Content Warning: This book review is about a recently-published work by Barbara Thiede, entitled Rape Culture in the House of David. It contains references to instances of rape and sexual violence in the Bible, and a broader rape culture beyond just those specific instances, in the Bible.
“Without rape, the Hebrew Bible as we know it, would be a fundamentally different set of texts.”
This sentence comes only a few pages into Rape Culture in the House of David: A House of Men. It sets the tone for a book that nobody could possibly describe as “easy reading.” Nevertheless – or perhaps precisely because of how hard it is to read – this book is among the most urgently-important books for contemporary Jews to read (and, indeed, for anybody from any spiritual tradition that engages with the Hebrew Bible to read).
Rape Culture in the House of David was written by Barbara Thiede – who is both an ordained rabbi through Jewish Renewal, and a professor of Religious Studies at UNC-Charlotte. One of its core goals is to shift the ways in which readers understand the book of Samuel, in particular, and in some senses the Hebrew Bible more broadly. Specifically, Thiede notes a common reading of the book of Samuel – perhaps its most common reading. This reading, by many clergy, scholars, and laypeople, amounts roughly to the notion that this is a book that contains rape and sexual violence. This is true, but in Thiede’s view it is insufficient.
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What Thiede argues, in my view persuasively, is that the book of Samuel is not merely a book containing instances of rape. Rather, it takes, as a starting point and foundation, the notion that rape – and rape culture – are normal, acceptable, and in certain senses laudable. The moments in which characters (usually women, but not always) are sexually assaulted are not passing occurrences, embedded in a book that’s mostly about other things. They are central.
To explain more what this means, and its implications: in story after story, characters in this book engage in acts of sexual violence. Women are – as a pattern – treated as objects, lacking agency. Sometimes men, as well, are sexually assaulted and objectified in horrifying ways.
In certain cases, the characters engaged in these acts are meant to be viewed negatively by readers – but others are not. In all cases, the fact that they engage in acts of rape, and sexual violence, is not itself a key contributing factor to how we are meant to judge them. This – it should go without saying – is horrific, and suggests that violating others, sexually, need not affect the esteem we hold for the person engaged in those acts of violation.
Indeed, in certain instances, Thiede argues that we are meant to view approvingly the fact that particular characters are more successful at violating sexual boundaries than others. As Thiede writes, “Taking and raping women is a specialty of David’s house, not Saul’s. What the biblical audience (and the modern reader) discover in the David narratives is unsettling: the man who is best at sexual violence is the most powerful in all Israel and most worthy of the kingship.” In other words, readers are meant to perceive acts of rape not as mistakes, made by flawed characters, but rather as resounding successes, by conquering heroes.
To read Rape Culture in the House of David is to experience deep pain and shock. But the shock one feels isn’t the shock of somebody reading false, needlessly-incendiary claims. The shock is the shock of realization. The shock one feels when you read something that is true, and terrifying, about someone or something you hold dear.
Of course, it must be said that there may be people who read Thiede’s work, and try to frame it as overstatement. As hyperbole, meant mostly to make people disdain the Bible, or meant to provide fuel for Atheists who argue religion is only harmful.
Those people would be wrong. She writes not only as a scholar, but as a person engaged herself in ongoing leadership of Jewish communities. It is not in spite of her Jewishness, but because of it, that she feels called to name rape culture in centralized Jewish texts. She writes, “as a rabbi, I am cognizant of the value placed on the Hebrew Bible and the damage spiritual leaders do in downplaying or bypassing the violence in its texts… Many of my colleagues in both secular and denominational realms teach biblical texts. If they (and I) cannot name the rape culture we see in texts of the Hebrew Bible, we remain blind to the rape cultures of our own time.”
This work, in other words, straddles both sides of a binary framework many of us operate with – a framework that, like many other binary frameworks, is probably false. Thiede writes from the “academic” side of biblical scholarship, and the “practitioner” side of Jewish learning and leadership, all at once. She writes not with a scholar’s goal of “impartiality,” but rather with a stick in the game! She calls on spiritual leaders – like herself – to consider what happens when the book of Samuel is used, nonchalantly, as if it’s simply the home for relatively benign stories like Hannah praying for a son, or David defeating Goliath.
She also proactively straddles another false binary – of “scholarship” and “activism.” Rape Culture in the House of David is not just a passionless “study” into a particular book of the Bible. It is a clear call to action. To read this book is to be asked not just to learn, but to stand up and act. In turning its pages, we’re not simply looking back into a text of the past – we receive a rousing plea to shift, today, how we mobilize this ancient text in spiritual contexts.
Thiede writes, “If we do not call out these texts for the violence they authorize and sanction, we give our tacit consent to the premises of the rape culture they depict – and, by extension, to the rape cultures we ourselves inhabit.”
The most important “translation” of this book’s teachings to our contemporary world is this: we not only do the world a disservice when we ignore violent teachings from our Biblical canon – we do active harm. For those of us who identify as progressive, and inhabit positions of spiritual leadership, we must confront the “work” we do when we choose only our most loving, most approachable, most fun, most pleasing texts to explore or study with our communities. It is not enough to simply avoid apologizing for our horrifying, violent texts. The Mitzvah of our time is not “do not condone sexual violence in the Bible.” What we need is a “do” commitment – not a “don’t.”
DO actively name the violence of Biblical texts, in the name of people of all genders who are survivors of sexual assault today. DO state forthrightly, to ourselves and to our communities, that being a spiritually engaged Jew, or Christian, or Muslim, isn’t only about finding a way to apologize for, or creatively re-read, the fullness of ancient texts. It’s sometimes about engaging with them, noticing parts that simply cannot be ethically tenable, and feeling spurred to build a more liberated world due to those ancient moral failures. This act need not be stood as anti-religious, or anti-Jewish, or any other “anti.” As a Jew, I inhabit a tradition that states forthrightly, over and over, that “the Torah is not in heaven.” Repeatedly, Jewish communities have radically altered – and occasionally fully overturned – traditions of our ancestors, not just in the last few hundred years, but for a couple millennia. Indeed, one of my favorite aphorisms is that the oldest Jewish tradition is upending the tradition.
Rape Culture in the House of David: A Company of Men is a call to participate in that sacred task. I cannot wish you, or anyone, joy in reading this book – that’s not its purpose. Its purpose is to embed in us some non-trivial amount of pain and anguish about this ancient text and its use in the world today. I don’t think I’ve ever wished anyone to feel pain, and I won’t now. But my sincerest wish is that people engage with this book, internalize its teachings, and together craft a world that comprehensively upends rape culture, speedily in our days.
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