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Teaching the Hebrew Bible in the context of campus sexual violence

It is a disconcerting experience to watch Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s documentary The Hunting Ground or to read Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town and then walk into a classroom filled with college students. Both The Hunting Ground and Missoula take up the problem of sexual violence on college campuses. The disturbing narratives in the book and film are are born out by statistics: approximately 1 in 5 women, as well as 6% of men, experience sexual assault while in college. The problem is so pronounced that the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has identified the failure to address sexual violence on campus as a violation of Title IX, the landmark law that guarantees equal access to education. And there, sitting in front of you, are twenty eager faces, not yet jaded by college, not yet disillusioned or hungover, ready to read, ready to learn.

Based on those same statistics, by the end of the semester, at least one—likely more—of these students will be a victim of sexual violence. Others may become perpetrators. What does it mean to teach in this context? What is a professor to do?

I am drawn to these questions for several reasons. I am a graduate of two schools now under investigation by the Department of Education for their failure to address sexual violence and sexual misconduct; I am also a college professor teaching college students. Furthermore, most of my classes are about the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament). These are texts that are, as my students often point out, “pretty rapey.” They are right. Genesis alone contains multiple narratives of sexual violence and violation. Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter, is raped in Genesis 34. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah closely associates sexuality and violence (Gen. 19). Noah is naked before his son, and perhaps raped by him (Gen. 9); Lot is likewise raped by his daughters (Gen. 19). Even the narrative of Tamar and Judah (Gen. 38), often read as a story of comic sexual trickery, raises some uncomfortable questions about sex, power, and consent. This means that when I teach Genesis in a first year course, there are whole weeks when every class meeting involves a different incident of sexual violence.

The problem is hardly confined to Genesis. Instead, Genesis offers a clear and familiar example of the frequency of sexual violence in and across the canon. The question of teaching texts—including films and images—that involve sexual violence is often reduced to a debate over “trigger warnings.” I am personally more interested, however, in the question of what we can do beyond, or in addition to, offering advance warnings about the contents of a text. What can we do in the classroom to acknowledge and address campus sexual violence?

I am not suggesting that every class about an ancient text should be replaced with one about modern issues. I love the Bible, in all its beauty and strangeness, and I love sharing it with students. But I do not want to teach the Bible in a way that needlessly increases pain. This is why I begin with the recognition that ancient texts, including texts about sexual violence, intersect with the lived experience of the students facing me. Sexual violence is not simply a hypothetical. A classroom environment that does not acknowledge and take seriously this reality is one that is not equally accessible to all learners.

When I teach classes on the Bible, I inevitably feel that there is too much to cover. No matter how long the class period is, no matter how strategically I have spaced the readings, there is always something more to say, something additional point to raise of historical fact to introduce. In teaching texts that involve sexual violence, however, I have taken to slowing my teaching down. I have also begun introducing my students to the idea of “rape culture,” and what it means to bring this idea in conversation with the Bible.

Both The Hunting Ground and Missoula describe the struggle of survivors of sexual violence to have their experiences taken seriously by administrators, law enforcement officers, and Title IX Offices. Often, they express anger that they have not been heard. This suggests a parallel to Genesis. My students often note that in the story of the rape of Dinah, Genesis 34, Dinah’s voice is never heard. Dinah’s father, her brothers, and her rapist all speak, but she does not. Maybe she cannot talk. Maybe she has nothing to say. Or maybe the text cannot hear her voice. Scholars have analyzed the story in many ways; in the classroom, for this moment, it is enough for me for the students to notice the silences.

Image Credit: “Judas and Thamar” by Ferdinand Bol. Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Ian M. Evans

    Thank you for your interesting essay. There are two comments I’d like to make. The first is your repeating the “1 in 5 women will experience sexual assault on campus” mantra. This statistic is widely quoted yet it is totally false. Of course even if it were one in a hundred or one in a thousand it would be far too many. No one should experience sexual assault whether a college student or anyone else. But the 1 in 5 figure is a nonsense. The most recent large scale survey of college students, the AAU Campus Climate Survey, not only had an extraordinarily wide definition of “assault” but worse, had such a low return rate as to be a meaningless survey from a scientific perspective. I think that repeating silly statistics does little to address a very important problem, because it creates an entirely false notion of that problem and what can be done to address it.
    Perhaps of interest to you and other readers is that last year I published a novel in which some of these same issues were examined–not directly, but in the context of how an academic professor’s growing insight into his own behavior and attitudes led him to suggestions for campus climate reform. Of course the suggestions made were fiction, but provide some examples of systemic approaches that might help reduce sexual violence on college campuses. The novel is entitled “Forgive Me My Trespasses” by Ian M. Evans and is published by Archway Publishing and available as an e-book on Amazon. Because there is a small element of Judaic and other religious themes, I was attracted to your OUP blog, of which I’m a regular reader, as well as an OUP author. Thanks again for such a valuable piece.

  2. Joe Hawes

    O would like to hear more about how the students have responded to these texts in your classes.
    I also think that there is no better place to have a discussion about rape culture than in a Bible class

  3. Jessica Crist

    Thank you for this concise and helpful piece on a topic that so many people are tone deaf to. I would hope that Title IX people on campus would read it and learn.

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