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