Understanding Violence Against Women in the Bible
The accounts of violence against women recorded in the Bible are probably some of the passages that make us feel most uncomfortable and that we feel most inclined to avoid, whether as Bible readers or Bible teachers. We feel unsure how to interpret them, unsure how to teach them, and even unsure why they are even in the Bible. But these stories are important because they speak to a reality that is sadly ever-present in this age and they reveal to us God’s heart in the face of this reality. Claudine Roberts, a former human rights solicitor, has just published a great book in the Cover to Cover Bible study series, exploring six biblical stories of violence against women. I asked Claudine to share a bit about the book and about this important topic.
AB: What led you to want to write on the topic of violence against women?
CR: In 2019 God started speaking to me about my own experiences of male violence, causing me to turn to the biblical stories of violence against women and cry out in prayer, “What do you say about what happened to me, Lord?”. I needed to understand why those stories of violence are included in the Bible and what we’re supposed to learn from them. I looked for a study guide or book that would help me find those answers, but I couldn’t find what I wanted. I did find various books tackling one or two of the biblical stories, but many of them were academic in style, a challenging read, not widely accessible. As I made notes on the stories for myself and noticed the common threads and God’s response to violence against women, I believe God showed me that I was writing the accessible guide I’d been looking for and it would be helpful for others in the Church who want to understand the Bible on the subject.
AB: What missteps do we need to avoid when reading stories of violence against women in the Bible?
CR: First, it’s important to note that sometimes the violence is difficult to spot. For example, we may be very familiar with the story of Abram and Hagar in Genesis 16. That account doesn’t actually say that Hagar was raped, but there are elements in the narrative that point to sexual violence – for example the fact that Hagar’s voice is entirely absent in that part of the story, she isn’t given a choice in the matter, Hagar’s mistress Sarai just decides she will be the answer to their infertility. So we need to read the biblical narrative with an understanding that at times the text offers no moral judgment, it’s simply an historical account of the facts, but that doesn’t mean everything that happened was good and just and within God’s will.
We also need to be careful about the language we use to describe biblical characters and our resulting preconceptions. For example, Abram (Abraham), Jacob, David and others are often described by Christians as ‘Bible heroes’, which might lead us to approach Scripture with the idea that those characters will always be the ‘hero’ in every story. In fact, we need to read these accounts with an awareness that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and that the only Bible hero is Jesus. We can expect the Bible to include stories of great men and women failing and demonstrating sinful attitudes and behaviour.
AB: What hope and help can studying these biblical accounts offer to women who have experienced violence?
CR: The biblical stories of violence against women really do point to the hope we have in Jesus. They systematically demonstrate that our hope and salvation does not lie in family members, judges, or kings, only in Jesus who sees our suffering and is moved by compassion to act.
Personally, I also found that these stories helped to negate the lies I had come to believe about myself as a result of the violence committed against me. I was seriously sexually assaulted twice in my teens and then raped in my twenties and on each occasion the enemy told me that my ‘no’ didn’t matter, my voice didn’t matter, and therefore I didn’t matter. Slowly I began to believe that lie; it crept in. The biblical stories of violence against women and God’s response to that violence show that God cares about victims and survivors of violence, they matter to Him. For example, God cares so much about Hagar that He seeks her out in the wilderness, invites her to be part of His family and makes promises to bless her. I hope other women will receive truth in studying these stories too.
AB: The subtitle to your book is ‘Discovering El Roi, The God Who Sees’. Why did you choose that subtitle?
CR: Studying the biblical stories of violence against women has deepened my understanding of the character of God. At times, we can forget that God is the same yesterday, today and always (Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8), and we can separate the God of the Old Testament from the God of the New Testament who we see in the person of Jesus (Colossians 2:9). It’s often the Old Testament stories of violence that cause this disconnect. Hagar gives God this title, ‘El Roi’, because His response to her abuse changes everything for her. She is seen, known, and loved by Almighty God. I pray that others (victims, survivors, perpetrators and others) will also discover that they are seen, known and loved by Him. The subtitle is an invitation to know Him.
AB: What advice would you give to church leaders who want to engage with the subject of violence against women as they teach the Bible?
CR: I would love to see more church leaders and preachers engaging with the subject. It’s imperative that we begin to preach on these stories in our regular church meetings, not just at women’s days or one-off special events, because they’re there in the Bible and so many people in our churches need to know what God says about what happened (or is currently happening) to them.
Leaders need to be aware that there will be victims and survivors of violence and abuse within their churches. The first step will be to ensure that the church has robust procedures in place for dealing with any disclosures, so that victims and survivors are listened to, believed, and supported to take action if and when they are ready.
In terms of preparing to teach on the Bible stories, I would urge church leaders to recognise the limitations of their own life experience and read or listen to different voices on the subject. (For an excellent overview of the different forms of violence against women and girls I would recommend Elaine Storkey’s Scars Across Humanity, and on domestic abuse I would recommend Revd Dr Helen Paynter’s The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So.) Specifically, male church leaders may want to invite a female preacher to speak on the subject, or give female leaders an opportunity to input, even if they won’t be teaching. They may also want to consider inviting an outside organisation (like Restored) in to provide training, support, or a guest speaker.
Given the resources now available, there’s no excuse for avoiding the biblical stories of violence against women and remaining silent on the issue when it’s such an important issue for many and so frequently in the news. We, the Church, need to recognise that we are called to speak out against injustice and oppression, and Jesus is the answer to the problem of male violence against women.
If you would like to seek support in relation to any of the issues raised, you may want to contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247 or the Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Line on 0808 500 2222 in the UK (both 24 hours).