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PC(USA) administrators respond to public outcry after “text of terror” is selected for Hebrew exegesis exam

Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates will join a meeting of the Association of Mid Council Leaders on Wednesday, Feb. 8 to discuss their selection of Judges 19, “The Levite’s Concubine.”

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Warning: This story contains references to sexual assault, violence and abuse, and could be triggering for survivors and their loved ones. RAINN provides 24/7, free support for survivors of sexual assault as well as their loved ones at 800.656.HOPE and online.rainn.org. You can find more resources for supporting survivors at https://www.rainn.org/TALK.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) committee that oversees the Bible exegesis exam, a requirement for those on the path to ministry, has been accused of insensitivity toward victims of rape, sexual assault and violence by choosing what is known as a “text of terror” for in-depth analysis.

On January 2, the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCC) announced on its Facebook page that the passage of Scripture for the upcoming Hebrew exegesis exam would come from the book of Judges. When minister of Word and Sacrament candidates began taking the exegesis exam at 3 p.m. EST on January 28, 2023, they found that the Scripture selection was Judges 19, also known as “The Levite’s Concubine.”

The exegesis exam is an intense look at a piece of Scripture predetermined by the PCC. (See the winter 2023 exam here.) The selected Bible passages switch back and forth between the Old and New Testament, and those taking the exam must offer an interpretation of the text with reference to the original Hebrew or Greek as well as develop a teaching application, sometimes a Sunday school outline and sometimes a sermon. Candidates are not allowed to discuss the exam during the test period of just under five days.

According to the PC(USA)’s website, the exegesis exam “shall assess the candidate’s ability to interpret an assigned passage of Scripture by demonstrating attention to the original language of the text, an understanding of the text’s historical context, and an ability to relate the text effectively to the contemporary life of the church in the world.”

Judges 19 is about a man who offers his daughter and a concubine to be “ravished” by a group of other men. The enslaved concubine, who is gang raped and abused through the night, dies of these acts.

The following morning, the concubine’s “master” dismembers her.

“The probability that this passage in this exam context caused a trauma reaction in someone is close to 100%,” writes Traci Smith.

“The probability that this passage in this exam context caused a trauma reaction in someone is close to 100%,” writes Traci Smith, who is an ordained pastor. “Why? Because ‘over half of women have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact.’ One in six has experienced a rape or an attempted rape.”

Smith acknowledged understanding that some of those who approved the exam perhaps did so due the seriousness of the topic. “It makes logical sense to me that the creators of this exam thought it was an important exercise or that it might send a message to the larger church of the importance of wrestling with the sexual violence in the Bible and handling it well,” she wrote. “My point is, though, the trauma side was not considered ‘with the seriousness it warrants.’ If it had been, the exam would have never been sent out into the world like this.”

For women in the United States, the implications of rape are also historical, tied to race and colonization. Sexual violence against women of color was common, with the rape of Indigenous women considered justified. Enslaved Black women were raped and then forced to bear children.

Survivors of sexual violence and sexual assault are more likely to develop high blood pressure, according to research published by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the Journal of the American Heart Association. And one-third of rape victims develop PTSD, numbers from U.S. Department of Veteran affairs show.

For survivors of trauma such as rape and violence, reading works that describe acts like these can be triggering.

By late afternoon on Thursday, comments on Preparing for Presbyterian Ministry’s Facebook page, which is public, overwhelmingly showed support for sensitivity to those taking and reading the test and called for apologies.

A small handful of responders backed the PCC’s decision, saying difficult topics must be discussed.

And Elena Keppel Levy, a PC(USA) pastor, had added a petition to change.org demanding that Presbyterian ordination exams “must not cause harm” and calling for a public apology by the PCC.

“We, the undersigned, object to the choice of Judges 19 … as the Hebrew Exegesis text for the PC(USA) Hebrew Exegesis Exam,” the petition read. “While it is a vital skill for pastors to be able to interpret, teach, and preach from scripture, stories that feature extreme violence and sexual violence cause harm for both test takers and readers.”

Written by biblical scholar Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives lists Judges 19 as one of several pieces of Scripture that “illustrate the failure of systems of power to prevent violence against women or to provide victims of violence with justice,” according to an article on the now-defunct Huffington Post contributor platform.

“Sexual violence happens in epidemic proportions in this country,” Levy wrote in the petition. “The Department of Justice reports that ‘1 in 4 women and 1 out of 6 men are sexually abused in their lifetime.’ This issue is not abstract for members of our church or members of our society; it is personal. … Ensuring that candidates have a trauma-informed education about how to deal with and respond to these matters is crucial. However, this will not be effectively accomplished in a high-pressure, high-stakes examination.”

This particular text is not part of the lectionary, and it likely is seldom preached, wrote Ruth Everhart, a well-known pastor and speaker, and a survivor of sexual assault.

In her blog published Friday, Everhart discusses writing her third book, The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Conduct, and considering – but deciding against – using Judges 19 as she wove historical and contemporary stories of sexual abuse within the context of church.

“But as I worked with the material,” she writes, “I decided it was simply too horrible to include. Readers would already be wrestling with difficult, graphic material. I couldn’t ask them to confront gang rape and dismemberment.”

“I drew a line.”

A portion of a statement that the PCC provided for media outlets, including the Outlook, read:

“The Presbyterians’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCC) has clearly laid out its thinking and process in the document that was distributed to those who raised concerns. It has reviewed other concerns raised and has addressed its processes and thinking behind its decision to move forward with this scripture. The committee has also offered opportunities for the candidates who could not complete the exam to be enrolled in the spring exam without registration fees.”

For the PCC’s full statement, which was signed by Robert W. Lowry, PCC moderator, and Beth Garrod-Logsdon, a member of PCC Bible Exams task group, see here.

Timothy Cargal is the associate director for ministry leadership development with the Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In this role, he helps to oversee the administering of the ordination exams. In an email to the Outlook, he explained that because “the ministry context and work product for the exegesis exam is not always focused on a congregational sermon. It is not uncommon for the scriptural passages used in the exams to be non-lectionary texts.”

“The ministry context and work product for the exegesis exam is not always focused on a congregational sermon. It is not uncommon for the scriptural passages used in the exams to be non-lectionary texts,” writes Timothy Cargal.

Those taking the test were given the option of opting out, which is not an unheard-occurrence, Cargal continued.

However, opting out could present the issue of revealing trauma that some would wish to remain private.

Members of the PCC, which has an annual meeting planned in March, will join a meeting of the Association of Mid Council Leaders at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 8, via Zoom to discuss this issue.

According to emails that were sent to the Outlook and social media posts, requests asking the PCC to explain why the text was chosen were either ignored or dismissed as necessary in the preparation to discuss and counsel on difficult topics.

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