We Can't Ignore Rape in the Bible, Not If We Want to End Sexual Violence | CBE International

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We Can't Ignore Rape in the Bible, Not If We Want to End Sexual Violence

On November 29, 2018

Trigger warning: This article recounts Bible passages that contain graphic violence against women. Read with caution.  

I’m a first year student in Divinity School with less money in my bank account than I’d like, so I work the occasional night shift at the college library. I return home at 4 am, traveling alone in the university’s taxi service. I’m on edge the whole time, keys and phone in hand and a potential escape route planned—just in case. History dictates that women don’t have the luxury to not do this type of mental preparation. We live with the real possibility of violence every day. And actually, that shared female experience shapes how I read and interpret the Bible, especially stories that include sexual violence.

A professor in my program recently assigned a reading and reflection on Judges 19, which recounts the rape, torture, and murder of an unnamed woman. The unnamed woman is identified as the concubine of a Levite guest staying at an old man’s home for a night. A mob arrives, demanding to rape the Levite guest, but the owner of the home intervenes. He offers up his daughter and the guest’s concubine to the angry crowd instead. They then rape and kill the unnamed woman.

Later, her “husband” cuts her body into twelve pieces and sends the pieces to the twelve tribes of Israel in order to highlight the atrocity. Not only does the woman in the story experience unfathomable violence, but her body is then further dehumanized and violated. Her violent death is leveraged to send a message. Even in death, she can’t escape the reach of misogyny.

The passage affected me more than I’d have liked. I felt sick-to-my-stomach for several days. I fought tears whenever a classmate brought up the Old Testament reading in casual conversation. I had nightmares in which I was the “unnamed woman” in Judges. The prospect of returning home after my overnight shift prompted violent anxiety.

For over an hour, my roommates sat with me as I unraveled what I was feeling. We talked through the Judges passage and my response, and they affirmed my unease. They laid hands and prayed for me, against my fear and for protection on my way home. Each of us prayed for the rest of our classmates as they studied the passage.

They helped me realize why I responded so intensely to the rape, torture, and dismembering of the “unnamed woman” in Judges 19. Because her trauma is not a distant reality of the past. Thousands of years later, her trauma is still our trauma. Her fear is our fear. It’s present and personal—and visceral. It‘s that feeling of anxiety when we get an Uber alone, that uneasy glance behind when we walk to our cars in parking garages, that knowledge that we can’t run outside now that the evenings are darker.

In her book, Texts of Terror, feminist theologian Phyllis Trible analyzes Judges 19. She writes:

“Misogyny belongs to every age, including our own. Violence and vengeance are not just characteristics of a distant, pre-Christian past; they infect the community of the elect to this day. Woman as object is still captured, betrayed, raped, tortured, murdered, dismembered, and scattered. To take to heart this ancient story, then, is to confess its present reality. The story is alive, and all is not well. Beyond confession we must take counsel to say ‘Never again’. Yet this counsel is itself ineffectual unless we direct our hearts to that most uncompromising of all biblical commands, speaking the word not to others but to ourselves: Repent. Repent.”  

During our class discussions, it became clear that Tribble is right. Misogyny is alive and it’s thriving. One of my male classmates informed me that he hadn’t considered how the unnamed woman was dehumanized, how her personhood was violated. Misogyny allows us to read such a horrific account and still overlook women’s trauma and personhood. Rather than lamenting how patriarchal violence cost the unnamed woman her life, our class discussion revolved around how Phyllis Trible “placed blame” on everyone in the story—including the narrator and God.

It was a difficult hour.

During the discussion, I was painfully aware that I sat alongside Christians who subscribe to a complementarian view of womanhood and who believe the #metoo movement is unnecessarily political. I wondered if one of them might one day give a sermon on Judges 19—in a church with no women leaders and to a room filled with survivors of violence.

The lack of empathy demonstrated for the unnamed woman was excruciating to witness because it underlines one of the biggest problems facing our church: collective lack of attention to and empathy toward women. When we dehumanize women in the everyday interactions of the church, we feed misogyny. When we demean, sexualize, silence, and overlook women in our congregations—as leaders and as people—we lay the ideological and theological foundations for abuse and violation. And when we reduce Bible passages depicting terrible violence to products of an “ancient time,” we become blind to present injustice.

There are many more “unnamed women” in the church. This is why we desperately need the story of Judges 19 in the church today. We need to practice listening to women’s pain and acknowledging women’s trauma, and that starts with how we read and apply Scripture.

The concluding verse of the unnamed woman’s story makes a compelling plea: “Consider it, take counsel, and speak out” (Judges 19:30, NRSV).” For the sake of the unnamed woman in Judges 19 and for all the unnamed women today, it’s time we “consider, take counsel, and speak out” against misogyny and sexual violence.

Huddled in our small apartment, praying for our Old Testament classes, we did just that. We gathered together to consider the horror the “unnamed woman” endured, we took counsel from one another, and now, we will speak out.

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