An email from someone I had never met arrived in my inbox in February 2019. We’ll call her Jenny.
She had heard me speaking on a series of podcasts produced by the Bible Society, talking about some of the stories of sexually violent men in the Old Testament. As a result, she contacted me to tell me something of her story and to ask me some questions.
Jenny has been married for decades to a man who for a long time served as a lay preacher with a major denomination in the United Kingdom. During their marriage, he consistently emotionally abused her, undermining her confidence and self-worth. He also physically abused her, sexually abused her and raped her.
Jenny is now living apart from her husband, although they are still married. And she is gradually healing, in body and soul. But she had some major questions, and many of these center around what the Bible says to people like her.
With her permission, I quote from her email:
“I would like to understand what happened. How could a Christian marriage end like this? What does God think of it? What was the church doing?
“I know the Bible very well; we read a chapter aloud each night for 38 years; I know all the hard parts. I know that Hagar escaped, and God sent her back. Why?
“I know that the Levite abandoned his concubine to save a man and she died at the hands of men. Who cares?
“I know it says wives should keep silent in church and ask their husbands at home. Huh! If you can make any sense of all this and help the churches to do so, I shall be glad.”
The issue for Jenny was particularly acute because for her, married to a preacher, Scripture had been interpreted to her by her husband for decades.
He had told her many times that Esther was an exemplary wife, a model of beauty and availability. Each time he said it, it made her feel more unattractive, more ashamed.
He told her, again and again, that her role as a wife was to obey him. When she didn’t, she was a being a terrible wife. Or so he said.
Jenny knew her Bible well, but because of the way her husband had interpreted it to her, she could now only find in it themes that appeared to validate his treatment of her.
Scripture had been weaponized against her. It had been shaped into something that could only hurt, not heal.
Jenny’s email arrived in my inbox at the just the right moment.
As founding director of the brand-new Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence at Bristol Baptist College, I had been starting to think about the ways the Bible speaks into situations of modern violence. I had also been starting to investigate ways in which the Bible is being used to endorse violence.
When Jenny’s message arrived, we began an email correspondence and then met in person. She helped me to see there would be value in a book debunking some of the dreadful ways the Bible has been used by abusers.
I hope I helped her to see the use of the Bible in this way is an appalling distortion of God’s Word.
Since then, I have done a lot of research, speaking with survivors of domestic abuse and coercive control, and also with those who work with them, through personal friendship or in professional capacity.
The Bible can be made to say just about anything if it is taken out of context.
It can be made to say the earth stands on pillars (1 Samuel 2:8), that certain men should castrate themselves (Galatians 5:12) or that we need to fetch Paul’s cloak and scrolls from Troas (2 Timothy 4:13).
In actual fact, of course, it is saying none of those things to us. Here we have examples of imagery, rhetoric and comments made about particular situations.
We need to read carefully, to think about what the writer is saying in the larger context, and to piece together what that means for us.
A good minister will help train their congregation to do this well. She or he will encourage their congregation to learn to interpret Scripture for themselves while always valuing the insight of those who have studied the Bible long and hard.
Sadly, and for a variety of reasons, people in the churches are sometimes not well equipped to handle the Bible well.
And an abuser will not open up interpretive possibilities. He will shut them down. He will not invite discussion about context and interpretation. He will tell you what the Bible means and use it to beat you with.
He may genuinely believe what he is saying, or he may be deliberately manipulating it. But what he is doing is using the Bible to control, to oppress, to harm. He is weaponizing the Bible.
But the Bible does not support the abuse of anyone. It can only appear to do so if it is manipulated and twisted.
Director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence, based at Bristol Baptist College. She is the author of The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So and God of Violence Yesterday, God of Love Today?