Listen to the sermon here.
The story I am about to read, you probably have not heard before. It’s violent. It will be difficult to hear, and it’s okay to be offended by it, even though it’s a biblical story. The reality is that it’s in our scripture. So, knowing what’s in there is important. Let’s read it, talk about it! And try to understand what we can do in response to such hatred and violence. In the 1980s theologian Phyllis Trible began to address traditionally ignored stories like this one and others where women are treated harshly. She along with other theologians took on the task of telling these stories, making their voices heard through scholarship and taking seriously what they might mean not only for women, but for all of us. I’ve been told that this story doesn’t belong in within the context of a worship service. That the themes are too raw, the story is too graphic to encounter on a Sunday morning. It has to have a separate space— something specifically for women, or a retreat experience. But, I wanted to preach this sermon today, because I don’t think that’s true. Domestic violence isn’t just an issue for women, and doesn’t just happen to women. While this is an ancient text, an ancient story. Violence, we know, exists today. In our culture, sometimes it takes the graphic video of an NFL superstar to launch us into broader conversation about domestic violence. And so it is my hope that bringing the conversation into the church is appropriate, this sacred place of healing and wholeness where we know in our hearts that each person is wonderfully made, created in the image of God and worthy of love. Knowing that truth: how is God calling us as a church to respond to the realities of sin in a broken world?
The book of Judges chronicles an unstable time period where the people of Israel made bad decisions and followed only what was right in their own eyes. This story from the end of the book, is about of a Levite man and his concubine, a concubine is defined rather ambiguously as a lesser wife, or mistress, or maidservant. At this point in the story the society was descending into chaos and we meet these words at one of the darkest places in the Bible and the history of God’s people.
This scripture from Judges 19:23-ch.20, will make you angry, so let’s work through it together.
[Brief synopsis]: A Levite man and his concubine were guests in a house in Gibeah. The men of Gibeah surrounded the house and threatened violence upon the Levite… listen now to the story and for a Word from God to us on this day:
[Verses 23-29.]23 The owner of the house went outside and said to them “No my friends, don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest don’t do this disgraceful thing. Look, 24 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.”
25 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.
26 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.
27 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.
28 “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.
29 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.
[paraphrase 19:30-20:3] Leaders from all throughout the tribes of Israel assembled in one body before the LORD at Mizpah.
[Verses 3b-7.] “Tell us, how did this wickedness come to pass?” 4 The Levite answered, “I came to Gibeah that belongs to Benjamin, I and my concubine, to spend the night. 5 The lords of Gibeah rose up against me, and surrounded the house at night. They intended to kill me, and they raped my concubine until she died.6 Then I took my concubine and cut her into pieces, and sent her throughout the whole extent of Israel’s territory; for they have committed a vile outrage in Israel. 7 So now, you Israelites, all of you, give your advice and counsel here.”
Let us Pray:
Oh God of all that is light and radiance and hope,
Awaken in every darkness—a mighty hope.
Guide us through these difficult and violent words of our story.
Stir in us a move towards wholeness.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight oh Lord, in whom we live and move and have our being. Amen.
I was traveling with a group of volunteers, we had just come down a mountain from a 4 day trek and we were taking turns using the hostel’s one shower, trying to be mindful of the fact that we were all filthy, and pretty exhausted. While we were waiting, I pulled the bible off of the shelf—and said let’s do a bible study. So I just flipped it open and started reading. It was a passage I’d never heard before I had opened to Judges 19. Until that day in the hostel, I had never encountered this story before, never read it, never heard it, didn’t know it was in the Bible and I didn’t know what to do with it.
Even now after struggling with it and examining it and reading commentaries about it I still have trouble holding it all together. It’s a dark story, an oppressive story, one that haunts us. But for me, I find some hope in the telling of it, in hearing it, in bringing it forward to discuss it and reckon with it. This story tells us that “biblical characters are not always models. They are quite often mirrors that reflect back … life as it is… [broken, sinful].”[i]
Throughout the stories of the Judges we have seen the society deteriorating, as they transition from leadership by Moses and Joshua and towards being ruled by the Kings Saul, David and Solomon. Commentators make the connection between the way women are portrayed in the book as symptomatic of the situation of the society. We see in the beginning of the book, Deborah and Jael who are strong women leaders. But, as the society spirals downward we see “the general decline from woman as the subject of independent action to woman as the object of men’s actions and desires.” After this story, the tribes of Israel are compelled into war. They kill so many people; that they go on to kidnap the women in Shiloh, to make into wives, because they are the only young women left. The book of Judges ends there, with the refrain, that repeats throughout the book:
In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.
After studying this in my women in the Old Testament Narratives class in seminary, I remember sitting with the story, in a circle with my classmates. And one of the students asked, “so what now? Where do we go from here?” And my professor turned the page in the Hebrew bible. And there began the book of Ruth. A story of women and family, and compassion, and hope that not all is lost.
So we picked apart this story, searching for something with in it.
Hearing the Levite’s explanation to the people assembled, we see some holes in his story: They intended to kill me, they raped my concubine… they have committed this outrage. He does admit his own culpability in the action of cutting her body and sending it throughout all of Israel, but in the GAP between they intended to kill me and they raped my concubine is a whole world of action. We so often look at what is said, we forget what is left unsaid. The Levite and his host offered her up to those who threaten them, but the men didn’t take her right away. It wasn’t until this man, her husband, one who was supposed to protect her, seized her and put her outside the threshold. Then they broke her.
What do we dis—re—member? What is it that we try to forget, or change in our own stories, as the Levite does to his own? What do we omit? What do we gloss over? We all have our own truths, the way we tell a story that puts us in the best light possible, the way we remember it.
But she cannot tell her version. She has no voice… waiting on the threshold of the house that shoved her out. Her voice is not heard, her name is not spoken.
But, I think we do know her name. Her name is Alex, her name is Amy, her name is Berta. Each one of these names are stories that I carry. Whose stories do you know?
Think about your sister, your mother, your friend, think about six of them. This may or may not be a surprising statistic for you, but one in six women in our country are victims of sexual violence, often from people that they know, and care for deeply. It happens every 2 minutes. And it’s not just women—its one in 7 children, and one in 33 men.
So often we don’t know the struggles people are going through.
This summer I had the opportunity to be a small group leader at the montreat youth conference. I was blessed to meet 30 young people from all around the country. On our last day we divided into smaller groups. And through our conversations some of the young women revealed their struggles with one another. Within that conversation, one of the other adults lifted up this biblical passage. And in talking through it, it seemed to help. Carrying her story, somehow built a bridge of connection, between the young women and our biblical story.
Because it is not clear when precisely in the story that the woman dies, we can see some ambiguity in what might have happened if her master was a more compassionate man. Had he kept her safe from the attacker, or perhaps even if he had taken her in during the night and cared for her after the abuse, she would have survived. She would have been able to speak her story. Instead she was silenced.
After reading this in Bible Study this week, someone asked, “And our society today has come further than this?” If we are complacent in a society and to a system that allows this woman to remain separated in all corners of the earth, then we have failed. Each time we turn a blind eye to those who suffer violence, she moves farther and farther away from herself. As she remains divided, we remain divided.
The concubine’s name is not spoken, but she is anyone who has been lost and broken and stretched and scarred. This woman could not get up when her master callously commanded her to do so. She could not, because he had no compassion for her, no grace. He had no love for her.
But God is the one who finds us when we are in disrepair. Broken and lost and severed and wounded and mourning. God is the one who picks us up and reminds us to be whole again. God stirs in us the will to be pieced back together. The will to rise up from the threshold. God is the one who calls us from a place of love and compassion and promise.
And it is our task, as people who believe in a God who is good and a God who heals, it is our task to take up this work and bring her back together. As the artist pieces together the broken shards of a mosaic to form something new and beautiful, we too must do this work with one another. We can tell each other our stories, and support one another in our most broken places. We can be a comfort in times of despair and remind one another of God’s presence in our lives, no matter how hopeless and dark it might seem. We can pick one another up, just like this woman. We must pick her up limb by limb and hold her and care for her and speak words of comfort to her as we piece her back together. Be the balm of Gilead, making the wounded whole, for her wholeness, is our wholeness.
Let God work through us as we take up this task of re—membering this woman. Every time we tell this story we pick up a piece of this woman and bring her back. Every silence that is broken pulls her together. Every story that is told, every tear that is shed on the shoulder of a friend gives her a voice and every tear that is dried gives her courage. She is unnamed because our names are her name. Her name is unnamed because she is Alex and Amy and Berta and every person who had been disfigured and dismembered and attacked and assaulted. She is you. Asking to hear your story. Asking you to name it and name your struggle. So pick her up and cradle her in your arms as you bring her back to the threshold.
Enable her to finally rise up. Amen.
 Dennis T. Olson, “The Book of Judges,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), 723.
 Ibid., 872.
 Abuse & Incest National Network Rape, Statistics, 2009, http://www.rainn.org/statistics (accessed September 19, 2014).
[i] Carolyn Pressler, Joshua, Judges and Ruth (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 246.