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There are perks to contributing to a book: hence, I recently received, hot off the press, my own copy of Rape Culture, Gender Violence, & Religion: Biblical Perspectives. I have since read eagerly through all chapters, with an ever-growing sense that this is a particularly timely and relevant publication.

The volume is one of three, all edited by the formidable triumvirate of Caroline Blyth, Emily Colgan and Katie B. Edwards and published by Palgrave Macmillan in the Religion and Radicalism series. The other two volumes carry the subtitles Christian Perspectives and Interdisciplinary Perspectives and I look forward to reading these next.

General Comments

The editors explain that the three volumes grew out of pressure to explore ‘the complex and multifaceted relationships between rape culture, gender violence, and religion’ in a context where such investigation was ‘well overdue and therefore urgent’ (p.v). Finding themselves inundated with responses to their general call for chapters, the one volume initially envisaged became three. It is only too clear that rape culture manifestations and gender-based violence have reached epidemic levels in many and diverse settings across the globe. Indeed, it was during the editing stages that #MeToo hit the headlines, making this visible, certainly in popular and social media of the USA and UK but also well beyond.

The three volumes, while substantial, make no pretense of being exhaustive in their analysis of either rape culture, or gender violence, or religion, or of the dynamics between all three. The Biblical Perspectives volume does not offer a definition of rape culture, or provide a thorough commentary on the rape texts of the Bible. There are other books to consult for that.[1]

While the texts that tend to spring to mind first when hearing ‘rape’ and ‘Bible’ – such as Genesis 34 (‘The Rape of Dinah’), Judges 19 (‘The Rape of the Levite’s Wife’), and 2 Samuel 13 (‘The Rape of Tamar’) – are all discussed, there is also focus on texts that are less likely to come to mind (such as Numbers 31), or that do not seem to be explicitly about rape (such as Lamentations 3, Numbers 25 and the passages on the Virgin Mary in the New Testament). The chapters in this book stimulate conversations about a complex and many-sided topic, both by informing and by calling out for social justice advocacy.

 

Advocacy runs as a thread throughout the volume. Lu Skerratt speaks of their reading lenses as ‘modes of activism’ (p.18) and ‘conduits of social justice’ (p.22); Jessica Keady states that ‘we surely have a responsibility to contest these [rape] discourses, both in the biblical texts and within our own cultural locations’ (p.79); David Tombs writes that ‘a contemporary reader is entitled, indeed obliged, to consider the events in [the biblical] tradition from these [raped] women’s perspective’ (p.126); Emma Nagouse validates Lamentations 3 as a portrayal of male rape and as the first step in redressing victim-blaming, arguing that ‘such an interpretive strategy is invaluable, if not necessary, given our location as biblical readers and interpreters within a global rape culture’ (p.154); James Harding’s investigation of ancient texts is motivated by resistance to collusion with rape culture and homophobia; Susanne Scholz calls for feminist interpreters to go beyond ‘a “cop-out” hermeneutics’ (p.181) and to embrace ‘exegetical resistance’ to the ‘marginalizing patterns of violence, including gendered violence, so pervasive in the world today’ (p.194); and Emily Colgan and Caroline Blyth insist on the ‘importance of persisting – and persisting and persisting – with … tough conversations’ (p.26). Reading this book is not a quiet or private experience – it tickles the conscience, seizes attention, inspires to activism.

I see why the book will not please everyone in biblical studies. (Unanimity of any kind would, indeed, be improbable in such a divided discipline.) First, as already stated, this is not and does not pretend to be a thorough or systematic exploration of biblical texts about rape. Instead, it is a collection centred around the Bible and gendered violence in which every chapter throws a surprise into the mix by interfacing biblical texts with things from contemporary worlds: such as films and television shows, empirical research from Indonesia, newspaper reports of a forced marriage in Wales, or Title IX. Secondly, while there is certainly close reading of biblical texts and some focus on Hebrew vocabulary, ancient translations and possible original contexts (notably, Harding’s contribution) many of the traditional preoccupations, such as with date of composition, identification of Sitz im Leben, or evidence of redaction, for instance, are played down, or absent. And thirdly, not all contributors are academics and some are academics choosing to channel creative interpretive expression (notably, Klangwisan). The result is a stimulating fizz that makes the Bible a shape-shifting text, both relevant in a complex and media-inundated now-ness and a means to illuminate disturbing realities of both past and present.

Reviewing the Chapters

The succinct introduction by the volume’s editors makes the case that the Bible, being both sacred and violent, needs to be held accountable. Undeniably, its ‘articulations of gender violence have accrued significant authority and power across space and time’ (p.2) and this authority and power apply not only to its canonical force in Jewish and Christian congregations but also to influence exerted on ‘contemporary social discourses that (implicitly or explicitly) draw upon the ideologies inherent within biblical texts to justify multiple forms of gender violence’ (p.2).

Not to probe and resist this authority, power and influence runs the risk of colluding in, perpetuating, justifying or legitimating gender-based violence. The charge that such an exercise is ‘anachronistic’ and therefore insufficient in terms of ‘epistemological rigour’ (p.4) is rejected – and I applaud this. Let me dwell briefly on the fact that the charge of ‘anachronism’ is quite common – especially when it comes to methods of biblical criticism that reveal and challenge ideologies. Such charges are made, for instance, by certain conservative theological commentators and are usually targeted at something they reject: feminism is a prominent contender. (The application of Christological interpretation to the Hebrew Bible, on the other hand, is not acknowledged as anachronism by these same commentators.) By labeling feminist interpretation of the Bible as ‘anachronistic’ and arguing that people of antiquity had no awareness of the preoccupations of modern feminism, feminism is dismissed as irrelevant and ‘unbiblical’ (and therefore as ‘not good’), while, conversely, non-feminist ideological values, including some responsible for keeping women oppressed, are promoted. This is one way of relegating domestic duties and childrearing to women (‘because that is what the Bible promotes’), and at the same time rejecting ‘feminist ideas’ about women joining the workforce and enjoying equal rights in terms of work conditions and pay. One example of very many making this this kind of argument is by husband and wife A. J. and M. E. Köstenberger[2] who characterize feminist critics as completely wrongheaded. Their publications promote the belief that the Bible advocates that men and women each have a ‘unique yet equally significant and indispensable set of roles in the family and the church’  – an example of the ‘different but equal’ fallacy. The perspective of biblical critics who resist such is that certain biblical texts provide cause for challenging gendered depictions or ideologies that are discriminatory – a challenge that feminist or gender criticism[3] is aptly equipped to make.

The contributions in this volume offer and defend engagements with biblical texts that are both critical and creative. Moreover, the contributions maintain a steady focus on the present, because there is (sadly) nothing outdated or anachronistic about gender-based violence.

Both Lu Skerratt and Emma Nagouse focus on the book of Lamentations. Lamentations is a short, poetic book of the Hebrew Bible, depicting in graphic terms the brutalities attending the Fall of Jerusalem. Nagouse’s focus is concentrated on the Man of Sorrows (Lamentations 3) whom she counter-points with Jamie Fraser of the television series Outlander, with particular focus on what she identifies as the shared theme of male-male rape. Skerratt focuses on the feminine metaphor of abused Daughter Zion and on ‘shared themes, characters and discourses’ (p.15) with the novel Push and its film adaptation Precious. Skerratt co-opts the masculine imagery of Lamentations 3 alongside the feminine imagery to make a case for the book’s brutal and divinely administered misogyny (p.21). Both chapters offer examples of how modern literature and filmic adaptations illuminate and reveal affinities with biblical texts. Both chapters are open, too, about a personal and subjective filter.

Skerratt argues that for all their separation in terms of space and time both Daughter Zion and Precious are females whose bodies are inscribed with ‘multiple inequalities’ (p.24). For Skerratt there exists between them ‘a deep connection to the nuances of human life in times of great despair and crisis’ (p.27). Skerratt also maintains that through watching Precious – an unrelenting and harrowing film about all of child abuse, incest, poverty, teenage pregnancy, disability, social marginalization, racism and HIV – compassion can be extended also to the nameless women of Lamentations and others of the past and present who suffer like them (p.23). This, in turn, Skerratt advocates, will provide a rallying call for bringing about change. That this is personal for them is clear throughout Skerratt’s paper. The chapter’s opening sentence identifies Lamentations as a biblical book that affects Skerratt profoundly and they wonder openly whether the book’s emphasis on ‘the marginalized, oppressed, violated, and othered’ (p.14) is what attracts them to it.

Nagouse describes watching the Outlander episode that depicts unflinchingly Captain Jack Randall’s rape of Jamie Fraser as ‘deeply thought-provoking’ and a catalyst for considering ‘the biblical tradition with fresh eyes’ (p.144). Nagouse, moreover, feels compelled to explore and understand connections between the two due to her location as reader and interpreter ‘within a global rape culture’ (p.154). Nagouse is careful to state that she cannot know the intention of the author of Lamentations 3, including whether the purpose of the pericope is to portray suffering in terms of the experience of rape. Her exploration yields a number of astute observations, including that what the Man of Sorrows witnesses (namely the rape of women) may provide insight into what he himself has experienced (p.152) and also that suffering brutality can generate not only revulsion and horror towards the perpetrator but also a sense of dependency, even attachment (p.154).

In different ways Skerratt and Nagouse both demonstrate that reading and interpreting biblical texts, including texts of sexual violence, do not happen in a vacuum but in a richly inter-textual context. Both, moreover, have been led by the vivid and brutal imagery of Lamentations, in conjunction with representations of violence from modern media, to appropriate, explore and empathize with those who have suffered trauma outside of their own experience. Hence, Skerratt is moved ‘to stand with BME women in the United States who are disproportionally affected and stigmatized for having an HIV-positive status’ (p.22) and Nagouse compels us to listen to and to believe male victims of rape so that the cycle of trauma and re-traumatization can begin to be dismantled (p.155).

David Tombs also uses popular culture media to attempt to gain insight into ancient texts of sexual violence. Tombs explores the popular youth television series 13 Reasons Why, as well the book by Jay Asher on which it is based. (For an earlier version of his chapter, see here). The plot of both book and series centres on the character Hannah Baker who has committed suicide – or, more accurately, on the tape recordings recounting the reasons for her suicide. The biblical text with which Tombs interfaces some of these reasons – namely, Hannah’s rape by Bryce Walker, the possible collusion of Hannah’s ‘friend’ Courtney Crimsen and the inadequate response of the school guidance counselor when Hannah tries to tell him what happened – is from the David story in 2 Samuel. The story element, which cursorily recounts the fate of David’s ten concubines who are raped by Absalom in a display of his power, is not well known. While 13 Reasons Why gives extensive insight into Hannah’s interior life, the concubines’ perspective receives no mention in the biblical text (p.126). Tombs’ reading strategy is particularly deft because his dialogic approach allows the biblical text and Hannah’s experience ‘to speak to and illuminate each other… reveal[ing] how they each attest to the devastating impact of gender violence on victims’ lives and identities’ (p.119). In doing so, Tombs makes revealing insights about both Courtney Crimsen’s and King David’s complicity in tacit acts of ‘sexual “offering” motivated by… self-interest’ (p.131). Tombs also points out how important it is to name not only Hannah’s but also the concubines’ experience as rape (p.134, n.8) and to make efforts to identify and understand the perspectives of the marginal and victimized (p.126). Without such efforts, Tombs warns, churches and other religious communities might reinforce ‘the stigmatization and discrimination felt by survivors of sexual violence’ (p.127).

Interestingly, all of Skerratt, Nagouse and Tombs practise a form of appropriation in that they each use biblical texts alongside (arguably) more accessible contemporary popular media to gain insight and empathy and to speak out for persons or groups very different to themselves. In Skerratt’s case, it is HIV-positive BME women in the USA; in Nagouse’s, it is victims of male-male rape, and in Tombs’, it is young and suicidal female victims of rape. The word ‘appropriation’ has – with justification – had some bad press: such as in the sense of cultural appropriation, for instance.  In all three cases here, however, what is going on is not some form of impersonation or voyeurism but a passionate effort to resist damaging political or cultural control and domination.[4]

I will not say much about my chapter in the volume – because it always feels weird to review one’s own writing. Suffice it to say that my chapter, too, interprets select biblical texts alongside portrayals from popular culture, with particular emphasis on eroticized brother-sister relations. The chapter grew out from research for my most recent monograph on first-degree incest and the Hebrew Bible (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016)

The chapter by James Harding examines a number of biblical texts – including Judges 19–21 and Numbers 31 – in order to probe contexts of both antiquity and modernity that make homophobia and rape culture possible. Harding is a scholar I particularly admire – both for his formidable breadth of knowledge and the thoroughness of his scholarship. This chapter amply demonstrates both. Harding, as ever, proceeds cautiously, ‘always alert to the manifold risks of anachronism and trans-cultural misprision’ (p.169), and illustrates how rape culture is ‘woven into the very identities’ of both the ‘narratives… canonised and scripturalised in the Hebrew Bible’ and the ‘literary heritage of the Graeco-Roman’ world. Both, he points out, have ‘played a complex and variegated role in shaping the cultures and intellectual history of Western Europe, and, by extension, those cultures that have fallen under their spell’ (p.160).

Harding’s examination is nuanced and carefully contextualized, paying close attention also to significant items of vocabulary. He illustrates that a narrative like Judges 21 ‘invests a particular sort of rape – of virgin girls in a war of sacral revenge – with the odour of sanctity and religious obedience, and this odour of sanctity and obedience is profoundly gendered’ (p.166). Alongside identifying masculine domination of women, Harding also demonstrates ‘the ingrained homophobia of the societies implied by the texts’ (p.167). He is careful to stress that such passages as Genesis 19:1-11 and Judges 19:22-30 (where male-male rape is threatened) have ‘nothing to do with “homosexuality” or “homosexual” rape, but everything to do with an ancient form of homophobia grounded in an implicit understanding of sex as a matter of the sexually mediated power of men over women, and over other men’ (p.167). Harding ends his chapter with a question: ‘If, as readers, we are prepared to collude in [projecting our own dark lies on to others], should we not at the same time ask ourselves with honesty how our own beliefs, thoughts, and acts enable all manner of gender-based violence to thrive?’ (p.169). Harding’s acute dissection of words, literary and social settings, values and projections is powerful in its demonstration of how deeply rooted and pervasive sexual violence is.

The chapter by Yael Klangwisan is strikingly original and, like Harding’s, haunting – though in a different way. Whereas Harding’s method is one of going deep down into the text, peeling back its layers and turning its words and depictions this way and that, Klangwisan uses the biblical text as her starting point to build up a new imagining. She begins by citing the short text of focus: Numbers 25:8, 14-15, describing how Phinehas the priest impales Zimri and Cozbi. This may not be the first text that springs to mind when picking up a book on ‘rape culture and the Bible’ but it is certainly a text about violence and sex. Klangwisan follows scholar Helena Zlotnick Sivan in interpreting Phinehas’s actions ‘as a rape that delegitimizes Cozbi’s relationship with Zimri “to a level of arbitrary passion”’ (p.113, n.3). She also describes the spear as ‘like an iron phallus’ (p.109). Klangwisan puts herself firmly into the chapter, following the quoted biblical text with a statement of immediacy: ‘I’ll be honest with you. I want to save them’ (p.103). In this way, the distance between biblical text, the chapter’s author and the reader is broken down. Next, Klangwisan vividly evokes the events of the text, weaving through, like a commentary, the voices of Roland Barthes and Hélène Cixous. The chapter makes the reader imagine the ‘miasma of horror’ (p.109) described in the text – something they may not have done at the outset when casting eyes across a short few biblical verses. Re-read with Klangwisan’s illumination, the text becomes ‘a violation of a kind of love that might have, had it lived, overcome cultural difference’ and the names of Zimri and Cozbi become ‘like a gift at the end of this text’ (p.109). Like Tombs but using a different strategy, Klangwisan insists on validating and not shrouding that a terrible and violent act has been committed. Also like Tombs, she insists on us imagining the scene and probing its multiple perspectives and its characters’ motivations. I am looking forward to using this chapter by Klangwisan in the classroom, as a way to make biblical texts – which can strike modern readers as remote and inaccessible – more immediate and more vivid.

The chapters by Julie Kelso and Susanne Scholz both offer surveys on topics pertinent to rape culture, sexual violence and the Bible. Kelso[5] focuses on the important work on the relationship between biblical texts and violence against women by Andrea Dworkin. As Kelso points out, Dworkin’s contribution has been unfairly sidelined, as well as misrepresented and maligned as ‘sex-negative’. In no small part, Kelso illustrates, this has been because she is an outspoken woman. Dworkin’s articulation that sexual intercourse plays a significant role in male-dominated and male-supremacist societies through its contribution to women’s ‘erosion of the self and the compliant acceptance of lower status’ (p.84) is not easy to hear. As Kelso makes clear, Dworkin has never said all intercourse is rape – for all the claims to the contrary in mainstream media and cyberspace (p.84). Moreover, a number of men (Kelso quotes Leo Tolstoy as one example) have also argued that intercourse ‘makes exploiters of men and slaves of women’ (p.91) – but they (tellingly) are not consequently labeled ‘sex-negative’. Kelso’s bleak conclusion is that Dworkin’s call to recognize certain biblical texts (such as Genesis 2:4-4:1 and the Leviticus sexuality laws) as a means to institutionalize and sacralize intercourse for the purpose of male domination remains relevant, even urgent (p.98). Kelso is absolutely right that Dworkin’s work on the interpretation of biblical texts has receded into the remote peripheries of biblical studies. Kelso’s case for redressing this situation and depicting accurately what Dworkin does and does not say is persuasive.

Scholz’s chapter begins with the statement issued by the US Office for Civil Rights in April 2011, which explains that under Title IX of the US Education Amendments it is an obligation to eliminate sexual harassment and sexual violence. This leads to her personal observation that academia demonstrates ‘general reticence’ in the face of sexual violence (p.181). Scholz next turns to biblical scholarship, which she criticizes for being ‘consistently in the position of catching up with socio-cultural, political, and intellectual developments’ (p.190). Scholz calls for going beyond a ‘“cop-out” hermeneutics’ (p.181), such as by better connecting ‘gender, race, and class to explain the pervasiveness of rape’ (p.184). Alongside this rallying call to action (and such calls are something of a hallmark of this volume), Scholz also provides a succinct summary of feminist theories on rape, beginning with Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Women, Men, and Rape (1975), before providing a survey of feminist scholarship on biblical rape texts. Confirming her statement about a ‘catch-up’ tendency, Scholz points out that the first feminist exegetical study on sexual violence in the Bible did not appear until 1984: namely, Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. From here, Scholz follows the trickle onwards to the work of J. Cheryl Exum (‘Raped by the Pen’, in Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives, 1993) and Renita J. Weems (Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets, 1995), towards the flood of studies since 2000, which includes alongside Scholz’s own works, those of Gerlinde Baumann, Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, Cheryl Anderson, Mary Anna Bader, Hilary B. Lipka, Joy A. Schroeder, Carleen Mandolfo, Frank M. Yamada and Caroline Blyth.

Scholz also calls out for more boldness, such as for greater emphasis on socially located readings of the Bible. Especially when it comes to a topic like sexual violence, what she characterizes as adherence to ‘principles of a scientific-empiricist epistemology’ (p.190) can have the effect of minimizing and obfuscating ‘the violent and coercive nature of rape’ (p.192). Scholz adds that such happens particularly prominently among white feminist interpreters (p.191). Coming back to the Title IX statement, Scholz also demands greater boldness on the meta-level – that is, for more in-depth attention to method and methodology in the discipline of feminist biblical studies, including in terms of understanding biblical rape texts ‘as sites of struggle over meaning-making, authorization, and power’ (p.193). Both Kelso and Scholz bring attention back to the process and to the responsibility of doing feminist interpretation of biblical rape texts. As such they complement well the volume’s chapters that engage in such processes.

Teguh Wijaya Mulya and Jessica M. Keady both respond to biblical texts in the light of direct encounters with contemporary expressions of sexual violence. Wijaya Mulya recounts how his queering reflections on the virgin/whore binary were set in motion during an interview with young Indonesian Christians to find out more about understandings of sexual violence. One 18-year-old male participant he quotes describes how as a young teenager he groped a young woman as a ‘prank’, which he self-designated as ‘naughty’. This act of harassment is not only mitigated but also justified by him, with the statement that the girl was a ‘cheap girl’ – that is, a girl presumed no longer to be a virgin (p.52). From here, Wijaya Mulya expounds how tenuous the binary of virgin/whore is, citing not only hybrid counter-examples such as Ezili, who is portrayed as both promiscuous/flamboyant, and as Black Madonna (p.58), merging whore and virgin imagery, but also the presence of Mary in a genealogy of sexualized women (Matthew 1). In a number of ways, as Wijaya Mulya illustrates, ‘virgin’ and ‘whore’ are not poles apart but have overlapping characteristics, including a shared focus on sexuality. Moreover, not only the whore or ‘cheap girl’ is vulnerable to sexual violence, but so is the virgin: hence, the source of Mary’s pregnancy ‘conveys nuances of attacking, overtaking, overshadowing, and enveloping’. Wijaya Mulyah expands on this as follows: ‘[Mary] is essentially told that something will do some thing to her, with the result that she will get pregnant. Most importantly, the angel does not ask for her consent’ (p.57). Like other authors in the volume, Wijaya Mulyah hopes his analysis will have positive ramifications in lived life. His wish is for resistance to ‘normalization of sexual violence in this context and elsewhere’, so that through demonstrating ‘that the notion of violence as a “logical consequence” for women located by others in the “whore” category becomes both unintelligible and unacceptable’ (p.62).

Lamentably, Wijaya Mulyah’s contribution is the only one in the volume focused on New Testament (rather than Hebrew Bible) texts. As Meredith Warren and others writing for the Shiloh Project blog have demonstrated, the New Testament is far from immune from the taint of rape culture.

Keady’s examination of biblical and contemporary conceptions of gendered violence and purity discourses uses Genesis 34 as its pivot. (For Keady’s earlier and shorter version, see here.) Keady defends the dominant feminist position that Genesis 34 recounts Shechem’s rape of Dinah, refuting the minority of scholars who argue that there is no evidence of either coercion or violence (p.75). Keady also maintains that some of the disturbing subtexts in both the biblical text itself (e.g. the notion that the rape defiles and cheapens Dinah, p.77) and in interpretations of Genesis 34 (e.g. that Shechem’s soul is drawn to Dinah and that he speaks tenderly to her suggests a romance and refutes that this is a narrative of rape, p.75–76) persist into the present.

For one example of evidence Keady refers to a recent case brought before the court in Cardiff (2015) concerning a man who raped a woman and then forced her to marry him. As Keady points out, not only the man’s method of coercion (he threatened to release camera footage of the rape victim naked in the shower with a view to destroying her prospects of marriage, because she was ‘damaged goods’) but also both the judge’s summing up and the journalist’s recounting of events demonstrate what Keady characterizes as a persistent form of ‘purity culture ideology’. This ideology includes the projection of an impression that the woman, no longer a virgin, ‘is reduced to something less valuable, an impure, damaged body that “no one would want”’ (p.70).

For Keady, to ignore or downplay problematic, such as misogynistic, discourses of the Bible risks re-encoding oppression in the present. Whereas Klangwisan, through imaginative enhancement, demonstrates this by not letting the sparseness of a violent biblical text get away with its violence, Keady, like Harding, makes clear that what is toxic and present in the ancient text has not gone away and must be fervently resisted.

The final chapter of the volume is by two of its editors, Emily Colgan and Caroline Blyth. I particularly like this chapter, on teaching in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand, because it reminds me that biblical gender violence is a topic of conversation for a diverse range of public spaces, including the classroom. The chapter is concise and manages to distil a great number of important points in very few pages. Colgan and Blyth point out that while there are shocking texts in the Bible and while this may surprise even students of faith who consider themselves well versed in Scripture, it is important to engage critically with these texts. While I, probably like Colgan and Blyth too, have been accused in student evaluations of dwelling too much on texts that are ‘controversial’, ‘overtly sexual’, or ‘graphic’ (as if I had put them there myself for some nefarious Christian-dissing purpose), discussing such texts is not about an ‘intention to shock or antagonize… or to provide… the classroom with the equivalent of clickbait’ (p.202). Instead, we teach these texts because they are in the Bible, part of a canonized whole.

As Colgan and Blyth point out, the Bible (or religion framed more widely) may not be the sole or greatest cause of gender violence in either Aotearoa New Zealand or elsewhere but it is a text that ‘both supports and perpetuates violence’ and to ignore this is ‘to contribute to the harm experienced by countless victims’ (p.203). Colgan and Blyth point not only to the problems in the texts, which ‘continue to have power in contemporary communities to sustain rape-supportive discourses’ but also to the difficulties of discussing such texts critically and with integrity in a classroom that may well include either or both persons ‘affected personally by gender violence’ (p.203) and persons ‘who participate in the social structures that sustain gender violence’ (p.204). They raise a set of complex questions: ‘How do we critique rape culture and gender violence, when these are recognized by some of our students as being so closely aligned with their own cultural identities? How do we challenge the unacceptable violence of patriarchy and misogyny while still being sensitive to our students’ investment in their cultural traditions? To what extent can we invite students to critique the traditional underpinnings of their own cultures, particularly when we ourselves do not belong to these cultures?’ (p.205).

By raising these matters Colgan and Blyth throw into relief both the enduring relevance and influence of biblical texts and the important and difficult task of interpreting them in the complex and diverse and globalized contemporary world. This volume provides impetus, motivation, tools and strategies for getting started on this endeavour. I hope this volume gets the big and diverse circulation, engaged readership and active responsiveness to the call for more ‘tough conversations’ (p.10) it so thoroughly deserves.

Postscript

In numerous ways this volume shows that a Bible scholar’s interpretation is shaped by encounters and experiences in life. Who we are, what and whom we experience become enmeshed in reading, interacting, idea-shaping, researching. The films and television we watch (Skerratt, Stiebert, Tombs, Nagouse) infiltrate our interpretation, as do the people we interview (Wijaya Mulya), the students we teach (Colgan, Blyth), the newspaper articles on court cases or Title IX we scan (maybe on the bus to work) (Keady, Scholz), or the casual prejudices we encounter, such as when male-male rape is characterized as ‘homosexual’ (Harding). Our imagination, shaped by the various exchanges and transactions of life, flow into our reading of biblical texts (Klangwisan) and influence the way we reflect on interpretations, and interpretations of interpretations (!) of the past (Kelso, Scholz). As Scholz argues, especially with a topic such as sexual violence, any notion of critical distance is not only difficult but also potentially highly problematic – hence, the passionate and often explicitly personal level of engagement in this volume.

This past year I have been based in Bamberg, a University town in a part of Bavaria that prefers to distinguish itself as a distinct region called Franconia. It has been a joy to immerse myself in a new academic context and I was delighted to accept an invitation to present my most recent work in the form of an open lecture. The topic – Potiphar’s wife’s harassment of Joseph and her false allegation of rape – is relevant to the Shiloh Project and I have reported on it here. My talk took a close look at Genesis 39 and at how it has been interpreted, both in biblical scholarship and in film and visual art. It also examined how the stereotypes of oversexed ‘foreign’ women, of untrustworthy women crying rape, either for attention, or because they don’t get their way, and of the man as sexual object being ipso facto feminized, play out in the current climate of #MeToo.

While talking, I kept noticing a man sitting near the front who looked very disgruntled. He made some exasperated noises and leafed energetically in his Bible, so that I could not help but be aware of him. When it came to time for questions, the man spoke up. He didn’t really ask a question. Instead he stated that my approach was not responsible, because I was not reading the story in its historical setting. I countered by saying first, that the precise historical context is difficult to salvage, not least because the story has probably been edited over and modified throughout a considerable space of time and secondly, that while an ancient text, the story continues to be read and sought out in present time and that the contemporary interpretive context has bearing on how Genesis 39 is read.

Afterwards I learned that the disgruntled questioner was none other than Professor Doktor Klaus Bieberstein, the University’s Professor for Old Testament Studies whom I had not met before. (I have been working while here on the Bible in Africa Studies series, ‘BiAS’, which is led by Joachim Kügler, Chair of New Testament Studies.) I felt unhappy about the lack of an opportunity to talk a little further with the Professor – there was no opportunity after the lecture – so I sent him an email and we arranged to meet for coffee.

Professor Bieberstein was very happy to talk about his research and considerable range of expertise. He has worked on creation stories, on theodicy and on the impact of archaeology on interpretation of Joshua. What really lit up his somewhat stern face, however, was when he spoke of his research focused on Jerusalem and of the student trip he leads there most years. I began to warm to him a little as he spoke of his visits there and of the many sources he has consulted to get a sense of how Jerusalem was, is and has been remembered through time.

But then we turned to the topic of my work and my lecture. Professor Bieberstein made clear that he considers my work to be part of an undesirable tendency to interpret biblical texts without historical rootedness or awareness. I pointed out that I am trained in biblical languages and in the history of interpretation, that I consider such training valuable. I tried to express that I consider the study of the Bible a discipline with many rooms and approaches and that I respect his methods and scholarship. I also tried to convey that there is scope and value in approaches that emphasize the relevance and resonance of the Bible in the present. Professor Bieberstein did not express any openness to or accommodation of such approaches. So, the coffee meeting did not end on a particularly cheery note. I said goodbye – courteously enough, I hope, and walked away quite sure I would not hear back from the Professor. Indeed, I have not. I did find it a shame that in a smallish town with two Hebrew Bible academics in it we could not get along better. But my feeling was that respect did not flow in two directions: I was able to admire and see value in his work but he could not in mine. So be it.

 

The reason I mention this encounter is that it makes clear to me that there is quite likely to be not just among students (as Colgan and Blyth identify, p.205) but also among biblical scholars some resistance and even refusal to engage with this volume. Not everyone will consider all or any of the contributions serious and edifying scholarship. Their loss.

 

 

[1] For a clear discussion of rape culture, one good source is the first two chapters (‘Rape Culture: The Evolution of a Concept’ and ‘The Mainstreaming of Rape Culture’) in Nickie D. Phillips’ monograph Beyond Blurred Lines: Rape Culture in Popular Media (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). For a book-length examination of rape in the Hebrew Bible, see Susanne Scholz’s Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible (Fortress Press, 2010).

[2] Their book God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey (Crossway Books, 2014) offers plenty of evidence for this stance.

[3] Neither feminist nor gender criticism is univocal but both draw attention to and resist gender-based discrimination and prejudice. For a nuanced and full discussion on both and on the distinctions between them, as well as for an application of robust gender criticism to biblical texts, see Deryn Guest, Beyond Feminist Biblical Studies (Phoenix, 2012).

[4] For a succinct and subtle examination of appropriation I recommend Adriaan van Klinken, ‘Response: The Politics of Appropriation’, in J. Stiebert and M. W. Dube (eds), The Bible, Centres and Margins: Dialogues between Postcolonial African and British Biblical Scholars (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2018), pp.147–51.

[5] An earlier and longer version of Kelso’s chapter is ‘The Institution of Intercourse: Andrea Dworkin on the Biblical Foundations of Violence Against Women’, The Bible and Critical Theory 12/2 (2016): 24–40. This paper is available online here.

Tags : Caroline BlythDavid TombsEmily ColganEmma NagouseJames HardingJessica KeadyJulie KelsoLu SkerrattPalgrave MacmillanSusanne ScholzTeguh Wijaya MulyaYael Klangwisan
Johanna Stiebert

The author Johanna Stiebert

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