‘Are you going to say “This is the Word of God for the people of God?” after you read the text?’
I sat on my housemate’s bedroom floor, clutching my laptop, looking down at the mess of half-finished paragraphs scattered across 3-4 Word documents – a laughable attempt at a sermon draft. The question my housemate asked hangs in the air. It is one of those questions that you don’t really want to answer because you know answering it can cause the already-structurally-unsound content of your sermon to crumble.
Several weeks earlier, when my Homiletics professor granted our class free reign to preach on any text of our choice, I boldly, and naïvely, decided I would preach on Judges 19. One of the “texts of terror,” this story is violent and brutal. A Levite and his concubine, the latter who remains unnamed throughout the narrative, stay at an old man’s home for the night. A mob arrives and demands to rape the Levite guest. The host intervenes, offering up both his daughter and his guest’s concubine to the angry crowd instead. They rape and kill the unnamed woman. After her death, her body is broken into twelve pieces, each piece sent to the tribes of Israel. Even after her death, her body is taken, broken and given to all.
Consequently, sitting on that bedroom floor, I reckoned with the weight of my poor decisions and my housemate’s pertinent question. What would it mean to claim that this story – a story of a woman who is unnamed, demeaned, scarified for the safety of men, violated, killed and dismembered – as the Word of God for the people of God? What would it mean to ask my congregation to claim this story as both God’s story and our own story?
The book of Judges describes a time where Israel had no king. As such, everyone did what was right in their own eyes. Throughout the book, God raises up new leaders but the people of God keep turning away from God. It is a fateful pattern, with disastrous results. Violence and chaos define the book of Judges. It is this setting which serves as the backdrop to the events in Judges 19.
The brutal depiction of violence in Judges 19 witnesses to a world that isn’t well. Indeed, the story of this unnamed woman stolen, sacrificed, tortured, raped and dismembered is not some sort of canonical misfire. It does not sneak in behind God’s back during the final copy-edits. Neither is it a mere consequence of men with power collating stories of violence for fun. Scripture witnesses to the world as it is: with unrelenting chaos and violence. This witness is powerful in as much as it refuses to hide away from the distorting effects of sin on God’s creation and world. It is not afraid to depict the violence, oppression, and death that results from human sin. This story is part of the larger story of God and her people.
Judges 19 reminds us that even now sin, oppression, and misogyny reign. The unnamed woman’s trauma in Judges 19 is not just a mark of a patriarchal historic past. Her trauma is still our trauma. Women continue to experience violence in many forms even now.
Several years ago, I led a women’s Bible study where we surveyed the texts of terror, including Judges 19. I sat in a room of full of women aged between 60-80 years old as we read stories of gendered violence found in Scripture. As we began to process some of these stories, two things happened. Women in the room began to open up to one another about the misogyny and, even, violence they had witnessed or experienced. After this, came confusion and dismay. These women were, for the most part, life-long Church attenders and many had no idea some of their toughest experiences are witnessed in Scripture, too. Women see themselves in this story because oppression and violence is still our story.
Phyllis Trible, in her analysis of Judges 19, provides a helpful commentary on what it means to claim Judges 19 as our story. She writes:
Misogyny belongs to every age, including our own. Violence and vengeance are not just characteristics of a distant, pre-Christian past; they infect the community of the elect to this day. Woman as object is still captured, betrayed, raped, tortured, murdered, dismembered, and scattered. To take to heart this ancient story, then, is to confess its present reality. The story is alive, and all is not well. Beyond confession we must take counsel to say ‘Never again.’ Yet this counsel is itself ineffectual unless we direct our hearts to that most uncompromising of all biblical commands, speaking the word not to others but to ourselves: Repent. Repent.Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary Feminist Readings of Biblical narratives, (Fortress Press, 1984), 87.
To preach on this text is to say that this is both God’s story and our story. It is to claim this story for ourselves, to reckon with the violence still expressed towards women and women’s bodies, to confess our complicity in this violence and to enculturate ourselves in a Scriptural tradition that screams this is not how it should be.
Dr Jerusha Neal, Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Duke Divinity School, encourages her students to identify the wound in the text – that is the place where pain, fear or anxiety of the congregation meets the text. Name the wound. Take the wound to the text, then take the wound to Jesus. This is a way to give time and energy to the pain in the text and the pain in your congregation. But, in preaching, you can’t stay at the wound. Dr Neal writes,
I tell my classes that they will know they are getting close to the wound beneath the symptom when nothing but a promise from God can heal it.Jerusha Matsen Neal, The Overshadowed Preacher: Mary, the Spirit and the Labor of Proclamation, (William B. Eerdmans, 2020), 208.
Some texts enable the preacher to preach the promise of God more naturally than others. But how do you preach the promise of God when your text only points to the horror of the world? How do you preach a text where the very reading of the text could be triggering for members of your congregation? How do you preach a text that might leave your congregation with more questions for God than answers?
Unsurprisingly, Judges 19 is left out of some lectionaries. In fact, only seven verses from the whole of Judges actually make it in to the Revised Common Lectionary. Judges 19 is a difficult text. But, we need to read and reflect on difficult stories in Church because these stories are our stories. We need to cry out from the authority of the pulpit that we see the violence enacted against women, that God sees, and that all is not as it should be. By ignoring this text in our pulpits, we do a disservice to the experience of women in our midst.
The wound in this text is loud. With a loud wound comes the potential of wounding an unsuspecting congregant. To preach this text on a Sunday morning needs care and thoughtful intention. In highlighting the wound in this text, you face the likely challenge of painfully naming wounds of your congregants — some of whom may have buried their wounds for their own safety. When I preached on Judges 19, I preached to a group of classmates who were pre-warned about the subject matter of the text and were given permission to leave at any point during the sermon – no questions asked. I wonder what this could look like in a more formal congregational setting? Could you plan a service of lament for violence against women, in which you prepare congregants for the wound that is to be spoken? Or, maybe, this is a text you preach on with a small group instead of the larger congregation? Either way, when preaching a text like Judges 19 it is imperative you provide some safeguards for your listeners lest you open up their wounds in damaging and destructive ways.
Another challenge of preaching a text with a loud wound is finding the balance between wound and promise. Spend too much time surveying the wound and you have led your listeners only to despair; jump too quickly to the promise and you risk minimizing the very real pain with cheesy platitudes. There is no easy answer or ratio I can give. But what I do know is that where there is a wound God is present – even when the wound is the loudest voice.
Describing Judges 19, Trible writes:
to hear this story is to inhabit a world of unrelenting terror that refuses to let us pass by on the other side.Trible, Texts of Terror, 65.
With a text like this, the role of the preacher is not to rush across to the other side or abandon your congregation in the terror of the text. It is the job of the preacher to lead her congregants through the world of unrelenting terror, to testify to the truth found there and whisper to the presence of God even here.
Hannah Wilkinson is a Youth Missioner at St. Nics Church, Durham where she works with eleven- to eighteen-year-olds. She is also a school chaplain at a local sixth form college. She has an MDiv from Duke Divinity School and a BA from University of Cambridge. Hannah is passionate about enabling young people to engage in the story of Scripture, preaching and baked goods.
As always, guest blogs are invited to stimulate comment and discussion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.