in a white, evangelical church and heard almost no biblical stories in which women played anything other than supporting roles at best. I remember a cute, PG version of Esther,[1] done as a musical play and put on by the children in my church–but that rendition, with Esther in the starring role, was an exception. Biblical women and actual women were mostly on the sidelines. Hence, women were mostly relegated to roles in the home and abstained from anything that could be interpreted as asserting themselves over against the dominance that was “rightfully” men’s. This, inevitably, erased girls’ and women’s visible presence and representation.

Rebecca Solnit, in her memoir Recollections of My Non-Existence, says this about her love for literature, and about lack of representation and its effects:

“You should be yourself some of the time. You should be with people who are like you, who are facing what you’re facing, who dream your dreams and fight your battles, who recognize you. And then, other times, you should be like people unlike yourself. Because there is a problem as well with those who spend too little time being anyone else; it stunts the imagination in which empathy takes root, that empathy that is a capacity to shape-shift and roam out of your sole self. One of the convenient afflictions of power is a lack of this imaginative extension. For many men it begins in early childhood, with almost exclusively being given stories with male protagonists… And the task of finding one’s own way must be immeasurably harder when all the heroes, all the protagonists, are not only another gender but another race, or another sexual orientation, and when you find that you yourself are described as the savages or the servants or the people who don’t matter. There are so many forms of annihilation.”[2]

In pursuit of representations of women in the Hebrew Bible, I notice patterns in some of the stories of my foremothers. I look closely at Rahab, at the Levite’s nameless wife, and at the necromancer at En-Dor. Each depiction is riddled with and even defined by problematic binaries, yet those binaries are also confronted and refuted by the women themselves. In each story, we see borne out what Solnit says: “there are so many forms of annihilation.” But I also see God herself speaking through and imaged in these women.[3] Let me explain this tension.

Margins

The women in these stories are located at the margins—both socially and spatially/geographically. Rahab initially resides in the town of Jericho, one of the first cities in Canaan encroached on by the Israelites as they leave the wilderness. Rahab is “foreign” in relation to the Israelite normative, indigenous to the land that is being stolen. She is a sex worker by occupation, and a woman. Even when she is spared by and joins the invaders, she remains at the outer margin of their encampment (Jos. 6:23).

The nameless Levite’s wife is rendered marginal by the lack of a name and by her designation as a pilegesh, probably a secondary wife (although this word is still debated in scholarship). Some scholars propose she is little more than a sex-toy to the Levite.[4] There is no mention of another wife, primary or otherwise, and no mention of children. Being from Bethlehem, she is an outsider to those of Gibeah or Ephraim. She is, again, a woman. Following her brutal and sustained abuse, her hands reach for the threshold—the liminal, or transitional, space at the border between private and public spheres—showing starkly that neither space, to either side, is safe for her. 

The necromancer (or diviner) resides in En-Dor, which is possibly another marginal location, a town on a border. This place of residence may be significant: only here can she perform her illegal (though highly effective, apparently) occupation of divining. She may belong to a persecuted guild, or ancestor-worshipping religion, and may have to be ready to move at short notice across borders. While, seemingly, well known for her excellent divining, she, too, is nameless, and again, a woman. 

These three women, consequently, in a number of ways all exist at intersection(s), or rather, at borderlands. 

Namelessness can convey precarity. Rahab has a name; the other two women discussed here have not. In the Judges 19 story in particular, namelessness is much discussed; after all, all the characters in Judges 19 are nameless. For Laura Smit and Stephen Fowl namelessness here holds theological significance. They argue that anonymity in this chapter signifies one way to show how far the characters have “fallen from God”: “the loss of a name is a symptom of the slide backward from the creation into which we have been called toward nonbeing.”[5] J. Cheryl Exum argues that the concubine’s anonymity, “encourages readers not to view her as a person in her own right.”[6] Another way to view the story is, like Adele Reinhartz, to see nameless characters of the Hebrew Bible as becoming “types.” In one sense, types are non-specific, but in another, they are representative of the general thing they are designated as: thus, in the story of Judges 19 each of Levite, pilegesh, servant, old man, father, virgin daughter, men of wickedness represents, if not a specific individual, this named category.[7]

In this way, anonymity can be seen to be given a greater place, because it fulfils a rhetorical function and a “universalizing purpose.”[8] Havilah Dharamraj gives an example of how this can be implemented in a reading that emphasizes anonymity as type: “the narrator seems to be saying that every Levite was capable of the horrendous acts described. Every host was potentially helpless against the mistreatment of his guests, and every woman could become a victim of rape until death.”[9]

Similarly, Mieke Bal suggests that:

“The powerlessness of the victims [in Judges (the nameless wives of the Levite and Samson and Jephthah’s daughter),] is the first element of the counter coherence. It is not a mindless subordination. All three young women show, at some point of their stories, some autonomy of action. It is not a lack of initiative or capacity that condemns them, but the ‘might’ of the men, the gibborim, who are socially entitled to exercise power over them. The powerlessness of their situation is reflected on the literary level by their namelessness.”[10]

In some ways, too, the namelessness of both the Levite’s wife and the necromancer of En-Dor leaves us as readers denied of, as Rhiannon Graybill expresses it, “the experience of closure and catharsis.” Namelessness leaves us at a loss as to how to “rescue” or reclaim the women in these stories from what comes next. We may long to save or at least to remember these women and to prevent further marginalization, or silencing.[11] Their namelessness makes this harder.

Moving on from this topic, another commonality is that each of these stories is written from a male perspective, or suggests a male gaze. Male characters are at the center; masculine concerns (invasion, war) and actors drive the plot. The implied gaze is male and heteronormative. This, in turn, contributes to casting the female as “other” in these stories. It is striking that they still have any place in the sacred text at all! Moreover, in her story, Rahab is even granted survival and safety, though she and her family remain on the outside of the camp, not truly brought into the fold (Josh. 6:23). The story of the Levite’s nameless wife, however, ends in her violent dismemberment and dehumanization. While it seems that the necromancer gets a pass, the Chronicler later attributes the fault and fall of Saul to his action of seeking out a medium. In so doing, the narrator blames the woman (1 Chron. 10:13). Not only are the female characters marginalized and harmed in a multitude of ways in the story world; they are also, to use J. Cheryl Exum’s expression, “raped by the pen”: that is, the very way the narrative is constructed violates the female characters.

One weapon widely used in these stories to violate the literarily marginalized women is stereotyping. Stereotyping a person or character makes it easier to depersonalize and to dismiss them. Johnny Miles, who writes on the concept of othering both in the context of ancient Israel and in the contemporary United States, says this in conversation with Michael Pickering: 

“stereotyping is more rigid and inflexible when thinking in terms of categories, and the evaluative ordering produced by stereotyping comes at a cost for those stereotyped who ‘are then fixed into a marginal position or subordinate status and judged accordingly.’ Though often found to be erroneous, simplistic, and rigid, stereotypes nonetheless perform their damage discriminating on the basis of stunted features characterizing them, and they ‘form the basis for negative or hostile judgments, the rationale for exploitative, unjust treatment, or the justification for aggressive behavior.’”[12]

Aggressive behavior often follows when stereotypes are weaponized. Sometimes stereotyping serves to excuse such aggression. Labeling certain women as “witches” and using the label to justify their ill-treatment, is a gendered stereotype. Notably, the necromancer at En-Dor is in some translations called a “witch.” Kimberly Stratton points out how in times past “witch-hunting constituted the hunting of women who refused to conform to societal expectations about proper (submissive) female behavior.”[13] There are other pervasive stereotypes that follow and harm women right up to the present: like those pertaining to sex-workers, migrants, and women of color, who are all disproportionately targeted by physical aggression and sexual violence. It would be remiss not to mention the stereotypes that haunt those in the Hebrew Bible called zonah, widely translated “prostitute” or “harlot” in English bibles. Zonah, sometimes denoting a sex worker, also refers sometimes to “playing the whore,” or “unfaithfulness,” especially with reference to idolatry. While Rahab may be deemed a “good” sex worker, including by those who consider themselves objective interpreters of the biblical text, the affect many readers first assume when reading of her profession is disapproval, even the judgment that this woman deserves what is about to befall the city of Jericho. An action from the same semantic root as zonah is also attributed to the Levite’s wife in Judges 19:2 and this is sometimes pointed to as justification for her gang-rape and dismemberment. In other words, her performance of zonah is interpreted as a crime befitting severe and sadistic punishment. This is disturbing and dangerous.

Meetings

Not only are all three women at intersections, but each operates as a bridge of sorts, as a meeting place for the men in the story. The women work specifically as conduits, in order for the men to progress to the next place in their privileged his-stories. The women’s bodies become primarily functional, even as they lay claim to agency and voice. 

Rahab is the meeting point for the spies and a conduit between resident Canaanites and invading Israelites. She fits in the category of the model minority, or the exception to the rule, in that she aids the “right” side, in spite of belonging to the “wrong” people. She also does sex work, which might compromise her “right”-ness. It is a matter of debate whether Rahab was sought out for the work she does. Did the spies encounter Rahab because they were seeking sex? Seemingly, activities designated זנה (z-n-h) bring less condemnation to the men who seek sex work than to the persons (usually women) who perform it. Words from this root are repeated multiple times and make Rahab’s sex work her prominent characteristic. Is Rahab opportunistically grasping at anything that allows her and her family to survive? Who can blame her? Because Rahab concedes to the invaders’ notions and beliefs about conquest and domination (which is hardly a choice or option for her), she is saved. 

The Levite’s nameless wife is the meeting place for multiple men. She connects the Levite and her father; later, she is seized and thrown out from the house in Gibeah to the wicked men to save the men inside; finally, her dismembered body is the call to war that brings the men of the tribes of Israel together. 

The necromancer of En-Dor is persecuted for her profession. Yet she becomes the meeting point and medium enabling communication and encounter between YHWH, King Saul, and the dead prophet (or rather, “god”) Samuel. The men in each of these stories reach a precarious spot and, regardless of the cost and risk befalling them, use women to escape danger.

Rahab holds the power over the spies’ lives, as well as over the lives of the members of her community. Her actions save her life and the lives of members of her immediate family, but then she quickly relinquishes agency once more. The Levite’s wife starts the story with considerable agency, leaving the Levite. As the story continues, the Levite’s power grows, and her agency diminishes. Every male in her story completely and utterly fails her. In death, however, her body still has the power to bring together tribes for war. The necromancer of En-Dor has the power to raise the dead but her role is short-lived and she recedes again to the margins from which she, briefly, emerged.

Being the meeting place and conduit for men, the women in these stories, while not devoid of agency, are, above all, acted upon. While each finds herself in the borderlands, their bodies act as bridges. Susan Niditch writes of Judges 19, “the tale as told also emphasizes the ways in which women, the mediating gender, provide doorways in and out of war.”[14] Beyond the lens of private and public spheres and the gendered roles assigned them, the in-between nature of the three women renders them dispensable following their use for men’s advancement. In each story, the power these women have is recognized by the men, used instrumentally, and, once they have been used as a bridge from a dangerous place and to garner more power, the women all fade from the story. 

Gloria Anzaldúa writes as a woman caught in the crossroads: “blocked, immobilized, we can’t move forward, can’t move backwards.”[15] Anzaldúa writes this from her perspective as someone on the margins in terms of her sexuality, race, and gender. She remarks on the desire of others to find her on one or other side of dichotomies; but these dichotomies are disrupted in her existence. She writes in a poem, “you are the battleground”[16] and this speaks also to the three biblical women who are my focus here.

The notion of a battleground becomes actual in all three stories. In Rahab’s story, the Israelites invade; in Judges 19, the brutal rape and killing transpire in more war; in the story of the necromancer battle soon ensues. And maybe, as Graybill writes, “we should stay with this trouble.”[17] Maybe we should linger with the stories’ unknowns, complexities, and difficulties. Consequently, I am not advocating a rewriting, or an attempt to make these passages more acceptable to our tastes or liking. Instead, maybe there is a piece (and peace) where we can feel the affect and how it acts upon us, the reader. Maybe, too, if we linger, the deity, also at the margins in these stories, can be found where one wasn’t looking for her.

Mirrors

Isabelle Hamley writes that, “women work as the fixed reference points, the mirrors of male constructions of subjectivity. As such, they cannot have their own representations, discourse, or desires, as this would threaten male totalitarian constructs.”[18] And, as has been demonstrated, each of the women in these stories functions in a situation of threat, and helps men through a situation of threat. Mirroring also entails negative space, projection, and a “reverse image,” or inverse reflection. Analogously, even as the text is a product of the male elite of the time, is there still yet a way to re-imag(in)e without rewriting, to “refuse salvation” as Graybill puts it?[19] Can the mirroring that occurs in these texts function also to capture a glimpse of the deity, mirrored in these women’s bodies?

Yes, the texts can be seen and interpreted in ways that reflect and serve the status quo but maybe they can (and should) also be interpreted in other, even subversive ways. Jeremiah Cataldo writes, “in facing the Other we are judged by her, called into an ethical relationship by her.”[20] Confrontation with the Other can incite critique of the very power structures that are held up and reflected in the narratives. Might such confrontation also change behaviors, so that the future and upcoming “afters” might be different? There may not be repair in these stories, even if YHWH is mirrored therein, but they might hold a mirror up to our own time and bring repair long after they were written and first transmitted. 

While stereotypes and binaries in these stories have contributed to some interpreters placing criticism and blame on the women – Rahab, the Levite’s wife, the necromancer – the texts can also point to other, restorative, readings. God can be imaged into each of these women. Each woman holds something that signifies divine knowledge. Rahab gives what some call a testimony or even “conversion” (Josh. 2:9-13); the necromancer is herself a skilled prophet who successfully conjures up Samuel (literally “god”); the Levite’s wife with her body bears witness and demands justice. In each story, it could be said, YHWH sides with the Other, with the women. Fault lies with the spies, Joshua and Canaanites, with Saul, with the wicked men of Gibeah, and the Levite. The usual binaries do not hold up, the women refuse to fit neatly inside them; binaries disintegrate. As Anzaldúa writes of crossroads that break down dualities: answers are equivocal, found in the between spaces, by “a conscious rupture with all oppressive traditions of all cultures and religions, communicating that rupture, documenting the struggle.”[21]

This account of mine has itself moved from sensation to perception, from margin to meeting. But both of these must be moved through, into a place where we can receive the Other. As Hamley writes, “when one voice has sought to dominate and tell the whole from the point of view of the One, then deconstruction—but not destruction—is needed.”[22] The aim and of this piece, similarly, has been not destruction of difficult and violent texts but deconstruction and a willingness to meet, reflect and mirror.

Conclusion

The personal is indeed political. My attempt at personal encounter with the women in these stories – imagining them as embodied, seeking their affect and mirror image – has proven political. Judith Butler, writing on whose lives are mournable in the face of violence, states that, 

“when we consider the ordinary ways that we think about humanization and dehumanization, we find the assumption that those who gain representation, especially self-representation, have a better chance of being humanized, and those who have no chance to represent themselves run a greater risk of being treated as less than human, regarded as less than human, or indeed, not regarded at all.”[23]

Butler alerts us to resisting stereotypes and dehumanization. Similarly, Cataldo calls us to the performative responsibility of acknowledging the Other. As biblical scholars, we have a choice, indeed a responsibility, to read for liberation, and to refuse to read the marginalized as flattened, dispensable objects. Because, as Miles writes, “stories of the past become in actuality reflections of the present,”[24] responsibility is our duty. As the proverbial saying goes, “may the bridges we burn light the way.”

Bibliography

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.

Bal, Mieke. Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso, 2004.

Cataldo, Jeremiah. “The Other: Sociological Perspectives in a Postcolonial Age.” Imagining the Other and Constructing Israelite Identity in the Early Second Temple Period. Ehud Ben Zvi and Diana Edelman eds. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Dharamraj, Havilah. “Judges,” in South Asia Bible Commentary: A One-Volume Commentary on the Whole Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015, 296-334.

Exum, J. Cheryl. Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)Versions of Biblical Narratives. New York: T&T Clark, 2015.

Graybill, Rhiannon. Texts After Terror: Rape, Sexual Violence, and the Hebrew Bible. London: Oxford University Press, 2021.

Hamley, Isabelle M. Unspeakable Things Unspoken: An Irigarayan Reading of Otherness and Victimization in Judges 19-21. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2019.

Klein, Lillian R. The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988.

Miles, Johnny. Constructing the Other in Ancient Israel and the USA. The Bible and Modern World, 32. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011.

Niditch, Susan. Judges: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.

Paynter, Helen. Telling Terror in Judges 19: Rape and Reparation for the Levite’s Wife. London: Routledge, 2020.

Pickering, Michael. Stereotyping: The Politics of Representation. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2001.

Reinhartz, Adele. ‘Why Ask My Name?’: Anonymity and Identity in Biblical Narrative. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Smit, Laura and Stephen Fowl. Judges & Ruth. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 2018.

Solnit, Rebecca. Recollections of My Non-Existence. New York: Penguin Books, 2021.

Stratton, Kimberly and Dayna Kalleres, eds. Daughters of Hecate: Women and Magic in the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.


[1] For a non-PG reading of Esther, see the recent publication by Ericka Dunbar. For more information, see here.

[2] See Solnit (2020: 110-113).

[3] This includes those who identify as women. Taking a lead from trans activists, I move away from “womxn,” because trans women are women: full stop.

[4] This is taken from Lillian R. Klein: “Given these conditions, the Levite seems to have brought the girl for purposes of sexual gratification or housekeeping (or both), possibly because he could not afford the bride price of a wife. The narrative supports this conjecture: the Levite pretends to be more affluent than he really is; and although he pursues his concubine to bring her back, he ignores her in every respect but one: in presenting her to the Gibeaites for abuse, he acknowledges her as a sexual object” (1988: 162-63).

[5] Smit and Fowl (2018: 180).

[6] Exum (2015: 176).

[7] Reinhartz (1998: 6).

[8] Paynter (2020: 32). See more information, here.

[9] Dharamraj (2015: 325).

[10] Bal (1988: 23).

[11] Graybill (2021: 168-69).

[12] Miles (2011) and Pickering (2001: 31).

[13] Stratton (2014: 9).

[14] Niditch (2008: 193).

[15] Anzaldúa (1987: 43).

[16] Ibid. (1987: 52-53, 216).

[17] Graybill (2021: 168).

[18] Hamley (2019: 10).

[19] Graybill (2021: 169).

[20] Cataldo (2016: 19).

[21] Anzaldúa (1987: 103-04).

[22] Hamley (2019: 25).

[23] Butler (2006: 141).

[24] Miles, (2011: 44).

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Meet Erin Sessions

Our post today is an interview with Erin Martine Sessions, the Quality and Inclusion Officer at the Australian College of Theology, and a PhD candidate working on violence and the Song of Songs.

Tell us about yourself and about how your work is compatible with the aims of the Shiloh Project? 

The first thing to know about me is I do things in the wrong order. Breakfast is my favourite meal of the day; if it’s not at breakfast time. I make trees out of old books (see the picture!). And I haven’t had a “traditional career trajectory.” That last one might resonate with a few of you. My Doktorvater jokes I’m not keeping balls in the air, I’m juggling chainsaws. And they’re on fire. The complete chaos of single parenting, sessional lecturing, fitting my thesis into the interstices, going for ordination, and harbouring not-so-secret desires to be poet laureate (even though Australia doesn’t have one), makes for the opposite of order. But actually, it’s less “things in the wrong order” and more gatekeeping, middle-aged white men telling me I do things in the wrong order…

This year I found myself in possession of the holy grail of higher education employment (especially for the disordered* with unfinished PhDs): a permanent full-time job! Thankfully, the thesis and the job intersect, and both align with the objectives of the Shiloh Project. I’m currently working on a training module for students and staff which targets first, the prevention of sexual assault and sexual harassment (SASH) and, second, when it does occur, a response that is appropriate and effective. Preventing SASH looks a lot like preventing domestic and family violence (DFV), and that’s what my thesis is devoted to (but more on that later). For now, I want to unequivocally say that I am committed to dismantling rape culture—that is, dismantling gendered power structures that sideline and discredit women and minority groups, dismantling societal systems that foster and perpetuate inequality, and calling out the blaming of women and minorities for the very systems and structures that victimise and disempower them. 

*pun intended, I’m neurodivergent.

Can you tell us more about rape culture and religion in the context of Australia?

Allow me to give you some context by (briefly!) answering this question in two parts: first, addressing rape culture in Australia more broadly, and then looking at the relationship between rape culture and religion, particularly Christianity, in Australia. 

We know that rape culture exists the world over: beliefs and practices which regulate and shame women and gender-diverse people, that promote, accept, minimise, or ignore violence, and then trivialise the resulting trauma. This violence is perpetrated against women and girls regardless of age, dis/ability, ethnicity, level of education, location, religion, sexuality, or socioeconomic status. Australia is no different. Yet, we also know that along with the gendered drivers of violence come reinforcing factors which make certain minoritised people groups—like Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander women—more likely to experience abuse. 

Rape culture in Australia is particularly pernicious with its potent combination of: high rates of violence, shocking inaction, our history of (colonial) violence, and a lack of data and research. Australia has significantly higher prevalence rates of intimate partner violence and sexual violence than western Europe or North America. It’s a well-worn statistic that one woman a week is killed by a current or former partner, and we’ve become complacent. Even though DFV is a national crisis, and even though each egregious act of violence is followed by vigils, intense discussions, and calls for reform and further research, there is little change. 

Early on in my research journey, my psychologist gave me a fittingly crass (and memorable!) lesson: “Abusers have the same toolkit, but their choice of tools varies, and the way each victim-survivor gets screwed is personal.” The same can be said of rape culture. Instructing us women to change the way we dress, speak, and walk home at night, with no equivalent instructions for men (to take responsibility for their behaviour) can be observed almost universally, but each context, community, and individual will have their own unique experiences.

Much like my disordered career (chaotic calling?) might be similar to yours in some ways, I’m willing to bet you also recognise these all-too-familiar failings of (Christian) faith communities: wives being told to submit to their husbands—irrespective of abuse and with no mention of mutual submission; women being urged to forgive their abusers—often at the expense of their safety and without corresponding compunction for the perpetrator to stop abusing; and victim-survivors being re-traumatised by (male) leadership who do not understand the dynamics of, or what constitutes abuse and are ill-equipped to refer women at risk to specialist services. This Lausanne piece (July 2021) has the title “Gender-Based Violence and the Church.” One thing that makes it so poignant is that it has global relevance and urgency.

So, what makes the relationship between rape culture and religion unique in Australia? Up until recently, I would have (again) cited shocking (church) inaction and a lack of research (into religion and violence), especially when compared to similarly developed nations. The tide is slowly turning as more research is being done in, with, and by religious organisations, and as they work to redress the damage done, and to prevent further violence. But there is still a long way to go. Recent studies suggest that the incidence of DFV is higher in the Anglican church than in the general population. And, devastatingly, we (Australians and the church) have not reckoned with Australia’s violent history and church culpability in violence. The racist, heteropatriarchal cultural legacy—as Gender Violence in Australia: Historical Perspectives makes clear—is a country that has rationalised violent behaviours over time and allowed rape culture to flourish.

Why and how do you read the Song of Songs alongside gender-based violence?

I love this question! Churches don’t include the Song of Songs in their services too often, and the Australian church is none too fond of talking constructively about gender-based violence. So, as you can imagine, my invitations to write and speak on the Song and violence aren’t exactly bursting through my door like letters from Hogwarts. The long story short is victim-survivors stated that using religious texts to promote gender equality will prevent gender-based violence in faith communities. What better text to use than the Song of Songs, where the poetic protagonist is a woman of colour, who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to speak truth to power? 

This topic is at the heart of my ongoing PhD research. I have published an article on this question, too, with the title “Watching the Watchmen: How Does the Violence in Song of Songs 5:7 Speak to Australia’s Problem with Violence against Women and vice versa?” Journal for the Academic Study of Religion 34/1 (2021), a special issue on Religion and Violence.

You can read more of Erin Martine Sessions’ work on the Song and violence here and you can email her: esessions@actheology.edu.au   

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New Book!

We are thrilled to announce the imminent publication of a new book in the Routledge Focus series ‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’, a series inspired by the Shiloh Project. The author is Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar and her book has the title Trafficking Hadassah: Collective Trauma, Cultural Memory, and Identity in the Book of Esther and in the African Diaspora. 

This is a searing book, that turns its direct and unwavering gaze to some of the most pressing and distressing gendered and racialized atrocities of our time. Moreover, it roots these atrocities in both ancient and more recent history and urges us to break harmful cycles that inflict disproportionate suffering on African(a) girls and women. (The word ‘African(a)’ refers to both African persons and persons who are African-descended.)

Trafficking Hadassah is available for pre-order and is shipped from 12 November 2021. The book is available in hardback and eBook versions. (Find out more here.)

We also have an interview with Ericka and a sneak-peek at an excerpt from the book.

Tell us about yourself, Ericka. 

I’m Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar, Visiting Professor of Hebrew Bible at Payne Theological Seminary, Wilberforce, Ohio, in the USA.

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

The book sheds light on sexualized and gender-based violence, specifically against African(a) girls and women across ancient and contemporary contexts. This project is an expansion of my scholarly-activist work of children’s advocacy and activism to dismantle intersectional violence and oppression. 

This book is a condensed version of my doctoral dissertation.   

What are the key arguments of your book?

I interpret the first two chapters of the biblical book of Esther through a contemporary lens of sex trafficking. I argue that sexualized and gender-based violence are initiated in the first chapter with the treatment and abuse of Queen Vashti. This systematic abuse is expanded to include large-scale legalized sexual trafficking of young virgin girls who are gathered from locales across the Persian Empire, which spans from India to Ethiopia. I then put this interpretation into dialogue with the sexual abuse and enslavement of African(a) girls and women during and after the Maafa,* identifying the abuse as a collective, cultural trauma. I identify and critique social and cultural attitudes that have been embraced and asserted to justify such abuse and outline physical and psychological consequences of sexual trafficking on individual and collective bodies and identities. Additionally, I challenge biblical readers to engage in morally and ethically responsible biblical interpretation by giving attention to intersectionality, polyvocality and the euphemisms and silences often embedded in both texts and traditional interpretations of texts. 

*The word ‘Maafa’ is derived from a Swahili word meaning something like ‘Great Calamity’. It refers to the atrocities of the slave trade and slavery.

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

I hope that readers will begin to apply intersectionality and polyvocality as frameworks for reading and interpreting biblical texts like the book of Esther, so that their analyses of what is depicted can be deepened and expanded. I hope that readers will wrestle with discerning meaning for those who are embedded within but not often considered in interpretations of this story. I hope they will come to consider how minoritized identities are impacted by the story and by subsequent interpretations of it. I truly hope that people will wrestle with the portrayal and meaning of such widespread and largely uncontested sexualized and gender-based violence in the ancient context and allow this wrestling to inspire action to dismantle and eradicate it in contemporary contexts.

Give us one quotation from the book that you think will make a reader go and read the rest.

“When the treatment of the virgin girls depicted in the second chapter [of the book of Esther] is assessed alongside the treatment of Vashti, it becomes clear that gender and ethnicity intersect and play a major role in othering foreign, minoritized females. Othered, these girls are rendered exploitable and consequently trafficked. Accordingly, the king’s dismissal of Vashti is only a first step in a more elaborate process of imperially sanctioned patriarchy that also feeds sexual trafficking. By this process, the seeking out of girls is legitimated, as is their transport, custody, subjection to a year-long beautification process, and sexual abuse and exploitation by the king (2:1–9). The Persian king and his imperial team target African and other virgin girls for sexual trafficking. In its deployment of this political strategy, the text depicts Africana girls and women as expendable, commodifiable, and rapable. Such intentional displacement, colonization, and sexual exploitation of Africana girls and women are not, however, restricted to the pages of this biblical text, but have been practiced throughout much of history, leading to collective cultural trauma.”

_______________________________________________________________________________________

Thank you, Ericka. We hope your book will find many readers and much acclaim and lead on to inspire effective resistance to the multiple and widespread oppressions and exploitations to which you draw attention. 

Please help us spread the word about this important publication and please order a copy for your library.

Picture update (10 December 2021)

Ericka S. Dunbar with her new book – hot off the press. (Images courtesy of Ericka)

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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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Public Menace: Spectrums of Abuse from the Personal to the Professional

Today’s post comes from Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter, UK. Alongside her academic publications, her work includes television and radio programmes, and a new book for general readers. In this powerful and personal post, Francesca narrates just some of the hateful abuse she has experienced as a woman and an atheist in biblical studies.


Stupid bitch. Dirty slut. Cunting whore. Just some of the names strangers have called me on social media, in emails, and – most unnervingly – in letters sent to my work address. We all know that misogynistic abuse awaits any woman who ‘dares’ to say anything in public. And for many of us, it’s just another form of the verbal abuse and harassment we’ve experienced since we were teenagers – the words shouted at us by men from across the street, hurled at us on public transport, hissed into our ears in crowded venues.

But nowadays, the hate speech I hear is often couched in religious language and imagery, because much of what I say in public is about the Bible. According to a ‘disciple of Christ’ (as one otherwise anonymous man labelled himself), I’m not just a slut, but the ‘Slut of Satan’. For Michelle from Ohio, I’m not just a bitch, but a ‘bitch dog of hell’ who deserves to die. For one man who sent me pornographic images, doctored with photos of my face, I’m a ‘temptress’ destined to have the sin raped out of me. Some might be shocked by this hate mail. Some might even laugh at this name-calling. Sometimes I did. Laughter is often one of my first, nervous reactions – but not the very first. Because the first thing I feel when this abuse appears is unsafe.

When I was invited to write this blogpost, I scrolled through my Facebook page, looking at the screengrabs and photos I’ve posted over the years, cataloguing some of this hate (only some – my family certainly don’t need to see the full, grotesque extent of these communications). Putting this material on Facebook, where only my friends and colleagues can see it, is one of my coping strategies – it goes some way to disempowering its force, turning it into something to be ridiculed. More importantly, sharing it with friends and colleagues almost makes it less personal, because it stops being private. But as I scrolled through the photos, I didn’t get very far. I just didn’t want to revisit it. Not that I needed to, because most of the abuse I receive is pretty much the same: alongside the threats, misogyny, and accusations of blasphemy and sinfulness, I’m accused of stupidity, of speaking falsehoods about matters I cannot possibly understand because I’m an atheist.

Is atheism just another convenient hook on which to hang this abuse? Maybe. After all, some of my Jewish and Christian colleagues have experienced similar attacks, simply for bringing biblical scholarship into wider public view. We seem to be perceived as trespassers, trampling on the unquestionable truth and sanctity of God’s written word. But the hate mail I receive suggests my atheism, gender, and the way I look and speak, seems to be a particularly toxic combination for those seeking to defend their God and their Bible from my public-facing work. In a confessional world in which expert knowledge about the Bible is traditionally embodied by men, a biblical scholar who happens to be both a woman and an atheist is simply too transgressive. My academic credentials, of course, are either irritating or irrelevant to these people. ‘How many people did you have to sleep with to get a PhD from Oxford?’ wrote someone who’d seen me on a TV show. It wasn’t the first time that type of question had been asked of me. And I don’t expect it will be the last.

But here’s where this blogpost gets harder to write. The hate mail I receive from strangers is just one end of a spectrum that extends into the academy in milder but no less upsetting, exhausting forms. To be completely honest (and this isn’t easy to say), I’m not going to describe the more troubling of my experiences, precisely because I fear the fall-out, both personally and professionally. And some of it I’m simply not permitted to discuss in public (let the reader understand). But other aspects will be all too familiar to others. Like many women scholars, I too have overheard academics in convention-centre bars speculating that my career successes reflect the sexual favours I may have promised or bestowed. And like colleagues whose work has been dismissed or misrepresented because of some aspect of their personhood (such as gender, race, sexuality, class, accent, age, or faith-stance), I’ve both experienced and been told of other scholars discrediting or downgrading my research, my teaching, my intellect, and even my morality because of my atheism, my gender, the way I look, or the way I dress. Let me be clear: this amounts to more than occasional flashes of academic sniping or competitiveness. This is the constant hum of the micro- and mini-aggressions many of us experience not only as background noise, but as the looping, grating soundtrack to our careers.  

What can we do about it? The obvious (if dauntingly monumental) task is to dismantle the power structures that enable all forms of abuse in academia. And crucially, that starts with dragging abusive and aggressive behaviours out into the light. But this can come at great personal and professional cost – which itself flags the extent to which the cultures in which we work need to change. I hope one day to be resilient enough to be able to dissect and reflect on my own experiences in ways that might play some part in helping to improve institutional policies and detoxify academic cultures. But in the meantime, I offer myself as an ally to those who are going through it – as I brace myself for whatever comes my way simply by writing this piece.

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Graphic Artwork on Sexual Violence in the Bible by Pia Alize

Sexual Violence in the Bible

Here’s hoping 2021 brings positive action and results after what has been a difficult and challenging 2020, not least for groups already very vulnerable to and suffering from gender-based violence. 

Here’s a resource we hope many of you will find useful. This artwork is by Pia Alize, a graphic artist who has produced stunning images responding to gender-based violence and MeToo in India. You can see some of her other magnificent art, or contact Pia at: www.pigstudio.in

We hope these images, capturing references to gender-based and sexual violence in the Bible, will open up conversations that lead to social justice action in faith-based communities and beyond. We will be using them in workshops and teaching sessions. Our hope is they will appeal to a wide and inclusive audience.

If you require jpg files, please contact Johanna: j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk

Funding for the production of these images was provided by the generous support of a grant from the AHRC UKRI, ‘Resisting Gender-Based Violence and Injustice Through Activism with Bible Texts and Images’. 

Sexual Violence in the Bible
Sexual Violence in the Bible
preliminary cartoon
an early sketch, by Pia Alize
Sexual Violence in the Bible
Sexual violence in the Bible
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The Sexual Humiliation Of Men – A Biblical Time Travel

Image of prisoners

Today’s post is by Dr. Mathias Winkler, who studied Catholic Theology and Jewish Studies in Tuebingen and Jerusalem (2008-2013), before receiving his Doctorate in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament from Tuebingen University in 2016. He taught at the Faculty of Theology in Trier and, since 2017, is Assistant Professor at the Department for Catholic Theology at Siegen University in Germany. (Twitter @the_winkler)

The Bible did not fall out from the blue sky. It is deeply rooted in its cultural environments dating back thousands of years, but it is still an important guide for many people today. I was astonished when I took a closer look at the story of Lot in Gen 19:30-38 getting raped by his two daughters. I was even more astonished when I browsed through the bookshelf, that almost no commentator (male or female), called it rape:[1] intoxication followed by rape, intentional and premeditated.

Why do so many scholars hesitate to call this rape? Maybe, there is still the notion that “real men” cannot be raped, especially not by women. Maybe, we still think of masculinity as a monolithic and clear-cut concept where a man penetrates but does not get penetrated or sexually abused. (The mindset would be: There is just one kind of masculinity and everything else is femininity.) Maybe, we are still complicit in upholding such a concept of masculinity. And when I say “we,” I mean theologians and scholars of the Bible, as well as teachers and preachers. Are we complicit by legitimating this image of “real men” with our readings of biblical texts?

Do we think that in ancient times and cultures, there was no such thing as sexual violence and humiliation directed against men – and, therefore, maybe we hesitate to call Lot the victim of rape? I want to take a short socio-historical view on masculinities, sexual humiliation and violence done to men in the Hebrew Bible and its cultural environment. Are there connections and if so, how can they be described? Did the ancients even think about that connection? Why did they and how? What can we learn about historical masculinities from ancient texts and pictures and what is the connection with sexual humiliation and violence experienced by men? To begin to grapple with such large and important questions, today, I want to share a small piece with you.

I want to take a look at a picture from the Ancient Near East which shows the connection between the rivalry of masculinities and sexual humiliation. Scholars of the Ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible are familiar with the so-called “black obelisk,” which was erected under the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III, who reigned ca. 858-824 BCE. This obelisk (erected in 825 BCE) is today in the British Museum. A small part of it shows the Israelite King Jehu, depicted in the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 9-10), as bowing to the ground before the Assyrian king, who stands tall and straight (see the picture, second register from the top). Around the two kings stand beardless men, eunuchs who serve at the Assyrian royal palace and in the administration. Two details are interesting, and both concern the connection of masculinities and sexual humiliation.

a picture from the Ancient Near East which shows the connection between the rivalry of masculinities and sexual humiliation

Picture: CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 © The Trustees of the British Museum

The first detail: Jehu touches the ground with his beard before the Assyrian king. He seems to brush and clean the floor in front of the upright Assyrian king. Beards are heavily laden with masculine associations. A beard is not just a bunch of facial hair but also a secondary male sexual characteristic. Therefore, Jehu is forced to humiliate himself with one of those parts of his body that make him a “masculine” man. Of course, his beard is shorter than the Assyrian king’s, showing the male hierarchy: “the more beard, the more man”. Cleaning the floor before the king with one’s beard is also attested in written records as a gesture of submission (Parpola, 1987, p. 6). The beardless eunuchs, who seem to represent a kind of third gender, stand up tall. The ones who don’t show male facial hair are in a superior position to the Israelite king. Is Jehu even less “male” than a eunuch?

The second detail: This bodily posture (cleaning the floor with his beard) forces the Israelite king to show and display his bottom in a way that is pronounced, even ostentatious. In the picture it is the highest point of his body. It seems to the spectator that he is offering his bottom to the other men around him – not only to the Assyrian king but also to the eunuchs, which seems quite odd, demeaning and bizarre. He is ready for penetration – even by eunuchs.

There are three kinds of men depicted on the obelisk (Assyrian King, Israelite King, eunuchs), all assuming different postures and offering different “presentations” of their “masculinities”. The masculinities displayed are not equal at all. The spectrum is hierarchical, and it works with attributes and properties of the male body, which are laden with sexual association (beard, bottom, upright position like an erect phallus). Foreign policies are mixed with a hierarchy of masculinities that is established via sexual humiliation and shaming.

This picture is not singular. There are many other images from the Ancient Near East and Egypt which show competing masculinities in contexts of sexual humiliation. The motif of naked male captives, their arms tied on their backs so their naked and exposed genitalia are visible, is very commonplace. A group of these tied up captives is sometimes led by a victorious soldier in uniform carrying his sword or bow (both esteemed symbols signifying a strong and powerful hegemonic masculinity, because both weapons penetrate the male enemy body). This motif is constant throughout centuries. Where wall reliefs show the conquest of a city, we often see naked male bodies impaled – a kind of visual penetration. Allusions to the sexual humiliation of other men seem to be a very “popular” and common iconographic theme, particularly in imperial contexts. It seems to be a “normal” part of foreign policy to humiliate other men sexually. Such humiliation forms part of military campaigns and of the propaganda in their aftermath.

In written records, too, threatening the other party’s masculinity and bodily integrity in a sexual way is part of imperial propaganda. Hence, in Assyrian Vassal Treaties, the vassal’s masculinity is threatened and slighted. The following quote is from a treaty between Assyrian King Aššur-Nerari V, who reigned from 754-745 BCE (he is setting the conditions) and Matiʼ-ilu, King of Arpad (who has nothing to say at all):

“If Matiʼ-ilu sins against this treaty with Aššur-Nerari, king of Assyria, may Matiʼ-ilu become a prostitute, his soldiers women, may they receive [a gift? salary?] in the square of their cities like any prostitute […]”  (Parpola and Watanbe, 1988, p.12)

This kind of rhetoric establishes a hierarchy of masculinities via sexual humiliation – as in the images discussed above. There is an example from the Hebrew Bible, too, in which King David curses the masculinity of the House of his former ally Joab (2 Sam 3:29): “It may fall on the head of Joab and his house. There shall not be one missing in the house of Joab who has a running sore or is struck with a skin disease or who holds the spindle or shall be struck down by the sword or who lacks food.” The men shall hold the spindle: this signifies femininity; the men of Joab’s house shall be turned into women. Similarly, defeated soldiers in battle are said to have become women (Jer 51:30).

The frequency of such iconographical and rhetorical motifs is astonishing. Furthermore, at that time it seems to have been “normal” (or acceptable) to display and utter these motifs – at least in imperial contexts and in royal propaganda. In those contexts, it was “normal” to portray the enemy or the other party as “less male”, sometimes as feminized or demasculinized (with a mindset in the background that we today call heteronormativity). It was “normal” and okay to sexually humiliate and to rape subjugated or enemy males (in texts, in pictures … also in real life?) because “we”, the superior party, are “more male”. The rape of a man in this scheme establishes the superior masculinity of the rapist. It also diminishes the masculinity of the raped man. Masculinity is zero-sum.

There is one more surprising thing: We see pictures of naked men, tied up in an exposing posture or impaled; we see humiliated men cleaning the floor with their beards. But where are the women? Women were kidnapped, humiliated and raped in ancient warfare (as in warfare still today).[2] But why are the ancient sources so silent about this? It seems to be “okay” to show sexual humiliation of men but not of women. Why is that? Is it more “normal” to picture and verbally describe sexual humiliation of men?

Cynthia Chapman describes another feature of hegemonic masculinity in the Ancient Near East: the ability to care for one’s family and household, especially for women and children. The superior party, which threatens and humiliates other men, does not threaten or humiliate women and children – at least in the virtual propaganda. This way, they show that they – again – are more “masculine”: because they can provide for and protect women and children – whereas the threatened and humiliated enemy “men” cannot and are therefore less “masculine”. The silence about humiliated or raped women is a means of communication between competing masculinities (Chapman, 2004, pp. 46-47.) The suffering of women and children is erased not because it does not take place but in order to establish a higher degree of “masculinity” by threatening and humiliating men. This is, essentially, a case of “taking it up a notch:” a very powerfully masculine man can even rape and feminize other men.

Texts, but especially pictures, are ways of communication that proliferate ideas and concepts in a short and abbreviated style. But who was the sender and who was the addressee? What kind of impact was envisaged? A superior party, who thought of itself as having superior masculinity showed its superiority towards another party, which might be regarded as a potential rival or as a possible threat, through sexual humiliation. Propaganda is necessary to keep dangerous parties quiet and under control: you don’t need propaganda to control the harmless. The media proliferating sexual humiliation and masculine contests aim to keep things clear: “We are more powerful and more masculine than you. If you try to rebel, we will show you that you are not men.” So, the foreign defeated king Jehu, prostrating himself before the Assyrian king, signals to the spectator an example of what could happen to him. The third party involved, the spectator, the recipient, poses a danger or threat to the sender’s superior masculinity and power.

But there is not just a communication “ad extra” but also “ad intra” in those texts and pictures. What did a victorious soldier think, when he saw a defeated, maybe tied up, enemy soldier in front of him? He was told: “Those are not real men.” Does the soldier think of his defeated enemy as someone whom he can humiliate and, perhaps, rape? Was it, therefore, “normal” for him to abuse captive male enemies?

One could say today that it was “just” propaganda in texts and pictures without any link to “real” life. On the one hand, it is still today a widespread phenomenon to sexually humiliate and to rape male and female enemies. On the other, there had to be a link to “real life” experiences of sexual humiliation or humiliating practices: otherwise, recipients would not understand the message. This could have been something experienced by both men and women. At the very least, there had to have been a notion of things one ought not to do to a “real man” in a sexual way. Furthermore, when we today say: “It was just propaganda” we are complicit in this propaganda. We do not take seriously the real outcomes of the propaganda and its basis in real life. We do not take seriously the suffering of victims of sexual violence and humiliation, aided and abetted by the propaganda rooted in hegemonic hypermasculinity.

The Hebrew Bible emerged in such a cultural environment. There are traces of hegemonic hypermasculinity in the Hebrew Bible, which is today a holy scripture and a guide to life for so many people. It also, sometimes, becomes a guide for “biblical manhood” or how to be a “real” man. It is therefore necessary to look for these traces that connect discourses about masculinities with sexual humiliation and to analyse them in their historical context.

We can see how different masculinities compete with each other in the Bible and what kinds of men and masculinities are suppressed, oppressed, suffer violence and are silenced. We can criticize masculine ideals in the Hebrew Bible when they are used to subjugate other men and their masculinities. We can see behind the curtains of power-related male gender hierarchies in the Bible. This helps us speak responsibly and sensitively about biblical masculinities, with the necessary caution not to be complicit with oppressive gender constructions. We can also recognize the broad spectrum of masculinities in antiquity, which helps us to break with a monolithic concept of masculinity in our own contemporary cultures. We see how holy scripture is still complicit today in keeping masculinity as a monolithic and unchangeable block that negates other kinds of lived masculinities. We can do something about it, starting with exposing these dangerous power structures and then resisting and dismantling them.

References

Chapman, Cynthia. 2004. The Gendered Language Of Warfare In The Israelite-Assyrian Encounter. Winona Lake: Harvard Semitic Museum Publications 62.

Parpola, Simo. 1987. The Correspondence of Sargon II, Part I Letters from Assyria and the West.  Helsinki University Press: The State Archives of Assyria.

Parpola, Simo, and Watanabe, Kazuko (eds.). 1988. Neo-Assyrian Treaties and Loyalty Oaths. Helsinki University Press: State Archives of Assyria (Vol. II).


[1] One prominent exception is Susanne Scholz, Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible (Fortress Press, 2010). Another is Rhiannon Graybill, ‘Focus on Teaching About Sexual Violence in the Hebrew Bible’, available online (see here).

[2] For a powerful recent discussion on this, see Christina Lamb, Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women (William Collins, 2020).

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