I’m currently taking a class which focuses on sex, gender and power in the Bible. I admit that at first, I anticipated that this class would be boring – I do sometimes fall into the pagan habit of being dismissive of the Abrahamic faiths. But I must admit, once I got back into it I began enjoying the discussion, particularly from my perspective now as an adult feminist. My professor is very insightful, as well as having a near exhaustive memory for finding the chapter and verse of whatever story I half remember at the moment.
I read the Bible cover to cover, once, in my teens, and apparently forgot quite a bit of it – or never really processed it in the first place. I did not recall the story of Judges 19 (links to the NSRV text we are using in class), or perhaps I confused it with Sodom and Gomorrah, which makes sense – the story has similar themes. In both, visitors to a city were in the home and under the protection of a towns member, in both the male visitors were threatened with rape by a crowd of men, and in both women (3/4 of which were specifically virgin daughters of the protectors) were offered to the rapacious crowed in lieu of the men.
However unlike Sodom and Gomorrah, where the strangers were angels of the God of Abraham who struck the would be rapists blind, in Judges one of those women was actually handed over to the crowd.
That woman, the wife of the Levite who was visiting the city, is violently sexually assaulted by the men through out the night, and is found in the morning, bloodied and laying on the ground with her hand on the step out side the door. Her husband orders her to get up, and she cannot, either already dead at this point or gravely injured. He puts her on a donkey, and when home, dismembers her body into 12 pieces, which he sends to the tribes of Israel to show the slight against him by the Benjamites.
This woman is never named, not once. She is at best known as “the Levite’s Concubine“, and her rape and death are the inciting incident of the Benjamite War.
Because we are focusing on power and gender, a big part of our class discussion was the fact that this woman was never given a name, any description of her, nor any idea of her motivations and feelings. This a theme throughout the Bible, where we also find many texts that contain women, but which do not contain the stories of (many) women.
Even the art created of this story tends to objectify the woman – there are paintings of her raped body propped up against the door, draped across the step, over the back of the donkey, being dismembered (including an image from the middle ages which included details of her disembowelment) and even a Lego version, but very few of the woman alive or with any dignity.
I did not want to depict her that way. The image attached to this post is not specifically the woman of Judges – it is art from the #SheToo series of the Bible Society Podcast, a 7 part series discussing stories of violence against women in the Bible. The 4th episode discusses this story and provides some excellent context for the actions and set up in the Judges text.
As a feminist, as a woman, as a non-binary person and as a victim of sexual violence, I was furious at this text (lets be real, most of the stories we’ve read in this class have made me angry, but this one was particularly upsetting.) Its clear from the reading that this is not a good or laudable action – her death leads to a civil war among the Hebrews and SO much rape and murder. The Judges texts are presenting a period of time when Israel had no king to lead and guide them, and this is an example of the things that happen when the land was lawless.
Yet still, its troubling. On the podcast #SheToo, they discuss these violent stories of women, and point out that despite the fact that these stories are in the Bible, they are not aspirational, but warnings of how not to behave. At the same time, some of these texts have been used to justify abhorrent behavior and beliefs, including sexual violence against women and supporting slavery.
On a personal level, I think it is important for us to bear witness too the lives and fates of these women, to remember them AS women, and not just as victims. This is why I was so pleased when our professor asked us to think about an obituary for this woman, and I felt moved to write this poem for her.
For the woman of Judges 19 Hail to the unnamed woman Like Cassandra before you, your wisdom was ignored You ran from one man to another Your patriarch plead your case to your man, and you were handed over to Your master’s care and protection (Such tender care) Like Iphiginia before you, so trusting of your father bidding you to marry and yet handing you over to brutality and death (Like father, like son/-in-law) And then from the frying pan to the fire Your own man hands you off to save his own ass (Literally) Like so many women before you, in your abuse your voice was stolen Your name erased and YOUR story untold Except that you were angry, and you left (How dare you?) Like so many women after you, in your death your story was stolen again Your death twisted and used as justification for war and more evil deeds to come. Like so many women before you, the outcry against your treatment comes only at the end, and men call for the blood of your rapists but not the ones who handed you over to be raped. (may the blood on their hands and their paving stones never wash off) I see you, woman I know you Sister, I will remember you as you were and I will tell your story as best I can. (by Úlfdís, 2/2022)
“For the woman of Judges 19” by Úlfdís is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.