In her book by the same name, Phyllis Trible calls today’s text one of the biblical “texts of terror.” And for good reason. This passage from the book of Judges describes the brutal rape and dismemberment of a nameless woman. What starts as a domestic dispute will eventually become civil war in Israel with countless casualties.
And yet, that is not completely accurate either. Because this domestic dispute has a source. Too often—and errantly– the blame has been place on the woman which we shall see in a moment. Even before the woman argues with her husband and takes refuge with her father for 4 months in Bethlehem, something goes horrifically wrong within the human heart before it goes wrong in human relationships. A clue begins the passage where we read, “In those days, when there was no king in Israel.” The book of Judges repeats this verse several times throughout and will end with “those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” With no centralized authority or covenantal ethic, the people—a people supposedly of God and for God—grow increasingly wayward, increasingly prone to dehumanizing others, avoiding responsibility for their crimes, and blaming others for their own sin and inappropriate conduct.
Why should we read this story? Why is this horror part of our bible? Why must we teach this story to each other, and to our daughters and sons? Those are tough questions to answer; in part, I think because the story requires quite a bit of unpacking. In 15 years of ministry, I have not preached on this text. It is not part of our lectionary and honestly, many pastors, including myself, have had justified qualms about unnecessarily upsetting their congregation with a text that does not mention God. And then, there are numerous subtleties to the text, which must be addressed in study, including differing translations, conflicting on-going scholarship, and a contextual history which can be viewed, at first glance, as far different from our own. But I believe that we often avoid it because we want to avoid the harsh reality that it describes and would rather lift up those stories which have a more palatable ending.
Yesterday, I was in Baltimore at the Embassy Suites for a Central Atlantic Conference meeting as one of your representatives. In one of the primary rooms where we gathered, high ceilings, chandeliers, and matching cool temperatures were prevalent. Along one wall, from floor to ceiling, were mirrors which were hard to ignore. It was even called the Mirrored Room. All weekend I glanced in those mirrors as the Minister and General President of our denomination spoke about our churches, our mission, and rediscovering our purpose. And I thought about our shared bible and how our bible is a collective book of mirrors which, properly understood, helps us to see both the best and worst of the human condition, and everything in between—in ourselves, in our communities, and in our treatment of those regarded as the least and last.
As Trible writes, “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.”
There are numerous but subtle clues as to how this story unfolds as it does and why. But isn’t that true of most of our personal and collective stories, particularly the difficult, hard, and complex stories gathered over a lifetime? One thinks of our national cherished tradition of Thanksgiving. On one hand we have a beautiful story of cooperation, gratitude for God’s blessings, and differing peoples coming together over a shared meal. However, seen in a different light, we have a history of the near decimation of a native people, sharpened hostilities, the spreading of disease, the promulgation of eminent domain, and the subordination of one people’s needs and desires over another. What story is told and what is left out?
A Levite has an intimate relationship with a concubine from Bethlehem. The Levite is an honored and privileged member of society, from the priestly class, and would have been wealthy enough to afford a concubine. He would have been a person to be regarded highly. In contrast, a concubine was seen as a wife of secondary rank—not a wife with the privileges of a first wife, but more as a sex slave. The Levite who should know and act better does not…he likely has this woman for his own use, for his own pleasure. Mutuality does not factor into the equation for him.
In the past, due to mistranslations of the text, the concubine was blamed for being unfaithful to the Levite which was seen as a precipitating factor in the story. Yet in other translations which are more faithful to the original text, the concubine gets angry with her so-called husband, and after the dispute, she takes refuge in her father’s house. Some texts say that she fled or ran away, others say she “went away.” In any case, the dispute was significant enough to cause her to return to her father’s house. In those days, Israelite law did not allow for a wife to divorce her husband—the action would have made her an adulteress, hence the translation problem with a particular word that can mean either “unfaithful” or “angry.” Furthermore, it was very possible at that time for a poor family to sell their female child to a man to be his concubine. So, essentially, this concubine takes the initiative to leave, which was unusual; she runs home to her father, and quite possibly to the very man who sold her in the first place.
Then, we read how the Levite decides—4 months later– that he wants her back and there begins a back and forth for 5 days between the concubine’s father and the Levite. Each time, the father delays the Levite from leaving again with his daughter. Ostensibly, the Levite has come to Bethlehem to “speak tenderly to her and bring her back” and the Hebrew text specifically says, “speak to her heart.” However, the only speaking occurs between the two men as they tussle over the daughter’s fate. We never hear from the woman and one wonders if her father doesn’t also fear for the woman’s safety by showing his reluctance to send the Levite and her so-called husband away.
But they finally leave, and after doing so, the Levite and his party have a long journey ahead of them and need to find a hospitable place to spend the night in safety. We recollect the birth story of our savior and having no room at the inn. They have the opportunity to stay in Jerusalem, but the Levite refuses to enter Jerusalem because he says it is a city of foreigners and he doesn’t want to stay among foreigners (another ironic prejudice). Instead, he presses on ahead to Gibeah, a town of the tribe of Benjamin. But, there, even among some of their fellow Israelites, no one in the village offers hospitality. It is another sojourner, a migrant if you will, who is temporarily lodged there, and who offers them lodging. This is another clue as to what is happening in the text; during this time in Judges, those who said they followed God, were not offering the hospitality that the law required, even to their own. Instead, it was an old man—this migrant– who opened his home.
Another clue comes when the Levite basically tells the old man who does offer hospitality, that he and his family—which include his concubine, a couple of donkeys, and a male attendant—won’t be too much of a burden. Interestingly, when the Levite describes his concubine, he says “your maidservant” in some translations, which actually offers his concubine to the old man as a kind of property to be shared.
That night, horror happens. The men of this town encircle the old man’s house and demand that he turn over the Levite guest so that the men might rape the guest. In this, the passage is meant to echo another story from Genesis about Sodom and Gomorrah. The corrupt men of this time would demonstrate their superior power/status by making other men—particularly the vulnerable male stranger, slave, or captive an inferior through intercourse. Again, this is a misuse of power meant to demean the male stranger and not an ancient statement on same gender loving relationships of mutuality.
What happens next also throws the old man into question and also harkens back to the Sodom and Gomorrah passage as the old man who initially shows a generous hospitality actually offers his virgin daughter and the concubine to alternatively placate the villagers’ demands. When this is refused, the Levite takes matters into his own hands, seizes his concubine, and shoves her thru the door to spare his honor and to satiate an evil mob. We also recall a suffering servant who would be later scapegoated to a blood-thirsty mob.
We recall that the Levite, in going to Bethlehem, originally sought to speak to his concubine’s heart, but when he was endangered, he throws her to the evil men outside to be gang raped. In no instance do the men of this story offer to protect the women. The male is valued over and above the female who is objectified and seen as a tool to placate mens’ desires.
In the morning, the concubine will lie outside the home on the threshold unable to move or speak. We don’t know if she is dead or alive; the text is purposely ambiguous. Even so, the Levite will callously tell her to “get up” as they are going. And when the Levite returns home, he will do the unthinkable—he will dismember her body and send a piece of her to all the tribes of Israel as a sign that he is the actual aggrieved party, as a call to action, making her but a prop for an indicting agenda. He will insist that the Benjaminites solely did him this wrong, but he conveniently leaves out his own complicity and thereby obstructs justice.
We have to read further in the bible to understand, but when the Israelites ask how this criminal act came about in the next chapter, here is the Levite’s response:
“I came to Gibeah that belongs to Benjamin I and my concubine, to spend the night. 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. Then I took my concubine and cut her into pieces, and sent her throughout the whole extent of Israel’s territory; for they have committed a vile outrage in Israel…”
Notice that the Levite does not mention his action in thrusting his concubine thru the door. No mention of how the men of Gibeah sought to “know” him, and no mention of the fact that his concubine had fled from him in anger in the first place.
And if we read even further in this terrible story, we see how this action (prompted by the Levite) leads to civil war and the further rape, murder, and victimization of nearly six hundred women.
So why do we read this? Where is God’s grace? There is grace in remembering that we are quite capable of similar behavior in today’s world. As the #metoo movement continues to sensitize others to the prevalence of our rape culture in American society and diverse women bring forth personal story after story and allegations of sexual misconduct against prominent male leaders in every sector of society, we must confront how we teach our children – both male and female—about intimacy, respect for boundaries, and about confessing wrong-doing even and especially when it comes with a private cost to bear.
As this story shows, domestic violence and a culture that tolerates rape is problematic for everyone, regardless of gender. It is amazingly difficult for women—and men—to leave their abusers and society often blames the victim, rather than assisting a victim, or seeing how our society has contributed to the problem.
One of the statistics that I found intriguing at the Central Atlantic Conference meeting concerned the use of the OWL (Our Whole Lives) Curriculum which is a joint curriculum formed by the Unitarian Universalists and the United Church of Christ about sexual health and behavior. This curriculum has been in circulation for years; however, of all the congregations that have used it, over 90% of Unitarian Universalist congregations have used the curriculum, but only 5% of UCC churches. I wonder why we are so hesitant to teach our children respect for their own and other people’s bodies, and mutuality in human intimacy. Nature abhors a vacuum and if we don’t teach our children such respect, how can we expect them to stand up for themselves, or to recognize unhealthy, abusive relationships or the misuse of power in relationships before they begin or before abuse becomes entrenched?
When the Levite sends the concubine’s broken body to the 12 tribes of Israel, he speaks true, but ironic words as a message of warning. He says, “Thus, you shall say to all the Israelites, ‘Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day?”
Yes, we are saying, such things have happened on our watch and continue to this day. We refuse to support a rape culture that teaches that “boys will be boys,” and that the woman is to be blamed for her proximity, attractiveness, availability, or attributes. We refuse to go placidly along with an unspoken or biblical mandate that women are to be submissive or to be solely responsible for a peaceful homelife. We refuse to turn our heads away from intimate partner violence and prominent leaders, whether Democrat or Republican, who misuse their power to reduce women to body parts used for their pleasure or demonstrations of power. We refuse to allow political or religious leaders to somehow justify pedophilia, molestation, or rape by saying that the bible condones such a relationship because Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an older man.
The Levite at the end of this passage ironically says, “Consider it, take counsel, and speak out.”
Yes, we must answer, “We shall.” Even and especially when it is hard. Even and especially when children are listening. Even and especially when we know to expect better from ourselves and our leaders.
To not speak out is allow the violence to continue unabated and to teach that God is silent on such matters.
To not speak out is to be complicit in that silence.
 Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984) 65.