Rape in the Hebrew Bible
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In Mosaic law
If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour's wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you.
But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die. But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death: for as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so is this matter: For he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her.
If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which 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.
There are several other passages in the Old Testament, including Genesis 34, Numbers 31:15-18, Deuteronomy 21:10-14, Judges 19:22-26, and 2 Samuel 13:1-14, which depict rape or have been interpreted as discussing rape by numerous scholars, including Wil Gafney and Phyllis Trible. In Genesis 34, Dinah is abducted by Shechem in a passage that is often interpreted as rape. In Numbers 31: 15-18, Moses, after exacting revenge on the Midianites, commands his army to kill all the boys and every non-virgin woman while telling them to "save for [themselves]" every virgin woman," a phrase which has been interpreted as a passage depicting rape. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 presents laws regarding marrying a captive woman, which has also been regarded as depicting rape. Judges 19:22-26 depicts Gibeah and the Levite Concubine, in which a man sends out his concubine to a group of angry men, where they gang rape her. Afterwards, the man cuts up the body of his concubine into twelve pieces and sends them to the Twelve Tribes of Israel. 2 Samuel 13:1-14 involves the rape of Tamar.
Analysis, interpretation and criticism
The traditional interpretation of the destruction of the city of Sodom is that of an attempted homosexual gang rape. Two angels arrive in Sodom, and Lot shows them hospitality. However, the men of the city gathered around Lot's house and demanded that he give them the two guests so that could rape them. In response to this, Lot offers the mob his two virgin daughters instead. The mob refuses Lot's offer, but the angels strike them with blindness, and Lot and his family escape.
Genesis 19 goes on to relate how Lot's daughters get him drunk and have sex with him. A number of commentators describe their actions as rape. Esther Fuchs suggests that the text presents Lot's daughters as the "initiators and perpetrators of the incestuous 'rape'." Ilan Kutz suggests that today it would be called "drug rape", but concludes that it was actually Lot who abused his daughters, and this was covered up by the biblical narrators.
Sandra E. Rapoport argues that "The Bible text is sympathetic to Shechem in the verses following his rape of Dinah, at the same time that it does not flinch from condemning the lawless predatory behavior towards her. Amazingly, one midrash attributes Shechem's three languages of love in verse 3 to God's love for the Children of Israel." She also put forth that "Shechem's character is complex. He is not easily characterized as unqualifiedly evil. It is this complexity that creates unbearable tension for the reader and raises the justifiably strong emotions of outrage, anger, and possible compassion."
Susanne Scholz writes that "The brothers' revenge, however, also demonstrates their conflicting views about women. On the one hand they defend their sister. On the other hand they do not hesitate to capture other women as if these women were their booty. The connection of the rape and the resulting revenge clarifies that no easy solutions are available to stop rapists and rape-prone behavior. In this regard Genesis 34 invites contemporary readers to address the prevalence of rape through the metaphoric language of a story." In a different work, Scholz writes that "During its extensive history of interpretation, Jewish and Christian interpreters mainly ignored Dinah. […] in many interpretations, the fraternal killing is the criminal moment, and in more recent years scholars have argued explicitly against the possibility that Shechem rapes Dinah. They maintain that Shechem's love and marriage proposal do not match the 'scientifically documented behavior of a rapist'." Mary Anna Bader notes the division between verses 2 and 3, and writes that "It is strange and upsetting for the modern reader to find the verbs "love" and "dishonor" together, having the same man as their subject and the same woman as their object." Later, she writes that "The narrator gives the reader no information about Dinah's thoughts or feelings or her reactions to what has taken place. Shechem is not only the focalizor but also the primary actor…The narrator leaves no room for doubt that Shechem is the center of these verses. Dinah is the object (or indirect object) of Shechem's actions and desires."
Sandra E. Rapoport regards Genesis 34 as condemning rape strongly, writing, "The brothers' revenge killings of Shechem and Hamor, while they might remind modern readers of frontier justice and vigilantism, are an understandable measure-for-measure act in the context of the ancient Near East. Scholz argued that "The literary analysis showed, however, that despite this silence Dinah is present throughout the story. Indeed, everything happens because of her. Informed by feminist scholarship, the reading does not even require her explicit comments."
Frank M. Yamada argues that the abrupt transition between Genesis 34:2 and 34:3 was a storytelling technique due to the fact that the narrative focused on the men, a pattern which he perceives in other rape narratives as well, also arguing that the men's responses are depicted in a mixed light. "The rape of Dinah is narrated in a way that suggests there are social forces at work, which complicate the initial seal violation and will make problematic the resulting male responses. […] The abrupt transition from rape to marriage, however, creates a tension in the reader's mind…the unresolved issue of punishment anticipates the response of Simeon and Levi."
- ""Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the people went to meet them outside the camp. But Moses was furious with all the military commanders who had returned from the battle. “Why have you let all the women live?” he demanded. “These are the very ones who followed Balaam’s advice and caused the people of Israel to rebel against the LORD at Mount Peor. They are the ones who caused the plague to strike the LORD’s people. Now kill all the boys and all the women who have slept with a man. Only the young girls who are virgins may live; you may keep them for yourselves."
Apologetics Press argues that while Numbers appears to condone rape, this is negated in Deuteronomy 21:10-14, which specifically mentions captive slaves being taken as wives, not as sex slaves. "It is important to understand that God has never condoned any type of sexual activity outside of a lawful marriage. The only way that an Israelite would be morally justified in having sexual intercourse with a female captive was if he made her his wife, granting to her the rights and privileges due to a wife."
- "If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her."
Tarico was critical of Deuteronomy 22:28-29, saying that "The punishments for rape have to do not with compassion or trauma to the woman herself but with honor, tribal purity, and a sense that a used woman is damaged goods."
Cheryl Anderson, in her book Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Bible Interpretation, discusses an anecdote about a student, who, when exposed to the passages in Deuteronomy, said that "This is the word of God. If it says slavery is okay, slavery is okay. If it says rape is okay, rape is okay." Elaborating on this, she states in response to these passages, "Clearly, these laws do not take into account the female's perspective. After a rape, [the victim] would undoubtedly see herself as the injured party and would probably find marriage to her rapist to be distasteful, to say the least. Arguably, there are cultural and historical reasons why such a law made sense at the time. […] Just the same, the law communicates the message that faith tradition does not (and should not) consider the possibility that women might have different yet valid perspectives."
In a piece for TheBlaze, a variety of religious scholars condemn the idea that the Bible supported rape. They write that the rape discussed in Deuteronomy was not criminal rape, that a woman could opt out of marrying her rapist, and that the law was created to protect the woman. “His act has rendered her unacceptable as a wife for others. "So this law was designed to indicate responsibility in the sex act for the person in a patriarchal context where women had little power and where the women if left to the event would be on her own.” Richard M. Davidson regarded Deuteronomy 22:28-29 as a law concerning statutory rape. He argued that the laws do support the role of women in the situation, writing, "even though the woman apparently consents to engage in sexual intercourse with the man in these situations, the man nonetheless has 'afflicted/humbled/violated her'. The Edenic diving design that a woman's purity be respected and protected has been violated. […] Even though the woman may have acquiesced to her seducer, nonetheless according to the law, the dowry is 'equal to the bride wealth for virgins' (Exodus 22:16): she is treated financially as a virgin would be! Such treatment upholds the value of a woman against a man taking unfair advantage of her, and at the same time discourages sexual abuse." Regarding 22:25-27, Craig S. Keener noted that "biblical law assumes [the woman's] innocence without requiring witnesses; she does not bear the burden of proof to argue that she did not consent. If the woman might have been innocent, her innocence must be assumed," while Davidson added, "Thus the Mosaic law protects the sexual purity of a betrothed woman (and protects the one to whom she is betrothed), and prescribing the severest penalty to the man who dares to sexually violate her."
Yamada opines that Deuteronomy 22:23-24, which condemns punishment for the woman if the act takes place in the city, was not about rape, but adultery. He also argued that although the laws treat women as property, "the Deuteronomic laws, even if they do not address the crime of rape as sexual violence against a woman as such, do provide a less violent alternative for addressing the situation.
Trible devotes a chapter in Texts of Terror to the rape of the concubine in the Book of Judges, titled "An Unnamed Woman: The Extravagance of Violence". About the rape of the concubine itself, she wrote, "The crime itself receives few words. If the storyteller advocates neither pornography or sensationalism, he also cares little about the women's fate. The brevity of this section on female rape contrasts sharply with the lengthy reports on male carousing and male deliberations that precede it. Such elaborate attention to men intensifies the terror perpetrated upon the woman." After noting that differences in the Greek and Hebrew versions of the Bible make it unclear whether or not the concubine was dead the following morning ("the narrator protects his protagonist through ambiguity"), Trible writes that "Neither the other characters nor the narrator recognizes her humanity. She is property, object, tool, and literary device. [..] In the end, she is no more than the oxen that Saul will later cut in pieces and send throughout all the territory of Israel as a call to war."
Scholz notes the linguistic ambiguity of the passage and the variety of interpretations that stem from it. She wrote that "since this narrative is not a 'historical' or 'accurate' report about actual events, the answers to these questions reveal more about a reader's assumptions regarding gender, androcentrism, and sociopolitical practices than can be known about ancient Israelite life based on Judges 19. […] Predictably, interpreters deal differently with the meaning of the story, depending on their hermeneutical interests."
Yamada believes that the language used to describe the plight of the concubine make the reader sympathize with her, especially during the rape and its aftermath. "Thus, the narrator's elaborate description of the woman's attempt to return to the old man's house highlights for the reader the devastating effects of the preceding night's events, emphasizing her desolate state. The woman's raped and exhausted body becomes a symbol of the wrong that is committed when 'every man did what was right in his own eyes.' The image of this woman struggling to the door demands a response from the participants in the story."
2 Samuel 11
Since consent was impossible, given her powerless position, David in essence raped her. Rape means to have sex against the will, without the consent, of another – and she did not have the power to consent. Even if there was no physical struggle, even if she gave in to him, it was rape.
Other scholars, however, suggest that Bathsheba came to David willingly. James B. Jordan notes that the text does not describe Bathsheba's protest, as it does Tamar's in 2 Samuel 13, and argues that this silence indicates that "Bathsheba willingly cooperated with David in adultery." George Nicol goes even further and suggests that "Bathsheba's action of bathing in such close proximity to the royal palace was deliberately provocative."
2 Samuel 13
In The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church's Response, Pamela Cooper-White criticizes the Bible's depiction of Tamar for its emphasis on the male roles in the story and the perceived lack of sympathy given to Tamar. "The narrator of 2 Samuel 13 at times portrays poignantly, eliciting our sympathy for the female victim. But mostly, the narrator (I assume he) steers us in the direction of primary interest, even sympathy, for the men all around her. Even the poignancy of Tamar's humiliation is drawn out for the primary purpose of justifying Absalom's later murder of Amnon and not for its own sake." She opined that "Sympathy for Tamar is not the narrator's primary interest. The forcefulness of Tamar's impression is drawn out, not to illuminate her pain, but to justify Absalom's anger at Amnon and subsequent murder of him." Cooper-White also states that after the incestuous rape, the narrative continues to focus on Amnon, writing, "The story continues to report the perpetrator's viewpoint, the thoughts and feelings after the incident of violence; the victim's viewpoint is not presented. […] We are given no indication that he ever thought about her again—even in terms of fear of punishment or reprisal."
Trible allocates another chapter in Texts of Terror to Tamar, subtitled "The Royal Rape of Wisdom." She noted that Tamar is the lone female in the narrative and is treated as part of the stories of Amnon and Absalom. "Two males surround a female. As the story unfolds, they move between protecting and polluting, supporting and seducing, comforting and capturing her. Further, these sons of David compete with each other through the beautiful woman." She also wrote that the language the original Hebrew uses to describe the rape is better translated as "He laid her" than "He lay with her." Scholz wrote that "Many scholars make a point of rejecting the brutality with which Amnon subdues his [half-]sister," going on to criticize an interpretation by Pamela Tamarkin Reis that blames Tamar, rather than Amnon, for what happened to her.
Regarding the rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel, Rapoport states that "Amnon is an unmitigatedly detestable figure. Literarily, he is the evil foil to Tamar's courageous innocence. […] The Bible wants the reader to simultaneously appreciate, mourn, and cheer for Tamar as we revile and despise Amnon." Regarding the same passage, Bader wrote that "Tamar's perception of the situation is given credibility; indeed Amnon's lying with her proved to be violating her. Simultaneously with increasing Tamar's credibility, the narrator discredits Amnon." Trible opined that "[Tamar's] words are honest and poignant; they acknowledge female servitude." She also writes that "the narrator hints at her powerlessness by avoiding her name."
Similarly, Yamada argues that the narrator aligns with Tamar and makes the reader sympathize with her. "The combination of Tamar's pleas with Amnon's hatred of his half-sister after the violation aligns the reader with the victim and produce scorn toward the perpetrator. The detailed narration of the rape and post-rape responses of the two characters makes this crime more deplorable."
Both Kate Blanchard and Scholz note that there are several passages in the Book of Isaiah, Book of Jeremiah, and Book of Ezekiel that utilize rape metaphors. Blanchard expressed outrage over this fact, writing "The translations of these shining examples of victim-blaming are clear enough, despite the old-fashioned language: I'm angry and you're going to suffer for it. You deserve to be raped because of your sexual exploits. You're a slut and it was just a matter of time till you suffered the consequences. Let this be a lesson to you and to all other uppity women." Scholz discussed four passages—Isaiah 3:16-17, Jeremiah 13:22 and 26, Ezekiel 16, and Ezekiel 23. On Isaiah, Scholz wrote that there is a common mistranslation of the Hebrew word pōt as "forehead" or "scalp". Also often translated as "genitals", Scholz believes that a more accurate translation of the word in context is "cunt". Regarding Jeremiah, Scholz wrote, "The poem proclaims that the woman brought this fate upon herself and she is to be blamed for it, while the prophet sides with the sexually violent perpetrators, viewing the attack as deserved and God as justifying it. Rape poetics endorses 'masculine authoritarianism' and the 'dehumanization of women,' perhaps especially when the subject is God."
Scholz refers to both passages in Ezekiel as "pornographic objectification of Jerusalem." On Ezekiel 16, she wrote, "These violent words obscure the perspective of the woman, and the accusations are presented solely through the eyes of the accuser, Yahweh. God speaks, accuses his wife of adultery, and prescribes the punishment in the form of public stripping, violation, and killing. In the prophetic imagination, the woman is not given an opportunity to reply. […] God expresses satisfaction of her being thus punished." Regarding Ezekiel 23, a story about two adulterous sisters who are eventually killed, she decries the language used in the passage, especially Ezekiel 23:48, which serves as a warning to all women about adultery. "The prophetic rape metaphor turns the tortured, raped, and murdered wives into a warning sign for all women. It teaches that women better obey their husbands, stay in their houses, and forgo any signs of sexual independence. […] This prophetic fantasy constructs women as objects, never as subjects, and it reduces women to sexualized objects who bring God's punishment upon themselves and fully deserve it. Amy Kalmanofsky opined that Jeremiah 13 treats the naked female body as an object of disgust: "I conclude that Jer 13 is an example of obscene nudity in which the naked female body is displayed not as an object of desire, but of disgust. In Jer 13, as in the other prophetic texts, Israel is not sexually excited by having her nakedness exposed. She is shamed. Moreover, those who witness Israel's shame do not desire Israel's exposed body. They are disgusted by it."
Conversely, Corrine Patton argued that "this text does not support domestic abuse; and scholars, teachers, and preachers must continue to remind uninformed readers that such an interpretation is actually a misreading" and that "the theological aim of the passage is to save Yahweh from the scandal of being a cuckolded husband, i.e. a defeated, powerless, and ineffective god. […] It is a view of God for whom no experience, not even rape and mutilation in wartime, is beyond hope for healing and redemption." Regarding Ezekiel 16, Daniel I. Block wrote that "the backdrop of divine judgment can be appreciated only against the backdrop of his grace. If the text had begun at v. 36 one might understandably had accused God of cruelty and undue severity. But the zeal of his anger is a reflex of the intensity of his love. God had poured out his love on this woman, rescuing her from certain death, entering into covenant relationship with her, pledging his troth, lavishing on her all the benefits she could enjoy. He had loved intensely. He could not take contempt for his grace lightly." F. B. Huey, Jr., commenting on Jeremiah, wrote, "The crude description is that of the public humiliation inflicted on a harlot, an appropriate figure for faithless Judah. It could also describe the violence done to women by soldiers of a conquering army. […] Jeremiah reminded [Israel] that they were going to be exposed for all to see their adulteries."
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