Many women in the Bible suffer, caught in the midst of unimaginably harsh choices and pain. Think of the woman in Judges 19, whom we’ll look at today. Most Christians do not know her story, and are surprised to find it in scripture. We’ve swept the pieces of it—and her—under the collective Judeo-Christian rug for 3000 years now.
And she’s not the only one. During Lent, we’ll explore the theme of Bible women and suffering. Scripture hasn’t forgotten. And neither should we.
The woman in the midst of the conflict is a concubine, a “secondary” wife, assimilated into a household most often for the purpose of bearing children (in those days, polygamous marriages were permissible by religious and cultural law). When we catch up with her, she is living with her father, having left her husband. Given that she has lived with her father for four months sans husband, there is some some indication that she has left him. Some texts of the Bible say that she has “prostituted herself.” Other texts (Greek translations and the NRSV) say that she has angered him.
(Through a 21st century lens, questions of domestic violence raise themselves. Perhaps she was fleeing an already-abusive situation. Seems likely, but we will never know.)
Her father appears to be happy to see the husband, and encourages him to stay night after night before he returns to his home in Judah. Finally, the husband (a member of the Levite tribe) leaves with the woman in tow. We do not hear from her at this point in the story. Sadly, we do not hear from her at all, for words she may have said were never recorded in scripture; she is a silent presence in the Bible. She dutifully accompanies her husband back to their home in Ephraim; she has no choice.
In the city of Gibeah, where the couple arrives after the sun goes down, shelter cannot be found. Relief is palpable when an old man, also from Ephraim, invites them to spend the night. While they are eating, local men from the tribe of Benjamin (the city of Gibeah is in Benjamite territory) begin prowling outside like wild animals, demanding that that husband be turned over to them. The threat of rape is clear. The old man refuses to send out his male guests, offering his virgin daughter and the concubine instead. (Clearly, hospitality in those days was not as we understand it today.)
And then the door opens. Like meat to a wolf pack, the wife is thrown outside, and raped throughout the night. No word is heard from inside the home. At daybreak, her husband finds her clinging to the doorpost, kicks her, and is rather (unbelievably) surprised when she does not answer.
It is hard to believe this story can get worse. But it does. When she does not respond (who would?), he throws her across his donkey, takes her home, and then dismembers her body, sending one piece to each of the twelve tribes of Israel.
This is one of the most brutal stories in the Bible. Lots of places to go here with commentary, but as this is a blog post, and not a book, let me be short:
1) Historically, this story joins a raft of others in the time of the Judges — a terribly dark period in Israel’s history, (roughly 1400-1000 BCE). Violence, whispers of human sacrifice, temple prostitution, and schisms between the twelve tribes of Israel threaten to wipe out the Hebrew people. Finally, because things are so broken, God grants them a monarch (King David, in 1000 BCE, is the first). While violence does not end, Israel becomes more united as a nation, militarily and politically.
2) Domestic violence, rape, murder and oppression are not just 21st century events; obviously they have been happening for thousands of years. But then as now, they are just as wrong—and ignoring such stories in the Bible diminishes opportunities for teaching and healing. It’s time to learn them, discuss them, ponder them, and pray about them. (More about other such stories in the next few weeks here.)
The woman’s words were not seen as important enough to record, and she was left unnamed in the text. Yet her story was told. Whatever the circumstances, whatever the interpretation, her story remains in the text of our sacred canon. We honor her.
3) This, as some would believe, is not a demonstration that the Bible hates women, or that God desires women to be second-class citizens. Rather, this is why Jesus came: to heal a broken and hurting world.
4) Her story is seen, and rightfully so, as one of the “texts of terror” described by Phyllis Trible in her groundbreaking book by the same name. Trible wisely says that “sad stories do not have happy endings,” and “to seek the redemption of these stories in the resurrection is perverse.” I hear her point, and respect it.
5) Yet our faith IS one of redemption. The concubine’s story is not just a teaching moment. The woman is not lost to pain and darkness forever. Because our faith story does include the story of Christ, the woman is not washed away on the sands of despair, never to be found, never to be brought back from darkness. And for me, that healing does come with the birth of Jesus, with the new world order, with the possibility of life after death.
6) After being haunted by her agony for years, here’s how I have come to picture healing and redemption for her:
The concubine who was raped and then divided into pieces has been made whole…and when Jesus died, he searched for her, found her, brushed his hand against her forehead to heal her memories, then gave her his arm…and entered heaven with her at his side.
Photo: Barbara Lang Dundon. Philadelphia.