Religion and rape

Why didn’t the Levite’s concubine—that is, his pilegesh—scream?

The Death of the Levite’s Concubine

James E. Harding

University of Otago

Why didn’t the Levite’s concubine—that is, his pilegesh—scream?[1]

A few weeks ago, I visited the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. As I wandered through the maze of rooms in this treasure trove of European painting, I came across a work by the seventeenth century Dutch artist Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621-1674) entitled “The Fieldworker of Gibeah offers Lodging to the Levite and his Concubine” (Der Feldarbeiter von Gibea bietet dem Levit und seinem Kebsweib Unterkunft). Eeckhout was a pupil of Rembrandt, whose far more famous work “Moses with the Tablets of the Law” (Moses mit den Gesetzestafeln) hangs just a few footsteps away.

It was not some particular detail or quality of Eeckhout’s painting that caught my attention, so much as the sheer fact of it. I had never seen any part of the story of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19:1-30) represented in art before. The scene is the moment when the fieldworker, an old man from Ephraim who is living as a sojourner in Gibeah, part of the tribal patrimony of Benjamin, speaks to the Levite and his concubine and offers them the hospitality of his home, while warning them against spending the night in the town square (Judges 19:20). It is difficult to know what someone who knew nothing of the biblical story might make of it, but knowing the details of the narrative in Judges lent the painting a distinct yet subtle sense of foreboding. None of the figures in the scene looks at the viewer. The Levite looks at the fieldworker, while gesturing towards his female companion who, seated and weary from the journey, also looks towards the fieldworker. In the background, a tired and visibly bored young boy leans on their donkey and gazes, like his older companions, at the old man. Leaning on his spade, the fieldworker looks towards the Levite, and although turned slightly away from the viewer, his gaze and hand gesture seem to convey a sense of warning. Hanging from his belt is a large bunch of keys, perhaps to keep his house locked against the violent men of the town. And a knife: is it for work only, or must it double as a weapon for self-defence?

Although the story of the Levite’s concubine is an unusual subject, Eeckhout’s painting is not unique. The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg holds a work by another painter of the Dutch Golden Age, Willem Bartsius (ca. 1612-after 1639), entitled “The Death of the Levite’s Concubine.” Here, the Levite has opened the doors of the house to find his concubine lying senseless on the step (Judges 19:27). He stares at her in shock, while an old man—presumably his host—sits desolate in the shadows behind him (unless I have misidentified the men, and it is the host who is staring at the dead woman in shock, but the wording of the biblical text would suggest I have identified them accurately). Again, I wonder what someone unfamiliar with the biblical story might make of the scene. Would they know the woman has been raped? Perhaps the artist could safely assume that his viewers would know the story, and would therefore instantly recognise what had happened to the woman, but we might then ask how they were accustomed to interpreting the text. With whom would they have sympathised? With the woman, the Levite, the host? I must confess that, knowing the Hebrew text well before ever having heard of this painting, I find the Levite’s visible shock a little jarring. For in the biblical account, he shows no apparent emotion at all. “‘Get up,’ he said to her, ‘we are going.’ But there was no answer. Then he put her on his donkey; and the man set out for his home …” (Judges 19:28 NRSV).

One might, indeed, wonder what the Levite was expecting. After all, he had thrown her out to the men of Gibeah in the first place (Judges 19:25), after the host had begged them not to rape his male guest (Judges 19:23), offering his own virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine instead (Judges 19:24) (incidentally, what did become of the old man’s daughter?). At any rate, it seems that the Levite and his host assume she is dead, as, apparently, did Willem Bartsius.

This is certainly the most common way of reading the story. After all, when the Levite addresses the Israelites gathered before the LORD at Mizpah, he tells them that, “The lords of Gibeah rose up against me, and surrounded the house at night. They intended to kill me, and they raped my concubine until she died” (Judges 20:5 NRSV). The Levite’s word tends to be taken at face value, not only by the other characters in the story, but by later readers, both within and without the guild of biblical scholars. To take but one example, the brief summary of the story in Heinrich Krauss and Eva Uthemann, Was Bilder erzählen, tells us that, after being handed over by the Levite, “the next morning she lay dead in front of the door.”[2]

And it may indeed be the case that this is not only the most intuitive way of reading the biblical narrative, but also the one most faithful to the text. It may simply be that the author, for stylistic reasons, chose not to tell us explicitly in Judges 19:26-27 that the Levite’s concubine was dead. The author could have been avoiding redundancy, given that the Levite himself tells the Israelites gathered at Mizpah—and therefore indirectly tells us—that the men of Gibeah raped her until she died (though in point of fact the Hebrew text does not make absolutely explicit the causal link between her rape and her death, and so perhaps Robert Alter’s translation, always attentive to the stylistic subtleties of biblical narrative, may have it slightly better—“Me they thought to kill, and my concubine they raped, and she died”).[3] He—and I am assuming for the sake of argument that the author was male, though I have no firm evidence for this—may have been deliberately reticent in Judges 19:26-27, heightening the pathos of the scene by making the reader draw the most obvious conclusion from her battered and silent body, and incidentally making the Levite’s blunt statement to the Israelites in the next scene all the more stark. Alternatively, by making a distinction between what the Levite tells the Israelites and what the narrator tells us, the author could have been casting into relief the moral bankruptcy of what the Levite has done, and of how he reacted to the woman’s fate—I am leaving aside for the moment the question of the extent to which the Levite’s situation could have been so morally compromised as radically to restrict his freedom to choose what course of action to take, the implications of which are powerfully explored in an important essay by Katharina von Kellenbach[4]—perhaps even hinting that it was the Levite himself who was either the woman’s murderer, or at the very least indirectly responsible for her murder.

The conciseness of classical Hebrew narrative leaves a great deal of room for the reader to probe its gaps and ambiguities, in stark contrast with the instinct of modern philologists, translators, and commentators to explain everything, leaving the reader with almost nothing to do. As Alter comments in the introduction to his recent translation:

Literature in general, and the narrative prose of the Hebrew Bible in particular, cultivates certain profound and haunting enigmas, delights in leaving its audiences guessing about motives and connections, and, above all, loves to set ambiguities of word choice and image against one another in an endless interplay that resists neat resolution. In polar contrast, the impulse of the philologist is—here a barbarous term nicely catches the tenor of the activity—to ‘disambiguate’ the terms of the text. The general result when applied to translation is to reduce, simplify, and denature the Bible.

The problem, however, is that the enigmatic character of biblical narrative prose is such as to leave gaps and ambiguities that may be filled in ways that may be so at odds with the intention of the text (I will leave the putative intention of the author to one side for now) as radically to misrepresent it. Yet what does one do with a text that leaves such ambiguities and gaps?

Even if we cannot be absolutely sure whether a particular gap or ambiguity has been dealt with fairly or not, in view of the range of probabilities that might be inferred from a careful study of comparable ancient texts, we can perhaps learn quite a lot from the way that later readers and interpreters dealt with such ambiguities and gaps. What we learn, though, has at least as much to do with the presuppositions of those later interpreters and readers as with the text they are reading and interpreting. So we might well ask, just why do most readers of the story of the Levite’s concubine assume that she was dead when the Levite opened the doors of the house to find her lying there, silent?

As Phyllis Trible pointed out long ago in her famous exegesis of this passage, this assumption goes back at least as far as the ancient translators of the scriptures into Greek. Where the Hebrew tells us sparingly that “there was no answer” when the Levite ordered her to get up, the Greek of Codex Vaticanus tells us instead that, “she did not answer, for she was dead.” Thus Trible: “The Greek Bible says, ‘for she was dead,’ and hence makes the Benjaminites murderers as well as rapists and torturers. The Hebrew text, on the other hand, is silent, allowing the interpretation that this abused woman is yet alive.”[5] So when the Levite gets home and cuts his concubine up in order to send the twelve bloody chunks of her body to each of the tribes of Israel, could it be that he is also her murderer? Trible notes a suggestive and disturbing parallel here to the Aqedah, where Abraham raises a knife to his still living son Isaac (Genesis 22:10). She writes:

Does he intend to slay the concubine? Though the Greek Bible rules out such a possibility, the silence of the Hebrew text allows it. Moreover, the unique parallel to the action of Abraham encourages it. Perhaps the purpose in taking the knife, to slay the victim, is not specified here because indeed it does happen. The narrator, however, protects his protagonist through ambiguity.[6]

So we need at least to consider the possibility that the concubine was not, in fact, dead when the Levite found her, and that he was in the end more directly responsible for her death. How might this alter our reading of this text, and our moral response to this most brutalised of biblical characters?

In a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, written against the background not only of the Harvey Weinstein trial but also recent rape trials in the United Kingdom, Sonia Sodha raises some vital questions about how victims of sexual assault are expected to respond when they are attacked, in light of the range of responses survivors actually report. For some survivors, the instinctive response is, in effect, to freeze, a response that has been termed “tonic immobility” or “rape-induced paralysis,” or in Sodha’s words, “the evolutionary equivalent of playing dead.” This “freeze” response is a key part of Rape Crisis Scotland’s current public awareness campaign #ijustfroze, which aims to raise awareness of the variety of responses to sexual assault that survivors actually experience, and thereby to challenge popular misconceptions of how they can be expected to react. The neurobiology of sexual assault is not something that, to my knowledge, has yet been considered in any depth in the study of the fate of the Levite’s concubine. Perhaps it is time for this to change.

It may be instructive to compare the narrative in Judges with the laws in Deuteronomy that cover what we would now call rape (it is important to bear in mind both that there is no single word in the Hebrew of the Tanakh that corresponds to the English word “rape,” and that there are major social and cultural differences between our world and that of Iron Age Israel and Judah—but we need somehow to find a vocabulary that enables us to speak intelligently about both contexts, and to draw out the points of comparison and contrast between them).

There are two laws in Deuteronomy 22:23-27 that deal with the case of a virgin (betulah) whom a man has found and had sex with. In the first case, the man found the girl and had sex with her in a town. They are to be taken to the town gate and stoned to death, because on the one hand the girl did not cry for help, and on the other the man has committed the crime of adultery against another man. In the second case, the man comes upon the girl in the countryside, where no-one could hear her cries for help. The man alone should die, because even if the girl had cried for help, there was no-one to hear her screams.

A lot could be said about this passage, but for now let us look at what distinguishes the two cases. While one might, with some justification, say that the law at least does seem to recognise the distinct personhood of the girl—the acknowledgement that she may have cried for help in the second case suggests that she is not only regarded as a part or extension of her father’s property (contrast Exodus 22:15-16, which like Deuteronomy 22:28-29 is so worded as to exclude entirely the matter of the girl’s consent, making it impossible to tell how far the language of “rape” can be meaningfully applied, though in Deuteronomy 22:28-29 the man is admittedly said to have “seized” the girl rather than “seduced” her), or the property of the man who had paid the brideprice for her, and she does indeed seem to be given the benefit of any doubt there might have been as to whether she was in fact forced by the man to have sex—nonetheless the distinction between the two laws is significantly determined by the reaction of the girl to a man having sex with her. But why, in the first case, should anyone assume that the girl’s silence denoted her consent? What if the man had indeed forced her to have sex with him, entirely against her consent, and she simply froze due to the trauma of the assault?

My point here is that the way readers of biblical texts concerned with rape continue to interpret those texts may have more than a little to do with wider cultural assumptions about how victims and survivors are expected to react. Sodha makes the point that “the ‘freeze’ response can be appallingly mischaracterised as willing submission and plays into societal myths about what does and does not constitute rape and consent,” referring to the question posed by a defence barrister in a Belfast rape trial two years ago: “Why didn’t she scream?” (He continued: “[T]he house was occupied. There were a lot of middle-class [!] girls downstairs—they weren’t going to tolerate a rape or anything like that”).

Why didn’t the Levite’s concubine scream? Why didn’t she fight back? Why didn’t she try to escape?

The narrative in Judges in fact does not tell us whether she screamed, whether she fought back, or whether she tried to escape from her abusers. To be sure, the narrator tells us that she was abused by “the men of the city,” a gang of men, thus presumably severely limiting her ability to fight back or escape. And of course, we readers are at the mercy of an author who wrote the narrative in this particular way, adopting the persona of a putatively omniscient narrator, and so we are left to wonder, as we puzzle over the gaps and ambiguities, how she might have responded. But perhaps this narrative silence is significant for more than purely literary reasons, for could it not be that the narrative is, whether deliberately or not, drawing our attention to our own temptation to ask precisely the sorts of invasive and presumptuous questions of alleged victims of rape that Stuart Olding’s barrister wished the police had asked?

And then why, when she reached the house where “her master” was staying, did she simply fall at the door? Why did she not then at least cry out for help?

The usual interpretation would imply that she was so bruised and battered by her assault that she simply could not do anything else, could not even raise her voice to cry for help (compare perhaps Deuteronomy 22:24), and that if she was not dead when she fell at the door of the house, her physical trauma was such that she soon died.

It may, however, be worth bearing in mind that it was “her master” who threw her out to the mob in the first place, and his host who offered her, and his own daughter, to them to protect his male guest’s body, and therefore his honour. We also do not know much of the backstory. Why, for example, did the woman flee to her father’s house in the first place? Leaving aside for a moment the possibility suggested by Mieke Bal that the Levite had contracted a sort of marriage in which his wife ordinarily remained in her father’s house, could she have been trying to escape from an abusive partner? The Greek text of Codex Alexandrinus (perhaps preserving the Old Greek reading)[7] tells us she was “angry” with him, without telling us why, whereas the Masoretic Text seems to say she “prostituted herself against” (NRSV note) him, seemingly laying the blame for what happened on her (the precise meaning of the Hebrew in Judges 19:2 is admittedly not at all clear, a number of suggestions having been made to explain it).

It is sobering indeed to reflect on the possibility that, in the society that lies behind this narrative, far too many women may have stayed with violent husbands they were too afraid, or too restricted by the norms and customs of their clan and their society, to leave. It may, then, be worth considering the possibility that in addition to the trauma of a horrific sexual assault, she was now faced with the dread of returning to a house that contained men who had either surrendered her to violence, or offered to do so. Yet not only were they implicated in her assault, and not only may they themselves have been perpetrators of sexual violence, they were now her only source of protection.

So why didn’t the Levite’s concubine scream? Perhaps she did, and we, along with the Levite and his host, have closed our ears. Perhaps the narrator has simply closed our ears for us. Or perhaps she remained silent out of sheer terror, frozen between the horror of what she just endured, and what she might still be about to face from “her master.”

[1] There is some debate concerning the appropriateness of the English word “concubine” to translate the Hebrew noun pilegesh. J. Cheryl Exum, with some justification, prefers “wife,” since the term in this narrative seems to indicate a “legal wife of secondary rank” (Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives (JSOTSup, 163; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993), 177). The term “concubine,” by contrast, might lead the reader to regard her less sympathetically than they would a primary wife. Indeed, the usual interpretation of the Hebrew text of Judges 19:2 might even compound the problem by associating her with prostitution. Mieke Bal, furthermore, has suggested that pilegesh here indicates a wife who continues to dwell in her father’s house after marriage (Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 83-86), but even if that is the case here, it cannot apply to all biblical occurrences, and it may indeed be the case that the biblical corpus reflects an evolution in the meaning of the term. I have retained the term “concubine” here, despite its problems, because it has been so widely used, and in particular because it is used in the names of the paintings by Eeckhout and Bartsius (the Gemäldegalerie uses Kebsweib and the Hermitage uses nalozhnitsa, respectively). Elsewhere, in discussing this passage, I have left the term pilegesh untranslated in order to signal that the term is not fully understood (see my “Homophobia and Masculine Domination in Judges 19-21,” in The Bible & Critical Theory 12 (2016): 41-74; “Homophobia and Rape Culture in the Narratives of Early Israel,” in Rape Culture, Gender Violence, and Religion: Biblical Perspectives (ed. C. Blyth; E. Colgan, and K. B. Edwards; Religion and Radicalism; Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 159-178). I am assuming, however, that not all readers of this blog are conversant with Hebrew, and that to use the Hebrew term throughout might, in this context, be cumbersome and confusing. I hope that I may be forgiven, then, for continuing to use the term “concubine.”

[2] Heinrich Krauss and Eva Uthemann, Was Bilder erzählen: Die klassischen Geschichten aus Antike und Christentum (5th ed.; München: C. H. Beck, 1998), 218. A sixth edition was published in 2011, but I am quoting from the edition to which I have ready access.

[3] Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2019), 2:152.

[4] Katharina von Kellenbach, “Am I a Murderer? Judges 19-21 as a Parable of Meaningless Suffering,” in Strange Fire: Reading the Bible after the Holocaust (ed. T. Linafelt; The Biblical Seminar 71; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 176-191.

[5] Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Overtures to Biblical Theology, 13; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 79. Trible is partially drawing here on an earlier work by Robert Polzin, Moses and the Deuteronomist (New York: Seabury, 1980), 200-202.

[6] Trible, Texts of Terror, 80.

[7] Cf. Natalio Fernández Marcos (ed.), Judges (Biblia Hebraica Quinta, 7; Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2011), 53.

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UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 14 – Megan Robertson

Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?

My name is Megan Robertson and I have recently completed my PhD at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in South Africa. My doctoral research focused specifically on investigating how the lived experiences of queer clergy in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA) co-constitute the institutional cultures and politics of the Church. Since 2018 I have had the privilege of working at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice, at UWC. The Centre seeks to contextually, theoretically, and methodologically challenge asymmetrical systems of power. It thus allows me a space to research and teach in ways which bridges the false binary between academia and activism and places justice at the centre of the work I do.

How does your research or your work connect to activism?

The picture of me in this blog is taken in front of Church Street Methodist Church, the congregation which I was a member of until my late twenties. For me this is a site of my own identity negotiation and also the space which continues to drive the activism which is integral to my research. The church which I grew up in not only shaped my belief systems but perhaps more significantly provided me with a place to which I felt I belonged. As a teenager and young adult I became more involved in the broader provincial and national structures of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA) and thus more aware of how the Church which provided a ‘home’ for me was also deeply patriarchal, heteronormative, racially segregated and hierarchical. I was also quite actively involved in the Church at the time when a minister, Ecclesia de Lange, was excommunicated for declaring her intention to marry her same-sex partner. Therefore, for me, the church and religion became both a place of significant belonging as well as a space for a great deal of injustice. These experiences inspire my research which explores how different people navigate religious belonging and exclusion and indeed transform those spaces in positive ways.

In my research I incorporate activism by exploring how politics of belonging, body politics and politics of the domestic and erotic are evident in the narratives and experiences of queer clergy who occupy positions of power and marginality in the Church. I argue in my work that the MCSA’s internal conversations around the inclusion of women and same-sex marriage are too narrow to do justice to queer experiences of exclusion, discrimination and violence in the Church. For the MCSA and other denominations seeking to become truly inclusive of queer, women (and all other) members, bringing lived experience into conversation with institutional cultures in research sharpens understandings of how the church can indeed be a place of inclusivity instead of rejection. In my work I am also interested in the activism participants themselves are engaged in as they inhabit the norms of the institution. In a complex religious context where gender-sex identities are contested I found that participants engage in activism in relatively covert ways through living their domestic and erotic lives, embodying clerical and Methodist identity and through silence. In illuminating these subtle forms of activism, the political project of my research explores the possibilities that varied ways lived experience can trouble normative powers of race, class, gender and sexual orientation.

Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?

My fuel for doing research is activism. Before beginning my PhD and working in the Desmond Tutu Centre, I was disillusioned by academia and bought into the idea that dismantling social injustices and researching them were two separate tasks. However, I soon realised that the binary between activism and academia was a false and unhelpful one. It is my anger and frustration that continues to drive me to work towards a just and equitable society and it is in academia where I am able to make productive meaning of that anger and frustration.

Through the writing up of my dissertation, I have continued to be in conversation with some of the clergy who participated in my doctoral research. In these conversations we have begun to explore the ways in which my research findings can feed into the committees and activism work which they would like to pursue. Further, in my post-doctoral research I want to further explore the nature of queer activism in South Africa. My other passion is dance and theatre and I hope to explore the ways in which popular artists and performers in Cape Town interrogate the intersections of religion and sexuality on stage.



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#MeToo Jesus: Naming Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse




by Jayme Reaves and David Tombs

Since giving a Shiloh Project Lecture at SIIBS, the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies, in January 2018 we have been continuing our work on ‘#MeToo Jesus’. Our paper ‘#MeToo Jesus: Naming Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse’ has now appeared in the International Journal of Public Theology (December 2019) and is available on Open Access here. In the article we explore ways that recent readings of Jesus as victim of sexual violence/abuse might connect with #MeToo, and vice-versa. 

We start with Matthew 25:40, ‘You have done this to me too…’ as affirming a metaphorical connection between the experience of abuse survivors and the experience of Jesus. We then look beyond the metaphor, and discuss more literal and direct readings of Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse. We consider the work of David Tombs (1999), Elaine Heath (2011), Wil Gafney (2013), and Michael Trainor (2014), who each read Jesus as a victim of sexual violence and we note similarities in their work. The last part of the article tackles a question that we are sometimes asked about this reading, ‘Why does it matter?’ or ‘What good does this do?’. Exploring this question has been at the forefront of much of the work since the lecture, as part of the ‘When Did We See You Naked?’ project. We are particularly interested in how this reading might help to address the victim-blaming and victim-stigmatising which often accompany sexual violence. You can read more about the ‘When Did We See You Naked?’ project here, and listen to David’s interview (4 mins) with Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report (18 April 2019) here.

To examine this, we have been working with another colleague, Rocío Figueroa Alvear, at Good Shepherd College, Auckland (New Zealand). In 2018 Rocio interviewed a group of male sexual abuse survivors on their responses to naming Jesus as victim of sexual abuse. You can read the report on interviews with male survivors here. It is striking that this group of survivors were split on whether the reading is helpful for survivors, but they all agreed it was important for the church. 

Rocío and David are currently interviewing nuns and former nuns who have experienced sexual abuse. This has involved discussion of an abridged version of David’s article ‘Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Abuse’ (see here). The shorter version was first published in Estudos Teológicos in Portuguese, and is now available from the University of Otago also in English, Spanish, French and will soon be in German. We hope to share our findings from the interviews next year.


David and Rocio have also been part of a New Zealand group led by Emily Colgan, which includes Caroline Blyth and Lisa Spriggens. We are developing a tool-kit for use in churches on understanding sexual violence. It was really good to pilot some of the resources in November at a workshop with Anglican clergy and church leaders in Auckland.

During 2019, David has also had a research grant to work with Gerald West, Charlene van der Walt, and the Ujamaa Community at the University of KwaZulu-Natal on a contextual bible study on Matthew 27:26-31. This looks at how the stripping and mockery of Jesus might be read as sexual violence in a South African context. It has been interesting to see the difference that translation can make to responses, and to hear from students how the bible study was received when they used it.

Jayme Reaves has been leading workshops with church groups, activists, and clergy both in the United States and in the United Kingdom.  While these workshops are not aimed at victims/survivors of sexual abuse, they are facilitated sensitively with the understanding that there are no guarantees as to who is in the room. Building on this work and on the workshops conducted by Rocío and David elsewhere, Jayme is forming plans for a potential project in Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia and is currently seeking funding and local partners that will expand the work in two areas: working directly with victims of sexual violence in conflict contexts and their support networks, and building in an ecumenical and interfaith dimension with a view to developing a faith-based resource towards addressing the stigmatisation of victims of sexual violence.

Looking ahead, we are excited to have two books in preparation. The three of us (Jayme, Rocío and David) are co-editors for the book When Did We See You Naked?’: Acknowledging Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse with SCM Press (forthcoming in 2021). We are delighted to be working with a fantastic group of international scholars on this collection. Meanwhile, David is writing for the Routledge Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible Series on The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross, for publication in 2020.

To promote further discussion of #MeToo issues, Jeremy Punt (Stellenbosch University) is planning a session on ‘#MeToo and Jesus’ in the Political Biblical Criticism Session (see here) at the 2020 International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Adelaide, Australia (5-9 July 2020, see here). The Call for Papers is here and still open until 29 January 2020. We plan to be part of the conversation. If you are going and interested, why not send Jeremy a proposal? Or come along and join the discussion: we would love to hear what you think. 

David is also looking forward to seeing Shiloh colleagues and others in Dunedin in August 2020. The New Zealand Association for the Study of Religions (NZASR) are hosting the 22nd Quinquennial World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR). Colleagues in the University of Otago Religion programme have been working hard on all the organisation. It promises to be a great conference in a beautiful setting, so why not plan to come to Otago in 2020?

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Professor Johanna Stiebert Inaugural Lecture: “Why I Love Studying the Bible even though (and because) It’s Perverse”.

On 10 October 2019, Johanna Stiebert delivered her inaugural lecture as Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Leeds. The title of her paper is “Why I Love Studying the Bible even though (and because) It’s Perverse”.

“In this inaugural lecture Professor Stiebert discusses her chequered and international career learning and teaching about Hebrew language and biblical studies. Her lecture focuses especially on biblical texts that surprised her – not least on account of their graphic nature. Her concluding remarks focus on the responsibilities of professors and on academic integrity.”

Click here to view the lecture. 

About Johanna Stiebert

Johanna Stiebert majored in Biblical Hebrew, alongside English Literature, at the University of Otago (New Zealand), graduating with honours in 1992. She continued her studies with a two-year MPhil in Hebrew Bible at the University of Cambridge and then her PhD on shame in biblical prophetic literature at the University of Glasgow, graduating in 1998. By this time she had started her first teaching post at St. Martin’s University College (now the University of Cumbria) in Lancaster. Wanting to travel, she was about to go teach English as a second language with VSO in Madagascar, when she was appointed to a teaching post in Hebrew Bible at the University of Botswana. Three years in Botswana were transformative, including professionally. There at the height of the HIV/Aids pandemic, it became sharply clear that the Bible played an active part in matters of life and death. The Bible has since become in her own research much more than ‘just’ a fascinating, ancient object of study. Johanna has continued to work with scholarly and other communities in southern Africa and, more recently, also in other parts of the continent. After Botswana and before joining the University of Leeds, she worked at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. This environment, too, being in a state University in the buckle of the Bible Belt during the Bush years, was formative.

Johanna has been at Leeds for ten years and teaches modules on the Bible and Judaism. She has just completed her fifth monograph, her third in Leeds. She is currently involved in four research projects, all centred in some way around the Shiloh Project, an initiative exploring the intersections of rape culture, gender-based violence and religion. She has still not got to Madagascar.

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UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 12 – Sarah-Jane Page

Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?

 My name is Sarah-Jane Page and I am a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Aston University, Birmingham, UK. My research focuses on how religion intersects with gender and sexuality. I map the ways in which religious individuals experience tensions between their identities and their faith, also recognising that individuals also utilise religious belief as a source of support. The projects I have worked on have included looking at how young religious adults navigate their sexual identities, and the challenges and opportunities this brings. I have also focused on the discriminations clergy mothers in the Anglican Church face from an institution that has not prioritised their needs and experiences. I am currently working on two projects: assessing the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and its focus on the Anglican Church (I am undertaking a sociological analysis of this to determine the discourses of the Inquiry, who gets to speak, and what the implications of this are); as well as a project focusing on public forms of activism against abortion (e.g. prayer vigils at abortion clinics) and how we manage the tension between freedom of religion and belief, vis-à-vis the right to access healthcare services without fear of harassment.

 How does your research or your work connect to activism? 

 My work focuses a lot on tensions around religion and making sense of this. Sociological research has the power to explore beyond anecdote to understand a phenomenon in more detail – its broader patterns, and understanding how certain experiences are more widely shared. From this basis we can then start to propose solutions. I am currently co-editing a special issue with Dr Kath McPhillips (Newcastle University, Australia) on Gender, Violence and Religion, for the journal, Religion and Gender. This special issue focuses on howreligion intersects with institutional, familial and public gendered violence. We currently have a call for papers out, inviting contributions.

Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?


I see research as a fundamental step in being better-informed about issues of gender violence and discrimination, making it far harder to make claims such as the commonly-heard view that “gender violence is rare and exceptional”. Qualitative research in particular gives voice to marginalised stories and accounts, so that they can be heard and recognised. Research is not perfect, and can contain its own biases, but the power of research to recognise the patterns of discrimination should be taken seriously. This is why I am a strong advocate for research funding into this area. I will be showcasing my research in the coming year, including at the Australian Association for the Study of Religion conference, where I will be taking about child sexual abuse in the Anglican Church. I also have a book coming out (co-authored with Dr Heather Shipley of the University of Ottawa) called Religion and Sexualities: Theories, Themes and Methodologies, which focuses on how we make sense of the role religion plays when we analyse sexuality, noting on the one hand the scale of injustices, but also on the other, the religious spaces which do affirm equality and justice regarding sexuality and gender identity. I am also writing a new book (with Dr Pam Lowe, Aston University) on anti-abortion activism in the UK.

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UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 11 – Laurie Lyter Bright

Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?

I’m Rev. Laurie Lyter Bright – mom of two, writer, Presbyterian (USA) minister, doctoral candidate in education, non-profit executive director, and activist.  All of that keeps me busy, but in my free time, I like to feed my curiosity about the world by traveling with my husband and little ones!

How does your research or your work connect to activism? Be sure to mention your proposed volume for the Routledge Focus series and your PhD research, as well as work you may be doing in the church.

Both my personal life and professional work center on the celebration of humanity in its fullness, and a desire to create a more just world. The focus of my dissertation is on the church as a site of co-creation of rape culture, and as a potential site of disruption of rape culture, using pre-existing pedagogical pathways in the church. My proposed volume for the Routledge Focus series is examining the prophetic nature of #BlackLivesMatter and the #MeToo movement. While my desire to create a world without rape culture has been an inherent part of my work since high school, my newer role as a mom (my daughters are two and two months) has only increased my desire to co-create a world that honors women and respects the autonomy and humanity of all people.

Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?

Activism matters to me because it is a chance to use the privilege and platforms I have access to to amplify the experiences of others, to draw attention to spaces of injustice, and to encourage the complacent toward involvement. As a pastor, I advocate in my preaching and teaching, particularly examining the radical inclusivity practised by Christ. As a non-profit executive director of an interfaith organization in Israel and Palestine, I practice activism by challenging the assumptions in the U.S. of a complex and frequently misunderstood part of the world. And as a scholar, I am an activist in my writing and research. In the next year, I hope to complete my dissertation, stretch my own knowledge and understanding, and invite new communities into conversation about the ways we historically/currently support rape culture and the ways we can help dismantle it instead.

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UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 10 – Helen Paynter

Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?

I am a Baptist minister and an Old Testament specialist. I teach Old Testament and Biblical languages, based at Bristol Baptist College. In particular, I am the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence.  The CSBV is a study centre dedicated to working in the area of the interpretation of biblical texts of violence. It exists to promote and conduct high-quality scholarship, and to serve the churches in the UK and internationally by offering accessible resources to equip them to read the scriptural texts of violence well, and the challenge the ways in which the Bible is sometimes weaponised for the promotion of violence. We hope thereby to enable the church to offer counter-violent counter-extremist narratives in situations of conflict or tension.


How does your research or your work connect to activism?

One of the areas that I am passionate about is the interpretation of biblical sexual violence, which has been interpreted – at various times in the history of the church – in some very disturbing ways. I have recently completed a book on the dreadful story of the Levite’s wife from Judges 19, called Telling Terror in Judges 19: Rape and Reparation for the Levite’s wife. This will be coming out soon in the Routledge Focus series. In this book, I offer what is known as a ‘reparative’ interpretation of the text; that is, while acknowledging the horrors it presents and the ideology that may lie behind it, seeking to read for some suprising positives that the narrative offers. As part of this work, I did quite a lot of research into modern situations of sexual violence with which this ancient text has contact, particularly the horrific Delhi Bus Rape. I draw these comparisons in the book.

Another project I have been involved in was the #SheToo podcast series, produced by Rosie Dawson for the Bible Society. I was a consultant and contributor for this series, wherein Rosie interviewed various female scholars from different faith perspectives on some of the narratives of sexual violence in the Bible.

The other arm of the CSBV, which looks at the weaponisation of the Bible, has led me to write a second book this year, to be published by BRF in 2020. The title is still under negotiation, but the current working version is ‘The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So: Why submitting to abuse is not a Christian wife’s duty’. Tragically, domestic abuse is sometimes sustained by abusers through appeal to various biblical texts, and churches also sometimes contribute to this by the misapplication of biblical principles. As a Christian minister, I am not only deeply disturbed by this, but feel a sense of responsibility to attempt to address it, and this book is intended for that purpose. It is aimed at women who are trapped in abusive marriages where the Bible plays a part in their abuse, and also at those who seek to help them, and at church leaders. I am hoping that it will reach an international market as well as a domestic one, and that through it, women will find themselves empowered to find places of safety and resist manipulative attempts to keep them trapped in situations of abuse.


Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?

I think I’ve probably covered the first question above. Between now and the beginning of December next year, I hope that both of these books will have been published, and that I will be able to speak on the subject at various national and possibly international platforms. In particular, I am hoping to be in a position to attend and contribute to the Baptist World Alliance quinquennial meeting in Rio next year, where there will be a specialist subject stream on gender based violence.

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UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 9 – Chris Greenough

Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?

My name is Chris Greenough and I’m Senior Lecturer in Religion at Edge Hill University. I research and teach on gender, sexuality and religion. My research to date has mostly focussed on LGBTQ+ religious and spiritual identities, queer theologies and queer biblical studies.

 How does your research or your work connect to activism?

As an academic, I engage and contribute to activism in various ways. When we think of activism we think of protest and the public assembly of like-minded individuals, collaborating to fight against injustices and for change. But, aside from this, we are all activists in our communities: in our classrooms, on social media and in our one-to-one interactions. I am a former secondary school teacher and part of my current role is initial teacher education and I work hard to ensure our future teachers are confident to work with LGBTQ+ issues.

Reflecting on how I am activist in the classroom, I have an article in the special edition of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies, edited by Johanna Stiebert. In the article, I explore the notions of risk, experimentation and failure, as well as of tackling specific issues relating to resistance of queer biblical criticism based on religious faith.

There are regular TV and media discussion panels debating questions about how LGBTQ+ lives and Christianity are seemingly incompatible. In conservative religious settings, we see how verses selected from the Bible are used to condemn same sex relationships/marriage, transgender recognition, gay and lesbian parenting or adoption and these form the positional statements of major Christian denominations. In this sense, my work is activism that speaks back to what is, in fact, really toxic theology. My first monograph, Undoing Theology, highlighted the harmful effects of traditionally dominant theology in Christianity on the lives of non-normative individuals. In his review of my book, Adrian Thatcher says, “We need to learn the pain that we cause. This is a bold, truthful book”.

Yet, being bold is not always easy. Activism comes with challenges and obstacles. Sara Ahmed puts this perfectly, “when we speak about what we come up against, we come up against what we speak about” (Living a Feminist Life, 2017: 148). As a queer scholar, I am undisciplined. That means I do not hold much allegiance to any of the traditional disciplines I work across: they each require a critical undoing of the powers and privilege which has produced and shaped them. As someone who writes on queer theologies and biblical studies, I am occasionally confronted with furrowed frowns as a reception to my work. If queer research makes people feel uncomfortable, it highlights the hegemony, gatekeepers and ‘methodsplainers’ at work in our disciplines. It highlights prejudice and discrimination to queer individuals. For me, resisting academic normativity in the pursuit of social justice is activism. I am entirely grateful to my academic scholars and friends at SIIBS and the Shiloh project for their support.

Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?

The next twelve months are going to be busy! I’m delighted and incredibly proud to be working with Katie Edwards on a book for the Routledge Focus Book Series on ‘Rape Culture, Religion, and the Bible’. Our title aims to explore contemporary reactions and readings to the naming of Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse: #JesusToo: Silence, Stigma and Male Sexual Violence. In contemporary culture there is undeniably a culture of stigma associated with male sexual abuse. Despite this stigma, at least 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused or assaulted: . There are also numerous myths around male sexual abuse that need further discussion.

I’m also going to be Guest Editor for a special edition of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies on Queer Theory and the Bible. The term ‘queer theory’ was first coined in 1990, so this seems a fitting edition to celebrate 30 years of queer!

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UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 7 – Joachim Kuegler

Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?

Since 2008, I am Professor for New Testament Studies at the University of Bamberg in Germany. My work lies at the interface of the academy, education and religion. Since 1988 I am also an ordained priest of the Catholic Church (in the diocese of Bamberg). I am one of the many Catholic men who, while benefitting from the gender bias of this Church, is suffering in the face of the traditional gender injustice so powerful in both doctrine and practice. The big goal of my work as a professor and priest is to let people know that God is a power that helps to overwhelm gender bias, gender-based violence and misogyny. I really don’t know if it will be possible to transform the Catholic Church into a tool of gender-fairness but at least I don’t feel alone in my attempt to do so.

How does your research or your work connect to activism?

For me it is quite easy to connect my research with activism. First, because the main topics of my research are gender and developmental justice. With our Bible-in-Africa-research we aim at tearing down the walls that colonialism created by organising an exchange with African students and scholars based on the principle of pluriform equality. Using the opportunities offered by a rich country (Germany) we try to give academics from Africa a chance to display their talent in exploring the Bible in a contextual life-oriented way.

Secondly, my double existence as professor and priest allows me to spread my academic insights into the area of an old and established but still vivid faith-based community. I always try to structure my preaching and my pastoral work with people living at our local Asylbewerber-Heim (‘centre for asylum-seekers’) according to the principle of gender fairness and global justice. In the last years church structures allowed me to organise funds for African students and financial help for immigrants – not to mention the spiritual support that a congregation can give to new-comers. I think, the quota of racist, xenophobic and misogynic people is lower among  active Christians than in some other parts of German society. Thus it is easier to find help and feel supported by the consent of many.

Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?

Activism is no ‘add-on’ to my academic work. Because I take my research insights seriously, they urge me to act them out accordingly. I cannot read Galatians 3:28 – ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ – and then go and preach that it is okay when women aren’t ordained. I cannot analyse Jesus’ beatitudes of the poor and then ignore those in my village that are suffering from being marginalised and ill-treated. But also, I am also learning from activism for my academic work. Which questions in research are really relevant? Which ones can I leave to those whose prime or even only goal is a university career? Between now and the Days of Activism in 2020 I hope to support especially ‘Maria 2.0’ (an equal-rights-movement of Catholic women) with as many public lectures as possible. I feel that my interpretation of biblical texts is really welcome in this movement.

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UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 6 – Barbara Thiede

I teach full-time in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina Charlotte and serve as the Program Director for our department’s graduate program. I am also an ordained rabbi and teach for ALEPH – Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

In both settings, I teach a range of courses focused on gender, power, class, and race. These fall, broadly, into two categories. As a historian of Jewish history, I teach the history of European antisemitism and the marketing of the Holocaust. As a biblical scholar, I teach a wide range of courses that focus on gender, power, and violence in the Hebrew Bible. I am currently writing a full-length monograph entitled Male Friendship, Homosociality and Women in the Hebrew Bible. I am also working on a volume for the Routledge series “Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible” entitled Rape in the House of David: A Company of Men.

Writing about causes I support has been a significant part of my activism in public realms, too. For some twenty years I wrote for a regional section of The Charlotte Observer as well as for the Observer’s Viewpoint page as a community editorial columnist. Here, I was able to address a range of issues, from domestic violence and sexual assault to antisemitism and racism. Likewise, my blog, Adrenalinedrash, includes writing on sexual violence, racism, and antisemitism from a rabbinic perspective.

From my earliest days at UNC Charlotte, when I created the first women’s group for addressing eating disorders, to my campus involvement today in our annual Sex Week, addressing the very real concerns of my students has been one of my primary goals. One in every four of my female students will be the victim of sexual assault during their undergraduate careers. While teachers of Religious Studies regularly engage with class, gender, race, sexuality, and ability, classroom conversations are often detached from the rape culture that surrounds them. But the rape culture of the Hebrew Bible is familiar to my students for a reason; like today’s rape cultures, it relies on a web of male friendships, alliances, and social relationships that are essential to its preservation. In the classroom we can analyze how hegemonic masculinity that supports rape culture works both in ancient texts and in contemporary settings. And we can talk about what must be done to change the statistics and make college campuses safe for women.

Though I am involved with efforts to combat racism and gun violence as a speaker and rabbi, much of my activism has centered on working with local church and civic groups. For almost two decades, I have regularly addressed sexual violence and hegemonic masculinity in the Hebrew Bible in a wide range of denominational settings. Because biblical authors present sexual violence against women as permissible, we need to interrogate the texts we hold sacred.

I participate in marches and rallies and speak for a host of causes I support – from protecting voting rights to winning citizenship for undocumented immigrants to saving our broken planet. And I have found that my greatest impact takes place in classroom, faith, and community education. There, I can develop relationships, open doors, unpack a conversation, and empower those I am working with – from the eighteen-year-old college students to eighty-year-old grandmothers. We are all needed in the struggle against rape culture.

Between now and the 16 days I will be helping students at UNCC with the organization of this year’s Sex Week (sexual violence is a key topic), writing a piece for my blog on the male alliances that support rape culture in both the Hebrew Bible and our own time, and working with a full class of students who are writing their final papers – almost all of which center on sexual violence in Hebrew Bible. Teaching in two different academic settings, spending many Sunday mornings with faith groups, and writing offer me opportunities to address and confront the rape cultures we must combat and eradicate. And in our time.

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