“How could they go to sleep?” a colleague of mine asked when we were talking about the story in Judges 19. “How could they?”
A few years ago, I heard MaryKate Morse of Portland Seminary teach and preach about the unnamed concubine in Judges 19. Since then, I have discussed this story with various women in ministry. Several shared parts of their own story. I’m beginning to realize just how many people in our churches have been this unnamed concubine.
“When Trump became president, victims of sexual violence felt like they were being shoved back out the door into the darkness while the rest of us stayed asleep.”
In the biblical story, the concubine leaves her husband. Depending on the translation, her leaving was an act of unfaithfulness (CEB), or she left because she had been unfaithful (NIV), or she left because she was angry with her husband (NRSV, consistent with the Greek Septuagint). While the Hebrew is cloudy on this point, the different translations may have more to say about our own perspectives of women than what actually happened. How do we view women who do not fit our expectations? There is a strong possibility that she was angry and left because she was being abused.
In that culture, it would have been embarrassing for a man not to control his wife. Shame probably began building for the husband. It may have also been an embarrassment to her father. So after four months, the husband travels to his father-in-law’s house to convince his concubine to come back. He speaks “sweet words” to her. You can imagine how that went. “I love you. I promise it won’t happen again. Please come.”
We don’t know what she thought or how she felt. Her voice is hauntingly absent in the narrative.
Instead, we’re told that her father throws the typical feast expected for any guest. He welcomes his abusive son-in-law with food and wine and a good night’s sleep. And does it again the next day. And the next. For five days, the men feast together while the unnamed concubine is ignored.
Finally, the husband, his servant and the concubine begin the journey back home. They stop for the night in the town of Gibeah. Another outsider who now resides in Gibeah sees them at the town square. He understood the kind of hospitality that was needed and expected in the ancient world. “Come and stay with us,” the would-be host insists.
The rest of the town, however, is not so hospitable. In a parallel to the events of Sodom and Gomorrah, a mob of men come banging on the door. They don’t want outsiders staying in their community. “Bring him (the husband of the concubine) out so we can have sex with him.” Their demand isn’t about sexual desire but about power and humiliation. They intend to brutalize and gang rape the husband of the concubine in order to run him out of town.
Meanwhile, the host feels a responsibility to protect his guest. His honor is now on the line. He tries to placate the mob by offering his daughter and the man’s concubine instead. “Ravish them and do whatever you want to them; but against this man do not do such a vile thing” (19:24).
But the mob will not have it. “We want the outsider!” To save his own skin, the husband grabs his concubine and thrusts her out the door – never mind all that sweet talk back at daddy’s house.
The scriptures will not let us look away from what happens next. They make us reckon with the horror of it. The mob “wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning” (19:25). As the morning light begins to break, the woman is finally released. Bloody, torn and broken, she stumbles back toward the house and collapses at the door.
Nobody even notices her return. They are sleeping.
After sunrise, the husband gets up and gathers his things, trying to get out of town as quickly as possible. He opens the door and to his surprise finds the half-dead body of his concubine lying there. Her arms are outstretched, her hands touching the threshold of the door – a haunting symbol of accusation.
This is the reason for my colleague’s question. “How could they have gone to sleep that night knowing what was taking place? How could they?”
“Championing and restoring the humanity and power of women has to become a primary factor in our decisions and actions.”
She went on to tell me that her mother died when she was young. As a little girl, no one was left to protect her. She has known some of the concubine’s pain that comes as a vulnerable woman with no power. “How could they just turn away, and go to sleep when this was happening just outside their front door?”
The concubine’s story is more than an ancient account. This story is a present reality, and it’s happening to women, girls and boys who attend our churches.
One youth minister I know began slowly grooming a teenager with suggestive texts. He was caught, but half the congregation wanted to push the whole thing out the door. “It was just bad judgment,” they said, “a little misunderstanding.” The pastor of the church wouldn’t have it. He forced the youth minister to leave. But some in power, including a denominational leader, wanted to put it all behind them. He gave this youth minister a recommendation to another church, then went to sleep with the confidence that his own honor has been protected.
A year later at another congregation another teenage boy was exploited and scarred with shame by the same youth minister. This boy’s story falls at the threshold of the church, his arms reaching out in a mixture of desperation and accusation. Still, some denominational leaders are asleep to his anguish, refusing to notice he is there.
A woman in ministry said to me, “I’m going to tell you something you don’t know about me. I’m getting a divorce.” As she shared her story, I realized that she too has been the woman in Judges 19, with her hands reaching out to touch the threshold. “I have been battered, and I tried to come back to save my marriage,” she continued. “I kept hoping for change. I even told my pastor about what we were going through, but he never followed back up with me. I felt so alone.”
I couldn’t help but think of Paige Patterson, the former president of one of the world’s largest seminaries. Patterson’s power began to unravel when the public learned that he told abused wives to return to their husbands. He also was credibly accused of covering up sexual violence that took place on his seminary’s campus, presumably to save the honor and power of the institutions he led.
Patterson is another man who pushed women out the door and went to sleep, hoping his problems would disappear in the night. Instead, the pain of these women came stumbling back, marking the door he was sleeping behind.
The horrific story in Judges 19 continues. When the husband opens the door, he finds his concubine’s collapsed body with bloody hands reaching out on the threshold. “Get up,” he says in disgust. “We’re going home.” She doesn’t respond. She has nothing left. With the anger of wounded pride and unrighteous indignation, the husband picks up her body, tosses her over the back of his donkey and takes her home. Then he chops her body into 12 pieces and sends one piece to each of the 12 tribes.
He is enraged, but not on his concubine’s behalf. He is enraged about what has happened to him – his honor, his property, his security.
“How could they go to sleep?” my colleague asked. This time she was referring to all the Christians who voted for President Donald Trump, even after hearing him brag about sexually violating women. It was another reminder of just how hard Trump’s presidency has been for women. When Trump became president, victims of sexual violence felt like they were being shoved back out the door into the darkness while the rest of us stayed asleep.
“We need to recognize that the humanity of women is stripped away by a more subtle kind of violence.”
This pain was amplified during the Brett Kavanagh hearings. Once again, the honor and power of a man was deemed more important than the sexual assault of a woman. Like the woman in Judges, Christine Ford was thrust out the door to absorb the rage of a mob. A similar pattern happened with Monica Lewinsky before her and Anita Hill before her. Christians on both sides of the political aisle have shut the door and gone to sleep.
“How could they?”
The thresholds of our churches have been marked by the trembling hands of countless victims. Most of the time we don’t know their names. All we know is that they have been, are and will be sitting in our pews. They have been, are and will be shoved out the door so we can stay asleep, going about business as usual.
“Wake up!” women everywhere are telling us. Even if a mob is threatening us, or a family member’s story is humiliating us or powerful people are intimidating us, wake up!
That’s going to require courageous change. Several men in the Judges story could have prevented the concubine from being brutalized and discarded. Her father could have stopped it. Her husband or his servants could have kept her safe. The owner of the house could have stood in the way. None of them did. All of them thought something other than a woman’s dignity and humanity was of greater importance.
That value equation has to be turned upside down.
Courageous change will only begin if we stop turning away from uncomfortable stories. We need to listen to the painful stories of women and survivors of abuse in the same way that Judges 19 makes us face the horrific story of the concubine. We also have to recognize our natural bent of skepticism toward stories of abuse. When someone tells us their story, our operative response has to be, “I believe you.”
We also need to recognize that the humanity of women is stripped away by a more subtle kind of violence.
This fall, John MacArthur was asked to give the first word that came to his mind when he heard the name Beth Moore. It wasn’t that long ago that Moore was the darling of evangelicals. Her Bible studies and teachings were cherished by thousands. However, once she began to name the suffering of women and the abuse of male power in the church, she was branded a troublemaker. “Go home,” MacArthur said. His words were another shove out the door.
A room full of men began laughing at MacArthur’s response. It sounded eerily similar to the laughter of a father, husband and host who drank and ate together without regard for the concubine. The audience’s laughter even echoed the sound of a mob beating on the house door with one goal: humiliation and exile. “Go home,” one man says, and the mob laughs.
I spoke about the Judges story to another woman with decades of ministry leadership. “Every time I hear the story of the unnamed concubine, I feel like part of my humanity is taken away,” she said. There was a hollowness in her voice I still can’t shake. This story has been the story of so many women. Men strip away the humanity of women, because something else is more important to them, something that has the smell of power.
Again, it happens in both shocking and subtle ways. When women are constantly paid less than their male counterparts, when women are overlooked in meetings around the conference table and when women are consistently given less power, their humanity is being stripped away. Don’t dismiss these complaints. Listen and act.
Championing and restoring the humanity and power of women has to become a primary factor in our decisions and actions. Otherwise, countless unnamed concubines will keep marking the threshold of our churches with their blood.