Women and Violence in the Hebrew Bible by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi

Although the Hebrew Bible does not typically present women as helpless victims (it has very few damsels in distress waiting for a man to rescue them), it recognizes violent treatment of women as a sign of a system gone awry, odious acts that merit bloody vengeance. Thus, Dinah’s brothers kill the entire male population of a town because the town’s leader had raped their sister (Gen 34:2). Absalom kills his half-brother Amnon, who had raped Tamar, Absalom’s sister (2Sam 13:32). With the exception of Tamar, we never “hear” the anguish of the women. In her case we learn that she unsuccessfully attempted to stop the violence.

Deut 22:25-27 requires a man’s death for having sex with another’s betrothed woman in the field. The woman is not culpable “because this case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor” (Deut 22:26)—that is, the woman presumably could not defend herself and because of the location there was no one to come to her aid. But when the intercourse happens in the town, both the woman and the man must die (Deut 22:23-24). As these cases show, location and the honor of men are key factors, but the laws nonetheless respond to (potential) violence against women.

Two stories in the Hebrew Bible suggest that violence against women is more tolerable than violence against men. In both Gen 19 and Judg 19, a host volunteers to throw the women of the house out to an assaulting mob in order to protect a male visitor. These two households are hardly considered exemplary by the texts’ authors, which may suggest some criticism of readiness to sacrifice women. The episode in Judg 19 leads to the rape and death of the male visitor’s concubine, triggering a civil war. The story ends with the sanctioned kidnapping of women to provide wives for the decimated tribe of Benjamin.

Foreign women do not usually receive special protection. In Num 31, Moses orders the execution of all female Midianite war captives who have “known a man.” Those still virgins, however, are divided among the soldiers and the rest of Israel. However, Deut 21:10-14 requires a man who has captured a (presumably foreign) woman in war to give her a month to mourn for her parents before having sex with her, and if he does not wish to keep her as a concubine, he must set her free (Deut 21:14).

Prophetic passages such as Hos 2 and Ezek 16 give divine sanction to violence against women when they personify Israel and Judah as adulterous women, whom God will punish; though Isaiah 40 and 54 promise redepmpion to Jerusalem as a bereaved woman, highlighting female vulnerability in times of war. And on rare but memorable occasions, women even perpetrate violence. An unnamed woman throws a grinding stone on Abimelech, who commands his armor-bearer to strike the fatal blow so as not to die at the hands of a woman (Judg 9:51-54). A “wise woman” saves the town of Abel Beth-maacah from destruction by arranging to deliver the head of the wanted man whom the city’s besiegers seek (2Sam 20:14-22). The most famous biblical woman who acts violently is Jael, a non-Israelite who, with a tent peg, kills Sisera, the general of Israel’s enemy (Judg 4:17-22).

Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, "Women and Violence in the Hebrew Bible", n.p. [cited 27 Sep 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/related-articles/women-and-violence-in-the-hebrew-bible


Tamara Cohn Eskenazi

Tamara Cohn Eskenazi
Professor, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Tamara Cohn Eskenazi is professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Dr. Eskenazi is editor-in-chief of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, winner of the 2008 Jewish Book of the Year Award, and co-author (with T. Frymer-Kensky) of the JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth, winner of the Jewish Book Council Award in Women’s Studies in 2012. She is completing the Anchor Bible commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah.

The application of critical models of scholarship to a text.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

Gen 34:2

2When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the region, saw her, he seized her and lay with her by force.

2Sam 13:32

32But Jonadab, the son of David's brother Shimeah, said, “Let not my lord suppose that they have killed all the young men the king's sons; Amnon alone is dead. ... View more

Deut 22:25-27

25But if the man meets the engaged woman in the open country, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die.26You shall ... View more

Deut 22:26

26You shall do nothing to the young woman; the young woman has not committed an offense punishable by death, because this case is like that of someone who attac ... View more

Deut 22:23-24

23If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her,24you shall bring both of them to the gat ... View more

Gen 19

The Depravity of Sodom
1The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and b ... View more

Judg 19

The Levite's Concubine
1In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite, residing in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, took to ... View more

Judg 19

The Levite's Concubine
1In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite, residing in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, took to ... View more

Num 31

War against Midian
1The Lord spoke to Moses, saying,2“Avenge the Israelites on the Midianites; afterward you shall be gathered to your people.”3So Moses said to ... View more

Deut 21:10-14

Female Captives
10When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God hands them over to you and you take them captive,11suppose you see among th ... View more

Deut 21:14

14But if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money. You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.

Hos 2

1 Say to your brother, Ammi, and to your sister, Ruhamah.Israel's Infidelity, Punishment, and Redemption
2Plead with your mother, plead—
for she is not my wife, ... View more

Ezek 16

God's Faithless Bride
1The word of the Lord came to me:2Mortal, make known to Jerusalem her abominations,3and say, Thus says the Lord GOD to Jerusalem: Your ori ... View more

Judg 9:51-54

51But there was a strong tower within the city, and all the men and women and all the lords of the city fled to it and shut themselves in; and they went to the ... View more

2Sam 20:14-22

14Sheba passed through all the tribes of Israel to Abel of Beth-maacah; and all the Bichrites assembled, and followed him inside.15Joab's forces came and besieg ... View more

Judg 4:17-22

17Now Sisera had fled away on foot to the tent of Jael wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between King Jabin of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenit ... View more

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.