If you are a minister, you may have heard the adage:
When Scripture is silent, so should we be.
Such a general principle seems useful, and even necessary, when one recalls the variety of “unconventional” sermons that have been preached. Take for instance a sermon that my husband heard in the late 1980s, which was based on the story of the paralytic who was taken to Jesus by his friends (Matthew 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26). The preacher spoke of an old swayback mule on which the four friends placed the paralytic in order to transport him to Jesus. The thrust of the message was: If God can use an old swayback mule, God can use you. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, it does not include an old swayback mule. Try as one might, it is not found lying hidden under some Koine Greek word’s meaning or located in an obscure ancient manuscript. Instead, it was simply an invention of that preacher’s imagination.
This example may cause some of us to roll our eyes or become aghast at this type of abuse in the handling of the scriptures, but it causes me to wonder if there is another kind of abuse that may at times be just as egregious. Perhaps it could be summarized as a different hermeneutical principle:
When Scripture is not silent, so should we not be.
While some ministers fail to remain silent where they should be (as seen above), others of us remain silent where we should not be. We sometimes may be quick to heartedly embrace the freedom to attribute motives to God or various persons in a narrative or even invent new characters in particular passages of scripture. But at the same time, we completely ignore pericopes that are not silent on subjects that are…well…uncomfortable…or disturbing…like those that contain sexual violence.
I should know. I have done it.
Approximately thirteen years ago, I was teaching stories from the book of Judges. Since my time was limited, I taught five lessons. I began with an overview of Judges and then continued with the stories of Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Delilah/Samson. However, I purposely avoided the final narrative of Judges due to my own uncomfortableness even though it was the climactic thrust of the entire book. The story? It is the narrative of a concubine who was repeatedly raped to the point of death, followed by her body being cut up into pieces, and the pieces distributed to the twelve tribes of Israel. This is followed by the Israelites slaughtering thousands of Benjaminites, the Israelite tribe responsible for this atrocity, and the Israelites then instructing the remaining Benjaminites to abduct 200 virgins to become their wives. While it is not exactly children’s Sunday School material, it was appropriate for that adult class, but I was too uncomfortable to speak of such things.
I will be silent no more.
When Scripture is not silent, so should we not be.
Judges contains two repeated phrases:
- “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (chapters 2, 3, 4, 6, 10, and 13); and
- “In those days Israel had no king”(chapters 17, 18, 19, and 21).
This story begins with a variation of one of these two phrases:
In those days, Israel had no king (19:1).
In considering these two frequently repeated phrases, we might draw the conclusion that Israel’s moral standards deteriorated because there was no king. This has caused some scholars to believe that the book of Judges is an argument for Israel to have a king, which they eventually receive in 1 Samuel.
Whether or not this is the case, Judges indicates a steady moral decline until the readers reach the end of the book. The lowest moral point of Judges is when a Levite hands over his concubine to a group of men at the village of Gibeah who repeatedly rape her until she dies. As Ailish Fergusen Eves comments, “Yet after the gang rape (Judg 19) even the most corrupted Israelites are appalled, as are the successive hearers of this tale” (see 19:30). In essence, Israel, a nation that was to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, and strength, had increasingly become so immoral that it no longer was distinguished from the culture surrounding it.
Could this be said of the contemporary church? What does it say of the church when Lifeway Research reports that “research from PRRI found 62 percent of Americans say churches aren’t responding well to issues like sexual assault”? In the age of #metoo, #churchtoo, and #pentecostalsisterstoo, headlines frequently appear that speak of the sexually violent acts of ministers and denominations that transpire against women:
- The Washington Post’s “Newly leaked letter details allegations that Southern Baptist leaders mishandled sex abuse claims.” This article reports that when Jennifer Lyell, a former vice president at the Southern Baptist Convention’s publishing arm, attempted to use the proper channels concerning sexual abuse at the hand of a professor, the staff of the Executive Committee of the SBC changed her words so that it seemed as though Lyell had been a part of a consensual affair.
- Christianity Today’s “Ravi Zacharias Hid Hundreds of Pictures of Women, Abuse During Massages, and a Rape Allegation” in which a report from an independent investigation revealed Zacharias’s sexual improprieties.
I wonder if we as a church have chosen to be silent against the improper treatment of women for so long that such attitudes and behaviors are excused, or even deflected, by blaming and shaming women. Are we giving men power in the church until a woman is sexually assaulted at which time we conveniently portray the man without power as we echo the words of Adam, “It was the woman”? In so doing, have we as a church made ourselves absent in the space where the Spirit is actually present?
For me, God is there during this horrific account in Judges 19. The very existence of this story of sexual violence in the inspired Word of God informs me that the Spirit sees and is present. Yet the Spirit’s presence is not for the purpose of watching in order to take pleasure in the pain of others, like some form of voyeurism. If God is present, what type of hermeneutic do we draw from in order to interpret this passage while avoiding silence? Do we simply gloss over it by saying, “Well, that was the culture of that day. That was how women were treated”? How can the Spirit speak to men and women from such a narrative? Pentecostal Cheryl Bridges Johns answers a similar question in her work, which I believe is helpful for the church. Johns’ hermeneutic describes the Spirit’s presence in the scriptures, which invites the reader “into the mystery of the Spirit’s work” of grieving, brooding, and transforming.
Such sin grieves the Spirit. Israel is to be an example to others around them, but their behavior is no different. While the gang of Benjaminites fail to see the vileness of their actions against the unnamed concubine, the Spirit sees, knows her name, and grieves, joining in her pain and the pain of those today who have experienced sexual violence. Johns states:
When the Levite opened the door and found his concubine lying in the dust at the doorstep, Skekinah was lying in the dust with her. In reading the text today Shekinah is there, calling for us to go deeper through the doors of suspicion and deeper through the gates of remembrance into the realm of grief. By the Spirit, an unnamed woman becomes our sister. By the Spirit, her abuse becomes our abuse. The Spirit joins the pain of this biblical narrative joined with the groaning of all creation. In the space of the text the Spirit carries us carried into the pathos found in the life of God.
However, as Johns notes, the Spirit’s work simply does not stop with grieving, but the Spirit also broods over the chaos, or the brokenness. Johns writes, “This movement within the life of God is perhaps the most difficult and the least understood for it calls for abiding and waiting in the darkness while attending to that which is coming.” Johns describes brooding as a word that is feminine by nature that creates the image of a bird spreading its wings over our sinfulness, our pain, and our brokenness. The Spirit (in Hebrew the word is feminine) spreads her wings over the sins against women in the scriptures and in today’s church. The Spirit tends to us and prays over us, whispering prayers of groanings on our behalf, working “for creation to be set free.”
But the Spirit’s brooding is not the end because the Spirit also brings forth a new world, or transforms. The Spirit is bidding us…pulling us toward a new creation. A time of equality, mutuality, dignity, and security for all humanity. Johns comments:
Within the sacred space of the word the light from the end streams into the present, making possible the impossible. In this light the broken and scarred tissue of the old creation is swallowed into the new order. It is in this sanctifying light that sexism and patriarchy are forced to give way.
Thus, we may participate in the ministry of the Spirit when we grieve, when we brood, and when we move toward healing transformation in our world. This is the story of scripture. This is the very character of the Spirit.
As I ponder the story from Judges in light of hashtag activism, I wonder what hashtag may be used by the church concerning sexual violence that includes the church’s view as scripture being inspired by God. Maybe it could be:
Like #metoo, #churchtoo, and #pentecostalsisterstoo, this text beckons to us to listen to the cries of the sexually assaulted…in this case, an unnamed concubine. Or to listen to those who did not give consent…the virgins taken. Like #metoo, Judges 19-21 reveals a narrative of sexual violence. It invites us to grieve and be empathic. It cries out for justice, equality, and change.
#metooatGibeah #whenscriptureisnotsilent #neitherwillIbe
If you are a pentecostal/Charismatic survivor of sexual violence or a licensed counselor, I invite you to consider participating in a research project about healing from sexual violence. For more information, read “Tell Me the Stories of Sexual Violence.”
 Ailish Fergusen Eves, “Judges,” in The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, edited by Catherine Clark Kroger and Mary J. Evans (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002), 143.
 Aaron Earls, “Americans Distrust Churches’ Handling of Sexual Assault,” Lifeway Research, October 31, 2018, https://lifewayresearch.com/2018/10/31/americans-distrust-churches-handling-of-sexual-assault/.
 In this blog, I am drawing repeatedly from Cheryl Bridges Johns, “Grieving, Brooding, and Transforming: The Spirit, the Bible, and Gender,” a paper presented at Society for Pentecostal Studies 43rd Annual Meeting, Springfield, MO, 2014.