“‘What would I be without God?’” she whispered rapidly, forcibly, glancing at him with suddenly flashing eyes, and squeezing his hand.”

– Sonya, in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

Fyodor Dostoevsky explores the human condition with such poignant discernment and depth that he has earned recognition as one of the greatest novelists of all time. The narrative of his own life unfurled pages revealing the impacts of the hearts of darkness that shaped the society around him. He endured tremendous trauma, including exile, imprisonment, and a staged execution that was contrived purposefully to induce a lifetime of great distress. Yet out of the wreckage, there is wrought such wisdom in the writings of Dostoevsky. His works are resplendent with philosophical grappling and religious thematic interests that bear timeless didactic facility for the mind that is willing to engage them. Concepts harkening back to the ancient tenets of stories in the Old Testament and the redemptive promises of the New intersperse within his offerings, like a delicate filigree hewn out of the solid rock.

When I first happened upon Crime and Punishment some twenty years ago in the cold dark basement of the University library in Sydney, Australia, my first thought was: “This book is huge, the adjectival insistence in every line is exhausting, and my professor wants it read with an accompanying paper in two weeks! I don’t have two bucks for a coffee; unless I break my fiver, forego my train ticket, and try not to get caught by the carriage guard on the way home. No coffee, no time, not possible.” It was, however, not only possible; this task also proved profoundly revelatory. What remained, afterward, was that esoteric encounter for the bibliophile upon saying goodbye to the book, a moment of victory in the conquest of a text of this caliber, and yet, no goodbye at all. The characters never leave. They have taken residence in the recesses of my mind for decades.

Especially Sonya.

There is so much about how Dostoevsky has crafted his Sonya that resonates with remarkable Biblical women. Sonya is, like Rahab, a prostitute — a woman, in the image of God, reduced to a vile usage. Her profession was meant as the expression of a sacred love, now made to yield to the price of perversion. Yet it is this very stain of scarlet that provides the cord that saves their families of origin, for both Sonya and Rahab. This cord that is cast down, down to the rock bottom earth, is in the place where it can be grasped. A connection point is established through this cord to a new people, a promised land, a redemption, and an eternal hope. Every desperate hand that longs to be loved must reach for that lifeline.

Sonya also shares aspects of Esther: a desperate, economically disenfranchised girl whose beauty others see as chattel to be bought and sold. And yet, she wields soft power, the power of a woman who can gently, through grace and quietness, change the direction of the scepter.

Sonya is likewise mirrored in Ruth, who says to the old woman, who is no blood relative, “Where you go, I will go, your people will be my people.”1 Like Ruth, Sonya provides for Katarina and the children.

Sonya shares this writer’s name as well: Sonja. Well, I see this sojourning Sonja within some of Sonya’s motifs, too. That is why we read in any case, to know we are not alone. Sonja/Sonya means wisdom. Where is wisdom born? For most, it is born in the suffering places. It is only the rare life stories, those of the ilk of Solomon, that have the jewel bestowed as a gift. He was bereft of the wrought fire, and in the end, he did not value the prize.2 When she is emblazoned into the flesh, when the heart is rent wide open — ah precious wisdom! It is then that she is known. This priceless garland is worn only on the crowns of those who love the Author of life.

Consummation. An act that was meant as an expression of a sacred love. A metaphor for the depth of love God has for his bride. The bridegroom would call away his bride to a secret grove and share his body, where he whispers the intimate poetry of the heart to inspire the chords of her heart to draw into harmony with his. The result: mutual love, joy, pleasure, and multiplication of life! In that first love, the virgin knows for the first time that she is treasured, and believes that she always will be.

Tragically, the antithesis is here, in the broken shadow world which humanity now occupies. That sacred act is quite confoundingly reduced to merely sex, or worse, made to yield to the price of perversion. The ancient profession of prostitution professes everything of the darkness of humanity. The flesh of a creature, made in the image of God, made for love, can be debased into a transaction, or simply stolen. Dignity, health, wholeness, and hope can be bought, sold, and thieved. There are manifold reasons a person may find themselves in this desperate state. In a time when human trafficking is one of the most lucrative illicit businesses on Earth, the eyes of the heart must be opened to this travesty, and the hands and feet of Christ must set about to seek justice and restoration.3 It is here in this very epoch that Dostoevsky’s Sonya has so much to elucidate to us.

The didactic function of this character in this classic text is indeed more salient than it was to Dostoevsky’s contemporaries. Human trafficking is currently at the highest rates in human history, so it is today’s reader to whom Sonya now speaks most profoundly. She has a name; she is in a specific context that is desperate; lives depend on her. Her own life is at risk. There are children who need her. She has a father. Those who should protect her are failing her. There are substance abuse issues – her father is an alcoholic. There are mental health issues, as he cannot overcome this addiction. Beyond the novel, and within it, there are the real perverse men who will steal and destroy God’s image bearers. They will write on the tablet of her narrative the dark chapters; they will kill her if they can. This is not just the story of Sonya, of course. Is this also the story that the reader is never told in the book of Joshua? Is this Rahab? Rahab is a prostitute, but the Author of life does not belabor this point. It is a fact; she has been bought and sold. Is this, too, the woman on the street corner at the end of your town, dear reader? It is doubtless the tragic gut-wrenching story of the countless scores of little girls throughout Southeast Asia and across the world who discovered womanhood in thrusts of violence, in a decimation of childhood, in abject terror and confusion instead of the tender arms of love.4

Then after the desecration, the prostituted is to wear a garment of shame, as if the act is somehow her own doing. This is illustrated as Sonya is removed from the family abode, because the shame of her ‘profession’ disallows her access to the very society of family under a roof that is secured by the sale of her flesh. Rahab, too, saves her own family.5 These women who are regarded as reprobates by their self-righteous societies are, in fact, heroic. The true God is the God who sees the broken woman. He sees who she is meant to be: not the property of man, but the beloved of God. In many ways, Dostoevsky borrows this Biblical truth in his construction of Sonya. He examines how she came to be in this diabolical situation. Like the heroism of Rahab, Sonya is doubtless the hero of this narrative.

In Chapter Four, Sonya implores Raskolnikov: “Go at once, this minute, stand at the crossroads, bow down, first kiss the earth which you have defiled and then bow down to all the world and say to all men aloud, ‘I am a murderer!’ Then God will send you life again.” Raskolnikov has murdered a woman. Driven by utterly selfish, nihilistic, and misguided ideologies, Raskolnikov has made strident efforts to justify his action to himself as he wrestles with such philosophical adages as ‘the end justifies the means,’ only to discover that he is still left with the relentless burden of a plagued mind rent with bloodguilt. The fruit of the tree of this philosophy is brought forth from the rank seed of Niccolo Machiavelli. He is remembered as an immoral cynic. It is remarkable that the phrase ‘the end justifies the means’ is still bandied about in culture today, as if it has any worth above dross. The spilling of blood here by Raskolnikov cannot be justified; his only hope is the atonement of Christ’s blood. He must repent, or else accept the eternal lot he has created for himself.

In this scene, the prudent prostitute is, again, the voice of wisdom. She is decisive and lifesaving, just like Rahab back in Jericho. Sonya and Rahab are more than their flesh, more than a sale price. She is the personification of wisdom.

One of Sonya’s Biblical parallels, Esther, was a girl who was likely an orphan. She was raised by her uncle, who saw social mobility for her, facilitated by her beauty. The former Queen Vashti had been dethroned for the royal disobedience of refusing a display of herself for the entitled entertainment of her husband and the party of men he had invited into the palace for feasting and self-indulgence. In any case, the following beauty contest to determine what flesh will next occupy the seat of “Queen” is won by Esther. She has the prize of being the new wife of a man who exiled his last wife into the desert, a man who has absolute power over life and death of every subject. Like Sonya, Esther is prudent. She understands her powerlessness. She does not contest it; like Sonya, she resigns herself to her reality. When Mordecai insists Esther speak to her king to prevent the genocide of her people, she tells him that the king has not summoned her for thirty days, a delicate effort to suggest to Mordecai that the small power her beauty and sexual appeal may have had in the past is no more, and that she is afraid for her life. “All the royal officials and the people of the king’s provinces know that one law applies to every man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned — that he be put to death. Only if the king extends the gold scepter.”6 Despite the risk to her life, Esther does approach the king; she does save her people. With the gentle, desperate imploring of the feminine, she quietly prepares meals for him. She makes no demands of him, but simply bows lowly before him until his heart is moved, just as Sonya appeals to Raskolnikov. She has bowed to her wretched lot and accepted the scorn it has afforded her. In seeking the best outcome for the man she loves, Sonya entreats him to make the same appeal to a far more merciful King than the one before whom Esther stood.

Another one of Sonya’s Biblical parallels is Ruth, who is renowned for all time as a bastion of loyalty. She loved an elderly lady, with no hope whatsoever for personal gain. Ruth walked across a desert with Naomi, gleaned grain for her, and wept with her at the loss of her sons and her husband. Her story closes with Naomi holding the beautiful prize of Ruth’s remarkable love, a baby boy: Obed. Her son was in the line of Christ. God saw her loyalty; God heard her precious words. Doubtless he saw to it that those words are forever echoed through eternity, etched into the sacred corpus: “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go, I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.”7 This is a beautiful moment emblematic of sacrificial love, the kind of love that is ached for, yet can seldom be delivered by the human heart.

Dostoevsky’s Sonya expresses this same kind of love through the narrative thread in her connection to Katarina. Unlike Naomi, who sought the best for Ruth by releasing her to return to her people of origin, perhaps anticipating that one of her kin could care for her, Katarina was one of the driving forces that led Sonya to prostitution. Despite this terrible reality, Sonya still loves her: “‘Love her? Of course!’ said Sonya with plaintive emphasis, and she clasped her hands in distress.”8 This love, even in a fictional space, is remarkable because Sonya has been tremendously ill-used. And yet, she still loves the traitor. Perhaps this love is so moving because when positioned in the light of the love of Christ, we are Katarina. We are betrayers; we are the desperate driven to the despicable; we are the hungry beast that destroys the very flesh of the Divine. . . the one who loves us, who saves us.

Dostoevsky’s Sonya appears to understand the sentiment of the ancient Proverb: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.”9 She expresses a self-awareness throughout the text of a tremendous need of God, His love, His refuge. This sojourning Sonja has a little kernel too, some fontanelle of knowledge, that every human must stand before a perfect God. She possesses a concept of Holiness, and a fear in its tremendous sublimity. This is the beginning of wisdom. The fictional character’s name means wisdom, and she is the icon of the same. “‘What would I be without God?’ she whispered rapidly, forcibly, glancing at him with suddenly flashing eyes, and squeezing his hand.”10 The didactic function of Dostoevsky’s offerings is to allow the reader opportunity for reflection on the broken worlds human hands have crafted. He helps us explore the debauched philosophies all the way to their final arrival points. Yet most critically, this work serves to remind those soiled hands to reach, to grasp and then to cling for dear life, to the scarlet cord that can foist them into the promised land of His love.

1 Ruth 1:15-17, New King James Version

2 1 Kings 11:4

3 “Human Trafficking: People for sale”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Copyright 2023, Accessed 10/04/2023athttps://www.unodc.org/toc/en/crimes/human-trafficking.html.

4 “The Issue: Child Sex Trafficking”, Destiny Rescue AU,Copyright 2023, accessed 05/10/2023 at https://www.destinyrescue.org.au/.

5 Joshua 6:25

6 Esther 4:11

7 Ruth 1:16

8 Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Ed. Harold Bloom (New York City: Chelsea House Publishing, 2003), Chapter 4.

9 Proverbs 9:10

10 Dostoevsky, Ibid.