The following dual-voiced poem by Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon is based on the brutal story found in the Bible in Judges 19.
Background: The Biblical Text
Aptly called a ‘text of terror’ by feminist biblical interpreter Phyllis Trible, this chapter tells of an unnamed Levite (that is, someone of the tribe of Levi from which the hereditary priests and other sacred functionaries were descended) and ‘his’ concubine (usually understood to be a wife of secondary status, particularly in polygamous societies).
For some reason – either because she was angry with the Levite (so the Greek version), or because she had ‘prostituted’ herself (so the Hebrew version – though it is unclear if the intended meaning is literal or figurative) – the concubine had earlier left the Levite and returned to her father’s house in Bethlehem. After four months, accompanied by a servant and donkeys, the Levite comes to get her back. The father delays the Levite for four days but on the fifth he sets off, taking the concubine. No word is said about her willingness to leave or otherwise.
Unwilling to spend the night among the Jebusites, as the servant proposes, the Levite determines (because the Jebusites are foreigners) to spend the night in Gibeah, a town settled by Israelites of the tribe of Benjamin. Arriving late, they are taken in by an old man who offers them hospitality.
As they are making merry, worthless, or perverse men, surround the house and pound on the door, demanding to ‘know’ the man staying as guest within. (The Hebrew word ‘to know’ can be used as a euphemism for carnal knowledge and the New Revised Standard Version consequently translates, ‘so that we may have intercourse with him’, Judges 19:22). (Quite a number of commentators point to the clear parallels between this part of the story and Genesis 19:5, set in Sodom.)
The old man tries to appease the men by telling them not to do such wickedness to his guest. Instead, horrifyingly, he offers them his own (previously unmentioned) virgin daughter and also the concubine, saying (in the NRSV translation), ‘Ravish them and do whatever you want to them; but against this man do not do such a vile thing.’ (Similarly, in Genesis 19, Lot offers his two virgin daughters to protect his guests.)
Neither the daughter, nor the concubine has a voice in the biblical text. All characters are nameless but unlike all the male characters (the father, the Levite, the servant, the old man, the men of Gibeah) neither female character (concubine or daughter) has voice.
When the men won’t listen, the Levite pushes his concubine outside the door and she is gang-raped all night until morning. At dawn she falls at the door, her hands on the threshold – one of the most affecting and distressing images of the entire Bible, surely.
When the Levite tells the concubine to get up, she does not, or cannot respond. He puts her on the donkey and returns home. Once there, he dismembers her body and sends its twelve pieces throughout all Israel as a summons to war.
This violent and gruesome story of the threatened rape of the Levite, of the offering up for rape of the daughter and the concubine, and of the gang-rape, killing and dismemberment of the concubine is – once events move away from Bethlehem to Gibeah – sparsely told.
There is every reason to believe that this brutal story elicited horror. Horrified outrage is certainly the response of the Israelites who receive the pieces of the concubine’s corpse. Subsequent events (related in Judges 20–21) are war and more rape and the call for stronger leadership in the form of a king, to put an end to mayhem. What is missing is not horror or outrage but any attempt at insight into the women’s terror and suffering. Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon addresses this lack.
Background: Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon
Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon is an award-winning poet and an Associate Professor teaching creative writing at Cornell University. Her magnificent published works include Black Swan, Open Interval and, together with Elizabeth Alexander, Poems in Conversation and a Conversation. She has also published in numerous journals and anthologies and is currently at work on another collection of poems, The Coal Tar Colors.
Black Swan, in which this poem is published, is winner of the 2001 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and includes several pieces inspired by women of the Bible and classical mythology who were pursued or raped by either men or male deities, including, alongside the daughter and concubine of Judges 19, also Tamar, Dinah (you can find the poem here), Daphne (here), Helen and Leda.
These poems are part of a growing creative tradition of giving voice and full characterization to women of antiquity. Other examples are Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, telling Dinah’s story in her own words, Alicia Ostriker’s ‘Jephthah’s Daughter: A Lament’ and Christa Wolf’s Cassandra and Medea.
Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon hails from Florida and in a fabulous interview containing many language (and other) gems speaks of early memories and of profound influences on her life. These include memories of racism and recollections of hitting the drop zone as a teenager, of the ‘beauty and terror’ of her Pentecostal upbringing and of working in a men’s prison.
Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon is public and vocal about being a survivor of child sexual abuse and of rape. In one of her recorded poetry readings from Black Swan she speaks also to her concern about campus rape culture. Her powerful poems break into the silence around rape, giving voice to voiceless women of the Bible and mythology and addressing abusiveness and injustice, particularly against victims of racism and of sexual violence, right up to the present.
The following poem is reproduced here with kind permission of the author. It is published in Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Black Swan (Pitt Poetry Series, edited by Ed Ochester), University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002, pp.31–36.
The Daughter and the Concubine from the Nineteenth Chapter of Judges Consider and Speak Their Minds
Behold, here is my daughter a maiden, and his concubine;
Them I will bring out now, and humble ye them,
And do with them what seemeth good unto you: But unto this man
Do not so vile a thing.
Suddenly, I am a stranger Last visit, I stayed four months
in my father’s house. in my father’s house.
His doors open to any man For that, my man calls me
off the street, he opens his mouth whore, his mouth full of bread
to make me prostitute. as this old man offers me
Pimp, he has forgotten with his daughter
my name. And how I to the hoodlums in the road.
tended his fevers, wept I have been whoring after home
at the foot of his bed, slept since the day I left.
prayers while age played I miss my daddy’s easy smile.
the fool with his body. This time he tried so hard
What thing exists too vile to make us stay, seems like
For this man he’s known he saw this coming.
one half day that be My man can talk
not too vile for me? so pretty when he wants to,
I do not need to be humbled. pretty enough
And this girl, this wayfaring to love, but I know
man’s woman who sticks so when he looks
close to the walls seems like unsatisfied. I know
she longs to slip into when he looks unsatisfied
her own shadow, she looks not to stand staring
humble down to her bones. into a man’s mouth.
But the men would not hearken to him:
So the man took his concubine, and brought her forth unto them;
And they knew her, and abused her all the night until the morning:
And when the day began to spring, they let her go.
They would have gone. I never learned but one prayer
They would have heckled the that was Daddy
house, And Daddy was answer
cursed and called until they’d quick to answer
grown And Daddy and me were praise
And Daddy was Hallelujah
bored. They might have thrown And I was Glory Glory
a stone, broken a window, but And Daddy was Great
then Day in the Morning
they would have gone And I was Yes Lord Yes
And I was a gift once
and left us alone. And I was Daddy’s to give
But he brought her to them And Daddy was joy and sorrow
the way one might drop And Daddy was Oh
my baby gal done got big
an ant into a spider’s web. And Daddy was Lord
And my father, silent, watched she done grown and gone
curious to see destruction. And Daddy said
Make that negro treat you right
It could have easily been me. And Daddy said Come back if he
It could have easily been me. don’t
It could have easily been me. And Daddy said Come anyway
I’m making your favorite
Not one creature stirs. And Daddy said Come anyway
It is as though the birds Y’all can have your old room but
no longer recognize I am in the eye of something so
morning: a cheap faint glow I am in the middle of light
haunting the eastern sky I am in the middle of something
and what is there to sing about? so
bright I can’t see day
If I had but a burrow breaking I am in the middle of
I would call myself blessed. something so bright Daddy
If I had a grave, I would climb I’m praying for night
Then came the woman in the dawning of the day,
And fell down at the door of the man’s house
Where her lord was, till it was light.
The smell of death squats Day comes like something
in every corner: this house stinks snatched from me
of men. I have to spit. I keep
My mouth keeps hearing snatches, songs
Filling with saliva. In the kitchen Precious Lord,
I hold the back of my hand take my hand
to my nose the same line keeps
and try to remember catching me
some other I am tired
smell than male I am tired
sweat and musk I am tired
and spilled semen Do not lead me
that hangs heavy to the light
in these rooms. I am afraid I am afraid
to open the windows, of what waits for me
afraid the outside air Precious Lord,
will carry the same where is my
will add to this mixture I am
And her lord rose up in the morning,
And opened the doors of the house, and went out to go his way:
And, behold, the woman his concubine was fallen down
At the door of the house, and her hands were upon the threshold.
Ground glass. Say one
Nightshade. sweet word
Pot ash. to me.
Blood tired, blood I am waiting
tired. Blood tired. to be comforted.
Polk berry. Something
Jimson weed. pretty
Snake venom. to the skin,
My father. the dirt
My God. beneath my fingernails,
Arsenic. to my mouth,
Diffenbachia. twisted and full
Monkshood. of sand,
Blood tired. Blood pretty words
tired. Blood tired. for bruises,
Ground glass. for my raw throat
Nightshade. burning. Bring flowers
Pot ash. for me like you
My God. used to.
And he said unto her, Up, and let us be going.
But none answered.
Then the man took her up upon an ass,
And the man rose up, and gat him unto his place.
And when he was come into his house,
He took a knife, and laid hold on his concubine,
And divided her, together with her bones …
Consider of it, take advice, and speak your minds.
Judges 19: 24–30
Blood I am
drips from not forsaken
block and no
to Earth war
spinning witness will silence
mud tinted my bones.
red/black This Earth
a man finds blood
his soul in remembrance
wracked and no
and one man
finger will silence it.
points back I have put
to this blood, my story
the moon my sisters’
goes down mouths
in this and we
blood, will sing
when the sun and we
refuses this will wail
blood, my soul and we
will say will shout.
Feature Image: ‘Judges 19’ by Mario Moore, 2009.