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The Daughter and the Concubine from the Nineteenth Chapter of Judges Consider and Speak Their Minds, Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon

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Mario Moore, 2009

The following dual-voiced poem by Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon is based on the brutal story found in the Bible in Judges 19.

Background: The Biblical Text

Aptly called a ‘text of terror’ by feminist biblical interpreter Phyllis Trible, this chapter tells of an unnamed Levite (that is, someone of the tribe of Levi from which the hereditary priests and other sacred functionaries were descended) and ‘his’ concubine (usually understood to be a wife of secondary status, particularly in polygamous societies).

For some reason – either because she was angry with the Levite (so the Greek version), or because she had ‘prostituted’ herself (so the Hebrew version – though it is unclear if the intended meaning is literal or figurative) – the concubine had earlier left the Levite and returned to her father’s house in Bethlehem. After four months, accompanied by a servant and donkeys, the Levite comes to get her back. The father delays the Levite for four days but on the fifth he sets off, taking the concubine. No word is said about her willingness to leave or otherwise.

Unwilling to spend the night among the Jebusites, as the servant proposes, the Levite determines (because the Jebusites are foreigners) to spend the night in Gibeah, a town settled by Israelites of the tribe of Benjamin. Arriving late, they are taken in by an old man who offers them hospitality.

As they are making merry, worthless, or perverse men, surround the house and pound on the door, demanding to ‘know’ the man staying as guest within. (The Hebrew word ‘to know’ can be used as a euphemism for carnal knowledge and the New Revised Standard Version consequently translates, ‘so that we may have intercourse with him’, Judges 19:22). (Quite a number of commentators point to the clear parallels between this part of the story and Genesis 19:5, set in Sodom.)

The old man tries to appease the men by telling them not to do such wickedness to his guest. Instead, horrifyingly, he offers them his own (previously unmentioned) virgin daughter and also the concubine, saying (in the NRSV translation), ‘Ravish them and do whatever you want to them; but against this man do not do such a vile thing.’ (Similarly, in Genesis 19, Lot offers his two virgin daughters to protect his guests.)

Neither the daughter, nor the concubine has a voice in the biblical text. All characters are nameless but unlike all the male characters (the father, the Levite, the servant, the old man, the men of Gibeah) neither female character (concubine or daughter) has voice.

When the men won’t listen, the Levite pushes his concubine outside the door and she is gang-raped all night until morning. At dawn she falls at the door, her hands on the threshold – one of the most affecting and distressing images of the entire Bible, surely.

When the Levite tells the concubine to get up, she does not, or cannot respond. He puts her on the donkey and returns home. Once there, he dismembers her body and sends its twelve pieces throughout all Israel as a summons to war.

This violent and gruesome story of the threatened rape of the Levite, of the offering up for rape of the daughter and the concubine, and of the gang-rape, killing and dismemberment of the concubine is – once events move away from Bethlehem to Gibeah – sparsely told.

There is every reason to believe that this brutal story elicited horror. Horrified outrage is certainly the response of the Israelites who receive the pieces of the concubine’s corpse. Subsequent events (related in Judges 20–21) are war and more rape and the call for stronger leadership in the form of a king, to put an end to mayhem. What is missing is not horror or outrage but any attempt at insight into the women’s terror and suffering. Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon addresses this lack.

Background: Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon

Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon is an award-winning poet and an Associate Professor teaching creative writing at Cornell University. Her magnificent published works include Black Swan, Open Interval and, together with Elizabeth Alexander, Poems in Conversation and a Conversation. She has also published in numerous journals and anthologies and is currently at work on another collection of poems, The Coal Tar Colors.

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 Black Swan, in which this poem is published, is winner of the 2001 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and includes several pieces inspired by women of the Bible and classical mythology who were pursued or raped by either men or male deities, including, alongside the daughter and concubine of Judges 19, also Tamar, Dinah (you can find the poem here), Daphne (here), Helen and Leda.

These poems are part of a growing creative tradition of giving voice and full characterization to women of antiquity. Other examples are Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, telling Dinah’s story in her own words, Alicia Ostriker’s ‘Jephthah’s Daughter: A Lament’ and Christa Wolf’s Cassandra and Medea.

Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon hails from Florida and in a fabulous interview containing many language (and other) gems speaks of early memories and of profound influences on her life. These include memories of racism and recollections of hitting the drop zone as a teenager, of the ‘beauty and terror’ of her Pentecostal upbringing and of working in a men’s prison.

Lyrae van Clief-Stefanon is public and vocal about being a survivor of child sexual abuse and of rape. In one of her recorded poetry readings from Black Swan she speaks also to her concern about campus rape culture. Her powerful poems break into the silence around rape, giving voice to voiceless women of the Bible and mythology and addressing abusiveness and injustice, particularly against victims of racism and of sexual violence, right up to the present.

 

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The following poem is reproduced here with kind permission of the author. It is published in Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Black Swan (Pitt Poetry Series, edited by Ed Ochester), University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002, pp.31–36.

 

The Daughter and the Concubine from the Nineteenth Chapter of Judges Consider and Speak Their Minds

 

Behold, here is my daughter a maiden, and his concubine;

Them I will bring out now, and humble ye them,

And do with them what seemeth good unto you: But unto this man

Do not so vile a thing.

 

  1. 1.

Suddenly, I am a stranger                            Last visit, I stayed four months

in my father’s house.                                      in my father’s house.

 

His doors open to any man                          For that, my man calls me

off the street, he opens his mouth              whore, his mouth full of bread

 

to make me prostitute.                                 as this old man offers me

Pimp, he has forgotten                                 with his daughter

 

my name. And how I                                     to the hoodlums in the road.

tended his fevers, wept                                I have been whoring after home

 

at the foot of his bed, slept                          since the day I left.

prayers while age played                             I miss my daddy’s easy smile.

 

the fool with his body.                                  This time he tried so hard

What thing exists too vile                             to make us stay, seems like

 

For this man he’s known                              he saw this coming.

one half day that be                                      My man can talk

 

not too vile for me?                                       so pretty when he wants to,

I do not need to be humbled.                      pretty enough

 

And this girl, this wayfaring                         to love, but I know

man’s woman who sticks so                         when he looks

 

close to the walls seems like                        unsatisfied. I know

she longs to slip into                                     when he looks unsatisfied

 

her own shadow, she looks                          not to stand staring

humble down to her bones.                         into a man’s mouth.

 

 

But the men would not hearken to him:

So the man took his concubine, and brought her forth unto them;

And they knew her, and abused her all the night until the morning:

And when the day began to spring, they let her go.

 

  1. 2.

They would have gone.                                I never learned but one prayer

They would have heckled the                     that was Daddy

house,                                                              And Daddy was answer

cursed and called until they’d                     quick to answer

grown                                                              And Daddy and me were praise

                                                                          And Daddy was Hallelujah

bored. They might have thrown                 And I was Glory Glory

a stone, broken a window, but                    And Daddy was Great

then                                                                  Day in the Morning

they would have gone                                   And I was Yes Lord Yes

                                                                           And I was a gift once

and left us alone.                                           And I was Daddy’s to give

But he brought her to them                         And Daddy was joy and sorrow

the way one might drop                               And Daddy was Oh

                                                                          my baby gal done got big

an ant into a spider’s web.                            And Daddy was Lord

And my father, silent, watched                    she done grown and gone

curious to see destruction.                           And Daddy said

                                                                           Make that negro treat you right

It could have easily been me.                      And Daddy said Come back if he

It could have easily been me.                                  don’t

It could have easily been me.                      And Daddy said Come anyway

                                                                           I’m making your favorite

Not one creature stirs.                                  And Daddy said Come anyway

It is as though the birds                               Y’all can have your old room but

no longer recognize                                      I am in the eye of something so

                                                                                     bright

morning: a cheap faint glow                       I am in the middle of light

haunting the eastern sky                             I am in the middle of something

and what is there to sing about?                             so

                                                                           bright I can’t see day

If I had but a burrow                                     breaking I am in the middle of

I would call myself blessed.                         something so bright Daddy

If I had a grave, I would climb                    I’m praying for night

into it.

 

Then came the woman in the dawning of the day,

And fell down at the door of the man’s house

Where her lord was, till it was light.

 

  1. 3.

The smell of death squats                            Day comes like something

in every corner: this house stinks              snatched from me

of men. I have to spit.                                   I keep

My mouth keeps                                           hearing snatches, songs

Filling with saliva. In the kitchen              Precious Lord,

I hold the back of my hand                         take my hand

to my nose                                                      the same line keeps

and try to remember                                    catching me

some other                                                     I am tired

smell than male                                             I am tired

sweat and musk                                            I am tired

and spilled semen                                         Do not lead me

that hangs heavy                                           to the light

in these rooms. I am afraid                         I am afraid

to open the windows,                                   of what waits for me

afraid the outside air                                   Precious Lord,

will carry the same                                       where is my

smell,                                                               Lord

will add to this mixture                                I am

blood.                                                              tired

 

 

And her lord rose up in the morning,

And opened the doors of the house, and went out to go his way:

And, behold, the woman his concubine was fallen down

At the door of the house, and her hands were upon the threshold.

 

  1. 4.

Ground glass.                                                 Say one

Nightshade.                                                    sweet word

Pot ash.                                                           to me.

 

Blood tired, blood                                          I am waiting

tired. Blood tired.                                          to be comforted.

 

Polk berry.                                                     Something

Jimson weed.                                                 pretty

Snake venom.                                                to the skin,

 

My father.                                                      the dirt

My God.                                                          beneath my fingernails,

 

Arsenic.                                                           to my mouth,

Diffenbachia.                                                 twisted and full

Monkshood.                                                   of sand,

 

Blood tired. Blood                                          pretty words

tired. Blood tired.                                          for bruises,

 

Ground glass.                                                 for my raw throat

Nightshade.                                                    burning. Bring flowers

Pot ash.                                                           for me like you

 

My God.                                                          used to.

 

And he said unto her, Up, and let us be going.

But none answered.

Then the man took her up upon an ass,

And the man rose up, and gat him unto his place.

 

  1. 5.

Should I

refuse

to tell

this story

 

May I

never again

cross my

father’s

threshold

 

And when he was come into his house,

He took a knife, and laid hold on his concubine,

And divided her, together with her bones …

Consider of it, take advice, and speak your minds.

Judges 19: 24–30

 

  1. 6.

Blood                                                              I am

drips from                                                      not forsaken

block                                                               and no

to Earth                                                          war

spinning witness                                           will silence

mud tinted                                                     my bones.

red/black                                                       This Earth

soaked.                                                           drinks

When                                                              my

a man finds                                                    blood

his soul                                                           in remembrance

wracked                                                         and no

and one                                                          man

finger                                                              will silence it.

points back                                                    I have put

to this blood,                                                 my story

when                                                               into

the moon                                                        my sisters’

goes down                                                      mouths

in this                                                              and we

blood,                                                              will sing

when the sun                                                 and we

refuses this                                                    will wail

blood, my soul                                               and we

will say                                                           will shout.

Yes.                                                                 Amen.

 __________________________________________________________________________

 

Feature Image: ‘Judges 19’ by Mario Moore, 2009.

Tags : Black SwanLyrae van Clief-StefanonmythologyRacismSexual Violence
Johanna Stiebert

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