The Unnamed Woman in Judges

Pieter de Grebber / Public domain
[Below is a blog I wrote and published on March 8th, 2009, in honor of International Women’s Day.

When I read In Cold Blood , I found myself stunned by Truman Capote‘s writing style. It wasn’t just that he was a superb writer (which he was) but that he wrote in such a non-manipulative way. Instead of expressing his own shock and outrage at the unprovoked murder of an entire family, he told the story as he understood it, leaving the reader’s humanity to determine his/her response.

I thought it a very adult way to write,  a way of encouraging the reader’s development of character, the development of his/her soul, if you will, in the reading of such horror. My response to the story told  me something about myself, rather than how I “ought” to feel about the distant event that the story described.

I contrast my praise of Capote with the overwhelming indignation I feel every time I read the story of The Unnamed Concubine in  Judges 19:1-30. I can’t read it without my blood running cold. I am left weak and shaking at the end of what scholar Phyllis Trible described as a “tortuous and torturous path“, wondering after reading this “text of terror” why its author fails to offer a disapproving word.

In fact, I have often wondered why God didn’t see fit to offer a disapproving word on the subject of a woman who leaves, and then is persuaded to return to a man whose cowardice is equaled only by his astonishing hubris. A man who hands her over to a rape-gang and then chops her into parts to demonstrate his indignation at that same rape-gang.

And so I stew. Reading the story and getting angrier at God and the writer for not offering redemption by writing my indignation for me. Re-reading the story and looking for a hint of “the God who sees”: The God who  rescued Hagar from the desert.

There is none.

The writer told a story.

The writer didn’t tell me how I, or anyone else, should feel about it.  Instead, we are left to pay attention to our own reactions to the tale. If we dare.

Some commentators, like John Wesley, seemed to believe that the concubine got what she deserved for leaving her “protector” at the beginning of the story.

Other commentators rush to defend the concubine by pointing out that she wasn’t “at fault” for the original quarrel.

Feminist theologians, on the other hand, draw parallels between the plight of this nameless, socially helpless woman and the plight of other nameless, socially helpless women.

When we read this story, each of us is presented with an opportunity to examine our own responses to this tale:  A woman leaves a man and is persuaded to return to him. Her reward for doing so is to be fed to a pack of rapists, cut into twelve pieces and scattered among strangers.

What is our reaction to this story?

Do we seek to explain it? If so, how?

Do we want to place blame? If so, where?

Do we want to justify the actions of the woman’s “protector”? If so, why?

Do we want to make someone other than the woman the focus of this story? If so, who?

Do we want to place God or “God’s will” somewhere in the story? If so, when?

And what do our reactions to this story tell us about how we feel, or how we feel we should feel,  about women?