Religion and Rape Culture Conference

The Woman from Judges 19

Hilary Willett (she/her) fights for gender justice by writing icons and reclaiming the lives of biblical women. Her most recent icon writes the unnamed woman whose story is found in Judges 19. Here, Hilary reflects on the process of writing this icon.

“The Woman from Judges 19” is one of the more confronting icons I have written. I knew I wanted to write it within a few months of learning iconography. I first read about this woman in Phyllis Trible’s book Texts of Terror.[1] Judges 19 tells the story of a woman in scripture who should be known and mourned everywhere, but is rarely discussed.

The woman in Judges 19 has no name. In many translations, she is rather crudely described as a “concubine” to a Levite man. In even less forgiving translations, she is described as an “unfaithful” concubine (ESV, NIV). But it is hard to know the precise nature of her relationship with the Levite. At times, the Levite is described as her “husband.” Some scholars speak of her as a “secondary wife.” For myself, I do not really want to describe her according to her relationship with a man. It is enough to know that this woman existed and that the biblical authors give her no name.

This unnamed woman appears to be in a fraught relationship with the Levite. While the woman from Judges 19 is not given much agency by the textual authors, she does leave the Levite man at the beginning of the narrative. She travels back home and is away for four months. This hint of autonomy, however, is short-lived. The Levite sets out with a servant, follows her to her home and is welcomed (“with joy!”) by the woman’s father. The father and the Levite enjoy food and drink for five days. The father does not uphold his daughter’s choice to live separately from the Levite in this moment, he focuses on male comfort and social expectations around hospitality.

On the afternoon of the fifth day, the woman’s father encourages the Levite to stay for another night. The Levite wants to leave (a deeply unwise decision). He takes the woman with him; there is no objection to her leaving with him in the text. As they travel, the Levite refuses to stop for the night at many of the safe havens they pass, preferring to keep travelling until they reach a Benjamanite town. Unable to travel any further, the Levite and the woman are stranded. The Levite is unable to find a place to keep them safe for the night.

Eventually, an older man takes pity on the Levite and shelters him, the woman, and the Levite’s servant. However, the house is surrounded by men who wish to rape the Levite man. To protect the Levite, the woman is cast out of the house. She is raped to death. She dies with her hands on the doorstep of the house.

But this story, as horrific as it is, gets worse.

The Levite cuts up the woman’s body and sends the pieces throughout Israel to incite war. Israel goes to war against the tribe of Benjamin, virtually wiping them out. Towns, people, and animals are destroyed, until only 600 men are left alive. Then, fearing a future where the tribe of Benjamin is eradicated, these armies kill the inhabitants of another town (Jabesh-Gilead), sparing only 400 virgin women. These women are given to the 600 Benjaminites to continue the bloodline of the tribe. The men left without wives are instructed to abduct still more women from Shiloh.

There is a reason we don’t often talk about this story. It is depraved. It is a story of extreme male violence and terror, of war justified by patriarchal sin. At the heart of this violence is a woman, whose name is absent, whose voice is silenced, and whose body is not her own. She is used, over and over, by men who care more about protecting their masculinity, upholding social expectations, and enacting vengeance. Her vulnerability is extreme – just like every innocent person who died in the fallout of war, just like every one of those 400 women from Jabesh-Gilead, just like every woman abducted from Shiloh.

To show such vulnerability in this icon, the woman is written naked. To show her stark reality, the shadows are deep; there is no colour apart from the red lines on her skin. These lines indicate where her body will be divided up. In the middle of some of the sections, a tribe of Israel is written on her body. This visual allusion drew upon butchers’ charts for inspiration, which divide up animals according to their meat cuts. Her face is hidden to highlight the absence of her name or any identifying feature. Finally, to show the utter horror of her situation, her halo is fractured, its pieces raining down on her body.

There is a reason why we should tell this woman’s story. It is because the story has not ended. There is so much war and violence occurring in the world today, so much justifying the unjustifiable. Every time we allow violence to reign in the home, in church, in society, and in politics, it is horrifying. Every time a vulnerable body is used, every time women are abused, every time innocent people become fallout or justifications for war, we need to remember this story and say very clearly: “No. No more. Never again. This ends here.”

Find more of Hilary’s icons – including the Woman from Judges 19 – at Lumen Icons:

[1] Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984).

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A Closer Look at Biblical Marriage

In this post, Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebert discusses her research on the topic of marriage and rape.

Marital rape became criminalized in the United Kingdom in a landmark court case in 1991. Its illegality was formalized in the Sexual Offences Act of 2003. Despite this, intimate partner violence (IPV), including sexual violence, remains common.

Johanna will be writing on the topic of marriage, intimate partner violence, and the Bible for the Shiloh Project Routledge Focus Series, Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible. If you have an idea for a volume in this series, please see here for further details and contact us at [email protected]. Routledge Focus volumes are concise (20,000-50,000 words) and are usually published within 12 weeks of submission.

The Bible, Marriage and Violence

In the Bible as in our contemporary world, marriage is no barrier to violence. Indeed, marriage and violence (including sexual violence) can be very much enmeshed. I will turn to the Bible shortly, but speaking from my own context, the grim statistics of domestic violence, rape, and murder committed by an intimate partner, or former partner, speak loudly and clearly to affirm this.

And yet, right up to the present, the Bible continues to be used – highly selectively – to defend, or proof-text, ideas about marriage that entirely erase this persistent presence of violence in marriage.

In both Jewish and Christian traditions, certain biblical texts are widely cited to construct an aetiology of marriage, and to reject the word ‘marriage’ for same-sex unions. The text most often referred to is Genesis 2:18-24. According to one Christian website, this passage demonstrates that ‘Marriage was instituted by God in the Garden of Eden at the time of man’s creation as a union between a man and a woman’ (and see here for a previous post on marital violence in the Christian church).

Similarly, Andreas Kostenberger, an influential figure in Southern Baptism and author of God, Marriage, and the Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, laments that marriage is under siege today and urges a return to what he calls its ‘biblical foundation’.

Kostenberger succinctly summarises what he deems the ‘biblical’ brand of Christian marriage: ‘Marriage is a covenant, a sacred bond between a man and a woman instituted by and publicly entered into before God and normally consummated by sexual intercourse’. He also identifies six sins (or sinful compromises) that have corrupted ideal biblical marriage. These are polygamy, divorce, adultery, homosexuality, sterility and gender role confusion. Whereas he concedes that sterility is not always the result of personal sin but sometimes ‘a simple fact of (fallen) nature’, the other five are sinful and aberrant choices that deliberately defy divine design.

According to Kostenberger, God desires marriage to be a monogamous union for life between a cis-masculine man and a cis-feminine woman who have sex only with each other and bring forth many (or at least some) children. He is approving of the household codes of the New Testament and of the injunction for wives to submit to their husbands. But any possibilities for such unions and hierarchies leading to or inscribing domestic violence or marital rape receive no mention or consideration, and spousal violence is not listed among the sins of marriage or as indicative of ‘fallen nature’.

My aim here is to challenge this erasure of what the Bible says about marriage in terms of gender-based and intimate partner violence. Moreover, it is important to stress that for all Kostenberger’s claims about the Bible offering fulsome advice on contemporary marriage, it is actually largely silent about this issue.

The Bible offers little if any detail about the formalities of a marriage ceremony. Annalisa Azzoni (2014, 486) states of the Hebrew Bible that in terms of the ‘specifics of the ceremony, the evidence is scant’, while Mary Rose D’Angelo (2014, 501) writes of the New Testament that attention to marriage is ‘scattershot and limited’.

There is no information about the age at which marriage might take place – though some commentators state with confidence that sexually mature girls were quickly married off (e.g. Blenkinsopp 1997, 77). There is some indication that it is desirable for marriages to be arranged by parents but little is said about the couple’s assent to marry. One possible exception is Rebekah’s expression of willingness to marry Isaac, without even setting eyes on him first (Genesis 24:57-58).

Polygamy is common. As Azzoni points out, ‘marriage in the Hebrew Bible cannot be described as being between one man and one woman, but instead between a man and all the women sexually available to him in his household’ (2014, 484).

Consanguineous marriage (such as to a first cousin) receives repeated mention (e.g. Genesis 29; Numbers 36:11-12; Joshua 15:17 and 2 Chronicles 11:18-20) but marriage to someone of another ethnicity is sometimes (explicitly and implicitly) abhorred. Esau’s Hittite wives disgust his mother and Jacob is prevented from taking a Canaanite wife (Genesis 27:46-28:6). Solomon is faulted for what is depicted as the sin of taking foreign wives (1 Kings 11:1-8; Nehemiah 13:26). Ezra laments the marriages of the people of Israel to foreign women, which has led to ‘mixing’ and thereby, presumably, diluting or polluting ‘the holy seed’ (Ezra 9:1-2). Only expulsion of foreign wives from the community can restore the covenant with God (Ezra 10:1-3) and only separation from foreign spouses can avert guilt (Ezra 10:10-11; cf. Nehemiah 10:28-30). So much for the ‘biblical foundation’ of marriage…

Alexandre Cabanel, Ruth Gleaning

Returning to the matter of the undesirability of exogamy, Ruth may be a good woman but her Moabite ethnicity is clearly ‘an issue’ – for all her goodness – because it is mentioned over and over again (1:4, 22; 2:2, 6, 21; 4:5, 10). Indeed, as has been widely suggested, the raison d’etreof the book may be to account for the pesky Moabite in David’s lineage by making Ruth, while undeniably a Moabite, a model Moabite whose exceptional virtue (sticking by her mother-in-law, adopting Israel and its God, working hard, marrying whom she is told, and handing over her baby to her Israelite mother-in-law) counteracts the perceived blemish of her ethnicity. Biblical marriage is quite widely associated, it seems, with notions of religio-ethnic purity – and with the violence needed to enforce this (cf. Numbers 25:6-18; Nehemiah 13:25). Yet despite this, Kostenberger does not address the racist ideologies inherent in these texts – he does not even count this issue among the sins of ‘fallen nature’.

In the Hebrew Bible, betrothal and marriage are, above all, agreements to move women from the sphere of authority of the natal home, particularly the father, to that of the spousal home. A wife’s lackof authority vis-à-vis her husband is illustrated in a number of biblical texts; for example, Numbers 30:6-15 stipulates that during marriage, a man has the power to nullify or validate ‘his’ woman’s vows and this decision, moreover, facilitates divine forgiveness (v. 12). A husband’s power is thus linked to God’s, and biblical marriage is repeatedly associated with gender hierarchy and ownership of women.

Moreover, marriage is an institution associated with sexual violence. Rape may be a catalyst for or precursor to marriage. Abram has non-consensual sex with his wife’s slave, Hagar, and subsequently takes her as a ‘wife’ (Genesis 16:1-4). Rape as a segue to marriage is also evident in the ‘marriage’ by abduction of the young women of Shiloh by men from the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 21:20-23). The law of Deuteronomy 22:28-29, whereby a man who seizes and has sex with an unbetrothed virgin must pay her father a fine andmarry her, is also a veritable invitation to ‘marriage’ via rape.

John Everett Millais, Benjamin seizes the daughters of Shiloh (1847)

Marriage can also be a ‘solution’ to rape, especially when sexual assault compromises the woman’s marriageability by taking away her virginity. This is the logic underlying the law of Deuteronomy 22:28-29, and also 2 Samuel 13, where Tamar pleads with her half-brother Amnon to marry her both before (v. 13) and after (v. 16) he rapes her.

Rape can also occur in marriage. This is possibly hinted at in Genesis 31:50, where Laban, before departing from Jacob and his daughters, enjoins his son-in-law not to ‘ill-treat’ (NRSV) his wives. The verb here is from the Hebrew root ‘-n-h, which is used in other Hebrew texts to designate sexual violence against women (see Gravett 2004). Similarly, in Genesis 26:8, King Abimelech sees Isaac doing something to his wife; the verb used to describe Isaac’s behaviour (from the root ts-ch-q) is usually translated as some form of sexual touching, such as ‘caressed’ (NIV) or ‘fondled’ (NRSV). Yet Susanne Scholz (2010, 91) argues that the verb has ‘rape-prone’ connotations, as it certainly does when Potiphar’s wife uses it to accuse Joseph of attempting to sexually assault her (Gen 39:14, 17) (Scholz 2010, 91).

Neither a rapist’s desire to subsequently marry his rape victim (Genesis 34:3-4), nor generous payments to her family in the aftermath of rape (Genesis 34:12; Deuteronomy 22:29), nor delaying sexual intercourse for a month in a forced marriage (Deuteronomy 21:13), nor formalizing a union to facilitate rape (Genesis 16:3) should hide or neutralize the multiple connections between marriage and rape evoked in the Hebrew Bible. Scholars such as Kostenberger, who advocate for the preservation of ‘biblical marriage’ in contemporary contexts, need to engage with this issue and consider more deeply the problematic contours of what ‘biblical marriage’ actually entails.

In a soon-to-follow post, I will continue this conversation, looking at violence in marriage with a focus on Numbers 5:11-31. This text prescribes the ritual of what a man should do if he suspects his wife of adultery, and thus considers another form of intimate partner violence engrained in the biblical conception of marriage.


Azzoni, Annalisa. 2014. ‘Marriage and Divorce (Hebrew Bible)’. InThe Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies(Volume 1). Edited by Julia M. O’Brien, 483–88. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. 1997. ‘The Family in First Temple Israel’. In Families in Ancient Israel.(The Family, Religion, and Culture). Edited by Leo G. Perdue, Joseph Blenkinsopp, John J. Collins and Carol Meyers, 48–103. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

D’Angelo, Mary Rose. 2014. ‘Marriage and Divorce (New Testament)’. In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies(Volume 1). Edited by Julia M. O’Brien, 497–502. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Gravett, Sandie. 2004. ‘Reading ‘Rape’ in the Hebrew Bible: A Consideration of Language’. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 28, no. 3: 279–99.

Scholz, Susanne. 2010. Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press.

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Rolling out the fine mat of scripture: Church responses to gender-based violence in Samoa

In 2017, I was invited to join a research project titled ‘Fola le ta’ui a le Atua: Rolling Out the Fine Mat of Scripture. Church Responses to Gender-Based Violence Against Women in Samoa’. The project has investigated how Samoan churches can best participate in wider national efforts to tackle the troublingly high rates of violence against women (VAW) reported in this island nation. Particularly, those involved in the project considered how the church in Samoa might develop its capacity for transformative social leadership in tackling VAW.

The ‘Fola le ta’ui a le Atua’ project ran between 2017 and 2018, and was funded by the New Zealand Institute for Pacific Research (NZIPR), which promotes and supports excellence in Pacific research. Project members were affiliated with the Universities of Auckland and Otago, and the National University of Samoa. The project lead was Dr Mercy Ah Siu-Maliko, a lecturer at Piula Theological College, Samoa and research affiliate at the University of Otago’s Centre for Theology and Public Issues. Professor David Tombs (Howard Paterson Chair of Theology and Public Issues, University of Otago) was the principal investigator, and other team members included Dr Melanie Beres (University of Otago), Dr Ramona Boodoosingh (National University of Samoa), Dr Tess Patterson (University of Otago), and myself (University of Auckland). Together we made up an international and interdisciplinary team, drawing on our combined expertise in theology, biblical studies, sociology, gender studies, and the health sciences.

The primary aims of the project were fourfold:

  1. To investigate current attitudes within Samoan churches about VAW, particularly their understanding of VAW as a pastoral and public issue. The project looked at the level of church support for tackling VAW, as well as church norms and structures which might sustain this violence. In particular, the project sought to assess the extent to which there may (or may not) be a disconnect between Samoan church responses to VAW and international, national, and local initiatives on VAW prevention.
  2. To develop contextual and participatory group Bible study resources that could be used to foster church conversations about VAW. These resources were grounded in biblical and theological scholarship, focusing on biblical texts that speak to the issue of VAW. They also included texts that are sometimes used to justify the subordination of women (particularly in marital relationships) and, consequently, to excuse domestic violence.
  3. To pilot and assess the impact of these Bible study resources in Samoa, introducing them in a series of workshops delivered to church groups, theological students, and women’s groups. These workshops were guided by the transformative and dialogical pedagogy pioneered by Brazilian educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire.
  4. To consider the practical decisions, actions, and policy recommendations that church leaders might take in response to the Nadi Accord 2014, in light of the issues raised by the project. The Nadi Accord arose from the Pacific Prevention of Domestic Violence Programme, and declared that culture, tradition, and religion ought never to be used as an ‘excuse for abuse’. It also called on religious leaders to ‘champion the elimination of SGBV [sexual and gender-based violence] and to act with strong leadership in this regard’ (Pacific Prevention of Domestic Violence Programme, 2014).

Russell James Smith, University of Auckland clocktower, 2010

Throughout the project, there has been a range of conferences and conversations with colleagues in Samoa, Fiji, and New Zealand (more details here), including a conference held at the University of Auckland on 11 June 2018. The conference, titled ‘Tatala le ta’ui a le Atua: Church responses to gender violence in Samoa’, aimed to initiate new conversations between academics, researchers, church pastors, and community activists about the role of the church (in Samoa and the wider Pacific region) in tackling VAW.

The conference included presentations from three esteemed keynote speakers: Dr Ah Siu-Maliko, Rev. Dr Joan Alleluia Filemoni-Tofaeono1 (lecturer at Kanana Fou Theological Seminary, Tafuna, American Samoa), and Rev. Dr Nasili Vaka’uta (Principal of Trinity Methodist College, Auckland). In the afternoon, there was a screening of the 2015 documentary Sisi le Lā’afa – Raise the Sennit Sail, directed by Galumalemana Steven Percival. Following the screening, there were group discussion sessions, where attendees could share their responses to and reflections on the documentary, which highlights the complex intersections between religion, cultural tradition, and VAW in Samoa.

In the rest of this blog post, I focus on the keynote presentation delivered at the conference by Dr Mercy Ah Siu-Maliko, Tatala le ta’ui a le Atua (Rolling out the fine mat of scripture): Constraints and opportunities.2 I have chosen this as the basis of my discussion as it captures so beautifully the aims, motivations, and challenges of the wider ‘Fola le ta’ui a le Atua’ project, not to mention the vital role that Mercy has played in shaping the philosophy that underpins it.

At the start of her presentation, Mercy spoke about how important it is for researchers to feel connected and committed to their work, particularly when this involves the vital issue of gender-based violence. She described her own ‘passion’ for researching VAW in Samoa, and her commitment to speaking openly about it in order to bring about positive change in Samoan churches and society. ‘Gender-based violence is part of my being’, she admitted, ‘I wake up thinking about gender-based violence. When I breathe, it’s gender-based violence. When I look around – my whole being is dominated by this issue’.

Dr Mercy Ah-Siu Maliko, speaking at the Tatala le Ta’ui a le Atua conference, 2018

Referring to some of the recently published reports which record the growing rates of violence against women and girls in Samoa, Mercy noted that there have been a number of responses to these reports from government ministries, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and some religious institutions, many of whom have initiated projects to challenge VAW.

Nevertheless, Mercy noted that there is still one key voice absent from the conversation about gender-based violence in Samoa – the ‘prophetic voice’ of the Samoan church. While Fijian church leaders have recently made a public commitment to VAW prevention initiatives, including participation in the country’s 16 Days of Activism campaign, the Samoan church has remained relatively silent, preferring not to engage actively with government and NGO initiatives that aim to tackle the crisis of VAW in Samoa. It is this silence that Mercy seeks to break, in her capacity as a member of the Methodist church in Samoa, an academic, a public theologian, and a ‘concerned citizen of Samoa’. In these intersecting roles, she spoke of her determination to move out of her ‘comfort zone’ to ‘mingle with the vulnerable in Samoan society’.

Mercy then went onto explain the context of tatala le ta’ui a le Atua – rolling out the fine mat of scripture. The phrase conveys the importance of being relational in Samoan culture, and the Samoan belief that the self takes its form from maintaining relationships: ‘It articulates the necessity to reconnect with one’s God, and sisters, neighbours, and environment in order to reveal one’s genuine self-identity rooted in relationships of respect’. In Samoan culture, ta’ui has a particular use, referring to the finest woven mats, which have been cared for and cherished over the years within their Samoan homes. These mats are old and delicate, and are only rolled out in public on special occasions.

A fine woven mat from Samoa.,_Honolulu_Museum_of_Art_accession_328.1.JPG

At this point in the presentation, David Tombs and Mercy rolled out a large ta’ui that was lying, rolled up, beside the presenter’s lectern. As Mercy explained, the conference was a special occasion – an opportunity to talk about a vital issue affecting not only Samoans but the entire world. The phrase tatala le ta’ui a le Atua also emphasises the significant role of the Bible in this conversation; the fine mat of scripture has to be rolled out to transform human relationships, including those damaged by violence.

Mercy also spoke about some of the constraints and challenges she has faced researching gender-based violence in Samoa. The first challenge was her status as an ‘insider researcher’ – a Samoan woman theologian researching a Samoan issue. As she noted, a researcher’s ‘insiderness’ can be of benefit, as long as it does not bias their study; for example, her identity as a Samoan woman has facilitated safe and honest communication with the Samoan women she interviewed during the course of her research. Moreover, her Samoan identity has also allowed her to represent faithfully Samoan understandings and worldviews and to engage critically with scholarly research about Samoa.

Another research challenge that Mercy raised was that, although VAW is a public issue in Samoa, it is often regarded as a ‘woman’s issue’, with the result that men are reluctant to engage with it. She noted that some male participants in her research interviews seemed to feel uncomfortable talking about the topic, resorting to humour in an attempt to evade having serious conversations. She was also aware that some men did not want to be interviewed by her in case others thought they were perpetrators of gender-based violence. As she noted, ‘Finding ways to engage with this issue in a public arena when it has historically been shrouded in silence and secrecy has required great sensitivity and patience’. Being an ‘insider researcher’ in this project has therefore been of great value here, allowing her to approach these difficult conversations with greater understanding.

Yet, Mercy admitted in her presentation, patience is sometimes hard to come by when there is still so much work to be done. She therefore described her role as lead researcher in the Fola le ta’ui le Atua project as a ‘God-given opportunity’ that has allowed her to begin urgent dialogues with Samoan churches about their role in tackling VAW. She noted without irony that her academic status allowed her to speak to those in the ‘upper level of Samoan society’, such as male church leaders.3

Image by AJC1. On

Much of Mercy’s research has been guided by the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, whose ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ is rooted in the imperative to see everyone’s potential, regardless of their life situations, and to treat research participants as agentic subjects rather than passive objects. Drawing on Freire’s work has allowed Mercy to forge strong and fruitful networks with Samoan women from all walks of life, including women in leadership positions. And, while challenges remain and progress can appear awfully slow, she reminded the conference audience that ‘it’s about taking small steps, with passion and love’.

Mercy also took time during the conference presentation to discuss the preliminary findings of her research. She admitted that initial analysis of her interviews with Samoan church leaders and members has provided her with an ‘eye-opening opportunity’, both to assess the extent of work already being done by churches to address VAW and to consider what else they could and should be doing.

Of especial interest, her research findings uncovered an overall philosophy that guides Samoan relationships and engagements: as she puts it, ‘keeping the face, or keeping the front matters tidy’. While some of her research participants understood this as an enactment of the Samoan concept of teu le va (respecting and honouring the relational space between two people, Mercy contended that it is, nevertheless, a key contributing factor to gender-based violence being hidden, or, as she put it, ‘swept under the carpet as if it’s not a problem’. She also noted that this philosophy was particularly evident in the responses she received during her interviews with church leaders and NGOs in Samoa. The only exceptions to this were some of her female interviewees, who admitted that the confidential space afforded by the interviews gave them ‘a moment of liberation from the fear of the status quo’.

Speaking openly about gender-based violence is still taboo in many cultures and countries around the world, and Samoa is no different. Yet, as the ‘Fola le ta’ui le Atua’ project has found, the silence that often surrounds VAW only perpetuates the sense of shame and stigma experienced by its victims. In both Samoan churches and wider society, women who are victims of gender-based violence are more likely to be blamed than offered support; even when they are not directly blamed, many still fear the stigma they will encounter in their local communities and churches. The church’s silence about VAW is therefore never neutral, but can often be harmful.

Piula Theological College, Samoa, where Mercy is the first woman to be appointed to a teaching position. Image courtesy of,_Upolu_island,_Samoa,_2009.jpg

Mercy also stressed that her research provided her with a valuable opportunity to engage with the wider Samoan public and thus to create concrete platforms from which work can be done to tackle VAW. It has also enabled her to develop strong networks with other women who stand with her on the ‘battlefield’, waging war against those systems and ideologies that sustain VAW. In these networks, she noted, ‘we are not only developing and sharing resources, but nurturing human relationships as a way to prevent violence against women’.

Mercy ended her presentation by offering the audience a glimpse of the ‘end product’ of her research, which incorporates one of the key goals of the ‘Fola le ta’ui le Atua’ project. Drawing on material from her research interviews, and working alongside biblical scholars and theologians (including myself and David), she has developed a series of Bible studies for use in Samoan churches to foster dialogue about VAW. Based on the transformational model of Paulo Freire, these Bible studies aim to liberate people through the process of self-awareness and consciousness raising. The studies eschew passive learning and encourage participants to think and speak for themselves, giving them the confidence to break the silence that surrounds VAW. As Mercy explained, the studies are not a ‘quick fix’ to VAW, but rather move participants from reflection to concrete action as part of an ongoing process.

Crucially, these Bible studies draw churches into this process, enabling them to dialogue openly about VAW, to participate in tackling VAW, and to offer healing and support to those impacted by it. The Bible studies also break the silence surrounding VAW in Samoan society, inviting members of the Samoan churches to publicly challenge the shame and stigma that many victims experience. Churches clearly have massive potential to lead the way in tackling VAW, but they need to recognise and embrace this as an integral part of their mission and ministry at both national and international levels. Mercy’s Bible studies offer an invitation to the Samoan church to recognize this potential and to begin taking action; as such, they are worth their weight in gold.

Mercy concluded her presentation by noting that her participation in the ‘Fola le ta’ui le Atua’ project has reminded her of the importance of knowing herself – ‘my tūrangawaewae – my standing place – and believing I can be a part of making a positive change’. She acknowledged that her commitment to making change is an ongoing process that affects her personally at every level – her self, her family, her church, her nation. But, as she noted:

Every little step counts, as they are steps driven by a passion and conviction to enhance the common good of Samoans and all of God’s people. God did not put me here for no reason. There is a purpose for everything. And despite the challenges entailed in combatting gender-based violence, we are discovering in our faith tradition and our sacred scriptures resources that can guide us towards liberation and empowerment.

It was a privilege working with Mercy on the ‘Fola le ta’ui le Atua’ project, along with the other researchers who made up the project team, and also those who participated at the Auckland conference. As Mercy observed in her presentation, those of us working to end gender-based violence find ourselves very quickly on a ‘battlefield’, waging war against the systems, ideologies, and structures that sustain such violence. This work can be exhausting and demoralizing, but we support each other, and draw strength from each other, refusing to give up while there is still so much work to be done. And, as Mercy reminds us, ‘Every little step counts’.


1 Rev. Dr Filemoni-Tofaeono is co-author (with Lydia Johnson) of the ground-breaking book, Reweaving the Relational Mat: A Christian Response to Violence against Women from Oceania (Routledge, 2006). Prior to Ah Siu-Maliko taking over the role, she also co-ordinated Weavers: Women in Theological Education, which developed resources for use by theological colleges to open up dialogue about violence against women in Oceania.

2 The other two keynote addresses at the ‘Tatala le ta’ui a le Atua’ conference were presented by Rev. Dr Joan Alleluia Filemoni-Tofaeono, University of Auckland, Embrace our Voice: A call to re-image Tama’ita’i Samoana (women) in the image of God, and Dr Nasili Vaka’uta, Trinity Theological College, Auckland, #MeToo: Troubling ‘Sexual Abuse’ in Scriptures.

3 Dr Mercy Ah Siu-Maliko is the first Samoan woman to be awarded a PhD in theology, and the first to be appointed to a teaching position in a Samoan theological college. For an overview of her research, see her article, “A public theology response to domestic violence in Samoa.” International Journal of Public Theology 10(1), 54-67.

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The Shiloh Project in Ghana

In late October we, Katie and Johanna, travelled to Accra. We were going there to participate in a collaborative project funded by WUN (the Worldwide Universities Network). This project is led by Rev. Dr. George Ossom-Batsa, of the Department for the Study of Religions, University of Ghana (UG). Alongside us three, the project also includes Shiloh’s third co-lead, Caroline Blyth, who will take the lead in compiling and editing a special issue on religion and gender-based violence (GBV) for the journal The Bible and Critical Theory (BCT).

Our project has the title ‘An Intersectional Exploration of Religion and Gender-Based Violence: A Case Study of Accra in Global Context’. The idea for the project grew out of the Shiloh Project.

Just looking out the car window on the way from the airport to our hotel, the prominent presence of religion in public spaces was very striking. Huge billboards depict Christian preachers and advertise crusades and prayer meetings, or promise prosperity and blessings, or proclaim the imminent return of Jesus. Religious leaders on these billboards take up the kind of space reserved in our own context only for mega-celebrities. 

Over the days we would see some publicity also about leaders and revered figures in the Muslim and African Traditional Religions communities – but a dazzling array of Christian churches certainly predominate over other religious communities. We would see all kinds of products sold using Bible verses and allusions to God’s will and endorsement. Be it gear boxes, drains, beauty products or foods – God is all around in public and commercial spheres.

The central part of our visit was a day-long conference followed by a day of workshops to investigate our topic from a range of perspectives. The conference day was opened on 30 October by the Provost of UG’s College of Humanities, Professor Samuel Agyei-Mensah. 

The keynote speaker was Prof. Akosua Adomako Ampofo who, until recently, directed UG’s Institute of African Studies. She is also founder of the Centre for Gender Studies and Advocacy and winner of the Feminist Activism Award. A sociologist by training, Prof. Ampofo has a long and strong record of challenging GBV, including through her advisory role in the process of passing the Domestic Violence Act and criminalizing marital rape (2007), and her extensive empirical work on masculinities in a range of African contexts. Her work on African masculinities resists both what she aptly calls the ‘Western gaze’ and the disproportionate emphasis on South Africa – to the exclusion of other African contexts.

Prof Ampofo was a hard act to follow – but Katie’s and my joint presentation was next on the conference programme. We introduced the Shiloh Project and spoke on rape culture manifestations in the Bible (Johanna) and on the application of religious iconography in popular culture (Katie). 

The next co-presentation was by George Ossom-Batsa and Dr. Nicoletta Gatti, both biblical scholars from UG’s Department for the Study of Religions. Their presentation focused on the Hebrew Bible book of Job alongside prosperity preaching by Ghanaian Pentecostal churches. The paper demonstrated on the one hand, how in the prosperity gospel poverty has come to signify absence of blessing and, on the other, how poverty (and therefore such preaching) disproportionately harms women who are far more likely than men to be impoverished. One distressing statistic cited was that the estimated average hourly wage for women in Ghana is only 57% that of men.

The next two presentations moved away from biblical studies. First Dr. Rabiatu D. Ammah (of UG) explored the Qur’anic verse 4:34, sometimes described as ‘the verse of abuse’ or the verse that condones wife beating. Dr. Ammah describes herself as a scholar-activist and her paper covered a range of interpretations of the verse and infused this with her qualitative research consisting of in-depth interviews with 15 local imams, three of whom openly acknowledged having beaten their wives. Her conclusion was, however, that there is none the less no prima facie or Qur’an endorsed case for GBV in Islam. 

The final presentation of the day was by Dr. Yaw Sakordie Agyemang (University of Cape Coast) and explored GBV in the context of the indigenous beliefs of the Asante people. Again, research was centred on empirical research, this time constituting 16 focus group discussions guided by two questions: How do women and men experience violence? And, how does gender inequality affect violence? The paper offered insight into all sorts of forms of ritual violence, ranging from female genital mutilation, to the harvesting of body parts for ritual purposes, and rites surrounding both apotropaic and polluting qualities of menstrual blood. 

Whereas the first day focused on academic presentations, the second day gave the floor to practitioners, before we all separated into groups to discuss practical strategies to confront, address and eliminate GBV. 

The first practitioner to present was Dr. Angela Aboagye Dwamena, Executive Director of The Ark Foundation. The name of the Foundation already reveals its foundation in religious principles. It is not, however, named after Noah’s Ark but after the Ark of the Covenant, alluding to God as a refuge and strength. The presenter has a background in law and has for over 25 years defended the human rights of Ghanaian women and girls, and sometimes also boys, particularly with regard to GBV. The Foundation focuses on advocacy, community-based education, law reform and services provision. Dr. Dwamena was vocal as to the constraints of the Foundation. For instance, the first shelter for battered women was opened in 1999 but 17 years later it had to be closed, due to lack of funds. A campaign is in progress to reopen and keep open the Ark Shelter (see

Next up, was a representative from the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice. The Commission conducts research into social justice matters and offers protection on a range of human rights matters, including concerning sexual orientation and gender identity. In Ghana, the law, which has remained unchanged since 1960, designates a number of sexual acts ‘unnatural carnal knowledge’. These acts include ‘sodomy’ and oral sex. Ghana’s LGBT community is particularly vocal in resisting this law. The matter of LGBT rights was seized on in the discussion that followed the first two presentations and members from both Christian and Muslim communities expressed horror at homosexual orientation and acts, comparing them to the sin of murder, to bestiality and pedophilia. Also clearly articulated was that LGBT persons regularly do not receive justice – including in matters that have nothing to do with matters sexual (e.g. when they report crimes of property). The vulnerability to GBV of the LGBT community is likely to be considerable. It was very clear to us both that the conversation around LGBT rights in a setting like that of the conference and workshop, dominated as it was by religious leaders and practitioners, was a particularly difficult and unreceptive one. There was not really a sense that dialogue was possible. 

Three practitioners from the Muslim community presented next. First to present was Sheikh Yacoub Abban, the General Secretary of Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jama, an organization that conducts marriage guidance counseling alongside other dispute settling activities (e.g. concerning inheritance). The organization has only men on its board but the perception by members of the Muslim community in attendance was that it was very supportive of women’s cases. The Sheikh reported a growing number of GBV cases brought before the organization by women. Whereas in 2016 cases (in Accra alone) by 96 men and 264 women were brought to the organization, by 2017 the numbers were 75 men and 384 women. Thus far in 2018, the number of women’s cases already stands at 407. The Sheikh reported that while men’s cases do not reflect physical violence, instead reporting wives’ ‘recalcitrance’ or wives who pressed for divorce in cases where husbands did not want divorce, the cases brought by women are often very disturbing and distressing. The presentation included anonymous examples of severe emotional torture, physical maltreatment and of marital rape. While the Sheikh did not deny the possibility that some men are also enduring physical violence perpetrated by women he confirmed that cases reflect that women are disproportionately victims of violence and that this violence shows no sign of abating.

Next up was Dr, Nas iba Taahir, Educational Consultant and Psychologist of the Montessori Foundation of Ghana. She disclosed that she herself is a victim of long-term marital GBV and reported, too, on her work in the capacity as a school psychologist. Both her accounts of counseling victims of physical violence in domestic settings and her own story of a six-year trial, exclusion from her religious community and of stigmatization were harrowing. 

The final presenter from the Muslim community was Hajia Maliki, a marriage guidance counselor with 15 years experience. She reported that marriages in the Muslim community of Ghana very often deteriorate quickly and end in acrimonious divorce. Unlike in Christian communities, she reported, pre-marital guidance counseling was not a requirement and nor was mandatory post-marital counseling.

The final practitioner to present was the most affecting. This was Superintendent Alice Awarikaro, Regional Coordinator for the Accra Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit. Charged with domestic violence and child abuse issues, the Superintendent had seen many awful violent crimes close-up. In 2017, her unit dealt with 4,511 cases (about one third of total cases country-wide) and, as she stressed, far more cases have gone unreported. Victims of violence, including sexual violence, were male, female, young and old. Again, however, violent crimes against women and girls far outnumber those perpetrated against men and boys. Also, perpetrators were far more likely to be male than female. She showed graphic images of terrible abuse and outlined efforts to address GBV, including sensitization programmes, capacity building, proactive and reactive measures. 

With particular relevance to our project, the Superintendent reported that in her experience religious leaders and religious beliefs play an obstructive role. Advice from religious leaders is often detrimental, delaying the reporting of crime, or adding to failure to report (e.g. on account of instilling stigma with regard, for instance, to divorce). She urged that counselors and advisors be properly trained professionals and advocated the following: creating safe spaces for those reporting GBV, not judging or condemning those who report GBV, education across the sectors, and encouraging reporting and following through with the legal process so that more perpetrators are brought to court and more victims protected. 

Following group discussions and then a plenary session that pooled key points from discussions, we collectively determined that the conference and workshops had done much to explain what GBV is and to begin to plumb the complexity of its causes and effects. We determined that we would endeavour to apply for more funding to harness the energy of the event and to achieve more concrete results through user-led and research-underpinned activities and resources. 

With the funds left in the budget from WUN we will produce and disseminate a leaflet that: 1) defines GBV; 2) supports intervening bystanders, with a section setting out what to do and where to turn (in Accra) if you suspect someone is a victim of GBV; 3) details victim support and legal rights for those who are themselves victims of GBV; 4) contains a section that specifies the rights and services of members of the LGBT community in Ghana.

While in Accra we also had opportunity to interview theologian and activist Prof. Mercy Amba Oduyoye. Mercy Oduyoye recently turned 85. She is a pioneer for African women and remains as active as ever – both in her Talitha Qumi Institute, based at the Trinity Theological Seminary in Accra and through the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, which she founded in 1989. Well before this already she initiated women’s rights initiatives, campaigning for women’s inclusion and against women’s economic deprivation and vulnerability to other inequalities, including GBV. 

We also taught classes both at the Trinity Theological Seminary and at UG, which was a lively experience.

Lastly, no travelling in Ghana should be complete without visiting the coastal fortresses that facilitated the Portuguese-, Dutch- and British-administered slave trade. We visited both Castle Osu and Elmina and saw the awful dungeons where slaves were crammed together in tight, dark stone surroundings before being herded into ships bound for the Americas. While African slaves sat in fear and terror below, the European slave administrators sexually abused those whom they selected, dined while looking out at the sparkling ocean, and prayed in their chapels. Here, too, as everywhere in the streets of Accra today, biblical verses were prominently displayed – mere metres from where massive atrocities took place. 

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White Rose Collaboration Fund Project Update

On Wednesday 10th October members of our White Rose Collaboration Fund Project met for an update.

The White Rose Collaboration Fund is designed to support emerging collaborative activities across the three White Rose universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York. Our project focuses on using religious imagery in popular culture to explore and challenge everyday sexism, sexual harassment and abuse together with secondary school students.

In consultation with secondary schools from all three White Rose regions and Fearless Futures, a third-sector organization offering gender equality training for school-age girls, the network will conduct three pilot workshops with secondary school students (girls and boys) to investigate interactions with religious imagery in popular culture and the ways in which these representations shape understandings of gender, sex and sexualities.

Members of the White Rose universities involved in the project include Professor Vanita Sundaram (University of York), Professor Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds), Dr Katie Edwards (University of Sheffield), Dr Meredith Warren (University of Sheffield), Dr Valerie Hobbs (University of Sheffield), Dr Jasjit Singh (Unversity of Leeds), Dr Caroline Starkey (University of Leeds), Sofia Rehman (University of Leeds), Dr Sarah Olive (University of York) an Emma Piercy (University of York).

As usual, the meeting buzzed with energy, ideas and enthusiasm. We’re very much looking forward to working with our partners Fearless Futures and the local schools. We’ll update again after our training!

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Fuzzy, messy, icky: The edges of consent in biblical rape narratives and rape culture (video)

This paper was the closing keynote address for The Religion and Rape Culture Conference.

Abstract: This paper explores the fuzzy, messy, and icky boundaries of “consent” in biblical rape narratives and in rape culture.. More specifically, I want to bring feminist literature problematizing the notion of consent to bear on biblical stories of sexual violence and rape, as well as the ways in which we as feminists read and respond to those stories.. Consent, including such formulations as “affirmative consent,” “enthusiastic consent,” and “consent at every stage,” has played – and continues to play – an important role in attempts to respond to sexual violence.. However, the emphasis on consent has also engendered feminist and queer critiques. Notions of consent assume a fully self-present, self-controlled, and able subject: the very sort of subject that feminist and other postmodern critique has aptly criticized.. Discourses of consent ignore the ways in which, in Sara Ahmed’s words, “A feminist account of gender as a social relation might need to include analysis of how women willingly agree to situations in which their safety and well-being are compromised” (Willful Subjects) or in Wendy Brown’s formulation, “Consent …functions as a sign of legitimate subordination” (States of Injury).  Such feminist critiques of consent vie uneasily with feminist readings of biblical rape texts, which often seek to recover women’s voices, or at least to commemorate their stories (Phyllis Trible famously punctuated her Texts of Terror with gravestones for four of patriarchy’s victims: Hagar, Jephthah’s daughter, Tamar, and the Levite’s concubine; all but one the victims of sexual violence).. But if we take this critique seriously, what happens to a feminist biblical hermeneutic of sexual violence? I will explore this question via a wandering itinerary through the biblical rape texts, beginning with Tamar, Dinah, and the Levite’s concubine, and then moving to consider what I will call border cases.. My central concerns are (1) how can a feminist hermeneutic of sexual violence respond to feminist and queer critiques of consent discourse, (2) what might we learn from observing not simply the paradigmatic  “rape plots”(Susanne Scholz) or “rape narratives” (Frank Yamada) but also what I will call the “icky, messy, and fuzzy edges” of both rape stories and consent discourses? (Of course, this icky, messy, and fuzzy space is also the space named by rape culture, at least in one formulation of the term.) Thus I will turn from the rape plots to the icky, messy, and fuzzy narratives found elsewhere. Finally, I am interested in (3) what postures feminists might adopt toward these texts beyond the position of mourning or of recovering.

This talk was delivered at the 2018 Religion and Rape Culture Conference. Click here to see more videos.

Dr Rhiannon Graybill received her MA and PhD from Berkley, University of California and is currently Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Program Director of Gender and Sexuality Studies at Rhodes College, Memphis. Dr Graybill is a scholar of the Hebrew Bible whose work brings together biblical texts and contemporary critical and cultural theory. Her research interests, on which she has written prolifically, include prophecy, gender and sexuality, horror theory, and psychoanalysis and ancient Near Eastern literature.

Some of Dr Graybill’s current teaching includes modules on The Bible and Social Justice; The Bible, Sex and The Body; and LGBTQ Biblical Interpretation. She is the author of Are We Not Men? Unstable Masculinity in the Hebrew Prophets (published by Oxford University Press, 2016). Dr Graybill’s upcoming monographs include “The Cannibal Bible” and “Eve Take The Wheel: Queer Feminist Readings of Biblical Women”, they are also working on a commentary to the book of Jonah with Steven L. McKenzie and John Kaltner. Dr Graybill is currently on the editorial boards for both the Review of Biblical Literature and Biblical Interpretation.

Header image: Slime [via pixabay]

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The Handmaid’s Jail: Framing sexual assault and rape narratives in biblical comics (video)

Abstract: With an increase in comic book representations of biblical stories on our bookshelves, discussions surrounding how to approach retellings of difficult material such as rape narratives, extreme violence, murder and genocide are at a critical juncture. For those comic book creators who want to include every aspect of these stories, questions concerning how they interpret and represent such narratives abound; for those who are less concerned with fidelity to the text, questions concerning what they leave out and what they leave in present themselves.

In this paper I will discuss the representation of Hagar, Bilhah and Zilpah in biblical comic books, arguing that the creators of such comics rarely depict the scenes as rape or sexual assault narratives.

This talk was delivered at the 2018 Religion and Rape Culture Conference. Click here to see more videos.

Zanne currently holds a postdoctoral position with the University of Glasgow, teaching in Biblical Hebrew, the Hebrew Bible, Bible and popular culture, and Bible and reception history. She completed both her PhD and MTh degrees at the University of Glasgow, focusing on remediations of Genesis in comic books and artwork, and in particular, how women were represented in biblical comics. Her current research projects broadly involve remediations of the Bible in comic books, issues related to representations of gender in the Hebrew Bible and popular culture, and the reception of biblical text in marginalised communities.

Header image: Sarai suggests the use of Hagar’s body to Abram (Genesis 16:2) in R Crumb’s The Book of Genesis.

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Fuzzy, Messy, Icky: The Edges of Consent in Biblical Rape Narratives and Rape Culture

The following post is a version of the closing keynote paper by Rhiannon Graybill  ([email protected]), presented at the Shiloh Conference (July 2018). Rhiannon is an academic at Rhodes College and has a long and strong record of publication in the areas of Hebrew Bible, gender and sexuality, including rape culture.

Fuzzy, Messy, Icky: The Edges of Consent in Biblical Rape Narratives and Rape Culture

Rhiannon Graybill

Today I want to explore the problem of consent as it figures in and around rape culture.[1] Consent has become a rallying point in feminist activism against sexual violence. Colleges and universities teach — and, increasingly, require — ‘affirmative consent’ as a precursor to sexual activity. ‘Enthusiastic consent’, ‘consent at every stage’, even consent (and thus sex?) is like tea. Sex without consent is now officially rape in Sweden, as on many US college campuses. But even as what I will call ‘consent discourses’ have gone mainstream, significant feminist critiques of consent, and of the ways it is mobilized, have emerged.

I have several goals here. The first is to bring biblical stories of rape, and feminist biblical studies’ responses to those stories, in contact with the critique of consent discourses. I will argue that insofar as our analyses of sexual violence are predicated on an idea of consent, and of rape as sex without consent, they are both insufficient and insufficiently feminist. A feminist analysis of rape stories in the Bible must respond to feminist critiques of consent discourses.

My second goal is to begin a process of thinking about sexual violence in the biblical texts that, instead of relying on appeals to consent, centers the fuzzy, the messy, and the icky. I have chosen these terms intentionally, as each speaks to a specific area of difficulty:

*Fuzzy names the ambivalence that surrounds many situations of sexual violence, an ambivalence that extends to the complex feelings of survivors.[2] Fuzzy also alludes to memories under the influence of alcohol, which is at once common in sexual assault and often off-limits to discuss.

*Messy identifies the aftermath of sexual violence, and the ways that it defies a tidy resolution, or the ways that survivors’ stories cannot fit into a neat pre-ordained narrative of suffering and recovery. Often “things get messy” — a grammatical construction without an actor that neatly reveals how the situation grows beyond a single person, or even a single story (Jennifer Doyle provides a beautiful description of this in Campus Sex, Campus Security, which chronicles the ‘psychic life’ of the institution in relation to sexual violence and sexual harassment complaints.).[3] Messy is a consequence of fuzzy.

*Finally, all of this fuzziness and messiness creates something icky.[4] Thinking about sexual violence beyond a narrow framework of consent is ‘icky’, because it questions the clear lines between sex and rape. Icky invokes ‘creeps’, ‘gross guys’, ‘sketchiness’, and ‘weird things’ that happen at parties – and, of course, at academic conferences and in work places and environments of all kinds – which may or may not be rape. That last phrase ‘weird things’, came up repeatedly in Vanessa Grigoriadis’ interviews with college students about sexual violence, as recounted in her recent book Blurred Lines. Grigoriadis further reports, ‘About half of the women who click a box for behavior that meets the definition of rape or sexual assault will say no when they’re asked point blank if they’ve experienced rape or sexual assault.”[5] This is fuzzy/messy/icky in action.

I also use the term icky because it suggests affect. Like affects, it is sticky.[6] Sexual violence is sticky, both in the sense of a ‘sticky problem’ and in the way that it clings to and spreads between certain bodies, communities, and identities. It has become common to describe consent as an idea as simple as a stoplight: green (‘yes!’) means ‘go’, red (‘no!’) means ‘stop’, yellow means ‘proceed with caution’.[7] But sex is not a traffic pattern, and neither is rape. And so, instead of relying on a theory of traffic signals, this paper takes on the fuzzy, the messy, and the icky, to complexify our readings of biblical rape and rape culture.

Part I: The Trouble with ‘Consent’

My first goal is to sketch the landscape of debates over consent in which biblical discussions about rape and rape culture are placed (whether or not this landscape is perceptible from within biblical consent discourses).[8] With this in mind, here are six difficulties with the way we talk about and deploy the idea of consent.

  1. Consent discourses assume a liberal Enlightenment subject; this assumption prevents a complex analysis of rape culture

A fundamental issue with consent concerns the sort of subject that discourses of consent assume: a self-contained, self-controlled, and self-evident subject. The consenting subject is the liberal Enlightenment subject, the subject we encounter in Kant and Locke and so on. As we know from a lengthy tradition of feminist critique, this subject, while putatively universal, is often coded: as male, as white, as owning property, as cis-abled, and so forth. Therefore, there is at the very least an irony in predicating a feminist theory of how to end sexual violence on the very figure feminist theory has so vigorously critiqued.[9]

An understanding of rape defined against consent and predicated upon the idea of a subject who is self-contained, self-known, and able to choose whether to give or withhold consent has unintended consequences. One such potential consequence is the erasure of rape as a category when we are talking about non-modern and/or non-western contexts. There is a frequent line of argument around rape stories in the Bible that goes something like this: because women were not empowered as subjects to consent, it is meaningless to talk about consent, and without the language of consent, it is meaningless to speak about rape. While this argument can be critiqued on many grounds, I want to suggest that by relying on a model of rape that itself assumes a liberal understanding of the subject, we undercut our own efforts to name and understand both sexual violence in the Hebrew Bible and the phenomenon of rape culture more broadly.

It may in fact be true that biblical women were unable to consent: both because ancient legal norms do not have the same ideas of the individual and of personal autonomy that are foundational to modern definitions of rape, and because biblical women are characters and not actual people, a point that the legal reconstructionists nearly always miss. However, the nitpicky arguments that it wasn’t ‘really’ rape in ancient Israel (because women were not able to consent, because it was ‘really’ an abduction marriage, because the ‘real’ victim was the woman’s father, etc.)[10] focus on a narrow, legally grounded definition of rape (itself based on problematic ideas of consent) while missing the broader nuances of the term ‘rape culture’ — a term coined, in fact, to speak to the fuzziness and messiness of sexual violence, without differentiating out what Whoopi Goldberg infamously called ‘rape-rape’.[11]

  1. Consent discourses ignore more subtle techniques of power, such as discomfort

The model of all subjects as equally empowered to give consent ignores the weight of our personal histories, as well as the contingencies that attend any given sexual interaction. The assumption that subjects can simply give or withhold consent also neglects the influence of more subtle forms of pressure, as well as discomfort.

This is a point that feminist and queer theorist Sara Ahmed has analysed incisively in her study Willful Subjects. Taking up the fuzzy/messy/icky problem of ‘how women willingly agree to situations in which their safety and well-being are compromised’ and ‘the cases in which yes involves force but is not experienced as force’, Ahmed draws out the power of discomfort.

Discomfort constitutes ‘a polite strategy or technique of power (the capacity to carry out will without resistance, or with the will of others).’[12]  The significance of discomfort, and its role in leading victims/survivors to compromise their own wishes or will, is a point made again and again in contemporary analyses of rape culture, both first-person accounts (such as those in Roxane Gay’s anthology Not That Bad) and in reportage (such as Griogordias’s Blurred Lines).[13]

This is clear in the story of Tamar (2 Samuel 13). More than any other biblical rape story, the narrative of Tamar offers a clear lack of consent. Tamar is entrapped and raped by her half-brother Amnon, whom she visits when he is pretending to be ill. When he solicits sex, she verbally refuses him: ‘No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile! As for me, where could I carry my shame?” (13:11-12).[14] Nevertheless, Amnon rapes her. Tamar is distraught but asks Amnon to marry her — an act that her full brother, Absalom, discourages, telling her ‘Has Amnon your brother been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart.’ The text adds, ‘So Tamar remained, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom’s house” (13:20).

This story presents at least two modes of coercion: one explicit, one more subtle.  Allow me to quote again from Ahmed:

There is a history whereby men give themselves permission to hear no as yes, to assume women are willing, whatever women say … as if by dressing this way, or by doing something that way, she is enacting a yes, even when she herself says no. We certainly need to hear the violence that converts no into yes. My additional suggestion is modest: we also need to hear the cases in which yes involves force but is not experienced as force, when for instance a women says yes to something as the consequences of saying no would be too much. … If being willing does not mean the absence of force, then we need to account for the social and political situations in which yes and no are given.[15]

If the first episode of the Tamar story is ‘the violence that converts no into yes’, then what follows — when Tamar expresses her desire to marry Amnon, even as she mourns the rape — offers an instance of ‘say[ing] yes to something as the consequences of saying no would be too much’. Thus the Tamar story is one case study in why ‘women willingly agree to situations in which their safety and well-being are compromised’ — a situation that consent discourses, in their rigid and positivistic formulations, are unable to accommodate. Perhaps this is why so much feminist reflection on Tamar focuses on the rape itself, or on mourning with/for Tamar, and not on the question of why Tamar might marry her rapist.[16] The fuzzy/messy/icky possibility that Tamar might be acting willingly, or in her own best interest — or that her own best interest is not accommodated in a rigid form of will — is rarely taken up here, a silencing that consent discourses, in their rigidity, can inadvertently encourage.

  1. Consent discourses neglect intersectional analysis (especially concerning race, sexuality, and disability)

The right to say ‘no’ has been historically denied to many categories of people. This persists today; research on bystander intervention shows, for example, that bystanders are more likely to intervene to help a white woman than a woman of color, and a straight-presenting, heteronormative woman rather than a queer person.[17] In this situation, ‘intervention’ is a public recognition of ‘hearing’ the ‘no’ (whether or not this ‘no’ has been uttered).  In addition to race and sexuality, this raises serious questions around the issue of ability and disability.[18]

Consent discourses are also informed by troubling racialized assumptions surrounding sexual violence. In the contemporary USA, as well as Canada and Europe, the victim of sexual assault is imagined as a white woman; rape is figured as a threat not just to women, but to whiteness. In this way, representations of rape offer another iteration of cultural narratives protecting (and policing) white womanhood, such as panic over ‘white slavery’ and sex trafficking of white women.[19] Furthermore, the imagined whiteness of the ideal rape victim is bound up with the implied blackness or brownness of the imagined rapist. Protecting (white) women from rape means protecting them from (black) men.[20]

In particular, the appeal to consent often ignores the ways in which consent runs up against race, sexuality, and other vectors of identity. In the context of the biblical stories, ethnicity is a key concern. Thus, while the Dinah story is frequently read as a narrative of interethnic encounter, the specific colonial context of the encounter is often downplayed or glossed over. This is taken up by Musa Dube in her recent study ‘Dinah (Genesis 34) at the Contact Zone’, where she foregrounds the imperializing move that the promise of the promised land makes.[21]

As Dube analyses, Shechem occupies the place of the colonized man who targets the body of the female colonizer. That Shechem represents the colonized subject does not mean that he is not a rapist. But it does mean that we need to accommodate a more complex analysis that also accounts for ethnicity and coloniality. This is a point made, variously, by Dube, Franz Fanon, and Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather. One of Dube’s key insights is that the construction of colonizer/colonized relationships, even with the gender script flipped, as it is here, ‘serve[s] the interest of the colonizer’.  In this case, this happens after the rape, when Shechem is represented as ‘good native’. As Dube writes, ‘The Other who occupies the coveted land in Dinah’s story is often constructed negatively, but not exclusively so. The Other also appears as the good natives, who love/cling to/adore their potential colonizer (23:1–20; 34:8–10). Both constructions serve the interests of the colonizing power.’[22]

The ethnic dynamics of the Dinah story are particularly interesting because they push back against the normative biblical move of constructing a binary between good and bad women, where ‘good’ is also ‘Israelite’ and ‘sexually pure’, while ‘bad’ is collocated with both ‘foreign’ and ‘sexually loose’. (J. Cheryl Exum has of course analysed these binaries in her classic Fragmented Women.)[23]

Across the Hebrew Bible, there is a tendency to associate promiscuous sexuality with foreignness, and foreign women in particular, as in representations of Moabite and Midianite women. The flipped script, as in the Dinah story (Dinah is ‘a woman from the colonizer’s camp’ who goes out to visit ‘the native women of the land’[24]), seems to promise an alternative narrative. However, it instead resolves in favor of the colonizers/Israelites. The colonizer always wins;[25] sometimes consent discourses are used to cover over or distract from this truth.

Additional Difficulties with Consent[26]

I want to list, briefly, some additional difficulties with consent.

  1. Consent is a legitimized form of subordination. This is a point Wendy Brown makes clearly in States of Injury. As Brown writes, ‘If, in rape law, men are seen to do sex while women consent to it, if the measure of rape is not whether a woman sought or desired sex but whether she acceded to it or refused it when it was pressed upon her, then consent operates both as a site of subordination and a means of its legitimation. Consent is thus a response to power—it adds or withdraws legitimacy—but is not a mode of enacting or sharing in power.’[27]
  2. Consent risks becoming colonialist, as consent discourses are often used as part of a hermeneutic practice of ‘saving women’ or ‘recovering women’.[28] This is especially clear in the literature on Dinah and on Tamar, which is almost obsessive in its desire to remember, recover, and re-voice. This desire to recover women, while grounded in feminist commitments, is uncomfortably close to the desire to ‘save’ women that postcolonial feminist theory has so soundly critiqued. If colonialism is ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’,[29] as Gayatri Spivak has quipped, then this saving certainly involves saving from rape.[30]
  3. Consent is a low bar. Finally, consent discourses risk evacuating the question of sexual pleasure from sex. As I have argued elsewhere, ‘consent is a low bar’.[31] Or as Kelly Oliver writes,

Affirmative consent should not be conflated with desire. Just because a woman submits to sex, does not mean that she wants it, especially in a culture where women feel pressured to please men.[32]

Or even more clearly, as a college student activist told feminist writer Rebecca Traister,

Seriously, God help us if the best we can say about the sex we have is that it was consensual.[33]

To this, I will only add that we might say the same about sex in the Bible.

In Sum: Consent discourses fail to accommodate complexity

I am suggesting that the framework of consent, while useful, though not unproblematically so, in describing and diagnosing sexual violence in contemporary culture, is insufficient and indeed inadequate in addressing sexual violence, in all its fuzziness, messiness, and ickiness. It also suggests a limited horizon of creativity and critical engagement — which, I would insist, is a key feature of feminist and queer critique. What else might we do with these texts, if we move beyond a posture of documenting and mourning?[34]

Part II: Fuzzy, Messy, Icky

I want now to offer some preliminary thoughts on what a fuzzy, messy, icky theorization of rape in the Hebrew Bible might look like. I have drawn on the work of four feminist thinkers: Donna Haraway, Eve Sedgwick, Sara Ahmed, and Meredith Minister.

Haraway: Refusing innocence

First, it is absolutely essential that a feminist response to sexual violence abandons the claim to an innocent critical position. As I have already suggested, one of the great weaknesses of consent discourses, and ways in which they break with feminist thought, is their assumption of a self-contained, self-controlled subject. Feminist critique has long decried this idea as at once naive and exclusionary, insisting, instead on what Haraway calls ‘situated knowledges.’[35] Crucial to the idea of situated knowledges is the insight that there is no master vantage point or innocent subject position from which the world can be judged. The critique of innocence also emerges in Haraway’s famous cyborg manifesto; the cyborg is a manifestly non-innocent being.[36]  In Haraway’s more recent work, this critique of innocence continues: ‘Acquiring knowledge is never innocent’, she writes in When Species Meet.[37] Elsewhere, I have argued that a hermeneutic of flourishing vis-a-vis the biblical text requires us to abandon claims to the position of innocence.[38]  Now I want to suggest that this is especially essential in the case of interpreting texts about sexual violence.

But what does this look like? Refusing the pose of innocence takes multiple forms (here, in imitation of Haraway, I offer a list):

  • Rejecting reductive historicizing oversimplifications, such as the suggestion that if women are not legal subjects with the ability to consent, then ‘unwanted sex’ is not rape
  • Resisting the temptation to claim the moral high ground in interpretation
  • Being wary of sloganeering applied to the past
  • Refusing stridency and seeking complexity
  • Allowing for the possibility of multiple, contradictory truths
  • Adopting a position of ‘Modest Witness’ (another expression borrowed from Haraway, this one from her study Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium:FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™)[39]
  • Keeping in mind that, as Haraway writes, ‘The familiar is always where the uncanny lurks.’[40]

Refusing innocence means embracing fuzziness, messiness, even ickiness.

Sedgwick: Avoiding paranoid reading positions

Related to the refusal of innocence is the effort to avoid paranoid reading positions. The notion of ‘paranoid reading’ comes from Sedgwick, in an essay entitled ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You’ (found in Touching Feeling).[41] Drawing on a thick diagnostic description of paranoia, Sedgwick argues that the ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ – that cornerstone of so much feminist and queer work – has the same intrinsic structure as the paranoid subject position. Paranoid reading, like paranoia, is ‘anticipatory’, ‘reflexive and mimetic’, and a ‘strong theory’. It is centered on ‘negative affects’ and ‘places its face in exposure’. Sedgwick challenges the seeming monopoly that paranoid reading holds, and calls for it to be joined by ‘reparative reading’ open to contingency, pleasure, and play.

A hermeneutic of rape that takes as its starting point consent discourses and the binary theorization of consent/rape is a ‘strong theory’ that is also ‘strongly paranoid’. Sedgwick’s reading, which is grounded in queer but also feminist commitments, invites us to open up texts, even texts of sexual violence, to other ways of thinking. As Sedgwick writes, ‘for someone to have an unmystified view of systematic oppressions does not intrinsically or necessarily enjoin that person to any specific train of epistemological or narrative consequences. To be other than paranoid … to practice other than paranoid forms of knowing does not, in itself, entail a denial of the reality or gravity or enmity or oppression.’[42]

This means, in the case of sexual violence and the Hebrew Bible, we can do more than simply compile lists of rapes, or lists of scholars who do not sufficiently acknowledge, or properly respond to, these rapes. (Here I’m thinking of certain tendencies in ‘call out’ and ‘clapback’ culture, which extend to certain scholarly forums, and which I think are in fact often unproductive, if sometimes viscerally satisfying.) A non-paranoid reading of sexual violence is a reading that’s open to fuzziness (paranoid readings, like paranoia, demand strong theories and eschew ambiguities of all sorts). It’s a reading practice that allows space for messiness. And it even gives us space to consider ickiness.[43]

Ahmed: Considering affect and contagion

In thinking about non-innocent, non-paranoid responses to sexual violence in and beyond biblical texts, I also think it’s vital to consider affect and affective contagion. In The Promise of Happiness, Ahmed describes how objects become affectively charged as good or bad objects; she further suggests that the ‘stickiness’ of affect means that this goodness or badness can be transmitted between objects.[44] Elsewhere, I have written about how institutional responses to sexual violence often inadvertently treat survivors as unhappy objects: ‘From the perspective of the prevention campaign, the survivor is an unhappy object because she reminds us that the campaign has failed’ to prevent a rape.[45] Survivors also become unhappy objects when their stories fail to conform to certain preordained narrative trajectories. Just as the woman who ‘overreacted’ to sexual violence was once scorned, in the present moment there is a criticism of survivors who fail to narrate their experiences properly (even as this demand is itself grounded in the imperative to ‘tell your story’). Here, I would note as well that the invitation to share stories can also become an imperative, and/or a compulsion.[46]

Centering affect, with a particular attention to its stickiness, ickiness, and messiness, helps open up the story of the rape of Tamar. Tamar is an unhappy object in multiple ways. This is immediately clear in Amnon’s reaction to her; after the rape, he is filled with loathing toward her. Tamar is also an unhappy object, though differently, to her brother Absalom; he rejects her desire to marry Amnon and by extension her narrative of the events, urging her instead to be silent and calm.[47]  Affective contagion also offers another model for thinking about the way that Tamar’s rape spreads bad feelings and trauma throughout David’s family, without reducing the story to a simplified ‘argument between men over a woman’. This is a move that both non-feminist and some feminist critics make, but that has the effect of hedging in the text and foreclosing other feminist and queer ways of thinking, while constraining Tamar to the exclusive position of victim. Of course, it’s messy, and a bit icky, to think about Tamar beyond the contours of what Trible calls ‘The Royal Rape of Wisdom’,[48] and yet it’s also necessary, I would suggest, if we are to find other feminist ways of being with these texts.

Minister: Allowing for compromised pleasures

A feminist and queer theorization of sexual violence in the Hebrew Bible also needs to leave space for compromised pleasures. This is an idea I adapt from Meredith Minister and her work on ‘sex and alien encounter’. Drawing on the work of feminist science fiction pioneer Octavia Butler, Minister closely reads Butler’s descriptions of sexual encounters between aliens and non-alien beings. These include Butler’s novelette Bloodchild, in which benevolent aliens can reproduce only by gestating their eggs in humans (either women or men) and the Xenogenesis trilogy, in which another species of aliens engages in sex – not always fully consensually – with humans and eventually create a new hybrid species with them. Minister uses these stories to put pressure on received ideas of consent, autonomy, and ‘the bounds of the self’, offering a theory of ‘compromised pleasure’ that challenges us to ‘engage questions around language and communication, the bounds of the self and individual autonomy, and the nature of pleasure.’[49] This touches on both communication and consent.

First, while consent discourses typically emphasize the verbal,[50] Minister notes the challenges that Butler’s fictions pose to this norm. The aliens in Xenogenesis communicate primarily through touch; in another of Butler’s works, ‘Amnesty’, communication occurs through light. Minister uses this to explore a response to sexual violence that doesn’t depend upon ability.

Second, consent. Minister writes,

I hesitate to use the word consensual … to describe the human-alien encounters in the Xenogenesis series, ‘Bloodchild,’ or ‘Amnesty.’ Butler, however, does consistently describe these encounters as pleasurable. And the pleasure of these encounters between humans and aliens often exceeds the pleasures of sexual encounters between humans. While the compromised nature of communication and the lack of clearly definable individual boundaries do not excuse the overt forms of violence sometimes exerted by the aliens against the humans, it can help explain why the encounters between the humans and aliens can be described as both coercive and pleasurable.

Minister further suggests using Butler’s work to open up conversations about sexual violence and sexual pleasure that move beyond the liberal model of the subject and the binary formulation of consent/rape.

Applied to the biblical rape texts, Minister’s work directs our attention to alterity. We find this in the Dinah story — as postcolonial analysis shows, Dinah and her family are literally aliens in the land. As many feminist critics have pointed out, we do not know how Dinah responds to the rape; at least one midrash speculates that Dinah enjoys Shechem so much that she has to be forcibly removed from his home. While most modern readers, including nearly all my students, find this suggestion repulsive,[51] Minister’s theorization of sex and alien encounter opens a space to consider it, and the question of pleasure more broadly, without the sort of romanticizing rape erasure that The Red Tent undertakes. We might think similarly, if carefully, about Tamar, or about the various ‘non-rape’ arranged marriages in Genesis and the Deuteronomistic History.

Alien encounter and compromised pleasure might even offer a way to think about sexual violence in the Prophets. Scholars have long struggled with the sexual violence levied against metaphorical, gynomorphic bodies in the Prophets, such as the feminized Jerusalem in Ezekiel 16 and the sisters Oholah and Oholibah in Ezekiel 23. While these are stories of rape, there is also a current of eroticism and erotic play — not in the text, but in its reception by and among at least some readers, as queer scholarship has pointed out. Minister’s Butler-inflected theory of compromised pleasure offers a way to describe and understand complex hermeneutical responses to a text such as Ezekiel 23 without reducing its sexual violence to a joke (as, for example, in Stuart Macwilliam’s illuminating but occasionally discomfiting camp reading, or Roland Boer’s jokey, insistently masculinist readings.[52]) This is a messy reading, even perhaps an icky one (Minister herself writes ‘I hesitate to use the word consensual…’), but it also opens new possibilities.

Conclusion: Don’t stop imagining a world without rape

Rape and rape culture remain challenging and sometimes heartbreaking matters, in the biblical texts and even more so, in the world. In pushing back against consent discourses, my aim has been not to reject consent itself, which plays an important role in contemporary understandings of sexual encounter and sexual violence, but to summon us as feminists to think beyond the limitations of consent. Consent discourses flatten and erase the fuzzy, the messy, and the icky. They impose anachronistic and, more importantly, anti-feminist notions of the liberal subject on to ancient texts. They ignore discomfort and subtle forms of coercion. They neglect race, ethnicity, and other questions of intersectionality, and risk slipping into a colonialist project of saving women. They legitimize subordination. And they set too low a bar, foreclosing questions of pleasure.

And yet we also have alternatives. Haraway, Sedgwick, Ahmed, Minister and Butler all provide resources for thinking differently about sexual violence, in the text and in the world. I have begun to sketch what this might look like in a few select biblical texts, but there is still much more to be explored. Phyllis Trible often employs the image of wrestling with the text, using Jacob and the angel as a metaphor for the work of feminist criticism. I want to end with a quote from another wrestling angel, this one from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: ‘The great work begins.’[53]

[1] I have also written about these topics in Rhiannon Graybill, ‘Critiquing the Discourse of Consent’, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 33/1 (April 12, 2017): 175–76; Rhiannon Graybill, Meredith Minister, and Beatrice Lawrence, ‘Sexual Violence in and around the Classroom’, Teaching Theology & Religion 20/1 (2017): 70–88; Rhiannon Graybill, ‘Good Intentions Are Not Enough: A Feminist Critique of Responses to Rape Culture’, in Rape Culture and Religious Studies: Critical and Pedagogical Engagements, ed. Rhiannon Graybill, Meredith Minister, and Beatrice Lawrence, Feminist Studies and Sacred Texts (Lexington Books, forthcoming).

[2] As Schulman writes, ‘we do not always know what we feel’. See, Sarah Schulman, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016). The complexity of response is also analysed by Vanessa Grigoriadis, Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2017).

[3] Jennifer Doyle, Campus Sex, Campus Security (Semiotext(e), 2015).

[4] Grigoriadis, Blurred Lines; Rebecca Traister, ‘The Game Is Rigged: Why Sex That’s Consensual Can Still Be Bad. And Why We’re Not Talking About It.’, The Cut, October 20, 2015,

[5] Grigoriadis, Blurred Lines;  Kindle Locations 2338-2340.

[6] Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham NC: Duke University Press Books, 2010).

[7] This image of consent as ‘like a traffic signal’ is increasingly common. See, for example,  Red-Light, Green-Light consent games have been organized at universities such as George Washington University, the University of Calgary, and Washington State University. Grigoriadis provides a description and analysis in Blurred Lines (the scene below takes place at Columbia University): ‘[Suzanne] Goldberg began a monologue about Columbia’s new sexual-assault policies, then added, “It’s hard for most people to navigate sexual relationships, and particularly challenging for young adults.” She clicked on her computer screen to show me a poster hanging in undergraduate dorms with red, yellow, and green lights. Red means stop—someone is drunk, asleep, or passed out, or one person doesn’t want to have sex. Yellow is pause—mixed signals. Green—a mutual decision has been made about how far to go and “all partners are excited and enthusiastic!”…In the moment, on a mattress, students may not interpret signs and signals as easily as Columbia’s Suzanne Goldberg, promoter of the traffic light, imagines. Kimberly Ferzan from the University of Virginia put it this way: “Reformers say, ‘What’s the big deal, you stay at the red light until you’re sure you have the green,’” she explained in a lecture. “But that’s not what’s going on here. What’s going on here is that you have to think of our population reaching the level of red-green colorblindness where we can no longer rely on red and green lights, and so we decide we’re going to change the rules and have orange and purple. All of a sudden it’s orange and purple, and you think, I don’t know what that means, does it mean stay or should I go?’ (Blurred Lines, Kindle Locations 2413-2417; 2779-2784).  In 1993, the US Navy used a similar strategy (based on traffic signals) in an attempt to address sexual harassment.

[8] I will draw on work by a number of feminist theorists, as well as some of my own writing in The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Teaching Theology and Religion, and the forthcoming volume Rape Culture and Religious Studies: Critical and Pedagogical Engagements. I also recommend Meredith Minister’s forthcoming monograph Rape Culture on Campus, which covers some of this ground, in greater and more sensitive detail.

[9] As Donna Haraway wrote already in the 1980s, ‘Feminist objectivity means quite simply situated knowledges’. See her Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 2001), 188.

[10] Robert Kawashima, for example, argues that because women who were raped in ancient Israel cannot ‘constitute victims of a legally prosecutable crime’, what happens to them is not actually rape. For Kawashima, interpreting ancient laws requires ‘reconstruct[ing] this episteme, that is, the legal concepts and principles operating in ancient Israel.’ This reconstruction leads to the conclusion that ‘If I [Kawashima] am correct, this verb should never be translated as “rape,” as it often is. Inasmuch as biblical legal thought recognized the basic personhood of all people, neither women nor girls could ever be reduced to pure objects. But neither did it recognize them as full subjects, and so they could never constitute victims of a legally prosecutable crime.’ Robert S. Kawashima, ‘Could a Woman Say “No” in Biblical Israel? On the Genealogy of Legal Status in Biblical Law and Literature’, AJS Review 35/1 (2011): 1–22, 2; pp. 2-3, note 4. Kawashima is hardly alone in this finding; Susanne Scholz has tracked a similar tendency in a wide range of scholarship on biblical and ancient Near Eastern laws — what I, and she, would call ‘rape laws’. See Scholz, “‘Back then it was legal”: The epistemological imbalance in readings of biblical and ancient Near Eastern rape legislation,’ The Bible and Critical Theory, Vol. 1/4, 2005. pp.36.1–36.22.

[11] Goldberg’s comments were widely covered in the media; for example Maev Kennedy, ‘Polanski Was Not Guilty of “Rape-Rape”, Says Whoopi Goldberg,’ The Guardian, September 29, 2009, sec. Film,; Lindsay Robertson, ‘Whoopi On Roman Polanski: It Wasn’t “Rape-Rape,’” accessed June 15, 2018,

[12] Ahmed also specifically describes this situation as ‘messy’: ‘Tangles are messy, and accounts of the social will thus need to be messy in turn’ (Ahmed, Willful Subjects, 56).

[13] Roxane Gay, ed., Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture (Harper, 2018); Vanessa Grigoriadis, Blurred Lines.

[14] There are a number of other troubling details in the story that suggest the presence of not just rape, but rape culture. Amnon is known to Tamar, making this a clear account not just of rape, but of acquaintance rape, as Susanne Scholz draws out. Amnon entraps Tamar, through a plan (pretending to be ill) that he has devised with his friend Jonadab — a clear example of the toxic masculinity described by contemporary accounts of rape culture. (See also Gerald O. West, ‘The contribution of Tamar’s story to the construction of alternative African masculinities’, Bodies, embodiment, and theology of the Hebrew Bible (2010): 184-200. The rape also causes a crisis in the family; David refuses to act because he loves Amnon; Amnon is eventually killed by Absalom, Tamar’s full brother (and his own half brother). Cynthia Chapman analyses this detail as indicating the significance of the uterine family and ‘house of the mother’ in the Hebrew Bible and ancient Israel. See her The House of the Mother: The Social Roles of Maternal Kin in Biblical Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Yale University Press, 2016).

[15] Ahmed, Willful Subjects, p.55.

[16] For example, Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Fortress Press, 1984), Charlene van der Walt, ‘Hearing Tamar’s Voice—How the Margin Hears Differently: Contextual Readings of 2 Samuel 13.1-22’, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles I: Texts@ Contexts 1 (2016): 3, Denise Ackermann, Tamar’s Cry: Re-Reading an Ancient Text in the Midst of an HIV/AIDS Pandemic (CIIR, 2002), Diane Jacobson, ‘Remembering Tamar’, Word and World 24 (2004): 353–357. Note also the use of ‘Tamar’ as signifier in e.g., Pamela Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response (Fortress Press, 2012),  S. Amelia Stinson-Wesley, ‘Daughters of Tamar: Pastoral Care for Survivors of Rape’, Through the Eyes of Women: Insights for Pastoral Care, 1996, 222, and the South African Tamar campaign (Gerald O. West and Phumzile Zondi-Mabizela, ‘The Bible Story That Became a Campaign: The Tamar Campaign in South Africa (and Beyond)’, Ministerial Formation, 2004, 5.

[17] Samuel L. Gaertner, John F. Dovidio, and Gary Johnson, ‘Race of Victim, Nonresponsive Bystanders, and Helping Behavior’, The Journal of Social Psychology 117/1 (June 1, 1982): 69–77; Christine A. Gidycz, Lindsay M. Orchowski, and Alan D. Berkowitz, ‘Preventing Sexual Aggression among College Men: An Evaluation of a Social Norms and Bystander Intervention Program’, Violence against Women, 2011; Sidney Bennett, Victoria L. Banyard, and Lydia Garnhart, ‘To Act or Not to Act, That Is the Question? Barriers and Facilitators of Bystander Intervention’, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2013.

[18] Meredith Minister, ‘Sex and Alien Encounter: Rethinking Consent as a Rape Prevention Strategy’, in Rape Culture and Religious Studies: Critical and Pedagogical Engagements, ed. Rhiannon Graybill, Meredith Minister, and Beatrice Lawrence, Feminist Studies and Sacred Texts (Lexington Books, forthcoming).

[19] See e.g. Maria Bevacqua, Rape on the Public Agenda: Feminism and the Politics of Sexual Assault (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000); Lisa Lindquist Dorr, White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Crystal Nicole Feimster, Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009); Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance: a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York: Vintage Books, 2011).

[20] Already in the nineteenth century, Ida B. Wells described the ways in which the fear of rape of white women was used to justify the lynching of black men. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, On Lynchings (Mineola, New York: Dover, 2014); originally published as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (New York: New York Age Print, 1892); A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States 1892-1893-1894 (Chicago: Donohue & Henneberry, 1895); Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to the Death (Chicago: Ida B. Wells, 1900).

[21] Musa W. Dube, ‘Dinah (Genesis 34) at the Contact Zone: Shall Our Sister Be Treated like a Whore?’, in Feminist Frameworks and the Bible: Power, Ambiguity, and Intersectionality, ed. L. Juliana Claassens and Carolyn J. Sharp (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017), 39–58, 51.

[22] Dube, ‘Dinah (Genesis 34) at the Contact Zone’, 50.

[23] J. Cheryl Exum, Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)Versions of Biblical Narratives, JSOT Supp 163 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993).

[24] Dube, ‘Dinah (Genesis 34) at the Contact Zone’, 51.

[25] The reference is to Omar Robert Hamilton’s novel The City always Wins (New York: Macmillan, 2017), about the failed Cairo revolution.

[26] It has been argued that consent is a conservative notion that promotes ‘dominance feminism’. As Janet Halley argues, ‘affirmative consent’ is fundamentally conservative, in a way that opposes radical feminist ideals while insisting on a model in which ‘male domination and female subordination become the structure underlying all of social life’. Halley argues that affirmative consent policies create ‘repressive and sex-negative’ norms around sex while ‘install[ing] traditional social norms of male responsibility and female helplessness. See Janet Halley, ‘The Move to Affirmative Consent’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 42/1 (2016): 258 n4.

2 Halley, 259. Halley concludes, ‘Affirmative consent requirements don’t deserve their progressive reputation, and the many progressives and leftists (including those scholars and activists who have no indebtedness to the dominance framework) who support it should, I think, give their support a second thought’ (278).

[27] Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[28] See further Graybill, ‘Good Intentions are Not Enough’.

[29] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (New York: Columbia University Press), 93; reprinted from C. Nelson and L. Grossberg (eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Macmillan Education: Basingstoke, 1988, 271-313.

[30] I have explore the risks of ‘saving’ biblical women in Rhiannon Graybill, ‘No Child Left Behind: Reading Jephthah’s Daughter with The Babylon Complex’, The Bible & Critical Theory 11/2 (2015): 36–50.

[31] Graybill, ‘Critiquing the Discourse of Consent’.

[32] Kelly Oliver, ‘Party Rape, “Nonconsensual Sex,” and Affirmative Consent Policies’, Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2015, Volume 14/2, p. 7. The quote continues: ‘As Lise Gotell argues, “even when framed through an ‘only yes means yes’ standard, consent is not a measure of whether a woman desires sex but, instead, whether she accedes. Consent thus functions as a sign of subordination (that is, subordination to another’s power) and a means of its legitimation” (372). In this regard, affirmative consent reinforces the stereotypical notion of active masculine agency and reactive feminine agency wherein the woman’s power to choose is circumscribed within the very limited confines of consenting to let someone do something to her.’

[33] Rebecca Trainer, ‘Why Sex That’s Consensual Can Still Be Bad. And Why We’re Not Talking About It’, The Cut, October 20, 2015,; accessed Dec. 2, 12017.

[34] This is a question I have explored elsewhere in my work, with other difficult texts or ‘texts of terror’ — using horror film to read the marriage metaphor in Hosea and Lee Edelman’s work on reproductive futurism to read Jephthah’s daughter. Now I want to explore with you how else we might read these stories.

[35] Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, 188.

[36] Haraway writes, ‘Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein’s monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden; that is, through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city and cosmos. The cyborg does not dream of a community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust….’ Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, 151.

[37] Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet (Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2008), 70.

[38] Rhiannon Graybill, ‘When Bodies Meet: Fraught Companionship and Entangled Embodiment in Jeremiah’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, forthcoming.

[39] Donna J. Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience (New York: Routledge, 1997).

[40] Haraway, When Species Meet, 46.

[41] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You’, in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, ed. Adam Frank, Series Q (Duke University Press, 2003), 123–52.

[42] Sedgwick, ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading’, 128.

[43] The ickiness of non-paranoid reading, particularly with reference to racism, has been explored by Jennifer Knust in her affect-centered response to the curse of Ham: ‘Who’s Afraid of Canaan’s Curse? Genesis 9:18-29 and the Challenge of Reparative Reading’, Biblical Interpretation 22/4–5 (2014): 388–413.

[44] Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness.

[45] Graybill in Graybill, Minister, and Lawrence, ‘Sexual Violence in and around the Classroom’, 74.

[46] I explore this point in greater detail in my contribution to Graybill, Minister, and Lawrence, ‘Sexual Violence in and around the Classroom’, 72-73.

[47] Here Ahmed’s work on queer trajectories, set forth in Queer Phenomenology, is useful as well. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, First Edition (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2006).

[48] Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror.

[49] Minister, ‘Sex and Alien Encounter’, in Graybill, Minister, and Lawrence, Rape Culture and Religious Studies: Critical and Pedagogical Engagements (Lexington Books, forthcoming).

[50] For example, defines consent as ‘Consent is a mutual verbal, physical, and emotional agreement that happens without manipulation, threats, or head games’,

[51] Another possibility is reading this story as s/m, as Lena Salaymeh suggests (personal communication). To my knowledge, this reading has not been explored in biblical studies.

[52] Stuart Macwilliam, Queer Theory and the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible, BibleWorld (Sheffield, UK; Oakville, CT: Equinox, 2011); e.g., Roland Boer, The Earthy Nature of the Bible: Fleshly Readings of Sex, Masculinity, and Carnality, BibleWorld (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[53] Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes: Revised and Complete Edition, 20th Anniversary Edition (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2013). ‘The great work begins’ is uttered by the Angel to Prior, the ‘prophet’, at multiple points in the work; it is the last line of the first play, Millennium Approaches.

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Negotiating the Silence: Sexual Violence in Israeli Holocaust Fiction (video)

Abstract: When American Jewish writers write about sexual violence against Jewish women in the Holocaust, they talk around the subject. Rape is implied. Sexual slavery described in broad strokes. Euphemisms abound to explain scenes in which women use sex in an attempt to bargain their way to survival. By contrast, when Israeli Jewish women write about sexual victimization during World War Two, there is a direct attention to detail; in fact, the sexual sadism experienced by the female characters is often a central point of the text. My talk will explore how the literary treatment of rape can act as a litmus test for a community’s sense of vulnerability or, its opposite, self-assurance, while keeping in mind that obfuscation and euphemism are linguistic acts of denial seeded in the Biblical story of Abraham and Sara’s first sojourn into Egypt.

This talk was delivered at the 2018 Religion and Rape Culture Conference. Click here to see more videos.

Miryam Sivan is a former New Yorker has lived in Israel for twenty years. Much of her fiction is about the experiences of ex-pats in love, in flux, in the liminal space between cultures, languages, and historical epochs. She is a lecturer of English Literature at the University of Haifa. Her book, Belonging Too Well: Portraits of Identity in Cynthia Ozick’s Fiction, was published by SUNY Press (2009). In addition to numerous scholarly publications, she translated On the Blossoming, a book of poems by Leah Goldberg (1992).

Her short fiction has appeared in Lilith, Arts and Letters, Wasafiri, Jewish Quarterly, and other publications. A collection of short stories, SNAFU and Other Stories was published in 2015. Her novel, Make it Concrete, will be published in the fall of 2018 by Cuidono Press in NYC.

Header image: Taken from the cover of “And the Rat Laughed” by Nava Semel

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