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CALL FOR PAPERS – Special Journal Issue: Activism in the Biblical Studies Classroom: Global Perspectives

Call for papers: Special Edition of the Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (JIBS)

Activism in the Biblical Studies Classroom: Global Perspectives

Does activism belong in the university Biblical Studies classroom? If yes, with what purpose, outcome or agenda? Which teaching strategies are effective? How can/should/might Biblical Studies and activism engage with each other?

Activism is understood here as relating to human rights and the abolition of discrimination, including discrimination and activism in relation to:

Race and ethnicity
Gender and gender identity
Sexual orientation
Disability and ableism
HIV status
Mental health
Religion, faith and belief
Fat stigma
Motherhood and pregnancy
Voluntary/involuntary childlessness
Abortion and abortion stigma

This list is indicative and not exhaustive. We welcome submissions on any area of activism in conjunction with any biblical text.

We are looking for practice-focused contributions informed by academic research and/or theory.

Submissions should be between 4000 and 10,000 words.

All submissions will be subject to the usual blind peer review process.

Send proposals to Guest Editor Johanna Stiebert ( by 31 March 2019 and completed papers by the 2 January 2020.

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Outlander Soul Podcast: Sexual Violence in Outlander (discussion with Emma Nagouse)

Outlander Soul continues part 2 of their conversation with Emma Nagouse, whose research at the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) at the University of Sheffield (UK) focuses on religion and sexual violence. In this episode, Emma and Jayme Reaves discuss Christ imagery and suffering, the Geneva & Laoghaire question, Fergus, and sexual violence as depicted in Outlander more generally.

(An obvious trigger warning that there will be discussion of rape, sexual violence, and rape culture in this episode).


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Outlander Soul Podcast: Season 2 Episode 3: Jamie & The Man of Sorrows (Sexual Violence in Outlander Part 1)

Over the next two episodes, the Outlander Soul podcast welcomes Emma Nagouse, whose research at the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) at the University of Sheffield (UK) focuses on religion and sexual violence.

For Part 1 of this series on sexual violence in the popular TV series Outlander, Emma and Jayme Reaves discuss Emma’s research on Jamie Fraser and the Man of Sorrows, a character in Lamentations 3 in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and the implications of male rape as depicted in biblical texts and in Outlander.

Read more on Emma’s Outlander Research here.

(An obvious trigger warning that we will be talking about rape, sexual violence, and rape culture in this episode).

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White Rose Collaboration Fund Project Update

On Wednesday 10th October members of our White Rose Collaboration Fund Project met for an update.

The White Rose Collaboration Fund is designed to support emerging collaborative activities across the three White Rose universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York. Our project focuses on using religious imagery in popular culture to explore and challenge everyday sexism, sexual harassment and abuse together with secondary school students.

In consultation with secondary schools from all three White Rose regions and Fearless Futures, a third-sector organization offering gender equality training for school-age girls, the network will conduct three pilot workshops with secondary school students (girls and boys) to investigate interactions with religious imagery in popular culture and the ways in which these representations shape understandings of gender, sex and sexualities.

Members of the White Rose universities involved in the project include Professor Vanita Sundaram (University of York), Professor Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds), Dr Katie Edwards (University of Sheffield), Dr Meredith Warren (University of Sheffield), Dr Valerie Hobbs (University of Sheffield), Dr Jasjit Singh (Unversity of Leeds), Dr Caroline Starkey (University of Leeds), Sofia Rehman (University of Leeds), Dr Sarah Olive (University of York) an Emma Piercy (University of York).

As usual, the meeting buzzed with energy, ideas and enthusiasm. We’re very much looking forward to working with our partners Fearless Futures and the local schools. We’ll update again after our training!

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The Handmaid’s Jail: Framing sexual assault and rape narratives in biblical comics (video)

Abstract: With an increase in comic book representations of biblical stories on our bookshelves, discussions surrounding how to approach retellings of difficult material such as rape narratives, extreme violence, murder and genocide are at a critical juncture. For those comic book creators who want to include every aspect of these stories, questions concerning how they interpret and represent such narratives abound; for those who are less concerned with fidelity to the text, questions concerning what they leave out and what they leave in present themselves.

In this paper I will discuss the representation of Hagar, Bilhah and Zilpah in biblical comic books, arguing that the creators of such comics rarely depict the scenes as rape or sexual assault narratives.

This talk was delivered at the 2018 Religion and Rape Culture Conference. Click here to see more videos.

Zanne currently holds a postdoctoral position with the University of Glasgow, teaching in Biblical Hebrew, the Hebrew Bible, Bible and popular culture, and Bible and reception history. She completed both her PhD and MTh degrees at the University of Glasgow, focusing on remediations of Genesis in comic books and artwork, and in particular, how women were represented in biblical comics. Her current research projects broadly involve remediations of the Bible in comic books, issues related to representations of gender in the Hebrew Bible and popular culture, and the reception of biblical text in marginalised communities.

Header image: Sarai suggests the use of Hagar’s body to Abram (Genesis 16:2) in R Crumb’s The Book of Genesis.

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Negotiating the Silence: Sexual Violence in Israeli Holocaust Fiction (video)

Abstract: When American Jewish writers write about sexual violence against Jewish women in the Holocaust, they talk around the subject. Rape is implied. Sexual slavery described in broad strokes. Euphemisms abound to explain scenes in which women use sex in an attempt to bargain their way to survival. By contrast, when Israeli Jewish women write about sexual victimization during World War Two, there is a direct attention to detail; in fact, the sexual sadism experienced by the female characters is often a central point of the text. My talk will explore how the literary treatment of rape can act as a litmus test for a community’s sense of vulnerability or, its opposite, self-assurance, while keeping in mind that obfuscation and euphemism are linguistic acts of denial seeded in the Biblical story of Abraham and Sara’s first sojourn into Egypt.

This talk was delivered at the 2018 Religion and Rape Culture Conference. Click here to see more videos.

Miryam Sivan is a former New Yorker has lived in Israel for twenty years. Much of her fiction is about the experiences of ex-pats in love, in flux, in the liminal space between cultures, languages, and historical epochs. She is a lecturer of English Literature at the University of Haifa. Her book, Belonging Too Well: Portraits of Identity in Cynthia Ozick’s Fiction, was published by SUNY Press (2009). In addition to numerous scholarly publications, she translated On the Blossoming, a book of poems by Leah Goldberg (1992).

Her short fiction has appeared in Lilith, Arts and Letters, Wasafiri, Jewish Quarterly, and other publications. A collection of short stories, SNAFU and Other Stories was published in 2015. Her novel, Make it Concrete, will be published in the fall of 2018 by Cuidono Press in NYC.

Header image: Taken from the cover of “And the Rat Laughed” by Nava Semel

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The Handmaid’s Jail: Framing Sexual Assault and Rape Narratives in Biblical Comics

Zanne Domoney-Lyttle teaches and researches at the University of Glasgow. Her research centres on comic book and graphic novel adaptations of the Bible through the perspectives of literary criticism, art criticism, comics theory and gender studies. Her doctoral thesis explored the space of comic books as visual aids to scripture, the tension between authorship and authority in biblical comics, and who has the right to reinterpret ancient sacred texts in a new graphical-visual medium. The following essay is based on Zanne’s presentation at the Religion and Rape Culture Conference organized by the Shiloh Project in July 2018.

The Handmaid’s Jail: Framing Sexual Assault and Rape Narratives in Biblical Comics

Dr Zanne Domoney-Lyttle

“Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.

He went in to Hagar, and she conceived.” (Genesis 16:3b-4a)

In a post I wrote for this blog in November 2017, I discussed how biblical comics tend to avoid difficult scenes from the Bible, including visual depictions of rape, torture, violence and slavery. I argued that there is a reason and a need to represent such events in the graphic medium, because excluding difficult narratives erases not only violence and horror but silences the voices and experiences of the victims involved.

An alternative perspective is that comic book artists who choose to leave out “texts of terror” (Phyllis Trible, 1984), may do so because they do not want to be complicit in any act of sexual violence or of assault on the memory of the victim. Another reason is that they do not want younger or otherwise vulnerable readers to see violent scenes. Because of this, biblical scenes, which are unambiguously about rape and sexual assault – such as the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34) or the rape, murder and dismemberment of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19) – are intentionally left out in the majority of biblical comics.

But while these stories, which we might term “obvious” rape narratives, are often left out and often for reasons such as those just proposed, less “obvious” stories also depicting rape and sexual assault are often included. Moreover and disturbingly, there is often no indication that these stories can and should be read as stories of sexual aggression. Instead, violence is elided, rape becomes “just sex”.

To give one example, the story of Hagar in Genesis 16:1-4 is usually included in biblical comics, but never with any indication that Hagar is subjected to sexual servitude and abuse – namely, rape – in order to fulfil God’s promise to Abram for descendants.

A number of feminist biblical scholars, including J. Cheryl Exum, Phyllis Trible, Renita Weems and Susanne Scholz, have written compellingly about the importance of reading Hagar’s story as one of enslavement, rape and forced marriage and pregnancy. This is a burgeoning area of research in biblical studies and yet, the idea of reading biblical stories through the lens of classism and enforced motherhood is not one that is represented in mainstream comic adaptations of Bible material.

Comic book adaptations of Hagar’s story are always shown from the perspective of Abram and his “need” to have children. Depictions rarely, if ever, concentrate on the perspective of Sarai his wife, let alone on Hagar, a slave. Hagar is not so much suppressed in biblical comics but her representation is “shallow”, without autonomy and reflects a purely patriarchal perspective. Added to the exclusion of her voice, comic book creators also employ certain visual tools and word-choices, which further misrepresent the experience of Hagar. The effect of this is to imply her consent to sex and surrogacy and to normalise the treatment she receives at the hands of God, Abram and Sarai.

© R. Crumb, 2009

Let us turn to R. Crumb’s visual rendering of the story of Hagar (Genesis 16:1-6) in his The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R, Crumb: Hagar is introduced here as a solution to the problem of Sarai’s infertility. Given to Abram “as a wife”, the striking image which accompanies Genesis 16:3-4 depicts Sarai presiding over the “marriage”. This ceremony (of which there is no trace in the biblical text), moreover, resembles a traditional heterosexual Western wedding ritual, complete with officiant (Sarai), binding of hands and the face-to-face positioning of “bride” (Hagar) and “groom” (Abram). By referring to Hagar as a “wife” and graphically capturing her union with Abram in this way, Crumb encourages the reader to view the union as legal, consenting, sanctioned by God and as legitimate – rather than as a forced marriage between a slave and a powerful man for the purpose of producing Sarai’s surrogate child. This is further supported by Crumb’s word choice in his remediation: he uses “handmaid” rather than “slave-girl”.

Throughout the creation of his Genesis, Illustrated, Crumb relies heavily on three translations of the book of Genesis: the King James Version (KJV), the Jewish Publication Society version (JPS) and Robert Alter’s translation of and commentary on Genesis. The latter is the most prominent in his work and is clearly the source he relies on most.

This makes Crumb’s decision to use the word “handmaid”, rather than Alter’s “slave-girl”, even more conspicuous. Alter argues persuasively in his commentary that to describe Hagar (and Bilhah and Zilpah) as handmaids imposes a misleading sense of gentility on the sociology of the story. He goes on to suggest that describing Hagar as a maid rather than as a slave conveys the sense of a person in paid employment of their own volition, as opposed to somebody who is forced to work without wages, rights or freedoms.

© R. Crumb, 2009

So, Crumb choosing to call Hagar “handmaid” and depicting her transaction with Abram as a consenting marital union, suggests to the reader that Hagar enjoys some status and privileges, including the ability to choose marriage and pregnancy. This is further enhanced by Crumb’s commentary on his graphic version of Genesis where he provides his thoughts on Genesis 16:4b, “and when [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, her mistress seemed diminished in her eyes.” Crumb argues that Hagar’s attitude towards Sarai is threatening, because by being pregnant, Hagar is in a position to usurp Sarai’s position as matriarch of the family.

Crumb encourages readers to see Hagar’s treatment in Genesis as consensual and in her favour by choosing specific words and visual codes for his images. By doing so, narratives of slavery, rape and assault against Hagar are erased or forgotten and the reader glosses over her story, understanding it only as a means to fulfilling God’s promises to Abram.

One could argue that Hagar’s depiction in Crumb’s Genesis, Illustrated is representative of her appearance in the biblical text. The biblical text, too, is primarily focused on Abram and his role in God’s plan. The biblical text, too, focuses on Hagar’s role as child-bearer, which addresses the situation of Sarai’s apparent infertility.

© Siku, 2007

Let us now turn to the treatment of Hagar by Siku, artist and writer of The Manga Bible as well as the first section of The Lion Hero Bible. In both these versions by Siku, representation of Hagar is minimal. In The Manga Bible, Hagar’s story is glossed over entirely. Sarai hangs off Abram’s shoulder, whispering into his ear like a seductress as if playing into, as Susanne Scholz suggests (2010), an androcentric fantasy that imagines wives inviting their husbands to sleep with other women. Hagar is in only one panel, where she is represented as an object shaped like a trophy or vessel ready to be filled with Abram’s seed.

In The Lion Hero Bible, where Abram is called “Faith Man” Hagar is given space across four panels. Her face is either turned away from the reader or is in darkness. Most troubling with this remediation of her story is the panel where Abram leads her into ominous darkness. Rape is not visually depicted. Instead, one narrow panel fits in between the panel of Hagar being led into darkness and another showing her advanced pregnancy. This panel alludes to the circumstances of conception but functions like an ellipsis. Still, at least the panel creates a small space for the reader to imagine what happened rather than being presented with Crumb’s version, which assumes consent and respectability.

Siku briefly acknowledges Hagar’s enslavement by visually alluding to her bondage but he spends no time reflecting on what this status means for her as a victim or on what it means for the reader receiving the text. Possibly, this is because Siku focuses on Abram and his progression as a patriarch – not on Hagar. Hagar remains above all a tool in the narrative, a way for God to fulfil his promises.

© Siku, 2015

Brendan Powell Smith’s The Brick Bible: A New Spin on the Old Testament is similar in its execution of Genesis 16:3-4. This time Hagar’s slave class is highlighted by her ragged clothing, which is juxtaposed with the robes and jewels of Abram and Sarai. Unlike Crumb, Powell Smith chooses to use the designation “slave-girl”. However, again Hagar’s status as slave is not challenged, highlighted or problematised: once more there is no allusion to forced marriage, or rape or involuntary impregnation. The Brick Bible is known for its humorous take on the Bible and this might be why Powell Smith chooses to ignore “difficult” or violent elements in the text.

© Brendan Powell Smith, 2011

Choosing whether to, and how to depict violent stories in biblical comics is a choice rife with responsibilities.

In a recently published essay, actor Molly Ringwald reflects on watching a scene of sexual assault in the film The Breakfast Club, in which she stars, given the revelations of the #MeToo movement. She asks:

“How are we meant to feel about art that we both love and oppose? […] Erasing history is a dangerous road when it comes to art – change is essential, but so too, is remembering the past, in all of its transgression and barbarism.”

This is a question that must be asked of the Bible as well – especially when it is adapted in modern times into new media. The responsibility of those who make biblical comics is to represent the troubling texts and multiple voices within the stories instead of presenting only the version of the Bible that aligns with any one dominant ideology. This might include, for example, acknowledgment of Hagar as a victim of a class-driven system wherein God, Abram and even the matriarchal figure of Sarai are guilty of oppressing and abusing lower-class women in a quest to produce children “for Abram”. By not problematizing the text, retellings only reinforce and endorse damaging (such as androcentric) readings of the Bible. They fail to free Hagar from the constrictions of her story, thus jailing her both graphically within the panels of the comic book, and literarily within the word-choices of the written text.

Skipping over narratives of rape and sexual assault in the Bible can be a dangerous road when it comes to biblical interpretation. It is essential to remember also the violent stories and to revisit them with all of their transgressions and barbarities. In the conclusion to her essay, Molly Ringwald suggests that that it is up to future generations to respond to stories of rape and sexual assault like those in The Breakfast Club, in order to make those stories their own.

Biblical comic creators also need actively to challenge and reframe stories of rape and sexual assault in the Bible so that we can redeploy them as potential challenges to androcentric readings, and to oppose their examples of female subjugation. By accepting the existence of these texts and by probing and if necessary problematising and challenging their effects, resonances and implications, by both cherishing and opposing them, we can both remember the violence of the text but also ensure the victims in the texts are given focus and centrality, so as to recover and honour their voices.

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How to make a ghost: A collaborative approach to finding Dinah

Abstract: Since October 2017 Lily Clifford and Emma Nagouse have been collaborating to produce a body of artwork based around narratives of rape in the Bible. By focusing on Dinah, Clifford and Nagouse have used their complementary skills and knowledge to create several artworks dealing not only with Dinah’s rape, but cultural responses to Dinah, and rape culture more broadly.

In this presentation, Clifford and Nagouse talk through Clifford’s portfolio of artwork – you can view or download this here.

This talk was delivered at the 2018 Religion and Rape Culture Conference. Click here to see more videos.



Lily Clifford is an artist and arts facilitator who is currently working towards her MA in Inclusive Art at the University of Brighton. Lily started working with clay in 2008 and studied at University of Sunderland to gain her degree in Glass & Ceramics. Lily makes art about women, religion, and stories – she uses paint, textiles and found objects. Follow Lily on Twitter.

Emma Nagouse is a PhD student at the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) researching rape culture in the Bible and contemporary society, focussing on gendered constructions of believability. Emma is an active member of The Shiloh Project and is Chair of The Sheffield Feminist Archive. Follow Emma on Twitter.

Header image:  Lily Clifford in action.

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The Religion and Rape Culture Conference: A Summary

The first Religion and Rape Culture conference was a huge success. We welcomed over 50 delegates from 6 countries and were treated to 14 fantastic research papers from a range of academics, research students, practitioners, artists, activists, and members of religious groups. The aim of the day was to explore the many intersections between religion and rape culture, and how religion can both participate in and contest rape culture discourses and practices.

Click here to see videos of our research talks

The conference opened with a powerful keynote address entitled “Rape by any other name: Cross-examining biblical evidence“ from Professor Cheryl Exum (Emeritus Professor, University of Sheffield). Professor Exum presented delegates with a survey of rapes in the bible, and demonstrated in her talk the ways in which commentators often work overtime to elide this violence. Professor Exum ended her address with a challenge to biblical scholars to make rape a visible issue in the discipline. Professor Exum continues to be an inspiration to staff and students in Biblical Studies, and is responsible for carving out a space for Sheffield as a leading place for feminist biblical interpretation.

After a short break, our first panel convened who explored “Biblical Perspectives” of rape culture discourses. This panel, chaired by Dr Johanna Stiebert, was well received, with thought-provoking papers from a variety of disciplines:

Lily Clifford (Inclusive Arts MA, University of Brighton) & Emma Nagouse (PhD Candidate, University of Sheffield): How to make a ghost: A collaborative approach to finding Dinah

Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar (PhD Candidate, Drew University):  For such a time as this? #UsToo: Representations of sexual trafficking, collective trauma, and horror in the book of Esther

Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris (Principal, Leo Baeck College): This may not be a love story: Ruth, rape, and the limits of readings strategies

Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar discussing her research with a delegate.

As well as presenting on this panel, we were thrilled to welcome Lily Clifford from the University of Brighton as an artist in residence for the conference, who crafted creative responses to each of the presentations as they unfolded. We were delighted that this was received so warmly by delegates and our presenters – who were each able to keep their artwork.

Lily working during the conference

Our next panel,  “Theology and Thought” was chaired by Dr Valerie Hobbs and included papers which explored some of the ways in which Christian discourses and ideologies have engaged with rape culture, both historically and in contemporary contexts. These were fantastic papers, and while some of this content was challenging to listen to, they served to bring focus to how important and timely this research is.

Natalie Collins (Gender Justice Specialist, SPARK):  The Evil Sirens: Evangelical Christian culture, pornography and the perpetuation of rape culture

Claire Cunnington (PhD Candidate, University of Sheffield): “My prayers weren’t being answered”: The intersection of religion and recovery from childhood sexual abuse

Rhian Elinor Keyse (PhD Candidate, University of Exeter): “A man cannot in law be convicted of rape upon his own wife”: Custom, Christianity, colonialism, and sexual consent in forced marriage cases, British colonial Africa, 1932–1945

Rhian Elinor Keyse and Lily (conference artist) discussing Lily’s artistic response to Rhian’s research paper

After (a delicious) lunch, we picked things up again with our “Method, Critique and Discourse” panel chaired by Dr Meredith Warren. This was an interdisciplinary panel which explored the various ways rape culture is expressed politically by both oppressors, and those who seek to resist it. This was a fascinating session that inspired a lively panel discussion.

Kathryn Barber (PhD Candidate, University of Cardiff): “Rape is a liberal disease”: An analysis of alternative rape culture perpetuated by far-right extremists online

Dr Rachel Starr (Director of Studies: UG programmes, The Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Research): Research as resistance: Survival strategies for researching violence

Professor Daphne Hampson (Associate of the Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford): Religion as gender politics

Questions being taken by the Method, Critique and Discourse panel

A rapt audience listening to Dr Rachel Starr’s presentation on “Research as resistance: Survival strategies for researching violence”

Our final panel, “Media and Culture” was chaired by Dr Naomi Hetherington and included papers which explored how rape and rape culture discourses are presented in literature and artistic contexts. We couldn’t have hoped for more engaging talks to round off the day’s panel discussions.

Mary Going (PhD Candiate, University of Sheffield): Mother Zion, Daughter Zion, Witch Zion: An exploration of Scott’s Rebecca

Dr Miryam Sivan (Lecturer, University of Haifa): Negotiating the silence: Sexual violence in Israeli Holocaust fiction

Dr Zanne Domoney-Lyttle (Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Glasgow): The Handmaid’s Jail: Framing sexual assault and rape narratives in biblical comics

Header: Professor J. Cheryl Exum, who gave the opening paper.

The Religion and Rape Culture Conference was closed by a fantastic keynote address from Associate Professor Rhiannon Graybill (Rhodes College) entitled “Fuzzy, messy, icky: The edges of consent in biblical rape narratives and rape culture”. Graybill’s research brought feminist literature problematising the notion of consent to bear on biblical stories of sexual violence and rape, as well as the ways in which we as feminists read and respond to those stories. Graybill asked what a serious critique of consent means to a feminist biblical hermeneutic of sexual violence, and in response,  explored how feminists might engage with these texts beyond the position of mourning or recovering. We were thrilled to host Professor Graybill, and her insightful research has continued to be a point of discussion since the conference. We’re so excited to continue to work with Professor Graybill through The Shiloh Project.

After a break, there was a drinks reception where everyone was invited to view our research posters. Authors who were in attendance were invited to speak for one minute about their poster. Topics included: Consenting Adults? Faith formation’s less-than-immaculate conception of consent (Catherine Kennedy, University of Sheffield); Preaching Texts of Horror: How Christian Pastors teach about Dinah, the Levite’s Concubine, Tamar, and Potiphar’s Wife (Dr Valerie Hobbs, University of Sheffield); A Climate of Taboo: Trauma and the graphic novel Blankets (Hugo Ljungbäck, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee); Veils and ventriloquists: How do creative interpretations depict narratives of trauma for those who remain voiceless? (Lily Clifford, University of Brighton); “Life made no sense without a beating”: Religion and rape culture in US Girls’ In a Poem Unlimited (Liam Ball, University of Sheffield), and The girl needs some monster in her man: Rape Culture, cis-male allyship and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Ashley Darrow, Manchester Metropolitan University and Emma Nagouse, University of Sheffield).

What kept coming up in discussion was pedagogical questions on how these challenging topics should be taught in educational settings such as universities and colleges, but also in religious settings. It became clear that academics, teachers, practitioners, and activists alike all craved more tools when it comes to how to teach, research, and facilitate discussions around these urgent and important issues. Perhaps a topic for a future conference…? You can see some of the online interaction from the conference by searching for #ShilohConf18 on Twitter.

It was a powerful, energising and galvanising day – and, on a personal note, I was thrilled with the huge amount of interest we received from a cross-section of people from a wide variety of sectors and community groups, and the level of extremely positive and encouraging feedback we received from participants.

We would like to take this opportunity to extend our warmest thanks to WRoCAH for funding this much-needed conference. We look forward to continuing this important work and making the most of the inspiration, networks, and new friends which were made at our first conference.

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Book Review: Rape Culture, Gender Violence, & Religion: Biblical Perspectives

There are perks to contributing to a book: hence, I recently received, hot off the press, my own copy of Rape Culture, Gender Violence, & Religion: Biblical Perspectives. I have since read eagerly through all chapters, with an ever-growing sense that this is a particularly timely and relevant publication.

The volume is one of three, all edited by the formidable triumvirate of Caroline Blyth, Emily Colgan and Katie B. Edwards and published by Palgrave Macmillan in the Religion and Radicalism series. The other two volumes carry the subtitles Christian Perspectives and Interdisciplinary Perspectives and I look forward to reading these next.

General Comments

The editors explain that the three volumes grew out of pressure to explore ‘the complex and multifaceted relationships between rape culture, gender violence, and religion’ in a context where such investigation was ‘well overdue and therefore urgent’ (p.v). Finding themselves inundated with responses to their general call for chapters, the one volume initially envisaged became three. It is only too clear that rape culture manifestations and gender-based violence have reached epidemic levels in many and diverse settings across the globe. Indeed, it was during the editing stages that #MeToo hit the headlines, making this visible, certainly in popular and social media of the USA and UK but also well beyond.

The three volumes, while substantial, make no pretense of being exhaustive in their analysis of either rape culture, or gender violence, or religion, or of the dynamics between all three. The Biblical Perspectives volume does not offer a definition of rape culture, or provide a thorough commentary on the rape texts of the Bible. There are other books to consult for that.[1]

While the texts that tend to spring to mind first when hearing ‘rape’ and ‘Bible’ – such as Genesis 34 (‘The Rape of Dinah’), Judges 19 (‘The Rape of the Levite’s Wife’), and 2 Samuel 13 (‘The Rape of Tamar’) – are all discussed, there is also focus on texts that are less likely to come to mind (such as Numbers 31), or that do not seem to be explicitly about rape (such as Lamentations 3, Numbers 25 and the passages on the Virgin Mary in the New Testament). The chapters in this book stimulate conversations about a complex and many-sided topic, both by informing and by calling out for social justice advocacy.


Advocacy runs as a thread throughout the volume. Lu Skerratt speaks of their reading lenses as ‘modes of activism’ (p.18) and ‘conduits of social justice’ (p.22); Jessica Keady states that ‘we surely have a responsibility to contest these [rape] discourses, both in the biblical texts and within our own cultural locations’ (p.79); David Tombs writes that ‘a contemporary reader is entitled, indeed obliged, to consider the events in [the biblical] tradition from these [raped] women’s perspective’ (p.126); Emma Nagouse validates Lamentations 3 as a portrayal of male rape and as the first step in redressing victim-blaming, arguing that ‘such an interpretive strategy is invaluable, if not necessary, given our location as biblical readers and interpreters within a global rape culture’ (p.154); James Harding’s investigation of ancient texts is motivated by resistance to collusion with rape culture and homophobia; Susanne Scholz calls for feminist interpreters to go beyond ‘a “cop-out” hermeneutics’ (p.181) and to embrace ‘exegetical resistance’ to the ‘marginalizing patterns of violence, including gendered violence, so pervasive in the world today’ (p.194); and Emily Colgan and Caroline Blyth insist on the ‘importance of persisting – and persisting and persisting – with … tough conversations’ (p.26). Reading this book is not a quiet or private experience – it tickles the conscience, seizes attention, inspires to activism.

I see why the book will not please everyone in biblical studies. (Unanimity of any kind would, indeed, be improbable in such a divided discipline.) First, as already stated, this is not and does not pretend to be a thorough or systematic exploration of biblical texts about rape. Instead, it is a collection centred around the Bible and gendered violence in which every chapter throws a surprise into the mix by interfacing biblical texts with things from contemporary worlds: such as films and television shows, empirical research from Indonesia, newspaper reports of a forced marriage in Wales, or Title IX. Secondly, while there is certainly close reading of biblical texts and some focus on Hebrew vocabulary, ancient translations and possible original contexts (notably, Harding’s contribution) many of the traditional preoccupations, such as with date of composition, identification of Sitz im Leben, or evidence of redaction, for instance, are played down, or absent. And thirdly, not all contributors are academics and some are academics choosing to channel creative interpretive expression (notably, Klangwisan). The result is a stimulating fizz that makes the Bible a shape-shifting text, both relevant in a complex and media-inundated now-ness and a means to illuminate disturbing realities of both past and present.

Reviewing the Chapters

The succinct introduction by the volume’s editors makes the case that the Bible, being both sacred and violent, needs to be held accountable. Undeniably, its ‘articulations of gender violence have accrued significant authority and power across space and time’ (p.2) and this authority and power apply not only to its canonical force in Jewish and Christian congregations but also to influence exerted on ‘contemporary social discourses that (implicitly or explicitly) draw upon the ideologies inherent within biblical texts to justify multiple forms of gender violence’ (p.2).

Not to probe and resist this authority, power and influence runs the risk of colluding in, perpetuating, justifying or legitimating gender-based violence. The charge that such an exercise is ‘anachronistic’ and therefore insufficient in terms of ‘epistemological rigour’ (p.4) is rejected – and I applaud this. Let me dwell briefly on the fact that the charge of ‘anachronism’ is quite common – especially when it comes to methods of biblical criticism that reveal and challenge ideologies. Such charges are made, for instance, by certain conservative theological commentators and are usually targeted at something they reject: feminism is a prominent contender. (The application of Christological interpretation to the Hebrew Bible, on the other hand, is not acknowledged as anachronism by these same commentators.) By labeling feminist interpretation of the Bible as ‘anachronistic’ and arguing that people of antiquity had no awareness of the preoccupations of modern feminism, feminism is dismissed as irrelevant and ‘unbiblical’ (and therefore as ‘not good’), while, conversely, non-feminist ideological values, including some responsible for keeping women oppressed, are promoted. This is one way of relegating domestic duties and childrearing to women (‘because that is what the Bible promotes’), and at the same time rejecting ‘feminist ideas’ about women joining the workforce and enjoying equal rights in terms of work conditions and pay. One example of very many making this this kind of argument is by husband and wife A. J. and M. E. Köstenberger[2] who characterize feminist critics as completely wrongheaded. Their publications promote the belief that the Bible advocates that men and women each have a ‘unique yet equally significant and indispensable set of roles in the family and the church’  – an example of the ‘different but equal’ fallacy. The perspective of biblical critics who resist such is that certain biblical texts provide cause for challenging gendered depictions or ideologies that are discriminatory – a challenge that feminist or gender criticism[3] is aptly equipped to make.

The contributions in this volume offer and defend engagements with biblical texts that are both critical and creative. Moreover, the contributions maintain a steady focus on the present, because there is (sadly) nothing outdated or anachronistic about gender-based violence.

Both Lu Skerratt and Emma Nagouse focus on the book of Lamentations. Lamentations is a short, poetic book of the Hebrew Bible, depicting in graphic terms the brutalities attending the Fall of Jerusalem. Nagouse’s focus is concentrated on the Man of Sorrows (Lamentations 3) whom she counter-points with Jamie Fraser of the television series Outlander, with particular focus on what she identifies as the shared theme of male-male rape. Skerratt focuses on the feminine metaphor of abused Daughter Zion and on ‘shared themes, characters and discourses’ (p.15) with the novel Push and its film adaptation Precious. Skerratt co-opts the masculine imagery of Lamentations 3 alongside the feminine imagery to make a case for the book’s brutal and divinely administered misogyny (p.21). Both chapters offer examples of how modern literature and filmic adaptations illuminate and reveal affinities with biblical texts. Both chapters are open, too, about a personal and subjective filter.

Skerratt argues that for all their separation in terms of space and time both Daughter Zion and Precious are females whose bodies are inscribed with ‘multiple inequalities’ (p.24). For Skerratt there exists between them ‘a deep connection to the nuances of human life in times of great despair and crisis’ (p.27). Skerratt also maintains that through watching Precious – an unrelenting and harrowing film about all of child abuse, incest, poverty, teenage pregnancy, disability, social marginalization, racism and HIV – compassion can be extended also to the nameless women of Lamentations and others of the past and present who suffer like them (p.23). This, in turn, Skerratt advocates, will provide a rallying call for bringing about change. That this is personal for them is clear throughout Skerratt’s paper. The chapter’s opening sentence identifies Lamentations as a biblical book that affects Skerratt profoundly and they wonder openly whether the book’s emphasis on ‘the marginalized, oppressed, violated, and othered’ (p.14) is what attracts them to it.

Nagouse describes watching the Outlander episode that depicts unflinchingly Captain Jack Randall’s rape of Jamie Fraser as ‘deeply thought-provoking’ and a catalyst for considering ‘the biblical tradition with fresh eyes’ (p.144). Nagouse, moreover, feels compelled to explore and understand connections between the two due to her location as reader and interpreter ‘within a global rape culture’ (p.154). Nagouse is careful to state that she cannot know the intention of the author of Lamentations 3, including whether the purpose of the pericope is to portray suffering in terms of the experience of rape. Her exploration yields a number of astute observations, including that what the Man of Sorrows witnesses (namely the rape of women) may provide insight into what he himself has experienced (p.152) and also that suffering brutality can generate not only revulsion and horror towards the perpetrator but also a sense of dependency, even attachment (p.154).

In different ways Skerratt and Nagouse both demonstrate that reading and interpreting biblical texts, including texts of sexual violence, do not happen in a vacuum but in a richly inter-textual context. Both, moreover, have been led by the vivid and brutal imagery of Lamentations, in conjunction with representations of violence from modern media, to appropriate, explore and empathize with those who have suffered trauma outside of their own experience. Hence, Skerratt is moved ‘to stand with BME women in the United States who are disproportionally affected and stigmatized for having an HIV-positive status’ (p.22) and Nagouse compels us to listen to and to believe male victims of rape so that the cycle of trauma and re-traumatization can begin to be dismantled (p.155).

David Tombs also uses popular culture media to attempt to gain insight into ancient texts of sexual violence. Tombs explores the popular youth television series 13 Reasons Why, as well the book by Jay Asher on which it is based. (For an earlier version of his chapter, see here). The plot of both book and series centres on the character Hannah Baker who has committed suicide – or, more accurately, on the tape recordings recounting the reasons for her suicide. The biblical text with which Tombs interfaces some of these reasons – namely, Hannah’s rape by Bryce Walker, the possible collusion of Hannah’s ‘friend’ Courtney Crimsen and the inadequate response of the school guidance counselor when Hannah tries to tell him what happened – is from the David story in 2 Samuel. The story element, which cursorily recounts the fate of David’s ten concubines who are raped by Absalom in a display of his power, is not well known. While 13 Reasons Why gives extensive insight into Hannah’s interior life, the concubines’ perspective receives no mention in the biblical text (p.126). Tombs’ reading strategy is particularly deft because his dialogic approach allows the biblical text and Hannah’s experience ‘to speak to and illuminate each other… reveal[ing] how they each attest to the devastating impact of gender violence on victims’ lives and identities’ (p.119). In doing so, Tombs makes revealing insights about both Courtney Crimsen’s and King David’s complicity in tacit acts of ‘sexual “offering” motivated by… self-interest’ (p.131). Tombs also points out how important it is to name not only Hannah’s but also the concubines’ experience as rape (p.134, n.8) and to make efforts to identify and understand the perspectives of the marginal and victimized (p.126). Without such efforts, Tombs warns, churches and other religious communities might reinforce ‘the stigmatization and discrimination felt by survivors of sexual violence’ (p.127).

Interestingly, all of Skerratt, Nagouse and Tombs practise a form of appropriation in that they each use biblical texts alongside (arguably) more accessible contemporary popular media to gain insight and empathy and to speak out for persons or groups very different to themselves. In Skerratt’s case, it is HIV-positive BME women in the USA; in Nagouse’s, it is victims of male-male rape, and in Tombs’, it is young and suicidal female victims of rape. The word ‘appropriation’ has – with justification – had some bad press: such as in the sense of cultural appropriation, for instance.  In all three cases here, however, what is going on is not some form of impersonation or voyeurism but a passionate effort to resist damaging political or cultural control and domination.[4]

I will not say much about my chapter in the volume – because it always feels weird to review one’s own writing. Suffice it to say that my chapter, too, interprets select biblical texts alongside portrayals from popular culture, with particular emphasis on eroticized brother-sister relations. The chapter grew out from research for my most recent monograph on first-degree incest and the Hebrew Bible (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016)

The chapter by James Harding examines a number of biblical texts – including Judges 19–21 and Numbers 31 – in order to probe contexts of both antiquity and modernity that make homophobia and rape culture possible. Harding is a scholar I particularly admire – both for his formidable breadth of knowledge and the thoroughness of his scholarship. This chapter amply demonstrates both. Harding, as ever, proceeds cautiously, ‘always alert to the manifold risks of anachronism and trans-cultural misprision’ (p.169), and illustrates how rape culture is ‘woven into the very identities’ of both the ‘narratives… canonised and scripturalised in the Hebrew Bible’ and the ‘literary heritage of the Graeco-Roman’ world. Both, he points out, have ‘played a complex and variegated role in shaping the cultures and intellectual history of Western Europe, and, by extension, those cultures that have fallen under their spell’ (p.160).

Harding’s examination is nuanced and carefully contextualized, paying close attention also to significant items of vocabulary. He illustrates that a narrative like Judges 21 ‘invests a particular sort of rape – of virgin girls in a war of sacral revenge – with the odour of sanctity and religious obedience, and this odour of sanctity and obedience is profoundly gendered’ (p.166). Alongside identifying masculine domination of women, Harding also demonstrates ‘the ingrained homophobia of the societies implied by the texts’ (p.167). He is careful to stress that such passages as Genesis 19:1-11 and Judges 19:22-30 (where male-male rape is threatened) have ‘nothing to do with “homosexuality” or “homosexual” rape, but everything to do with an ancient form of homophobia grounded in an implicit understanding of sex as a matter of the sexually mediated power of men over women, and over other men’ (p.167). Harding ends his chapter with a question: ‘If, as readers, we are prepared to collude in [projecting our own dark lies on to others], should we not at the same time ask ourselves with honesty how our own beliefs, thoughts, and acts enable all manner of gender-based violence to thrive?’ (p.169). Harding’s acute dissection of words, literary and social settings, values and projections is powerful in its demonstration of how deeply rooted and pervasive sexual violence is.

The chapter by Yael Klangwisan is strikingly original and, like Harding’s, haunting – though in a different way. Whereas Harding’s method is one of going deep down into the text, peeling back its layers and turning its words and depictions this way and that, Klangwisan uses the biblical text as her starting point to build up a new imagining. She begins by citing the short text of focus: Numbers 25:8, 14-15, describing how Phinehas the priest impales Zimri and Cozbi. This may not be the first text that springs to mind when picking up a book on ‘rape culture and the Bible’ but it is certainly a text about violence and sex. Klangwisan follows scholar Helena Zlotnick Sivan in interpreting Phinehas’s actions ‘as a rape that delegitimizes Cozbi’s relationship with Zimri “to a level of arbitrary passion”’ (p.113, n.3). She also describes the spear as ‘like an iron phallus’ (p.109). Klangwisan puts herself firmly into the chapter, following the quoted biblical text with a statement of immediacy: ‘I’ll be honest with you. I want to save them’ (p.103). In this way, the distance between biblical text, the chapter’s author and the reader is broken down. Next, Klangwisan vividly evokes the events of the text, weaving through, like a commentary, the voices of Roland Barthes and Hélène Cixous. The chapter makes the reader imagine the ‘miasma of horror’ (p.109) described in the text – something they may not have done at the outset when casting eyes across a short few biblical verses. Re-read with Klangwisan’s illumination, the text becomes ‘a violation of a kind of love that might have, had it lived, overcome cultural difference’ and the names of Zimri and Cozbi become ‘like a gift at the end of this text’ (p.109). Like Tombs but using a different strategy, Klangwisan insists on validating and not shrouding that a terrible and violent act has been committed. Also like Tombs, she insists on us imagining the scene and probing its multiple perspectives and its characters’ motivations. I am looking forward to using this chapter by Klangwisan in the classroom, as a way to make biblical texts – which can strike modern readers as remote and inaccessible – more immediate and more vivid.

The chapters by Julie Kelso and Susanne Scholz both offer surveys on topics pertinent to rape culture, sexual violence and the Bible. Kelso [5] focuses on the important work on the relationship between biblical texts and violence against women by Andrea Dworkin. As Kelso points out, Dworkin’s contribution has been unfairly sidelined, as well as misrepresented and maligned as ‘sex-negative’. In no small part, Kelso illustrates, this has been because she is an outspoken woman. Dworkin’s articulation that sexual intercourse plays a significant role in male-dominated and male-supremacist societies through its contribution to women’s ‘erosion of the self and the compliant acceptance of lower status’ (p.84) is not easy to hear. As Kelso makes clear, Dworkin has never said all intercourse is rape – for all the claims to the contrary in mainstream media and cyberspace (p.84). Moreover, a number of men (Kelso quotes Leo Tolstoy as one example) have also argued that intercourse ‘makes exploiters of men and slaves of women’ (p.91) – but they (tellingly) are not consequently labeled ‘sex-negative’. Kelso’s bleak conclusion is that Dworkin’s call to recognize certain biblical texts (such as Genesis 2:4-4:1 and the Leviticus sexuality laws) as a means to institutionalize and sacralize intercourse for the purpose of male domination remains relevant, even urgent (p.98). Kelso is absolutely right that Dworkin’s work on the interpretation of biblical texts has receded into the remote peripheries of biblical studies. Kelso’s case for redressing this situation and depicting accurately what Dworkin does and does not say is persuasive.

Scholz’s chapter begins with the statement issued by the US Office for Civil Rights in April 2011, which explains that under Title IX of the US Education Amendments it is an obligation to eliminate sexual harassment and sexual violence. This leads to her personal observation that academia demonstrates ‘general reticence’ in the face of sexual violence (p.181). Scholz next turns to biblical scholarship, which she criticizes for being ‘consistently in the position of catching up with socio-cultural, political, and intellectual developments’ (p.190). Scholz calls for going beyond a ‘“cop-out” hermeneutics’ (p.181), such as by better connecting ‘gender, race, and class to explain the pervasiveness of rape’ (p.184). Alongside this rallying call to action (and such calls are something of a hallmark of this volume), Scholz also provides a succinct summary of feminist theories on rape, beginning with Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Women, Men, and Rape (1975), before providing a survey of feminist scholarship on biblical rape texts. Confirming her statement about a ‘catch-up’ tendency, Scholz points out that the first feminist exegetical study on sexual violence in the Bible did not appear until 1984: namely, Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. From here, Scholz follows the trickle onwards to the work of J. Cheryl Exum (‘Raped by the Pen’, in Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives, 1993) and Renita J. Weems (Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets, 1995), towards the flood of studies since 2000, which includes alongside Scholz’s own works, those of Gerlinde Baumann, Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, Cheryl Anderson, Mary Anna Bader, Hilary B. Lipka, Joy A. Schroeder, Carleen Mandolfo, Frank M. Yamada and Caroline Blyth.

Scholz also calls out for more boldness, such as for greater emphasis on socially located readings of the Bible. Especially when it comes to a topic like sexual violence, what she characterizes as adherence to ‘principles of a scientific-empiricist epistemology’ (p.190) can have the effect of minimizing and obfuscating ‘the violent and coercive nature of rape’ (p.192). Scholz adds that such happens particularly prominently among white feminist interpreters (p.191). Coming back to the Title IX statement, Scholz also demands greater boldness on the meta-level – that is, for more in-depth attention to method and methodology in the discipline of feminist biblical studies, including in terms of understanding biblical rape texts ‘as sites of struggle over meaning-making, authorization, and power’ (p.193). Both Kelso and Scholz bring attention back to the process and to the responsibility of doing feminist interpretation of biblical rape texts. As such they complement well the volume’s chapters that engage in such processes.

Teguh Wijaya Mulya and Jessica M. Keady both respond to biblical texts in the light of direct encounters with contemporary expressions of sexual violence. Wijaya Mulya recounts how his queering reflections on the virgin/whore binary were set in motion during an interview with young Indonesian Christians to find out more about understandings of sexual violence. One 18-year-old male participant he quotes describes how as a young teenager he groped a young woman as a ‘prank’, which he self-designated as ‘naughty’. This act of harassment is not only mitigated but also justified by him, with the statement that the girl was a ‘cheap girl’ – that is, a girl presumed no longer to be a virgin (p.52). From here, Wijaya Mulya expounds how tenuous the binary of virgin/whore is, citing not only hybrid counter-examples such as Ezili, who is portrayed as both promiscuous/flamboyant, and as Black Madonna (p.58), merging whore and virgin imagery, but also the presence of Mary in a genealogy of sexualized women (Matthew 1). In a number of ways, as Wijaya Mulya illustrates, ‘virgin’ and ‘whore’ are not poles apart but have overlapping characteristics, including a shared focus on sexuality. Moreover, not only the whore or ‘cheap girl’ is vulnerable to sexual violence, but so is the virgin: hence, the source of Mary’s pregnancy ‘conveys nuances of attacking, overtaking, overshadowing, and enveloping’. Wijaya Mulyah expands on this as follows: ‘[Mary] is essentially told that something will do some thing to her, with the result that she will get pregnant. Most importantly, the angel does not ask for her consent’ (p.57). Like other authors in the volume, Wijaya Mulyah hopes his analysis will have positive ramifications in lived life. His wish is for resistance to ‘normalization of sexual violence in this context and elsewhere’, so that through demonstrating ‘that the notion of violence as a “logical consequence” for women located by others in the “whore” category becomes both unintelligible and unacceptable’ (p.62).

Lamentably, Wijaya Mulyah’s contribution is the only one in the volume focused on New Testament (rather than Hebrew Bible) texts. As Meredith Warren and others writing for the Shiloh Project blog have demonstrated, the New Testament is far from immune from the taint of rape culture.

Keady’s examination of biblical and contemporary conceptions of gendered violence and purity discourses uses Genesis 34 as its pivot. (For Keady’s earlier and shorter version, see here.) Keady defends the dominant feminist position that Genesis 34 recounts Shechem’s rape of Dinah, refuting the minority of scholars who argue that there is no evidence of either coercion or violence (p.75). Keady also maintains that some of the disturbing subtexts in both the biblical text itself (e.g. the notion that the rape defiles and cheapens Dinah, p.77) and in interpretations of Genesis 34 (e.g. that Shechem’s soul is drawn to Dinah and that he speaks tenderly to her suggests a romance and refutes that this is a narrative of rape, p.75–76) persist into the present.

For one example of evidence Keady refers to a recent case brought before the court in Cardiff (2015) concerning a man who raped a woman and then forced her to marry him. As Keady points out, not only the man’s method of coercion (he threatened to release camera footage of the rape victim naked in the shower with a view to destroying her prospects of marriage, because she was ‘damaged goods’) but also both the judge’s summing up and the journalist’s recounting of events demonstrate what Keady characterizes as a persistent form of ‘purity culture ideology’. This ideology includes the projection of an impression that the woman, no longer a virgin, ‘is reduced to something less valuable, an impure, damaged body that “no one would want”’ (p.70).

For Keady, to ignore or downplay problematic, such as misogynistic, discourses of the Bible risks re-encoding oppression in the present. Whereas Klangwisan, through imaginative enhancement, demonstrates this by not letting the sparseness of a violent biblical text get away with its violence, Keady, like Harding, makes clear that what is toxic and present in the ancient text has not gone away and must be fervently resisted.

The final chapter of the volume is by two of its editors, Emily Colgan and Caroline Blyth. I particularly like this chapter, on teaching in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand, because it reminds me that biblical gender violence is a topic of conversation for a diverse range of public spaces, including the classroom. The chapter is concise and manages to distil a great number of important points in very few pages. Colgan and Blyth point out that while there are shocking texts in the Bible and while this may surprise even students of faith who consider themselves well versed in Scripture, it is important to engage critically with these texts. While I, probably like Colgan and Blyth too, have been accused in student evaluations of dwelling too much on texts that are ‘controversial’, ‘overtly sexual’, or ‘graphic’ (as if I had put them there myself for some nefarious Christian-dissing purpose), discussing such texts is not about an ‘intention to shock or antagonize… or to provide… the classroom with the equivalent of clickbait’ (p.202). Instead, we teach these texts because they are in the Bible, part of a canonized whole.

As Colgan and Blyth point out, the Bible (or religion framed more widely) may not be the sole or greatest cause of gender violence in either Aotearoa New Zealand or elsewhere but it is a text that ‘both supports and perpetuates violence’ and to ignore this is ‘to contribute to the harm experienced by countless victims’ (p.203). Colgan and Blyth point not only to the problems in the texts, which ‘continue to have power in contemporary communities to sustain rape-supportive discourses’ but also to the difficulties of discussing such texts critically and with integrity in a classroom that may well include either or both persons ‘affected personally by gender violence’ (p.203) and persons ‘who participate in the social structures that sustain gender violence’ (p.204). They raise a set of complex questions: ‘How do we critique rape culture and gender violence, when these are recognized by some of our students as being so closely aligned with their own cultural identities? How do we challenge the unacceptable violence of patriarchy and misogyny while still being sensitive to our students’ investment in their cultural traditions? To what extent can we invite students to critique the traditional underpinnings of their own cultures, particularly when we ourselves do not belong to these cultures?’ (p.205).

By raising these matters Colgan and Blyth throw into relief both the enduring relevance and influence of biblical texts and the important and difficult task of interpreting them in the complex and diverse and globalized contemporary world. This volume provides impetus, motivation, tools and strategies for getting started on this endeavour. I hope this volume gets the big and diverse circulation, engaged readership and active responsiveness to the call for more ‘tough conversations’ (p.10) it so thoroughly deserves.


In numerous ways this volume shows that a Bible scholar’s interpretation is shaped by encounters and experiences in life. Who we are, what and whom we experience become enmeshed in reading, interacting, idea-shaping, researching. The films and television we watch (Skerratt, Stiebert, Tombs, Nagouse) infiltrate our interpretation, as do the people we interview (Wijaya Mulya), the students we teach (Colgan, Blyth), the newspaper articles on court cases or Title IX we scan (maybe on the bus to work) (Keady, Scholz), or the casual prejudices we encounter, such as when male-male rape is characterized as ‘homosexual’ (Harding). Our imagination, shaped by the various exchanges and transactions of life, flow into our reading of biblical texts (Klangwisan) and influence the way we reflect on interpretations, and interpretations of interpretations (!) of the past (Kelso, Scholz). As Scholz argues, especially with a topic such as sexual violence, any notion of critical distance is not only difficult but also potentially highly problematic – hence, the passionate and often explicitly personal level of engagement in this volume.

This past year I have been based in Bamberg, a University town in a part of Bavaria that prefers to distinguish itself as a distinct region called Franconia. It has been a joy to immerse myself in a new academic context and I was delighted to accept an invitation to present my most recent work in the form of an open lecture. The topic – Potiphar’s wife’s harassment of Joseph and her false allegation of rape – is relevant to the Shiloh Project and I have reported on it here. My talk took a close look at Genesis 39 and at how it has been interpreted, both in biblical scholarship and in film and visual art. It also examined how the stereotypes of oversexed ‘foreign’ women, of untrustworthy women crying rape, either for attention, or because they don’t get their way, and of the man as sexual object being ipso facto feminized, play out in the current climate of #MeToo.

While talking, I kept noticing a man sitting near the front who looked very disgruntled. He made some exasperated noises and leafed energetically in his Bible, so that I could not help but be aware of him. When it came to time for questions, the man spoke up. He didn’t really ask a question. Instead he stated that my approach was not responsible, because I was not reading the story in its historical setting. I countered by saying first, that the precise historical context is difficult to salvage, not least because the story has probably been edited over and modified throughout a considerable space of time and secondly, that while an ancient text, the story continues to be read and sought out in present time and that the contemporary interpretive context has bearing on how Genesis 39 is read.

Afterwards I learned that the disgruntled questioner was none other than Professor Doktor Klaus Bieberstein, the University’s Professor for Old Testament Studies whom I had not met before. (I have been working while here on the Bible in Africa Studies series, ‘BiAS’, which is led by Joachim Kügler, Chair of New Testament Studies.) I felt unhappy about the lack of an opportunity to talk a little further with the Professor – there was no opportunity after the lecture – so I sent him an email and we arranged to meet for coffee.

Professor Bieberstein was very happy to talk about his research and considerable range of expertise. He has worked on creation stories, on theodicy and on the impact of archaeology on interpretation of Joshua. What really lit up his somewhat stern face, however, was when he spoke of his research focused on Jerusalem and of the student trip he leads there most years. I began to warm to him a little as he spoke of his visits there and of the many sources he has consulted to get a sense of how Jerusalem was, is and has been remembered through time.

But then we turned to the topic of my work and my lecture. Professor Bieberstein made clear that he considers my work to be part of an undesirable tendency to interpret biblical texts without historical rootedness or awareness. I pointed out that I am trained in biblical languages and in the history of interpretation, that I consider such training valuable. I tried to express that I consider the study of the Bible a discipline with many rooms and approaches and that I respect his methods and scholarship. I also tried to convey that there is scope and value in approaches that emphasize the relevance and resonance of the Bible in the present. Professor Bieberstein did not express any openness to or accommodation of such approaches. So, the coffee meeting did not end on a particularly cheery note. I said goodbye – courteously enough, I hope, and walked away quite sure I would not hear back from the Professor. Indeed, I have not. I did find it a shame that in a smallish town with two Hebrew Bible academics in it we could not get along better. But my feeling was that respect did not flow in two directions: I was able to admire and see value in his work but he could not in mine. So be it.


The reason I mention this encounter is that it makes clear to me that there is quite likely to be not just among students (as Colgan and Blyth identify, p.205) but also among biblical scholars some resistance and even refusal to engage with this volume. Not everyone will consider all or any of the contributions serious and edifying scholarship. Their loss.



[1] For a clear discussion of rape culture, one good source is the first two chapters (‘Rape Culture: The Evolution of a Concept’ and ‘The Mainstreaming of Rape Culture’) in Nickie D. Phillips’ monograph Beyond Blurred Lines: Rape Culture in Popular Media (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). For a book-length examination of rape in the Hebrew Bible, see Susanne Scholz’s Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible (Fortress Press, 2010).

[2] Their book God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey (Crossway Books, 2014) offers plenty of evidence for this stance.

[3] Neither feminist nor gender criticism is univocal but both draw attention to and resist gender-based discrimination and prejudice. For a nuanced and full discussion on both and on the distinctions between them, as well as for an application of robust gender criticism to biblical texts, see Deryn Guest, Beyond Feminist Biblical Studies (Phoenix, 2012).

[4] For a succinct and subtle examination of appropriation I recommend Adriaan van Klinken, ‘Response: The Politics of Appropriation’, in J. Stiebert and M. W. Dube (eds), The Bible, Centres and Margins: Dialogues between Postcolonial African and British Biblical Scholars (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2018), pp.147–51.

[5] An earlier and longer version of Kelso’s chapter is ‘The Institution of Intercourse: Andrea Dworkin on the Biblical Foundations of Violence Against Women’, The Bible and Critical Theory 12/2 (2016): 24–40. This paper is available online here.

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