Interpreting “Texts of Terror” in the Bible: Implications for Women Empowerment
Dr. M. Mani Chacko
The very title of this paper assumes significance, because of what the Bible means to the community of faith. The title also implies a sense of unease with regard to certain biblical texts that portray war and violence. In this paper, I am particularly concerned about the texts that portray violence against women. Phyllis Trible calls these texts as “Texts of Terror (Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narrative). In ‘Texts of Terror’ Trible turns her attention to the stories we do not want to look at, where no love songs exist, no happy endings, nor do any community celebrations happen. These are stories where chaos reigns, and if women have any voice at all, they are not heard. These are the stories of ‘Hagar: The desolation of rejection, ’‘Tamar: The Royal Rape of Wisdom, ’‘An unnamed Woman: The extravagance of Violence,’ and ‘The daughter of Jephthah: An inhuman sacrifice.’ By a close reading of the text, Trible insists that we let the text speak for itself. She peels away all the things we thought the text says, but when we look at the text itself, we realize that we remember not the biblical passage but centuries of commentary and assumptions, much of it driven by an agenda very distant from the biblical authors. Trible insists that we need to come to the story with new eyes and read it closely and ask of it its meaning. Why are these stories included in the Bible? They are terrifying stories. We do not want to dwell on them? But we must. They are there. We cannot dismiss these stories as tales of an ancient and primitive time. Trible says, we have only to watch the evening news to hear stories of the rejection suffered by daughters of Hagar, or encounter the bodies of those raped and abused women crying out for justice, or see women sacrificed in the name of religion. We must not look away.
The question is how to read and understand these texts of terror which even project an image of God which is contrary to our understanding of God. How do we justify the inclusion of such texts in the Bible we call the “Word of God?” In a time when there is an awakening on the part of the human to work towards a culture of equality and dignity, are these texts to be ignored totally and go about constructing a new world based on mere human experience and a vision of liberation, which itself is revelatory? If the Bible itself, the revelatory, identity-defining text of the Christian community is portrayed as oppressive, on what basis do we know God or relate to God? Is the Bible dangerous for human living? If so, on what grounds do we conduct a critique of scripture that will render it less harmful? Can biblical interpretation pave the way for wholeness of life?
Interpreting a‘Text of Terror’– Judges 19
An unnamed Levite from Ephraim had a concubine, also unnamed. For some reason, this woman left him and returned to her father’s house. We do not know what her reasons were, but most likely some pretty horrific treatment was involved. Women were little more than property in most societies at that time, and Israel was not any different. Concubines ranked even lower than regular wives and had minimal expectations for how they would be treated, and the society of that time was extremely punishing towards women who left their men. After four months of separation, the Levite went to “speak tenderly to her and bring her back.” She did not have a lot of options, and I am sure her father pushed her to go back with him. After feasting with the woman’s father for several days, he, the concubine, and a servant headed home. They stopped in Gibeah for the night, and an old man took the three of them in. The men of Gibeah surrounded the old man’s house, pounding on the doors and demanding that the Levite come out so they could have sex with him. The host went outside and said, “This man is my guest! You cannot do that, but I am open to compromise. Why don’t you take my virgin daughter and this concubine instead? Do whatever you want to them; just don’t do anything to this man.” The men of Gibeah did not like this plan, so the Levite grabbed his concubine and pushed her out of the door. The men of Gibeah took what they were given and abused and gang- raped her all night. As dawn broke, they let her go. The woman went back to the old man’s house and fell down dead. When her master came outside, he almost tripped over her body and said, “Get up. We’re going. ”When she did not move, he realized she was dead. While gang-rape was apparently okay with him, murder was not, so he took her body home, hacked it into twelve pieces, and sent the pieces throughout Israel.
How do we interpret this text of terror and similar texts of violence? Four hermeneutical principles could be applied in interpreting such texts:
i. Going Beyond
It is easy for us to get bogged down to a literal reading of texts and to limit our reading only to particular texts. We need to understand that the biblical texts had been formed and conditioned by culture, space and time. Some materials would have been later interpolations, which mar or affect the meaning of the text. Confining our study only to particular texts and to get disturbed by the content of such texts is not healthy. We need to go beyond such “texts of terror” to other texts both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament in order to capture the liberative potential of the Bible. One particular text alone cannot and does not reveal the primary thrust of the Bible. While certain texts project negation of life such as the story of the Unnamed Woman who was raped, there are other stories in the Bible which are life affirming. Such texts of negation should be read along with the texts of affirmation of life. The question as to how such “Texts of Terror” found a place in the biblical canon will remain a serious concern for many. Such occurrences only show that the Bible is a human document conditioned by a world view prevalent in a given space and time.
ii. Critical Theological Imagination
Critical Theological Imagination makes one to realize that a few texts alone do not exhaust the central concern of the Bible, which is life in all its abundance for all. A particular text, which exhibits the culture of a particular space and time, does not nullify the cardinal message of the Bible. One could apply Critical Theological Imagination and study the story for example of the Unnamed Woman in detail and ascertain the reasons for the tragic events in the story, sexual rape in particular which leaves the woman dehumanized and utterly devastated and helpless. Critical Theological Imagination could be exercised to see similar instances of sexual violence across the world and to realize that what happened to the unnamed woman is still happening today in the present; that it is a story not of the past but of the present. Through Critical Theological Imagination, one also realizes the need to come out of some of our customary pre-occupations about the ethical aspects of morality, which prevent us from understanding the deeper, dimensions of the story and thereby the scripture.
iii. Liberative Engagement
A study of the “Texts of Terror” should enable us to promote liberative engagement or action. We need to explore ways in which we can support the battered victims of violence. Rape victims who survive the crime have to live with pain and shame for the rest of their lives. If she does manage to take the case to court, she often meets with more violence. Poor and illiterate women will not take their case to court at all because of their ignorance of the legal system and the expenses they cannot afford. The human community should come together and address the issues of concern such as that of sexual violence, which takes place in one form or the other at home, in the work place, in travel and the like. Collective action should prevent such unfortunate events from happening any more. The text demands a response from the reader: Do we cry with the victim? Do we speak for her; give her the voice that she herself no longer has? How do we react to stories of women who even today are abused and treated as objects of lust? Do we stand beside them? Do we take measures in educating the poor and the illiterate woman to become aware of the women’s rights and thereby encourage her to fight for her rights? Do we step in for them when they are reluctant to go to the court of law either because they do not know what course of direction the law would take or because they cannot afford to meet the expenses from their own resources?
iv. Review and Revision
The ultimate purpose of Biblical Interpretation is to enable us to review the existing ideologies and enter into a process of revision of the same to be in line with the central message of the Bible. In this process of review, there is room for reconciliation and forgiveness, a determination that the past will not and cannot be repeated and thereby enable a commitment to envision and build a new world order, where the victims of violence breathe the air of safety, dignity and equality.
Biblical Interpretation in the past has been very colonial in its objectives and thereby neither the interpreter nor the one for whom the text was interpreted were able to see the deeper insights in the Bible for a life of wholeness and inter- connectedness within the entire creation of God. At a seminar held at the Ecumenical Christian Centre, Bangalore on The Use and Abuse of the Bible in the context of the birth centennial of Dr. William Barclay, the above reality was noted with great concern. The participants of the seminar affirmed the following;
a. The Bible: We affirm that while the text of the Bible can be manipulated, the Word of God cannot be misused or abused. This is because we distinguish between the Word of God and the biblical text. We acknowledge that the biblical text emerged as God-inspired faith communities responded and witnessed to the Word of God from various socio-political and religio-cultural contexts. We seek to recover the Word of God from the biblical text though, in view of the evident difficulties of this enterprise, we do this humbly and reverentially.
b. Hermeneutical Mission: We admit that the biblical text is not only a God-inspired response and witness to the Word of God, but is inadvertently also a political, historical, ideological, social and even gender-biased collection of texts. As a result, we recognize that the Bible has been used to oppress the subalterns such as Women, Dalits, Tribals and other socially ostracized communities. We look to liberate the Bible from these oppressive tendencies. We do not reject the text but employ liberative re-readings of the text to encourage the emancipation and empowerment of the oppressed.
c. Hermeneutical Key: We uphold the need for a life- affirming motif to better understand the meaning of the Bible. We reject biblical abuse through literalism and biblicism, while encouraging the recovery of more metaphoric and contextual meanings. Most importantly, however, we recognize the need for ‘Christic sensitivity’ in our readings of the text especially as guides to our liberative and contextual readings.
d. Hermeneutical Methodology: We acknowledge and even laud the multiplicity of readings of the biblical text and encourage an interdisciplinary hermeneutical process. We recognize the value of various hermeneutical methodologies, but also look to incorporate a more integrated approach that includes the careful study of the text in its historical-cultural contexts.
Thus there isa general awareness being created through seminars such as the above on the need to make Biblical Interpretation liberative and life affirming. In this process, the “Texts of Terror” need not remain as “Texts of Terror” but as “Texts of Hope” paving the way for a life of wholeness.