Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and renowned Jewish thinker, believes that no one can ever truly understand the profundity and tragedy of the Shoah unless one experienced it. For him, silence is the best way to express the events since words fail to do justice. The principle of letting silence speak, when words no longer can, when pain is so real it debilitates and when tears flow more freely than thoughts, is not original to the twentieth century. The Bible contains many events and personal stories in which this is the case.
Judges 19 begins with two characters: a Levite and his concubine. The concubine has recently run away to her father’s house, when her husband decides to visit her there trying to win her back. He seems to have only good intentions in mind. After leaving her father’s house with his wife, the Levite discusses his future plans with his servant who apparently accompanied him on the journey. He still has not spoken a word to his wife.
The servant and the Levite decide to spend the night in Gibeah, a Benjaminite city. The three of them sit in the city’s square waiting for someone to take them in but no one arrives until evening. At dusk, an old man comes by and offers to take care of the needs of the entire party, including the donkeys, as long as they promised not to spend the night in the city square.
As the men are enjoying food and drink, a group of men (“a perverse lot” as JPS translates it) knock on the door requesting to have sexual relations with the Levite. As only a good host would do, the old man does not wish that his guest be harmed. So, the old man counters the offer by suggesting the men take his virgin daughter and his guest’s wife. The men who have come to rape the Levite refuse this offer. The Levite then panics, grabs a hold of his wife and pushes her out the door. The villains accept her.
Verse 25 says that “they dealt ruthlessly with her.” This same verb also explains how God treats Egypt in Exodus 10:2 and in 1 Samuel 6:6. Since this verb is used to elucidate the extensiveness of God’s wrath against the Egyptians, it must, likewise, explain the utmost cruelty against the youthful wife of the Levite.
When morning greets the Levite, we finally see him speaking to his young wife who he has found at the doorstep of the house saying, “and he said to her, arise and let us go and there was no answer” (Judges 19:28, my translation). The young woman does not answer. She does not even stand up. The Levite must pick her up and place her on his donkey. Modern day readers do not even know if she is alive, and ancient readers had that same problem. If she is still alive, then when her husband divides her body and sends it off to the rest of the twelve tribes in order to declare war against the tribe of Benjamin in verse 28, he has to kill her. Let me say it one more time. If she is not dead yet, her own husband, the man that was supposed to protect and provide for her, kills her and then mutilates her body.
Could she not speak because she is dead or could she not speak because no words can adequately describe her pain? We will never know the answer. We are told through her story that we can be silent when we have no words to speak. Wiesel says silence may be the best way to express the pain and injustice of personal and communal tragedy. So I suggest we sit in silence in solidarity with her for awhile. Then when we are ready, we need to sit in solidarity with our contemporaries who have been beaten, abused, violated, assaulted, mutilated, raped and murdered.
Yet, justice demands that while silence may be our first response, we cannot let the perpetrators get away. The entire book of Judges paints a picture that Israel should never have been left to fall so low that it disrespects and disregards the safety and security of its brothers and sisters. Verse one of Chapter 19 begins by saying that there was no king in Israel in those days. Kingship for the narrator of Judges will bring justice and fix Israel’s poor comportment. Today, justice comes through combating sexual violence, fighting for stricter laws and advocating for less societal shame for victims of sexual violence among many other things.
One example among many of this kind of justice-work is “Take Back the Night.” While the event’s specific goal is to end the silence and shame associated with sexual abuse as well as education and advocacy on behalf of survivors, at the recent “Take Back the Night” rally I attended, the evening started with a moment of silence to remember and honor the victims of sexual abuse. Then, in accordance with the mission, a large number of women bravely spoke out by describing their experiences. A few guest speakers and a keynote provided staggering statistics about the nature and prevalence of violence against women and girls in the United States and around the world. The event ended with a large number of men standing in solidarity with the survivors and speaking out against sexual assault. It was an enraging, educational and poignant event, one that illustrated how much the world has not changed. Men are still unbelievably violent to women and women many times are silenced by the system and society.
Yet, in the concubine’s silence, we pause. Like Eli Wiesel, we choose carefully how to respond. We respect her experience of trauma and the experience of millions of women around the world. We honor them even when they cannot put into words what they have experienced. But, we also know that we cannot be silent for long. We need to shout our protests against all forms of violence from the rooftops and work to mold justice, respect and care into our societal institutions, laws and values. We need to end sexual violence and also all forms of violence to humans, animals and the planet itself. We need Judges 19 and its powerful biblical witness of silence to remind us that our society should operate differently.
Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D.: A feminist scholar currently on the faculty at Boston College teaching in its Perspectives Program and an Adjunct Lecturer at Merrimack College. Her most recent publications include: “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).
4 thoughts on “JUDGES 19: A BRIEF PAUSE FROM JUSTICE-WORK TO BE WITH HER IN THE SILENCE BY IVY HELMAN”
Powerful midrash, Ivy. I am not sure we need this story in the in a sacred texts, but as long as it is there, we need readings like yours.
However, I wonder about the “good intentions” of the Levite with respect to the concubine. There is a silence in the story around her situation, because though the editors of the story are at least somewhat horrified about what happened to the Levite’s wife, they accept the bondage of the concubine as “the way things are.” Normative patriarchy. What was her story? Was she sold by her father or mother into sexual slavery? Was she “the spoils” of war? Why did she run away? And why back to her father, if he was the one who sold her? Or did he? Where was her mother? Who could speak for her? Why would she run away? Because every night of her life she was raped by a “holy” man? Because she was treated brutally by the Levite and his wife? Because she was raped by the Levite’s sons too? Because he offered her to his friends? The “intention” of the Levite was to retrieve his “property,” another human being whom he owned and had the right to abuse sexually. This situation is simply accepted by the editors of the story. So you are right: “in the concubine’s silence [we must] pause.” And then we must write another midrash on the story. “A King in Israel” would have been more no help to her, because the Kings of Israel had concubines, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, if we are to believe the texts.
For some of us, stories like this taint the Old Testament so badly that it is impossible to do anything but reject the whole thing outright, just as we have to reject certain political creeds in their entirity because of the violence and cruelty of their teaching in particular respects.
Thanks for your thoughtful reflections on this text. I’m always glad when women take on these “texts of terror.” I have written about this text a number of times myself. Interestingly, I once wrote a paper for Elie Wiesel comparing the rape narratives of the Hebrew Bible (including this text) to the rape narratives in three of his fiction novels. They are similarly offensive and silencing. I believe this woman is “silent” because the text silences her. And I hate this text because I know it keeps me from hearing her screams of terror and accusation. While I love Elie Wiesel and his beautiful articulation of the role of silence in healing and protest, I think that can only be expressed by those who are capable of speaking and being heard rather than those who are being actively silenced. I don’t know that that kind of silence is operative in this text. It may be an appropriate response to this text . . . sometimes I feel the need for that . . . . sometimes I feel more like screaming.
Ivy, I don’t really have a response. I think you are right about the work of silence.