Does the Bible Require a Rape Victim to Marry Her Attacker?
The Monstrous Crew
Does the Bible require a rape victim to marry her attacker? Is there a Biblical basis for the concept of consent? Suzannah Rowntree digs deep into Scripture to bring you some surprising answers…
Does the Bible require a rape victim to marry her attacker?
There are plenty of people who will tell you that it does, but as we’ll see, the truth is quite different. I’m Suzannah Rowntree with the Monstrous Regiment podcast, and today I’d like to take a look at what exactly the Bible does say about rape, and why the concept of consent ought to be foundational to how Christians think about all human relationships, not just the ones between men and women.
Needless to say, this episode is going to talk about rape, so if that brings up painful memories for you, you may like to tune out for this one.
OK, so let’s talk about the commonly repeated lie that the Bible says a woman who has been raped should be married to her attacker. I call it a lie because it really is nothing less: it’s the complete opposite of the truth. The passage which people will point to in support of this is Deuteronomy 22:28-29, which reads as follows:
If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he has humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.
Now it might be tempting for many of us to brush this aside by saying, well, that was the law of the ancient Israelites, and it’s got nothing to do with Christians today. However, Paul was surely speaking of the Old Testament when he told Timothy that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” Sure, Paul didn’t approve of anyone returning to the Old Testament shadows which had been replaced by the light of Jesus Christ, that’s what the whole book of Galatians is about. We’re no longer required to observe those parts of the law which pointed forward to Jesus Christ – such as Temple sacrifices, circumcision as a sign of the covenant, laws against hybridisation, and celebrations like Passover or Tabernacles. In Colossians, Paul refers to these laws when he writes, “let no one pass judgement on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” The author of Hebrews agreed when he wrote that the Old Covenant priests, quote, “serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things.”
So now that we have the light of Jesus Christ, we mustn’t revert to the Old Testament shadows. However, there is more to Old Testament law than just ceremonial “shadows”, administered by the priests and pointing forward to Jesus Christ. There are also civil laws largely having to do with criminal justice.
The Bible is very clear about how important justice is to God. I would recommend just searching the word “justice” in the Bible sometime, and reading through the scriptures that come up. In Psalm 89 we’re told that justice and righteousness are the foundations of God’s throne. That is, if God ever failed to do justice, his very throne would crumble. Proverbs 21 says, “To do justice and righteousness is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.” Isaiah 9:7 says “Of the increase of Christ’s government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with righteousness and justice forever.” The Micah Mandate tells us to love mercy and do justice. If you read Scripture you will find that there is almost nothing the Lord is more concerned about on this earth than justice. So it’s no surprise to find that as part of his instructions to his Old Covenant people, he included multiple rules of civil justice.
We know that God doesn’t change, he’s the same yesterday, today, and forever. So it makes sense that his justice wouldn’t change either between the Old Covenant and the New. Indeed, that’s what we find when we look at how the judicial law is mentioned in the New Testament. In 1 Timothy Paul writes,
Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with with I have been entrusted.
Notice how Paul says that there’s a lawful use for the Old Testament law, and he specifically links that use to matters of criminal justice and social order. He says that using the law in this way is fully “in accordance with the gospel”. So going to the Old Testament for insights on how to deal with crimes such as rape is something that every New Covenant believer should be doing.
This means that when we look at a passage like Deuteronomy 22, the one thing we can’t do is lightly say it no longer applies to us. We serve a God of justice who wants to see justice done on the earth, and who has given us explicit rules for how to deal with crime and misconduct. Since God defines justice, then if we ignore God’s law, we risk actually doing horrible injustice to other people. And strangely enough, the topic of rape is one where I think Christians would do well to pay attention to what the law actually says.
Let’s reread this passage, except this time, let’s give it a bit more context and start three verses earlier in Deuteronomy 22:25. I would recommend looking this up in your Bible so as to follow along. Reading from the King James:
But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die: But unto the damsel you shall do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death: for as when a man rises against his neighbour and slays him, even so is this matter: For he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her.
If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he has humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.
OK, so the first thing to note about this passage is that when the Bible provides for a girl to marry a man who has taken advantage of her, the situation being described is not rape!
We can tell this because verses 25-27 actually do describe a rape. The text specifically says that if a man forces the woman to lie with him, the crime is tantamount to murder and the victim is every bit as innocent. The primary area of difference between the two provisions, is that in the first provision the woman has not given consent, so she is entirely blameless for what has happened. In the first provision, a man who forces a woman against her consent is put to death. In the second provision, nothing is said about the woman’s consent being violated, and the man does not die. So that alone should be enough to prove that we’re looking at two radically different offences here, and that the point of difference has everything to do with the woman’s consent.
I think it’s also important to note that the wording used in these two provisions is different when speaking of how the man handles the woman. Some Bible translations don’t make a difference. For instance, the ESV translates both words as “seize”, and the words do have some similarities, but I looked up the original Hebrew and I think the KJV hews closer to the original when it translates one word as “force” and the other as “lay hold on”. So in verses 25-27, the Hebrew word translated “force” is the word chazaq. It’s the same word which is used in Exodus to describe Pharaoh hardening his heart, and we see it again when Amnon rapes his sister Tamar in 2 Samuel chapter 13. By contrast, the word translated as “lay hold on her” verses 28-29 is taphas, which can potentially be gentler: for instance, it can be used to describe scholars who “handle” the law, and it’s not used to describe rape elsewhere in the Bible. So in case you’re looking at the ESV, the words are not the same.
Now I mentioned that the difference between these two provisions has to do with the woman’s consent. You’ve probably noticed another difference, which is that in verses 25-27, the rape provision, the woman is engaged to be married, while in the second, she’s single. Why was this relevant? Well, one answer which I think a lot of people would find it easy to give would be that maybe the Bible sees a woman’s sexuality as belonging to her husband. So if a man rapes or seduces a married or engaged woman, that’s a crime against her current or future husband, which is punishable more harshly than if she was single. And there are actually both unbelievers and Christians who will argue for this, but I don’t believe it’s the truth.
Why? Because in verse 26, it explicitly compares rape to murder. It explicitly says that rape is just like murder, and obviously the person being attacked is the woman: for as when a man rises against his neighbour and slays him, even so is this matter: For he found her in the field, and there was none to save her. The woman’s fiance is not the victim here. She is the murder victim. And I believe that this comparison to murder is here to prevent us from making a category error. The other provisions in this passage are all about sexual misconduct between consenting parties: adultery and fornication. Only verses 25-27 deal with the crime of rape, that is with nonconsensual sex. And God stops us and says, by the way, don’t get the idea that this is a mere sexual misdemeanour. It’s a crime of violence and power with far more to do with murder than it has to do with sex. If it was a sexual misdemeanour she would have consented. The fact that she didn’t consent puts this crime on a different level.
Not only that, but for reasons we’ll go into in more depth later, the Bible is pretty clear that although a husband has a certain measure of authority over his wife’s body, a wife has equal authority over her husband’s body. And that authority, as the whole of Scripture testifies, is given only for the purpose of loving and serving and sacrificing for one another. In the Old Testament, this worked out practically in the fact that both husbands and wives were equally empowered to sue their spouse for adultery. Women in Scripture are not property, so it wouldn’t make sense in context with the rest of Scripture, if this passage about rape was primarily aimed at penalising one man for trespassing on another man’s property.
So why does the passage mention a betrothed woman? There are a number of different possibilities. One possibility is that the passage is trying to emphasise the women’s refusal to consent to what’s happening: she’s engaged to someone else, obviously she’s not consenting to being raped by a third party. Another possibility is that since the laws of the Old Testament seem to have been developed as rulings handed down in specific cases that came before Moses’ judgement seat, that whatever case prompted this judgement had to do with a betrothed woman. A third explanation is that this particular provision is given in context with a number of passages that deal out different penalties depending on the marital status of the people involved, and that the relevance of marital status in the Old Testament is actually one of those “shadows” of Old Testament law, that was abrogated by the coming of Christ. In the Old Testament, there were many provisions directed towards keeping the various different Israelite tribal bloodlines separate and distinct, because it had been prophesied that the Messiah would come from the tribe of Judah. That could be why we see such a distinction drawn in this passage between married and unmarried women.
What shouldn’t be debatable is that the major ethical distinction in this passage is the whole issue of consent. So when we move on to verses 28-29, and we read of God telling a girl who’s lost her virginity to marry the guy, we need to put this into perspective: this isn’t a rape victim being sold to her attacker for the rest of her life. If he’d raped her, he couldn’t marry her because in a Biblical commonwealth he would be dead. His crime would be treated like murder. So what’s actually in view here in verses 28-29 is something like the situation in Pride and Prejudice with Lydia Bennet and Mr Wickham, where a girl consents to having sex outside of wedlock with a man, and he is forced to marry her without the option of divorce, not to punish her but so that she and her children will be provided with a respectable home for the rest of their lives. Remember, ancient Israel was an agricultural society, and it would have been even more difficult for a single mother to make ends meet than it is today, or even in Lydia Bennet’s day.
Now I just finished re-reading Pride and Prejudice and here’s a noticeable difference between the two situations. In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia’s friends have to pay Mr Wickham a lot of money to make him marry her. It’s their responsibility to help him provide her with a comfortable home. That was how marriage settlements worked in eighteenth century England, but it wasn’t how they worked in ancient Israel. In Israel, the dowry was paid by the prospective husband to the parents of the girl, and there’s evidence that the money was then handed over to the girl as property of her very own.
RJ Rushdoony explains this in the Institutes of Biblical Law, volume 1,
The dowry was an important part of marriage. We meet it first in Jacob, who worked seven years for Laban to earn a dowry for Rachel. The pay for this service belonged to the bride as her dowry, and Rachel and Leah could indignantly speak of themselves as having been “sold” by their father, because he had withheld from them their dowry (Gen 31:14,15).
This is another thing about this law which everyone gets wrong, of course. They say the seducer is buying the girl from her father, when in fact he’s settling that money on her so that she will always be provided for. Moreover, Exodus 22:16-17 makes it clear that the payment of the dowry was compulsory but that the marriage was not. “If a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins.” (For reasons we’ll get into later in this episode, I should note that it would be a mistake to see the reference to the father as making the girl’s own consent to a marriage irrelevant.) So the seducer had to give the girl a dowry; if she and her family agreed to a marriage, then well and good, but if she did not agree, he still had to pay up. She would then bring a dowry twice as large into any future marriage, which would help compensate for any perceived loss of social worth that might have come from no longer being a virgin. (And yes, there are a lot of laws about debt collection in the OT, so the girl would have been able to get the money out of her seducer even if he’d had to do what Jacob did, and work as an indentured servant for several years).
One more thing to note is that when Deuteronomy 22:28-29 provides that a seducer may never divorce his wife, that’s a one-way street. She might still divorce him on the usual terms – infidelity, or withholding financial provision or sex. But he can’t divorce her.
So no, the Old Testament did not provide for a girl to marry her rapist. What it actually did was provide her with financial security regardless of whether she chose to marry him or not.
So now that we’ve explained verses 28-29, let’s take a closer look at what the Old Testament does tell us about rape in verses 25-27.
If a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die: But unto the damsel you shall do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death: for as when a man rises against his neighbour and slays him, even so is this matter: For he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her.
We’ve already covered the clear indications that this passage deals with nonconsensual sex as a crime tantamount to murder. It’s 100% the man’s fault, and since it can be prosecuted as far as the death penalty, it rules out a woman being forced to marry her rapist.
I should note, by the way, that under Biblical law, the victim of a crime has a great deal of discretion in prosecuting her case. The concept of a victim in Biblical law is very specific: since all crimes are primarily crimes against God, then the victim of a crime becomes God’s representative in seeking justice. So a woman who has been raped would have a good deal of discretion in prosecuting her rapist, and the death penalty, while definitely on the cards, should be seen as the maximum penalty. If she chose not to seek the death penalty, then she should be able to recover the price of a dowry, as well as medical expenses, under Biblical laws having to do with violent assault. If a first-time offender was let off so lightly, he would have to take care not to repeat his offence because a death penalty also applied under Biblical law to incorrigible or habitual criminals.
Back to this passage, it also contains some interesting procedural guidelines. As an aside, I might note that there’s no statute of limitations on this passage, and in fact as far as I’m aware there’s no statute of limitations anywhere in Old Testament law. But let me get right to the point: this provision is insistent about the rape taking place, quote, “in the field”. This carries over from previous verses in this chapter, where a betrothed or married woman is presumed to be guilty of adultery if she engages in sexual activity in a populated area and fails to call for help.
Clearly, these provisions are basically about consent. A woman’s blame was to be determined according to whether or not she had availed herself of help. If she was attacked in a densely populated area like an ancient city where people lived pretty much on top of their neighbours, then if she was able to call for help, she had the responsibility to do so. However, God didn’t just stop there. He also provided for cases where sexual assault happens without the presence of witnesses.
This aspect of this passage has been pretty controversial, and I can tell why. One of the foundational principles of Old Testament evidence is that it takes at least two witnesses to prove a case, especially where someone’s life may be at stake. No one can be put to death except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.
This verse, and this crime, is the sole exception to that rule. It unambiguously allows for a man to be prosecuted and condemned, even to death, on the witness of one single woman. Pretty revolutionary for the ancient world, where women usually couldn’t give evidence in court at all.
Now, before everyone starts looking nervous, let me quickly lay out what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that some random woman could just show up at court and accuse some poor guy of raping her in the countryside and get him executed. This particular passage of the law is focused on consent, and presently I’m of the opinion that it is this specific element, consent, which the woman’s unsupported evidence is intended to prove. For instance, as I see it she would still have to prove that sexual activity occurred, and that the accused man was the one with whom that activity took place. What she doesn’t have to prove, is whether or not she consented to what happened. There is to be no he-said-she-said. The court must take her word for it, and the accused man’s only defence would be to prove (ie with multiple witnesses) that she could have got help but chose not to.
(As a parenthesis, this ties into a general principle of Old Testament law which is its care for the weaker or disadvantaged, as seen in the constant emphasis on protecting widows, orphans, and foreigners. We can thus see that there’s Biblical foundation for the concept of statutory rape: that is, sexual activity with a child would of course be prohibited under Biblical law, because the child is a weaker party who by definition cannot render full consent, Biblically defined as consent that can be freely withheld.)
So you could summarise one of the legal principles at play as follows: In any case where the weaker party was incapable of withholding sexual consent if she wished, then it’s presumed that no consent was given. And here’s a second one: In any case where there were not witnesses, and the participants disagree about whether consent was given, then you believe whatever the weaker party says. End of story. If a woman says that what happened to her happened against her will, you believe her.
I hope that I’m managing to paint a picture of Biblical law as you might not have thought of it before: as a vast interconnected web that goes far beyond the specific legal provisions in the Pentateuch. Biblical law cannot be woodenly interpreted, without reference to the full counsel of God. What I want to do in this next part of this episode is step back a little from the issue of rape, and look at the concept of consent as it’s developed throughout the whole of Scripture.
The dictionary defines consent as one person’s voluntary and willing agreement to the desires or suggestions of another. Consent is individual: under normal circumstances, no other person can give it on your behalf. It must be free and unconstrained: any kind of influence or coercion will prevent real consent being given. That’s how consent is defined in law, but I believe the concept has deep roots in Christian doctrine. Let’s read Matthew 22:35-40.
Then one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to tempt him, saying “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
These two commandments are a basic summary of the Ten Commandments, which begin like this:
I am the Lord thy God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.
In Scripture, God reveals himself as a transcendent authority far above every other authority, divine or human. His holiness is such that a mediator is required to communicate his will to mankind, and to take the penalty for their sins so that they can approach God without being consumed by his perfect justice. This mediator is God himself in the person of Jesus Christ. And there is no other: “there is one God, and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” So not only is there no god but God, but there is no mediator between man and God apart from Jesus. Moreover, Jesus promised that when he departed from this earth, he would send his Holy Spirit to dwell within each of us personally.
Practically speaking, what this means for us as Christians is that we are answerable first and foremost to God; no human can claim our loyalty to the same extent. No human can mediate between us and God, only Christ. And, we don’t need any help in approaching God, or in hearing his voice, so long as we’re covered with the blood of Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit.
We have only one authority in our lives. We have only one mediator with that authority. We have personal and direct spiritual access to that authority. That’s what we Protestants mean when we talk about the priesthood of all believers.
It’s true that God puts other authorities in our lives. Parents, employers, church elders, or magistrates. But God also makes it clear that those authorities only exist in this life: in 1 Corinthians 15:24, we read that at the end of history Jesus will “put down all rule and authority and power” but his own. Parents only have coercive authority over their children when those children are infants, incapable of ruling themselves. It’s not a giant leap to say that if you can’t disciple your children into Godly self-government in about 15-20 years, you’ve failed as a parent. Similarly in the church and the state, coercive authority is only meant for those adults too immature to self-govern, who fail to control their desires to steal, kill, or rape. The clear Biblical ideal is that we should no longer need external control because we will have God’s word written on our hearts and his Holy Spirit living within us.
All this may seem unrelated to the idea of consent, but in fact it’s basic to the concept. Consent is the unconstrained choice of an individual. If we really believe in the priesthood of all believers, if we really believe that the Biblical ideal is individual self-government directly under God with external authorities only getting involved in flagrant breaches of self-government, then it soon appears that free individual consent is basic to all human relationships, whether in entering marriage, in transacting business or in deciding what medical treatment to undergo. The only alternative to a consent based society is coercion, and after studying God’s law on and off for my whole life, I’ve come to the conclusion that God only sanctions coercion as a limited means of reinstating his justice when someone has proven unwilling to, or incapable of governing himself.
Remember the second greatest commandment, to love our neighbours as ourselves? Given the first commandment, one of the most important ways we can love our neighbours is by serving them in love rather than coercing and exploiting each other. Christians need to stand up for freedom of consent. Whether it’s in sexual matters, or in the many other areas where our consent is violated every day. Under God’s law, people have right to consent or withhold consent from compulsory school attendance, compulsory vaccinations, compulsory voting laws, compulsory church membership, or compulsory anything else.
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
The Bible’s teaching is clear: Christian liberty to serve one another through love. And here is where we cycle back into sexual ethics, because as it turns out the New Testament has some very specific things to say about sexual consent.
First of all, we are told not to use our freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. Just as in the Old Testament, it grieves God if we use our freedom of consent to commit fornication or adultery. That implicates us in sin. But withholding our consent to extramarital sex completely clears us from blame before God.
Second, we are told that marriage is a matter of consent. In 1 Corinthians 7:39 we read, “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” This is why, as I mentioned earlier, I believe that we shouldn’t adhere to a wooden reading of the Old Testament provisions about a father giving or withholding his permission for his daughter’s marriage. In New Testament times, if not earlier, women are part of the priesthood of all believers, with the Christian liberty to marry to whoever they wish, only in the Lord. Now given that the Old Testament had the Aaronic priesthood of a few, and given that Paul’s declaration of a woman’s freedom to marry whom she likes is something of a departure from the Old Testament language of women being given in marriage, I’m open to an interpretation that says that there was less Holy-Spirit-inspired maturity and self-government in Old Testament times than there is now, and therefore fathers exercised more authority over their adult daughters. However, the spirit of the Lord definitely came upon women in the Old Testament – witness Sarah, Rebekah, Hannah, Huldah the prophetess and the unnamed prophetess who was married to Isaiah – and I don’t accept that a Godly daughter of an ungodly man would ever be justified in obeying her father rather than God, in the Old Testament any more than in the New. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “Better is a poor but wise child, than an old and foolish king who will no more be admonished.” When read in the light of all of Scripture, it’s clear that if Old Testament law gives specific decisions to fathers, that isn’t intended to abrogate, but more likely to enforce the woman’s personal decision.
Third, the New Testament shows that even sexual activity inside marriage is a matter of consent. I Corinthians 7:3-5 is definite on this topic:
The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Paul tells spouses not to abstain from sex except for a limited time and with the consent of both parties. He also lays down the principle that in marriage, spouses have authority over each others’ bodies. Of course, in context, Paul is talking about abstaining from sex, not having it. Evidently the big temptation for the Corinthian church was asceticism. But the principle here goes beyond the specific issue Paul was addressing. My married friends tell me that there are times when intimacy just isn’t appropriate or comfortable for them – for one rather extreme example, a friend of mine who was sexually abused as a child and teen told me that the memories occasionally make it difficult for her to be intimate with her husband. Paul tells us that spouses have authority over each other’s bodies, and the clear implication is that if I have authority over someone’s body, then I have authority over what that body may do to my body.
That said, of course kindness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and I’m pretty sure that marital rape doesn’t fit into the picture of self-sacrificial servant leadership where husbands are supposed to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave his life for her, OK? That is not loving your neighbour as yourself.
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times already, the law of God needs to be read in the context of the whole of Scripture. I am a theonomist, which means I believe in the abiding validity of certain aspects of the Old Testament judicial laws. I should hasten to add that while I’ve spent a lot of time studying up on this area, my knowledge is limited. First, far more theonomic studies and commentaries have been written than I have had the opportunity to read. Second, even given the body of work already produced, I remain convinced that the field of theonomic study is still in its infancy. Give it a few hundred years and a few thousand more books, and I think we’ll have a chance of approaching maturity on this topic.
No matter whether you subscribe to this view or not, I hope that having listened to this podcast, you have a greater appreciation for how Old Testament law works in concert with the rest of Scripture, and how it was designed to provide life and liberty to the oppressed.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.
I’m Suzannah Rowntree. Thanks for listening to the Monstrous Regiment.