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The Sexual Humiliation Of Men – A Biblical Time Travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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


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

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

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Holocaust Memorial Day 2020

Today, 27 January, marks Holocaust Memorial Day  and 75 years to the day since the liberation of Auschwitz.[1] The Shiloh Project joins the many people worldwide solemnly marking this momentous day.

While other genocides and other mass human rights violations have occurred and continue to occur, the Holocaust is also singular. The Holocaust, or Shoah,[2] has taken millions of lives and has affected and warped millions more, as well as influenced the course of history, consciousness, scholarship and much, much more. For these reasons and others, it remains important to talk about, to remember and to commemorate the Holocaust if any good at all is to come from this tremendous carnage, in the form, for instance, of recognizing the enormous damage and tragedy that comes from the confluence of discrimination, dehumanisation, unquestioning obedience to authority and terror. This recognition is then, hopefully, taken forward as commitment to preventing any further human rights atrocities.

Given the focus of the Shiloh Project, let us point out, too, that sexual violence carried out as part of the Holocaust is slowly beginning to receive more attention.[3] This is demonstrated, for instance, in the important work of Shiloh member Miryam Sivan. Miryam has presented on sexual abuse in Holocaust literature at the Shiloh conference (see  here and here) and has featured in our series on the 16 Days of Activism (see here).

Last year, Miryam published her novel, Make It Concrete.  (For a review, see here.) This novel tells the story of Isabel Toledo, a strong and independent woman, living in today’s Israel. Isabel has three children, several lovers and works as a ghost writer, recording the narratives of Holocaust survivors. But her life and equilibrium is unsettled by a past that predates her life.

What is most affecting about Miryam’s novel is the feeling of the past bearing down heavily on the present. Her account makes clear that our grandparents’ and parents’ lives and the fear and pain of the past can resonate and reach harmfully into present lives and times. This is worth reminding ourselves of as we reflect today on the Holocaust and on the wars and atrocities and refugees’ fates of our own time: how might what is happening now shape and harm lives in times to come? What can we do better?

Please read Miryam’s novel: Miryam Sivan, Make It Concrete (Brooklyn, NY: Cuidono Press, 2019).

[1] This is not to be confused with Yom HaShoah, commemorated in the Jewish calendar on the 27th day of Nisan. This year, in a grisly coincidence, Yom HaShoah will begin at sundown on 20 April, the birthday of Adolf Hitler.

[2] I have written elsewhere about the names ‘Holocaust’, ‘Shoah’ and ‘Porajmos’, as well as about the problematic practice of ascribing the word ‘Holocaust’ to other grand-scale horrors, e.g. ‘The African Holocaust’ to the HIV and AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. See Johanna Stiebert, ‘The African Holocaust: What Is In a Name?’ Missionalia 37/2 (2009): 192-209.

[3] For one example, see The Guardian (October 2019),reporting on Nazi atrocities committed against the Sinti and Roma. The article (see here) makes reference to Hermine Horvath’s ‘unusually explicit’ account of sexual abuse perpetrated by an SS leader.

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International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 1 – Ericka Dunbar

To celebrate the first day of the 16 Days of Activism Campaign, which coincides with International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we spotlight activist Ericka Dunbar. You can learn more about Ericka’s work here.
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I am Ericka Dunbar, a Ph.D. student at Drew University, completing my studies in the area of Bible & Cultures. My focus is the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. My dissertation is entitled: “Trafficking Hadassah: An Africana Reading of Collective Trauma, Memory and Identity in the Book of Esther.”

My research connects to activism in several ways. Foremost, in my research, I utilize intersectionality and polyvocality as frameworks that enable me to expand traditional interpretations of biblical texts. The application of these frameworks illuminates the ways that Africana girls and women often experience intersectional oppression at the hands of patriarchs and colonial entities. For example, both Hagar in the book of Genesis and the virgin girls from Ethiopia and other African locales in the book of Esther, are taken from their native lands and sexually exploited by patriarchs and colonial subjects.

When reading the narratives intertextually, systematic oppression of Africana females due to intersectional identities becomes evident. Africana girls and women are sexually exploited at the intersections of ethnicity, gender, class, and in relation to interlocking systems of power and domination by patriarchs and colonial subjects. In these texts, ideologies of Africana inferiority are promoted and social hierarchies are created, frequently relegating Africana females low on the hierarchy (as concubines and slaves). Both the ideologies and hierarchy function to justify the abuse and oppression of Africana females.  Consequently, Africana girls and women become sex slaves to patriarchs and kings that extract their bodies from their natal homes and transport them to other locales for the patriarch/king’s sexual pleasure.

In addition, the application of these frameworks provides an opportunity to integrate the voices and experiences of Africana girls and women regularly ignored or minimized by interpreters, namely the nameless virgin girls in the book of Esther. This type of activism resonates with the type of activism reflected in the #SayHerName movement.

#SayHerName raises awareness of the countless Black girls and women that are victimized by police and anti-Black racialized violence. It centers the stories of those whose experiences of police and racialized violence are muted in both historical and media representations.  My work parallels this movement in that I give voice to the often overlooked and ignored experiences and traumatization of Africana girls and women in the ancient biblical contexts. However, not only do I focus on Africana girls and women in ancient contexts but I also illustrate how the girls’ and women’s experiences in the biblical narratives resonate with the experiences of Africana girls and women trafficked and rendered sex slaves during the transatlantic slave trade and even into the present.

While, the #SayHerName movement focuses on Africana girls and women that are killed by police in the US, I focus on sexualized violence perpetrated against Africana girls and women. I also emphasize that Africana girls and women were recognized as property of colonies in ancient contexts and during the slave trade. Therefore, they received no legal protection from rape and sexual enslavement. I point out these facts as a means of highlighting that current police brutality against Africana females is a legacy of patriarchy and colonial domination. In addition, the failure of law enforcement and legal systems adequately to protect Africana victims from sexual exploitation or to punish offenders is in large part a horrendous legacy of racist stereotyping and colonialism.

Perhaps some contemporary examples of the sexual exploitation of Africana females will illuminate the types of injustice that advocates such as myself are speaking out about. Three women, Cyntoia Brown, Chrystal Kizer, and Alexis Martin who were trafficked and sexually exploited in the USA as minors, either have been or are being prosecuted for defending themselves against their traffickers. The forfeiture of protection by police and legal systems is another form of violent brutality. Moreover, the lack of protection from an abuser and the criminalization of victims exacerbate their suffering.  Girls and women should not be criminalized for protecting themselves or escaping abusive exploitation. Therefore, I not only emphasize intersectional oppression and elucidate damaging ideologies but I also critique systemic oppression and the failure of legal entities to uphold justice and protect vulnerable persons.

Secondly, I teach with an emphasis on trauma and social justice. It is essential for me to prepare students for the world and ministry by shaping lives that are committed to not only critical thinking but to justice as well. When I help students to recognize inequalities and trauma in the ancient world of the text and in our very own contexts, we create conscientious communities that are responsive to discriminations and disparities. As co-learners, we help each other recognize the mechanisms of power and how power can be used to transform systems and conditions to ensure justice and equity for all members of society.

One way that we promote equity and justice is by creating a space that affirms the humanity and dignity of all. We allow diverse knowledge, experiences, and interpretations to enhance the learning space and we respond to critical issues that impact humans globally. I find that in addition to contextualized learning, interdisciplinarity is a great asset for social analysis, promoting critical thinking, and interpreting information to discern solutions. Moreover, we discuss and respond to these issues both inside and outside of the classroom. Practices that demonstrate an orientation to social justice include a trip to the Civil Rights Museum, activism through social media engagement, involvement in protests/rallies/marches/voter registration drives, implementing and organizing church programming to address social issues, and/or involvement in organizations that create/impact legislation. There are a wide range of practices that our learning community engage in as a means of embodying our scholar-activist identities. We supplement book-knowledge with experiential knowledge to produce changes in the communities in which we serve.

Alongside teaching at Spelman College and the Interdenominational Theological Center, I serve as a representative on the Joint Action for Advocacy for Justice and Peace Convening Table, National Council of Churches (USA), and on the faculty team for the Samuel DeWitt Proctor’s Dale Andrews Freedom Seminary hosted by the Children’s Defense Fund. The seminary course is an immersion experience for seminarians who desire to engage and cultivate prophetic voices with communities that contend against systemic injustices that directly impact children and youth. Scholars, community and church leaders, and activists gather at this week-long Institute to describe and model non-violent direct organization and collective action for justice though public theology, communal, and congregational praxis.  This past summer, I took two of my former Spelman students to the institute and transported two others from Candler School of Theology at Emory. I’ve taught students at Spelman that participated in other CDF programming as well. I have become a mentor beyond the classroom to many of these students and to other students that I’ve met through the Forum for Theological Exploration. These relationships are meaningful to me because of our relatedness as Africana women and our shared focus on child advocacy and on challenging sexualized violence against Africana women in ecclesiastical structures and society.

In late October, a Clark Atlanta University (Atlanta, USA) student by the name of Alexis Crawford was sexually assaulted by her roommate’s boyfriend and then allegedly murdered by her roommate and the roommate’s boyfriend. This atrocious event shook the Clark Atlanta community as well as the members of the other schools of the Atlanta University consortium, (two of which I serve as an adjunct professor) and the wider community surrounding these institutions. Specifically, the students in my Intro to Old Testament class at Spelman were traumatized by this killing because of the sheer callousness of Alexis’s abuse, their proximity to Alexis’s apartment and school, the failure of legal entities to protect Alexis, and because many have expressed experiencing similar instances of unsolicited sexual advances in their lifetimes. This killing illuminated for us that our scholarship is not divorced from the world around us. Rather, our scholarship is informed and impacted by the communities and societies that surround us. This semester, it has become increasingly clear that there is an exchange between the theories we engage in the classroom and our lived experiences beyond the classroom. In the last couple of class sessions since Alexis went missing and was found murdered, my students have been reflecting upon experiences of trauma and assessing how the educational processes we’ve engaged in this semester continue to aid in our ability to identify and challenge social injustices in practical ways.

Besides writing, teaching, and mentoring, I also travel and present papers on sexual trafficking and collective trauma at international conferences. Two of my papers/presentations are being turned into an article and book chapter and published in the next couple of months. Last summer, I presented a paper entitled, “For Such a Time as This #UsToo: Representations of Sexual Trafficking, Collective Trauma and Horror in the Book of Esther,” delivered at the 2018 Religion and Rape Culture Conference at the University of Sheffield (Sheffield, England). This paper has been turned into an article and is being published in a special edition of the journal Bible and Critical Theory. This past summer, I presented a keynote paper entitled “Sisters of the Soil: Surviving Collective, Cultural Traumatization: Intertextualities Between Hagar, the Ethiopian Virgin Girls in the Book of Esther and Mother Africa,” at the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians 5thPan-African Conference (Celebrating the 30thAnniversary of the Circle) at the University of Botswana (Gaborone, Botswana). An excerpt of this paper was translated into German and published in FAMA (Switzerland). The longer keynote paper will be published as a chapter in a book entitled Mother Earth, Postcolonial and Liberation Theologies by Lexington Publishers.

Activism is important to me because it galvanizes persons to participate in collective action to ensure every member of society is treated fairly and equitably. Activism and advocacy are means to inspire and create change. Students are capable of effecting social change thus it is important to reflect on and engage in advocacy and activism within and outside of the classroom. During the 16 Days of Activism I will continue to educate persons about the mechanisms of sex trafficking and its psychological, emotional, and physical impacts on Africana girls and women. I intend to tell the stories of girls and women whose lives have been impacted by sexualized violence as a means of increasing awareness of gender-based violence and to prevent and end sexualized violence against girls and women. I also hope that any efforts to decriminalize the sexual exploitation and trafficking of person will be thwarted.

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“Until the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies”: Rizpah and the power of silent protest

Today’s blog post is written by Siam Hatzaw. Siam is an undergraduate student of English Literature and Theology at the University of Glasgow. She is an editor for Persephone’s Daughters, a literature magazine empowering female survivors of abuse, and is also a features editor of The Glasgow Guardian. You can find Siam on Twitter @siamhatzaw.

“Until the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies”:  Rizpah and the power of silent protest

The story of Rizpah and her silent vigil (2 Samuel 21:1-14) is one of the most heart-wrenching narratives of grief, devotion, and sacrifice within the Bible. But more than this, its implications are far-reaching as her story resonates with the voices of oppressed women throughout history. If actions speak louder than words, then Rizpah’s vigil epitomises the power of silent protest in the face of injustice.

The Madwoman in the Attic

I frame my reading of Rizpah through the “madwoman in the attic” trope which refers to certain female literary characters. The trope is coined by Gilbert and Gubar in their seminal work of feminist literary criticism by the same name, where they discuss the tendency within literature to characterise women as either angelic or monstrous, an embodiment of purity or an unkempt madwoman. Gilbert and Gubar argue that both characterisations should be killed off as neither can accurately represent women; they emphasise the need for women to be written as multifaceted and developed characters in their own right.

The trope’s name is drawn from the character of Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a woman locked away by her husband for an unnamed insanity. The perception of Bertha’s character exemplifies the link between Rizpah and the madwoman trope: madness is continually feminised and thus weaponised against victims of trauma to deride the justness of their cause. Juliana Little explains that:

“Madness has been perceived for centuries metaphorically and symbolically as a feminine illness and continues to be gendered into the twenty-first century. Throughout history, images of mental illness in women send the message that women are weak, dangerous, and require containment”.

This association between women and madness is also represented through the feminisation of “hysteria” – a common theme in Victorian novels and the basis of a medical diagnosis (predominantly linked to women) that the American Psychiatric Association did not drop until 1952.

In short, women and madness have always gone hand in hand. Female literary characters are all too often painted as irrational, overemotional, or excessive – and it is here that we find Rizpah.

Situating Rizpah

Rizpah begins her story already a victim. She is introduced as Saul’s concubine and after his death, his commander in chief Abner is accused of “going into” her (2 Samuel 3:6-21). This leads to conflict between Abner and Ish-Bosheth, Saul’s successor, so Abner defects to David who becomes King. According to Isabel Hamley, Abner’s assertion of power through sexual domination to achieve his own means is enough to qualify the incident as rape. Rizpah’s body is used to assert a claim to the throne, making her “nothing but a pawn in powerful male hands”. The men’s conflict isconcerned with the violation of Saul’s property and pays no attention to Rizpah’s trauma. This comes as no surprise, considering the concubine’s status as “the locus of battles between men”.

David’s Atonement

Fast forward to 2 Samuel 21, we find Israel in the midst of a three-year famine. God tells David the famine is “on account of Saul’s blood-stained house” (2 Samuel 21:1) as he had broken an oath by trying to annihilate the Gibeonites in spite of Israel’s sworn promise to spare them.

David asks the Gibeonites what he can do for atonement, at which they call for the execution of seven of Saul’s descendants: five sons of Merab and two sons of Rizpah. Seven is considered the biblical number of completion, used repeatedly to reference redemption. Therefore, these men can be seen as Israel’s sacrifice of redemption for Saul’s sin.

Transforming Trauma into Action

The seven sons are executed and left to hang upon the hillside at the beginning of harvest, as Rizpah watches with unspeakable grief. Here we can draw a parallel with another grieving mother who stands at the foot of the cross, watching her own son become a sacrifice of redemption. What unimaginable strength must it take for these mothers to bear witness to their sons’ deaths?

According to Deuteronomic Code, corpses must be buried on the same day or they are cursed by God. Hebraic tradition views burial as a sacred rite. However, David leaves these men to rot for all to see – a grave injustice.

And so, Rizpah defies the king. Her suffering sparks something within her, driving her to turn her trauma into action.

Alone Upon the Hillside

Rizpah guards the corpses “from the beginning of the harvest until the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies” (2 Samuel 21:10). This is a period of approximately six months, April to October, through which she endures immense physical and psychological torture. The sight and smell alone would be enough to destroy anyone – and yet, she perseveres.

Let’s come back to the madwoman trope. Picture Rizpah alone at the foot of the bodies, fighting off the birds by day and wild animals by night, sleeping with the rotting corpses… in all this time, she finds no aid, no company, or consolation. She is seen as a woman driven insane by grief.

But Rizpah doesn’t care. Her vigil is more than mourning; it’s a protest, and she knows she is right in the eyes of God.

Rizpah’s Significance for Israel

We should take a moment to consider why the bodies are left to hang. Samantha Joo argues that if David was only looking to appease God for atonement, he would have demanded a burial. Instead, he leaves them as a warning for those who would oppose him. Joo suggests that had it not been for Rizpah’s presence, onlookers would have slinked away in fear. Instead, because of this madwoman on the hillside, they start to ask questions. Their murmurs spread and eventually reach King David.

Rizpah’s protest was on the verge of dismantling the legitimacy of his kingship, as he had broken his oath to spare Saul’s descendants and defied Hebraic funeral ethics. And so, to silence the murmurs, David gathers the bones of Saul and Jonathan, together with the seven men, and gives them their just burial. After this, God “answered prayer in behalf of the land” (2 Samuel 21:14), and rain falls on Israel once more.

Ekaterina Kozlova proposes that by ensuring the men’s burial in the ancestral tomb, Rizpah’s vigil salvages the dynasty’s dignity. Moreover, it is intertwined with the fate of a nation. Her actions neutralised the penal plagues that wreaked havoc in Israel. Kozlova further argues that these ritual contexts allow women to enter the previously inaccessible domain of male power and turn these solemn occasions into public forums for pressing issues.

Rizpah rouses David into action as, according to the rabbis, he considers: “If she, who is but a woman, has acted with so much loving kindness, must not I, who am a king, do infinitely more?”. Thus, she uses the power available to her in this domain to shame the king into utilising his own power and right his wrongs.

What’s in a Name?

A deeper look into the meaning of Rizpah’s name illuminates the story’s political significance in light of her call to repentance. The name means “hot coals” which symbolises the cleansing of sin.  In Isaiah 6, a seraphim places a hot coal from the altar upon Isaiah’s lips to cauterise the wound of sin. Rizpah, the “hot coal”, served as a symbol to Israel as a cry to repent – when her protest is heard, the rain falls from the heavens and completes their redemption.

Athalya Brenner presents “hot coals” as a symbol of quiet but enduring passion, a slow-burning anger, and purification.Likewise, Kozlova notes that glowing coals or fire are symbolically connected to human life, further proposing that by situating Rizpah’s name (a double light-based cipher) at the intersection of two dynasties, it becomes “an indispensable gloss” on the narrator’s intentional social commentary: to criticise the king’s injustice.

Contemporary Examples

Rizpah’s story resonates with contemporary examples of women who use their trauma to fight for change. Joyce Hollyday relates her to Israel’s Women in Black, and to other groups of mothers of grief who become mothers of hope.

The Women in Black

The Women in Black are an anti-war movement demonstrating opposition to Palestine’s occupation by holding weekly vigils in mourning for the victims of the conflict. Formed in 1988 following the outbreak of the First Intifada, the group now comprises an estimated 10,000 activists around the world. The movement inspired global vigils in solidarity, which became protests for local issues in each country and evolved into an “international network of women for peace”.

Gila Svirsky has written about this movement’s powerful symbolism of mourning, dignity, and conscience; their commitment to nonviolence was a source of strength. She describes a particular vigil before which they had been warned by the Commissioner of Police about an overwhelming threat of violence – and yet more women than ever showed up to protest.

“All of us, with our hearts in our throats, more silent than our silent vigil ever really was, standing there in determination not to be shoved aside by bullies.  People threw things from their cars, but nothing exploded.  And the women continued to stand with dignity”.

It is notable that the majority of protesters were victims of trauma themselves, who channelled their pain into transformative action. As Svirsky states: “Those who were sensitive to the issue of violence against women applied that lesson to all forms of violence and oppression”.

Svirsky uses the Arabic word sumud, steadfastness, to describe the Palestinians clinging to their views despite adversity, not being shaken from the ultimate goal. Sumud reflects the power of nonviolent resistance. However, the media’s reports of the vigils are continually littered with ridicule and criticism. Svirsky writes: “What’s that you say about prophets in their own land?  One had to be really committed – or nuts – to keep plugging.  But we did”.

“Nuts”. These were madwomen in the eyes of the onlookers, like Rizpah, a picture of insanity at the foot of the bodies. The trope portrays women who are vilified, using “madness” to invalidate their cause, women who are called hysterical rather than brave, despised rather than sympathised. And yet, they persevere, standing firm against their oppressors. Both the Women in Black and Rizpah embody sumud in their powerful resilience.

“Comfort Women”

Another contemporary comparison is proposed by Samantha Joo, who relates Rizpah to bronze statues situated around the world which represent the “comfort women”. “Comfort woman” is a translation of the Japanese ianfu, a euphemism for “prostitute”. It refers to the many thousands of women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Joo explores the insidious efforts of governments who seek to suppress stories of and by these women whose bodies bear witness to rape and oppression.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan pressured President Moon Jae-in of Korea to honour the December 2015 agreement in which the Korean government agreed to remove the bronze statue of a comfort woman standing outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, in exchange for an apology and monetary compensation. Prime Minister Abe “and other like-minded constituents” also tried to encourage the removal of bronze statues in Hong Kong, Australia, and the US, as well as whitewashing Japanese textbooks and attempting to change textbooks in Korea and the US. Joo views this as an attempt to “monopolize all of history with their master narrative”, an “all-out international campaign to wipe out the counter-narratives of the comfort women”.

Joo discusses the similarities between this endeavour to erase the scandal of the “comfort women” and King David’s attempts to cover up his collusion with the Gibeonites. The historian’s master narrative implies that David’s hands were tied: he had to sacrifice the men to restore fertility to Israel. Yet underlying this narrative was an attempt to silence David’s opposition. It is a message of terror, which Rizpah dares to confront.

Joo argues that, similarly, the Korean people must resist until Japan’s Prime Minister publicly acknowledges the systematic sexual enslavement of the “comfort women”. Just as Rizpah is the silent presence representing the senseless death of innocent men slaughtered for King David’s ambition, the statue represents the senseless trauma these women suffered through. Both the statue and Rizpah thus become counter-monuments embodying stories which interrogate and destabilize unjust leaders.

Joo powerfully states that:

“If any of us allow a government to deny the injustice of the past or the present by manipulating and perpetuating its master narrative, then we are complicit. We are like the men of Gibeah, who passively watch a king kill seven innocent people. Rather we, like Rizpah, should dare and persist in fighting the master narrative that tries to silence the cries of women who with their bodies incarnate the counternarratives.”

The Power of Silent Protest

Rizpah’s story echoes throughout the history of oppressed women. She is in a dangerously vulnerable position as a concubine, a victim of rape, and a grieving mother. Yet, Hamley argues that it is her very lack of power – exemplified in her repeated victimisation and taking up the only option open to her – that ultimately enables her to achieve her goal.

In the end, Rizpah, the madwoman alone upon the hillside, is vindicated. Hamley states: “The woman, invisible and used in 2 Samuel 3, abused further through the death of her sons, is now seen and recognised… not simply by David but by the God who only brings the famine to an end once justice is done for her loved ones”.

Rizpah’s story portrays the incomprehensible strength of women in their suffering, an ability to turn trauma into transformative action and enact real change. Although she is silent, her actions ring loud and clear as a daring challenge to the king to do what is right.

Funlola Olojede describes silent but open resistance as a powerful tool, particularly in cases where overt forms of protest would be dangerous or ineffective: “Her silence continued to cry out louder than words… her resilience in the face of unspeakable grief as she watched the bodies of her two sons rot away before her eyes speaks to women today”.

Across the world, women who bear unspeakable suffering are not allowing themselves to be broken. They are letting their silence cry out until justice is found, a mirror to Rizpah and her vigil which touched the heart of God.

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Finding Companionship with Josephine Butler and Forging out a New Theology in a Time of #ChurchToo

Today’s post is by Dr Elizabeth Ludlow, Senior Lecturer in English Literature and the Director of the Nineteenth Century Studies Unit at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK. Find her on Twitter @ludlow_e 

In an article in the Church Times last year, Linda Woodhead reflected on the urgent need to scope out a “new theology” in the wake of the problems exposed by the hearings of the IICSA (The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse). The damning IICSA report that details the hearings that Woodhead refers to – surrounding the Diocese of Chichester and Peter Ball (abishop in Chichester before becoming Bishop of Gloucester)– was released earlier this month. Its conclusion highlights the tragic consequences of shielding a perpetrator of child sexual abuse at the cost of victims. Through a series of case studies, the report gives “examples of perpetrators who were able to hide in plain sight for many years” and details the occasions “when the Church put its own reputation above the needs of victims and survivors.” In highlighting how compassion was extended to Ball but not to his victims it explains how, at the time of Ball’s caution and resignation, the only reference that Church officials made to Neil Todd (the original complainant against Ball who took his own life in 2012), came when adiocesan bishop “said he hoped that Mr Todd ‘will be able to forgive Bishop Peter’.” I’m sure that many abuse victims can identify with the frustration of having their anguish overlooked, the damage that has been done minimised, and of being told by those in authority that they are expected to forgive the perpetrator.

Woodhead explains how, in Chichester, a “faulty doctrine of forgiveness” was used by abusers, church officials, and parishioners. In contrast, the theology she calls for refutes any notion that the doctrine of easy forgiveness is “a possession of the church” and looks instead to the wider implications of a belief in “a God who is present in, with, and through creation, and affected by it.”Over the past few months, I’ve been  researching the work of Victorian social reformer Josephine Butler.  I would suggest that the theological strategies she uses to interpret the Bible from the perspective of the oppressed offers useful tools to grapple with what it means to break institutional silences around abuse and reach beyond the platitudes of easy forgiveness.

In their book, In a Glass Darkly, The Bible, Reflection and Everyday Life, Zoë Bennett and Christopher Rowland comment on how “[p]art of any intellectual engagement that is critical is finding appropriate alternative perspectives that bring fresh understanding of a situation.” They then explain how William Blake and John Ruskin have become for them “companions on the road” who open up these perspectives and provide “a critical space for understanding the Bible, life, and crucially also the modes in which we might explore the connections between life and the Bible” (2016, 108). Following on from theologian Ann Loades who has noted the longevity of Butler’s work in addressing sexual abuse, I want to suggest how Butler might act as a “companion on the road” for us today and how, through an engagement with her work, some of the suggestions that Woodhead offers in terms of repudiating the doctrine of easy forgiveness might be worked out.

Josephine Butler (nee Grey) was born in 1828 into a large and well-connected family in Northumbria. In 1852, she married George Butler, an academic who had just been appointed to the role of Chief Examiner in Oxford. It wasn’t long after they returned from their honeymoon that she became dismayed at the prejudices of the male academics and clergy she found herself among. Having parents who encouraged a strong social conscience and a hatred of all forms of injustice, she was struck by the “great wall of prejudice” among the university community (192, 98). In her biography of her husband, she recalled several instances of being rebuffed after bringing to light cases of injustice and abuse. On one occasion, she approached an esteemed university fellow, hoping he could “suggest some means” of holding the abuser of a young girl to account; the fellow “sternly advocated silence and inaction” (1892, 96). She then commented that, for a long time:

there echoed in my heart the terrible prophetic words of the painter-poet Blake – rude and indelicate as he may have been judged then – whose prophecy has only been averted by a great and painful awakening –

                 “The harlots’ curse, from street to street,

                  Shall weave old England’s winding sheet.” (ibid)

Butler’s recollection of William Blake’s words from his poem “Auguries of Innocence,” and her identification with him as one who was judged “rude and indelicate,” signals a willingness to take an unpopular stand against the systematic institutional reluctance to address sexual abuse. Butler’s faith was, like Blake’s, revolutionary and practical and she recognised Jesus’s actions as those of a “dangerous leveller” (1869, lviii). Her engagement with “Auguries of Innocence” is indicative of her commitment to Blake’s perception that “God Appears & God is Light / To those poor Souls who dwell in Night” (lines 129-30) and to his understanding that God is present in “Human Form” (line 131). The inaccuracy in her memory of the lines she cites – changing the word “cry” (115) to “curse” (thus recalling the reference to the “harlot’s curse” in Blake’s poem “London”) – signals her concern with attending to the anguish of the outcast woman: an anguish that has such force it could destroy “old England.”

Along with her husband, Butler read the Bible eschatologically, reflecting on the person of Christ and praying “that a holy revolution might come about, and that the Kingdom of God might be established on the earth” (1892, 102). The account of prayer that she gives can be helpfully understood in terms of what biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann describes as an act of “breaking the silence” (2018, 3) Such an act is, he explains, always a “counterdiscourse,” because it “tends to arise from the margins of society, a counter to present power arrangements and to dominant modes of social imagination” (ibid.). Following a series of vignettes concerning oppressive silence, Brueggemann reflects on how “silence breaking is evoked by attention to the body in pain” (6-7). Butler’s attention to marginalised, hurting bodies, along with her prayers for a “holy revolution,” indicates her own refusal to accept oppressive silencing and signals her protest against the status quo of what Blake terms “old England.”

Courtesy of Granpic (Flickr), Josephine Butler on staircase window in Liverpool Anglican cathedral.

In the introduction to the volume of essays that she edited on Woman’s Work and Woman’s Culture, Butler speaks out against a society content to stand by and watch “sinister social forces” drive “whole armies of little girls to madness and early graves” (1869, xix). Butler’s social activism in leading the repeal against the Contagious Diseases Acts, in rescuing girls and women from lives of prostitution, and in pushing for parliament to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16, was propelled by both her recognition of the worth of each individual and by a concern for partnering with Christ in breaking oppressive silences.

During the years in which she was involved in repealing the Contagious Diseases Acts, Butler wrote a biography of Catherine of Siena, in which she stressed Catherine’s Christ-likeness in both radical action and in prayer (1894 [1878]). Catherine’s ongoing and “passionate intercession” (182), which enabled her to see and respond to the corruption around her, stood in stark contrast to the “prominent representatives” of the Church who were concerned with “worldly, greedy, grasping power” (7).

Such juxtapositions between worldly power and the power of prayer among the marginalized can be seen through Butler’s own life. In her account of the 1883 parliamentary debates regarding the suspension of the Contagious Diseases Acts, Butler writes of a prayer meeting that exemplifies the “counterdiscourse” defined by Brueggemann, where “ragged and miserable women from the slums of Westminster” prayed side by side with “ladies of high rank” (Johnson, 181).

In the conclusion to her biography of Catherine of Siena, Butler describes how prayer opens up the “social and sympathetic” aspect of each individual as they stand in relationship with God, their community, and creation (338). She stresses that the act of interceding for the Other involves envisioning them as distinct and as loved by God. This loving attention is the very opposite of abuse and stands in stark opposition to a culture that promotes a doctrine of easy forgiveness and prioritises the perpetrator over their victims for the sake of convenience and reputation.

References

Bennett, Zoë and Rowland, Christopher. 2016. In a Glass Darkly: The Bible, Reflection and

         Everyday Life.London: SCM Press.

Brueggemann,Walter. 2018. Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out. London:

Hodder & Stoughton.

Butler, Josephine (ed). 1869. Woman’s Work and Woman’s Culture. London: Macmillan.

— 1892. Recollections of George Butler. Bristol: Arrowsmith

— 1894 [1878] Catherine of Siena: A Biography. London: Horace & Son.

Johnson, George W, Johnson, Lucy A, and Stuart, James (ed.). 1909. Josephine E. Butler: An

Autobiographical Memoir Bristol: Arrowsmith.

Loades, Ann. 2001. Feminist Theology: Voices from the Past. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Woodhead, Linda. 2018. “Forget culture. It’s a new theology we need” Church Times, 06

April.https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2018/6-april/comment/opinion/iicsa-forget-culture-new-theology-we-need.

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