In Memory and Mystery (Judges)

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Book of Judges: May 30-June 5

  • Many biblical scholars argue that the book of Judges is meant as a showcase of the chaos and depravity the Israelite community experienced without a uniting monarch figure.


  • This book covers the time between the conquest described in the Book of Joshua and the establishment of a kingdom in the Books of Samuel, during which biblical judges served as temporary leaders.

  • Consistent pattern: people are unfaithful to Yahweh, so Yahweh delivers them into the hands of their enemies; the people repent and ask Yahweh for mercy, so Yahweh sends a leader/judge for the people. The judge delivers the Israelites from oppression and they prosper, but soon they fall again into unfaithfulness and the cycle repeats itself

  • It doesn’t shy away from a gruesome, violent look at humanity

Content warning: domestic violence, rape, and murder, and mass shootings

Deborah, Daughter of Jephthah, Delilah, Concubine

Deborah & Jael -  Judges 4 (included in CFM) and the Song of Deborah in Judges 5

Brief Background - Deborah

  • From JWA: Deborah is one of the major judges (aka military leaders, not juridical figures) in the story of how Israel takes the land of Canaan. She is the only female judge, the only one to be called a prophet, and the only one described as performing a judicial function. Deborah summons Barak to lead the battle against the Canaanites; he agrees, but only if she accompanies him. Barak and his warriors destroy all the Canaanites except Sisera, who seeks refuge but is killed by Jael (whom we will also address).

  • She is a judge, prophet, military leader, poet, and singer

  • She is associated with fire and torches as her husband called Lapidot, which literally means torches, and perhaps Deborah encouraged him to deliver wicks to light the Menorah in the temple.

  • In chapter 5, we hear the Song of Deborah praising God for helping them defeat the Canaanites and in verse 7 she declares herself “a mother in Israel”

    • Some questions for connecting personally with Deborah

      • What torches do I hold and which torches do I pass on?

      • How can I work in relation with others when they call on me?

      • How can I practice not being ashamed of my personal revelation and prophecy?

Brief Background - Jael

  • From JWA: Jael (a Kenite) plays an important role in the story of Israel’s wars with the Canaanites. Deborah prophesizes that the victory will not be a glory for Barak because Sisera will fall “by the hand of a woman.” When the battle goes disastrously for Sisera, rather than die with his men on the battlefield, he flees to Jael’s tent, hoping to find refuge. Instead, Jael kills him. Jael thus fulfills Deborah’s prophecy, but she confounds many other expectations.

  • Inside the tent, Jael covers Sisera with a blanket and gives him milk. JWA notes the maternal overtones here of ushering him in, promising everything will be alright, giving him milk, and tucking him into bed. Further, when a war general comes into a woman’s tent, we are accustomed to fearing for the woman, not the man.

    • Some questions for connecting personally with Jael

      • How can I practice dissolving gendered expectations and roles?

      • How can I use my cunning tools to 

  • For all that happens in both Deborah and Jael’s story, we are met with a demand to expand our expectations of gender and gender roles

A few other notes:

  • Let us not forget that this war against the Canaanites was one of conquest, and makes Israel the aggressor, even if God has commanded them to enter, conquer, and take this land as their Promised Land

  • Literary figures are never only “good” or “bad” and that includes women in the scriptures. I’ve been thinking too about how, specifically with Deborah, how can women in powerful positions still participate/cause great destruction and harm?

    • It seems necessary to me to approach these characters as complex. Surely, we can celebrate Deborah and Jael for acting against societal expectations and pushing the boundaries of gender roles. And yet, we can also critique the roles they play in war, conquest, and extermination of peoples.

Various Readings

Non-binary reading:

“Jael is Non-binary; Jael is Not a Woman” by Aysha W. Musa

  • Offering non-binary interpretations disrupts the erasure of non-binary folks by highlighting representation in the Bible

    • I find it interesting here that the author continues to use the language of femininity/masculinity and man/woman in an attempt to challenge binary gender as opposed to completely removing gendered categories. They write, “My reluctance to undo constructions of femininity and masculinity is informed by Julia Serano and Jennie Barnsley who stress that “shattering” what is understood by femininity and masculinity undermines trans individuals’ right to assert a stable gender category. Rather than deconstructing femininity and masculinity, I work towards disrupting the constructed notion that there are only two fixed and mutually exclusive genders. A non-binary perspective—one that recognizes any identity or expression that falls outside the binarized heteronormative categories of masculinity and femininity, and does not treat these two categories as mutually exclusive—need not undermine the existence of femininity and masculinity as valid gender identities; these gender categories are still worth of recognition.”

  • Offers Jael as a gender ambiguous figure—someone who confounds our gender categories

    • Jael performs their gender through simultaneous blurred acts of femininity and masculinity

  • Naming

    • Name Jael is feminine and masculine concurrently, not one gender or the other

      • Feminine label (woman/wife), masculine name (Jael is a masculine word)

      • Text notes Jael is a woman and a wife, and the text attributes ownership of a tent to Jael (which can show Jael is performing the traditionally masculine role of home ownership)

      • Word Jael is a masuline word often meaning wild goat

  • Gendered Performances

    • Performances of femininity - caring, nurturing, maternal behavior, as well as potentially seductive behavior

    • Performances of masculinity - violence, murder, engagement with warfare. Jael uses force to penetrate Sisera with the tent peg and hammer

  • Instead of only ever interpreting Jael as a woman who is reversing gender roles, we can resist the temptation to explain away or ignore gender ambiguity and instead r

Other possibilities

  • There also seem to be other interpretations of Deborah and Jael. On my search I found things like “Deborah and Jael like Thelma and Louise” or lesbian interpretations of Jael, and I remember some 5 years ago when I taught the story of Deborah and Jael as a story of friendship and solidarity to my young women’s class. 

Daughter of Jephthah

  • Judges 11

    • We meet a character named Jephthah (pronunciation: JEF-thuh). Jephthah was from the city Gilead. His mother was a prostitute and his paternity was so unknown that the text says “and Gilead begat Jephthah,” meaning the city of Gilead was his father. Because of his parentage, Jephthah was pushed to the margins of society and lived with friends who were also unliked. Eventually, the Israelites found themselves losing a war with the Ammonites, and they reached out to Jephthah for his warring expertise to assist them in the war. Jephthah agrees once an understanding is made that if victory comes to the Israelites, he will become the head of Gilead.

    • Jephthah and the king of the Ammonites try to negotiate peace without success and the war continues. From the text we understand the Lord comes to Jephthah’s assistance throughout this entire process, but Jephthah wants to ensure an Israelite victory, and so in verse 30-31 he makes a vow with God that “If thou shalt deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, then whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me when I return, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” Jephthah’s armies are victorious and slaughter twenty cities.

    • It was customary that when fathers and brothers and husbands returned home from war, their wives and daughters and sisters would greet them with song and dance to celebrate their return. Jephthah’s daughter, who was an only child,  participated in this custom, and so it was that she was the first to meet Jephthah on his return.

    • There is an exchange between Jephthah and his daughter in v 35-37 in which Jephthah mourns his daughter’s greeting and says, “I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back.” Without knowing about her father’s vow, the daughter says, “My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the Lord, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth.” After this exchange, the reader must presume some type of knowledge about her predicament comes about, because the daughter requests to spend two months in the mountains alone with her friends to mourn. At the end of this mourning period, the daughter returns and in 39 we read “and her father did with her according to his vow which he had vowed.” The text ends the story by informing the reader that the death of Jephthah’s daughter is commemorated for four days every year by the women of the community.

  • Midrash name; Adah, obedience

  • Anat Koplowitz-Breier, “A Nameless Bride of Death: Jephthah’s Daughter in American Jewish Women’s Poetry”

    • Koplowitz-Brier shares that there are three questions raised by the text:

      • Why did Adah accept her fate?

      • Why did she go into the mountains for two months?

      • Was she actually sacrificed?

    • Because of the ambiguity of the text, especially about whether or not she was actually sacrificed, there has been extensive exegesis and midrash on Adah. Two theories dominate:

      • Earlier midrash argues that Jephthah did sacrifice his daughter, while

      • Later commentators argue that instead, she was secluded and isolated for the rest of her life.

    • Again, this is the challenge for modern-day readers. We don’t know the ending of the story, so we have a few options. 

      • We can place the text in history in order to condemn and/or leave it

      • We can take the text at face value, which asserts Jephthah did sacrifice his daughter, and critique and question it from that standpoint

      • Or, we can follow the line of midrash, which finds the loopholes and gaps in the text and fills them with imaginative endings which picture different experiences for the characters

      • We can also examine the way Judges 11 functions as a story with valuable commentary and life lessons for the modern feminist reader.

    • Let’s start with the first: placing the text in history, and leave/condemn it

      • Many biblical scholars argue that the book of Judges is meant as a showcase of the chaos and depravity the Israelite community experienced without a uniting monarch figure. In this way, the story of Adah functions as one piece of a 21 chapter-long tragedy. The tragedy is that the Israelites are largely self-governing and doing a very poor job of it. Readers may question, how poor of a job? And the text answers with the story of Jephthah’s daughter, the concubine of Judges 19, and many more examples.

      • Understanding that this story can function as an illustration helps us find its place in the larger narrative. But this approach much be examined closer - we must question: what makes the sacrificial murder of women an acceptable illustrative technique?

      • Also, a historical perspective may be helpful here in the case of theology as well, because through the entire process of the vow of sacrifice and the sacrifice itself, the reader never hears the voice of God. God never asks for the vow, never asks for the sacrifice, and we never hear it accepted either. So this is an opportune moment to ask: where else in history is the power of a man’s voice equated to the power of God?

    • Moving to the second approach, we can choose to take the text at face value and believe that Jephthah followed through with the sacrifice, and examine the text with a critical eye.

      • If we take this approach, we have opportunity to examine the text from a few different angles:

        • Why did Jephthah make the vow in the first place?

          • Phyllis Trible “Texts of Terror” argues that Jephthah’s vow was made in fear and doubt, rather than as a show of faith. Rather than trust in and reliance on God’s favor to see the Israelites through battle, Jephthah requires assurance that not only will the Isralietes be victorious, but that through their victory, Jephthah will acquire the power and position he never had but so deeply desires. “Jephthah is unsure of divine help and insecure about his future among those who had once rejected him.”

          • Further illustrating the faithlessness of Jephthah, Trible argues that prior to the vow, God’s gift of the spirit was a gift freely given to Jephthah. After the vow, God’s spirit becomes transactional. “Jephthah has gotten what he wanted in the way he wanted it, but he does not understand that to win is to lose.”

          • Trible also resists the pairing of this story with that of Abraham and Isaac. Rather than viewing those stories as mirrors of one another, Trible illustrates that they may be better viewed as opposites: Isaac’s lineage was a respectable one; Jephthah’s was not. God commanded the sacrifice of Isaac, but did not even ask for that of Jephthah’s daughter. Rather, she was willingly offered up by her father in a moment of insecurity. God saves Isaac; there is no redemption for the daughter of Jephthah.

        • Asking one of Koplowitz-Brier’s questions: Why did Adah accept her fate?

          • To be completely honest, there doesn’t seem to be much academic commentary on this question. Even Koplowitz-Brier does not answer their own question. 

          • The text would have us assume that she did accept her fate without resistance. The midrash tradition offers us more complexity for her character and we see her resist her fate. But in the text, she ultimately “returns to her father” and is killed. Why? Is it a sense of duty? Does she feel she’s explored all her options and this is her only choice? Does she feel/is she trapped? Is there more to the story? Of course there is!

        • Perhaps the most tragic of all: 

          • JWA: Jephthah’s Daughter: “Jephthah’s daughter is the victim of her father’s vow to sacrifice a person in return for victory in battle. The narrative is not clear about why no one else in the story, including YHWH, intervenes.”

          • Why did no one intervene? We’ll talk a little bit about this in a moment, but the question especially of why God did not intervene hangs over this story like a foul stench.

    • Moving to the third approach which embraces a midrashic imagination that presents alternatives to the story:

      • Was the sacrifice necessary?

        • From “Jephthah’s Daughter: Midrash and Aggadah” by Tamar Kadari on JWA website:

        • Adah, Jephthah’s daughter, is seen in the midrash tradition as someone who is well-versed in the scriptures. Her wisdom and knowledge is opposed in the narrative by the example of her father, who is seen as prideful and reckless. No matter how well-placed her arguments against the sacrificial killing, or how unjustified by the text the fulfilment of his vow is by the law of the scriptures, her father proceeds with his vow and kills her. Additionally, rabbis blame Jephthah’s murder of his daughter on the high priest named Phinehas, who on account of his pride did not prevent Jephthah from fulfilling his vow.

          • Adah presents multiple examples in scripture that nullify the validity of Jephthah’s vow. “The daughter is therefore presented—in contrast to her father—as conversant in the laws of the Torah and the stories of the Bible. She argues with her father like a sharp-witted Torah scholar who employs logical reasoning. Unfortunately, none of her arguments succeeds in deterring her father from fulfilling his vow. The midrash asserts that if Jephthah had read the laws of vows in the Torah, he would not have lost his daughter.”

      • So to answer the question, was the sacrifice necessary? By all reasonable standards of the time, absolutely not.

      • So if it was not necessary and arguably completely unjustified, why did no one intervene?

        • From “Jephthah’s Daughter: Midrash and Aggadah” by Tamar Kadari on JWA website:

        • Additionally, some midrash argues that when the daughter spends two months in the mountains, she actually travels to the Sanhedrin (of the official jewish council) and asks the priests there to help her convince her father. They fail to do so. In fact, “Phinehas the High Priest lived in that generation and he could have annulled the vow. Phinehas, however, said: “I am a High Priest, the son of a High Priest; shall I debase myself and go to Jephthah, who is a boor?” Jephthah likewise said: “I am the head of the tribes of Israel, shall I debase myself by going to a commoner?” The midrash comments: “And between those two, the unfortunate girl was lost.”

        • I appreciate the midrash on Jephthah’s daughter because it colors the text differently. We see Adah moving and speaking and resisting. We see the ways that men fail her at every turn, and how they ultimately decide her fate by deciding to do nothing. The midrash itself resists the temptation to read the biblical narrative as Jephthah’s sad story and instead asks the reader to examine the deeper issues and ask questions like:

          • How does my pride prevent me from protecting others?

          • How does my privilege keep me safe while putting others at risk?

          • How does my silence and inability to imagine another outcome or alternative action cause harm and death?

        • I also have more questions about the aspects of socio-religious power structures at play in this story.

          • We see Adah shine in her knowledge and wisdom born from her obvious study of the scriptures. She doesn’t use the text in a theoretical argument, but instead she employs the text to ask for redemption and restoration of her own  life.

          • We see mirrors of this in our own congregations and spiritual communities. We see women who are well-versed in the text and women who are just like those Pres. Nelson who quoted Elder Packer in his 2013 talk “A Plea to my Sisters,”.

            • ““We need women who can teach, women who can speak out. …

            • “We need women with the gift of discernment who can view the trends in the world and detect those that are shallow or dangerous.”8

            • Today, let me add that we need women who know how to make important things happen by their faith and who are courageous defenders of morality and families in a sin-sick world. We need women who know how to receive personal revelation, women who know how to call upon the powers of heaven to protect and strengthen children and families; women who teach fearlessly.”

          • We can argue that Adah was such a woman. And what happened to her? She was murdered by the very person who claimed to love and protect her, and the social and religious system they both lived in not only did nothing to stop it, but facilitated the killing.

          • I’m not trying to be dramatic here. I am asking, in what ways does the LDS church ask women to show up with devotional practices of depth and music and dances which honor and bless, and as soon as women show up with their poetry, their words, their bravery, their hearts and souls, does the church and their male leaders say, AH well you have studied the scriptures wrong, you do not understand, you do not know what you know, you do not see what you see? And through this continual forcible silencing and the threat of abandonment and eternal death of isolation ask women to abandon and silence themselves in a million small ways until they are good as dead inside?

        • Jephthah and Phineas don’t get off scot free in this story, which is unique. “Both Phinehas and Jephthah are liable for the death of the latter’s daughter. The High Priest was punished by losing the spirit of divine inspiration, while Jephthah’s penalty consists of the shedding of his limbs, which are buried in numerous places, as is learned from Jud. 12:7.”

    • Finally, we can dig even deeper into the story and offer interpretations of what impacts and implications the story of the daughter of Jephthah has for modern-day readers of the text.

      • First, we can use the text as a case study of the use of the erasure of Adah’s experience to redeem or justify Jephthah’s.

        • Phyllis Trible notes that the grief and mourning which Jephthah shows in v35& 36 are not as harmless or genuine as they first appear. As his daughter comes out to greet him, v35 “When he saw her, he rent his clothes, and said, My daughter! Thou hast brought me very low, and thou trouble me.” Trible says of this “It is a gesture of despair, grief, and mourning - but for whom? Jephthah mourns for himself, not for his daughter.” Jephthah’s words accuse and blame her. Trible writes, “Though in anguish he calls her “My Daughter,” he offers her neither solace nor release. Although his daughter has served him devotedly with music and dance, Jephthah bewails the calamity that she brings upon him. And throughout it all, God says nothing.”

        • From “Marginalization, Ambiguity, Silencing: The Story of Jephthah's Daughter,” by Esther Fuchs

          • “The narrative’s focus on the father’s point of view and the omission of the daughter’s inner life suggests an attempt to mitigate the horror of Jephthah’s behavior. By using ambiguity at key points, the text leaves to conjecture actions whose more detailed description might have condemned the father. By dramatizing Jephthah’s anguish, describing his readiness to respond to his daughter’s request, using ambiguous and oblique references to the sacrifice, the narrator of the biblical texts interprets the events as the father’s tragedy.”

          • “Literary strategies work here in the interests of patriarchal ideology, and the ideology of male supremacy. This understanding calls for a resistant reading of the biblical text, a reading attuned to the implications of omissions and ambiguity. A reading, that above all, resists the tendency in biblical narrative to focus on the father at the daughter’s expense.”

        • We remember that while these are stories in a text, they are representative of real-life circumstance:

          • “Violating Women in the Name of God: Legacies of Remembered Violence” by Rosie Andrious: “Female martyrdoms highlight the sanctifying goodness of women, but what a perverse and sadistic way to present a heroine. These female martyrs represent the real violence done to women over the centuries. While we may admire the pursuit of holiness at all costs, once cannot help wondering whether holiness could have been achieved through less severe forms, as indeed it was by many men.”

        • As we employ a “resistant reading” of the text, we can practice skills of de-centering the perpetrator and re-centering the victims and survivors of violence. Rather than allow the story to focus on the experience of those that cause harm and thereby justify or somehow redeem them, we can choose to turn toward the victims and say, “Tell me more. I’m here, I am listening, I care. Show me where it hurts. I want to know. I believe you.”

        • This approach not only affects the way we understand the text, but also how we approach and care for victims and survivors in our own communities.

    • Before we share further lessons from Adah’s story, I first want to be sure to be entirely explicit: we are in complete agreement that the murder of Adah is a horrific tragedy that could have and should have been avoided. We wholeheartedly believe that there is no reasonable justification for parents choosing to murder their children, and in this case, fathers murdering their daughters. There is no restoring Adah, if indeed she ever really existed, but there is an opportunity here to look at and learn from her story so we can prevent it from happening again.

      • We can step into this story and examine on its implied commentary about women’s submission to male authority in the system of patriarchy:

        • Cheryl Exum, feminist biblical scholar, argues “The phallocentric message of the story of Jephthah’s daughter is, I suggest, submit to paternal authority. You may have to sacrifice your autonomy; you may lose your life, and even your name, but your sacrifice will be remembered, indeed celebrated, for generations to come. Herein lies, I believe, the reason Jephthah’s daughter’s name is not preserved: because she is commemorated not for herself but as a daughter.”

        • In other words, Exum argues that the reason Jephthah’s daughter is never explicitly named is because her sacrifice is complete in life and in death. She is entirely absorbed into her father’s experience and is never allowed to function outside of her attachment to him as an independent character.

      • Secondly, we can examine the concept of obedience, which is a highly valued trait within LDS spaces. Many LDS teachers and leaders emphasize the necessity of obedience and its transactional guarantee of the joy of life, whether mortal or eternal.

        • Female Resistance In Spite of Injustice: Human Dignity and the Daughter of Jephthah L. JULIANA CLAASSENS: “It is troubling to see how the daughter’s submission plays into the patriarchal intent of the text. It appears that the young woman does not question her father regarding the injustice committed in God’s name that is about to end her life. Rather she emerges, as Esther Fuchs rightly describes her, as the “perfect daughter whose loyalty and submissiveness to her father knows no limits.”“

        • One of the messages this story is speaking to me that makes me feel physically ill is this:

          • In the system of patriarchy, women never win. You can do everything right. You can be the good girl, you can follow the rules and do everything that is expected of you. You can be perfect, and you can try to find the joy in dancing in the confines of the slivered experience you are offered in this hyper-controlled system you live in. And its not when you break the rules that you die, though that is always a threat, but that death often comes PRECISELY BECAUSE you obeyed.

          • And for conservative LDS folks for whom most theological perspectives hinge on the promise of eternal life, the sacrifice of a mortal life for an eternal one is seen as a just and worthy exchange. But I would push back on and resist this, primarily because apocalypticism is not life-focused: it is death focused. I assert til the end of my days that an earthly life is one worth living. And it seems that Adah agrees. For her, the exchange isn’t fair. She spends two months in the mountains grieving the loss of a life fully lived. She will never have children. Never again will she see the budding of the aspen trees. Never again will the marsh frogs sing as she tiptoes over the floating boardwalk. She has two months of storm-cloud sunrises left to her; only sixty opportunities to greet the sun, to play her timbrel and dance with the larks and sparrows. Adah submits to death, but she does not want to go.

          • The over-valuation of obedience in a system which does not also honor informed consent and autonomy is a system of harm. If there is no distinction between the consequences of obedience and disobedience, as is lacking in this story, then I would passionately argue that women owe the system of patriarchy and those who actively participate in it absolutely nothing. Women do not owe their obedience to a system that would sooner kill them than slow down and listen. Women do not owe their allegiance to communities and leaders that offer safety and inclusion at the price of quiet acquiescence. We can learn to identify harmful narratives that require death as a sign of love, devotion, obedience, and righteousness and speak out against them to protect ourselves and our beloveds as if our lives depend on it. Because they do.

      • As an example of commemorating and telling stories to not be forgotten

        • What is unique about this story is that Adah is not forgotten by the community. Instead, we learn that four days of each year were set aside to remember and memorialize her. 

        • This tradition no longer continues and is not ours to appropriate because it was a distinctly Jewish tradition, but as modern readers of the text we can honor Adah in our own ways.  

          • We might choose to make sure her story is mentioned in our lessons

          • We might share her story within our circles of influence

          • We can paint, draw, dance, or sing in her honor

          • We can speak out against other stories that tell us that the cost of love and devotion is death, and instead assert again and again the value of life and choose to embody the belief that the Kingdom of God is already here on Earth.

          • We can sit with the pain in our communities and hold space in whatever generous and genuine ways we are able. We can say the words, “I am here. I am listening. I care.”

      • As we close the story of Adah, we remember to turn away from false gods who present devotion as a choice between love or life, and remember that there is no separating the two: life is love, love is life.

Samson & Deliah - Judges 15


  • Delilah’s story in the text begins with Samson, but Samson’s story in the text does not begin with Delilah.

    • We follow Samson from birth to death. We meet his mother, who is unnamed, but dedicates her child to God as a Nazarite. We follow Samson through his life, including when he marries a Philistine woman, who is also unnamed, outside the covenant. We listen to the actions of Samson, who slayed a lion with his bare hands, lit two foxes tails on fire and set them loose in a cornfield and wiped out Philistine crops, and witnessed his wife being burnt in retaliation by the Philistines, killed a thousand men with a jawbone of a donkey, and more.

    • We honor the women in this story who, like so many, are unnamed by the text but whose stories are not invisible to us.

  • In ch16v4, we meet Delilah. “And it came to pass afterward, that he loved a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah.”

  • Summarize the story

  • Liberating Delilah from heteronormativity with the “Delilah Monologues” by Caroline Blyth and Teguh Wijaya Mulya

    • Introduce Delilah:

      • “In both biblical interpretations of Judges 16 and its numerous cultural retellings, Samson is the heroic, aggressively heterosexual Israelite he-man, whose sexual desire for me is his undoing. I, meanwhile, am that personification of the evil foreign temptress—the femme fatale par excellence—whose (hetero)sexual allure, Philistine exoticism, and feminine wiles prove irresistible to Samson. In other words, Samson is a typical male, I’m a typical female (even worse, a foreign female); we have sex, I betray him, and it all ends in tears”

    • Looking at heteronormative gendered assumptions about sexuality

      • Delilah continues to speak to the images that have been created by those who desire to dig into the mystery of her story. She recounts the many titles and labels given to her by scholars, artists, and playwrights, portraying her as “a beautiful, heterosexually experienced woman, who ensnares Samson in a shimmering but sticky web of erotic desirability,” and lables her anywhere on the spectrum from temptress to, most colorfully, “a sexually voracious whore.” Delilah says of this, “With such images, my dangerousness is thus located in my sex, embodied in my gender—I become a sexualized body, a female body, and therefore a perilous body.”

    • Samson/Delilah: A queer relationship arrangement

      • The authors pull from the work of Lori Rowlett who interprets the relationship of Samson/Delilah as one with sado-masochistic overtones. A BDSM reading of their relationship is inherently queer. Rowlett envisions Delilah as a “femme dominatrix” and Samsom as a “butch bottom,” and their relationship includes dynamics of consensual power exchange, such as dominance and submission, and we can read the events in their relationship such as the two times Delilah bound Samson with rope and the time she wove his hair on her loom. 

        • “Rather than my ‘tempting’ an unsuspecting Samson with my exotic allure, he enjoys the experience of domination and joins in our games willingly, until he wearies of them and [referencing his being captured by the Philistine army] seeks to take our playing to a new and dangerous level.” 

      • Delilah argues that this relationship model leaves room for queerness, allowing Samson and Delilah a measure of ambiguity about their gender and orientation. Because consent and communication are foundational aspects of BDSM relationships, Samson/Delilah can be seen as equal partners who negotiate their desires and needs from the outset.

        • “This idea that Samson took an active role in our sex life (however you want to imagine it) is something rarely explored within interpretive traditions surrounding this text. It may be that Samson, driven by his erotic attachment to danger, was the one plying his own powers of seduction and attraction in this narrative, pursuing me using his sexual allure. Why should we not imagine Samson, rather than me, as the personne fatale? I often think that Samson’s lofty Israelite standing—God’s chosen Nazirite and judge over Israel—makes readers queasy about attributing to him any sense of sexualized desire. Instead, they prefer to see me as the one foisting my sex onto this na├»ve holy man, despite that, in the narrative, he embodies a more explicit flavour of sexuality than I.”

    • Delilah as a specter of the danger of women’s sensuality

      • Delilah notes the tendency of readers and interpreters to categorize her as a harlot or prostitute, and how this reading shapes and even damages the way women’s sexuality is viewed and treated.

        • “For some reason, shaping me in the form of a harlot seems to make sense to audiences and readers, reflecting their preconceived notions of prostitutes and prostitution; it helps ‘explain’ why, in their eyes, I behave immorally and unscrupulously, why I seem incapable of returning Samson’s love, and yet willing to trade my sexuality in exchange for hard cash. This in turn alleviates their anxieties over the potential dangerousness of women; it’s far more reassuring to believe that only ‘certain’ women (that is, prostitutes) will behave like me than to imagine a social world where all women may potentially share my power.”

      • We can also examine our opinion of sex work and sex workers in the way we feel about and discuss Delilah, especially as we consider that sex work and sex workers are stigmatized, are afforded little respect or empathy, and whose perspectives are less likely to be centered or understood with concern and compassion.

        • At one point, Delilah points out that prostitution was one of the only options available at the time for women who found themselves outside of kinship networks to provide for themselves. Delilah reminds readers that sex work increases risk factors of STIs, rape, and gendered violence and is not always the career of choice for all sex workers. Delilah warns readers against reading her acceptance of money in exchange for betrayal as inherently evil, and instead asserts that the sum of money offered her would have given her a pathway out of sex work had she desired it. 

    • Delilah defies and rejects gender norms

      • Delilah speaks to her ability to subvert gender, as we see throughout the story that she moves between “traditional masculine and feminine world with apparent ease.” We see Delilah skillfully navigate traditionally masculine spheres of coordinating and working with military and political leaders, and at the same time move with confidence in the traditionally feminine characteristics expected of her.

        • “I evade easy definition, embodying instead a ‘myriad individual fragmented selves, performing gender across a full spectrum of possibilities’; and in these ‘selves’—or cross-dressings, as I prefer to call them—I show just how artificial socially constructed polarities of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ really are. I am warrior, whore, lover, enemy, male, female; I am whatever you want me to be and more—a master-mistress of disguise.”

  • We don’t know how Delilah’s story ends. She leaves the narrative the same way she entered it - shrouded in mystery. 

    • Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney: “A Womanist Midrash of Delilah: Don’t Hate the Playa Hate the Game”: “Delilah is not tamed by her text. She is not rewarded with marriage or children. She does not need them. She can support herself. Delilah is free. She exits the text on her own terms. Like a boss.” 

Unnamed Concubine - Judges 19-21

Background & Story

  • At its foundation, Judges 19-21 is the story of a young woman’s gang rape and dismemberment, which leads to the rape of hundreds of women

  • Briefly from JWA and the book Women of War, Women of Woe: “The concubine of a Levite is likely a lesser wife, who…left her husband/[master]. After her husband finds her, the house in which they are staying is threatened by a group of Benjaminite men who wish to have sex with the Levite. Their host offers the concubine in the Levite’s place, which they reject; she is then throw outside to them [by her master] and they rape her until the morning(JWA)

  • “At daybreak, the concubine falls at the door, where she lies until the Levite opens it, demanding that she get up. When she gives no answer, he places her on his donkey, returns home, dismembers her, and send her twelve body parts to the various tribes, demanding that action be taken against those who caused her death” (WoWWoW)

  • “As a result of this action, the Israelites gather together…to listen to the Levite’s story and plan a response to the Benjaminites. A cycle of violence ensues, resulting in the slaughter of many Benjaminite women, children, and men, the slaughter of most of the inhabitants of the city of Jabesh-gilead, and the kidnapping of young women at Shiloh.” (JWA)

Texts of Terror & The Story of Lot’s Daughters

  • In some ways, this story is similar to the story of Lot and his daughters, whom he offers up to a group of men to try and negotiate his own safety. We encourage you to go listen to that episode if you have not already.

  • Both this story and the story of Lot’s daughters can be considered “texts of terror”

    • Coined by biblical scholar Phyllis Trible

    • Stories of abuse, exploiration, and violence against women which lack any sort of comforting resolution

  • Read well, texts of terror show us the failure of systems of power to both prevent violence against women and provide victims and survivors with justice. In fact, it is often systems (white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, homophobia) that incite and perpetuate such violence

  • Trible helps us know what we can do with this story, which is to recognize how it is a contemporary, modern story

    • Trible writes “Misogyny belongs to every age, including our own. Violence and vengeance are not just characteristics of a distant, pre-Christian past; they infect the community of the elect this day. Woman as object is still captured, betrayed, raped, tortured, murdered, dismembered, and scattered…Beyond confession we must take counsel to say ‘Never again.’ Yet this counsel is itself ineffectual unless we direct our heart to that most uncompromising of all biblical commands, speaking the word not to others but to ourselves: Repent. Repent”

      • Repentance here is about witnessing and changing.

Modern-Day Relevance: BLM

  • It doesn’t seem like too far a stretch for us to imagine how this story shows up in our contemporary life

    • One example I found of this story’s modern-day relevance is to listen to it come alive as we think about Sandra Bland

  • From the article “Sandra Bland and Texts of Terror” by Susan M. Shaw

    • Bland was a Black woman stopped for minor traffic violation in Texas, forcibly arrested, and died in jail (presumably from self-asphyxiation) after being unable to raise money for bail

    • Like the unnamed woman, Sandra Bland was the victim of violence, terror, and power enacted against her, leading to her death. Here too we find Sandra Bland, like so many others like Ma’Khia (Muh-Kay-ah) Bryant and Breonna Taylor, at the intersection of racism, patriarchy, police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and misogyny. Silenced by objectification, fragmentation, violence, and death.

    • “The question for us now is how do we hear Sandra Bland's text of terror? How do we interpret her story and the stories of those biblical women against the systems of power that abuse, terrorize, and kill? In particular, for those of us who are white, how do we hear Sandra Bland's text of terror as a narrative of white patriarchy with which we are complicit? For Trible, we read texts of terror in memoriam for women who are abused…Trible says that texts of terror leave us with a call to repentance and change. There's no happy ending to texts of terror. No resurrection. No justice. Just the glaring judgment of narratives of abuse and death, sanctioned by systems of social, political, economic, and, often, religious power. What is left to us is to hold up these texts as indictments of the systems that inflict terror on women, particularly women of color, and to demand change so that no other Hagar or Tamar or unnamed woman or Sandra Bland must face these terrors again.”

Modern-Day Relevance: Domestic Abuse

  • I’d also like to address a theme of domestic abuse in this story. For at the beginning of the story, the unnamed woman left her master and returned to her fathers house for 4 months. However, her husband/master sets off to find her “to speak friendly unto her, and to bring her again”

  • Then, when the angry mob will not be satisfied outside the house, it is the husband/master who pushes the concubine out unto them

  • Among the awfulness of this story, it is underlined with violence and abuse 

    • According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

      • On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the US

      • 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime

        • And while not always domestic, the US Department of Justice states that 4 out of 5 Native women experience some form of violence in their lifetime

      • Within the LGBTQ+ community, intimate partner violence occurs at a rate euqal to or even higher than that of the heterosexual community

      • Additionally, members of the LGBTQ+ community may be denied assistance and DV services as a result of homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia

      • If you or someone you love is a victim of abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline for someone to talk to and referrals to local services: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

  • In this story we see a cyclical model for understanding domestic violence

    • Tension builds, incident of abuse, reconciliation and the calm honeymoon phase, gradually tensions increase again as the cycle repeats

  • I’m also thinking about this story and domestic violence being linked to mass shootings

    • Researchers from the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence and Johns Hopkins analyzed 110 gun murders of four or more people between 2014 and 2019 and found that in 68 percent of incidents, the perpetrator either killed an intimate partner or a family member, or had a history of domestic violence. 

    • “A Common Trait Among Mas Killers: Hatred Toward Women” by Julie Bosman, Kate Taylor, and Tim Arango: “...One common thread that connects many [men who commit mass shootings] — other than access to powerful firearms — is a history of hating women, assaulting wives, girlfriends and female family members, or sharing misogynistic views online, researchers say.”

    • As with almost every mass shooter in recorded US history, the perpetrators are men.

Culture: Violence, Abuse, Racism, and Domination

  • We live in a culture that values domination, control, and ownership over all else

    • A culture where we prioritize violence in many forms

      • Be it intimate domestic violence, public mass shootings, or globally providing billions of dollars of military aid to Israel in the destruction and murder of Palestinians

      • This is also a culture that turns women, nonbinary, and trans folks into objects to be dominated, exploited, and terrorized through media representation, sexual assault, and rape.

    • Not only do we see this in our own US culture, but we also see the expansion of violence in the story as the rape and murder of the unnamed women soon becomes the capture, betrayal, and rape of 600 more women, not counting the tortured and murdered women of Benjamin and all the married women of jabesh-gilead

      • Trible writes, “inasmuch as men have done it unto one of the least of women, they have done it unto many.”

  • As a final call to remembrance and action, I’d like to read a line from the poem “The Daughter and the Concubine from the Nineteenth Chapter of Judges Consider and Speak Their Minds” by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. This week, I encourage you to pray this line for those killed and murdered at the hands of violence.

    • After her murder, we hear the voice of the unnamed woman:

"I am

Not forsaken

And no


Will silence

My bones.

This Earth




In remembrance

And no 


Will silence it.

I have put

My story


My sisters’


And we

Will sing

And we

Will wail

And we 

Will shout


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