The reason I wanted to write a book about sexual violence in the Bible is that I got tired of seeing what should be a Living Word, a word that sets people free, get coopted by abusers and those who enable them. But I didn’t always view Scripture this way.
I grew up in a progressive Christian context where the Bible, at least not most of it, did not feel central to the life of the Church. The Bible was something we handled with caution, knowing that parts of it did not align with the progressive values that were important to us. These values are, in my mind, good ones: inclusion of outsiders; acceptance of people across lines of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, social class, and religion; commitment to peace and justice; and care for the earth, to name a few. Because these values were so important to us, we often, it seems to me, feared to read the Bible beyond the parts that easily seemed to align with this vision. Most of the “difficult passages” or “texts of terror” (to use language drawn from Phyllis Trible’s seminal work, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives), never reached our pulpits or even adult Sunday school classrooms. We wanted to follow Jesus, but I think that many of us (myself included) feared to look at the Bible too closely, afraid of the dissonance we’d find with our progressive values.
All this meant that when I reached seminary, I’d never read most of Scripture, especially not the parts that became most important in my future graduate study and scholarship. The rape of Tamar, the sacrifice of Jephthath’s daughter, the whore of Babylon, and the entire book of Lamentations? All news to me. These difficult passages became the places of Scripture that fascinated and drew me the most, especially as I began to ask how the values core to my identity as a follower of Jesus could coincide with such violent and troubling texts.
The real life narratives of students I taught and friends who confided in me, as well as my background, pushed me to ask harder questions of both Scripture and myself. In one of the first classes I facilitated as a teaching assistant in my PhD program at Vanderbilt, a female student approached me after a session on Adam and Eve and told me, “The way my church taught me to read the Bible, I always felt ashamed to be a woman. Thank you.” Though I’m sure the student in question has long forgotten that interaction, that was a seminal “calling” moment for me. I knew that it had to be my vocation to help the Church, which I love so dearly, read the Bible better, in ways that don’t imprison people in shame but instead open them to the new life it offers. Furthermore, I had to do it while still looking hard at the hardest Scripture passages to deal with as women, survivors of trauma, and people on the margins.
So for the last several years, I’ve camped out in some of the passages of Scripture most redolent with and reflective of trauma. I wrote my dissertation on the woman’s voice within the book of Lamentations that concerns experiences of rape, child loss, and victim blaming. The discomfort sown within me from my background as a progressive Christian has surfaced often as I’ve thought, “Can’t I just read the Beatitudes or something?” And yet here in the difficult passages of Scripture, I have found life, and I have heard God’s voice speaking. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned:
-that both God and the authors of Scripture take trauma too seriously to leave it out of biblical narratives
-that God bears witness in often surprising ways to survivors of trauma
-that often Scripture lifts up the worst of humanity as a mirror to the brokenness we cause without obedience to God
-that the vision of Scripture is for God’s peace, mercy, and justice to wend their way even into the most desolate places in our lives.
That is a Scripture I can read, and a God I can know, without fear.