With eager attempts to discredit the Bible’s integrity, critics have included in their attacks the outrageous claim that the scriptures endorse and even promote immoral behaviors like sexual assault and rape. Katie Edwards and Emma Nagouse have written: “Rape is endemic in the Bible (both literally and metaphorically) and, more often than not, functions as a conduit for male competition and a tool to uphold patriarchy.”1 Michael Martin states further, “To be sure, one can find rape condemned in the Bible. However, one can also find passages where God seems to be tacitly approving of rape and other passages where rape is condemned but without regard for the victim's welfare.”2
Before we address specific charges, let’s note some basic interpretive guidelines.
1. To determine the true state of affairs, key contextual and translational matters cannot be avoided. It is a fundamental error to limit one’s investigation of the Bible to a particular English translation, scrutinized from a present-day westernized perspective and postmodern agenda. Failure to take into account the original historical, linguistic, literary, and sociocultural contexts invariably results in misconstruing just about anything the Bible says.
2. Objectivity and fairness demand gathering all relevant information that would help explain or qualify any given issue, rather than isolating a single text or a select handful of texts to reinforce predetermined conclusions. On any question, we ought to determine the Bible’s overall message and interpret seemingly anomalous passages accordingly.
3. Scriptures that are misused because of contextual disregard should be eliminated from the trumped-up indictment. For example, Judges 5:30 is not a divine endorsement but descriptive of Canaanite pillaging. The account in Judges 21:10-24 was not a scheme devised by God but by wayward Israelites, as “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (v. 25, NKJV).
4. The historical-cultural settings of biblical stories and directives must be understood in light of and in contrast to the pagan surroundings, particularly with regard to the pervasive maltreatment of women. Critics are quick to ridicule and condemn just about anything in the Bible that does not conform to modern-day sensibilities, while hardly noticing the brutality, repression, and immorality of contemporaneous cultures.
5. As human wickedness is exposed in the biblical narratives, sexual harassment and assault are not restricted to female victims (Gen. 19:4-9, 32-35; 39:7-16; Judg. 19:22-23).
What the Bible Says About Sexual Abuse
Accounts of rape are reported in Genesis 34:1-7; Judges 19:22–20:5; and 2 Samuel 13:1-22, each depicted as a heinous crime. The absence of God is something all these stories share in common, occasioned by the persistent abandonment of his moral code. Conversely, scripture reveals that God’s desire for his people is sanctification, to abstain from sexual immorality, to control our bodies in holiness and honor rather than passion of lust like those who do not know God (1 Thess. 4:1-7; cf. 1 Cor. 6:18-20; Eph. 5:1-5).
What About Captives of War?
In Numbers 31, after defeating the Midianites in war, Moses allowed the Israelite men to keep for themselves 32,000 Midianite virgins (vv. 18, 35). When critics describe these women as “sex slaves” and cite this passage as an alleged sanction of “rape,” they are demonstrating prejudicial ignorance. In a cultural environment where marriages were formed as socioeconomic arrangements (like most nonwestern cultures throughout history), to expect the modern concept of fairy-tale romance is incredibly naïve. Detractors seem oblivious to the moral depravity of the Midianites (Num. 25:1-3, 18; 31:16; cf. Judg. 6:1-7) and know nothing of the condition or the plight of these women before Israelite intervention. Compared to typical ravages of war, and in contrast to the ruthless societies surrounding them, the Jews had strict laws for how captives were to be treated, particularly a marriageable woman (Deut. 21:10-14): “you shall not mistreat her” (v. 14, NASB).
The Golden Proof-Text
The 22nd chapter of Deuteronomy lists various laws concerning sexual misconduct, including consensual relations and rape. When both parties consent to an adulterous affair or show no restraint in a sordid rendezvous involving a betrothed woman, neither is free of guilt and both are punished accordingly (vv. 22-24). On the other hand, when a woman resists a sexual aggressor and gives no consent, only the rapist is held accountable (vv. 25-27).
The main point of contention concerns the next two verses. A straightforward translation of vv. 28-29 reads as follows: “If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, that is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found, then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he hath humbled her; he may not put her away all his days” (ASV). However, the passage reads much differently when English translators submit more interpretive renderings, like “seizes her” (ESV, ISV, NASB, N/RSV), “forces her to have sex with him” (CEV), “rapes her” (CSB, GW, ISV, NIV), “overpowers her and rapes her” (NET). Of course Bible critics exploit these versions to bolster their claim that the Bible endorses the victimization of women. But let us not forget that the Bible was not originally written in English, and the original texts could readily assume the targeted reading audience was already familiar with the cases described therein.
The Hebrew verb שָׁכַב [shakab] simply means to “lie down” (Ezek. 4:4, 6), while most often used idiomatically with varying nuances, including to “sleep” (Gen. 19:4; 28:11; Lev. 14:27), to “die” (Gen. 47:30; Judg. 5:27; Lam. 2:21), and to “have sexual relations” (Lev. 15:18, 24). In the latter case, the context must determine whether the intercourse is consensual (e.g. Gen. 30:15-16; Deut. 22:22; 2 Sam. 11:11) or not (e.g. Gen. 34:2-7; 39:14; Deut. 22:25; 28:30; 2 Sam. 13:14).
In the immediate context of Deuteronomy 22, a rapist is to be put to death (v. 25). Yet a few verses later, a man “takes hold of” [תָּפַשׂ taphas, cf. 9:17; 21:19] a young woman who is not betrothed and “lies with” [שָׁכַב shakab, cf. 22:22] her, and then they are “found out” [מָצָא matsa, cf. 22:22]. Mutual consent is implied as no death penalty is enjoined, and the man is obligated to pay the dowry or bride-price (cf. Ex. 22:16-17).
If the Bible does in fact condone, endorse, and promote sexual assault, you would think Bible-believers would be condoning, endorsing, and promoting sexual assault! Apparently those of us who take the Bible seriously and study it diligently know more about its message than those who harbor a predisposition against it. Selectively reading the Bible to expose what appears to be its worst parts, while ignoring qualifying information that would expose the fallacy of this approach, is negligent at best and deceitful at worst.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Katie Edwards and Emma Nagouse, “How the Bible shapes contemporary attitudes to rape and sexual assault,” The Conversation (2 May 2017), <Link>.
2 Michael Martin, “Atheism, Christian Theism, and Rape,” The Secular Web (1997), <Link>.
*See Sandra L. Richter, "Rape in Israel's World ... And Ours: A Study of Deuteronomy 22:23-29," JETS 64.1 (2021):59-76. Richter concludes, "within its societal context, the laws of Deuteronomy did indeed protect women, often more effectively than surrounding law codes, and perhaps more effectively than modern legal systems."
Related Posts: The Bible's Radical View on Women, Was Polygamy Acceptable?
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