Erica Hamence opens our series of 16 days of prayer against Domestic & Family Violence - Foundations for Christian Action by reminding us that we pray because our God has promised to transform the world.
A Tale of Two Stories
Judges 19 reminds us that God knows the truth
'On the fourth day they got up early and he prepared to leave, but the woman’s father said to his son-in-law, “Refresh your heart with something to eat; then you can go.” So the two of them sat down to eat and drink together. Afterward the woman’s father said, “Please stay tonight and refresh your heart.” And when the man got up to go, his father-in-law persuaded him, so he stayed there that night. On the morning of the fifth day, when he rose to go, the woman’s father said, “Refresh your heart. Wait till afternoon!” So the two of them ate together.'
- Judges 19:5-8
Content warning: Violence against women.
Judges 19-21 is an awful story. And yet in its unshirking horribleness it offers us a profound critique of violence against women.
In Judges 19 we read of a woman, the concubine of a Levite, who leaves him. We are not told why, but the ambiguity raises the question of whether he had been mistreating her. Certainly, the four months he waits before seeking to bring her back suggests either mistreatment, or indifference, or both.
The one thing that is clear is the mission which kicks off the whole narrative: the protagonist, the Levite, is going to persuade her to return, literally, ‘to speak to her heart.’
This intriguing mission opens up a possibility for how the rest of the story might go.
This could have been the start of a love story - a journey of ups and downs, through which true love conquers and lovers are reconciled. Instead, it becomes the story of a lover who acts worse than a worst enemy, who does not reconcile with his lover, but who tears her apart.
Awareness of the possibility of another story is an important key to Judges 19-21. To read Judges 19-21 well is to recognise that we are being told two stories: one by the Levite, and one by the narrator, and to be discerning about the difference between the two.
As soon as the Levite reaches his father-in-law’s house, where the woman has been staying, his mission appears to have been forgotten. Indeed, she appears to have been forgotten. Instead of ‘speaking to her heart,’ we are told that it is his heart that is refreshed (verses 5, 8, 9). Instead of reconciling with her, we have a picture of male-bonding at her expense. Again and again, we are reminded that it’s ‘the two of them’ (the Levite and his father-in-law) who enjoy themselves (verses 4, 6, 8, and 9).
Here we see the part the narrator is playing in telling us this story. It is the narrator who ensures that we see how absent the concubine is from the proceedings, and who keeps reminding us as readers of her. At every point at which he makes us aware of her exclusion from their minds, he also brings her into our focus: the old man is not just ‘the father-in-law’ but ‘the woman’s father’ (verses 4, 6, 8 and 9).
It’s a pattern that remains consistent throughout this story: the narrator will draw our eyes to the woman, to look upon her with compassion, whilst at the same time highlighting the utter callousness of her supposed protectors and the sheer horror of her treatment at the hands of the gang [you can hear more about that here].
It is through the narrator that we see the tragic comparison between the story that could have been, and the one that was. On the morning after the concubine has been raped, we are told that the Levite ‘got up’ (giving us the impression of an uncomplicated night of rest) and stepped out ‘to continue on his way’ (Judges 19:27). There is no sense that he is even thinking of her, yet he knows what her night must have entailed. She was the very reason this whole journey began. He came to ‘speak to her heart.’ Instead, the very first time we hear him speak to her is here: ‘Get up. Let’s go.’
There’s no tenderness. No concern. It could not be clearer that he does not care about her. The narrator does, though. He paints us a picture of her utter desperation. The narrator is asking us to care more for her than her master does.
Finally, as the Levite reports this story to Israel, we see him exaggerating the danger posed to him (Judges 20:5 cf. Judges 19:22), whilst minimising his role in the rape of his concubine. What appeared to barely affect his sleep, he now describes as an outrage.
And so, this is the story that Israel hears, believes and acts upon (Judges 20:4-8).
And yet, it is not the story that God wants us to believe. Whilst Israel only knew what they heard, we have seen, with our own eyes - with God’s perspective, in fact - what happened, and we know the difference between the Levite’s story, and the true one.
This strikes me as an incredibly insightful depiction of the dynamics of abuse in faith communities. So many instances of gender-based violence become a ‘he said, she said,’ until the woman is silenced forever and the man’s story becomes authoritative, or the audience becomes confused enough about the truth to be made passive in response. But here we have a better final word: God’s. God is authoritatively telling us what really happened. He is calling us to side with the truth.
Judges 19-21 tells us that even when a woman is silenced, God will bear testimony on her behalf.
This passage exhorts us to re-think how we understand credibility as it relates to complex matters such as gender-based violence. Though it is shocking, and contrary to God’s will, of course it is possible for God’s people to do horrible things to women. We see it laid out for us in Judges 19-21.
Why do you think Christians are sometimes slow to believe a victim when they come forward?
This passage demonstrates that it is possible for an abusive man to manipulate a story for his own benefit, and for a faith community to be turned into a weapon.
Where you do see your/your community’s vulnerability to manipulation?
God of truth, shine light on the truth so that it might be what we see and believe. Keep us from being deceived and manipulated.
God, thank you that you do not forget those who are oppressed or terrified, that are in trouble or grief. Please draw near to those in trouble today and provide a community for them who see and hear.
Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; do not forget the oppressed…. you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief, that you may take it into your hands; the helpless commit themselves to you; you have been the helper of the orphan … Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear, to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed, so that those from earth may strike terror no more. Psalm 10:12,14,17-18 NRSV
God of truth, shine light on the truth so that it might be what we see and believe.
If you’d like to understand Judges 19-21 better, we highly recommend Jacqueline Lapsley’s book, ‘Whispering the Word: Hearing Women’s Stories in the Old Testament.’