Research Associate Charlotte Thomas invites us to exercise creative empathy when reading and expounding Biblical “texts of terror”, and asks what we might hear if we listened for Sarah’s voice in Genesis 22.
TRIGGER WARNING: Mentions of rape, death, murder, abuse and child loss.
There are many places in the Bible where we might come across a violent or disturbing story which doesn’t sit well with us. As I read the Bible and come across stories such as these, these biblical ‘texts of terror’, I often wonder what sort of God could allow these things to happen to his people? I weep thinking of the trauma of Tamar, after being raped by her brother. I think about how the women stayed whilst Jesus was crucified, and how the trauma of witnessing violence is often overlooked. I despair thinking about the Levite’s wife and what must have been her utter terror during the gang rape and dismemberment she suffered. I consider how a young David felt, knowing he stood against all the odds facing Goliath and his probable death.
And I don’t know how they felt, or what they were thinking. I don’t know, because the Bible doesn’t often tell us. There are voices in the biblical texts which cannot be heard through a face-value reading of the stories it contains. How can we shift the perspective in the stories to decentralise the dominant viewpoint of how and why events occurred, and amplify the voices of the marginalised characters? You might ask why we would want to uncover these missing perspectives? I think doing Bible reading in this way is so incredibly important, because the alternatives are to read violence without resistance (or with complicity, I’d argue), or not to read at all. And we must amplify these lost voices, because if we believe the Bible is a living text, relevant for our lives today, then we must be able to hear our own stories in the text in the spaces where they should be, but are missing. Experiencing a traumatic event can be an exceptionally isolating experience, and our sacred texts should be a place of inclusion, not exclusion; our Bible reading should be life giving, not death bringing. Telling biblical stories to include the narratives of unheard characters is a way in which we can make Bible reading inclusive, and where people who have experienced trauma can find resistance, solidarity, and community within.
So, how can we hear from Jepthah’s daughter as she contemplated her impending execution; from the demon-possessed man as he began to integrate back into society after healing; from Mary, the mother of Jesus as she held the broken body of her murdered child? How can we recognise the polyvalency in the text? How can we unlock these stories for Bible readers and hearers, and importantly, how should we go about this in an ethical, trauma-sensitive way? As Emily Gathergood reminds us,
Interpreting scriptural texts of terror is not a thought experiment. If your reading retraumatises oppressed and broken people, you’re complicit in their suffering. Handle with care both the texts and the people implicated by them.Tweet on Twitter 13th July 2022
This is not to say that we should avoid exegesis of difficult passages or not engage thoughtfully with uncomfortable, violent texts, but that we should do this within a hermeneutical framework of generosity and empathy (for the author, the character, and the readers).
What is creative empathy and how might it address the problem of violent texts?
At its core, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings or perspective of another. We can bring an empathetic reading to the Bible when the events happening to a character are reported and the narrative centres their experiences; we can (at least try to) understand their feelings about what has happened, and share their perspective. When Jesus weeps at the death of Lazarus, for instance, there is enough clarity for us to be able to exercise empathy. Jesus has a friend whom he loves dearly, that friend dies and Jesus expresses grief. But how can we bring interpretative empathy to a text which obscures or omits the experiences of a character? Perhaps, the answer lies in an interpretation abundant with creativity (or, creativity as holy interpretive practice).
The Jewish practice of Midrash has a lot to teach us here in developing a ‘creative empathy’ while still attending to the authority of scripture. The Midrashim (plural of Midrash, a Hebrew word meaning investigation, or exposition) are a collection of rabbinic interpretations of the Hebrew Bible. It comprises commentaries on biblical stories, interpretations of biblical events, and innovative, creative non-canonical stories which provide context for, or help to explain the multiplicity of meanings we can take from difficult passages of Scripture. In the Midrashic tradition, every grammatical choice, variation and error in the manuscripts, each missing perspective or unspoken experience, every witness absent from the Hebrew Bible texts, is considered a significant and deliberately included call by God to a deeper understanding of the text. Though a text may still be terror-inducing — stories which make us think, ‘where on earth can God be in this?’— the textual gaps which leave us unsatisfied are regarded in Jewish Midrashic thought to be God-sanctioned room for interpretation: a literal, textual invitation by God to seek deeper levels of meaning and understanding through creative exegesis. To wrestle with the text in this way, and expand the narratives in interpretative, liberating, resisting, empathetic and creative ways, is to interact seriously with God and seek deeper relationships with them, through experiencing a beautiful and holy diversity of interpretations.
Could we use a generous hermeneutic of creative empathy, inspired by Jewish Midrashic principles, to amplify the silenced voices in the Christian scriptures?
Case study: Genesis 22— The Sacrifice of Sarah’s Son
In Genesis 22, the beloved and long-awaited child of Sarah and Abraham is taken by his father to be sacrificed to God, as God asks of him in a dream. The narrative in the biblical text focuses solely on Abraham and Isaac, describing their interactions and the eventual resolution of the problematic call to sacrifice a young boy.
If we take a step back from the text for a moment and consider the children we know and love in our lives, it seems beyond belief that Abraham seems to show no emotion, no push-back, no grief, no fear, no resistance against God at this unthinkable ask for a parent who so desired a child; even the dominant male character in the story has no voice to express an emotional reaction. Even more unbelievable is Sarah’s missing perspective from this text— the mother of Isaac— for whom so much of her story is centralised around motherhood. So what is Sarah doing while Abraham takes their son to be murdered in a human sacrifice to their new God, YHWH? Does she know what is happening? How does she feel? Sylvia Karzen, in ‘Taking the Fruit: Modern Women’s Tales of the Bible’, writes a Jewish feminist Midrash as a way to unlock the absent perspective of Sarah in this story and it is an exemplar for the effectiveness of a creative empathetic reading:
The Angel of God came to Sarah and said, “Take your son, Isaac, up to the mountain and build an altar and give him as an offering to prove that you are loyal and fear God.”Karzen, Sylvia. ‘Genesis 22:2’ in Taking the Fruit: Modern Women’s Tales of the Bible, Zones, Jane Sprague, ed. San Diego, USA: Women’s Institute for Continuing Jewish Education, 1989, pp. 49-51.
Sarah covered her eyes because she was afraid to look upon the face of God’s Angel, and she shook her head. “No. I cannot sacrifice my son. He is God’s gift to me. He is too precious.”
All night Sarah could not sleep. Her first thought was to run away with Isaac to the desert and hide. But in her heart she knew that God sees and knows all. She then thought she would find another child among the desert people to exchange for Isaac, but she knew that the deception would be discovered. When she arose from her bed the following morning, she learned that Abraham and Isaac and two of their followers had left the camp, and she understood that the Angel had also appeared to Abraham and that he had left with Isaac to do God’s bidding.
She cried out to the Lord, “Oh, Master of the World, Creator of the Universe, hear my prayer. Have You forgotten that You gave me a child only after I had waited ninety years? Have You forgotten that You Yourself told me that I would bear an heir to our people, that through Your doing Abraham’s son would become head of Your nation? Have You forgotten that special mother’s love for her child? Dear God, spare my son. Do not permit Abraham to slay him. Take me for Your peace offering. I go willingly— please stay the hand of Abraham.”
As she cried these words, God heard them and caused a ram to appear in the thicket, and the Angel spoke to Abraham. “Untie Isaac and take this ram for the burnt offering, for God has heard the heart of Mother Sarah.”
In this reading, Karzen uses imaginative empathy to write Midrash, to visualise what Sarah may have been feeling and thinking in the story, and uses this empathetic insight to write a creative, novel narrative to be read alongside the biblical account. The story of a near-miss child sacrifice is still shocking reading and makes us wonder about the motives of a God who tests his people in such a traumatic and dangerous way, but we can hold this discomfort while creating space for Sarah’s voice as a mother to be heard and identify with the fear and distress she feels and expresses.
Creative empathy as a Bible reading strategy is not a solution to the violence in the narrative; the horror of texts of terror in the Bible still exists, but through a hermeneutic of creative empathy, is taken seriously and not explained away. It is clear to see the benefits of a reading strategy which prioritises creative empathy: missing voices are amplified; we are able to consider the series of events from a new perspective; we can see a novel way God hears and responds to us; we can gain a richer, more complex understanding of the biblical text; we can become better listeners to the stories of terror our neighbour may have suffered by imaginatively engaging with experiences foreign to us; we can develop ourselves in the practice of empathy, impacting our personal relationships as well as our relationship with God, and our relationships with those decentralised and silenced in the stories of the Bible.
Charlotte is an SWWDTP (AHRC) funded PhD candidate at Exeter University, an honorary Research Associate at the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence, and a contributor/podcaster for the Ancient Afterlives academic podcast. Her research interests include biblical violence, feminist hermeneutics, the theology of Veganism, Ecotheology, and the intersection of masculinity, the Bible, and nationalism.
 Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Philadelphia, USA: Fortress Press, 1984.
 A great example of this in recent Christian theological scholarship is Gafney, Wilda C. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne. Kentucky, USA: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.