Leah. Rachel. Mary. Elizabeth. Magdalene. Junia. Tamar. Jael. Hannah. Eve. Shifra. Puah. Jezebel. Hagar. Ruth. Anna. Rahab. Saphira. Martha. Joanna. Naomi. Deborah. Lydia. Susanna. Rebekah. Esther. And the Levite’s concubine.
The Bible tells many stories of women. Some of them we may be very familiar with. Others rarely make it into sermons or Bible studies. Women are often the quiet heroes of the text – if only because we have made them so. Read well, many of their stories turn out to be anything but quiet. Women are leaders, agitators, prophets, subverters. And they are also the ones who suffer.
Oh the suffering. The terror and the violence that women (and men, but especially women) experience throughout the text. Whenever Israel is in trouble, she is depicted as a woman. A daughter, destitute in the streets. A mother weeping. A harlot cast out. We prefer the easier images. Wisdom as a woman. A wife of noble character. The ultimate image of the church as bride. But it’s hard to read the Bible in its own voice without hearing the persistent voice of these sisters in suffering.
The story of the unnamed concubine in Judges 19 strikes me as one of the most terrible stories the Bible offers us. It comes at the end of the days of judges ‘when Israel had no king (and) the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes’. These are dangerous days, violence is everywhere, and the powerful abuse their power. In a gruesome string of events, when the Levite and ‘his concubine’ are travelling, the woman is raped by a group of men and left for dead. The Levite takes her home, cuts her body into twelve pieces, and sends one to each tribe of Israel, as an indictment of what king-less and law-less Israel has become. Violence begets violence, begets violence, and war ensues between the tribes.
It is a terrible story. There is no justice for the woman. She is abandoned and used in every way. She is not even named – only the story of the violence done to her lives on. And yet, when I read it, I’m glad it’s in the Bible. Why? Because the voice of this nameless woman demands our attention. She doesn’t speak in the text, only her father and her husband speak. And yet she is not silenced. Her suffering speaks.
Misogyny, violence, and abuse of power are not confined to the distant past. To take this ancient story to heart, is to recognise its present reality. Violence still disproportionately affects women around the globe. And suffering still speaks shame to perpetrators, and motivation for the world to be different. The Bible is not tame. It doesn’t silence or deny suffering, but it lets these sometimes terrible stories make their own case for justice and for change.
“Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.”