crosspost: this article originally appeared here.
“If art imitates life,
scripture likewise reflects it
in both holiness and horror.”
There is a love/hate relationship I have with wishlists. On the one hand, when special days that beckon gifts come around, it’s nice to get a present for someone which you know they will like. On the other hand, the hope would be that you as the gift-giver would be in tune enough with the recipient to grant them not only something that they will enjoy, but something that they didn’t even know they would enjoy.
There is a love/hate relationship I have with certain Biblical stories. These are the narratives where the “moral of the story” is seemingly no where to be found, and where the ever present God seems to be strangely absent. The mystery and the exploration of the text is intriguing and even interactive, but then to some degree unsatisfying as the third act of resolution or redemption doesn’t come. This can be especially frustrating when the inspired story’s main plot point is that of injustice.
The book for today’s post is Texts of Terror by Phyllis Trible. This little 128 page book (which originally was a series of lectures) was on my Christmas wish list this year and my sister-in-law (on the other side of the country) snagged it for me. (Thanks Liz!). Someone asked me recently what I was reading and I told them. They asked how it was and I responded: horribly beautiful.
Hence, I have a love/hate relationship with this book.
It’s an odd book that combines intellectual prowess with creative wordplay. It would be difficult to provide a fulfilling review, because the content is deep and wide and you need to be in it to get it. But I can still respond to the atmosphere around it.
Why Oh Why?
So what turned me (as a relatively theologically conservative 36-year old man) on to add a Literary-Feminist Reading of Biblical Narrative to my wishlist? Two main reasons; one being a theological catalyst and the other being an incarnational reality. They are equally intertwined, but we’ll turn first to the catalyst.
The general trend of our culture is that we are isolated and individualistic. One of the ways this plays out is that while an individual voice might ring out in calling for reform where systemic brokenness has ensued (let’s say equality among sexes), the communal choir (which entails a host of voices which are not like the individual voice) tends to go missing. And as I read the Scriptures, specifically the high calling of the New Testament, what I sense is the humility of the single voice and the power of the communal voice.
Let me say this another way… by Gospel principles, if my enemy slaps me on the cheek, I turn and give him MY other cheek; the humility of my voice preaches the Gospel. However, if I see someone enact oppression against another, I don’t tell the oppressed to turn THEIR other cheek. Instead, I step in to intercede for them.
You might be thinking, so someone that is being abused should just take it? No, not at all. But what I am focusing on is that we tend not to have the communal courage and care for one another. This creates an embedded posture in us that we have to fight for ourselves, to speak up for ourselves because nobody else will. It’s a catch 22… we want our independence and isolation and then complain about it when nobody else comes along side us.
But a people shaped by the Gospel has each other’s backs, even in differences because we are one in Christ and have a center that transcends -isms and -ists. (Additionally, a Gospel community looks out not only for other Christian, but even for their enemy.)
So, what does it mean, for me as an ambassador of Christ, as a man, as a person called to a communal mindset, to add my voice to the choir to bring about the honor of women and the revelation of femininity found in the image of God?
Author Andy Crouch in some of his musing on power and the Christian said something once like this: If the white middle-class American man is one of the most influential demographics in our current culture, will the white middle-class Christian American man wield that influence in order to help others flourish, even if that means his own power in the society/culture is diminished? Will those “in power” empty themselves in order for the Kingdom of God to increase?
Second reason for exploring this book is simple. I am the father of four daughters. I desire for my children to thrive beyond what I have known or shown as normal to be. I desire for them to know their design, to know their brokenness, to know their God, and to know their Redeemer. I desire for them to be part of a community that isn’t afraid to speak truth to them and for them, a community that will equally love them in their strengths as well as tell them when they are in sin.
I myself (spoiler alert) am not a woman. How can I understand or have perspective to love my daughters in and through junk that they may experience specifically as women? How can I be strong and sensitive in my masculinity and fatherhood, not homogenizing the sexes but harmonizing in tangibility God’s full image among us? (Answer: I have no stinkin’ clue, and I have my own demons in all this, just ask Naomi…but onward).
Sad Stories Do Not Have Happy Endings
Trible doesn’t hold any punches in the introduction to the book. She defines the perspective (documenting the case against women), the methodology (literary criticism), and the narrative thrust (wrestling with God and demons in the terror of these texts). She warns…
“The journey is solitary and intense. In joining this venture, the reader assumes risks.”
If you thought the following stories where rough on their own, hearing them elaborated and dwelt on through a feminist perspective exponentially draws out the terror.
I can appreciate when an author tells you their perspective because, rather than thinking they have a completely “objective” take on things, it’s forth right to know the focus and scope and allows the reader to not always be questioning the intent of the author. Hence, it helps to hear the author more clearly. The way Trible methodically pulls apart and draws out the poetic nuances of the text is really something fantastic. I must admit though that multiple times I questioned whether the original authors of the text purposed all that Trible extracts, making more of it than what is actually there. However, the sum of art is always greater than its parts, and with God’s hand in the whole thing, it’s plausible.
The first story is that of Hagar who experienced the desolation of rejection in the family dynamics of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 16, 21). The thread of slavery really stuck out to me with Hagar in that we tend to think of Israel being freed from the slavery of Egypt and yet prior to all of that the Patriarch and Matriarch of the faith had this Egyptian slave woman, using her in one moment and then damning her in the next because of doing what they told her to do.
Next came Tamar the Princess of Judah and the royal rape of wisdom (2 Samuel 13). Tamar is surrounded by the familial falleness of masculinity (Amnon and David) and she’s the one that bears the stripes, torn apart sexually, culturally, and shamefully.
The fourth story (I’ll get to the third in a second) is the Daughter of Jephthah as an inhuman sacrifice (Judges 11:29-40). Jephthah’s daughter is slaughtered by her father because her father was being faithful to an unfaithful vow.
The third story is that of the Unnamed Woman, the concubine of the Levite who experienced the extravagance of violence of being handed over to gang rape, literally cut up into pieces, and then used for cover-up and political manipulation (Judges 19).
The text of this story “ends” with this postscript…
Such a thing has never happened or been seen from the day that the people of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt until this day; consider it, take counsel, and speak.
Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror calls our attention to all these stories in sacred scripture and advises us to do just as the postscript says: consider, take counsel, and speak/act. It can be seen as a “prophetic movement” in examining the status quo, pronouncing right judgment, and then calling for a turning. This turning isn’t just about those-people, but also about us-people, both female and male.
“This counsel is itself ineffectual unless we direct our hearts to that most uncompromising of all biblical commands, speaking the word not to others but to ourselves: Repent, Repent.”
The Terror of The Cross
Trible has a unique knack of both being scholarly and poetic in her writing. A multi-corded thread she has in each of the stories through-out her book is that of alluding to these women in connection to the suffering servant of Isaiah, the passion narratives of the Gospels, and the Eucharist in Pauline writings.
The epitaph for Hagar:
She was wounded for our transgressions; she was bruised for our iniquities.
Tamar’s gravestone reads:
A woman of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
Unnamed Woman’s tomb:
Her body was broken and given to many.
Jebhthah’s Daughter’s gravesite:
My God, my God, why have thou forsaken her?
When I first read these markers flipping through the book, I was annoyed by them for some highfalutin theologically-brained reason. But by the end of the book as I am crying over Trible’s poetic postscript, I got sucker punched by these connections and experienced in my spirit a glorious sorrow of the cross that wasn’t open before (don’t be surprised if this comes up at a Good Friday service). The tangibility of these women’s horrific stories led me to an appreciation of the beauty of redemption through the love of the cross.
This by no means makes these stories “acceptable”. In fact I’m pretty sure that Trible would deliver to you an 84 year old drop kick to the head if you minimized their grief for some sort of “moral of the story”. But in a book with so much death as its source material, it takes a somewhat creative genius to subtly weave a breath of life into it all.