Speak! | Sojourners


What Judges 19 Has to Say About Domestic Violence
A silent and empty church, Darryl Brooks / Shutterstock

“Look! My daughter the virgin and his wife-of-lesser-status – let me bring them out. Violate them and do to them whatever is good in your eyes; but against this man do not do such a disgraceful thing.” But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his wife-of-lesser-status, and forced her out to them. They raped her and abused her internally all through the night until the morning. Then as the dawn began to break they sent her back. As morning appeared the woman came and she fell down at the door of the man’s house where her lord was, until it was light. In the morning her lord got up, opened the doors of the house, and when he went out to go on his way, there was the woman, his wife-of-lesser-status lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold! He said to her, “Get up! Let us go.” But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey and the man set out for his home. When he had entered his house, he took a knife and seized his wife-of-lesser-status; he butchered her to her bones into twelve pieces, and sent her throughout the whole territory of Israel. … Set your hearts on her, confer and speak! — Judges 19:24-30 (Hebrew translation by Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney)

Judges 19 contains the most brutal story in all of the scriptures. While ostensibly advocating for an Israelite monarchy but simultaneously demonizing the Gibeonites of Benjamin, Saul’s city and tribe, it is also the account of a gruesome rape-murder-dismemberment (or perhaps even a rape-dismemberment-murder) of a woman, facilitated in part by her own husband. It is a fitting text to engage in October for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, reflecting on domestic and intimate partner violence. Judges 19 is a story of intimate betrayal and the complicity of a larger community calling us to consider our own roles in our communities.

An oft-overlooked component of domestic violence is economic violence, or the intentional withholding of and access to financial resources from a target, making her or him dependent on the abuser. The narrative begins with an indicator of economic disparity: The woman is a wife of secondary status meaning she and any children would not be entitled to support from her husband, making her financially vulnerable. It is possible he entered into a secondary union with her because she was not a Levite woman, reserving the prerogative of primary marriage for a tribeswoman. She is often mistranslated as a “concubine,” an inappropriate translation because a secondary or low-status wife had full societal recognition and legal status as would her children. Further, the Levite is described as the woman’s husband (19:3) and her father as his father-in-law (19:5).

The first action of the woman in the narrative is to leave her husband (19:2). We do not know why. Given the husband’s later conduct, it is not a stretch to imagine there was already violence between them. Domestic violence often includes an escalating pattern of verbal and other abuse and controlling, isolating behaviors.

The voice of the narrator, which is not the woman’s voice and does not have her interest at heart, presents her leaving as an act of sexualized betrayal. The verb at stake means “to be angry,” or even “hate,” but is a homonym of “sexual betrayal” and “selling sex.” The ambiguity is likely intentional, making it possible for some readers to blame her for leaving her husband and therefore whatever befalls her. It is not a claim that she was having an affair, for she went home to her father. Rather it’s the original form of slut-shaming: “Bad” women are sluts whether they’re having culturally inappropriate sex or not. It is the first act of violence against her.

Slut-shaming and name-calling is verbal violence and often accompanies physical violence. The idea that a person exercising agency and leaving a marriage or intimate partnership entitles the one left behind to respond with violence is a notion that preachers and interpreters of the scriptures must reject forcefully and publicly, particularly from the pulpit. The narrator represents the community and the judgment many fear and face when they make the difficult decision to leave. We have the right and responsibility to respond differently and support our congregation and community members in what they decide is best for them.

The woman’s return to her father’s home belies the assumptions about patriarchy that many bring to the text. Her status as a secondary wife does not mean that she lacks power or agency. That her husband feels the need to woo her also illustrates this (19:3). Wooing is a common element of the cycle of abuse, woven between episodes of violence. She makes the decision to admit him to her father’s house. Her father welcomed him and kept them from leaving for five days. Was this what we might call an intervention? Was her father aware of the reason for their separation and trying to keep her from going back? This portion of the story is a reminder how important it is for persons who decide to leave a marriage or partnership to have family, community, and resources to support them. Too many cannot go back home and have nowhere else to go and are all the more vulnerable to their abusers.

While we do not know there was abuse in their marriage prior to the assault, we do know that the decision to leave an intimate partner escalates the risk of violence—and for women who are being abused, significantly increases the likelihood of her death at his hands, with the danger ratcheting up for pregnant women. The couple leaves the safety of her father’s home but never make it to their destination.

Six miles north, just outside Jebus (Jerusalem), they find that they must stop for the night. But the man refuses to stop in a foreign city, so they to press on to Gibeah (19:11-12). With apparently no room in the local inns, they prepare to sleep outdoors in the town square when a fellow Ephraimite takes them in (the Levite had been living in Ephraim). He speaks peace to the man, but not to the woman (19:16-21). Soon after they arrive at the Gibeonite home, local men show up and demand sexual access to the man (19:22). The proposed gang-rape is shocking and unanticipated, as is the householder’s response. The man offers his innocent daughter and the Levite’s wife whom the mob refuses (19:23).

There is an unfounded tradition in biblical scholarship to treat the offering of the virgin girl here (and in Gen 19) as hospitality to the extreme, but there is no evidence to support the notion that proffering one’s daughter for sexual abuse would be an acceptable choice for a host even in extremis. Lot and this man are cultural outliers, not indicative of normative Israelite ethics. In this case, violation of a guest’s wife would be a violation of the guest.

More important, the denial of the primary component of hospitality—physical safety—to this woman is emblematic of the disdain for women’s lives shown by many abusers, reinforced by lethal sexism and misogyny in this text which pervades our culture and cultures around the world. The Levite forcibly puts his wife out so the mob can rape and torture her (19:25b). This is an act of domestic violence and the most extreme form of intimate partner abuse. Their host is also complicit. The husband’s actions negate his earlier tender speech to her, calling into question whether he was honestly wooing her to reconcile or to get her back to inflict harm on her.

In Hebrew, the rape itself is described in language indicating repeated ruthless scraping (as in gleaning a field) from within her body. Yet she is silent or silenced. She does not scream, cry, weep, beg, sob, moan, or shout “No!” She does not kick, bite, punch, scratch, wiggle, or whimper in the text. Perhaps those who heard her fighting and dying could not find the words to describe the sounds she made. Perhaps she was silent, unable to scream, move, or fight. There is no right or wrong way to endure or survive a physical or sexual assault. Unfortunately too many in law enforcement and beyond have truncated notions of what is acceptable “victim” behavior. There can be no judgment on a survivor’s choices.

The assault lasted all night long. Astonishingly she survived, somehow making her way back to the house and collapsing at the door (19:26). Her husband and host left her there until sunrise but did not check on her when the rapists left. They left her outside to die of her injuries. But it is not certain that she died of them. As she lay dead or dying, the language shifts to indicate she is property; the text calling the Levite “lord,” not “husband” (19:27). The failure to recognize the full humanity, dignity, and divine image of women and other targets of domestic and intimate partner violence is enduring and pervasive. In some cases, religious communities compound the problem with theology and text interpretation rooted in the Iron Age, subjugating women to the wills and whims of men.

Her lord-husband orders her to get up (19:28). When she does not move, only then does he touch her—without tenderness, care, or concern. There is no visible sign of grief. He puts her on a donkey and takes her home. There he dismembers her and sends a piece of her to each tribe to demonstrate the depravity of the Gibeonites, while demonstrating his own  immorality in the process (19:29). The text does not say whether she died of her injuries, or dies on the way home, or is killed when her husband cuts into her flesh, dismembering her. It is all too horrible. The violence to her body is further violence to her and those who love her.

The sheer horror of what this woman endured—including at the hands of husband and host—extinguishes the fires of my sanctified imagination. I can only conjure her screams. And I have no words to express them.

One might look to God for a final word, but God is absent from the chapter, as this chapter and any mention of domestic violence is absent from too many pulpits. The final verse (19:30) is a command to those who will hear and read her story: Set yourselves (your hearts) on her, confer and speak! It is far past time for congregations and communities to seriously engage violence against women, domestic and intimate partner violence, and the survivors and abusers in our midst—in our scriptures, congregations, and communities. Speak!