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“A Universe of Ontological Terror”: A Comparative Analysis of Genesis 34 and the Rape and Murder of Sarah Everard.

Isobel Wood has recently graduated from the University of Leeds after studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Her research critically reflects on feminist approaches to global social justice and gender inequality issues. In particular, her most recent research centres on the intersection of religion and gender, namely the similarities between contemporary and biblical rape culture, which this blog focuses on. Her other research interests include popular culture, Marxism and identity politics. Following graduation, she will be moving to London where she begins her career as an Associate Consultant at one of the world’s leading technology companies.

Deena Metzger (cited in Blyth 2010, p.91) introduces a horrifying reality for women in her definition of rape.[1] She argues that women live in a “universe of ontological terror”, whereby the very essence of womanhood is threatened by sexual violence and misconduct. This post explores Metzger’s claim by addressing similarities between biblical and contemporary British rape culture through a comparative analysis of the 2021 rape and murder of Sarah Everard, contemporary rape rhetoric, and the biblical story of Genesis 34.

Sexual violence towards women continues to be a prominent issue in the United Kingdom, with recent surveys estimating 1.6 million adults aged 16 to 74 years have experienced sexual assault by rape or penetration (including attempts) since the age of 16 years. This, however, is no contemporary phenomenon. There is a common consensus amongst feminist biblical scholars that the Bible has been highly influential in the creation of Western rape culture due to its authority in both faith-based communities and pop-culture as well as the recurring themes of patriarchy and gender-based violence present within its narratives (see, e.g., Scholz, 1999; Stiebert, 2021; Thiede, 2022). Such a connection warrants an exploration into the similarities between biblical and contemporary rape cultures.

Genesis 34

This blog post focuses upon the narrative of Genesis 34 which recounts the rape of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, by a Canaanite prince called Shechem. The story begins by introducing Dinah’s journey to see the “daughters of the land” (Genesis 34:1). Here, she is intercepted by Shechem, son of Hamor the Canaanite, who ‘takes her by force’ (Genesis 34:2). Following the rape, Shechem’s father Hamor meets with Jacob to negotiate marriage terms between Shechem and Dinah. Hamor also suggests that further intermarriage and assimilation take place between the Hivite and Jacobite communities. Though Jacob remains silent on the matter, Dinah’s brothers (Simeon and Levi) are enraged and, in a plot to avenge their sister, demand that all the Hivite men must first be circumcised before any intermarriage can occur. The brothers then invade the town whilst the Hivite men are recovering from surgery, proceeding to slaughter the recovering Canaanites, taking their wives, and pillaging their wealth (Klopper, 2010, p. 656).

Genesis 34 and Sarah Everard

In early March 2021, Sarah Everard, aged 33, was walking home from a friend’s house in Clapham when she was intercepted by Wayne Couzens, a Metropolitan Police officer. Couzens falsely arrested Ms Everard on the pretence that she was breaking COVID-19 legislation. He drove her to a secluded rural area in Kent where he raped and murdered her.

The case of Sarah Everard echoes the plight of Dinah in Genesis 34, and whilst the most obvious comparison is the sexually violent nature of the crimes,[2] the similar responses to both cases offer an insight into the perpetuation of rape mythology and culture.

Victim Blaming and the Policing of Women

The first point of comparison centres around rape myths, including victim-blaming and the subsequent policing of women in both biblical Israel and contemporary Britain.

Much of the victim-blaming response to Dinah’s story is elicited by the first verse, which details Dinah’s journey to see the Canaanite daughters: “Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the region” (Genesis 34:1). For instance, Aalders (1981 cited in Parry, 2002, p.7) confidently surmises that Dinah has “natural desire to be seen by the young men of the city” and is disturbed that she would “flippantly expose herself” to these men. His response exemplifies a victim-blaming stance, making assumptions about Dinah’s character and placing her at fault for the crimes perpetrated against her. This maintains another rape myth: that ‘normal men’ do not commit rape but are driven “to such an extreme form of sexual behaviour” by female promiscuity (Blyth, 2010, p.3).

This same stance of victim-blaming has been repeated in the policy and rhetoric of senior UK government officials in response to the Sarah Everard case. North Yorkshire Commissioner Philip Allott exhibited these attitudes in his statement, arguing “she [Sarah] never should have submitted to the arrest” and “women need to be streetwise”. The government action which follows Sarah Everard’s rape and murder also reinforces the opinion that the surveillance of women and girls is necessary for their own safety. The “immediate steps aimed at improving safety for women” included “an additional £25m for better lighting and CCTV” and a “pilot scheme which would see plain-clothes officers in pubs and clubs”. Surveillance is an important facet of victim-blaming, insofar that it monitors women ensuring that they are in keeping with the “ideal rape victim” construct (Larcombe, 2002). Here, women are chaste, sensible and cautious, modifying their behaviours to demonstrate caution in interactions with the opposite sex (Larcombe, 2002, p.133). Furthermore, the introduction of plain-clothed officers perpetuates the “damsel in distress trope,” academically termed “benevolent sexism” (Glick and Fiske, 2001). Though a more covert form of prejudice, benevolent sexism is “disarming” through its “promises that men’s power will be used to women’s advantage” (Glick and Fiske, 2001, p.111). This form of sexism is innately patronising, by positioning men as saviours it condescends the role of women, implying men’s dominance and depicting women as a liability (Dardenne et al, 2007, p.765).

Similarly, victim-blaming rhetoric is littered throughout contemporary media, specifically newspaper articles. A recent Daily Mail article included details about Sarah’s education, the value of her parent’s house, and the clothing she was wearing before the attack. By including these details, the Daily Mail attempted to position Everard as an “ideal rape victim’” (Larcombe, 2002) deserving of sympathy and retribution. For instance, she was presented in the article as a sensible, responsible woman with a university degree who came from a respected middle-class family; consequently, she would have understood the risk of rape and chose to wear modest dress. Circulating this information reinforces the opinion that certain characteristics of women make them more or less susceptible to or culpable for violence. 

Just as Lange (1899, pp.563-564) describes Dinah’s story as a “warning to the daughters of Israel”, Meyers (1997, p. 24) argues that problematic news coverage “serves as a warning and a form of social control over women and a guide to appropriate female behaviour.” By sharing intimate and unnecessary details of a woman’s character, and responding to such acts with further forms of policing and surveillance on women’s freedoms, society is merely perpetuating the rape myth that women are culpable for the crimes committed against them. The mere act of going out becomes an invitation for sexual violence. In fact, the disclosure of intimate details about rape victims continues to be a legitimate judicial defence strategy, contributing to the extremely low conviction rates seen today in the United Kingdom[3] (Larcombe, 2002, p.136). Therefore, contemporary media outlets must understand their complicity in perpetuating rape culture and accept responsibility for ceasing the propagation of rape mythology (Meyers, 1997, pp.xi).

Race and Rape Culture

Sexual violence against women intersects with race to the detriment of already marginalised groups. The media hysteria surrounding the Everard case may be wrongfully credited to the appearance and social standing of Sarah, who, as a privileged white woman received more publicity and attention than other victims of similar crimes (Stiebert, 2021, p.48). For instance, Sabina Nessa’s murder, which occurred six months after the murder of Sarah Everard, received minimal coverage and, according to internet analytical tools like Google Trends and Crowdtangle, markedly less public engagement.

Similarly, the fate of the Canaanite women who are abducted (and presumably raped) by Dinah’s brothers during the raid of the Hivite city (Gen. 34:29) receive very little attention in both the text and its interpretative traditions. The injustice they face is rooted in the identity politics of Ancient Israel, where boundaries are set between different groups through geography, ethnicity, and allegiance. Outsiders are demonised in an attempt to justify violence against them and to form stronger group boundaries (Bechtel, 1994, p.22). Consequently, genealogy is understood to be essential in maintaining purity within the precincts of different groups, and so the concept of a woman being raped by an “outsider” is considered especially abhorrent (Bechtel, 1994, p.22).

Both Simeon and Levi share a disdain for the inter-ethnic sexual relationship between Shechem and Dinah and the proposal of long-term interdependence between Canaanites and Jacobites, which “threatened to put the colonized and the colonizer in a relationship of equality (although not gender equality)” (Dube, 2017, p.54). Subsequently, the Canaanite women (Gen. 34:29) are simply depicted as plunder, and as restitution for the sins Shechem conducted against the Jacobite family (Dube, 2017, p.54). These women are silenced by the text, just as Sabina Nessa’s story is omitted from much contemporary media coverage.

Rape Rhetoric

In Genesis 34:2, where we read about Shechem’s act of rape, Dinah is repeatedly referred to using pronominal suffixes, which “depersonalise and objectify her” (Blyth, 2010, p.87), limiting her to a sedentary object of Shechem’s desire and subsequent abuse.  Dinah is referred to by name eight times throughout the narrative, and in most cases, she is identified in relation to her family (particularly her father and brothers): she is “the daughter of Leah”, “our sister” and “Jacob’s Daughter” (Genesis 34) (Scholz, 1997, p.151-2). This kinship language reinforces the discourse that a woman’s plight is only valued at the cost to her male counterparts; her status as a rape victim only deserves sympathy in relation to others.

However, recent British media campaigns have criticised the usage of such language within rape culture rhetoric. This is illustrated by an image created by popular Instagram page and blog @Ladbible, which was shared as part of a campaign during Sexual Abuse & Sexual Violence Awareness Week. The image features the statement “She is Someone’s” followed by ‘Daughter,Sister, Mother, Wife, Girlfriend, Friend’ which are all crossed out.

The use of slogan, “She is Someone’s” (Ladbible, 2021) is particularly poignant, insofar that it acknowledges the use of kinship language within contemporary “lad” culture to wrongfully evoke sympathy towards the victim, much like the language used to describe Dinah within Genesis 34. The campaign implores readers to consider victims (in this case women) as simply people in their own right, as opposed to those deserving of empathy by virtue of their relationships with others. Ultimately, a victim’s background, sexual history and race should not influence the condemnation of the crime.

Concluding Remarks

This blog post offers a damning indictment of the pervasiveness of patriarchy and sexual violence, concluding that despite millennia, the responses of both biblical and contemporary societies to sexual violence are almost identical in their semantics, their mistreatment of minority groups, and their recitation of rape mythology. The female rape survivor’s experience is focalised by an exclusively androcentric ideological framework, where male voices take precedence (Blyth, 2009, p.485), confining the survivor to the limitations of the “ideal rape victim” (Larcombe, 2002). Here, a woman’s race, background and the most intimate details of her personal life are derised and critiqued, until she is rendered culpable to her own defilement, despite exercising the most basic of freedoms.

Nowadays, rape mythology is no longer limited to the pages of ancient texts but a reality of the very essence of womanhood.

Works Cited

Bechtel, L.M. 1994. What is Dinah is Not Raped? (Genesis 34). Journal for the Study of the Old Testament62 (1), pp. 19–36.

Bible: New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

Blyth, C. 2009. Terrible Silence, Eternal Silence: A Feminist Re-Reading of Dinah’s Voicelessness in Genesis 34. Biblical Interpretation 17 (1), pp.483–506.

Blyth, C. 2010. The Narrative of Rape in Genesis 34: Interpreting Dinah’s Silence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cates, L and Penner, T. 2007. Textually Violating Dinah. The Bible and Critical Theory 3 (3), pp. 37.1–37.18.

Dardenne, B., Dumont, M. and Bollier, T. 2007. Insidious Dangers of Benevolent Sexism: Consequences for Women’s Performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 93 (5), pp. 764–779.

Dube, M. 2017. Dinah (Genesis 34) At the Contact Zone “Shall Our Sister Become a Whore?” In: Claassens, L.J and Sharp, C.J. (eds), Feminist Frameworks and The Bible: Power, Ambiguity, and Intersectionality. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, pp. 39–58. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Musa-Dube/publication/323839710_SHALL_OUR_SISTER_BECOME_A_WHORE_Introduction_Colonial_Contexts_Race_and_Sexual_Violence/links/5aaed3bc0f7e9b4897c03807/SHALL-OUR-SISTER-BECOME-A-WHORE-Introduction-Colonial-Contexts-Race-and-Sexual-Violence.pdf

Glick, P and Fiske, S. 2001. An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality. American Psychologist 5 (2), pp. 109–118. 

Klopper, F. 2010. Rape and the Case of Dinah: Ethical Responsibilities for Reading Genesis 34. Old Testament Essays 22 (1), pp.652–665.

Ladbible.  2021. SHE IS SOMEONE. [Instagram]. January 31st. Available from: https://www.instagram.com/p/CZZXNfvMuFN/

Lange, J. 1899. Genesis, or, The First Book of Moses. Together with a General Theological and Homiletical Introduction to the Old Testament. 5th Edition. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. Available from: http://www.orcuttchristian.org/John%20Peter%20Lange,%20Critical,%20Doctrinal%20and%20Homiletical%20Commentary_Genesis.pdf

Larcombe, W. 2002. The “Ideal” Victim v Seccessful Rape Complainants: Not What You Might Expect. Feminist Legal Studies 10 (1), pp. 131–148.

Meyers, M. 1997. News Coverage of Violence Against Women: Engendering Blame. London: SAGE. 

Parry, R. 2002. Feminist Hermeneutics and Evangelical Concerns: The Rape of Dinah as a Case Study. Tyndale Bulletin 53 (1), pp. 1–28.

Scholz, S. 1997. Rape Plots: A Feminist Cultural Study of Genesis 34. New York: UMI. Available from: https://search.proquest.com/openview/650d9a9842518cf704771516cce932ed/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y

Scholz, S., 1999. Was it Really Rape in Genesis 34? In: Washington, H., Graham S.L. and Thimmes, P. (eds), Escaping Eden: New Feminist Perspectives on the Bible. New York: New York University Press. pp 182–198.

Stiebert J., 2021. Rape Myths, the Bible, and #MeToo. Abingdon: Routledge.

Thiede, B., 2022. Rape Culture in the House of David: A Company of Men. Abingdon: Routledge.

The featured image at the start of the blog post is by Tim Dennell, “Reclaim These Streets: Vigil for Sarah Everard in Sheffield.” On Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/2kKAaZR.


[1] Metzger (cited in Blyth, 2010, p.91) describes rape as when “a woman is brutally stripped of her humanity and confronted with her definition as a nonperson, a function…Rape asserts only combat, brutalizing the communal aspect of sexuality, destroying meaning, relationship, and person, creating a universe of ontological terror”. I have used part of this quote in the title of the blog post.

[2] It is important to note that whilst both crimes involve the abduction and rape of women, their fates are very different. Dinah returns to her household following her brothers’ attack upon the Canaanite men, whereas Sarah is murdered following her rape.

[3] 1.3% of 67,125 rape offences recorded by police in 2021 led to a prosecution.

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Bye Bye Binary: God as Mother-Bear

Sara Stone is a first-year PhD student at the University of Glasgow looking at blame-shifting in the Hebrew Bible. Her MLitt dissertation, also looking at blame-shifting in the Hebrew Bible, has recently been published as a book chapter in: Zanne Domoney-Lyttle and Sarah Nicholson (eds.), Women and Gender in the Bible: Texts, Intersections and Intertexts (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2021, see here). 

Sara can be found on Twitter: @wordsfromastone. Her earlier Shiloh post (on shifting blame in Genesis 3:12) can be found here.

Images of God as a maternal deity are sprinkled throughout Jewish and Christian writings, such as God as birth-giver (Isa. 42:14), God as a comforting mother (Isa. 66:13) and God as nursing (Hos. 11:4).[1] However, Hosea 13:8a depicts God as mother-bear – ‘I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs and will tear open the covering of their heart…’.[2] Hosea 13:8a portraying God as a ferocious mother-bear is a verse that contrasts with the usual depictions of a calm and compassionate mother. 

The purpose of this post is to explore what the description of divine ‘mother-bear’ entails, its significance, and to consider some of the ramifications of overlooking Hosea 13:8a. Ultimately, I argue that Hosea 13:8a is a verse that takes the traditional images of ‘feminine’ (i.e., soft, nurturing and gentle) and adds them to (‘masculine’?) images of violence, strength and power – an all-loving, fierce and ferocious mother-bear. 

‘God as Mother-Bear’ is a striking image that breaks down the typical ‘mother’ stereotype which culture-bound preconceptions dictate, and the imagery used further blurs the gender binary that society has established, particularly regarding parental roles.

Hosea 13:8a is not the only place where the description of a mother-bear appears in the biblical text; it occurs three other times: at 2 Samuel 17:8, 2 Kings 2:24 and Proverbs 17:12. Notably, in all instances where the depiction of a mother-bear appears, it is a portrait of rampaging fury – including in Hosea 13:8a. 

Initially, when the idea to examine Hosea 13:8a first came about, I intended to explore how commentators had previously interpreted the verse. However, I was surprised to discover that little has been mentioned about the arguable significance of ‘God as Mother-Bear’. There were a couple of comments regarding the idea that Hosea 13:8a is a portrayal of God’s rage (see Stuart, 1987: 204; Davies, 1992: 291), but nothing substantial; and in a lot of other commentaries, the image has been overlooked altogether.[3] The silence surrounding God’s illustration as mother-bear raises the question of why interpreters find the imagery so insignificant, and what are the benefits of highlighting the significance of the imagery now?

So, what does the depiction of a mother-bear entail? In pre-modern times, the Syrian bear was fairly common (see King, 1988). We can also assume that the ancient Israelites were aware that the bear was a dangerous animal, due to references to it in the biblical text.[4] Notably, one may see that Amos 5:19a – ‘as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear’ – is equivalent to the idiomatic expression ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’. When bear imagery is utilised in the biblical text it points to violence and power and is usually in conjunction with a lion. Hosea 13:8a is no exception to this as Hosea 13:8b depicts God as a lion – ‘…there I will devour them like a lion, as a wild animal would mangle them’. Allegedly, the lion is less of a threat than the bear, because the behaviour of a lion is more predictable (see King, 1988: 127). 

Indeed, Hosea 13:8a depicts the mother-bear (God) as profoundly attached to her bear cubs (the people). But because God is bereaved of human gratitude, he turns in rage on those who have ‘robbed [her] of her cubs’ and withheld thankfulness. Virginia R. Mollenkott (2014: 50) states that the image in Hosea 13:8a projects internal ripping and tearing, and captures the bitter sensations associated with fragmentation and alienation from the ‘Source of our being’. In other words, when one allows oneself to become ungrateful for the gift of life and liberty (as Hosea 13 describes), one proverbially feels torn to pieces. 

Mollenkott (2014: 51) also notes that the bear is associated with the constellation Ursa Major – a constellation that never sets. Therefore, the imagery used in Hosea 13:8a could also be associated with the constant watchfulness of God-the-Mother-Bear. So, ‘God as Mother-Bear’ can depict his/her/their omnipotence and be understood to connote God’s omniscience, alongside being proverbial for his/her/their rage. 

While there is not a wealth of scholarship about what it means to be described as a mother-bear in the Bible, I argue that the significance of the imagery used in Hosea 13:8a is compelling. The Bible is hugely patriarchal and has been used time and time again to reinforce gender role stereotypes, historically and currently. The image of God as Mother-Bear is an image which breaks down the stereotypes that are usually associated with how a woman, particularly a mother, should behave. 

Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1992: 164) notes that the concept of parental roles tends to assign attributes and behaviours according to ‘gender lines’ and gender binaries. For example, culture-bound preconceptions encourage a person to think of ‘the father’ as authoritarian and punitive and ‘the mother’ as compassionate and/or nurturing. So, it is unsurprising to see that interpreters have the tendency to label the passages in which God expresses compassion and nurture as ‘mother passages’, and passages where God expresses judgement or pronounces punishments as ‘father passages’ (Frymer-Kensky, 1992: 164). 

But it is not the biblical text that assigns these rigid categories: it is the gendered thinking of the reader, or the set of assumptions determining parental roles that does so. However, Hosea 13:8a does not fit neatly into the stereotypical boxes of what is considered a ‘mother’ passage or a ‘father’ passage; it does not fit neatly into traditional gendered thinking. 

Maybe this is one factor contributing to the oversight of Hosea 13:8a. Does the verse sit uncomfortably for interpreters, so it is easier to bypass the verse than to engage with it? It is worth remembering when questioning the oversight of Hosea 13:8a that the biblical text has been subject to centuries worth of patriarchal interpretation.

Where feminized metaphor is concerned, the depiction of an infuriated female God has never achieved the same popularity as the gentler, more sentimental imagery of God as a ‘loving and self-sacrificial’ Mother (Mollenkott, 2014: 51-52). Centuries worth of patriarchal interpretation of the biblical text continuously associate female God images with the stereotypical feminine image of nurture and supportiveness – imagery which better fits the culture-bound preconceptions of gender norms. 

However, Frymer-Kensky (1992: 164) notes that God-as-parent transcends gendered thinking, because the same parent is ‘both judgmental and compassionate, punitive and emotional’. In other words, God is beyond the culture-bound preconceptions that we have created for ourselves. Yet, we are insistent in making passages regarding God-as-parent ‘black and white’ so that they can fit into a neat little binary box. God-as-parent transcends the gendered thinking behind parental roles, and Hosea 13:8a blurs the gender binary which culture-bound preconceptions have assigned. 

Indeed, our culture-bound preconceptions have assigned the father as punitive and the mother as nurturing. In Hosea 13:8a, however, both these parental qualities are exhibited together. The ‘mother-like’ nurturing quality is expressed through the image of a female-bear protecting her young, and the ‘father-like’ punitive quality is expressed through the gruesome image of God the Bear ‘tear[ing] open the covering of their heart’. 

Caroline W. Bynum (1982: 225-226) states that, ‘fathers feed and console, as do mothers: mothers teach, as do fathers; the full range of such images applies both to God and to self’. This reiterates the idea that God is capable of being both mother and father, he/she/they can possess multiple parental qualities. 

Ultimately, Hosea 13: 8a portrays an image illustrating the fury of God. However, by looking at the verse in more depth, we can see that the verse can show us more than simply describing the rage of God. It is a verse that can break down stereotypes, blur gender binaries, and illustrate that God can be both mother and father simultaneously. Hosea 13:8a takes the traditional images of ‘feminine’ (i.e., soft, nurturing, and gentle) and adds them to imagery of violence, strength, and power – portraying God as an all-loving, fierce, and ferocious mother-bear.

References

Bynum, Caroline W. (1982). Jesus as Mother. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Davies, G. I. (1982). The New Century Bible Commentary: Hosea. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdsmans Publishing Company/London: Marshall Pickering.

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. (1992). In the Wake of Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth. New York: Fawcett Columbine.

King, Philip J. (1988). Amos, Hosea, Micah – An Archaeological Commentary. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. 

Mollenkott, Virginia R. (2014) [1984]. The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

Stuart, Douglas. (1987). World Biblical Commentary: Volume 31, Hosea – Jonah. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.


[1] The title of this post took inspiration from an episode of Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness (2022) on Netflix, titled ‘Can we say Bye-Bye to the Binary?’.

[2] Biblical quotations follow the NRSV.

[3] This post is based on an essay I wrote as part of my MLitt degree. Due to various factors, I have been unable to go back and recall which commentaries overlooked the image of God as mother-bear at Hosea 13:8a. On reflection, noting which of the commentaries overlook the bear would have been helpful as part of my research and for this post.

[4] For example, 1 Sam. 17:34, 36-37; 2 Sam. 17:8; Amos 5:19; Is. 11:7; Prov. 28:15; Lam. 3:10; Rev. 13:2.

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Abortion and the Bible

NB (added 27 June 2022): The article following predates the Supreme Court overturning on 24 June 2022 of the landmark abortion decision of Roe v. Wade. Since that day, there has been another flurry of articles, posts and tweets. Responding to some of these, please note first, that the self-designation of anti-abortionists as being ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-lifers’ is critiqued in Note 2. There are further comments about language use in Notes 1, 6 and 10. Second, I agree that Numbers 5 is a frightening text, or ‘text of terror’, for women – hence, I write of it being reprehensible and to be rejected. Third, the reason I confine myself to examples from the Hebrew Bible is that this is my area of expertise, not because I deem the New Testament or Christian texts unproblematic. Indeed, a number of these texts advocate control over or subordination of women, which can contribute to both spiritual abuse and restriction of women’s rights, including the right to health care and reproductive control. For evidence of violence, including gendered violence, in Christian texts, as explored by subject experts, please see this forthcoming book (among other texts cited in the ‘Resources’ tab of the Shiloh Project blog): Christy Cobb and Eric Vanden Eykel (eds.). 2022. Sex, Violence, and Early Christian Texts. Lexington Books.

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The imminent risk of abortion rights becoming even more severely restricted across the USA feels very frightening, and it also feels personal. In today’s post I look at why. I realise this piece is a bit of a long read. The first bit is mostly some context. The latter section is about how selectively the Bible is drawn into anti-abortion polemic.

From 2003 to 2009 I lived and worked in East Tennessee. My work there, as elsewhere over the past 20+ years, was teaching and researching the Hebrew Bible within a higher education setting. 

Both my children were born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and my 6+ years there were a memorable chunk of my life. Looking back, I made many great friendships. I also regularly encountered people – friendly, kind people – who (bizarrely, to my mind) believed gun owning is a human right, state health provision is ‘nanny state’ stuff, and abortion is genocide. 

Every year a portion of the University of Tennessee campus, right outside the tower block containing the Department of Religious Studies’ offices, would be taken over by ‘The Genocide Awareness Project’ (GAP) and their horrible large images of foetuses, alongside other horrifying images of emaciated corpses at the sites of Nazi atrocities. There is so much that is wrong, offensive, disingenuous, and manipulative about such an association and comparison between ‘abortion’ and ‘genocide’, which I won’t go into here now. Suffice to say, every year GAP would repel and enrage me.[1]

Christmas trees would have upset or enraged me far less, if at all. Christmas trees were, however, unlike GAP displays, discouraged on campus, because they were seen as privileging or promoting one religion – namely, the undeniably, unequivocally dominant one of Tennessee – over other religions. This religion, of course, is Christianity. Tennessee is, after all, the ‘buckle of the Bible belt’. US laws of free speech and freedom of religion, like the alleged or actual separations of ‘religion’ and ‘state’, are complex, and sometimes baffling – certainly to me.

Most anti-abortion, or ‘pro-life’,[2] voices in Tennessee are overtly Christian ones. That is hardly surprising, given that the majority of Tennesseans full stop are Christian. Tennessee is in the top three ‘most religious’ states of the USA. According to the Pew Research Center, 81% of Tennesseeans identify as Christian, and 73% as highly religious. While Protestants (73%) are the majority, both Protestant and Catholic Christians of Tennessee tend to oppose abortion.[3]

However, surveys conducted among adult Tennesseeans show that while a majority (55%) oppose abortion in all or most cases, a significant number (40%) are in favour of permitting abortion in all or most cases.[4] None the less, Pew Center research on views on abortion in Tennessee shows clearly that belief in God, level of church attendance, and participation in prayer, scripture reading, and scripture study, have impact on abortion views (i.e. on whether one is ‘for’ or ‘against’ abortion).

During my years in Knoxville, I spent one summer (2005) teaching as a volunteer at the Kerala United Theological Seminary (KUTS) in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, in southern India. It was an incredible experience on many levels. But one thing relevant to this piece that particularly struck me was how rarely strong feeling about abortion was mentioned and, instead, how frequently expressions about the wrongfulness of divorce cropped up in conversation. The situation in Tennessee was the exact opposite. In Tennessee, particularly among Christians, divorce was certainly deemed regrettable and unbiblical, but it was neither uncommon, nor particularly stigmatised.[5] Instead, it was accepted as a private matter and unfortunate thing to happen. In Tennessee, much more insistent and virulent opposition was reserved for both abortion and same-sex marriage. Both were protested publicly.[6] Health centres providing abortions were regularly picketed and attacked in a way that divorce lawyers were not. (Google searches for a divorce or an abortion in East Tennessee make abundantly clear that obtaining a divorce is quick, easy, and can be as cheap as US$139. An abortion, on the other hand, is much less straightforward, has a rapidly reducing number of providers, and at present costs closer to US$1000.) 

But in Kerala, it was divorce that was the big problem.[7] Divorce was a source of stigma and intense disapproval. Biblical passages were readily cited to support this: Malachi 2:16, about God hating divorce, and the line about what God has joined none should sever (Mark 10:9; Matthew 19:6).[8] Abortion, however, was, in Kerala, tolerated as a regrettable but sometimes necessary intervention – which was in line with how abortion tends to be regarded in other places I have lived (Germany, the UK, New Zealand). Margaret Atwood puts it well in her recent piece in The Guardian, ‘Nobody likes abortion, even when safe and legal. It’s not what any woman would choose for a happy time on Saturday night. But nobody likes women bleeding to death on the bathroom floor from illegal abortions either.’[9] In other words, in conversations I had in Kerala abortion was spoken of as something to advocate for and legalise not because it is desirable but because (like divorce when discussed in Tennessee) sometimes it is the best and safest course of action.[10]

Given the wider context of Kerala, this made sense. In India, Christianity is a minority religion. The majority religion and dominant culture of India – to which we give the (inadequate) name ‘Hinduism’– does not outright ban divorce but none the less considers it alien (see here). Given population density, managing family size is, however, encouraged in India and most couples I encountered through the seminary had no more than two children. Birth control and even abortion, were viewed with acceptance and spoken about freely. Compared to the ‘hot potato’-matter abortion was in Tennessee, the prevailing attitude to abortion among Christians in Kerala struck me. It showed me very clearly that context and positionality, where and who we are, has enormous bearing on how we view the world and the Bible. The Bible may in one sense be a fixed text, but it is read and interpreted and emphasised in radically different ways and with wide-ranging effect and consequence.

Abortion and divorce: both are life events we may or may not be confronted with. Neither refers to something that is easy or – in most cases – rashly decided upon. For both, I would argue, safe strategies need to be in place, because both can be the best course of action in a difficult situation. I am sure that more restriction placed on safe, legal abortion will have devastating consequences in the USA, as it has elsewhere.[11] Given that restrictions on divorce are not (yet?) under threat in the USA, let me turn to abortion and the Bible. After all, the Bible is very often cited in public statements about the banning or restricting of abortion rights.[12]

Distressing cases are regularly brought up in abortion discussions. I mean here, situations of pregnancies resulting from rape, sometimes gang rape or child rape, or incestuous rape; or pregnancies, such as ectopic pregnancies, that endanger the health or life of pregnant women; or cases where the unborn has no chance of viability, or where diagnosable diseases, such as Tay-Sachs, promise a life of pain. 

Over the past days and weeks, since the leak of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s draft case for reversing Roe v. Wade, there have been many emotionally affecting posts about just such cases. Lizzi Green tweeted that she is a Christian priest who has had two abortions: one following a rape and another following a pregnancy that was killing her. Ruth Everhart, author of the spiritual memoir about rape Ruined, posted her essay Skin in the Game, about rejection by a church that failed to acknowledge the violence of rape and the violence of condemning abortion even in cases of rape. Several Facebook friends circulated a text attributed to Evelyn Raso, which begins, ‘I am not pro-murdering babies. I’m pro Beccy… Susan… Theresa…’. Raso lists the abbreviated ordeals of persons, pregnant with unviable foetuses, pregnant as the result of rape, whose wellbeing, fulfilment, lives, are at risk in ways that can only be ameliorated or made bearable by access to safe abortion. 

Understandably, such harrowing life situations feature prominently at this critical time of defending women’s rights and access to health care, because they make the case for access to abortion particularly persuasively and urgently. 

Those cases – heart-rending, searing, and important to hold before us – are very far from my own experience. I read books like Christina Lamb’s Our Bodies Their Battlefield (reviewed here), because they are incredibly important – but the experiences it describes are, like those of Lizzi Green, Ruth Everhart and the people in Evelyn Raso’s post, far from my own.

Through the random fortune of birth and circumstance – I have been spared the brutalities of war, rape, forced marriage, forced pregnancy, and denial of abortion. Instead, my experiences of violation, grief, heartache, and illness have been certainly formative and keenly felt, just more prosaic.

And, from and through my experience, I am firmly pro-choice. And that choice extends to persons choosing abortion in less harrowing scenarios and situations, too.

Why? Because life is messy. Because people have sex without wanting, or expecting, a pregnancy and a baby. Because you can get pregnant to people you fall in, then out of, love with, or in relationships that grow apart and awry; because we fall for people who are not good to or for us, people who coerce, force, manipulate or deceive us – or we, them. Because it is possible to get pregnant by accident or deliberately – and this can be disastrous in either case. Because for fertile women who have sex with fertile men, the prospect of pregnancy can be a source of tension, fear, difficulty. And none of this means that abortion is a trifling choice made lightly but a necessity and safe alternative in life which can be or can get complicated.

Abortion is part of the package of reproductive health care that includes also smear tests, and contraception. Such health care saved my life when I was diagnosed and operated for cervical cancer. For all women who have sex with men before we are able or fit to have a full-term pregnancy, let alone a baby to look after, the knowledge that abortion is a safe available option not affecting fertility down the line is a relief.

Giving birth – even if you love the baby the moment you set eyes on it – is not the end of the matter either, of course, because a baby is demanding and absorbing on every level. It cannot and it should not be taken on unwillingly.

Choice has to mean choosing what is the best course of action for the pregnant person concerned – on their terms. Otherwise, it is not a choice. The wonderful pie graph on the internet, headed ‘reasons for abortion’ with each colour segment of various size being labelled ‘it’s none of your business’ is bang on.

There may be people who ‘get their life together’ when or because they are pregnant but – like with diets – for everyone that works for, there are many for whom it doesn’t, for whom a pregnancy and baby does not ‘fix the problem’: be that a rocky relationship, an incentive to break an addiction, or to get a better job, or be a better person. Instead, going through a pregnancy and having a baby can often put relationships under strain, create dependencies, and reduce options. The consequences can be devastating, and the stakes are very high, no less than the life and wellbeing of a completely dependent human. Access to safe,[13] legal abortion can and has make enormous positive difference, for individuals and more widely.[14]

I am even more confirmed in my pro-choice stance since having been pregnant and become a parent. Because I know now how a pregnancy reorganises one’s imagination and takes over one’s thoughts, emotions, plans, and body. And, being pro-choice means I find it crucial to support those who want to carry their pregnancy to term and those who do not. For me, this is not a case of disdaining the potential life of the unborn but of respecting and dignifying the life and agency of the living. 

And now to the Bible, which on this, as on so many topics, is often brought into public discussion… 

First off, the Bible has nothing to say about elective abortion. Because elective abortion did not exist as an option in any of the diverse societies reflected in biblical texts. While there is occasional mention of midwives and wise women, and while they may have known about herbal remedies, maybe about ways of preventing pregnancy or inducing miscarriage, there is not much to go on. Like IVF, organ transplants, or blood transfusions, safe elective abortions are modern (and by now routine) medical procedures. 

One possible reference to a potion that brings on miscarriage, or spontaneous abortion, might be present in the peculiar Sotah passage of Numbers 5:11-31.[15] This text describes what a jealous man, suspecting his wife of infidelity, is to do. It goes into tremendous detail describing the sequence of offerings and quasi-magical rituals led by the priest in the sanctuary. At one point the priest takes holy water and dust from the tabernacle and makes a potion; he then exacts an oath from the woman suspected of infidelity and makes her drink it. Apparently, the potion contains a curse that will lead, if the woman has ‘gone astray while under [her] husband’s authority’ (5:20, NRSV), to her uterus dropping and her womb discharging (5:21, NRSV). This sounds like an induced abortion. It is performed without the woman having any other say than ‘agreeing’ (!) to the ritual by saying ‘Amen’ (5:22). If this is a text about a husband who is jealous, because he suspects his wife is pregnant by someone other than him, and if the potion and ritual – which is, incidentally, prescribed by God, relayed to Moses (5:11), and performed by a priest ‘before the LORD’ (5:16) – brings about an abortion in the event of infidelity, which is what most biblical scholars take to be the most straightforward reading of this strange text, then what we have here is divinely sanctioned abortion of an adulterous conception. In other words, we have a concession for abortion. 

Now, I am NOT advocating that this text become a proof-text in discussions about abortion! I am NOT saying women should be subjected to such rituals, or that there are cases where women should be forced to abort. Far from it. In fact, I think this text is frightful. This text is also odd (to me at least), and it doesn’t speak very well into the world I live in. It’s clearly from a time and place completely different from mine, reflecting assumptions, practices and beliefs that are also unfamiliar, not to mention objectionable. It is unsurprising to me that this is not a text I encounter much – unlike some other biblical texts – except in academic literature I seek out. 

Numbers 5 may feel particularly strange, but all biblical texts present us with challenges. They are all in languages of which there are no longer native speakers (bringing about lack of understanding and nuance about both denotation and connotation of words). Furthermore, we lack the context of these texts. And context, of course, has enormous consequence for meaning and understanding. (We need only think of the song line, ‘you are the cream in my coffee’ – and how differently this will be decoded in settings where coffee is always drunk black. What is heard as a delight, complement, and completion to one listener, is heard as discordant and bizarre to another.) This needs to be kept in mind – especially when the Bible is interpreted with confidence and stridency. 

Parts of the Bible, indeed, are reprehensible and should be rejected. Numbers 5 is one such text, which I see as having nothing positive to say into the world I inhabit. Instead, it renders women vulnerable and passive in the face of men’s jealousy and authority over women and exonerates and justifies both (Num. 5:29-31). The potential for spousal coercive control and abuse is obvious. Also, even people who claim that all the Bible is God’s true and unchanging word tend to be quiet about this text, just as they tend to be quiet about making raped unbetrothed virgins marry their rapists without possibility of divorce (Deut. 22:28-29),[16] or about reinstating the enslavement laws.[17]

There is another law that might refer to an instance of abortion – though, again, not elective abortion. Exodus 21:22-23 describes a scenario resulting in a law. (Such laws, resulting from precedent and usually constructed in terms of ‘when/if… then’, are called casuistic laws.)[18] Here two who are fighting injure a pregnant woman, and this causes a miscarriage, or spontaneous abortion. The law is that if ‘no further harm follows’ (presumably, if the woman is not disabled or if she does not die subsequently), then the one who is deemed responsible for causing the miscarriage must pay the woman’s husband a sum determined by the judges. This shows that the crime is not considered a capital crime, because the unborn is not here regarded as having a status equivalent with a human. The woman, meanwhile, is depicted in relation to her husband and as not fully independent: hence, she does not receive the compensation directly. Instead, a sum of money is paid to her husband. This compensation suggests that the miscarriage is constructed above all in economic terms, i.e., as ‘damages’. It again appears to be the case that a wife is considered the property, or commodity, of her husband. 

The next verse says that if ‘any harm follows, then you shall give life for life’. In other words, if the pregnant woman miscarries, and then goes on to die, then this does become a capital crime. The woman – while in one sense the property of her husband – is (unlike the unborn) a full life. Killing her, requires ‘life for life’ (according to what the text says, at least – we cannot know if the law was actually followed to the letter). 

As already stated, elective abortion is not represented in the Bible. Nowadays, like Caesarean births, elective abortion can be a safe option in a way it was not in times past. This is because things change. The Bible itself also makes allowance for things changing, including rules and ways of doing things. Arguably, this is another reason for not using the Bible rigidly to impose its regulations made long ago on times present. 

To give one example, The Ten Commandments begin with ‘…For I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me…’ (Exod. 20:5; cf. Deut. 5:9 and Exod. 34:7; Num. 14:18). This makes very clear that there is inherited guilt and justification for punishing people whose forebears did something that constitutes rejection of God. What precisely this rejection of God looks like is not clear: would a spontaneous, one-off blasphemy or curse of one’s parent incur guilt for generations to follow (cf. Lev. 24:10-16; Exod. 21:17)? In any case, what is clear is that things took a different turn. In other words, God changed his mind. Hence, in the books of the Prophets it now says, ‘…they shall no longer say, “Parents have eaten sour grapes and children’s teeth are blunted.” But every one shall die for his own sins… I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel… It will not be like the covenant I made their fathers …’ (Jer. 31:29-31; cf. Ezek. 18:4 and the long qualification that follows, 18:5-22).

Quick recap… The Bible is a text that has great authority but that is difficult to navigate. It is in an ancient language of which there are no native speakers. Even those who have studied Biblical Hebrew are stumped by, and muddle through, much of it. Moreover, the Bible has been edited extensively and it is a composite text, compiled of many pieces that were written by a variety of authors in multiple times and places. Consequently, there are internal inconsistencies. Added to this, the contexts are not known to us. For all these reasons, claiming certainty in applying the Bible to the here and now is ill-advised. Added to this, where abortion is concerned, the Bible has nothing to say about elective abortion as it is practised in modern medical facilities. Plus, the Bible itself – where other matters are concerned (e.g. enslavement) offers a diversity of pronouncements, or shows evidence of change over time (e.g. regarding inherited guilt). Furthermore, which texts are emphasised and how texts are received and interpreted through time has changed. Christians once used the Bible routinely to justify enslavement of other peoples – for instance, by identifying Black Africans with Ham’s descendants, called on to be enslaved to the descendants of Shem and Japheth (Gen. 9:26-27), who were – conveniently – identified with enslavers. Beating enslaved persons to the point of near death is – helpfully – excused by the Bible, too (Exod. 21:21), as is an enslaver’s possession of any children born in his household (Exod. 21:4). While enslavement has not gone, using the Bible to justify it is now superseded in many settings by using it instead to decry abortion, homosexuality, and transgenderism. Depending on time and on setting, the Bible is selected from and used in strikingly different ways. 

The Bible is not a useful guidebook for deciding about whether an abortion is preferable for a particular person and their situation.  For those who do want to consult the Bible for such a purpose, what can be brought in to speak to the topic of abortion is, taken together, ambiguous at best. 

There are passages – widely cited by pro-lifers – that depict the unborn as extraordinary and ready to live. In Psalm 139:13-16 the psalmist praises God for forming their internal parts and knitting them together in their mother’s womb. It says here God beheld them already when they were yet unformed and wrote them in his book. This is a beautiful passage and reflects trust in God’s omnipotence and omniscience. (It then goes on, less beautifully, to express hatred for and wish death on all who are wicked, Ps 139:19-22).[19] In Jeremiah, God tells his prophet that he formed and knew and consecrated him in the womb (Jer. 1:5).[20] Job,[21] too, acknowledges that God made him (Job 10:8), fashioned him like clay (10:9), and knit together his bones and sinews (10:11) – but this is not a hymn of praise and gratitude. Instead, Job is in unbearable pain. He says he loathes his life (10:1) and accuses the God who made him of also destroying him (10:8) and of hunting him down like a predator (10:16). Job even says, ‘Would that I had died before any eye had seen me, and were as though I had not been’ (10:18b-19a). Jeremiah expresses similar bitterness (20:18). This might acknowledge that life and living are not always what’s ‘for the best’, to be preserved at any and all cost.[22]

Life – this is certainly not hidden in the Bible – can be utterly brutal and painful. As I defend being pro-choice, I appreciate how profoundly fortunate I am to have and can make choices at all. For all too many human beings, life is only, or predominantly, about suffering and pain and a complete absence of choices or prospects. The starkest image of this in the Bible is in Lamentations, depicting the destruction of Jerusalem and the suffering of the people. As in Job, God is not questioned here in terms of his power – but he is questioned on account of the relentless cruelty suffered by his people.[23] One of the most awful images in Lamentations is of the women who have boiled their own children for food. These women are called ‘compassionate’ (Lam. 4:10) – presumably, because life can indeed be so cruel that not living is a mercy. 

All in all, the passages of the unborn, woven together in the womb, confirm what very many, including I myself, feel: that the formation of a human life is astonishing and wondrous. None of the scientific detail can take away from how miraculous it is that in nine short months of gestation after a sperm and an egg come together, a little human is formed, who can go on, with nurturing and help, to become an independent being, with consciousness, attitude, and personality. Wow. Even to an agnostic like me, this is divine, awesome, mind-blowing. 

Pro-lifers make a great deal of abortions killing ‘the innocent’. Even though ‘an unborn’ is not the same as ‘a baby’, abortion is equated with baby-killing, or (see GAP) genocide. Such allusions recall a biblical trope, namely, ‘the massacre of the innocents’, the name given to the gruesome event mentioned in Matthew 2:16-18, which, it says, fulfils a prophecy in Jeremiah where wailing and lamentation erupt as Rachel weeps for her children.[24] Pro-lifers point to Proverbs 6:17 and to Psalm 68:5: according to Proverbs, God hates ‘hands that shed innocent blood’ and, according to the psalm, God is father of orphans and protector of widows. From this, they extrapolate that the unborn is the most innocent – therefore, God hates all who abort (that is, kill) the unborn. Moreover, the unborn is the most vulnerable – so, if God is champion to such vulnerable figures as the widow and orphan, how much more so to a vulnerable unborn. But a woman who finds herself pregnant against her will, or in the face of circumstances that make a pregnancy very difficult and traumatic for her, or for the potential life she is carrying, is also vulnerable; arguably, she, too, is as deserving of God’s protection as the widow and orphan. 

Yes, life is certainly a precious and sometimes vulnerable thing. Some biblical passages capture the wondrousness of life, and of its beginnings in pregnancy in beautiful and compelling ways. But elsewhere, the preciousness of life, including of the life of innocent babies, seems rather off the agenda. Yes, it is a mark King Herod’s cruelty that he vents his fury on the babies and toddlers of Bethlehem and surroundings in the massacre of the innocents (1 Matt. 2:16). But elsewhere in the Bible, the killing of adults and children, including male babies, is ordered by Moses, the recipient of divine instruction, and their killing is depicted as a sacred act (Num. 31:1, 17; cf. Deut. 2:34). 

Killing women along with their unborns, by ripping them open, is depicted in the Bible as a dreadful act, which it truly is. Chillingly, callously so. This is the action of the Ammonites, rebuked for their transgressions (Amos 1:13), and of Menahem of Samaria (the northern kingdom of Israel), who is called ‘evil in the sight of LORD’ for good measure (2 Kgs 15:16, 18).[25] But dashing to pieces the ‘little ones’ of Samaria and ripping open Samaria’s pregnant women is also, horrifyingly, what God threatens and prophesies as punishment (Hos. 13:16). What of the protection of the most innocent here? The verse is notably absent among pro-life-defending Bible citations. 

The Bible is – understandably, given its complex and only patchily understood composition, transmission, and formation – eclectic and polyvocal. It contains passages that resonate on into the present, and passages that are hard to make sense of, or which are downright reprehensible. It also contains a lot of inconsistency and internal contradiction. If it can be used at all, it must be read judiciously, in the light of the present, including knowledge gained in the intervening centuries since the Bible was canonised. 

The decision to have an abortion or not is personal and case-by-case. Ultimately, whether life begins at conception, or at some other stage, or whether an abortion can be a better choice than giving birth, cannot and should not be determined on the basis of the Bible alone. It is disingenuous to claim otherwise.

There now exist medical knowledge,  means and facilities whereby fertility can be controlled with contraception, or pregnancy facilitated with IVF, or early pregnancy terminated safely, without significant risk to future fertility.  This offers choices and opportunities to those fortunate enough to have access to them, which were not available in the centuries over which biblical texts were composed. 

It’s tough out there. Here in the UK the strain is palpable everywhere. Poverty and financial strains are escalating as fuel and food and housing and rent prices rise. Mental health care is utterly inadequate. NHS waiting lists are growing by the hour. It’s not so rosy in the USA either, with health care crises and gun deaths and post-Covid recession. On top of this, there is a climate crisis, a war in Ukraine, and a worldwide migration crisis. Right now, many choices and options and decisions are curtailed or particularly difficult for a checkerboard of reasons. And removing the choice of a safe abortion for someone who cannot cope with the alternative seems especially cruel. 

When the Bible is used to deny or malign the option of abortion, then it is propelled by extraneous agendas. In the absence of any mention of elective abortion these agendas are supported by hand-picked and cobbled together proof-texts given a particular spin. Whether someone chooses or refuses an abortion – keep the Bible out of it. 


[1] The GAP website is accessible here and there is much I could say (while fuming with rage) about the problematic, vile and offensive content and strategies contained therein. GAP is described on the site as the ‘mass media outreach’ for the (grandly named) ‘Center for Bio-Ethical Reform’. Not surprisingly (given the entanglements between the Republican Party and restriction of access to health care, including abortions) the Executive Director, Gregg Cunningham, is a Republican and former member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. While the site makes no references to the Bible and (like proponents of so-called ‘Intelligent Design’) instead bandies about pseudo-scientific language (e.g. ‘bio-ethical’), it uses Islamophobic rhetoric and it promotes the aims of the US evangelical anti-abortion and anti-choice (called ‘pro-life’) lobby. Regarding Islamophobia, in a passage arguing against abortion in cases of rape, Cunningham cites the words of a Jordanian man who shot dead his sister following her rape, because her death was, for him, preferable to inflicting shame on the whole family. The citation ends with, ‘His logic is not a logic rare in the Arab world’ – which airs the toxic prejudice that so-called ‘honour’ killings alongside lack of sympathy for rape victims and a callous disregard for life are widespread in ‘the Arab world’. This is offensive and unsupported by evidence. There is a well-articulated student response to GAP on US campuses here

[2] Language again (see note 1) functions in manipulative ways. Those opposed to abortion (in all or most cases) refer to themselves as being ‘pro-life’ or ‘anti-abortion’. The effect of this is to cast those who defend abortion (in all or most cases) as ‘anti-life’ or ‘pro-abortion’. Those who defend a woman’s right to choose an abortion (in all or most cases) prefer to call themselves ‘pro-choice’, thereby accentuating agency and choice, rather than the taking or diminishment of life. 

[3] Jon Ronson in his BBC audio book Things Fell Apart provides a fascinating exploration of how in the USA the topic of abortion developed from a fringe matter associated above all with Catholicism into a divisive preoccupation of the so-called culture wars (available on the BBC Sounds app, see here).

[4] For a host of social and medical data on the state of Tennessee, including pertaining to marriage and divorce, induced terminations of pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases, with demographic break-downs, see here.

[5] For statistics on divorce by religious affiliation, see here. A no longer up-to-date but widely circulated study reported that US Christians were just as likely, possibly even more likely, to divorce than US non-believers (see here). Even Christian interpreters challenging such reports admit to high divorce rates among US Christians (see here).

[6] I was living in Tennessee at the time of The Tennessee Marriage Protection Amendment, also known as Tennessee Amendment 1 (2006). Once more, language is telling, because what is ‘protected’ here is heterosexual marriage, with the word ‘protection’ implying that other kinds of marriage are a risk, even a danger. This state constitutional amendment banned same-sex unions and the referendum was approved by 81% of voters. It specified that only a marriage between a man and a woman could be legally recognized in the state of Tennessee. Same-sex marriage only became legal in Tennessee with the US Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges on June 26, 2015. There are plausible concerns that the current Supreme Court will enforce restrictions and violations not only on abortion rights but on other human rights, including those of LGBTQ+ persons. Pat Buchanan’s 1992 ‘Culture Wars’ speech (available here) in many ways galvanises the ‘package’ of conservative Christian and Republican values exemplified particularly by strong opposition to all of feminism, abortion, and LGBTQ+ identities.

[7] When I was in Kerala, same-sex marriage was not once raised as a topic. I was given to understand that conversation about homosexuality was taboo. 

[8] A host of Christian biblical commentators and theologians have scrutinized these biblical passages and considered their impact on those who feel constrained or endangered by them. See for instance, Helen Paynter, in The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So (The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2020), 68–76. I have reviewed Paynter’s book here.

[9] Margaret Atwood, ‘Means of production: Force women to have babies and then make them pay? It’s slavery’ (The Guardian, 2 May 2022, p.39). Atwood continues with, ‘What kind of country do you want to live in? One in which every individual is free to make decisions concerning his or her health and body, or one in which half the population is free and the other half is enslaved? Women who cannot make their own decisions about whether or not to have babies are enslaved because the state claims ownership of their bodies and the right to dictate the use to which their bodies must be put.’

[10] Those who choose to defend one over the other by depicting elective abortion as ‘the massacre of the innocents’ and divorce as less egregious because it is a choice made by mature adults, need to undertake more nuanced analysis. The discussion of when a human is a human with full human rights (at conception, at birth, at some other point) and whether an unborn has integrity and independence from or equal rights with the human in which it is forming, are, of course, very much contested. It should be noted that marriage, or intimacy, can also be violent, even deadly, as high rates of spousal coercive control, domestic and intimate partner violence and femicide the world over confirms. Importantly, too, pro-choice advocates support a woman’s right both to refuse forced abortion and forced pregnancy. I am very much on the side of advocating for the preservation and improvement of the lives and quality of life of those who are born – including those living in famine- and war-ravaged regions, refugees, trafficked humans, and those suffering from preventable diseases. 

[11] Cliona O’Gallchoir has written in an earlier post about the tragic outworkings of the amendment of Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution before its repeal in 2018 (see here). When I lived in Botswana, a country where abortion is only legally available in exceptional cases, I heard many stories of desperation and knew of women who had the means travelling to neighbouring South Africa for safe abortions. 

[12] The Bible is not drawn into Justice Samuel Alito’s draft ruling regarding Roe v. Wade (see here). The draft report would overrule the constitutional right to abortion. The response from religious leaders has not been monolithic (see here) but conservative voices have long used the Bible to condemn abortion. 

[13] There are many claims about abortion posing health risks, including to mental health and increased risk of breast cancer. These claims are carefully examined and mostly dispelled, see here.

[14] Access to safe, legal abortion  is linked to a drop in crime (see here) and to improvement in women’s and children’s health.

[15] I have written at length about this text. See Johanna Stiebert, ‘Divinely Sanctioned Violence Against Women: Biblical Marriage and the Example of the Sotah of Numbers 5’. The Bible & Critical Theory 15/2 (2019). It is available for free download here.

[16] Franklin Graham is one vocal and high profile proponent and projects the notion that the Bible is clear and straightforward on a number of matters, including abortion (see here). 

[17] Enslavement is assumed in the Bible – both in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. The three sets of laws of enslavement in the Hebrew Bible (Exod. 21:1-6; Lev. 25:39-46; Deut. 15:12-18) are by no means identical, suggesting changes in circumstance, attitudes, and law, over time. The Bible was widely used to justify enslavement, and also to achieve liberation from enslavement. This would seem to show that there is not ‘one truth for all time’ but a text that can be and is used to defend a variety of positions depending on the time and circumstances. As is clear from my observations in Tennessee and Kerala, setting drives both selection and interpretation. 

[18] Laws such as the Ten Commandments (‘you shall not…’) are called apodictic laws. 

[19] Psalm 137 – the opening verses of which have been made famous by 1970s band Boney M – ends with the line ‘Happy shall they be who take your [i.e. the enemy Babylon’s] little ones and dash them against the rock!’ There is not much love lost here for little ones.

[20] There is a similar sense of prenatal selection in Matthew 1:20, where Joseph is told that the unborn (Jesus-to-be) is ‘from the Holy Spirit’. The Gospel of Luke, too, refers to Elizabeth’s unborn (John-the-Baptist-to-be) as ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Luke 1:15). The presence of the Holy Spirit in these unborns clearly sets them apart. There is no indication that what makes these pregnancies special is ‘democatized’ to all other pregnancies. Another delightful detail in Luke is that Elizabeth’s unborn leaps in her womb on hearing Mary’s greeting. 

[21] The Book of Job is particularly difficult to translate. The book’s poetic passages are full of images that are difficult to decode, and the entire book is speckled with terms that are rare, even singular. Unsurprisingly, an annotated translation contains many notes saying ‘Meaning of Hebrew uncertain’. 

[22] Job is a very complex text that does not offer clear answers to such big questions as ‘why do humans suffer?’ ‘Is God all good?’ or, ‘is life always worth living?’ Instead, it says a lot about how meaningless and miserable life can be, how righteousness does not preserve from suffering, and how cruel God can seem. Yes, the book has a (trite) ‘happy ending’ where Job is comforted on account of all the evil God has brought on him (Job 40:11). His wealth is restored, he has ten more children, and dies at an old age. But experience shows us that such dramatic turn-arounds don’t always happen and also, that they don’t undo the harm and pain of severe trauma. 

[23] I have written about this extensively elsewhere: see Johanna Stiebert, ‘Human Suffering and Divine Abuse of Power in Lamentations: Reflections on Forgiveness in the Context of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Process’ Pacifica16/2 (2003): 195–215. (For access, see here.)

[24] The massacre of the innocents is, therefore, as inevitable as the consecration of Jeremiah in the womb or the vocation of John the Baptist and Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit before birth. Wonder and horror – both are depicted as foretold, matters of destiny. 

[25] Ripping open pregnant women is not a suitable analogy for elective abortion in a medical setting. Such an analogy would be like aligning the threat of male-male rape (e.g. Gen. 19:5) with consenting same-sex love-making. 

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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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