Isaiah 42: 22-25
But this is a people robbed and plundered, all of them are trapped in holes and hidden in prisons; they have become a prey with no one to rescue, a spoil with no one to say, ‘Restore!’ Who among you will give heed to this, who will attend and listen for the time to come?
In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite, residing in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. But his concubine became angry with him, and she went away from him to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah, and was there for some four months. Then her husband set out after her, to speak tenderly to her and bring her back. He had with him his servant and a couple of donkeys. When he reached her father’s house, the girl’s father saw him and came with joy to meet him. His father-in-law, the girl’s father, made him stay, and he remained with him for three days; so they ate and drank, and he stayed there.
He got up and departed, and arrived opposite Jebus (that is, Jerusalem).
Then at evening there was an old man coming from his work in the field. The man was from the hill country of Ephraim, and he was residing in Gibeah. (The people of the place were Benjaminites.) When the old man looked up and saw the wayfarer in the open square of the city, he said, ‘Where are you going and where do you come from?’ He answered him, ‘We are passing from Bethlehem in Judah to the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, from which I come. I went to Bethlehem in Judah; and I am going to my home. Nobody has offered to take me in. We your servants have straw and fodder for our donkeys, with bread and wine for me and the woman and the young man along with us. We need nothing more.’ The old man said, ‘Peace be to you. I will care for all your wants; only do not spend the night in the square.’ So he brought him into his house, and fed the donkeys; they washed their feet, and ate and drank.
While they were enjoying themselves, the men of the city, a depraved lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door. They said to the old man, the master of the house, ‘Bring out the man who came into your house, so that we may have intercourse with him.’ And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, ‘No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing. Here are my virgin daughter and his concubine; let me bring them out now. Ravish them and do whatever you want to them; but against this man do not do such a vile thing.’ But the men would not listen to him. So 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. As morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light.
In the morning her master got up, opened the doors of the house, and when he went out to go on his way, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. ‘Get up,’ he said to her, ‘we are going.’ But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey; and the man set out for his home. When he had entered his house, 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. Then he commanded the men whom he sent, saying, ‘Thus shall you say to all the Israelites, “Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day? Consider it, take counsel, and speak out.” ’
The story from Judges is not in the lectionary, the cycle of scriptural texts that the church uses on Sundays that repeats every three years. If you haven’t heard it, it’s because the church hasn’t told it. It’s easy to see why. This is a brutal story. A sad story. A story whose conclusion will not end on a high note. Those who hear a sermon on this passage won’t walk away feeling better about themselves, and pastors fear that they may end up going to some other church, some other congregation or watching some television preacher on Sunday morning because they preach a happier, more politically correct gospel. I feel bad for these preachers sometimes, ignoring all the parts of the bible that make you feel uncomfortable leaves a lot of the bible unread and much of its power ignored. This is a story of a woman who is given no name, and like Isaiah, we have to ask, “Who among you will give heed to this, who will attend and listen for the time to come?”
This story can be interpreted in dramatically different ways. And it has. The interpretation of this story largely depends on which version of the bible you use and how a few words are translated. Normally, I give respect to multiple translations and interpretations because I think it is the strength of our scriptures. Today is not that day. I give alternative interpretations the same level of respect that they show to the woman in our story.
Judges starts out in a way that most of us pass right on by and wait for the climax of the story. That’s a mistake. It says, “In those days, when there was no king in Israel – no king in Israel – a certain Levite took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah.” No king in Israel, the author’s way of saying something bad is going to happen because there is no one to enforce the law, no one to look after the wronged, no one to care for people like the concubine. The Levite’s concubine has run away from her husband. The text says its because she became angry with him, apparently so much so that she ran away to her father’s home and her father took her back in. He did something so terrible that he has to go back and “speak tenderly to her,” as verse 3 says, to bring her back. He shows up to her father’s house and her father “meets him with joy”. This Levite did something terrible to her, and her father meets him with joy. Who among you will listen to her? Who among you will speak for her? Not her father. He’s joyous to see the man who has wronged his daughter come and take her away.
The Levite departs with his concubine back at his side, and they travel to the town of Gibeah. No one in Gibeah will give them a place to spend the night – a terrible injustice as hospitality is a chief virtue at this time. Who among you will listen to her? Who will speak for her? Apparently, no one again.
An old man meets them and asks what they are doing there. No one will take us in the Levite says. The people hearing this in the ancient world would have been horrified. Angry. Appalled. Well, the old man brings the Levite and concubine into his house, washes their feet, feeds them and gives them drink. Finally, someone to listen. Finally, someone to speak. Finally, someone with morals and virtue.
At night, the text tells us that a group of men surround the house and begin pounding on the door. They demand that the old man bring out the Levite who came into his house so that they may know him – or have intercourse with him – or even more specifically, that they may rape him. The old man objects, “Do not act so wickedly…do not do this vile thing.” Who will listen to the guests? Who will speak for them? Again, apparently, this old man will, the virtuous, moral master of the house.
The virtuous, moral master of the house continues, “Here are my virgin daughter and his concubine, let me bring them out now. Ravish them and do whatever you want to them, but against this man do no such a vile thing!” The men refuse; they want the guest. The Levite man seizes his concubine, the very same one that he wrongs so she runs away, the very same one who goes after to bring her back, the very same one whom he speaks tenderly to, the very same one whose father meets her estranged husband with gladness – the husband grabs her and throws her out to the men. Who will listen to her? Who will speak for her? Not her husband. Not the virtuous, moral master of the house.
The text reads, “they wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the next morning.” When her master – the text no longer calls the man her husband, but her master – gets up in the morning, he finds her lying at the door, her hands outstretched grasping at the threshold of the house. A horrifying image of a woman desperately trying to fight her way back inside the safety of the house from sexual violence. He says to his wife who he once spoke tenderly to, “Get up. We are going.” There is no answer. The text doesn’t tell us why, but we know. She’s dead. He puts her broken body on his donkey and leaves and arrives at his home.
Many years before this, Saul gathers the armies of Israel in a time when there was no king, by cutting an ox up into 12 pieces and sending it throughout the land. When the leaders of the tribes received it, they sent their sons, their families and gathered for war. This Levite man, takes his concubine, and cuts her into 12 pieces like Saul’s ox and sends her throughout the land, seemingly to demand armies to gather for war. She’s been used for sex and for bearing children as a concubine, used as property to sell away by her father, used as a bargaining chip and shield by the not-so virtuous old man and her master to protect themselves from harm and now her dead body is used by her master to fool others into war. He sends with her a message that can only be read ironically by those who hear Judges 19. “Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day? Consider it. Take counsel. And speak out.”
“Consider it. Take counsel. And speak out.”
This is a woman who runs away from her husband because of some terrible thing he has done to her. Her father gladly delivers her back into her husband’s care. When she travels, no one gives them a place to stay, save for an old man who promises to take care of them. Men appear at their door demanding her husband, and the old man wants to give them her. Her husband is charged with protecting her but throws her out to the men to be raped. Once she dies, her husband then uses her body as a pretext for going to war. She had no one to listen to her. No one to speak for her. Who among you will listen? Who among you will speak?
Is this just a story of some terrible event in the past? Is this just another biblical story where we can brush aside and move on to the Psalms praising God for God’s justice? Is this just another forgotten text, brushed aside by our revised common lectionary, so that following Easter we can have weeks and weeks and weeks of Jesus’s farewell discourse where he speaks and speaks and speaks about his love, sacrifice and calling to his disciples? Is this just another one of those terrible stories in the Old Testament that no longer has a place for us modern, virtuous people who live in a modern, virtuous world. No one in the story has listened and no one in the story has spoken for her. Are we content with simply ignoring this story too, because we don’t have time in a three year lectionary cycle to fit it in?
Here’s where my sadness of this tragic story turns to anger. Not only was this woman ignored by her husband, father, and host. Not only was this story ignored by our lectionary, but if you pull out any number of bible translations that you may have at home, your King James Version or your New International Version, they say that the reason that she was separated from her husband was not because he angered her but because she was unfaithful. The text can be translated either way, but if she was unfaithful, why would her father take her back? If she was unfaithful, why would her husband have to go back to her and speak tenderly to her so that she may come home? Why would an unfaithful wife need convincing from her husband? The characters in the story ignored her and abused her, the lectionary seems to have forgotten about her because there wasn’t enough time in our three-year lectionary cycle, which includes four readings each Sunday and additional readings on the multitude of holy or feast days, but we, the church, have read this story and have called this abused and forgotten woman a prostitute, an adulteress and a sinner. Who among you will listen? Who among you will speak? Not the church. To us, she’s just another biblical whore.
This isn’t just a story in the past. This story is still happening. It’s happening where women (and men) are trafficked, where girls are married off as children, where women and girls are denied basic rights, and where the culture they live in prevents access to education, healthy lifestyles, and sustainable economic opportunities. But we have to listen. We have to take counsel. We have to speak out.
“But this is a people robbed and plundered, all of them are trapped in holes and hidden in prisons; they have become a prey with no one to rescue, a spoil with no one to say, ‘Restore!’ Who among you will give heed to this, who will attend and listen for the time to come?”
Who among you will listen? Who among you will speak?
In my time running from the church, I met a woman who is listening. Who is speaking. Who is shouting for women and girls whose voices are ignored and whose stories are forgotten. She’s Ola Perczynska, founder and program manager of Her Turn, a non-profit organization in Nepal, who’s mission is to “empower girls and equip them with skills and knowledge that allow them to create their own safe and healthy futures.” Her Turn focuses on girl’s education, empowerment and equality to— among other positive effects—end child marriage, decrease domestic violence, promote healthy lifestyles and practices, decrease human trafficking and promote the political and economic rights of women and girls in Nepal. Ola is passionate, articulate and absolutely committed to improving the welfare of women and girls in Nepal.
Along with Day for the Girl Summit, Her Turn’s current advocacy campaign, #PointPeriod, is about girl’s education and menstruation, a topic of which I was completely clueless. I didn’t know. I wasn’t listening. I wasn’t speaking out. I had no idea that an estimated 23% of girls in India drop out of school after they start menstruating. I had no idea that a reported 86% of girls in Garissa, Kenya, report missing school during menstruation. I had no idea that girls miss enormous amounts of school due to embarrassment of menstruation—because they do not have access to clean restrooms segregated by gender—or because they lack access to appropriate sanitary menstruation materials. I had no idea that menstruation forced women to leave their homes and spend days isolated in sheds, a practice called chaupadi in rural western Nepal, which has reportedly resulted in women being raped and dying of snakebites or hypothermia. I had no idea. I didn’t listen. I said nothing.
Who among you will listen? Who among you will speak? And, who among you will support those who do?
Learn more about Her Turn and Ola Perczynska and the amazing things they are doing at www.her-turn.org and like the organization on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/herturn. You can follow them on Twitter at @HerTurnNepal or better yet, support Her Turn financially by clicking “Donate” on the front page of the website. Tell others about what’s going on and about Her Turn. Their programs show promise. The founder, Ola, is trustworthy and effective. The girls in Nepal who have participated in the programs and the girls who will join these programs in the months and years to come, are worth every second of your time and every dollar you donate.
To our great shame, the church has ignored the woman in Judges 19. To our great shame, the church has ignored women throughout most of our history. To my great shame, I have ignored women even when professing to care, and my ignorance is not an acceptable excuse. We cannot ignore these women in Nepal and throughout the world. It has to stop.
Who among you will listen? Who among you will speak?