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Rape in the Hebrew Bible

If we look at the texts in the Bible that describe rape either through story or in some of the legal materials that we have some laws about rape, for example in Deut 22. It’s a very different understanding of rape and this isn’t a value judgment; this is more of a description of what the Bible…how the Bible describes rape.

So, for example, in the Book of Deuteronomy, it produces a scenario of what happens when someone is raped and here are the categories that Deuteronomy lays out; first, if someone is committed to be married to someone else, a woman is committed to be married to someone else and this person is raped, there’s a penalty, but the penalty changes based on a couple of factors. So, for example, if this person is raped in the city or in the town, the punishment, according to the Book of Deuteronomy, is that the both participants will be stoned. Now the woman is complicit in this crime, according to the Book of Deuteronomy, because if she’s in the city and she cried out, supposedly someone would have heard her.

Now the other category that the Book of Deuteronomy lays out with regard to the… where the, the violation happened, is if it happens in an open field. Now it’s interesting because in this case then, the woman is not complicit because she may have cried out and no one would have heard her; and so it absolves her from the crime and then only the male is stoned.

If someone is not betrothed to another or someone is not committed to marry another—a woman—then the accused or the perpetrator of the crime—the male—would have to pay 50 shekels to the family, to the father of the woman, basically a bride price; and he is forced to marry her.

Now I know to a modern ear this is shocking, I mean, in what kind of world would you ask someone who is raped to marry the person who raped her? In the ancient world this is really seen as a crime of economics and it really is a law that seeks to preserve the economic wellbeing down the road for the woman. For example, if she was raped and she wasn’t betrothed, she would not be allowed to be married to anybody else and so she would become economically destitute.

Another dynamic that’s involved in this is what some scholars would call honor and shame culture. Just in short, what this means is that it’s more group-oriented way of thinking. The concerns are less about the individual and more about the group. So, for example, in Gen 34, Shechem rapes the daughter of Jacob, Dinah, and what happens is that he is asked to marry…he has to marry her.

Well, of course what happens is the sons of Israel come in and they slaughter the entire town. What we see from this is that, at least from the sons of Israel’s perspective, this is seen as a crime against a larger group; and so they create an act of retribution against Shechem and the individuals of Shechem.

Again, it’s a very different understanding; it’s not seen as the violation of an individual woman’s body, it’s seen as a violation of a group. And it’s one of the reasons why I think it’s very difficult for us to talk about an ethics of sexuality when we’re talking about specifically about the crime of rape because the Bible has a very, very different understanding of both sexuality, of what an individual’s role is in this and the moral decisions that one can make. So, it’s a very, very different world but that’s at least how the Bible depicts rape.

  • Frank Yamada

    Frank M. Yamada is President of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL. His expertise is in Hebrew Bible, with interests in feminist theory and culturally-contextual biblical interpretation. He is the author of Configurations of Rape in the Hebrew Bible (Peter Lang, 2008) and is the editor of The Peoples’ Bible (Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008).