Why in the world is this story in the Bible?
And why are we reading it in a worship service?
A man taking a concubine, angering her then trying to win her back, schmoozing with the girl’s father and regaining the girl, needing a place to stay and being given no hospitality, taken in by an old man who at first appears to be a god-send. A mob pounding on the door demanding a body to abuse, the old man now only concerned with protecting one of his guests, and himself. The girl being seized and thrown out to pacify the mob, which unleashes its brutality against her. And finally, a breaking apart of the abused body, each part sent out as a gruesome message to the different tribes of Israel.
Let me ask again: Why in the world is this story in the Bible? Of all the stories Israel could have told about its history, its identity, its coming to be as a people, why include this one? And dare we remember it and contemplate it in church?
Let me ask the question another way: What if this story wasn’t in the Bible? What if something like this had actually happened – one, or a thousand times – and did not get told. What if these kinds of stories were silenced, edited out of the official records, swept neatly under the rug in the attempt to convince the world that the house is clean and there is nothing to see here, nothing wrong here. If this story wasn’t in the Bible, wasn’t a part of the official memory of the people of Israel, wasn’t in front of our face, would these kinds of brutally painful stories just go away?
For the last number of years we have chosen to observe Blue Sunday, the last Sunday in April, whose purpose is raising awareness and compassionate response to child abuse. This past week was also National Crime Victim’s Rights Week. And Thursday, Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky observed Take Back the Night – a vigil raising awareness of sexual assault and domestic violence against women and men. Perhaps some of you donated T-Shirts for that event. This story in Judges addresses abuse of all kinds – verbal, emotional, physical, sexual.
These are hard, difficult things to talk about. It would be easier not to.
I confess to a fair amount of trembling this past week in preparing for this service, recognizing that it will be almost impossible to not say something that will be hurtful or insensitive to someone. We are talking about it today – or at least attempting to do so – because it’s real. Because, as sad and angering as it is, it happens. And we feel like church is a place where we can talk about things that are real. Things that we might rather keep hidden. As our Safe Sanctuary committee reminds us, we are committed to church being a safe place. Throughout the week I have sought counsel from different ones of you. We come at this from many different perspectives and experiences. We share a common hope.
In many ways, this is an anonymous story. A Levite from the remote hill country of Ephraim. A woman from Bethlehem in Judah. Her father. A servant and two donkies. An old man. Men of the city. And, in the end, all the Israelites. An asterisk at the beginning of the story could read: names have been omitted to protect the identity of those involved. Even so, these aren’t generic, made up characters. They are real people from real places having real experiences and carrying with them the real effects of these experiences.
On Monday news came out of another rape in India, this time of a girl considerably younger than the 23 year old who on December 16th suffered a gang rape, later dying from these wounds. Public outcry is shedding light on an issue that has lived in the shadows, now declared “serious and widespread.”
The most recent issue of the Mennonite World Review reports that Mennonite Central Committee had representatives at the March gathering of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The article says: “This year’s theme, ‘Elimination and Prevention of All Forms of Violence Against Women and Girls,’ brought 6000 women from nongovernmental organizations around the world. They passionately shared their stories, experiences, and tireless efforts to end violence against women.” (MWR, April 15, 2013 edition, p. 5)
The statistics in the US are sobering. By the age 18, 1 in 4 girls, and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused. If we are not ourselves a survivor of abuse, we very likely know someone who is. It affects us all – our close and extended family, our society, our own psyches.
As horrific as the story in Judges 19 is, it does not contain the kind of details we have come to expect in the way we tell stories and report events. That, and the cultural distance we have from it, prompts questions of all kinds.
A Levite from the north, Ephraim, takes a concubine from the south, Bethlehem, but we don’t know anything else about this arrangement – how did it come about? A concubine is something like a wife of secondary status, but what all did that entail?
The woman becomes angry with this man and leaves him, for reasons we are not told. Legally unable to divorce, it’s a bold move on her part. She returns to another man, her father, under whose authority she previously belonged before the arrangement with the Levite. Is this a refuge, or does she have no other place to go? The husband sets out after her, in the words of the NRSV, “to speak tenderly to her and bring her back.” In a more literal translation of the Hebrew – “to speak unto her heart, to cause her to return.” It’s the same phrase used in Isaiah chapter 40, when the Lord instructs the prophet in his task: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” “Speak unto the heart of Jerusalem.” Does the husband go as the prophet goes, to compassionately win back a partner who has been wronged? Or is this sweet talk? Is this the nice face of a troubled man who wants something that has been taken away from him and goes to get it back by whatever means, even kindness?
The girl’s father greets him with joy and lavishes food and drink on him, his servant, and his animals, insisting that he stay as long as possible. Is this extravagant, selfless hospitality, or is this the way that deals get made and wrongs get smoothed over by heads of household? Is this the father’s way of winning the heart of his son-in-law?
We aren’t told any of this. There is room for interpretation. The man takes his concubine, his servant and donkeys, and heads out. They will need a place to stay for night, but don’t want to stay among the foreigners of Jebus, so travel on to Gibeah, a town belonging to the tribe of Benjamin. There they go to the town square as travelers would do, waiting for someone to take them in and give them shelter.
If you’re thinking that you’re pretty sure you haven’t heard this story before, but that the last half of it somehow sounds vaguely familiar, you could be right on both accounts. This story bears striking resemblance to the more familiar and more often told story of Sodom in Genesis 19. Genesis 19 and Judges 19. In Genesis it is old Abraham and Sara who have given respite to three wondering angels, like the father in law giving hospitality to the Levite. Here, the gesture of hospitality from the hosts appears to be sincere and genuine. But the guests must move on, and two of the angels come to the city of Sodom. Like the Levite and woman, they go to the place where travelers would gather to be welcomed by the locals. In Sodom, Abraham’s nephew Lot takes in the angels, now simply referred to as men. In Gibeah, an old man eventually comes along and welcomes the weary travelers into his house. In both stories, they wash their feet, they settle in, they have food and drink as night falls. But things turn ominous. The visitors have been spotted. A crowd from the city gathers outside the door. They are crazed and filled with lust. They want a body to abuse. The host – Lot, the old man – goes out to try and speak some reason into them. The crowd only gets more energized.
Sodom is remembered as an evil, depraved city. It is soon destroyed by sulfur and fire that rain down from the skies. It came to be associated with the “sin of homosexuality” since it was men they were demanding to abuse. The prophet Ezekiel remembers it otherwise. He says, in 16:49, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
Here’s the thing, and here’s where the stories take different paths. In Sodom, the physical and sexual abuse never happen. Here’s how Genesis says it, after Lot has gone out to speak to the mob: “Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down. But the men inside – the angels –reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.”
In Genesis, in Sodom, there are angels who intervene. Lot is protected. All his family and guests are protected, and there is no gross violation that takes place.
In Judges, in Gibeah, there are no angels.
There is no intervention. There are no guardians standing at the door holding back the mob, protecting the vulnerable. And in the absence of such a presence, there is a brutal act of violence against an unnamed woman. The old man and the Levite are “safe” on the other side of the door, and outside the door there are no whistle blowers in the crowd.
Where are the angels?
There are plenty of questions that this text bring up, but one thing certain enough, which you may have noticed in the reading of it, is that never, not once, do we hear the voice of the woman, or the girl, however old she was. The concubine. She is silent throughout the entire story.
As we were preparing for this service we pondered whether or not the woman should be present in the reading of the text. Should someone just stand there, silently, to acknowledge the life being spoken about? Are there different gestures that this person could do throughout the reading to communicate her experience – anger when she leaves her husband, despondence when he “wins her back” from her father, horror, death? Do we give her movement, powerfully moving among the readers – dancing, twirling, resisting, raising her arms up to heaven in an unanswered prayer? What would it be like if, during the reading, it would start with one woman, and, throughout the reading, she would be joined by others, standing, moving, dancing with her, maybe by the end the whole congregation is moving in step, in solidarity. These would be powerful and emotional portrayals, but, for our worship this morning, we decided to have her silent, as she is in the text.
The text does not give us one sentence, one word, one cry from this woman. Nothing. And yet, it is she, the silent one, the broken one, who is at the center of this story.
If you think you haven’t heard this story before, but that it sounds vaguely familiar, you’re right. It bears striking resemblance to a much more familiar story that the church, through the centuries, has insisted on telling.
One month ago, on March 28, a group of us gathered here in the evening, circled together. It was Maundy Thursday. And we read through the events of the final day of Jesus’ life – those difficult and painful events that we have perhaps become so accustomed to hearing that they have lost their edge for how real they are.
It’s a story about a mob scene – the demand for a victim to pacify the crowd. Forsaken by those closest, those who had pledged their lives in faithfulness. Physical abuse, the silent Jesus who will not answer his accusers. A body broken by the sins of the world. The suffering Christ becomes the center of the human story. The hinge on which history turns. The one whose presence we can never again ignore. In the crucifixion story, God is identified with the one who suffers – at the hands of others who know not what they do.
If Judges 19 is a crucifixion story, then where is the resurrection? What does Easter Good News look like for this unnamed concubine, for her sisters and brothers, for survivors of abuse of all kinds?
I won’t pretend like there is an easy answer to this question. Survivors of abuse will testify to the long and complicated journey of healing that they are on.
The Judges 19 story only keeps getting worse as it goes along and, if you keep reading beyond the chapter, keeps getting worse as others respond in violent and vengeful ways to this violation of this woman. But the chapter does give us a clue, a hint of resurrection possibilities, right at the very end. After the unspeakable events, and the broken body is sent out to be made visible to the tribes of Israel, there are three short phrases uttered by that Levite, speaking now, perhaps, not just as himself, but as the narrator giving some urgent evaluation of what we have all just witnessed.
The Levite declares: “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.”
Consider it. Take counsel. And speak out.
Consider it – consider this story. Consider how often this story happens. Consider this pain not just as the pain of an unnamed unknown, but as the very pain of Christ. As the pain of your sisters and brothers. As your own pain. Consider it.
Take Counsel. This is not something to consider in isolation. This is not a pain to hold in isolation. This is not something to be silent about, to keep buried or hidden. Take counsel. Seek community. Seek a counselor. Seek a loving, supportive group of confidants. Take counsel as allies, and those who refuse to let this happen again. Form a counsel of angels.
Consider it, Take Counsel. And speak out.
Speak out. Witnesses of resurrection, do not be silent. Speak out on behalf of others, on behalf of your children, and, when you are ready, on behalf of yourself. You are not alone. Speak out and you will be met with a host of angels on your side.
Consider it, take counsel, and speak out.