Buddhism teaching

Teach the Bible as lit “with your hands on the threshold”

Teach the Bible as lit “with your hands on the threshold”

By Walter Hesford

For years I have taught the Bible as literature. It was a staple in the English department. It was believed that English majors should have some familiarity with the most widely read and influential book in Western literary tradition.

The course also attracted general university students with a secular background looking for a safe place to study what they knew to be important work, and students with a religious background seeking academic credit for studying a book they thought they knew well.

Partly with these latter students in mind, I have often assigned as my first reading a part of the Bible that they probably would not have encountered in Sunday school. I certainly didn’t. It wasn’t until I read Phyllis Trible Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Stories(1984) that I paid attention to the story unfolding in Judges 19 of an anonymous woman who is gang raped. In addition to making us reflect on violence against women in ancient cultures and in our own, Judges 19 also raises questions of interpretation. Do we retain the same meaning, the same values, of the biblical texts as their first audience?

I don’t have the space to do justice to all of the subtleties of Judges 19. Readers are encouraged to ponder the full text as well as the brilliant and compassionate commentary by Phyllis Trible. The beginning of Judges 19 provides a framework for interpretation: “In those days, when there was no king in Israel…”. – the intention of the narrator is to reveal the disastrous consequences of not having a monarch to unify the twelve tribes of Israel. We may or may not see this as the main source of the future problems that begin when a “certain Levite” travels to retrieve his concubine who has fled to his father in Bethlehem (19.1-3). The father shows such ancient hospitality that the Levite finds it difficult to leave. When he finally does, he leaves recklessly at the end of the day. The concubine is never consulted; his wishes clearly don’t matter.

The Levite decides to spend the night in Gibeah, a city of the Benjaminites, and encamps in the city’s public square. An old man who comes from the same region as the Levite warns him not to expose himself to the wicked Benjaminites and offers him the hospitality of his house (19.15-21). While the Levite and his host are having fun, the wicked men knock on the door and demand that the host throw his host out so that they can “know” him (19: 22-23). As in the best-known story set in Sodom (Genesis 19), and as still in some cultures today, male rape is a weapon of war and a means of humiliating – what could be more humiliating for a man than to be treated like a woman?

In order to maintain the custom of man-to-man hospitality, the host refuses to give wicked men his guest, but says, “Here is my virgin daughter and her concubine; let me take them out now. Revive them and do with them what you want ”(19.24). When wicked men do not seem to be listening, the Levite “grabbed his concubine and threw it at them.” They raped her for no reason and mistreated her all night until morning ”(19.25)

What do we think of this Levite? Does the narrator evoke empathy for the concubine? Can the details get any more appalling and vivid? Yes: in the morning, the woman falls at the door from which she had been thrown; when his master gets up to leave, “there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, his hands on the threshold” (19:27). Trible calls this a “touching detail” (79), but thinks the narrator “cares little about the fate of the woman” (76).

His fate is terrible, ironic. Her master throws her body onto her donkey, brings her home, and cuts her into twelve pieces (it’s not clear whether or not she’s dead when he does this). He sends parts of his body all over Israel to start war against the Benjaminites, resulting in more violence, more rape (Judges 20:21).

Trible regards the unnamed concubine as an unrecognized type of another from Bethlehem whose “body has been broken and given to many” (64). However, she affirms that in order to have empathy for this woman, one must “interpret against the narrator, the plot, the other characters” (86). My students tended to agree: while they looked after the concubine, the narrator didn’t care. I wasn’t so sure. I would hold up the haunting image of his hands on the threshold which, thanks to the narrator, might be at the doorstep of our hearts as we study the Bible as literature.

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