A Brief Review: ‘Texts of Terror’ by Phyllis Trible

Image result for texts of terror phyllis tribleQuick, name the absolute worst parts of the Bible.

Chances are, you thought of one of these four stories [TW]:

The rape and dismemberment of the concubine in Judges, the rape of Tamar by her half-brother, the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in order to fulfill a vow he made to God, and the use, abuse and expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael.

These stories – all of them describing violence against women without overt condemnation by either God or the narrator(s) – are what Phyllis Trible calls “texts of terror.”

Somewhat surprisingly, she analyzes these passages not to explain them away or redeem them with a pro-woman retelling, but to simply sit with them, to understand the fully the depth and breadth of the horror these passages inflict on the characters – and therefore on us, the readers who cannot help but sympathize with them.

In so doing, Trible hopes to memorialize them. These four women – two of them nameless, one of them voiceless, all of them utterly vulnerable to the whims and lusts of powerful men – do not get preached from pulpits, featured in liturgies or adhered to flannelgraphs. Yet they are essential parts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. If nothing else, they personify, as Trible expertly highlights, the qualities of the “suffering servant” in Second Isaiah’s famous prophecies.

Although originally referring to Israel, Christians, taking cues from the gospels, have appropriated the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 to describe Jesus – “a man of sorrows acquainted with grief,” “as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth,” etc. Trible moves in the opposite direction, identifying these four women as suffering servants, and given the longstanding Christian confession of Jesus as the sufferer, implicitly identifying them as Christ figures.

Most poignantly, Trible makes this association explicit in her analysis of the concubine in Gibeah. Echoing the more famous tale of Lot in Sodom (do these stories reflect a single event buried deep in Israel’s memory and adjusted as needed for different contexts? I’d say it’s likely, but that’s not Trible’s concern here), the concubine and her master spend the night in an old man’s home, where men of the city arrive and demand the male guest be given to them to rape. The man offers the concubine instead, and she is raped and tortured until morning (and potentially killed, although Trible points out the text seems to indicate the concubine’s master actually murders her once they arrive back to his home in Ephraim). Trible describes the key moment this way: “Truly the hour is at hand, and the woman is betrayed into the hands of sinners.”

Trible’s insight and deft handling of the texts make Texts of Terror a swift and insightful read – I’d almost call it a joy, but the subject matter makes that an impossibility. She refuses to get bogged down in questions of authorship, redaction or historical criticism, all things I enjoy getting bogged down in, but which would serve to distract from the women at the center of Trible’s focus. Her goal is to dig as deep as possible into the texts as they are, under the assumption that the text we have is there for a reason, no matter how it got that way.

Therefore, Trible points out patterns and structures of the original Hebrew that have become invisible under the layers of translation and interpretation that have accumulated over the millennia. Some of these are brilliant and beautiful; others feel like more of a stretch. But all of them are fascinating and demand careful consideration. Almost uniformly, Trible ends up highlighting how the original text mercilessly marginalizes and degrades these women.

But that’s the point: Trible is “telling sad stories,” as she puts it in her introduction. That they are sad does not mean they are worthless. Indeed, sad stories often tell us more about ourselves than happy ones. They force us to wrestle with the world as the world is, with God as God is, and with the Bible as the Bible is – not as we wish those things would be. For wrestling with them, we hopefully emerge stronger, with greater insight on what it means to be a “suffering servant” in whom we should see the life and work of Jesus.

Published 34 years ago in 1984, Texts of Terror remains a vitally important work, one that should be on the bookshelf of every preacher, every counselor and every church leader. In a day where many women are finding their voices for the first time, we would all do well to return to Trible’s classic, in which she helps four ancient women cry, “Me, too!”

Advertisements