Today we conclude the Subversive Women of the Bible Sermon series with this, the absolutely worst story in the Bible. Unfortunately the story doesn’t really end where we leave it, and it does keep getting worse. Our heroine is certainly subversive, but unfortunately her subversion is not the final word; the final word is violence.
Phyllis Trible is a feminist Biblical Scholar whose career included teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York and Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, NC. In 1984 she published Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives in which she carefully explains and comments on four “texts of terror” in the Bible. This is, of course, one of them. She opens the chapter on this story with these words:
“The betrayal, rape, torture, murder, and dismemberment of an unnamed woman is a story we want to forget but are commanded to speak. It depicts the horrors of male power, brutality, and triumphalism; of female helplessness, abuse, and annihilation. To hear this story is to inhabit a world of unrelenting terror that refuses to let us pass by on the other side.”1
Unrelenting terror is a reasonable description of this story. I think that she oversimplifies the gendered aspects of power and abuse, but only from a modern perspective. From within the story her description is right on, from within life in the United States now it is both true and untrue. We want to be careful with that today, because this story is strikingly relevant to life. Trible ends her chapter on this story saying:
“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 not all is 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.”2
Let’s take a little bit of time to highlight the big questions in this story and clarify some of the confusing parts. To begin with, a “concubine” is a second class wife. Trible says, “Legally and socially, she is not the equivalent of a wife, but is virtually a slave, secured by a man for his own purposes.”3 Other famous concubines in the Bible include Hagar, and the maidservants of Rachel and Leah. Our heroine’s status as concubine leads to the subversive action that takes place, one that is so radical that no one even tries to figure it out.
The concubine leaves. She leaves her husband, but that wasn’t done. It couldn’t be done. At that time, and by later Torah regulations, only men had the right to initiate divorce. A wife couldn’t leave. This feels way MORE true for a concubine, a second class wife, one who lacked even the dignity and respect given to first class wives who had close to no power to begin with. Leaving husbands wasn’t a thing. And the story says she left, got to her father’s house, and stayed for FOUR MONTHS. This heroine left her husband.
I’m not really sure why her father sheltered her, doing put him into a power battle with her husband when her husband had the legal upper hand. It is possible that this woman lied to her father and told him that her husband had divorced her, or even that her husband HAD divorced her and changed his mind. The father seems to be trying to buy her time when her husband arrives. Her father seems to be trying to keep her sheltered. That’s notable.
I don’t know what it would take for a woman, a concubine, to leave her husband at that time. It seems likely that many concubines were raped and abused, particularly since most women got no choice in their marriages. It seems fair to assume she was being abused, yet most women accepted the social norms that kept them in place and didn’t leave to try to stop it. The biggest question is why this woman was so brave! She left. And it seems like it almost works, but eventually he decides he wants her back. This whole things feels like the cycle of abuse. Likely the motivation for this woman to leave was that the last incident of abuse was so terrible that the next one was going to be deadly. (Terrifying how powerful the norms were that only she is said to leave.)
Trible points out that in Hebrew the woman’s “master” (her word) is said to come after her to “speak to her heart, to bring her back.”4This, too, is part of a cycle of abuse. The text never says he actually does so, but the speaking kindly after abuse is part of the cycle. When the husband/master gets to his concubine’s father’s house, he seems open to flattery and being treated well. The woman’s father is able to keep them for several days, I suspect at great expense. If her father had been wealthy, she would not have been a concubine. Yet the food and wine flow freely, and the husband/master struggles to leave the comfortable living.
Finally he breaks free, but does so too late to complete the journey in one day. This seems like a good point to acknowledge that some parts of this story are mean to villify King Saul. This is yet another piece of “David is God’s choosen King” propaganda. The strongest theme in the book of Judges is that the people do evil things without a King, and they need a King. However, multiple parts of this story connect King Saul to the terror and evil of this story: he is said to be from the Tribe whose lands it happens on, his capital is in the city it happens in, a village named later is also relevant in his leadership. Some of this story is anti-Saul propaganda, but it isn’t at all clear which parts. I’m choosing to assume that the propaganda is ONLY in connecting Saul to the story, because I find the story uncomfortably plausible.
The man, his servant, his donkeys, and his concubine arrive in the Benjaminite village of Gibeah rather late and no one invited them in to their homes. This is already evil in the eyes of people for whom hospitality was the highest form of morality. Finally, another outsider, an older man, acknowledges them and the two men talk. Terrifying, as Trible points out, the husband/master “refers to his own concubine as the old man’s property, thereby offering her as bait”.5 Once they are in, the story starts to sound strikingly like the story of Sodom in Genesis 19. They eat, drink, and are merry until an angry male mob appears at the door and demands the opportunity to rape the newcomer. It continues with the resonance of Genesis 19. The host offers women instead. In Genesis it was two virgin daughters, here it is one virgin daughter and the concubine. The host negotiates, and it is terrifying. Trible writes:
“No restrictions whatsoever does this lord place upon the use of the two women. Instead he gives the wicked men a license to rape them. His final words of negative command emphasize again the point of it all. ‘But to this man do not do this vial thing.’ If done to a man, such an act is a vile thing; if done to women it is ‘the good’ in the eyes of men. Thus the old man mediates between males to give each side what it wants. No male is to be violated. All males, even wicked ones, are to be granted their wishes. Conflict among them can be solved with the sacrifice of females.”6
In Genesis, the messengers of God intervene and no one is harmed. In Johnathan Kirsh’s book The Harlot at the Side of the Road, he writes, “From what we recall about the intervention of the angels in Sodom, we do not really expect the young women in Gibeah to be cast into the arms of the mob – something, angelic or human, will spare them at the very last moment.”7 Nothing does.
Instead, the husband/master seizes the concubine and throws her out to the men who rape and torture her until sunrise. As light dawns she summons all of her remaining strength to find her way back to the home where her husband/master was, and fell on the threshold of the home. The story indicates he slept just fine, and when he woke up he decided to go on his way. He seems a bit annoyed to find her blocking his way on the doorstep, but he doesn’t let it slow him down. To this woman who he had pushed out the door, who fought her way back after an unspeakably terrible night, he says, “Get up, we are going.” There is no answer. The text seems intentionally vague about when she dies. Trible says, “Her silence, be it exhaustion or death, deters the master not at all.”8 Her death may be after she gets to the threshold. It may be on the journey. It may not be until he takes his knife to cut her into pieces. At the end of this harrowing story, she is dead. It seems to me that if she hadn’t left, this would have been her fate. In leaving she gained herself months of freedom from abuse and hope. Her husband/master was going to kill her. As it happened, he used her to protect himself, nonchalantly. That protection she offered him either killed her, or he did anyway in the end. Their reunion was only a source of violence and terror for her.
Afterward he sends out the pieces of her body to the 12 tribes and call them together to tell his story, but he tells it quite differently than Judges 19 does. When he tells it, he looks better. In both his telling and the responses of the tribes, it is clear that the objections are to: the lack of hospitality, the threat to the man’s well-being, and his loss of property with what was done to the concubine. The horror and the response in the text are not because of what SHE lived through. (Mine is.) In fact, the next two chapters continue the story with civil war, massacre, and at least 600 more women being raped. Still, the narrator remains unconcerned about the women.
The story says that when her body is sent out the Israelites are instructed to “consider, take counsel, and speak out.” Trible responds, “’Direct your heart to her, take counsel, and speak.’ From their ancient setting, these imperatives move into the present, challenging us to answer anew. … Truly, to speak for this woman is to interpret against the narrator, plot, other characters, and the biblical tradition because they have shown her neither compassion nor attention.”9
Another feminist author writes, “The ideologies expressed through these [stories] are both degrading and deadly for women.”10 This is the problem. If this story had happened once, it would be enough to be an atrocity. However, this story is common enough. According to research done by the Center for Disease Control, “Intimate partner contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/ or stalking was experienced by 37.3% of U.S. women during their lifetime…and 30.9% of U.S. Men.”11 At its extreme, it is as deadly as this story.
This man used his partner’s body for his own protection. It seems almost certain there had been previous violence toward her, and the way he treats her during and after this episode is a further experience of abuse and violence. While he didn’t get financial gain from it, only protect, I think it is fair to say that this man sexually trafficked his concubine. He used the power he had over her and her body for his well-being.
Sexual trafficking hasn’t stopped since those ancient times. According to The Atlantic, sexual trafficking today is a business worth $150 billion worldwide, and most of those who are trafficked are minors.12 Worse yet, the laws and the ways they’re implemented make those who are trafficked more vulnerable to arrest than those who traffick them.
This is a modern story set in a far away time. This text of terror to this one nameless wordless woman is a terrifyingly common and universal story. And, to the depth of my being, I believe that God is horrified. And when God is horrified, God’s people are being called to change horrible realities. While my heart is with this nameless heroine, much of my curiosity focuses on her husband. Like many people who are human trafficked, she used all the power she had to get free and the system pulled her back in. I want to know why her husband so deeply devalued her, and what was so broken in him!
Similarly, I want to know what would have stopped that mob in Gibeah from wanting to rape? In today’s terms, what would stop adult men (it is nearly always men, but not always always men) from paying money to rape children? I don’t entirely know, despite pontificating about this for most of a year. If we want a final word other than violence, these are the things I know: taking women’s points of view in stories helps us understand their experiences and moves us toward gender equality; cultures that have more respect for woman and greater gender equality have fewer instances of intimate partner violence and rape; talking about texts of terror and horrifying realities is imperative if we want to be part of changing those realities.
This sermon series has been LONG. I think many of us have been tired of it at points, and I don’t mind if you celebrate its end. This feels like an odd text to end with, but I’m still trying to respond to Pete Huston asking about the women whose stories aren’t told. Those women are all too often reflected in this nameless and wordless woman’s story. They are all a call to action for us, a reminder that while it may get annoying to talk about women, sexism, and misogyny for a WHOLE YEAR, taking up our part in addressing and working toward ending such injustices necessitates that we talk about and acknowledge them.
Over this year, it has been through taking the points of view of biblical characters that we have been trained and conditioned not to notice, that we have have been able to see and learn so much from stories we thought we knew! For me it been a transformational opportunity to hear the Bible anew, and to finally meet heroines who have been hiding in plain site all along. I hope transformation will stay, even as we leave the sermon series behind.
There is, of course, plenty of work still to be done in relation to the injustices created by sexism, misogyny and patriarchy, and it still very much matters. May God guide us all to do the work. Amen
1Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1984) 65.
7Jonathan Kirsch, The Harlot By the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible (Ballantine Books: New York, 1997) 244.
10Kirsch quoting Tapp, 253.
11Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2010-2012 State Report tps://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/NISVS-StateReportBook.pdf
12Pricilla Alvarez, “When Sex Trafficking Goes Unnoticed in America” in The Atlantic (Feb. 23, 2016) found at https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/02/how-sex-trafficking-goes-unnoticed-in-america/470166/ on September 14, 2017. Statistic comes from International Labour Organization http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_243201/lang–en/index.htm
Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305
September 17. 2017