Hebrew Bible

CALL FOR PAPERS – Special Journal Issue: The Bible: Transgender and Genderqueer Perspectives


Call for papers: Special Edition of the Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (JIBS)

The Bible: Transgender and Genderqueer Perspectives

Television shows, news articles, and social media sites are currently crammed with conflicting discourses about transgender (trans) and genderqueer identities. Some of these discourses affirm the authenticity of trans and genderqueer people, while many others attempt to undermine or deny this authenticity. Biblical scholars have begun to explore these conversations, asking how Bible traditions might be read and interpreted in light of trans and genderqueer lives. In this special issue of JIBS, we invite contributors to join this important conversation, focusing specifically on the Bible and biblical scholarship as potential sites of resistance against transphobia and genderqueer intolerance. Topics can include (but are not limited to):

Trans and/or genderqueer hermeneutics: interpreting the Bible through a transgender and/or genderqueer reading lens;

Transfeminism and biblical interpretation;

Biblical interpretation as a source of (or source of resistance against) transphobia and genderqueer intolerance;

Biblical interpretation at the intersection: how biblical traditions can speak to trans and genderqueer identities alongside class, race, ability, and sexuality.

Biblical engagements with indigenous trans and genderqueer identities, including takatāpui, fa’afafine, fakaleiti, fakafifine, akava’ine, vakasalewalewa, palopa, aikāne, faafatama, fakaleiti, māhū, palopa, tangata iratāne, whakawahine, hijra, and Two-Spirit.

Submissions should be between 4000 to 10,000 words.

All submissions will be subject to the usual blind peer review process.

Send proposals to Guest Editor Caroline Blyth ( by 28 February 2019. Deadline for completed submissions 30 June 2019.

We will not accept submissions that are complicit in any form of transphobia or genderqueer intolerance. The senior editorial team of JIBS strongly affirm the full authenticity and humanity of all trans and genderqueer people.

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UN 16 Days of Activism – Day 14: Deborah Kahn-Harris

Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do? 
a. Name: Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris
b. Job: Principal, Leo Baeck College, London, UK (
c. As Principal of Leo Baeck College (LBC), I run the only institution training rabbis for progressive (non-Orthodox) rabbis in the UK and one of only two such seminariesin Europe. I have overall responsibility for the institution, which includes everything from budgets to teaching to managing staff and most points in between. I teach a yearlong course on the megillot – Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther – with a particular emphasis on contemporary methodological and hermeneutical approaches. My personal academic research is focused on feminist interpretations of biblical texts, finding ways of incorporating classical rabbinic hermeneutics with feminist hermeneutics and reader-response theory to create modern midrash. In my teaching practice I am particularly keen that students should draw connections between the ways we read the biblical text and the impact these readings have on our communities. In the context of the Bible and sexual violence, I aim to help students discover and uncover the ways in which biblical depictions of sexual violence might shape both our personal and communal attitudes and approaches to dealing with this issue in the lives of real people.
In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?  
a. During the coming year on the academic front I hope to continue to be able to write about issues relating to the Bible and sexual violence. On the vocational front, I am committed to continuing to ensure that LBC students have training on sexual violence, how to support congregants dealing with sexual violence, and, in particular, to run further workshops (a workshop was already run in the 2017/18 academic year) on the MeToo movement. From a personal perspective, I have recently become a member of Jewish Women’s Aid and hope to find more ways of working with JWA to support their work in the Jewish community.

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UN 16 Days of Activism – Day 12: Jayme Reaves

Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do? 

My name is Jayme Reaves ( and I am a public theologian, scholar, and activist working on the intersections between theology and public issues such as gender, race, peace/conflict, interfaith cooperation, and culture using the disciplines of feminist and liberation theologies.  I am also the newly appointed Coordinator for the Centre for Encountering the Bible and Short Course Programme at Sarum College, starting in December 2018.

In the earlier years of my professional career, I lived and worked in both the Former Yugoslavia and in Northern Ireland, seeking to ground my theology and commitment to peace and justice to practical application by working to support peacebuilding, conflict transformation, and reconciliation processes. In both the Northern Ireland and FRY contexts, I was struck by the interplay between hospitality and hostility, where both profound welcome and violent exclusion simultaneously co-exist, and where the project of a mixed society does not necessarily lead to living together well. That observation led to my PhD research which built a framework for understanding an interfaith theology and ethic of protective hospitality through providing sanctuary or refuge for the threatened other based on Hebrew Bible and Qur’anic textual studies as well as case studies based in Bosnia during the 1990s conflict.  That research was published in 2016 by Wipf & Stock and is titled Safeguarding the Stranger: An Abrahamic Theology and Ethic of Protective Hospitality. (

Because of my research around hospitality and activism towards more peaceful and just communities, I do regular workshops on hospitality as political practice, taking it from the realm of tea and biscuits and more in the realm of loving revolution where it belongs.  For me, hospitality is strong, brave, and fierce in its love and dedication to welcome; it is not weak and mousy, deferring and demure as it is so often portrayed.  I work with communities in both the US and UK on exploring the practice of providing sanctuary, equipping communities of privilege to understand their obligations to care for the stranger, to use their privilege to speak for and provide justice, and to understand that a ultimately a life of faith is a life of risk rather than comfort.  The Sanctuary Movement in the US – with those at risk of deportation taking refuge in religious and community buildings – is different than it is here in the UK at the moment, but the potential in the UK for direct, non-violent, life-saving action in resistance to state oppression towards immigrants is growing.  My activism, research, and experience calls me to support this movement in whatever way I can.

My work is driven by my activism, and I continue to be captivated and dedicated to the idea that a healthy, peaceful society is one that is proactive about the “other” (whoever that “other” is), caring about their needs, rights, suffering, and celebrations as our own and being willing to put ourselves and own wellbeing at risk for them.  My research, experiences, and faith has taught me the value of hospitality as a prevailing ethic for everything (or “ethic par excellance” in the words of Jacques Derrida), and I know communities who make that pro-activity towards hospitality for others a priority and see the difference it makes in their lives and in the world around them.  

In addition, my primary work with The Shiloh Project to date has centered around research being led by my colleague David Tombs at The University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.  For years, his research has focused on the crucifixion and sexual violence, and in our project we are conducting workshops called “When Did We See You Naked?”( with churches and communities who wish to explore the Mark 15 text of Jesus’ trial, torture, and crucifixion in more detail, considering the ways in which Jesus is sexually abused by the multiple public strippings as well as understanding more fully the context of crucifixion practice within the context of Roman political oppression.  We know this work is important because it shifts the paradigm of the conversation in terms of victimization, blame, stigma, silencing, and guilt.  In this era of #MeToo, the time is ripe for interrogating our theology and liturgical practices to uncover the ways in which we have enabled and turned a blind eye to sexual abuse and sexualised violence in our religious traditions.

As part of my public theology work, I also co-host the Outlander Soul podcast (, which looks at reading the contemporary fiction Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon through the lenses of theology, religion and spirituality, and engages with its fans about the role it plays in their lives as a sacred text. Part of this work is driven by my own love and joy as a fan, but also by my dedication to making feminist and liberation theological methods more accessible.  In many ways, the podcast has served as “theology by the back door,” giving listeners a taste of particular approaches and perspectives that they don’t hear in their own religious communities, and the feedback we have received from some listeners saying how much it means to them that we are able to connect their love of Outlander to their spiritual/religious lives.

How do you think the Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to and enrich discussion and action on the topic of gender activism today? Is there more we can do? What else should we post?

I think the work of The Shiloh Project is invaluable as I don’t know of anyone else in the UK who has both the same level of scholarship, activism, dedication to public outreach, and independence from religious structures that Shiloh does.  The Shiloh Project is, in many ways, a sum of its parts and all of us who are involved with its work are doing great work, but it helps to have a larger body to amplify our voices as one calling for gender justice and more inclusive, responsible religious communities and readings of sacred texts.  

Lately in my own personal journey and in smaller writing/research projects, I have been working to identify and address whiteness in my own feminism and the ways in which my activism may have inadvertently perpetuated white supremacy or silencing of women of colour.  In light of that – and because of my own need – I’d love for The Shiloh Project to provide more attention and resources for addressing the blind spots and assumptions of white feminism, supporting difficult conversations that need to happen around the intersections between race and gender justice.

In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?  

In the year ahead, I have a few collaborative projects fueled by my own activism that I think will contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project.  First, David Tombs, other colleagues, and I are planning to continue conducting “When Did We See You Naked” workshops in New Zealand, Australia, US, UK, Peru, and South Africa, and also expanding them to run in the Former Yugoslavia, where a context of systematized sexual abuse as an instrument of war was a reality for many.

Second, my colleague, Terry Menefee Gau, and I at the Outlander Soul podcast continue to be committed to using the Outlander series as a vehicle for teaching feminist theology and hermeneutics, while making dedicated efforts to name and discuss sexual violence, gender issues, and rape culture both in the series as well as in religious and secular culture.

Third, I have been in conversation with several feminist theologians, clergy, and activists recently about putting together a one-off or series of women’s events that speaks to their experiences and offers space for reflection around themes related to women’s bodies as well as the stories they read and tell.  I have no idea what shape that might take in the end – as it’s not just up to me – but it’s important for me to make sure that the work I’m doing is accessible and applicable to women’s lives both inside and outside of the academy and church.

Fourth, I am working in partnership with several organisations around training, equipping, and supporting networks dedicated to providing hospitality and working toward justice and reconciliation in their local areas.  My role as tutor and mentor is to ensure the needs and particular concerns of women and most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation are highlighted, as well as encouraging those networks to provide space for those same people to speak for themselves.

Lastly, in my role at Sarum College, I very much look forward to working with internal and external colleagues to expand its reputation for innovation and supporting theological development that works toward gender justice and the common good. And, let’s be honest, I don’t really know how to operate any other way!  It’s great to finally have a supportive home for my work and an institution that is also dedicated to ensuring that learning goes beyond the walls of the academy to impact lives and communities in real, life-sustaining ways.



Twitter: @jaymereaves


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CALL FOR PAPERS – Special Journal Issue: Activism in the Biblical Studies Classroom: Global Perspectives


Call for papers: Special Edition of the Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (JIBS)

Activism in the Biblical Studies Classroom: Global Perspectives

Does activism belong in the university Biblical Studies classroom? If yes, with what purpose, outcome or agenda? Which teaching strategies are effective? How can/should/might Biblical Studies and activism engage with each other?

Activism is understood here as relating to human rights and the abolition of discrimination, including discrimination and activism in relation to:

Race and ethnicity
Gender and gender identity
Sexual orientation
Disability and ableism
HIV status
Mental health
Religion, faith and belief
Fat stigma
Motherhood and pregnancy
Voluntary/involuntary childlessness
Abortion and abortion stigma

This list is indicative and not exhaustive. We welcome submissions on any area of activism in conjunction with any biblical text.

We are looking for practice-focused contributions informed by academic research and/or theory.

Submissions should be between 4000 and 10,000 words.

All submissions will be subject to the usual blind peer review process.

Send proposals to Guest Editor Johanna Stiebert ( by 31 March 2019 and completed papers by the 2 January 2020.

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UN 16 Days of Activism – Day 6: Rachel Starr


Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do?

Hi, my name is Rachel Starr and I teach biblical studies, gender and theology at the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education in Birmingham. Queen’s is ecumenical and we have students exploring theology, discipleship and ministry from Anglican, Methodist and Pentecostal churches.

 It would be hard to say what subject I enjoy teaching most, but I love the energy and creativity of the Masters module on global theologies and migration. Faced with the scale and complexity of migration today, we need more theological resources to help us respond to and receive from migrants. In addition, it is important to make visible the migration of traditions and communities of faith throughout history. The work of Argentine theologian Nancy Bedford has been invaluable in exploring the particular experience of Latin American women migrants and the violence they encounter along the way, as well as naming the multiple forms of resistance and strategies of survival they employ. A powerful example of communal resistance to the death-dealing structures and monstrous borders that confront many undocumented migrants is that of Las Patronas, a group of Mexican women who cook and carry food to the tracks where each day trains carrying hundreds of migrants pass by (watch here).

 I completed my doctorate at Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I learnt much from organizations such as Movimiento Ecuménico por los Derechos Humanos, spending time with local women’s groups that sought to resist and challenge both domestic, and more public forms of, violence. My book, Reimagining Theologies of Marriage in Contexts of Domestic Violence: When Salvation is Survival (Routledge, 2018) explores how Christian accounts of marriage are often static and idealized, failing to take account of violence and gender inequality within relationships.

 The work of Latin American women theologians and activists continues to inspire and challenge me. Doing theology in another language is a means of resisting dominant theological traditions and ensuring we don’t rely on familiar readings of texts and traditions. Last year, I spent a month in Central America, meeting with theologians and activists working on a range of interrelated issues: increasing access to reproductive health care, a life-or-death issue for women in Central America; facilitating debate around masculinity and violence; and challenging street harassment. The image of birds flying in front of the cathedral in the Nicaraguan city of León speaks to me of how even then most static religious structures are in constant and dynamic relationship with lived experience and movements for change.  

 How do you think the Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to and enrich discussion and action on the topic of gender activism today? Is there more we can do? What else should we post?

 The creativity, commitment and community generated by the Shiloh Project seem to me to be important resources for challenging gender-based violence. At the conference last summer, the creativity of the presentations and discussion reminded me of the gift of collaboration between academics and artists, and how creativity is often a source of resistance to violence and oppression. The passionate commitment around naming and shaming violence within the biblical texts and within our own lived contexts was energizing. In particular, I was struck bythe naming of Abraham as a rapist (see a blog post about this paper by Zanne Domoney-Lyttle here). Why is Abraham (and Sarah’s) abuse of Hagar not identified as sexual violence? It reminded me how fiercely faith communities seek to protect the male ‘heroes’ within the biblical text, and how difficult it can be to name what is clearly stated in the text. Finally, the conference enabled me to connect with other scholars and activists working to challenge gender-based violence. The welcoming and supportive atmosphere of the conference reminded me of how important I had found similar networks, such as the Catholic women theologians’ network, Teologanda, of which I had loved being part while living in Argentina.

 In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?  

 I’m currently working on a new edition of SCM Studyguide to Biblical Hermeneutics (2006), co-written with David Holgate. The revised edition will deepen and develop material on how we read the Bible attentive to multiple identities and contexts, as well as exploring resistant readings of the text, drawing on the work of scholars such as Phyllis Trible and Oral A. W. Thomas. Inspired by Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar’s presentation at the Shiloh Project’s Religion and Rape Conference (see a blog post on this presentation here), we ask what kinds of stories do we allow the Bible to tell? And making further use of the work of Gina Hens-Piazza, we suggest ways of seeing, denouncing and resisting violence present within biblical texts and their interpretation. Hens-Piazza’s commentary on Lamentations, part of the new Wisdom Commentary series, is a powerful testimony to the importance of resisting the violence of the text.

With Dulcie Dixon Mckenzie, Director of the Centre for Black Theology at Queen’s, I recently developed a new module for the Common Awards programme, entitled Intersectional Theologies (see here). While the notion of intersectionality has been part of academic discourse for some time, there has been less attention within theology to the complexities of identity and dynamics of power. A particular hope is that the module will generate theological resources appropriate to contemporary British contexts. This module has the potential to be used by any of the nineteen theological institutions working with Durham University as part of Common Awards. At Queen’s, this module will help students make deeper connections between earlier modules focused on Black Theology and on Theology and Gender.

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Outlander Soul Podcast: Sexual Violence in Outlander (discussion with Emma Nagouse)


Outlander Soul continues part 2 of their conversation with Emma Nagouse, whose research at the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) at the University of Sheffield (UK) focuses on religion and sexual violence. In this episode, Emma and Jayme Reaves discuss Christ imagery and suffering, the Geneva & Laoghaire question, Fergus, and sexual violence as depicted in Outlander more generally.

(An obvious trigger warning that there will be discussion of rape, sexual violence, and rape culture in this episode).


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UN 16 Days of Activism – Day 2: Heather McKay


Today’s activist is Heather McKay.

Tell us about yourself! Who are you and what do you do?

I am Professor Heather A. McKay (née Ayre), MSc, BD, PhD, FHEA.

In education, I am a product of an all-female grammar school in Glasgow where we were taught that we could easily achieve what males achieve. Then I studied at Glasgow University and earned two Science degrees (BSc and MSc) as a young woman and, as a mature woman, two degrees in Biblical Studies (BD and PhD inDivinity). In between I was a horse rider for leisure and a hospital laboratory worker and researcher, a mother and a National Childbirth Trust Breast-feeding Counsellor and Teacher of Antenatal Preparation classes, both of the lattermost for several years in Glasgow, and then, Sheffield. In the late sixties, I worked as a schoolteacher in Ely (Cambridgeshire) and, later, in Glasgow, sandwiching four years as a lecturer in Biological Sciences at Napier University, Edinburgh. After gaining my Bachelor of Divinity, I worked as a student minister for a year then became a schoolteacher again, this time in Religious Studies and Religious Education. After a few more years in schools and John Leggott Sixth Form College in Scunthorpe, I became Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at Edge Hill University, Lancashire and worked there till my retirement having been granted a personal chair meanwhile. I particularly enjoyed, there, teaching the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education for new lecturers at Edge Hill.

My second husband is David Clines, of much Biblical Studies fame, and my younger son, Dr Robert McKay, is Senior Lecturer in English Literature (also at Sheffield University), specializing in Animal Studies. My older son, Kevin McKay, works in the music industry in London.

How do you think the Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to and enrich discussion and action on the topic of gender activism today? Is there more we can do? What else should we post?

I think that the Shiloh Project makes a vital contribution. I believe that any young women nowadays delude themselves that the feminist battles have been won. I believe that most of women’s gains in bodily freedom and mobility and time at their own disposal have been gained by scientific advances, namely, the provision of simple and easy sanitary protection and choices of contraception. Both give women greater control and offer options that women may make for themselves. But the idea that men have ceded 50% of their power of the public spheres of action to women is risible. But then, it must be a daunting prospect to reduce one’s power in life to a half; only the very best of men seem to be capable of embracing that idea wholeheartedly. Hence the clear, unambiguous focus provided by the Shiloh Project cuts through the doublespeak that sugarcoats many unpleasant ‘pills’ of women’s life in the public sphere. The Shiloh Project must use its cutting edge to show women where their key vulnerabilities lie both here in the UK and globally.

In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?  

It is hard to be specific but, as you can see from my thoughts outlined above, these issues are always at the forefront of my mind. Memories well up of antenatal classes where the fathers were sometimes unwilling to massage their wives backs and/or bellies in the particular different ways that would alleviate their aches and pains, then, the transforming joy on their faces as their actions produced those relaxed sighs as pain receded and their partners’ faces melted into a gentle smile and look of love. I wish that change to happen also to the pains of the workplace and of other public spheres where partnership enriches rather than undercuts the common project.

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UN 16 Days of Activism – Day 1: Professor David J.A. Clines


Activism comes in many guises. Today’s activist is Professor David J. A. Clines. David is one of the giants of biblical studies. He is one of the foremost scholars of the study of Biblical Hebrew, Greek and Latin, and is thoroughly adept in very many of the approaches to biblical criticism, as well as stunningly knowledgeable about the long history of biblical interpretation. Again and again, David has found new, innovative and sometimes provocative ways to shed light on biblical texts. His voice is singular and significant – in biblical scholarship and well beyond, for all willing to think critically and responsibly about the texts of the Bible and the contexts in which these texts emerged and exerted influence. David has also been a mentor to many scholars and students, which includes several members of the Shiloh Project. 

1. I am David Clines and am still Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield, despite retirement 15 years ago. I am an Australian, who left home for further study in Cambridge, after completing my first degree in Sydney. I have taught in Sheffield for all of my career. My research focus throughout has been on the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), its language, interpretation and especially its ideological commitments (which are often obscured or unacknowledged).

My Shiloh-type interests include: many papers aimed at uncovering the (mostly unnoticed) masculinity of the Bible (e.g. ‘The Scandal of a Male Bible’, The Ethel M. Wood Lecture for 2015, available here), and, recently, my publications profiling violence in the Hebrew Bible. My linguistic study reveals that there are, on average, 7 instances of or references to violence on every page of the Hebrew Bible. I maintain that this includes references to  ‘marriage’ (because marriage strikes me as always an act of violence in the ancient cultures reflected in biblical texts) and ‘circumcision’ (which I regard as constituting male genital mutilation).

2. My main future contribution to the aims of the Shiloh Project will be in my capacity as director of Sheffield Phoenix Press: SPP will publish both monographs and collections of essays by numerous people involved in this important project.

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Outlander Soul Podcast: Season 2 Episode 3: Jamie & The Man of Sorrows (Sexual Violence in Outlander Part 1)


Over the next two episodes, the Outlander Soul podcast welcomes Emma Nagouse, whose research at the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) at the University of Sheffield (UK) focuses on religion and sexual violence.

For Part 1 of this series on sexual violence in the popular TV series Outlander, Emma and Jayme Reaves discuss Emma’s research on Jamie Fraser and the Man of Sorrows, a character in Lamentations 3 in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and the implications of male rape as depicted in biblical texts and in Outlander.

Read more on Emma’s Outlander Research here.

(An obvious trigger warning that we will be talking about rape, sexual violence, and rape culture in this episode).

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For Such a Time as This? #UsToo: Sexual Trafficking, Silence, & Secrecy in the Book of Esther


Ericka S. Dunbar is Ph.D. candidate in the area of Hebrew Bible at Drew University (Madison, NJ, USA). Her dissertation project is entitled, “Trafficking Hadassah: An Africana Reading of Collective Trauma, Memory and Identity in the Book of Esther”. In her project, Ericka places the biblical story of Esther in conversation with the sexual exploitation of African diasporian subjects during the transatlantic slave trade in order to investigate the intersections and consequences of sexual exploitation of minority girls and women across time and contexts and, in order to assess the impact of collective, intergenerational and cultural trauma on identity and memory. Her teaching and research interests include:  Religion and Social Change; Africana Biblical Studies, Africana Diaspora Studies, Trauma, Studies, Ethics, Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies, gender-based violence, women and children in the Bible, Human Trafficking discourses, the role and impact of religion on individual and collective/cultural identities.

For Such a Time as This? #UsToo: Sexual Trafficking, Silence, & Secrecy in the Book of Esther

Not all silence sounds the same. Some silence is, well … quiet. Other silence is deafening.  The silence around sexual trafficking and the hyper-invisibility of victims of trafficking is deafening … striking …. disturbing. Silence is also what allows trafficking and exploitation to thrive. It plays its part in systemic oppression, perpetuating suffering, diminishing agency, limiting mobility. Yet silence is disruptive and it is vocal! If only we would listen to the quiet screams, the hushed pleas, petitioning us, “see me, hear me, protect me, advocate for me!” Attention to the silences in both biblical texts and contemporary contexts can and should disrupt normative modes of interpretation, illuminating traumatization and psychological truths that have gone unvoiced for far too long.

There are troubling silences in the book of Esther that have been muted and ignored throughout the history of interpretation. The book of Esther presents representations of collective trauma in the form of sexual trafficking. In the second chapter of the book of Esther, the female collective includes Esther and countless virgin girls who are trafficked by the Persian King Ahasuerus and his officials.

Sexual trafficking is “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbor, or receipt of people, by coercive or abusive means for the purpose of sexual exploitation.”[i] It is right there in the book of Esther where the king’s servants suggest the following:

Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king. And let the king appoint commissioners in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in the citadel of Susa under custody of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women; let their cosmetic treatments be given them. And let the girl who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti. (2:2b-2:4a)

The failure of readers to identify and/or perceive recruitment, transportation, and harboring of subjects in the biblical text as characteristics of trafficking prevents them from expressing outrage and from taking action. Esther and other virgin girls are abducted from their native lands, which span from India to Ethiopia (1:1), are transported to Persia and held captive in the king’s palace so that he can engage in nonconsensual sex with each of them until he determines which one satisfies him best sexually. These vulnerable girls are seized, brought against their wills, and secluded in the king’s palace, all elements of trafficking. They are transported from their home provinces, harbored in the king’s harems, undergo a beautification/ preparation process (which includes pampering and perfuming for a year), and repeatedly sexually abused, night after night. What stands out to me is that the girls in the narrative world are taken from provinces that are inhabited predominately by brown and black minorities in our contemporary contexts. Further, brown and black females are disproportionately vulnerable to and targeted by traffickers.  I believe that our understandings of sexual trafficking in contemporary contexts illuminate trafficking in this ancient sacred text.

Historically, biblical interpreters frame the exploitation of the “virgin girls” as a harmless, even “fun,” beauty pageant. Defining the exploitation as a “beauty contest,” however, ignores the elements of capture, captivity, and forced displacement and prevents the analysis of such experiences as exploitative and trauma- inducing trafficking. Perhaps understanding the various parties as involved in trafficking will better illuminate the process of prolonged exploitation in the book of Esther. In trafficking, there are generally four parties involved in a transaction although not all four are necessary for the facilitation of abuse: the perpetrator, the vendor, the facilitator and the victim(s). The perpetrator, or the king, sexually exploits the victim(s). The vendor(s), or the king’s servants, extend the services/bodies/capital that make sexual trafficking possible. The facilitator(s), that is, the officers in the provinces of the king expedites the victimization process, and the victim(s) are the object of sexual exploitation: namely, the virgin girls. Attention to both the processes and parties involved in trafficking exposes the violence and horror of this text. The book of Esther is often read as comical, or as a celebration of a beautiful and clever heroine that ascends to queen – but such a reading does not tell the whole story as it obscures, suppresses and condones large-scale abuse in the form of trafficking women and girls.

Ira Gelb, 'NOT For Sale',

Perpetrators, vendors, and facilitators of abuse depend on and capitalize off silence, suppressed voices, and secrecy. They weaponize our silence and use it to perpetuate the abduction and transportation of girls across national and international borders. Secrecy is a prominent theme in chapter 2 as Esther’s identity is kept a secret, Moreover, the identity and names of the numerous other virgin girls brought in two rounds remain obscured too.  One might ask what role Esther’s guardian, Mordecai, plays in her exploitation and oppression as he orders her to maintain secrecy. The absence of the sound of the virgin girls’ voices leads to physical harm and perpetual psychological suffering. They are not allowed to protest their suffering neither do their male guardians protest their exploitation.  The absence of protest is horrifying. Yet, if we pay attention to the words not spoken, or narrated in the case of the book of Esther, we’ll see that the muteness and silences throughout present soundless shrieks and inaudible stutters of throbbing hostility, paralyzing trauma, and shocking terror.

Collective trauma is experienced when groups share in catastrophic events that lead to suffering. Read closely, this story reflects the woundedness and torture of the female collective. They are confronted with displacement, subjection under imperial rule, and legalized gender oppression through the creation of hegemonic and sexist laws, exploitation, and rape. In the first chapter, in response to Vashti’s resistance to the king’s attempt to sexually exploit her, the female collective’s subjugation is legalized as the king’s advisors create the law that, “every man be master in his own household and speak according to the language of his people” (1:22). Women are victims of patriarchy and misogyny, become the property of the empire, and with the exception of Esther, disappear into the narrative world, never to have agency again in the biblical text. These experiences reflect those of girls and women captured, transported, and harbored on plantations during the transatlantic slave trade throughout the 16th to 19th centuries. They were raped and impregnated against their wills, beaten and killed if they attempted to resist in any way. Their enslaved male counterparts had similarly brutal fates.

Not surprisingly, the book of Esther fails explicitly to detail the female collectives’ responses to the horror they endure. However, I argue that silence here is a narrative device that reflects the traumatic impact of the horrors they endure. Silence is a feature of horror that often reflects a “numbing effect” of devastation. The absence of the women’s speech and the lack of narration of their emotional responses highlight how blistering these experiences are and reflect the physical and emotional toll on the girls. Their inaudible responses reflect the unutterable horrors they withstand. Instead of screaming voices, we are presented with and forced to focus on the spectacle of inaudible, dislocated, physically and psychologically injured and sexually transgressed bodies which shocks, arrests, and disgusts us as readers. These silences are and should be just as telling as audible screams.

Each time I read the text, the deposition of Vashti and of the graphic sexual imagery representing sexual trafficking, it arrests and terrifies me, especially when I consider the impact of this text in light of recent trends in trafficking and the global #MeToo movement. I am passionately concerned about abused and trafficked girls and women and I hope that by engaging the sacred texts, a hermeneutic of trauma and horror might aid us in our ability to confront the causes and consequences of trafficking. I hope that such a reading and hermeneutic may underscore the impact of sexual violence, terror, and traumatization on group identity, memory, and history.  If we are to respond effectively to issues of trafficking and exploitation, we must transform the silence around trafficking and traumatization first. We must also illuminate the powerful impact of ancient – including biblical – cultures, ideologies, theologies and practices, particularly on such topics as sex trafficking and abuse, and we must engage in ethically responsible readings and interpretations of sacred texts, ­even, or especially if they are horrific. My interpretation of the book of Esther has the potential to galvanize us towards collective advocacy and action for vulnerable and exploited females across the globe.

Silence in texts and in our contemporary contexts should serve as a stimulus to investigate stories and expose suffering. After all, “Perhaps this is the moment for which [we] have been created” (Esther 4:4). Perhaps, this is the moment to sound off in solidarity for our sisters that have been silenced and oppressed. Perhaps this is the moment to shatter the silence and reclaim, “Not in My Name!”

#unspokentruths #stopnormalizingsilence #textsofterror #traffickingtraumatizes

[i] US Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report (Washington, DC: US Department of State Publications, 2014),

Black and white image titled ‘NOT For Sale’, courtesy of Ira Gelb,







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