Giving Voice to the Voiceless: Preaching Judges 19

Judges 19 describes the rape and dismemberment of an unnamed woman.

The woman in the story is owned by a Levite. The word used to describe her, piylegesh, can mean concubine, secondary wife, or wife of lower socio-economic standing. The two are in an intimate, though hierarchical, relationship. Something causes the woman to flee to her father’s home.1 After four months, the Levite pursues his woman, supposedly to “speak to her heart.” Instead, the Levite speaks to the woman’s father. The Levite eats and drinks with the woman’s father for five days, finally pulling himself away from the banquet table to travel home at dusk of the fifth day. The Levite chooses to rest in Gibeah, an Israelite town, thinking that he will be safe among kinsmen, but no one in the town will welcome him. Finally, a man from his own hometown invites them to stay the night.

Without warning, the men of Gibeah surround the house and demand that the Levite be sent out so that they might rape him. The owner of the house offers his own daughter and the unnamed woman to the crowd in exchange for the safety of his guest. As the crowd presses in, the Levite seizes his concubine and throws her out to the violent mob. Her body is offered for his own.
The woman is gang-raped all night long. At dusk, she crawls back to the house where her master is staying and collapses at the door.

The text tells us that the Levite rises the next morning to continue on his way. He seems to have forgotten the hours of torture that bought his good night’s sleep. When he sees the woman’s hands resting on the threshold of the door he says, “Get up.” There is no answer. The man throws the woman, dead or alive we do not know, on his donkey. He arrives home, takes his knife, cuts his wife into twelve pieces, and sends her body out to the twelve tribes of Israel. When the man tells his story in Judges 20, he never mentions his own role in the crime.

Why preach this story?
The story itself is horrific–betrayal, rape, murder, dismemberment, and cover-up of the crime. The narration of the story is also horrific. There is no explicit condemnation of the treatment of the woman. Israel’s supposedly outraged response is to slaughter entire towns and then rape some four hundred additional women. God’s absence is horrific. In a similar scene in Genesis 19, divine visitors blind the lust-mad crowd and rescue the women being offered. In Judges 19, no such rescue occurs. God does not stop the abuse. God does not even bother to show up afterward to condemn her rape and dismemberment.

But preaching this story heeds the only thing akin to an ethical command found in Judges 19. At the end of the story, everyone who sees the pieces of this woman’s battered body say together, “Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Incline your heart to her! Consider it! Speak out!” 2  God is silent, but we are commanded to speak out. Yet Judges 19 is not in the lectionary and not in any Sunday School or Bible study curriculum I have ever seen. God’s absence in moments of profound suffering seems too hard a word to preach.

But Judges 19 is in the Bible. God claims this story of God’s absence as part of the larger story of God’s presence in the world. Victims of sexual violence know the truth of this claim. Many victims have experienced their abuse as being abandoned by God. Yet we do not make a space in our congregations for experiences of God’s neglect to be told. We leave victims of sexual violence voiceless. We do not incline our hearts to them, consider their stories, or speak out.

We would do victims of sexual violence a world of good if we followed God’s lead–letting their statements of God’s absence rest heavily in our congregations instead of insisting that God works in mysterious ways or that God has a plan. Preaching this text of terror encourages those who have been scared to share their experiences of God’s neglect and invites them, with the truth of their past, to come into the church. Preaching Judges 19 invites God’s present people to surround the wound of God’s absence as other texts in the canon surround this one.

Turning your heart to the woman in Judges 19 and speaking out in the pulpit is a way to give voice to the voiceless victims in your congregation. One out of every six women has been raped. You will be identifying yourself as a safe person. Be prepared for response. The first time I spoke on Judges 19, a woman came up to me with tears streaming down her cheeks. “I never knew my story was in the Bible,” she said, smiling at her new-found inclusion. Contact your local sexual assault or domestic violence center for resources and advice. Consult Carol J. Adam’s Woman-Battering or Marie M. Fortune’s Sexual Violence: The Unmentionable Sin for insight into the pastoral and theological issues at stake.

1 See Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror for a discussion of the textual variants explaining the woman’s behavior in Judges 19:2.
2  Trible’s translation of this verse in Texts of Terror informs my own translation given here.