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She Says Lent – Week 5: Texts of Terror, by Hannah Johnston

This sermon was preached at St. Lydia’s Dinner Church on Sunday Mar. 18 and Monday Mar. 19, 2018

 

Usually at this point in the service we would read our scripture passage, and meditate on it together. But tonight, we are going to do things in a slightly different order. I am going to begin with a story and introduction, and we will read the scripture a little later.

***

I grew up surrounded by books. My parents’ house has always been overflowing with books. And, as a kid, I loved reading. When I was reading a book I felt like I disappeared into another world. I would identify strongly with the characters, and I felt like the things that were happening to them were happening to me.

 

This is why we love reading, right? It can be such an immersive experience, more so than watching a movie. For a while we can inhabit someone’s story, think their thoughts, feel their feelings. And I had a pretty vivid imagination – I was good at inhabiting another person’s experience.

 

Sometimes, if I had run out of my own books to read, I would just pick up something off a shelf that looked interesting. Sometimes I read things that were not, shall we say, age appropriate!

 

And sometimes, those things were in the Bible.

 

At various points in my childhood, reading the Bible, I came across what Feminist Theologian Phyllis Trible calls the ‘Texts of Terror.’ These are the texts, mostly in the Old Testament, that talk about violence – often sexual violence – against women.

 

Some well-known texts of terror are: The way that Abraham and Sarah treat Hagar, Jephthah’s daughter who is killed by her father, the famous story about Sodom and Gomorrah, and the rape and murder of the unnamed woman in Judges 19, which is our text this evening.

 

I remember the first time I read one of these texts of terror. It was Sodom and Gomorrah. I was probably about eleven years old.

 

You might know the story – There are some male visitors travelling, they come to the city of Sodom and a man named Lot invites them to stay in his house. Late at night Lot’s house is surrounded, by ‘all the men of the city’, who say “send out the men who are staying here, we want to have sex with them.” Lot goes outside and says to the men, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two virgin daughters; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men.”[i] At this point angels step in and save all those in the household, by blinding the men who want to harm them.

 

Reading this story as an eleven year-old – which characters do you think I identified with?

 

Lot’s young daughters. Girls not yet old enough for marriage, probably young teenagers or pre-teens. Like me. As I had learned to do in my years of reading, I experienced this story viscerally from the perspective of these young women. And I was horrified.

 

***

 

A couple of months ago, when a group of us here at St. Lydia’s sat down to plan this Lent sermon series, ‘She says Lent’, responding to the #MeToo movement, those of us who would be preaching shared the Bible passages we wanted to talk about.

 

For me, as I heard the flood of stories that thousands of people, mostly women, were sharing about their experiences of being sexually harassed and assaulted, my mind went straight to these texts of terror. These stories of sexual violence against women, right there in our Holy Scriptures. So that’s what I’m preaching about. And, the Bible passage we are reading tonight is a rough one. It is the very worst of the texts of terror, but in a series like this, I think it is one we need to face. However I am going to give a content warning – as we read the Bible passage now, if you need to step out or take a break, please feel free to do so.

 

***

 

Before we read the passage – a little bit of context: In the text we are about to read, once again, travellers come to a city and need a place to stay. This time the travellers are a man and his concubine, a woman who does not have the status of a wife, she is a sexual partner whose position is closer to that of a servant. They are offered hospitality by an old man in the city.

 

When Debbie preached here in the second week of Lent, she told us that, ‘the book of Judges is largely a story about the suffering of women. It’s about the downward spiral of a nation that is lawless, that is forgetting its God, and neglecting the oppressed and powerless.’[ii]

 

Bear that in mind as we hear the text read.

 

JUDGES 19: 22-30

22 While they were enjoying themselves, the men of the city, a perverse lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door. They said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, so that we may have intercourse with him.” 23 And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing. 24 Here are my virgin daughter and his concubine; let me bring them out now. Ravish them and do whatever you want to them; but against this man do not do such a vile thing.” 25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine, and put her out to them. They wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go. 26 As morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light.

 

27 In the morning her master got up, opened the doors of the house, and when he went out to go on his way, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. 28 “Get up,” he said to her, “we are going.” But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey; and the man set out for his home. 29 When he had entered his house, he took a knife, and grasping his concubine he cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. 30 Then he commanded the men whom he sent, saying, “Thus shall you say to all the Israelites, ‘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.’

 

***

 

I was a few years older when I first read that one, probably in my early teens. I have a memory of reading this passage and being so angry that I physically threw the Bible across the room. I also felt sick. For days. I couldn’t stop thinking about that story. I couldn’t bring myself to pick up my Bible. Later I couldn’t bear to hear about this story, to read it, to even think about it. I felt like this for years. In a way I still do.

 

Occasionally as an adult, I tried to read the Bible all the way through from cover to cover, you know, like a good theology student should! But I always got stuck at Judges 19. I was always so angry I just didn’t want to read any more.

 

You see, I was taught a very devotional approach to reading the Bible. I was told things like ‘the Bible is a Rule book for life,’ or ‘the Bible is God’s love letter to you.’ I was told that the Bible was the Word of God. I was kind of taught that God wrote the Bible.

 

The way I had been taught to read the Bible meant I had no way to cope with passages like this. Because a literal reading of this text, and of the story of Sodom, tells us that it is worse to rape a man than to rape a woman.

 

The women in these stories do not have names, they never speak, they have no agency. Their lives are treated as worthless by the men around them, even their fathers and partners. They are property to be bartered with, whose bodies are disposable, to ensure the safety and protection of men.

 

So, I thought: If the Bible is God’s word, is that how God thinks? Did God not care about the woman in this story? Does God care less about women and girls? Does God not care about me?

 

I never heard any exegesis of this passage, any sermons on it. And I soon realized that people only talked about Sodom and Gomorrah when they wanted to argue that people shouldn’t be gay. No-one ever talked about Lot’s daughters.

 

Every sermon I heard in my childhood was given by a white man. In the past three years I have heard two sermons on Judges 19, both of them by African-American women. I do not think this is a coincidence.

 

One of these talks was by Womanist Theologian Dr. Cheryl Anderson, given at a conference I attended in LA. She is professor of Old Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological seminary.

 

Anderson says that many of the interpretations of the Bible that we have inherited and have been told are unbiased, neutral, or ‘the correct interpretation’, are simply interpretations from the perspective of powerful, white, European men.

 

She argues that we have been given this idea – and ideal – of unbiased exegesis, which doesn’t really exist! In fact, we all come to the text and interpret it through our own unique identity and lived experience.[iii] We are all biased in different ways, and that’s ok!

This doesn’t mean that we are trying to ‘twist’ scripture to make it say what we want it to say. It means that when people from different cultures, with different identities and lived experience read the same text, they will notice different things, resonate with different parts, and even draw different conclusions. This diversity of interpretation adds to the richness of scripture, and draws out new truths that we may otherwise have missed.

 

We need to stop only reading scripture through the eyes of one tiny section of humanity. Even if they have given us some wonderful insights, there are other insights to learn! Cheryl Anderson suggests that when we encounter passages like these texts of terror, we should interpret them from the perspective of the marginalized, and offer an alternative exegesis.

 

Phyllis Trible says a very similar thing when she tells us to ‘wrestle with the text until it gives you a blessing.’ This idea is based on the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with God.

 

Trible says, ‘Jacob’s defiant words to the stranger, I take as a challenge to the Bible itself: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” I will not let go of the book unless it blesses me. I will struggle with it. I will not turn it over to my enemies that use it to curse me. Neither will I turn it over to friends who wish to curse it.’[iv]

 

In this quote she is saying – I will not allow Fundamentalists or Biblical literalists to use the Bible as a weapon against me, denying my equality or full humanity. But equally, I will not allow folks who disregard my faith to curse the Bible, or say that it is wrong, irrelevant or outdated. Instead I must wrestle. We must wrestle. Interpret these old texts in new ways. And not give up until we receive a blessing.

 

***

 

So, tonight I am asking: What new things can we see in this passage if we interpret it from the perspective of the marginalized? From the perspective of the unnamed woman. How should we wrestle with this text? And how can this terrible story possibly give us a blessing?

 

I am going to offer a few attempts.

 

The first is this:

 

This story, and honestly a large part of the book of Judges, shows patriarchy taken to its logical conclusion. The idea that women’s lives and bodies are less valuable than men’s is patriarchy at its most extreme.

 

And it is evil.

 

Patriarchy is not God’s intention. Patriarchy is sinful, and it is an inherent part of our calling as Christians to work against it, and instead to usher in the realm of God. When we interpret these stories from the perspective of the marginalized we put ourselves in their place, and see the world through their eyes. In doing so, we affirm the full humanity of people created in the image of God.

 

For those of us who are privileged, who walk through the world without worrying about when the next sexual assault, racist or homophobic attack will come, we need to learn to see the world through the eyes of marginalized people. To do so, even for the few minutes it takes to read these texts, should motivate us to work for a better world now. To work for safety and protection for women and other folks who are still victims of abuse like this, today.

 

Nobel laureate and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, ‘Any human being is a sanctuary. Every human being is a dwelling of God – man or woman or child… Any person, by virtue of being a son or daughter of humanity, is a living sanctuary whom nobody has the right to invade.’[v]

 

So that’s the first thing. Patriarchy is evil. Fight it.

 

The second thing I want to offer is a question – Where can we see Jesus in this story, and in the other texts of terror?

 

And the answer I am going to suggest is… Jesus is the victim.

 

Phyllis Trible says that in these stories it is the ‘women [who] are suffering servants and Christ figures’[vi]. Jesus too was stripped naked, mocked and assaulted by a gang, and ultimately murdered in a horrifically public, humiliating and painful way.

 

Reading Judges 19 again this week through this lens, I noticed for the first time that the text tells us that this unnamed woman came from Bethlehem in Judah. We are not even told her name, yet we are told that she comes from Bethlehem in Judah. Just like Jesus. The woman in this story is a Christ figure, an innocent person who suffers a cruel death at the hands of sinful men, and an unjust system.

 

She is almost certainly unnamed in the Biblical text because of the patriarchal system that did not value her humanity, did not bother to remember or record her name, did not see her as a dwelling of God. But maybe she is also unnamed in this text because she represents all the unnamed, unnumbered multitudes who have suffered violence, exploitation and abuse at the hands of sinful men.

 

***

 

The third thing that I noticed is that the men inside the house in this story judge the men outside for their wickedness, but they are just as bad themselves. They are absolutely complicit in the violence suffered by the woman.

 

In this ‘MeToo moment’ it can be easy for us to judge the behavior of individuals, but remain complicit in a system that continues to allow the powerful to exploit the vulnerable. We do this when we call out individual men for abuse of power, or talk about ‘a few bad apples,’ but don’t challenge a system that gives power and authority predominantly to men.

***

 

We also need to mention hospitality when we talk about this text.

 

This story shows just why hospitality is such a big deal in the Bible – people who are travelling, who have no safe place to stay at night, are incredibly vulnerable. And this remains the case today. Refugees and homeless people are some of the most vulnerable in our world.

 

Theologian Jayme Reaves talks about the need for ‘Protective Hospitality,’ which she defines as, ‘The provision of welcome and sanctuary to the threatened other, often at great risk to oneself.’[vii]

 

She gives examples from World War 2, when people in Europe hid Jewish folks in their homes, to protect them from the Nazis, often at great risk to themselves. Or the Sanctuary Movement, where churches and other places of worship take in people who are in danger of deportation, also at risk to themselves – some Pastors have been arrested for this.

 

In Judges 19 the old man sets out to provide protective hospitality, but is not willing to follow through with it. When the men are threatened, they sacrifice the most vulnerable person, the person with the least power, protection and social status.

 

How do we provide refuge for the threatened other? And do we give up when it starts to create risk for ourselves?  Jayme Reaves says we have to ask ourselves ‘Is my life more valuable than the person who is in need of refuge?’

 

An Irish Proverb says ‘It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.’ We are called to be shelter for people who are at risk.

 

***

 

And finally, in light of all this – where is the Gospel? What hope is there to draw? Where is the blessing?

 

I recently watched a video where bell hooks, one of the preeminent voices on feminism and race, talks about her faith. As she daily encounters sexism and racism, she says that it is her faith that sustains her.

 

She says, “My faith keeps me from having some notion that men are bad and women are good; [My faith] always keeps me on the transcendent path knowing that we are always more than our race, our gender, our sexual practice – that we are, in fact, transcendent spirit.”[viii]

 

St. Paul put it like this: ‘In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith…There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’[ix]

 

This is the Gospel of Christ. Thanks be to God!

 

***

At St. Lydia’s this season we take time after the sermon to reflect and confess.  What do you feel moved to confess?

I invite you to consider these questions:

 

- How have I been complicit in a system that gives power and authority predominantly to men?

 

- How can I be a shelter for people at risk?

 


Hannah Johnston is Community Coordinator at St Lydia’s Dinner Church, Brooklyn. She was born and raised in the UK, and is a graduate of St. Mellitus College, an Anglican Seminary in London.

Hannah is passionate about making church inclusive, creating fun and caring communities, empowering women, and working with people of other faiths. She loves hot weather, interesting ideas, wine, singing, and anything with melted cheese.

 


Sermon Sources

[i] Genesis 19:7-8

[ii] She Says Lent – Week 2, Torches of Hope, by Debbie Holloway http://stlydias.org/blog/2018/02/torches-hope-by-debbie-holloway/

[iii] Exploring an Autobiographical Exegesis, Dr. Cheryl Anderson. Recorded 10/21/2016 at The Reformation Project Conference, Los Angeles, CA https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_5bsOtQB-0

[iv] ‘Wrestling with faith’, Phyllis Trible, Biblical Archeology Review, September/October issue, 2014 https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/bar-issues/september-october-2014/

[v] ‘The Refugee,’ Elie Wiesel, in Sanctuary: A resource guide for understanding and participating in the Central American Refugees’ struggle, Gary MacEoin Ed., Harper and Row, San Francisco, CA, p 9

[vi] Texts of Terror: Literary-feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, Phyllis Trible, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, PA 1984, p.3

[vii] Safeguarding the Stranger: An Abrahamic Theology and Ethic of Protective Hospitality, Jayme R Reaves, Wipf and Stock, Eugene ,OR, 2016

[viii] SNC Agape Latte, bell hooks. Recorded 4/3/2017 at St. Norbert College, De Pere, WI https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSyrNCcCeRo

[ix] Galatians 3:26-28

 

Further reading/listening

  • · Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation, Cheryl Anderson, Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • ·Safeguarding The Stranger, Interview with Jayme Reaves. Nomad Podcast(N166) http://www.nomadpodcast.co.uk/jayme-reaves-safeguarding-stranger-n166/

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