Violence in Marriage: A Closer Look at Numbers 5

Spilled water

The following post by Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebertfollows on from an earlier recent post on marriage, the Bible and violence.

In this post, I want to focus on one specific text of the Hebrew Bible: Numbers 5:11-31, which prescribes what to do if a husband suspects his wife of adultery. I will demonstrate how this text not only describes but also legitimates gender-based violence in marriage. Moreover, while scholars describe the law as ‘particularly perplexing’ (Friedman 2012, 371), or comment that we may be ‘understandably puzzled by this unique episode’ (Britt 2007, 05.7), Numbers 5 is also in some ways disturbingly familiar, even today.

Numbers 5:11-31 is unusually detailed. It is emphatically about violence in the context of marriage and it clearly describes religious violence – given that the ritual is performed in front of a priest, at the Tabernacle, and repeatedly alludes to holy water, offerings, and God.

It seems Numbers 5 is not widely known or widely referred to in contemporary Christian contexts. In Judaism, being part of the Torah, the first and most holy and authoritative portion of the sacred scriptures, it is read annually in the Shabbat reading cycle. But there are no intra-biblical references or allusions to performance of the elaborate ritual. With its emphasis on quasi-magical ritual performed in a Tabernacle, or Temple, that no longer exists, it is a passage that could be said to be particularly obscure, even irrelevant. And yet, in the Talmud, the influence of Numbers 5 extends well beyond the time that the ritual was declared void (see Haberman 2000).

Gendered Injustice and Divine Legitimation of the Ritual

The ritual of Numbers 5:11-31 is gender-specific, applying only to a womansuspected of adultery. Elsewhere in the Torah, adultery is depicted as a grievous crime and the death penalty is stipulated as punishment for bothparties involved – the man andthe woman (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22-29). It must be added, though, that here too, indications are that adultery is a lopsided matter, which occurs when a womanis either married or betrothed and has sexual relations with someone other than her husband. A married man, on the other hand, can have sex with other women, without committing adultery, as long as the women are not married or betrothed to another man.Also notable about Numbers 5 is that, from the outset, there is insistent reference to religious authority: the ritual is ascribed to the word of God using the holy name (YHWH), is transmitted to Moses, his preeminent prophet, and is to be administered by the priest.

The priest is particularly active in the execution of the ritual. The woman is brought to the priest and it is he who positions her ‘before the Lord’ (v.16), who takes sacred water and prepares a potion (v.17), who dishevels the woman’s hair and places a ‘jealousy offering’ in her hand (v.18), who holds the potion (v.18), who adjures and administers a curse (vv.19-22), who puts curses in writing (v.23), who makes the woman drink the potion (v.24), and who burns the offering (vv.25-26). The woman, by contrast, is active only insofar as saying ‘amen, amen’ to the curse pronounced on her. Otherwise, everything is done toher.For Susanna Towers, ‘[t]he embedding of her consent to the curse reinforce[s] the passive role she plays in the ritual’ (2014, see here). Brian Britt, similarly, concludes that the woman ‘is treated like a living mannequin by the men’ (2007, 05.3, see here).

For feminist commentator Alice Bach, the emphasis on men’s control of the woman in Numbers 5 reflects male anxiety about female erotic desire. Bach interprets the text to assert ‘dominance over women’s bodies’ and to assure a husband ‘that his honor could be restored if he had so much as a suspicion that his wife had been fooling around’ (1999, 506). Ishay Rosen-Zvi agrees that the ritual constitutes ‘the ultimate cure for male fears, presenting the rebellious woman as passive, controlled, publicly exposed and ultimately stripped of all her seductive powers’ (2006, 276, see here).

Gender-Based Violence and its Religious Legitimation

Important to emphasize is the violence of this text. There is physical violence, or injury to the body: hence, if the woman is guilty, the potion will ensure ‘that her belly will distend and her thigh … sag’ (5:27). This is expressed as the consequence of the woman being a curse and an imprecation among her people, and seems to happen directly upon ingesting the potion prepared by the priest (5:21-22). Alongside this, there is also the possibility of psychological and emotional violence, given that the woman is suspected of a crime and subjected to an ordeal in which she is exposed and put on trial in a sacred and possibly public setting. She is also at risk of social exclusion and ostracism if she is found guilty of adultery (5:27).

Richard Friedman discusses several commentators who argue that because a potion ‘of “holy” water, dust from the Tabernacle floor, and ink from words on a parchment… cannot be guaranteed to produce prolapsed uteri or any other particular condition in all guilty adulteresses… the law’s effect was precisely to find all women not guilty and thus to prevent “lynchings”’ (2012: 372, see here). In other words, the law is sometimes considered as having the ultimately benign purpose of both assuaging a jealous husband by having an elaborate ritual that validates and also allays his anxieties and, simultaneously, not harming (allegedly) and even protecting the woman. For a number of reasons, I find this unlikely.

First, there is Mary Douglas’s question: ‘is it plausible to argue that [lawmakers] tend to codify nonsense – arbitrary enactments?’ (1984, 47). I agree with her that it is not. Whoever may have recorded and transmitted the text in Numbers 5:11-31, for them to record and transmit a text so detailed and precise, in the full knowledge that the ritual described is basically a smokescreen to protect women from their husbands’ jealousy, is highly improbable.

Second, it is also unlikely that if such a ritual was practiced, it did no harm to the woman – even if the potion was no more than a placebo. Her husband suspects her of adultery and this suspicion is brought to the priest and possibly made known also to other members in the community – this alone is likely to cause the woman great distress. If the societies in the background of Hebrew Bible texts are indeed shame cultures – as proposed by numerous commentators – the woman’s distress would have been acute. Additionally, there is the elaborate and formal ritual and the fear of punishment. If the ritual is able to assuage the husband, its curse and punishments are likely to have been believed in – or, at the very least, sufficient gravitas and dignity would need to have been conferred on the ritual for it to have any efficacy in restoring either the woman’s public standing or the husband’s emotional equilibrium.

I find it disturbing that some interpreters consider the ritual to be protectiveof the woman. If that is the case, not only does protection come with elaborate accommodation to husbands’ jealousies but it also comes at considerable cost to the woman. The question arises: is such ‘protection’ worth having?

Presumption of Guilt

In a number of ways, the ritual is very much stacked against the woman. It is supposed to determine her guilt and yet, while the potion may eithercause her harm orexonerate her should she be innocent, leaving her ‘unharmed’ and able to retain seed (that is, remain pregnant or become pregnant) (vv.27-28), the opening statement presumesher guilt. The reference is to a woman who hasgone astray (from ś-t-h) and who has broken faith (m-‘-l)with her husband (v.12). This is then elaborated upon: the straying refers to another man who has had sex with the woman (male initiative is presumed – š-k-bis a verb that males perform). The sexual activity has involved šikbat-zera‘(‘lying of seed’), presumably penetrative sex and ejaculation (v.13), and this has been hidden from the eyes of the husband. Moreover, the woman, we are told, has kept secret that she was defiled or that she has defiled herself (the verb is from t-m-’ and in nifal form, which can indicate either a passive or a reflexive voice),but there was no witness to the event, nor was she forced (v.13). So, a man other than her husband had sex with her but shedefiled herself. She is accused of secrecy and somehow (though it is not clear how) it is supposed that she was not forced. On the one hand, her agency is undermined by her passive role (the man took initiative – but she has becomedefiled or defiled herself). But her passivity does not remove responsibility. She alone is responsible for what was done to her.

In Numbers 5 the woman’s collusion is, to begin with, assumed: if she had sex with another man, the only possibility under consideration is that there was no physical force. No physical force is equated with compliance, possibly complicity. There is no other witness. Strikingly, establishing the identity of the other man, an adulterer, is not a preoccupation. Unlike in Deuteronomy 22, hisresponsibility, hiscrime or hispunishment, is of no interest to either the woman’s husband or the lawmakers. Attention is on the woman alone – she is the sole focus of her husband’s jealousy, she is the sole reason that a ‘spirit of jealousy’ has come upon him. The possibility  that the woman is innocent of this charge is acknowledged, but only after the possibility of her adultery has been fully laid out (v.14).


The Hebrew words for ‘jealous’ and ‘jealousy’ are from q-n-’, which is also sometimes translated ‘ardent/ardour’ or ‘zealous/zeal’. There is reference elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible to jealous husbands (Proverbs 6:34) and to the emotional intensity of jealousy (Proverbs 27:4; Ecclesiastes 4:4; 9:6). Britt identifies it as ‘an exclusively male passion’ (2007, 05.6). Interestingly, the word is applied regularly to God, often with reference to divine violence and revenge: ‘zeal of YHWH of Hosts’ (2 Kgs 19:31; see also Exod. 20:5; Deut. 5:9; 29:19; 32:19-22; Josh. 24:19; Isa. 9:6; 26:11; 37:32; 42:13; 59:17; 63:15; Ezek. 5:13; 35:11; 36:5-6; 38:19; Zeph. 1:18; 3:8; Zech. 1:14; 8:2; Ps. 79:5.

Sometimes jealousy is associated also with others in authority: approvingly, for instance, in a divine pronouncement about the (violent!) zeal of Phinehas the priest (Numbers 25:11). Jealousy may be self-destructive (Gen. 30:1; Prov. 3:31; 23:17; 24:1, 19), or plain destructive and occasionally futile (Job 5:2; Eccl. 4:4; 9:6; Pss 37:1; 73:2-3; Prov. 14:30) and decidedly negative (Gen. 37:11; Isa. 11:13) but it is also associated with, or valorized as, great love (Song 8:6; Isa. 63:15) or ardour forYHWH (2 Kgs 10:16; cf. Pss 69:10; 119:139).

So, while there are some biblical passages that depict human jealousies in pejorative terms, as futile, ill-advised, or destructive, a number of points serve to underpin and legitimate the husband’s jealousy and the religious violence that results from it:

  • first, the positive association of jealousy with love, and with men of God (such as with Phinehas) but above all with God himself
  • second, the sense of righteous anger, anxiety and outrage leveled at adultery and women’s infidelity
  • third, the prominent depiction of God himself as either angry avenger or – more pointedly – as spurned husband of an unfaithful wife exacting effusive and violent punishment that is depicted as justified.

In the God-as-husband metaphor, familiar from prophetic writing, God’s jealous rage is depicted as a legitimate and proportionate response to the people’s excessive sinning, which is likened to a depraved woman’s adultery. This leads up to violent punishment for the metaphorical woman, with Ezek. 16:38, 42 and 23:25 providing the most sustained examples. God and Phinehas can behave violently, and their violence is depicted as justifiable, even legitimate. Jealousy, moreover, is a mark of ardent love or devotion – even if it can turn nasty when disappointed. In a troubling way, therefore, the jealousy of Numbers 5 masks and downplays the violent damage it causes.

The closing words of the passage confirm that this is what is to be done when a man is jealous. The role of both YHWH and priest are restated once more and the closing verse pronounces that the husband is clear of guilt while the woman shall suffer for her guilt.

Reading Numbers 5 in the Context of Present-Day Rape Culture

One thing that is familiar about this passage is the association between, on the one hand, jealousy and, on the other, violence exerted against an intimate partner. Jealousy – in particular male jealousy – is prevalent in contemporary reports of domestic violence and intimate partner violence (cf. Britt 2007, 05.6).

A second affinity between the ritual of Numbers 5 and contemporary settings pertains to exposure in courts of law. In Numbers 5 the woman is treated as guilty of adultery until proven innocent; similarly, so-called complainants in sexual assault cases that go to court – and most do not –often report feeling as though theywere the ones on trial (which they are not), rather than the defendant. and under scrutiny. In Numbers 5, the woman is brought before YHWH and her head is bared, her hair loosened or disheveled, which appears to be an action designed to serve no purpose other than embarrass, expose, or humiliate her; in the court rooms today, women bringing forward cases of rape are also exposed in ways that are likewise highly distressing. Recent cases have, for instance, included a woman having to hold up her underwear in the court room, the disclosure of a rape victim’s sexual historyand testimony from former lovers to undermine her capacity for consent, and the possibility of investigatingcomplainants’ entire phone text history and social media presence, inclusive of private messaging, with the possible intention of casting aspersions on their character.

How can we account for or make sense of such parallels? Are they coincidental? Has the violence described in the Bible and transmitted in a text of such long-standing religious authority contributed to patterns of violence in our present? Do both signify variants of rape culture? Or, do we simply see what we recognize?

Britt suggests four possible options in going forward with a text like Numbers 5:

to ignore the text, reject it, neutralize it, or subvert it.

I agree with Britt that ignoring or rejecting the text ‘offer[s] nothing to those who cannot overlook the influence or authority of the Bible’ (2007, 05.2).

Neutralizing readings might be those that dismiss Numbers 5 as an archaic relic, or that excuse it, by arguing that in placing punishment in the hands of God, women are protected from jealous men. Yet, as I stated above, this fails to acknowledge the violence of the text, including the collusion of religious violence. (It is in some ways the equivalent of saying ‘it’s not really so bad’ when it actually is.) As Britt also draws out, neutralizing a text only qualifies or brackets out its meaning.

The way that Britt chooses to address Numbers 5 is subversion: hence, he offers two reading strategies, influenced by Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler: the first reversesthe thrust of the text, throwing suspicion on the accusing husband and the second parodiesthe text by reading it alongside the exchange of sandals ceremony of Ruth 4. I like the cleverness of intertextual play in Britt’s argument but I am not seeking, like him, to change the text into something else.

My purpose is above all to call out and rail at the violence of the text, because it is so clearly a text of religious violence and of violence in marriage – and yet all too rarely called out by biblical readers and interpreters for being such.

Numbers 5 is not unequivocally about rape (although it does not rule out that the woman might have been raped – not being physically forced or injured does not mean rape did not occur – see here) but it is suggestive of rape culture – of gender-based violence that ranges from accusations and humiliations to physical harm. This spectral violence, moreover, is legitimated – on the grounds that the accuser (the husband), who is exonerated from all guilt, cannot help himself (given his intense jealousy). High religious authority – God and the priest – further legitimates the violence inherent within this religious ritual.

The effect of this is toxic, including in contemporary contexts, where, for all the professed oddity of the text, aspects of it – namely the directionality of gender-based violence (i.e. most often perpetrated by men against women), the victim-blaming, and the humiliating public exposure – echo with uncomfortable familiarity. I maintain that it is important to call out, to question and to resist such a text. Numbers 5 may not be the best known or the most directly influential of biblical traditions, but it exemplifies well the strata and expressions of violence familiar and resonant up to the present day.

Works Cited

Bach, Alice. 1999. ‘Good to the Last Drop: Viewing the Sotah (Numbers 5:11-31) as the Glass Half Empty and Wondering How to View It Half Full’. In Women in the Hebrew Bible: A Reader.Edited by Alice Bach. New York and London: Routledge, pp.503–22. ISBN 978-0415915618.

Britt, Brian. 2007. ‘Male Jealousy and the Suspected Sotah: Toward a Counter-Reading of Numbers 5:11-31’. The Bible and Critical Theory3/1: 05.1-05.19. DOI: 10.2104/bc070005. Available online: file:///C:/Users/User/Downloads/124-480-1-PB.pdf

Douglas, Mary. 1984[1966]. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London, New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-203-12938-5.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. 2012. ‘The Sotah:Why Is This Case Different From All Other Cases?’ In Let Us Go Up to Zion: Essays in Honour of H. G. M. Williamson on the Occasion of his Sixty-Fifth Birthday(Vetus Testamentum Supplements 153). Edited by Iain Provan and Mark Boda. Leiden: Brill, pp.371–82. ISBN: 978-90-04-22658-6. DOI:

Haberman, Bonna Devora. 2000. ‘The Suspected Adulteress: A Study of Textual Embodiment’. Prooftexts20: 12–42.

Rosen-Zvi, Ishay. 2006. ‘Measure for Measure as Hermeneutical Tool in Early Rabbinic Literature: The Case of Tosefta Sotah’. Journal of Jewish Studies57/2: 269–86. Available online:

Towers, Susanna Clare. 2014. ‘An Analysis of Philo’s Exegesis of the Sotah Ritual’. Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary E-Journal11/1. ISSN: 1209-9392. Available online:


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Sticks and Stones: Symbolic Violence and the Conservative Christian “Transgender Debate”

sticks and stones pic

In this post, Shiloh co-lead Caroline Blyth talks about her current research on symbolic violence and conservative Christian responses to the “transgender debate.” 

Sticks and Stones: Symbolic Violence and the Conservative Christian “Transgender Debate”

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Really? Critical theorists, such as Slavoj Žižek and Pierre Bourdieu,have long highlighted the fallacy of this well-worn phrase, contending that language (written, oral, and visual) can be a source of symbolic violence, which has the capacity to inflict profound injury. In my current research, I am exploring the transphobic violence embedded in conservative Christian interpretations of the Bible, which high-profile conservative Christian pastors and theologians disseminate to sizable audiences via blog posts, websites, videos, online sermons, popular books and articles, social media postings, and official church statutes. Appealing to specific biblical texts, they repeatedly insist that transgender (trans) identities are the result of a “fallen” world; that trans individuals are “sinners” whose very identities are a “rebellion” against God’s design; and that trans people therefore pose grave danger to Christian “family values.”They advise fellow Christians to evangelize trans people through “love” and compassion, urging them to “repent” and renounce their “disordered” and “confused” gender identities.

These discussions have been particularly prevalent over the past few years, as conservative Christian pastors, theologians, lobby groups, and churches clamour to participate in (what they refer to as) the “transgender debate.” While this “debate” by no means explicitly advocates for or defends the use of physical violence against trans people, it does nevertheless represent a dangerous form of symbolic violence, which sanctions and justifies the intolerance and marginalization—the othering—of trans people. In other words, the transphobic language and ideas expressed in this “transgender debate” (even when couched in the language of Christian “love”) have the potential to shape particular understandings of and responses to trans identities, and toperpetuate and validate the daily injustices and acts of violence experienced by trans people the world over. This language is violent – words can indeed “break bones.”

Conservative Christian groups (and religious communities more broadly) are not the only participants to enter into this “transgender debate”; it is something we hear spoken about repeatedly within wider secular culture. If you do a quick Google search of “transgender debate,” you will get literally millions of hits—so many people (most of them cisgender) seem intent on spreading their outrage and intolerance about issues as diverse as gender-neutral bathrooms, trans women in sport, and the appropriate care of trans children. All of these engagements in the “transgender debate” serve to question the authenticity and validity of transgender identities and to challenge the very right of trans people to exist. And if you look closely, there is actually very little “debate” going on here—minds have already been made up, and dissenting voices are ignored or shouted down. At the same time, participants in the “transgender debate” rarely if ever seek to include the voices of trans people in their discussions. Trans people are spoken about, but rarely spoken with.

Why should we be concerned about the “transgender debate”? Well, despite this significant increase in the visibility and awareness of trans people in public life and the media, transphobic violence remains ubiquitous. As trans rights advocate, Masen Davis, notes:

Right now we’re experiencing a Dickensian time, where it’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times at once … We’re seeing a marked increase in the public awareness about transgender people and really incredible progress for trans rights, especially from a legal perspective. At the same time, we still represent and are part of a community that experiences incredibly high rates of unemployment, poverty and violence. (quoted in Steinmetz 2015)

Transphobia can impact all areas of trans peoples’ lives, including those everyday things that people often take for granted.A US survey carried out by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) in 2015 interviewed 27,715 trans people nationwide, who reported high levels of mistreatment, harassment, and violence, including physical and sexual violence, verbal bullying, and workplace discrimination (NCTE 2016). Similarly, a study carried out by civil rights group Transgender Europe (2016) documented over 2,000 murders of trans people within sixty-five countries between 2008 and 2015. In the United States alone, twenty-seven trans people were murdered in 2016, the majority of whom were women of colour—members of a community who are particularly likely to exist at the perilous intersections of transphobia, racism, sexism, and criminalization (NCTE 2016). And, in the United Kingdom, the number of transphobic hate crimes reported to the police has nearly trebled in the past five years (Yeung 2016). Trans people are also far more susceptible to sexual violence, perpetrated by either intimate partners or strangers (Stotzer 2009).

Moreover, intersecting forms of structural violence can prevent trans people from full access to education, employment, housing, and healthcare, rendering many members of the community even more vulnerable to violence (Grant et al. 2011; Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color 2015; Human Rights Campaign 2017; Movement Advancement Project, Transgender Law Center, NCTE, and GLAAD 2015). Unemployment, lack of access to decent housing, and poverty can marginalize trans people even further, pushing them into dangerous contexts, including sex work and homelessness.

The aim of my current research is therefore to expose the symbolic violence of conservative Christian voices within the “transgender debate” and to trace the ways that these voices contribute to multiple forms of transphobia experienced so ubiquitously by trans people the world over. I am particularly keen to explore the ways that these Christian communities use the Bible to grant authority to transphobic discourses, citing specific biblical texts (e.g. Deut. 22:5; Mark 10:6; Matt. 19:4) that they claim speak directly to the “transgender debate.” The Bible—a text that is thousands of years old—actually says nothingexplicit about trans identities, yet this does not stop Christian pastors and theologians plucking out certain biblical verses from their original context and misinterpreting them in ways that sustain a transphobic agenda. In other words, the Bible becomes a “cultural prop” (Baden 2014), (ab)used to “prop up” and perpetuate existing transphobic ideologies and behaviours.

Ken Ham tweeting about Target’s inclusive bathroom policy

While conservative Christian pastors and theologians speak (in the main) to their own congregations, the impact of their engagement in the “transgender debate” extends well beyond their immediate faith communities. My research also traces the capacity of transphobic biblical interpretations to influence public and political opinion about trans identities and undermine trans rights. The recent rash of “bathroom debates” offers an example: appealing to biblical teachings, conservative Christian lobby groups (particularly in the US, but also elsewhere) exert significant pressure on businesses (such as retailer Target) and lawmakers to prohibit trans people from using the public bathroom of their choice. Safe and accessible bathrooms are a fundamental need for all people; legislation that denies trans people this basic need ultimately impedes their ability to work, go to school, and exist in public spaces. Laverne Cox makes this point really powerfully:

When trans people can’t access public bathrooms we can’t go to school effectively, go to work effectively, access health-care facilities—it’s about us existing in public space … And those who oppose trans people having access to the facilities consistent with how we identify know that all the things they claim don’t actually happen. It’s really about us not existing—about erasing trans people. (cited in Landsbaum 2017)

The authenticity and legitimacy of trans people continue to be hotly debated in legal, political, and public forums around the world. I hope that my research can contribute to the voices who are already raising the problematics of this “debate,” by showing how conservative Christian interpretations of the Bible are complicit in perpetuating and justifying the relentless systemic injustices experienced by already vulnerable trans communities. These injustices can seriously impact the physical, emotional, and spiritual health and wellbeing of trans people, and I hope that my research will both highlight the insidious nature of the “transgender debate” and offer ways to begin dismantling its harmful rhetoric.

*Featured image courtesy of Nick Thompson. used with permission.


Baden, Joel. 2014. “What Use is the Bible?” Nantucket Project.

Grant, Jaime M., Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling.Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011.

Human Rights Campaign. 2017. “Violence Against the Transgender Community in 2017.”

Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color Coalition. 2015. Addressing Anti-Transgender Violence: Exploring Realities, Challenges and Solutions for Policymakers and Community Advocates.

Landsbaum, Claire. 2017. “Laverne Cox Explains Why Anti-Trans Bathroom Legislation Isn’t Actually About Bathrooms.” The Cut, 24 February.

Movement Advancement Project, National Center for Transgender Equality, Transgender Law Center, and GLAAD. 2015. “Understanding Issues Facing Transgender Americans.”

National Center for Transgender Equality. 2016. “2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.”

Steinmetz, Katie. 2015. “Why Transgender People are Being Murdered at a Historic Rate” Time, 17 August.

Stotzer, R. L. 2009. “Violence against Transgender People: A Review of United States Data.” Aggression and Violent Behavior 14 (3): 170−9.

Yeung, Peter. 2016. Transphobic Hate Crimes in “Sickening” 170% Rise as Low Prosecution Rates Create “Lack of Trust” in Police. The Independent, 28 July.


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Seminar at Cliff College: Researching Faith Among Survivors of Abuse


‘I asked the question. I was a happy 20-something woman going to an evangelical church and dating one of the rising stars in the preaching circuit. However, what no one knew was that in addition to his splendid preaching skills, this man was also hitting me. After several rounds of ‘sorry’ and ‘it won’t happen again’, I decided to take matters into my own hands: I asked the question. I approached one of the pastors in the church with a ‘hypothetical scenario’ where a husband in the church was beating his wife. What would the pastor advise? He told me in no uncertain terms that he would find out what the wife was doing wrong.’ Anon.

This, sadly, is the reality facing women in the church all too often. Believing in a loving God does not shield victims from abuse; lack of knowledge, understanding or even empathy can hide or even empower a whole host of toxic relationships. It is for these reasons that, in a joint initiative with the University of Manchester, Cliff College is opening a research centre for the study of Bible, Gender and Church (BGC). The centre seeks to bring biblical and gender studies together with issues faced by men and women in the contemporary church, starting with our inaugural lecture during Cliff Fest in May 2019.

Revd Dr Susan Shooter

The lecture will be delivered by Revd Dr Susan Shooter and is entitled ‘Yet in my Flesh Shall I See God: Researching Faith With Survivors of Abuse’. She will address both the joys and difficulties she faced in her research, giving centre stage to the expression of faith and understanding of God among those who have survived abuse. This will be followed by responses from Dr Holly Morse and Dr Kirsi Cobb, as well as a reception for all participants.

The event will be held at Cliff College (Calver, Hope Valley, Derbyshire) on Monday 27 May. The event will start at 1.45 pm, with coffee, followed by the lecture 2.00‒3.00 pm. The reception, with drinks and nibbles, will take place 3.00‒4.00 pm.

All the tickets for the event are free. You can book either for the lecture and the reception, or just for the lecture itself. For more information and to register, please visit:

Kirsi Cobb is director of the BGC Research Centre and a lecturer in Biblical Studies at Cliff College. Her research focuses on women’s studies, hermeneutics and the Hebrew Bible, with a particular interest in expressions of trauma.

Kirsi Cobb


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Shiloh Project Research Day Report


Mmapula Kebaneilwe (University of Botswana) is a womanist biblical scholar and project partner for an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) grant entitled ‘Resisting Gender-Based Violence and Injustice ThroughActivism with Bible Texts and Images’.

Her recent research visit brought her to Yorkshire, where both the project’s principal investigator (Johanna Stiebert, University of Leeds) and co-investigator (Katie Edwards, University of Sheffield) are based. All three, together with co-lead of the Shiloh Project Caroline Blyth (University of Auckland), who is spending part of her sabbatical at the University of Leeds, organized a research day at the University of Leeds.

The aim of the day was to bring together a diverse group of researchers and practitioners who all engage with some aspect of confronting, understanding and reducing the prevalence of gender-based and/or sexual violence. All share experience of working on or with victims and survivors of gender-based violence; all share a commitment to and drive for facilitating information, practical help or healing; all are open to opportunities for effective collaboration and networking between academic and public sectors.

The Shiloh Project is a collaboration of scholars and activists and was launched in early 2017. It seeks to explore and promote ways for better understanding the dynamics and intersections between religion, the Bible, gender-based violence and rape culture. This is in acknowledgement that matters of religion and faith have diverse and profound impact on human interactions the world over – including when it comes to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. Such impact was amply borne out by all participants in the research day on 25 March 2019, which was attended by 20 active participants. The research day was co-sponsored by the AHRC and the Centre for Religion and Public Life. It represents one of several Shiloh Project initiatives.

Here is a quick summary of participants and organizations. Each participant, or participant pair, gave a summary and introduction to their work and expertise.

Angela Connor and Esther Nield represented the Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) team of the Hazlehurst Centre in West Yorkshire. Angela is the Hazlehurst Centre manager and Esther works in the Centre as a crisis worker. SARC provides acute service (for up to seven days post incident). The SARC is commissioned by the National Health Service (NHS) and Police to provide forensic healthcare, alongside free support and practical help to anyone in West Yorkshire who has experienced sexual violence or abuse. The majority of victims (around 80%) are referred by the Police. The majority are white women under the age of forty but the service is available to anyone, for no charge, irrespective of age, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or immigration status. The Centre strives to become more accessible to diverse demographics and nurses take pride in providing sensitive expert care.

Misbah Ali (Legal Assistance and Senior Development Worker) and Michelle O’Neill (Senior Capacity Builder and Recovery Worker) together represented Staying Put, a charity providing gender-sensitive services for men and women in the wider Bradford area of Yorkshire who experience abuse from a family member or intimate partner in a domestic setting. The charity attends to about 1200 to 1400 users per year. They work with situations in the area of domestic violence, intimate partner violence and forced marriage and assist in reducing victimization, preventing domestic homicide and facilitating domestic safety and security. The organization fulfills diverse services – including providing information about female genital mutilation (FGM), conducting family interventions, issuing legal advice, evidence gathering, support for attending court, as well as practical and emotional support. Their Freedom Programme operates in several languages (Urdu, English and Polish). Misbah and Michelle reported on the relative frequency of ‘spiritual abuse’ – that is, abuse attributed to possession, witchcraft and djinns, for instance. The told the group that they come across such matters more and more often but do not always feel adequately trained to address some religious justifications of violence.

Ziona Handler is the Manchester keyworker for Jewish Women’s Aid (JWA), working for and with victims of abuse in Jewish communities across all of the North of England. JWA is a registered charity and Ziona is emphatic that Jewish communities are as affected as other communities when it comes to the spectrum of domestic violence, which encompasses physical, sexual, psychological, economic, spiritual and cultural abuse. In terms of recognizing and addressing such abuse and supporting victims, many of the strategies detailed by representatives of Staying Put resonated with Ziona. But she also pointed out that some matters are bespoke to Jewish communities and best supported by a Jewish practitioner. (The SARC representatives mentioned that they had never, knowingly, assisted a Jewish victim of sexual assault, in spite of West Yorkshire having a sizable Jewish community. This might indicate that Jewish women have preference for groups such as JWA.) Ziona reported that the average period of suffering prior to reporting is a shocking 11.5 years in Jewish communities. JWA offers a variety of core services – including a helpline, client support, counseling, therapy, the Dina Project (a response to #MeToo), children’s therapy and an educational outreach programme that visits schools, synagogues and universities. JWA has launched a Safer Dating campaign in universities and training to address Lad Culture. The charity also has a toilet door campaign (placing stickers bearing information about accessing help from JWA on toilet doors) and provides input and training for non-Jewish groups working with victims of domestic and sexual abuse.

Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris is a former congregational rabbi and university chaplain and is now Principal of Leo Baeck College, a rabbinical seminary and centre for training of teachers in Jewish education. Leo Baeck College represents primarily members of Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism and the institution also trains and ordains women and members of the Jewish LGBT+community. Deborah facilitates training from JWA and stresses that even in progressive communities – where the expectation might be that topics such as ‘consent’ are widely discussed and understood – such training remains essential. Deborah pointed out that low-level microagressions persist – often very publicly – and that biblical and rabbinic texts, which continue to be plumbed and interpreted, have the potential to propel abusive ideas and actions. In a tradition with ancient roots, where ancient texts continue to be given authority, the possibility of internalizing damaging attitudes is considerable. But, as Deborah pointed out, Jewish tradition also offers tremendous scope for critical thinking, debate and resistance. In response to a question from Angela Connor about Jewish attitudes to emergency contraception, Deborah was able to demonstrate this versatility, with recourse to a range of Jewish texts reflecting multiple viewpoints.

Sam Ross is a WRoCAH (White Rose College of the Arts & Humanities) funded PhD candidate in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science (University of Leeds). His provisional thesis title is ‘Queering the Ketuvim: Queer Readings of Representations of Pain and Trauma in Biblical Hebrew Poetry’. Sam has particular interest in trauma research – not least, because the LGBTQ community is particularly vulnerable to discrimination, abuse and prejudice. Sam is using the Bible both because of its persistent influence in faith and secular contexts and because it offers stories that address pain and trauma head-on. His plan is to fuse biblical criticism and autoethnography to explore queer individual suffering (through the book of Job), and queer communal suffering (through the book of Lamentations). Sam also highlighted the particular vulnerability of the trans community and the abusiveness of the so-called ‘trans debate’ in targeting trans persons as aggressors and predators when they are, in actuality, far more often victims of violence, including sexual violence. Representatives from Staying Put confirmed Sam’s point by stating that even professionals are sometimes abusive towards trans persons, citing instances where trans women have been denied access to women’s refuges, with no offer of any alternative help, even when they were at acute risk.

David Smith is Victims Services Commissioning and Third Sector Adviser at the West Yorkshire’s Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner. David has worked in third sector and local government for several decades and has expertise in the area of strategy, planning and policy development. That is, he has expertise in making actions effective. David’s role is to commission support services around domestic abuse and sexual violence. These are usually funded at (increasingly cash-strapped) local and regional levels. David’s work is focused on policy and he has an informed interest also in the language of his subject – such as the language of the victim’s code and witness charter. He agrees that the terminology around sexual violence – of ‘victims’, ‘perpetrators’ and ‘complainants’ –is problematic. He is supportive of the position statement being more inclusive now in its language of violence against men. Male victims, he stresses, are a significant part of the agenda – something which should not take away from the very serious issues facing women and girls. David’s policy-focused perspective was a fascinating one.

Adriaan van Klinken (University of Leeds) is Director of the Centre for Religion and Public Life and an academic working in the areas of religion and public life, gender and sexuality, especially in contemporary Christian contexts of countries in southern and eastern Africa (predominantly, Zambia and Kenya). He is about to embark on a project working closely and collaboratively with Ugandan LGBT refugees in Kenya through using story telling and life stories as a tool for creative and liberating self-expression as well as a research strategy. As Adriaan points out, violence is central in the lives of LGBT people, as well as in the lives of refugees. This violence, moreover, is multi-dimensional and can include religious violence, political violence and police violence.

Sarah-Jane Page (Aston University) is a sociologist of religion. She researches, among other topics, attitudes and practices around sexuality and how these are negotiated in relation to religious tradition. She spoke about two current projects. The first – in the very early stages – examines the Church of England inquiry into child sex abuse. She is focused especially on how organizational and institutional structures serve to enable abuse, as well as in the hierarchies and class dimensions at work in this. Her second project is ethnographic and partly funded by the British Academy. This project looks at varieties of activism, ranging from silent prayer to displays of graphic imagery, outside of abortion clinics. She is especially interested in the reactions and responses to these forms of activism, both from religious and secular sources.

Gordon Lynch (University of Kent) has conducted long-term research and public engagement activities on the history of UK child migration programmes. These programmes, responsible for sending some 100,000 children to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Zimbabwe, resulted in extensive and sustained abuse, which only came to light much later. He has also served as expert witness under instruction to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Gordon’s work has served to raisepublic awareness about historic abuse. He has, for instance,contributed to and organized museum exhibitions, musical performances, and TrueTube films, alongside his many academic publications. Gordon highlighted the dysfunctional relationships between government offices and organizations, including the competing interests, fragmentations and difficulties in terms of challenging groups involved in the networks facilitating migration at the various stages. All of these enabled the abuse to go on for very many years. Moreover, regarding organizations overseen by the Catholic Church, monitoring was minimal,due to assumed ‘bonds of trust’. Gordon asked what it is about religious organizations that exempted them from scrutiny. What permitted the religious exceptionalism that saw the suspension of so many otherwise widely adopted recommendations? When the usual recommendation was to advise that children be adopted, fostered, or raised in small-scale residential units, why were exceptions made by national policy makers to permit religious institutions to run large, understaffed orphanages where abuse was able to thrive?

Sema Khan represented Barnardos, a long-established charity that protects and supports above all vulnerable children and young people, as well as parents and carers. She is based in Bradford where Barnardo’s has a family support and a child sexual exploitation (CSE) team. Semareports that more children on the autistic spectrum and more boys and young men are seeking help to address emotional needs, including the help of recovery groups following sexual exploitation. Sema explained, too, that Barnardo’s is less pronouncedly Christian in focus than it has been historically. It has a diverse staff and works for a diverse community, including many Syrian refugees and asylum seekers.

Saima Afzal has worked in all of research, consultancy, local government and community development, particularly in matters to do with religion, gender and South Asian communities of Lancashire and Yorkshire. She is an elected councillor for Blackburn. Saima has conducted research on child sexual exploitation in South Asian communities of the UK, on sexuality in Islam, and on police stop and search powers against minority ethnic communities. Saima has founded her own community interest group called SASRIGHTS CIC (see also Saima Afzal Solutions). She works as a freelance criminologist and has served as expert witness for cases involving domestic abuse, forced marriage and so-called “honour”-based killing. She has received an MBE for her services to policing and community relations.

Bob Balfour is founder of Survivors West Yorkshire(SWY), formerly called One In Four (North). SWY is action-oriented and works in supporting survivors of sexual abuse. Prominently included in this support are male survivors of sexual abuse. Bob was also instrumental in the creation of Ben’s Place, a West Yorkshire support service for male survivors of sexual abuse, named after Ben, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who took his own life soon after his twenty-third birthday. The mission of Ben’s Place is to deliver specialist support and advice to adult male survivors (i.e. aged 16+) who are ready to disclose experiences of sexual crimes committed against them and who want to access support to explore options for understanding and integrating what was done to them. SWY and Ben’s Place work in partnership with Rape Crisis and challenge the silencing and alienation of survivors. One of Bob’s campaigns is ‘Challenge the Silence’ and he has written for ‘A View From Inside the Box’. Bob has been vigorous in his resistance to denial. He has not only founded support groups and actions, he has published on the topic, devised practical strategies for post-traumatic growth, collaborated with universities as ‘expert by experience’ and in the role of Teacher at Liverpool (paid for by the NHS), and is currently supervising four Clinical Psychology students.

Jo Sadgrove has considerable expertise in the area of faith-based international development – both as an academic researcher and a practitioner. She works part-time as research and learning advisor to the United Society Partners in the Gospel (USPG), an Anglican mission agency engaging in community development and theological education around the world. Jo discussed the imperialist echoes and tendencies of some of the work of USPG but also the ways that being part of such an organization can give access to networks and opportunities for making a difference. Jo’s particular interests are in intersections of religion and health and in Christianity and sexuality in cross-cultural perspectives. Jo talked about workshops she has conducted with perpetrators of gender-based violence, which bring men together to talk about being men and about violence in their lives. She sees great value in working with perpetrators as well as victims of gender-based violence.

Jo has direct experience of We Will Speak Out, a global coalition of churches and Christian NGO’s challenging prevailing patterns of violence.

After presentations from all participants, we had an open discussion to begin to explore ways of collaboration and support. During the coffee and lunch breaks already, representatives from different institutions and organizations had begun to chat in small groups and exchange information, advice, and ask questions.


The following arose in discussion:

There is little available in the way of accessible, succinct and helpful information on the topic of spiritual abuse. More discussion and more research on the topic are required. This would be invaluable for a range of practitioners encountering perpetrators and victims of gender-based violence. (Representatives of Staying Put reported that a defense of spiritual abuse – blaming demons, possession, djinns, or witchcraft for inciting violence, including sexual abuse – comes out with some regularity in one-on-one conversations with both perpetrators and victims.)

More emphasis on prevention is necessary. Often crisis support is the preserve of highly trained effective individuals. But more expertise needs to be invested in recognizing the signs before the tipping point.

Not infrequently – and this is sometimes due to the sheer strain on service providers (something that received repeated mention) – professionals become part of the problem for already vulnerable groups. Sometimes, for instance, there will be insistence (by social welfare or by NGO or charity staff) that service users take a particular training course, with the threat that otherwise their children will be removed. The effect of this can be to alienate already vulnerable people and to deter them from continuing to seek professional help.

Practitioners welcomed the opportunity to meet others working in related areas. They would very much like more work between groups. SARC, for instance, would appreciate information about JWA, to make bespoke help available in their networks targeting vulnerable people in the community at risk of sexual violence.

There was acknowledgement that communities are diverse and that multi-faceted expertise is needed (e.g. from all of police, social services, consultants, charities, etc.) to address gender-based and sexual violence. Again, better communication between different groups is recognized as important.

There was an expression of need for more religious and cultural literacy – and for academics who could providethis in accessible ways.

Practical micro-level and macro-level strategies are required to address the structural problems that facilitate much of the violence on the ground.

David Smith mentioned that he is often looking for research pieces towards capacity building. He recommends that we all register with and join Blue Light Services, to let emergency services know what we can provide.

There was widespread acknowledgement that religious leaders are often obstructive when it comes to addressing domestic situations of violence and abuse. More needs to be done to train religious leaders in gender-sensitive strategies, as well as in encouraging them to facilitate professional advice for their community members – as opposed to attempting to handle delicate and complex matters themselves when they lack the necessary training and expertise.

The Sex and Relationships Education curriculum, to be rolled out September 2020, is likely to lead to a deluge of referrals. Help will be needed urgently to manage these.

Some practitioners predict a backlash to the extent of safeguarding training – a backlash that will include alsotheological and ethical questions. Again, collaboration between practitioners and researchers will be important in addressing these.

All in all, it was a stimulating, thought-provoking and fruitful day. We will take the conversations forward in our ongoing work in Project Shiloh. This was just the start of the conversation, and we hope to sustain it through ongoing collaborations.

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Dr Mmapula Kebaneilwe (University of Botswana) Visits the UK


Dr Mmapula Kebaneilwe (University of Botswana) is currently visiting the UK to work on the AHRC Network Grant (International Highlight Notice) project ‘Resisting Gender-Based Violence and Injustice Through Activism with Bible Texts and Images’ with Shiloh co-directors Johanna Stiebert and Katie Edwards.

Dr Kebaneilwe is based at the University of Leeds during her visit. She  co-led a Shiloh Project research day on 25 March and gave a paper ‘Troubling Misogyny and Gender Based Violence: Examples from Botswana and the Hebrew Bibleat today’s SIIBS seminar.

Dr Kebaneilwe also met with journalist Rosie Dawson to discuss possibilities for collaborating on a radio documentary.

Look out for Dr Kebaneilwe’s forthcoming monographs with the Sheffield Phoenix Press SIIBS series and our Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible series with Routledge Focus.

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How recognising Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse might help shift Catholic culture

Cathedral of St Patrick & St Joseph, Auckland, ‘Tenth Station’

The crisis of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, and the institutional denial and cover up, has left many people of faith shocked by the lack of appropriate response toward survivors.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, the president of the Australian bishops’ conference, has called for a Copernican revolution on sexual abuse in the church and a shift in Catholic culture so that abuse survivors, not clergy, shape the church response.

In an interview with Crux, published during the recent Vatican summit on sexual abuse, he also compared victims of clergy abuse to Christ crucified.

Unless you see that what’s happened to the abused has happened to Christ and that therefore, they’re Christ crucified in their needs, all the external commands in the world won’t do it.

In our work, Rocio Figueroa Alvear and I have interviewed sexual abuse survivors and show that recognising Jesus as an abuse victim can help them, and help the church to change.

Jesus as victim of sexual abuse

There are good theological grounds for recognising a connection between Christ and those who have been subjected to abuse. The words of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46 say that what is done to others is also done to Christ, and this has been explored in the work of Beth Crisp.

In Matthew 25, and presumably in the words of Archbishop Coleridge, this connection is at a theological or metaphorical level. But recent work has offered a strong argument to go beyond the theological connection and to see a more literal historical connection. In my own work, and writings by Elaine Heath, Rev Wil Gafney and Australian theologian Rev Michael Trainor, it is argued that Jesus does not just share theologically in the abuse, but that he himself experienced sexual abuse during the crucifixion.

This may seem outlandish at first. When Katie Edwards and I wrote on stripping as sexual abuse, many comments showed readers were perplexed that we could be seriously suggesting this. For many people, the initial reaction is to be startled and shocked. Some ask whether it is meant to be a serious suggestion, or say it is just jumping on a #MeToo bandwagon. However, as Linda Woodhead points out, if you look at it more closely you may start to think differently.

Read more:
#HimToo – why Jesus should be recognised as a victim of sexual violence

Crucifixion, state terror and sexual abuse

The torture practices of military regimes in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s offer two key lessons for understanding crucifixion. First, the torture was a way for the military authorities to send a message to a much wider audience. Anyone who opposed the military would know what to expect.

Second, sexual violence was extremely common in torture practices. Sexual violence was a very powerful way to physically and psychologically attack a victim and his or her dignity. Sexual humiliation and shaming victims could destroy their sense of self and stigmatise them in the eyes of others.

The use of crucifixion by the Romans fits with both of these. Crucifixion was a form of state terror which threatened and intimidated many more people than the victims themselves. The way that prisoners were stripped and crucified naked was an obvious way to humiliate and degrade them, and should be recognised as a form of sexual abuse.

File 20190311 86710 1g7kthg.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1Crucifixion was a form of state terror and victims were likely to be stripped.
from, CC BY-SA

Interviews with survivors

In research published this month, we interviewed a small group of Peruvian middle-aged male survivors of clergy abuse on how they respond to the historical argument that Jesus was a victim of sexual abuse. We had interviewed this group before on how the sexual abuse they had experienced when they were teenagers and young men had impacted on their lives.

In these new interviews, we asked if they had considered Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse and how they viewed the historical and biblical evidence for it. We also asked if any such recognition could be helpful for them and other abuse survivors, or the wider church.

Most interviewees were initially surprised by the idea, but saw no problem in accepting the historical evidence and argument. Only one participant initially said that not enough evidence was presented to show it was sexual abuse but he later explained that he saw Jesus’ nakedness as a form of complete powerlessness.

Participants were evenly split on the question whether it would help them. About half felt it would not but the other half spoke positively of the connection it created between Jesus and survivors.

On the significance for the wider church, all of the participants agreed, without hesitation, that it would have a positive impact. All of them suggested that church ministries, clergy and lay, should embrace this topic.

They felt it would help the church to achieve more solidarity with survivors, and also, a more realistic and historic vision of Jesus. If the wider Church embraced this history and deepened it theologically, it might help towards changes in the church which prioritise survivors, and ensure they are treated with more compassion and solidarity. If the church is seeking a Copernican revolution on sexual abuse, recognising the experience of Jesus for what it was is surely an appropriate starting place.

David Tombs, Chair professor, University of Otago

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Grant for Research with Ugandan LGBT Refugees


Congratulations to Adriaan van Klinken and Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds) on their latest grant success!

Adriaan van Klinken and Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds) have secured a research grant from the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust, for a project entitled “Tales of Sexuality and Faith: The Ugandan LGBT Refugees Life Story Project”. The project uses community-based participatory research methodology to undertake life story research among Ugandan LGBT refugees in Kenya.

The project engages established methodologies in feminist, queer, and postcolonial studies that emphasise the political and epistemological importance of autobiographical storytelling in research with marginalised groups. Expanding this existing scholarship, the project develops an innovative approach that explores the potential of biblical stories to signify the queer lives of the Ugandan refugees. Foregrounding the popularity of the Bible in contemporary Africa, and conceptualising biblical appropriation as a decolonising and queer process, the project reclaims the Bible as part of African queer archives.

We’re looking forward to hearing more about the project later this year!

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More Grant Success for The Shiloh Project


Great to hear today that our major two-year project on the Bible and rape culture has been funded by an AHRC large grant!

The research team is Katie Edwards (University of Sheffield), Caroline Blyth (University of Auckland), Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds) and Richard Newton (University of Alabama)… watch this space for project updates!

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