What Does the Bible Say About Sexual Assault?

Never before has the issue of sexual assault against women seemed so ubiquitous. Last week, a Nashville jury convicted two Vanderbilt University students of aggravated rape and aggravated sexual battery when they assaulted a student in a dorm room in 2013. Amid widespread campus sexual assault, 80% of which goes unreported, many hope this strong ruling will communicate to other victims of rape that they, too, will be heard. The case is just one of many instances of on-campus sexual assault, some of which have gone unaddressed, despite being reported. And sexual violence on college campuses is not the only mainstream news story concerning rape. Last fall witnessed the staggering number of allegations of sexual assault committed by comedian and household name, Bill Cosby. According to these women, their assaults have been kept quiet for the better part of a lifetime. From college sophomores to senior adults, women are speaking out and seeking justice.

The Bible is not silent about rape. The accounts of sexual assault against women are heartbreaking, even gruesome. But they are not brushed under a rug or hushed up. In fact, of the three accounts describing a woman who was sexually assaulted, each of them precipitated civil war. When Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, was violated by the son of a neighboring ruler, Shechem, her brothers murdered him, his father, and the all of the men of his city out of revenge (Gen 34). After the Unnamed Concubine was gang-raped and left for dead by men in the tribe of Benjamin, the other tribes went to war against them upon hearing of her injustice (Jgs 19-21). And after Tamar was raped by her half-brother, Amnon, her brother Absalom killed him and incited a rebellion against his father, King David (2 Sm 13).

Rape was neither covered up nor ignored. Instead, it was answered and avenged.[1] It was such a cultural convulsion that it was answered with outrage and further violence. The cases of rape in Scripture tell us something about the cases of rape we are hearing today: These women must be heard and they must be protected.

The Old Testament Law gives us an even greater picture of how God takes up the cause of the victim and the vulnerable. There is one passage in particular, Deuteronomy 22:23-29, that safeguarded women who had been violated. Like all of the legal codes, these laws reveal the heart and character of God.


Deuteronomy 22:23-24

“If there is a girl who is a virgin engaged to a man, and another man finds her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city and you shall stone them to death; the girl, because she did not cry out in the city, and the man, because he has violated his neighbor’s wife. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you.”

Compared to the other scenarios in this passage, these verses describe a consensual encounter. This law does not use terms like “seize” or “force,” but simply “finds” (matsa’).[2] The significant thing in this verse is the surroundings it defines. Since it is described as happening in city, it implies that there were people nearby who could have helped her had she cried out. Since she didn’t, the implication is that she did not resist, and, therefore, she is also responsible. Because she was betrothed to another man, she was already considered his wife, making this equivalent to adultery (Deut 22:22).


Deuteronomy 22:25-27

“But if in the field the man finds the girl who is engaged, and the man forces her and lies with her, then only the man who lies with her shall die. But you shall do nothing to the girl; there is no sin in the girl worthy of death, for just as a man rises against his neighbor and murders him, so is this case. When he found her in the field, the engaged girl cried out, but there was no one to save her.”

I was stunned when I first read this passage! Not only did the rapist receive the death penalty, but the woman was protected from all recourse. She was neither shamed nor shunned. The word used for “force” (chazaq)[3] in this verse is rather specific, especially since it isn’t used in either of the other two laws. It means to take or keep hold of, specifically to seize with violence. The location is significant here also. Unlike the first scenario in which the woman was within earshot of help, this woman was caught in a secluded place, alone and defenseless. She cried out for help but was overpowered; “there was no one to save her.” God defends her innocence and ensures both her protection and her reputation. He shielded her from blame for the assault and from shame after it occurred.


Deuteronomy 22:28-29

“If a man finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her and they are discovered, then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days.”

The implications of this law are more subtle, but equally significant. This verse does not use the word for “force” (chazaq); it uses the word for “seize” (taphas)[4], which can also mean to lay hold of or wield. Its other uses have the idea of capturing or overwhelming (2 Kgs 14:13). Unlike the other two scenarios, this one concerns an unengaged virgin and does not specify where the violation took place. Also, there’s another detail in this law that is quite telling. The verse uses the phrase “they are discovered.” The language moves from an individual man and an individual woman to “they.” (Hang with me, here.) Coupled with the fact that this verse does not use the same verb for “force,” I believe this law describes something other than a violent rape. Was she overwhelmed? Yes. Did this dishonor her? Unquestionably. Is the man responsible for violating her? Absolutely.

But the Holy Spirit inspired a different word in verses 28-29 than the verb used in verses 25-27 and He did it intentionally (2 Tim 3:16-17, 2 Pt 1:19-21). The detail that they were discovered together implies some level of mutual responsibility that is different from what we see in verses 25-27 (If you’ve seen season 1 of Downton Abbey, think Mary Crawley and the Turkish diplomat). The man is held accountable and must marry (and provide for) the woman. Plus, he can never divorce her for the rest of his life. Exodus 22:16-17 describes a similar scenario, where a young woman is “seduced,” and adds that the father can refuse to give his consent to the marriage. But the man still had to pay the price of a dowry, which means he was out the money set aside for a bride, and he still had no wife. Notice that there was no punishment for the girl. For the young woman who was seduced, there is no indication that she was ostracized from her community or shunned by her family. Instead, she was vindicated and her honor was restored. What does this mean? He couldn’t use her and lose her. A man couldn’t take a woman as an object of pleasure and then bear no responsibility for her. God was protecting the woman in this situation from being left without protection and provision. Women were not to be used and discarded.


An Assault Against Eden

Some look at these laws and claim that the Bible permits, and even legalizes sexual assault; therefore, the Bible is oppressive to women. Yet, in each of these scenarios, the victim is protected and the violator is punished. Where the woman was not at fault, she never received blame. If fact, she was vindicated. None of these situations were supposed to happen. God never intended for women to be violated and He certainly doesn’t turn a blind eye to it. These laws restrained human sinfulness and set God’s people apart from their surrounding cultures. But even more, they reveal the nature and character of a God who protects the victim, provides for the vulnerable, and sides with the violated. God is decidedly pro-women.

The atrocity of rape is a disordered exploitation of all that God designed when He created male and female (2:18-25). From the very beginning, He intended for women to be protected and valued. Whether she is a college sophomore at an Ivy League University, a 14-year-old Nigerian abducted by Boko Haram, or a 65-year-old woman finding the courage to break her silence, an assault against Eve is an assault against Eden. And, one day, every wrong committed against her daughters will be righted by a justice-keeping God.



[1]This observation is not meant to give approval to the violence occurring in response to the assault. Both the violence against women and the civil violence of those avenging them demonstrate the chaos of sin and the depravity into which God’s own people had spiraled.

[2]Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles Briggs [BDB], Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1962), s.v. matsa’.

[3]Ibid., s.v. chazaq.

[4]Ibid., s.v. taphas.

36 thoughts on “What Does the Bible Say About Sexual Assault?”

  1. Lilian says:

    Thank you Katie to address this theme to many people even christians are difficult to talk about it, but it is necessary and healthy for women who passed this terrible trauma.
    God is faithful and He knows every situation and his justice will come soon or later.

  2. Your words of wisdom inspire me to see the justice in rhe Bible. God saw that we are the weaker vessel, and need to be protected.

  3. anonymous says:

    Thank you so much for this article. It helped me explain these Scriptures and issues to someone struggling on this topic.

  4. Jennifer says:

    I enjoyed reading this but still have a few thoughts. If a woman is violated and raped and screaming for help but does not receive help I understand she is at no fault but God’s justice will prevail. Does this mean the woman has to forgive the man and if he repents is all forgiven with God? Also what about pressing charges on the male through the police department? How does God feel about this? Should we press charges or just let Fos take control?

    1. Anna says:

      If a rape victim can forgive her attacker more power to her but if she can’t she shouldn’t beat herself up about it. Unfortunately, reporting rape to the police after time has passed means it will be harder to charge the rapist, not that she shouldn’t try (reporting it could help catch him later if he rapes again).

  5. Emma says:

    maybe I read this wrong but in the third example why would it be okay to force the two to be married? I would not feel safe being married to my assailant. Doesn’t make much sense to me.

    1. Anna says:

      the third example doesn’t describe rape, but rather a girl being seduced.

    2. Kyle says:

      In that time period non virgin girls had problems finding relationships and usely would spend their whole lives alone. Now she can divorce him only if he does something sexually immoral to her again (which is the only time divorce is ok in the Bible) He has the duty to treat her with love and nothing more and if he decides to do anything immoral to her she can divorce him.

    3. Anna says:

      The Bible makes it clear that rape is akin to murder. It makes absolutely no sense to kill a rapist only if the women he attacked happened to be engaged. I mean, think about it: if women were forced to marry their rapist only if they were raped while unbetrothed then that means that men could run around raping all the unbetrothed/unmarried women they wanted, as long as they had the money to pay her father. So, say a man wants to marry a certain young women, but she or her father refuses for whatever reason…all he has to do is rape her, problem solved.
      If these scenarios were instead about murder, there would be nobody claiming that the Bible says that people could get away with murder depending on the victim’s marital status. It’s lunacy to suggest it for rape.
      You’ll probably find that the people who argue that this is what the Bible says have no sympathy for rape victims, and hint, they have probably never had to live with the fear of being raped. They have no problem telling the other gender that at one time God wanted them to live with their attacker, to continue sexual relations with him, raise his children, to live out the rest of their days and then die with him.

      1. Mary says:

        And what if the rapist is a married man?? What then??

    4. Carla says:

      The point maybe the woman wgo was a virgin not engaged to another man, was raped but did not call out rape. In many ways consented when she could have opposed of a man taking her virginity and therefore did not cry out. Its begging the question that she was okay with that sexual pleasure, perhaps not particukarly bothered and perhaps her heart was secretly yearning to experience the sexual pleasure of a man and coincidently got raped. He oppossition is not against been married to him. However, him thinking he was violating this woman has been served with the pentalty of having to marry this woman. Unity justly paried perhaps the woman was not particulatly beautiful ot fair and men did not desire her as women were described as fair to even kings looking for brides as in the case of Sarah where Abraham told her on approaching the kings men telling her to say she was his sister rather than her husband.

      1. Carla says:


  6. Leahkana s says:

    To much talking about what happens in the bible but I want to know of God will make Justice, because I want to do justice myself NOW, and destroy the persons who destroy my daughters life

    1. Leahkana s says:

      And why mothers of boys dont educate them to respect and love women?

    2. Anonymous says:

      I was sexually assaulted several times by a person who is still in leadership in circumstances to this day and how I wish there were justice and it be exposed. It still makes me sick to think of it.

      1. Jennifer says:

        Wow. You know I understand. Many people do take it in their own hands. I was raped myself and so much anger I wanted this person hurt. But I went to counseling and I learned how to deal with it. Just imagine how much MORE torment God will do to this sick sick person! If it were my child I would probably want to do some street justice. It’s so hard when we are not in eachother’s Shoes. The Bible says, “thy shall not kill”. So we are commanded not to kill. There is no BUT if you’re sexually assaulted you can. However the Bible does say the punishments of some sins. It’s so hard to tell. I myself would take it in my own hands and hope God would forgive me. But again the Ten Commandments strictly say thy shall not kill. And maybe you just want to hurt him/her. Again imagine what hurt God will bring to this person’s life! More than we can fathom. God bless you.

  7. Marie says:

    I have a question…I have been searching out a biblical perspective on rape because I was raised in the church, and while I don’t go now, all of that still influences me. So I am seeking to understand where I’m coming from in relation to my beliefs about my personal experience.
    I started going to therapy and relatively recently have been talking about experiences with an ex boyfriend.
    I struggle to get over what happened and to define it in part because though I did not give consent, I did not “cry out”. Or fight. I froze. So I felt for a long time things were my fault. Reading the interpretation of the girl not crying out in the city, it would seem, from a biblical perspective, it is considered to be my fault? What do you think?

    1. Katie McCoy says:

      Hello Marie,

      I’m so sorry that happened to you. And I think you’re a brave woman to share your story and ask this question. As you shared, you did not consent. So, from all that you’ve said, it wasn’t your fault. Plus, freezing is one of the ways our brains respond to a sudden trauma in order to survive, something many survivors of sexual assault have experienced.

      From all I’ve studied in the biblical laws on rape, I believe they side with and protect the survivor of sexual assault. They are a type of law that establishes a pattern that could be applied to other situations. As I understand it, the phrase “cry out” symbolizes that she was unwilling and forced. So for the woman who was isolated from help (Deut 22:25-27), the point was not so much how she expressed her non-consent, but quite simply that she did not consent. That’s why this law defends the woman, saying that she had been overpowered by this violent act and that she was innocent of wrong. Biblical law considered rape to be a violent crime and put it on par with murder. And, these laws also considered a woman’s consent as the determining factor in her innocence.

      Marie, thank you for sharing your story here. I have prayed for you – that you would know how deeply the God values you and how fiercely He will vindicate you; and that you would come to know the Lord Jesus, who died to redeem us from both the wrongs we have committed against Him and the wrongs others have committed against us. May you find total freedom and healing in a relationship with Him.


      1. Anna says:

        Hi Katie,
        You said “From all I’ve studied in the biblical laws on rape, I believe they side with and protect the survivor of sexual assault”
        I was wondering if you have just studied the examples in Deuteronomy or if you have look at other records and documents of Jewish law? If you have, I’d like to know where I can find them.

      2. Katie McCoy says:

        Hello Anna,

        My research focused on the passage in Deuteronomy. I did find evidence of early Jewish interpretations that may have considered this passage as a type of “paradigmatic law,” meaning the pattern of determining guilt or innocence was applied to other scenarios (ex. the rape of a married woman). The JPS Torah Commentary (Jewish Publication Society, 1996) notes how early Jewish interpreters such as Philo and Josephus applied this law, actually expanding the categories of a woman’s innocence. I would contend that this approach reflects the point of this passage – to protect an innocent woman – a conclusion especially grounded in the different verbs used in each of these laws.

        Also, for the sake of space, I couldn’t give a full treatment on the connection between Deut 22 and Exodus 22:16-17. Some interpreters consider the Exodus passage as describing the same scenario in Deut 22:28-29 which in our English translation is mistakenly rendered as “rape”). Essentially, the Exodus and Deuteronomy passages would have been addressing the same legal scenario from different considerations.

        Hope this helps.


      3. Anna says:

        Thank you Katie, this was very helpful.

  8. Mike says:

    My wife was raped when she was younger. From what she told me it was a horrific experience. It was traumatic enough for her that she basically froze up and cried. This apparently happens more frequently than not (do the research). I have no reason to negate what my wife says, but when reading the bible it does offer up a few questions like “Was she guilty of Deut. 22:23-24 because she ceased up instead of crying out for help (impossible to do at the time)?” Was God wrong in this?
    Please explain.

    1. Katie McCoy says:

      Hello Mike,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m so sorry to hear this. What happened to your wife was unfathomably evil.

      Regarding the response of freezing up, I’ve done some research and found that it’s one of the ways the brain helps someone survive a violent attack. As you mentioned, it’s something many survivors of sexual assault have experienced.

      From all I’ve studied in the biblical laws on rape, I believe they side with and protect the survivor of sexual assault. Here’s why: They are a type of law that establishes a pattern that could be applied to other situations. The phrase “cry out” signifies that she was unwilling and forced. So for the woman who was isolated from help (Deut 22:25-27), the point was not so much how she expressed her non-consent, but quite simply that she did not consent.

      That’s why this law defends the woman within the context of its original ancient Near Eastern culture. It states that she had been overpowered by this violent act and that she was innocent of wrong and, consequently, was protected from unjust punishment (unlike many women in Muslim cultures, who are vulnerable to “honor killings” when they are raped). Biblical law considered rape to be a violent crime and put it on par with murder, something modern Western law didn’t do until relatively recently. Further, these laws also considered a woman’s consent as the determining factor in her innocence.

      The heart of the issue is that biblical law believed the testimony of the victim and assumed she was telling the truth (something women in our own culture often don’t receive), acknowledged rape as a violent crime against someone’s person, and defended the victim who did not consent.

      I hope this clarifies.

      Katie McCoy

      1. Mike says:

        Hi Katie,

        I kind of figured it was less the expression and more the consent but I needed more proof. Like every other thing in scripture this only touches the tip of the iceberg of a multitude of topics. If we tried to understand them all the book would be never ending. I appreciate your digging further for me. You helped more than you know.

  9. Spock says:

    I find it suspicious that you decided to exclude this one in your article.

    Exodus 21:7-11New Living Translation (NLT)

    7 “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are. 8 If she does not satisfy her owner, he must allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her. 9 But if the slave’s owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave but as a daughter.

    10 “If a man who has married a slave wife takes another wife for himself, he must not neglect the rights of the first wife to food, clothing, and sexual intimacy. 11 If he fails in any of these three obligations, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment.

    Does this not condone slavery, polygamy and forced marriage (aka rape)? I would absolutely love to see the mental gymnastics required to make this passage seem palatable to the modern Christian.

  10. Lawrie Arias says:

    I didn’t find I had to do any mental gymnastics to underrstand this. I take into account that because something is in the Bible, and even that it is addressed, does not mean that God condones it. “Slavery” in those days is what we would call having employees, except that the employees were to be completely cared for, and also not taken advantage of. This passage is in defense of the slave, to ensure just treatment, and specifically just treatment of female slaves.

    That she is not to be freed, is saying that she cannot be turned out onto the streets to try and make her own way, which was nearly impossible and dangerous for women back then. Why? Was it because God condoned mistreatment of women and so the cultures of that day we’re tremendously oppressive to women? No! They were that way because of humanities tendency to evil. So this verse is protecting the female slave (employee, indentured servant).
    If she does not “satisfy” her person that has chosen and paid to be responsible for her, and he does not want to be responible for her any longer then is she the one in the wrong? No! He is. Again protection for her. She is not to be held accountable. She is who she is, maybe she just could not cook or didn’t care for cooking so she made boxed macncheese. He did not like that, yet is not justified in not caring for her as he has signed up for her as his responsibility. He must make sure she is in good hands for her protection, and he is the one who has broken contract with her.
    If a slaveowner buys her for his son, she will be his daughter in law and must be treated with that due respect.
    In verse 10, this does not condone his actions, polygamy, but is recognition that this will happen. Like Exodus 21 that talks about the bull that gore’s someone…does that condone the actions of the bull, no, but addresses the reality that this is what bulls can do, and this is how it should be dealt with. Again, verses 10 and 11 are protection for the woman.

    Christians do not need to fear dealing with these passages. Christians should be able to shed light and understanding on the love of God, and further righteousness and justice. That so many Christians do not know how to approach these kind is passages is why there is so much oppression allowed within the church in general. All of this mistreatment of women is never condoned by God.
    Great question!!

  11. Tia Thompson says:

    What I find really interesting in the hold testament was a practice where a woman raped by her attacker could subsequently be handed off as his wife, if they rapist decided to make restitution by paying a bride price for her and becoming her husband. How does an attacker, get to get off scott free by marrying a woman he has forced. It seems more like a punishment for the victim. What are your thoughts on this?

    1. Hobbitess says:

      Tia Thompson, The bride price in Deuteronomy 22:28-29 was set so high that most men could not pay it (it’s the price of an adult male slave), in which case they would end up enslaved to the girl’s father, who (according to Exodus 22:17) might not let him marry the girl.

      Also, the ancient Jews viewed marriage as a contract, where the man and wife had very specific responsibilities. So they interpreted the fact that the wife could not be divorced as meaning *she had none of the usual responsibilities in the marriage*, while he still did. So he was still responsible to love her, to provide food and clothing to her, but she was not responsible to love him or to prepare food or clothing for him.

      Meaning that he might get to marry her, but if so, she could spend her days eating bonbons and refusing him sex, if so inclined, and there was nothing he could do about it.

      The ancient Jews were considerably more advanced than many a modern country in that they recognized that marital rape existed, and it was forbidden. While sex was an obligation of marriage, if a Jewish marriage partner refused to provide it, the solution was hauling them into court, not raping them. And the woman’s right to sex was, if anything, more important than the man’s — he had an obligation to please her first. (Still the case, in conservative Jewish circles, I believe — not Jewish, myself.)

      I actually think that Deuteronomy 22:28-29 was a pretty functional law in a culture where a woman’s options were extremely limited; that said, for a Christian it’s a matter of record that some of the Mosaic laws were for “the hardness of their hearts” (Mark 10:5), and thus a good ways short of God’s ideal.

  12. James says:

    A disgusting, craven attempt to justify the stoning to death of a rape victim because, as she did not cry out, she must have enjoyed it! Yet more conclusive evidence of the dreadful mental illness that is religion. One key indication of clinical psychopathy is ‘impaired empathy and remorse’ which is evident in you and your fellow fundamentalist drivel from all related faiths. The ability to twist words to explain away the barbarity, sexism, genocide and downright evil of the OT ,Torah, Koran etc would put the propagandists of the third reich in the shade. At least the youth of most countries are slowly rejecting this evil indoctrination and thinking for themselves The end of religion can’t come soon enough.

  13. Shannon DeFoy says:

    Katie, I am finally reading the Bible and when I read those passages for the first time, I was confused. But after I read your explainations, it all made sense to me. Thank you!

    1. Katie McCoy says:

      So happy to know that, Shannon! Thank you for sharing.

      Every blessing to you!
      Katie McCoy

  14. Ralph says:

    Personally I’m struggling with how God used, and condoned and commanded rape as either punishment for sin, or neighboring nations’ woman as sex slaves or the many accounts of virgin woman as spoils of war – in the name of God. Personally I feel God loves his children, but there many harsh scriptures of infantcide too going along with the rape. It seems to be an ongoing evil through time, however a huge struggle that in the bible it not only at times carries God’s approval, but at times his command.

  15. Not A Crazy Person says:

    “Since she didn’t, the implication is that she did not resist, and, therefore, she is also responsible. Because she was betrothed to another man, she was already considered his wife, making this equivalent to adultery (Deut 22:22).”

    So it’s a woman’s fault if she’s held down and a man puts his hand over her mouth while he rapes her? You haven’t dealt with this subject a lot I guess, because it’s pretty easy to be scared enough that you don’t cry out against being raped.

    Also, what sane woman wants to be the wife (and thus at the beck-and-call of) a man who just raped her? Good to know that God thought it was ok for her to get raped in the first place. Protecting her? Please, you’re crazy.

    1. All Glory to God says:

      With a due respect, please consider the time and place in which these laws where in place. A time where purity was an expected character trait. Steping back a second and putting together a senerio durring that time period, knowing the laws being stated here, it would be foolish for a woman at that time to remain silent for she knows it is her life on the line. Now if she did give even a bit of Consent it defeats the a large portion of any argument, Again at that time. God is a Fair and He is a God of love. I am not saying that victims today cannot be drivin to stay silent, I completely agree that in todays time more victims stay silent than “cry out” I was one. This is just a slightly diffrent prospective to the reading that will hopefully help out. Do not forget (Before degrading The Word) that these laws are in the Old Testament and to fully understand and taking certain parts of the word we need to be aware of the time and place and the way society at that time veiwed said subject.

      God bless you. May your study of The Scripture be of absolute blessing to you.

  16. Roy Mitton says:

    What about a study that is specifically focused on versus used to manipulate and coerce a wife to have sex with her husband because she is obliged to when she doesn’t want to?