Painting Women from Judges – Part 3: The Sacred Account of the Levite’s Pîlegeš by Melinda Bielas

Melinda BielasReading the story of the Levite’s pîlegeš – found in the Hebrew Bible, Judges 19:1-20:7 – is unlike any other scholastic endeavor I have undertaken.1 The narrative is of a woman who leaves her husband’s house, only to be retrieved by her husband, gang raped on her way to his home, and dismembered upon arrival. This intense violence then escalates to the abduction and rape of more than 400 virgins and the death of many more (Judges 20-21).

The first time I encountered this narrative was while reading Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror as an undergrad student. While at the time I did not fully understand the textual nuances Trible points out, I did understand this story was sacred in a way I could not articulate. It was not until years later that I realized I was not truly listening to the story because I had not read it from the pîlegeš’ perspective and was yet to be affected by the horror of it.

An explanation is needed when one calls a story of violence sacred. To clarify, it is the telling of the story that makes it sacred, not the violence. In much of the world today, violence done to women is taboo.2 Not only are the violent acts ignored, but the victim and her retelling of the acts are also often ignored. Perhaps this is because our society is biased towards the perpetrator. Perhaps it is because our faith communities have self-identified as loving and to acknowledge violence is to acknowledge failure. But perhaps it is mostly because violence is hard to process, especially when the violent act is committed against a loved one, and we prefer not to struggle with the presence of violence all around us. Continue reading “Painting Women from Judges – Part 3: The Sacred Account of the Levite’s Pîlegeš by Melinda Bielas”

Painting Women from Judges – Part 2: The Woman from Timnah Reframed by Melinda Bielas

Melinda BielasThe story of the woman from Timnah, Samson’s first wife – found in the Hebrew Bible, Judges 14:1-15:6 – is often interpreted as yet another wickedly seductive woman who distracts and confuses the heroic judge, preventing him from enacting the deity’s will. I remember the first time I questioned this interpretation: I was an undergraduate student teaching a youth bible study.I asked the high school students in the room what they thought about the Timnah woman and how we might understand the story differently if we read it from her perspective. Neither the students nor I had any idea how to answer these questions because we did not know how to see Samson as anything but a hero.

In her groundbreaking work, Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman points out that it is impossible for bystanders to remain morally neutral in cases of traumatic events. However, especially in cases of violence against women, our society is biased towards the perpetrator, requiring the victims to not only explain their painful experiences but also to refute the silence, denial, and rationalization of the perpetrators. In addition, the victim asks much more from bystanders than does the perpetrator. Whereas victims ask for action, engagement, and remembrance, the perpetrator requires that the bystander do nothing. Herman’s work is significant in this context because our societal norms affect how we understand narratives and determine which morals we take from the biblical text.

While it is a prevalent view in the academy and church, I think the interpretation of Samson as the victim in this narrative is wrong. This becomes clearer when one assesses Samson’s actions when women are absent and considers the text from the woman’s perspective. Some of Samson’s actions in Judges 14 that do not occur when the Timnah woman is around to “lure” him from his divine path include: walking through vineyards, touching unclean carcasses, and participating in non-Israelite cultural traditions (i.e. drinking parties). As a Nazirite, Samson was not supposed to interact with impure things like wine, grapes, and dead bodies (Num. 6:1-21). It is odd that someone who should not be eating grapes would be walking through a vineyard (Judg. 14:5); that someone who was supposed to stay away from dead bodies would scoop honey from a carcass (Judg.14:9); and that someone who is supposed to refrain from intoxicants would participate in a drinking party (Judg. 14:10). It is clear that Samson was not an upright judge, and that loose women were not the primary cause of his unrighteous behavior. Continue reading “Painting Women from Judges – Part 2: The Woman from Timnah Reframed by Melinda Bielas”

Painting Women from Judges – Part 1: Jephthah’s Reflective Daughter by Melinda Bielas

Melinda BielasThe story of Jephthah’s daughter – found in the Hebrew Bible, Judges 11:29-40 – is a difficult story to read. The first time I read it, I was in my Christian high school Bible class and I could not understand why our teacher did not address the violence done by a father to his daughter. In my experience, Christians dismiss much of the violence done to women in the Hebrew Bible as evidence that ancient fathers, brothers, and husbands really did not care for their daughters, sisters, and wives. Since today men love the women in their lives, the ancient problem is no longer an issue, and we can continue with more pressing issues – or so the unspoken logic goes.

However, some feminist scholars – such as myself and Dr. Tammi Schnider – argue that it was common for fathers to love their daughters in the Hebrew Bible, and Jephthah is no exception. His daughter is his only relative in the text, and presumably the only person impatiently waiting for him to return from the war he led. Yet, because of the vow he makes to the deity – a vow the deity does not request or acknowledge – he sacrifices his only loved one. Why would he make such a vow? Why would his daughter go along with it? These are two of the questions I could not help but yell as I struggled with the text. Continue reading “Painting Women from Judges – Part 1: Jephthah’s Reflective Daughter by Melinda Bielas”

Waiting for Jesus… I mean, Superman by Melinda Bielas

mindy BielasI grew up in a white-middleclass-fundamentalist-Protestant community. As a result I learned to think of God as my Father, and Jesus as my savior, similar to the fairytale prince in shinning armor or the ultimate boyfriend. As an undergraduate studying Religious Studies, I learned of other ways to relate to the Divine and discovered how to be a Feminist Christian. However, many women with backgrounds like mine do not have the opportunities that I did to discover different and liberating pictures of God. As a result they must choose between a religious life that enforces patriarchal norms, or life as a “secular” feminist. A recent song by a modern rock band, Daughtry, “Waiting for Superman,” reveals how the dependence on a male savior prevents Christian women from claiming their own personhood, independent of a patriarch. Continue reading “Waiting for Jesus… I mean, Superman by Melinda Bielas”

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