Question: Did God endorse rape in the Old Testament?

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Question: Did God endorse rape in the Old Testament?

The Old Testament text must be read holistically and contextually to understand actual cultural realities. Once done, one can see how claims regarding rape truncate the Bible’s actual view of women

Many critics of the Bible frequently claim that God endorses rape in the Bible. This issue has been dealt with by several Christian scholars and apologists in the past. There is no such endorsement of rape in the Old Testament by God. There are instances in which women are raped such as that of Dinah (Genesis 34), Tamar (2 Samuel 13), and the concubine in Judges 19 (these passages all portray rape negatively) and it does reflect some of the horrible issues they dealt with in that society, yet there is law against rape in the Bible and rape is always seen in a negative light in the passages that are typically cited in favor it.

The claimed offending verses of the Old Testament (that supposedly endorse rape) are Exodus 22:16-17, Numbers 31:15-18 and Deuteronomy 22:23-29.[1] Exodus 22:16-17 reads:

16 ¶ And if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife.

17 If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins.

Deuteronomy 22:23-29 reads:

23 ¶ If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her;

24 Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour’s wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you.

25 ¶ 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:

26 But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death: for as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so is this matter:

27 For he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her.

28 ¶ 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;

29 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 hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.

The misconception generally stems from misreading the phrase "lay hold on her". The NET notes the following about this:

tn The verb תָּפַשׂ (taphas) means “to sieze, grab.” In all other examples this action is done against another person’s will, as in being captured, arrested, attacked, or grabbed with insistence (e.g. 1Sam 23:26; 1Kgs 13:4; 18:40; 2Kgs 14:13; 25:6; Isa 3:6; Jer 26:8; 34:3; 37:13; 52:9; Ps 71:11; 2Chr 25:23.) So it may be that the man is forcing himself on her, which is what leads the NIV to translate the next verb as “rape,” although it is a neutral euphemism for sexual relations. However, this is the only case where the object of תָּפַשׂ is a woman and the verb also also refers to holding or handling objects such as musical instruments, weapons, or scrolls. So it possible that it has a specialized, but otherwise unattested nuance regarding sexual or romantic relations, as is true of other expressions. Several contextual clues point away from rape and toward a consensual relationship. (1) The verb which seems to express force is different from the verb of force in the rape case in v. 25. (2) The context distinguishes consequences based on whether the girl cried out, an expression of protest and a basis for distinguishing consent or force. But this case law does not mention her outcry which would have clarified a forcible act. While part of what is unique in this case is that the girl is not engaged, it is reasonable to expect the issue of consent to continue to apply. (3) The penalty is less than that of a man who slanders his new wife and certainly less than the sentence for rape. (4) The expression “and they are discovered” at the end of v. 28 uses the same wording as the expression in v. 22 which involves a consensual act. (5) Although from a separate context, the account of the rape of Dinah seems to express the Pentateuch’s negative attitude toward forcible rape, not in advocating for Simeon and Levi’s actions, but in the condemnation included in the line Gen 34:7 “because he has done a disgraceful thing in Israel.” This is very like the indictment in Deut 28:21 against the consenting woman, “because she has done a disgraceful thing in Israel.” (6) The penalty of not being allowed to divorce her sounds like v. 19, where the man is punished for disgracing his wife unfairly. His attempted divorce fails and he must provide for her thereafter (the probable point of not being allowed to divorce her.) Here too, if his holding her is not forced, but instead he has seduced her, he is not allowed to claim that his new wife is not pure (since he is the culprit) and so he must take responsibility for her, cannot divorce her, and must provide for her as a husband thereafter.[2]

The meaning of "humbled" here seems difficult to ascertain. It is translated as "humiliated" in the NET and "violated" in the NRSV. Depending on how we look at the preceding text will determine how this is translated.

At first glance the passages do seem to be repugnant and treat women like property. A contextual reading yields a more redeeming view. Evangelical bible scholar and Christian apologist Paul Copan writes:

Upon closer inspection, the context emphasizes the protection of women, not the insignificance of women. We should first distinguish among three scenarios in the Deuteronomy 22 passage:

  1. adultery between two consenting adults—a man and an engaged woman (v. 23), which is a violation of marriage (“he has violated his neighbor’s wife”)
  2. the forcible rape of an engaged woman (v. 25), whose innocence is assumed.
  3. the seduction of an unengaged woman (v. 28), an expansion on the seduction passage of Exodus 22:16-17

In each case, the man is guilty. However, the critics’ argument focuses on verses 28-29: the rape victim is being treated like she is her father’s property. She’s been violated, and he rapist gets off by paying a bridal fee. No concern is shown for the girl at all. In fact, she’s apparently forced to marry the man who raped her! Are these charges warranted? Regarding verses 28-29, various scholars see Exodus 22:16-17 as the backdrop to this scenario. Both passages are variations on the same theme Even if there is some pressure from the man, the young woman is complicit; though initially pressured (seduced), she doesn’t act against her will. The text says “they are discovered” (v.28), not “he is discovered.” [3] Both are culpable. Technically, this pressure/seduction could not be called forcible rape, falling under our contemporary category of statutory rape. Though the woman gave in, the man here would bear the brunt of the responsibility.

As it would have been more difficult for a woman to find a husband had she been sexually involved with another before marriage, her bride-price—a kind of economic security for her future—would have been in jeopardy. The man guilty of statutory rape seduced the unengaged woman; he wasn’t a dark-alley rapist whom the young woman tried to fight off or from whom she tried to run away. This passage is far from being demeaning to women.

Both passages suggest two courses of action:

  1. If the father and daughter agree to it, the seducer must marry the woman and provide for her all her life, without the possibility of divorce. The father (in conjunction with the daughter) has the final say-so in the arrangement. The girl isn’t required to marry the seducer.
  1. The girl’s father (the legal point person) has the right to refuse any such permanent arrangement as well as the right to demand the payment at would be given for a bride, even though the seducer doesn’t marry his daughter (since she has been sexually compromised, marriage to another man would be difficult if not impossible). The girl has to agree with this arrangement, and she isn’t required to marry the seducer. IN this arrangement, she is still treated as a virgin[4][5]

In a similar vein, one article notes:

God’s punishment on the rapist of a virgin—a monetary fine and lifelong responsibility—was designed to deter rape by holding the rapist responsible for his actions. He ruined her life; it was his responsibility to support her for the rest of her life. This may not sound fair to modern ears, but we don’t live in the same culture they did. In 2 Samuel 13, Prince Amnon raped his half-sister, Tamar. The horror and shame of being violated yet unmarried made Tamar beg him to marry her (her half-brother!), even after he had rejected her. And her full-brother, Absalom, was so disgusted with the situation that he murdered Amnon. That’s how highly virginity in women was prized back then.

Regarding Numbers 31, the same article notes:

Critics of the Bible also point to Numbers 31 (and similar passages) in which the Israelites were allowed to take female captives from nations they conquered. Critics say this is an example of the Bible’s condoning or even promoting rape. However, the passage says nothing about raping the captive women. It is wrong to assume that the captive women were to be raped. The soldiers were commanded to purify themselves and their captives (verse 19). Rape would have violated this command (see Leviticus 15:16–18). The women who were taken captive are never referred to as sexual objects. Did the captive women likely eventually marry amongst the Israelites? Yes. Is there any indication that rape or sex slavery was forced upon the women? Absolutely not.

We might also note Deuteronomy 21: 11-14 which provided protocols a situation such as the one depicted in Numbers 31[6]The NRSV renders these verses:

10 When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God hands them over to you and you take them captive,

11 suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry,

12 and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails,

13 discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife.

14 But 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.

The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible notes about these verses:

. This procedure most likely originally applied to the Canaanite population (20.15–18n.). Female war captives routinely became concubines. This law accords such women dignity and protection against enslavement. 12–13: The rituals provide both captive and captor means to effect a transition from one status to another. 13: Full month, full period of mourning, as for Aaron and Moses (Num 20.29; Deut 34.8). Mourning, it is unclear whether the parents actually died in the war or are lost to her because of her captivity. The time to grieve implies legal respect for the female captive as a person. Go in to her, approach her sexually; consummation provides the legal means to become husband, and . . . wife. 14: Cf. Ex 21.7–8. Money, see 2.6n. Dishonored, “violated” sexually (22.24,29; Gen 34.2; Judg 19.24; 2 Sam 13.12).

Readers may wonder what the New Testament has to say about rape:

Rape is not directly addressed in the New Testament, but within the Jewish culture of the day, rape would have been considered sexual immorality. The Matthean account of the Gospel records that Jesus and the apostles spoke against sexual immorality, even offering it as justifiable grounds for divorce (Matthew 5:32). Further, the New Testament is clear that Christians are to obey the laws of their governing authorities (Romans 13). Not only is rape morally wrong; it is also wrong according to the laws of the land. As such, anyone who would commit this crime should expect to pay the consequences, including arrest and imprisonment.[7]

This is one criticism that should help us remember that scripture should be read contextually and holistically to understand all that it has to say on any particular topic.


  1. Genesis 34, , Deuteronomy 21:10-14, Judges 19:22-26, and 2 Samuel 13:1-14 also have been said by scholars to be depicting rape. We advise the reader to examine those passages with a study bible. None contain something close to endorsements for rape. However, they may be used by critics to argue for an endorsement from the Bible on rape.
  2. Commentary on Deuteronomy 22:28, footnote 51 <> (accessed 30 December 2018)
  3. The Greek Old Testament translation gets this wrong. It mistranslates this passage, “he is discovered,” as though the man alone is guilty. The Hebrew indicates that both are culpable.
  4. Davidson, “Flame of Yahweh”, 359, 519
  5. See Copan, Paul "Is God a Moral Monster?" (Baker Books: Grand Rapids, Michigan 2011) Ebook; 222-24
  6. The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible provides reference to this in connection to Deuteronomy: "12–18: In contrast to ch 21, the women and children (and animals) are not killed but taken captive and (with other booty) brought before Moses, Eleazar, and the congregation. This may reflect the practice of holy war outlined in Deut 20.13–18, where a distinction is made between Canaanites and others more distant (e.g., Midianites)."
  7. See “What does the Bible say about rape?” at [1]