Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Bible and Rape

You don’t have to look too hard on the internet to see that atheist and anti-Christian apologists have largely convinced themselves that the Bible advocates rape. I found myself on a thread discussing this very point and I asked for one specific example of the Old Testament advocating rape. Most voices fell silent but one atheist apologist, ‘Essence of Thought’ decided to step up to the plate.

I want to make some remarks, firstly, before commenting on this matter.

If you have no respect whatsoever for properly understanding a book then it’s almost inevitable you will find things you think are wrong. You will dip in to certain passages with no concern whatsoever for authorial intent in favour of finding token sound-bites which fit with your prior assumptions in going to the book in the first place. Clearly this is something we can all be guilty of and this is the reason why biblical hermeneutics is such an important subject. Furthermore, when reading ancient texts we need to be even more careful and make some serious attempt to understand the culture of the time.

 Take Seth Andrews who calls himself ‘The Thinking Atheist’. He has a video entitled ‘Morality without God’ in which he thinks the mere mention of something in a historical narrative is an endorsement by God. He cites the story of Lot as if God approved of what Lot did just because it’s recorded in the narrative. This is an incredibly naïve way of reading the text.

Yesterday evening Essence of Thought and I had a discussion on the issue and you can find a link to the video on my You Tube profile page or by visiting the channel ‘The Atheist Hub’ [the video is titled: 'Therefore God- Does Deuteronomy 22:28-29 Discuss Rape?']. What appears below are some of notes I made in preparation for the discussion and a few thoughts I had after it.

So, in order to answer my challenge for a verse in the Old Testament which condones rape ‘Essence of Thought’ (EOT) offered up this verse:

Deuteronomy 22:28,29

Hermeneutical Issues

1. The first hermeneutical problem for EOT is that he is attempting to make a very serious charge based on a text which is debated and not perspicuous. A principle of doing hermeneutics in any work of literature is to go from the clear passages first and then interpret the more obscure ones in the light of those. Clear passages which describe a rape taking place are dealt with by making the punishment death.


2. A second hermeneutical problem for EOT is his method for doing translation. This was a truly horrendous moment for the supposed logic of his case. EOT outlines the various possible meanings of the word which is fair enough. The T-P-S root means to lay hold of, wield, seize, arrest, catch, grasp, handle (including grasping hold of the Torah to use it/apply it). Taphas (tar-phas) has a semantic range for sure but it is never used in the rest of the OT to mean ‘rape’ and this is a significant objection to those who wish to translate it thus. Unfortunately EOT’s method, at this juncture, is merely to claim that since it is possible to translate the word ‘rape’ that is should be translated ‘rape’. This is an incredibly weak argument because all the other words are possible translations as well! So what is EOT suggesting? That all logically possible translations are the right translations? If so the word means loads of different things all at once! This approach to translation is absolutely absurd. He suggests that there are more words which could imply force (such as 'seize', 'arrest' and 'catch') and therefore we should weigh the word in favour of these readings but this is not how real translation works. Context is the most important determining factor rather than basing everything on individual etymologies.

3. The third hermeneutical problem for EOT is that the immediate context prior to this verse does talk about rape but uses a different Hebrew word. The writer could have made it clearer he was talking about rape simply by using the same word. Instead the writer opts to change words here for one he never elsewhere uses to mean rape; a very odd thing to do if he was talking about the same action. In Jeremiah 2:8 tarphas is used to mean “handling” the law and in Genesis 4:21 it is used as the term for playing a harp or flute. It is therefore quite clear that the word does not have to have the sense of a violent seizure on its own. It would require something in the context to make it clear that such a meaning was intended and yet no such thing is said. Many OT scholars note these usages of the word which makes EOT's dismissal of them all the more damaging to his case.

4. The fourth hermeneutical problem for EOT is that some scholars think this a repetition of a law first found in Exodus 22:16 where it says:
If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife.”
 The influential Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham takes this view in his article, ‘Bethulah: A Girl of Marriageable Age’ Vetus Testamentum 22 (1972) 326-348.
One again, the fact that so many OT scholars, even non-Christian ones, often find a link between these two passages means that EOT's mere dismissal of the connection all the more bizarre.
EOT’s hermeneutical case for his reading was merely that the word can possibly take this meaning and therefore this is the meaning. We have noted what an incredibly weak argument that is and have, in reply, suggested four good hermeneutical reasons for thinking this is not the meaning.
Even in this passage, which seems clearly to be more about seduction and not rape, there is no indication in the text itself that the Father is constrained to accept this arrangement. It clearly states that the man has no choice in the matter and is held responsible and culpable but it never says that the father or the daughter have no choice in the matter. Note that in verse 29 it only stipulates that he may not divorce her. It says nothing about any legal binding on the woman or her father. If, earlier in the Exodus law, the Father has the right to not accept the arrangement to his daughter in the case of a seduction, how much more, would we expect him to have the right to refuse a marriage in this scenario? It makes absolutely no sense that the law would permit a Father’s rejection in the case of seduction but not in the case of rape!
Furthermore, EOT shows no concern whatsoever for the cultural context either and therefore a brief discussion here is warranted.

Cultural Issues

One ought to take into account the reason for these case laws existing. Jesus explains that some of these laws were due to the hardness of the hearts of the Israelites and that they did not represent some moral utopia. Jesus says, in

Matthew 19:8

“Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”

Interestingly, one such passage on this very subject is found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Only a few paragraphs after the one we are talking about. This clearly indicates that at least some of the OT laws were not an ideal standard but due to the existing sin in that society.

Another cultural aspect, not commented on by EOT in the slightest, is that these case laws could well be, what the scholar Christopher J.H. Wright calls, “paradigmatic” law. [New International Biblical Commentary p.244] The laws are therefore not intended to have to be taken literally on all occasions but outlining basic principles and precedents upon which to punish the guilty and protect the innocent. 

EOT also fails to explain why marriage would be the lesser of two evils even if the situation were rape due to the cultural context. There was no modern cultural notion of choosing a marriage partner as an individual or couple due to romance and love at that time. Also the woman would find it impossible to be married under any other circumstances now this had happened. This could mean the family facing extreme poverty without the support structure of marriage. This marriage would provide that financial support for the woman by the man. There is therefore no sense in which the woman is being punished. She is not being required to enter into some passionate or intimate relationship with this man but the law is making provision for her to be provided for so that she and her family do not face financial ruin considering what has happened. It is clearly a case of the lesser of two evils in this instance (that is, if the text is even talking about rape in the modern sense of the term and the case against it being so is strong as we have seen). Certainly the text lacks any notion that rape is something acceptable in ancient Hebrew society and yet that is the very thing the atheists are claiming here.

I think it is fairly clear that there is really no case to answer. The clear general punishment for rape in the OT is death. This makes it clear how seriously it was taken. It affirms the status of women as people and not property since death was not the punishment for violating someone’s property but recompense. The OT laws were also much fairer than most laws in surrounding nations of that time. In Assyrian laws of that time the punishment for rape was simply that the rapist’s wife was, herself, raped! Hebrew laws were far more judicious.

PS. A little post-script on the discussion itself.

Please listen to the beginning carefully. I made it very clear that my position was that rape is always and everywhere absolutely wrong. I went out of my way to be extremely clear on the matter. Please listen to what EOT says when I ask him to state his position clearly. Not only does he appear to not know what moral realism is but he is extremely vague about his own views on rape. It’s not even clear that he thinks rape is always wrong subjectively. I find it extremely odd that someone should be criticising the moral code of another worldview on a matter he cannot even be clear on himself and I think that is damaging to his criticisms. I also failed to find any atheist on the thread who questioned him over this either. It appears that many atheists are quite uncertain themselves on whether rape is actually morally wrong or not!

Also watch out for a very desperate attempt to appeal to the story of Lot toward the end of the discussion. Not only was this a complete appeal to silence but he used a highly dubious analogy of a classroom and appeared to ignore the fact that Sodom was being judged for its immorality quite clearly in the text. There is no vindication of Lot’s desperate attempt to save his guests from being violated and the angels rescue the daughters from that situation. The Bible is full of examples of God saving people who are not worthy of being saved. In fact, that is clearly one of the central messages of the Bible.





  1. Wait, so there are some atheists who think that just because something appears in the Bible means that it inmediatley is endorsed by it? Lot wanting to give his daughters to the people of Sodom in rape is to show that he was doing wrong, not the contrary. I quickly caught on to this when I was like 10 or 11 years old reading that passage.

  2. You did an outstanding job discussing the hermeneutical considerations. Clearly the passage is discussing seduction, not rape. Indeed where the Bible clearly addresses the issue of rape, the punishment is death.


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