A Desolate Woman in Her Brother’s House

I wanted to write this blog many weeks ago, but out of deference to a couple of people very dear to me, I refrained.

Because this about rape. In the Bible. And I wasn’t sure an essay on this subject would be helpful.

The first thing to consider is that scripture does not speak of abstractions. Scripture does not weight in on the morality of ethics of most things, and certainly not as abstract moral acts. Scripture has nothing to say about war, whether it is good or evil. Scripture is neither pro-war nor anti-war. Or rather, scripture seems to be both pro-war and anti-war. There is a lot of war in scripture, and God is present in some of it, acting on behalf of God’s people (Exodus 14, Joshua 6, Judges 7, 2 Chronicles 20, much of Jeremiah). There are even rules set out for the conduct of war in Deuteronomy 7 (the conquest of Canaan) and Deuteronomy 20 (other kinds of warfare). But for much of it, God is utterly and completely absent.

What strikes me as strange, at least from where I sit as a modern, Western Christian, is that God seem to neither condemn nor endorse war, to make the act morally proper and the actor — the soldier, the warrior — morally righteous, and thus without sin, for fighting. God commands fighting, but we cannot infer from that fact that God believes the fighting to be morally correct. In fact, one instance, in Numbers 31, God actually demands some kind of penance — a ritual cleansing — for Israelite soldiers who has exacted a divinely commanded vengeance upon Midian.

We like our Bible to give us clear guidance, to tell us right from wrong, to make our actions as Christians morally correct and untainted with sin.

But scripture doesn’t do that. And even when it seems to, it doesn’t. Not really. Not on war. Not on marriage. Not on sex. Not on much of anything, except maybe idolatry and the worship of false gods (God says: don’t, or else, and he means it). Our clear teaching as church on these matters is frequently grounded less in the actual story of scripture — which is a murky, messy, complicated, and very violent story — then it is on snippets of scripture and some general philosophical principles that only relate tangentially to the biblical story. There may be little alternative to this, but it isn’t as faithful to the biblical narrative as I think it ought to be.

And so it is with rape. A subject you’d think scripture would have something to say about. And it does. But not how you think.

First, there is a little guidance in the Torah.

Exodus 22 says this:

16 “If a man seduces a virgin [בְּתוּלָה or young woman of marriage age] who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride- price for her and make her his wife. 17 If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins. (Exodus 22:16–17)

An important thing to understand about the biblical world is that people were not autonomous individuals as we understand them. So, the person wronged in a rape is not so much the woman (though we shall see she is wronged), but the family of the woman. Women weren’t property, but they were possessions with value (in some ways that is a difference without a distinction) and virginity was valuable because you could at least more or less guarantee the patrimony of a first child (and thus guarantee proper inheritance of wealth). So, here, a man who rapes a young woman — a marriageable woman — is required to marry her, and if the father will not allow it, he has to pay the going bride-price anyway as compensation. For what he took.

Deuteronomy 22 deals with this in some more detail:

23 “If there is a betrothed virgin [בְתוּלָ֔ה], and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, 24 then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

25 “But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. 26 But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, 27 because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her.

28 “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.” (Deuteronomy 22:23–29)

City girls beware! You’d better cry out for help, because anything else will be seen as consent!

However, the focus of most of these laws is the young woman who is betrothed — promised but not yet given, married without the final act consummating the marriage. (I have long believed that there is no such thing as pre-marital sex in scripture. There is marital sex — sex within marriage and the sex act that makes a man and a woman married — and non-marital sex. But there is no sex before marriage when the sex act itself is what makes two people married.) So this is not so much about protecting young women as it is protecting marriage arrangements and families. There is a “mercy” provision here, if you can call it that, in that the teaching here gives a woman the benefit of the doubt when there is no one around to hear her cry out.

But cry out she must, according to this, or else she is an accomplice. Complicit in robbing her family and her betrothed of her value.

And there is a repeat of the Exodus injunction about rapists being required to marry young women not yet betrothed. A bride price must be paid — fifty shekels of silver — but no choice is given as to the marriage. In fact, the man is prohibited from divorcing his wife, the only prohibition against divorce in the Torah, I believe. (And just how many “happy” marriages were made this way?)

So, to sum up, the teaching on this subject from Exodus and Deuteronomy is fairly specific, aimed at young women of marriage age who have not yet had sex (if we take בְתוּלָ֔ה to mean nubile girl who has not yet had sex, because such a girl would be a wife) who are either betrothed or not. The law is designed largely to compensate the father and protect the future husband. Not the woman.

It says nothing about older women, married women, and women who no longer have “value” or “virtue.” The law can be extrapolated, and the rules about sex in Deuteronomy 22 and Leviticus 18 & 20 are quite clear about sex with “your neighbor’s wife.” (Who is my neighbor?) But these laws that deal with “rape” are limited to certain kinds of woman in certain very specific social situations.

There is one other set of teaching from Deuteronomy 21 that touch on this subject because they deal with what Israelites can do with female captives:

10 “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, 11 and you see among the captives a beautiful woman [אֵ֖שֶׁת יְפַת־תֹּ֑אַר literally, “a woman lovely of shape”], and you desire to take her to be your wife, 12 and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. 13 And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14 But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her. (Deuteronomy 21:10–14)

So, you’ve just killed her family and defeated her people’s army, plundered her village and possibly burned it down. She’s clearly going to eagerly and happily say, “yes, please, take me now.” So maybe this is why God (speaking through Moses) mandates the 30-day cooling off period. But she clearly has no choice in the matter — she is a captive, and not a willing participant. Thirty days to mourn her losses and accept her new situation, but I hardly think that makes “going into” any more consensual. And while consent hardly mattered for much of human history, especially for captives and slaves, this teaching sets forth who Israelites may rape under the limited conditions of war and captivity.

It’s depressing reading, this teaching on rape.

Thankfully, scripture no more follows its own teaching on rape than it does its own teaching on sex. Because there are three fascinating stories in which rape is as central to the biblical narrative as the rape of Lucretia was to Brutus toppling the Roman monarchy or the kidnapping of the barely marriageable Helen for immoral purposes led the Greeks to declare war on Troy.

The first story is the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34. Dinah is the only named daughter of Jacob, and as Israel and his twelve sons wander around what is now the northern portion of the West Bank, they encountered the Hivites. Dinah “went out to see the women of the land” (perhaps like Smurfette, she was lonely being the only girl in a family of boys) only to meet Schechem, son of the Hivite ruler. Genesis says that “he seized her and lay with her and humiliated her,” and that may very well be, but given as she was drawn to the company of the Hivites (lonely as she was), she and Schechem may have fallen in love. The humiliation wasn’t hers, but her family’s — her father’s and her brothers’.

Schechem does want to do the right thing — what will later be the biblical thing. “Get me this girl for my wife,” he tells his father Hamor. And Dinah may very well have been willing.

But Jacob’s sons are not. “The sons of Jacob had come in from the field as soon as they heard of it, and the men were indignant and very angry, because he had done an outrageous thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing must not be done.” (Genesis 34:7) Hamor makes a deal with them — later telling his son privately they will get to inherit all of Israel’s wealth this way — to offer their daughters and sons to each other.

The sons of Jacob state the bride price — all of the Hivite men must be circumcised. “Then we will give our daughters to you, and we will take your daughters to ourselves, and we will dwell with you and become one people.” And so … the cutting was done. And so, on the third day with all the Hivite men still in pain from having their foreskins clipped, Simeon and Levi rampage through the Hivite village killing all the men they can find. And plundering what remained — including “all their little ones and their wives.”

Which gets us to the ambiguous end of the story:

30 Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me by making me stink to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites. My numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household.” 31 But they said, “Should he treat our sister like a prostitute?” (Genesis 34:30–31)

The question is left unresolved. Both Simeon and Levi make a coherent case for protecting the family/tribal honor. And Jacob makes a coherent case for their act putting the entire family/tribe at risk. There is no resolution, except that Simeon and Levi are both “disinherited” at the end of Genesis — because of their violence, they will not receive a portion of the land of Israel. Instead, they will be scattered, and have no allotment of their own.

But also note well that in this tale, a rape prompts swift and brutal vengeance.

Which brings us to our second story, the Levite and his concubine in the last three chapters of Judges (19–21). I have dealt in some detail with this story — the most gruesome in all of scripture — so I will only summarize it here.

A Levite and his concubine (young woman not a wife) are traveling around the West Bank when she is unfaithful to the Levite and flees him to live with her father in Bethlehem. (Already this is a happy relationship.) He comes and tries to woo her back with kind words. Eventually, they leave and go north. She wants to stay in Jebus (Jerusalem), but he won’t stay in a city of full of foreigners, and they make their way to Gibeah in Benjamin. They were going to stay in the city square when an old man invites them to stay with him and tells them “do not spend the night in the square.”

After dark, the whole of Gibeah descends upon the old man’s house. “Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him!” the men of Gibeah clamor. (Some hospitality.) The old man offers his daughter and the concubine, but the men of Gibeah don’t want girls — they want the Levite. So, the Levite grabs his concubine, tosses her out of the house, and “they knew her and abused her all night until the morning.” (Judges 19:25) She dies grasping hold of the doorposts of the house, trying in vain to find sanctuary from the horror and violence done to her.

Sadly, this story gets worse. The Levite then cuts her up into a dozen pieces, mails each piece to a tribe of Israel, a counsel is assembled, and war is decided. If Benjamin hands over the evil doers, so that they may be put to death and justice done, all will be well. Benjamin, the smallest tribe in all of Israel, proceeds to tell the rest of the Israelites to fuck off, and war ensues. On the third day, after Benjamin successfully holds off and twice defeats much the much larger combined army of Israel, God gives Benjamin over to Israel and the Israelites kill all but 600 Benjaminite men.

In effect, Israel has committed genocide. Against one of its own.

Which Israel quickly comes to regret. “Why has this happened today that there should be a tribe lacking in Israel?” However, Israel has also sworn not to give any daughters in marriage to any of the remaining men of Benjamin. How to solve this problem? Israel finds a village that did not participate in the war — Jabesh-Gilead — and they kill every man and every woman “that has lain with a male” in that village. They get 400 “young virgins who had not known a man by lying with him” and give them to the surviving Benjaminites as wives. So that the tribe may not disappear from Israel.

But they were still 200 girls short. So, Israel told the remaining Benjaminites to go and kidnap young girls from the annual festival at Shiloh. Which they do.

23 And the people of Benjamin did so and took their wives, according to their number, from the dancers whom they carried off. Then they went and returned to their inheritance and rebuilt the towns and lived in them. (Judges 21:23)

Ir’s an ugly story. Rape leads to war which leads to genocide which leads to regret which leads to more kidnapping and rape. And then everyone is happy. Well, except maybe the young women of Jabesh-Gilead and Shiloh.

But the point of this story is that a rape — a horrific gang rape at that — prompts vengeance, vengeance which leads to war and genocide.

No bride price is paid here.

Lastly, we go to the story of Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar in 2 Samuel 13–18. Amnon is one of David’s sons, and he falls in love with his beautiful sister Tamar.

And Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin, and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her. (2 Samuel 13:2)

He pretends to be sick, and she comes to feed him, and he tries to talk her into his bed. She isn’t having it — half-brothers don’t have sex with their sisters, not in Israel, she says, and how would she bear the shame?

14 But he would not listen to her, and being stronger than she, he violated her and lay with her. 15 Then Amnon hated her with very great hatred, so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her. And Amnon said to her, “Get up! Go!” 16 But she said to him, “No, my brother, for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you did to me.” But he would not listen to her. 17 He called the young man who served him and said, “Put this woman out of my presence and bolt the door after her.” (2 Samuel 13:14–17)

He gets what he wants, and then throws her away. She, disgraced and a “desolate woman,” goes to live with her brother Absalom. David their father is angry, but like Jacob in Genesis 34, he just sits there and doesn’t actually do anything about it.

But Absalom does. He kills his brother Amnon. This sets off a chain of events which leads Absalom to sense his father’s weakness, and so Absalom overthrows David, who flees from the city, leaving behind ten concubines to look after his house. Absalom is proclaimed king, and the first thing he does is to publicly humiliate his father in front of all Jerusalem:

21 Ahithophel said to Absalom, “Go in to your father’s concubines, whom he has left to keep the house, and all Israel will hear that you have made yourself a stench to your father, and the hands of all who are with you will be strengthened.” 22 So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof. And Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel. 23 Now in those days the counsel that Ahithophel gave was as if one consulted the word of God; so was all the counsel of Ahithophel esteemed, both by David and by Absalom. (2 Samuel 16:21–23)

(If there is a porn epic to be made from a biblical story, it’s this one.)

David eventually regains his nerve, support for Absalom begins to crumble, and the usurper is killed after losing a major battle in the forests of Ephraim. David mourns the loss of his son, and after a little confusion, eventually returns to Jerusalem and resumes his kingship.

It’s a wonderful, complex, and fascinating story. The point for my purposes today is that a rape leads to vengeance — murder, revolution, and war.

Again, no bride price paid here. Now, a case could be made that such a marriage — between Amnon and Tamar — would have been “illegal” according to the Torah (Leviticus 18:6, 20:17). But that never stopped anyone before (See Genesis 20:12).

Instead, we get with rape in the Bible what we see a lot in antiquity — vengeance and war. Bloody, horrific war. Revolution. And ambiguity. Because none of these stories ends well. Simeon and Levi may have been right to seek vengeance against the Hivites, but their revenge cost them their patrimony — their piece of the promised land. Israel may have been right to demand Benjamin do something about the events in Gibeah — because gang rape really is a lousy form of hospitality — but genocide, which required more killing and even more rape — was hardly the answer. And Absalom was right to be incensed over his half-brother’s cruel assault, and then abandonment, of his sister Tamar. Even to the point of killing Amnon. But he was hardly justified in overthrowing his father, and raping David’s own concubines publicly — all events which led to his own ignominious death while stuck hanging from the branches of an oak tree.

What scripture does in the story, however, is take the violation of women — and of family honor — so seriously that it is a cause for war. Rape is that big a deal here. It is such a big deal that a lid needs to be put on the possibility of vengeance. And this may be one reason the Torah gives us such banal rulings — compelled bride prices and enforced marriage. Because the cost of this act, not merely to the woman or to her family, but to an entire people, is so potentially staggering. War. Genocide. And nothing really solved at the end of the day.

What no one does in scripture is blame the woman. What no one does in scripture is question her motives or actions. What no one does in scripture is malign her past, or wonder if she dressed provocatively. (Yes, in the case of Dinah and the unnamed Levite’s unnamed concubine, who they are and what they want doesn’t count.) Instead, the men in her life — for better or worse — take up arms. It doesn’t get them much of anything (except dead rapists), and in this we see an appreciation of the tragic, that many very human situations simply don’t have a morally neat resolution.

But in these Bible stories, honor — familial and individual — and love matter enough to put everything at risk. And that is something worth remembering.

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