At the Threshold
The final chapters of the book of Judges (19-21) tell the story of the brutal betrayal, rape and abuse of a young woman by multiple men. In the context of the wider story, the treatment of this woman and the escalation of sin and violence that ensues is an indictment of Israelite society. It is often observed that the treatment of women in Israelite society in this period serves as a kind of litmus test of the nation’s spiritual and religious health. This story must be read, therefore, not as ‘business as usual’ in Israel, not as something that ‘just happens’ that God is OK with. No, this is Israel gone very wrong. It is the story of a people whose hearts are far from God, and of evil so endemic that God must drastically intervene.
These last few weeks have reminded us – as if we needed reminding – that sexual assault, rape, and violence against women are endemic in our culture too: in our government buildings, in our churches, our ministries, our cities and our homes. The frequency with which these acts occur, and the obstacles that are faced by women who speak up and seek justice are signs that something is very wrong in Australian society.
This can be hard for us to hear. We don’t want to hear it because we don’t want it to be true. We don’t want to grapple with what it might mean to name the depths of what is wrong in our society’s view of and treatment of women. But we must listen. And we must hear.
In Judges 19, after the woman has been raped and abused throughout the night, at dawn she is let go. The story continues:
“At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.
When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” But there was no answer.” (Judges 19:26-28)
In the last few weeks, months, and years, many women have come forward to speak about their experiences of rape, sexual assault, and abuse in Australia, or in evangelical churches and ministries: Lori Anne Thompson, Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins, women who cannot be named, and many, many more, whose names we do not even know. Vulnerable, raped and abused, they have come and lain down at our door: in the doorway, with their hands stretched out on the threshold, begging, pleading to be heard and to be listened to. To be believed.
And while the individual testimonies and experiences of each of these women are important each on their own, together, I think they represent a prophetic moment for us all.
They confront us with the question: what will we do?
The Levite’s concubine in Judges 19 is a prophetic figure. The author gives her no voice and no words to speak, and yet her bodily presence speaks volumes: collapsed on the doorstep, hands splayed, arms reaching out for help that never comes…. Her story reaches out to us.
When the Levite finds this woman fallen at his door, he takes a knife, cuts her up into twelve pieces, and then sends the parts of her body across the land in order to muster an army to take his revenge (19:29). In other words, he treats her like an object in the game of male honour. Violence ensues. Men are killed. More women are captured and harmed. Israel disintegrates. Evil triumphs.
The Levite cannot see the humanity of his concubine, or the harm done to her, apart from the injury to himself. He takes no responsibility for his role in what happens to her. And he and the men of Israel double down on their sin and violence. But the narrator gives the reader an opportunity to see differently.
We have an opportunity to see differently. To do differently. To see and to hear the women who have stretched out their hands and raised their voices to us.
For those of us who have grown up reading the bible, or in church, I suspect that part of our inability to attend to the stories of the women around us stems from habits of bible reading which obscure and minimise these kinds of stories. They don’t feature in our “greatest hits” or our “Bible Heroes” series’. They are not our “key moments” when we tell salvation history. They are not - not really - the stories that matter to us when we read the bible. We have tended to see women in the bible as not much more than supporting characters in a mostly male story.
But women are not supporting characters. Not in the bible, not in our families, not in our communities. And not in our churches.
They are persons, made in the image of God.
They are sisters in Christ, part of our church family.
They are members of the body, each indispensable.
When the apostle Paul uses the ‘body’ metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12, he writes: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Cor 12:26).
Right now, Australian women – including many of those in our churches - are suffering. They are suffering under the weight of the reality of their lives, and the lives and the stories of those they love. They are living it, hearing it, remembering it, hiding it. They are whispering it, whimpering it, shouting it, sobbing it. They are eating it, drinking it, escaping it, losing it. As playwright Tom Wright said recently, “This is the nightmare from which women can’t wake.”
Can you feel it?
If our nation’s leaders are any indication, you probably can’t. It is hard to describe the feeling of powerlessness that casual disregard from powerful people engenders. It’s like shouting from inside a sound-proofed room. Are we invisible? Does anyone care? Does it matter what happens to us?
Right now, in this moment, the women are at our door. Collapsed on the threshold, hands outstretched, embodying the truth of the sins of our church and our society in their violated bodies and minds. We want to shield our eyes, to protect ourselves. Like the Levite, we want to step over them and keep walking, to get to where we’re going. To carry on with our business of ‘preaching the gospel’, and ‘being the church.’
But where are we going? And who will we be when we get there, if this is how we travel? Paul writes:
But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.
If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it. (1 Cor 12:8-26)
To work with Paul’s metaphor here, perhaps the reason the church is limping and lurching so badly through this crisis is because it is not a properly functioning body. It continues to act as though it doesn’t really need all its members. It is off-balance and out of kilter. Some parts have grown too large, others have been allowed to waste and wither. We’re banging our fists and raising our voices, not realising that what comes out of our mouth is rotten because we are sick on the inside. Perhaps the church cannot digest and expel the toxic poison of sexual sin that infects it because it has neglected the organs it needs to do so.
I believe this is a moment in which we have an opportunity to do differently. The first step is to rediscover what it means to be a body that rightly values all its members. And for many of us, right now, that starts with listening.
Listen until you feel.
Listen until, as Paul writes, you ‘suffer together.’
Not until you get angry. Not until you get defensive. Not until you ‘understand.’ Not until you can solve, or act, or protect or advise.
Listen until you truly know what it is to be members of one body. Then, your sisters might know it too.
The women are at our door, hands outstretched.
Do we see? Will we hear?
Hannah Craven is currently in Scotland with her husband and two children. She is working on her PhD at University of St Andrew's, looking at feminist theologies of and strategies for reading the bible, particularly as they relate to women victims of violence and abuse.