A few week ago I read Phyllis Trible's book Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. In Texts of Terror Trible reads through four stories of Old Testament women. But rather than picking your classic Sunday School "heroines" of the faith, Trible reads the stories of women who were subject to neglect, abuse, and violence. More, from a literary perspective these women are, as marginal characters, also tossed aside by the Biblical story. So in reading their stories Trible attempts to give these women a voice. The four women are:
Hagar, the concubine of Abraham who, due to Sarah's jealousy, was sent into the desert with her child to dieThese are difficult stories. And Trible's book is valuable because it keeps us, as readers, from too quickly sanitizing the Bible.
Tamar, the daughter of David who was raped by her brother
The daughter of Jephthah, who was sacrificed because of an oath made by her father
And an unnamed woman, a concubine who was gang-raped to death and then dismembered by her husband
But it's not just that the material in the Bible is shocking, pornographic or violent. The deeper problem in these stories is the misogyny we find in the text. And if we allow these women to remain voiceless, we, as readers, participate in that violence, a collective hushing of the dead. The trouble with this should be obvious: Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Blind to the sins in/of the bible we become blind to our own. Consequently, one way to redeem these stories is to read them in all of their terror. To give voice to the victims in the pages of the Bible even when the narrative hushes them. As Trible writes in her Introduction:
[This book] recounts tales of terror in memoriam to offer sympathetic readings of abused women...It interrupts stories of outrage on behalf of their female victims in order to recover a neglected history, to remember a past that the present embodies, and to pray that these terrors shall not come to pass again. In telling these sad stories, a feminist hermeneutic seeks to redeem the time.Overall, I enjoyed (if that's the word) Texts of Terror. My main criticism is that the book is theologically thin. The book mainly gives you a close reading of each story from the perspective of the female character/victim. Each chapter ends with "Reflections" or "Responses" but these sections are very short with very little by way of theology. Of course, that may be intentional on Trible's part. The stories should stand on their own, in all their horror and loose ends. Perhaps a theological coda at the end of each chapter would be inappropriate as this might allow us to escape into moralization and theorizing.
Still, these stories, in light of Trible's analysis, cry out for some extended theological reflection.
As a psychologist, I'm not the person for that job. So let me simply gesture in directions where I think theological exploration might be fruitful.
To do this, I'd like to look at one of the stories, the one about the unnamed concubine. The story is found in Judges 19. This might be the most disturbing story in the Bible. Which is why I'd like to focus on it.
The outline of the story is as follows:
A man, a Levite, brings home a concubine from Bethlehem to his home in the hills of Ephraim. For some reason she becomes angry with the man and flees back to her home in Bethlehem. The man goes after her. After many of days of haggling with her family the man finally sets out back home with her in tow. On the journey home they find themselves camping outside in the town square of Gibeah. While they are settling in for the night an old man finds them and invites them to his home for the evening. He warns them not to spend the night out in the open, presumably because the town is dangerous.What do you do with a story like this? As Trible notes about the woman in the story:
The old man's fears are validated when a crowd shows up at his house demanding that he send the Levite out so that they can have sex with him. To protect his male guest the old man offers the crowd his virgin daughter and the man's concubine. The crowd rejects the offer. But the man takes his concubine and pushes her out the door.
The men gang rape the woman through the evening, leaving her at dawn. She crawls back to the house, collapsing at the door.
When the man opens the door to leave he finds her laying in the doorway. He says to her, "Get up! Let's go!" But she doesn't answer. So he puts her on a donkey and carries her home.
Once home the man cuts up her body into twelve pieces. He then sends the twelve pieces to each of the twelve tribes to show the crimes of Gibeah. The tribes, stirred to action, gather and eventually attack the tribe of Benjamin where Gibeah was located.
Of all the characters in scripture, she is the least...She is property, object, tool, and literary device. Without name, speech, or power, she has no friends in life or to mourn her in death. Passing her back and forth among themselves, the men of Israel have obliterated her totally. Captured, betrayed, raped, tortured, murdered, dismembered, and scattered--this woman is the most sinned against.And as the one "sinned against" I found two observations made by Trible to be theologically noteworthy.
The first has to do with the dismemberment of the woman. In verse 19.29 the exact words in Hebrew are that the man took "the knife." Not a knife, but the knife. The only other time in Scripture where this phrase occurs is in Genesis 22.10, the Akedah, the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Through this similarly, we see sacrificial overtones in the death of the woman.
For what ends? A hint comes in 19.30. When the tribes receive the parts of the body, the sacrificial victim, they say:
"Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day? Consider it, take counsel, and speak out."Trible notes that the Hebrew for "consider it" (NRSV) is actually a Hebrew idiom for "turn your heart" which is followed by the phrase "to her." The pathos of the idiom and its feminine object are lost in most translations. A final act of violence against the woman by our Bibles.
But let's recover the original sense. Let's follow the command. Let us now "direct our hearts to her, to take counsel, and to speak out."
How might this look? Here's how Trible ends her chapter for this story:
First of all, we can recognize the contemporaneity of the story. 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.Amen and Amen.
I agree with Trible's analysis. But I think her conclusion could be placed on a firmer and deeper theological foundation.
Specifically, the sacrifical overtones in the story foreshadow the Passion narratives in the gospels where we encounter another victim. In both stories we see the murder of an innocent person. In both stories we see sacrificial overtones. And in both stories we are asked to remember the victim. To turn our heart toward the victim.
But in the Judges story this "remembrance" of the victim does not produce the repentance or peace that Trible calls us to. The sacrifice of the woman simply causes more violence. Judges 20.43-46:
They surrounded the Benjamites, chased them and easily overran them in the vicinity of Gibeah on the east. Eighteen thousand Benjamites fell, all of them valiant fighters. As they turned and fled toward the wilderness to the rock of Rimmon, the Israelites cut down five thousand men along the roads. They kept pressing after the Benjamites as far as Gidom and struck down two thousand more.What we see in all this, as Rene Girard has shown us, is how the "sacrifice" of the woman functions in the mode of ancient pagan sacrifice: It is an act of violence that unites the many (the tribes of Israel) against the few (the sinners of Gibeah). In the book of Judges the deep scandal of the rape and murder has gone missing (how the men in the story--host, father, husband and mob--treat the women). More, the whole story leads off in 19.1 with this observation: "In those days, Israel had no king." As Trible describes it, this whole story is just a peice of monarchical propaganda. The story is told to make the following point: Look at how bad things are without a king! Israel needs a king! What we see in this is how the death of the woman is used to justify the existence of the State. The State needs victims to justify its existence and this women does her job. Her death unites Israel behind the future king. So it was. So it remains.
On that day twenty-five thousand Benjamite swordsmen fell, all of them valiant fighters.
But in the wake of the gospel the victims have become visible. We see the bodies being sacrificed to The Powers. The death of Jesus unmasked the sacrificial mechanism. While the woman in the story is silent and overlooked we follow Jesus, step by step, through the Passion. We see, on the inside of the story, that he's innocent. We are watching from the inside of the Passion narratives the mechanisms of social, religious, and political scapegoating. And once we've seen this scapegoating machinery from the inside we can't look at the world in the same way. In a very real sense, we've seen too much. We've been unplugged from the Matrix.
So we can't help, due to the way the gospel has reconfigured our imaginations, but to focus on the woman in the middle of this story. Reading the story in the wake of the cross we can see the victim. We see her. And in seeing her clearly we can see how she's being used not only by the men in the story but by those who want to hijack moral and religious outrage for the benefit of the State.
We can see this because we've walked the Passion with Jesus and observed how the political and religious powers sacrificed him to keep their status quo. And having seen this once, we can spot this dynamic happening elsewhere. In our world today and in the book of Judges. In the wake of the gospel the entire cycle of violence in Judges 19, particularly the violence of men against women, is exposed. A violence exposed in the Eucharistic event, the "do this in memory of me," the moment when we turn our heart to the body that was broken, take counsel, and speak out.