When I read the following passages, it makes me feel hot and cold at the same time. I feel a mixture of shock, horror, revulsion and bewilderment. If the law reflects God’s character, how can this be God’s character?
23 If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, 24 you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you.
25 But if out in the country a man happens to meet a young woman pledged to be married and rapes her, only the man who has done this shall die. 26 Do nothing to the woman; she has committed no sin deserving death. This case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor, 27 for the man found the young woman out in the country, and though the betrothed woman screamed, there was no one to rescue her. 28 If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, 29 he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives. (Deuteronomy 22:23-29)
So, I have a personal policy that when I hit a bit of the Bible that causes me disquiet, I need to (open mindedly) dig into it to see what it means. Its a risky business because you have to be open to it meaning what you don’t want it to mean, or at least not meaning what you would like it to mean. But we need to be open to hearing what the God is communicating to us, not what we want it to communicate. At the same time, we can’t always just skip over these bits. To do so would not only miss something God is saying, but also means we don’t have all of scripture to learn from and delight in. I have followed this approach with other troublesome passages of the Bible and while they don’t always mean what I would like, they never seem to mean what I am afraid that they do. So lets pick apart this one too because this passage – on surface reading – says two things to me:
- It is only considered rape if a woman screams for help
- If raped, the woman must marry her rapist
The thought that this reveals God’s character fills me with horror. But this kind of misogynistic view of women and their treatment does not seem consistent with his treatment of women throughout the Bible. So what is it saying?
Here, there is a pattern in these verses:
The translations from the original Hebrew here don’t help. The translation used here is the New International Version (NIV) but the English Standard Version (ESV) uses “lies with her” in the first case, “seizes her and lies with her” in the second and third cases. This might seem like quibbling over semantics but this is important when we are trying to reveal the truth of what is being said.
The Old Testament has a few terms to describe rape. In Deuteronomy 28:30 (in a section on what will eventuate if the people go their own way and the society descends into lawlessness) “You will be pledged to be married to a woman, but another will take her and rape (shagel) her”. In the tragic rapes of Dinah by Shechem in Genesis 34 and the rape of Tamar by her brother Amnon in 2 Samuel 13, the terms shakab (to lie with) and anah (afflicted) are used, as well as chazaq (physical strength of hands). Used together they essentially mean “to lie with by force/with violence”. In the story of the concubine in Judges 19 the terms asah (do with) and anah (afflicted) are used – meaning in combination, to do with violently – as well as chazaq.
In the scenarios discussed in our passage, the following verbs are used:
“If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her (shakab)…” (v23)
“But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her (chazaq shakab)…” (v25)
“If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her (taphas shakab)…” (v28)
In the first case, there does not appear to be anything that indicates a forced sexual encounter. The original Hebrew indicates they couple met and had sex. The fact that he is stoned because he defiled another man’s wife in adultery, and she is stoned because she “did not cry for help” sounds to our modern ears like a misogynistic attack on women and the ways that they can be intimated and forced into sex. However, that is reading a modern view into an ancient text. The use of the verb shakab indicates that this was a sexual encounter with no forced component. If it was meant to indicate rape, there were other terms that would have been used. In fact elsewhere when rape is a factor, the event is condemned (such as with Dinah and Tamar). In this passage, the girl not crying out is meant to reinforce the consensual nature of the shakab. And in the Old Testament, the punishment for adultery was death for both parties (Leviticus 20:10).
The second case is clearly a forced sexual encounter. There is a combination of verbs chazaq and shakab to indicate there was a violent focus. As we noted above, the verb chazaq means to apply strength or take hold of and so in combination, the verbs indicate “to lie with by force of strength” or similar. This word combination is reinforced by the example of the attack and murder of a neighbor – in case there was any doubt on the part of the hearer what a forced sexual encounter is akin to.
The third case involves a girl who is not yet pledged and it is this case that seems to imply that a girl has to marry her rapist. In Islam, Deuteronomy 22:28 has formed the basis of a cultural approach to rape. It has also been historically used in Christendom with kidnap and rape often used to coerce a woman into marriage.
The NIV translation is not helpful here in that it translates it as “rape”. The Hebrew verbs used as taphas and shakab. The taphas verb means to lay hold of or seize. So here the combination would mean that the man grasps her and has sex with her. Here’s where things get a little bit more complicated in Hebrew – there are different kinds of verbs. Like we have different tenses and so on in English, in Hebrew there are different kinds of verb to indicate the level of action. For example, taphas can mean catch, grasp (in order to wield skillfully). This is the Qal type of verb. It can also mean seize, arrest, be caught or captured (thats the Niphal type of verb) and it can also mean to catch and grasp with the hands (thats the Piel type of verb). In Deuteronomy 22:28 it is the Qal type. This is the least active and the least violent, not indicating capture or any forced action.
It seems opaque. But I think perhaps only opaque because of all the things we read into the passage and assume about it. I believe, on balance of reflection that the first and third cases deal with consensual sex and the second case only deals with rape. I don’t think the third case indicates rape and I think this because:
- There were many terms that could be used that explicitly communicate rape, as we see in other cases in the Bible, including the second case in v25-27
- The second case (which is clearly rape) includes an example of what forced sex should be considered as, just in case there was any misunderstanding on the part of the man. If this third case was also rape, the response would be inconsistent with the two previous verses
- Elsewhere in scripture, rape is condemned and always shown as a horror that is contrary to God’s will. The Levite’s concubine in Judges 19 is a horrific story surrounded by the sin of God’s people having gone astray. In Tamar’s rape by Amnon, Tamar pleads with him “Don’t force me! Such a thing is not to be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing.” (2 Samuel 13:12). Amnon rapes her and later is killed by Tamar’s other brother Absolom.
So the pattern would be more like this:
In the third case, as a non-married and un-pledged girl, if a man seduces her (or they seduce each other), she is left shamed and unprotected in this society – especially if the encounter results in pregnancy. So the marriage stipulation is for her protection. I know this is how the marry-your-rapist approach has been used and weaponized – its for her protection. But that is how the world has used and abused this passage. When picked apart, this is not what the passage is actually communicating. God means to protect women through his law. Humans have used that law to oppress and coerce women.
So again, we see a situation of God communicating a law that reveals his character and is for the good of his people living in community, and humans taking that law and making it something to justify or cover over horrific sinful behavior. Is God an evil misogynist? No. I don’t believe so. Are humans? Yes. Sometimes they are.
What this passage indicates is that it is not inconsistent with God’s character that we see elsewhere in scripture. When rape is depicted in scripture, it is shown as horrific (for the victim) and shameful and sinful (for the perpetrator). Rape is not shown as something that is acceptable or that is the woman’s fault.
God’s character is one of love for his people and his view of both men and women is of equal dignity, equal image bearing and equal love and faithfulness. Women are not treated as second class citizens of heaven. We may read it as such, because we have a history of being treated as such in a human world broken by sinfulness. But God’s view of us is one of his precious children and for whom his faithful love never ends. We see this in the Old Testament, and we see it in the gentle approach to women of Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus, the image of the imageless God, shows us God’s heart of compassion for women – all women.
I have felt moved to write a series of blogs on passages of the Bible that can be confusing or disquieting for people, particularly to do with women. They are grouped on a page on my site called Troublesome Bible Passages Series. Other blogs in this grouping include the rape of Dinah, the gang rape of the concubine in Judges 19, whether women are subjected to trial by ordeal in Numbers and why a woman in unclean for twice as long after giving birth to a girl.
If there is a passage that has always troubled you, feel free to contact me and I’ll take a look!