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COVID-19 Lockdown Interview Series: Meredith Warren

Tell us about what you’re doing and what you’re working on during this COVID-19 lock-in.

I admit that I have been fairly distracted since I started effectively self-isolating around the 10th of March. I’ve got only a few days, if not hours, left before I go on Maternity Leave with my first baby, so keeping my household healthy and safe has occupied a lot of my brain space. 

That said, I had some pretty tangible goals that I wanted to achieve before stopping work, so I’ve been working as much as I can on those. I’ve been adjusting a workshop that was set to meet in-person in July, on embodiment and the senses called What the Body Knows, which now has funding to hire a PhD helper — the workshop is going to be online now, so it has taken some creativity in figuring out how that will work! I am very pleased that the second issue of JIBS, on transgenderqueer and genderqueer perspectives on biblical studies was released last week, guest edited by Caroline Blyth. I’ve also just finished up an article co-authored with Sarah Rollens and Eric Vanden Eykel, for JIBS’s forthcoming issue on Activism in the Classroom, guest edited by Johanna Stiebert. I’m also chipping away at a text book that Sara Parks and Shayna Sheinfeld and I are co-authoring, on Women in Ancient Religions, and an essay on angelic eating in Good Omens

2. Which aspects of your work might be particularly interesting or relevant for Shiloh Project readers?

The textbook that Sara Parks and Shayna Sheinfeld and I are writing might be of interest to friends of the Shiloh Project. It’s based off of a class the three of us used to teach when we were finishing up our PhDs at McGill University. Our aims in the text book are intersectional, trying to look at overlapping identities that women held in antiquity while providing an accessible and progressive introduction to the topic that will make teaching it easier for those who would like to do so. We invariably will have to wrestle with texts and images which depict or advocate sexual violence given the nature of women’s lived experience then and now.

3. How are you bearing up and what’s helped you most?

It feels good to be working on collaborative pieces right now, and having regular contact with my colleagues (as well as with friends) has been really helpful in keeping my head above water. Work is sometimes a welcome distraction from the chaos outside. I’m also doing a lot of baking, taking my state-sanctioned daily walks in the nice weather, reading non-academic books, and trying to spend quality time with our cat Button while he is still an ‘only child’. 

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The #MeToo Reckoning: Book Review

Reflection on and review of The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct, by Ruth Everhart (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020).

This is not the kind of book I usually pick up – but I’m glad I did. Why might I not have picked it up? The author, Ruth Everhart, is a Presbyterian pastor, and she writes of Jesus as a presence and of the Bible as instrumental in addressing sexual abuse and misconduct in today’s churches. I am not drawn to church, and for me, doing something ‘because of Jesus’ (the title of one sub-section early on in the book), or treating the Bible as a kind of how-to for protecting the most vulnerable (signified by ‘the little ones’ of Matthew 18), as much as I applaud Everhart’s purpose, is utterly unfamiliar. Like humanizing one’s pets, or talking to the dead, I see nothing wrong in theory with believing in Jesus’ active presence, but at the same time it’s just not ‘me’.Moreover, I’ve tended to see the Bible as more part of the problem in matters sexual abuse than part of the solution.

Some of Everhart’s writing struck me as too ‘churchy-preachy’ to warm to. Hence, I almost put the book away when I got to, ‘[Jesus’] love changes everything. He is the divine one who came into this world via vagina. To Jesus, women’s bodily experiences matter. To Jesus, all humans bear the image of God equally. To Jesus, the voices of victims crying out for justice is a beatitude sung by a chorus. Stop and listen. Push past the fear. Unleash the energy. The Spirit is here’ (p.15). But I pushed past, persevered, perhaps in part, because Everhart had said at the outset that the book was addressed to victims, survivors, allies of victims and survivors, pastors, lay leaders and also to non-Christians. 

I had ordered Everhart’s book, because I came across it as forthcoming while researching my own book on rape culture and #MeToo. In my book I make much of the enduring influence of biblical texts, particularly in faith communities. And yet, can I really say this with authority, given my own remove from such communities? I preordered Everhart’s book and began to read it soon after it arrived, hot off the press. It is a book that – much to my own surprise – engaged me; a book I admire and warmly recommend. It has taught me much and given me some insight into new perspectives. Here are a few things I particularly like about this book.

Everhart knows what she is talking about and sticks to what she knows 

Everhart is a rape survivor. She has written a memoir about her ordeal, when she and her roommates, all young students at a Christian college, were held at gunpoint and raped by two intruders. The memoir is called Ruined(Tyndale House, 2016)because this word captured her perception of herself following the rape. Feeling ruined can be traced back in part to the purity culture in which Everhart was raised and immersed. Her intimate understanding of both purity culture and of trying to understand rape against the backdrop of faith in a loving God also contributes to her acutely sensitive and empathetic depiction of the stories of others who have encountered sexual abuse and mistreatment in church settings: like Melissa, raised and home-schooled in a conservative Christian culture that deprived her of the language to disclose or speak about rape; Stephanie, the pastor who had to recognize and resist the sexism that was creating a rape-supportive environment in her own faith community; Kris, the young man exposed to a sexual abuser who was protected by church structures and secrecies.

Ruined follows Everhart’s spiritual journey moving through and past rape, past feeling ruined, and her choice of remaining in the church and following her calling to become a pastor. I have not read Everhart’s memoir, only her allusions to it in this book. Like other first-person accounts of rape, Everhart’s albeit brief descriptions stay with me. The two book-length autobiographical accounts of rape I have read – and yes, sadly, rape memoirs are a genre –  are Jill Saward’s Rape: My Story (Bloomsbury, 1990) and Joanna Connors’ I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her (Fourth Estate, 2016). 

With both of these accounts, as with Everhart’s, the victim is easily identified as ‘innocent’. Of course no victim of rape is anything other than blameless; rape is always a dreadful crime, regardless of who the victim is. But it is no revelation that not all rape victims receive sympathy or support. Instead, some victims are blamed – on account of being drunk, or being perceived to have been sexually provocative, for instance. There exists a hierarchy of respectability with some victims deemed ‘more innocent’ and ‘more undeserving’ and others as‘rapable’, their violation ‘understandable’, occasionally even deserved. 

This hierarchy is amply infused with perceptions regarding purity, as well as with racism and other forms of discrimination pertaining to class, for instance. Moreover, it is affected by the identity of both victim and perpetrator – and Everhart is well aware of these toxic dynamics. Early on she alludes to the inequalities of rape, including those pertaining to race (pp.7-8), which she returns to repeatedly (e.g. p.49, pp.222-23). Everhart also unpicks the subtle workings of purity culture and its intersections with rape culture (pp.108–32) and the multiple vulnerabilities of class-based inequalities (passim).

Everhart, Saward and Connors’ accounts are all by white women. Everhart and Saward were both very young at the time of their rapes and both were devout Christians – Everhart a student at a Christian college, Saward a vicar’s daughter. In all three cases the rapists were strangers, in two (Everhart’s and Saward’s) there was more than one rapist and the rapists were armed intruders. In both Everhart and Connors’ cases the rapists were black men. All of these factors – that the rape victims were young, white, Christian, and the assailantsviolent, armed, black, strangers – serve to render the victims ‘more innocent’ in terms of the hierarchy of respectability and the rapists ‘more deplorable’ in the hierarchy of perpetrators than if the victims had been black, sexually experienced, older, or sex workers, for instance, or if the rapists had been their victims’ husbands, acquaintances, or famous, handsome, white. 

This is due to networks of rape myths and how theseshape stereotypes, expectations, prejudices, values and it explains why some rapists – such as good-looking, or wealthy, white men, boyfriends or celebrities – are more likely to get away with rape and why black victims, or sex workers, or disabled victims while, according to statistics especially vulnerable to sexual violence, more often than not do not get a hearing, let alone justice in court, or even representation or acknowledgement of their disproportionate suffering in popular culture.

Everhart comprehends this fully and reflects this in her writing. She chooses, however, wisely in my view, to hone in on the rape culture context she knows and understands best. As she writes, ‘Because I have become a progressive Protestant, this book focuses on stories within that world. I feel a call to clean the dirt in my own house…’ (p.9). Everhart makes no bones about who she is – ‘a rape survivor… a former “good girl,” … a radical feminist’ (p.6) and she takes a clear-eyed look at the church to which she belongs and feels indebted but which she also recognizes as ‘the culprit… the place where culpability hides’ (p.4).

The book contains a variety of stories and gives insight into the complex reasons why abuse is common in churches 

This book is substantial in length and demonstrates considerable narrative agility. It combines accounts ofEverhart’s personal experience, stories of others who have encountered church complicity in sexual abuse and misconduct, news reports (including about the testimony of both Anita Hill and Christine Blasey-Ford), excerpts from written correspondences, and careful examinationsof a wide range of biblical texts: among these, Leviticus 15 (detailing the menstruation purity laws), Numbers 27 (about the daughters of Zelophehad), 2 Samuel 11–13(the stories of Nathan’s parable and the rapes of both Bathsheba and Tamar), Psalm 55, the book of Lamentations, Matthew 10 and 18 (about Jesus and the children, or ‘little ones’), Mark 5:21-43 (the stories of two daughters – Jairus’ daughter and the woman healed of a continuous discharge), Luke 18 (the story of a persistent widow – a text I hadn’t known about prior to reading Everhart’s book), and 1 Corinthians 12 (on theinter-dependent body of the Church).

Everhart is superb at telling and at connecting stories that show in multiple ways that churches foster environments in which sexual misconduct and abuse thrive. She tells her own story, of working in a new congregation and of the inappropriate attentions of a church leader, culminating in his forcibly kissing Everhart. She talks of her efforts first to forestall and then to address this incident and of the many obstructions she encountered. She speaks of how this revived past trauma and also, how her past trauma was used against her.

Alongside this, Everhart tells others’ stories that have been entrusted to her. Some of these describe cases of severe physical abuse (Melissa’s rape by two men, one a stranger, one a trusted friend from church; Kris’s violent assault by a church-assigned chaperone), others of apparently less serious encounters (the misogynybrewing in Stephanie Green’s congregation). Skillful and effective here is how Everhart constructs a church-specific picture of a rape culture pyramid, in which it isclear that the serious crimes that happen in church settings (and which have begun to make the news with horrible regularity) are under-shored by networks and tributaries of rape-supportive attitudes, complicities and suppressions. As Everhart argues persuasively, none of these, even if seemingly small or jocular, are harmless and – if left unchallenged – transpire in the protection of abusers and the multiplication of victims. Atmospheres where sexist jokes are accepted as ‘banter’ diminish and silence women; small sexualized transgressions when dismissed can embolden perpetrators. Everhart tells of the sexualized ‘jokes’ of Big Joe, which go on to influence a vulnerable attendee of his soup kitchen, who then begins to stalk Stephanie, and of Ginni, who is tooready to forgive a sexual predator in spite of his not taking accountability or accepting any punishment. Everhart’s stories are vivid and familiar – even to those not part of a church community. This is because the church setting she describes is a microcosm that, for all its distinctive features, echoes broader social patterns. 

Everhart’s examinations of biblical texts are also compelling – and here I feel on more familiar ground. I, too, have interfaced biblical texts with contemporarycontexts. Everhart describes her approach as hearing stories of the Bible and the present ‘in tandem, the twin halves of a double helix’ (p.11). She uses the Bible as an inspiration for seeking justice: Jesus’ advocacy for ‘the little ones’ calls her to speak for victims and survivors and to heal the church; she appeals to David’s exposure of guilt, as well as to his acknowledgement of fault and acceptance of punishment to act as a model for seekingperpetrators’ accountability.

But Everhart is not uncritical of the Bible by any means. Hence, she notes, for instance, David’s mourning for his sons, Amnon and Absalom, but not for Tamar, his daughter: ‘David’s silence speaks volumes: Tamar’s life is not equal in value to those of her brothers. How painful to be confronted with the sheer expendability of females in Scripture – yet this is our religious heritage’ (p.34). Everhart finds inspiration in the Bible – for women’s solidarity in the story of Zelophehad’sdaughters, and for persistence in seeking justice in the parable of the widow and the judge – but she is not blind to the Bible’s misogyny and she is aware of how it has been used against women. 

Everhart has clearly studied and reflected on the Bible in considerable depth. I have too – but I learned from Everhart. I found her reflection on the ewe lamb in Nathan’s parable insightful, for instance. Hence, Everhart suggests that the man’s affection for the lamb might point to a particularly tender relationship between Uriah and Bathsheba. I did not know and agree with Everhart that it is meaningful, that Bathsheba, though not named here, is referred to as the wife of Uriah in the New Testament (Matthew 1:6). I also concur that the image of the lamb emphasizes Bathsheba’s youth and vulnerability: Everhart asks, ‘Due to stark disparities in status, power, and age, was meaningful consent possible in the story of David and Bathsheba?’ (p.144) We are agreed that the story is one of rape. 

Everhart’s adept and lively narration of stories – both personal and biblical – makes this book enjoyable to read. Her careful analysis of texts from the Bible is balanced with vividly related accounts of actual people from her own circle. The parallels between the two make the Bible stories relevant and alive but without obscuring their toxic potential. As Everhart recognizes ‘Scripture says many things, including many contradictory things. … We must be aware of the temptation to “baptize” what feels good and right because it’s known and comfortable’ (p.36). Everhart avoids this temptation and delves into much that is uncomfortable and painful.

Ruth Everhart

The book not only identifies and explains problems but offers hope and church-compatible ways and incentives to resolve them

Everhart is clear where she stands: she is in the church and intends to remain there. She recognizes the church’s potential for facilitating abuse and wants to be part of the solution for bringing this to an end. She is motivated by feminism and enthusiastic about #MeToo, identifying it as a time to speak up and to bring the church into a movement for positive change. 

Among the problems Everhart identifies and seeks to resist are Christian complicity ‘in championing a patriarchal masculinity that marginalizes women and protects abusers’ (p.11); the manipulation of turning the willing sacrifice of Jesus into the exploitation of self-sacrifice, or into sacrifice of the truth (p.35, p.204); the prevalence of a purity culture and a conservative view on sexuality, which can prepare a seedbed for driving sexual abuse underground; the church’s ‘tremendous pull toward institutional self-preservation’ and the ‘intricate web of relationships within the church’ (p.53); and disciplinary processes that do not acknowledge, let alonehonour harms done (p.90ff., 104–06). 

Over and over again, Everhart, while drawing on discrete examples, agues that these problems lie not with a few ‘sick individuals’ but with systems (e.g. pp.80-81). She advocates for transparency and speaking out (p.106) and for making churches ‘safer and braver’ (p.212). Hence, rather than holding meetings about abuse behind closed doors or foregrounding privacy and anonymity, Everhart advocates for public laments, in line with the large-scale, public strategies of #MeToo. Shame, she points out, lies not with victims but with perpetrators and resisting sexual abuse is not a women’s issue but a human issue. Without active resistance, she warns, churches will lose all the remaining trust they still have and go under. 

Everhart’s book ends on a note of hope, optimism and activity – with a list of strategies for effecting positive change within congregations.

I was left, after reading this book, feeling sombre but also more knowledgeable, and very grateful for people like Everhart and others, including several who have featured on this blog – Jayme ReavesRosinah GabaitseMusa DubeDavid TombsMegan RobertsonLaurie Lyter-BrightHelen PaynterJoachim KueglerGerald WestEricka DunbarJoyce BohamJo Sadgrove… – for fighting the fight in the churches. 

I hope many of you will read this book, whether you are Christian, church-going, or not.

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Love, support, solidarity

During these extraordinary times, our little team at the Shiloh Project (Katie, Johanna, and Caroline – see above!) just want to reach out and wish our readers and supporters all our love, aroha, and solidarity.

We know that it’s far from ‘business as usual’ right now, but we want to keep our Shiloh community going – as a source of support and sustenance, imagination and inspiration – or even just as a distraction.

Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll keep posting material that we hope will serve some practical purpose, particularly for those of us getting to grips with online teaching, but also for everyone still working so hard in academia and the community to end gender-based violence. We will share teaching resources, research, and anything else that might help us all.

If any of our readers have ideas for Shiloh content, please do get in touch!

We leave you with a Māori proverb from Caroline’s adopted and Johanna’s homeland of Aotearoa New Zealand: Kia kaha, kia māia, kia manawanui. Be strong, be brave, be steadfast.

And more than anything, let’s look after each other.

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A second volume in the Routledge Focus series ‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’ is out today! Congratulations to Helen Paynter!

From the Routledge site…

Telling Terror in Judges 19 explores the value of performing a ‘reparative reading’ of the terror-filled story of the Levite’s pilegesh (commonly referred to as the Levite’s concubine) in Judges 19, and how such a reparative reading can be brought to bear upon elements of modern rape culture. Historically, the story has been used as a morality tale to warn young women about what constitutes appropriate behaviour. More recently, (mainly male) commentators have tended to write the woman out of the story, by making claims about its purpose and theme which bear no relation to her suffering. In response to this, feminist critics have attempted to write the woman back into the story, generally using the hermeneutics of suspicion. This book begins by surveying some of the traditional commentators, and the three great feminist commentators of the text (Bal, Exum and Trible). It then offers a reparative reading by attending to the pilegesh’s surprising prominence, her moral and marital agency, and her speaking voice. In the final chapter, there is a detailed comparison of the story with elements of modern rape culture.

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Daniel in the Homophobic Lion’s Den

Here’s a post by Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebert about her second research visit to Nairobi, where she participates in a project with Ugandan LGBTQ+refugees. The project has the title “Tales of Sexuality and Faith: The Ugandan LGBT Refugees Life Story Project”and is funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust. Its lead investigator is Adriaan van Klinken

The project is focused on stories: life-stories, stories of the Bible, and stories that combine the two. At its heart and centre is a group of refugees, a collective called The Nature Network. Johanna talks about the project and its intersections with Shiloh-relevant themes, such as religion and vulnerability to violence, in an earlier post. Here are some of her reflections on the project’s recent developments. 

Stories and Lives

Stories matter. In my life certainly stories and story telling have played a major part since as far back as I can remember. Growing up, I was the youngest member of a multi-generational household and even before I learned to read stories, stories were told and read to me. I loved folk stories and fairytales but I especially liked stories about me, set in the-time-before-I-could remember. I loved the stories of when I was very small, about the funny or naughty things I did. 

I demanded to hear such stories of my earliest life over and over again. I demanded details and eventually heard multiple versions, with different embellishments (and probably some exaggerations and inventions). Those stories somehow linked me to the protagonists of other stories; they made me feel important, an agent. They linked me to the past, to a bigger, world-connecting meta-story. I like stories to this day.

My academic work focuses on the study of the Bible. It was the stories that first drew me in but also the people I met through studies and teaching – and their stories. Approaches of biblical interpretation have become more honest about how our identities and experiences shape our interpretation and increasingly, life stories and Bible stories have been coming together for me.

Nairobi Stories

Adriaan has been travelling to Kenya, making friends, hearing stories, making stories, and gathering material for his publications for some years. When he and the people who move into and out from The Nature Work developed ideas around life stories and Bible stories, I was eager to get involved. By then, I had also become involved in a number of other projects, all of them relevant to the Shiloh Project, that explore the use of stories and images derived from the Bible to open up discussions about gender-based violence. Because the Bible – while variously interpreted in different settings – is a shared text, it has been an effective medium for connecting me with people whose identities, lives and experiences are very different to mine.

I have only been to Nairobi on two short visits – the second was last month, in January. My impressions of the city are a succession of little snapshots – of bustle and crazy traffic, but also of sweeping parks with leafy trees; of roadsides displaying an array of wares, from potted plants to double beds, playground items to beaded bracelets; of colourful roadside fruit and vegetable markets and little enterprises selling cut flowers or grilled corn on the cob. We drove several times through Kibera, Africa’s largest urban slum, which is highly concentrated with busy-ness – washing drying, wood being cut, tiny shops crammed together selling everything from cellphone units to clothes alteration. Sometimes, such as in the large malls, I could completely forget where I was – other times, in Kibera, or seeing grazing warthogs by the roadside, marabous perched on monuments, or monkeys on the walls of residential buildings, you knew you were definitely in Kenya.

But back to life stories. When something sharp happens in our lives, when we are, for instance, accused of something we haven’t done, then the telling of our stories becomes more carefully constructed. We choose our elements with care, so as to recount vividly and persuasively what really  happened. This also happens when we are treated unjustly in other ways – and many of the stories we heard at The Nature Network reported being accused of ‘recruiting’ minors, of being willfully deviant, of choosing depravity to dishonour family and community and religious affiliation. The life stories collected as part of this project were invariably told with vividness and fluency. The refugees were used to telling their stories – they were often telling them for survival, including as part of their efforts to secure resettlement with UNHCR. 

The stories told featured rejection, threat, violence, vulnerability, condemnation from family and community and church representatives. Sometimes there were stories of a painful past and of a present in which the story was turning towards more hope. New families were formed within The Nature Network, families not of blood ties but of ties of love and solidarity and acceptance. New religious networks were established, with prayers that bonded together and with a God who loved unconditionally – a God who created queer and whose image was therefore queer. 

The Story of a Project: Tales of Sexuality and Faith

The first stage of the project consisted of collecting life stories of refugees associated with The Nature Network. The majority of this was conducted by two members of the Network one of whom, Raymond Brian, is its co-founder. During interviewing, contributors were asked about the role and presence of religion in their lives and whether they had a favourite Bible story. Some interesting things emerged here. Many stories – from all over the Bible – were sources of inspiration. Jesus was repeatedly identified as an ally – as someone who embraced those on the fringes of society and who spoke out against condemning others. One interviewee mentioned identifying with David in the story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17). The reason was that the interviewee felt small and up against a Goliath of mighty and imposing challenges in day-to-day life. Like David they had little to work with – a small stone, metaphorically-speaking. But that small stone could be utilized to achieve something bigger and assert their rights and be vindicated. A second story that popped up was Daniel in the Lions’ Den (Daniel 6) – because the interviewee this time identified with the threat all around but simultaneously with a strong sense, too, that like Daniel they had done nothing to justify such threat and hostility. It was this story that seemed like a good one to draw on more.

Daniel in the Homophobic Lions’ Den

Before Adriaan and I arrived in Nairobi, the members of the Nature Network spent time reading the story of Daniel in the Lions’ Den and discussing it in groups. By the time we joined them the story was quite familiar. Now it was time to relate it to personal experience.

On 12 January we all gathered at the Network’s main venue, on the outskirts of Nairobi.

We shared breakfast and introduced ourselves and each other; we discussed expectations for the day – which ranged from the practical (to receive a refund for travel expenses) to the experiential (to learn, be entertained, and form connections and new friendships) – and rules (to respect one another and listen, and to all participate). 

Next, Chris gave a summary of the earlier meeting – where the text of the Bible was read and discussed in focus groups. A decision was made to read the text again – this time with the specific plan to try and make the story relevant to the present.

In our groups, as soon as we sat down with the biblical text, printed out on paper, to read it aloud together, a mood of seriousness descended. I think this is discernible in the pictures.

When we all got together to pool what had taken place in our groups, the discussion got very lively. We looked together at the characters and at the events of the Daniel story – who and what could these be in the present setting?

In the Daniel story there is a king, King Darius, who is somewhat sympathetic to Daniel but none the less submits to his governors who remind him of the laws. Who is this king today? Who are the governors?

Suggestions came in thick and fast: the king is the government of Uganda, or the President of Uganda. The governors are oppressive elements of African culture and pastors using the Bible to condemn, as well as members of parliament. Daniel is the LGBTQ+ community – being unjustly persecuted. The lions are maybe family members who are sometimes harmful and obstructive but not always, or enemies within the LGBTQ+ communityitself who sometimes deny their sexuality, or who choose to blackmail others when it suits them to do so. The den is identified as Kenya and as prison… Some spoke up to say they found the punishment of the governors’ wives and children wrong, others saw this as collateral damage, or as the punishment of those who didn’t speak up but benefited from their powerful family members’ privileges. 

After some discussion, a play was put together, performed and recorded. This all happened very quickly– from discussion to completion of the recording took no more than 3 hours. The idea of weaving stories together and of transporting an ancient story into the lived present was quickly embraced and vividly imagined and reenacted. There were some fabulous spontaneous ideas and there was much articulate expression both of condemnation encountered and liberation desired.

The King is the President of Uganda. (In this reenactment he has a consort.)

The governors are members of parliament and representatives of churches, as well as a mufti from an Islamic congregation. 

Daniel is a representative of the LGBTQ+ community.

The den is prison.

There are also in this reenactment members of the police force, of the press and supporters of Daniel.

God’s voice can be heard at the beginning and end.

Here is the recording, ‘Daniel in the homophobic lion’s den’. Enjoy.

It was a real joy watching the play at each of its various stages. The strength of feeling and the power of story telling really come across. There is a new immediacy and resonance to the old story of Daniel. I, certainly, will never read this story again in the same way. And when we all watched the completed recording together everyone was very engaged and delighted with the end result.

In time, we – members of the Network, Adriaan and I – hope to publish a book about the project. 

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Let Him Romance You: Rape Culture and Gender Violence in Evangelical Christian Self-Help Literature

Last year Dr Emily Colgan (Trinity Theological College, New Zealand) visited the UK and gave papers at the Universities of Leeds and Sheffield. For those who missed them, you can catch up by listening to the recording below.

Emily is an active Shiloh Project member and will be publishing a book with our project series Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible with Routledge Focus. Emily’s research on Christian self-help literature and gender-violence is published in the Christian Perspectives volume of the Rape Culture, Gender Violence, and Religion series edited by Caroline Blyth, Emily Colgan and Katie Edwards (Palgrave, 2018).

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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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