There is a story in the Bible that we don’t hear in the Sunday readings or cited in papal documents. There’s no uplifting message of morality or liberation hidden in this story. And yet it is one I come back to, over and over again.
In this story, which occurs near the end of the book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible, a man and his concubine are traveling home from her father’s house. They find themselves in an unfamiliar village when night falls, and they wait in the town square until a passerby offers them food and shelter.
This simple act of hospitality sparks a horrifying series of events, however; as the guests are eating and resting after their long day of travel, the men of the town bang on the door of the house, demanding the man come out so that “we may have intercourse with him” (19:22). The host pleads with the men, offering his virgin daughter and the concubine instead, but they don’t listen. Eventually, the scripture says, “The man seized his concubine and put her out to them. They wantonly raped her and abused her all through the night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go” (19:25).
When the man sees his concubine lying across the doorstep the next morning, he doesn’t pause to mourn or take vengeance or repent for his selfishness. Instead, he takes her lifeless body, flings it across his donkey, and when he returns home “he took a knife, and grasping his concubine he cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel” (19:29) to let the 12 tribes of Israel know what the men of this town had done.
There is no justification or reasoning given for this crime, no interpretation that can make this story any less hard to read. The best interpretation I’ve read suggests that, occurring at the end of Judges right before the Book of Kings, the story is meant to illustrate the violence and chaos under judges’ rule and portray the need for monarchical reign in Israel. But even that explanation falls flat in the face of the graphic sexual and physical violation of the story.
It reads like a snuff piece, not sacred scripture.
The passage is what biblical scholar Phyllis Trible calls a “text of terror,” scriptural narratives where unspeakable violence is inflicted upon women that cannot be explained away or somehow redeemed. There is no salvation or loving God for the unnamed concubine, nor for myriad other victims in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
According to Trible, there is no adequate interpretation of this passage, no way of reading this story as anything but horrific. The best we can do for this woman, her name lost to history, is to read her story. Sit with it. Refuse to look away. Don’t let the story of the unnamed concubine—or any other “text of terror”—be lost in the dusty corners of the Bible. Be willing to sit with the rage, the discomfort, and the sorrow that comes with knowing that horrific violence against women is so taken for granted that it makes it into our holiest book, what many consider the literal word of God.
I write this one week after Hamas fighters killed more than 1,400 people in Israel and took hundreds of hostages. In the intervening time, Israel has cut food, fuel, and electricity from entering Gaza and warned over a million people to evacuate before an imminent invasion. As I typed these words, hundreds of civilians were killed in a hospital bombing in Gaza.
“Texts of terror” are not relegated to the annals of biblical texts or history books: They are happening every day. How will you respond?
This article also appears in the December 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 12, page 9). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Palestinian News & Information Agency