Hebrew Bible

“Until the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies”: Rizpah and the power of silent protest


Today’s blog post is written by Siam Hatzaw. Siam is an undergraduate student of English Literature and Theology at the University of Glasgow. She is an editor for Persephone’s Daughters, a literature magazine empowering female survivors of abuse, and is also a features editor of The Glasgow Guardian. You can find Siam on Twitter @siamhatzaw.

“Until the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies”:  Rizpah and the power of silent protest

The story of Rizpah and her silent vigil (2 Samuel 21:1-14) is one of the most heart-wrenching narratives of grief, devotion, and sacrifice within the Bible. But more than this, its implications are far-reaching as her story resonates with the voices of oppressed women throughout history. If actions speak louder than words, then Rizpah’s vigil epitomises the power of silent protest in the face of injustice.

The Madwoman in the Attic

I frame my reading of Rizpah through the “madwoman in the attic” trope which refers to certain female literary characters. The trope is coined by Gilbert and Gubar in their seminal work of feminist literary criticism by the same name, where they discuss the tendency within literature to characterise women as either angelic or monstrous, an embodiment of purity or an unkempt madwoman. Gilbert and Gubar argue that both characterisations should be killed off as neither can accurately represent women; they emphasise the need for women to be written as multifaceted and developed characters in their own right.

The trope’s name is drawn from the character of Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a woman locked away by her husband for an unnamed insanity. The perception of Bertha’s character exemplifies the link between Rizpah and the madwoman trope: madness is continually feminised and thus weaponised against victims of trauma to deride the justness of their cause. Juliana Little explains that:

“Madness has been perceived for centuries metaphorically and symbolically as a feminine illness and continues to be gendered into the twenty-first century. Throughout history, images of mental illness in women send the message that women are weak, dangerous, and require containment”.

This association between women and madness is also represented through the feminisation of “hysteria” – a common theme in Victorian novels and the basis of a medical diagnosis (predominantly linked to women) that the American Psychiatric Association did not drop until 1952.

In short, women and madness have always gone hand in hand. Female literary characters are all too often painted as irrational, overemotional, or excessive – and it is here that we find Rizpah.

Situating Rizpah

Rizpah begins her story already a victim. She is introduced as Saul’s concubine and after his death, his commander in chief Abner is accused of “going into” her (2 Samuel 3:6-21). This leads to conflict between Abner and Ish-Bosheth, Saul’s successor, so Abner defects to David who becomes King. According to Isabel Hamley, Abner’s assertion of power through sexual domination to achieve his own means is enough to qualify the incident as rape. Rizpah’s body is used to assert a claim to the throne, making her “nothing but a pawn in powerful male hands”. The men’s conflict isconcerned with the violation of Saul’s property and pays no attention to Rizpah’s trauma. This comes as no surprise, considering the concubine’s status as “the locus of battles between men”.

David’s Atonement

Fast forward to 2 Samuel 21, we find Israel in the midst of a three-year famine. God tells David the famine is “on account of Saul’s blood-stained house” (2 Samuel 21:1) as he had broken an oath by trying to annihilate the Gibeonites in spite of Israel’s sworn promise to spare them.

David asks the Gibeonites what he can do for atonement, at which they call for the execution of seven of Saul’s descendants: five sons of Merab and two sons of Rizpah. Seven is considered the biblical number of completion, used repeatedly to reference redemption. Therefore, these men can be seen as Israel’s sacrifice of redemption for Saul’s sin.

Transforming Trauma into Action

The seven sons are executed and left to hang upon the hillside at the beginning of harvest, as Rizpah watches with unspeakable grief. Here we can draw a parallel with another grieving mother who stands at the foot of the cross, watching her own son become a sacrifice of redemption. What unimaginable strength must it take for these mothers to bear witness to their sons’ deaths?

According to Deuteronomic Code, corpses must be buried on the same day or they are cursed by God. Hebraic tradition views burial as a sacred rite. However, David leaves these men to rot for all to see – a grave injustice.

And so, Rizpah defies the king. Her suffering sparks something within her, driving her to turn her trauma into action.

Alone Upon the Hillside

Rizpah guards the corpses “from the beginning of the harvest until the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies” (2 Samuel 21:10). This is a period of approximately six months, April to October, through which she endures immense physical and psychological torture. The sight and smell alone would be enough to destroy anyone – and yet, she perseveres.

Let’s come back to the madwoman trope. Picture Rizpah alone at the foot of the bodies, fighting off the birds by day and wild animals by night, sleeping with the rotting corpses… in all this time, she finds no aid, no company, or consolation. She is seen as a woman driven insane by grief.

But Rizpah doesn’t care. Her vigil is more than mourning; it’s a protest, and she knows she is right in the eyes of God.

Rizpah’s Significance for Israel

We should take a moment to consider why the bodies are left to hang. Samantha Joo argues that if David was only looking to appease God for atonement, he would have demanded a burial. Instead, he leaves them as a warning for those who would oppose him. Joo suggests that had it not been for Rizpah’s presence, onlookers would have slinked away in fear. Instead, because of this madwoman on the hillside, they start to ask questions. Their murmurs spread and eventually reach King David.

Rizpah’s protest was on the verge of dismantling the legitimacy of his kingship, as he had broken his oath to spare Saul’s descendants and defied Hebraic funeral ethics. And so, to silence the murmurs, David gathers the bones of Saul and Jonathan, together with the seven men, and gives them their just burial. After this, God “answered prayer in behalf of the land” (2 Samuel 21:14), and rain falls on Israel once more.

Ekaterina Kozlova proposes that by ensuring the men’s burial in the ancestral tomb, Rizpah’s vigil salvages the dynasty’s dignity. Moreover, it is intertwined with the fate of a nation. Her actions neutralised the penal plagues that wreaked havoc in Israel. Kozlova further argues that these ritual contexts allow women to enter the previously inaccessible domain of male power and turn these solemn occasions into public forums for pressing issues.

Rizpah rouses David into action as, according to the rabbis, he considers: “If she, who is but a woman, has acted with so much loving kindness, must not I, who am a king, do infinitely more?”. Thus, she uses the power available to her in this domain to shame the king into utilising his own power and right his wrongs.

What’s in a Name?

A deeper look into the meaning of Rizpah’s name illuminates the story’s political significance in light of her call to repentance. The name means “hot coals” which symbolises the cleansing of sin.  In Isaiah 6, a seraphim places a hot coal from the altar upon Isaiah’s lips to cauterise the wound of sin. Rizpah, the “hot coal”, served as a symbol to Israel as a cry to repent – when her protest is heard, the rain falls from the heavens and completes their redemption.

Athalya Brenner presents “hot coals” as a symbol of quiet but enduring passion, a slow-burning anger, and purification.Likewise, Kozlova notes that glowing coals or fire are symbolically connected to human life, further proposing that by situating Rizpah’s name (a double light-based cipher) at the intersection of two dynasties, it becomes “an indispensable gloss” on the narrator’s intentional social commentary: to criticise the king’s injustice.

Contemporary Examples

Rizpah’s story resonates with contemporary examples of women who use their trauma to fight for change. Joyce Hollyday relates her to Israel’s Women in Black, and to other groups of mothers of grief who become mothers of hope.

The Women in Black

The Women in Black are an anti-war movement demonstrating opposition to Palestine’s occupation by holding weekly vigils in mourning for the victims of the conflict. Formed in 1988 following the outbreak of the First Intifada, the group now comprises an estimated 10,000 activists around the world. The movement inspired global vigils in solidarity, which became protests for local issues in each country and evolved into an “international network of women for peace”.

Gila Svirsky has written about this movement’s powerful symbolism of mourning, dignity, and conscience; their commitment to nonviolence was a source of strength. She describes a particular vigil before which they had been warned by the Commissioner of Police about an overwhelming threat of violence – and yet more women than ever showed up to protest.

“All of us, with our hearts in our throats, more silent than our silent vigil ever really was, standing there in determination not to be shoved aside by bullies.  People threw things from their cars, but nothing exploded.  And the women continued to stand with dignity”.

It is notable that the majority of protesters were victims of trauma themselves, who channelled their pain into transformative action. As Svirsky states: “Those who were sensitive to the issue of violence against women applied that lesson to all forms of violence and oppression”.

Svirsky uses the Arabic word sumud, steadfastness, to describe the Palestinians clinging to their views despite adversity, not being shaken from the ultimate goal. Sumud reflects the power of nonviolent resistance. However, the media’s reports of the vigils are continually littered with ridicule and criticism. Svirsky writes: “What’s that you say about prophets in their own land?  One had to be really committed – or nuts – to keep plugging.  But we did”.

“Nuts”. These were madwomen in the eyes of the onlookers, like Rizpah, a picture of insanity at the foot of the bodies. The trope portrays women who are vilified, using “madness” to invalidate their cause, women who are called hysterical rather than brave, despised rather than sympathised. And yet, they persevere, standing firm against their oppressors. Both the Women in Black and Rizpah embody sumud in their powerful resilience.

“Comfort Women”

Another contemporary comparison is proposed by Samantha Joo, who relates Rizpah to bronze statues situated around the world which represent the “comfort women”. “Comfort woman” is a translation of the Japanese ianfu, a euphemism for “prostitute”. It refers to the many thousands of women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Joo explores the insidious efforts of governments who seek to suppress stories of and by these women whose bodies bear witness to rape and oppression.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan pressured President Moon Jae-in of Korea to honour the December 2015 agreement in which the Korean government agreed to remove the bronze statue of a comfort woman standing outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, in exchange for an apology and monetary compensation. Prime Minister Abe “and other like-minded constituents” also tried to encourage the removal of bronze statues in Hong Kong, Australia, and the US, as well as whitewashing Japanese textbooks and attempting to change textbooks in Korea and the US. Joo views this as an attempt to “monopolize all of history with their master narrative”, an “all-out international campaign to wipe out the counter-narratives of the comfort women”.

Joo discusses the similarities between this endeavour to erase the scandal of the “comfort women” and King David’s attempts to cover up his collusion with the Gibeonites. The historian’s master narrative implies that David’s hands were tied: he had to sacrifice the men to restore fertility to Israel. Yet underlying this narrative was an attempt to silence David’s opposition. It is a message of terror, which Rizpah dares to confront.

Joo argues that, similarly, the Korean people must resist until Japan’s Prime Minister publicly acknowledges the systematic sexual enslavement of the “comfort women”. Just as Rizpah is the silent presence representing the senseless death of innocent men slaughtered for King David’s ambition, the statue represents the senseless trauma these women suffered through. Both the statue and Rizpah thus become counter-monuments embodying stories which interrogate and destabilize unjust leaders.

Joo powerfully states that:

“If any of us allow a government to deny the injustice of the past or the present by manipulating and perpetuating its master narrative, then we are complicit. We are like the men of Gibeah, who passively watch a king kill seven innocent people. Rather we, like Rizpah, should dare and persist in fighting the master narrative that tries to silence the cries of women who with their bodies incarnate the counternarratives.”

The Power of Silent Protest

Rizpah’s story echoes throughout the history of oppressed women. She is in a dangerously vulnerable position as a concubine, a victim of rape, and a grieving mother. Yet, Hamley argues that it is her very lack of power – exemplified in her repeated victimisation and taking up the only option open to her – that ultimately enables her to achieve her goal.

In the end, Rizpah, the madwoman alone upon the hillside, is vindicated. Hamley states: “The woman, invisible and used in 2 Samuel 3, abused further through the death of her sons, is now seen and recognised… not simply by David but by the God who only brings the famine to an end once justice is done for her loved ones”.

Rizpah’s story portrays the incomprehensible strength of women in their suffering, an ability to turn trauma into transformative action and enact real change. Although she is silent, her actions ring loud and clear as a daring challenge to the king to do what is right.

Funlola Olojede describes silent but open resistance as a powerful tool, particularly in cases where overt forms of protest would be dangerous or ineffective: “Her silence continued to cry out louder than words… her resilience in the face of unspeakable grief as she watched the bodies of her two sons rot away before her eyes speaks to women today”.

Across the world, women who bear unspeakable suffering are not allowing themselves to be broken. They are letting their silence cry out until justice is found, a mirror to Rizpah and her vigil which touched the heart of God.

read more

Tough Conversations: Teaching Biblical Texts of Terror

bible study

Today’s post is by two Shiloh Project members, Caroline Blyth and Emily Colgan, who talk about some of the challenges they have faced and the pedagogies they have adopted when teaching biblical texts of terror in the  classroom, focusing in particular on their own cultural location in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Tough Conversations: Teaching Biblical Texts of Terror

Caroline Blyth and Emily Colgan

The Bible is a violent book, its pages crammed with “texts of terror” that attest to the ubiquity of gendered violence in biblical Israel. Its narratives confirm the commonality of wartime rape (e.g., Judges 21), forced marriage (e.g., Deuteronomy 21:10–14), and sex slavery (e.g., Genesis 16). We read stories of stranger rape (e.g., Genesis 34), acquaintance rape (e.g., 2 Samuel 13), and gang rape (both threatened and actualized; e.g., Genesis 19; Judges 19). Turn to the prophetic texts and we are offered numerous metaphorical renditions of spousal abuse and intimate partner violence, perpetrated (or at least sanctioned) by Israel’s jealous deity (e.g. Hosea 1–3; Ezekiel 16, 23). Meanwhile, biblical laws uphold the structural violence of patriarchal power, which grants divine mandate to the rigidly prescriptive and proscriptive control of women’s (and sometimes vulnerable men’s) bodies, while normalizing their social, sexual, and religious subjugation (e.g. Leviticus 20:13, 18; 21:9; Numbers 5:11–31; Deuteronomy 22:23-29). Other laws and teachings have been and continue to be (mis)used by theologians, biblical interpreters, and other interested readers to validate homophobic and transphobic intolerance, as well as the delegitimation of queer and transgender identities (e.g. Leviticus 18:22; Deuteronomy 22:5; Matthew 19:4; Romans 1:24-28).

As biblical scholars who wrestle with these texts of terror, we are all too familiar with the emotional toll that this work can take. But are also aware that our engagement typically takes place in the relatively safe confines of academic publications and our own research environments. It is quite another matter, however, to take this conversation into more public spaces, particularly those that lie at the heart of our roles as educators: the classroom. Within such spaces, we need to watch where we tread, for we enter a minefield scattered with contesting perspectives, resistant voices, and the potential to engage with others in ways that can be either healing or harmful. In this blog post, we offer a personal reflection about our attempts to navigate these spaces, specifically in our own context of Aotearoa New Zealand.[1]

First, though, a few details about us. We are both practitioners employed in the New Zealand tertiary education system. Caroline works in a religious studies department at a secular university, while Emily teaches in a theological college. Both of these institutions are located in Auckland, the largest and most multicultural city in Aotearoa New Zealand. This is reflected in our student cohorts, who identify as Māori, Pākehā (understood here as inhabitants of Aotearoa New Zealand of European descent), Pasifika, and Asian; we also host a significant number of international exchange students (predominantly from the United States and Europe). In terms of religious affiliation, Caroline’s university students typically come from a range of faith backgrounds or none, while Emily’s students are Christian.

Regardless of our different teaching locations, we both share a common pedagogical goal: to encourage our students to engage critically with the biblical texts, whatever their faith background. Neither of us approach biblical studies from a faith perspective; rather, we come to the text with a hermeneutic of suspicion, keenly aware of the role the Bible plays in shaping contemporary discourses, both locally and globally. While we both respect the fact that this ancient book holds sacred authority for many of our students, we are committed to teaching biblical interpretation that is rooted in a framework of critical thinking. Nevertheless, as we will discuss below, this teaching pedagogy comes with its own challenges.

In a number of our courses, we introduce students to biblical texts that depict various forms of gender violence. We don’t include these texts to shock or antagonize our students, or to provide them with the classroom equivalent of clickbait. We do it because, like it or not, these “texts of terror” are in the Bible. For some Christian students, this may come as a surprise, as the biblical texts we talk about are rarely the focus of church sermons or Bible study groups. For non-Christian students, there is often a sense of disbelief that a book which carries huge religious and cultural weight contains such problematic portrayals of gendered violence. But to exclude these texts from our course syllabi and lecture schedules would be doing our students a huge disservice; for, to properly understand the Bible, we must have the integrity to confront it in its entirety, regardless of how tough the ensuing conversations might prove.

With this in mind, how do we teach our students about biblical texts of terror? Particularly, how does our location of Aotearoa New Zealand—a country with one of the highest rates of gender violence among developed countries in the OECD—inform the ways we approach these troubling texts? As biblical scholars and educators, we are not claiming that the Bible (or Christianity more broadly) is the sole source of the incredibly high rates of gender violence in Aotearoa New Zealand (or elsewhere in the world); we do contend, however, that it must be interrogated as a text that both supports and perpetuates such violence, particularly given the Bible’s colonial legacy within this country. We cannot afford to ignore the potential for biblical traditions to contribute to the harm experienced by countless victims of gender violence who live with us upon this land. This conviction has informed our scholarly engagement with biblical texts of terror in three ways.

First, when talking to people about biblical texts of terror, we must always be sensitive to the very real possibility that some of our audience may be affected personally by gender violence. With this in mind, we always ensure some basic steps are taken to minimize our own potential to further the harm they may already have experienced. We take time at the beginning of lectures to remind our students that we will be talking about gender violence, acknowledging that we are aware some people might find this topic especially confronting. We also invite anyone who does feel distressed by the content of our discussion to talk to us directly, or to contact appropriate support services (the details of which we provide at the start of our presentation). Equally important, we remind everyone how important it is that the space we are in remains a safe space for everyone; discussions must therefore be carried out with a sensitivity to others’ diverse perspectives and experiences, and a commitment to hold each other’s words and testimonies in confidence. What we share in the lecture room stays in the lecture room.

Second, we acknowledge that among our audiences, there may also be those who participate in the social structures that sustain gender violence. This can be incredibly challenging, particularly when class members voice rape-supportive, homophobic, or transphobic opinions, or try to downplay the seriousness of gender violence in both the biblical texts and their own contemporary cultures. We have had students tell us that the Bible “clearly” condemns homosexuality, or that biblical rape victims must have “deserved” their assault, or that the perpetrator of gender violence was somehow “justified” in their actions. This is particularly common when the perpetrator is a biblical “hero” (like David) or even the biblical God themselves.

Of course, this kind of response doesn’t just happen in the classroom. We have both sat in a biblical studies conference here in Aotearoa New Zealand when the mere mention of “same-sex marriage” in the context of biblical theology provoked an outburst of disdainful laughter. At a similar conference, we listened as a colleague began his presentation with a joke about physically assaulting his wife, much to the amusement of many attendees. Trying to retain a level of professionalism while maintaining the safety of our discussion spaces is a fine line to walk. We are committed to calling out cisheteropatriarchal[2] discourses expressed by members of our audience, be they students or colleagues. This is surely our responsibility as academic role models and, let’s face it, as decent human beings. These conversations can be difficult, but they are also a learning opportunity, where we remind ourselves and others that the gendered violence evoked in the biblical texts can still have consequences in our own contemporary contexts and communities.

Third, the practices we outlined in our last two points reflect our commitment to our role as critic and conscience in wider society. We need to stress to our students (and to some of our colleagues) that the issue of biblical gender violence matters, particularly because ancient sacred texts continue to have power in contemporary communities to sustain discourses of violence and intolerance. Some of our students will take what they learn from our discussions back to others—Bible study groups, youth groups, or simply family and friends. We remind them that their own engagement with biblical texts of terror have the potential to impact other people’s views of gender and gender violence. As Linda Day notes, the students in our classrooms “will be responsible to a wider public, and hence must learn to be aware of how they are either serving or harming others through their methods and results when interpreting the Bible”.[3]

Yet, within our classrooms, conversations about the Bible and gender violence are not always easy to negotiate. We engage with biblical scholarship in a bicultural country, and, situated in Auckland, we are located in one of the most ethnically diverse cities within that country. Our classrooms reflect this diversity. Some of our students belong to cultures that embrace traditional gender roles and hierarchies, which normalize and sustain various forms of gender violence. How do we critique such violence when, for some of these students, it is so closely woven together with their own cultural identities? How do we challenge the unacceptable violence of patriarchy, misogyny, and all forms of intolerance to LGBT communities, while still being sensitive to others’ investment in their cultural traditions? To what extent can we invite our students to critique the traditional underpinnings of their own cultures, particularly when we ourselves do not belong to these cultures? These are incredibly thorny questions, which highlight that issues of colonization and marginalization constantly intersect with discourses of gender violence. We are conscious of the fact that, as educators who self-identify as Pākehā, we always run the risk of “colonizing” our students’ own cultural contexts, of prioritizing our western value systems and ideologies over their own diverse worldviews. At the same time, however, we must always invite them to join us in our quest to each scrutinize our own cultural traditions with integrity, and to acknowledge that all of our cultures and communities are, to some extent at least, complicit in sustaining the discourses that enable gender violence to flourish.

Another thorny issue we are often confronted with is not unique to Aotearoa New Zealand, but is encountered by biblical scholars teaching biblical texts of terror throughout the world. For many of our students, the Bible is not only their course “textbook”; it is also their sacred scripture. When we invite them to interrogate its texts and identify the problematic ideologies around gender violence voiced therein, we often encounter resistance, or even a refusal to do so. Some find it too threatening to engage with any reading of a text that (in their eyes) challenges its authority, or appears to undermine its message of “Good News.” They may refuse to discuss, or even consider, the potential for biblical texts of terror to convey “Bad News” to people who have themselves been impacted by gender violence. Instead, they suspend their critical faculties, unwilling to recognize the violence within the text, even though they’d likely acknowledge and condemn the same violence were it to appear in other non-biblical writings.[4]

Moreover, Christian readers of the Bible (be they students, academics, or otherwise) often resort to performing an impressive display of interpretive gymnastics to sanitize the text and preserve its sacred reputation in which they are so heavily invested. Prophetic re-enactments of spousal abuse are dismissed as “harmless metaphors”; biblical laws that sanction wartime rape are justified as “relatively humanitarian” compared to other Ancient Near Eastern legal codes; and biblical heroes such as Abraham and David, who perpetrate unequivocal acts of gendered violence, are excused because they are “doing God’s work,” playing a vital role in Israel’s (and ultimately Christianity’s) wider redemptive narrative. Meanwhile, biblical texts that offer a potentially subversive alternative to cisheteronormative discourses—such as the David and Jonathan narratives (1 Sam 19–20; 2 Sam 1), the book of Ruth, the Samson and Delilah saga (Judg 16), the Judas kiss (Mark 14:43–45), and the eunuch traditions (Isa 56:3–5; Acts 8:27–39)—are typically given very “straight” readings, with their queer potentialities either ignored, ridiculed, or denied.

Yet such exegetical contortions only serve to sustain a vicious cycle of interpretation and affirmation that protects the destructive power of biblical texts of terror. As critic and conscience both in and beyond the biblical studies academy, we therefore have to equip our students to consider the capacity of the text to perpetuate gender violence in all its forms. While affirming our respect for everyone’s faith traditions, we nevertheless reiterate to them the responsibility we all have to ask searching questions about biblical texts.  We remind them of the power that language—particularly sacred language—has to impact the lives of real people and their experiences of violence. And, most importantly, we offer them a safe and non-judgmental space within which they can interrogate and explore their sacred scriptures.

In all honesty, sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Some of our students have told us that they truly appreciate the opportunity to discuss gender violence, which remains such a taboo topic in their own cultures and communities. When they encounter such violence in the biblical narrative, they feel empowered to talk openly about these issues in church and family contexts. As sacred scripture, the Bible can mitigate strict cultural taboos, offering a point of entry for discussions around contemporary instances of gender violence. The Bible ceases to be an “otherworldly” text that has little relevance to everyday life, and becomes instead a means by which social praxis is fostered and enacted.

Yet at other times, our attempts to talk to students about biblical gender violence are far less well received. We still encounter those who disengage, or become frustrated with the subject matter. Some even project their frustrations against us—the bearers of “Bad News”—articulating their hostility in discussions, emails, and their written work (not to mention on social media). We have been accused of “misreading” the biblical texts, of having a “feminist agenda,” or being “biased towards LGBT concerns” in our research and teaching, and of being “anti-Christian” in our approach to scriptural traditions. Such encounters can be demoralizing, frustrating, and exhausting—both for ourselves and for those students who feel as passionately as we do about our responsibilities as critic and conscience. At the end of the day, though, these criticisms only serve to reinforce for us the importance of persisting—and persisting and persisting—with these tough conversations in Aotearoa New Zealand and beyond.


[1]Aotearoa is the most widely-used Māori name for New Zealand, and often precedes its English counterpart when the country is written or spoken about. The precise origins and meaning of Aotearoa are uncertain, but it is often translated as “land of the long white cloud.”

[2]This rather wordy word sums up quite neatly the dominant discourses within western cultures that normalize cisgendered, heterosexual, and hegemonic masculine identities while simultaneously othering or delegitimizing anyone who does not fit into these categories, be they transgender or gender diverse, other-than-heterosexual, female, and/or non-compliant with traditional masculine ideals.

[3]Linda Day, “Teaching the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor Texts,” Teaching Theology and Religion2, no. 3 (1999): 173–9 (citation p.174).

[4]Day, “Teaching the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor Texts,” p.176.


read more

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 history and testimony from former lovers to undermine her capacity for consent, and the possibility of investigating complainants’ 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:


read more

A Closer Look at Biblical Marriage

Matthias Stom

In this post, Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebert discusses her research on the topic of marriage and rape.

Marital rape became criminalized in the United Kingdom in a landmark court case in 1991. Its illegality was formalized in the Sexual Offences Act of 2003. Despite this, intimate partner violence (IPV), including sexual violence, remains common.

Johanna will be writing on the topic of marriage, intimate partner violence, and the Bible for the Shiloh Project Routledge Focus Series, Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible. If you have an idea for a volume in this series, please see here for further details and contact us at Routledge Focus volumes are concise (20,000-50,000 words) and are usually published within 12 weeks of submission.

The Bible, Marriage and Violence

In the Bible as in our contemporary world, marriage is no barrier to violence. Indeed, marriage and violence (including sexual violence) can be very much enmeshed. I will turn to the Bible shortly, but speaking from my own context, the grim statistics of domestic violence, rape, and murder committed by an intimate partner, or former partner, speak loudly and clearly to affirm this.

And yet, right up to the present, the Bible continues to be used – highly selectively – to defend, or proof-text, ideas about marriage that entirely erase this persistent presence of violence in marriage.

In both Jewish and Christian traditions, certain biblical texts are widely cited to construct an aetiology of marriage, and to reject the word ‘marriage’ for same-sex unions. The text most often referred to is Genesis 2:18-24. According to one Christian website, this passage demonstrates that ‘Marriage was instituted by God in the Garden of Eden at the time of man’s creation as a union between a man and a woman’ (and see herefor a previous post on marital violence in the Christian church).

Similarly, Andreas Kostenberger, an influential figure in Southern Baptism and author of God, Marriage, and the Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, laments that marriage is under siege today and urges a return to what he calls its ‘biblical foundation’.

Kostenberger succinctly summarises what he deems the ‘biblical’ brand of Christian marriage: ‘Marriage is a covenant, a sacred bond between a man and a woman instituted by and publicly entered into before God and normally consummated by sexual intercourse’. He also identifies six sins (or sinful compromises) that have corrupted ideal biblical marriage. These are polygamy, divorce, adultery, homosexuality, sterility and gender role confusion. Whereas he concedes that sterility is not always the result of personal sin but sometimes ‘a simple fact of (fallen) nature’, the other five are sinful and aberrant choices that deliberately defy divine design.

According to Kostenberger, God desires marriage to be a monogamous union for life between a cis-masculine man and a cis-feminine woman who have sex only with each other and bring forth many (or at least some) children. He is approving of the household codes of the New Testament and of the injunction for wives to submit to their husbands. But any possibilities for such unions and hierarchies leading to or inscribing domestic violence or marital rape receive no mention or consideration, and spousal violence is not listed among the sins of marriage or as indicative of ‘fallen nature’.

My aim here is to challenge this erasure of what the Bible says about marriage in terms of gender-based and intimate partner violence. Moreover, it is important to stress that for all Kostenberger’s claims about the Bible offering fulsome advice on contemporary marriage, it is actually largely silent about this issue.

The Bible offers little if any detail about the formalities of a marriage ceremony. Annalisa Azzoni (2014, 486) states of the Hebrew Bible that in terms of the ‘specifics of the ceremony, the evidence is scant’, while Mary Rose D’Angelo (2014, 501) writes of the New Testament that attention to marriage is ‘scattershot and limited’.

There is no information about the age at which marriage might take place – though some commentators state with confidence that sexually mature girls were quickly married off (e.g. Blenkinsopp 1997, 77). There is some indication that it is desirable for marriages to be arranged by parents but little is said about the couple’s assent to marry. One possible exception is Rebekah’s expression of willingness to marry Isaac, without even setting eyes on him first (Genesis 24:57-58).

Polygamy is common. As Azzoni points out, ‘marriage in the Hebrew Bible cannot be described as being between one man and one woman, but instead between a man and all the women sexually available to him in his household’ (2014, 484).

Consanguineous marriage (such as to a first cousin) receives repeated mention (e.g. Genesis 29; Numbers 36:11-12; Joshua 15:17 and 2 Chronicles 11:18-20) but marriage to someone of another ethnicity is sometimes (explicitly and implicitly) abhorred. Esau’s Hittite wives disgust his mother and Jacob is prevented from taking a Canaanite wife (Genesis 27:46-28:6). Solomon is faulted for what is depicted as the sin of taking foreign wives (1 Kings 11:1-8; Nehemiah 13:26). Ezra laments the marriages of the people of Israel to foreign women, which has led to ‘mixing’ and thereby, presumably, diluting or polluting ‘the holy seed’ (Ezra 9:1-2). Only expulsion of foreign wives from the community can restore the covenant with God (Ezra 10:1-3) and only separation from foreign spouses can avert guilt (Ezra 10:10-11; cf. Nehemiah 10:28-30). So much for the ‘biblical foundation’ of marriage…

Alexandre Cabanel, Ruth Gleaning

Returning to the matter of the undesirability of exogamy, Ruth may be a good woman but her Moabite ethnicity is clearly ‘an issue’ – for all her goodness – because it is mentioned over and over again (1:4, 22; 2:2, 6, 21; 4:5, 10). Indeed, as has been widely suggested, the raison d’etreof the book may be to account for the pesky Moabite in David’s lineage by making Ruth, while undeniably a Moabite, a model Moabite whose exceptional virtue (sticking by her mother-in-law, adopting Israel and its God, working hard, marrying whom she is told, and handing over her baby to her Israelite mother-in-law) counteracts the perceived blemish of her ethnicity. Biblical marriage is quite widely associated, it seems, with notions of religio-ethnic purity – and with the violence needed to enforce this (cf. Numbers 25:6-18; Nehemiah 13:25). Yet despite this, Kostenberger does not address the racist ideologies inherent in these texts – he does not even count this issue among the sins of ‘fallen nature’.

In the Hebrew Bible, betrothal and marriage are, above all, agreements to move women from the sphere of authority of the natal home, particularly the father, to that of the spousal home. A wife’s lackof authority vis-à-vis her husband is illustrated in a number of biblical texts; for example, Numbers 30:6-15 stipulates that during marriage, a man has the power to nullify or validate ‘his’ woman’s vows and this decision, moreover, facilitates divine forgiveness (v. 12). A husband’s power is thus linked to God’s, and biblical marriage is repeatedly associated with gender hierarchy and ownership of women.

Moreover, marriage is an institution associated with sexual violence. Rape may be a catalyst for or precursor to marriage. Abram has non-consensual sex with his wife’s slave, Hagar, and subsequently takes her as a ‘wife’ (Genesis 16:1-4). Rape as a segue to marriage is also evident in the ‘marriage’ by abduction of the young women of Shiloh by men from the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 21:20-23). The law of Deuteronomy 22:28-29, whereby a man who seizes and has sex with an unbetrothed virgin must pay her father a fine andmarry her, is also a veritable invitation to ‘marriage’ via rape.

John Everett Millais, Benjamin seizes the daughters of Shiloh (1847)

Marriage can also be a ‘solution’ to rape, especially when sexual assault compromises the woman’s marriageability by taking away her virginity. This is the logic underlying the law of Deuteronomy 22:28-29, and also 2 Samuel 13, where Tamar pleads with her half-brother Amnon to marry her both before (v. 13) and after (v. 16) he rapes her.

Rape can also occur in marriage. This is possibly hinted at in Genesis 31:50, where Laban, before departing from Jacob and his daughters, enjoins his son-in-law not to ‘ill-treat’ (NRSV) his wives. The verb here is from the Hebrew root ‘-n-h, which is used in other Hebrew texts to designate sexual violence against women (see Gravett 2004). Similarly, in Genesis 26:8, King Abimelech sees Isaac doing something to his wife; the verb used to describe Isaac’s behaviour (from the root ts-ch-q) is usually translated as some form of sexual touching, such as ‘caressed’ (NIV) or ‘fondled’ (NRSV). Yet Susanne Scholz (2010, 91) argues that the verb has ‘rape-prone’ connotations, as it certainly does when Potiphar’s wife uses it to accuse Joseph of attempting to sexually assault her (Gen 39:14, 17) (Scholz 2010, 91).

Neither a rapist’s desire to subsequently marry his rape victim (Genesis 34:3-4), nor generous payments to her family in the aftermath of rape (Genesis 34:12; Deuteronomy 22:29), nor delaying sexual intercourse for a month in a forced marriage (Deuteronomy 21:13), nor formalizing a union to facilitate rape (Genesis 16:3) should hide or neutralize the multiple connections between marriage and rape evoked in the Hebrew Bible. Scholars such as Kostenberger, who advocate for the preservation of ‘biblical marriage’ in contemporary contexts, need to engage with this issue and consider more deeply the problematic contours of what ‘biblical marriage’ actually entails.

In a soon-to-follow post, I will continue this conversation, looking at violence in marriage with a focus on Numbers 5:11-31. This text prescribes the ritual of what a man should do if he suspects his wife of adultery, and thus considers another form of intimate partner violence engrained in the biblical conception of marriage.



Azzoni, Annalisa. 2014. ‘Marriage and Divorce (Hebrew Bible)’. InThe Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies(Volume 1). Edited by Julia M. O’Brien, 483–88. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. 1997. ‘The Family in First Temple Israel’. In Families in Ancient Israel.(The Family, Religion, and Culture). Edited by Leo G. Perdue, Joseph Blenkinsopp, John J. Collins and Carol Meyers, 48–103. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

D’Angelo, Mary Rose. 2014. ‘Marriage and Divorce (New Testament)’. In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies(Volume 1). Edited by Julia M. O’Brien, 497–502. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Gravett, Sandie. 2004. ‘Reading ‘Rape’ in the Hebrew Bible: A Consideration of Language’. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 28, no. 3: 279–99.

Scholz, Susanne. 2010. Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press.


read more

Everyday Rape Cultures And Religion: A Complex Relationship? Dr Katie Edwards In Conversation With Dr Dawn Llewellyn, Sunday 28 April 2.30pm


Everyday Rape Cultures and Religion: A Complex Relationship?

Dr Katie Edwards in conversation with Dr Dawn Llewellyn,  at 2.30pm

  • Garret Theatre

Part of: Storyhouse Women

In this session, Dr Katie Edwards discusses the significant ways religion perpetuates and challenges the myths and misconceptions that lie at the heart of rape cultures: ideas of purity and sinfulness; the idealisation of women’s bodies, sexuality and sex; and the powerful taboos and silences that conceptualise gender violence as ‘inevitable’ and ‘normal’.  From #MeToo, the sex abuse scandals in the Church, the rise of ‘purity’ practices, and our expectations of what it means to be a ‘good girl’, religion is a powerful influence in our contemporary world.

Dr Katie Edwards is the Director of the Sheffield Interdisciplinary Institute for Biblical Studies and Co-director of The Shiloh Project at the University of Sheffield. Katie is a frequent commentator and contributor in the national media and has written various articles for the national press. Recently, she presented the award-winning BBC Radio 4 Lent Talk The Silence of the Lamb, which reflected on her experiences of witnessing sexual abuse as a teenager.

Dr Dawn Llewellyn is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Chester. She researches and has published on gender and feminism in contemporary Christianity, and is currently writing a new book on women’s experiences of motherhood, voluntary childlessness, and Christianity.

This Storyhouse Women event is free to attend, for pass-holders only.

Everyday Rape Cultures and Religion: A Complex Relationship?

read more

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.

read more

#SheToo: Bible Society Podcast series


Today, the Bible Society launches #SheToo, a seven-part podcast series, produced and presented by award-winning journalist Rosie Dawson, exploring some of the biblical texts that include violence against women.

Three Shiloh Project members, Katie Edwards,  Johanna Stiebert and Meredith Warren, are interviewed as part of the series.

read more

Interview with Professor Mercy Oduyoye


While on our WUN-funded research trip to Ghana, Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebert interviewed veteran academic and activist Prof Mercy Oduyoye and gender educationalist Joyce Boham. Mercy is the founder of the Circle for Concerned African Women Theologians and of the Talitha Qumi Centre Institute of Women in Religion and Culture in Legon, Ghana, where this interview was conducted. The short version of this interview links to a much longer conversation with both women. Enjoy!

read more
1 2 3 7
Page 1 of 7