“When Terror Comes a Knockin’ – The Story of the Levite’s Wife

“Every Woman has a story AND Every Woman’s story matters to God.”

INTRODUCTION

 INTRODUCTION

The subject of domestic violence and its manifestations and outcomes is one that causes most of us to cringe and withdraw.  If avoidance is a principle, and it is, then we are, for the most part as victims and voyeurs, paralyzed into inaction about forming active solutions for this global pandemic.  Each of us, as women have at least one story or more that we can share about the horrific nature of this subject.  It might be that we were brutalized at the hand of a boyfriend, husband, father, or brother, or that we watched the violence from a close distance, helpless it seems to stop its destructive and dangerous results. 

Even as instances of domestic violence escalate in this country (think of the sex-traffic epidemic alone), we seem to have little to say, and even more, little to do about the fiendish nature of its grip.

The very fact that we can name a litany of men in recent news (R. Kelly, Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Donald J. Trump, and a host of others) who have been accused and/or convicted of serial rape, violence, and harassment against women, is evidence of its overarching effects on women and children, and the lack of justice for the victims.
                      So, how are we to act and what must we do?

These are  two of the important questions that should arise from the examination of this most gruesome story, “The Levite’s Concubine.” 

What is the call of women regarding domestic violence, and just as important, the call of the Church, when to date, we simply nod our heads and lift prayers (if we do that), to no avail?

Can the beginning of serious and intentional dialogue amongst women be the start of the progress needed to disrupt the terror that is forced upon us all over the globe?

As important, since domestic violence is truly a male issue first, how can we engage men to take responsibility for their actions and their complicit silence, as women attempt to solve this challenge that has plagued us  since the beginning of time?

 Therefore, our assignment as Tabitha’s Daughters is to shake off our fear and avoidance, courageously taking on this subject, and studying it with purpose and intentionality to build solutions, via the examination of perhaps the most violent story in all of Scripture.


 And Now, THE WORD from Our Sponsor…………………………………………..


                                         (The entirety of Judges 19 – NRSV)


HISTORICAL CONTEXT

The story begins with one of Judges’ primary observations: “At this time, when there was no king in Israel.”  This statement is a deliberate attachment to the Judges’ mantra – “Every man did what was right in his own eyes.”  Disregard for humanity, disruption of the social order, and unchecked disobedience of the Lord’s commands was the flavor of the day.  It is in this environment we encountered the horrific and macabre story of the Levite’s wife.


As in many biblical stories about women who are afflicted by the cruelty of men, there is an immediate translation problem that sets up a rationale for the Levite’s behavior towards his wife (as if there was a reasonable explanation for his terroristic actions):

“His concubine was unfaithful to him and left him for her father’s house in Bethlehem in Judah.” (NAB – 19:2)

              Interestingly the NRSV translation reports:

“But his concubine became angry with him, and she went away from her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah.”  (NRSV)

The difference in the reporting of this voiceless concubine’s story here is huge.  To offer to the audience the concubine was unfaithful is to quietly imply the Levite’s behavior towards his wife was rational and acceptable.  Here is the beginning of the nuanced suggestion, “She deserved it.”

It is also notable the titles to describe this brutalized woman are interchangeable – was she a concubine or was she a wife?  And does this make a difference in the narrative?

“The English translation of “concubine” gives the impression that she is less valued, and probably more expendable than a legitimate wife….It also, I believe, predisposes readers [especially men] to view the rape of this nameless “Levite concubine” less sympathetically than might view the rape of a lawful wife, for as Andrea Dworkin observes:  “A whore cannot be raped, only used.”

(“Fragmented Women – Feminist (Sub)Versions of Biblical Narratives” – J. Cheryl Exum, pg.177).

So, we noticed from the immediate descriptions of the story, this woman is stripped of her voice and her identity – implying to some the ultimate violence exacted on her was somehow deserved.  Additionally, her sovereign act of “walking out” on her husband automatically in ancient Israelite law labelled her an adulteress.  This may be why we see the tone of the text tagging the wife as “unfaithful,” as well as somehow acceptable.

HOW DOES THIS ELEMENT OF THE STORY HAVE A CONTEMPORARY ATTACHMENT? – Please discuss.

As the story builds, we notice the biblical translations (those closest to the Hebrew – NAB & NRSV) have serious disagreement, as to the narrative details:

“Her husband then set out with his servant and a pair of asses and went after her to forgive her and take her back.” (NAB)

“Then her husband set out after her, to speak tenderly to her and bring her back.” (NRSV)

Either way, the husband who, as we ultimately find out, is a brute, a coward, and a despicable human being, is cast in both translations as sympathetic and conciliatory.

CAN WE IMAGINE, WITHOUT THE NARRATIVE DETAILS, WHY THIS WOMAN LEFT HER HUSBAND, TO STAY AT HER FATHER’S HOUSE FOR FOUR STRAIGHT MONTHS? – Please discuss.

The story goes on to describe that her husband came after her and the father greeted his son-in-law with displayed hospitality.  The father-in-law “presses” the husband to stay longer.  We can only imagine why.

After the husband refuses another night of hospitality, he saddles up his donkeys, along with his servant and his wife and moves towards the region of Ephraim, refusing to stay in the region of “foreigners.”  Here is where the story takes a twisted and violent turn.

Read Judges 19:  22-25


This social ethos of offering women’s bodies as negotiation for avoiding male rape has a common thread in the Torah.  Lot offered his two virgin daughters to a violent mob to avoid the rape of his male visitors.  Sarah was offered by her own husband, Abraham, to save his skin from King Abimelech.  We quickly learn through biblical texts that the honor principle has everything to do with these antics, as Reverend Dr. Renita Weems writes in her book, “Battered Love”:

“In ancient Hebrew culture……Women’s sexuality was expected to be firmly in the hands of men.  Male status and prestige rose and fell according to a man’s ability to control the sexual activities of the women in his household…At stake, then, in the image of the outraged, avenging husband was not the husband’s wounded pride, his fear of rejection, or his fear of a failed marriage…..Actually at stake were the husband’s honor and status as a man.”  (pg. 43)


Thus, we understand why the “host” insists upon the mob raping his own daughter or the Levite’s wife, or both, in order to stave off the violent male behavior.  Better a woman, even his own daughter, then to dishonor the life of a male stranger/guest.

The narrative escalates in terror and violence, as the husband pushes his wife out to the door to save himself.  The men of Gibeah want to violate the Levite in a most degrading way; but this does not happen.  Instead, the Levite’s wife is offered up as the sacrificial lamb.  The text reports the host as saying: 

“No, my brothers, don’t do such a dastardly act,” he begged.  I’ll bring them out and you can do whatever you like to them – but don’t do such a thing to this man.”

The host takes ownership of both women’s bodies and offers both as negotiated fodder to the violent mob.  Sensing his life was in immediate danger, the husband is not willing to risk a failed negotiation.  He pushes his wife out the door, then secures himself behind the locked barrier. 
                              Mitzi Smith, a Black theologian and womanist writes: 

“She was a dispensable commodity, used to solve an annoyance between males.  Throughout the night, the “brothers” gang rape the Levite’s concubine.  No one within the house comes to her aid.  They have all fallen away in the darkness of the night. “

(“Reading the Story of the Levite’s Concubine Through the Lens of Modern-day Sex Trafficking – Ashland Theological Journal, 2009”)

This narrative is the ultimate “text of terror,” as this ravished woman is never given a “mumbling word” in all of the story.  She becomes a silent reminder to us, as women, of where unchecked male dominance, authority, and violence can go – into the place of pure horror.

Yet, the story is hardly over.  Unbelievably, this woman survives – or so it is implied in some translations.  Now, a useless heap of unwanted skin and bones, her husband reluctantly faces his crime and remarks:  “Get up!  Let’s get going,” as if she could. 

Some translations feel the need to add – “but she was dead,” as to prepare us for the foreshadowing of the dread to come.  As if he had no part in the crime, he justifies his wife’s mutilation, minimizing his part in her rape and death. (Read Judges 19: 29-30).

                                                                     AN UNSATISYING CONCLUSION

Does this sensationalized and senseless crime lead us to any valuable lessons or conclusions for this narrative?  Does this story in Judges 19 assist us in dealing with our own contemporary challenges, as we struggle with domestic violence in our own context?

Mitzi Smith writes:  “We can read the concubine’s story as if it were our story, our daughter or son’s story, and sister or brother’s story.  We can read the story through the eyes of the guilty and complicit men in the story, asking ourselves how we are guilty of or complicit in the objectification of women, men, and children in the church, in our homes, in our communities, in the larger society, and in the world.” (ibid, pg. 16)

  Ultimately, there is no shaking off this text of terror – perhaps because we understand this ancient narrative is as contemporary as the evening news.  As we watch the rights of women and children in this country being dialed back and challenged in America’s highest court, and as the sex trafficking trade makes more money from selling women and children than selling drugs, we must acknowledge that the crime of violence against abused women and children all around us, is a crime against us all.

FACTS OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

1 in 4 women experience domestic violence from their partner(s) in their lifetime.

1 in 7 women are stalked and terrorized by their intimate partner in their lifetime.

The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the chance of homicide by 500%.

Women between the ages of 18 – 34 are the most commonly abused by their partner.

1 in 5 women have been raped in their lifetime.

1 n 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year.

Questions for our discussion and consideration:
As a fellowship and sisterhood, what can we do about the domestic violence issue? Please discuss.

OUR SENDING PRAYER

Lord, God of Peace, Hope, and Love, we pray, as your daughters
those who are hurt and wounded by domestic violence will not lose faith their lives
 can be better.  We pray as Your community, You will assist us, Oh God, to make a
worldly difference.  We pray for the women and children, and the men, who are caught
 in the web and terror of domestic violence.  We ask, Oh God, through the power
of Your holy and mighty Spirit , You will guide and direct us to the solutions
 which must be found to end this cycle of violence against your children and justice
may come for those who wait to be rescued.  Make us, Oh God, the solution to this
 most grievous challenge.  In the matchless name of our Christ, we pray.
                                                                  Amen.

“The enclosed materials are the property of Maxine E. Garrett and Tabitha’s Daughters Empowerment Series. They may be used by you with our permission which may be revoked at any time. All copies of the materials must include the following notice: “This material is Copyright [2015] Maxine E. Garrett and Tabitha’s Daughters and is distributed with permission.”

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