Painting Women from Judges – Part 3: The Sacred Account of the Levite’s Pîlegeš

This post was originally composed for and published on Feminism and Religion, http://feminismandreligion.com/2015/03/29/painting-women-from-judges-part-3-the-sacred-account-of-the-levites-pileges-by-melinda-bielas/

Reading the story of the Levite’s pîlegeš – found in the Hebrew Bible, Judges 19:1-20:7 – is unlike any other scholastic endeavor I have undertaken.1 The narrative is of a woman who leaves her husband’s house, only to be retrieved by her husband, gang raped on her way to his home, and dismembered upon arrival. This intense violence then escalates to the abduction and rape of more than 400 virgins and the death of many more (Judges 20-21).

The first time I encountered this narrative was while reading Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror as an undergrad student. While at the time I did not fully understand the textual nuances Trible points out, I did understand this story was sacred in a way I could not articulate. It was not until years later that I realized I was not truly listening to the story because I had not read it from the pîlegeš’ perspective and was yet to be affected by the horror of it.

An explanation is needed when one calls a story of violence sacred. To clarify, it is the telling of the story that makes it sacred, not the violence. In much of the world today, violence done to women is taboo.2 Not only are the violent acts ignored, but the victim and her retelling of the acts are also often ignored. Perhaps this is because our society is biased towards the perpetrator. Perhaps it is because our faith communities have self-identified as loving and to acknowledge violence is to acknowledge failure. But perhaps it is mostly because violence is hard to process, especially when the violent act is committed against a loved one, and we prefer not to struggle with the presence of violence all around us. 

Dr. Tammi Schneider explained – in our Women in Judges class at Claremont Graduate University – that the Hebrew Bible does not mince words. When significant textual space is spent on a topic or story it is intentional, and the presence of this narrative in the Hebrew Bible indicates that we are to struggle with the issues presented. Because I had no better way to deal with the horror of this text, I painted my struggle.

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The Levite’s pîlegeš is framed in the moment described in verses 26 and 27, “As morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light. In the morning her master got up, opened the doors of the house, and when he went out to go on his way, there was his [pîlegeš] lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold” (NRSV, with “pîlegeš” replacing “concubine”). It is here that we are shown her last efforts to survive, her last efforts to get help, her last efforts to be a complete woman (despite her recent torture) and not a dismembered symbol of another person’s “victimhood” (Judges 20:4-6). Her face is to the ground to show her overwhelming exhaustion and to serve as a reminder of the gang rape she has just experienced.

Her clothes show some signs of violence and her hair is disheveled, but other than these features I decided not to show any other evidence of gang rape within my painting. The reason is that, unlike the other women I have written about in this series, the Levite’s pîlegeš’ experience of violence is recorded in great detail. Since the details are so explicit, interpreters place the violence at the center of the narrative, and often, attempts to bring attention to the Levite’s pîlegeš reduce her personhood to mere victim. The personhood of victims is often not acknowledged by others in order to deal with the pain and injustice of the violence. This not only creates a space to ignore the victim and talk about violence abstractly, but it also allows the reader/viewer/listener to remove themselves from the pain and injustice that must be addressed. My painting removes signs of physical violence for the purpose of emphasizing the Levite’s pîlegeš’ personhood and the atrocity done to her.

As stated in previous posts, the box surrounding each woman symbolizes any and all aspects of the biblical text and interpretation that have limited her. The box surrounding the Levite’s pîlegeš is blue, green, and yellow. In addition to representing patriarchal forces (see previous posts), blue also represents the night of the gang rape. Green signifies the months she spent with her father and the life she could have had in her father’s house if the Levite had not made her leave her father and go with him (Judges 19:3-10). Yellow represents the dawn, when she finds her way back to the door, and the daylight, when the Levite perpetuates the violence (Judges 19:27-29).

The silencing of women who have experienced violence is unhealthy. It both stunts the victim’s healing process and also allows for non-victims to ignore systematic violence and perpetuate further violence through their inaction and ignorance. There are many creative ways for victims to express themselves and to participate in the sacred act of sharing their experiences. As mentioned before, painting (and then blogging about said paintings) is my mode. The Vagina Monologues is another great example. However it is done, this act of sharing is sacred because it brings life. Not only does it acknowledge the survivor’s life, but such powerful retellings demand action on behalf of others’ lives. These stories evoke emotions that can propel listeners toward preventing further abuse and/or helping current victims. It is vital that we listen to the victims around us so that we can participate in the life-giving process.

I use the word pîlegeš – instead of the more popular translation “concubine” – because there is no English word to accurately translate pîlegeš. A pîlegeš was much more like a second wife in that she had many similar rights and privileges than today’s understanding of a concubine, which is often seen as similar to a private prostitute. However, one did not need to have a first wife in order to have a pîlegeš, hence its complexity and untranslatable quality.

I would like to acknowledge that women are not the only gender to experience victimhood, however, this post uses female language for victims.

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