Does the Bible talk about rape?
The issue of rape in the Bible is a difficult one to interpret because the laws given in the Old Testament existed within the context of that particular culture. Two cultural mores, in particular, must be understood:
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1. It was extremely difficult for a non-virgin woman to find a husband; and
2. The status of women was so low, their well-being required a male representative, particularly a son.
We also need to consider the prescriptive passages which reflect God's will vs. the descriptive verses which merely describe what people did.
The Mosaic Law regarding rape is found in Deuteronomy 22:25–29. Verses 25–27 address a man who finds an engaged woman in a field and rapes her. The punishment was that the man would die. Verses 28–29 refer to a man who rapes a woman who is not engaged. He is required to marry her — if her father agrees (Exodus 22:16–17). Either way, he is required to pay the "bride price" which means her well-being is assured for the rest of her life. If the victim and her father agree they should be married, the man must never dishonor her with divorce.
The laws sound strange to modern ears, but Old Testament punishment was often more about financial recompense than emotional closure. In the case of the engaged woman, she was cleared of the moral law and therefore able to marry her betrothed, thus ensuring her well-being as well as her chances to bear a son. In the case of the non-engaged woman, even though she would probably be considered unmarriable, she was financially independent, and still had the option (via her father) to be married and bear a son.
There has been some discussion about the situation described in Deuteronomy 22:23–24. In this case, both the man and the engaged woman are to be put to death. But this is not a case of rape. Because of the high value placed on women being virgins on their wedding night it is assumed that a woman attacked in the city will cry out for help, and the cities were dense enough that someone would come to her rescue. If she didn't cry out, the sex was consensual.
How strong were the cultural mores? So strong that when David's son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar, she begged him to marry her (2 Samuel 13). The shame of being violated and remaining unmarried was too great. When she tore her robe and covered her hair in ashes, it wasn't because of the rape; it was because he refused to marry her.
Her reaction is descriptive — it is an account of a particular situation within the culture. It is not prescriptive — it does not reflect how God feels about rape.
The more troubling passages about rape in the Bible are those that refer to war (Numbers 31). After a battle, Israelite men were allowed to take virgin women from among their enemies and either marry them or take them as concubines. The law, again, protects women in that they are provided for despite the fact the culture did not allow them to own property or independent businesses without the supervision of a man. Did rape occur in such circumstances? Undoubtedly. But nowhere do the Scriptures condone the act.
Rape isn't mentioned in the New Testament. Sexual purity was as applicable to men as to women (Matthew 5:27–32), sex was reserved for married couples (Matthew 19:1–12), and men were to love their wives sacrificially (Ephesians 5:25–28). In the time of the New Testament, it is possible that Jews followed some of the Old Testament laws so well that they didn't need the reminder. (The Gentiles, on the other hand, were so sexually perverse that Paul kept to the basics: Keep your pants on!)
The laws against rape in the Old Testament aren't applicable to us today, but biblical standards are. Romans 13 says to obey local laws, many of which forbid rape. Jesus said sex is only to be between a husband and wife, and Paul told husbands to love their wives sacrificially. When Jesus spoke of sexual purity, it was in the context of the heart and mind. A woman who has been raped is described as "violated," but never dirty, unclean, or impure; dishonored by another, but never honor-less as a person. Rape has a great emotional toll, but the Bible never suggests it alters the nature of a person.
It should also be mentioned that rape is often more about violence and control than it is about sex. Certainly the Bible—in both Old and New Testaments—speaks against violent assault. Jesus goes even further and speaks to the heart and mind conditions that lead to such violence, denouncing the progression from anger to insult to contempt in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21–26). God values people and imbues them with dignity and worth. When someone rapes another person they insult that person's dignity. It is one of the gravest affronts one person can give to another, but it takes nothing away from the victim's value. It is clear that while rape harms physically, emotionally, and mentally, no one can take away another's worth.
Victims of rape can find hope and healing in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The road may be long and arduous, but He is faithful. Perpetrators of rape can find hope and forgiveness in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In this life we will suffer the consequences of sins committed against us and of our own sins. But Jesus has paid for every sin and offers forgiveness and healing. One day each of us will be whole in Him (1 Corinthians 6:9–11; 13:12–13; Philippians 1:6).
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