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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.”

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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.

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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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Privilege Beyond Bounds: A Response to the Conviction of Jan Joosten

A view of Oxford Cathedral.

On Monday 22 June 2020 the news broke of the conviction of Jan Joosten for downloading thousands upon thousands of images and videos of child abuse and pornography. I first read about it in an article in The Guardian. There are numerous other reports in other papers, too: the Daily Mail , The Timesof Israel, and Euro Weekly. The images that accompany these articles show the protzy façade of Christ Church, Joosten smiling, Joosten mid-lecture. An older, white male scholar who has blended right into the various biblical studies conferences he’s attended over many years – Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), Society for Old Testament Study(SOTS), International Organisation for the Study of the Old Testament (IOSOT)… I’ve seen him there, talked to him, received his recommendation for a publication of his to read and for references to chase up.

As the newspaper articles report, Joosten is a former pastor, who taught for 20 years at the University of Strasbourg before, in 2014, taking up “the prestigious regiusprofessorship of Hebrew at Oxford.” Until his suspension, Joosten was based at Christ Church, renowned for its academic excellence, Old Master paintings, and for being home to Oxford’s cathedral. Until recently, Joosten was editor-in-chief of Vetus Testamentum, according to its site, “a leading journal … generally recognized to be indispensable for scholarly work on the Old Testament,” publishing articles in English, French and German, all languages in which Joosten is fluent. 

The lashings of respectability, status and privilege that have until recently enveloped Joosten – “pastor”, “Regius Professorof Hebrew” (founded in 1546 by Henry VIII), “Christ Church”, “University of Oxford”, “Princeton Theological Seminary”, “Hebrew University, Jerusalem”, “father of four”, “married”, “one of the most distinguished biblical scholars of his generation” – add force to the shock and outrage that havemet the revelations of Joosten’s conviction. Shocking, too, is the sheer volume of images (27,000) and videos (1000) depicting abuse, including rape of children, which Joosten downloaded. The brilliant man falling from his high pedestal: as a German, I think right away of the legend of Faust. Such hubris and such hypocrisy. Did Joosten think a different law applied to him? Did he believe he was too clever ever to get caught? 

Joosten did get caught and his reputation is shot. His sentence, however, is paltry: one year in prison, placement on the sex offender register in France, a three-year programme of treatment, and a ban on any activity bringing him into contact with minors. Furthermore, Joosten has not gone to prison (yet?): his sentence will be “supervised” and “may be amended.” The Guardian reports that “Joosten was yet to decide whether to appeal on Friday” (he gets to decide that?!). His family “were aware of his offences” and argued Joostenshould not be imprisoned, “because he was a first time offender” (hardly: he was caught for the first time – he is now known to have been offending thousands of times for six years), “presented little risk of reoffending” (how so?), and “had sought psychiatric help voluntarily” (albeit only following arrest). In court, so it is reported, Joosten declaredthat he was relieved to be arrested. He described his addiction as “a secret garden, in contradiction with myself.” To many ears, including those of biblical scholars, this expression is particularly jarring and repugnant. It conjures up imagery from Song of Songs, of eroticism and lovemaking (e.g. “You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride…” Song of Songs 4:12). But this is brutal child pornography that is at issue! And watching such is not a victimless crime. Child pornography is no “virtual reality”; it depicts suffering, severe and profound damage; the demand for it proliferates this; in some casesconsumption of violent pornography leads on to committing sexual abuse.

As would be expected, the general public and the scholarly community to which Joosten belonged have been vocal in their outrage and repulsion. Twitter is abuzz. People are “reeling”, “shocked and horrified”. A terse comment on the SBL website, stating that the Society had requested Joosten’s resignation, evoked protest on account of being woefully inadequate – rather like the Christ Church statement that “Our thoughts are with anyone affected by this news” (reminiscent of the “thoughts and prayers” routinely following school shootings in the US – in lieu of doing anything). A petition led promptly to a fuller statement sent to all present and past members of SBL. SOTS followed with their statement soon after, resolving to build “a more inclusive and ethical Society” and expressing concern “for the unknown children who are the ultimate victims of such crimes” as well as for Joosten’s family, colleagues and supervisees. One of Joosten’s co-authors has expressed feeling “shocked, shattered and disgusted” – he is donating all royalties of the book, past and future, to the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. Another scholar has set up a GoFundMe page “Biblical Scholars Against Child Abuse”. There is a powerful piece out deploring “himpathy” for Joosten (that is, excessive sympathy that is directed at perpetrators of sexual violence and abuse) and there are many expressions of contempt for a situation where “*reputations* of men are more important to keep safe than the *bodies* of women, children.”

When I read of Joosten’s conviction I, too, was reeling, shocked and horrified. I probably shouldn’t have been. Sadly, I know many people who are survivors of child abuse and of rape. The statistics of The Office for National Statistics do not strike me as exaggerated. And when you know there are so many survivors, you know there are very, very many perpetrators, too – the numbers have to add up. Even taking into account that perpetrators tend to abuse multiple victims, the numbers of perpetrators must still be very high. The same goes for the abuse that is consumption of child pornography. The amount of child abuse material is staggering – so, really it isn’t surprising that I know people who are revealed to be abusers. I also know that – for all the stereotypes and rape myths about rapists and pornography users (“creepy men in raincoats” we used to jest) – there is no “type” – so a depraved person can be an Oxford don (clearly). Having worked in universities for over 20 years, I’ve twice known of cases where a member of the university community was charged with child pornography. Two people I have encountered in my community have been charged with possession of child pornography (one committed suicide). I had already reeled a few years back at the conviction of Holt Parker, who received a four-year prison sentence for offences not dissimilar to Joosten’s. I had admired Holt’s work and wrestled then with the question of “do you cite scholars who have done appalling things?” (I still wrestle with that question – as compelling as I find Stephen Young’s article, I also see some of the complexity so well articulated by Sarah Scullin. Do I read a biography of every author before I cite their work?) 

Fact is, in my earlier work I have cited Joosten. I met Joosten in 2011 in South Africa. We were both attending a meeting of the Old Testament Society of South Africa (OTSSA) (my first far-flung work trip since my younger child was born). I had not met Joosten before and I was mostly preoccupied with dear friends from my years in southern Africa. But on some bus trip or other we sat together and had one of “those conversations” about research that you have at these kinds of conferences. He was friendly but quite intimidating. One of those scholars who can quote in multiple languages and recall titles and years of publication of articles on any topic that arises in conversation. I was working on my book on fathers and daughters in the Hebrew Bible at the time and told Joosten so when he asked me. He told me he had published an article on the missing daughter in the laws of Leviticus 18 – but it was in French: did I read French? I admitted that my French is pretty lousy. Not much more was said, as I recall it.

Shortly after I returned home, there was an email from Joosten. (I have been re-reading the short exchanges he and Ihad in 2011 and 2013 and they make me uncomfortable now.) It said, “It was nice to meet you at the conference. While browsing through my computer I came across an English translation of my paper on the missing daughter. I attach it herewith.” I was touched. It was a nice thing to do. I thanked him. I read the article and found it helpful for my research. In the book I published I thank Joosten. That’s what you do. 

Two years later I received another email: “While searching for something else on the internet I came across your recent book on Fathers and Daughters. Congratulations! And thank you for the generous reception of my article on Lev 18.” (Two short emails, in each a mention of a computer or the internet. Of course, I thought nothing of it at the time – it only reads as sinister in retrospect.) After 2013 I did not communicate with Joosten again. I did cite his work in my next book.

When I read about Joosten in the paper, I felt deeply troubled. I couldn’t shake it. I searched for and found the emails from years before and eventually decided to write to him. 

I wrote of the revulsion I felt and of wondering how manyhands of “respectable men” I had shaken without fathoming what they were capable of, of being repelled at the “secret garden” obfuscating, even romanticising and eroticising the brutal abuse of frightened and utterly vulnerable and helpless children. I wrote that I cannot comprehend why, if he acknowledged the harm he had done, he would not willingly go to prison, “Why should you not go? What will you do now, I wonder?”

To my astonishment, Joosten wrote back very soon after. He said my words hurt but that he deserved them. That he had always known his “doings” were not victimless, that they were “sordid and destructive”. He wrote that he “came across” the images and videos looking for pornography and that they were “freely available and easily accessible”. He describes how this became an addiction from which he could not break free, that he did not want to make excuses but did want to heal, with the help of a psychiatrist. He spoke of the support of his family who accepted him with his defects, characterizing them as an ugly “stain” on a beautiful painting. Ever the linguist, Joosten explained the expression “jardinsecret” as “a mental and emotional space one doesn’t wish to share with anyone” but that he had not intended to evoke anything positive but rather that “the world of those images and videos and the real world” in which he lived his life were “completely separate”. He closed by saying he felt deep regret for what he had done, could not undo it and had to look to the future. The closing words were, “I hope one day you will be able to forgive me.”

The email troubled me. (A part of me was very surprised that Joosten clearly had access to a computer and to his University email address.) The sheer eloquence troubled me – but of course he is eloquent: he is a linguist, scholar and prolific writer. I was troubled that he wrote of “coming across” horrendous child pornography (is it that easy and happenstance?), and of the addiction and harm that he acknowledged as a “stain” and something to “heal” from, as if it were somehow separable from him, a “secret garden” apart from his “real life”. There is nothing “unreal” about the violence depicted in child pornography – enacted on real children whose lives, psyches, futures, potential, are deeply harmed. 

As I read Joosten’s email I found myself recalling a correspondence I had over many years with a prisoner in the notorious Angola penitentiary in Louisiana. It started when a letter addressed in meticulous handwriting to “The Bible Department” landed in my office at the University of Tennessee. The writer, “E.”, had found Jesus in prison, where he was incarcerated for life. He had also taught himself Hebrew. He had questions about grammar and points of translation. It was enjoyable finding ways to explain features of Hebrew and reasons for translations that might not match the Hebrew text. E. was always eager to learn. Years passed. I moved to England. In time, we came to write about more than the language riddles that had brought us together. E. spent hours in the prison workshop and made my daughter a wooden box and some metal earrings with her (Hebrew). name engraved on them. I wrote about my children growing up, juggling work and family life, travelling; he wrote about his past, including (eventually) the crimes that transpired in his incarceration. What began to unfold was an early life of chaos, deprivation, struggle and petty crime. Next came an act of violence done to him by a sheriff, when he was put in a cell overnight for marijuana possession. E. was cagey about what took place but I was able to find newspaper articles, which reported that the sheriff was found guilty of sexually abusing young men in his custody. If that is what happened to E., he could never bring himself to say so, stressing instead how many girlfriends he’d had in his youth. He never used this as an excuse for the violent crimes he went on to commit. What struck me was how hard he tried to do something good – even from within prison where he spent most of his time in solitary confinement or labouring, with only one library book to read each week. He had written to all his victims; he was always worried about his mother and the pain he had caused her; he wrote to his son, who seldom replied; he worked hard at learning Hebrew; he tried hard to convert me to Christianity, earnestly believing that if he didn’t, I would not be saved. 

Unlike E., Joosten has enjoyed enormous privileges. He still does. Life must feel frightening for him and his prestige and reputation will never recover. But he has his freedom, the support of his family, access to a psychiatrist, even access to a computer and his email account. He also has a first-class education and tremendous talent. 

I feel the same anger as many of my colleagues on Twitter and Facebook. Condemnation is right; outrage at the light sentence is right; donating to organisations that support vulnerable children is right. But what more? The SOTS statement goes some way towards pointing out that more must be done within our discipline, too. A legitimizing patina of respectability has for too long shrouded a great deal of ignominy. What Scullin says of the discipline of Classics is true also of biblical studies: both have “a troubled history (that, unfortunately, continues to the present) of participation in various oppressions.” Just as the BLM protests have led to a flurry of statements and self-searching, that momentum must be harnessed and taken much further. The cracks in the patina have become very visible in recent days and weeks. It is no surprise at all actually that Joosten was able to persist in his “doings”. In large part, his respectability and his privilege have enabled it. They have also, I have no doubt, cushioned him from a harsher sentence. E. would have stood no such chance in the same court room. 

It is one thing – in the case of Joosten – not to read or cite his scholarship, to evict him permanently from all societies he has belonged to, and to support his students. But what more? Even if Joosten receives a prison sentence that reflects the gravity of his offence, is that then adequate? Eventually, he would leave prison. It is not possible “to lock up all paedophiles and throw away the key.” 

What I see in E. and find myself missing with Joosten is any attempt at restitution. I do hope that as Joosten looks to the future he will apply all his abilities – his mastery of languages, his research and writing skills, his experience and insight gained from therapy – for helping other addicts and for helping victims of sexual violence and human trafficking. If I can help with that, I will.

The forgiveness he says he hopes for from me is not mine to give. Vladimir Jankelevitch writes, “forgiveness is not for swine” and the first step towards forgiveness is full admission of wrong. Today Joosten may appeal. I hope he takes full responsibility and does not. 

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Introducing…The Shiloh Podcast!

The Shiloh Podcast logo.

The Shiloh Podcast has arrived!

Rosie Dawson, award-winning journalist, theologian, and host of The Shiloh Podcast shines a light on the stories and practices of religion that either contribute to or resist rape culture. Through conversations with scholars and practitioners, the podcast invites us all to think about ways that we can challenge and dismantle rape culture in our own communities.

Feast your ears on our new trailer and introductory episode, where Rosie discusses the origins of The Shiloh Project with Katie Edwards, until July 2020 one of the project’s co-directors.

Don’t forget to review, rate and subscribe to be notified of new episodes.

https://open.spotify.com/episode/0ZPIZec92xIr5hGJvlBiAm

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Q & A with author Chris Greenough: The Bible and Sexual Violence Against Men

Photo of Chris Greenough.

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

I’m Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religion at Edge Hill University. I got my PhD from the University of Birmingham in 2016, under the expert supervision of the most marvellous Dr Deryn Guest. I’m interested broadly in gender and sexuality and how it interfaces with religion, including LGBTQ+ identities, and queer theologies. 

The Bible and Sexual Violence Against Men is my third monograph. One of the texts I discuss in the book is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19: 1-29) and its legacy of being a text that condemns sex between men. The text is still used in an abusive way today in an attempt to bolster arguments against same-sex relationships or against gay marriage, for example. Religious teaching about the text has resulted in shame and stigma around same-sex relations, yet the passage is not about consensual, loving same-sex acts at all, it is about attempted male rape. 

The book came about when, originally, I was working with the brilliant Dr Katie Edwards on a similarly-themed book. We quickly realised there was a lot to cover and there was therefore a need for two complementary texts. Katie’s book is also forthcoming in the Routledge series. It was such a rewarding experience to work with Katie, and with the editors of the Routledge Focus series on Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible – Prof Johanna Stiebert and Dr Caroline Blyth. I’m ever so grateful for their support during the course of the book’s journey.

What are the key arguments of this book?

Within the first chapter of the book, I set out the importance of the topic for readers of the Bible today. 1 in 6 men have experienced some form of sexual abuse and the most prolific case of serial rape in UK legal history involved the rape of nearly 200 men. In the book, I argue how religion and society, while bolstering hegemonic masculinity and sanctioning heteronormativity, have contributed to a blindness to male sexual abuse in today’s world. I explore the reasons for shame and stigma that surround male sexual abuse, along with unhelpful myths that prevent men from reporting and seeking support. In Chapter Two, I examine passages from the Hebrew Bible that describe male rape or attempted sexual violence against men: Lot’s daughters who get him drunk and rape him in order to procreate (Genesis 19: 30-38); Potiphar’s Wife’s sexual advances against Joseph (Genesis 39) and the attempted rape of men (Genesis 19Judges 19). In Chapter Three, I turn the attention on Jesus’ enforced nudity at his crucifixion, and I examine sources that denote how such an act was a public humiliation and shaming of a man. The shaming was sexual. Reading Jesus as a victim of sexual violence remains a contentious issue in theology and biblical studies, as well as in wider faith communities. I explore why there is such stigma around these issues, which are undoubtedly connected to the fact he was a man. 

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

In general, critical studies into sexual violence experienced by men remain relatively scarce compared to scholarship exploring the rape and sexual violation of women. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that women experience sexual violence on a much greater scale than men. My aim is that the book generates an awareness of the lived realities of sexual violence against men, and that such an awareness will help debunk some of the myths that men cannot be abused.

I also hope that the book can serve a number of interested readers, including those who may be coming to explore the content of the biblical texts for the first time. For this reason, I wrote the book using a number of different critical approaches from theology, biblical and religious studies perspectives, while also exploring insights from the fields of sociology, psychology, criminology, as well as referring to legal cases and legislation, charity work and media-focussed articles. 

Give us one quotation from your book that you think will make readers want to go and read the rest.

“a blindness to the sexual violence Jesus endured has led to a blindness to sexual violence against men in general.”

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