The unheard cry of the Levite concubine

October 26th, 2016

I was introduced to the Revised Common Lectionary during my first semester of graduate studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School. In a class titled “Art in the Christian Tradition,” I learned that a three-year cycle of scriptures journeyed through much of the bible with Years A, B, and C focusing on a different synoptic gospel, though John found his way into each one. I learned that the Hebrew Bible scripture for a particular day was often seen as the key that unlocked the gospel. I learned that I loved hearing Psalms in call and response harmony. I learned that the liturgical calendar had seasons and colors. I learned that liturgical was a word.

It was a vastly different experience from my former life of religious practice where the scriptures often focused on “End of Times” preaching. In that setting, I learned that the message of the day was one that was put on a preacher’s heart, directly by God. I learned that every text could speak to apocalyptic terror. I learned that my chances of eternal damnation were high. I learned that I loved old gospel songs.

Even with my theological disagreements, I still do.

What I never learned in either setting was the story of a Levite concubine who was violently raped and abused, then let go only to fall at the front door of the host who had taken her in for the night, then offered her up for the men of the city to ravage. I never learned that when the Levite found her motionless the next morning, the first thing he said was, “Get up.” I never learned that when he realized she could not move because she was either dead or dying, he carried her body home on a donkey. I never learned that in a message to every Israelite, he cut his concubine’s body it into twelve pieces and sent one to each tribe.

I never learned the story of Judges 19.  

And it is a classic example of the cycle of domestic violence.

Something has happened. We know because the concubine has “become angry with” (though some translations say “prostituted herself against”) the Levite and left for her father’s house. She is seeking refuge, or at least space. We don’t know why, but we know she has decided to leave. Four months later, the Levite set outs “to speak tenderly to her and bring her back.” In the cycle of abuse, this is known as the “honeymoon” phase. It is a time when an abuser seeks reconciliation with his/her victim. Apologies are issued, and promises to never do it again are common. Whatever the reason for the concubine’s leaving, the Levite’s intention to “speak tenderly” and “bring her back” echo the calmer stage, a time when many survivors either hope the promises will keep, or fear they have no choice but to obey.

In the “tension-building” phase, the concubine’s father has kept the Levite longer than his intended stay, delaying his schedule and likely increasing his frustrations with ever having to leave home to retrieve his property. In the context of domestic violence, a victim is seen as just that. As a means of power, an abuser uses anything from blaming to privilege to keep his/her victim under the scope of his/her control. The victim has neither voice nor ownership of self.

Finally making his way toward home and having traveled through the evening and into the night, the Levite’s frustration meets with stubbornness as he refuses to stay in a land of foreigners, forcing him and his traveling companions to continue their tiresome journey. Gibeah, because of its Benjaminite population, proves a seemingly trustworthy place to rest before the next day’s travels but echoes of Sodom and Gomorrah quickly emerge. Here, the “explosion” phase of the domestic violence cycle unfolds. To save himself as the “perverse lot” of men refuse to accept the host’s gratification offer of his own virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine, the Levite “seized” the property he traveled to collect and threw her out for the men of the city to physically and sexually assault.

After all, if she hadn’t left, they wouldn’t be in this mess.

We know the rest of the story. Abuse, death, dismemberment. When a victim tries to leave, an abuser often increases his/her level of violence or, in the case of the Levite, offers it up for someone else to finish.

While the story of the Levite concubine is largely considered the most violent of violent scriptures against women, it certainly isn’t the only biblical text to include abuse. Hagar was forced to have sex with Abraham. Dinah was raped (by a man who “spoke tenderly to her”). Jephthah’s daughter, another woman named only in relation to her male counterpart, was sacrificed by her own father. Ephesian wives were instructed to be subject to their husbands. There are others.

And while some of these stories appear in the lectionary and are thus spoken out loud, the unheard cry of many biblical victims of abuse never do.

It isn’t an easy or hopeful subject to bring to a Sunday morning service, but it is real and present in every congregation. Statistics tells us that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men have been or will be victims of severe intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. Reality tells us that many more experience psychological, economic, or sexual violence by a partner or family member.

In every congregation, there are men and women currently surviving domestic violence. There are men and women who are working through the healing process of having survived domestic violence or having lost a family member, friend, or coworker to its brutality. There are men and women who are waiting to feel safe disclosing their truth. There are men and women waiting for the scriptures they have lived to be acknowledged and cared for by their communities of faith.

The best thing to offer a victim is belief. The same is true for the unheard cries of biblical victims of domestic abuse. Believe them. Hold their grief. Tell their stories. Skipping over those texts because they are uncomfortable neglects both the human story of sacred scriptures and the human story of the congregation. The bible can be both holy and violent. That makes it all the more relatable.

A congregation that faces the uncomfortable texts is one that is ready to genuinely serve victims of domestic violence. By admitting the harm done in scripture and the greater harm done in failing to acknowledge that harm for fear of exposing fallibility, the faithful have begun to open space for victims to share their truth or at least have it recognized, even if never shared. To hear a congregation say, “We hear you, we believe you, and we support you,” could prove a turning point for one victim to feel known.

Belief can save a life.

Every year, October is adorned with both Halloween decorations and purple ribbons, the latter for Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Perhaps the Levite concubine wore purple on the last night of her life, in bruises.

For more information on ways to engage faith communities in the work of ending domestic violence, visit FaithTrust Institute

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