Can we preach on the ‘texts of terror’?

judges-19_the-levites-concubine-morgan-picture-bible-13th-centYesterday I was preaching on Judges 19, the story of the dismembered concubine, as the final sermon in our series on the Book of Judges. Because of its challenges, it is a text that has been long debated in scholarship, but (unsurprisingly) it is seldom preached on or referred to in church worship. (A member of our congregation commented to me that, in more than 30 years of attending church as an adult he had never heard it mentioned; another said they had never read the story.)

Along with the stories of Tamar, Hagar and Jephthah’s daughter (on which I had preached two weeks previously), it forms one of Phyllis Trible’s ‘Texts of Terror‘. Although Trible is writing from a feminist point of view, her work was pioneering in using rhetorical criticism to listen carefully to the text, rather than imposing a particular point of view on the text. Trible comments on this passage:

To hear this story is to inhabit a world of unrelenting terror that refuses to let us pass by on the other side.

The challenge to the local church is whether we will, indeed, ‘inhabit’ this world, even for a short time, rather than ‘passing by’.

At first reading, the text feels quite ‘neutral’ and matter-of-fact (why does the levite wait four months before going to retrieve his concubine? Perhaps just because that is what happened) but this sense of ‘neutrality’ and starkness is what gives the text its power. As a reader, it seems to me that the text stands in judgment over three things.

First, it stand in judgement over a nation that has cast off restraint. The story opens with the apparently factual observation that ‘In those days Israel had no king’, and the extended story (which continues to the end of the book in chapter 21) reiterates and amplifies this statement: ‘In those days Israel had no king, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes’ (Judges 21.25). This functions not only as a conclusion to this story, but also as a conclusion to the whole book, and so makes this episode illustrative of the whole book as well.

Within the narrative context, this observation has a particular function. Judges forms part of the ‘Deuteronomistic history’, stretching from Deuteronomy, through Joshua and Judges to 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, which forms a continuous narrative. Judges then sits between Joshua, with its mixed story of courageous leadership but failure to fulfil God’s command to drive out the inhabitants of the land (who become a ‘thorn in the flesh’ to Israel), and 1 Samuel with the people’s ambiguous request to have a king ‘to be like the other nations’. Kingship is seen both as the people’s rejection of God as king and as the way in which God can exercise his rule, and the absence of kingship is seen as a failure of human organisation and the rejection of the rule of God.

the_empty_throne_by_vajrasimhaBut the phrase also functions as an observation about human life. The historical novelist Bernard Cornwell has written a volume The Empty Throne about the conflicts in Saxon Britain arising from the power vacuum caused by having an empty or contested throne, and of course the immensely popular series Game of Thrones hinges around the same idea. Is the random unpredictability of which lead character is next for the chop (often literally) a reflection of contemporary belief that life really is random and chaotic? It is striking that, in both Iraq and Libya, Western governments did not like the person ‘on the throne’ and so intervened to effect ‘regime change’—but the resultant ’empty throne’ has unleashed chaos and death in both countries, with implications that have come to the heart of Europe. It is, then, less surprising than we had previously thought that Paul can talk of the ‘powers that be’ being ordained by God (Romans 13.1) to reward the good and punish the wicked; even an apparently wicked ruler like Caesar (or Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi) brings some kind of order.

And for our own culture, we might ask: What happens when there is rampant individualism and no share set of values which constrain and order human behaviour?

In her excellent article in the Tyndale Bulletin of May 2015, Isabelle Hamley comments:

In a text riddled with ambiguities and impossible judgements, readers are forced to ask, ‘how do you make just and compassionate moral judgements in a world where everyone does “what is right in their own eyes”?’

As we read our newspapers from day to day, we ask ‘How indeed?’

Secondly, the text stands in judgement over the people of God. This nation that has cast off restraint is not any old nation—it is the people to whom God has revealed himself and his purposes. None of the characters in the story come out looking good. The central figure is a Levite, one who, as a member of the priestly caste, should surely have known better. He takes this woman as a concubine, someone to sleep with, but without giving her the proper status of a wife even though no other woman is mentioned. He appears to do the right thing in seeking her out after she has left, yet he demonstrates a callous disregard for her welfare.

The woman herself is not depicted as an ‘innocent’ victim. The NIV says in Judges 19.2 that ‘she was unfaithful to him’, though other translators and commentators have struggled with this phrase in the Hebrew text, and have often preferred the Greek OT text with says ‘she was angry with him’. It is a human trait to want to characterise victims as ‘innocent’ (as we see in news reporting every day), and yet it suggests that being human alone (including being a guilty human) is not enough to merit sympathy and be deserving of justice.

The woman’s father appears to be in an odd power struggle with the Levite in the exercise of hospitality, perhaps hinging around the idea of ‘patrilocality’, that in line with Gen 2.24 the Levite should have come to join with his father-in-law’s household, rather than take the woman away to his family. The ‘old man’ in Gibeah does offer hospitality, but only after he realises that the Levite is a fellow countryman, and in offering his daughter to the mob he appears more concerned about his own honour as host than with doing the right thing.

And the worst people in the narrative are the ‘wicked men’ (actually ‘sons of Beliar’ or ‘sons of emptiness’) in Gibeah, supposedly the people of God rather than the original inhabitants of the land, who were to be expelled because of their wickedness. As Daniel Block highlights in his commentary, the author of Judges wants us to hear the echoes of Gen 19—the episode uses the same number of words, and a quarter of them match exactly. God’s own people are no better than Sodom and Gomorrah. (The reference to same-sex sexual relations doesn’t add anything to our discussion of this issue, except to note that it was symbolic in that culture of depravity.)

But central to these first two judgements is the third: the judgement of sexual violence. Hamley notes that the idea that Israel is here standing on the threshold of disaster is embodied by the presence of the concubine (and her reaching for the threshold as her final act in Judges 19.27.

These stories [that include concubines], taken together, reveal a picture of women whose lives were marked by sexual violence and coercion, precariousness and liminality, yet women whose legitimate position made them highly vulnerable within the political conflicts of their time.

Block comments:

The scene described in vv. 22–26 is among the most grotesque and sickening in the book, if not in the entire Scripture.

In Johannine style, even the world around testifies to the reality of the moment; in Judges 19.14, ‘the day withers’ as the travellers leave the light to enter the darkness of the life of Gibeah. But this is the moment when we realise that this ancient text provides a sharp reflection of our own culture.

Sexual violence is widespread in UK society, with 31 per cent of young women aged 18-24 reporting having experienced sexual abuse in childhood (NSPCC, 2011) and one in five women aged 16 – 59 experiencing some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. Violence against women is happening in Christian relationships too – 30% of young, Christian women surveyed by Soul Action agreed or strongly agreed that they had experienced fear of their partner in a relationship and 42% had been forced to perform sexual acts they didn’t want to by a partner.

The case of Ched Evans, the Sheffield United footballer cleared on appeal this week of his conviction of rape, brings these issues into sharp focus.

On that night in Rhuddlan five years ago, he slipped into the hotel room where his friend Clayton McDonald was already having sex with the girl. ‘Is it alright if my mate joins in?’ McDonald asked. Evans attests that she agreed – and on this crucial point the retrial jury found in his favour. Before, during and after the sex act Evans did not speak a word to the girl, and left via a fire escape.

If their collective, sordid intention was to treat a teenage girl like a piece of meat, then humiliate and denigrate her further for a cheap laugh, then congratulations boys, you achieved your goals.

No one comes out of this well, but my sympathy still lies with the waitress, who has had to take on a new identity for fear of reprisals from Evans’ fans. She is regularly abused on social media, described as a ‘slag’, ‘a money-grabbing slut’ and worse – despite the fact she did not bring this case to trial and she has never sold her story, nor sought ways to profit from her involvement.  Instead, she was used and she was wronged – but as chirpy Ched would say, that is not illegal. Now he can walk back into his career and his comfortable life, whilst hers is in ruins – and her nightmare continues.

This is why we cannot leave these stories at the door of the church when we meet together—this is why we cannot pass by on the other side.

21_oi7rgxc0yoh6djc8s1h9In those days, Israel had no king—but we do have a king. We have a king who (we read in John 19) took the violence that humanity inflicts on others on himself. He absorbed their murderous intents in his own death—he swallowed this whole, and won the victory by rising again. If we read Judges 19 through the lens of John 19, Jesus stands in the place of the dismembered concubine.

We have a king who invites us to lament over a nation that has thrown off restraint, to lament when the people of God fail to live in the holiness he has called them to, to lament with those who are victims of sexual violence. And we have a king who invites us to pray ‘Your kingdom come’.

(You can listen to how I turned this into a sermon at the St Nic’s website)

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19 thoughts on “Can we preach on the ‘texts of terror’?”

  1. To be fair, this is an appalling passage of the bible, right through to the end of the book.I don’t think anyone comes out of the passage with any credit. Collective punishment of a people, women as property/human shields, rape culture. This period of the bible is as fallen as it gets for humanity. One wonders why God put up with it.

  2. I use this text in my courses to help students think through violence in the OT. It’s “good” in the sense that it can make them recognize the difference between data and narrative.

  3. Rom. 9:22: ‘What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath–prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory–even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

  4. “the power vacuum caused by having an empty or contested throne”. I’d just come to that conclusion after reading around the cause of the Englush Civil War. Charles 1 was a weak leader providing fertile ground for a power struggle. The battle at Towton was a nation disaster with a loss rate matching the Somme.

    My related thinking is that some of our current political disasters might be caused by leaders (maybe even with principles) who are weak leaders. Where they are ‘strong’ but partisan the outcome can be the same. Brexit/Labour Party chaos/Trump…. Different issues but all resulting from poor and inadequate leadership.

    An empty throne is a.ways a problem even where there isn’t a monarchy.

  5. 1 Timothy 2, verses 1 and 2: I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.
    Leadership is so important …

  6. Good stuff.

    When I studied/preached this text a few years ago I came to the conclusion that the central theme here is the repeated idea throughout Judges – “there was no King”.

    I’m persuaded that this text serves as an apology for David as opposed to Saul – see Schwab, Right in their own eyes, 209-11.

    In particularly:
    1) The contrast of Gibeah (Saul’s home) vs Bethlehem (David’s home)
    2) Comparison with 1 Samuel 11:7

    Without wanting to downplay your good and right points relating to sexual violence, I think this stuff is actually more central as it gives a much bigger purpose for the text to be written and the “king from Bethlehem” makes for a more natural Christological reading.

    Whether you take that reading or not, George M. Schwab on Judges is an excellent resource.

    • Yes, intertextual readings are key to understanding this text, I think. That said, I don’t share that interpretation of the Saul intertext. A few important parallels:

      1. Sodom—The parallels here are extremely extensive. Israel has become like the people they were instructed to drive out. The contrasts are also important. Lot’s offering of his daughters to the mob was extreme (though unrighteous) ‘hospitality’ to protect his guests from harm. Lot also placed himself outside. The old man of Gibeah casts one of his guests out to the mob and places himself in no danger.
      2. Jacob and Rachel—The man detained for too long at his father-in-law’s house. The woman who dies on the journey to Bethlehem, giving birth to Benjamin and the woman who dies on the journey from Bethlehem, almost leading to the tribe of Benjamin’s utter destruction.
      3. The Passover—Emphasis on darkness and night. Threat to life and an emphasis upon the threshold. The firstborn set apart and later replaced by the Levites. The Levites are the tribe who are to represent the divine husband, to guard the bride, and to man the threshold. The Levite fails to fulfil his charge and puts his bride in peril instead of himself.
      4. Saul—Saul’s story begins with him setting out on a journey to find lost donkeys with his servant. Judges 19 begins with the Levite and his servant setting out on a journey to find a lost concubine. Rachel’s tomb is where the first sign of the kingdom is given. Saul was a Benjamite from Gibeah. He cuts the yoke of oxen in pieces to save Jabesh Gilead, who are called to go out to threatening men who have surrounded them. Jabesh Gilead was previously mentioned in Judges 21 as one of the cities destroyed as a result of their failure to come up to assist Israel against the Benjamites. Now all Israel comes together to help them. The themes here are themes of reversal, I think (which makes Saul later apostasy all the more tragic).
      5. Hosea—The only prophet to reference Gibeah (5:8; 9:9; 10:9). Significantly, Hosea’s story is a story of God pursuing a bride who has played the harlot, much as the Levite’s concubine.

  7. The peculiar saying ‘In those days Israel had no king’ is one that occurs only towards the end of the book, in the chapters 17-21. The historical context of these chapters seem to be near the beginning of the period of the judges rather than the end. So in chapter 17, the land was only just being occupied and in chapter 20 Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, notable for his zeal in Numbers 25, is the priest.
    In the earlier chapters of Judges, kingship is always viewed negatively. All the foreign powers who oppress the Israelites are ruled by kings. In Judges 9 Jotham speaks out against kingship with his parable of the trees. In 1 Samuel, kingship is introduced as a sign of the declension of Israel.
    So the saying ‘In those days Israel had no king’ may not be the key theme of the book of Judges at all.

  8. Thanks Ian for a very stimulating piece. I have to confess it is very easy to ignore these difficult parts of scripture. The MP lectionary is going through parts of Leviticus at present. Not easy without a commentary to hand!
    I agree about modern power vacuums and the West’s actions. It is perhaps because regime change seems to always be desirable always that we fall into the trap. Is Putin actually right in Syria? I understand that Christain’s were able to worship freely under Hussain in Iraq but now are fleeing in numbers.
    Not by might, nor by power but by my Spirit….

  9. Interesting that the previous comments here mainly pick up on the leadership angle, and not on the question of a culture where sexual violence, particularly against women, is, if not normal, then fairly common (see the collection of stories on Twitter begun by Kelly Oxford under the hashtag #notokay to see just how common). While most Christian leaders (most Christian men) would probably say this isn’t acceptable, I wonder if they could do more to challenge it (without preaching complementarianism or trying to make women responsible for men’s lack of self control) – for instance, through the Heforshe campaign?

  10. The stark description of the extreme sexual violence in this passage is physically nauseating for me, as a woman, to read. Although, thankfully, I’ve never been a victim of sexual abuse, it is all too easy for me to imagine the extreme pain, terror and degradation this poor woman went through. The text paints a picture in my head which I don’t want to see.

    It may be easy to scoff at the more absurd aspects of the hyper-sensitive ‘trigger’ culture, but surely if any Scriptural passage merits a massive trigger warning, this is it. There are people in our congregations who will have suffered rape and sexual violence, both women and men.

  11. Hello Ian and all,

    Thanks for this – looks like you have answered your headline question with a ‘yes’. Connected with texts like these, Lucy Winkett gave a remarkable talk at Greenbelt titled ‘Reading the bible with our feet’ – haven’t had a chance to see if it’s available online but I’d strongly recommend it alongside your piece here.

    Unsurprisingly you mention the story of Sodom. I hadn’t noticed – until Gareth Moore OP pointed it out – that in that text, there is no actual male-male sex. The men of Sodom *want* to rape Lot’s visitors but are in fact prevented. Moore notes that if the story were used in discussion of same-sex relationships (as it has been), for that reason it would only condemn desire, not act; though his own argument is that Genesis 19 can’t be properly used that way given that, like judges 19, it refers to sexual violence. (Have written that from memory and hope I’ve done Moore justice). Given your argument above, that Judges 19 condemns sexual violence, I think it’s notable that Genesis 19 almost never seems to be drawn on to address male-male sexual violence, and wonder if it’s worth asking why that might be.

    In friendship, Blair

    • Either because we fear being accused of homophobia, or else because we naively suppose that our teenage sons are much more streetwise, and better able to look after themselves, than in fact they are.

  12. Ian, I am a regular reader of your blog but first-time commenter. I wanted to commend you on this blog post – it really is excellent. I have often struggled to understand this passage but I have found it really helpful how you have applied it to our modern world. Keep up the good work and thanks again.

  13. Hi Ian,
    Thanks for posting this blog. I teach on Trible’s Texts of Terror as part of the Common Awards Scheme here in the Diocese of Oxford, and will be directing students towards this page. Much of what you say about the need for this type of material in public worship has informed my metrical translation of the psalter – Psalms for the Common Era – which, being unabridged, provides an opportunity to lament together with music. We shall be trying out the lament psalms on Saturday 16th March 2019 with the RSCM in Berkshire if anybody is passing this way (
    Best wishes,
    Adam Carlill


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