Does the Bible force a woman to marry her rapist?

In 2012, a 16-year-old girl killed herself by swallowing rat poison after being severely beaten during a forced marriage to her rapist. According to the Moroccan judicial system “the penal code allows the “kidnapper” of a minor to marry her to escape jail”.[1] This tragic event has caused some people to compare this law with the laws given to ancient Israel 3500 years ago. According to some of them, this Moroccan law is not much different from the ones that we find in Scripture.[2]

As a result, they conclude that the God of the Old Testament is cruel, sadistic, immoral and wicked. A completely different God to the one described in the New Testament, one who is the God of love and mercy. And so, to prove their point, they quote the text in Deuteronomy 22:28-29 saying that the Bible forces a woman to marry her rapist:

“If a man finds a young woman who is a virgin, who is not betrothed, and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are found out, then the man who lay with her shall give to the young woman’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife because he has humbled her; he shall not be permitted to divorce her all his days.” (Deuteronomy 22:28-29 NKJV)

Can this really be the case?

There are at least four points in the text that we need to pay attention to in order to see that this law was not given at that time to “institutionalize rape” as some say. [3] Rather, it was given to protect women and to define clear boundaries in marriage that cannot be crossed without consequence. Before we look at these four points, let us put our passage into context.

The Context

The immediate context of this passage is a literary unit (Deuteronomy 22:13-29) that deals with the meaning of the seventh commandment forbidding adultery (see Exodus 20:14). Four paragraphs make up this section of law. Each one opens with the conditional “if” (vs. 13-21, 22, 23-27, 28-29).

  • The first paragraph deals with a woman who is charged with sexual misconduct prior to marriage (vs. 13-21).
  • In the second paragraph we find the law on adultery with a married woman (v. 22).
  • The third paragraph takes up the case of a betrothed virgin (vs. 23-27).
  • The final paragraph, which is the text that we are dealing with, addresses the case of a virgin who is not betrothed (vs. 28-29).[4]

Christopher Wright rightly claims that “these laws […] were not merely matters of sexual morality alone but have at heart the vital integrity of the family as the fundamental unit of the covenant community — a concern that explains the severity of the penalties attached to these laws.”[5] Therefore, as a reflection of His character, these laws give us an insight into the heart of God who has established the institution of marriage. An institution where love and faithfulness should be nurtured, and where abuse and exploitation are forbidden.

1. “Rape” or Poor Translation?

The Hebrew word translated as “seizes” (NKJV) in Deuteronomy 22:28 is תָּפַשׂ (tapas). Tapas can also mean “to catch”, “handle”, “lay hold”, “take hold of”, or “wield”.[6] Here are some other examples of the way this term is translated in our passage: “lay hold on her” (ASV), “taking her” (DRA), “and takes her” (NLV/NAB), “and hath caught her” (YLT).

It is important to note that the verb tapas has nothing to do with force. It is therefore, unfortunately, inaccurately translated as “rape” in some English translations (NIV, TNIV). Unlike tapas (חָזַק), ḥazaq, the word for “force” used in vv. 25-27, does carry the connotation of force. Biblical authors used this word to depict a rape.

Therefore, if the author of the book of Deuteronomy had wanted to talk about rape in verses 28-29, he would have used the verb hazaq and not the verb tapas. This text (vv. 25-27) clearly deals with rape and compares it to murder.  The victim is thus not forced to marry her attacker as her attacker is executed for his crime. We can now see that our text (vs. 28-29) does not deal with rape, thus the outcome is different.

2. “They are found out”

The last part of the verse 28, “and they are found out,” indicates that both parties (referred to in the text as a unit) are guilty. Both man and woman are caught in the act. Our text shows that both are involved in sin. Unlike in the case of rape (verse 25) where it says that the man is the only guilty one. This detail is another point that shows that verses 28-29 do not deal with rape, but rather with cases of mutual consent. [7]

3. A Marriage gift

The law in Deuteronomy 22:28-29 is very similar to the one in Exodus 22:16-17 (NKJV). It can help us gain a better understanding of our text in Deuteronomy:

“If a man entices a virgin who is not betrothed, and lies with her, he shall surely pay the bride-price for her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money according to the bride-price of virgins.”

Please notice four important points in the text:

  1. The man did not rape the virgin but seduced or “enticed” her;
  2. It describes the man’s punishment for premarital sex. He has to pay a certain amount of money (fifty shekels of silver in Deuteronomy 22:29) even if the father will not allow his daughter to marry him. (The term used here is mohar (מָהַר) and it is a marriage gift, and so it is wrong to translate it “bride-price”).[8]
  3. The woman was a willing participant in the act of sin as she did not scream or cry out like the woman in Deuteronomy 22:27.
  4. The father can refuse to give his daughter to the man, if he is unsuitable, which means that the woman does not have to marry the man.

4. “He has humbled (or violated) her”

The phrase “he has humbled her” may indicate for some that the text deals with rape. However, the text says that a man finds and takes hold of (or “touches the heart of”) an unbonded young woman and lies with her. [9] There is no cry for help from the woman and no violence on the part of the man. There is voluntary sexual intercourse between two unbonded people, but with no prospect of bonding and obligation. Therefore, this does not qualify as rape. But he has humiliated (עָנָה anah, v. 29) her.

The man is obligated to do the following to erase the shame and establish bonding – he must give the father of the young woman fifty pieces of silver as a bride gift, marry her and never divorce her. The sexual intercourse between these two people is still shameful, even though there is no rape. This explains the use of the verb anah.[10]

Conclusion

Taking all the evidence into consideration, we can come to the following conclusion: the virgin in verses 28-29 was not the victim of rape. Therefore, the claim that Scripture forces a woman to marry her rapist is a misinterpretation of this text. This law holds both man and woman accountable whilst offering them a solution to their problem. It instructs them to marry each other and to work through the difficulties that they have brought on themselves. In this manner the boundaries in marriage that cannot be crossed are thus established in society.

God’s love and wisdom are, once again, confirmed.

__________

Written by Ivan Petrovski, edited by Diane Lewis.
You are welcome to comment below and/or ask other questions using this form.

 

Notes:

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-17379721

[2] Jessica Stefick, ‘The Case of Virgin Rape: Deuteronomy 22’, Priscilla Papers, 34.1 (2020), 3–6.

[3] Harold C. Washington says: “The laws [in Deut 22:23-29] do not in fact prohibit rape; they institutionalize it…” (Harold C. Washington, “Violence and the Construction of Gender in the Hebrew Bible: A New Historicist Approach 1.”Biblical Interpretation , vol. 5.4, 1997, pp. 324-363.)

[4] Cynthia Edenburg, ‘Ideology and Social Context of the Deuteronomic Women’s Sex Laws (Deuteronomy 22:13-29)’, Journal of Biblical Literature, 128.1 (2009), 43–60.

[5] Christopher J. H Wright, Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2012), p. 243.

[6] Koehler and Baumgartner, HALOT, vol. 4, ed. and trans. M. E. J. Richardson (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994), s.v. “תָּפַשׂ”. BDB, s.v. “תָּפַשׂ”.

[7] Daniel Isaac Block, The Gospel According to Moses: Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Book of Deuteronomy(Eugene, Or: Cascade Books, 2012), p. 163.

[8] “The idea that it reduced marriage to a matter of mere purchase or the wife to mere property has long been shown to be a misunderstanding of the whole phenomenon (in India, dowry is paid by the woman’s family to the man’s— the reverse of the biblical direction— but it certainly does not mean that the husband is thereby the purchased property of the wife!).” Wright, p. 243.

[9] Lyn M. Bechtel, ‘What If Dinah Is Not Raped? (Genesis 34)’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 19.62 (1994), 19–36 (pp. 25-6.).

[10] Lyn M. Bechtel, pp. 25-6..

1 Comment

Great article really clarified the passage

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